The Magnificent Seven meets The Wind in the Willows in this action-packed fantasy adventure from Daniel Polansky, The Builders.
A missing eye.
A broken wing.
A stolen country.
The last job didn't end well.
Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain's company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain's whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.
PRAISE FOR THE BUILDERS
"A living, breathing world of vivid, winsome characters hellbent on their blaze of glory and as unforgiving as a runaway train carrying all your friends over a cliff. I haven't cared about animals this much since Watership Down." — Delilah S. Dawson, author of Hit and Wicked as They Come
"Nobody does dark like Polansky. The Builders is Redwall meets Unforgiven, combining the endearing wit of Disney's Robin Hood with all the grit and violence of a spaghetti western." — Myke Cole, author of the Shadow Ops series
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By Daniel Polansky, Justin Landon
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Daniel Polansky
All rights reserved.
A Mouse Walks into a Bar ...
* * *
Reconquista was cleaning the counter with his good hand when the double doors swung open. He squinted his eye at the light, the stub of his tail curling around his peg leg. "We're closed."
Its shadow loomed impossibly large from the threshold, tumbling over the loose warped wood of the floorboards, swallowing battered tables and splintered chairs within its inky bulk.
"You hear me? I said we're closed," Reconquista repeated, this time with a quiver that couldn't be mistaken for anything else.
The outline pulled its hat off and blew a fine layer of grime off the felt. Then it set it back on its head and stepped inside.
Reconquista's expression shifted, fear of the unknown replaced with fear of the known-quite-well. "Captain ... I ... I didn't recognize you."
Penumbra shrunk to the genuine article, it seemed absurd to think the newcomer had inspired such terror. The Captain was big for a mouse, but then being big for a mouse is more or less a contradiction in terms, so there's not much to take there. The bottom of his trench coat trailed against the laces of his boots, and the broad brim of his hat swallowed the narrow angles of his face. Absurd indeed. Almost laughable.
Almost — but not quite. Maybe it was the ragged scar that ran from his forehead through the blinded pulp of his right eye. Maybe it was the grim scowl on his lips, a scowl that didn't shift a hair as the Captain moved deeper into the tavern. The Captain was a mouse, sure as stone; from his silvery-white fur to his bright pink nose, from the fan-ears folded back against his head to the tiny paws held tight against his sides. But rodent or raptor, mouse or wolf, the Captain was not a creature to laugh at.
He paused in front of Reconquista. For a moment he had the impression that the ice that held the Captain's features in place was about to melt, or at least unsettle. But it was a false impression. The faintest suggestion of greeting offered, the mouse walked to a table in the back and dropped himself lightly into one of the seats.
Reconquista had been a rat, once. The left side of his body still was, a firm if aging specimen of Rattus norvegicus. But the right half was an ungainly assortment of leather, wood, and cast iron, a jury-rigged contraption mimicking his lost flesh. In general it did a poor job, but then he wasn't full up with competing options.
"I'm the first?" the Captain asked in a high soprano, though none would have called it that to his face.
"Si, si," said Reconquista, stutter-stepping on his peg leg out from behind the bar. On the hook attached to the stump of his right arm was slung an earthenware jug, labeled with an ominous trio of x's. He set it down in front of the Captain with a thud. "You're the first."
The Captain popped the cork and tilted the liquor down his throat.
"Will the rest come?" Reconquista asked.
A half-second passed while the Captain filled his stomach with liquid fire. Then he set the growler back on the table and wiped his snout. "They'll be here."
Reconquista nodded and headed back to the bar to make ready. The Captain was never wrong. More would be coming.CHAPTER 2
A Stoat and a Frenchman
* * *
Bonsoir was a stoat, that's the first thing that needs to be said. There are many animals that are like stoats, similar enough in purpose and design as to confuse the amateur naturalist — weasels, for instance, and ferrets. But Bonsoir was a stoat, and as far as he was concerned a stoat was as distinct from its cousins as the sun is from the moon. To mistake him for a weasel or, heaven forbid, a polecat — well, let's just say creatures who voiced that misimpression tended not to do so ever again. Creatures who voiced that misimpression tended, generally speaking, not to do anything ever again.
