Catherine Asaro

Award Winning Science Fiction & Fantasy Author

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The Down Deep

Book 1 in the Dust Knights

A CITY DIVIDED

For centuries The City of Cries—one of the most desired locales in the Skolian Imperialate—has existed by the thinnest of threads. On the dying world of Raylicon, the “haves” live in great luxury in Cries while the “have-nots” scrape by, eking out a marginal existence in the notorious Undercity beneath the desert. Major Bhaajan, formerly of the Pharaoh’s Army, knows both worlds. Born into the Undercity, she nevertheless has made a name for herself in the Imperialate. And now, she has the chance to help her people.

HOPE FOR RECONCILIATION

For the first time, a member of the Royal class wants to extend an olive branch to the Undercity. Hoping to build bridges, Colonel Lavinda Majda recruits Bhaaj and her Dust Knights to act as guides and bodyguards on a mission of goodwill to those who live below the surface of their parched world.

THE DOWN DEEP

But the problems of the Undercity run deeper than anyone knows. To help find peace, the Dust Knights must reach the most hidden rungs in that mysterious underground world, a place known only as the Down Deep, where the scars from centuries of distrust are greatest. There they will face an unseen enemy that may destroy the lives of everyone they know—and threaten interstellar civilization.

The Down Deep

Book 1 in the Dust Knights

The Down Deep

Excerpt

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Chapter III
Beyond the Wall
 

Lit only by the lamps Bhaaj and Ruzik carried, the narrow passage wound through the labyrinth of the Maze. The trip felt endless, like one of those frustrating dreams that offered riches at the end of a journey you could never finish. Eventually, though, the path widened into a chamber where natural columns of stone held up the ceiling. On the left, rocky ledges rose into shadows in a staircase created by nature instead of humans, including that it ended at a blank wall. Almost no one else knew about this place. Why would they? Stairs that led to a dead end had no use.

Maybe.

Bhaaj walked up the stairs to the wall and knelt. Running her fingers along the bottom of the barrier, she pushed in several places, using a code she knew by heart. It remained only in her mind, hidden from any strangers who might seek the true Undercity, a mythical world no outsiders could even find, let alone enter. The bang of stone hitting stone sounded somewhere, loud in the silence. An instant later, the wall in front of her shifted, grinding rock against rock as it rose upward. When it finished, an open space a few handspans wide showed between its bottom edge and the ground.

Standing up, Bhaaj faced the group at the bottom of the stairs, Lavinda and her guards with Ruzik and his Knights. She indicated the space. “We go.”

Lavinda squinted at her. “You want us to crawl under that wall?”

Bhaaj doubted Lavinda had ever crawled in her life. Hell, as a baby she’d probably just stood up one day and strode around, confident in her dominion over her playroom.

“Yah,” Bhaaj said. “We go.”

Lavinda came forward, looking intrigued. “You’re speaking your language with me. You’ve never done that before.”

Huh. Bhaaj hadn’t realized she’d slipped into the terse Undercity dialect. Most times, she spoke to Lavinda in either Skolian Flag, the universal tongue of the Imperialate, or Iotic, a language used only by royalty and nobility. Interesting. Apparently, she trusted the Majda colonel more than she’d have believed possible a few years ago, when they’d first met.

“You come. See Undercity,” Bhaaj told her. “So I speak Undercity.”

Lavinda nodded, no excess words. Maybe she was learning to communicate in their dialect. Or maybe she was just being Lavinda, with that legendary Majda restraint.

Bhaaj dropped to the ground and slid under the barrier, scraping along the ground. On the other side, she stood up and brushed the grit off her clothes. One by one, everyone else followed. Lavinda seemed more bemused than anything else. No surprise there. Over the past few years, Bhaaj had realized the colonel never expected special treatment. In the military Lavinda had used her first two names only, without the Majda surname. No one had known her identity, so they treated her like any other soldier, including sending her into battle. Years later, when the brass promoted her to lieutenant colonel, General Vaj Majda finally revealed the truth. Lavinda had risen high enough by then to interact with people who knew the general. Anyone with half a brain could see their resemblance.

