a wizard’s gamble

“And they also stole a book from Sir Roan’s shoppe.”

“Which book?”

“The Demosynthetic Process and Other Abominations.”

“Good heavens!”

“Sire, that is precisely why we must hope that Captain Alven’s men find Maria and bring her home. Away from this boy. Away from that book. If these pirates have found her, you must pay them whatever they want. No bartering or bickering. Whatever it takes to get her back within these walls!” Flippant cried.

“Then, Master Wizard,” Elias spoke evenly, coldly, “Your fate rests in the hands of thieves. You had better pray to all your gods that nothing stops the Skyhammer Guild from finding my daughter.”

-excerpt from part 4 CUTTER

CUTTER LOGO

part 5 CUTTER

By Mikel Andrews

THE FIRST THING FLIPPANT NOTICED about Marz Alven when he returned to the king’s private chambers was that the captain of the Skyhammer Guild’s usually overconfident sneer had become barely more than a forced, crumpled smirk. The old wizard kept his arms crossed and gave a subtle tip of his head, lining up the illustriously-garbed Alven in the frame of his polarized lens. Through the special tint, Flippant saw no trace of Princess Maria’s aura. None trailed through the door or clung to Alven’s coattails, nor did any gather around the crunched parchment in his hands: the Hawkscry letter containing the fate of the princess.

Flippant’s shoulders slumped. He didn’t like how these pieces were fitting together.

His fellow captives retained their assigned places at the King’s tea table: Elias to his left, grim from Flippant’s news and wondering the whereabouts of his daughter; Sir Roan Byrd to his right, occasionally murmuring and twitching in his beaten, unconscious state.

At the very least, the muttering meant the knight-turned-shopkeeper was still alive.

Gentlemen,” Alven greeted them, “I return with good news.”

Flippant noticed a sputtering hesitancy between the man’s words; more pieces he didn’t like.

As promised, my men have found Princess Maria and are bringing her back to the castle as we speak,” the sky pirate continued. “So, I will humbly accept my, ahem, reward for rescuing your daughter, King Elias, and be on my way.”

Just money?” Flippant cut in, drawing an angry glare from the king. “You hold the entire Monarchy of Estham at your disposal and all you request is a few toadies?”

Flippant,” grumbled Elias.

Marz gave an actor’s grin. “More than a few, I assure you, Master Wizard. But, as I said before, this was a favor to the King—a correction of your mistake—and I only want a fair reimbursement. Your daughter’s life is worth that, isn’t it, King Elias?”

Yes, of course,” Elias replied, and scowled again at Flippant. “What is your price, Captain?”

Fifty-thousand,” Marz answered.

Such a modest amount,” Flippant said, quirking an eyebrow. Something was wrong, he was sure of it now. That price was too small for an undertaking of this magnitude. It’d barely pay Alven’s men and the wear-and-tear on the Skyhammer airships. For this mockery of a rescue mission, that price was almost…fair.

Good heavens, Flippant, have you gone mad?” Elias muttered under his breath. Then, to Alven, he said, “That amount will have to come from the Royal Vault. I can get it for you if you give me some time.”

Marz flashed a predator’s sneer. “How much do you have on hand? In this room?”

In my safe? Maybe ten,” Elias answered.

Marz grimaced like someone too proud to acknowledge a knife in their gut. “I’ll take it. And all the silver and aponium in this room.”

The king began to rise, nodding. Flippant’s pale arm flashed out of his baggy, charcoal sleeve and caught the king, urging him to settle back into his seat. The old wizard trained a suspicious gaze on the captain.

Where is Maria?”

Marz gave a nervous laugh. “I could have swore I already told you, Master Wizard. She’s with my men, of course.”

Yes, but where?”

Marz’s eyes darted momentarily. He stood up straighter and became solemn-faced. “North of Ralafus.”

Well, that doesn’t sound too far,” Flippant said. “Surely, you don’t expect the king to let you take his money without seeing his daughter returned safely first.”

Marz swallowed loudly, straightening his crimson uniform. “Surely you don’t expect a businessman such as myself to be here when my leverage runs out. Even you must be wiser than that, Master Wizard.”

