Chapter Six: “Hordin House”
Qristina sighed. “Send him in.”
The novice swallowed hard and bowed before darting out of the office and into the antechamber. As he left, Qristina marked her place in the papers she had been working on and slid them into a folio. She had been waiting for this visit. Well, not this visit in particular, but one like it. The inevitability of it had been sitting her on edge lately, and no doubt the junior meisters and novices had noticed. They had been cowering in fear of her even more than usual.
The novice returned a short while later with an older man in fine clothes. The man had what would normally be called a kindly face, although the severe look on it now was anything but grandfatherly.
“Lord Holmes,” Qristina said. “I am surprised at your visit. Usually you send your son on the business of your estates. He is well, yes?”
“What? Oh, yes, Jefrey is fine,” Holmes said. “But—”
“And your daughter, Brittanie?” Qristina said.
“She is fine, Master Barak,” Holmes said. “Your man Smyth would likely know better than I, though. But none of this—”
“So, why has the Lord Chancellor of the Council come to visit today?”
He leveled a stern frown at her, but she merely sat and looked back at him, eyebrows raised slightly in question and a faint smile on her lips. In other words, a perfect look of innocence. After a moment, Holmes sighed and shook his head.
“I am actually here to speak to your father,” he said. “On Council business.”
“I’m afraid my father is rather indisposed with his work,” Qristina said. “Truthfully, much of the day to day operation of the Guild falls on my shoulders as the ranking Master Meister. You may bring your business before me.”
Holmes frowned again. “I really would rather speak with Tesma.”
“Then I can send him a note,” Qristina said. “I am sure he might manage to make time for a meeting sometime next week.”
“Next week?” Holmes nearly stood. “I am the Chancellor of the Council, young lady. He will see me at once!”
Qristina kept a patient smile. “As I said, Lord Holmes, my father is extremely busy with his work. Regardless, even if he did see you, he would likely have you talk to me anyway, as I doubt you are here to speak with him about the Secret of Copper.”
Holmes glowered at her for a moment then settled back into his chair. “Very well. I am here for answers, in particular in regards to the recent wave of revenant related crimes.”
“Crimes?” she said. “That sounds like something you should be speaking to Count Jaeger about.”
“The Council has spoken with Sunset House,” he said. “That is partly why I am here.”
“Oh, did he implicate the Guild?” She put a finger to her lip. “I wonder why he would do that. He is probably still rather sore over Lord Dunny’s law protecting the Guild.”
“Yes, a good law,” he said. “I particularly recall your speech ensuring that the Guild would never investigate or pursue the manufacture of revenants.”
She sat back in her chair and steepled her fingers. “And we indeed have not. Are you here to accuse otherwise?”
“We have reason to believe there are revenants being made in the city,” he said. “Reports seem to indicate these monsters were at one time Sentatian. One has been reported speaking with a Sentatian accent, and another was noted as having the Nautilus.”
“Is that a fact?” she said. “Well, the Guild still does have an official moratorium on revenants, but I will take care to make sure no one is breaking it. Will that be all, Lord Holmes?”
Holmes stood. “The Guild has the backing of King and Council for now, Master Barak. Be wary that you do not squander your position.”
“You don’t need to threaten us, Lord Holmes,” she said. “We are the crown’s loyal subjects, I assure you.”
Holmes nodded slowly. “Right, of course. Good day, Master Barak. If you find anything, please forward it along to me directly.”
“Not Sunset House?”
“Not Sunset House.” He let the words hang in the air for a moment, and then turned and left.
So, Jaeger was falling more out of favor. That should have delighted her; she ever so did enjoy seeing an enemy suffering. It also meant that the government of the city, and perhaps the nation, was destabilizing, which would only make her father’s goals the easier to attain. But the revenant issue was a problem. If people started to think the Guild was behind it, Sunset House and the Council would be quick to mend their differences and accept the popular scapegoat. Granted, it would hurt them more when the revenant attacks continued, but the Guild would be irreversibly damaged in the meantime. What she needed was not only a way to stop the revenant attacks, but to point the blame at someone else, preferably someone in Castle Sentat.
