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The Adventures of Solaire, Part XV: Gilded Lilies and Sharpened Daggers



The Incredible Yet Accurate Adventures of the Dread Pirate Captain Solaire Ravenheart

Otherwise known as

The Adventures of Solaire


Part XV:

Gilded Lilies and Sharpened Daggers


One of the reasons I strive so hard to ascertain the background details of Solaire’s stories, the histories of the people around him, the dimensions of the locations he inhabited, and millions of other little details that don’t even grace the pages of these tales, is that there is so much in these stories that I simply can’t validate, and have to take on trust from Solaire’s own word. Outside of that, the best I can do is to make sure that the details I can double-check are correct and simply assume that if those parts of the narrative are true, then the pattern carries to the rest.


Take the Gilded Lilies, for example. By definition, it is impossible to prove that this supposedly ‘world’s greatest thieves’ guild’ exists, because if evidence could be found that proved their existence, then they couldn’t be the world’s greatest thieves, could they? The world’s greatest thieves wouldn’t get caught. And though I’ve spent countless hours trying to find them anyway with record diving and interviews and exhaustive investigations, all I have to show for my efforts are two potential jobs carried out by the Lilies and a failed attempt on my life (though it turned out to be a coincidence and completely unrelated to any Solaire-based research, so I won’t waste time recounting it here).


So dear reader, I can not confidently state that the Gilded Lilies, the world’s greatest theive’s guild who has never gotten caught by the law and only failed one job, actually exists. I can, however, state one thing with confidence:


If they did, in fact, fail only one job, it would be the one Solaire was stuck in the middle of. In fact, I’d be less inclined to believe that they did exist if they had managed to execute their theft with him involved.


World’s greatest or no, nothing ever goes according to plan when Solaire is involved.




The shadow crept along the side of the ship. It was a small thing, barely more than a fuzzy blur in the dark, darting along off the edge of the deck and clinging to the railing, moving almost too fast for the eye to see. Those that did see it, meandering casino patrons, bored guards, overworked crewmen, dismissed it as a flicker of cloud, or perhaps a sudden burst of mist from the waves.


After all, no man could be that quickly and that confidently clambering on the outside of the ship.


It paused outside the window of a large tower, separated from the main deck, to listen to the voices inside.


“Ze cookink is not bad but ze meat itself is… chevy,” the one dressed in red velvet said. “I musht admit, Vinthrop, it is razer dissapointink.”


The other man, a droll, drooping thing in a suit, nodded. “I suppose that, unicorn or no, it is horse meat.”


After a pause, the shape slid the window up and slinked inside. As long as he stepped in the shadows of the room, he knew, these two wouldn’t see him.


Not even if he was standing inches away from their face.


Another ten steps down a hallway brought him to a closed door. He waited, listening to the rhythm of the men’s conversation to raise in pitch. Once it did, he grasped the door handle and slid it open, smooth as silk, allowing the voices to mask the ever soft creak the hinges gave as it did.


The room inside was pitch black.


Good thing he didn’t need light to see.


Agile step after agile step, the man made his way over to a long row of devices. They were oblong, about the size and shape of a writing quill, with two buttons on it: one large one at the top, and a slimmer one along the side.


Slave plate controllers.


Patiently, ever so patiently, he read through each name scrawled onto the side, then put it back down in the exact same place it had been just before. There were fifty, maybe more, on the table, but he was resolved to read through every single one if he needed to. After all, there was no rush. Even if the men at the dinner table adjourned and headed into this room, they wouldn’t see anything amiss, and all he’d have to do was stay still and wait for them to leave before resuming. He could wait all night, if he needed to. He’d done so several times.


Time was the best friend to thieves like him.


Tomo, Kathers, Alice, Melanine, Dulburn, Willaby. He checked methodically, going up and down each row, making sure not to miss a single one. Ketch, Skyler, Des, Solaire.


There it was.


