Excerpt from The Burning Mountain
Here is an excerpt from The Burning Mountain
The third book of the Nine Suns
Abacus beads clicked, a pen scratched its way across a page. Tired eyes looked down the growing line of numbers, muttering as the mind behind then tabulated numbers, the occasional curse sounding with the realization that a sum was wrong and had to be redone.
The man’s name was Galdan and on this night he’d finally forced himself to sit down and balance his accounts. A pile of ledgers sat beside him on top of a battered desk with a front partition that hid his legs and feet. He was somewhere in his sixth decade, bald as an egg, his face sallow from jaundice, the fruit of a life hard-lived. Occasionally he would sip from a cup next to the main account book, the grimace on his face giving evidence of the harsh taste. Medicinal, though thus far all it did was insult his tongue.
A pair of oil lamps hung on sconces along the wall, giving the place some light. Open windows let in warm moist air. The night sky outside was dominated first by the buildings of the surrounding town, then beyond that, the jungle-covered hills covered most of this regions, and above them all the green and brown swirl of the gas giant Sefiir, around which this particular moon orbited. In six hours dawn would come, the light of the Sun Maraea lighting up the sky, though Sefiirs face would remain eternally above.
Galdan rubbed his temple and learned back in his chair. An honest businessman, that’s how he described himself (for a given value of “honest…”) cruelly oppressed by rules and regulations! On every world, it was the same…the men in charge with their fine coats taking a cut of his earnings and demanding he hand over a strict accounting so they could determine how deep the cut would be.
Taxes…there was no greater oppressor of a man. Hence the ledger he was preparing, carefully doctored to show the amount of gold he’d taken in over the last year was merely two-thirds the amount that was actually sitting in the iron-bound safe behind his chair. A sad thing, when an honest man found himself forced to such measures, but Galdan took the approach that what the town burgesses didn’t know wouldn’t bother him, and the bribe he’d slipped to that clerk in the Treasurer’s office was enough to make sure they continued on in blissful ignorance of his affairs…
A faint breath of air crossed Galdan’s face. He glanced up and saw the flames of the oil lamps flicker for a moment. He set the pen down and slipped his right hand below the desk.
Footsteps, then a shadowy form stood in the doorway of his office. “It’s late,” Galdan snapped. “Come back in the morning.”
Then he got a closer look at the newcomer. “Oh, it’s you.”
The woman stepped into the light. She was young and slender, her red hair bound up in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her eyes were a pale blue, her mouth slightly wide on her narrow chin, giving her an exotic look. An attractive woman by any measure. Many young men would have made fools of themselves trying to impress her. Once upon a time, Galdan would have been among them. Now he knew better, knew to look beneath the surface and be wary of what he saw…
“I wasn’t expecting you for a week, Raina.” Galdan pulling hand out from under the desk.
“The job took an unexpected turn.” Her voice was husky from years of shouting over the wind.
“Do you have it?”
Raina tossed a small cloth lump on the table. Galdan unwrapped it and saw a severed finger sporting a golden signet ring with the mark of a prancing deer. “Where’s the rest of him?”
“Scattered across ten miles of Tbammer heath. He didn’t come willingly.”
“So, it got messy.”
“What do you care?”
Galdan wrapped the finger. “I don’t.” He turned around, pulling a key ring from a pocket and inserting one into the safe. He plucked a small cloth bag from inside, closed and locked the door and turned back around.
“Your payment.” The bag flew three the air. Raina caught it, felt the heft of the coins inside and nodded.
“You’re not going to count it?” Galdan asked.
“As you wish. Stop by tomorrow, I might have something else for you. Good night.” He picked up the pen and bent back down to work. After a moment he looked back up. “You’re still in my office.”
Raina met his gaze. “I met someone on Tbammer moon, an old woman who told me the most interesting story.”
“I’ve no time for stories.”
“You’ll want to hear this one.”
There was an edge in her voice. Galdan leaned back in the chair. His hand slipped back below the desk. “All right. Tell me.”
“Well,” she began, “it’s like this. About thirty years ago, there was a young man in a small town on Tbammer who was caught for some crime that was deemed worthy of hanging. He was locked up while the hangman readied the gallows, and begged that worthy fellow to open the cell door and let him flee. He gave the hangman every coin he had for his life, but the hangman said it wasn’t enough. So the young man sent word to his friends, asking them to get what coin they could. They came with a bag of gold and silver and gave it to the hangman for their friend’s life. He took the money and laughed in their faces, saying it still wasn’t enough. The young man then sent word to his sister, asking her to do what she could to save him from the rope. She had no silver, she had no gold, so she gave the hangman the only thing of value she possessed…her maidenhead. The hangman took it, quite brutally as it turns out. When he was done, he told her it was enough, her brother wouldn’t hang the following morning. And he kept his word; the young man didn’t swing. Instead, the hangman cuts his head off.”
Raina paused at that point. “Good story so far, yes?” she asked with a smile.
But Galdan didn’t smile back. “I’ve heard better,” he managed to reply. “Is that it?”
