The Waking Fire – Sample

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The Waking Fire is the first volume in my new series, The Draconis Memoria, due for US and UK release in July 2016. The sample below forms the second chapter to the book.

Chapter 2 – Clay

Cralmoor’s fist slammed into Clay’s side with enough force to make him stagger, grunting in frustration as the bigger man dodged his sluggish counter-jab and delivered a straight-line kick at his chest. Clay managed to block the kick with crossed forearms but the force of it sent him backpedaling into the crowd. For a few moments the world became a jostling fury of jeers, insults, booze-laden spit and more than a few punches. He had to fight his way clear, fists and elbows snapping aside the drunken faces before he made it back into the chalk-ringed circle where Cralmoor waited. The Islander stood with his hands on his hips, tattoo-covered chest barely swelling and bright wall of teeth revealed by a knowing grin. Street-scrapper don’t make a fighter, lad, the grin said. Swimming in deep waters now.

Clay kept his own answering grin from his lips, worried it might reveal a suspicious confidence, and launched into a series of well-practised moves. Tratter called it the Markeva Combination, a sequence of kicks and punches laid down by the ancient and most celebrated practitioner of the Dalcian martial arts. It had taken a month to learn the sequence, Clay sweating through the moves under Tratter’s expert and unforgiving eye until he pronounced him as ready as he would ever be. “Do it right, y’might actually come outta this with some credit,” the old trainer had said with an approving wink.

“I’m paying you to help me win this thing,” Clay had replied. The memory of the old man’s prolonged laughter came back to him now as Cralmoor blocked every blow with fluid ease and delivered a short jab to Clay’s right eye whereupon he blinked a few times before falling over. He was dimly aware of the bell sounding just before he hit the floor, and the feel of Derk’s arms clamped across his chest as he was dragged to the stool, bare heels scraping sand from the floor. He returned to full awareness when Derk emptied half the water-bucket over his head.

“I believe we have arrived at the appropriate moment,” Derk said, reaching into the bag holding their two canteens, one with a plain cap, the other marked with a scratched cross.

Clay shook his head, liquid flying from his shaved scalp. “One more round.”

“You don’t have another round in you.”

“Too soon,” Clay insisted, wincing as Derk pressed a cloth against the open cut below his eye. “Only the third bell. Keyvine’ll know. Shit, Keyvine’s mother would know.”

He saw Derk’s involuntary glance at the raised platform at the rear of the cavernous drinking den. It was Fight Night every Venasday in the Colonials Rest and its owner never missed a bout. Keyvine sat alone on the platform, a small lamp and a bottle of wine on the table at his side. A slim, unmoving silhouette lit only by the gleam of the silver drake’s head that topped the cane resting on his knees. Not a guard nor a weapon within arm’s reach, Clay thought, a long-gestated jealousy building inside. But still the King of Blades and Whores.

The jealousy proved useful, stoking his anger and muting his pain. He gulped water from the white-capped bottle and got to his feet a good few beats before the bell sounded. Fuck Markeva, he thought, raising his fists as Cralmoor strolled towards him. And fuck Tratter too.

There were rules to this game, no biting, gouging or ball-stomping, but otherwise the participants were free to inflict whatever carnage they could on one another without benefit of weapons. However, Clay had always had a facility for turning words into weapons and knew how deeply they could cut, or at least distract.

“I get a go on your wife when I win, right?” he asked Cralmoor in a conversational tone, dodging another jab at his eye by the barest inch. “Or is it your husband?”

“Got both,” the Islander replied in a cheerful tone, blocking a left hook and delivering another painful dig into Clay’s ribs. “Doubt you could take either.” He stepped outside the arc of Clay’s upper-cut and slapped the arm aside before lashing out with another kick, a round-house to the head, blocked more through luck than design. “No offence.”

