Words 1-6-15

theClaim-finalWP

“The Amen-Enkh has his way, then,” said Epaphos, “as he is accustomed to do. But one day he will meet someone who is not so indulgent of his foibles.”
“As long as that day is not today,” said Ozier; and he led the way down the black gravel road, toward the bridge.

#

It was a longer walk than Esker had expected; the bridge was so large it had seemed nearer. Night had its claws deep in the sky and sand by the time they drew close enough to see the figures moving high up on the spars and girders of the thing, tiny as squirrels in a thousand-year-old tree.
The immensity of the thing was disorienting, the structure of it hypnotic, cutting the air into triangles large enough to form an ample yard for a good house in Metu, with room for a garden and a chicken coop besides. Esker had spent his share of minutes staring at spider webs and the play of frost on steel, but he had only seen the great works of ancient construction as shadows lurking inside Tenoc glaciers; the idea that such complexity and precision could be embodied at such scale tortured all his notions of possibility. It was wide enough for four trains, with enough space between them for a man to walk without fearing for his life. He could not conceive the use of such hugeness. For all that the thing dwarfed him, he could have sworn that he felt it wobble when he set his foot down on it.
The black gravel road continued across the bridge, although it was pitted and gouged out in places, revealing the skeleton of bridge beneath—a mesh of steel with nothing but black cañon under it. Esker, Inber, Ozier, and the Epseris spread out as the huge steel webwork that formed the flanks of the bridge began to rise; Kem, lacking the soldier’s instinct to disperse, stuck close by Esker. Bright lights illuminated the bridge starting in the middle, and for a moment that was where Esker thought the sentries began as well; but a subtle flutter in the high dark caught his eye. Once oriented, he easily found two figures skulking in amongst the spars of the bridge. They wore the black feather cloaks of Rooks, but they were betrayed by their light skin and their silhouettes against the stars. By movement and proportion, one was a man and one a woman. He could not see their eyes in the night, but he could see them stop and look back at him. They leaned their heads in toward one another, exchanging whispers. He closed his eyes for a moment and felt something sweet and hot lick from his tailbone up his spine, felt burning blood flood his chest and face.
“What catches your soldier’s eye, Sepherene?” called Epaphos. “Something in need of shooting, I don’t hope.”
At this, the Rooks darted their separate ways, higher up into the web of girders. “Two Rooks, whom you have spooked,” called Esker. “You should be more considerate to our hosts.”
“Should shut up and keep his head down, you mean,” Kem muttered.
“Your advice is always better than mine, Kem,” said Esker, his voice equally low, “but I do not want those Rooks to know we fear their attentions.”
Epaphos was searching the girders. “The hell you say,” he said. “A platoon of cave-bears could stalk up there invisible in this night.”
Ozier said nothing, but met Esker’s eyes as though to say I see them. Esker looked over to Inber, who nodded. Kem had caught the brief exchanges. “I saw glowing eyes and assumed they saw everything,” said Kem. “But I suppose it is one thing to throw off light, and one to apprehend it.”
“Likewise, it is one thing to talk,” said Esker, “and another to listen.”
“What?”
Esker shot Kem a glare; Kem flashed a grin.
The ciudores crossed the perimeter of the floodlights in the middle of the bridge. Esker looked through the holes in the gravel, at the underlying mesh; even drenched with light, the abyss of the cañon threw none back, and the contrast between the now-bright steel and the black empty air made the bridge seem to reel once more beneath Esker’s feet. There were easily two dozen Rooks up in the spars of the bridge, men and women alike, sporting a medley of arms, crossbows and rifles and devices of strange and ancient craftsmanship. There was a great canvas banner strung across the top of the bridge that read:

YOU NOW ENTER THE SOUKTOWN OF JAGAAG
RUN BY THE CREDITOR ROOKS
OVERSEEN BY BOSS JOHN DREAM
PROPERTY OF IMAGINE-THE-DISMAY-OF-YOUR-CREDITORS
DO WHAT WE TELL YOU AND WE WON’T KILL YOU
PROBABLY