Now a stoat is a cruel animal, perhaps the cruelest in the Gardens. They are brought up to be cruel, they must be cruel — for nature, which is crueler, has dictated that their prey be children and the unborn, the beloved and the weak. And to that end nature has given them paws stealthy and swift, wide eyes to see clearly on a moonless night, and a soul utterly remorseless, without conscience or scruple. But that is nature's fault, and not the stoat's; the stoat is what it has been made to be, as are we all.
So Bonsoir was a stoat, but Bonsoir was not only a stoat. He was not even, perhaps, primarily a stoat. Bonsoir was also a Frenchman.
A Frenchman, as any Frenchman will tell you, is a difficult condition to abide, as much a privilege as a responsibility. To maintain the appropriate standards of excellence, this superlative of grace, was a burden not so light even in the homeland, and immeasurably more difficult in the colonies. Being both French and a stoat had resulted in a more or less constant crisis of self-identity — one which Bonsoir often worked to resolve, in classic Gallic fashion, via monologue.
And indeed, when the Captain had seen him some six weeks previous, Bonsoir was in the midst of expounding on his favorite subject to a captive audience. He had one hand draped around a big-bottomed squirrel resting on his knee, and with the other he pawed absently at the cards lying facedown on the table in front of him. "Sometimes, creatures in their ignorance have called me an ermine." His pointed nose trailed back and forth, the rest of his head following in train. "Do I look like an albino to you?"
There were five seats at the poker table but only three were filled, the height of Bonsoir's chip stack making clear what had reduced the count. The two remaining players, a pair of bleak, hard-looking rats, seemed less than enthralled by Bonsoir's lecture. They shifted aimlessly in their seats and shot each other angry looks, and they checked and rechecked their cards, as if hoping to find something different. They might have been brothers, or sisters, or friends, or hated enemies. Rats tend to look alike, so it's tough to tell.
"Now a stoat," Bonsoir continued, whispering the words into the ear of his mistress, "a stoat is black, black all over, black down to the tip of his" — he goosed the squirrel and she gave a little chuckle — "feet."
The Swollen Waters was a dive bar, ugly even for the ugly section of an ugly town, but busy enough despite this, or perhaps because of it. The pack of thugs, misanthropes, and hooligans who thronged the place took a good hard look at the Captain as he entered, searching for signs of easy prey. Seeing none, they fell back into their cups.
A swift summer storm had matted down the Captain's fur, and to reach a seat at the bar required an ungainly half-leap. He seemed more than usually perturbed, and he was usually quite perturbed.
"You want anything?" The server was a shrewish sort of shrew, as shrews tend to be.
A miserly dram poured into a stained glass. "We don't get many mice in here."
"We're not partial to the stench of piss," the captain said curtly.
Back at the table the river card had been laid, and Bonsoir's lady-friend rested on the vacant seat next to him. One rat was already out, the stack of chips too much weight for his wallet to support. But the other had stayed in, calling Bonsoir's raise with the remainder of his dwindling finances. Now he triumphantly tossed his cards down on the table and reached for the pot.
"That is a very fine hand," Bonsoir said, and somehow when he had finished this statement his paw was settled atop the rat's, firmly keeping him from withdrawing his winnings. "That is the sort of hand a fellow might expect to get rich from." Bonsoir flipped his own over, revealing a pair of minor nobles. "Such a fellow would be disappointed."
The rat looked hard at the two thin pieces of paper that had just lost him his savings. Then he looked back up at the stoat. "You've been taking an awful lot of pots tonight." His partner slid back from the table and rested his hand on a cap-and-ball pistol in his belt. "An awful lot of pots."
Bonsoir's eyes were cheery and vicious. "That is because you are a very bad poker player," he said, a toothy smile spreading across his snout, "and because I am Bonsoir."
The second rat tapped the butt of his weapon with a curved yellow nail, tic tic, reminding his partner of the play. Around them the other customers did what they could to prepare for the coming violence. Some shifted to the corners. Those within range of an exit chose this opportunity to slip out of it. The bartender ducked beneath the counter and considered sadly how long it would take to get the bloodstains out of his floor.
But after a moment the first rat blinked slowly, then shook his head at the second.
"That is what I like about your country," Bonsoir said, merging his new winnings with his old. "Everyone is so reasonable."
The story was that Bonsoir had come over with the Foreign Legion and never left. There were lots of stories about Bonsoir. Some of them were probably even true.
