At the beginning of every great action movie there is a fuse, a scene designed specifically to lure its audience in. It can be one of a hundred different things: a fire, a fight, the full frontal view of a giant man-eating octopus smacking its lips in anticipation. Whatever it is, it’s there to stimulate your mind and ask questions. Questions that (inevitably) must be answered. Which in turn keeps your ass firmly planted in a seat that is slightly too small, and has probably been peed on a time or two.
Fantasy novels tend to follow the same stream of logic. Start with steam, then (once there is no way the audience can jump ship for fear of lingering angst over artfully dodged answers) they launch into the bones of the story.
Patrick Weekes (who is previously known for his work on the Mass Effects series..that’s a game, just FYI) followed suit with his novel “The Palace Job.” Launching his characters into a truly enjoyable (floating) jail-break right out of the gate, and then asking the question…why? The 423 pages that follow are the answer. And believe me…it’s a slippery one.
People love different genres for different reasons. Maybe they enjoy the world building (which, I’ll admit is a HUGE draw for me.) Maybe, they like angsty characters, or sordid love triangles. Me? I read fantasy for 1 reason…it’s complexity. As with mysteries and suspense, I love to “figure out” the bigger picture. When it comes to fantasy, that picture usually involves a multitude of people (all with conflicting ideas.) The larger the cast of characters, the more complex the plot. The more complex the plot, the more detailed the world has to be (to keep up with it.) It’s ultimately one vicious circle, and “The Palace Job” is no different.
Sporting more than 8 main characters TPJ is a melting pot of fantastical staples. Ogres, unicorns, dopey sheriffs that would lose their head if it wasn’t attached, this book has it all. And they all play a VERY intricate roll. But…let’s back up.
TPJ (in short) is the equivalent to Ocean’s Eleven if Harry Potter had invaded. With magic everywhere, and a “heist” as the band of merry misfits main objective, there is no simpler way to explain it. Even the introductions are mapped out in O11 format (one at a time, while pulling off another job.) The technique is obviously not a new one (as a matter of fact I think I used the same reference when I reviewed Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg’s “The Heist” just a few months ago.) But I have to admit, it worked much better this time around. Why? Because with a book so long (ok, it’s kind of short when it comes to its genre as a whole) it’s important to establish the characters quickly, but effectively. (You don’t need years of background, but you need to “feel” that you know the person…it’s a hard scale to balance.) Weekes’ choice to introduce his characters this way allowed him to play freely with the rest of the story without having to backtrack for the sake of creating intimacy between characters. Essentially…I felt like I knew everyone (even if I couldn’t pronounce 80% of their names and mentally filled in Bob or Chuck to keep them straight.)
But characters are only a tiny piece of the puzzle when it comes to fantasy, and regardless of how well they are executed…if the plot has holes, they will fall through them.
Which (ta da!) brings me to the plot itself.
I’ll go on record right now saying that I have read BETTER books, and I have also read WORSE books. Which basically drops this novel into the middle of the pile.
The best thing about it? The humor. If you are a Pratchett fan, you are going to love this book. I found myself laughing out loud several times at (not only) the dialogue between characters but the situations they found themselves in. Do you know those “world’s worst criminal” shows they air television every once in a while. Let’s just say Loch and her compadres had a few of those moments. There isn’t a single dumb character in the lot, but you put too many hands in candy jar and things are bound to blow up in your face.
Also notable…the way the story continually circled back to zero. Make a plan. Plan blows up. Make new plan. Normally this would drive me bat-crap crazy. This time…I simply found myself wondering what they were going to screw up next.
The only significant problem I had was the ending (cue dramatic music.) For all of the chaos that was smushed between TPJ’s pages, it all seemed to wrap up rather quickly. (*cough* kinda like a video game *cough*) It wasn’t a “bad” ending, just a brusk one. (As in…a tiny little bow wrapped around 3 paragraphs.) I wanted more drama. More gusto. Hell…I wanted to see the whole damn world burst into flames. (Ok, I’m being a little dramatic. Maybe not flames, just…campfires.) After almost 500 pages of language deciphering (and some pretty spot on mama cracks) I wanted epic. Instead I got “meh.” Which was (to be blunt) disappointing.
Overall however, not a bad book. It had laughs. It had a fairly solid plot. The characters were lovable (and horny if we are talking about the unicorn) and it was fun. That spells “middle-of-the-road” success.
Happy Reading my fellow Kindle-ites and remember: even acrobats are clumsy during sex.
The prisoners of the Republic lived beneath the great city of Heaven’s Spire, scouring thelapiscaela whose magic kept the city aloft. For their terrible crimes, each man and woman served a life sentence, clinging to the pipes with only a mile of empty air beneath them. There was no chance of release, no hope of escape.
Today, however, Loch intended to change that.
