Nick woke up swallowing a scream. He felt Ghostshadow's hands clawing at him. He fell out of the bed and fought with the blanket. He couldn't seem to extract himself from the blanket. The more he struggled, the more tangled he got. When he finally got to his feet and figured out where the door was, an arm snaked around his waist and pulled him back. "No," he said. "Let me go." He reached out towards the door, straining against the hold.
"Calm the fuck down, Nicky," Duncan said. "Do you really wanna go out there naked?"
Nick stopped, still reaching towards the door. He realized his vision wasn't quite clear, and he blinked. The room swam into focus. He dropped his arms and sat down on the floor. "No. I don't suppose I do," he said.
"Are you okay?"
"It was a dream. He tried to rape her, but she got away from him."
"You mean the psycho Slider?"
"I shouldn't have left her alone."
"You'll see her again."
"If he doesn't kill me."
"He won't kill you. And he won't kill her either. Come on; get up. I got word that two BII dicks are coming to talk to me today. You and Lash gotta go. I brought you some clean clothes."
"Thanks. I owe you."
"No, you don't. But if you can get me some light gems, that'd be wicked cool."
"I'll see what I can do."
When they got to the port, Withershins was already fired up and the pilot, Tristan Cale, was ready to go. As they were about to get on board, Duncan said, "Oh shit. I almost forgot." He pulled the box out of his backpack and tapped on the bottom of it. The top of the box slid open. From inside the box, he pulled a wakizashi in a black lacquer scabbard with a dark red flower pattern twisting around the length of it. He handed the sword to Nick. "It's probably the best thing I ever made, but I don't really have any use for it. You will need it."
Speechless, Nick pulled the blade out about an inch. It sparked and swirled, like the surface of the Shikkongou, but unlike the Shikkongou, light ran down the surface of the blade in muted rainbow colors.
"I made it from that weird shit Ryan likes to play with and light gems. It doesn't quite cut through metal, but it cuts stone clean through."
Nick pushed the blade back into place, noticing as he did that the exposed part had begun to take on a steady bright blue glow, just as the uncut light gem had when he held it in his hand. "Thank you," he said. He wanted to say more but couldn't find the words.
"Now get the hell out of here."
They embraced, and Nick and Lash got aboard Withershins. Fortunately, the weather was mild, and they didn't have to wait to take off.
Withershins was long out of sight, but Duncan was still watching the sky when he saw a small cruiser with BII markings coming in. He put his box back in his backpack and stood at the terminal to wait for the detectives.
Gaston and Aaron headed for the terminal as soon as they got off at the Crossgrove port. They didn't know who was running the place since Vinny had died, and they hoped that whoever it was would be more cooperative than Vinny would have been. The terminal was not what they expected. There was only a small office, and the rest was a garage. All of the hangars were empty, and there were engineers roaming about, cleaning out the hangars and carrying parts out to the docks for small, quick repairs. There was a kid sitting on the counter in the small break room they passed through. He had big green eyes, long black hair in a messy braid and pointed ears.
"Excuse me," Aaron said. "We're with the BII. We were wondering who's in charge here. We have some questions about a passenger who arrived here yesterday."
"That would be me," the kid said.
"Don't fuck with us, kid," Gaston said. "We don't have time for jokes."
"This planet is mine. When Texas got pushed up, it became mine. I'm the king, so you gotta deal with me. You don't like it, get the fuck off my planet and ask someone else your questions."
"You're Duncan Kyle, aren't you?" Aaron asked. "You were Talon's engineer."
Gaston scratched his head. "Oh. Sorry. I thought you would be older than you look," he said.
Duncan laughed. "I am older than I look."
"So do you mind answering some questions?"
"Do I really have a choice?"
Duncan shrugged and hopped down off the counter. "Let's go to the Wheel. It'll be quieter there."
