Through Fire – Snippet 02
“Oh, ma petite. The cause is I have it on good authority they’re mostly empty. The Usaian revolution over in Olympus and Sea York and their territories, is keeping the Good Men fully busy, and costing them more men than they can recruit, unless they start creating people in vats, as they did at the end of the twenty-first century. Until they do that, though, the Usaians are giving them more trouble than they can handle. And since people created in vats still have to grow up, I’d say we have a good fifteen years’ respite.” He looked at me, and his brown eyes danced with unmitigated amusement, like an adult laughing at the preoccupations of a toddler. His body moved seamlessly with the music, even as he smiled at me. “Listen, Zen. I wouldn’t have declared the revolution if I hadn’t thought there were next to no chances of reprisal by the ancien regime, the global might of what used to be the Good Men consortium. I’m a revolutionary, yes, m’amie, but I’m not stupid.”
I gave him a dubious look, but something I’d decided shortly after arriving on Earth was that Simon was not in fact stupid. Truth be told, he might be too smart for his own good. He was certainly very good at keeping Simon safe and sound and at knowing the best means of doing so. And he was completely amoral about it too.
The pressure of his hand on my waist increased fractionally. I let him lead me, as I cast one last glance at the transports on the bronze-gilded sea, bobbing slightly in the current. They’d been there for twenty-four hours, and they’d done nothing. Simon had to be right. He had to. Those transports were air-and-surface. Had they been filled with troops enough to overwhelm the seacity defenses, they’d have flown in, landed and taken over, long ago. They were for show. For intimidation. They weren’t real. I could, at least, trust Simon to see what was a threat to him and what wasn’t.
Though I came from a very different culture, born and raised as I’d been in a small and secret lost colony of Earth, as a guest of the Good Man — oh, pardon me, the Protector — I’d been taught to dance to anything that might be played at the ball. This was a waltz, an ancient dance that had once been scandalous. We segued from it to the glide, a modern dance that was considered very difficult. Our bodies moved in unison as though we’d practiced together. Which we hadn’t. We’d simply been created to be good at most things physical. Both of us were made, not conceived, assembled protein by protein in a lab, and were both faster and more coordinated than normal people.
The dance floor filled to repletion with twirling people, as the sun sank completely into the sea. In the darkness that followed, the troop transports became mere black dots on the inky water.
We took a break for drinks and food, then returned to the dance floor. It was in the middle of this dance when Simon said, “Zen, listen, I need to ask you a very important question.”
My whole body tensed, and I stopped, trying to think of a gentle way of refusing his hand in marriage. I owed him so much, and though I wouldn’t marry for such a reason, I also didn’t know what form his displeasure might take if I said no. He was the sole ruler of a vast territory. If he got angry, he might exact terrible vengeance. Besides, my foster parents had raised me to always pay my debts. I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, not sure how to refuse him without hurting him, and, more importantly, without inviting his wrath. I couldn’t accept him. I’d been married once. I didn’t love Simon unreservedly, as one should love one’s husband.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said.
And then an explosion rocked us.
At first, I wasn’t sure it hadn’t been part of the music, then the concussion hit, making the floor shake and the entire airy palace tremble and resonate, like a platter that’s been struck a blow with a hard object. From somewhere below came an orange reflection, a bloom of light, immediately extinguished.
Simon stopped completely, his hands on my waist, his brow wrinkling and said, “Merde!”
I cast a look at the sea, but it remained unlit and the darker points of the transports still bobbed on the water.
Another explosion, this one more deafening. Above us, a glistening crystal chandelier swayed. Bits of crystal rained down on couples who lurched to a stop. The orchestra struck another tune but it petered out as only half the members even started playing. People screamed.
A third explosion hit. The palace rocked and Simon wrapped an arm around me and leapt, carrying me with him to the edge of the ballroom, up against the wall. I could smell him. Sweat from our exertions on the dance floor had been joined by something sharper that spoke of fear.
He lay on top of me but not crushing me, his body forming a defensive cover over mine, blocking my view, blocking my movement.
“Simon,” I said, half-protest, half-entreaty. I twisted to get the burner from my ankle, but he had already grabbed it. He pointed it over my head at the ballroom’s main door. “It’s not the armies of the Good Men,” he said.
“No,” I said. I didn’t say damn it, give me back my burner because he was firing it at someone, and I couldn’t really fire with his bulk on top of me. I had no idea why he was protecting me this way. I’d never needed protection. I tried to look around his shoulder, but he put his arm across to hold me in place.
I wasn’t sure if I could knock Simon out. Probably, by sheer force alone. That and I knew he wasn’t plate-armored. But he was as fast as I was, and he might stop my attack midway through. Worse, attacking him would distract him from defending himself and, I suppose, me as well. And knocking him out would leave him vulnerable to attackers. “Damn it,” I said. “Why weren’t you armed?”
He didn’t answer. He was breathing very fast, and he now stank of fear.
“Simon,” I said, “Let me go. I can fight.”
“No,” he said. His voice hoarse. “It’s a mob. They’ll kill you, or worse. It’s my fight.”
A fourth explosion and from outside the ballroom, echoing like it had started somewhere beneath us, came a song. Loud, and inharmonious, it seemed full of threats I only half understood, because it was in the local patois, formed when the city itself had been founded: a mix of archaic French, archaic English, some Spanish words, and a lot of Glaish overlay. Something about setting fire to the world and enjoying the flames. Something about the blood of tyrants.