“You sure this is the best way?” Kail asked. Like Loch, he clung upside-down to the pipes that anchored the lapiscaela in place, gripping a side-rail with one hand and his scouring broom with the other.
Loch nodded, giving him a lopsided grin, but said nothing. She was a tall, dark-skinned woman, muscular enough that she hadn’t needed the protection of the women’s gangs when she’d arrived last month. Her only concession to safety had been the silence she had maintained since arriving. An old superstition among the Republic’s criminals held that old magic in the lapiscaela would steal the souls of prisoners who talked near them.
“Jeridan doesn’t have what we need yet,” Kail noted, “and we still haven’t talked price.”
Loch shrugged. They had to move while they were still newcomers, watched carefully and checked for signs of resistance. And, frankly, if she had to clean a damn magical rock with a damn magical broom one more time, she was going to go crazy and jump.
“Your confidence is inspiring, Captain. I’d follow you to the ends of the world if we weren’t already in prison.” Kail grinned sourly, his teeth bright white against his dark face, and swung himself upright. His leg-chain rattled against the pipes. “Whenever you’re ready. No sense in putting in a full day’s work.”
Loch pulled herself up, her scouring broom tucked casually under one arm, so that they stood atop the pipe grid. Around them, other prisoners scurried, dull gray in their prison worksuits and lit from below by the great magical stones that kept the city in the sky.
A double grid of pipes secured the lapiscaela. During the day, when they caught light reflected from the great mirrors that hung along the rim of Heaven’s Spire, the power of the enormous violet crystals held the city aloft, and the upper grid of pipes held them in place. At night, the stones sank down to rest in the lower grid, which held them safely while reserve-enchantments kept the city aloft until sunrise.
It was vital that the lapiscaela remain free of dust or grime to maximize the absorption of sunlight. When the ancient magic that polished the crystals had failed, the most dangerous prisoners in the Republic had been pulled into unwilling service in what had come to be called the Cleaners, scouring the lapiscaela with special brooms made to clear away the toughest dirt without risking a damaging scratch to the crystal surface. It was said that in the Cleaners, a prisoner’s broom was worth more than his life.
Loch looked around, held her scouring broom out at arm’s length, and let it go.
The broom clanged off the lapiscaelum they’d been assigned to clean, rang off the lower grid, and then fell into the distance.
Kail shook his head. “That should get their atten—”
Loch and Kail turned toward the call, as did every prisoner on the grid. The rattle of leg-chains and the slow grunts of labor went deathly still.
“It’s Soggs!” someone called. “South side. He’s still got a grip!”
Loch took the grid-path at a run, one hand grabbing the cross-pipes for balance as she dashed along the narrow surface, the other yanking on her leg-chain as it rattled and jangled behind her. Kail was close behind. The other prisoners watched them run by, some shouting encouragement, most silent. “Which rock? Upper grid or lower?” Kail shouted.
“The Tooth! Lower grid!” Loch grimaced at the reply. The lapiscaela were irregularly shaped, like natural boulders. The Tooth was a jagged stalactite that hung down like a dragon’s fang, its irregular shape so unusual that it necessitated a special frame to lock it into place. The Tooth had killed more men than any other stone on the grid. At the Cleaners, prisoners kept track of that sort of thing.
Loch and Kail had almost reached the Tooth when their pipes hit a junction.
“Guard!” Kail hollered. “We’ve got a man loose!”
Loch hit the corner as if she hadn’t seen it, and her leg-chain snapped taut with a metallic twang that echoed across the grid.
Looking down, Loch could see Soggs—an older man, not a killer, probably in for something he wrote or said or sang—clinging to a tiny spur on the great violet stone. His leg-chain snapped and jingled as he struggled to pull himself up.
“Guard!” Kail’s voice bounced tinny echoes off the shadowed grid. “Switch me over!”
There was no way Loch could reach Soggs, not if she kept an arm on the pipes, probably not even if she leapt and trusted in her leg-chain to hold both their weights. She gripped the pipes until her knuckles turned white, keeping a scream of frustration in check through sheer willpower.
There were murderers and worse at the Cleaners. Soggs wasn’t one of them.
“Guard!” Kail hollered up to the observation level. “Move your damn ass!”
In the maze of gray metal pipes lit from below by the vivid glow of the lapiscaela, the prisoners were completely alone.
“It’s too far, Loch.” Kail gripped the pipes.
Loch nodded, then extended a hand without looking at Kail.
With a sigh, he handed her his broom. “Soggs! She’s coming!”
Soggs could see Loch through the grid of pipes between them. He looked into her dark eyes and nodded even as his sweat-slicked hands began to slip.
When she leapt, her whole body stretched to a single line that shattered into pain when her leg-chain stopped her fall. Soggs leapt as best he could for the broom she held extended for him.
