Once a steeplejack, Anglet Sutonga is used to scaling the heights of Bar-Selehm. Nowadays she assists politician Josiah Willinghouse behind the scenes of Parliament. The latest threat to the city-state: Government plans for a secret weapon are stolen and feared to be sold to the rival nation of Grappoli. The investigation leads right to the doorsteps of Elitus, one of the most exclusive social clubs in the city. In order to catch the thief, Ang must pretend to be a foreign princess and infiltrate Elitus. But Ang is far from royal material, so Willinghouse enlists help from the exacting Madam Nahreem.
Yet Ang has other things on her mind. Refugees are trickling into the city, fleeing Grappoli-fueled conflicts in the north. A demagogue in Parliament is proposing extreme measures to get rid of them, and she soon discovers that one theft could spark a conflagration of conspiracy that threatens the most vulnerable of Bar-Selehm. Unless she can stop it.
Author A. J. Hartley returns to his intriguing, 19th-century South African-inspired fantasy world in Firebrand, an adrenaline-pounding adventure available from Tor Teen.
The thief had been out of the window no more than a minute but had already shaken off the police. The only reason I could still see him was because up here we got the full flat glare of the Beacon two blocks over, because I knew where to look, and because he was doing what I would be doing if our positions were reversed. Moments after the theft had been reported and the building locked down, he had emerged from the sash window on the fourth floor of the War Office on Hanover Street—which was probably how he had gotten in in the first place—and had climbed up to the roof. Then he had danced along the steeply pitched ridgeline and across to the Corn Exchange by way of a cable bridge he had rigged earlier. The uniformed officers in the pearly glow of the gas lamps below blocked the doorways leading to the street, milling around like baffled chickens oblivious to the hawk soaring away above them. If he hadn’t shot one of the guards on his way into the strong room, they wouldn’t have even known he had been there.
But he had, and he was getting away with a roll of papers bound with what looked like red ribbon. I didn’t know what they were, but I had seen Willinghouse’s face when the alarm had been raised and knew how badly he needed them back.
Not Willinghouse himself. Bar-Selehm. The city needed them back, and I, Anglet Sutonga, former steeplejack and now… something else entirely, worked for the city. In a manner of speaking.
The thief paused to disassemble his cable bridge and, in the act of turning, saw me as I rounded a brick chimney stack. His hand went for the pistol at his belt, the one that had already been fired twice to night, but he hesitated. There was no clearer way to announce his position to those uniformed chickens below us than by firing his gun. He decided to run, abandoning his dismantling of the bridge, betting that, whoever I was, I wouldn’t be able to stay with him up here on the ornamented roofs and towers of the government district.
He was wrong about that, though he climbed expertly. I gave chase, sure-footed in my familiar steel-toed boots, as he skittered down the sloping tiles on the other side and vaulted across the alley onto a metal fire escape. He moved with ease in spite of his formal wear, and the only time he looked away from what he was doing was to check on my progress. As he did, he smiled, intrigued, a wide hyena grin that made me slow just a little. Because despite the half mask he was wearing over his eyes, I knew who he was.
They called him Darius. He was a thief, but because he was also white, famously elegant, and limited his takings to the jewelry of wealthy society ladies—plucked from their nightstands as they slept inches away—he was known by the more romantic name of “cat burglar.” I had never been impressed by the title. It seemed to me that anyone whose idea of excitement—and it clearly was exciting for the likes of Darius—involved skulking inside houses full of people was someone you needed to keep at a distance. I’ve stolen in the past— usually food but sometimes money as well—and I wouldn’t trust anyone who did it for sport, for the thrill of standing over you while you slept. For all his dashing reputation and the breathless way in which the newspapers recounted his exploits, it did not surprise me in the least that he had killed a man tonight.
I was, I reminded myself, unarmed. I didn’t like guns, even when I was the one holding them. Especially then, in fact.
I too was masked, though inelegantly, a scarf of sooty fabric wrapped around my head so that there was only a slit for my eyes. It was hot and uncomfortable, but essential. I had a job that paid well, which kept me out of the gangs and the factories that would be my only tolerable options if anyone guessed who I really was. That would be easier if anyone realized I was Lani, so my skin stayed covered.
I crossed the wire bridge, slid down the ridged tile, and launched myself across the alley, seventy feet above the cobbled ground, dropping one full story and hitting the fire escape with a bone-rattling jolt. Grasping the handrails, I swung down four steps at a time, listening to Darius’s fine shoes on the steps below me. I was still three flights above him when he landed lightly on the elegant balcony on the front of the Victory Street Hotel. I dropped in time to see him swinging around the dividing walls between balconies, vanishing from sight at the fourth one.