Flippant put up his hands in mock confusion. “You are the princess’s savior, Captain Alven! Why not wait? If your deed is as good as you say it is, then perhaps a royal dinner is in order. Provided the princess is returned safely, of course.”

Flippant never held a title as lowly as sky pirate, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t play their games.

Marz gritted his teeth. “The princess was found very far north—you must have lost track of her quite early in the day. It may take some time for her return—”

Elias seemed to catch Flippant’s drift. “Accommodations can be made, of course. I believe we are accommodating most of your guild already, are we not, Captain Alven?”

I suppose,” Marz said, at a loss for words for the first time since their meeting. After a few more seconds of flickering attempts at a sentence, he said, “Well, it’s settled then. If you’ll excuse me again, I, er, need to send new instructions to my men.”

The captain’s fingers trilled against the hilt of his sword as he left the room rigidly. When he was gone, Flippant allowed his shoulders to relax. Though he had won the match of wits against the young pirate, part of him wish he hadn’t. For then everything would have gone like clockwork—albeit expensive clockwork.

That man does not have my daughter, does he, Flippant?” King Elias spoke up. He was staring at Byrd’s whistle turning over and over between his fingers.

Flippant sighed. “I do not believe so, Your Majesty. But perhaps Captain Alven can still be made to suit our needs.”

Quite the gamble,” Elias said.

A wizard’s gamble,” Flippant said with a smirk, “is hardly a gamble at all.”

The king seemed to let this settle in. Flippant used this break to check on his old friend, Sir Roan. He whispered a few spells he knew, running his fingers over the stalwart man’s eyebrows. The wizard’s white skin turned stony again, and the swelling around Byrd’s eyes began to abate.

Flippant?” Elias asked. “What’s that sound? That buzzing?”

Flippant’s ears pricked. There was a monotone drone drifting in through the window. It was a low, dull hum that Flippant had all but drowned out entirely. But now that the king had mentioned it, it was all he could hear.

The old wizard made his way to the large, ornate window that had been opened for Alven’s messenger hawk. The buzz grew louder and louder. At first, Flippant thought it was the engines of the sky pirate’s great airship hovering at the South Lookout tower like a humming bird at a blossom.

It didn’t take long for the old wizard to realize what it really was. His mouth hung slack. Sir Roan groaned wildly from the table.

Well what is it, Flippant?” Elias asked, rising. “Out with it.”

Flippant continued gazing at the smoky masses that swarmed across the horizon, and that stretched across the countryside like black river.

Crickets, Your Majesty,” he answered the king, voice shaking as badly as his hands. “The Eve is upon us.”

*                     *                     *

MARIA WAS BORED. Not just a little bored either. Painfully bored. She lay on her stomach across the floor of the strange chamber deep inside Cutter’s workshop.

No, not workshop. What had he called this thing? An automaton. A Ferrous Golem, to be exact. It was hard to believe this thing was a walking machine like Cutter had explained it to be. It was difficult for her to picture, so of course she had looked it up in the book she was studying. The first appendix of The Demosynthetic Process and Other Abominations had a listing of devices powered by moonlight energy, which included a hand-drawn diagram of the Golem, but she still had trouble picturing the fist-sized sketch as something she was sitting in.

The book.

That’s where her boredom was stemming from, she realized. Flippant’s books had always bored her to death, true, but this was supposed to be an adventure! Yet here she was, stuck reading the ancient tome, trying to learn the secret to “conductive demosynthetic energy manipulation” while Cutter was out and about, engaging in swashbuckling or some such.

Her day had been filled with running, stealing, fighting sky pirates, magic and now—now she was studying?

Maria climbed to her feet and dusted off her riding slacks, feeling the fray of fabric at the edge of her blouse. She frowned. I ruined my dress for this.

She deserved a break. She’d read enough of that strange book and it gave her the creeps. Just a quick jaunt around the circular chamber to get the blood flowing. She went to the strange console first and ran her fingers over the Old Ruxu inscription, remembering the words more than reading it.

A gentle wing. A royal hand.

Maria scowled, giving a slight shake of her head. Cutter insisted that it was referring to her, but she wasn’t so sure. After all, she didn’t have wings, did she? And certainly there were more royal hands than hers.