Cradling it in his hands, avoiding touching the buttons, he placed the small device with the name of ‘Solaire’ into the inside of his jacket pocket and began the slow waltz that would take him, undetected, out of this room, this tower, and into the ship beyond.


He had what he needed. For now, at least.


Solaire would provide the rest.




Here is an account of the events that lead up to this moment in time, as best as I can discern them:


It did not take long for the Order of the Archangels to realize that their sacred Clockwork Temple had been desecrated. Well, more than desecrated; it was just a large hole in the side of a mountain now. But the letter that explains their plight records it as ‘desecrated’, and we can allow them this small mercy, I suppose.


Within six days they had contacted their experts in such matters and contracted their services.


The goal?


To retrieve a very special metal glove that had been stolen from inside.


The contractors began an investigation that lasted almost three months. Determining the identities of thieves that left only ruins and untalking rock golems as witnesses is no easy feat, so they turned to ship manifests of the area, tortuously lining up routes to see which vessels could have gotten close enough to the Isle of Delphine to detour to the rocky outcrop; once they had ruled that out, they could investigate the possibility of pirate crews and the like.


As it happened, they didn’t need to look that far. The records indicated that exactly one declared vessel could have gotten that close: the casino resort ship, the Emperor. In fact, not only had the Emperor been in the area in the right time frame, but manifests and reports showed that the Emperor was off-schedule and off course; it seemed to be changing it’s bearing and destination almost at random. And after lining up the Emperor’s location to the distress call of an automated construct ship in the area, reporting its own sinking, the suspicion was confirmed: the Emperor was their prime suspect.


Bizarre of a casino ship to play host to a crew of pirates, but Archangel commissions did tend to stray to the weirder side of things.


Almost exactly the same time this group began their covert stake-out of the Emperor, a secondary string of information was dancing it’s way into the hands of outside sources, though if the example above was a graceful waltz dictated by dedication and practice, this one was a drunken aristocrat violently sashaying down the ballroom floor before puking all over his shoes.


News about Solaire’s showdown with Weiss and his bold claim about having mapped the entirety of the Emperor’s security measures was buzzing about the place. The only thing guaranteed about a piece of gossip this juicy was that it wouldn’t stay fresh for long, so naturally every man rushed to tell those friends who hadn’t happened to be there before someone else could and spoil the fun.


One sailor, James Johanson, told his bunkmate, Des Morrison, about it, and the two swore a pact that, should one man find Solaire’s now mythical manuscript, he would let the other know instantly. More importantly, they would tell no one of this agreement, promising to take care of each other and not let anything get in the way of this bond.


James Johanson would later go on to make three other such pacts and promises with those around him and went to bed congratulating himself for being a man of such discretion and integrity.


Of these men, Taylor ‘DumDum’ Dumas was among them, and though the nickname ‘DumDum’ wasn’t entirely deserved, it also wasn’t entirely undeserved either. DumDum processed the information as he went along his day before catching wind of a secretive poker game being held in the mechanic’s room, the kind of poker game that went on all the time, but which DumDum was never invited to. As he did most nights, he posted himself next to the door of the room where the card game was taking place and requested entry, but unlike most nights, he had a hidden weapon to assist his venture.


He announced that he was part of a secret group searching for Solaire’s notes.


Quickly, DumDum was ushered inside and dealt a hand. The men around leaned in and hissed questions at the man, prying to learn the identities of these Solaire-mystery-searchers. DumDum, for his part, was at least smart enough to realize that he was being used, but he also didn’t particularly care. He was being included for once, and so he told them whatever they wanted to hear.


How many? Well, about thirty at last count. Names? Oh no, no names. Everyone had a codename. That way they couldn’t squeal on their companions if one of them got caught. Well how about a group name? Group name? Oh, that was easy. Yes it was. Very easy. It was called… it was the compass. Rose! Compass Rose!


At that point, Elther, the unofficial ringleader of this group, stood up and declared that they should use this information. If there was a group searching around for Solaire’s notes, well then, all they needed to do was follow this mysterious group until said group found said notes, kill them, then take the notes for themselves. DumDum here could let them know when the Compass Rose had found their prize so that they could close in and take the members out, quick like, before they even realized they were being had!


