Saturday, December 1, 2007

22. The Eighth Rule of Banditry (Part 1)

The Wee Ones flung him from the chair, unkindly, and Dent’s world went tumbling around him. Something cold smacked hard into his back and his head, and then an upside-down Sir Leslie was smiling his diamond shark smile.

“We’ll let you keep a bit,” Sir Leslie said. “While I sharpen the knives.”

Dent couldn’t see Pebble, but somewhere she was shrieking in fear, and then the cage pressed gently against his head, and upside-down Sir Leslie slid upward out of view, and all around were the prongs and spires of the dark ship’s architecture. A door slid shut, latching with a heavy clang, and Pebble’s shrieks faded, and were finally gone.

Dent scrambled to right himself, and the floor wobbled perilously; he realized in one sickening instant’s rush that there was nothing around him, nothing but air, and clung to the edges of the disc on which he found himself until the wobbling stopped. He was suspended a far and frightening distance in the air, the walls of the chamber arcing up around him in curling spines and filligrees to a ceiling well beyond his reach. The walls were too far to jump, even if he’d been brave enough to try standing up. And when he peered carefully over the edge, he saw Wee Ones moving below in the semidark. Their faces turned up to his in glints of menacing light, and they paused their clacking patrol of the floor, rooted on him.

Slowly, shakily, Dent rolled onto his back. He felt terror and despair rise in a wave in him, squeeze his chest tight and crawl out in salt tears through the corners of his eyes. An Imperial heir did not cry, but then, Dent was no longer an Imperial heir. He was a bandit now, and not a very good one, and soon he would be dinner.

So Dent cried, and understandably so. He cried for the pain slowly ebbing from his back and the back of his skull, and for Pebble screaming off into the distance, and for being a very small boy alone and friendless in a strange and terrible place.

He shut his eyes and wished that this whole adventure had been nothing but a dream. And he shouted, loud as his voice could carry, for himself to wake up. But no miraculous rescue or awakening came.

A small thing, a very ordinary thing, happened instead. But in the grand scheme of things, it was almost as good.

As Dent shouted, the contents of his belt shifted, rattling from one end of their pouches to the other.

Dent, still sniffling, remembered that was alone — but not without resources. And he remembered what Captain Corsair had told him, just before they parted.

“A bandit always has a plan,” Dent said to himself, sounding brave so that maybe he would feel brave. It worked, a little.

Cautiously, the platform wobbling beneath him, Dent rolled over and began to take inventory.

“Food safety,” smiled Sir Leslie, as he finished tying his long hair back. “Very important.” He peeled off his black velvet jacket, undid his ruffly cuffs, and rolled his sleeves up to the elbows for the washing-up.

Sir Leslie had culinary bots to handle most of the tedious fare he usually had to subsist upon, and to prepare the occasional confectionary indulgence. But for the true gourmet meals, the ones Sir Leslie lived for, he preferred to do the cooking himself. He’d had a special kitchen fitted in the ship, adjacent to the wine cellar and his private dining chamber. Most of the cooking was done with lasers and infrawaves these days, but Sir Leslie was a purist. He’d paid extra to cook with fire, fueled by harvested, purified methane from the ship’s waste systems.

Well, he would have paid extra for it, had he paid at all, in any fashion other than several bad bouts of indigestion.

Sir Leslie liked to talk while he cooked, but in most cases, what he considered his sterling conversation was always lessened by the other party or parties’ tendency to scream, whimper, or beg for their lives in a truly unbecoming fashion.

There had been some screaming from the girl earlier, and a little crying, and he’d had to stuff an apple in her mouth the second time she tried to bite him. But now that she was sitting on his countertop, securely tied with excessive amounts of food-grade butcher’s twine, she had settled down to stare at him with those wide, strangely reflective eyes of hers. (Sir Leslie had resolved to retain those, and pickle them separately — their doubtlessly delicate flavor would be utterly lost in a stew.)

