Despite the door considerably muffling Visnek’s screams, Life could already hear concerned feet coming up the stairs. Somewhat dazed and stilly gripping the bloody dagger in his throbbing right arm, Life let Denny and Kovel lead him in the other direction.
Kovel found a large meeting room, which joined to a smaller antechamber. He quickly ushered them in and dragged Life over to a basin of water. He dropped the dagger in and quickly scrubbed Life’s hand. “You’re a mess. Here, hold this.” He handed the wet dagger to Denny, then pulled off Life’s vest and used it to tie his right arm up in a sling.
Life tried to speak, but it came out as a moan. He swallowed down his pain and forced himself to focus. “We’ll never get to the stairs.”
“No, you’re right. And they’ll find us soon enough. You were dripping Visnek’s blood the entire way.”
Denny turned. “Look, there’s a window.”
“We’re three floors up,” Kovel protested. “And Life’s practically broken his arm. You think we can get him down like that?”
Life clenched his teeth again. “It’s fine. Have we got any rope?”
Denny went to the window and pushed it open. It looked down into a side garden. In the distance men were rushing into the building, but none looked in their direction. “No rope, but it doesn’t look like that far of a drop. And there are bushes. Won’t they break our fall?”
“They might,” Kovel said. “Or they might pierce through our flesh in a hundred different places. Not really a chance I’m willing to risk.”
“There must be another way out of here.” Life used his left arm to try to get to the map, but it was in his right pocket and slick with blood.
“I’ve got it.” Kovel reached around him and pulled it out, grimacing and wiping his sticky hand on his shirt as he unfolded it. “Let’s see.”
“Hurry,” Denny called. “I can hear them searching.”
“There’s another staircase, but it’s nowhere near us.”
Life stared at the map. “Where are we?”
Kovel pointed. “Here. I think.”
Life nodded. “What’s that?” He pointed at a shaft with his left hand.
“It’s a laundry chute.” Seeing Life had no idea what that was, Kovel elaborated. “You put clothes down it and it’ll go to the washroom below for the housekeepers to clean. It’s so they don’t have to haul it down all those stairs.”
“Could we go down it?”
“It doesn’t exactly have steps! You might as well drop from the window!”
Life scowled. “If there are clothes down there, it’d break the fall more.”
“You’re both fools.” Denny pushed out of the antechamber and back into the meeting room. It was still clear of people so he peeked into the corridor again and frowned. “We can get down it like burglars do down chimneys.” He closed the door. “Where is the chute?”
Kovel consulted the map. “There’s one in the room just across the corridor.”
“All right. You two stay here.” Before either could protest, Denny opened the door and strode purposefully out. He was immediately spotted, but before someone could speak to him, he said something in angry Korvalstieniavean. After gesturing a few times, he pointed the opposite way down the corridor and the two men who had stopped to question him hurried in that direction. Denny didn’t look behind him, just strode across the corridor and opened the door to the other room.
Kovel and Life exchanged glances. Kovel grinned. “He’s good.”
When Denny beckoned they both hurried across the empty corridor.
It was easy to see that new room had once been another office, but had been converted into something of a bedroom since the occupation. There was a large bed against the wall that held a window, a dresser and bureau against another wall and a table with food laid out on it.
Using the map, it took Kovel only a few seconds to find where the laundry chute was hidden behind a tapestry. “Here we go.” He poked his head into it, but surfaced shortly. “It’s dark, but looks all right.”
“I should go first,” Life said, aware of how they were meant to go down the shaft. “If I can’t hold on, I don’t want to take you both out on my descent.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Kovel started into the chute. “I’ll go first and hold you up if you can’t make it. Just put your feet on my shoulders.”
“That will never work.”
“I’d definitely rather not find out,” Kovel cheerfully said, “but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.” He put his hands on the wall and started easing himself down. “Too late to change your mind now.”
Life looked back to Denny. Kovel was his usual jocular self, but Denny looked solemn. “Are you all right?” Life asked.
Denny refocused on Life. “You’re asking me that?” He managed a weak smile. “We got Visnek. I’m fine.” He watched Kovel disappear. “Hurry, hurry. We don’t have much time.” He kissed Life and helped him get situated.