DumDum nodded enthusiastically.


Why, Elther declared, standing up upon the table, if they all worked together, cooperate like brothers, they could be home before next Martyr’s Day!


Which is when the stash of Kings Elther had been cheating with flew out of his sleeve and fluttered about the room.


In the angry fighting that followed, Set Miskim, who had stuck around only to pocket a handful of gold coins then fled before the brawling got actually violent, decided to slink back to his room and brood about the information he had just gotten. If Solaire did actually hide a bunch of notes around, well, he couldn’t entrust any of the men on the ship with their location, now could he? Everyone was at each other’s throats at just the rumor of them at the moment. No, the men who knew the secret had to be far away from the Emperor, on land, waiting to hear the news of Solaire’s death.


In a fit of genius, Set took out his writing supplies and penned a letter to his family back home, telling them about the news and asking them to inquire about this Solaire, figure out who on the main land knew about him.


Which is how, during their regular interceptence of the mail, an established protocol of a stakeout of a ship like the Emperor, this shadowy group came to know about Solaire and his claims.


The gods must be favoring them, they decided. Not only had they correctly identified the perpetrators in record time, but here was a man who publicly confirmed that he knew every detail of this ship, inside and out.


Especially the security details.


So the plan was simple: steal Solaire’s slave plate controller, force him with it to reveal the information he knew, and use this bounty of good fortune to steal the glove and a chest piece to the same armor set that they had just learned was on board as well. Archangel was willing to pay double their agreed-upon price if they acquired that armor in addition to their original target (remember to give extra sacrifices to the gods when they got home for their assistance on this job). Then they just had to kill Solaire and slip away, with no one the wiser.


What could possibly go wrong?




“OW!” Willaby cried. “Ow ow ow ow OW!”


“Would you knock it off?” Solaire snapped. “You got shocked two hours ago.”


“But it still hurts!” Willaby protested.


Solaire was in a truly foul mood. For once, things had been going right. He’d finally found the information about River he had been searching for. His latest impromptu showdown with Weiss had whipped the crew into a real frenzy, and Weiss had been forced to back off lest Solaire cause even more grievous interruptions. Then, to top it all off, he had a theory about how to disable the horrible slave plate attached to his neck, giving him everything he needed to begin his escape.


And then his good luck had finally ran out.


Following Natalia’s observation about rogue rune growth on constructs burning Elysium, Solaire had, while the baker was still fawning over his rescue, lit a chunk of the white clay-like substance and held it close enough to the Willaby’s slave plate to make the man extremely nervous. Sure enough, small glowing runes appeared.


The next step had been to test it.


Willaby had marched up to Tomo and began to yell at the stoic samurai exactly what Solaire had instructed him to. He insulted his mother, his honor, his homeland, his sword, his armor, his honor, his intelligence, his skill, his honor, and finally, his honor. And once Willaby had finished with a “so there!” and turned to stomp away, Tomo pressed a small button on a controller he held.


And Willaby collapsed to the floor twitching.


Solaire had been partly surprised that Tomo had been polite enough to let Willaby finish his rant, but mostly frustrated that it hadn’t worked. There wasn’t even a glimmer of hope that the plate had given the slightest of a mechanical hiccup before operating in the way it was supposed to.


So his escape plans were now back to square one.


“Well, at least it’s over with,” Skyler said. “And that means that your favor to Solaire is repaid and Solaire will not ask you to do anything else like that, right?” He glared at Solaire.


Solaire gave a dismissive hand wave. “But now we have to figure out how to pry those things off, blast it.”


“Do we?” Willaby asked, rubbing his neck. “Can’t we just wait until Weiss gets all his armor pieces? He promised to let us go afterwards.”


“That’s a plan,” Solaire laughed. “Tell you what, why don’t you go ahead and just do that? Go back to twiddling your thumbs. If anyone needs me, I’ll be busy figuring out how to save our asses!”