He might just have hidden in the shadows, waiting for me to follow him, or he might have forced the window and slipped into the hotel room.
I didn’t hesitate, leaping onto the first balcony, hanging for an instant like a vervet monkey in a marulla tree, then reaching for the next and the next with long, sinewy arms. I paused only a half second before scything my legs over the wall and into the balcony where he had dis appeared, my left hand straying to the heavy-bladed kukri I wore in a scabbard at my waist.
I didn’t need it. Not yet, at least.
He had jimmied the door latch and slipped into a well-appointed bedroom with wood paneling and heavy curtains of damask with braided accents that matched the counterpane.
But then this was Victory Street, so you’d expect that.
I angled my head and peered into the gloom. The bed was, so far as I could see, unoccupied. I stood quite still on the thick dark carpet, breathing shallowly. Unless he was crouching behind the bed or hiding in the en suite, he wasn’t there. The door into the hotel’s hallway was only thirty feet away, and I was wasting time.
I took four long strides and was halfway to the door when he hit me, surging up from behind the bed like a crocodile bursting from the reeds, jaws agape. He caught me around the waist and dragged me down so that I landed hard on one shoulder and hit my head on a chest of drawers. For a moment the world went white, then black, then a dull throbbing red as I shook off the confusion and grasped at his throat.
He slid free, pausing only long enough to aim a kick squarely into my face before making for the hallway. I saw it coming and turned away from the worst of it, shrinking and twisting so that he connected with my already aching shoulder. He reached for the scarf about my head, but I had the presence of mind to bring the kukri slicing up through the air, its razor edge flashing. He snatched his hand away, swung another kick, which got more of my hip than my belly, and made for the door.
I rolled, groaning and angry, listening to the door snap shut behind him, then flexed the muscles of my neck and shoulder, touching the fabric around my head with fluttering fin gers. It was still intact, as was I, but I felt rattled, scared. Darius’s cat burglar suaveness was all gone, exposed for the veneer it was, and beneath it there was ugliness and cruelty and the love of having other people in his power. I wasn’t surprised, but it gave me pause. I’d been kicked many times before, and I always knew what was behind it, how much force and skill, how much real, venomous desire to hurt, cripple, or kill. His effort had largely gone wide because it was dark and I knew how to dodge, but the kick had been deliberate, cruel. If I caught up with him and he thought he was in real danger, he would kill me without a second’s thought. I rolled to a crouch, sucked in a long, steadying breath, and went after him.
The hallway was lit by the amber glow of shaded oil lamps on side tables, so that for all the opulence of the place, the air tasted of acrid smoke, and the darkness pooled around me as I ran. Up ahead, the corridor turned into an open area where a single yellowing bulb of luxorite shone on intricate ceiling moldings and ornamental pilasters. There were stairs down, and I was aware of voices, lots of them, a sea of confused chatter spiked erratically with waves of laughter.
More Bar-Selehm elegance and, for me, more danger. I had no official position, no papers allowing me to break into the hotel rooms of the wealthy, nothing that would make my Lani presence among the cream of the city palatable. And in spite of all I had done for Bar-Selehm—for the very people who were sipping wine in the ballroom below—I felt the pressure of this more keenly than I had Darius’s malevolent kick. Some blows were harder to roll with.
I sprang down the carpeted stairs, turning the corner into the noise. The hallway became a gallery running around the upper story of the ballroom so that guests might promenade around the festivities, waving their fans at their friends below. Darius was on the far side, moving effortlessly through the formally dressed clusters of startled people. He was still masked, and they knew him on sight, falling away, their mouths little O’s of shock. One of the women fainted, or pretended to. Another partygoer, wearing a dragoon’s formal blues, took a step toward the masked man, but the pistol in Darius’s hand swung round like an accusatory fin ger and the dragoon thought better of his heroism.
I barreled through the crowd, shoving mercilessly, not breaking stride. The party below had staggered to a halt, and the room was a sea of upturned faces watching us as we swept around the gallery toward another flight of stairs. As I neared the corner, I seized a silver platter from an elegant lady in teal and heaved it at him, so that it slid in a long and menacing arc over the heads of the crowd below and stung him on the shoulder. He turned, angry, and found me elbowing my way through the people as they blew away from him like screws of colored tissue, horrified and delighted by their proximity to the infamous cat burglar. And then his gun came up again and they were just horrified, flinging themselves to the ground.
He fired twice. The gilded plaster cherub curled round the balustrade in front of me exploded, and the screaming started. Somewhere a glass broke, and in all the shrieking, it wasn’t absolutely clear that no one had been seriously hurt, but then someone took a bad step, lost their balance, and went over the balustrade. More screaming, and another shot. I took cover behind a stone pillar, and when I peered round, Darius had already reached the stairs and was gone.
