The morning sun played across the sea. From her seat next to the window, Ryla stared uneasily at the view she’d watched thousands of times before. The Winter Apple was very nearly deserted, and it was no surprise. Many had fled Dellastern already, hoping to escape the undead scourge that now threatened it’s gates. The docks were very near chaos, by tonight they’d devolve into all out warfare as those still in the city sought escape. The Temple Rose waited, guards wary and impatient. Still, she knew it would not leave until she was aboard. Her gaze returned to the horizon. Before the sun set again she would be sailing past that horizon. She’d never been farther away from this cesspit she called home. What would life be like as a refugee in a new, alien continent. It was a blessing that she’d spent her life hiding the terror she felt, or she’d have shaken the ale right out of her glass.
Heavy boots trod in and up to her table, she recognized his gait before she saw him. He downed half of his mug of beer before he acknowledged her. Had it been anyone else, Ryla would have found the gesture insulting. It was hard to feel offended, though, when a person drags himself from the front lines of a bloody battle to meet you for drinks. He looked like he’d aged a decade, his normally impeccable calm shattered. He was dirty and unkempt, but it was the slump of his shoulders, a vaguely haunted look to him that made Ryla shift uncomfortably in her seat. When he finally did speak, his voice still held the authoritative grumble she had always found comforting, but there was an icy edge to it. She reminded herself that he was her friend, she had nothing to fear from him—no matter how many men he’d killed. “You shouldn’t be here.”
She forced herself to meet his eyes. “And you should be fleeing the city with me. But it appears we’re both too stubborn for our own good.
“Sure, sure. What’s with the muscle?”
She shrugged, dismissing the thugs behind her without a glance. “Dangerous times. A girl can’t be too careful. I believe it was your turn.”
He laughed. “One of these days you’re going to have to outgrow these games,” but he turned his attention to the chess board she’d set between them. He moved his rook quickly, then leaned back tiredly and examined his opponent. “Martin’s dead.”
Ryla started. “I thought he’d outlive us all. I’m sorry.”
“No one lives forever. He saved my life, the big idiot.” Then he added with an uncharacteristically roguish grin, “I suspect I’ll be seeing him soon enough.”
“You’re an idiot too.” She dropped her gaze, pretending to be examining her predicament on the board. “Is there anything I can do? Anyone I can find?”
He shook his head. “I told you last time, there isn’t anyone. All my friends are out there dying right along with me.” He didn’t seem bothered by the thought. “Or leaving.”While she was ignoring that, he took another long drink and pulled at his leather armor like it was too tight. He lived in armor and she’d never once seen him look uncomfortable. “Is it bizarrely hot in here, or is it just me?”
She smiled sweetly. “It is a bit.” She picked up his king and turned it slowly in her hand. “You really think dying out there is going to make a damn bit of difference?”
“My men . . . “ he began, his throat had become scratchy, his voice hoarse.
“ . . . Aren’t out there because of you. They have their own reasons, or they wouldn’t stay. The undead and the penitent are going to roll through this city like a storm, sweeping away any poor fool in their way.”
Speeches made him suspicious, but he was beyond the point where he’d be able to do anything about it and Ryla knew it. Perhaps she’d hoped to explain herself, but he simply stared daggers at her. People had stared daggers at her before, but there was something coldly murderous in his manner that made her stop philosophizing.
She smiled again, but it was tight and self conscious. She placed his piece back on the board. “Checkmate.”
His face twisted in anger and understanding as her eyes flicked to his glass. Then, they rolled up and he slumped onto the table, then fell to the floor. She knelt next to him, making sure he was breathing evenly. Then picked up his king again and pocketed it before motioning for the two goons to lift him.
Duncan became slowly aware that the floor was moving. Alone, the sensation would have been odd. With the demonic gala rolling around in his stomach it was a new level of torment. Half awake, he rolled over and was sick. “Flea-bitten Hells!” A young woman exclaimed.
Opening his eyes, he saw Ryla, just out of range of the mess. She looked at him and grinned despite his sickness. She offered him a mug of something brackish that also smelled like vomit. When he turned his nose up at she admonished him with a bizarrely maternal look. “It’ll help you feel human again.”
He propped himself up and drank it as quickly as he could. “It isn’t working.”
She handed him a water skin to wash it down. “You have to give it a minute.”
She went about cleaning the floor next to him while his mind caught up to his body. It was slow going, but eventually he did start to feel less terrible. He grabbed her arm, realization finally dawning on him. “We’re on a ship.”
His grip tighten as he followed the line of logic. “You drugged me. . .”
“ . . . and kidnapped me.”
“Well, strong men have been kidnapping young women for centuries. A little turn about is fair play.”
When he failed to let go of her am she pried his hand off one finger at a time and sat down next to him, trying to look innocent. “I’m fairly sure I was saving your life.”
“Yes, and how exactly did you go about that?”
She shrugged. “I had my cohorts carry you to the ship. I told the captain you were my father. That you were in your cups again.”
“Why?” he growled.
“I need you.”
“Just a wealth of conversation aren’t we?” When he responded with a glare she continued. “The new world’s dangerous. I need someone with martial skills to make sure I stay in one piece.”
“So, you just plucked on off the street.” His voice pitched oddly. She’d heard him angry, but there was a note of disbelief that was new.
“Again—’saved one’s life’ would be more accurate.” He didn’t wait for her explanation, he’d already stood up and began pacing.
“Who the hell do you think you are? You can’t just haul a man off to a different continent and expect him to be your faithful servant.”
“Who said anything about a servant? I just said I needed help.”
“And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it: what you need.”