With a glare, the noble stomped down a hallway.


Willaby gave a look to Skyler.


Skyler shook his head, and the two men turned the other way, leaving Solaire alone with his thoughts.


Damn these slave plates, Solaire grumbled to himself. He’d be off of here by now, rescuing River, if he didn’t have to worry so much about frying himself to death once he got caught breaking the rules. And he needed to get off of here, fast. Weiss was scared of him, but that fear was only temporary, and that only hinged on him not finding out that everything Solaire had just told him was a bold-face lie, and/or not figuring out a way to get rid of him without triggering his post-humourous revenge.


And with Weiss’ intelligence and resources, Solaire was certain that was only a matter of time. If only there was a way to…


scrape


Solaire stopped. That sound… it was suspiciously reminiscent of a shoe slipping past ground.


He turned about, squinting into the darkness around him, trying to find any sign of anyone lurking behind him.


Nothing.


It must be my imagination, he reasoned. High strung. Not hard to see why. Maybe he should take some time to clear his…


scrape


“Alright, I didn’t imagine that one!” Solaire withdrew one of his pistols and pointed it round the room. “Who are you? Show yourself!”


There was a familiar cackle, a whiff of ozone, and Solaire had just enough time to think oh no and brace himself before a regrettably familiar sensation of electrical discharge lashed at his neck and made him collapse.


Solaire groaned and opened his eyes. “Dammit Weiss, if you’re so fond of using this instead of ‘hello’, then maybe you should grab… one and…”


It wasn’t Weiss.


Standing in front of him was a man of average height and average build dressed up in dark black leathers covered with a soft sheen, like a glimmering layer of silk thrown over it. His face was round, and baby pink, and his hair was the shiny yellow of sunshine.


He grinned. “‘Ello Solaire,” he said, in a voice that reminded one of broken playground promises to play nice this time. “‘Ow ya doin’?”


“Worse now that you’re here.” Solaire squinted at the man. “Who the hell are you supposed to be? Another one of Weiss’ goons?”


The man laughed. “Not so much. See, Weiss has been a naughty boy, Solaire.”


Solaire rolled his eyes. “By the unholy howls of the wind furies… look, can you just skip the dramatics and tell me what the hell you’re after so we can get this over with?”


The man blinked and took a step back. “The armor. We’re ‘ere to take the armor back.”


“There. Now was that so hard?” Solaire bounced to his feet and brushed himself off. “I handed it all off to Weiss and, to be honest with you, he’s kind of a prick, so I’ll just pretend I didn’t see you and you can go snooping around his quarters.” He gave the man a polite tip of the hat, turned around to walk away…


...and fell over in pain.


“Uh uh uh.” The man grinned and leaned over Solaire. “Nice try, but you’re going to be helping us grab ‘em.”


“I told you,” Solaire hissed through clenched teeth, “I don’t have them. I don’t even know where they are! How do you keep doing that, anyway?”


“It isn’t nice to lie to the man who has your slave plate controller,” he said, dangling the oblong object in front of Solaire.


Outwardly, Solaire showed a face that was unimpressed and slightly upset. Inwardly, he was bouncing off the walls. His slave plate controller. His slave plate controller! The thing that was keeping him here, attached to Weiss, the answer to all his prayers, was right in front of his face, in the hands of this… lunatic! If he could only get a hold of it…


Doing his best to look like this revelation was absolutely grating on his nerves, Solaire held his hands up and sighed. “Fine. You got me. What do you want to do with me?”


“That’s better. All polite like. You, my good sir, are going to be my gracious host about this ship.”


“Why me?”


“Because…” the man lowered his voice to a sinister whisper, “...you know it so well.”


Solaire gave him a blank stare.


The man blushed. “Don’t you? Don’t you?”


“I suppose. But so do most of the other…”


“But they don’t know it like you.”


Solaire raised an eyebrow.


The man raised an eyebrow back.