The Majda guards looked royally pissed about dragging their butts under a wall, far more than the actual royal. Even so. They did what they had to do. After everyone gathered around Bhaaj, she pushed the wall back into place and resumed the climb, leading her pack up and around the curving staircase. At the top, they entered a foyer with a stone floor, walls and ceiling. An archway stood across from them, one bordered with tessellated carvings that looked modern, but had a style similar to the ancient work they’d seen elsewhere.

Two people waited in that archway. Dara and Weaver.

Relief washed over Bhaaj. They’d come to greet Lavinda, verifying their approval of the visit. The woman, Dara, was Bhaaj’s closest friend. Dara worked as a bartender in the casino run by the notorious Mean Jak, a glitzy hideaway he called the Black Mark. Normally it was the only way city slicks could visit the Undercity, and then only with an invite harder to finagle than a trip to the wealthiest mansion in Cries. They had to come blindfolded, led by Undercity guides, with sound-deadening tech for their ears and blockers for their tech- mech, to make sure they had no idea how to come and go from the casino. Even with that, Jak periodically moved his establishment, using high-end nanobots he’d purchased with his ill-gotten gains. They could tear down his casino in less than an hour and rebuild it elsewhere almost as fast.

The Black Mark served the elite of an empire, illegal as all hell on Raylicon, where gambling violated a slew of laws, but who cared? As long as Jak kept his biz hidden, the authorities in Cries would never crack down on him. Too many of them frequented his sensual den of vice.

Today, Dara hadn’t worn her glittering casino outfit. She looked far more prosaic in trousers, a tank top, and boots. Weaver, Dara’s husband, stood at her side, both of them dark haired and dark eyed. They looked healthy, a rarity for Bhaaj’s people. How? Because Dara worked for Jak. He hired only from the Undercity, and he paid well in filtered water, food, and health services. He took whatever money the decadent wealthy of an empire chose to squander in his casino and used it to help their people step out of poverty. It didn’t matter how vile the Cries authorities considered him. The Undercity called him a hero.

Even so. Bhaaj sometimes wanted to hit Jak over the head for taking so many damn risks. Goddess only knew why she’d married him. Maybe she had rocks in her head, because for some inexplicable reason, she loved his exasperating self.

Dara nodded to them. “Eh, Bhaaj.” Two words for one greeting. She was talkative today. She also nodded to Lavinda and said, “Eh.”

Fortunately, Lavinda didn’t know enough of their dialect to realize Dara had showed Bhaaj more honor than a royal Majda heir. Regardless, she’d given Lavinda respect, and that was what mattered.

Then again, maybe Lavinda did realize. She nodded first to Dara, then to Dara’s husband Weaver. She didn’t inflict any Cries verbosity on them, none of the My greetings. How goes your day? business that people took for granted everywhere else in the universe.

Dara raised her arm, inviting them to the archway. Bhaaj and crew followed her into a large room, a welcoming space filled with Weaver’s art. He’d carved benches out of rock formations in the walls and sculpted them with dragons, their wings curving along the stone in pleasing patterns. Rose cushions softened the furniture. His tapestries glowed with scenes of life in the aqueducts, all in vivid threads of blue, purple, red, and green, with metallic accents. So far, he was the only Undercity native who’d tackled the onerous process of getting a permit to sell his work on the Concourse. It turned out to be worth the trouble. He sold true Undercity art, not the junk created by above-city vendors, and the tourists loved his creations.

Recently Weaver had sold his first large tapestry. It earned him many credits, what most people called byte-bucks, or bykes for short. He had no idea what it meant; the Undercity economy worked on bargains and trade. You couldn’t see bykes, so they meant nothing to most people here. His teenaged daughter Darjan, however, kenned them just fine. With Bhaaj’s help, she set up an account for him at a Cries bank and sent his bykes rolling into his savings.

Those earnings brought in a long-term supply of filtered water for his family and circle, and smaller amenities, too, like the lamp with its graceful stained-glass shade that stood in one corner of this room, shedding light in frequencies that helped plants grow without sunlight. Potted flowers set about the room sported pink blossoms, bred by self-taught Undercity botanists to survive in the aqueducts. Curtains of blown-glass beads sparkled in archways to the left and right, and handwoven rugs softened the floor. But wait—what had happened to the water purifier? It usually sat in one corner. Weaver must have moved it to another room, freeing up more space here in the family room. He created this beauty, looking after the home while Dara tended bar in Jak’s infamous casino.

