Authors: Joseph Robert Lewis
“There isn’t, not yet anyway, but the local police answer to us in emergency situations. I’ll rally the troops to catch Chaou. Sometimes it pays to be Section Two.”
“I guess so.”
“Speaking of rallying.” Syfax stood. “I think I’d like another word with Mister Hamuy. He was almost helpful earlier. He might be again.” The major stepped back into the cabin.
Taziri focused on the dark shapes below where the shadow of the
swam in the depths of the night. She heard a soft footfall behind her and in the mirror overhead she saw Kenan peering out through the cockpit windows over her shoulder. “I thought you’d be helping your boss with his questions.”
“He doesn’t need my help.” The corporal sat down and offered a thin, squinty-eyed smile. “At least, not with that sort of thing.”
“I can believe that.”
“Hey, don’t tell the major, but thanks for your help before, with the wrench.” Kenan ran a thumb along his sharp jaw line. “Hamuy is one nasty customer. He’s got a reputation, you know. A real shady history in the army, among other things.”
“What’s so shady about being in the army?”
army.” Kenan’s eyes flicked around the cockpit. “These airships are crazy things, aren’t they?”
“You don’t like flying?”
“Are you kidding? I love it. Dreamed about it since I was a kid. It’s why I applied to the Air Corps, twice.” He shrugged. “But you know how that goes. So how did you get this job? Did you know someone who knows someone?”
Taziri blinked hard, feeling the chill of her tired eyes beneath her lids. “No, actually, I didn’t even apply. I was drafted, sort of. I had just finished school. Electrical engineering. I got a letter that same week.”
“Must have been some letter,” Kenan said.
“Yeah.” Taziri glanced at the needles shuddering in the gauges behind the corporal. “They needed an electrician, and someone read a paper I published. By the end of the month, I was working on the
. Been on board ever since. Over a year building her and almost five years flying her now.”
“Must have been some paper.” Kenan grinned. “Do you like it? The job?”
“It’s a job.” Taziri looked up and saw the earnest, hungry look in the young man’s eyes. “But it has its moments. I’ve seen a lot of the world in a way most people never will. I’ve seen the topsides of clouds, and shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea, and whole cities laid out like drawings on the ground. But it keeps me away from my family more than I’d like. And there’s always the possibility of instant retirement.”
“What’s that mean?”
Taziri raised one finger to point up at the
’s gas envelope looming overhead.
“Oh.” Kenan leaned back in his seat. “I see.”
“Don’t look so worried. We’re perfectly safe.” She shrugged. “More or less. And besides, we’re about to have one of those moments I was just talking about.”
Kenan leaned forward to peer through the windows. “Wow. That’s really something.”
As the last ridge fell away behind them, the lights of Port Chellah emerged from the darkness, a thousand tiny flickers of warm yellows and fiery oranges cascading down the mountainside to the sea. The iron mines offered only a few scattered twinkles half-hidden by the trees, but as civilization traced its way eastward along dirt tracks and steel railways, larger and larger clusters of earthbound stars drew the ragged shapes of factories and workers’ lodges. Tiny red lights glowed on the tops of smokestacks that stood like naked trees in the night, staring at the heavens with their bloodshot eyes. The city spread out across the flatlands, up and down the shore. In the harbor, a hundred barges and yachts and fishing boats bobbed as the sea breezes rippled through a hundred tiny flags and pennants on their masts, all but invisible in the late night gloom.
Taziri stared out over the city. “Yeah, it’s something.”
Chapter 4. Qhora
A thin haze of smoke still hung in the air under the train station roof and police officers dashed from body to body calling for medics and dragging heavy debris into piles. In all the confusion, Qhora walked serenely through the wrought iron gates with Atoq at her side. The huge kirumichi, the
as the Espani called them, sniffed and cast his unblinking gaze at the dead bodies but he never strayed from her side. Qhora wove a path across the long tiled platform strewn with twisted, blackened bits of metal and wood. Oil lamps flickered on either side of each iron column, throwing waves of amber light across the scene. Women and men in gray and red uniforms stood over the debris, speaking in low voices and pointing at this or that bit of burned trash. The air tasted of ash and char.