A smaller scrap of canvas, attached to the bottom of the larger banner, read

CLAIMS ADJUDICATED AT CHURCH & WATER STREETS
GOOD LUCK

Under the banner was a barricade, higher than the tips of Esker’s fingers if he raised his arms above his head, with a single opening in the middle, wide enough to fit three men or a wagon. A brace of Rook men swung down from the web of steel to block the opening—big men, these, bigger and darker than the Salve Rooks in Tenoc, and armed with strange devices that gripped their forearms like spiders wrapping flies. They had the same whorl-and-claw tattoo on their faces. “Toll or deed?” said the shorter.
“Deed,” said Esker. He swung his pack around to his front, then stopped before he opened it. “It’s in here. You know I’m not fool enough to draw on you, d’you not?”
The shorter Rook laughed at that. “Just move slow,” he said. “No queue, after all.”
Esker opened the buckle of the pack and rummaged through it for the claim-deed. It was in the same sturdy russet envelope in which he’d received it, addressed from Ras to him in careful letters that no one would mistake for Ras’ hand. He separated the deed from the note that accompanied it, then took it from the envelope, careful not to tear the onionskin paper.
“Issued to Yehat Otolu,” read the Rook, “transferred to Ras Melaku, then bequeathed to Esker Sepherene conditional on Melaku’s death. You have the death certificate?”
Esker blinked and uttered a pair of shapeless syllables. “No,” he said. “His body was never found—”
“Spare me the memoir, son, I’m just playing,” said the Rook. “All I care’s it’s a real deed; claims administration will see to the legalities.”
“Claims administration hasn’t seen to a legality since that batshit Kerkakani drugged Michael and sold his clothes to that ladyboy bordello,” said the taller Rook.
“What does that have to do with claims administration?” asked Esker.
“Nothing,” said the taller Rook, “but the ladyboys wouldn’t give Michael’s clothes back.”
“He suffered the loss on the job, see,” said the shorter Rook, scratching his forehead with one of the protuberances on his weapon. “You know what they say—government doesn’t pay like the private sector, but there are intangibles.” He stepped back from the opening, then looked up toward the girders and made a sign. “You can go.”
They filed through the barricade. Esker waited until last. “I need the deed back,” he said.
“Right,” said the shorter Rook, handing it back. “Have fun in there, son. Remember, everyone gets rich and nobody dies.”
Esker managed a chuckle. His eyes were on the girders, though, where the shorter Rook had made the sign. There was a Rook woman there, by movement and proportion the same who’d stalked the ciudores outside the circle of the light. She was near enough, now, that he could see her face, and the long rifle braced across her back above the black feather cloak; and, as he watched, she locked his gaze with eyes a green as dissimilar from Epaphos Epseris’ as fresh grass from scum on sewage, and her lips shaped a few words, too quiet for anyone but a Jaidari soldier to hear from the distance, over the howling of the wind in the cañon.
Hello, stranger.
She smiled. It was three seconds since he had looked up.
“Everything all right, son?” said the shorter Rook. “You look like a fifth of whisky hit you all at once.”
It was an apt analogy. Esker shook his head and body, trying to restore some sense of the solidity of the ground. He looked at the black of the cañon under his feet, then gave up, and passed through the barricade.