The rats at least seemed to think so. They slunk out the front entrance faster than dignity would technically allow — but then rats, as befits a species subsisting on filth, make no fetish of decorum.
The Captain let himself down from his high chair and made his way to the back table, now occupied solely by Bonsoir and his female companion. She had resumed her privileged position on his lap, and chuckled gaily at the soft things he whispered into her ear.
"Cap-i-ton," Bonsoir offered by way of greeting, though he had noted the mouse when first he entered. "It has been a long time."
The Captain nodded.
"This is a social call? You have tracked down your old friend Bonsoir to see how he has accommodated to his new life?"
The Captain shook his head.
"No?" The stoat set his paramour aside a second time and feigned wide-eyed surprise. "I am shocked. Do you mean to say you have some ulterior motive in coming to see Bonsoir?"
"We're taking another run at it."
"We are taking another run at it?" Bonsoir repeated, scratching at his chin with one ebony claw. "Who is we?"
"Those who are still alive, you mean?"
The Captain didn't answer.
"And why do you think I would want to rejoin the ... gang, as you say?"
"There'll be money on the back end."
Bonsoir waived his hand over the stack of chips in front of him. "There is always money."
"And some action. I imagine things get dull for you, out here in the sticks."
Bonsoir shivered with annoyance. So far as Bonsoir was concerned, the spot he occupied was the center of the world. "Do I look like Elf to you, so desperate to kill? Besides — there are always creatures willing to test Bonsoir."
"And of such caliber."
Bonsoir's upper lip curled back to reveal the white of a canine. "I am not sure I understand your meaning, my Cap-i-ton."
"No?" The Captain pulled a cigar out of his pocket. It was short, thick, and stinky. He lit a match against the rough wood of the chair in front of him and held it to the end. "I think you've grown as fat as your playmate. I think wine and females have ruined you. I think you're happy here, intimidating the locals and playing lord. I think this was a waste of my time."
The Captain was halfway to the door when he felt the press of metal against his throat. "I am Bonsoir," the stoat hissed, a scant inch from the Captain's ears. "I have cracked rattlesnake eggs while their mother slept soundly atop them, I have snatched the woodpecker mid-flight. More have met their end at my hand than from corn liquor and poisoned bait! I am Bonsoir, whose steps fall without sound, whose knives are always sharp, who comes at night and leaves widows weeping in the morning."
The Captain showed no signs of excitement at his predicament, or surprise at the speed and quiet with which Bonsoir had managed to cross the distance between them. Instead he puffed out a dank blend of cigar smoke and continued casually, "So you're in?"
Bonsoir scooted round in front of the Captain, his temper again rising to the surface. "Do you think this is enough for Bonsoir? This shithole of a bar, these fools who let me take their money? Do you think Bonsoir would turn his back on the Cap-i-ton, on his comrades, on the cause?" The stoat grew furious at the suggestion, working himself into a chittering frenzy. "Bonsoir's hand is the Cap-i-ton's! Bonsoir's heart is the Cap-i-ton's! Let any creature who thinks otherwise say so now, that Bonsoir may satisfy the stain on his honor!"
Bonsoir twirled the knife in his palm and looked around to see if anyone would take up the challenge. None did. After a moment the Captain leaned in close and whispered, "St. Martin's Day. At the Partisan's bar."
Bonsoir's knife disappeared somewhere about his person. He chopped off a crisp salute, the first he had offered anyone in half a decade. "Bonsoir will be there."CHAPTER 3
* * *
Bonsoir made a loud entrance for a quiet creature. The Captain had been sitting silently for half an hour when the double doors flew open and the stoat came sauntering in. It was too fast to be called saunter, really, Bonsoir bobbing and weaving to his own internal sense of rhythm — but it conveyed the same intent. A beret sat jauntily on his scalp, and a long black cigarette dangled from his lips. Strung over his shoulder was a faded green canvas sack. He carried no visible weapons, though somehow this did not detract from his sense of menace.
He nodded brusquely to Reconquista and slipped his way to the back, stopping in front of the main table. "Where is everyone?"
Bonsoir took his beret off his head and scowled, then replaced it. "It is not right for Bonsoir to be the first — he is too special. His arrival deserves an audience."
