Calli had never believed in ghosts until now. She stared wordless at the arrogant reprobate silhouetted against the open door of the underground Rat’s Nest lair they lurked within. Micah Dawlish. Of all the men to come crawling back here now, of all times…but then that was Micah all over, wasn’t it? Always where he was least wanted at the most inconvenient times.
She’d flown halfway across the fire-lit room before she knew what was happening. Micah slipped into a defensive stance, his weight sliding to his back foot, as she threw herself at him. To her surprise as much as anybody’s, it was her lips that found his, instead of the fist that she had balled up ready to fly.
Micah tasted just the same as he ever did. A thicker brush of stubble grazed his chin now, and he had lost the last lingering plumpness that had proclaimed his final years of adolescence when he’d left. His mouth had frozen for a moment in shock as she claimed it, but now it was moving in hungry urgency in time with her own, and it was far more confident than she remembered it.
Only when his hands—much more callused and work-hardened than the soft little lordling’s fingers she recalled—tightened around her waist and pulled her hard up against his body, did common-sense finally catch up with Calli once more.
She pulled herself out of his grasp and hit him hard.
“Ten years!” she spat, and was furiously ashamed to find that tears were blurring her eyes. She hoped he couldn’t see it by the fire’s dim glow. She hit him again but he captured her fist in his hand.
“I know, Cal,” he said softly, and she would have thought there was regret shimmering his eyes, if she hadn’t known that Micah didn’t believe in such things.
“A decade, and not a word from you!”
“I wasn’t sure you’d want to hear from me, given how we left things,” he said wryly, half a smile playing across his lips, but she almost thought he had forced it there.
“You could have been dead for all I knew!” she spat, ignoring this. “And now you have the temerity to turn up out of the blue thinking all can be forgiven?”
Micah grimaced, shrugging helplessly.
“And I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me exactly where you’ve been these last 3650 days, are you?” she snarled.
“You forgot to count the leap years,” Hastra put in from the fireside and Micah grinned over Calli’s shoulder towards the black haired woman. This only infuriated Calli more.
“I looked for you, Micah,” she whispered, unable to hide the pain reverberating in her voice.
“Well, our Micah has always been good at not being found, when he wants to be,” Gregyr said easily, coming up behind her. “Come in, lad. You want a cup of something to take the edge off?”
Micah’s face slipped into a relieved grin, far more natural than his wry one had been.
He edged past Calli now, studiously avoiding her gaze, and accepted the cup Gregyr offered him. Calli scowled, but then again, Gregyr had always been the peace-maker.
“Gregyr accepted you home again just as easily,” Hastra reminded Calli from Maggi’s cot-bed. The kid was still unconscious, tied down to her bed by the fire, and Hastra hadn’t moved from her side since she had returned. They had only rescued the kid an hour ago. Calli doubted Hastra would leave Maggi’s side for days yet. Calli scowled, but she couldn’t deny it.
“You look awful, Gregyr,” Micah said, his eyes running over Gregyr’s wan face. “I heard rumours you’d died, and I see they weren’t far off.”
An awkward silence ran around the small underground room. Though Gregyr was refusing to acknowledge it, it was quite possible that he had died. Only a bit of dubious magic had brought him back again and nobody was entirely sure how far he had gone before he returned.
“I’m getting better now, lad, that’s all that matters,” Gregyr said as bracingly as possible.
“And Dryvus?” Micah asked, looking around as if he might see the large, round man lingering in the corner. “Were the rumours of his death equally exaggerated?”
A wince ran around the room again and Calli looked away sharply. The erstwhile leader of the Rat’s Nest Crew had only passed recently, and his death left a large hole in the gang he’d left behind.
“No,” Gregyr said heavily.
“You didn’t come back for his funeral,” Calli said. The sting had gone out of her words, leaving only hollowness in their wake. Micah glanced in her direction.
“No,” he said, equally softly.
“Well, he’s back now,” Gregyr said. “You’ve always a knack for picking your times, haven’t you? Right in the middle of the chaos as always.”
“That’s why I returned,” Micah said. “The whole of the underworld is buzzing about your feud with Marda. You’ve bitten off more than you can chew again.” He gave them a wonky grin. “I’ve come to help,” he said.
Hastra’s heart stuttered in her chest at Micah’s words. She glanced between Micah and Calli anxiously. Calli’s expression had frozen and Hastra couldn’t tell what the red-haired woman was thinking.
I don’t care what Calli makes of it, Hastra thought suddenly with a vehemence that surprised her. If he could help us defeat Marda and save Maggi, I would make a deal with the devil himself.
She glanced down at the sleeping kid besides her. Maggi’s breath was uneven and her eyelids fluttered occasionally. It hopefully wouldn’t be too much longer before she woke up.
And then what? she asked herself silently. We don’t know how to break the enchantment on her. We can’t keep her tied up down here in the dark forever…
And yet, even as she thought it, the alternative seemed too awful to contemplate. The idea of releasing her only to see her traipsing merrily—willingly!—back into Marda’s clutches turned Hastra’s stomach. She ran her hands through Maggi’s sweat-dampened artificial curls, wishing she could force them back to the botched black-dye they’d been before, or even the plain mud brown they’d been when she first met the kid. Anything but this.