Solaire groaned. “Look, whatever the hell you’re trying to insinuate here, you’re just gonna have to tell me, okay?”


The security plans!” he hissed. “You have all of the security details all mapped out and written down!


“Oh?” Solaire’s eyes went wide. “OH! The pages! The ones I told Weiss about. With every single detail of this ship laid out…


“... those pages?”


The man nodded.


“Ah. Right.” Solaire squirmed slightly.


The man narrowed his eyes. “You didn’ happen to… lie about that, did you?”


Solaire rolled his eyes. “Of course not. You must have been survelling this ship for a while. You think I could pull off half the stuff I have if I didn’t have an absolute encyclopedic knowledge of this ship?”


“I don’ know what I don’ know. That’s why you’re here to ‘elp me.” He grabbed Solaire by the collar and dragged him to his feet.


“Alright,” Solaire said, striding away, “since you have me so dead to rights, I guess I have no choice but to lead you to my collection of notes.”


“Actually,” the man replied, clasping his shoulder, “I was thinking of a more personal tour.”


Solaire stared at the man.


The man stared back.


“Is it possible for you to say something that isn’t veiled in passive-agressive innuendo?” Solaire asked.


The man blushed. “I meant…”


“I know perfectly well what you meant,” Solaire interrupted. “I just find it annoying, is all. And to answer your question, no, I can’t.”


“Why not?”


“Because Weiss’ measures change based on the time of day and what day of the week it is. It’s far too much to remember on my own. Why do you think I wrote them down in the first place?”


The man sighed. “Fine. Where are the notes?”


“I don’t know.”


The shade of red that had been waxing and waning on the poor man’s face now erupted into a full-blown scarlet of fury. “You what?”


“I. Don’t. Know.” Solaire enunciated. As he normally did, he found that the lying came smoother and faster the more he piled on the fiction. “I gave them to men that I trusted and told them to hide them without telling me where they went.”


“WHY?”


“Any number of reasons. One that just popped into my head is to make sure that any nasty people didn’t just grab me up and do horrible things to me in order to find out where they are.”


“Who…?”


“Did I give them to? Gee, can’t remember. And please, feel free to try jogging my memory with any amount of terrible tortures you have swimming around in that empty fish bowl of a head. I’d love to learn about a torture so silent it woun’t get you caught on a very crowded ship with thin walls.”


“I could just kill you,” the man hissed, holding up the controller.


“But then you wouldn’t have the notes,” Solaire said. “And besides, you haven’t even heard my offer.”


“Your offer?”


“I don’t give a damn about this fancy armor,” Solaire admitted. “And my affairs on this ship are done with. All I want is to get off of this thing without turning into a smoking corpse in the process. So promise me that after you find what you’re looking for, you give me my slave plate controller, and we’ll call it good.”


“I…” The man paused. “I must consult about this.” He shot Solaire an angry look and disappeared into the darkness.


“Take your time,” Solaire shouted after him. “I’ll be here.”


He’ll come back and lie, Solaire thought to himself. He’s a thief, after all. He’ll come back and say that it’s a deal, ‘on my honor as a gentleman,’ if he really wants to sell it, and plan to kill me once I retrieve them.


That was, for the most part, fine. Solaire had bought himself enough time to do what he did best, scheme impossible schemes, and now he knew how he was going to get this man out of the picture and his hands on the slave plate controller.


Plus, there was the minor detail that the notes still didn’t exist.


Solaire began to hum to himself.


Actually, all in all, this was going rather well. Another stroke of luck. Once this was over, he could…


...wait a minute.


Consult? Go consult?


Did he have friends on this ship somewhere?


Solaire sighed. Figures. Well, things couldn’t go too well, could it? That’d be too suspicious.


“Sorry to keep you waitin’.”


Solitaire jumped and spun around. The man was standing no more than a few inches behind him. How the hell had he snuck up on him like that?


Solaire turned his gasp of surprise into an indigent cough. “Well?”


“We’re in agreement. You provide the notes, we hand you your controller when it’s done.”