He was perhaps a handbreadth short.
If he’d had a foothold to give him purchase, he might have reached her, even with Loch stuck on the wrong pipe and too far away.
Instead, one more prisoner escaped the Cleaners the only way he could.
He was too small to see after a few seconds, but everyone kept looking. The grid was silent but for the soft tinkle of chains tapping the pipes, and the regular, rusty squeak as Loch swung back and forth, her shackle digging into her ankle and the useless broom clutched in both hands.
Then Tawyer, one of the guards, slowly clambered down from one of the topside hatches, grunting as he hopped down. “You don’t watch your tone, Kail, you’ll spend the night dangling,” he said easily. “Guards don’t come down without a flying charm, no matter how you holler.” He stepped lightly past where Kail stood silent and tight-fisted, then looked down at Loch. “So, your mute friend slipped, did she? Hey, Loch, you hold onto that broom or it’s coming out of your hide!”
Tawyer chuckled. “Don’t worry, boy. You two are good workers. We won’t let her fall.” He unlocked Kail’s leg-chain, locked it back onto another pipe, and gestured for Kail to help Loch. “Byn-kodar’s hell,” he added with a laugh that echoed off the silent grid, “I had money on her tocatch the bastard!”# # #Warden Orris huffed into the medical clinic where Prisoner Loch was being tended for cuts on her leg. Her hands and feet were shackled, as were those of Jeridan, a prisoner stocking supplies under a guard’s watchful eye. Most prisoners hunched over a bit or shuffled when the shackles were put on, but Loch sat calmly, back straight, as a nurse applied the bandages.
This had to be handled carefully, Loch thought. Too soft, and he’d ignore it. Too hard, and he’d snap right here. She gave him a look devoid of anger or curiosity.
She knew Warden Orris didn’t like her. It was probably her Urujar blood. Orris acted like he had Old Kingdom blood, and a dark-skinned woman who didn’t act properly respectful would naturally put his back up. The fact that she was only half-Urujar would make him even angrier.
Orris waved the nurse and the guard out of the room, then stood before Loch, waiting expectantly. Jeridan put tools on the shelf, his shackles jangling.
“The guards tell me you lost a broom today,” Orris finally said, pulling his jowly cheeks into a friendly smile. “Dropped your own and took someone else’s to make up for it.”
Loch said nothing.
“That’s the story I heard, anyway. If you have a different story, I’d like to hear it.” Orris gave her an encouraging smile.
She still said nothing.
“Loch, I want to help you here,” Orris said, frowning. “I’ve tolerated this attitude… but that equipment you lost has to be paid for… one way or another.” He tried a different smile this time. Across the room, Jeridan blanched and went back to stocking the shelves with jerky movements. His chains rattled more loudly.
A long and silent moment passed.
Orris wore a saber while at work, and he yanked the blade from its sheath now. It was a fine weapon, with a brass-plated guard, contoured mahogany grip, and a name worked into the blade in intricate calligraphy. He leveled it at Loch. “What happened to Soggs can happen to you! You will give me the respect I deserve!”
After another long moment, Loch gave him a low bow and shot him the tiniest suggestion of a smirk. He glared at her, so intent on catching the look that he completely missed the quick motion that sent several small tools into Jeridan’s prison worksuit.
“Have it your way!” Orris shouted, and turned and left without a backward look.
When Orris was gone, Loch grinned. Perfect.
She tapped the metal frame of the bed gently, catching Jeridan’s eye. She raised an eyebrow, and the other prisoner grinned, gave her a tiny nod, and went back to stocking the supplies as the guard and nurse came back in.
# # #
Back in his own office, Orris growled and tossed his grandfather’s calvary saber onto the chair. Stupid, getting flustered like that. He was in charge. He could take care of her if she wouldn’t learn respect. But he couldn’t kill her—the Voyancy was already going to investigate the death of Soggs.
Orris hung his grandfather’s sword back up and asked his secretary to send for another prisoner.
Akus arrived a few minutes later, a burly man shuffling jerkily in the leg-shackles. He’d torn the sleeves off the gray worksuit, revealing ropy masses of muscle and knife scars along both arms. Orris should have disciplined him for damaging his worksuit, but the big man bowed low, then grinned and said, “Afternoon, Chief,” and Orris decided to let it slide.
“I need a certain woman to have an accident.” Orris smiled. “She needs to live, and I’ll have to dangle you for a night afterward, but it’ll pay.”
Akus snorted. “Pay don’t much matter. She’s gotta live, you said?”
Orris nodded. “But anything short of killing her is fine.” He leaned forward. “Anything.”
Akus’s mouth twisted into a broken-toothed grin.
