On the Road to Come What May – chapter three (part 4 of 16)
The story starts here
Masters of the night
"What sort of man are you?" Jasper asked, unable to stop himself.
"The usual sort." The prisoner gave a broken laugh. "Two legs, two arms, one… No, not in front of… children."
Jasper wanted to pace, but he was a prisoner himself, trapped on his step. "You cling on, even though you know there's no hope. You fight to endure a few more hours of agony, when you could just let go and end it all. And you don't…" He pressed his lips together. "You don't say things properly."
"What…?" The prisoner coughed weakly. "…should I be saying?"
"Prisoners beg," Jasper said - I didn't do it. Please, please, I didn't do it. "They're cowards. They live off the fear of others and they snivel when they get caught." But the great ones in the stories were different. Captivity was a noble thing that brought out a man's true worth. They endured with a noble, unruffled brow, and they inspired kings and lords and gaolers with words that would echo down the centuries. "Are you waiting for someone to hear what you say?" he asked, struck by a sudden idea. If the prisoner let himself slip into the dark water while alone, his tale would go forever untold. He thought of Tamorlin, sore wounded during his years in the wilderness, dragging himself for a league until he found a woodcutter. If I should die, he said, clasping the woodcutter by the wrist, then tell this tale of me. These are the last words of Tamorlin Wanderer…"Make your speech," he declared now. "I will tell it. I will even cast it in verse, if you wish."
"Think I'll pass." The prisoner slid a candle-width nearer the water, then caught himself with a barely perceptible moan.
Jasper watched the candlelight flickering on the dark water. "Then I don't understand."
"Forgive me… if I don't… much care," the prisoner rasped.
"You know you're going to die," Jasper said. "That's inevitable. And it's really hurting you to keep yourself out of the water. Even Tamorlin himself, during those days in which he suffered in prison, always knew that it was but for a little while, and that his friends would bring him out to glory, and that his enemies would fall…" He stopped. Too much raced inside him: words, thoughts, formless rhymes. If he understood this, he thought, his verse would be inspired for weeks, shot through with a vivid understanding of the human spirit at the very brink of death. This was the first doomed man he had spoken to face to face. He had to absorb every last detail of him, so those glittering eyes would shatter and become a thousand shining words. "What does it feel like," he asked at last, "to know you're going to die?"
The prisoner said nothing, but his look said more than words. In the dark, with its flickering candlelight, Jasper could not read it.
Jasper sighed, scraping his hand across his face. It smelled of wax and sweet spices from a different world, separated from this one only by a stone floor and a thick door. Talis had killed himself at the ford, standing in red blood to his knee. As his enemy approached, smiling, Talis had plunged his dagger into his belly and had died rather than be taken. Faena had thrown herself from the topmost tower, leaving behind a song and weeping servants, rather than face a world without her love. "Why don't you let go?" he asked again.
"Would you?" The prisoner's gaze turned on him fully. The prisoner's voice was an unblemished blade, striking to the heart. "Could you?"
"I…" The quick answer found its way to his lips instantly, but died there. "Tamorlin…" he croaked weakly, as his hand found the stone behind him. Would you? the prisoner had said. You. Jasper. Not Tamorlin. Not Talis. You. Stories crumbled and flew away from him, leaving him alone, teetering on the edge of a step in the darkness. Would he? If he was facing certain death in the morning, would he raise the knife to his throat? Could he? His hand trembled, and even the metal of the lantern ring felt harsh. That meant giving up, and there was always a loyal servant or a faithful hound or a breathless messenger or a sign from the gods to rescue you even as the executioner was raising his blade. There was always…
His thoughts came to a halt. You, he thought. Me. Here. Now.
"I don't know," he whispered, and his voice in his own ears sounded like the voice of a child. "I--"
The water cell shook with a mighty clap of thunder. The lantern slipped through his fingers, rolled into the water, and went out.
