Read Iron Jaw and Hummingbird Online

Authors: Chris Roberson

Iron Jaw and Hummingbird (8 page)

BOOK: Iron Jaw and Hummingbird
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“I have some money,” Mistress Marlowe said, smiling slightly, “but not enough to post bail. I'm looking for assistance, and I fear I've come to the end of my rope. Once the duke is out of jail and free from the hegemon's grasp, I know he will handsomely reward anyone who comes to his assistance.”
Gamine could see that Temujin had adopted the pose of a wealthy merchant, slack jawed and simple. She also knew that from the brief glimpse he'd had of her string of coins, he knew exactly how much Mistress Marlowe was worth.
“I would be happy to help,” Temujin said sweetly, “and I have sufficient funds to do so. However, it will take me a little time to put together the money. I'd planned on leaving the city—I came to visit my granddaughter, whom you see seated across the way—and return home to Penglai right away, and if I am to stay, I'll need a few more coins to cover expenses.”
The woman was overjoyed. She pulled her string of coins out of her handbag and handed it to Temujin without question.
“Will this be enough?”
Temujin smiled and held the coins briefly aloft, his gaze flicking to where Gamine sat. From her vantage point, Gamine could count easily fifty gold coins. “Yes,” he said, “I think this should be sufficient for my needs. I'll send word by tachygraph to my family that they should send the money right away.”
“Oh, thank you ever so much,” Mistress Marlowe said. “If you will meet me at this precise spot in two days' time, at noon, we shall straightaway work to free my friend the duke, and secure your reward!”
“Two days' time, at noon,” Temujin repeated with a grin. “And I'll have with me enough to repay your generous loan and secure the duke's release.”
Mistress Marlowe nodded and rose from the table, clutching her handbag. Flashing Gamine a slight smile, she hurried from the restaurant into the bright sunshine.
Temujin paused a moment, in character, and when the woman had gone, danced over to Gamine's table, the coins jingling in his fist.
“Don't you wish you had this to share?” Temujin rattled the string of coins, tilting his head to one side as though to better hear the sound. “And all I had to do for it was listen to a bit of prittle-prattle.”
“You are a tiresome old man,” Gamine said, and turned her attention back to her noodles. Temujin just grinned, showing the gaps in his smile.
 
Three days passed, in which Gamine saw the sights the city of Fuchuan had to offer and wondered about her future. Temujin rested in their rooms at the inn, so Gamine wandered the city streets alone, visiting vendors' stalls, galleries, and museums, reveling in the newfound feeling of freedom that came with her decision to leave behind the art of the trickster. She was a regular person again, like all those around her. They were marks no longer, nor victims, just people going about their business. She liked not having to worry about how much that one might have in his purse, or how easily she might get another to buy into a flimsy tale. She was strictly a tourist, enjoying the city of lights.
In Red Flower District, on a crowded street, Gamine felt a rough hand grab her arm. Annoyed, she looked up into a pair of eyes, one of which drooped comically. It was a man dressed in finery, gold rings on his fingers.
“I
thought
it was you!” the man snarled.
It took Gamine a moment to place the face, as distinctive as it was.
“Oh no,” she breathed. It was the man from whom she'd conned two dozen bronze coins, nearly a full year ago, when she and Temujin had first set out on the Grand Trunk.
“Oh, yes, damn your hide,” the man said, his tone vicious. “You promised me a fivefold return on your loan, but imagine my surprise when I found that the name you wrote on your ‘receipt' proved as false as your promises. Clever, clever girl.” His face was twisted in a hateful sneer. “Well, we'll see how clever you are now.”
A city guardsman was crossing the street a hundred yards away, his hand on the pommel of his saber.
“Guardsman!” the droop-eyed man yelled. “Help! Quickly!”
The city guardsman turned at the cry, and walked over, in that officious, stately manner that Gamine was sure only police could carry off. From a nearby corner, another two guardsmen turned to see what was happening.
“What seems to be at issue?” the first guardsman said, his eyes narrowed.
“This girl is a thief,” the droop-eyed man said, pointing to Gamine with his free hand, his other still holding tight to her arm.
While the droop-eyed man's attention was momentarily on the guardsman, Gamine saw a slender thread of opportunity and seized it.
Grabbing the pinky finger of the hand that gripped her arm, she bent it nearly all the way back. The droop-eyed man howled in pain and released his hold on Gamine, tears welling in his eyes.
Gamine turned and ran away into the crowd. The first guardsman and the two lingering at the corner didn't delay, but took to their heels, chasing after her, hands on their sabers and ready for action. The droop-eyed man followed just a moment behind, shouting obscenities.
 
