The Last Carnivale
The corridor stretched on into blackness, its walls covered with burnt paper. Faint moonlight leaked through broken windows. She dodged chunks of fallen ceiling, kicking up dust and ash. Her eyes stung and her lungs pulsed with acid. Glass and smaller chunks of debris cracked too loudly under her heavy, ugly boots.
She knew the importance of silence; she could hear the group of soldiers behind her. She knew she hadn’t yet been spotted. She just had to make it to the end of the corridor, then up the servant’s stairs to what remained of the roof. With luck and skill, she might still have a chance.
Then I can run back to the caves so Theodric can kill me himself, Jessa thought bitterly.
They were closer now. She forced herself to concentrate.
Jessa had learned from bitter experience not to go rushing blindly into exposed space while she was above ground. Predators, collapsing debris, and Syncline soldiers were just a few of the dangers that awaited the unwary. She dropped to her belly, protected by her thick canvas coat. She could see one of them wedged into a doorway just meters from the staircase entrance. He held a sleek rifle with an arm made of both flesh and metal.
A new brand of killer, Jessa thought numbly. Syncline Corp. had sent their very latest model for her this time. She’d stopped asking why long ago. The short answer was simple: the mineral found only on Verres that was infinitely more powerful than any source Syncline currently possessed. The long answer started as far back as the day they’d killed her family and razed her world, mistakenly leaving the youngest, most headstrong member of the ruling family alive.
Hide. I’m going to have to hide. Theodric will know, he’ll bring help…
Shouts behind her let her know hiding was no longer an option.
The roof, then.
With one swift slice of her knife, her bootlaces fell away. Barefoot, she’d get cut, but she wouldn’t fall. Cuts would heal. A fall would snap her neck. Weakened by the repeated bombings that followed the Day of Fire, the remaining buildings were off limits to all survivors. The roof, especially, was treacherous territory. But Jessa knew her forbidden rooftop kingdom well. She crossed it often in her frequent attempts to escape the shelters and see the sun, unlike the Syncline soldiers who followed.
Jessa vaulted across open space, staying low as she slammed into the stairwell. The lone soldier who’d been guarding it barked commands into a crackle of static. Voices echoed behind her, followed by pounding feet and gunfire. She ran, skipping steps three at a time, ignoring the chaos in her wake. The sounds of fighting grew closer.
She cleared the staircase in seconds. Burned out buildings and twisted metal spires stretched up into endless night around her. What had once been beautiful, luminous structures mocked her with their broken windows and grime-encrusted surfaces. She barely had time to draw breath before a metal hand grabbed her.
“Target acquired,” the Syncline soldier said. An oddly elegant faceplate covered half his features. A red lens obscured one eye, while a grid of some kind jutted out and over part of his mouth. All that remained of his human face was a ribbon of flesh curving through metal barriers. His grip on her collar tightened while his inhuman strength hauled her even higher into the air. Her feet scraped wildly at nothing.
“I’m not …” Jessa gagged, trying to pry even an inch of air from the man’s merciless metal hands. “I’m not who you think,” she managed at last. He ignored her.
“She’s an exact match,” he said into the grid. Jessa didn’t hear the reply, but whatever it was made him narrow his eyes. “No, not a problem. She’s a tiny little thing.” The soldier shook her again, as if examining a pet he was considering taking home. “Scrawny, even. The embargo must be hitting them hard.”
Outraged, Jessa tried to kick him. Nothing happened, of course.
Gunfire echoed below. The soldier holding her froze as bullets rained down in a circle around them. Several hit him in the leg. She watched as a thick silver liquid oozed out, but he didn’t seem hurt. Instead, he grimaced as he dropped her and hauled her in front of him in a protective embrace.
Two thoughts hit her at once:
Theodric sent the Guard for me.
Why is a Syncline soldier protecting me from gunfire?
The latter she filed away for later. There simply wasn’t time, as tantalizing as the possibilities were. But her Guard’s presence meant a chance at rescue and demanded immediate action. As the hail of gunfire increased around her, she took a deep breath and dropped to her knees, leaving the soldier holding a much too large for her empty jacket.
How’s that for scrawny, she almost yelled after the astonished soldier as she crawled for the middle of the roof. Great big pieces of the structure were missing all around her. She crawled forward across a support beam, relying on deeply ingrained memory to guide her. Bullets and blasts were pierced by the occasional scream or yelled command. Behind her, she could hear more and more people clambering up onto the roof. Which was bad. Very bad. Too many, and the whole thing would collapse. She just hoped the main support beam would withstand the increasing weight.
Without her bulky jacket and its sheltering hood, there was no mistaking who she was. Her long red hair lashed across her face. Without the bulky jacket to hide her shape, it was obvious she was young and female. Not many young females survived the Day of Fire. Certainly only one had the kind of stupidity that would lead her to risk the roofs, and only one had her trademark red hair. She might as well be wearing a sign for Syncline’s forces.
They called her the Beggar Princess, the sole survivor of Verres’ ruling family after the Day of Fire. Gods be damned, how she hated that title. Hated it almost as much as she hated who she was, where she was, and what had happened.