The Whisperer looked to his right first. Swiftly, as silently as he could, Kit paddled towards the outer wall. Perhaps if they pressed themselves against the wall… The Whisperer would have to lean right over and look down to see them. But it was useless; of course it was useless. The Whisperers see all. The Whisperers know all. Why, then, did his hands move, did his body act, even though he knew that all was lost?
"What's a Whisperer?" He heard it from Rodney in a faint unvoiced breath; he heard it in the sound of falling rain, and the waves of disturbed water breaking against the postern gate below.
"Agents of the Twelve," he whispered. "They can talk to each other across hundreds of leagues, mind to mind. They see into your mind. They--"
Beside him, Ronon was twisting upwards, his weapon in his hand. It flared red, and Kit shrank back from the sensation of something falling towards him. The sound was huge, and water showered him. The raft struck the wall, and Rodney cried out.
"--see all," his voice finished. "But of course you would just shoot him."
Then he missed things again. His companions were exchanging words in silence, with a touch here, and a look. "It was on stun," Ronon said, as if in answer to some question.
"Then he will drown." Teyla looked at him, until Ronon lowered himself into the water. More lights showed on the water; tiny specks and cracks stretched out in lines like gossamer across the disturbed surface. Every one marked someone watching.
"It's death to kill a Whisperer." Kit's voice sounded different in his own ears, in a way that stirred some memory of long ago. "And death to all who try to conceal the killing. Not that anyone tries. Some poor bastard did, once…" The story wanted to fragment and drift away. He watched the surface of the water. It wasn't deep, not even as tall as a man. "They see all," he said. "It's not worth it. There's always others, and you can't overthrow the king or the rule of the Twelve, so why…" His hand touched the dark water. "There's easier pickings. If you as much as overhear someone talking about it, and say nothing…"
Ronon's head broke the surface of the water, with his left arm wrapped around the Whisperer's body. The man's lips were slightly parted, and his hair was dark, like weeds on the surface of the water.
"Found this," Ronon said, tossing an object at Rodney. "He must have dropped it."
Rodney tried to catch it, but missed; fumbled for it, and managed to brush his fingers against it. It lit up blue. "Oh." Rodney snatched his hand back. "Oh. This is interesting. I see." But he didn't touch it again; looked almost scared to.
"Is he alive?" Teyla asked, as she and Ronon hauled the Whisperer's body onto the raft. Her hand sought his throat as she did so. Kit swallowed and swallowed again, and reminded himself of the part he played every day, and that he greeted even certain death with a quip and an insolent smile.
As soon as the Whisperer was on the raft, Ronon shot him again. "That'll keep him quiet till we're done," he said. "The thief tricked us. It was a small way in, just a crack. Big enough now, but we need to go."
"Uh… people." Rodney was twisting his hands together. "I can't swim. Well, of course, I can swim – got a certificate at school, actually. One lap, unaided. Two years after everyone else did. The whole class had to stay after school until I did it. But not for that long underwater. I've got this thing, you see. I have to breathe. And ever since that thing with the jumper…"
Ronon was in the water already, his hand on the edge of the raft. "Then guard the raft. Guard them."
Them. Kit swallowed. It was time to end this all. The Whisperer was unconscious, and the Citadel was apparently open to them, ready to plunder. "Not me," he said, letting out a breath. "You won't catch me staying any longer than I have to next to the body of a Whisperer, not with all the guards that are likely to come rushing to this place once they know he's gone. No, my friends: I'm going with you. Safer in than out, and all." Ronon opened his mouth to speak, but Kit stopped him; behind him, he was pleased to hear, Rodney was fidgeting in agitation. "You need me to get out of this place, remember."
Ronon was so close to the wall that his expression was hidden in darkness, but Kit could sense the hatred there. This, at least, was familiar territory. Smiling, he gave a little bow to Rodney, then slid into the water.
It was time to go in.
