Authors: L. J. McDonald
NEW YORK CITY
“Are you a virgin? Girl!” Lizzy’s eyes opened after a sudden slap. “Are you a virgin?”
“At least they’ll like that.” The woman sighed. “If Eighty-nine goes for her first, though, just pull her out. I don’t want him killing another girl.”
“You can’t do this!” Lizzy gasped. They started to haul her forward and she balked, trying to brace her bare feet on the slippery floor. “I won’t go!”
“Shut it, girl!” the woman snapped. “The only reason you keep your tongue in there is because some of the battlers like the screaming.”
To Oliver, for encouraging me in writing this book, and for Chris, for making it better.
Also for, and he knows why: The Bad Man
A man known for crudity and violence, Cherod Mash came to Sylph Valley looking for a drink, a fight, and a tickle, in any order he could get them. Mostly, however, he came as one of the drovers of a trade caravan willing to give the new kingdom a try.
The place was said to have money—gems and metals dug from the heart of the world by sylphs. But no sylph could make those things into anything useful. For that, artisans were needed, and Cherod drove a wagon piled high with woven carpets and other crafted commodities from the southern kingdom of Yed. These had been commissioned for a good weight of those gems he’d heard about, and once the trade was complete, the caravan would continue through the mountains to Para Dubh and see if maybe they could buy some even more valuable goods brought across the sea from Meridal, which they’d take home and sell for tremendous profit.
Not that the logistics really mattered to Cherod. He left that kind of thinking to his employer and focused on driving his oxen—at least until they reached a town where there was beer to drink, fights to start, and women to bed. He’d never been to Sylph Valley, but from what he’d heard it was chock full of whores. He’d even heard they slept with the sylphs, which made no sense to him. Those damn things weren’t even solid most of the time.
The convoy arrived in the Valley in late afternoon, the oxen blowing and men shouting over the creaking of the
wagons. Yelling at his own beasts, Cherod guided them through the streets in the direction a local had pointed the boss, to a huge building towering over everything else at the end of the street. It didn’t look like any warehouse Cherod had ever seen before, though. It was made from a solid piece of stone, veins of metal running through it like some sort of disease. It loomed before them, its front a massive door that stood open.
The buildings they passed to get there were exactly the same in that they were all totally unique. Cherod saw shops where the walls were transparent or where the roof reached into the sky a dozen or more stories. The roads were smooth stone, the sidewalks raised, and every block had a stairwell leading underground. To see people going in and out by way of those stairs was bizarre. What kind of man lived underground, or in a building that looked like the wind could knock down? All of the buildings seemed almost sickeningly fragile. The whole place might fall on you! Better was a proper house made of wood or stone, with a real thatched roof.
Still, he thought, this place mightn’t be so bad. He watched a trio of women cross the street, darting past his wagon while the way was clear. They were laughing over something, their faces bright with smiles. One of them even wore pants like a man, and Cherod appreciatively regarded the place where her legs met her body. They had to be whores to dress like that.
An earth sylph trundled past, looking like a little mudshaped girl. Cherod gave it a quick look, but otherwise kept his eyes on the women. He whistled at them. They looked back but kept walking, giggling. He grinned. This would be a good night.
Ahead, the wagons turned to pass through a wide doorway leading into the warehouse. Standing by the door, a
fat man with sweat on his face gestured them all inside, shouting for them to pull to the right, for the gods’ sake, pull to the right or there’d be no room for them to get their wagons out.
Cherod turned his wagon with the others, still thinking of those women, and nearly ran into the wall. The fat foreman screeched and Cherod swore, yanking the reins hard to the side to steer his oxen. They bellowed in protest and turned, the wagon wheels scraping the wall but finding clearance. That made Cherod forget about women; the boss would have his hide if he scratched the paint on those damned wheels.
Just inside the warehouse, a dark-haired man stood with his arms crossed, watching. He was dressed in blue trousers and a long blue coat edged with gold trim. Cherod’s first thought was that he was a lord, but the boss had said this place didn’t
lords. His second instinct was that the man was the law.