I sprinted after him, knocking a middle-aged woman in layers of black gauzy stuff to the ground as I barged through. My kukri was still in my hand, and the partygoers were at least as spooked by the sweep of its broad, purposeful blade as by Darius’s pistol, though it had the advantage of focusing their attention away from my face and onto my gloved hands. A waiter—the only black person in the room that I could see—stepped back from me, staring at the curved knife like it was red-hot. That gave me the opening I needed, and I dashed through to the stairs.
Darius had gone up. I gave chase, focusing on the sound of his expensive shoes. One flight, two, three, then the snap of a door and suddenly I was in a bare hall of parquet floors, dim, hot, and dusty. A single oil lamp showed supply closets overflowing with bed linens and aprons on hooks. The hall ended in a steel ladder up to the roof, the panel closing with a metallic clang as I moved toward it.
He might be waiting, pistol reloaded and aimed. But he had chosen this building for a reason. Its roof gave onto Long Terrace, which ran all the way to the edge of Mahweni Old Town, from where he could reach any part of the northern riverbank or cross over into the warren of warehouses, sheds, and factories on the south side. He wouldn’t be waiting. He was looking to get away.
So I scaled the ladder and heaved open the metal shutters as quietly as I could manage. I didn’t want to catch him. I wanted to see where he went. It would be best if he thought he’d lost me. I slid out cautiously, dropped into a half crouch and scuttered to the end of the roof like a baboon. Darius was well away, taking leaping strides along the roof of the Long Terrace, and as he slowed to look back, I leaned behind one of the hotel’s ornamental gargoyles out of sight. When next I peered round, he was moving again, but slower, secure in the knowledge that he was in the clear.
I waited another second before dropping to the Long Terrace roof, staying low, and sheathing my kukri. The terrace was one of the city’s architectural jewels: a mile-long continuous row of elegant, three-story houses with servants’ quarters below stairs. They were fashioned from a stone so pale it was almost white and each had the same black door, the same stone urn and bas-relief carving, the same slate roof. Enterprising home owners had lined the front lip of the roof with planters that, at this time of year, trailed fragrant vines of messara flowers. The whole terrace curved fractionally down toward the river like a lock of elegantly braided hair. For Darius it provided a direct route across several blocks of the city away from prying eyes.
The nights were warming as Bar-Selehm abandoned its token spring, and the pursuit had made me sweat. We had left the light of the Beacon behind, and I could barely keep track of Darius in the smoggy gloom, even with my long lens, which I drew from my pocket and unfolded. At the end of the terrace, he paused to look back once more, adjusting the tubular roll of documents he had slung across his back, but I had chosen a spot in the shadow of a great urn sprouting ferns and a dwarf fruit tree, and he saw nothing. Satisfied, he shinned down the angled corner blocks at the end of the terrace and emerged atop the triumphal arch that spanned Broad Street, then descended the steps halfway and sprang onto the landing of the Svengele shrine, whose minaret marked the edge of Old Town. I gave chase and was navigating the slim walkway atop the arch when he happened to look up and see me.
I dropped to the thin ribbon of stone before he could get his pistol sighted, and the shot thrummed overhead like a hummingbird. He clattered up the steps that curled round the minaret and flung himself onto the sand-colored tile of the neighboring house. He was running flat out now, and I had no choice but to do the same. I jumped, snatched a handhold on the minaret, and tore after him, landing clumsily on the roof so that I was almost too late in my roll. Another shot, and one of the tiles shattered in a hail of amber grit that stung my eyes. I sprawled for cover, but Darius was off again, vaulting from roof to roof, scattering tile as he ran, so that they fell, popping and crackling into the street below. Somewhere behind us, an elderly black man emerged shouting, but I had no time for sympathy or apologies.
As the narrow street began to curl in on itself, Darius dropped to the rough cobbles and sprinted off into the labyrinth which was Old Town. The streets were barely wide enough for a cart to squeeze through, and at times I could touch the buildings on either side of the road at the same time. There was a pale gibbous moon glowing like a lamp in Bar-Selehm’s perpetual smoky haze, but its light did not reach into the narrow ginnels running between the city’s most ancient houses. Down here his footfalls echoed in the dark, which was the only reason I could keep up with him as he turned left, then right, then back, past the Ntenga butchers’ row and down to the waterfront, where I lost him.
The river wasn’t as high as it had been a couple of weeks before, but it filled the night with a constant susurration like wind in tall grass. As the carefully maintained cobbles gave way to the weedy gravel around the riverside boatyards and mooring quays, any footfalls were lost in the steady background hiss of the river Kalihm. I clambered down the brick embankment that lined the riverbank and revolved on the spot, biting back curses as I tried, eyes half shut, to catch the sound of movement.