Jasper took one instinctive step back, his heel finding the back of the step. Fumbling for the wall, he climbed that step, and then the door was at his back. The thunder was gone, and everything was still, but he could hear guards shouting along the corridor, their voices sharp and questioning, but the words themselves were stolen by the darkness and the echo.
The prisoner made no sound at all, but Jasper found that he could still see him in his mind, as if the sudden darkness, both this time and the time before, left the last thing he had seen branded on his soul, impossible to forget.
"What was that?" he heard himself whisper.
Nothing. Still nothing.
Jasper felt stone – cold stone behind me - and that made him think of his father. He thought of all the days he spent at the window on the very edges of the dungeon, but how he had never once been inside a cell. He thought of the prisoner's question… No, no, that hadn't been a fair question. It wasn't one that needed an answer. It wasn't…
"Accident in the munitions store?" he heard someone say from outside. "Likely nothing to do with us. They'll call us if they need us."
"Stay at our post."
"The scum are all safely locked up, nice and secure. That's our job."
Lights flickered outside, and long shadows. "But I thought it came from down there." The footsteps barely sounded human, warped and too loud.
He thought of tales and stories. He thought of Cador the Great, long-ago ancestor and hero of many songs, who had pardoned a prisoner, driven by nothing more than mercy. Many years later, on a blood-red field, that prisoner, now an officer in the ranks of the enemy, had given his life for Cador. Seeing that, the enemy army, down to the last man, had thrown down their swords, knowing that Cador must be truly great and just, if even his enemies were willing to die for him.
"I'll intercede for you," he said into the darkness. No, it needed better words. "Upon the morrow I shall speak to my father, and…" He let out a shaky breath. "I've never asked him for something like this before. I'll do it in front of the Twelve. He's sending me away…" Cold stone against his hand; bare stone. "I'm going to the Marches. Perhaps you can come with me, as… as servant, or--" A hand gripping onto a platform. Glittering eyes staring unafraid at death. "--bodyguard, or…"
"Thanks," the prisoner said, and Jasper heard more sounds in the corridor, and the very faint sound of the prisoner moving, chains rattling like his father counting beads. He heard the sound of moving water, and his foot slipped, sliding on the step.
Something grabbed him round the throat, hard and wet and shockingly cold. "But I think I'll pass." The prisoner's voice was a whisper in his ear, stirring his hair, and warm.
"We're in," Kit breathed. "Inside the Citadel. And all thanks to me." He gave them a moment. "Why thank you, Kit, for guiding us here."
"Be quiet!" Teyla hissed.
Kit wanted to keep on talking, just to prove to them that he could, but he was not entirely stupid. Not stupid at all, actually. In a job like his, you didn't get to the advanced age of twenty-four unless you knew when to play the part of the obnoxious braggart, and when to stay discreetly quiet. They were inside the Citadel, slipping in through the ragged hole that Ronon had created where the arrow slit had been. They were actually inside the Citadel! It was almost completely dark, but somewhere not too far away, a flickering torch allowed Kit to see the very faint outlines of steps rising from the water, leading to a half-open door.
Ronon led the way, and Kit followed, trying not to marvel. He was in the Citadel. Everything was in here. Before the Flood, the King had lived in a spacious palace by the river gardens, and the Twelve had met in a tall building across the square. Now they were all crammed into the wall of the old Citadel, guardhouse, prison and towering relic of an older age. Up on the hill, armies of poor sods laboured to build new mansions for the rich, while the spoiled bastards bickered over the gilding on their pinnacles. Apparently it took years to build a palace or a chamber for the Twelve, and until then… Until then…
Ronon raised his weapon. Red flared, and Kit saw a brief red-rimmed glimpse of a guard slumping to the ground. He felt a faint hitch in his breathing. He hadn't even seen the guard approaching.
"John?" Teyla started calling, little louder than a whisper, stopping at each locked door.
"Help me," a voice said. Kit could see little, but he heard the sound of Teyla's hand on the wooden door. "So I killed the bitch. Tell the king I can kill for him. No-one better at slitting throats than me."
