The bridge was empty.
On the first pass they flew in fast and slow and silent over the wide canal, a smear of darkness across the stars, winging just over the heads of the rotting wooden statues at the top of the Grog Market bridge. Gwenna Sharpe kept her eyes fixed on that bridge, scanning the shadows for her Wingmates—Talal and Qora—who should have been waiting, poised for the extract, just as they’d planned.
“Son of a bitch,” she muttered. “Jak, take us around again.”
It was supposed to be straightforward. The rain, which had been pelting the city for weeks, flooding the canals, drowning the first floors of the wooden buildings, had broken, if only briefly. For once she could fly without sliding around on the talons, without the fat, warm drops splattering her face, without curtains of rain hazing everything more than a few paces away. Of course, shit went wrong, even on clear nights: a roadblock, an unexpected patrol, some kid awake well past her bedtime who happened to glance out her window and spot two figures—all in black, twin swords sheathed across their backs—and call out to her parents.… The world was a mess, even in the best of times, and these were hardly the best of times. A team might be late to an extract for a thousand reasons, and so Gwenna didn’t start really worrying until the fourth or fifth pass. By the twelfth she was ready to set the bird down right in the middle of the fucking bridge and go bashing in doors.
“Another go-round?” Quick Jak asked.
The flier sat up on the back of the massive bird, strapped into his saddle, while Gwenna half stood, half hung below, her boots on one of the kettral’s extended talons, her harness clipped in high on the creature’s leg. The position left her hands free to use a bow or a sword, to light and lob explosives if necessary, to grab a wounded Wingmate and hold on as the bird carried them up and out of danger. Except that there was no one to kill, no one to grab.
She took a deep breath—regretting it the moment the smell of Dombâng, all dead fish, rot, smoke, burned sweet-reed, sewage—clogged her nostrils, and forced herself to go slow, to think the thing through.
“No,” she replied after a moment. “Take us up.”
Anyone else on Gwenna’s perch, anyone not Kettral, wouldn’t have been able to hear him. She remembered flying on the talons as a cadet, how the bird’s beating wings and the skirling wind scrubbed away all sound. That had been years earlier, though, before her Trial, before she drank from Hull’s sacred egg and became stranger, sharper, stronger. Now she could make out his voice just fine, though it sounded far-off and hollow. She could smell him, too, his sweat woven through the miasma from the city below, the acrid soot smeared over his pale face, the damp leather of his saddle; and beneath all that, the too-sweet thread of his worry, which only served to remind her of her own.
“Yeah,” she replied. “Tight spiral. But lean west with it.”
A moment later, she felt the bird bank.
Over on the other talon, Annick Frencha shifted her posture, twisting casually in her harness as they swung around. If the woman was worried, Gwenna couldn’t smell it. She sure as shit couldn’t see any signs of concern. The sniper hung in her harness easily as a child leaning back in a swing, one hand holding the stave of her bow, the other keeping an arrow nocked to the string. Annick reminded Gwenna of the bow itself: all the slender strength, all the killing—and Annick was nothing if not a killer—folded into a vigilant stillness. She never cheered when her arrows punched home, never pumped her fist, never smiled. While whoever she’d shot was stumbling around, pawing at the baffling shaft, lost in the last moments of dying, Annick was already gone, nocking another arrow, blue eyes scouring the world for something else worth ending. Gwenna had been training, flying, fighting, almost dying alongside the soldier for more than a decade. They’d pissed in the same pots, drunk from the same skins, bled all over the same scraps of ground, and she still wasn’t entirely used to the other woman’s poise. Just a glance at Annick reminded her of everything she herself was not—not relaxed enough, not calculating enough, not disciplined enough, not cool enough, not fucking ready enough.…
No surprise that her mop of red hair chose that very moment to come untied. It whipped at her face, tangled in front of her eyes, made itself an unnecessary distraction. Annick didn’t have hair—every week she doused her head in a bucket, then shaved it down to the scalp with her belt knife. It made her look like a fifteen-year-old boy, except Gwenna had never met any fifteen-year-old boys who could split a reed with an arrow at a hundred paces.
“If the extract’s compromised,” the sniper said, “they’ll go to ground, make for the secondary tomorrow night.”
“Did that extract look compromised to you?”
The sniper kept her eyes on the city below. “There’s a lot we can’t see from the air.”
“Yeah. Two things in particular: Talal and fucking Qora.”
“They know the protocol. They’ll lie low. Hit the secondary tomorrow.”