“Right, I forgot,” Clay said in mock realisation, delivering another fruitless three-punch combination at Cralmoor’s head. “Your spirits make you stick your cock in anything with a pulse.” He grinned at the sudden darkness to the Islander’s expression. Mention of the spirits from a non-believing mouth was always certain to rile them up something fierce.

“Careful, boy,” Cralmoor warned, his stance becoming tighter, gaze more focused. “Been easy on you so far. Mr. Keyvine owes a debt to Braddon.”

Clay’s own temper began to quicken, an inevitable reaction to hearing mention of his uncle. “Yeah? The spirits make you bare your ass to him too . . . ?”

Cralmoor crouched and charged, too fast to dodge, driving his shoulder into Clay’s midriff as his arms reached around to vice him around the waist. Clay hammered at the bigger man’s head and back in the brief few seconds before he was lifted off his feet and borne to the floor. All the wind came out of him as the Islander’s crushing weight bore down, his forehead slamming once into Clay’s nose before he drew back, rearing up with fists raised to pummel, apparently oblivious to his mistake.

This was what Clay knew, not the ring or the long-practised moves. This was now a gutter fight, and who knew the gutter better than he?

He twisted beneath the Islander, swinging his right leg around to hook Cralmoor under the left armpit, jerking with enough force to push him onto his side. Clay moved with a feral speed, scrambling atop Cralmoor and slapping an open hand against his ear, a blow he knew always worked well as a stunner. Cralmoor gave an involuntary shout, eyes bunching as he fought the sudden blast of pain in his ear, buying the two seconds needed for Clay to pin him, both knees on his shoulders. His punches rained down in a frenzy, leather-bound knuckles flaring with agony as the Islander’s head jerked under the impact, a cheek-bone giving way with a loud crack.

Clay left off when his arms started to ache, clamping a hand under Cralmoor’s chin and drawing back for a final blow. Who needs the other canteen . . .

Cralmoor’s kick slammed into the back of his head, birthing a sudden blaze of sparkling stars. By the time they faded he was on his back once more, the Islander’s knee pressing on his neck as he stared down with a grim and murderous glint in his eye. When the bell sounded he kept on, bearing down with greater force. He left off only when another sound cut through the din: a thin rhythmic tinkle of metal on glass.

Clay rasped air into his lungs as Cralmoor rose from him, turning to Keyvine’s shadowed platform. The King of Blades and Whores was tapping the silver drake’s head of his cane against his wine bottle with a steady but insistent cadence. Cralmoor took a deep breath and gave Clay a final glance, bloody and distorted face full of dire promise, before stalking back to his stool. The tapping ceased when he sat down.

Derk was obliged to half carry Clay to his own stool and hold him upright as he put the canteen to his lips, the one with the cross scratched onto the cap. “Now?” he asked with a half-grin. Clay grabbed the canteen with both hands and gulped down the contents. The product was heavily and inexpertly diluted but still left a tell-tale burn on his tongue followed by the buzzing sensation that accompanied the ingestion of Black, like hornets crafting a hive in his chest.

Although all Blood-blessed could make use of the gifts resulting from ingestion of the four different colours of product, their proficiency with each varied considerably. Most were best suited to Green, the enhanced strength and speed it afforded making them highly prized as elite labourers or stevedores. Some excelled with Red, usually finding lucrative employment in the engine rooms of select corporate ships as the flames they conjured ignited the product in their blood-burning engines. A few were sufficiently skilled in the mysteries of the Blue-trance to earn lifetime contracts in company headquarters, conveying messages all over the world in minutes rather than months. But fewer still shared Clay’s aptitude for harnessing the power afforded by the Black, the ability the ever-superstitious Dalcians referred to as “the unseen hand.” It remained a singularly frustrating gift since Black was by far the most expensive colour and not easily sourced for a man of his station, if indeed he could be said to hold any station. The canteen had been laced with barely a thimbleful, and that the result of two full months thieving profits. Watching Cralmoor prowling the edge of the circle, gaze bright with lethal intent and muscles at full flex, Clay wondered for the first time if it would be enough.