"Where is he?"
Was Ronon talking to him? Kit shrugged. "Don't look at me. I told you I'd never been inside."
Never been inside. Never been inside, and now he was. If they'd managed to get in unnoticed, then the whole Citadel was theirs to claim. Mine, he corrected himself. The king and the Twelve would be sleeping. Everybody would be sleeping, except a few bored servants and a scattering of guards. These rich folks barred their windows, but seldom even locked the doors of their chambers.
"Please!" someone screamed. "I'll tell you everything. I'll tell you where to find him. I'll tell… Please…"
Ronon's weapon fired again. "Enemies!" the guard shouted before he fell. "To arms!"
"Why…?" Jasper found himself entirely unable to frame words. "What…?" Speaking hurt, making his throat press against the… the chains, he realised. He's grabbed me with his chains. But how? How had he pulled himself free? How?
He felt himself shoved against a wall, held there by the prisoner's body. He felt the chain twist around his neck, as if the prisoner was transferring it to one hand, then felt a hand rummage around near his waist. What was…? Oh. Looking for a weapon. I haven't got one, he almost said. I came straight from bed, and I don't… The prisoner found his pocket. He had a pocket-knife there, with a small sharp blade. He felt the prisoner's faint exhalation when he found it. And then there was a knife at his throat, and the chains were pulled down to be wrapped around his body, pinioning his hands to his side.
"Why?" he asked.
"To arms!" he heard outside, the word ending in a groan.
"Hostage," the prisoner said. "Be good. Won't hurt you."
Was he going to die? It didn't feel quite real. He was here in the darkness, far away from life and hope and happiness. Tamorlin had… Even Cador… Spare them, or your son dies. A lifeless body falling beside the well, and a father's scream. They had had a connection down there in the darkness. The prisoner's eyes had burned with the intensity of a true poet.
"How…?" He felt himself jostled out into the corridor. He stumbled on the step, and the chain jerked, digging into his flesh, but only afterwards, after he was steady again. The blade touched his throat, but did not break the skin. "You were tied…"
The Gods had melted Tamorlin's chains. Talis had befriended a small animal who had melted his fetters with its bitter tears. But how had a man…? He felt something warm and wet drip onto his collarbone. Blood, he thought, from the prisoner working his hands in the manacles for endless hours of darkness. Perhaps the metal had been rusted and bad. Perhaps the chains were made for a stockier man. Perhaps…
"Stop right there!" said a voice from behind them. They turned, the prisoner dragging Jasper around with him. "The spy's escaped!"
"I'll kill him." The prisoner's voice made Jasper shiver. The knife pressed into his neck.
The guard had brought light. He dropped it now, and brought his bayonet up to his shoulder. The torch blazed on the floor, and it was as if they were all wading in a sea of gold, and I'm going to die, Jasper thought, but figures and shapes from story and song danced in that golden sea, and he knew that if he survived this, he would never want for words ever again.
"Drop your weapon," the prisoner demanded, but the guard only smiled.
He was still smiling when the red flare struck him. His weapon fell first, and then he crumpled sideways, to lie only a few hands' spans from the guttering torch.
"Hey, buddy," the prisoner said without turning round, but his voice was weaker now, and for a moment he leant against Jasper as if that was the only thing keeping him up.
It struck like a blade to the heart. The knife slid across his neck, cutting a thin line of pain, and the prisoner murmured, "Sorry."
"Sheppard," the newcomer said. "Thought you needed rescuing," and the prisoner gave a weak laugh, and said, "Got tired of waiting, so I…"
"We must leave now," a woman's voice said.
"Yeah," the prisoner said. "Good idea."
"You do have friends." Jasper had not meant to speak it aloud. The torch went out, killed by the dampness of the floor. "You said you didn't, but you do."
"Yeah," said the prisoner; just that.
