Merit, Part Three
Cleave Merit was in the saddle before dawn, riding hard southwest on his third horse in as many months; the first had broken a leg while he was travelling between the camps of the Mountain Folk in the Eagles’ Claws, the second had been shot out from under him. When he had first set out from the Three Moons outfit near half a year before to bring word of the imminent return of the Rebel General to the folk of the Far West, it had occurred to Cleave (and Rill had certainly mentioned it several times) that his may have been a fool’s errand. His initial evidence had been scant: a tattoo on a tortured dead man, a few burned out ranches on the frontier, and a niggling feeling that he just couldn’t shake off…
No more though.
Two days east of Abuldane, three weeks after he had begun spreading the word of what he suspected was coming, a group of three men had approached his camp and asked to light. Their leader had announced himself in the formal old way, gave his name, openly declaring his enmity and his intentions. His companions had followed suit. None of them could’ve been much more than twenty. Brave boys, honorable brave boys. It near broke Cleave’s heart to kill them. He set their pyres and stopped to pray for their fair judgment at the next shrine he passed, commending their courage to the Jade Throne Eternal.
Two weeks later, his range-cat Ripper had woken him in darkness. Four came as assassins in the night, blades blackened. Cleave left their bodies for the carrion feeders to gnaw on. Since then, Merit had become a hunted man, hounded across the plains by mostly nameless assailants. He had given up speaking at any of the larger settlements, as there were always a few hired freeblades or gunslingers waiting for him. Cleave had many friends throughout the west, but he feared that his presence could get people he cared about killed and he soon left the trails he knew far behind. His greatest comfort on the road was that he was likely right about Lord General Hul’s return, but it was a cold one.
In sore need of sound advice, Cleave was riding to the workshop of the Engineer Sage Retibulus, a member of the semi-legendary Iron Circle. Merit hadn’t seen the doughty old man in well over a decade, but word had it that Retibulus had lost neither wits nor sand. Cleave also knew that the man he remembered wouldn’t lose a wink of sleep over killing paid assassins, if it came to it.
Merit’s first sight of Retibulus’ workshop was a distant glimpse of long white arms rising and falling against the morning sky. As Merit approached, the arms resolved into the spinning blades of windmills… or at least wind-somethings. The arms were attached to unusual buildings that Cleave couldn’t identify, brick and wood constructions with strange mechanical extensions. Ripper poked her head out of her travelling case and purred loudly in tonal response to the thrum of the machines, causing Cleave to laugh for the first time in many long weeks.
Merit brought his horse to a halt as a came upon a high fence surrounding the workshop’s perimeter. As best as Merit could see, though, the line of the fence was unbroken by any gate. As Cleave was puzzling out how to enter, a shot rang out and turf exploded out of the ground causing his horse to startle. As he worked to get his mount under control, Merit saw a squat figure in overalls had appeared atop one of the workshop’s buildings and was aiming a long-barreled repeater at him.
“I do believe you have misplaced your trail, Mister,” came floating down.
Cleave grinned. “Well that is a fact, you old cog-squeezer, but there’s no call to ventilate me over it.”
The repeater sank a few degrees and two small lenses slid forward on tiny brass rails, smoothly dropping into place at the front of a pair of ornate goggles. “Merit? Ashes and oils, Cleave Merit?”
“Yeah, it’s me, Ret.”
The repeater lowered completely and Retibulus grinned down at Merit with a mouth full of mirrored steel teeth that shone in the sun.
“I’ll let you in, if you promise not to break any of my work, Dragonslayer.”
“Is any of it going to try to set me on fire?”
“I should certainly hope not. In any case, that was always Fiskind’s meter, not mine.”
“Then you have my word.”
Retibulus activated some sort of device and a large portion of the fence simply fell inward, softly falling to the ground in front of Cleave’s horse. Merit urged his mount forward and once they’d passed the fallen portion, the planks leapt back up and took their place in the fence again. The old engineer swiftly descended down a spiraling staircase and immediately caught Cleave up in a big bear hug as he dismounted.
When the engineer released him, Merit chuckled. “You’re looking pretty spry, old man.”
“The years, I must confess, have been kind. But science and a powerful need to outlive my enemies hasn’t hurt.”
Cleave’s face darkened, which the Engineer Sage immediately noticed. “Not just a social call, I take it? Come on inside, pot’s a brewing and I’ve got a batch of my salty biscuits that need eating. Then we’ll have us a chat, eh?” Retibulus lead the way towards one of his workshop’s larger buildings, Merit in tow.
Cleave nodded, as he sipped at his coffee.
“That bastard is at least as old as I am, you know that?”
Merit smiled grimly. “Well that’s a comfort, you being so ready to drop dead any day now.”
Retibulus snorted. “His kung-fu was always damn strong.”
“I’m far more concerned about how many troops he has and what his intentions are.”
“And why now.”
“Maybe he found what he was looking for… Or word from the Empire has reached him and called him back.”
Merit snapped his head about. “What do you mean?”
“You have been on the frontier, haven’t you? The word in the Periphery is that some of the factions in the Bureaucracy have decided that the time has come to expand again. They want to get a move on while the Emperor is young and tractable, lest when he grows up he turns out to be one of those rare merciful sorts. Some of the warmongers could be Hul’s allies.”
“How could… how could they ever accept him, after what he did, the things he ordered?”
The old sage shrugged. “The Empire generally wasn’t on the receiving end of his butchery till the tail end of the war and when you control the historians, it isn’t that hard to arrange for whatever version of the truth you think proper to be the one that gets set down.” He leaned over to toss a sausage to Ripper, who laid near Merit’s feet. She caught it deftly.
Cleave fell silent for a time, pondering until, “Getting out the right story is what I have to do.”