Cralmoor came on at the first peal of the bell, the crowd’s baying roused to an even greater pitch by the prospect of death, a rare but appreciated treat for those who flocked to these unsanctioned fights. Clay covered up, letting the first blow land and using a fraction of the Black to soften it, stopping the fist just as it made contact with his flesh. He gave a convincing yell of pain and spun away, Cralmoor’s second blow whispering past his ear. The Islander growled in fury and dropped into another charge, Clay allowing him to connect but deflecting enough force to keep them both upright. They grappled, spinning like crazed dancers about the ring, Cralmoor cursing him all the while in some tribal Island tongue. He drove repeated blows into Clay’s gut, the Black diminishing with every blow. A few more moments and it would all be gone.

Clay broke the clinch, drawing back and feinting at Cralmoor’s head with a straight left, ducking under the counter and fixing his gaze on the Islander’s right foot. It was only a nudge, easily mistaken for a slip, but just enough to destroy his balance and drop his guard for the briefest instant. Clay put all the remaining Black into the blow, focusing on the point where his fist met Cralmoor’s jaw, feeling it shatter as flesh met flesh. The Islander spun, mouth spraying blood across the crowd. They fell into rigid silence as he staggered, eyes unfocused and steps faltering but still somehow upright.

“Shit,” Clay muttered before leaping onto Cralmoor’s back and wrapping his legs about his torso. The weight was enough to finally bring him down though he continued to struggle, elbows flailing and head jerking as his fighter’s instinct sought to continue the battle. It took a while, maybe three full minutes of punching and slamming his head into the boards, but finally Lemul Cralmoor, Champion of the Chalk Ring and most feared prize-fighter in Carvenport, lay unconscious on the floor of the Colonials Rest. The crowd booed themselves hoarse.

* * *

“Three thousand, six hundred and eighty-two in Ironship scrip,” Derk said, rolling the bundle of notes into a neat cylinder. “Plus another four hundred in exchange notes and sundry valuables.”

Clay grinned then hissed as Joya pushed the needle into the edge of his cut once more. “And the price for three tickets to Feros?” he asked.

“Fifteen hundred. A price arrived at through extensive negotiation, I assure you.” Derk leaned back from the cash-laden table, finely sculpted face more reflective than joyful. “We did it. After all these years of toil we’re finally on our way.”

“I’ll believe that when we step onto the Feros docks,” Joya said, snipping off the suture and wiping the crusted blood from Clay’s face. “And not before.”

She held out a cup as he sat up on the bed. “Green?” he asked, sniffing the faintly acidic contents.

“Six drops. All we have left.”

He shook his head and put the cup aside. “Best save it.”

“You need to heal.”

“I’m not so bad,” he groaned, rising from the bed and feeling every one of Cralmoor’s punches. “You said it yourself, we’re not clear yet. Find ourselves in a tight spot twixt here and the docks we’ll be happy for a few drops of Green.”

“I could venture forth and buy us some,” Derk offered. “Half a dozen dealers within a stone’s throw.”

“No.” Clay moved to the window. It was firmly boarded to conceal the glow of their lamp but Derk had drilled a small peep-hole as a sensible precaution. Clay peered down at the maze of alley and street below, seeing and hearing nothing of note. The Blinds were as they should be in the small hours, caught in the brief truce before the dock-side horns started pealing and the daily war began in earnest. Whores, thieves, dealers, card-sharps and a dozen other ancient professions all rousing themselves from the previous night’s indulgence to do it all over again, wondering, or perhaps hoping, today would see their final battle.

“No,” he told Derk again. “We’re invisible for the next two days. Give Keyvine any reminders we exist and maybe that sharp mind of his starts to pondering. And that ain’t good for us.”