Solaire shook a finger. “And you won’t just kill me once you get your hands on them, will you?”


The man grinned. “On my honor as a gentleman, I promise I won’t.”


“Excellent,” Solaire said. He’s fallen for it, he thought to himself. And more importantly, he thinks that I’ve fallen for it as well.


“So now what?” the man asked.


“Now I take you to my men, who take you to your prize.” Solaire walked away, down a flight of stairs, through a hallway, up a flight of stairs, down another hallway, and paused.


“Willaby!” he called. “Skyler! I swear they’re not this hard to find normally. Just hang…”


He turned around.


And there was nothing. No man. No threatening smile.


Just empty, dark hallway.


“That’s… worrying,” Solaire muttered to himself.


“Solaire?”


He turned to the source of the voice. Willaby and Skyler were moving down the hallway to meet him.


Skyler frowned. “Is everything alright? You look… tense.”


“Everything is not alright.” Solaire leaned in and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Where are Tomo and Austin?”


“Austin’s in the shipping docks and Tomo’s in the engine room. They’re both on guard duty to make sure no one tears anything up looking for those notes you were shouting about,” Willaby reported. “Why? What’s going on?”


“I’ll explain it once we’re all together,” Solaire replied. “Grab them and tell them to meet up in the storage closet near the mechanic hall, across from the valve monitoring station. Tell them it’s a matter of their life and death.”


Skyler raised an eyebrow. “You want us to threaten those two?”


“Not threaten,” Solaire said. “Inform. Something’s just gone very wrong, and if we don’t fix it, we’re all in a lot of hot water.”


Skyler and Willaby shared a look, then ran off to do as Solaire had asked.




“This better be good,” Austin grumbled.


Solaire had gathered all four members of his crew into a tiny room used to store pipe pieces. As a result, everyone was forced to awkwardly crouch around things, and no one was feeling the strain of the cramped space more than the massive grunzen.


I don’t care how sneaky you are, Solaire thought, no way you’re squeezing yourself in here without us noticing, you insane shadow person.


Tomo nodded. “I must concur with Austin. I have abandoned my post for this meeting. If it is not as truly urgent as you claim, then not only will I be in great trouble with Weiss, but I will have also performed a dishonorable act.”


“It is important,” Solaire urged. For a brief moment, he considered just telling them the truth, that some crazy thief was forcing Solaire to assist him. But no, this plan would work much better if everyone was as confused as possible when things kicked off.


“You remember the treasure we stole from the Archive ship?” Solaire asked, barely whispering the words.


Everyone nodded.


“Weiss has caught wind of it.”


“WHAT?” Willaby shouted. There was a general groaning and a covering of ears, and the baker blushed. “Sorry. What?”


“Someone’s found one of our stashes,” Solaire said. “I managed to dispatch them before they could carry anything off, but he must have told someone about it before I could get to him. The rumor that there’s a big pile of gold hidden somewhere on the ship is flying around now, and Weiss is beginning to take it seriously.”


“What do we do?” Austin asked.


“We’re going to need to rehide it,” Solaire said, “and this time, we hide each pile together. That way, we each know where everyone’s share is and can help guard each other’s stashes if they get found again.”


“Hang on…” Skyler interrupted, “we hid them separately so that nobody could steal any of it while our backs were turned. How do we know you’re not just going to do that?”


“C’mon Skyler,” Willaby said. “I think, given all we’ve been through, we can afford to trust each other just a little bit, right?”


“What the fat man said,” Solaire agreed. “At this point, we’ve all got so many skeletons in our closets that to turn on each other now would be suicide.”


Willaby’s face turned scarlet. “That’s not at all what I meant.”


“But true nonetheless,” Solaire retorted.


Skyler sighed. “Fine. How do we go about this?”


Solaire pointed to Tomo and Austin. “You two finish up your guarding shift. We’ll all meet back here at eleven and head to Tomo’s stash first. Once that one is resecured, we’ll do the same with Austin’s, Skyler’s, Willaby’s, and then mine.” Solaire slinked over to the door, then paused. “And don’t crowd out of this room altogether! Space it out. At least try to make this look less suspicious than it is.”