She was propped on the island in the midst of Sir Leslie’s pleasantly dim kitchen, flanked on one side by the spice rack, and on the other by the large porcelain basin, just large enough to hold a child. The edges of the drain around the bottom were flecked with bits of something dark and rusty-red.

“There we are,” he grunted, satisfied. “Clean hands.” Turning from the washbasin next to the stove, he toweled his black-thatched forearms dry. Sir Leslie picked up a gleaming steel mallet, studded with little spikes on its face, and tested its weight. “Now, it’s important to tenderize the tougher, stringier cuts of meat before you cook it,” he explained to Pebble, savoring the tremors of worry he saw flitting across her face. “I personally find that a bit of tenderization before one even begins the carving is also useful.”

The mallet lingered in his hand for a moment … and then he laid it back down on the wooden cutting block. “But I’m getting ahead of myself! Must do the prep work first.”

With thick hands — far rougher than a gentleman’s ought to be, despite his daily regimen of softening creams and dermabrasion — he plucked two fat grape-onions and a paperskinned tumus root from the countertop, setting them down in a solid thwack on the cutting block.

“I find it often saves time to prepare the veg in advance,” Sir Leslie said cheerily. “The meat can get a mite messy.” He reached up to the floating knife rack, listening to the blades chime as he swept a finger across the row of their handles, and neatly plucked a utility blade off.

Pebble listened to everything, her mouth cottony-sweet with overripe apple, her jaws pushed painfully open to accomodate it. Behind her back, in small, cautious movements, she peeled one of the stuck-on seashells slowly from the sleeve of her jumpsuit.

“I learned this when I was but a wee boy,” Sir Leslie said, the knife gliding through the tough skin of the first grape-onion with barely a whisper. “We’d had servants once, I remember that. Remember a Winter Ball dinner, with a lovely great pudding. Then Father had that trouble with his holdings, and mother took ill —”

He abruptly slammed the knife down on the block, jerking Pebble’s gaze back from the stove to him. “The cooktop isn’t speaking to you, miss,” Sir Leslie said slowly, and no less sharply than the knife in his hands. “I’m speaking to you. You’ll show me the courtesy of looking at me. Or it’s worse than the stew for you.”

Upon the word “worse,” his diamond teeth briefly sang out, then stilled themselves. Pebble’s eyes widened, and from then on fixed on him. But in her hands, the seashell’s sharp edge began to work its way through the layers of twine, thread by slender thread.

“That’s a good lass,” Sir Leslie purred, turning back to the grape-onion. “See here?” he said, holding up a neatly cleaved segment. “The purple veins between all the layers. That’s how you know it’s fresh. Good and fresh. Very important, fresh food.”

He set down the onion and finished the chopping in a few deft strokes, then turned to the tumus root. “I learned that as a boy, too. Couldn’t get much fresh, with mother’s illness, and the doctors. Just that packaged, processed glob they try to pass as food when you’re — when your circumstances are reduced. Makes you fat, it does. All fat and wobbly.”

He stopped, looking up at Pebble from the neat stripes of skin he was carving off the root. Beneath, its flesh was a firm, wet indigo. “Not that you’ll ever have that problem, eh? Skinny little scrap like you. Bet you’re half gristle.”
He chuckled, as if this was the sort of thing both of them would find very funny, and went back to work.

“Tumus root — full of vitamins,” Sir Leslie grinned, the blade crisping and snacking as it divided the root into broad chunks. “Good low-calorie snack. Not that I’m watching my figure, mind. And it’s simply divine with just a dash of —” his free hand loomed over the spice rack, fingers waggling, and plucked out a vial “— powdered sparkpepper.”

Pebble watched as Sir Leslie slid the catch, the container’s lid opening to reveal a mound of spicy-smelling fine red powder. He dabbed a finger in, and waved it under Pebble’s nose, grinning as her eyes began to water. He picked up a slice of tumus root from the counter, dusted it with a pinch of sparkpepper and let it crunch between his teeth.

“Mmh,” he exulted, when at last he swallowed. “Divine.” He opened his eyes.

