Blood of the Mantis (Shadows of the Apt Series #3)by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Driven by the ghosts of the Darakyon, Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh-town of Jerez, but he has only days before the magical box is lost to him forever. Meanwhile, the forces of the Empire are mustering over winter for their great offensive, gathering their soldiers and perfecting their new weapons. Stenwold and his followers have only a… See more details below
Driven by the ghosts of the Darakyon, Achaeos has tracked the stolen Shadow Box to the marsh-town of Jerez, but he has only days before the magical box is lost to him forever. Meanwhile, the forces of the Empire are mustering over winter for their great offensive, gathering their soldiers and perfecting their new weapons. Stenwold and his followers have only a short time to gather what allies they can before the Wasp armies march again, conquering everything in their path. If they cannot throw back the Wasps this spring then the imperial black-and-gold flag will fly over every city in the Lowlands before the year's end. In Jerez begins a fierce struggle over the Shadow Box, as lake creatures, secret police and renegade magicians compete to take possession. If it falls into the hands of the Wasp Emperor, however, then no amount of fighting will suffice to save the world from his relentless ambition.
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BLOOD OF THE MANTIS
By ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Adrian Czajkowski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCoasting at a hundred feet above the clear waters of the Exalsee, Taki threw the gears of her orthopter's engine into place with a tug of a stubborn lever. She listened for the rhythm of the two wings as they suddenly picked up pace from a mere thunderous beating to a steady buzz. Satisfied, she leant on the stick, throwing the Esca Volenti into a low, wide and, above all, swift turn that the fixed-wing giving chase could never match. She caught the brief glitter of bolts shot from its rotary piercer, but they were far off now, no more than specks above the glitter of the waters.
Below her the two ships were still locked together, but she had no chance to determine whether the crew of the Ruinous was still putting up any resistance, or whether the pirates had already begun their looting.
She flicked the smoked-glass lenses over her goggles and looked toward the sun. Sure enough, the little heliopter that was her other worry was trying to hide there, now a stark silhouette against the sun's muted sepia glare. She continued executing her turn, dragging the stick back to gain height. The fixed-wing craft in pursuit had cast itself across the waters too fast for its own good, and was making a ponderous business of turning itself around, arcing high over the distinctive white-walled retreat of the distant isle of Sparis.
The heliopter suddenly stooped on her, cutting its twin rotors altogether to drop like a stone and then, as she sped past, spinning the left blades a second before the right ones in order to sling the machine onto her tail in a remarkable piece of flying skill. A moment later she felt the Esca Volenti shudder under the impact, but the heliopter was a tiny thing, barely more than a seat and an engine, and she had to trust that whatever crossbow it had mounted before the stick would miss any vital part of her own craft.
Thinking of her flier, Taki became aware of an ominous clicking from the engine. Running down again-always at the worst possible moment! The fixed-wing was now coming back, fast, swooping low over the waters and then pulling up hard, trying to barrel in for her. She climbed and climbed, so that, with his rotary letting loose in a blaze of wasted ammunition, he passed in a blur below her. They had both left the heliopter well behind. Whilst it could balance and hover on a gnat's ball, as the saying went, it had nothing for speed.
She had to wrap this up quickly and then get back to the ships, but at the same time she had to do something about the warning noises her engines were making. Time to do the usual.
Taki yanked the stick back one-handed, so that for a second the Esca was pointing straight at the apex of the sky, and then she flipped the craft on its wing tip and turned into a steep dive. She saw the fixed wing flash past her again, unable to compete. After all, the Esca Volenti was one of the nimblest machines over the Exalsee and she could even give dragonfly riders a run for their money on the turns.
Releasing a catch, she felt the wood and canvas of the flier shudder as the parachute unfurled. This was her second, so if she didn't close matters here before the engine ran down again, then it would mean a forced landing at best. Taki listened anxiously, above the rushing of the wind, and heard the clockwork mechanism that sat immediately behind her screaming with spinning gears as the drag of the chute rewound it. Sometimes, not often, that failed to happen, and at that point she really would have had a problem, for the world before her eyes now was already a sheer expanse of sea.
She pulled the stick back again, putting all her weight on it, and heard the struts and frame of the Esca give all their familiar protests. Another catch flicked and the chute was gone, billowing away into the ether, and the Esca Volenti levelled out over the Exalsee, no more than ten feet over the wave tips, speeding past the jutting Nine Fingers crags.
The flash of piercer bolts zipping past told her the fixed-wing had found her again, and she led it sideways in a turn easy enough for it to manage, banking left and right erratically to avoid its aim, until, and too late for the fixed-wing to avoid it, they were heading straight for the wooden side of the pirate vessel.... And then the fixed-wing's rotary was punching holes in its own ally, both above and below the waterline.
She pulled up, dancing past the white sweep of the sails, and a glance over her shoulder told her that the fixed-wing had flown wide of the ship's stern. The Esca could turn like nothing else in the air. Most orthopters around the Exalsee had four wings, some had two, but she had her secret: two wings and a little pair of clockwork halteres-drumstick-shaped limbs whose metronomic beating kept the flier under her control in even the steepest of arcs.