There. It may have been no more than a half brick turned by a stray foot, but I heard it, down near the shingle shore only fifty yards away. It came from the narrow alley between a pair of rickety boathouses that straddled a concrete pier. I made for the sound, opting for stealth rather than speed, one hand on the horn butt of my kukri, picking my way over the rounded stones, my back to the city. Even here, in the heart of Bar-Selehm, when you faced the river, you stepped back three hundred years, and there was only water and reeds and the giant herons that stalked among them.
I heard the noise again, different this time, more distinct, but in this narrow wedge of space between the boathouses, almost no light struggled through. The river itself was paler, reflecting the smudge of moon in the night sky and touched with the eerie phosphorescence of glowing things that lived in its depths, but I could see nothing between me and it.
Or almost nothing.
As I crept down the pebbled slope, I saw—or felt—a shape in front of me as it shifted. Something like a large man crouching no more than a few feet ahead. A very large man. I slid the kukri from its sheath, and in that second, the shape moved, black against the waters of the Kalihm. It turned, lengthening improbably as it presented its flank to me. It was, I realized with a pang of terror, no man. It was as big as a cart, and as it continued its slow rotation to face me, a shaft of light splashed across its massive, glistening head. I felt my heart catch.
The hippo rushed at me then, its face splitting open impossibly, eyes rolling back as it bared its immense tusks and bellowed.
I scrambled up the riverbank, knowing the hippo could easily outrun me and that those jaws would fold and break me like a steam hammer. My boots slid on the wet stones. I was falling.
I felt the mad, blood-rushing horror of dropping to the ground in front of the great beast. I knew how it would trample me, toss me, rip me apart.
And then, somehow, I was recovering my balance.
In a blind madness of terror, I vaulted the embankment, feeling the hippo snapping its great coal-hatch door of a mouth inches behind me. Then I was clear and shooting up the slope toward the dim huddle of domes and spires that was the edge of Old Town.
The hippo roared again: a tremendous, window-rattling wall of noise that raised every hair on my head. I squeezed my eyes shut and slammed my hands against my ears, even though I knew it couldn’t get over the embankment. Or not there, at least. In places where the brick had crumbled, it was not unheard of for hippos to blunder into the outskirts of the town. I needed to move on.
My feet took me instinctively away from the snorting hippo in the dark of the riverbank, but I had no conscious idea where to go next. I had lost Darius completely.
Or so I assumed. In fact my detour to the river had taken only seconds. As I looked back, I caught the movement of a distant figure standing alone on one of the long brick jetties.
It couldn’t be.
But it was. He must have lost me when I went down to the river, and he was no longer hiding. He was, in fact, waiting.
I dropped into a balled crouch, then skulked crablike along the embankment wall to the head of the jetty and peered over. The hippo was grunting restlessly below me, some twenty yards to my left. Darius was perhaps three times that distance away. I watched as he drew something from inside his jacket and adjusted it. A white light leapt from his hand, vanished, then came back.
Luxorite. Probably a signet ring or locket he had purloined from some opulent bed chamber.
The light came again, then went. He was signaling.
I pulled out my long lens and started scanning the water, still aware of the heavy, shuffling breaths of the hippo in the dark, but I saw nothing beyond Darius’s dim silhouette. On the far side of the river, a half mile away, there was a distant glow of firelight: some large warehouse or factory on the south bank was ablaze. I smelled the smoke despite the distance, a strange and unpleasant stench quite unlike wood fires. I checked my surroundings, my eyes fastening on the rusty scaffold of a crane that loomed over the nearest boathouse. Its gantry stuck out over the river, the end well past Darius’s spot on the jetty.
Perhaps from there I would have a better view.…
I moved, stepping carefully, not looking back to Darius till I had reached the foot of the girdered tower. He had resumed signaling, his attention elsewhere. I grabbed the rust-bitten edges of the iron struts and began to climb. Pushing my boots into the triangular holes where the support beams intersected, I worked my way up, thirty feet, forty, till I reached a catwalk that gave onto the operator’s winch. In operation, the chains would be connected to a steam engine below, but the pulleys and cables were brown and furred with rust, as if the crane hadn’t been used for months, even years. The great arm of the main boom stuck out over the water into the night, pointing indistinctly toward the burning building on the other side. If it wasn’t structurally sound, I might not know till it was too late.
I pulled my way up over the cab and onto the lattice boom through which the main hoist ran. It had a triangular cross section, a yard wide on top, the bottom a single beam, the whole crisscrossed by supports like the rungs of a ladder. I crept out on my hands and knees, staring through the boom as I left the wharf and inched out over the dark and steadily moving water.