Pebble, her hands freed, dashed the entire container of pepper into his face.

Sir Leslie roared, swinging blindly with the utility blade, cleaving only the air. He dropped the knife and stumbled backward in a cascade of oaths, the pepper searing his eyes, until he found the washbasin. It took nearly a click for the water to soothe and clear his swollen, tender eyes, and half a click more until he could keep them open well enough to see.

“Sashimi it is,” he snarled, swabbing his eyes clean with towel, and turned back to the island.

But only a pile of butcher’s twine, a once-bitten apple, and a single seashell, remained of the girl.

Once, the Dark Matter Armada had left its prisoners in the cell where Dent now sat, left them for days floating on the platform in the middle of nothing. The platform was unstable, deliberately; too great a motion in one direction or the other could send them pitching off to the pitiless floor far below. Sometimes, after days and days, they’d simply let themselves slide off. Some, if their balance was good enough, would find their feet enough to jump. Some managed to reach the walls on their way down; if, by cruel luck, they did not manage to have their soft tissues forcefully introduced to one of the jagged protrusions, their lacerated hands and feet would begin to bleed, and they would slip…

And if, by even crueler luck, they survived the fall, still clung to life in a shattered heap on the onyx floor far below, the drones that Sir Leslie would later dub his Wee Ones would be waiting for them.

No prisoner had ever escaped from a Dark Matter Armada vessel. But Dent knew none of this. So he did not give up.

Dent had certain advantages, of course. Clothing, for one — a luxury the Armada had never allowed its prisoners. And of course, the contents of his Adventure Belt.

His brother’s silver spoon.

His sister’s weird little vial.

His mother’s ball of pseudosilk.

His father’s tin soldier.

The Captain’s gold medallion.

These, and his sonic knife, were all the tools Dent had.

He looked up; the ceiling was smooth and featureless, offering no anchor. He looked down again; the pseudosilk might reach all the way down, but while it was strong, it was too slender to grip well. Dent saw himself slipping and falling, and the Wee Ones waiting with their sharp, merciless limbs. Besides, there was nothing on the platform with which he might anchor himself.

The walls had handholds and footholds aplenty, if Dent could have jumped that far. But the prongs and swirls of jagged black material reaching out from the walls looked cruel and sharp.

Cruel, and sharp, and useful.

It took Dent a few tries to tie one end of his mother’s pseudosilk to the silver spoon. (Knots had never been his forte.) It was stronger than steel, by tensile strength; resistant to fraying or cutting, as far too many of Janos of the Midnight Guard’s briefer acquaintances had discovered.

When he was sure the spoon had been tied on good and tight, Dent carefully began to twirl the silk, the spoon at its end, above his head. The platform wobbled, but did not tilt. He threw; the spoon fell far short, and began to plunge.

He hastily tugged on the string and drew it back in. Below, he heard a sudden scraping of pointed appendages. The Wee Ones had taken an interest.

Another throw, this one strong enough, but not accurate — the spoon pinged off the wall and fell again, and the thread nearly slipped from Dent’s fingers before he could pull it back in.

Sitting down was no good. He scooted himself as close to the center of the platform as he could, and tried to slide one knee beneath him.

The platform wobbled wildly, and for one perilous moment, Dent felt himself about to fall. He hunched into a ball, on reflex, and the platform stilled. Slowly, slowly, Dent rose to one knee. The platform quivered beneath him, yet still it held.

Dent closed his eyes and tried to picture himself among the sageriders of one of his favorite stories, The Lariateers of Floating Gulch. Story had acted out the motions as Dent huddled, rapt, at the entrance to his tent.

It felt so long ago to Dent.

The spoon swung in circles above his head, the give of it pleasant to the muscles of his arm, and Dent opened his eyes and let it fly. The spoon arced through the air, trailing silk from the unraveling ball, and plink-tinged itself into the thorny snarl of prongs on the distant wall. Dent pulled, and the spoon wedged crosswise in the gap between two protrusions, and held.