She got to her feet. “Help how?” she asked sternly and Calli shot a look at her. Calli’s lips thinned, her fists clenched at her sides, but even the hot-headed thief knew better than to challenge Hastra over Maggi. Everyone in the Rat’s Nest knew there wasn’t a single thing Hastra wouldn’t do for that kid.
Micah regarded her thoughtfully but didn’t reply.
“Help how?” Hastra insisted, getting to her feet and stepping towards him. “This is the part where you tell us you have another one of your mad-cap plans, your reckless, last-minute ruses that pay off at the eleventh hour, is it? That you’ve secretly been amassing an underground army for the last ten years? That you have access to Marda’s inner circle and know how to destroy her for good?”
“No,” Micah said quietly, “this is the part where I tell you my father has got in touch.”
Hastra looked over to Calli, as a gasp was ripped unwillingly from the red-head’s lips.
“Hydric has been in touch?” Calli whispered. Her face had gone pale, her green eyes wide and staring. “I thought the two of you hadn’t spoken since…” she trailed off, clearly unwilling to prod at a painful memory or to mention his sister’s name. Micah’s face had tightened, half furious, half miserable.
“We hadn’t,” he said. “But he got in touch with me of late and said he had something mutually beneficial to discuss. You know my father, he’d never let a personal quarrel get in the way of his ambition.”
Hastra glanced around at the others, too. They were all looking as wary and watchful as she herself felt. Micah hadn’t spoken much about his family life when he had joined them in the Rat’s Nest all those years ago, and nobody had pressed him to. It had been an unwritten rule of the Rat’s Nest that nobody discussed the lives they’d left behind unless they wanted to. Hastra herself rarely discussed her previous life in the silk-house.
“He wants to topple Marda, too?” she guessed aloud and Micah nodded grimly.
“More than that,” he said. “He wants to replace her.”
Calli let out a choked laugh. “Is there no end to your father’s hubris?” she gurgled in a strangled voice. “There are already three contenders for the Seasalt throne, and they all have a better claim that your father does.”
“He doesn’t want the throne,” Micah said grimly. “He wants to be the patrician of the new republic.”
Silence echoed through the underground lair for a moment and then Hastra let out a string of colourful curses.
“Really?” she asked angrily. “Because there isn’t enough going on?”
Micah shrugged. He seemed a little embarrassed on his father’s behalf. “He says that that is why it’s the perfect time. With Odoro dead and the line of succession in turmoil, he says there’ll never be a better time to strike. From what I understand, he has a fair bit of support behind him, at least from the underworld.”
“Aye, and how fast will he turn on those underworld connections once he’s shiny and legitimate?” rumbled Big Gristo from the corner darkly. Again, Micah shrugged.
“I don’t want him to be patrician either, but if you want to kill Marda, it might be worth throwing your weight behind him. It’s something to consider, at least. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.”
“Hydric doesn’t know the meaning of the word,” Calli spat. She was staring protectively over at Micah as if she could guard him from his father’s worst excesses, and despite herself, Hastra couldn’t help but smile. She’d been sick of watching the dance between the two of them when all three of them were hormonal-laden youths, but she found she could remember it fondly now with a few more years under her belt.
She turned to glance down at Maggi again.
They couldn’t trust Hydric further than they could throw him, of course, but at least he didn’t actively want them dead yet. And for Maggi’s sake, surely it would be worth it.
“I vote yes,” she said, still staring down at Maggi’s sleeping face. “If it gets rid of Marda once and for all, then I’m in.”
She felt a slight stirring of air besides her and found Calli had crept to her side. She was staring down at the slumbering child, too.
“For Maggi,” she murmured.
“For Maggi,” Gregyr agreed, coming to stand by Hastra’s other shoulder, and Hastra felt her eyes filling up with tears.
“For Maggi,” Big Gristo rumbled, also coming to stand beside her, so that the four of them were lining up by the bedside, staring down at the golden-haired girl, and there was a soft moment of tenderness shared between them all.
“Who the hell is Maggi?” Micah asked in amused bewilderment behind them, shattering the moment.
As if on cue, there was a slight gasp from the girl on the bed, and Maggi’s eyes shot open at last.
Hastra let out a strangled little yelp as Maggi’s eyes opened at last. She tried to throw her arms around the kid, but the ropes were in the way. Maggi tried to sit up, but she had been too tightly bound to move. The girl struggled against the ropes restraining her, but it was futile. It had been Big Gristo who had bound them, after all, and he had once been in the navy. She wasn’t getting out of those things save with a knife’s aid.
“Let me go!” Maggi shouted, thrashing about wildly.
“I’m sorry,” Hastra whispered. “I’m sorry. It’s for your own good. Please lie still. We won’t hurt you.” But the kid wasn’t listening. She was throwing herself from side to side, trying to wriggle free.