The Wheel hadn't even opened yet, and the bartender wasn't there. They went in though the back door. Duncan led them out to the bar. They sat down while he went behind the bar, flipped on a coffee maker and pulled two bottles of beer from the cooler under the bar. "Fukusuke," he said. "This is the best beer we've got. It's imported from the part of Texas that's under Quetzal, and it's made by trolls."
"Trolls?" Gaston asked.
"Yep. Trolls. They're kinda stunted and hunched over, and they got grey saggy skin and itty-bitty little yellow eyes. But they're a sweet bunch of guys, really. They just wanna make beer and play pool."
Gaston picked up the bottle and stared at it skeptically. There was a picture on the label of exactly what Duncan had described, except it had long yellow hair and big red lips, which it was puckering up to kiss a statue of some long faced creature with a long beard and a high pointy hat.
Aaron had already taken a few sips. "That really is good," he said. "Who knew? Troll beer. Stop staring at it, Gaston. You'll scare it."
Grunting, Gaston lifted the bottle to his lips. It hardly tasted like beer at all. It was smooth and crisp with a lemony bite and a licorice kick on the way down. It was probably the most pleasant beer he had ever had. "I usually don't like imports, but that's not bad," he said.
"The trolls will be very pleased to hear that," Duncan said.
"Before we get all caught up in happy trolls and their booze, we need to ask you some questions," Aaron said. "I'm sure you've heard by now about the robbery at the Museum of Antiquities."
Duncan nodded and turned away from them to pour coffee into a large purple mug.
"We're looking for someone in connection with that robbery. A kid named Nikolai Tsyplakov. He was said to have been seen boarding a cruiser called Dexi's Midnight Runner that was headed here."
Duncan nodded again and sipped at his coffee. "Yeah, she came in yesterday. Left this morning. No passengers that I ever saw."
"Do you know Tsyplakov?" Gaston asked.
"I met him once on Walden City. I was scrounging for parts. I played pool with him at a bar. He beat the shit out of me."
"What do you know about him?"
Duncan shrugged. "He beat the shit out of me playing pool."
"Where did Dexi's Midnight Runner go after leaving here?" Aaron asked.
"I think Parable. I'm not sure. Maybe Lore. I could check the logs. But like I said, there weren't any passengers."
"Are you sure about that?"
"I'm down there all the time. If there was anyone other than the crew, I didn't see them get off, and I fueled her myself this morning before she took off. No one got on but the crew."
"What about Dexi's pilot?"
"What about her? She's a decent pilot. She's made a good living on that ship. Are you asking me if I think she'd be helping out a criminal? No she wouldn't. If she knew she had a wanted criminal on board, she'd be giving you boys a buzz."
"I wouldn't say that Tsyplakov is a wanted criminal. He's wanted for questioning," Gaston said.
"Isn't that gonna end up being the same thing in this case? No one's supposed to be able to rob the Museum of Antiquities."
"The longer he keeps running away from us, the worse it's gonna look for him."
"What got swiped anyway? Must be important if you're willing to come here."
"We're not at liberty to say."
"Must be really important if you're not at liberty to say. Like the Shikkongou."
"You haven't seen him here, even if you didn't see him get off the ship, have you?" Aaron asked.
"Would he have any reason to come to Junket?"
"No. We got along fine, but I don't think he would think he could come here and ask me for help if he was in trouble."
"But if he did - "
"He wouldn't get very far. I'm running a business. I don't truck in illegal activities, and I don't need that kinda shit to bring me down."
"What about the prostitutes?"
"The Avas and the Abels work for themselves. I'm not a pimp."
"What happened to Vinny Vea?"
"He died. He had a little accident. I pissed him off one night, and he tried to hurt me. We found him the next morning sort of ... scattered around. Looked like one of the ghost dancers tore him up. None of the Texans messed with him usually, but when I came back, they let it be known that they were loyal to me, not to him."
"Do you mind if we spend some time asking around the docks?"
"Yeah, I kinda do. But go ahead."