When she looked up from the strange metal loops and rings set in the console, Maria saw something glint between the beams that held the Golem’s inner machinery at bay. Just for a second. A quick purple flash that she hardly remembered after it had happened. She squinted and approached the wall where she thought she’d seen the spark.

Closer and closer she peered between the seams. There was something back there. A jewel or something. When her eyes failed her, Maria pushed her fingers in between the gears and cogs. She didn’t know what she was probing for, but she expected to feel the cold glint of a gem.

Princess!” came a gruff voice.

Maria started and spun around. The shells-and-stones voice belonged to Quell, the slimy, blue Bogwynke that Cutter had introduced as his partner. The little creature was holding two dented, metal cups and chipped teapot.

Oh, Master Quell! I—I was just taking a break,” Maria said nervously. She withdrew her hand from the wall.

Quell eyed her suspiciously. “Right. Well. Good timing, I s’pose. I brought tea.”

Maria smiled politely. She wasn’t sure where or how the tiny creature could have made tea in this cavernous contraption, but she could only hope it was just water and tea leaves and nothing that had come from the Bogwynke personally.

Perfect,” she said with a gulp.

With a jingle of his tiny tools, the goggled critter made his way nimbly up onto the console without spilling a drop and handed Maria a cup. Gingerly, Quell filled it with a dark, steaming liquid. Maria was surprised by how parched she actually was, and blew on tea before sipping.

To her surprise, it tasted wonderful! None too bitter, a little sweet, and just a hint of wezzleberry.

You like, Princess?” Quell asked, sipping at his own cup.

Maria nodded. “Very much, good sir.”

Quell smiled and the stubby tendrils that dangled from his lips quivered. “Excellent. May I ask how your studies are coming?”

Maria frowned. “Well, I—I’ve read through a lot of it.”

Quell chuckled. “And skimmed even more?”

I suppose,” Maria laughed with him. “Truthfully, Master Quell, I don’t know how much use I’ll be in all this. I mean, this morning I didn’t even know what demosynthetic meant—still don’t, really—and now I’m supposed to awaken some ancient statue with it?”

I know it may seem daunting, Princess, but magic—”

That’s just it!” Maria interrupted him. “I’m not magic. I have no magic in me whatsoever.”

But you were instructed by a wizard. You musta learned magic things.”

Only in the way a bird knows about swimming,” Maria explained.

The Bogwynke looked confused.

A bird knows a fish can do it.”

Quell gave another chuckle at her comparison. He did that thing that Maria found off-putting; he stuck his whole tiny hand in his mouth and slicked back his ear-things with a gob of slimy saliva. Maria suddenly had enough of the tea.

Magic ain’t something that’s in people, Princess,” he cooed as best he could with gravel in his gizzard. “It’s learned. Like any skill. Now folks tend to be more…receptive to magic than others, true. But there’s no reason you can’t figger it out all the same.”

Do you know any magic, Quell?”

Quell shook his head. “Unless you call breathing underwater magic. I stick to mechanical-like stuffs. Machines have parts you can see. I don’t trust magic—you can’t see it.”

And yet you work on this thing.”

That’s different.”

How?”

Quell sighed. “It’s a favor. To Master Cutter.”

Oh,” Maria whispered. “I didn’t know.”

It’s a long story. A story I’d rather not tell,” Quell explained, almost sounding embarrassed. Maria thought it best not to push the issue. In fact, the only question she asked came in the form of a loud rumbling from her stomach. Now it was her turn to be embarrassed.

But Quell just grinned politely. “Hungry?”

I’m afraid so,” Maria admitted—as if she had to—and placed a hand on the flat of her stomach as if to silence the beast. “I haven’t eaten since breakfast.”

Cutter should be back soon enough with some dinner,” Quell promised. So that’s where he was!

Princess, may I ask you something?”

Of course.”

The little Bogwynke readjusted his goggles. His eyes—if he’d told Maria the truth—were allergic to even the dim glow of the chamber. Quell cleared his throat. “What were you looking at in the wall?”

Oh,” Maria said, remembering the purple flash. She squinted at the spot between the seams of the chamber again. “Just something that glinted in the dark.”

