Swords and Scoundrels - Julia Knight

Chapter One

They say that an ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship. Vocho wasn’t so sure about that. Probably depended on whose blood you were talking about, because blood seemed to have got him into nothing but trouble.

The wood Vocho and Kacha lurked in was a mean little thing, a straggle of trees and stunted bushes that fringed the muddy track between some two-cow town in the province of Reyes and a different two-cow, perhaps even three-cow town up towards the mountains and the border with Ikaras. A desolate and rain-sodden spot in the back of beyond, a far cry from the city of Reyes itself. Vocho sat and shivered and dripped as he watched his sister, atop her restless horse, wrestle with the clockwork gun.

“Are you certain you know what you’re doing with that thing?” he said at last. In retrospect, it wasn’t the best thing Vocho could have said to her just then.

Kacha stopped scowling at the gun and scowled at him instead before she raised a cool eyebrow and blew a drip of water off the end of her nose. “Of course. Pretty sure I know where I went wrong last time.”

“You shot my horse’s ear off.”

A curl of her lip from under her dripping tricorne. She was indistinct in the darkness under the sodden trees, her heavy black coat and that ridiculous hat fading into the shadows, leaving only the pale blur of her face.

“Anyone could have made that mistake,” she said airily. “It’s not like, oh, I don’t know, killing the priest we were supposed to be guarding, right?”

“That was an accident!” Vocho was pretty sure anyway – the memories of that night were vague, and though they seemed vivid enough in his dreams, they soon faded to guesswork and ghosts when he woke up. Sadly the duellists’ guild hadn’t seen it as an accident when said priest had turned up with a sword hole in him. Worse, it was Vocho’s sword, the hilt still in his hand. The guild, not to mention the prelate and his guards, tended to take a dim view of that sort of thing. Very dim.

“He was only a priest, and a bad one at that, and that was a good horse.” Vocho still smarted at the fact they’d had to sell the horse – for some reason it had got very nervy after that accident, and nervy horses weren’t good in his new profession of highwayman.

“Maybe only a priest,” Kacha said. “But he was the prelate’s favourite. He was paying our wages, and the prelate’s department and the guild get very upset about people killing priests they’re being paid to guard.” Kacha hefted the gun, prodded the clockwork mechanism and scowled at it some more, like that would make it work properly. “At least in the guild we didn’t have to deal with these sodding things.”

Vocho subtly tried to edge his horse backwards, out of line of sight of the gun, but instead the beast barged sideways and knocked into Kacha’s horse, making it shy and snap at the air, narrowly missing the feather stuck in the brim of Vocho’s hat.

“Careful,” Kacha muttered, “or it’ll be your ear I take off, and not by accident.”

Vocho knew when it was time to stay quiet, and now was such a time. His older sister was mercurial in nature and never more so than when waiting in a dark and rain-drenched wood on the edge of cold mountains for some clocker or ex-noble to drive by so they could rob him, instead of being in a nice dry guild house in a nice hot city down by the coast. Especially when it was because of that dead priest they weren’t in said dry guild house or hot city. Even more especially when Kacha had a new-fangled gun that was difficult to shoot right at best, and an accident waiting to happen at worst. Oh, how the mighty are fallen.

The rain intensified, bouncing from leaf to sodden leaf, shivering from cloud to ground in a constant litany of sound. Confounded northern mountain weather. Vocho would have given a lot of money to be back in Reyes city. It’d be full-blown spring down there by now, and a Reyes spring tended not to include bucketloads of rain, but featured long hot lazy afternoons with a cool breeze coming in off the sea. The nightlife tended to be a little more refined than getting soaked to the skin in the muddy arse-end