"So you've rescued your man," Kit said. He didn't look that impressive – a drooping figure dressed in ragged black – but he seemed to have pulled a knife on a young toff, so that was something in his favour, at least. "Heroic rescue over and done with." He took a step forward, remembering where this Sheppard had been standing before the torch went out. "Good to meet you. I'm the local expertise. They couldn't have done it without me. I stand here, your humble servant, ready to accept your gratitude."
"Is he… related to… McKay?" Sheppard was plainly struggling to stay standing. "McKay!" he gasped suddenly "Is he--"
"Outside," Teyla said. "We need to get out. Are you able to swim underwater for a while?"
"If I have to."
Kit rolled his eyes in the darkness. May the gods save me from heroes! "Who's the toff?" he asked.
"Hostage," Sheppard said.
"That could be useful." He heard Teyla moving forward. "We may have to fight once we are out." Her voice grew softer. "We will not hurt you," she said, "and we will let you go once we reach the gate, but the guards will not know that."
Kit rolled his eyes again, and no-one could see his smile. "Why leave?" he said. "We're inside the Citadel! Why leave with one half-dead prisoner, when we can fill our pockets with treasures?"
"I do not believe the alarm has been raised beyond this level." Teyla spoke as if Kit was not there. "We may have several minutes before there is pursuit."
"But the treasures…" Kit was aware that he was wheedling like a child; it was quite deliberate. "You can drop all your fancy talk of rescue missions and heroic stuff like that. Shove your man out the gap, mark it off as a duty done, and make yourself masters of the night."
An arm closed on his, and Kit felt himself dragged; his feet started moving just in time to keep him from falling. "Don't mind if you get yourself killed," Ronon said, "but I do mind if you alert the guards. And we need you to guide us to the gate."
"Oh," Kit said. "That."
The hostage said nothing, but there was something about his face… Kit clenched his hand tight, and concentrated on walking in the dark. "Are you all right?" he heard Teyla ask quietly, and the prisoner let out a whistling breath, and said, "I'm good, or I will be."
"Well, that was easy," Kit said, with a smile, as Ronon shoved him into the water. "Straight in and out, as the whore said to the priest." He let the lightning guide him, silver on the surface of the water. He wondered how Ronon and Teyla were coping with their hostage and their injured friend, not to mention slippery fellows like me who might stab them in the back at any moment. Not his problem, though. He reached the raft first. "They're all dead," he told Rodney quite cheerfully. The lie only lasted a instant, but he told himself that it was an instant of sharp pleasure.
"Oh, thank God. Sheppard. You're… Just in time. We're so screwed," a man was saying, as Jasper was hauled onto a raft. Someone rolled him over, pressed his cheek down into the wet wood, and lashed his wrists behind his back. "There were people on the wall, but I don't think they saw me. And people… Everywhere, all those windows… I saw them on the roof. It's like we're on stage. We're supposed to be sneaking, but everyone's watching."
"Of course," said another man. Jasper could see him only as a wet tangle of dark hair covering a pointed face. "Welcome to life in the Drowned Quarter: a hundred people vying to be the one who tells the guards that you were the ones who shot the Whisperer."
"Ah, there's the thing…" That man was a blur of dancing hands. "He's… uh… well, kind of… dead."
"How did that happen?" asked the woman.
"And I'm supposed to know that how? Last time I checked, I wasn't a doctor of medicine. Maybe he had a weak heart. Maybe it was being stunned twice by Conan here. You know, you really should stop using that as an answer to all arguments. I was busy… uh, busy reacting to things in a controlled and rational fashion, and when I went to check on him, he was dead."
The prisoner, Jasper's prisoner, settled himself down stiffly on the raft beside him. Their eyes met, but there was something different about the prisoner's face now that he was free. You have friends, Jasper thought, and he had no idea why it hurt him so. He knew he should be afraid, but other things felt more vivid. Rain fell on the back of his neck, and he watched a twisting line of watery blood flow across the prisoner's hand. Then the prisoner looked away, turning his attention to somebody else.
