A man fell through the door laughing.  He spilled onto the floorboards, losing his hat and a small Evok in the process. The animal saw us before the man did.  It bounced into the shadows on churning legs, sending back a plume of fear in its wake.  The man was still laughing, rolling like a top.  “That lass pours like an angel!” he said.

Then Eriphet lurched over and cut his throat.

I fell back to examine my cut; it was deep, but I’d survive.  The pain of it throbbed into my bones, made my interior cold.  I felt a curious sense of distance as I hung back, watching the men and Eriphet.  

The man was gurgling to death on his own blood, still reaching for his hat. Eriphet was leaping across the room and out the window. It shattered behind him as he disappeared into the grids of Maiden.  Peregrine ran after him in a rush of grief and fury.

“Wait!” Vince said.

Peregrine went back and crouched beside them. “Darby,” he said. He touched his arm.

Darby closed his eyes, opened them again. His life was flooding out around them on the floor.

I turned away, embarrassed. After all, I had brought this on them. Hadn't I?  The room began to smell of almonds, bitter and sweet. The Evok, which had been crying in a corner, ran back to Darby and curled in a ball at his feet.  Evoks were engineered to be comfort creatures; they attune themselves to the events around them and give off powerful scents to suit the mood.  They’re the last thing you want near you when things go south.

Vince lay Darby's body on the floor and closed his eyes.

“Turn that thing off,” he said.  “It stinks.  You!” he said to me.  “What’s your business here?  What was that thing, what does it want?”


Peregrine still sat on the floor with Darby, dazed.  He watched me, absently stroking the Evok.  The animal crawled into his lap. Its odor of burnt hair and bitter almonds began to give way to the Gazer’s incense, which still floated in the air around us. “David Lumen.  Why have you come back?” he said. “What do you want?”

“I came to warn you. When I learned he was coming here-but I could not shake him-”

“They’re already here, you idiot.”

“He’s lying,” Vince said.  “Finish him. We’ve got to sound alarms.”

But Peregrine stayed his hand.  “Explain,” he said.

“Forgive me,” I said, still holding my side.  “I’m not at my best.”  I stumbled to a chair and gestured limply at the broken window Eriphet had leapt through, trying my best to look weak, unthreatening.  “His name is Eriphet.  He’s a Phyrnosian warlord.  He’s accused your people of murdering his advisor-but you heard the Gazer. It’s a front.  He's here for some kind of coup.”

“He’s here for slaves,” Peregrine said. “For gladiators and parlor girls.  For medical experiments. Isn’t that right?”


“You know it’s true.” His face tightened. “How many more?”

I told him.

“Vince, go warn everyone downstairs. Seal the doors, send out the vibratory alarm. We need to keep everyone out of the streets as much as possible. David,” he said. “How do I know I can trust you?”

“You can’t.  Where’s Julee?”

“She goes wherever she goes,” Vince said.  He had been watching me closely.  Now he went tromping down the stairs-shouts floated back up, and then a silence.  After a while, the floor began to hum.

AstraRead this story for FREE!