As the wagon rolled past him, the blue-coated man looked up but didn’t say anything. Cherod kept staring forward. He’d spent far too many nights in lockup, and the boss had warned he’d be fired if it happened again. Cherod instead drove the wagon to the rear of the warehouse, where the first was already stopped. Another door loomed beyond, one for them to drive out of once they unloaded, and the entire ceiling was made of glass, letting in more than enough sunlight to see. It was a nice setup, if a bit unnerving. Usually he’d have to unload his damn cargo outside, no matter what the wind or rain.
What was even nicer was that air sylphs were doing the unpacking. Cherod couldn’t see them, but carpets and other goods were flying off the wagons, vanishing among huge shelves while Cherod’s boss screamed at the foreman over how much was there and in what condition.
Stretching his back, Cherod climbed down and walked over to the next wagon. There, Frem was watching the sylphs with his mouth hanging open. Cherod grinned. “Not bad, eh?”
“Yeah,” Frem agreed, his mouth still agape. “Wish we got this everywhere. Damn, this place is different.”
“Yep. Can’t wait to see what the women are like.”
“I think I’m afraid to know,” Frem admitted.
In all, it only took ten minutes to unload everything, which to Cherod’s mind made it a record. Even better, it was still too late to start off again before morning. While the boss was too much the skinflint to pay for rooms—he was of the opinion that his men could sleep just as well under their wagons—this meant they’d have the evening to themselves. They just had to make sure they were back before the convoy left.
They’d also been paid since the last stop. Cherod had coin in his pocket and a powerful urge to drink.
“Want to go find a tavern?” he asked Frem. It was always good to have a buddy along, mostly on the theory that he could be convinced to buy a few rounds.
Frem shook his head. “Sorry, I’m gonna get a bath and some sleep.”
Coward. He just didn’t like Cherod’s reputation. Cherod himself didn’t really mind, though. He was more interested in a different kind of company tonight. “Your loss,” he grunted.
The boss waved them all over. A huge man who’d been a drover for thirty years, Thul Cramdon was one of the few men Cherod respected; Thul had nearly broken his hand for throwing a drunken punch. The boss was fairly open-minded, though, willing to have a drink himself and not caring what Cherod did, so long as he wasn’t late and didn’t cost Thul any money.
“There’s a place we can store the wagons and oxen for tonight,” Thul told them. “We get paid on the morrow, then we’re out of here.” He scratched his hairy chin. “Foreman here says there’s a hotel of sorts down the road with a bar. Y’ can stay there if you want, but it’s right expensive.” There were groans at that. “Otherwise, the blacksmith lets men sleep in the loft of his barn for a penny.” That sounded better, though Cherod didn’t really like picking hay out of his clothes. “Only other thing he said was, ‘Leave the sylphs alone, leave the women alone, ’less they say otherwise, and stay the hell away from the men in blue and gold.’ That’s it. Settle yer animals and be back at dawn.”
The men obeyed, discussing what they’d do while they drove their wagons out of the warehouse, following the boss to the empty lot provided for storage. A large paddock nearby was good for the animals. Cherod didn’t join their conversation. He was going to find that bar—and as for a place to stay, women had rooms, didn’t they? He’d just sack out with whoever took him home.
Waving at the others, he headed out and down the street, passing other warehouses and places to buy or repair farming equipment. All of the buildings had the same oddly organic look. More, everything seemed to be laid out according to some master plan…and it didn’t take him long to realize that most of the buildings were going unused. It seemed crazy to build a bunch of places before you needed them, but he supposed if you had a whole bunch of sylphs to do the work, there was no harm done.
It didn’t take him long to find the tavern the boss mentioned. The rooms above were overpriced, but the drinks were plentiful and cheap. The beer was made by a water sylph, the barman told him proudly—which explained the weird aftertaste. It was still pretty good beer, but unnatural.
The whole place was. Cherod had never seen so many sylphs as he had on the walk over. There were three in the bar itself, with the owner’s water sylph washing glasses when she wasn’t mixing hops, malt and water in midair. She looked like some sort of freaking kid, except kids weren’t see-through.