I was halfway along before I saw the rowboat approaching Darius’s position from the south bank of the river, and two thirds of the way along when someone stepped onto the arm of the crane behind me.
I stared as he hauled himself up. Not Darius, who was still down on the pier. Someone else. This new person, a white man in an incongruous suit and tie, stood tall on the girders of the boom, hands at his side, a revolver in one and what looked like a small pickax in the other. It sparkled coldly. Even at this distance, I could see that he was smiling as he took his first step toward me.
It was a cautious step, but he seemed quite composed, staring fixedly at me, his blond hair blowing slightly in the breeze that came up off the river, and as he took another, his confidence seemed to grow. Soon he was walking toward me with easy, measured strides, despite being fifty feet up in the air. It felt less like the skill of a steeplejack and more like the carelessness of someone who thought himself beyond harm.
It was frightening.
I kept crawling, though I had no idea where I would go when I reached the end of the crane’s jib. Maybe the cable would be hanging, and I would be able to swing to safety.…
Maybe. Probably not. But the alternative was the man with the gun and the pickax and the smile. It was the last that scared me most. He came on, a man who could not fall, eyes locked on mine. I struggled to my feet and drew the kukri, knowing that it was futile against a man with a gun. His smile widened, and I was first baffled, then terrified, as he slipped the pistol into his pocket and kept coming.
He wanted to fight me.
I felt the breeze stir my clothes as I stood up on the narrow boom, my weight balanced over my feet. I held the kukri by my right ear and extended my left hand toward him. He didn’t even slow. He took three more steps, slightly faster now, and I swung the kukri at him, a broad, slashing chop at his shoulder. He leaned away from it fractionally. The blade cut through the air, and I almost overbalanced as my arm came round. Instantly, he reached and tapped me on the side of the head with the pick as if he were striking a bell in a temple.
The blow stung like a wasp. I clapped my free hand to it. It came away slick with blood. He smiled again, and I knew that to him, this was sport. Entertainment. I stepped back unsteadily, then dropped to the boom, grabbed it with my hands, and scythed a kick at him.
He jumped. High up above the river and with nothing but two slim rails of metal to land on, he actually jumped over my kick, landed, and tagged me again with the spike of the pickax, this time in the small of my back. I cried out at that, less in pain—though it was real— and more in terror.
This, I thought with absolute certainty, is how I die.
I stepped forward and swung wildly at his face with my balled fist. He pivoted back out of range, and my momentum turned me away from him. As he closed in, I regained my balance and seized his outstretched wrist, trying to tug him off the boom, but I succeeded only in plucking his cufflink free. It arced through the night, sparkling bluish, and bounced on the iron frame before falling out of sight. He felt blindly at his flapping cuff, and a pulse of irritation went through his hard, pale eyes. He would kill me for that alone.
I couldn’t fight him. That much was clear. He was too strong, too fast, too skilled. Nor could I get past him. My only choice was to scramble to the very limit of the crane’s boom. I turned and half stepped, half jumped to get out of his range. He did not lunge after me, not right away. Seeing how futile my retreat was, he approached more cautiously. I backed away as far as I could, but in a few feet, I was out of room and there was nothing below me except a long fall into deep water.
There was a flash in my peripheral vision and an almost instantaneous bang. I looked down. The boat had reached the jetty, but as Darius had stooped to extend a hand toward it, the boatman had shot him down. The cat burglar crumpled, and the man in the boat reached up to tug the document roll Darius had been carrying free. The dead man spilled softly off the jetty into the water, his luxorite lamp lighting the river up with a greenish, dreamlike haze from below, as the boatman pushed off and rowed away.
I tore my gaze away and turned to the man on the crane, who moved almost close enough to touch. He held the pistol loosely at his side once more, but his right hand, the one with the pick, was taut and ready. Its spike was already tipped with the smallest touch of crimson. My blood. He was making no attempt to hide his face. A very bad sign. He did not intend for me to live long enough to tell anyone who I had seen. He was still smiling, a bland, unsettling smile at once ordinary and terrible. Though he could easily have shot me where I was, I knew instinctively that he would prefer to use the pick.
In fact it was more a fall, a desperate lunge into the airy nothing above the water, and I had just enough time to remember the hippo before I hit the surface.
Hit the surface I did. Hard. I have always been healthily afraid of water, because I can’t swim and I know what lives in and around the Kalihm, yet it had never occurred to me that falling into water would feel like falling onto concrete. I slammed into the river, my left knee, thigh, hip, and shoulder taking the full impact. The pain shocked the air out of me. For a second I was incapable of my own distress, stunned into inaction, turning over and over as I sank.