“I call next out,” Austin declared as Solaire opened the door, closed it, then, with a brief look around to make sure no one was watching him, trotted over to an abandoned hallway.


“Crazy man?” Solaire asked. “You here?”


“Hello,” a voice hissed in his ear, and Solaire jumped again. The man in the dark leathers was only inches behind him, and it took all of Solaire’s willpower not to stab him in the face.


“Any chance you’ve heard of personal space?” Solaire asked, backpedaling a few feet away.


“Have the arrangements been made?” the man asked in return.


“Yes, yes,” Solaire said. “They’re going to go grab my notes for me. We’re meeting here at eleven to go get the first bundle.”


The man frowned. “First?”


“Can’t have someone just lucking into the whole pile, now can we?” Solaire said. “Just follow us and we’ll have the complete set for you in no time.”


“That I can manage,” the man said.


A sudden footstep at the end of the hall caught Solaire’s attention, and when he turned his back, the man was gone.


Pieces set, Solaire thought to himself. Now we just have to hope the game plays out the way I think it will.




At eleven o’clock, helpfully denoted by the ringing of the work bells, five shadows gathered near the door in the hallway.


“Everyone here?” Solaire asked.


“Mhmm,” Autism mumbled.


“Present,” Tomo confirmed.


“Yes,” Skyler said.


“I’m here,” Willaby replied.


“Good.” Solaire lit a long torch to brighten the area just a bit; now that the regular working day had done, most of the artificial lighting in the ship had dimmed to create a false sense of night, a futile attempt to lure the sailors back into their beds instead of sneaking around like they weren’t supposed to.


And presumably you’re here too, shadow man, Solaire thought.


“Alright Tomo,” Solaire said, “where’s your piece?”


“In a hollow space near the armory,” the samurai said. “Truth is, I was going to rehide it soon. One of the Elysium pieces stored with it has gone missing, and I suspect the work of thieves.”


Willaby opened his mouth to say something, but Solaire stepped on his foot and the baker closed it again.


Together, the group crept along until they had stopped in front of a giant metal door that looked like it could have withstood an attack from the gods themselves. Tomo withdrew his katana, slid it between a gap where the decorative molding running along the floor met the rest of the wall, and leaned, separating the two with a soft pop.


Six people leaned in to look at the small pile of gold coins, gems, and chalk-white chunks of Elysium stored in the space behind.


“It’s kind of pretty, the way the light glints off of it,” Willaby said.


“Gold is always pretty,” Skyler noted. “That’s the whole point of the stuff.”


“‘Ang on, there’s no notes here!” the shadow thief complained.


Everyone jumped, even Solaire, who had been expecting it. Crowded next to them was the man in the shimmering black leathers, the thief who had coerced Solaire into helping him.


Stunned, the group just stared at him for a moment.


“Is it in ‘ere?” the man asked.


“AAHHH!” Willaby shouted. “A SPY FOR WEISS! KILL HIM!” He grabbed his wooden spell focus out of his coat and pointed it at the man, which let off a bright jet of flame before he could aim it properly.


“‘Ey!” the man snarled, whipping out a dagger. He lunged, trying to drive the blade into Willaby’s heart, before Skyler caught the weapon in the crook of his hook sword and forced the man sideways with a shove.


Solaire smiled. This was exactly the kind of chaos he’d been hoping for.


“That man does not work for Weiss,” Tomo said, placing his sword in a ready stance. “I have not seen him before.”


“Kill him anyway!” Skyler yelled. “Before he steals what we rightfully stole first!”


“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Austin rumbled, and swung a fist at the man’s face.