"You're right there, Rodney," said the man with the tangled dark hair. From his prone position, Jasper could see just how tense and twitchy he looked, although his voice was light. "We're screwed. I guess I asked for this when I said it had been easy." He moved so that Jasper could only see his back, did something with his hands - two swift jerks - and then there was a splash.
"What?" cried the man who seemed to be called Rodney. "You can't just--"
"He's dead." The other man scraped his hand through his tangled hair. "He's not feeling anything. Besides, his forefathers used to bury their dead in marshes. I am not--" He started to paddle. "--moving through the Drowned Quarter with a dead Whisperer lying at my feet."
A Whisperer! Jasper sucked in a breath. He had seen them reporting to his father, and sometimes they had looked at him and smiled cold smiles that did not reach their eyes, and he had known for certain that they saw right inside him and scorned what they saw. There were no Whisperers in the stories. He thought there had only been Whisperers for less than a hundred years.
"People will have seen it happen, of course," the dark-haired man said.
"But thieves stick together…?" That was Rodney. The big man clasped his hand to the prisoner's shoulder, and the woman was doing something to him, perhaps checking him for injuries. Friends, Jasper thought, forgotten.
"Not over this, Rodney." The man's face was hidden by his hair. "We have to get out of the city as soon as we can, before the alarm is raised. After that…" He spared a hand from the paddle to slice a finger across his throat.
He knew the way, of course. Any man in a job like his had a plan for what to do when everything came crashing down in ruins, and the only safe thing to do was to bail out. Not that he had ever thought of doing it with a party of six. With two, perhaps, or even three, depending on the state of his plans, but never six.
Perhaps they had a chance. He grumbled, though, and cut off their questions and comments with sharp answers. If they reached the edge of the city before the gates and the quays were closed… Ronon had disposed of the prison guards before the alarm had reached the rest of the Citadel. The people who had watched the Whisperer fall would tell if asked, but would not be too eager to shop them unless questioned. ("Oh, so that's who he was!" he could hear them saying. "I didn't know he was a Whisperer, I swear. If I'd know, of course I would have gone straight to the guardhouse.")
"John needs medical attention," he heard Teyla say.
"Yes, yes," said Rodney. "I've got eyes. I can see that."
"Hey, I'm still here, you know." Sheppard sounded strained, but he was smiling. Kit thought he might be able to like him – he was the only one of them who hadn't tied him up and threatened him, which was a definite plus – except that heroic types were never good for anybody's health, and when they looked at you, disapproval in their oh so noble eyes, you felt as if you were…
Enough of that. He shook his head, and paddled. And then there was that poor bastard of a hostage. Kit had no idea what they intended to do with that one, though he had a few ideas of his own. These people alternated between tender-heartedness and a cold spirit. They would have strewn Myr with bodies to get their man back, but they balked at the disposal of a Whisperer's corpse.
Ronon was crouching over the hostage, gun in hand, ready to use him as a shield. The rain grew heavier, but the thunder eased. It was never truly dark in the Drowned Quarter, and Kit heard laughter up above as a pair of girls stumbled over a bridge. Perhaps a few specks of their powder fell onto the raft below, because Kit suddenly caught the sharp scent of spices and the musk of memories never forgotten.
He saw a guard yawning into his hand on a watch post. Kit twisted the raft to keep the hostage in shadow, and tipped an imaginary hat at the guard. Ronon tensed. "Steady," Kit whispered. Moving about after dark was no crime. The authorities had long since given up enforcing curfew in the Drowned Quarter. As long as the scum preyed only on other scum, they couldn't care less.
"Just point us on our way." Sheppard sounded as if he was speaking through gritted teeth. "We'll be good on our own."
Kit only smiled at that, and carried on with the job of slewing away the life he had built.
Jasper saw only in snatches. Tall towers and bridges. Laughter from balconies. The smell of rain. Blood behind his prisoner's nails.