They had hidden themselves in the steeple of the old Seer’s Church on Spigotter’s Row. It was their best-kept secret and most-cherished hideout, to be used only in emergencies. The place had a clutch of lurid stories attached to it, most concerning the ghost of the Pale-Eyed Preacher said to haunt the place. Century-old legend had the Preacher murdering a dozen or so whores down in the basement. He’d cut them up to make dolls of their corpses, his reasons still mysterious and the subject of myriad perverted theories. Clay had his doubts the Preacher had ever really existed but some of the older Blinds-folk still swore to the truth of the whole thing. In any case, a long-standing ghost story proved a useful device for keeping unwanted visitors at bay, even the most desperate gutter-sleeping drunk wouldn’t go near the church. The stairs were seemingly half-rotted but Clay and Derk had done some repairs over the years, nothing that would show but adding sufficient fortitude to enable a speedy climb to the top, provided you knew where to place your feet. They kept the steeple stocked with a small amount of scrip and sundry supplies, but otherwise stayed away so as not to become overly associated with the place. As for the Pale-Eyed Preacher, Clay had never seen hide nor hair of the crazy old bastard.

“You got a ship all picked out for us?” Joya asked Derk, slim fingers playing over the coins on the table. Clay had noticed before how her hands got restless when she was nervous.

“Indeed I do, darling sis,” her brother replied, consigning their winnings to a nondescript satchel, padded so it wouldn’t jingle. “The ECT Endeavour sails in two days.”

“An Eastern Conglom ship?” Clay asked, not turning from the window.

“Thought it best to steer clear of Ironship vessels. Too well-regulated for our purposes, don’t you think?”

“Not a blood-burner then?” Joya enquired, a little disappointed. Clay knew that travelling the ocean on a Red-fuelled ship had been her ambition since childhood, one they shared along with getting as far gone from this shit-pit as possible.

“Sadly no,” Derk replied. “We’ll have to accustom ourselves to the aroma of coal smoke. Still, she’s fleet enough. Six weeks to Feros with fair weather, according to the bosun. A fine and pragmatic fellow who will see us to a suitably secluded berth for due consideration.”

“You mean we have to stay belowdecks the whole way?” she said. “Thought I’d at least get to see some of the Isles.”

“Be plenty to see in Feros,” Clay told her. He was about to move from the peep-hole when something caught his eye in the street below, a shadow cast by the two moons. It moved with caution, as did most who ventured forth in the Blinds after dark, but had a mite too much girth for real stealth. Clay kept his gaze fixed on the street as he held up a hand to Derk, palm out and fingers spread. There was a scrape of chairs and shifted brick before Derk joined him at the window, handing him one of the two aged but serviceable revolvers from the cache in the wall.

“How many?” he whispered.

“Just the one, and I think I recognise the bulk.” He watched the shadow emerge from the corner of Spigotter’s and Lacemaid, a pale round face revealed clearly in the moonlight. “Speeler, all alone.”

“What could cause him to risk the streets at such an hour with no protection?” Derk wondered softly. “Uncharacteristic, wouldn’t you say?”

Clay kept his gaze focused on Speeler’s flabby face, seeing a certain desperate tension to it as he stared up at the steeple. “Either of you tell him about this place?” Clay asked.

“Didn’t even tell Joya about it until yesterday,” Derk said as his sister murmured a faint negative. “Speeler’s a resourceful fellow, though. I dare say discovering our little hidey-hole is well within his capabilities.”

Clay watched Speeler hesitate for a second then start towards the church in a determined waddle. “Seems intent on making a house call, anyways.” He moved towards the staircase then paused to regard the cup of Green next to the bed, his many aches now flaring due to an increase in heart rate. No use drawing a fire-arm if you can’t hold it steady, he thought, downing the mixture of water and Green in a single gulp. The reaction was instantaneous, a fiery warmth in the belly that spread out to the extremities, banishing all aches in the process. For Blessed and non-Blessed alike Green was the greatest tonic and curative, but only the Blessed enjoyed the enhancing effects it gave to the body. His vision grew sharper as he approached the stairs, hearing more acute and body seeming to thrum with added strength.

