The man spins around, knife already drawn, and hesitates. It’s not his fight. Anyway, he’s in Farlight only for OctoV’s birthday, unloading luxuries from a cargo ship on the edge of a landing site. And his knife is new, bought that afternoon from a stall in the road behind Golden Memories.
He doesn’t feel ready to use it yet.
A wise choice. Someone is about to get hurt, and it doesn’t have to be him. That someone is standing in my doorway. And half of my bar door swings from a rusted hinge, while the rest lies at his feet.
“Shut it,” I say.
A girl next to me does.
I am not sure she knows she screamed.
This is my bar, but it is Aptitude’s home, and she’s family. At least she is until her mother and father get out of prison.
“Sven,” she says.
“Later . . .” My gaze flicks across the room and settles on a wiry young man with a pointed face, floppy hair, and narrow shoulders. He’s reaching into his jacket. At a shake of my head, he lets go of his revolver.
In the field he’s my sergeant, but we’re not in the field; we’re on leave. So he’s running security for a bar I own on the outskirts of this city.
Raising his glass, Neen grins. He, for one, obviously intends to enjoy tonight’s show. As we watch, the man in my doorway jacks the slide on an oversized pistol and takes a slow look around to check that we’ve noticed.
Aptitude is getting nervous.
I smile, but it is at another girl entirely. Wandering over, she sits on my lap and snuggles up to me. Aptitude scowls to see me slide my hand up Lisa’s skirt. What she doesn’t see is the knife I take from Lisa’s garter.
“Subtle,” says a voice. “Understated, anything but obvious.”
The intruder believes that my gun is talking about him. He has pegged my corner of the room for the comment, but he can’t work out who’s to blame. As the man lumbers over, Lady Aptitude Tezuka Wildeside leans back in her chair.
“You,” he says. “Got something to say?”
She shakes her head frantically.
Satisfied, the man starts to turn away. Big mistake. Turning Lisa off my lap, I pick up my chair and smash it over the back of his skull. He drops, but only to his knees.
“Finish it,” Aptitude says.
“Not yet. I’m enjoying myself.”
Clambering to his feet, the thug stares at me.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m Sven Tveskoeg.” How many seven-foot-tall ex- legionnaires can he see in this bar?
Behind the man stands another: Federico Van Zill, provider of protection to half the bars and brothels edging the landing fields below Calinda Gap. A rumor says the war against the Uplifted will be over soon.
That is bad for Van Zill.
As long as we’re at war, there’s a chance I’ll be killed and my troopers with me. An end to the war would mean Van Zill gets some permanent competition. Peace isn’t going to happen, of course. And it’s disloyal, unwise, and probably treasonous to suggest otherwise. However, Federico Van Zill is an idiot, so I’ve been expecting this visit.
When Van Zill’s thug pulls a knife, I laugh.
It’s huge, with slots cut into the back of the blade. The slots are meant to say, This is a man ready to drag his enemy’s entrails through an open gut wound. You can tell a lot about a man from the knife he chooses.
You can tell a lot about a woman, too.
The blade I take from Lisa’s garter is a third the size. It lacks teeth, blood channels, and other finery, but it’s razor-sharp and made from glass.
All you have to do is stab once, then snap it off at the handle. You can buy ten for the price of the shiny toy in the hands of the man oppo- site me.
When Neen flashes five fingers, a boy behind the bar breaks the news to the bettors crowding around him. The odds on our fat friend have just halved.
“Come on,” I say.
Watching my blade, he fails to spot that I’m watching his eyes. This is a man used to getting his own way, and that is a weakness. In addition, he’s impatient. So he stabs and leaves himself open, only not open enough.
And go back to circling.
Neen’s seen me kill swiftly. All my troopers have. But catching Neen’s puzzled face in the crowd, I realize he has never seen me bide my time. Kill early, kill often . . . It’s our unofficial motto.
This is different.
I’ve never gutted someone in front of Aptitude. She’s a well-brought-up girl, and I’m trying to keep it that way. That’s one of the reasons this man’s made me cross. He’s still watching my blade and I’m still watching his eyes.
The man’s still watching my blade, and I’m still watching his eyes.
Soon everyone is waiting on what happens next. And their expectation makes my attacker clumsy. He jabs so obviously, it has to be a feint. As his gaze flicks right, I know what’s going to happen.
He waits for me to begin a block before switching hands, smiling at his own brilliance. Then his brain is playing catch-up, because Lisa’s knife is deep in his stomach and I’m dragging it upward. A single rip opens him from groin to breastbone, and a tumble of guts slides to the floor.
Lisa’s more practiced. She opens a window.
You can say what you like about the girls from the barrio below Calinda Gab, but they’ve seen it all before, probably twice. Tossing a blanket over the twitching corpse, my bar manager Angelique nods to a boy behind the counter. He can drag it out later.
“Boss,” says my sergeant. “What about Rat Face?”
Van Zill looks less smug with Neen’s revolver to his head.
“Take Rat Face outside,” I say. “Shoot him.”
No need to ask who that is.
“A week ago,” I tell Aptitude, “a man refused to pay protection to this piece of shit. What do you think happened to his twelve-year-old daughter?”
Aptitude is fifteen.
She doesn’t like my question.
Turning back to Neen, I say, “Take him outside. Make sure he knows what happens if he ever comes back.”
Our glorious capital is built in the caldera of an old volcano, and smog traps heat and makes the air hard to breathe. Corpses rot quickly here, and large ones rot faster than small ones. Don’t know why, but it’s true. Lisa ends up helping the boy behind the bar drag the body out back, then fetches ice to keep it fresh until Angelique can arrange collection.
“Do I close up?” Angelique asks.
“No way.” I shake my head. “We stay open.”
The music goes back on. We offer a round of cold beers to everyone, on the house. A couple of cargo captains who were going to call it a night change their minds and head upstairs with three of the local girls.
A technician watches them go, summons his courage, and follows. He has two blondes in tow, and I’m not sure he looked closely before grabbing their wrists. No doubt, he’ll discover soon enough that one is a boy.
“Chill some cachaca,” I tell Lisa. “Make sure our customers have a night to remember.”
That thug will become a giant, his knife a razor-edged saber, my own moves unstoppable and insanely vicious . . . Our reputation will grow. That’s good, because tomorrow sees me, my sergeant, and the rest of the Aux present ourselves for duty. I need that reputation to keep Aptitude safe until we get home.
“All done,” says Neen, rubbing his fists.
“Good. Anything I should know?”
“Told the little shit to pay us from now on.”
I grin. It’s a good call.
“Twenty percent,” says Neen. “Straight off the top, no deductions. Last day of each month. No exceptions, no excuses.”
This is a farm boy, an ex-militia conscript who should be dead months back. Would be if I hadn’t taken over his troop. I wonder where he got the idea. Then I see his sister behind him and know exactly where she thinks he did. Shil is scowling, but that’s nothing new. Shil’s always scowling. We have history.
“No, sir,” says Shil.
“Good.” I look around the bar. “Get drunk,” I tell Neen. “Get laid. Acquire a hangover. We ship out tomorrow.”
Neen grins. “Is that an order, sir?”
His sister sighs.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Death's Head Maximum Offense by David Gunn. Copyright © 2008 by David Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.