The novice stepped back into the office shortly after Lord Holmes left. “Master Meister? A man is here to see you. He gives his name as Lord Thames.”
Qristina did not even bother to look up from her paperwork. “Send him away. I don’t have time for any more distractions today.”
The novice nodded and left, but was back a few moments later.
“Master Meister? He is rather insistent that he see you,” he said. “He said it was about the business proposition you made to him yesterday.”
Qristina looked up. She had spoken to no Lord Thames yesterday, much less made a business proposal. But she had made such an offer to someone else.
“Send him in,” she said.
The novice bobbed his head and went back out, and a moment later Bryon Salteen walked in. He was dressed in as fancy a suit as any lord could want, with a top hat and cane besides. He sketched a bow before he sat down where a real lord had only moment ago sat.
“So kind of you fit me into your busy schedule, Qristina,” he said.
“I would have had you shown in at once if you hadn’t insisted on using a false name,” she said.
“Perhaps, but then there’d be a novice meister who might know Qristina Barak had received a known criminal in the middle of the day.” He scratched at his beard. “That kind of thing doesn’t usually go hand-in-hand with trying to clandestinely hire thieves.”
“I was also not expecting you for another day,” she said. “So, I trust you have decided to accept my offer?”
“Yes,” he said. “On one additional condition, though.”
Qristina forced herself to keep an outward calm. “And that is?”
“You help us rescue Jak from Hordin House.”
“Me?” she said.
“Well, not you yourself,” Bryon said. “But your man with the shockshield. He helped put Jak in there, and he is going to help get him back out.”
“Out of the question,” Qristina said. “I’ll not risk a secret Guild asset to save some common thief.”
Bryon raised an eyebrow. “Common thief? Well, if that is how you view it, I wish you the best of luck in hiring some other common thieves. Good day.” He started to stand.
“Wait,” she said. “When do you want to perform this little feat?”
He sat back down. “Tonight. I will not leave my man in there a day longer.”
Qristina nodded. “Admirable. I can’t say I expected such loyalty out of a thieving band. How do I know this isn’t some attempt to get revenge on my man?”
“Because I’m telling you it isn’t,” Bryon said. “Our concern is rescuing Jak.”
“That somehow doesn’t assure me,” she said.
“If this arrangement is going to work, Qristina, we are going to have to learn to trust each other.” He held up one hand. “You have to trust we aren’t out to get revenge.” He held up the other hand. “We have to trust that you won’t stab us in the back. Helping us rescue Jak will go a long ways towards that.”
She drummed her fingers on the desk. “Fine. But my man is not under your command. He will be there to help, but don’t think he’s going to do the work all by himself.”
“Fair enough,” he said.
“Also, he won’t be talking to you.”
Bryon smiled. “Why? Did he try to kiss you once and you bit his tongue out?”
“No, but when the shockshield is on, it prevents a person from talking.”
Bryon nodded slowly. In truth, it was a complete lie, but what Bryon did not know would not hurt him, and this way Qristina would not have to worry about disguising her voice. It was annoying yet convenient that she could easily be mistaken for a man in the outfit, but if she spoke, it would be a dead giveaway to who was behind the mask.
“When and where shall I have my man meet you?”
“A half mile down the road from Hordin House,” he said. “At ten sharp.”
“Very well,” she said. “He will be there. Now good day, Mr. Salteen. I have quite a bit of work to do.”
Bryon stood and bowed. “Of course.”
He let himself out, and Qristina frowned after him. She was not sure she could trust him, but she had little choice. She did not have the time to try and hire a different gang, and even if she did, they would not be as well suited to her needs. No, she would help them rescue their friend, and if they proved true to their word, she would have the tools she needed. If not, then she would simply have to kill them all.