Retibulus nodded. “Even so.”
“I’m just one man and not, as it happens, the best talespinner.”
“No. And sooner or later, one of these scorpions will get the draw on you, Merit. A big enough pack of dogs takes down even the most cunning tiger eventually, you know that.”
“Well old sage, what do you suggest?”
The mirrored steel gleamed in Retibulus’ mouth. “Who do we know that hates Hul’s guts even more than you do, loves a good story, and can spread a rumor faster than House Marghul’s quickest train can roll?”
“Well, Ret who the… oh, Maiden’s Tits not him.”
Retibulus’ laughter boomed through the workshop. “You can rest up here tonight. Tomorrow you’re Sedoa bound.”
As Merit cantered toward the city, an airship sped past him, barely moving the dust as it effortlessly glided above the rolling ground, the roar of its fury-engines muted by a series of intricately engraved wooden baffles. Cleave caught a glimpse of an elaborate battle scene depicted across multiple panels before the ship was lost to sight as it sped off toward Sedoa’s infamous airship harbor, the Spiderweb. The western portion of the city had seemingly reached out with tendrils of coiled steel, guide ropes, and reinforced wooden scaffolds to embrace several of the mesas rising beside the Shining Mirror’s shore. The resulting construction looked like a massive version of its namesake and it certainly held predators aplenty.
Merit guided his horse towards the heart of the city, where the older and more respectable establishments stood, not that the distinction was readily noticeable for most visitors. Cleave hadn’t been to Sedoa in close on to fifteen years, but from what he could see, it hadn’t changed much. The bulk of the streets were dirt, with only a very few lined with worked stone. The buildings were mostly wooden, with an occasional brick or stone façade declaring an establishment or owner of means.
An hour or so before twilight, Cleave pulled up across the street from the tavern he sought, a gathering place for folk of dubious reputation called the Boar’s Heart. A small crowd of street urchins with hungry eyes approached him as he lighted. “Need a guide, Mister?”, “Watch your horse, Sir?”, “Spare any coin?”, “I know where the best girls are, or boys, whatever you like, Mister.”, “Please, Sir, some food?”, “Mind your mount, Mister?”
Merit looked about at the ragged horde for a few moments, then turned back towards his horse. “Well sure you can watch my horse, if you don’t mind keeping an eye on my cat as well.” Ripper popped her head out of her travelling case on cue and yawned, her half-finger long ivory fangs gleaming in the sun. She casually dropped to the ground and gave a rolling stretch, that readily showed that she was within a stone weight of the younger urchins. “Course she doesn’t like to be startled. She also takes a very dim view of folks rummaging through my things.” Ripper flexed her claws, leaving long furrows in the dirt. “Come to think of it, she might be hungry.”
Cleave turned back to regard a street empty of urchins, save for one small lad with dark skin and wise eyes. “She is being very beautiful, Sir.” Merit studied the boy for a while. “I call her Ripper, but she has another name. Muerta Elegas Diminas.” The boys eyes widened, then grew larger still as his gaze slowly rose from the range-cat to Cleave.
“Merit-siah,” he whispered softly.
“Ver, little wanderer. You’re a long way from the Land of Soaring Stone, how do you know me?”
“In the bad winter, you brought buffalo meat to my village. I was very small, but I have heard the story many times. My village survived the winter because of you, but leaner years laid us low. My family came here.”
He flipped a silver coin at the boy. “Watch the horse, the cat mostly takes care of herself.” He turned to walk into the Boar’s Heart.
“Merit-siah, that is not a good place.”
Cleave smiled and winked back. “I’m not looking for a good person.”
The Boar’s Heart smelled of whiskey and urine in equal parts. Merit walked past darkened alcoves, concealed with moldering drapes. Night had not yet fallen, but a fair number of patrons were already well into their cups. A troubadour played a desultory tune on a battered old guitar, which did little to lighten the bleak mood of the place.
Cleave walked up to the bar and settled himself into a chair that creaked somewhat alarmingly. The bartender was a small red man with a large grey nose, he regarded Merit with only cursory interest. “Yeah?”
“I’m looking for a man.”
“We don’t have any of those fellows here, but there’s a place down the way I can direct you to.”
“His name is Slim.”
A sound of scraping chairs echoed about the room behind Merit.
“Never heard of him.”
Merit smiled at the bartender, stood smoothly and whipped his repeater out of his over-shoulder harness, grabbing not the stock, but the end of its carrying strap. The repeater flipped out end over, Cleave caught the spinning barrel of the rifle and whipped it around in a circle, slamming the butt end against the skulls of the men that had been approaching him from behind. As they were slumping unconscious to the floor, Merit completed his turn by burying the revolver in his left hand halfway up a large grey nose.
All this in just a few seconds. Gasps of shock and curses of astonishment exhaled about the room. The bartender looked at Merit with a combination of stark awe and genuine terror. “Peace, Mister. I didn’t know you walked the Dust Road. Who…” He gathered what dignity he could with a firearm in his nostril. “Whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
A cool feminine voice echoed down the stairs. “Merit. Cleave Merit.” A woman clad in gorgeous silk glided down the staircase, as far out of place in the Boar’s Heart as a Long Priest would be in a brothel. “The Dragonslayer.”
Merit pulled his pistol out of the bartender’s snout and shook his head ruefully. “Candelaria Jade.”
“If you’re done playing with the boys, care to follow me?”
“Only if I can see where your hands are.”
“Wherever you want them, darlin’.”
“I’ll settle for, ‘in the open’.”
She spread her fingers and smiled, then turned and sashayed back up the stairs, not bothering to wait for Cleave. Merit holstered his weapons and regarded the astonished bartender with wry amusement.
“Can I get a whiskey? I think I’ll probably need it.”
To be Continued…