Gaston and Aaron finished off their troll beers and headed back to the docks. They spent nearly two hours questioning the prostitutes and the other dockworkers, but no one had seen Tsyplakov or Larabie. Or at least no one was admitting that they had. They asked about the logs and were told that Dexi's Midnight Runner had headed to Parable with only the crew aboard.
When they boarded their ship, there was a message waiting for them from Catherine. She had found the records of the genetic experiments that had been done on Commonwealth. All of them had involved animals, including a female red fox. All of the subjects had died except the one involving the fox. The test subject in that case was a young girl named Greyson Olivia Seosaph. While it seemed she was still alive at the end of the war, there was no telling what had happened to her after that. They went back to Lyric to dig a little further down that road. They were pretty sure they weren't going to be able to find Tsyplakov at that point. They were just going to have to wait for more reliable information, so they posted a small reward for such.
Ghostshadow slid into the bank. Everyone stopped for a moment and stared at him until they picked up on the threat of being torn to pieces in his eyes. In the military and working for Archer, he had gotten used to speaking and reading English, and his native tongue was alien to him at first as he scanned the signs above the teller windows. The loops and dots and squiggling lines were just that. Then the rest of him caught up and oozed into place. He walked up to the window at the very end of the long counter, above which hung a sign that read Death Coins.
He placed two bills on the counter and pushed them towards the teller, who was staring at him with something a little more than fear, and when he took a second to study her face, he realized why. He knew her. She was his youngest cousin, only a few months younger than he was, and they had been more than friendly with each other for a long time. He smiled at her. "Isobel," he said.
Isobel trembled. "Robyn," she said. "What are you doing here?"
"That isn't what I mean."
"What do you mean, Bel?"
"You said you'd never come back here. I told you you'd never be able to."
"So it really has been that long, hasn't it? That was when I joined the military."
"I thought the chutes would kill you."
"They do. Every time I go through one, I get torn apart. Hurts like hell, but I get over it. The adjustments help a little, but when you watch your world break like that and you're the only one who sees it, it does something to you."
"I volunteered for genetic experimentation during the war. Or actually they only made me think I was volunteering. If I'd refused, they would have done it anyway. So I got tweaked a little. More of Mom's genes to keep me together and allow me to heal people and myself. They tweaked the sliding gene so it's a little easier to move. But they unbalanced me, and I have to swallow gunpowder to stabilize myself."
"What are you doing now?"
"I work for Archer Esterhazy."
Isobel closed her eyes and shuddered.
Ghostshadow put his hand on the bills he had laid on the counter. "Two death coins, please," he said.
Isobel took the bills and went into the vault. She came back with two thick silver coins in her white-gloved hand. She dropped them into a plastic bag, which she sealed and handed to Ghostshadow.
He stared at the coins, remembering the feel of one clutched in his own gloved hand and the chill of his grandfather's dead lips through the thin cotton. As soon as he had put the coin on his grandfather's tongue, he had heard his grandfather say, "Come with me, Robyn. It's lovely." And for just a second, he had followed.
"What are you going to do with those?" Isobel asked.
He looked up at her. He could see her thinking that he had come back to do something awful to his parents. "No, Bel. I'd never hurt them. I love them," he said.
"You don't know what that means any more."
"I have friends who are going to die."
"Only on the outside. Neither one of them is all they look to be."
"Are they going to die by your hand?"
"I'm only helping them end their suffering. The longer they go on this way, the worse they suffer. This is what they want. I have to go now, Bel." He turned away from the counter.
"Robyn, I still love you."
Ghostshadow looked over his shoulder. A single tear dropped down Isobel's face. He wondered for a second why he had ever left her behind. She had loved him, and he had, he thought, loved her. For all the turmoil his experiences had caused him, she was the one thing he could count on, the one thing that made him feel normal and whole. A moment passed during which he imagined blowing off his hunt and staying there with her, safe in her arms. But he could never have that. After all he had done, no one would allow him that kind of peace, and he couldn't stand the thought of Isobel suffering because of what he had done in the past. "I'm sorry," he said. "I would, but ... but you're better off without me." He turned away again. "I'm sorry."
