The streets of Junkheap were busier than Chevalier expected. Or, maybe it was just that he hadn’t seen them in so long that his mind was playing tricks on him. Either way, he felt as if he was constantly stepping to the side or dodging diagonally to avoid crashing into somebody. This delicate dance was made all the more difficult by the fact that he was carrying a heavy sack of foodstuffs that was supposed to keep him well-fed for at least a few weeks.
“You know, I have to ask. What makes you think that I won’t just kill you as soon as you’re asleep?”
Chevalier turned back and grinned at Kellen, who was traipsing along behind him with a crate of supplies almost as big as he was. The former Plagtos asset didn’t seem to be struggling under the weight at all, and his cadence of steps –clank, clang, hiss, clank, clang, hiss – had barely changed.
It was a good question, all things considered. Chevalier wasn’t even sure what sort of fey mood had taken him in that conference room, as he’d negotiated with Layla to have her assign her new mercenary to his damn fool errand. The thought had just popped into his head as he’d gone through the details, and he’d somehow managed to convince the onkell station master to accede to his request. And, to be completely honest, he wasn’t entirely sure that Kellen wouldn’t take the first opportunity presented to exact revenge for the death of his brother. Still, he didn’t have to let the Chillsword know that. Kellen had argued against the venture, but the station master had made up her mind and hadn’t listened to his protests.
”Pragmatism,” Chevalier answered, “after all, do you know how to navigate a ship through the Empty? Or, not even the Empty. What about shallow space? If not, killing me would mean that you’d drift aimlessly along until you run into someone charitable enough to stop and pick you up. Or raiders, who’d kill you and sell your fancy armor for scrap.”
When Kellen bristled but didn’t respond, Chevalier turned back and resumed his trek through the streets. He’d done some reading about the Chillswords on the little Imperial Codex (which he had “accidentally” forgotten to return to Layla upon his release) the night before, and had learned that they were treated almost as glorified cargo. Even the vast reserves of the Aguelot Empire had little about the origins of the corps, or their practices but he’d seen enough to have a rudimentary understanding. Without fail, they were forced into small cubbies and put to sleep for long journeys, and most members were never allowed anything remotely like control over a spaceship. As such, Kellen would be totally hopeless at piloting the need came up.
They walked for a few more minutes in silence before a loud voice got their attention!
“Chev! You’re out!”
Chevalier put down his bag of supplies just in time as Rivi barreled into him and lifted him a few inches off the ground in a crushing hug. The star chaser held him there for a few seconds and gave him another rib-wracking squeeze that drove the last bits of air out of his lungs. He tapped on her shoulder a few times and managed to choke out “Glad to see you too, Rivi!” and breathed a sweet sigh of relief when she returned him to the ground.
Rivi stepped back and looked him up and down. “You look like you lost weight. They probably didn’t feed you much, huh?”
From there they talked for a few minutes about Chevalier’s incarceration, and when they were done, Rivi looked at Kellen.
“That doesn’t sound like much fun at all. I’m glad you got off the hook. What’s with the clanker?”
“I’m going on a treasure hunt. He’s coming along.”
Rivi looked at the patches of rime on the ground where the tip of Kellen’s weapon almost touched the ground and nodded at him. “Chillsword, huh? Thought you all worked for Plagtos.”
“I did. My contract was transferred to station master Layla as part of the company’s repayment for the damage incurred during my battle with Chevalier.”
The star chaser raised her eyebrow at Chevalier. “Didn’t you kill one of the Chillswords down on the dock?”
“And you think it’s a good idea to have him along with you? You two fought on the docks, right? You got a death wish or something?”
Chevalier shrugged. “Nothing risked, nothing gained, right?”
Rivi shook her head. “I always forget that when it comes down to it, you’re crazy. Well, Selene will be thrilled that you’re going on a treasure hunt. Have you seen her yet?”
“No, I only got out a few hours ago and have been working on getting supplied. I’m heading back to the Spitfire pretty soon. How about you? You want to come treasure hunting? I could use a friendly pair of eyes to watch my back.”
“Wish I could, but I’m heading off station in a few days,” Rivi said. She’d replaced her lost trident and gotten a new blaster, which hung in the same place as the old one. “Joined up with a star hunting crew that was passing through. Apparently they’ve been chasing a yrelion for the better part of the last three years. I’m going to help them find it.”
Kellen tilted his head to the side. “Yrelion?”
“Big glowing balls of energy,” Rivi said. “They seek out stars to collect energy from them in order to grow bigger.”
“What’s so special about that?”
“Yrelions have an almost uncanny knack for finding fresh stars, so to speak. We don’t know why, but they seem to prefer to draw energy from stars that no one has ever seen before. Lots of stars have been discovered by following them. So, hopefully we can track it down and then it can lead us to glory.”
Chevalier smiled. He recognized the glint in Rivi’s eye. It was the same as the one he was sure was in his own when he was hunting for treasure. He held out his hand and Rivi took it. Her grip was firm, but not overly so. “Be safe, friend.”