Then I was drifting to the surface again, borne toward the ocean by the current. All I felt was pain, so that I was not even able to keep my eyes and mouth closed. Before I broke the surface, my throat was full of the warm, soiled water of the Kalihm. I coughed it up and promptly swallowed more. My body screamed with the agony of impact and my lungs filled.
I was dying.
“Well, obviously I survived,” I said.
Willinghouse watched me, his face stern, while the man I had known as Detective Andrews—now Inspector Andrews, thanks to his part in the Beacon affair—motioned one of his men to replace the sopping blanket around my shoulders with another.
My left arm was dislocated, and they had strapped it in place till someone from Saint Auspice’s could tend to it properly. My face throbbed. Most of my left side was suffused with a deep and coloring bruise that made the slightest movement painful. More to the point, as Willinghouse’s very first question had made clear, I had neither the stolen plans nor any clue to the identity of who had orchestrated the theft. The police had recovered Darius’s body and were planning to put notices in the papers requesting assistance from the public to confirm the cat burglar’s real name.
I had described the man with the pick, but he was nondescript in everything but the strange detachment with which he had planned to kill me, and I couldn’t put that into words they understood.
“He was white,” I said. “Blond. Ordinary-looking but well dressed.”
Willinghouse, never a man to hide his disappointment in me, scowled and looked away across the river to where a thick smudge of smoke hung over the remains of what ever had burned the night before. I had drifted only a few hundred yards down the river, my barely conscious body pulled into a central channel too deep— mercifully—to run afoul of the nearby hippo pod. I had snagged upon a raft of driftwood on the central stanchion of the shifting and rickety Ridleford pontoon bridge and been spotted by Mahweni longshoremen on their morning ferry ride to work. They had alerted the coast guard, who were out in unusual numbers.
“What burned last night?” I asked, following Willinghouse’s green eyes.
“What?” he asked, as if just remembering I was there. “Oh. Nothing. An abandoned factory. It’s not relevant.”
And that was Willinghouse. There was work—which was relevant—and there was everything else. I hopped from one category to the other like a secretary bird hunting snakes.
“Why all the coast guard boats?” I asked. I could see three this side of the Ridleford pontoons. They had armed men in their bows, and one seemed to be towing another vessel—actually more a raft bound together with rope and buoyed up unevenly on rusted barrels— crowded with people. Black people. Thin and ragged looking. Almost all women and children.
“Illegals,” said Andrews. “Trying to sneak into the economic paradise that is Bar-Selehm.”
I watched the people on the raft as they gazed from one shouting officer to another, uncomprehending and scared, the children huddled around their mothers, their faces tear streaked.
“How are you feeling?” asked Andrews. He was a thin-faced, cleanshaven white man whose eyes had a predatory intensity, but his voice was soft, and his concern sounded genuine.
I reached for my injured shoulder with my right hand, but couldn’t grasp it before the pain became too much. I winced, and he nodded.
“Anything other than your shoulder?” he asked. “That was quite a fall.”
“Just my pride,” I said, still watching the children as they were lifted from their listing raft and into the arms of the police who clustered around in the thigh-deep water. One of the women—wearing a filthy and soaking orange sarong that stuck to her sticklike limbs—was nursing a tiny infant.
“Why did you jump?” asked Willinghouse, peering at me from behind his wire-rimmed spectacles. “You couldn’t have, I don’t know,
fought them off or something?”
“No,” I said.
“I thought you were more adept at this kind of thing.” He didn’t sound critical as much as curious, and when I glared at him, he shrugged. “What?”
“The one who came after me was too strong, all right? Too skilled.”
“And you saw nothing to identify either him or the gunman in the boat?” Willinghouse pressed.
I shook my head, feeling stupid and useless, looking back to the ragged immigrants, then caught myself.
“There was something,” I said. “He lost a cufflink as we fought on the crane. It might have fallen in the river, but it might not.”
“Where?” asked Andrews.
“I’ll show you,” I said, getting to my feet with the inspector’s help. I scowled at Willinghouse, but he was watching the raft and seemed to have forgotten me entirely, so I led Andrews along the riverbank to the steps and the pier and the crane, a uniformed officer trailing us, uninterested. The hippo was still there, its back turned to the water, pinking in the sun.
“There,” I said. “We were at the midpoint of that boom when he lost the cufflink. It went behind him and hit metal on the way down.”
I shrugged apologetically. It wasn’t much of a clue.
“Benson!” called Andrews to the uniformed officer, pointing.
“Down there, sir?” protested Benson. “There’s a bloody great hippo!”
“Well, keep your distance from it,” said Andrews, not very helpfully.
Benson gave me a baleful look.
“Was it luxorite?” said Willinghouse suddenly.