Qhora walked along the back of the platform away from the train tracks with Atoq padding silently beside her. At the center of the platform, she stopped to study the blasted remains of the long black machine lying across the tracks. The rails themselves had been bent and snapped and the wooden ties lay tumbled on the side of the line. She knelt down to knead the back of Atoq’s neck. “Do you smell something, boy?”
“He probably smells the blood, my lady.”
Qhora looked up and saw Don Lorenzo Quesada de Gadir striding across the platform toward her. In the deep night shadows, the young hidalgo almost vanished in his long black coat and boots, and his wide-brimmed hat shadowed his pale face. It was moments like this that he was at his most dashing, his most mysterious, and his most exotic. Sometimes Qhora asked herself whether she was only attracted to the man because he was so foreign, so pale, so thin and sharp and cold.
Have I merely fetishized him?
Would I love the man within if he did not look so alien?
Does it even matter anymore?
She turned away.
After all, he only loves his three-faced god now.
The Espani swordsman circled the huge cat and stood beside Qhora with his hands clasped behind his back. “The police say the explosion killed over twenty people and injured forty others. The station will be closed for several days while they clean this up and repair the rails and other machines.”
“Days?” Qhora stood up as a cold breeze played through her feathered cloak.
If we had been early to the station, as I had wanted, we would be lying dead on this platform too. Perhaps there is a time and place for being late. But no. That is no way for a lady to behave.
“If we wait that long, then we will arrive late, Enzo. I don’t like to be late. It’s rude.”
“Of course,” Lorenzo said. “But it can’t be helped. The trains can’t leave until the tracks are repaired and the police allow the station to open. The men at the gate say that this was not an accident.”
“This was an attack?” Qhora frowned.
These easterners rely too much on their machines. They’re forever breaking down. Even when they work, they need to be pampered like babies with oil and water and coal and fire. Are they so afraid to ride a living creature?
“Why would someone want to destroy a train? Or did they mean to kill someone? To kill us?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think so.” Lorenzo removed his hat and his limp black hair fluttered in the wind against his shoulders. “The people here are all angry at one company or another because there isn’t enough work. There are many poor and starving people in Marrakesh.”
“Not enough work?” The phrase made no sense to her. There is always work. If you need a home, you work to build it. If you are hungry, you work to feed yourself. Life is work.
These easterners are fools.
Qhora shook her head. “In España, everyone says Marrakesh is wealthy. So far, I am not impressed.”
“No, it’s nothing like Jisquntin Suyu, I agree. And Tingis is an overgrown fishing village compared to Cusco. But the Incan Empire is very different from the nations of the Middle Sea.” Lorenzo gestured back toward the gate. “We should return to the hotel, my love.”
He still calls me that, but there is no light in his eyes, no fire in his blood. His soul belongs to his churches and ghosts now, not me
. She allowed him to lead her out of the train station. “Enzo, I want to leave immediately. How else can we reach the capital?”
The young hidalgo frowned. “The airships were all damaged in the explosion, I believe, not that we could take Atoq and Wayra in an airship. We might be able to charter a steamer to take us down the coast to Port Chellah where the trains will be running.”
Qhora touched his arm and he fell instantly silent. For all the strangeness of the Espani, for all their primitive ghost-worship and rituals and elaborate clothing, they were extraordinarily disciplined. He was waiting for her to speak, and she wondered how long he might stand there in perfect respectful silence. Lorenzo seemed even more selfless and controlled than his countrymen, though that may have only been due to his youth.
Will his zeal and dedication tarnish with age?
Qhora shook her head. “No more machines. No more ships or trains. We will ride to the capital and we will arrive on time.”
Lorenzo nodded slowly. “I think we can manage that if we take the old highway due south instead of the coastal route. I’ll see to the horses tonight. We’ll need a small cart for the cages and trunks. Will you need a horse, my lady?”
“No. Wayra is the only mount I need.”
He nodded again. “Xiuhcoatl should be happy, at least. I doubt he would appreciate spending any more time at sea.”