They were moving through the Drowned Quarter, the forbidden quarter, where the simple poor lived so much more intensely than the nobles on the hill. The water smelled more pungent. The sounds were heady and sharp and wild. The people on the raft spoke in sharp snatches, without the considered eloquence of the court. Sometimes there were gaps in what they said, like a chain with a missing link, but none of them seemed to notice, as if they were communicating as well in those silences as they were when they were speaking.
Because they're friends, he thought.
He thought of Valorian and his travails on the slave ship. Sensation ran up and down his spine, making the hair stir on the back on his neck. His hands felt moist and slippery. He was afraid. He was afraid, yes, but…
We will not hurt you, the woman had said, in a voice that had stirred memories deep inside; in a voice that was made to be believed.
"And now it's up the stairs we go," said the man with the tangled hair. Jasper thought that he might be a real-live actual thief. "Here." He threw a pair of shoes at Jasper's prisoner. "Took them off the Whisperer. There's nothing like looting the corpses of the recently dead."
The woman helped the prisoner into the shoes. "They pinch," he complained. "Must have been… a man… with a small…"
The big man pulled Jasper to his feet. "I'll kill you if you make a sound," he growled.
Jasper had no choice but to led himself be led. Rodney stumbled along behind him, protesting under his breath. The thief walked ahead of them, his step loose and easy. "I'm good," he heard the prisoner say. "Don't…"
"No alarum bells sounding yet," the thief said. "I think we're safe."
Jasper's mind was full of a tangle of words. And then Valorian said…Eyes gleaming in a dark cell. I have no friends. The prison of an army camp, spread across the hills. We will not hurt you. Steps beneath him, then a swaying bridge. An arm at his side, helping him down a drop. And thus, beneath the blanket dark of night, the fugitive band… No, furtive band. The furtive band. Raft. Craft. Laughed.
And then the thief with his hand up, telling them to stop. Then everything about him –expression, stance, way of moving – altered completely. Moving forward, he hailed somebody out of sight, then talked to this person in a low voice.
The other three drew together. Jasper was at the heart of them, and he swallowed and he swallowed, and felt cold.
"We have ourselves a boat," the thief said, returning. "Cost us an arm and a leg, but our friend here provided." He raised one eyebrow. "That pretty clasp he was wearing in his hair, so beautifully studded with jewels." He let out a breath, shaking his head. "They never do notice."
"What? You stole…?" And he hadn't known. He hadn't noticed… A common thief with stinking hands had pawed at his hair and had taken… From him! From him! "How dare--"
The big man clapped a hand across Jasper's mouth and hauled him forward. The filthy thief stood grinning at the prow. "We must all make sacrifices for the common good," he said. "Beats being killed." His smile vanished. "The quays are still open," he said quietly, "but won't be for long. We need to go now. I hope you know how to row, because me…? I've done enough exercise for one night."
They rowed until the clouds parted and the stars came out. At first they had to weave through the makeshift quays and around the wreckage of the old harbour wall, but soon they were out on the currents of the river proper. Kit took them downstream. The lights of the city grew smaller and fainter, and then they rounded a bend, and it was gone, gone so easily. Fours years of life, gone in the blinking of an eye.
It was colder on the water than it ever was in the city on a summer's night, but Kit kept to his resolve, and refused to row. Ronon and Teyla pulled harder than he could pull, anyway, because his skills had always leant more towards speed and subtlety rather than strength, which had caused him to win as many scraps as he had lost over the years.
"I ask again, do you actually know where we're going?"
"Somewhere where I won't be bloodily killed thanks to you," Kit told Rodney.
"It's just that… well, we've got a hostage to return to its rightful owner, and Sheppard… He's not looking too hot right now."