Gamine reached the inn, unsure whether she'd lost her pursuers or not. She'd last seen them a few blocks back but had ducked down a side alley and doubled back. The trick might have worked, but if it hadn't, they wouldn't be too far behind.
“Old man, we've got to go!” she shouted, bursting into Temujin's room.
The room was a chaotic, crowded mess. Temujin was pinned against the wall by a pair of enormous men with pale skin and light brown hair, while two other pale-skinned men stood just a few feet away. Standing in the middle of the room, a wicked stiletto knife in one hand and Temujin's money purse in the other, was the Briton woman they had encountered in the restaurant three days before, Mistress Marlowe Constance. But gone was the wide-eyed expression of the foreign traveler. Her eyes were hard and narrowed, and when she spoke, it was without a trace of an accent.
“Ah, I was waiting for you to show,” she said with a sneer. “No sudden moves, kid. I wouldn't want my friends here to hurt you unnecessarily.”
Gamine looked from the woman to Temujin. She could tell that he was mostly unharmed, though a reddening on his left cheek, already shading into a bruise, suggested some recent violence.
“Gamine, you remember our friend Constance?” Temujin said, trying for a convivial tone and failing.
“Quiet,
Temujin
,” the woman barked. That she used his real name, and not the alias that he'd provided at the restaurant, suggested these people knew more about who he and Gamine were than she'd have liked.
“Who are you?” Gamine asked, trying to act casual while working out the best possible route out of the room and away from the woman and her four large friends. She didn't want to run out on Temujin, but it was his fault he was in this mess, whatever it was. And Gamine didn't want to linger too long, for fear that the guardsmen might be following close behind.
“We're with the Diggers, kid, if you must know,” the woman said venomously, “but more importantly, we're the people your pal here owes a fair pile of coin.”
Gamine had heard of the Diggers, even back in Fanchuan. They were one of the most notorious of the Parley gangs. Named after an ancient Briton form of governance, the Parleys were originally instituted by Britons who'd been brought to work on the atmosphere mines centuries before. Surrounded by Han who were not always as kind to foreign subjects as they might have been, the Parley gangs had banded together for self-protection. In later generations, though, imperial reforms meant better living and working conditions for non-Han on Fire Star and back on Earth; the gangs found themselves with less to protect themselves against and eventually turned their attention to more illicit goals. A significant percentage of all crime and vice in the city of Fuchuan involved the Parley gangs, and much of that was due to the Diggers.
“Now,” the woman said, “we wasted a full day tracking you two down, when the ‘wealthy merchant' here missed our appointed meeting yesterday. When he didn't show, it didn't take long to figure that we'd been had. And, considering that the coins we'd given him were just seeds for a long con, we were more than a little annoyed by the discovery.”
“The Iberian Prisoner con,” Temujin said, unable to keep the hint of admiration from his voice. “You played your part perfectly, my dear, the damsel looking only to help her powerful friend.”
“Wasted on you,” the woman snapped. “Now look, we're not unreasonable people”—Gamine couldn't help but doubt
that
—“but we wasted three days because of you two, days in which we might have rolled that seed money into some serious coin, if we'd found an honest sucker to catch on the hook. But now I've got to report this to my boss as a loss of profit, and he
hates
to hear the words
loss
and
profit
in the same sentence. So you two need to come up with some serious coin in the next few minutes here, or we're going to be taking it out of your hide. If I can't bring my boss the money, I can at least bring him the scalps of the two jokers who loused it up for us.”
 