Sixteen-year-old Darjan was seated on cushions at a table with the preteen Crinkles, both girls playing a game where they swiped at holo-gems floating in the air. As Bhaaj entered, the girls jumped up and bowed from the waist, the greeting of tykado students to their sabneem, a Skolian word for fighting mentor. With the Dust Knights, it took on meanings never intended elsewhere. The Undercity considered Bhaaj a gang leader, one who headed all the Knights instead of the usual quartet of two women and two men. Bhaaj could just imagine what the Interstellar Tykado Federation would say to that idea. She nodded to her students, giving them permission to be at ease, or whatever non-military thing you did for adolescent gang members.

You need a new name for the dusters, Max thought to Bhaaj. Something other than gang.

Ho! Sometimes she forgot Max, the EI in her gauntlets. He linked to her brain via sockets in her wrist and bio-threads in her body.

You’ve been quiet today, she thought to him, tech-created telepathy courtesy of bio-electrodes that fired her neurons in response to his signals and sent him messages from her brain in the reverse process.

You haven’t had many thoughts strong enough to initiate contact. Max’s response took on an amused quality. Except that one about Jak.

I’m glad you find my love life so entertaining,Bhaaj mentally growled.

I’m an EI. I don’t experience a sense of entertainment, Max informed her, despite sounding thoroughly entertained.

As Bhaaj stepped aside to let Lavinda come forward, both Darjan and Crinkles bowed to their royal guest. Bhaaj released a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Good. They showed respect to the Majda queen. Well, technically Lavinda wasn’t a queen, but people called her that anyway and referred to Vaj as the Matriarch to distinguish her higher rank from her sisters.

Dara indicated the plushest set of cushions on the carpeted floor and spoke to Lavinda. “For you.” For the rest of them, she motioned to other pillows strewn around the room, plump cushions brocaded in rose, purple, and blue. The air smelled good, from both the incense sticks in the corner and from the faint scent of the nontoxic aromatic chemicals in Undercity dust. The sticks sent up tendrils of smoke that curled into the air and escaped through air vents in the ceiling. Darjan and Crinkles settled on the floor by their table, watching their elders with undisguised fascination.

Their seating arrangements didn’t faze Lavinda. Ironically, unlike most people in Cries, who used civilized chairs, the Majdas liked to relax on ornate pillows around low tables in their palace, as had their ancestors. Lavinda and Bhaaj settled into the cushions with Dara’s family while one of the Majda guards and Byte-2 stood by the entrance. Ruzik, Captain Morah, and the other two guards took up positions in the foyer, the only way into this secret haven.

After sliding off her pack, Lavinda took out two large bottles of filtered water. She offered them to Dara and Weaver, speaking in the Undercity dialect. “My thanks for your invite.” Her accent wasn’t great, but she used the right number of syllables, one for most words, saying “invite” with two to stress the honor Dara and her family showed her. A three-syllable word indicated either ridicule or great respect. Any more syllables in one word became a joke or an insult, except the names Undercity and aqueducts, which deserved the high honor of their four syllables. Bhaaj had given up trying to explain to the army why her people found it hilarious when reps talked about “recruiting” them into the “Imperialate military.”

Dara nodded to Lavinda, accepting the bargain; her family hosted the queen and in return she gave them water. When Bhaaj first suggested it, Lavinda had been mortified at the idea that two large bottles of water offered equitable thanks for their hospitality. No matter. She’d understand soon. In a world where naturally occurring water could kill you, the purified form had more worth than gold.

Taking the bottles, Weaver left the room via an inner archway. His passage through its curtain set the beads swinging until they sparkled in the lamplight, making soft music as the beads clinked together. He’d not only designed the curtains to please the eyes, but also the ears. Now he’d fill the handblown glasses he created with filtered water, offering his guests invaluable works of art to drink an invaluable liquid.

