START OF 'THE FINAL PIECE' ARC
Chapter 44: A Splendid Mess
“No one knows what happened to the Ancestors except that they were all wiped out. They commanded the greatest civilization this world has ever known, and they were slaughtered like lambs. What does that say about our chances?”
-Enia Stockton, Astromancer, 165 U.E.
Taira rubbed at the puckered scar on her throat. She flipped the page on her book and tried to get comfortable in the rec room couch, pale magelights flickering overhead.
Quintilla came into the room to fetch a cup of coffee. Stephan had just brewed a pot.
“I’m proud of you,” Taira said. “For telling them. It can’t have been easy.”
“No harder than anything else,” Quintilla said. Trying to sound stoic, but her words came out choked, and her eyes were tinged red. She turned to face Taira, cup gripped tightly. “Tee, I promise you, I will kill him. He’s not going to get away with what he did to us.”
“I don’t care,” Taira said. “I want us safe.”
“We’ll never be safe until he’s dead.”
Taira shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“I…” Quintilla went over to the table, took a seat next to Taira. “I know I’ve not always been the best sister. But everything I’ve done, I did for you. I’d move the sun for you.”
Taira felt a faint smile tug at her lips. “I know. I only fear you don’t know when to stop.”
“I do what’s necessary.”
Taira set her book aside and drew in a deep breath. “Once this is all over. Once you have your treasure, and we’re clear of debt, and we’ve set the crew right… will you ever stop?”
Quintilla frowned. “Stop what?”
Taira motioned to the metal walls around her. “This. This life. I have other dreams. I wonder if you do, too.”
Quintilla blinked, gaze dull, as though she’d never thought about it. “Well…”
“Once it’s over, will you hang up Dad’s revolver? Will you settle down with me? We could be neighbors. Two nice houses in the Shiccuen Market. I’d be a teacher, and you…” Taira squinted at her sister. “You would be a bouncer. We would live quietly. Have children.”
“Ew. Disgusting. I’m never having children.”
“Just me, then. You would be their fun aunt.”
“Maybe. It does sound charming, I suppose. But only after everything is squared away.” Quintilla grinned. “For now, the treasure beckons. Only one piece left, Tee. We’re so close I can already feel the Ancestor gold running between my fingers.”
“Yes,” Taira said, “let’s hope we don’t choke on it.”
Vormor slid the second bronze plate into place with a click of her tongue. She absently rubbed the single empty space inside the metal frame.
“I’m proud of you, girls,” the many-limbed monstrosity said. “Our long search is almost at an end.”
“If Rand doesn’t fuck it all up somehow,” Quintilla said. “I’ve been informed of a potential security leak. We have to assume he knows where we’ve stashed the pieces.”
Yin blushed deeply and hid her face behind her sleeve.
“Why? What happened?” Vormor asked, a worried grimace wrinkling her bandaged face.
“Don’t ask. Just know that, for the time being, we’re all on full alert. I have to go into the city to find out who’s got the last map piece, but I’ll leave the rest of the crew behind to keep an eye on you.”
“You can put your faith in us,” Stephan said with a smile, thrusting his thumb at his chest.
The only crew member not present was Kazzul, who had stayed behind with the ship to oversee some upgrades. The captain hadn’t been forthcoming about exactly what those ‘upgrades’ entailed, but he assumed it had something to do with making things explode.
“Should we be worried about Kazzul?” Stephan asked. “What if Rand goes after him? He’s on his own, after all.”
Quintilla shook her head. “He’ll be fine. He’s having the ship outfitted at the fort, under Chaesim’s protection. Rand’s a smart bastard. He won’t move against the home guard.”
“I see. That’s a relief.”
“You needn’t worry about us, either,” Vormor said. “I have outfitted my home with extensive protection magic. It would take a lot for someone to break in.”
“Rand’s crew doesn’t have a mage as far as I know, either, so we’re good on that front,” Quintilla said. “Far as I see it, all we’ve got to do is hold out until we have the final piece.”
The two kithraxi had found a stoppered beaker of yellowy liquid from among Vormor’s equipment. Vormor’s imp, trying to prevent her mistress’s possessions from being stolen, pulled at the neck of the beaker, screeching as the three of them were locked in a tug-of-war.
“That leaves you, captain,” Kurko rumbled, his voice filling the basement. “I do not like the idea of you tracking down the piece by yourself. Rand may want to capture you, to use you as leverage against us.”
“That’s a risk we’ve got to take, big guy. If Rand does get a hold of me, don’t do anything he tells you. If you get a clean shot, put me out of my misery. I’d rather that than lose everything we’ve worked for.”