“Keep back,” he told Derk. “Best if he only gets eyes on one of us.”

He stepped out onto the upper landing, keeping close to the wall and peering cautiously down. Speeler stood framed by the ragged square of the descending staircase, gazing up with the same desperate entreaty on his face. The greeting he offered carried to the top of the steeple, urgency and reluctance audible in the rasp of it. “Clay, need words.”

Clay said nothing, moving with revolver in hand as he climbed down to the halfway point where the stairs apparently disappeared. In fact he and Derk had crafted a hidden step into the wall which could be slid out when necessary. He rested his arms on the worm-rotted banister, pistol dangling as he stared down at Speeler. He could see no obvious threat, the man’s hands were empty though Clay knew he carried a small but deadly two-shot pistol in one of the numerous pockets of his heavy green-leather overcoat. Clay would have preferred to let the silence string out, forcing Speeler to spill his purpose in discomfort, but the effects of the Green were temporary. If he needed to act he would have to find out quickly.

“Don’t remember issuing no invites, Speeler,” he said.

“And I apologise for the intrusion.” A brief flash of yellowed teeth revealed by a nervous smile. Despite the gloom Clay could see the sweat gleaming on Speeler’s brow.

“So throw down your scrip,” Clay told him with an impatient flick of the revolver. He had known Speeler since childhood, an older boy who lived outside their pack but could be relied on to move their more expensive loot and supply the occasional drop or two of product. It had been Speeler who sold him the thimbleful of Black, asking no questions as was customary though it was safe odds he had guessed the purpose. And now here he was, somewhere he shouldn’t be and more scared than Clay could remember seeing him.

“Come to cash in my scrip, in fact, Clay,” Speeler said. “There’s a debt twixt us. Need you to settle it, tonight.”

That he owed Speeler was true enough. It had been an ugly set-to with a dock-side crew a couple of years previously. They were all Dalcians, sailors kicked off their ships for sundry violations of company law and left with no means of living besides thievery. Desperation, combined with a tradition that prized male aggression above all things, made confrontation with more established crews inevitable. They had ambushed Clay and Derk when they were concluding a deal with Speeler amidst the convoluted mass of chimney and tile where the Blinds bordered Artisan’s Row. The fat man had only two minders with him and the Dalcians numbered ten, leaping across the roof-tops with all the surety and speed of men accustomed to high places. It could have gone badly but, for all their athleticism and skill with a cleaver, the Dalcians enjoyed no immunity to bullets. Clay and Derk shot down two and Speeler’s minders another three. All but one had fled, the biggest and therefore probably the leader, coming on with all speed despite the blood flowing from the wound in his gut. Clay had put his last round in the Dalcian as he got within ten feet but it barely slowed him, leaping high with his cleaver poised for a skull-splitting blow, then falling dead when Speeler put two shots clean through his head.

“Tonight’s inconvenient,” Clay said, disliking the necessity for reluctance. In a society such as theirs an unsettled debt was a considerable burden to carry, even for a man due to make his way across the ocean in two days.

“Don’t get done tonight then I will,” Speeler replied. “Shipment of Green and Red coming in. Corvantine stock, hence the need for discretion and protection. Gave a commitment to the sellers, but I’m a day late in assembling the necessary funds and they ain’t the most understanding folk.”

Corvantine stock, Clay mused. Which means pirates. No wonder he’s nervous. “Where’s your regular boys?” he asked.

“They’ll be there, but given the awkwardness of the situation thought I might need a little extra insurance.” He reached into his overcoat, keeping his movements slow, and extracted a single glass vial. “Green.” He made an expert underarm throw, Clay catching the vial as it came level with his chest. He removed the vial’s stopper for a sniff, nostrils flaring at the sharpness of the scent. This was the best stuff he’d smelled in a long time.

