High Commander Lesto Arseni is the most feared man in the Harken Empire. None but the High King dares risk his wrath—and a pirate who once punched him in the middle of the imperial pavilion. A pirate who later snuck away with Lesto to an empty room, touched him in ways far more memorable. And then immediately bolted like a man who'd gotten what he wanted.
Shemal just wants to live a normal life, leave his pirating days behind him and prove that he's respectable now. The last thing he needs is the two idiots who show up wanting his help with the noble they've kidnapped—the very man Shemal had been hoping to prove himself to, the man he hasn't forgotten since Shemal punched him a year and a half ago.
Lesto whimpered as something jarred, knocking his head against a hard surface. Moving—he was moving. Carriage? No, that didn't feel right. Cart, maybe. That seemed more likely. It jerked again, and he definitely was lying down, head thunking against the bottom of the cart whenever it went over a rock or pothole in the road. How in the Pantheon had he wound up in a damned cart?
His thoughts came slow and heavy, like wading through a cold, muddy river.
They'd been at a tavern—that was his last clear memory. He and the soldiers he'd brought along from Fathoms Deep had stopped at a tavern to eat, the large one located two-days' ride north of Jethamor City. They'd been talking about how good it would be to return home after weeks of trying to sort out the mess that had resulted from a Harken trade ship running ashore, every last hand, mercenary, and passenger on board long dead by swift, brutally effective means—mercenary work, but no mercenary that worked for the Harken Empire. Stranger still, half the people on board had been missing their right hand, as though someone had gone through and chopped them off. Lesto really didn't want to know why, but he was probably going to find out eventually and spend the rest of his life sorry he knew.
Definitely the work of an enemy abroad, but so far, they'd not been able to figure out which one, or why they'd slaughtered the crew and passengers of a Harken imperial galleon but left all of the valuable cargo. None of the thirty-three passengers had been notably powerful or wealthy, so it likely hadn't been a professional hit of any sort, though that possibility hadn't been completely eliminated.
Lesto cringed as they went over another deep pothole and his head knocked so hard he felt close to throwing up.
Drugged—he'd definitely been drugged, and heavily. Whoever was behind this knew the only way they'd get away with it was to keep Lesto too drugged to move. Though now that he was slowly becoming more aware, he could feel the leather wrapped around his wrists and ankles.
Why in the fucking Pantheon would someone kidnap him? That was even stupider than slaughtering an entire ship of Harken citizens. Rene was going to enlist the Three-headed Dragons and rain divine terror across the continent until he found Lesto. Sarrica was going to go straight to arresting people and starting wars and not worry about sorting the mess out until he got Lesto back.
Hopefully Tara and Allen would be able to rein them in, but Lesto doubted it. Nobody would be able to stop him if any of his family was kidnapped. Especially not with Allen and Rene's kidnapping in the not so distant past.
Damn it. He was forty-one, entirely too damned old to be kidnapped. Forget Sarrica and Rene. The bastards responsible for this had better hope he didn't get loose. He wouldn't need a weapon to make them regret their choices and beg for death.
Why had they done it? Not for the ransom. There were better people to kidnap for that. No, this must have to do with the fucking ship. It was too much coincidence that he was kidnapped on his way home from investigating the matter. Though he didn't know why the kidnappers were so panicked. He hadn't figured out a single Pantheon-damned thing.
Lesto screamed as the cart struck something, went up, and slammed back down hard before coming to a halt. He blacked out, but not for long because when he came to, the cart still wasn't moving. Voices, faint but clear, washed over him. Rough informal Harken, which was odd given they were in Gearth the last time he'd been aware of his surroundings, and not many people in Gearth spoke Harken. They clearly didn't speak it natively, which was something, though Lesto wasn't certain what.
Fuck, he was too old for this stupid, overdramatic shit. He'd just wanted to finish this last major assignment and then he was going to work on retirement. Jader was more than ready to assume the role of High Commander, and Lesto was long past ready to concentrate on being the Duke of Fathoms Deep instead of High Commander of the Harken Imperial Army.
The voices came closer, and then hands tore away the blanket or whatever it was covering him. It was black out, so clearly they hadn't been traveling long—or they'd been traveling long enough that he'd slept right through day and woken up at night. But that didn't seem likely given how difficult the road was and that his muscles weren't all that stiff yet.
Someone hopped up into the cart.
"Is he alive?" someone else asked.
"Shut up," the man in the cart growled as he crudely checked Lesto over. "You alive, cheyio?"
That was a Gearthish word, and not a nice one. Rotted bitch was the most common translation, though Lesto had always had the impression there was more nuance to it than that. Allen would probably know. Lesto might not be a silver tongue, but he knew enough to get by in most places, especially with shit-eating thugs stupid enough to kidnap him. "Go fuck your poxed mother."
The man gave Lesto's head a rough shove, setting it to throbbing and spinning again. He laughed meanly. "He's fine. Let's get this piece of shit cart moving again. I want to be at Shemal's place before dawn."
Who the fuck was Shemal? Lesto mentally added him to the list of people he was going to kill or severely maim the moment he worked free of his bindings.
The cart started moving again, and the pissing and moaning from his poor, beleaguered kidnappers gradually faded off as guiding the cart in the dark along a shitty road took all their attention. Lesto closed his eye, let the drugs and the pain drag him back into merciful oblivion.
Sunlight warmed his face when he was next forced awake, the hazy, red-heavy kind he hated because it meant it was time to wake up and leave the comfortable bed he so rarely got to enjoy a full night through. Guess they hadn't been able to keep their dawn deadline.
Two men dragged him out of the cart, still half-wrapped in the musty horse blanket that had been covering him. "Do I get to take a piss at some point?" Lesto asked. They just laughed, which was about what he'd expected, and kept dragging him along up to the front door of a sad looking cottage made of Gearth Bluestone. That stone went for a small fortune all over the world, but in Gearth itself, it was treated as little better than mud bricks.
And they seemed to be in the middle of fucking nowhere, which was going to make finding help so much fun. Lesto couldn't wait for the moment they let their guard down. He was going to enjoy breaking their fucking faces.
They dropped him on the ground a few paces from the door, the blanket once more falling over his face and miring him in the charming smell of dust and horse and quite possibly piss.
One of the halfwits pounded on the door, and a moment later it creaked open. A deep, sleep-rough voice said, in formal Harken of all things, "What in the fuck are you rank corpses doing on my doorstep? Who the fuck is that? I'm going to remove your nether regions with a splintery spoon and feed them to my goats."
"What the fuck crawled up your asshole and died, Shemal?" one of the kidnappers asked in heavily-accented informal Harken.
"Halfwits like you who won't listen to me when I say: leave me alone, I don't want to play your stupid games anymore."
"Look, we're only here because this poxed cart is broken; it won't last the rest of the haul we have to make."
"That's not my problem. Go get someone else in trouble. I have goats to tend and chores to finish and no time to deal with shriveled dicks like you."
"Fuck you, Shemal, you ain't got no fucking right acting so high and fucking mighty. You're so special because you got a fucking pardon? Piss off. You'll be back to breaking laws as soon as you get tired of fucking your stupid goats."
Lesto stopped paying attention as the argument turned into a fight, and it sounded like Shemal was winning, which didn't surprise him in the least because he remembered vividly just how hard Shemal could hit.
He hadn't expected to ever hear that voice again. His heart pounded in his ears. Shemal couldn't be his pirate. But he remembered that rough-edged voice, like years at sea had stripped the softness from it. Lesto couldn't forget it even if he tried—because he had tried. Some things simply refused to be forgotten.