And now she was following the fixed-wing, which had slowed down to match her speed to accomplish the turn. She lined the Esca up directly behind it, with one hand on the trigger of her rotary piercer, the weapon that had so revolutionized air fighting over the last ten years. Like an infantry piercer it had four powder-charged barrels with spearlike bolts, but these discharged one at a time, not all together, rotating as they did so while the feeding gears pulled through a strip of gummed canvas that fed new bolts into the machine. It possessed the speed and power of a repeating ballista fitted neatly below the nose of her craft.
Bang-bang-bang, and the fixed-wing faltered in the air. A moment later it was smoking, the mineral oil in its fuel engine catching fire. She pulled out from behind it, seeing it dip lopsidedly toward the waves.
The heliopter was right there, over the ships, puttering toward her, and she saw the repeating crossbow loose and loose again, its bolts falling short at first, and then flying wide. It was jinking sideways, trying to throw her aim off, and she missed with half a dozen shots before one, by sheer chance more than skill, struck near the left rotor, sending the wooden blades flying into pieces. The little craft spun wildly for a moment, and she saw the Fly-kinden pilot make a jump for it, darting off under his own power and doubtless hoping she would not follow him.
Behind her a plume of fierce black smoke began to rise from the waters where the fixed-wing had crashed.
She took the Esca right over the two ships, and noted that there was still fighting on board the grappled Ruinous. Slinging her machine into another tight turn, she opened up with the rotary again, punching holes down the length of the pirate's decks. She had been trying for the foremast and, as she pulled out of her strafing dive, she saw it sag slightly against the stays. Down below there was confusion, and then the pirates, with their aircraft downed and their ship damaged, were fleeing from the Ruinous under archery from the surviving defenders, cutting their grappling lines and trying to get underway.
If she had been more certain of her engine or her remaining ammunition, Taki would have dogged them all the way to the shore, but, as it was, she kept them under shot until they were committed to flight and the Ruinous had built up steam once again, and then she coasted the Esca Volenti back down, hoping for a landing on the vessel's foredeck. She fumbled between her legs for her string of flags, finally finding the right signal, but had to make three further passes before an answering flag granting permission was flying from the Ruinous and they had cleared the deck sufficiently for her to land.
The Esca Volenti, coming in slowly and pitching back, with its wings beating furiously against its descent, almost managed to hover. It was a sharp divide between almost and actually, however, and she had to throw the control stick every which way to stop overshooting the deck and ending up in the sea. The blast of her wings buffeted every loose thing on deck before her, scattering papers and hats and baskets and anything else light over the side. Then the spring-loaded legs she had now deployed were scraping the Ruinous's wooden deck and she finally stilled the wings, letting the clockwork grind to a halt, as the Esca made its ponderous settling.
Taki unbuckled and hopped over the side of the cockpit, her wings fluttering a moment as she undertook the drop to the deck. A slight little thing, even for a Fly-kinden; her kind always made the best pilots, because of better reflexes and less weight to drag at their machines, though few of them ever wanted to engage in such a dangerous profession.
There was a big Soldier Beetle approaching who must have been master of the ship. "You, boy," he was shouting, "you took your sweet time!"
Boy, is it? Well, in her overalls and still wearing her helmet and goggles, why not? She hinged up the smoked glass, squinting under the sudden glare, and then pushed the goggles themselves up over her forehead.
"I came as soon as I saw the flare, Sieur. What losses?"
"Four crew dead," he grunted. He was rather old for this line of work, cropped hair just a greying speckle against his sandstone-coloured skin, and she reflected how it was odd that older ship's captains always drifted into the slave trade. "Two others wounded as won't work their way to Solarno now," he added.
"Then you'll have to limp along like the rest of us," she replied without sympathy, thinking how those men injured in defence of his ship would get scant sympathy from him. "Your ... cargo?"
"Still below, where the bastards never reached," the ship's master said.
"Slaves from Porta Mavralis," he confirmed. "Plus five passengers, three of whom had the grace to come raise a blade in their own defence."
She nodded, fiddling with the buckle of her leather helm. "I suppose you'll be wanting my mark, Sieur."
His face darkened at that, and she smiled sweetly. What, you thought I'd forgotten?
"Give it here, then. Which mob are you with?"
"The Golden House of Destiavel wishes you a happy and prosperous journey to Solarno," she told him, handing him the token of her employers so that he would know who to pay the bounty to. "If it's any consolation, you can claw back a little for giving me and poor Esca here a float home."
"Having you on my ship all the way? Some consolation. You know they'll dock me my fee for this?"
"Take it up with your Domina. Take it up with your guild," she suggested. "Just don't take it up with me, for I don't rightly care that much, Sieur."
He scowled at her, four times her weight and almost three feet taller, and she armed with nothing but a knife because a pilot carried no more weight than need dictated. She just smiled at him, though, to let him know all the trouble he'd be in if he started down that course, and he stamped away to shout at his crew.