“It’s potent,” Speeler warned. “Low dilution. Might want to hold off awhile, wait till you need it. Thought maybe you could keep over-watch. Things go bad you drink this and get me clear.”

“How much we talking?”

“Ten casks of Green, three Red.”

“My share?”

“Five percent. Once it’s all sold on, o’ course.”

“Ten. And I’ll take it in product, equal parts Green and Red.”

“You owe me, Clay,” Speeler grated, genuine anger momentarily overriding his fear.

“If I didn’t I’d already have said no. You threw down your scrip, now here’s mine. Pick it up or be on your way.”

He held out the vial, ready to drop it, watching Speeler wrestle with the dilemma, his hands fidgeting and balding pate shinier than ever. Whoever these pirates are, they got him scared enough to forego some profit. The notion set him to wondering if he shouldn’t raise his percentage to fifteen when Speeler huffed a groan and nodded.

“Bewler’s Wharf,” he said. “Two hours.”

“I’ll be there.”

Clay turned to ascend the stairs, pausing when Speeler said something else, soft but sincere. “Wouldn’t have come lest my life was in the balance. You know that right?”

“Surely do,” Clay assured him with a small grin before pocketing the vial and turning back to the stairs.

* * *

Bewler’s Wharf lay at the western extremity of the docks, a run-down and best-avoided stretch of quay afforded a faint sheen of respectability by the occasional berthing of an Alebond Commodities ship. However, by far the majority of vessels to call here were Independents, freelance Blue-hunters or tramp coal-burners for the most part and, every once in a while, a sleek but otherwise nondescript freighter of Corvantine design. Clay had seen her before, each time flying a different company flag and sporting a different name on her hull. But, like most in his profession Clay knew her true name well enough: Windqueen. Legend had it she had been the pride of the Corvantine Imperial Merchant Service before falling afoul of pirates in the seas off Varestia, a region known as the Red Tides since the empire lost control of the peninsular nearly a century ago. What passed for government in Varestia had little inclination to strict observance of Company Law, meaning most pirate ships could come and go as they pleased and their crews were often drawn from the peninsular, olive-skinned folk of notoriously taciturn but quick-tempered nature.

Clay sat atop the roof of the Mariner’s Rest, a tall if poorly maintained inn providing a clear view of the wharf, particularly the twenty square yards of cobbled quayside where business of this nature would most likely be conducted. The pirates were already in attendance, a half-dozen men and three women in seafarer’s garb of dark cotton and sturdy boots. They were lined up in front of a tarp-covered wagon and Clay judged them a professional bunch from their spacing and the men on each flank sporting repeating carbines. The others all stood in silent vigilance, bristling with pistols and blades of varying sizes. He assumed the woman standing in the centre of their line to be the captain, or at least a senior mate trusted to conclude this transaction. She wasn’t overly tall or physically imposing but had the quiet air of authority that came from command, her confidence no doubt enhanced by the brace of throwing knives about her waist and the shotgun strapped across her back.

He had come alone despite Derk’s protestations. “Are we not partners?” he had asked, his hurt tone only half-faked.

“Speeler’s too scared for my liking,” Clay said, pulling his pistol’s holster over his shoulder and strapping it tight. “I may need to run, which case you won’t be able to keep up. ’Sides”—he nodded at the bag containing their loot before casting a meaningful glance at Joya—“someone’s gotta watch our valuables.”

“If he’s so scared you shouldn’t go,” Joya said. “Doesn’t smell right, Clay.”

“It’s the Blinds,” he said. “Nothing smells right. Things’ll smell sweeter in Feros, especially with a stash of quality product to sell.”

He had chosen a circuitous path, around the main Protectorate patrol routes and clear of the more territorial packs. On reaching the roof-top of the Mariner’s Rest he sank onto his belly and crawled to the vantage point, wary of any betraying shadow from the two moons. Long experience had instilled in him a keen sense of punctuality and he got there early enough to witness the pirates arrive with their booty.