Dara spoke to Lavinda in an accented version of the above-city dialect, which she’d learned for her job in the casino. “Welcome to our home, Your Highness.” She even smiled.

Lavinda loosened up enough to smile back, sort of, which was good, because by smiling Dara had just shown her a trust that no one else down here would bestow on their above-city invaders. Then again, Dara’s teenaged daughter might if she felt like defying tradition, which Darjan tended to do all the time lately. The Undercity considered Darjan an adult at sixteen; in the general Imperialate culture, she wouldn’t reach her majority for another nine years, at twenty-five.

Bhaaj, we have a problem, Max thought.

What’s up?

Jak is on his way here.

What the hell? Jak knew he’d throw a monster wrench into the already strained détente of this visit by showing up. It did him no good, either. The last thing he wanted was to draw Majda attention to his shady casino dealings. Bhaaj stood up fast.

“What’s wrong?” Lavinda asked.

Bhaaj spoke in dialect. “Got more people.”

“You can’t go in there,” someone said in the foyer. It sounded like Captain Morah. “I said, stop! NOW.”

Jak’s voice came into the room as plainly as a growling dust-dino. He spoke in the above-city dialect, his Undercity accent heavy but his grammar perfect. “I need to see Major Bhaajan.” He almost sounded polite. Almost.

Morah spoke sharply. “Stay where you are!”

As Bhaaj reached the archway, the captain appeared in the opening, and they both stopped with a jerk. Bhaaj could hear everyone else getting up in the room behind her.

“He’s my husband,” Bhaaj told Morah.

The captain stared at her, all sign of her earlier thaw vanished. “You’re married to one of the worst crime lords on the planet?”

“For fuck’s sake,” Jak said from the foyer. His reaction might have had more effect if he hadn’t sounded so wickedly pleased by her description. He was standing a few paces beyond the captain, a lean man in black clothes with guards on either side of him, both Lavinda’s officers and Ruzik’s gang.

Bhaaj kept her gaze on Captain Morah as she spoke in an even voice. “I’m going to step past you so I can talk to him.” She lifted her hands. “I have no weapons.”

Morah didn’t move, just stood with her hand on the grip of her holstered gun.

“Captain, let her by,” Lavinda said.

Morah’s clenched look suggested she’d rather shoot Jak and maybe Bhaaj as well. After the barest pause, however, she stepped aside.

Bhaaj entered the foyer, keeping her hands down and visible. Of course she was armed, but none of it showed, neither the knife in her ankle sheath nor the mini-gun hidden in a small holster under her shirt. She watched Jak and he watched her, both of them silent. Tilting her head toward the far wall of the foyer, she walked in that direction. Jak joined her there, and they stood by a bench carved into a great lizard with its tail coiling around the legs of the seat.

“What?” Bhaaj asked in a low voice.

“Got ears to ground. Hear whisper.” He regarded her steadily. “Vakaar make problem.”

Bloody hell. Vakaar. That name belonged to one of the two Undercity drug cartels. Captain Morah had it wrong. Jak didn’t rank among the worst crime bosses here. Raylicon was one of the few worlds that considered gambling illegal. Yah, Bhaaj had her issues with Jak’s choice of career, which could involve addictions just as much as the drug trade, but when it came to breaking the law, the cartel queens had him beat by a brutal, murderous light-year.

Bhaaj spoke tightly. “What Vakaar want?”

“Break bargain,” Jak said. “Want Majda.”

“Damn it!” She didn’t even try to lower her voice. Every guard in the foyer stiffened, and Lavinda’s guards reached for their guns. Bhaaj strode back to where Lavinda waited. “We’ve leaving. Now!”

“Why?” Lavinda asked. “We just got here.”

Dara spoke firmly. “Cries queen welcome. My home, her home.”

“I ken. We thank.” Bhaaj’s voice grated. “Vakaar not like. Want Majda.”

Weaver stared at her. “Vakaar gave word. Agreed to visit.”

“They lied,” Bhaaj said.

“You mean the Vakaar drug cartel?” Lavinda asked. “I’d think the last thing they want is to draw attention to themselves from the Cries authorities.” Dryly she added, “Especially my family.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Bhaaj said. “No one wants a war with Majda.”

