Merit, Part Four: Finale
Cleave Merit reflected that insofar as cages went, he had certainly been in far less comfortable ones in his time than his present iron-barred confines. His chains sure chafed though. His imperial jailors had seen fit to use some sort of new electrical gadget to weld his cuffs shut before bolting his restraints to a plate that had been formed from the undercarriage of the railroad car he was riding in. At least they had given him a decent chair and enough slack in his chains to use the chamber pot in the corner without embarrassing himself.
When the captain in whose care Cleave had been placed explained how he would be transported East, the young officer had done so with an embarrassed sheepish grace, clearly uncomfortable with the unusual measures he had been ordered to see enforced with this particular prisoner. The captain had shaken his head in disdain at the heavily armed War Drudges and the squad of sharp shooters who had stood about with their repeaters aimed at either Merit’s heart or his head. Even if his accent hadn’t given it away, Cleave would’ve known from his reticence that the captain was new to the Far West. A more experienced officer would’ve tripled the guard and strapped dynamite to Merit with torch bearing soldiers standing by.
But perhaps not. Cleave belonged to a different generation. He had fought for Orinost in the last days of the Glorious Defeat, stood at Ash Ford beside Dyer Raoson and the rest of the Peerless Seven the Day the Emperor Cried. He had singlehandedly destroyed the Dragon, a fire-breathing War Drudge partially constructed from a locomotive that the Empire had claimed was unstoppable. This man didn’t know Merit, none of these young imperials did. He was a ghost out of their nation’s past and if Retibulus was right about the accuracy of the Imperial Histories, maybe not even that.
If Cleave’s suspicions about the return of Lord General Guyansi Hul were right, though, he suspected that times were a-changing and these men would know him soon enough…
Which was why he had persuaded the Jades to sell him to the Empire.
Merit thought one would be hard pressed to assemble a more disparate group of individuals than those that turned to regard him from that table. Some were dressed in the latest fashions from the East, others were clad in rags that threatened to disintegrate at any moment, apparently only failing to do so due to the layers of sticky grime that held them to their owners. Cleave’s entrance had apparently disrupted a meeting of some sort, though considering the cards, dice, and assorted money chips that were scattered across the table, it looked like the Jade Clan mixed some pleasure into their business dealings.
Candelaria smiled and winked at Cleave before making an open gesture with her hand. “Cousins, may I present Cleave Merit, the Dragonslayer.” Merit tipped his hat to the room. There were one or two gasps and a number of bulging eyes, followed rapidly by a series of whistles as folk about the room “spoke” to one another in the secret language of the Jade Clan that Cleave couldn’t follow. Finally, the whistling stopped. A portly man with long silvery sideburns clad in a suit perfectly tailored for his bulk slowly rose from his chair and stepped forward.
Merit grinned down at the stout man, “Dreadful fancy kit for a beggar, Fat Badger Jade.”
Fat Badger lightly blushed, but smiled pleased to be recognized. “It’s been a long time, Mr. Merit. I didn’t think you would know me.”
“I never forget the ones with courage. I guarantee the folk of Dry Water have never forgotten you.”
Fat Badger looked deeply touched, but also somehow uncomfortable. “Thank you for saying so. Well, Sir, we all suppose you’re here to talk to Slim about the reward and such… Sorry Mr. Merit, but truly, he’s away on business right now.”
“Well yeah, I need to talk to Slim. But what ‘reward’ do you mean?”
All the Jades about the room looked surprised, Candelaria and Fat Badger shared a quick confused glance. Candelaria leaned forward, “You truly aren’t here to talk to Daddy about the reward, Cleave?”
“Again, what reward?”
“The one he put on your head.”
“WHAT?” The room flinched, Merit’s hand leapt to the handle of his revolver. “You have ANY idea how many bodies I’ve left in my wake the last few weeks?”
“Bodies?” Fat Badger waved his hands before his chest in a placatory manner. “Mr. Merit it was just for information. The reward was just for information on your whereabouts, nothing else. I swear on the Jade Throne Eternal, Sir, nothing but information.”
Cleave’s hand eased away from his sidearm to the obvious relief of the Jades about the room. “Information?”
Candelaria nodded. “Just information, Cleave. Now what did you want to talk to Daddy about and what’s this about bodies?”
“No, woman, this first. What’s Slim want with me?”
It was Fat Badger that answered. “Some folk in the Periphery were asking after you, seems the Imperials have reinstituted an old but substantial reward for you and Slim likes to know, well, everything worth knowing in the West.”