As she tried to find words to explain what she saw, Maria ran her hand across the console absentmindedly. She’d ran her hands across it several times since she’d been studying in this room—cockpit, stomach, whatever it was—just trying to feel something in the Old Ruxu inscription. A trigger or an epiphany carved in the cold, unusual metal. So far nothing.

But this time, Maria felt something. She felt the five metal rings slip around each of her fingers and tighten. She felt the tug as the mechanism clanked and sucked her hand downwards. Something whirred and clicked and a dome encompassed her hand, cuffing her at the wrist. It was like the silver beak of some deep sea creature biting down around her forearm.

Help!” Maria cried out instinctively.

Quell dropped his cup and let go a gurgling croak. He jumped and suctioned himself to the console, tugging at the princess’s arm. “Princess, what happened? What did you push?”

Push?” Maria squeaked. “I didn’t push anything! It grabbed me!”

Grabbed you?” Quell asked introspectively, stroking his chin.

Quell!” Maria screamed. “Help! Please!”

Quell remembered the situation. He tried prying the metal beak apart but it was useless; whatever the cuff was it had a death grip. The Bogwynke darted around all the surfaces of the console, lizard-like, panicked, checking for bolts or seams or weaknesses. But there were none; the console was one solid piece. And something was still whirring and clicking within the console.

Quell looked hopeless. “I—I don’t know what to do, Your Highness.”

Maria’s eyes filled with tears. The incessant pounding of her heart returned. But there were no sky pirates or swords this time. She was the captive of a machine. An ancient magic machine that she knew nothing about thanks to her less-than-effective study habits.

A machine that was coming alive. The clockwork procession that had begun within the console was now spreading to the rest of the chamber. Behind the support beams, gears spun and cogs clanked. And the whole contraption rumbled like a volcano about to erupt. The lights flickered.

Get Cutter!” Maria managed. She thought back to his static touch. “Maybe he could take this apart! With his power!”

Quell seemed to get it, nodding. “But he may be far away, Princess, I—”

Hurry!”

The Bogwynke bolted up and out of the chamber, towards the surface. Maria could only pray that Cutter wasn’t too far. She didn’t know how she’d done it, but she’d awakened this…thing. If it emerged from beneath the ground with her still inside of it—who knows if Cutter would ever be able to reach her.

Cutter.

Her only chance of rescue.

Again.

Maria was tired of tugging futilely; she let her shoulders slump and her abdomen unclench. Old Flip had taught her a few breathing exercises. He had said it was important for a wizard to be calm in order to properly execute spells, thus ‘wizard breaths’ were unrivaled in soothing panic and increasing focus.

So Maria shut her eyes and took a wizard breath. Pictured the air spiraling into her lungs, coiling like a wise dragon. She took a second, and a third. She stopped crying.

A fourth wizard breath.

She opened her eyes.

A fifth.

In front of her eyes, deep within the wall, something shone a vibrant violet. It pulsed and throbbed with the lights. Almost in time with her breathing.

The coiled dragon of air left her chest, carrying with it fear. She closed her eyes again and whispered.

Will you rescue me?”

I already have,” a voice returned. But it wasn’t Cutter’s. How could it not be him? she wondered. But that didn’t change anything; it still wasn’t Cutter. In fact, it didn’t belong to anyone she could see when her eyes fluttered open. Her thick caramel hair swayed in a breeze that should not have been possible. The cool whisper swam in her head. At last you have returned to me, Princess.”

Suddenly there weren’t enough wizard breaths in the world.

*                     *                     *

IT WAS GETTING LATE. The last shreds of hope that Alven was telling the truth about Maria’s whereabouts were fading from Flippant’s mind. Yet there they sat, the four of them, staring each other down: Flippant, Elias, Marz—even Sir Roan occasionally came to in order to join the staring match.

The wizard’s gamble continued.

They certainly are taking their sweet time, aren’t they?” Marz mused, tugging at the high collar of his coat. Flippant had been subtly tightening the fabric over the course of the last hour. Sweat was starting to bead at the captain’s immaculate black hairline.

Perhaps they stopped for a bit of dancing,” Flippant suggested, honing his glare more precisely.

Well that—” Marz coughed overtly. He cleared his throat. “That seems an absurd notion.”