They were mostly Soldier Beetle-kinden too, that odd halfway house between Ants and Beetles, neither of whom had much influence in these parts. She knew Solarno was a strange kind of city-in fact all the cities of the Exalsee were strange. Those kinden who had lived here since long ago, since the Age of Lore, were not natural city builders. Some of them did not even know how to work metal. Instead, a peculiar crop of exiles and visitors from the north and the west and the east had come shouldering the original natives aside to found a scattering of communities about the shores of this vast and glittering lake.
She finally tugged the buckle of her chitin helm loose. Passengers, she recalled the master just mentioning. If she was going to be ferried home at a snail's pace by this tramp steamer then she could at least seek out better company than the master himself.
* * *
There was blood on Che's blade. From a mortal wound that she had inflicted? Impossible to be sure, but she doubted it. Her recollection of the sequence of events aboard ship was at best cloudy. She had decided that she did not like fighting very much.
That decision had come after watching a battle, an actual battle. She had read accounts of battles before, of course, but those came in two distinct flavours. The traditional romances painted them in vivid colours where great heroes reared up, surrounded by their foes, and slew tens on tens, or were slain heroically while holding a bridge or a pass just long enough for their fellows to prepare a defence. The second flavour was found in the history books, dry as chalk dust, stating how "Garael with her five hundred met the superior forces of Corion of Kes by laying ambush at the pass, triumphing by guile and surprise though losing most of her followers to the fray."
No mention, in either case, was made of all the blood. She had seen enough of that by now, both as she had performed her little best to assist the field surgeons, and then later when she was led along the rails, through that appalling litter of the dead and dying, with Wasp soldiers stalking amid them and finishing off those that still lived in a soldier's final mercy.
Cheerwell Maker, known mostly as Che, shuddered, and continued cleaning her blade. The pirates had outnumbered the crew by two to one and so she had brought her resisting sword from its sheath and cut and slashed, drawing its edge across arms and legs, thrusting its point into any part of the enemy that presented itself. The routine moves had come naturally enough, just like in those hours spent practising in the Prowess Forum. She had, in that brief moment, put her thoughts aside like a true swordswoman was supposed to.
Now she stood shaking slightly as one of the crew began to mop at the deck, swabbing the blood from it. Another man was heaving the bodies of slain pirates overboard, only five of them and one shot in the back. The dead crewmen were wrapped in canvas, gone from crew to silent passengers in a sharp moment.
"Well, damn me but look at her," said her companion, moving up beside her. He had fled to the top of the wheelhouse once the pirates had attacked, but had taken a few shots with his bow from that vantage point. He was Flykinden, but a particularly unsavoury specimen of one, bald and coarse featured and dressed in dark tunic and cloak like a stage-play assassin. Now he was staring at the approaching pilot whose aerobatics had apparently defeated the pirates' fliers.
The pilot was a female Fly even smaller than himself, clad in an all-in-one garment of waxed cloth strapped across with various belts and bandoliers. She seemed very young, with a round, tanned face and smiling eyes, and Che envied the light way she moved across the deck.
There were other passengers aboard, but only one had come up on deck to help them fight. He was a tall, severe-looking Spider-kinden man, who gave the pilot a little nod of acknowledgement as she approached.
"So," he said, with a bitter smile. "The Destiavel, is it?"
"My ever generous-hearted employers, Sieur," the pilot confirmed, grinning at him. "And you are Sieur Miyalis of the Praevrael Concord, unless I mistake a face. Your cargo still safe in the lower hold, is it? A shame for you if they'd been taken by pirates. Not so much shame for them, though. A slave in Princep Exilla or a slave in Solarno, I see no difference."
The Spider-kinden slaver narrowed his eyes. "Then I advise you not to meddle in the trade, little pilot," he snarled, and stalked away.
"Superb," the Fly pilot said vaguely, before gazing brightly at Che. "Let's see if I can piss you off too, just as quickly." She took a second look at the woman she was talking to. "You're a foreigner-in fact you both are, by your dress." She pulled the chitin helmet from her head, unleashing an improbable cascade of chestnut hair. There came a low whistle from beside Che and the pilot fixed the bald man with an arch stare. "What's wrong, Sieur? Is it your daughters I remind you of, or your granddaughters?"
"Nice, very nice," he replied sourly. "Well, lady aviatrix, my name is Nero, the artist." Che caught the moment's pause as Nero recalled just how far they now were from his usual haunts where his reputation might carry some weight. "And this is Cheerwell Maker, a scholar of Collegium."
"Collygum?" the pilot echoed, mangling the name somewhat. "Spider Satrapy, is that?"
"Not within the Spiderlands at all, Madam Destiavel," Che informed her, whereupon the pilot looked suddenly interested.
"You don't say? Look, I'm not Destiavel-they're just the house that pay my way so I can afford to keep my Esca Volenti in the air. The name's Taki, and you're well met. If you'll tell me more about where you come from, I'll stand you a drink on the Perambula when we touch land. Maybe even find you a place to stay. I take it you're on business?"
Excerpted from BLOOD OF THE MANTIS by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY Copyright © 2010 by Adrian Czajkowski. Excerpted by permission.
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