“Calm down, Mags,” Gregyr said soothingly. “You’re home now. You’re safe. It’s only us.”
The girl just screamed louder.
“Shut up, kid, or we’ll put you under again,” Calli said sharply and Hastra rounded on her furiously. Gregyr hastily hurried between the two warring women, but Calli’s words seemed to have sunk through to Maggi, because the kid stopped squawking at last.
Maggi glared up at them all indiscriminately.
“Let me go,” she spat viciously. “When Queen Marda hears about what you’ve done…”
“Marda’s not the queen yet,” Calli spat and again Hastra surged forwards, clearly irritated by the tone Calli took. Gregyr held up aching hands—and hadn’t they been aching more than usual lately?—and ushered Hastra back towards the kid instead.
Hastra shot one more glower at Calli and then sank onto the bed instead.
“She’s done something to your head, kid,” Hastra said in a far softer tone than she usually used. “She’s muddled your mind and charmed you somehow. But don’t worry, we’re going to fix you.”
“I don’t need you to fix me. I was happy with Queen Marda.”
Calli opened her mouth, but Micah, taking his life in his hands given their recent interaction, Gregyr thought, elbowed Calli hard. She turned her glower towards him instead, but obediently shut her mouth again.
“You were happy here, too, Mags,” Hastra said, still in that same gentle voice. “And you can be happy here again, I hope.”
“You kidnapped me.”
“For your own good.”
“You don’t get to decide what is for my good!”
“Actually, I think I do,” Hastra said calmly. “You’re just a kid, and I’m responsible for you.”
“You’re not my family!”
A sharp breath ran around the dingy room, and even Calli winced. Hastra’s expression didn’t flicker, but Gregyr knew it must have taken all of her self-control not to react.
“Marda’s not your family either, kid,” she said softly. “And she’ll kill you, just as soon as you’re no longer useful to her. You saw what she did to Gregyr. That’s what she’ll do to you, too.”
Maggi hesitated. Her eyes were darting around them fast, and her mind was clearly whirring.
“I don’t believe you,” she said, but there was more hesitation in her tone now.
“You will in time,” Hastra assured her. “And until then, just rest.”
Maggi glanced around at them suspiciously.
“I would rest more easily if I was untied,” she said and Hastra laughed.
“The door is firmly fastened, is it, Gregyr?” she asked over her shoulder.
“I’ll go and check it,” Micah said, clearly eager to be useful. He hurried from Calli’s side across the room again and Gregyr couldn’t help but notice that Calli’s eyes followed him all the way.
Don’t untie her, the mysterious voice that had lingered in his mind of late prompted him suddenly, and Gregyr flinched at the abrupt intrusion. He still didn’t know who the invisible visitor who had hitched itself to him since his run-in with Dae the Dark was, nor was he entirely sure he could trust it. He didn’t know precisely what the intruder wanted from him, after all, but it’s continual pleas for Gregyr to give himself to it, were worrying. It usually mocked him or derided him. It had never offered advice before.
Why? Gregy asked the voice silently, but it didn’t reply.
He moved experimentally towards the bed as Micah called that the door was still firmly locked and made to untie the ropes and the voice spoke up again.
Do not release her. You will regret it.
That sounded almost like a threat.
Not a threat. A warning.
Gregyr scowled. He hated the way the voice seemed to read his mind like that. He’d considered going back to Dae the Dark, (if he could find her, the Darkwitch was notoriously elusive) and seeing if she could do anything to oust this voice from its smug perch inside his head, but that would mean confessing that it was in there—and he wasn’t quite ready to do that to anybody else yet. Somehow, telling the others that he was haunted by a mysterious voice would make it more real, and he wasn’t ready for that yet.
Besides, he already knew what the others would do. Big Gristo would frown, worrying silently, Hastra would curse in that inventive way she always had, and Calli would pay a short visit with a sharp knife to the Darkwitch—impetuous, hot-tempered and reckless as ever. Only Dryvus would have known what to do, Gregyr thought morosely, and Dryvus had been selfish enough to die when he was needed most.
Gregyr turned his gaze back to the child, her restraints underneath his outstretched, frozen fingers.
“Go on, Gregyr,” Hastra said impatiently. She tried to barge him out of the way when he still didn’t move, but he held her off.
“I’m not sure we should yet,” he said. “Not until we’re certain it’s safe.”
Hastra and Maggi both glowered at him in unison.
“And how long will that take? There has to be some give and take, Gregyr. She’ll trust us again more easily if we’re kind to her,” Hastra insisted. She pushed Gregyr out of the way and sliced the ropes away with a small knife. Maggi sat up, rubbing her wrists, then, abruptly, she dived towards Hastra, knocking the knife out of her hand. Big Gristo body-slammed the child down to the bed hard once more before Maggi’s tiny fingers could even curl themselves around the knife’s hilt. He’d knocked the wind out of her, and had wound the ropes around her hard before she’d had time to regain her breath.
Told you so, the voice said smugly and Gregyr cursed at it silently.
This is going to be harder than I thought, he sighed to himself, and I never thought it was going to be easy to start with…