# # #
The guards carried truncheons in the dining hall, as the dining hall was the only place aside from their own cells in which the prisoners were left unshackled. If the truncheons failed, the warden could activate a single crystal and send eldritch beams of energy sizzling across the metal floors, driving the prisoners to their knees in agony.
Riots ended quickly at the Cleaners.
Loch and Kail were waiting in line when Akus walked up and, without preamble, slammed his elbow into Loch’s shoulder. “Hey!” he shouted. “Watch it! You messin’ with me?”
“Watch yourself,” Kail shot back. “She didn’t —” Akus flung out an arm, and Kail staggered back. Kail grabbed for a sword that hadn’t been at his waist since his old military days with Loch, then lifted a flimsy tin dining tray. He stopped when a guard’s truncheon tapped gently on his shoulder.
“Settle down, son,” Tawyer said affably. “You don’t want more trouble.” Using his truncheon, he gently steered Kail away from Akus and Loch.
“You messin’ with me?” Akus blocked Loch’s path as she tried to walk around him. “You say you’re sorry real nice, maybe I’ll forget about it.” Seeing the crowd of prisoners slowly gathering around them, Akus grinned. “I like you breaking your vow of silence just for me.”
Loch’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, and she looked back at Kail. Kail gestured minutely at Tawyer, and Loch gave him a tiny nod, then turned around to walk the other way.
Akus’s shove sent her crashing into a flimsy bench that shattered under the impact, leaving her face-down in a pile of splintered wood. “Don’t you walk away from me!”
“Got what you asked for,” Jeridan murmured as Kail stepped back into the crowd, which was starting to yell encouragement now. “But it’s going to cost you.”
“I’m a bit shy,” Kail said, not making eye contact, “but if you’re interested in a wager….”
“Always.” Jeridan was in the Cleaners for winning a lot of money from very important people.
As Loch pushed herself to her knees, Akus kicked her hard in the side. “You’re not gonna say my name, now. You’re gonna scream it!”
“I’d take twenty at four to one,” Kail said by way of opening.
Loch struggled back to her feet, and Akus strode over, shouting for the crowd, and pulled her to her feet by her thick black ponytail. She lashed out as she rose, her fists bloodying Akus’s nose, and then broke his grip and slammed a fist into his broad gut.
Akus grunted and took Loch clear off her feet with a single backhand. She rolled and came up, shaking her head.
“You had your chance,” Akus growled. “Pulling your hair’s the least I’m gonna do.”
“Two to one,” Jeridan countered. “And at least a hundred, or why are we even talking?”
“Fifty at three to one. I’m no good for a hundred.”
“Five to two?”
“I can do that,” Kail said, and the two men shook on it.
Loch lunged in with high, fast jabs, but Akus had his hands up in a brawler’s guard, and Kail heard him laughing as the smaller woman pounded his arms ineffectually. Then he ducked down, wrapped his arms around her knees, and yanked up. Loch slammed back onto the metal floor with a hiss of breath and rolled away desperately.
The crowd roared its approval.
“I’m impressed by your confidence,” Jeridan said conversationally. “But really, against Akus?”
“Akus is the mighty oak,” Kail said, “but Loch is the slender reed.”
Pausing to acknowledge the cheers, Akus grinned, then looked to the dining hall doorway. Warden Orris was standing there, a mad leer on his face. He gave Akus a little nod.
As Loch pushed herself to her knees, leaning on the wall for support, Akus raised one boot to crush her spine.
The boot slammed into the wall a fraction of a second after Loch darted to the side, and Akus staggered. Loch’s kick snapped into the back of his leg, and Akus crashed to his knees.
“And sometimes,” Kail added, “the slender reed kicks the crap out of the mighty oak.”
Loch slammed the heel of her palm into Akus’s jaw with a crack that silenced the room, then hammered Akus’s temple with an elbow. An uppercut snapped his head back up and sprayed blood across the room, and Loch grabbed a fistful of his hair and finished it by pulling him into a knee to the face.
Jeridan closed his mouth and looked at Kail.
Kail nodded thoughtfully. “So, about the one-twenty-five you owe me, and those items I wanted to buy….”
Akus wasn’t moving. Loch pulled her blood-spattered gray worksuit back into place. She looked to the doorway, staring at Orris for a long moment. Then she sniffed, picked up her dining tray, and returned to the serving line.
# # #
Loch’s silence since arriving at the Cleaners wasn’t uncommon. The criminals who believed that the lapiscaela would catch the words and steal their souls often didn’t talk for the first few weeks, until fear and loneliness and grim acceptance broke the barriers down.
In the small cell she shared with Kail, Loch kept her silence, saying not a single word.
Not aloud, anyway.
Are we clear? she signed to Kail. He had top bunk—Loch hated hearing him snore beneathher—and had swung his upper body down over the edge to look at her from above.