* * *
Gavrial paced up and down the road. Trees lined both sides, and their branches formed a canopy overhead that nearly blocked out the moonlight. Nearby, Vlad was leaning against a tree, playing with a brick. Kira was about a hundred paces down the road, keeping a lookout, and Gust was doing the same in the other direction.
“Where is this bastard?” Gavrial said.
“It isn’t ten yet,” Vlad said. “Be patient.”
Gavrial scowled at the man and kept pacing. “He had better show up. If he doesn’t—”
A twig snapped in the woods, and Gavrial spun towards the sound, drawing one of his revolvers as he did. A shadow seemed to detach itself from the trees, and the meister with the shockshield walked out into the moonlight. As always, he was covered head to foot in black, even down to a helmet and facemask. At his belt were a shockrod and the shockshield itself, a small device with a knob and several small canisters coming off the top of it.
“There you are,” Gavrial said. “You’re late.”
The meister tilted his head, and in the distance, a clock tower slowly began to call the hour with ten mournful peals.
“Fine,” Gavrial said. “You’re later than I’d have preferred.”
The meister shrugged and turned to look down the road, towards Hordin House. Gavrial followed his gaze. The actual building was hidden by a bend in the road, making it look like they were just staring out into the night. Gavrial did not like it.
“Bad enough we’re going to break into an asylum,” he said. “Buy why does it have to be out in the middle of the forest?”
Vlad walked up next to him. “I’ve heard it is so the screams don’t disturb people.”
“Screams?” Gavrial said.
Vlad shrugged. “Just something I heard.”
Gavrial grunted then whistled to Kira. She whistled back, and would now be tailing behind them as they moved towards the asylum. He then gave a different whistle to Gust, letting him know to scout ahead. He turned to the meister.
“I don’t trust you,” he said. “And don’t think that shockshield of yours will keep you safe from me if I even think you are going to stab us in the back, understand?”
To emphasize his point, he pulled out the billystick he had brought along and poked the meister in the chest with it. He could feel the charge of the shockshield tingle in the air, but sure enough, it had no effect on the wooden weapon.
The meister merely looked down at the club then back at Gavrial. A tense moment passed, and Gavrial pulled the club away and slipped it through the leather loop on his belt.
“Right, let’s get moving.”
The started down the road, Gavrial leading, then the meister, then Vlad. They were not very far from Hordin House, and before long it came into sight. A tall, wrought-iron fence surrounded the grounds proper, and just inside that fence, a line of gas-fed lamps illuminated the ground in a flickering light that made it appear as if strange shadows were dancing in the night.
Some hundred feet from the fence, Hordin House itself rose up, an impressive and ominous structure comprising four stories of cold stone lines and steel-girded corners and windows. It honestly felt more like several buildings that had grown together than a singular structure. Strange, green light poured out of some of those windows, but beyond that, Gavrial did not see a single hint that anyone was in the building or about the grounds. A clock tower rose over the entire scene, its face backlit with the same green light as below, but its hands were stuck at five of midnight.
Vlad let out a low whistle. “Now there is something you don’t see everyday, not that you’d want to.”
“Can it Vlad,” Gavrial said.
“Not like anyone is here to hear me,” he said. “But, in the interest of getting close enough to someone to be heard, how exactly do you plan on getting past that fence?”
Gavrial looked up at the fence and frowned. The top was a convoluted jumble of sharp barbs and edges. A fence like that was not meant to be ornamental, but to simply keep people out. Attempting to scale it would be a dicey proposition, but Gavrial had long ago learned that the hardest way to get into someplace was through the barriers meant to stop you. A good thief knew to find a way around them instead.
He whistled to Gust again, and the man appeared from the shadows on the far side of the road and shook his head. There was no patrol on the grounds. Bryon had told him there might not be, but Gavrial found it hard to believe. Still, if Gust said there was no patrol, then that was fact enough for Gavrial.