#

Beyond the barricade, the Souktown of Jagaag was a riot of light. It was a sprawl of low structures, each on a base of brick or concrete or old wood; the occasional house or storefront stood nearly intact, but most were at least half-destroyed and overbuilt with ramshackle frames, filled in with daub walls or sheet metal or rocks pasted together with already-crumbling mortar. Huge fires and floodlights illuminated the streets, overlooking any number of alleys and backways wherein business better done in the dark could be transacted. There was no evident rhyme or reason to the signage; there were letters in Jaidari, Kerkakani, a spiky script that Esker assumed was that of the Creditor Rooks (different, again, from the script of the Salve Rooks, which he had learned to read in Tenoc), pictographs at various levels of abstraction, and weathered glyphs that must have been used by the people who had inhabited Jagaag when it was clean and vital.
“We should never have taken the bridge,” said Epaphos Epseris. “Those Rook bouncers got a good look at me and mine, and that she-Rook up on the steel as well.”
“And here we are,” said Ozier, “whole and hale.”
“Been a long time since I heard such a funny way of saying ‘trapped,’” said Epaphos.
“They had the chance to kill us and they didn’t take it,” said Ozier. “You know Rooks don’t go into the viejo. If you’re worried about being trapped, your best bet is to move fast. Can you tell time with that thing?” He touched Epaphos’ staff with his own, a jet-black staff as thick as Esker’s calf and smoothly, gently arced, almost like an unstrung bow; a single strand of shai wound around it.
“Not my first cotillion,” said Epaphos, annoyed. “When do you want us back?”
“Hour and a half,” said Ozier. “Kem has a pocket watch; he and Esker can dicker for dry goods. Flour, jerk, salt, fat, lemons or oranges, a pickaxe and a maul. Inber and I will get a mule. The Epseris: Water and whisky. Time is more important than money; get fleeced now so we can make a find later, is the principle. Go.”
Ozier, Inber, and the Epseris were quick to move; Kem made a bit of a show of checking his pocket watch, once and then again. When he and Esker were alone, he sank down to the street, breath rasping in a rough sigh from his throat. “My leg, Esker,” he said, and Esker could see his eyes were bright with tears. “Can we rest, please? Two minutes is all I need.”
Esker folded his long frame down beside Kem. “Two minutes we can take,” he said. “My legs could use the rest as well.”
Kem snorted. “Soldier’s eyes, soldier’s legs. You could probably outsprint a horse and do the walk back to Eskendereia before I could get up without help.” He looked up at the sky, then back down. “I keep looking for the draugen. I really want to see what a creature that calls itself Imagine-the-dismay-of-your-creditors looks like.”
“Ask Ozier,” said Esker. “Or the Epseris.”
“If you believe they ever saw one,” said Kem. “Personally, I think they went into Pity’s lair and found it dead already.”
“What if they did? They still saw it.”
“Vacant, then.”
“I know you don’t much like the Epseris,” said Esker, “but believe me when I tell you they are very proficient killers.”
“What would you know about it?” said Kem.
“I served,” said Esker. “I’ve seen poor killers and good killers. Ozier is a good killer. The Epaphos brothers are first-rate.”
“That’s like saying I can tell whether someone’s a good writer even when I’ve never read anything they’ve written, just because I’m a scribe.”
“Oh, and can’t you? You seemed awfully sure that Epaphos Epseris was illiterate.”
“I was sure he wouldn’t like it if I said he was,” said Kem. “That’s a different thing.”
Esker imagined he heard a muffled sound up in the air. He looked up and saw a patch of dark wink out the stars as it passed over. “There’s the draugen,” he said, “I think.”
Kem looked up. “I don’t see it,” he said.
“It looks man-shaped and -sized, maybe a bit longer,” said Esker. “Spindly. Wings each about a man’s height. Probably not feathered.”
Kem shook his head. “Amazing. What else did they do to you out in Tenoc?”
“Who?”
“The army,” said Kem. “What else did they decide you’d need to do?”
“Nothing you don’t know about,” said Esker. “The usual suite—strength, speed, sight and hearing.”
“Could they have fixed my leg?” said Kem.
“I reckon not,” said Esker. “If they could, they’d have taken you with the rest of us.”