Qhora smiled. The aging Aztec was fearsome on the battlefield, but at sea he was as helpless as a child. She had watched him cling to the railing of the steamer that brought them from Tartessos to Tingis. The memory might have amused her more if it was not accompanied by the foul stench of his vomit on the wind. “I agree.”
They turned left from the train station gates and returned back down the hill to their hotel overlooking the harbor. Dozens of huge steamships lay at anchor like manmade islands in the darkness, but the small fishing boats bobbed and splashed, their rigging clattering in the wind. Angry clouds gathered overhead to swallow up the stars and a light rain began to patter on the cobbled streets. Lorenzo offered her his hat, which she refused. He covered his head, once again hiding his face and becoming a figure of living shadow at her side. She pulled her feathered cloak tighter around her shoulders, but let the drops fall on her hair and face. The water was cold and clean. As the air filled with rain, the smell of the city faded and she inhaled her first breath of fresh air since arriving in this filthy place earlier in the day.
“Did you notice the ambassador’s face this afternoon?” she asked.
“You mean when you showed her the cubs?”
“Yes. She turned white as a sheet. I’ve never seen a person so terrified. She was stammering and shaking. Honestly, they’re only a pair of babies, and caged at that,” Qhora said. “I can’t believe Prince Valero wanted to send a giant armadillo. What sort of gift is that for a queen? No imagination, no respect. He probably wanted to send it just because it’s big, but what use is that? Can you imagine a queen with a giant armadillo lumbering around her palace? I suppose the children could ride it. But the cubs are proper gifts. Once they grow up, they will serve the royal family as bodyguards, hunters, and even gentle pets if that is what the queen wants. Thank goodness I was there to change the arrangements in time.”
Suddenly she sensed an absence. The huge cat was no longer by her side. Qhora slapped her thigh. “Atoq! Here!”
A low growl answered from behind her and she turned to see Atoq standing at the mouth of a narrow alleyway, his head low, his hackles bristling, his massive fangs bared at the darkness. The great cat shifted and hissed, his broad paws silently kneading up and down as he settled into a crouch, ready to strike. The patter of the rain rose to drum louder on the tin and slate roofs overhead.
Qhora drew her dagger from her belt, but Lorenzo swept past her to block the alleyway. He called out, “Who’s there?”
The rain applauded on the street behind them, drowning out all other sounds.
Qhora circled the saber-toothed cat to look into the dark hollow between the two buildings, but she saw nothing, only a black veil shimmering with silvery rain.
Lorenzo stepped back, his breath steaming faintly in the darkness. “Get back!” His slender espada flashed in his hand and he lunged into the alley, vanishing into the deeper shadows. Atoq roared and leapt after him.
Qhora stood in the street clutching her dagger and listening to the hidalgo shout and the giant cat roar. Something wooden cracked and the splinters clattered on the ground. And then all was silence.
Lorenzo emerged from the gloom, his sword sheathed and hidden within the folds of his long black coat. “It was nothing, my lady. Atoq must have smelled an animal or the garbage. Although, I…” He looked back.
“I’m sorry. I could have sworn there was someone in that alley,” Lorenzo said.
She saw the strange glint in his eyes as he stared down the street and over the harbor. “You mean your guardian angel said so?”
He exhaled slowly, his breath no longer visible in the darkness. “I thought I might have heard her whisper something, but with the rain and Atoq growling, I suppose I just heard what I wanted to hear. It’s been weeks since I’ve seen Ariel.” He straightened up and folded his hands behind his back, and suddenly he was her hidalgo again. “I’m sorry, my love. Let’s get you out of the rain.”
Atoq trotted out into the street where he stood and stretched, licking his teeth.
Ariel. What use are ghosts if they cannot even warn you of an enemy?
Qhora shrugged and resumed walking. She’d only taken a few steps when three men stepped out from the next alleyway down the street. Through the rain and shadows, the three figures appeared only in shades of gray, charcoal men in colorless clothes. Lorenzo’s espada whisked through the air as he drew it and the young hidalgo stepped in front of her for the second time. Qhora yanked her dagger from her belt and glanced behind them. Two more men stepped out with long jagged clubs in their hands.