“Jeridan will get us the goods tomorrow,” he said quietly. “You okay?”
Fine, she signed. Hurry. Not much time.
“You think the warden will move that soon?” Kail frowned. “Seems fast after sending the thug at you today.”
Tomorrow. The sign-language she and Kail and learned as scouts didn’t allow for nuance, but she put a fierce snap into each gesture. He killed before.
“I’m sorry about Soggs.” Kail sighed, then shrugged. “Did give you a chance to piss off the warden even more, though.”
After a moment of silence, Kail’s large eyes closed, two points of white blinking shut in the dim light. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”
Soggs was a civilian.
“I know, Loch. I’m sorry.”
Fight the enemy, not their people. When Kail had joined her unit, that was the first thing she’d taught him. It was the first thing she’d learned herself when she’d joined, years before that. Every scout in the Republic’s army learned that phrase, signed or spoke it before every mission. They were soldiers, not thieves, not murderers.
“I know.” Kail sighed. “Tomorrow, then. Assuming the warden is as blood-crazy as he seems.”
Tomorrow. Follow the plan. It will be okay.
“Where have I heard that before?” Kail shook his head and pulled himself back up onto the top bunk.
She’d caught the brief flash of his white teeth in the darkness, though, and the smile meant a lot that night.
# # #
When the prisoners lined up at the supply station desk that morning, Warden Orris was there alongside Tawyer. The change in routine had the prisoners nervously murmuring to each other. The warden greeted each prisoner as Tawyer switched the shackles for the leg-chain, handed them their broom, and called out their assignment.
“Morning, Rastik. How’s block C treating you? Lewerryn, you take it easy today, you hear? Haha!”
“Got it?” Kail murmured to Jeridan as they neared the desk. Loch was in front of them.
“Of course.” Jeridan rocked gently and bumped into Kail, who staggered and pushed him back into place. A small, cloth-covered bundle disappeared into the sleeves of Kail’s worksuit.
“Morning, Loch!” Orris said jovially. “Let’s hope you run into less trouble today than yesterday! Haha!”
Loch stepped up to Tawyer and wordlessly held out her shackled arms.
“Not today, I think,” Warden Orris said easily. “The lady lost a broom, nearly fell, got into a fight. She can keep the arm shackles on today. Hell, those Urujar are more comfortable in chains anyway, right?”
Tawyer chuckled weakly. “I have to sign off for each pair of shackles—”
“Just mark it down, Tawyer. Here, let me put my initials by it.” Orris grabbed the pen. “There. Take her legs, though. Can’t wear your leg shackles and the leg-chain.”
“Right, sir.” Tawyer didn’t meet Loch’s stare as she stepped onto the stand to have her leg shackles removed. “Here, I’ll just—”
“No, no, Tawyer. Give her this leg-chain, here.” Orris produced one with a smile. “Fasten it good and tight, too. I’d be real sad if anything should happen to her.”
Tawyer fastened the leg-chain. “Where would you like—”
“The Tooth, I think.” Warden Orris nodded thoughtfully. “She was so eager to get there yesterday, after all. Put them on the lower grid. In fact, why don’t you go ahead and walk them there yourself?” He gave Loch a wide smile. “You take care now, girl.”
Tawyer did Kail’s shackles and leg-chain in silence, then snapped a single-use flying charm secure on his shoulder and followed them to the hatch nearest the Tooth. He carefully fastened each of their leg-chains to one of several vertical pipes labeled with different grid sections. They climbed down a short metal pipe along a rusted iron ladder, their leg-chains squeaking and rattling beside them.
At the bottom, Tawyer had to float a bit to get around them. “Go on,” he muttered. “You know which way it is.”
“He’s gonna kill her,” Kail said conversationally.
“That kind of talk gets a man a night dangling down under, Uru.”
They started moving, Loch in the lead since her chain was connected to the pipe ahead of Kail’s. They followed the pipe along the narrow walkway, the cold morning air still tasting of the metal of the grid.
“You think the warden can kill two prisoners in one week and not be investigated?” Kail asked. “When the heat comes down on the warden, who do you think he’ll blame?”
“You just stay careful.” Tawyer prodded Kail with his truncheon. “Can’t blame the warden for getting angry. Byn-kodar’s hell, all she had to do was show a little respect!”
“Oh, damn, Tawyer, you’re right,” Kail said as he and Loch turned a corner on the pipe, their leg-chains protesting the uneven fittings with shrill screeches. “I guess she has to die. What was I thinking?”
They reached the Tooth. From the upper grid, standing level with the top, it was a violet jewel. The sun hadn’t risen above the rim of the city yet, and the Tooth shone with a clear brilliance as the sun’s light caught it directly.
“Lower grid,” Tawyer said sharply.