It hurt terribly to use his arm to brace himself against the chute wall, but Life knew it wasn’t broken and that it would hurt a lot more if he slipped and killed Kovel while falling. He relaxed slightly when he saw Denny enter above him, though losing the light when the little door was closed made the whole affair move into the surreal.
Three floors was a long climb foot-by-foot on a staircase. Going down a chute, inch-by-inch, with a throbbing right arm was a little like entering a hellish limbo. Life knew he was moving, but it in the darkness it was impossible to see that he was. He heard Kovel whispering, but his concentration on his pain and moving was so great he didn’t catch what was said.
He couldn’t tell if five minutes or five hours passed. In some ways, he felt he’d been climbing down the chute his entire life. Once he thought he saw a light, but it soon swam out of his view and was lost. Surely they had gone more than three flights. They must have passed a basement and were now traveling into the heart of the world itself, or else into the fiery inferno of the under god. Perhaps it was punishment for killing Visnek the way he had.
Life blinked in the darkness and realized his foot had hit Kovel. Through the inky blackness, he made out a thin seam of light. Words formed on his lips, but he couldn’t express them. He couldn’t answer Denny’s whispered inquiry either. He just hung there, as though trapped in space.
After an impossibly long time the seam of light grew. It hurt Life’s neck too much to strain down and look at it, but he guessed Kovel had found another opening and was peeking out, checking for people. After a few more seconds, the light grew and then was blotted as Kovel pulled himself through. There was no immediate sound from him, but he returned a short moment later and gave a hiss that Life knew meant it was clear.
Kovel helped him out of the chute, and then sat him on a chair while he helped Denny. They were in a basement after all, the small, high windows looking out onto the ground level. Denny came to him as soon as he was free, kissing him and briefly hugging him before helping him to re-secure his arm in the makeshift sling.
Kovel checked the stairs that led up to the ground floor, and shook his head. Leaving Denny and Life at the chair, he stalked past baskets full of washed and unwashed laundry, examining each window. None of them had latches, but when he found a suitable one, it took only a few minutes for Kovel to crack the frame and pull it out.
“Come on,” he whispered. “The coast is clear.” He hopped up on a chair and pulled himself through, reappearing at the opening to help Life through.
The thought of going through the narrow window and pulling himself up with his arms made Life feel sick with pain, but he did as asked and to his surprise Kovel managed to pull him through almost completely. To Life’s embarrassment he was so exhausted that he had to lie on the ground panting while Denny climbed out.
They’d come up on the side of the building facing the brick and stones of another similar building. It wasn’t quite an alleyway, but it was a relatively narrow passageway between the two buildings. Out of sight, they could hear voices shouting and calling. Denny pulled the frame back into the window as best he could and came to loop Life’s arm around his shoulder.
“Where to now?”
Kovel checked the map. “I think we’ll do better going this way.” He pointed toward the back of the building. “It’ll take longer to get back to our supplies, but it should be safer.”
Life didn’t speak, but started walking. They hadn’t gone very far at all when an alarm sounded, bells clanging and echoing through the air. Life clenched his teeth and picked up his pace, certain now that they’d be caught any moment.
“This way!” Kovel ducked down a side street. The ground steadily sloped upward, making the trek even more difficult. Though minutes passed and Life occasionally heard the shouts and footsteps of running soldiers, none ever came their way. Still the bells clanged.
They hurried up another side street and found themselves face-to-face with a small pocket of soldiers, running toward them. Life froze on the spot, not knowing what to do or how to defend himself. Kovel darted into an open doorway and Denny grabbed Life’s arm and dragged him out of the way.
The soldiers shouted at them but didn’t run them through with swords—they just ran past, heading toward the coast. Life spun around, watching them go.
“That was unexpected.” Kovel gripped his chest, still wet with blood. “I suppose they don’t know they’re supposed to looking for suspicious people yet?”
Denny’s brow was furrowed and he tilted his head. “I’m not sure that’s it.” He looked around then took off jogging further up the street.