He slid before she could say anything else. He was sure she had some argument that would sound good enough for him to seriously consider staying with her, but no matter how good her argument or how seriously he considered it, his only conclusion was to continue his hunt.
Ghostshadow slid into the terminal at the port in Thyme and watched the listing of flights scroll by. He didn't care where Kitsune was going. It didn't matter. He would get to her eventually. He had to worry about Nick first.
He searched through news slates and laughed when he read that the BII thought they had a "solid lead." They didn't have a clue what had really happened, and everyone knew it. The only reason they wanted to find Nick was that they knew he had been at the Museum of Antiquities the day of the robbery. They had no reason to think he knew anything.
The slate updated as Ghostshadow read through it. The BII was offering a small reward for information regarding Nick's whereabouts. Ghostshadow laughed again. They weren't going to get anything useful out of that. Everyone in the universe would try to say they had seen Nick somewhere, and they would end up chasing ghosts for months. But that was good. Ghostshadow didn't want them to find Nick.
He slipped into a bar near the terminal where bounty hunters hung out. He sat in a corner and listened.
"You hear about the robbery?" someone asked.
"At the museum? Oh yeah! Ain't that some shit?"
"The BII posted a reward for information about some kid named Tsyplakov. Anyone know the name?"
"He's one of the Walden City thieves. The one who supposedly killed Blackeye Hart."
"They'll never find him. He's too good."
"Did he actually do it? What did he steal?"
"I haven't heard who did anything, but he was in a tour group and had some trouble with the metal detector at the gate. Seems he'd been touched by a healer witch and had a static build up."
Ghostshadow laughed to himself.
"I heard it was the Shikkongou that was stolen."
The response to that was silence up and down the bar.
"I heard Lash Larabie's helping him out."
"What? Larabie helping a thief? Has he lost his mind?"
"Someone hired him to watch the kid."
"Larabie was on Junket yesterday. No kid with him. He was hanging around the Wheel."
"I heard he was on Xebec today."
"Yeah, he is. I tried to call him to ask him why the hell he never paid his tab that he promised he'd pay two month ago. He wouldn't talk long. Said he'd have money soon. But he was definitely on Xebec."
"Was the kid with him?"
"I don't know."
"Well, personally, I think it's a waste of time and effort. That's small change. Until the BII says the kid is the thief and they put a few more zeros behind that one, I'm staying right here. Besides, those BII bastards take away enough bounties as it is. I'm not really inclined to help them out."
"I'm more curious as to why Larabie's involved. Who hired him?"
"Well, the rumor is that the Tsyplakov kid is a noble. And a Falkenberg at that. So probably his family."
"You know what that means, don't you?"
In unison, the bar said, "Konstantine."
"Who else would have known the kid needed to be looked after?"
Ghostshadow had heard enough. He slid out of the bar and back to the terminal to book passage on the next flight out to Xebec.
Kitsune felt a little strange wearing a dress, especially with her boots, but it was all Ria had had for her to wear. It wasn't uncomfortable, and it was pretty, but it was the first dress she had ever worn. It was made out of a gauzy black material and went down right about to her ankles. Underneath the black was a red silk shift. She looked less like a thief in it and more like a woman on a journey.
She had thanked Ria and Harlan profusely for helping her and even offered to give them some of the birdman's money. They refused the money. It really was enough for them that they were able to help her. Kitsune wondered how such wonderful people could be the parents of a monster. But it seemed to her, from what Ria had told her, that their kindness was part of the problem. They hadn't realized what kind of social ostracism their son would face, and the kindness they taught him was no weapon for that. She had to stop herself from feeling sorry for Ghostshadow again. He might not have had any control over his circumstance, but he could have found another answer.