The Captain nodded sympathetically, or as close as he was able to with a face formed of granite. He passed Bonsoir the now half-empty jug as the stoat bounced against a stool. "They're coming," he repeated.CHAPTER 4
The Virtues of Silence
* * *
Boudica lay half-buried in the creek bed when she noticed a figure threading its way along the dusty path leading up from town. The stream had been dry for years now, but the shifting silt at the bottom was still the coolest spot for miles, shaded as it was by the branches of a scrub tree. Most days, and all the hot ones, you could find Boudica there, whiling away the hours in mild contemplation, a hunk of chaw to keep her company.
When the figure was half a mile out, Boudica's eyebrows elevated a tick above their resting position. For the opossum, it was an extraordinary expression of shock. Indeed, it verged on hysteria. She reflected for a moment longer, than resettled her bulk into the sand.
This would mean trouble, and generally speaking, Boudica did not like trouble. Boudica, in fact, liked the absolute opposite of trouble. She liked peace and quiet, solitude and silence. Boudica lived for those occasional moments of perfect tranquility, when all noise and motion faded away to nothing, and time itself seemed to still.
That she sometimes broke that silence with the retort of a rifle was, in her mind, ancillary to the main issue. And indeed, it was not her steady hands that had made Boudica the greatest sniper who had ever sighted down a target. Nor her eyes, eyes that had picked out the Captain long moments before anyone else could have even identified him as a mouse. It was that she understood how to wait, to empty herself of everything in anticipation of that one perfect moment — and then to fill that moment with death.
As an expert, then, Boudica had no trouble biding the time it took the mouse to arrive, which she spent wondering how the Captain had found her. Not her spot at the creek bed; the locals were a friendly bunch and would have seen no harm in passing on that information. But the town itself was south of the old boundaries, indeed as south as one could go, surrounded by an impenetrably barren wasteland.
Boudica spat tobacco juice into the weeds and set her curiosity aside. The Captain was the sort of animal who accomplished the things he set out to do.
Excerpted from The Builders by Daniel Polansky, Justin Landon. Copyright © 2015 Daniel Polansky. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part the First,
Chapter 1: A Mouse Walks into a Bar ...,
Chapter 2: A Stoat and a Frenchman,
Chapter 3: Bonsoir's Arrival,
Chapter 4: The Virtues of Silence,
Chapter 5: Boudica's Arrival,
Chapter 6: The Dragon's Lair,
Chapter 7: Cinnabar's Arrival,
Chapter 8: A Well-Earned Retirement,
Chapter 9: Barley's Arrival,
Chapter 10: Our Old Friend, the Devil,
Chapter 11: Gertrude's Arrival,
Chapter 12: Elf,
Chapter 13: The Plan,
Chapter 14: Later ...,
Chapter 15: And Later ...,
Chapter 16: And Yet Later ...,
Chapter 17: And Later Still ...,
Chapter 18: So Late as to Be Early ...,
Chapter 19: The Power Behind the Throne,
Part the Second,
Chapter 20: South of the Border,
Chapter 21: A Killer's Pride,
Chapter 22: The Price of Certainty,
Chapter 23: A Loud Death Rattle,
Chapter 24: Best Laid Plans,
Chapter 25: That Evening ...,
Chapter 26: With Less Liquor Than Earlier ...,
Chapter 27: With the Jugs Half-Empty ...,
Chapter 28: As the Stocks Grew Low ...,
Chapter 29: At the Bottom of the Kegs ...,
Chapter 30: A Smoke Before Sleep,
Chapter 31: An Expected Reversal,
Part the Third,
Chapter 32: The Soul of a Shrew,
Chapter 33: Just Past Ciudad del Gato ...,
Chapter 34: The Loot,
Chapter 35: A Question of Numbers,
Part the Fourth,
Chapter 36: An Awful End,
Chapter 37: A New Cellmate,
Chapter 38: Anticipation (1),
Chapter 39: A Friendly Smile,
Chapter 40: The Specialist,
Chapter 41: Anticipation (2),
Chapter 42: For All Things Are Mortal,
Chapter 43: Raison d'Être,
Chapter 44: Besting the Reaper,
Chapter 45: Question Asked,
Chapter 46: Anticipation (3),
Chapter 47: Not a Frenchman,
Chapter 48: Question Answered,
Chapter 49: Reunion,
Chapter 50: Good Night,
Chapter 51: One Final Ace,
Chapter 52: Resolution,
Chapter 53: The Builders,
About the Author,
Also by Daniel Polansky,