“The cufflink your assailant dropped. Did it contain luxorite?”
“I don’t think so. It was bright but only by reflection. Why?”
“If it was luxorite, he would have had an easier time finding it in the dark,” Willinghouse said with a noncommittal shrug. “Unless it fell into the river, in which case the point is rather moot.”
He said it sourly, the scar on his cheek tightening, as if where the item had fallen was somehow my fault. I talked to push away the sense of failure.
“Probably just crystal or enamel,” I said, “but large and blue.”
It took a moment for this to register in my employer’s face, but the transformation was marked.
“Blue?” snapped Willinghouse. “You’re sure? What shape?”
“I didn’t get a good look at it—”
I thought hard, sensing how much he needed me to remember more than I had seen. I shrugged, and my shoulder cried in protest.
“I don’t know for sure,” I said. “Could have been.”
“On a white background?”
“White or silver, yes,” I said. “You know it?”
“Oh yes,” said Willinghouse, and there was something more than pleasure in his face. His jaw was set in grim resolution. He hurried away and was soon poring over the ground behind Andrews and Benson, who was peering into the water below the crane’s piers, keeping a watchful eye on the hippo some thirty yards away. I joined the hunt, but only for a moment. Willinghouse suddenly straightened up with a cry of “Huzzah!” He held the cufflink aloft, and his face was full of grim triumph.
“What is it?” asked Andrews.
“Elitus,” said Willinghouse, holding out the cufflink for Andrews to inspect it. It was indeed a blue crystalline diamond on a silvery white enamel background. “A club. Very exclusive.”
“Never heard of it,” said Andrews.
“No,” Willinghouse answered. “You wouldn’t have. No offense meant. If it’s any consolation, they wouldn’t have me as a member either.”
Andrews raised his eyebrows. Willinghouse was only a junior member of Parliament, but he was a man of considerable means, which was how he was able to employ me.
We all turned to look down to the shore, where Benson gazed up at us with a look of considerable unease. “Did you find what you were looking for? Only, this hippo is eyeballing me something awful… ?”
“Oh, for crying out loud, man!” exclaimed Andrews. “Yes, we found it. Get up here.” He turned back to Willinghouse irritably. “You were saying you wouldn’t be allowed to join this Elitus club. Why not?”
Willinghouse smiled mirthlessly.
“Well, I’m not a member of the right party for one thing, but…” He hesitated. “Let’s just say that the cufflink’s white background is… symbolic.”
Andrews looked taken aback, embarrassed even. He knew that Willinghouse was a quarter Lani, though it wasn’t clear from his appearance. His hair was jet-black like mine, but his eyes were green, and most people would assume he was merely a little tanned by the Feldesland sun. His socialite sister, Dahria, passed even more completely for white.
“Did he see your face? Your skin?” asked Willinghouse.
I bit back my irritation.
“Are you asking if he saw who I was or what I am?” I said.
I looked away.
“My face was masked,” I said. “He didn’t get a good look at me. Whether he could tell I was Lani… I don’t know. Maybe.”
Willinghouse scowled, dissatisfied.
“There’s no need for that, old fellow,” said Andrews. “Miss Sutonga has had a singularly trying experience—”
“I don’t dispute that,” Willinghouse shot back. “I’d just like to know whether our enemy realizes the government has a Lani agent working for them.”
“Your concern is noted,” I said, frostily, “but I can look after myself.”
“My concern,” said Willinghouse, “is that if they do, in fact, know that the person who pursued their agent was Lani or, for that matter female, then your use value just went into a sharp decline, wouldn’t you say?”
Fury got the better of me.
“My use value?” I spat.
“Your function as a government operative.”
“You’re not the government,” I said, swinging wildly now. “You’re a member of Parliament in the opposition’s back benches.”
“Who serves the interests of the city with the means available to him,” Willinghouse retorted.
“Meaning me? I’m the means available to you?”
“Meaning… no,” he said, stuttering to a frustrated halt. “I meant using my family’s fortune, a small part of which has been used to secure your services.”
“And excellent services they are too,” inserted Andrews, trying to keep the peace.
We both glared at him. There was a long silence.
“I’ll also remind you,” said Willinghouse pompously, “that while my party is not currently in power, this is an election year and the Brevard membership has high hopes of—”
“This Elitus place,” I said. “How do I get in?”
“Miss Sutonga,” he said, “these people, whoever they are, have already demonstrated they are quite ruthless. Two people have already died trying to stop them. The documents are gone. The enemy have them, and nothing we do now will change that.”
“What are they?” I asked.
“That is confidential information,” said Andrews. “Even I don’t know—”
“Plans for a new machine gun,” said Willinghouse.