“Take me with you.”
“No way. Too dangerous.”
“But not too dangerous for you? Captain, with all due respect, I will not allow you to do this on your own.”
Quintilla marched up to the half-giants, placing her hands on her hips, and stared the man dead in the eye. “I’m ordering you to stay.”
Kurko held her gaze. “I choose to ignore that order.”
“That’s not how being a first mate works.”
“It is how being a friend works.”
Quintilla blew a raspberry and shoved Kurko in the chest, failing to move him a hair. “Fine, then.” She turned to Vormor. “Stubborn as a mule, this man.”
“I’m not sure what a mule is, but he’s certainly putting off that kind of energy. Not unlike a headstrong little girl I know.” She pinched Quintilla’s cheek with one of her myriad hands.
“Enough, Auntie,” Quintilla said with a chuckle. “You’ll undermine my authority.” She motioned for Kurko to follow as she headed for the exit. “Come on Kurko, let’s head out before she starts baking something.”
Stephan had his arms wrapped around Taira’s waist, her head resting on his breast. Her long, thick hair tickled his nose, and he breathed in the sweet, signature scent that belonged only to her.
They lay in bed inside one of the unused guest rooms on the second floor. A single dim magelight bobbed over their heads, illuminating only them and leaving the rest of the room in darkness.
“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Stephan said. “I had no idea what you’d been through.”
“It’s alright,” Taira said. “I’m… learning to move past it.” She was quiet for a while. “I can hear your heartbeat.”
Stephan smiled. “What’s it like?”
“A little fast.” She looked up and poked his nose with an index finger. “You’re getting old.”
“Wow. I wish you were the first person to tell me that.”
Taira leaned in and kissed him, first on the cheek, then on the mouth. She slumped back onto his chest, and they lay there for a long time, drifting in and out of sleep together.
Stephan let his fingers gently trace the scar across Taira’s throat. “Does it hurt?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not really. Only in my sleep.”
“Do you dream about it often?”
“Yes. But not every night. Not anymore.” Taira took off his glasses, placing them on a bed stand, and ran her hand through his hair. “Do you ever dream of home?”
“And your wife. Former.”
“A little. Not often, to be honest. I wasn’t very happy there.”
Stephan smiled. He trailed kisses down Taira’s forearm. “Much happier. Especially now that I’ve got all this woman to work with.”
Taira snorted. “Pig.”
“Oh, shush,” Stephan said. “You like it.”
“I stay for the back rubs.”
Laughing, he flipped her onto her stomach, straddling her naked back. “Is that how it is? I’ll show you, then!” He tickled her sides until she snorted with laughter, arms and legs flailing.
The door burst open. Stephan scrambled to get off her while she righted herself and pulled the covers over her chest.
Yin walked into the room, mouth open as if to speak, but did a double-take as soon as she saw the both of them and covered her eyes.
“Ew,” she said. “Ew, ew, ew. I will never unsee that image.”
Stephan stood and began buttoning his shirt. At least he hadn’t taken his pants off. “Maybe that’ll teach you to knock next time.” He picked up his glasses and put them on. “Is there something you wanted?”
Yin looked away, arms dropping limply to her sides. “Just wanted to let you know I’m going out there.”
“Yin, we talked about this,” Stephan said with a sigh. “You can’t go on your own. It’s too dangerous. Once this has all blown over, I’ll help you get answers. But not before.”
“I’m not asking for your permission. I’m telling you what’s going to happen. If you know what’s best for you, don’t try to stop me.”
Stephan took a step towards her, reached out his hand. “I can’t let you. I need you to be safe.”
Yin grabbed his wrist and squeezed. Hard. Stephan felt his bones straining. Her grip was a vice. He knew that she could shatter every bone in his arm if she wanted to.
“Let her go,” Taira said, rising from the bed with the covers wrapped around her. “This is something she needs to do.”
“You’re with her?” Stephan asked. “But what if…”
“She is strong. Trust her.”
He shook his head. “I… Fine. You can go. But be smart. Stay inconspicuous. Don’t get into any fights.”
Yin nodded. “Sure. I’ll be careful.”
She let go of his wrist, turned, and walked out of the room, closing the door behind her.
Stephan blew out his cheeks and took a step back. “I worry about her.”
“I know,” Taira said, coming up behind him. “But you know that she is strong. She will be alright.”
“I know. That’s not what worries me most. I worry what she’ll do once she finds who she’s looking for.”