Gwenna spat into the darkness, watched the wind shred it. “If they’re not captured.”
“There’s no reason to believe they’re captured.”
“There’s no reason to believe they’re not.”
“Kettral die just like everyone else if you take a sharp piece of steel, put it inside them, and twist it around.”
Annick gave an incremental shake of her head. “You want to fly search spirals all night? Dombâng’s a big city. Tough to pick two people out of fifty thousand, especially if you don’t know where to look.”
She was right. Fucking obviously.
When it came to protocol, to doing things by the book, to making the cold, rational call, Annick was never, ever not right. Somehow, though—and Gwenna still spent sleepless nights trying to reason this one out—it was Gwenna herself, not Annick, who had ended up in charge of the Wing. Which meant it was Gwenna, not Annick, who had two missing soldiers, two friends, lost somewhere in the open sewer of a city sprawled out below.
Not that Dombâng looked like a sewer from the air. From the air all you could see was the spangling of red lanterns and cook fires, all those warm human lights and—tonight at least—the greater, cooler brilliance of the stars reflected in the hundreds of canals. A hundred paces up, the warm wet breeze absolved the city of its stench. You could relax a little, flying patrol. No one was likely to stab you while you stood on the talons of the soaring bird. No one was likely to bash you over the head so that they could offer you, alive and squirming, to one of their bloodthirsty gods. At altitude, Gwenna could barely smell the terror soaking the streets and homes below.
Unfortunately, she had two Kettral who weren’t in the air.
She studied the topography. Jak had them turning slow circles above the tidy wooden tenements of North Point. One block looked more or less like another—tiled roofs, narrow balconies cantilevered out over the canals, each street crooked as a broken leg—except for the dark, ugly scar where Intarra’s temple had been torn down by the insurgents. No one had bothered to build anything in its place. They hadn’t even cleared away the wreckage.
“Where did you go, Talal?” she muttered to herself. “Where are you hiding?”
No. That was the wrong question.
If the two Kettral were hiding, then they were fine. Sure, Qora had a tendency to stab first and ask questions later, but she was good with her blades—more than good—and Talal would keep her from opening any throats that were better left closed. He’d certainly saved Gwenna from her own idiocy enough times. If they’d gone to ground, as Annick kept saying, then there was nothing to worry about. Which meant Gwenna didn’t need to be flying spiral searches or grid searches or any other kind of searches over the entire ’Kent-kissing city. The danger was that they’d been captured, and if they’d been captured, there were only two places Dombâng’s insurgents would bring them. The Shipwreck was more secure, but that would mean going all the way south over the Spring Bridge, through Goc My’s, then doubling back north to Dead Horse Island; a long march with dangerous prisoners in tow. Which left …
“Jak,” Gwenna said. “Take us to the Baths. Come in from the southeast.”
“Against orders,” Annick observed. She didn’t sound particularly bothered by the fact.
Gwenna shook her head. “Just fucking Frome.”
“He is the admiral in command of the Dombângan theater.”
“Dombâng isn’t a theater, it’s a cesspool. And Frome’s understanding of the place is limited by the fact that he never leaves the ’Kent-kissing ship.”
“Nevertheless, the risk to the mission—”
“The risk is for shit. There’s one kettral left in the world, and we’re on it.”
“That’s why we have the orders. If the bird is taken—”
“We’re a hundred paces up.”
“We can’t rescue anyone from a hundred paces up.”
“So then we’ll descend.”
“Putting the bird in danger.”
“Holy fucking Hull, Annick. It’s all danger. The job is danger.” She swept a hand out over the ruddy lights of Dombâng. “Half the people in this city would gut us on sight, and the other half would only hold back in order to feed us to their blood-hungry so-called gods. If we wanted to be safe, we would have taken up brewing or farming or fucking haberdashery.”
Annick raised an eyebrow. “Haberdashery?”
“Hat-making. Making hats.” Gwenna clenched her jaw, forced herself to shut up. Her anger was just worry. Which didn’t make it any less angry. “Look,” she went on after a pause. “You’re probably right. Talal and Qora are probably lounging in an attic somewhere getting drunk on some local asshole’s stash of quey. We’ll pick them up tomorrow and I’ll feel like an idiot for keeping us out here. Fine. It won’t be the first time.
“But if they have been captured, I want to know it before they’re hauled off to the Baths and we never see them again.”
“Was cooked up by some bureaucrats back in the capital whose idea of ‘unacceptable risk’ is taking a shit when there’s no silk to wipe with.”
Copyright © 2021 by Brian Staveley