She slept on the flight to Commonwealth and dreamed that she was following a fox across a desert. There was a strand of bright blue light along the horizon they were heading for, and she knew Nick was somewhere near that light. It was such a long way off. She wasn't sure she would ever get to it. She sat down and started to cry at one point. The little red fox turned around, sat up on its hind legs and folded its front legs across its chest, like a mother about to scold her child. "Come on now, Greyson," the fox said in a motherly voice. "He will be there, and we will make it. I know it looks far, but just think about his path. If he really is the next Shaman, that's about as tough a path as it gets. All of them die before they see what they are."
"I don't wanna see him die."
"He better come back to me. He promised he would."
"Have faith, Greyson." The fox looked over her shoulder at the horizon and sighed. "I do."
Kitsune smiled. "When I see him again, I'm going to drop him on the nearest flat surface, rip off all his clothes and make love to him until he can't stand it."
The fox grinned. "That is unless he jumps your bones first. Come on, girl, let's move it."
Nick had gotten tired of listening to Lash haggle with the pawn broker over a pair of .45 caliber slug guns that probably weren't even worth what little Lash was willing to pay. There was a bookstore across the street, so he told Lash he was going over there. Lash had simply waved his hand and kept arguing about the guns. The bookstore was large enough for him hide in for several hours, but he figured Lash would panic long before then and run off to look for him, not remembering that Nick said he was going to the bookstore. That was fine. He hadn't wanted to bring Lash along, at least not to Xebec, not if that sensation of something dark slowly crawling its way to him meant what he thought it meant.
Nick found a copy of The Book of Five Rings and sat down to read. He lost track of time, and when he looked up, it was dark outside. He put the book up and went outside. The pawnshop was closed, and Lash was nowhere to be seen. He went to the terminal to see what was headed where, thinking a stop on Aria might be in order. There, he could probably find out more about Esterhazy's illegal experiments, and if he had evidence against Esterhazy when the cops finally caught him, he would at least have a little bit of something to fight with. He booked passage on a liner called Simple Pleasures that left at midnight, giving him roughly six hours to find Lash if he was so inclined. But he wasn't really, so he decided to find somewhere to eat instead.
A passenger liner had just pulled in from Destiny as Nick was walking away from the docks. He watched the passengers streaming out, almost hoping to see Kitsune among them. Cold chills raced up his back, almost knocking him over. He saw Ghostshadow, and then the dock was washed in blue glow. When it passed, he didn't see Ghostshadow anywhere, but he was left with the distinct sensation that he had been on that dock before at a similar time of day, and last time, he had heard his name. He started to run.
"Nikolai? Nikolai Konstantine Falkenberg? My God! It is you!"
It took Nick several seconds to realize that he had begun running towards Galen Schweitzer, one of the few friends he had had before he ran away. He stopped and tried to pretend he was glad to see Galen, but just over Galen's shoulder, he caught sight of Ghostshadow staring him down.
"I haven't seen you in years!" Galen said.
"Um, no, you haven't," Nick stammered. Ghostshadow grinned and slid away. Nick looked around, trying to anticipate where Ghostshadow would show up. He tried to see the ripples of the dimensions, but he saw nothing.
"Hey, are you all right? You look pale."
"I, um, I ... don't you remember? I ran away."
"Oh. Oh, shit. I probably shouldn't have just blurted out your name like that."
"That's all right. You were always a bit of a moron."
"I'm kidding. It's okay. I'm sure he knows already. I'd love to stand around and talk, but I really have to get out of here."
"Nick, is something wrong?"
"Come with me."
"Galen, I don't have time."
"Shut up. Come with me. Trust me, okay."
"What - "
Galen grabbed Nick's arm and spun him around, yanking him through the crowds. He began to chatter loudly and quickly about what a nice night it was and how glad he was to see his old friend and how they had so much catching up to do. They passed Ghostshadow, and he caught Nick's eyes, glaring at him. Nick didn't doubt that Ghostshadow would kill Galen too if he had to, but Ghostshadow didn't follow. Galen ushered him into a waiting vehicle and as soon as the door shut, he stopped his chatter and said to the driver, "Go. And do it fast."