“Then why grab me?” Lavinda asked.

“I’ve no idea,” Bhaaj admitted. “Maybe for a ransom.”

“Not make sense,” Ruzik said. “Cartels crazy, not stupid.”

Bhaaj didn’t get it either. Neither cartel wanted open warfare with Cries. Although the police periodically organized campaigns to rid the Undercity of drugs, it rarely worked except as a cosmetic measure. The cartels had bought off too many cops. Their tentacles extended everywhere, beyond the Undercity, even offworld. They also knew their uneasy balance with the Cries authorities could collapse if they pushed it even a little.

If either cartel killed Lavinda, all bets were off. General Vaj Majda hated betrayal of her family more than she hated the cartels, even more than she wanted détente with the Undercity. She’d descend like a nightmare on the shadowy world beneath her glistening empire. Obliterating the cartels would spread metaphorical earthquakes throughout both the Undercity and Cries, threatening the precarious balance humanity maintained with the killing biosphere of this world. The only way to finish the cartels was to destroy anything they could touch, above the ground as well as below, including resource- intensive measures needed to make this small part of the planet habitable. Only the Majdas had the wealth and influence to support those measures. If they withdrew their support, the City of Cries—a leading governmental center—would suffer, maybe even collapse. Everyone would lose.

The cartels knew that. Yah, the Vakaar boss was a sociopath, but she also had an intellect as sharp as the snap of a whip, a mind she kept clear of the shit she sold to the rest of the universe. She knew that crushing this visit would destroy her trade far more than any ransom could bring her.

Bhaaj glanced Jak, a silent invitation that he join them. The moment he stepped forward, all three Majda guards drew their guns. He stopped and raised his eyebrows at Captain Morah, but he didn’t look at all fazed to have three trained killers ready to explode his sensuous self with bullets.

Bhaaj scowled at the captain. “He came to help.”

Morah didn’t relax.

“Captain, let him approach,” Lavinda said.

Clenching her hand on the stock on her gun, Morah nodded tomthe other two guards. None of them holstered their weapons, but they did lower them until Jak no longer stood in their sights. As he walked to Bhaaj, he kept his empty hands visible with no hint showing of any other weapons he carried.

“This Vakaar plan,” Bhaaj asked him. “Real? You sure?”

“Yah.” He paused, then said, “Ears hear Cutter say.”

Cutter Vakaar. That meant it came from the cartel queen herself. “Just hear? Not see?”

“Both.”

Bhaaj scowled, pissed to high hell. “Not make sense.”

“Yah. Cutter knows this.” Jak grimaced. “Take Majda, more stupid than stupid.” Turning to Lavinda, he switched into Cries speech. “I’m sorry to bring this news. For what it’s worth, none of us expected it, either.”

“Maybe it’s fake,” Lavinda said.

Bhaaj wondered that, too. Someone might have impersonated the drug queen, hoping to stir trouble. “Jak, did your spies see Cutter close up when she was making these plans? Could it have been someone disguised as her?”

He shook his head. “See close up.”

“Maybe it was holo.” That came from Darjan, Dara’s oldest daughter.

“It seems unlikely,” Captain Morah said. “Holos look translucent up close. To get one that appears solid even a short distance away, you’d need technology beyond any you have down here.”

Jak got one of his Looks, a subtle reaction Bhaaj suspected only she recognized. He’d just decided Captain Morah was an idiot. Darjan wasn’t anywhere near so subtle with her loud snort. Weaver frowned at her with that behave yourself look fathers had used with teenagers since time immemorial.

It was actually Lavinda who said, “Captain, the best tech-mech here is as advanced as anything we know. It’s just put together ways we don’t understand by people who didn’t learn design in what we consider a standard manner.”

Ho! Bhaaj hadn’t realized Lavinda figured that out. Not good. They didn’t need the above-city realizing the genius of the Undercity cyber-riders, that they created all sorts of bizarre and useful devices unknown to Cries. Some city authority might try to regulate their work.

Weaver spoke in the Cries dialect. “I use holos to model my art. I can make them look almost solid. You need to be close to see it’s just light.” He motioned at Jak. “Closer than you are to me now.”