“Speaking of my leg—”
“Leave it, Kem,” said Esker.
“That’s all I’ve heard since it happened,” said Kem. “Only now I can hear you weep in your sleep. You’re a shit tentmate these days, Esker. Too tall, too sad. I figure it’s easy to decide which problem to fix first.”
“I sleep with a hand on the swordspear,” said Esker. “Don’t think you’ll cut me off at the knees that easily.”
“I can tell when I’m making you uncomfortable,” said Kem. “You start cracking jokes. She almost died, Esker. She was barely talking when we left. I mean, for all you know, she’s pregnant. Why did you leave her to come here?”
“Why did you come with me, if you’re so uncertain of the project?”
“‘Uncertain of the project,’ fuck you. I had two reasons. One, if Ras sent the deed to you, he must have wanted you to benefit from it, and he must have trusted you to do the right thing with it. Instead of selling the thing like a sane person, you decided to go ciudor. All right, you’re not of sound mind, but it was what Ras wanted, or he would have cashed it out and sent you money. So this is the only way I have left to help my friend.”
Esker tried to keep the sick sinking feeling from his face. It was easy. “What’s the second reason?”
“I’ll tell you when you tell me why you abandoned your wife.”
“Money, Kem,” said Esker. “I can make more in the viejo than I can selling the deed.”
“She’s alive and stable. You just made deputy—a job you quit to come here, don’t forget, so you’ve started off in the red. How much more do you need?”
“It depends on how bad she’s hurt.”
Kem looked at Esker. “Not as bad as I was, and she wasn’t out as long. And—Esker, you’re friends with Ozier Amen-Enkh. You were in line to be sheriff in the town he’s in line to run. What, you’ll ask him for a joint-venture on a claim half a continent from home, but not a bit of cash?”
Esker took a deep breath, then tried to let it out silently.
“The thing is, Esker,” said Kem, “I don’t really care if you’ve led me out here to die. I kind of expect it. It seems like a more fun way to go than dying of loneliness as a cripple bachelor after a few more decades of misery. What I keep coming back to is you and Ras.”
“We were kids.”
“Ras was a kid. You were never. I loved him too, Esker—not like you did, but I loved him—but I told you he’d break your heart. When I was fifteen, I told you. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”
Esker shook his head.
“And don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what you told me.”
He can have a wife if he wants, Esker remembered. When he needs me, I’ll be there.
“And, well, forgive me—but I see you after six years, and Ras is dead, and suddenly you’ve got a wife and a career.” This, Esker noted, spoken with the bitterness of one who has had neither—a familiar bitterness. “Which is all right—good for you. But then you throw them away to go ciudor, and I know you know that no one strikes it rich going ciudor. So what I want to know is, if this whole expedition isn’t Esker getting cold feet—what is it?”
Esker tried out the answers. I think I can heal her, Kem. I think I can fix her. If I fix her, I can love her. If I fix her, I can leave her. He couldn’t think of anything that would make sense.
“Let me think about it, Kem,” he said. “Let me think about how to say it.”
“Why do you need to think about how to say it?”
“Because you think too fast,” said Esker. “You think too fast and you talk too fast. If I explain it wrong, you’ll seize on all the implications that I haven’t thought of and didn’t mean and that aren’t true, and they’ll get in your head and I’ll never be able to get it right.” He cut off Kem as he started to talk. “Don’t tell me you don’t do that. You do that.”
Kem nodded, still suspicious, but acknowledging the justice of the point. “All right,” he said. “I suppose I do that. Take your time.”
They were silent for a bit. “We’d better go,” said Esker at last.
“We’d better.”
Esker stood, then offered Kem a hand; Kem took it, then pried his weight off the ground with the cane. “Flour,” said Kem. “Salt. Fat. Jerk. Citrus. Things to break things with. Did I miss anything?”
“I don’t know,” said Esker. “I figured I’d leave the memorizing to the scribe.”
“As long as I can leave the fighting to you.”
“You’ve already left the fighting to me,” said Esker. “Which way shall we go?”