Thumbing on his sonic knife, Dent picked up the captain’s medallion and began the arduous process of cutting into its center.

Eyes still burning, edges of his vision smudged with tears, Sir Leslie Murther threw open the kitchen’s single, heavy iron door. No child awaited him — just the Wee One he’d stationed there as guard. It clicked its legs expectantly, and greeted him with his reflection.

“Well?” Sir Leslie growled. “What’s there to be looking at?” He slammed the door in its face, and his own.

So the little morsel was still here somewhere. Sir Leslie drew his cutlass with one hand, and picked up the tenderizing mallet with the other. Then he put the mallet down again, and picked a fat, gleaming cleaver from the rack. No point in bruising the meat, really — not if he was planning to eat it straightaway.

The kitchen had many crannies and cupboards and hiding places. Sir Leslie threw them all open, poking inside with his cutlass, clanging it against pots and pans, scattering jars and preserves, and doing irreperable harm to some of his cheesecloths. But no little girl.

He stopped, stock still, the cabinets all open, crockery and steelware spilling out around his ankles. Sir Leslie sniffed the air. The child was still here. He could have smelled her even if she hadn’t, by this point, gone a full turn and then without a bath. And he could hear something, rustling around in some dark hidden place. In the gloomy family kitchen of his youth, he might have thought it a rat, nibbling about in the sawdust. But there were no rats on Sir Leslie’s ship. Not for very long there weren’t.

The stovetop rattled, ever so faintly, and Sir Leslie whirled. One by one, his smile revealed the points of his shining teeth. He stalked back around the island, toward the oven. The contractors had pushed it out from the wall by a measure, and the cabinets and countertops adjacent to run the mains in. Enough room for a skinny little child, one accustomed to tight spaces.

Sir Leslie, entirely forgetting his own insistence on a top-of-the-line Crouch Industries Speedi-Char Archaic Replica Stove, lashed out with the heel of his boot against the oven door. The entire stove tilted backward, smashing against the wall with a jangling clash, and thumped just as noisily back into place.

Sir Leslie had expected a cry, a whimper, something. But he heard nothing. No sobs, no howls of high, girlish pain.

Not even the steady hiss of escaping gas, odorless, colorless, from a torn-open methane line.

Sir Leslie scowled, and with slow, hunching steps, edged around the counter toward the door, to peer into the gap behind the cabinetry. Far back the darkness, back where the opposite cabinet sat flush against a protruding bulkhead, he saw reflective eyes glimmering back at him.

“There you are,” Sir Leslie purred, all sweetness and lamb’s wool. “Gave me quite a scare, you did. Come on out, won’t you?” He set down the cutlass and squeezed one arm into the gap behind the cupboards. Out of sight, he kept the cleaver raised, ready to bring it down upon the girl as soon as he’d pulled her free.

But the eyes in the gloom didn’t move. And Sir Leslie’s smile began to curdle into a sneer.

“Very well,” he said. “Won’t come to me, then? My, but we’re obstinate.” He rose, picking up his cutlass and tucking it hastily into his belt, and stomped away, careful to keep one eye on the gap leading from behind the cabinets. “I’ve a way of dealing with stubborn little children,” Sir Leslie grunted, opening a high cabinet.

He pulled down a long, gleaming spit, the one he used on occasion to slow-roast entire cattle — among other, more sentient meals — over the firepit he’d had installed adjacent to the engine room. It looked like the sort of thing one might find in the Forbidden Black Cookbooks of the Library of Despair. Indeed, Sir Leslie had mail-ordered it from one of the Library’s Catalogs of Sinister Sundries, and written a very polite thank-you note upon its arrival to express his satisfaction with the merchandise.

He hefted the spit like a pike, gave it a few exploratory thrusts through the air. Long enough to reach. Sharp enough to hold fast. Yes, this would just do.

“Draw near, my little morsel,” Sir Leslie smiled, pacing back toward the gap behind the cabinet. “I’ve a wonder to show you.”

No comments: