Chapter 25: Blackwater

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“This isn’t right,” said Leta sharply, brushing sweaty hair from her forehead with her wrist. Her legs ached as she trekked up a sloped dirt path. Fiearius was ahead, pushing heavy branches out of their way as they headed deeper into the jungle. The trees were so thick that it was actually dim beneath the canopy of leaves, but it was also oppressively humid. Leta’s sticky clothes clung to her, and her throat was dry when she called, “Fiear, we’re going the wrong way again. We’re supposed to — “

“Take the lower path, avoid the long-range cameras,” Fiearius snapped. “Yeah, I’m aware.”

Fiearius had never been near this jungle, but that did not prevent him from acting like he had mapped it all out himself — even when Leta was certain they were headed straight toward danger, straight to where a group of Society guards were stationed. They had hiked six hours the day before and stayed the night in a small tent, taking shifts on staying awake to keep watch — although Leta had only been asleep an hour before Fiearius became bored and woke her up, too. The following morning, they’d started hiking again bright and early. Leta had never spent so much time outdoors in her life.

She halted in the dirt, twisting to get her tablet from her knapsack. “Would you stop for a second? I’m telling you this isn’t right. We need to go further west.”

“West? If we go west we’ll hit the river and be sitting ducks.”

“What are you talking about?” Leta squinted at the screen. This map had been much more legible when they weren’t standing in the middle of it. “The river’s east.”

“It is not,” Fiearius groaned, finally coming to a halt and rolling his eyes at her.

“Yes, it is.” She shot him a glare and turned the tablet around and thrust it towards him. “Look.”

He regarded the tablet screen and after a second said, “Okay, so maybe we’re a little off.” Leta lifted her brows indicatively, but he was already shaking his head, “But calm down. We’ll be fine. Just relax a little.”

“Relax? When we’re this close to a Society stronghold?” Leta snapped. “Well maybe I would be more relaxed if you’d let me sleep at all last night.”

At that, Fiearius smirked wolfishly. “Yeah? You didn’t seem to mind at the time.”

Leta did not hesitate in smacking Fiearius’ arm with the tablet, but even when he flinched, he went on, eyes glinting, “In fact, I’d wager you flat out enjoyed when I — “

“I can hear you, you know,” interrupted Cyrus’ voice suddenly in their ears. Even through the spotty COMM connection, he sounded like he was in pain. “Still. We’re still connected. We talked about this already. Please stop.”

Leta and Fiearius winced at each other, though Fiearius grinned too as he touched the piece in his ear. “Sorry, Cy, assumed you’d dozed off,” he lied and added quickly, “But since you didn’t, how ‘bout you point us in the right direction.”

“For the record, you were both wrong.” The sound of typing crackled through the line; Cyrus was clearly searching through an array of maps, images and directions. “You need to head south when you get to the bottom of the next hill. Follow the edge of the cliff and it’ll be a straight shot to Blackwater’s ventilation system.”

“Thanks, Cy,” said Leta flatly. “Hope you’re enjoying your air conditioning back on the ship. How did you end up with the navigation job again?”

“By not volunteering for vent-crawl crew?” Cyrus pointed out.

Leta hoisted her knapsack over her shoulder and started off again, carefully picking her way down the woodsy slope as she pushed branches out of her path. Fiearius followed.

“Where are the other teams?” he asked Cyrus. “Quin’s and Dez’s?”

Leta and Fiearius weren’t the only ones traversing this mess of jungle, though it was easy to forget that when they hadn’t seen another soul since they’d left Relara. It had been a simple task to persuade Fiearius’ Archetian gang lord friend – Quin – to lend a hand in this mission. A hand, two ships and some hundred or so gunhands actually. Fiearius had only needed to mention the words ‘Society base’ to convince her the goods were worth the risk. While Leta and Fiearius slowly made their way towards the Blackwater base, two small armies were out there making their way too.

“They’re making progress,” Cyrus answered. “They’ll likely be in position before you are. Give them some time to prepare before you two open the floodgates.”

“Good, keep me updated.”

“Aye aye, cap’n.”

For the next hour, they wove through the trees, occasionally bickering, occasionally kicking dirt at one another, though Leta felt herself grow steadily more quiet the further they traveled. Her senses were keying up: she knew they were getting close.

Fiearius must have sensed her shift in mood, because when they stopped for a break, and Leta lowered to sit on a fallen mossy log, she felt him watching her.

“Everything okay?” he asked as he passed over the bottle of water.

“Wh — yes, I’m fine.”

But even as she took a sip and averted her eyes, she felt the intensity of his stare burning on the edge of her face. At last, he lowered to sit on the log beside her.

Then he touched the speaker in his ear, abruptly silencing the other end so Cyrus wouldn’t hear them. Now they were truly alone, and he said, “You didn’t have to volunteer for this y’know.” His voice was plain. “There’s not much telling what we’re gonna find on the other side of those walls. Someone else could have done this.”

“Someone other than me?” Leta smiled thinly. “Are you calling me chicken?”

“Course not.” His smile was teasing. “Pretty much the opposite, in fact. Too brave and reckless for your own good maybe.”

Leta almost didn’t answer, but then she softened. “It has to be me, Fiear.”

“Right. Well.” He cast his eyes up toward the canopy of leaves overhead. “A wise man once asked me whether or not I was set on tackling the Baltimore for the wrong reasons. It was a shit question at the time. But I think knowing the answer helped. So all I’m doing is asking you the same.”

Leta knew exactly who he meant. “Aiden?”

He grinned wryly. “Can’t blame ya for ignoring my counsel, but thought you might need some of his. You could have joined with the other teams. Hell, you could have stayed in the air conditioning with Cy. But you straight out wanted the hard role with the sneaking and the danger and facing it alone. So why, exactly, are you doing this?”

Leta didn’t hesitate.

“For my mom,” she said, absently pushing limp hair from her forehead. “Which is a worthy cause to me. It’s for her. It’s for revenge. Revenge is a dirty word, but it’s the truth.” She tightened her hands around the water bottle. “And what was your reason?” she asked, but she was certain she knew the answer. Her mind flashed to Aela, Denarian — Fiearius’ family, his wife and child, from a lifetime ago.

He watched his hand for a moment as it plucked a leaf from a low-hanging branch and turned it over. Finally he muttered, “Same as yours.”

“And did it help? Going after them on the Baltimore … did it help?”

“Not yet. But I think it will.” He leaned forward and rested his forearms on his legs. “Which is why I’m not Aiden. And why I sure as hell ain’t gonna stop ya.”

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