In response, the man slid his dagger along the edge of Skyler’s sword and stepped behind him, placing himself out of reach of the blow and standing at Skyler’s back. Tomo swiped and the man pulled out a second dagger with his other hand, used it to block the blade, then rolled past the samurai’s reach with both daggers outstretched, ready to dig into the warrior’s flesh. Skyler spun, aiming his weapons at the man’s head, and the man abandoned the charge and ducked, spinning into another roll and raising into a defensive position, always a few inches away from somebody, always capitalizing on the split second of hesitation caused by the men aiming an attack so close to one of their friends.


Solaire crouched down, seeing his slave plate controller dangling so tantalizingly close, almost hanging out of one of his pockets. He reached out to grab it…


“HRA!” Austin jabbed an elbow at the man, and he leapt out of the way just as Solaire’s fingers brushed his prize. He dived right past Tomo and Skyler, CLANGing their sword on the others’ as they both swiped at their enemy, and continued moving into the shadows.


Everyone spun around, trying to find him.


“Where’d he go?” Skyler demanded.


“He… he vanished!” Willaby said.


“Don’t be stupid,” Solaire replied. “He’s still here. He wouldn’t have AGGH!” Solaire suddenly fell to the ground, writhing in pain, the smell of his own burning flesh filling his nostrils.


“Solaire!” Austin shouted.


“It is his slave plate!” Tomo said. “It’s activated!”


The pain continued. Solaire forced his eyes open, but his vision was swimming with tears and everything was a fuzzy blur. His body writhed like a snake with a knife through its stomach.


Tomo frowned. “His heart can’t take much more. If we can’t stop it soon, he’ll die.”


“That scoundrel,” Skyler growled, scanning the room. “Has to be him somehow.”


“But where is he?” Willaby cried.


Solaire grit his teeth. With every ounce of willpower in his body, he jerked his right arm to his side and under his coat.


“He’s trying to tell us something!” Austin exclaimed.


Everyone crowded around as Solaire, still flopping like a fish on land, snagged something inside his jacket and brought it out in front of their faces:


A gun.


“He’s trying to take us down with him!” Willaby cried. Everyone scattered as Solaire squinted one eye open and fired into the ceiling.


There was a BANG, then a high ping! as the bullet struck one of the pipes above. An instant gush of steam whistled out of the hole, blanketing the hallway in a gray fog of water vapor.


Everywhere, that is, except for one distinctly man-shaped patch of clear air, visible amongst the swirling mist.


Skyler’s eyes went wide. “AUSTIN!” he shouted, pointing at the shape. The grunzen saw and, with one mighty, scarred hand, backhanded empty space. It shimmered into the form of the man in black leathers just in time to get flung across the room and slam into the far wall, slump over, and stay motionless.


Tomo stepped over, pointed his sword at the body for a moment, then leaned over and put his fingers to his neck. “He’s dead.”


“Damn,” Skyler muttered as Austin cracked the knuckles on his hand.


Solaire gasped, coughed, then reached his hand along the floor like a blind man searching for his glasses. His fingers touched something cylindrical, and he grabbed it and brought it to his face.

His slave plate controller. He had it. He finally had it.


He collapsed back to the floor and moaned.


“What the hell was that all about, anyway?” Skyler asked. “You sure he’s not one of Weiss’?”

Tomo nodded. “I am one of the highest in Weiss’ employ. There is no fellow crewmate I do not know.”


“Whatever the hell he was, he didn’t get what he wanted,” Austin said. “It’s over now. Let’s just…”


Bells began to ring and the lights flared. “ATTENTION,” a mechanical voice called, “THE SHIP IS UNDER ATTACK. PASSENGERS, PLEASE RETURN TO YOUR CABINS AND AWAIT FURTHER INSTRUCTIONS. ALL CREW TO YOUR ASSIGNED BATTLESTATIONS. THIS IS NOT A DRILL, I REPEAT, THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”


“Really?” Willaby whined.


“C’mon men,” Solaire slurred, getting to his feet. “We can take them.” He took one wobbly step forward, collapsed onto the ground, and vomited all over the floor.


“This,” Skyler muttered, twirling his swords around in his hands, “is going to be the biggest disaster circus yet. I can already tell.”

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