#

The Souktown being what it was, the finding of provisions and dry goods did not take long. Flour and salt were had from a self-proclaimed witch who sold charms against the nightgaunts, which appeared to be rattails tanned stiff and pierced through the folded pages of ancient books; she ran the provisioning business as a sideline, but the flour was as fresh as anyone’s and two-thirds the price. Kem conjectured that her price was low because even people stupid enough to go ciudor didn’t want to buy food from a crazy person. A one-armed butcher of huge size and indeterminate gender sold the fat and jerk, and threw in a pickaxe that she had used as a cleaver before he or she could afford a proper cleaver. Proper Tanta citrus was nowhere to be found, but Esker spotted a seller with the look of one of the Salve Rooks and a tree of tiny green lemons that he recognized from Port Piko. The cost was dear, as Esker did not think through the impression a Salve Rook might get from a Jaidari ex-military man speaking her own tongue—but, tiny and dear though they were, the green lemons were exquisite, and even the peel could be eaten without bitterness. Only the maul remained, and they were asking after it, following lead after lead in what seemed a gradually expanding spiral, when two men sprinted by: a Jaidari and a Kerkakani, with fear in their eyes and trailing the smell of smoke. Kem and Esker swung around to stare at wherever they had come from: It was a three-story building, near-intact and free-standing, with a picture of a scarab set on a brown circle with a rounded, irregular perimeter.
As they watched, a low, muffled sound stiffened the air, and the windows on the first floor burst out all at once in a mushroom of broken glass.
Esker was sprinting before his glass could hit the ground, an admonition to “stay here” echoing in his wake—not away from the explosion, but toward it. His soldier’s ears had caught a sound that Kem’s had surely missed, whose significance he might have missed even had he heard it. Through the shriek of separating glass, someone had sung the rune ush, and in a voice he knew.
As Esker ran, the interior of the scarab-signed building came alive with light and noise, blasts and hollers of all kinds bursting out at an ever-rising pitch. He looked and listened as hard as he could—no small feat of perception, since he was running flat-out—and made a calculation as he approached the battleground. He threw his swordspear before him, then leapt and swung his legs up so that his body was straight and flat as a needle. Both he and the weapon sailed through a newly shattered window, unscratched by the glass teeth now lining the frame; he landed on his hands, tucked himself into a roll, then lost control of his trajectory, collapsing someone’s knees and taking a hard knock on the scalp for it from a staff.
At first he thought he had scuttled the cause of the Epseris—for, however the brawl had commenced, it was clear that the Epseris were on at least one side of it. But he saw that the staff that fell had only a single helix of ket, not the double rune of Epaphos’ staff, nor the single ar of Ozier’s, the shai of Sethos’ or the ush of Teos’; it was a limb of white birch no taller than his own chin. He did not know where his swordspear was. His hand closed on the staff at the same as its owner’s, a Creditor Rook draped with mail and leather.
The two of them locked eyes for a moment. The Rook smiled murder and sang.
Esker felt the buzz of rune-force travel down the staff, felt his own arm go numb—but there was no burst of ket’s chill; he was not, as the Rook would have expected, frozen from the organs out. He felled the Rook with a kick to the chin, whipped the staff about more or less assuming anyone nearby would be hostile, then took stock of the situation.
They were in the common room of a tavern, though barely a chair or table was left standing. The Epseris were behind the bar, Teos singing ush in hoarser and hoarser voice as liquor bottles pelted the room like mortars, shooting directly forward from the shelves. Covered by the flying spirits, Epaphos and Sethos pounded away with ar lightning and shai flame at a table upended to form a shield. Behind it, Esker could see a Jaidari and two more Creditor Rooks. As he watched, they inched the table toward the tavern door, keeping it between them and the fire and lightning streaming from behind the bar. One of the Rooks had the same whorl-and-claw tattoo as those who’d admitted them to Souktown. The Boss’s man, he realized. The Epseris have been spotted.
“Sepherene!” Epaphos hollered with vicious glee. “Cracking work with that bull Rook! Teos, throw the man a gun.”
A rifle hurtled from behind the bar; without thinking, Esker dropped the staff and caught it.
“Now get to the side of that table and shoot Hell out of those damned burrowing gophers before one of them goes vamos to tell Boss Dream.”
It was pure reflex to take the position and draw a bead. Epaphos and Sethos, no fools, only redoubled their fire. Esker looked at the white-ringed eyes of the men behind the table and realized that he did not want to shoot anyone already terrorized by Epaphos Epseris. To buy time, he shot deliberately wide.
“Come on, Sepherene! I know the Army of Jaidar taught you to shoot better than that.”
Esker looked again at Epaphos and saw all that was there: The pure thirst for killing, the evil glee at making Esker shoot a man he did not want to kill and could not afford to spare. The green of his eyes was almost blinding now, pulsing with each bolt of lightning that belched forth from the two-rune staff.
Then the tavern doors blew open, inward, and the fire and lightning snuffed out as surely as a wet cloth snuffs a candle.

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