Loch and Kail moved to the junction where the upper grid linked to the special frame that locked the Tooth into place all four sides. A vertical pipe led down to the lower grid, which connected to the frame below as well.
“You think about what you did to make the warden so mad.” Tawyer gestured for them to head down. “Maybe he’ll change his mind.”
“See,” Kail said thoughtfully, “I don’t know what I did to make him so mad. I know it wasn’t sleepin’ with his mama, because I was sleeping with your mama last night.”
“Shut your fat mouth!”
“That’s not what your mama said. Man, she couldn’t get enough of my mouth. And your mama’s a screamer, too—”
The truncheon came whistling down at Kail’s head, and Kail dove back. The truncheon clanged off of the pipes instead, and then Loch’s shackled arms crashed down on Tawyer’s wrist.
As the truncheon clattered on the pipes, Loch’s palms slammed into Tawyer’s temples. Then she looped her shackles over the back of his neck, yanked down hard, and brought her knee up.
“So, today it is,” Kail said as Tawyer hit the ground. He pulled a small bundle out of his sleeve, passed Loch what looked like a pair of thick cloth slippers, and produced another pair for himself.
Loch shot him a look and pulled on the cloth slippers.
“Yes, I always use it,” Kail said, “every time. Because it always works.”
Loch raised an eyebrow as she got to her feet.
“Swear to Gedesar, if I run into a guard who doesn’t fall for it, I’ll find a new one.” Kail reached into his sleeve again, produced a thin metal wire, and bent down to work on the leg-chain. A moment later, it snapped free. “Here, let me see yours.”
With a wry smile, she reached down and yanked hard, and the special leg-chain Warden Orris had saved for her snapped clean away.
“Or that,” Kail allowed, and then, grinning, reached into the bundle to produce a pair of pipefitter’s tools. “Shall we?”
# # #
Orris pounded the desk so hard that his hand throbbed. “Guards! Guards, get in here!”
As warden, he had access to several powerful artifacts. He’d taken a vicious pleasure in pulling out the flat disc of polished ivory, laying it flat on the table, breaking a vision charm over the artifact, and watching as the dust sprinkled down and the pale ivory surface resolved into a view of the grids. He shifted through the divining crystals set throughout the Cleaners until he found the perfect view of the Tooth, complete with Tawyer, Kail, and Loch herself.
Then he watched in helpless rage as she took down Tawyer with brutal efficiency, broke the chain he’d prepared for her, and got to her feet. She and Kail began to do something with metal tools on the pipes of the grid. His grid.
But he was still master of the grid, and he had a few surprises of his own. It had been awhile since the Cleaners had seen real discipline.
Orris reached into a special drawer in his desk and drew out a narrow wand of polished crystal. At its tip was set a single gem, a muddy green-black whose whirling pattern constantly shifted.
A pair of guards came into the room, and one of them asked him what he needed. He ignored them.
Instead, he looked down into the polished ivory surface at Loch. “Time to dance, little princess.” Then he touched his personal signet ring to the wand.
The screams that echoed up from the grid made the whole office vibrate, or perhaps it was the magic itself that shook the very underside of Heaven’s Spire. Orris felt a lustful rush as he stared into the ivory, watched the writhing tendrils of scarlet fire snake across every metal surface on the grid. Every prisoner at work would curl up in helpless torment or fall screaming from the pipes until their metal leg-chains caught them. Then they would dangle, writhing in agony while the pain raced down their chains.
Loch and Kail jumped in surprise, then stopped and waited.
After half a minute, the scarlet flames flickered and died.
Loch grinned, turned to the divining crystal that she knew he was using to watch her, and waved.
# # #
The nurse sighed as the vibrations ran through the clinic. The containment magic was wonderful for neutralizing prisoners, but there were always injuries. He was going to have prisoners complaining of all sorts of aches and pains for the rest of the day, and the warden hated it when the nurse used supplies.
He looked down at his only overnight prisoner, a man who’d lost a fight in the dining hall and was shackled to the bed for treatment. “Count yourself lucky,” the nurse said conversationally, leaning in to check the unconscious man’s pulse. “Better to be in here than down there this—”
The man’s shackled hand shot up, closed around the nurse’s throat before he could pull back out of reach, and yanked him down toward the bed.
“Key,” the prisoner growled.
The nurse tried to pull back, realized that that wasn’t going to help his breathing, and sputtered frantically. “Can’t escape!” he gasped. “They’ll kill you as soon as you go up!”
The prisoner grinned horribly. “Not going up.”
# # #
Orris watched helplessly as Loch and Kail started working on the pipes again.
“It can’t be,” he murmured again. “She played me. She played me!” He thrust the crystal wand at the ivory plate and focused his will, but the magic required time to gather its strength again. Orris hurled the wand and spun away as it shattered against the wall. “Get down there and… No!” With sheer force of will, he lowered his voice. “No. Tend to the prisoners.” He pulled his grandfather’s saber from the wall, unsheathed it, and tossed the scabbard aside.