“I suppose what my sources saw could have been faked,” Jak said. “But it would take a lot of work, and for what? No one benefits.”

Dara was watching Bhaaj with a hard gaze. “Kajada benefit. Make trouble for Vakaar.”

Bhaaj crossed her arms and scowled. Sure, Dara spoke a truth, that the Kajada cartel could benefit from anything that blew back on the Vakaar cartel. Kajada and Vakaar had fought for generations, responsible for so much mayhem, cruelty, and death that it made Bhaaj ill. But this was different. She spoke coldly to Dara. “Not Kajada.”

“Yah, Kajada,” Dara told her. “Bhaaj blind.”

“Fuck you,” Bhaaj said. Everyone gaped at her, Darjan especially. None of them ever heard her speak that way to Dara. Even so. Dara had just stepped over an invisible line they never touched.

Lavinda looked between the two of them. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” Bhaaj said.

Lavinda spoke carefully. “You wrote a reference letter for the daughter of the previous Kajada cartel boss when the girl applied to the Dieshan Military Academy. My understanding was that the Kajada girl had no link to her mother’s cartel.”

Bhaaj answered tightly. “It wasn’t ‘her mother’s’ cartel.”

Jak spoke, his voice low and harsh. “I live. Bhaaj lives. Gourd lives. Why? Because of Dig Kajada.”

“Uh, excuse me,” one of the Majda guards said. “Could someone tell us what’s going on? Who are Dig and Gourd?”

Bhaaj took a deep breath, then slowly released it. She spoke evenly. “When I was a kid, I ran with a dust gang. The gangs act as protectors here, taking care of what we call our circle. It’s an extended family, though often many of its people aren’t related by blood. A gang protects their supplies and territory against other gangs. In return, the circle makes a home life for everyone. Most gangs consist of two women and two men.” She struggled with the memories, so full of pain and joy, love and grief. “I should say two girls and two boys. Dust gangs rarely survive into adulthood.”

Morah spoke coldly. “You look alive to me.”

Jak’s voice turned to ice. “Yah. We survived. All of us except Dig.”

“Who is this Dig?” Lieutenant Warrick asked.

“Dig led our gang,” Bhaaj said. “Me, Jak, and also Gourd, a boy who could do anything with tech-mech.” She regarded them steadily. “Dig Kajada was like my sister.”

“Dig Kajada?” The other Majda guard, the one who hadn’t yet spoken, gaped at her. “Your sister was the worst cartel monster in known history?”

Jak opened his mouth, and Bhaaj spoke fast, jumping in before he could say something that would destroy what remained of their uneasy alliance with their Majda visitors. “No. She wasn’t the head of any cartel. That was her mother, Jadix Kajada. Dig hated what her mother did.” Hell, Dig had hated her mother, too, who had no use for her except for any advantage a strong daughter could give her business.

Captain Morah looked as if she couldn’t decide whether to be incredulous or disgusted. “Are you seriously trying to deny that Dig Kajada ran the Kajada cartel?”

“Bhaaj.” Dara’s voice finally gentled. “Tell them.”

Damn it, Bhaaj thought. I hate this.

She’s right, Max answered, even though she hadn’t asked his opinion. If you want this visit to work, you need to be open about everything.

Bhaaj tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. She held up her hand and walked away while the memories flooded her. She’d hated Jadix, not only for the grief the cartel boss had inflicted on the universe, but also for how she treated Dig. Being a stupid adolescent, all fire and defiance, Bhaaj had let Jadix know exactly how she felt. It never went well. If she hadn’t left to enlist in the army, Jadix would have eventually killed her.

All her life, Dig had tried to reach her mother. Eventually the previous Vakaar boss had murdered Jadix, taking the one thing Dig wanted above all else—the chance to convince her mother to love her. And in that, the Vakaar cartel queen made the worst mistake of her life. Dig vowed to destroy her, and if it meant she had to do what she swore would never happen—take over the Kajada cartel and all its unholy power—then so be it. She and Vakaar went to war, bringing both cartels to their knees before the two crime bosses killed each other. Dig’s last act had been to protect her own children, dying herself to save them.