The smile remained on her face but now had a hard edge. “Oh no, it gets better. After the execution, the hangman disappeared. Some say he started a new life on another world, using a new name. The sister buried her brother and in time got married. Her husband was a trader who became a man of great wealth and status. When he died, he left her a very rich widow. She has children, grandchildren, the honor and respect of all who hear her name…but she never forgot her brother or the hangman who took her virtue for his life and killed him anyway. In fact, she put a bounty on that hangman’s head.”
Now the smile disappeared. She looked Galdan in the eye. “Say…you’re from Tbammer…”
Galdan surged to his feet, knocking the desk over. The long pistol hidden underneath slipped free from the holster nailed to the side of the leg well. His free hand swept back to cock the hammer hand a second before the trigger squeezed.
The pistol fired. Raina turned sideways, the ball hissing past inches from her midsection to hit the wall. Her right hand jerked a small gun from her belt and she fired back, striking Galdan square between the eyes. He fell back, bouncing off the safe and falling to the floor.
Raina raised the gun and gently blew the smoke from the mouth of the barrel. “Captain!” came the cry from behind. A burly man burst through the door, a blunderbuss in his hand, two more stout fellows coming up behind.
“I’m all right, Odren.” She tucked the gun back into her belt.
Odren looked at the table, then at the body beyond. “Aye, that you are. Went as expected?”
“Only way it could.”
“Should have done in the other way. Taken him in the street.”
“That wouldn’t be sporting.” She exiting the office, headed into the shop beyond. Boxes of various goods, some obtained legally, most likely not, were piled on the walls. More of her men stood about, watching the streets through the windows, hands on gun butts or knife hilts. “Odren,” she told her first mate, “open the safe and take everything worth having. The key is in his pocket.”
“Aye, Captain.” Odren ambled back into the office.
She glanced at one of her men. “Pasterak.”
A chubby fellow with a shaved head and neck beard looked up by a window. “Yes?”
“Did you bring that chopper?”
Pasterak pulled a weapon that looked a cross between a cutlass and butchers cleaver. “Always, Cap’n!”
“Good. Head in there and cut off Galdan’s head. We’ll need it for the bounty.”
Pasterak paled at the prospect but didn’t protest. He followed Odren into the office.
A few minutes later, both men returned, Odrenn with a sack that clinked in a very appealing way, Pasterak gingerly holding a damp cloth-wrapped bundle that left a trail of drops on the ground.
“A good haul, Captain.” Odrenn shook the bag. “Pity we can’t come back here again. “
“You been in the game as long as Galdan, you end up dead by violence. If it wasn’t us collecting the bounty, it would have been someone else.” Raina looked at Pasterak. “Pack that in salt when we get to the ship. The old bat wants to see his face when she spits on it.”
“Is that all she wants?”
“The human heart is a dark place when it comes to vengeance. Back to the ship, men, it’s two weeks sail to Tbammer.”
Raina and her men headed for the door. As they did, Odrenn stopped by a cork board hanging nearby. Tacked on it were sheaves of bounty notices, wanted posters, reward offers and more, anything and everything that someone who’s living depended on the existence of fugitives and need to the find them might be interested in.
“Captain,” he said. “You should have a look.”
“I’ve seen them,”
“Not like this, you ain’t.”
Raina came up to the board and read what was on offer. Then she plucked away one notice. Then another, and another. Greedy eyes drank in what they said.
A REWARD IS POSTED FOR THE LIVE CAPTURE OF HIM AND ANY ASSOCIATES…
WANTED FOR MULTIPLE OFFENSES, INCLUDING BUT NO LIMITED TOO, PIRACY, BRIGANDAGE, ARSON AND GENERAL MAYHEM…
FOR GRIEVOUS HARM INFLICTED ON THE ARCANISTS OF WENNATA…
…THEFT FROM HIS HIGHNESS THE GRAND PRINCE OF TASEVANYA…
ARSON AND ASSAULT ON THE CITY OF IREMNIK…
ESPIONAGE AND DAMAGE INFLICTED ON THE STATE PROPERTY OF THE UKUTEK UNION…
…FOR THESE CRIMES, A REWARD OF TEN THOUSAND GOLD PIECES…
…FIFTY THOUSAND IF DELIVERED ALIVE…
AN ADDITIONAL TWENTY THOUSAND FOR EACH OF HIS COMPANIONS BROUGHT IN WITH HIM…
FOR THE SUCCESSFUL ARREST AND CAPTURE OF Gaebrel HARRN…
…WANTED, DEAD OR ALIVE…
“Gaebrel Harrn,” she whispered. “Who are you?”
“Who is this man?” Odren asked, impressed at the sheer level of criminality listed before him.
“Someone in a great deal of trouble,” said Raina. Then she saw something at the bottom of a notice.
BELIEVED TO BE HEADED HEADED IN THE DIRECTION OF MARAEA, POSSIBLY TO ONE OF THE WORLDS CIRCLING SEFIIR.
“Back to the ship,” she ordered. “We hand over Galdan’s head to the widow, and then we go after this miscreant.”
“As you say.”
They left Galdan’s office and went through the quiet nighttime streets of the town. As they went, Raina glanced back down at the notices, amazed at the sheer amount of trouble this fellow had managed to cause.
You’re mine, she thought, a smile curving her lips.