“Wait! Where are you going?” Kovel lifted his eyebrows in question at Life, but Life could only shrug and attempt to chase after Denny.
They ran quite a ways before Denny turned down an alley and began climbing a ladder propped up against the building. Life nodded to Kovel, who steadied the ladder for him while he struggled to climb up it with just one arm. He found Denny on the roof, staring over the tops of the buildings stretching below them toward the ocean.
“What are you doing? Do you want to be seen?”
Denny didn’t move. He just raised his hand and pointed at the water. “Look!”
Life followed his gaze, seeing nothing at first but the city stretching away below them, and the great vast dark sea beyond. After a few seconds, he saw the dark line growing on the horizon and as he watched, his eyes began to refine the shapes on the water into ships.
Life gasped. “It’s the Feorean fleet!”
The ships stretched across the ocean as far as his eyes could see, a steady, growing black mass approaching the island. It was a frightening and fantastic sight.
Kovel soon caught up with them, staring in shock beside them. “They must have launched every ship in the country!”
“Look at them trying to scramble the Korvalstieniav fleet!” Denny pointed a bit lower.
Life could make out the sails that belonged to the long range Korvalstieniav ships, starting to gather in formation. There was a surprisingly large number of Korvalstieniav ships, but it was clear they would still be two to one when the Feorean fleet arrived—and that wasn’t counting the Feorean ships that were already patrolling the northern part of the island.
“What a time to take out their war general,” Life mused. He felt his heart swelling with hope. “They’re confused and directionless.”
Denny shivered and reached up to squeeze Life’s left hand.
They watched in terrible silence for a long time as the black stripe of Feorean ships grew larger and more distinct and the Korvalstieniav ships rushed out to meet them. To the east they could make out more ships arriving in support of the Feoreans. A cool summer breeze tousled their hair and Kovel glanced up at the leaden sky.
“We ought to get back to our supplies.” He stared at the approaching fleet a few more seconds then turned away, heading back toward the ladder.
Life and Denny stayed there a few moments more, looking at the ships through the spyglass, though they were still too far away to make out much more than the shape of the ships. At length, they departed the roof and walked in silence the long way through the city, back to the building they’d left their supplies in.
Though Life’s arm still throbbed, he couldn’t feel the pain.
They returned to the building they’d spent the night in without incident, gathered their supplies and made it back to their boat just as it began to rain. Life stood on the shore, growing gradually wetter, as he stared out at the dark sea beyond their little ship. With the tide having come in, it would already be quite difficult to get out to the boat with his arm in the state it was in. The downpour limited visibility considerably, but beyond the boat he felt he could see the ghostly shapes of ships out on the horizon. It gave him a chill.
“Maybe we shouldn’t sail.” He felt Denny and Kovel’s eyes on him and found he couldn’t quite articulate his feelings. “There are too many ships on the ocean today.”
“You’re right.” Kovel looked at the ship straining at its anchor then back to Life. “We wouldn’t want to get caught by friendly fire.”
Life snorted. “Friendly fire? The Feoreans want me dead as much as the Korvalstieniavs. Perhaps more so.” He shook his head, pushed his wet fringe out of his face and started back into the overhang of a tree where the rain didn’t fall quite so hard. To his relief Denny wordlessly followed him.
Kovel chewed on his lower lip, looking from the copse of trees Life had taken refuge under and back out to the ship and the sea. “I suppose we could walk back.” He set down their sack of supplies in the relatively dry underbrush. “But that’ll take a hell of a long time.”
Denny smiled tightly. “We can wait until the rain lets up—or sail in the morning.”
Life nodded and shivered. It was almost as though he could feel in his bones the bloody war raging only a few miles away. “Let’s get inside somewhere.”
There was nowhere inside nearby for them to hide, as even the rundown buildings were leaking with rainfall. They eventually found one room that was relatively dry and Life hunkered down, shivering and miserable.
Kovel stood by the doorway, looking out at the rain. “He’s going to get sick if he stays like that.”
Life paid him little mind. He just felt Denny’s strong, clever hands on him and closed his eyes. The sound of rain persisted through the night, drowning out any other sounds and soon lulled him to sleep. He woke a few times to find Denny rubbing his shoulder and was fed some hot broth at another point. He slept hard after that, waking with the dawn when the sun broke through the clouds.