“I’ll deal with Loch myself.”
His pronouncement was ruined when another guard burst into the room. “Sir! Sir!”
“You don’t get paid to run around screaming, guard!” Orris barked, brandishing the saber. The intruding guard flinched back, sputtering. “I know damn well the security wards were activated!”
“That’s not why I’m here, sir,” the guard cut in, still eyeing Orris’s saber nervously.
“Well, why the hell are you here?” Orris shouted, bustling forward and urging the guards out of his way with flourishes of his grandfather’s saber.
“It’s, well, it’s about the prisoner who got beaten in the dining hall yesterday.” The guard stepped back at Orris’s stare. “He was at the clinic when the wards were activated, but it appears that in all the excitement….”
“Where is he now?” Orris asked, biting off each word.
“He, er…” The guard winced. “He subdued the orderly treating his injuries and told the man that he intended to settle a score with the woman.”
Orris laughed. “Well, now, that’s not bad news at all!” he declared grandly, heading for the drop-hatches with a jaunty step. “I just hope I get to see him do it!”
# # #
“Done.” Kail stepped back from the upper grid. They’d worked fast since Orris had activated the wards and had gotten through most of the frame holding the Tooth in place. If not for the insulation slippers Kail had scrounged up, they’d likely have been dead already. “Want me to head down?”
Loch turned and nodded shortly, then jerked her head back to the eastern walkway where footsteps clanged in sharp contrast to the groans of shaken prisoners. Then came a roar of sheer hatred that could have been the war trumpet of Esa-jolar herself. “LLLLLOCCCCH!”
Akus came around the corner, a massive figure of battered flesh and rippling muscle. His nose was broken, and one eye was swollen nearly shut. He wore no worksuit, only boots and a clinic blanket wrapped around his waist several times like a kilt. His broad chest was covered with hair, knife scars, and purple-green bruises. She threw a punch, but he ignored it in his rage, slamming her against the pipes and driving the breath from her lungs.
“Get off her!” Kail shouted, leaping at the enormous man. His punch glanced harmlessly off Akus’s shoulder, and with a grunt, Akus grabbed hold of Kail’s worksuit with thick, knotted hands and lifted him off the ground.
“No leg-chain, little Urujar?” Akus growled. “That’s gonna cost you.” As Kail struggled helplessly, Akus walked to the edge of the upper grid. Then, with a smile, he flung Kail off the edge, laughed harshly, and turned back to Loch. “Hope your friend has a nice—”
Her elbow caught him in the gut. Her kick caught him in the groin. The open palms of her shackled hands smashed into his already-broken nose. And as he howled and lashed out blindly, her shoulder, with the full power of her lunging body behind it, caught him in the midsection, knocking him back a full three steps.
He’d only been two steps from the edge.
He screamed as he fell, and Loch spun away, not wanting to see it.
Instead, she saw Warden Orris himself, standing at the edge of the walkway with his saber raised in a mocking salute.
“That poor dumb brute was never in your league, Loch,” the warden said conversationally, “but then, I guess your little friend Kail was never in his league.”
Loch spread her arms as far apart as they could go, shackled as they were, and set herself in an unarmed fighting stance.
“What, nothing?” Orris shook his head. “You stupid girl, you know you’re not leaving the Cleaners alive. You thought you could play me, do something to my grid, but I caught you. Andstill you cling to that stubborn pride?” His face reddened at her silence, and sweat began to bead on the thick jowls of his neck. “Or maybe you’re too stupid to talk. Is that it? You too stupid to spit out any last words, you Uru?”
Loch walked forward, her padded feet nearly silent on the metal of the grid.
“Fine!” Orris shouted, raising his saber. “Die like the—”
Loch lunged in and kicked Orris in the shin. As he howled and brought the saber down, she raised her shackled arms, caught the saber on the shackles, crossed her wrists to trap the blade, and spun away, yanking the sword from his grasp. With practiced ease, she flipped the blade free of the chains and caught it with one hand.
Then she turned away from Orris and walked to the edge of the upper grid, her new sword held high to keep it clear of the shackles.
“I’ll see you scream before you die, you…” Orris stammered to a halt. “Where are you going?”
Loch tapped the sword twice on the edge of the grid, looked down for a moment, and then strode to one of the corners. From the lower grid below, Kail’s voice clearly called up, “Ready when you are, Captain!”
Orris dashed to the edge and stared down at the lower grid in dumbfounded shock. He’d clearly seen Kail thrown from the upper grid by Akus, who had then been knocked off by Loch.