“How substantial?” Fat Badger and Candelaria exchanged another glance. Nobody answered. Merit shook his head smiling in spite of himself. “That much, eh?” He gazed at Candelaria. “I’ll find out sooner or later.”
Candelaria sighed. “Five hundred Talons in gold.”
“Cleave, I’m serious.” Fat Badger nodded vigorously.
“Five hundred Talons? Seven Hells, I’d about turn myself in for that kind of money. I suppose that helps explain why assassins have been trying to drop me at every settlement from the ‘Claws to here.” Merit looked at Candelaria and raised an eyebrow. “Is this where you tell me your Father wasn’t interested in that gold?”
“The Jade Clan does not do the Empire any favors, not even for so much gold and especially not when we would be betraying a friend. But Cleave, it doesn’t explain your assassins at all. The reward specifies that the Empire wants you alive.”
“Alive?” Candelaria nodded. Merit stood pondering for a time. At last he turned and looked about the room. “Any of you folks recall when first you heard about this reward? How long ago, exactly?” There was a quick discussion among the Jades about the table, before a slight woman in a simple dress turned to him. “Near as we can tell, some three and a half months ago, Mr. Merit, give or take a few weeks.”
Cleave smiled grimly. “The Empire has heard what I’m about. They want to know what I suspect.”
Candelaria reached out and touched Merit’s arm. “What you suspect? Does this involve what you wanted to see Daddy about?”
“It does indeed. I wanted to see if the Jade Clan would help me spread the word.”
Fat Badger asked first, “What word Mr. Merit?”
“I think Lord Pyre has returned.”
A glass hit the floor, but failed to break and rolled across the wood spilling wine. The silence was immediately broken as all the Jades began to talk and/or whistle at once. Fat Badger tried to restore order, but it took some time.
“This is momentous news, Mr. Merit. My Cousins and I would very much like to hear what you have to say. Candelaria, you have your Father’s proxy at the moment, what say you?”
“I want to hear the Dragonslayer’s tale.”
Fat Badger turned to Cleave and gestured towards an open chair at the table. “Please, have a seat, Mr. Merit, we’re all ears.”
“Bold,” said Fat Badger.
“Reckless, foolhardy, an equally massive chance of unmitigated success or spectacular failure, Father would love it,” declared Candelaria. “You realize that if you’re wrong, you’re likely to spend the rest of your life in an Imperial stockade, right?”
Cleave shrugged. “I suspect it wouldn’t be a very long life, they’ll like-as-not execute me once they get what they need.”
Candelaria turned towards her Jade Cousins. “Do I really need to ask?” The Jades about the table exchanged a few whistles, shrugs, and finally nods.
“It is a lot of money,” said Fat Badger guiltily, “And Mr. Merit has proven himself a most resilient and resourceful man time and again.”
Cleave smiled. “I haven’t seen the Periphery in years.”
Or at least they did until their locomotive engine was attacked.
A week into their trip east, Cleave was talking about the relative merits of poker versus chang-chao with a solider named Tabor when their train was violently wrenched to the side.
Tabor unsteadily rushed to one of the slit windows of Merit’s cage car and looked out. “What was that?”
Cleave brought up his welded manacles and began inspecting their construction. “I believe I’m of the opinion that was cannon fire.”
“Yeah. You probably shouldn’t be standing that close to a window on this railcar, son.”
Tabor swiftly retreated toward the center of the railcar. “Bandits? We don’t have anything worth stealing on this train.”
“I don’t think they’re here to steal anything.”
Tabor’s eyes narrowed as he studied Merit. “Are they here to rescue you?”
“I sincerely doubt that.”
Comprehension filled the young soldier’s eyes. “They’re here to kill you.”
“Who are you, Mister? If I’m going to seek the Maiden’s Mercy today, I would at least like to know why.”
“They didn’t even tell you my name?”
“No. Orders to not even ask.”
“It’s Merit, Cleave Merit.”
Tabor’s eyes widened. “The Dragonslayer.” Cleave nodded. “Some say you’re just a legend, that you never lived at all.” Another explosion rocked the train. Tabor studied Cleave’s face. “You’re too young.”
Cleave chuckled softly. “I was only fifteen when I fought at Ash Ford. We live through this, I’ll tell you about it.”
Tabor smiled grimly. “Deal. You promise to return without a fight, I’ll see if I can get those manacles off you.”
Merit swiftly brought his hands down against the floor in three precise blows. He stood and the manacles fell away, clattering against the railcar’s floorboards. He looked at the stunned soldier as he flexed and unflexed his stiff hands. “How about I save your ass, we call it even?”
