The party remained in full swing outside as Rose, Griffin, and Karla dragged an unresisting Master Ranson into a warehouse full of canvas sheets adjoining the square. It made for a bizarre contrast: the upbeat fiddles winding their way through an ancient chorus outside, the three ashen-faced interrogators and one terrified slaver within. Rose heard someone slip and spill their drink. The dancers around them guffawed.
“I’ll guard the door,” Griffin told them. “I’ll say somebody’s sleeping off a bad brew in here. No-one wants to smell that.”
“So we’ve decided we’re keeping another secret?” Rose asked, glancing at Karla.
“I just want to control how this gets out. Don’t you?”
“It’s not our right to–”
“Rose, we live in the mass hysteria capital of the eastern hemisphere! Freaking out at small signs is literally everyone’s job.”
“Excuse me, folks,” Ranson snapped, anger barely concealing his distress. “If I could have a moment of your time…”
Griffin slipped through the door, brooking no further discussion.
Rose fumed. But got herself together quickly. She sat down at the table where Karla was already keeping Ranson under glowering watch.
“I first got word of the Empire’s movements two days ago, through one of my overseas contacts. Those of us who–” Ranson straightened his back, defiant under the withering glares of Rose and Karla “–who work in the isles need to keep up with the shifting winds in the home territories. This particular person owes me a favor, so they sent the news by the fastest available boat.” He shuddered. “Had it not been for me, nobody would have gotten word of this invasion until the ships crested the horizon.”
“Yeah, you’re a bloody hero,” Karla interjected. “Maybe I should’ve let you kidnap me last week, as preemptive thanks.”
The slaver narrowed his eyes. “Do you know, silly girl, of the concept of supply and demand? I’ll spare you the parts you wouldn’t understand, but it means that my employment would exist irrespective of my choice to engage in it. I didn’t invent slavery.”
“Spare us,” Rose said. She wished she could convince Karla to switch places with Griffin. The girl was still settling in, not to mention having to pretend to be a landling. She didn’t deserve the pressure of…whatever was about to happen.
Yet she’d forced her way to Ranson. The real question was why Rose had such a hard time accepting that someone who’d survived on her own for ten years had her own source of inner strength.
“Why are you calling it an invasion?” she asked Ranson.
“Because that’s what it is!” bawled the salt-soaked man. “The Emperor has gotten wind of the hopeless fools up here chasing their magnificent treasure, and he’s decided nobody is permitted to be a more hopeless fool than he is. He’s sending ships of his fleet, filled with soldiers of his army, to claim the rights to the gold.”
Rose’s mouth hung open for a second, unable to speak. The very idea was so unbelievable she had to digest it. The City Council had tried the exact same thing and been driven underground for their trouble–but now the ruler of one and a half continents wanted to get involved?
“Why does an emperor need treasure?” Karla asked.
Ranson snorted. “Why does a fire need fuel? Why does a body need food? An empire is nothing more than a digestive system for money. Constantly, it chews up coin, and secretes it in the form of wars and roads and ships. The Toral Empire is more gluttonous than most.”
“Are you trying to say that the Emperor rules half the world, but he’s broke?”
Pain spiked at Rose’s temples. She thought of the patients she had still lying in her cots: fractured ankle, dysentery, watery breathing. She shouldn’t have left them alone.
What was she doing here? What were any of them doing here? Had she ever really asked a Ruster that question, even Edward Griffin?
No matter. She’d lived here long enough to know one thing for certain.
“No Rust Town engineer is ever going to pay tribute from any treasure they bring back from the sky,” she said. “It’s against our religion.”
A choking noise of frustration shot out of Ranson’s throat. “I’ll say it slower. You people have no chance. If you warn your townsfolk now, they might be able to get out and find another launch pad for their idiotic mission somewhere else in the archipelago. This crystal belongs to the Toral Emperor.”
“Rose,” Karla ventured, ignoring the spittle flying from the slaver’s mouth, “is that…I mean, would it really be a problem?”
“Would what be?”
“To let them take the island. Agree to give them a cut and keep on like you always do.”
Rose sighed. “That won’t be possible under military occupation. Not least because the locals will fight it tooth and nail on principle. The era of any whacko being able to launch his own skycraft when the crystal glows will end.”
Karla turned white as the implication sank in. That can’t have been the best way to tell her.
“They won’t let me look for Kio,” she murmured. “And if they find him, they’ll kill him.”
Rose started. “I never said that.”
“Imperial soldiers are like the old Rokhshan, right?” The color was flushing rapidly back into Karla’s face, giving her an otherworldly bent in the flickering torchlight from the dance. Ranson inched away unsubtly. “No lives without being conquerors. The cause they fight for is their god. I just bet they’ll wanna free the castle.”
Rose looked for the lie, couldn’t find it. “Ranson. You’ve had contact with these people before. What are they likely to do?”
“Seize all your skycraft, all your watercraft, kill anyone who disagrees, arrest dozens of you just to prove they’re invincible.” Ranson aimed a look of solidarity at both of them, and failed.
“That settles it, then.” Karla headed for the door. “We need to launch before they get here.”
“Be sensible!” Ranson cried. “They’re a day’s sail away, at most!”
“We have half a plane already. We have my knowledge. We’ve got Jenny and Griffin and–”
Like his name had been an incantation, the doctor himself knocked the door open with a heel of one hand. Jenny trailed behind him.
“I need you both,” he said brusquely. “Party’s gone south.”
Outside, Rose checked the western horizon on instinct. But no sails or steam clouds hovered there yet.
The fiddlers and strummers by the crystal had thrown down their instruments and formed ranks around a group of whimpering children. The dancers had cleared the floor, and most of the mob took up positions by the food tables. Some joined Grace McConnell in the center, where she, Adam, and Jada were in heated discussion with someone Rose couldn’t see.
She swept eyes over the whole scene and realized what else she couldn’t see.
Oh, no. Jenny!
“I left her on the dance floor,” Karla said, like she’d read Rose’s mind. “She must have found somewhere safe. She had to.”
The person confronting the McConnell posse spat some words onto the ground and pushed past them while their guards were down. Now in the torchlight, it was not a person but people.
“Rust Town!” Aiden of the City Council swung a massive claymore off his back and slammed it point-first into the dirt. “You’ve all been betrayed. Sold out to the highest bidder. The Toral Empire is coming, and nobody’s safe from the stooge who invited them.”
He paused to let his words sink in.
“And we’re going to track them down.”
Rose, unbelievably, giggled.
In the years she had spent ministering to the people of Rust from her cave on the mountain, she’d brushed up against all manner of villainy. People attacked by their brothers over aircraft designs. Escapees from the slavers, sold for money to keep a workshop going. Even the truly bizarre–the man who had tried replacing his arms with wings came to mind.
She thought she had managed to become jaded. She was a sentinel, never involved, always watching. It was crucial for her soul that she remain above the rust.
This, though. Aiden the street thug claiming to be ready to fight for justice, to string up a traitor. It was so completely strange, and so absolutely expected, that she laughed for not having seen it before.
“Do you know who the stooge is, then?” she asked.
“No, healer Rose,” Aiden replied imperiously. “But he’s here. He’s on the island. And he cannot hide.”
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