In the years since, the cartels had flailed, and the cops they hadn’t bribed were moving against them. It left neither Vakaar nor Kajada in any position to survive a showdown with Majda.

Bhaaj took a deep breath, then went back to the group. With a pain that never faded, she said, “I didn’t lose Dig the day I left the Undercity to enlist. I lost her years later when she took over the cartel to avenge her mother’s death.” She turned to Lavinda. “And yes, Dig kept the people she loved separate from her trade, especially her family. Her oldest child wasn’t her mother’s daughter.”

They all just looked at her. No one seemed to know how to react. Then Lavinda said, “I’m sorry. It sounds difficult.”

Bhaaj pushed her hand through the tendrils of hair curling around her face. “This trip is over. We’ll take you back to the Foyer and escort you to Cries.”

“It’s not that easy,” Jak said. “Vakaar has eyes everywhere in the aqueducts.”

“Aqueducts?” Captain Morah asked.

“It means everywhere people live here,” Jak said. “Undercity, Down Deep, any place.”

“Vakaar watch every exit,” Ruzik said. “Secret or not.”

Darjan said, “Not the Maze.”

Her mother frowned at her. “Nahya. Maze not have out place.”

“What are they saying?” Captain Morah asked. “I can’t follow it.”

Bhaaj turned to her. “If the Vakaars really do have a plan against Colonel Majda, they’ll have all the exits from the Undercity watched. However, a Maze exists deeper down that almost no one can navigate.” She glanced at Dara’s daughter. “You say Maze has way out?”

“Not sure,” Darjan admitted. “Not ken Maze.”

Her mother glowered at her. “Then why say?”

Darjan hesitated. “Maybe know ruz-pup who kens.”

“Did you say ruz-pup?” Captain Morah snorted. “A pup couldn’t find its own tail.”

Darjan gave her a look that could incinerate rock.

“It’s slang,” Bhaaj said. “It means a desirable young man.”

Weaver scowled at his daughter. “Who this ruz-pup?”

“Not mine.” Darjan sounded disappointed.

“You say this boy know Maze?” Bhaaj asked.

“Not boy,” Darjan informed her. “Man.”

Man, woman, boy, girl, Bhaaj didn’t care. “How he know Maze?”

Darjan lifted her hands in the Undercity equivalent of a shrug. “Live there.”

“Not live there,” Bhaaj said. “He die.” He’d have no food, no water, no nothing.

Darjan crossed her arms. “He live in Maze.”

“So how we find?” Bhaaj asked.

“Not know,” the girl admitted.

“How you know him, then?”

“Healer know him.”

“You mean Doctor Rajindia?” Bhaaj asked. A few years ago, the Ruby Pharaoh had sent Karal Rajindia to set up a health clinic for the Undercity, the first and only of its kind. Born into the House of Rajindia, Karal belonged to Skolian nobility, but you’d never know. She worked alongside the people here like anyone else.

“This man hurt?” Dara asked her daughter.

“Sick.” Darjan sounded evasive again. “Get help. Red rash.”

“He go see Kar?” Bhaaj asked. The disease called carnelian rash had killed many of her people. No doctor in Cries would offer their services to the Undercity, but Karal regularly treated and vaccinated people against the illness.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Darjan shrugged. “Not my biz.”

Bhaaj regarded her with exasperation. “Then how we find him?”

“Ask Healer Kar.”

Huh. Why would a Rajindia noblewoman know those private details about an Undercity man? Yah, that was interesting. “One of us needs to visit Doctor Rajindia,” Bhaaj said. “Find out more about this Maze exit.” She spoke to Dara and Weaver. “Okay if queen stay here?”

“Yah,” Dara said. “Long as needs.”

“Why here?” Lavinda asked.

“It’s one of the safest places for you to wait while we figure out what to do,” Bhaaj said. “Almost no one knows how to get here, and those few who do, I trust. It’s also easy to guard. I’ll send more Dust Knights while I’m gone, just in case.”

“You’re going?” Jak scowled at her. “Where the hell to?”

Bhaaj met his gaze. “Talk to Kajada.”

end of excerpt

The Down Deep

is available for preorder in the following formats:

Baen

Jul 2, 2024

ISBN-13: 978-1982193508