Cherod didn’t much care for her. More interesting was how there were two barmaids, one of whom was fat and middle-aged, while the other was much younger and pretty. They both carried drinks and bowls of stew to customers, chattering with the men as much as serving them. This meant Cherod had to get his first beer from the barman, but he took this time to watch, downing the mug and gesturing for another.
“Might want to slow down a bit,” the barman laughed. “Pond puts more oomph in her beer than most folks. It’s stronger than it looks.”
“Just pour,” Cherod growled. He drank half the results in a single gulp and gestured toward the younger woman with the stein. “She available?”
The barman blinked. “Cherry? Nah, she don’t date customers.”
Why not, with a name like that? Cherod smirked and drained his beer, slamming it down in front of the barman, who shrugged and filled it again, but with the warning, “I’d leave her alone. She’s quick to yell for help.”
That sounded even more interesting. After Thul nearly broke his hand, Cherod hadn’t got into any fights with his fellow drovers, and fighting was his favorite hobby, next to drinking and whoring. “I’ll take that under advisement,” he told the barman, and lurched off his stool, swaying for a moment. “Shit, this stuff
Cherod ignored him, lurching across the floor toward
Cherry. She had her back to him, chatting with some stupid customer who’d brought his wife to the bar and was ordering dinner. The barman, realizing what Cherod intended, shouted for him to stop, but Cherod flung an arm around the maid, his hand latching onto her breast.
“Hey, girl,” he slurred. “Let’s go find someplace we can get naked.”
Cherry screamed, trying to pull away, but Cherod just laughed, tightening his grip and taking another swallow from his mug. The barman was shouting for him to let go, rushing around the side of the bar, but he was a skinny little nothing, and everyone else was staring in shock. As if none of them would ever grab a whore for a tickle!
“You wanna try something?” he sneered at the barman, his grip tightening on the girl’s breast until she started to cry. “Stop yer bitchin’,” he snapped at her. “You know you want it.”
The door crashed open. Immediately, all of the patrons turned white, scrambling out of their chairs and shoving each other as they fled to the back of the establishment. The barman went with them, while his water sylph gave a bizarre shriek and vanished, leaving her half-made beer to splash on the floor. The other sylphs who’d been wandering around vanished as well, or stood between their masters and the door.
Surprised, Cherod turned, Cherry swinging around with him. She saw who was there and started sobbing, reaching out.
The man in the blue and gold from the warehouse was entering the bar, his face so devoid of expression that Cherod hesitated before he started to laugh. From the look of it, he outweighed the newcomer by a hundred pounds or more, and the blue-coated fool didn’t have a weapon.
“You have to be joking,” he laughed.
A second man came in, then a third and fourth. In all, seven men in blue and gold entered, none of them speaking as they spread out to fill the bar. They advanced.
These weren’t odds Cherod liked, but from experience, the worst he would get was a lump on the head and a night in jail. He glared, though, seeing his job leaving in the morning without him. Thul wouldn’t wait for him again.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he shouted. “Who gives a shit about some slut barmaid?” Somewhere behind him, someone groaned.
The men didn’t seem to care. “The hive’s in danger,” one of them said in a soft voice.
“Yes,” several more answered.
“The queen gave her permission.”
They all hissed it, the sound continuing after they should have run out of breath, and Cherod looked around at them, suddenly nervous. “Look,” he said. “I’m letting her go. See? I’m letting go.”
He released Cherry and immediately she ran to the men, still crying. Half of their number converged around her, holding her and actually cooing. The rest kept advancing.
“Look,” Cherod said. “I—”
He didn’t get to finish. A blast of emotion hit him all at once, focused and deliberate, and he felt his bladder release as his tankard fell to the ground. His eyes widened and he screamed in terror. Hatred that wasn’t his filled him, crippling his courage, leaving him shaking and helpless and his heart threatening to burst in his chest. But this didn’t last long. The men’s focus narrowed and something else came at him, something invisible and very deliberately aimed.
Cherod’s right arm blew off at the shoulder. It was the one he’d grabbed the girl with, intending nothing but
some harmless fun, though if she felt bad about it in the morning, oh well. He drew breath to scream again, and his left burst off as well. He did scream then, his voice so high-pitched he couldn’t recognize it—and then the blue-coated battle sylphs he’d been warned about took off his head.