It was another quarter hour before Speeler turned up. He had four minders with him tonight, his regular companions Jesh and Mingus plus another two of similarly broad proportions. Clay watched them approach the pirates, the minders’ eyes roving the shadowed quayside all the while. They halted a dozen feet from the woman, who duly inclined her head at Speeler’s faintly heard greeting. She stood in cross-armed silence as Speeler kept talking, plump hands moving in placating gestures. He went on for a good few minutes before falling silent, clasping his hands together in tense expectation.

The woman stared at him for a long while then shrugged and turned to issue a curt order to her subordinates. A pair of burly pirates trundled the wagon forward, pulling back the tarp to reveal the casks beneath. The woman held out a hand to Speeler, inviting his inspection. The fat man made it brief, removing the stopper from two of the casks for a brief sniff of the contents before pronouncing himself satisfied and gesturing for Mingus to come forward. The minder slowly extracted a bulging wallet from his jacket and handed it to the woman. A suitably varied mix of corporate scrip and exchange notes, no doubt.

Clay saw it as the woman counted the notes, the effects of the few drops of Green had faded but the residue left an unnatural keenness to his sight, keen enough to see the surreptitious flicker of movement as one of Speeler’s new minders reached into his jacket and came out with a revolver. It was a short-barrelled, black-enamel  .35 Dessinger, standard issue to all Ironship Protectorate Covert Officers, meaning this night had just taken a decided turn for the worse.

It was all too quick for him to intervene, or even voice a warning shout. The Protectorate man aimed his revolver at the back of Speeler’s head and pulled the trigger, blowing much of his face onto the pirate woman. The other minder was already firing, one shot each for Mingus and Jesh before they could even get a hand to their weapons. Clay scrambled back from the edge of the roof, fumbling for his vial of Green and expecting an eruption of gun-fire as the pirates sought to secure their wares and fight their way to the Windqueen. Instead, the outburst of violence was followed by a silence sufficiently unexpected to make him pause.

He raised himself up to risk a brief glance at the wharf, seeing the pirate woman wiping Speeler’s gore from her face with evident annoyance but no sign of impending retribution. Also, her shipmates were still standing in the same formation, none having drawn a blade or aimed a weapon. Set-up, Clay realised, watching the woman exchange a terse greeting with the man who had shot Speeler. Walked into a trap with two Protectorate men at his back. His gaze returned to the product-laden wagon. A well-baited trap to be sure. Hard to resist, for him . . . or me.

The suspicion grew as he scooted back, a growing understanding of his predicament building to a certainty. Sought me out and cashed in his scrip to get me here. Can’t be a coincidence. His thoughts flew quickly to Joya and Derk waiting at the church, unaware of the unfolding danger. He turned about, sitting up and throwing his head back to imbibe all the Green in a single swallow, his only hope of reaching them in time.

“That would be unwise, young man.”

She stood atop the inn’s chimney, a woman of perhaps fifty with grey-streaked hair tied back in a tight bun, her slim form clad in black from head to toe. The expression with which she regarded him was severe, judgemental even, but also touched with a certain sympathy. Got all the way up there without me hearing a thing, Clay thought, the vial still poised at his lips. Ironship Blood-blessed. And she’ll have more than Green in her veins.

It was hopeless, he knew it, he had no hope of matching her, even if he had all the product in that wagon at his disposal. But Joya and Derk were waiting, trusting him to return as they had for the last ten years. So far he’d never disappointed them.

“Don’t!” the woman commanded as he tipped back the vial. The effect was as immediate as it was unexpected, the familiar tongue-burn drowned out by something far more acrid, something that tasted foul but flooded his belly with all the speed of the best product, sapping his strength in an instant of nausea. Tainted, he realised as the woman leapt down from the chimney, arms outstretched. Tainted blood . . .

He felt the woman’s fingers brush his own, failing to get purchase as he tumbled from the roof, the nausea raging like fire in his gut. Then there was just the endless fall into the black.