Whatever Tabor was about to say was lost as the two men were hurtled forward into the front of the car as the train began a grinding, screeching halt. Merit was swiftly on his feet. “They just blew up the engine. They’ll work their way back, killing everyone on the train as they go.”
“What will you do?”
“Get away from this train. Hopefully, they’ll follow.”
“Who are they?”
Merit studied the young solider. “I think they’re members of the 6th army.”
Tabor shook his head. “There is no 6th army, it was decommissioned when…” His eyes widened. “The Rebel General.”
Cleave stopped, one hand on the handle to the rear door of the car. “You don’t recognize any ‘soldiers’ that come through this door, I strongly suggest you shoot them.” He turned and stepped out into the harsh light of the eastern Thousand Mesas. Several hundred paces off an airship of a type Merit didn’t recognize hovered over the desert. Occasionally, her cannons took potshots at the gun emplacements along the surface of the halted train. In the distance, he could see figures cloaked in dark robes swiftly approaching on horseback.
Cleave climbed down off the side of the train and slipped into the shadows of a nearby mesa. He could probably leave unnoticed, but he was certain in that case everyone on the
train would die. He hoped the Beggar Clan was as good as their word, which meant he likely needed to give them at least a few minutes to arrive. Merit cast about for a way to slow the Scourge’s men, his eyes swiftly settling on a partially breached gun cupola close to the rear of the train. Cleave sprinted along the back of the train and swung up to the destroyed emplacement. The solider in it was little more than a dark smear along the metal, but their gun was salvageable.
Cleave swiftly unlatched the heavy gun from its sighting rig and slid back down. He worked his way under the train, hiding amidst shadows and smoke. He sighed for the necessity of what he had to do and put his first shot through a horse’s head. The stricken mount immediately dropped, its rider hurtling into the rocky sand. As his fellows started to scatter, Merit dropped a second one, briefly panicking the line of riders and buying him time.
As he clambered out from under the train, the distinct sound of a revolver cocking announced someone behind him. He slowly turned to look up in astonishment at Candelaria Jade who sat in riding leathers smiling down at him, his horse and gear alongside.
“I agreed to letting you get into this mess, the least I can do is help pull you back out of it. Come on, we have an airship over the rise.”
“Merit, my Cousins are convinced, we can go.”
“They’ll kill everyone on the train.”
“And some of their families, travelling home.” Merit swiftly donned his weapons and settled his hat, as he mounted his horse.
“Cleave…” he leaned over and kissed her cheek, smiling briefly. “I don’t come back, set Ripper free, tell her to go home, she’ll understand.”
Merit turned and galloped away, not waiting for her response, if any. He sped over the tracks at the rear of the train and swung about, charging towards the oncoming marauders. As Cleave cleared the nearby mesa, he pulled up short and gazed at just how many they had sent to kill him–more than two dozen, along with the armed airship as backup.
The lead riders gawped at Merit in astonishment. Cleave spurred his horse into a flat out run, never pausing. As he swiftly approached the advancing line of assassins in black, Merit leapt to the top of his saddle, one foot on the horn, the other hooked beneath the upraised cantle. Cleave drew his repeater over his shoulder in one motion smoothed by a lifetime of practice and sighting down the barrel, began to fire rapidly. Nine shots rang out; Cleave was reloading, still standing perfectly balanced on the saddle of his plunging horse, before the seventh dead man had fallen to the ground. Merit fired again and nine more men died, then he was among them, pistol in hand, knife soon after.
It was done quickly.
The dark airship sped off west. Cleave was still gathering bodies for a pyre when Candelaria reached him, a look somewhere between horror and wonder settled onto her face as she gazed about the desert floor. Her voice was quiet, “A mere five hundred talons is an insult. Ten thousand wouldn’t have been enough. What will you do, now?”
“The Beggar Clan will spread the word of the Scourge’s return?”
“Then I’ll collect Ripper, and head back to the Three Moons to prepare for what’s coming, best I can.”
Candelaria nodded, “when you’re done here, we’ll give you a lift back to Sedoa.”
She looked about the corpse strewn mesa one last time, and then shook her head.
“You are a damn dangerous man, Cleave Merit.”
“I’ve only ever been good at two things in this life. I prefer being a wrangler.”
Candelaria left Merit to build his pyres. Cleave paused to cut the cloth of the sleeves of a few of his assailants right arms and gaze at the complicated symbols inked there, before finally looking to the west, as the sun set.
“Your move, Guyansi. I’ll be waiting.”