She looked at Kellen once more and her grin faded. “You too,” she said once she turned back to Chevalier. “Don’t go and get yourself killed.”
Having said everything that needed to be said and a wave, they went their separate ways. Chevalier led Kellen back to the dock where they’d met, though he hoped that this time the end result wouldn’t be the station master’s prison.
Selene leapt onto Chevalier’s shoulder the instant he boarded the ship and crawled all over him. The little dragon scolded, licked, scratched and cried –often within the same sentence – as she reunited with her companion.
“You idiot!” she hollered as she nipped at him. “How could you have let yourself get beaten like that? Don’t you know how worried I was? Did you ever think about what would happen to me if something happened to you? Don’t you—”
Chevalier plucked her up from his shoulder and held her out in front of his body. “It’s fine, Selene. I’m back now. I’m sorry to have worried you.”
“That’s all you can say? I’ve been sitting here for weeks, scrounging for food while you were rotting away in your cell. Since I couldn’t get into the storage locker, I had to eat bugs, Chevalier! Bugs! How are you going to make that up to me?”
Selene was writhing in his grip, and little bits of smoke were floating up from her nostrils.
Chevalier smiled as he heard a noise from Kellen that might have been the start of a laugh.
“Well,” said Chevalier, “I was thinking we’d go on a treasure hunt.”
Selene’s mood changed in an instant. Her rage, sadness and irritation were all gone, replaced by the little dragon’s borderline rabid lust for gold.
“Finally! I’ve been so bored salvaging shipwrecks that I thought I was going to die. We’re going to get to have a real adventure! Where are we going?”
She babbled and blathered as Chevalier and Kellen loaded the supplies into the Spitfire’s hold. It was only when she paused to take a few deep breaths that she seemed to notice the Chillsword for the first time. To her credit, she didn’t seem scared or startled by his presence, she just walked in front of him and looked up.
“And why are you here?”
The Chillsword pointed at Chevalier. “Ask your boss.”
Selene glared at Chevalier – no doubt he’d get an earful later – but raced up Kellen’s armor and braced herself up in front of the mercenary’s eyes with her forelegs.
“Let’s make one thing clear,” she hissed. “Chevalier is not my boss. Forget again and I’ll rip your eyes out.”
Chevalier tensed as Kellen shrugged his shoulders. Without a doubt, the mercenary could reach up with one of his massive gauntleted hands and crush Selene into blue scaly paste, but he didn’t. Instead he reached up and tapped the lens protecting his right eye.
“You think I care if you’ve got a helmet on? I’m a dragon! A dragon!”
This time Kellen did laugh. It sounded reedy and awkward, and Chevalier imagined that Kellen hadn’t often had an opportunity for laughter during his employment with Plagtos. Had he laughed with his brother? Impossible to know.
“And what a fine dragon you are,” Kellen said. “Though I’d always heard that space dragons were bigger.”
“That’s his fault!”
Kellen looked up over Selene’s accusingly pointed tail and nodded.
“I apologize for my mistake. I’ll endeavor not to repeat it.”
Selene stared at the mercenary for a moment and then nodded. She scampered down his shoulder and glided to the ground before scurrying up the ramp and onto the ship. Before disappearing from view, she looked at Chevalier. “Will we be leaving soon?”
The knight nodded and picked up another box of dried noodles. “Soon as we finish packing up.”
A little while later, Chevalier fired up Spitfire’s thrusters and eased the vessel out of the dock. It felt good to be back aboard his ship and even better to be back behind the controls. The grip of the sticks, the comforting lumpiness of his seat, the incessant blinking of lights above his head, and the familiar vibrations of flight. All of it was perfection, in its own muddled way.
Kellen stood behind him, Spitfire didn’t have any seats big enough for the Chillsword’s heavy armor, and they both watched the flow of ships in the station’s orbit. Junkheap was starting to get busy as word of its amenities spread and weary star sailors sought respite on its well-maintained shores. Selene had perched herself on Chevalier’s shoulder and probably would remain there until it was time to put the ship on autopilot and go to sleep.
“So, where are we going?” Kellen asked. “I can’t imagine you’re thinking about flying us all the way into the Empty in this ship. There’s no way it could survive the trip, and that’d take months, if not years.”
Chevalier pulled up his map of the Aguelot Empire on his secondary monitor. He pointed to a long red line a few days trip from Junkheap.
“There’s a shipping lane not too far from here with gates every few thousand waves all the way out to the edge of the empire. We’ll pay for a spot on one of the ferry whales and that’ll take us close enough to Rozaulia that we can explore and search for the Calypso Templar on our own. The ferries are pretty quick, so it shouldn’t be too long of a trip.”
Kellen grunted, but said no more.
Chevalier couldn’t help it. He smiled. There was an air of excitement in the cockpit as he carefully navigated through the bits of debris and other ships circling Junkheap before accelerating into open space. Like a man dying of thirst in the desert might drink water, Chevalier drank in the sense of anticipation, the beckoning unknown and the feeling that no matter what happened in the days to come that his entire world would change.
There was only one name for such a feeling.