Andrews and I both gaped at him. I had seen a machine gun in use once before. I did not know how they could be made more lethal than they already were, but if someone had that knowledge, someone I had failed to stop…
“The documents were stolen from the War Office,” said Willing-house. “I was in a meeting across the street when the alarm was raised, which is why I was able to alert you to what was going on before the thief made his escape. The shadow secretary for defense spoke to me in the heat of the moment and was, you might say, unguarded in his speech. Something he now regrets. Anyway, yes, the plans are for a new machine gun, and word in government circles is that it’s the Grappoli who took them.”
“Of course,” said Andrews. “They always suspect the Grappoli.”
The Grappoli were the city’s colonial rivals, and they controlled considerably more of Feldesland, the continent of which Bar-Selehm was the jewel, than we did. Bar-Selehm had been established three centuries ago by King Gustav II of Belrand, a country on the northern continent of Panbroke: a pro cess equal parts military conquest, barter, and legal sleight of hand. The city-state eventually became an industrial sprawl unrivaled in Feldesland, but pretty isolated from its neighbors. It had leeched parcels of land away from the indigenous Mahweni over the years, but Bar-Selehm’s total holdings still amounted to no more than a few thousand square miles. The Grappoli’s native lands were in southeast Panbroke, their people still white, but tending to darker hair and eyes than the Belrandians, and their expansion across the sea to Feldesland had been a more concerted effort to dominate the continent. They had taken over whole countries in the north and west and seemed to be perpetually looking to expand farther. It was one of those bitter colonial jokes that when anyone referred to the “Feldish,” they meant the white colonists from Belrand, not the Mahweni who had always lived on the continent and who had called the land something different. I didn’t know what.
“I know,” he said. “But this time… the Grappoli are moving east, north of the Hagrab desert. They are claiming obscure legal pre cedent based on settlements made a century or more ago. Reports suggest that they are fuelling tribal conflicts that are driving the locals off the land, and the only modern military resis tance they are encountering comes from local warlords who are fighting only to protect their opium fields. The people who live there are caught in the middle. We don’t know for sure what is happening yet, and there is no suggestion that the conflict might expand south toward Bar-Selehm, but it’s a mess, and a bloody one. Trade routes are being watched; sanctions against the Grappoli are being drawn up. Potential deals between Bar-Selehm and the Grappoli that might in any way augment their military capacity are being debated even as we speak. Some of my more hawkish colleagues are suggesting we send troops north to support the cartels, while others say that the drug lords are clearly the lowest of the very low, and that if we are to take sides at all, we are better lining up alongside the Grappoli. My party’s position is that the Grappoli’s current landgrab may not involve us at all, but we must ensure that Bar-Selehm does not support it, however indirectly. In the long term, the consequences could be dire.”
“The long term?” I said. “What about the northern tribes whose land is being taken now?”
“Miss Sutonga, let’s not make this a crusade, shall we?” he said. His eyes flashed to the now-empty raft surrounded by the coast guard, and I made the connection.
“Them?” I demanded. “That’s what this is? You said they were illegal immigrants.”
“They are!” said Willinghouse.
“But they are also refugees?”
“The lands north of the Hagrab desert are not Bar-Selehm’s concern,” said Willinghouse. “The people who live there have sovereignty over their own territory. Interference on our part would merely spark diplomatic discomfort. The results could easily escalate into trade sanctions, the closing of embassies, the collapse of interna.
tional trade agreements—”
“We’re talking about the Quundu, yes?” I said.
“There are various tribal territories involved,” said Willinghouse wearily, “but yes, the Quundu, the Delfani, the Zagrel—”
“Who all have their own sovereignty,” said Andrews.
“Yes,” I said. “You know what else they have? Spears. Shields covered with buffalo hide. Knives. While the Grappoli have machine guns. But let’s be sure not to spark diplomatic discomfort.”
“You can’t take things like this personally,” said Willinghouse. “It impairs your judgment.”
I watched where the police and coast guard were gathering the weary huddle of women and children together on the shore. Some of them had collapsed. How long had they been at sea? Days? Weeks? There were bodies on the raft that I had thought were sleeping, but they had not moved after the others disembarked. One wailing woman splashed through the water toward a small body, while a policeman pulled her back.…
“How do I get into Elitus?” I asked again, turning back to Willing-house, my tone neutral.
“I really don’t think—” Andrews began, but I cut him off with a look.
“How do I get in?”
“If someone of my status can’t get into Elitus,” said Willinghouse, “how on earth am I going to get a full-blood Lani girl in?”
“I have no idea,” I said. “But I can’t wait to find out.”
Excerpted from Firebrand, copyright © 2017 by A.J. Hartley.