Gamine didn't see that she had any choice. If she was to escape, she might have to run off and leave Temujin behind. She had a clear path to the doorway, with the woman and her four pale-skinned friends all farther inside the room. The only other way out was a wide window on the far side of the room, but to reach it Gamine would have to make it past the woman and her friends, which didn't seem likely. So she'd have to run for it and hope for the best.
As the woman finished her lengthy and colorful threat against their lives, Gamine slowly inched backward. Everyone was so intent on listening that they didn't notice that Gamine was now almost all of the way out of the room. She was about to turn and run for her very life, when she heard a shout coming from farther down the hall.
“There she is!”
Gamine looked over and froze.
Six guardsmen, tall and broad shouldered, were barreling toward her, hands on the sheathed sabers at their sides.
“Stop!” one of them yelled.
Gamine saw her chance and took it.
“Temujin!” she shouted, rushing back into the room and heading straight for the window. “Follow me!”
The woman and her four friends looked at Gamine as though she were insane. Any one of them was only a few steps away from reaching her, and she couldn't possibly hope to reach the window without being stopped.
“What's this?” came an officious voice from the doorway, followed by the rattling of sabers.
Gamine didn't pause to look back but raced for the window.
“It's Thompson Mary and her boys!” one of the guardsmen shouted.
“Guys, whip the dung out of these pigs,” the woman ordered.
Gamine reached the window and threw back the sash. Temujin was at her side by the time she'd climbed up on the windowsill.
“Our friends appear to be a bit distracted by the hurly-burly,” Temujin said by way of explanation as he followed Gamine out onto the ledge. The room behind him had exploded into a violent melee as gang members and guardsmen plowed into one another, all shouts and fists, sabers and knives. Everyone had, for the moment, forgotten about them.
“Let's go.” Gamine dropped to the street below. Without waiting for Temujin, she pounded away down the back street as quickly as her feet would carry her.
 
That night, the lights of Fuchuan only a dim glow on the western horizon, Gamine and Temujin sat huddled together in the darkness. They had nothing with them: no coin, no provisions, no fire kit. They could not return to the city, not with both the authorities and a Parley gang out for their blood. To the south and east was nothing but sand and rock, interrupted on rare occasion by military outposts and refueling stations. The Grand Trunk lay far to the west. To the north, beyond the steep walls of the Tianfei Valley, stretched the northern plains, wide prairies dotted with little hamlets and agrarian villages, rice plantations, and atmosphere mines.
“It occurs to me,” Temujin said, his few teeth chattering in the cold, “that it might be time to take a little vacation from the trickster life. Maybe see what life is like for the masses who sweat and toil for a living . . . not that I plan to sweat and toil, mind, but I'm sure we can come to some sort of accommodation.”
“You are a tiresome old man,” Gamine said, shivering. She huddled closer to Temujin to conserve their warmth, and looked at the dark sky overhead, the twin moons moving gradually across the backdrop of stars. Then she sighed. “North? Well, I don't see that it could be any worse.”
 
They had been walking for days on end, and Gamine was hungry, thirsty, and tired.
There was nothing as far as the eye could see in any direction but rocks and hardscrabble dirt, rising and falling endlessly, like frozen waves, with the unbroken sky stretching above. They subsisted off what they could catch with their meager skills, and drank from shallow pools after the all-too-infrequent rains.
They didn't talk. There wasn't much to say.
Most of Gamine's thoughts were concerned with putting one foot before the other, making slow progress toward the north, where Temujin insisted that somewhere, just beyond the next ridge, or the one after that, they would find sanctuary and salvation.
So far they had found only rock, and dirt, and sky.
Gamine didn't think she'd ever been so hungry or so tired.
Late the night before, as they had tried to catch a few moments' rest beneath the stars—curled up shivering on the cold, hard ground—Gamine had realized something. She'd never put it into words before, but at that moment—her hands and feet numb with cold, her teeth chattering in her head, her stomach knotted with hunger—Gamine realized that she wanted to live.
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