Nick watched out the window as Ghostshadow grew smaller and smaller and was soon gone.
"All right, what the fuck is going on?" Galen asked.
"I could ask you the same thing," Nick said.
"I had an internship with A.D. Esterhazy Enterprises while I was at the University. I've seen that man before. He's a killer."
"He thinks I'm pretty."
"You did do it, didn't you? Whatever was stolen from the museum on Solo. You've got it, don't you?"
"If I say I do, that makes you an accomplice."
"Unless I turn you in. They're offering a reward now."
"No, I don't have it. No, I didn't do it. Not this time."
"Esterhazy hired me to do it. There was no choice involved, and I'm sure he would have killed me as soon as I got back to Aria. But I can't let him have it. It ... it needs to go back where it belongs."
"To the museum?"
"No. To Talon."
"It was the Shikkongou. Damn, you must be insane."
"What do you mean, not this time?"
"A little slow, aren't you, Galen?"
"Okay, I'll stop asking questions now. I already know too much."
"You can stop the vehicle any time."
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"No. I was planning on catching a flight to Aria at midnight."
"Why are you going back there?"
"I want to make sure I can prove he's running illegal genetic experiments."
"All right, now I'm really going to stop asking questions."
"Thank you for your help, Galen, but really, you don't have to do anything more."
Galen smiled. "I know."
Nick took a deep breath and leaned back against the seat. His spine tingled. He felt an impact and heard the crack of bones and glass. He was going to die soon.
The vehicle stopped outside a gate in a big stone wall that Nick had been watching for at least the last two miles of the ride. When they got out, the driver pulled off slowly and turned a corner. Nick heard the engine cut off.
"Welcome to my humble abode," Galen said as they walked through the gate.
They walked down a path of flagstones towards a sprawling complex of buildings connected by polished wooden walkways. The eves of the roof sloped far off the edges and curled at the corners. On of few of the corners hung small strands of metal disks or wind chimes that tinkled and sounded like they were lost. The walls were thick sheets of paper plastered to heavy wooden beams. Nick followed Galen down one of the walkways. Galen stopped and pulled back a door that lead into a small room that was empty except for a bedroll and an unlit lantern. Galen slipped off his shoes and stepped inside. Nick sat down to unlace his boots while Galen lit the lantern.
"Please don't go to Aria," Galen said when Nick stepped inside.
"I'm not sure I'll make it anyway," Nick said.
"Then don't even try."
"I'm going to die."
Galen stood up and slid the door shut. His chin was at Nick's shoulder. Without turning his head, he lifted his hand to caress Nick's cheek. "Do you remember the day you kissed me?" he asked.
"You didn't speak to me for weeks," Nick said.
"You frightened me. I wasn't interested in leaning all the things we weren't supposed to learn. You did enough of that for everyone. Then you were gone. My parents said it was a good thing, that you were a bad influence and I'd forget about you eventually anyway. Well, I didn't. Instead, I spent my time trying to follow in your footsteps and find all there was that the adults were hiding from us. The only thing I never could find ... "
"Was me." Nick put his hand around Galen's and kissed his knuckles.
"Was you. And now you tell me you're going to die?"
"I can feel it. Galen, I think ... I think I'm the Shaman. I think I have to die to see the truth of that. And everything I've ever said and done is part of that path. Do you know why I kissed you that day?"
"I had a dream that your mouth would taste like blueberries."
"You won't kiss me like that again, will you?"
"Do you feel anything other than appreciation and affection in my touch? There's no love, no desire. I haven't been able to feel anything like that in a long time. I haven't even wanted to feel that. You wouldn't taste like blueberries now. Or rather I wouldn't like the taste of blueberries any more."
"You are the strangest, most beautiful person I've ever known."
"Thank you for everything."
Galen pulled his hand away from Nick's then pulled open the door. "I'll bring you something to eat in a little while."
Galen stepped out and shut the door.
Nick sat down on the floor and buried his face in his hands.