Water still dripped off the roof into puddles, but the rain had finally stopped. Life sat up and winced, gripping his arm. He had been undressed during the night, and his arm was now bandaged and wrapped. A strong smelling salve lingered on the cloth and as he worked his shoulder, heat made the joint hurt slightly less. He found his jacket drying, hanging up on the wall and, after retrieving it, slid it on. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness of the little room, he found he was alone.
After pulling on the rest of his damp clothes, Life picked his way out into the open and found Kovel and Denny sitting around a small little fire cooking breakfast.
It was a strange relief to see them there, doing something so mundane. He went and sat down beside them, warming his hand over the small flame.
“You had a good idea, last night.” Kovel inclined his head toward the sea.
Life furrowed his brows then followed the line the inclination made and got to his feet in surprise.
The little boat was in pieces, strewn across the coast. The tide had gone back out, revealing the wrecked hull half buried in the sand. The rest of the boat had come apart in the night and battered itself to pieces against the shore.
“Must’ve been some storm last night.” Kovel got to his feet and handed Life a cloth laden with bread and cheese. “How’s the arm?”
Life hungrily bit into the food, but his eyes didn’t leave the wreckage. It was too easy to imagine the ship ending up like that with them in it. “It’ll be all right in a few days, I’m sure.”
Denny got to his feet. “I’ve spent the morning charting a course for us to walk back to Pamel’s Cove.” He pulled out the map and showed it off. “If we keep up a good pace, it should only take a day or two.”
Life turned away from the wreckage finally. The sun was shining, but he still felt very cold in his damp clothing. He stepped closer to the fire and found his eyes taking in the little hovel they’d spent the night in. The roof was bowed now with rain and detritus. “I’ll be eager to get out of this place. It unsettles me.”
“Eat up then,” Kovel said, slapping his good shoulder.
The walk back to Pamel’s Cove was more pleasant than Life anticipated. His legs were grateful for the exercise and his arm felt better the longer he used it. As they walked through the cities, they spread the word of the Feorean fleet in Dunica. They discovered riders had come through in the night, informing the Korvalstieniav soldiers of the need for reinforcements, so by morning the confused Arisleans woke to discover their occupied towns nearly abandoned.
As Life passed through with the others, he felt like he was spreading hope to the people. By the time they left each town, the empty streets were beginning to fill with curious, hopeful natives, peeking out into the rain-washed streets and finding it clear of their oppressors. What few Korvalstieniavs remained in the city centers were soon overpowered.
Life found himself smiling as sounds of revolt echoed behind them.
They stayed the night in the rundown university for the biological sciences in the city of Namae. After spreading their news, they were welcomed heartily, led to a hidden area deep in the university that hadn’t been ransacked and were given warm food and beds. A professional doctor took a look at Life’s shoulder, and when he was done, most of the soreness was gone.
No one batted an eye when Life took Denny to bed with him, and though they only slept, he found he had not rested so well in that bed as he had in what felt like years. Knowing the threat of Visnek was no longer hanging over them somehow let him relax in a way he had never realized he wasn’t relaxing in before.
In the morning they were sent off with considerable fanfare for a city that had, until yesterday, been occupied by fierce Korvalstieniav forces. They were offered two underfed, sad horses, which they graciously turned down, and continued on foot.
By late afternoon of the second day they reached the outskirts of Pamel’s Cove and the same effect began to happen. People emerged from their run down little homes to find the streets bereft—not of Korvalstieniavs this time, but of Feoreans who had been called to engage the Korvalstieniavs in a rear attack. The closer they got into the city, the more people they found already out in the streets, many in the throes of celebrating.
All three were in high spirits by the time they reached the docks and found the Phoenix riding high in the water, the only ship that hadn’t sailed out to join the battle. From the noise of the cheering crowd in the city, the occupants of the Phoenix had come to the side of the ship to see the commotion. For Life there was nothing so welcoming as seeing Paramis, Cannon, Amist, Mila and the rest of the crew waving to them as they made their way home.