Kail and Akus were working side by side. Akus was naked except for his boots, and the large blanket Akus had worn wrapped around his waist was now wrapped around the Tooth, covering the vast majority of its lower surface like a massive stocking.
Blocking it from the light of the sun.
Orris was not a stupid man. The Tooth was so irregular and so large that it required a special frame to connect it to the grid. His gaping stare took in the missing screws and broken pins on that frame, both on the upper grid and the lower grid.
There was only one major support pipe still connected to the Tooth’s harness, and it was creaking ominously, metal whining in protest as Loch approached it.
“You can’t!” Orris blurted, then felt himself reddening as Loch turned and raised an eyebrow. “You’ll be… That’s… You’re a madwoman!”
Loch smiled, and it was that more than anything that made Orris backpedal frantically. She raised the sword in her shackled arms, her whole body bending like a fully stretched bow, and then she brought the blade down on the last junction holding the entire Tooth and its frame in place.
There was a sharp metallic crack, followed an interminable moment later by a low creak that built rapidly in pitch and volume as the entire structure of the grid around the Tooth began to sink. Small pipes twisted, bent, and snapped under the weight of the great stone, and as Orris scrambled back, the entire section of scaffolding sheared away in a screaming crescendo of tearing metal.
The last thing Orris saw as the Tooth and the three prisoners fell away to freedom was Loch’s smiling face. One shackled arm clung to the twisted wreckage of the grid around the stone, and the other held his grandfather’s sword. Orris watched that face until he could no longer see it, and then, when his shaking legs would bear his weight again, he pulled himself back to his feet.
Behind him, the prisoners began cheering.
# # #
Kail had insisted that he had timed it exactly, but Loch was very near the end of her trust when, below her on the remains of the lower grid, Kail shouted, “Three! Two! One! Now!”
As the ground raced toward them, green and brown and blue resolving into fields and rivers, farms and townships, Kail and Akus yanked hard on the sheet and pulled it free from the Tooth. The wind caught it, and in seconds, the blanket was far above them, floating gently on its lazy path to the ground.
As the Tooth caught the morning sunlight, its dull purple surface blossomed into violet and its ancient magic slowed their plummeting descent. The wind that threatened to tear Loch free from the grid fell from a scream to a throaty whisper, and the ground that had been hurtling toward them at breakneck speed slowed to the comparative crawl of a galloping horse.
Which, Loch noted as she hit the damp turf of a dazzling green meadow and rolled, taking the impact in her legs and shoulders and hips and back, was still faster than you wanted to be going when you hit the ground.
Loch found herself lying face-down in the damp grass. The sword stood embedded in the earth a few paces away, vibrating from the impact. She took in a deep breath, heard the ominous creak of metal, and rolled away instinctively. Sparks of light trailed dizzily across her eyes, but she still got a good look.
Its glow now rising to its normal dazzling violet brilliance, the Tooth rose from the shattered wreckage of the grid. It moved slowly at first, rocking and swaying like a charm dangling on a chain. Then, picking up speed, it leapt into the heavens, straight back toward the glowing purple disk that hung high above them like a sullen sun, the only glimpse of Heaven’s Spire most citizens ever saw. It would, Loch guessed, be going quite fast by the time it returned to the Cleaners.
“Damn!” Akus groaned as he pushed himself back to his feet. “I don’t know who hits harder, Loch, you or the damn ground.” He looked up at Heaven’s Spire high above and laughed. “Still, worth a few beatings. Anybody seen my blanket?”
“I’m looking, believe me,” Kail said shakily, leaning on the wreckage of the grid. “I don’t need my first glimpse of freedom ruined by your sorry naked body.”
“Hah!” Akus clapped Kail on the shoulder. “Almost wish I could see Orris’s face when the Tooth gets back. Hope it hits him square in the ass.”
“Given the size of his ass, you’ve got good odds,” Kail said, and Akus laughed again.
“Damn straight! Hey, you ever got a job that needs some muscle, you let me know.”
“Will do,” said Kail. “Thanks again for coming to us when Orris made his offer. I had no idea how in Byn-kodar’s hell we were going to smuggle a tarp out to the grid.”
“Worked out for all of us.” Akus looked to Loch, who was still staring upward. “Ma’am, I’m going to put some distance between me and this wreckage before the airships come looking. Pleasure working with you.”
Loch smiled and raised a fist in a warrior’s salute. He returned it, ducked his head, and walked off toward the woods to the east, naked and whistling off-key.
“So, Captain,” Kail said, still swaying where he stood, “what now?”
Loch reached down and ran her hand along the damp grass, then licked the dew from the palm. She swallowed, tasting the sweet water as it loosened her throat. High overhead, she imagined she could see a sudden blossom of light across the underside of Heaven’s Spire.
“Now,” she said, “we pay back the son of a bitch who put us there.”