He waved for the others, and they followed the fence where it disappeared into the tree line and away from the road. The only sound was that of their footfalls and breathing. Not a single owl or bat disturbed the night, or even a cricket for that matter. It was the kind of quiet that made everything else painfully loud. The silent meister only made it worse. There was a soft hum, and Gavrial could now seen a faint glow about the man, an iridescent blue that grew brighter around his feet as he put each step down amongst the wet leaves.
He kept an eye on Hordin House to his right and counted off the lampposts, and once they were nearly all the way behind it, he struck them out on a path deeper into the woods. Bryon’s informant had better have been telling the truth. Yes, saving Jak was worth going into the maws of Praedin himself, but if this turned out to be all in vain, then Gavrial would be extremely put out. Many people had found out that usually ended up in other people being more than put out.
He was just about to start considering if he would actually shoot the man or beat him senseless when they crested a ridge and came into a small clearing. In the middle of it, an old, stone shack stood like some relic of a long forgotten age. Ivy had overgrown it to the point of nearly making it appear as a large, strangely shaped hedge, and what stonework was visible was smooth from rain and wind yet cracked from cold and time.
Kira walked up beside him and looked down at the shack. “Seriously? And here I thought you were just trying to get us lost.”
“Perhaps he was,” Vlad said. “And he has failed in that we ended up exactly where we needed to be?”
“And where would that be?” Kira said.
Gavrial glowered at both of them and started down towards the building. “According to Bryon and whatever sources that weasel has, it’s a secret entrance to the asylum, right into the basement.”
“Blast this city,” Vlad said. “Is there nowhere that doesn’t have secret entrances? The meister’s guild, the castle, the asylum. What’s next, the Chancellor’s privy?”
The meister looked at Vlad, and Gavrial elbowed the man to shut him up. Vlad dodged away, but at least glanced at the meister and bit his lip.
“As I hear it, some of the worst cases are brought in this way,” Gavrial said. “Probably so—how did you put it?—the screams don’t bother people.”
Gavrial reached for the door and found it locked, but he hardly expected less. He pulled a crowbar out of his coat and wedged it in by the latch. He did not really care if the constables or whoever figured out how they broke into the asylum. With any luck, they would never need to get in again.
The door was stubborn, and Gavrial waved Gust and Vlad over to lend their weight. It still took several good pushes from all three of them before the sound of wood splintering filled the still night and the door swung open. Inside, a single green lamp shone with steady light at the head of a steep stairwell. A faint light marked where the stairs ended far below them, but nothing illuminated the stairs themselves.
Gavrial turned to the meister. “You first.”
The meister merely looked at him and made no move towards the steps.
“Look, if you fall, I don’t want you hitting me with that shockshield turned on. So, either you go first, or turn it off.”
The meister stood for a moment longer, then started down the stairs. Gavrial let out a silent sigh, and then started down himself. Fortunately, the faint glow from the shockshield actually lit the stairwell just enough that he was not having to completely guess at where each step was. He only hoped the others were able to see, too. If one of them fell and knocked him forward, it would be right into the meister’s back, which would be just as bad.
They reached the bottom without incident, and continued down a narrow hallway that was only occasionally lit by the steady green lights. The lights were obviously from Tesma’s lightning, but Gavrial could not for the life of him figure out why they were green. The bulbs were clear, and it was obviously the glowing wire on the inside that gave off the hue. In all honesty, it gave him a bit of a headache, but he tried to ignore it and walked on down the passage.
The tunnel felt longer than Gavrial gauged it should have been, and he half doubted they were really under Hordin House when the hall widened out into a small antechamber with a heavy steel door on the far side.
He tried the door and found it locked. “Now this I didn’t expect. Kira, can you get this open?”
Kira walked over and looked at the door. “There’s no lock. It must be barred on the inside.”
Gavrial looked around the door and realized she was right. There was a handle, but no keyhole. He looked around in wonder and noticed a small box on the far wall. When he opened it up, it was to find four turn dials and a push-button.