Ryla’s jaw clenched, when she spoke it was icey. “Exactly. I guess you’ve finally figured me out.”
He grabbed her bag and tossed it to her. “Go. I never want to see you again.”
“That’s going to be a bit difficult.” She sidled past him, calmer than she felt. “We’re on a ship. Idiot.”
There was a soft glow on the horizon, or maybe he was just imagining it. The ship had a subdued happiness to it. It was the quiet celebration of survivors who had a very long way yet to go. But Duncan couldn’t tear his eyes away from the glow. He couldn’t make himself stop seeing the dead, walking or otherwise. In his mind he walked Dellastern’s streets, played witness to the blood and the carnage that must have been happening that very second. Silently killing and rekilling all of the poor souls he’d left behind. Even he admitted it to himself it was a bit morbid, but after a lifetime as a mercenary his imagination had plenty to work with.
Then there was a man standing next to him, handing him a drink, which he begrudgingly accepted. “You must be Ryla’s dad,” said the newcomer.
Duncan snorted in disgust. “Must I?”
The stranger had the nerve to laugh. “Nah, I know she’s an orphan. Hell, everybody who knows her knows she’s an orphan. Not shy that one.”
“Apparently the captain didn’t know.”
“Or he didn’t care. She has a way of ingratiating herself, after all.”
Duncan growled deep in his throat, but the other man didn’t seem to find his bad temper intimidating. In fact, he seemed to find it rather amusing. “She’s got rotten luck though. . .Saving the only man in Aldoria who apparently hates her for it.”
The two stood in silence for several moments. Duncan stood stock still in anger, the other man proving to be surprising patient for a nuisance. Finally, Duncan caved. “I don’t hate her because she saved my life. I just . . .” The glow was still there, the only funeral pyre for an entire city. “Thousands of innocent women and children are dying, have died, and she manages to drag one stupid old man out of it. And not because I’m her friend, because I can be of use to her.”
“Did she say that?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but yes. She said she needed someone to help her in Mardrun.”
The sailor shook his head like there was a particularly funny joke in that. “Well, pride makes us all do stupid things sometimes. I guess I can see your point. All her hard won connections and she rescues one person. And she chooses you. Then has the nerve to ask you for help. I’d be pissed too.”
Duncan downed the rest of his drink, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “You’re right. People do what they have to do to survive. Far be it for me to expect anything more from her.”
He went to leave, but the sailor grabbed him by the shoulder and turned him round to face the ship. He pointed to a family huddled round their dinner. “He’s a butcher. Months ago his son got sick, took all the money they had to treat him. They had nothing when they received word that the undead were headed for the city.” He pointed to another woman, very obviously pregnant, being sick over the side. “She’s a whore. Or was. She’s got a few gold in her pocket, a place on this ship, a home and job all lined up in the new world. A new life for her and her child, assuming it makes the crossing.
“There’s a young man downstairs who escaped a rather unpleasant life under the thumb of a particularly pernicious crime lord by boarding this ship. And a few dozen more stories just like that.”
“Great. There is good in the world. Hurray.” Duncan countered wearily.
The sailor rolled his eyes and leaned on the rail casually. “Why’s she only got one bag?”
“Why’s Ryla only got one bag with her? Light as air, so you know it isn’t stuffed with gold. She wasn’t poor, made a pretty good living for herself back in the city. She knew she was leaving. She even had time to plan your kidnapping and crossing. You’ve no doubt noticed she brought things aboard for you. So, where’s her wealth? Figured the undead could use it more, I suppose?”
Duncan took a moment. He looked, for the first time, at the faces of the people on the ship. Before him lay a vessel full of living, breathing people who had escaped Aldoria. “I don’t suppose you let these people cross out of the goodness of your heart, did you?”
The Captain grinned back. “Me? Gods no, I’m a businessman.”
Ryla’d been making the rounds, seeing to old friends and making new ones. No one had disturbed her bag. Duncan wondered if it was because they respected it’s owner, or because everyone knew there was nothing of value to take. He’d been expecting her to look a bit happier when she saw him, but her frown turned bitter.
“Where’d you get that?” She motioned to the chess board he’d set up on the floor. He picked up one of the pieces that had fallen over, chessboards and ships apparently didn’t mix. He gave her his best impression of a sheepish smile. “The captain lent it to me. Nice guy.”
She eyed him in obvious distrust, but took a seat across the board from him on the floor. “Yes, indeed. And disturbingly prone to sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong. Thinks he’s clever.”
“Says a benefactor filled his ship nearly to bursting with downtrodden unfortunates heading to Mardrun. That she went broke doing it, but that she saved all of their lives.” When Ryla remained still and silent, he continued. “He says she has nothing. That she won’t last the winter without help.”
Looking bored, Ryla asked, “So?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you let me act like such an ass?”
“One, I don’t have the time or energy to control your ass-headed tendencies. Two, and more importantly, I don’t have to justify myself to you.”
“But you could have mentioned it.”
“Yes, I could have. Then what? You’d forgive me and spend the rest of your life lauding my goodness? I got that money from a decade of being a selfish little monster, I still am, and I always will be. If that’s going to be a problem for you, then we should go our separate ways.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll never think well of you again.”
She sighed in frustration. “Think well of me, think ill of me, fine. I’ve probably earned both. But I thought we were friends, and not just when it suited you.”
“Thank the gods I never had a daughter. Do women ever just accept an apology?” She arched an eyebrow, unable to keep from smiling.
“Oh. Damnation . . . I’m sorry.”
“Apology accept. Also, checkmate. And I mean the game, this time.”