The hostage looked up at that, but the starlight was not enough for Kit to properly see his face. Sheppard had lasted longer than Kit had expected, but had finally given in to sleep, or perhaps to unconsciousness. His friends had discussed his injuries in low voices, but Kit hadn't bothered to listen. He wondered if he was supposed to feel admiration for how long Sheppard had kept going, answering questions with barely a waver in his voice, refusing to lie down. The way he saw it, it was just plain stupid. It was showing off, like the time Tris had danced on a rooftop to impress a girl, and had fallen to a watery grave. Hadn't impressed the girl, either. The next night, she had been wearing another man's ring.
"How far to the gate?" Rodney asked, sounding like some whiny, snot-nosed brat.
Perhaps it was time to stop. Kit indicated that they should move to the edge, and they obeyed him – first time that had happened with anybody. The boat moved through the line of half-submerged trees that had once marked the edge of the river, and into the flood water. Eventually they ran aground in water-logged grass, rich with the smell of nightshadow and goldenweed. "Ugh," Rodney complained. "Mud. What is it with this world and mud?"
Kit waded through the mud, heading for the sad little clump of trees, their shape dark against the stars. He stood with his hand on the tree trunk and his back to the river, letting the others follow any way they wished. It had been years since he had touched the flaking bark of a linden tree.
"So where's the gate?" Rodney said impatiently. "Come on. You've done your native guide thing. Point us on our way and hurry along home."
"I haven't got a home." Kit still didn't turn around. "Weren't you listening? You implicated me in the death of a Whisperer. There were witnesses. I can't go back there." He paused, pressing his fingers into the bark. "You were planning on leaving me? You stroll into my life, tie me up, force me to break into the Citadel, destroy my life…" He sucked in a breath; perhaps it sounded something like a sob. "And this poor sod here, this hostage of ours, this noble--"
"I am Jasper," the idiot boy piped up, "crown prince of Myr."
For a moment, that hand on the tree was the only thing that was holding him up, but he kept his shoulders still, and kept even the slightest waver from his voice. "And, not content with that, you implicate me in the kidnapping of the king's only son. Not bad for a night's work. Do you make a habit of this?"
Teyla's voice was close behind him. "I am truly sorry--"
"And this prince of yours." Kit snorted. "I bet he doesn't even know how to wipe his own ass, and you drag him half-dressed out of his home and want to abandon him with a mean-hearted bastard like me for company." Despite the lack of audience, he grinned coldly. "I might take it into my head to kill him. If I'm going down for what you did, I might as well have some fun."
"We are truly sorry," Teyla said again. Gods, she sounded almost as if she meant it!
"But, luckily for you," Kit said, as he turned round for the first time, "you won't be rid of me that easily. You've ruined things for me in Myr. Think I'll take my chances in Daryen now."
"Yes, yes, we're very sorry, and all," Rodney said tetchily, "but, hello? We aren't going to Daryen."
"Yes, you are." Kit kept his smile. "Round thing, taller than a man? Now, I've never been there, on account of it being secret and hush-hush and guarded by priests, who say that they alone understand its secrets and promise to kill anyone who dares intrude on them. They have pictures of it over in Daryen. I used to know a fellow from there who wore it on a pendant round his neck."
"What?" Rodney demanded.
"The Circle of Daryen," Kit said with exaggerated patience. "I expect his was smaller, though, but there is it. Is it a pilgrimage, or something? Anyway, it's just outside the city. Daryen, that is. I've heard it's quite pleasant at this time of year."
Ronon snarled and started forward. Rodney gaped in a most comical fashion. The hostage, Crown Prince Jasper, looked from one to the other with a look of gaping idiocy.
"And how far is it to Daryen?" Teyla asked.
Kit beamed. "Not far. Eight days, perhaps seven, if you hurry." He looked at Sheppard, limp on the ground. "I don't think he'll be doing much hurrying, though, and of course there'll be vengeful armies sent out by Jasper-lad's doting daddy."
"Eight days?" Rodney's hands fell limply to his sides. "We are so screwed."
Kit decided that he liked that phrase, and added it to his mental repertoire there and then.
end of chapter three
On to chapter four