“What about this?”
Kira walked over and looked at it. “I don’t know. Markus never talked about anything like this. Is it even a lock?”
Gavrial rubbed a hand across his scalp and growled. “I’m not letting something as silly as a door stop us. Maybe if I shoot it, it’ll open the door.”
“Or lock it for good,” Kira said.
Vlad walked up next to Gavrial. “Looks meister built. Why not have the meister look at it?”
Gavrial almost forgot about their fifth member. He waved the meister over and pointed at the box. “You know what this is?”
The meister nodded.
“Does it open the door?”
The meister looked at it for a moment then nodded again.
“Think you can make it open the door?”
The meister stood still for a long stretch, looking at the box, and finally gestured for them all to step back. They did, but the meister was not satisfied until they were clear on the other side of the room, although he gestured for Gavrial to stand near the door.
When they were all standing where the meister wanted them, he reached down and turned the knob on his belt. Gavrial noticed a sudden difference in the air, and the faint glow around the meister disappeared. So he had to turn the shockshield off to mess with the device, and he did not want them anywhere near him. Not that it made much since. With the shockshield turned off, Gavrial could easily just shoot the meister, but perhaps the meister though he could turn the device back on faster than Gavrial could draw a gun and aim. He was almost tempted to find out.
Whatever the meister was doing, Gavrial couldn’t see, but he turned around after a moment and pointed at the door then pushed the button in the box. Gavrial heard something click, and he pulled on the door. Sure enough, it swung open.
“How about that?” Gavrial nearly laughed as he turned back towards the meister, and he noticed the feeling had returned to the air, as well as the blue glow around the man. Oh well, so much seeing who was faster.
They filed through the door and into another narrow corridor that quickly opened into a long, empty chamber at least ten yards across and at perhaps twice as long. Arches branched off of columns spread out every few yards and gave the place them a feeling of almost being in a network of tunnels instead of a single room. Against the far walls, tables were strewn with all manner of equipment, some with the appearance of being meister built, and some looking like crude tools. At several places along the floor and in the ceiling, rings were anchored to the stone, and several had chains attached.
“What kind of place is this?” Vlad said.
“One I don’t want to be in a moment longer than I have to,” Gavrial said.
“When I was growing up,” Kira said. “My nanny used to tell me about Hordin House. She said that one of the early kings of Sentat had it built as a place he could keep his enemies and torture them at will, and that they would hold rituals to Praedin in the basement.”
They walked passed a set of iron rings, and Gavrial saw a dark stain on the stones. The green light made telling what color it was impossible, but he could guess.
He started walking faster and looking for a stairwell. “Like I said, not a place I want to stay any longer than I have to.”
The stairwell was at the far end of the room through a set of thankfully unlocked double doors. It wrapped around a wide, open shaft with several chains dangling near the edges. An elevator, perhaps? From the look of it, the stairs were in the central tower. Bryon’s contact had said the offices were at the top, in the old clock tower, and likely that would be where they’d find the information on Jak. Gavrial nodded to himself and began to climb.
* * *
Qristina followed after Gavrial back down the stairs, moving as quietly as she could and keeping an eye on everything around her while also trying to keep an eye on the thieves as well. She was surprised they had not tried to shoot her while she had short-circuited the copper-lock. Perhaps it had been because they knew she was their only hope to get inside, but perhaps they were honestly trustworthy. She suspected the former over the latter. The looks Gavrial had given her seemed to say he was just looking for a reason to try his luck against her.
Still, she had to admit there was some amount of excitement to what she was doing. Running with real thieves trying to free one of their own. It had a certain romantic appeal to it, even the boring stretch of broking into the administration office and founding out which cell had their missing man in it.
And now, yet again, there was a door with a copper-lock between them and the ward. It was to be expected, perhaps. According to paperwork, the cell they were after was in the wing set aside for the “criminally insane.” Exactly how a man suffering from the effects of a shockrod qualified as criminally insane, she did not know, but perhaps they lumped insane criminals into the same group.
She gestured for the others to stand back, and Gavrial glowered at her.
“Really?” he said. “Not like there’s much room, and if I’m going to shoot you, I can do it from over there just as easily as from right here.”
She gestured again, and he huffed but moved down the hall. It was not being shot that worried her, not really. She felt reasonably sure she could turn the shockshield back on before he could draw a gun. But if he was nearby, he might be able to tear her helmet off, and then he would know who she was and she’d be defenseless besides. Well, not truly. She still had her shockrod, but the shockshield would not work without the helmet firmly in place.
Once they were far enough away, she twisted the knob and went about opening the copper-lock and shorting the circuits. It really was not hard; after all, she had created the copper-locks in the first place. To her, it was more of a novelty, and honestly far less secure than a plain key and tumbler, but the nobility was wowed by anything that ran off electricity. And thus, they replaced mechanical locks for electrical ones and became all the more dependant on her father and the millhouse.
She pressed the button, and Gavrial opened and held the door. She quickly turned her shockshield back on and walked through. Once in the hallway, she noticed an immediate change to the atmosphere. The green lamps—and she did wonder how they managed that little trick—were still the only light, but the silence was broken. Now, there was a soft but steady chaos as dozens of voices moaned or laughed or cried into the night. No single voice overpowered any of the others, and she quickly decided she preferred the silence of the central tower and the basement.
“Now that is down right disturbing,” Gavrial said.
Qristina frowned at him, not that he could see it, but also found it oddly comforting that he was put out by the sound as well. She started down the hall, and looked at the doors as she passed them. To her surprise, each door had a small card, on which the patient’s name, conditions, treatments, and attending doctors were all printed out in a neat, precise hand. Despite this, most of it might as well have been in a foreign language. She knew little and cared even less about maladies of the mind, and most of the cards’ contents were extremely technical to that end.
She only looked at the cards with passing interest, scanning the names for Jak Joraz, until another name jumped out at her. Without a thought, she turned off the shockshield and slid the metal bar tat locked the door in place to the side and pulled it open.
Gavrial was several paces behind her, back down the hall. “What the—?”
She closed the door behind her and slid her shockrod through the handle, jamming it from the inside. The cell was dark, but pale moonlight shone in through the barred window. The walls were covered in scribbled symbols, and the only furniture in the room were a sturdy wrought-iron bed with a thin mattress and a chamber pot, which from the smell had not been changed recently.
At first, she thought the room was empty, but then she caught a slight movement in the shadows of one corner, far from the light that shone in the window. She pulled her helmet off, ridding herself of the darkened lenses of the mask, and squinted into the darkness.
“Netin? Is that you?” She pitched her voice soft so even if Gavrial was listening at the door, he would not hear her. “Isam Netin?”
The shadows moved again, and a sorry excuse for a man crawled into the light. He was haggard, with a stringy beard that had not been combed, much less trimmed, in quite some time, and with a hollowed expression and vacant cast to his eyes that simple hunger did not account for.
“Are you Isam Netin?” she said. “The same Isam Netin that studied with Tesma Barak?”
The man licked his lips. “I know that face.”
She looked around the room again, and the scribbling on the walls suddenly became clear to her. She had seen their like before. They were formulas such as a meister might write, especially when hunting for an answer. Or a Secret.
“What happened?” she said. “Why are you here?”
He smiled. “Tesma? Is that you? Guess what, old boy. I found it!”
She took a step back as he crawled towards her. “Found what?”
He suddenly stood up with a strength she would not have guessed his fragile frame could contain. “The Secret! Don’t you see it! Look! Look, Praedin take you! It’s all here!” He ran over to the wall and started pointing at equations. “I can hear it, Tesma. Can’t you? Can’t you hear the Secret? He said we all could, didn’t he? Yes, he did.”
He turned around, confused. “Who? Who else? Ticho Brae, that’s who!”
She took a step back. “Ticho Brae’s been dead for over a hundred years.”
Netin laughed. “Can you not hear it? Oh, Troena above, but it is glorious. Like the singing of a choir of angels.”
She took another step back, but Netin was no longer paying attention to her. He put his finger in his mouth and bit down hard, and then started to drag his finger across the wall, writing out new equations in the fresh flowing blood.
She swallowed hard and put her helmet back on. Once it was firmly in place, she pulled the shockrod free and opened the door. She realized that she was probably lucky Gavrial had not re-thrown the exterior bolt and left her. When she opened the door, he was leaning against the other side of the hall, arms crossed.
“Well, what was that about?”
She closed and bolted the door and shook her head. Let him think what he wanted. He narrowed his eyes, but before he could say anything else, a man called out in some other language down the hallway. Was that Krellin? It suddenly occurred to her she had not heard the third man talk the entire time, and he had the look of someone from across the ocean. What was he saying?
“Well, bugger me.” Gavrial ran down the hall.
* * *
The meister bolted into a cell, and Gust suddenly felt both dread and hope. Was that it? Jak’s cell? He ran up, and dread overtook hope when Gavrial tried to follow the man into the cell and found the door barred from the inside. Gust looked at the small paper plaque on the door, and while almost none of it made sense to him, he could tell the name was not Jak’s.
In truth, he felt somewhat frustrated by not just the lack of Jak’s name, but by his not being able to understand but a few words on any of the doors. In the last three months, he had been learning far more Sentatian than he had in the years before, despite resisting it. It almost felt like learning the other language was giving up on Jak, on the last link they had.
But then, Bryon had come back and said Jak was alive. True, Gavrial had to actually tell him in the broken excuse for Krellin the man had, but he had gotten the point across. Since then, Gust had felt like a nervous wreck. How had Jak come to be in this place? How had he even survived his meeting with the same man who was now helping them rescue him? Gust did not even begin to pretend he understood why the silent meister was there, but if it saved Jak, he would accept it.
Now, they were so close, and the man had to go haring off into some other cell? Leave it to a Sentatian. They had no true understand of loyalty or friendship, in his experience. They all were just as ready to stab a person in the back as help them out. Well fine, let them. That would not stop Gust.
He continued down the hallway, looking at the nameplates while Gavrial pounded on the door a few times then gave up, crossed his arms, and leaned against the other wall. That nearly made Gust see red. Sure, he understood that Gavrial did not trust the silent meister, but neither did Gust. They did not have to wait on him, not now they were past the last of those strange locks.
Gust read a nameplate near the end of the hallway, and his heart skipped a beat. Sure enough, the strangely formed letters spelled out Jak Joraz. He called down the hallway, so excited that he forgot to try and speak in Sentatian, then threw the bolt and rushed in.
The cell was dark except for what light coming in from door and window, and the green light from the hallway seemed to avoid the moonlight. A figure was huddled up on the bed with its back to the door.
“Jak?” Gust said in Krellin. “Jak, is it really you?”
The figure did not move, and Gust felt his heart leap into his throat. He was too late. This place had killed Jak before they could save him. He rushed to the bed and turned the figure towards him.
It was Jak, but he could barely believe it. Once dark hair was now shock white, and the man looked like he had aged years in the intervening months. Gust felt a tear roll down his check, and he hugged the body, not wanting to believe what he was seeing. They were too late.
The body moved in his arms, and he lifted his head from its chest. Slowly, Jak’s eyes opened. Those eyes, once full of life and the hint of mischief, were now haunted. What had they done to him? Then another thought hit Gust.
Jak was alive. Jak was alive and looking at him.
“Jak, it’s me! Gust!”
The eyes focused in the darkness, and then they went wide in recognition. Jak swallowed hard and opened his mouth.
“G-gust? H-h-how . . . ?”
Gust felt tears on his cheeks, but he did not care. He hugged Jak back to him and kissed his forehead. “It doesn’t matter. I’m here, and I’m getting you out of here, do you understand?”
Gust looked back over his shoulder, and Gavrial, Kira, and Vlad were standing there. Gavrial was glaring down the hallway, but also seemed so hard to not be looking into the room that it was obvious he was trying to give Gust some privacy. Kira stepped in, tears in her eyes as well, and put a comforting hand on Gust’s back. He nodded, and they both took one of Jak’s arms around their shoulders and helped him up.
“Don’t worry,” Gust said. “We’re taking you home, Jak. You hear me? Home.”
Jak had tears in his eyes now, and he turned his head slightly to look at Gust. “Y-yes . . . Home.”
* * *
Gavrial rushed down and stopped in the open doorway. Gust was inside, muttering in Krellin and hugging a haggard shape that, after a moment, Gavrial realized was Jak. Kira and Vlad rushed up a moment later and kept their distance, too. The meister, though, stayed down by the door he had rushed into. What was all that about, anyway? He wondered if he could get away with beating the man senseless with his billyclub. They had found Jak, so it was not like they needed him anymore. Likely, Bryon would get rather cross about it, though. That reason alone stopped Gavrial, but only barely.
Kira walked into the cell, and a moment later she and Gust were carrying Jak out. Gavrial nodded and muttered something so incomprehensible he was not even quite sure of what he said himself. He was not good at these kinds of things, though, so he left it at that and started to lead them on their way out.
As he passed the meister, the man fell in step just behind Gavrial, and he felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. Yeah, the bastard had his shockshield on. Of course he did.
They made it back to the clearing without incident, and Gavrial had to wonder why they had not seen any guards. It just did not seem right. This place was some kind of prison, right? Well, a prison for crazies. Maybe the people who ran it were crazy too. Troena only knew, but he decided not to question their luck. In the clearing, he gestured for the others to move on, then turned to the meister once they were out of earshot.
“So, I guess we proved we can work together,” he said. “Just remember, in our world, that means exactly that. I still don’t trust you, and I’m not going to forget all the trouble you’ve caused us. Understand?”
The meister nodded then took several steps backwards before turning around and disappearing into the shadows. Gavrial watched the man leave. He then turned around and followed his own people. He stopped at the crest of the hill and looked back down.
“Feh, good riddance.” He spat then ran to catch up with the others.
* * *
Markus moved over to the curtain they had hung up over the mirror and pushed it aside. He regarded his reflection for a moment, then nodded and went back to sitting on the table. Ginken had only been gone perhaps an hour, but Markus had known his answer soon as the man left. Well, perhaps not quite that quickly, but definitely when he had opened the case. Now he just had to hope he could trust them.
Still, he had waited the hour since Ginken had been so insistent on him appearing to take the time to think. And in truth, he did think about the offer. He wondered that they took the time to tailor the clever set of latched and buttons that would allow him to wear his steam reservoir over the coat. He also wondered exactly how much research Ginken had done, what contacts the man must have inside the government, to be able to not only know Markus’s rank, but what medals and ribbons to put on the uniform coat. Those were somewhat telling, at least, as they were his official awards, detailing a military career as false as any fairytale.
He would have knocked on the door to tell them he was ready, but his steam reservoir had not been in the case along with the uniform, so he was still tethered to the strange hose coming from the ceiling that kept him at just arm’s reach from the door. He was fairly sure the mirror was one-way, though, and likely someone was in there, just in case. Sure enough, not ten minutes later, Mikhail Ginken walked through the door.
He looked at Markus with a bit of a frown. “That was quick.”
“I have made my decision,” Markus said.
Mikhail nodded slowly. “Are you sure?”
Markus stood and straightened the uniform jacket. “You are correct, Mr. Ginken. My life is that of a soldier, and a soldier without a purpose is nothing better than a thug. I am yours.” He saluted.
Mikhail smiled and nodded again. “Welcome to our cause, Sergeant McGrigor. Welcome.”