The doors to the royal chamber burst open and one of Alven’s henchmen approached the table. He was dirtier than Alven and covered in mismatched jewelry, but he was far from the most disgusting sky pirate Flippant had seen in the castle today.

Captain, there’s someone here to see you,” the henchman said. “He says he has information on the whereabouts of Princess Maria.”

Marz was at his feet instantly, slapping the table with the flat of his hand as loudly as a gavel in court. “Ha! Why would I need to know where the princess is?! That information is useless to me!”

The pirate captain cleared his throat, lowering his voice. Marz matched Flippant’s gaze for a quick second before averting his eyes. He twirled his hand dramatically. “However, I will allow this jester to entertain us with his delusional explanation. Send him in, Cedric.”

Cedric quirked an eyebrow at his captain’s strange manner, nodded, then pivoted back to the door, propping it open for this ‘delusional jester.’ Flippant sat forward in his seat, waiting to see who would appear.

Captain Alven, may I present the boy Cutter,” Cedric announced moments before the raven-haired boy burst into the room. Flippant noticed the young man’s usually idiot-grinned face was awash with worry. His chest heaved, his face reddened. A strange conical sword was in his hand and Flippant could see scratches and scuffs where his skin was bared; evidence of a tussle with Piperscorn ulm.

Flippant fought back the urge to immediately strangle the boy. Instead he rose to his feet and peeled back his long sleeves. The gesture should not have been lost on the little ruffian.

Cutter!” Flippant growled. “What have you done with the Princess?”

Nothing, Flip! Honest!” Cutter managed to answer. “I just showed her my…workshop. She got her hand stuck in a console! She’s trapped!”

Flippant’s eyebrow rose. “Trapped? You couldn’t get her out?”

Cutter scratched at the back of his head sheepishly. “Truthfully, I didn’t try. My assistant Quell came and found me in Ralafus and—”

You left her alone?” Flippant spat.

What I want to know is how did you manage to steal her from the safety of my men?” Marz interjected less-than-smoothly. “You—you deviant, you!”

Flippant and Cutter alike turned to the captain a moment, shook their heads in unison, and went back to their conversation. Marz just tugged at his collar again and slithered back into his seat.

Cutter went on. “Look, she hadn’t eaten all day. I went out to find her some dinner.”

What was she doing at your workshop?”

The back of Cutter’s head must have been very itchy. “Well, uh, she was…studying. Sir.”

Studying what, boy?” Elias broke in.

Cutter gave a slight bow. “Your Majesty. Princess Maria was reading up on demosynthetics. She was helping me with, um, with a project. An experiment.”

Flippant’s blood froze. “Experiment?”

Listen to me, boy,” Elias said hotly. “All that aside, why didn’t you go back and help my daughter if she was stuck in your workshop?”

Cutter swallowed dryly. “Your Majesty, I would have, of course, but…well..I couldn’t reach it.”

Just then, Flippant sensed a quiver in the floor. A low, steady rumbling that rose up through the marrow in his bones. He knew instantly that none of the others could feel it. It was a premonition. A ghostly impact tremor.

Something was coming.

Couldn’t reach it?” Elias continued the inquisition. “What do you mean?”

Well, sir, my workshop isn’t exactly a workshop, per se.”

Stop talking in riddles boy!”

The doors clattered open once more, and three more of Alven’s men stormed into a room, clad in the same ridiculous chains and jewels. “Captain, Scout Flight is reporting something strange happening on the outskirts of Ralafus.”

Define ‘strange,’ Mr. Phantom,” Marz commanded, rising to his feet.

Mr. Phantom chewed on the explanation a bit, trying it out. “The men report something a rising out of the ground. Like a giant metal man.”

Like a statue?” Marz asked.

Bigger,” Mr. Phantom said. “And mechanical. Almost like clockwork.”

The word rang in the belfry of Flip’s mind.

Clockwork.

His eyes burned at Cutter. The boy’s eyes were moist and feigning innocence as he met the old wizard’s gaze.

What have you done?” Flippant growled.

Elias took Flippant by the arm. “Master Wizard, do you know what any of this means?”

Aside from what I’ve already told you about the prophecy, Your Majesty,” Flippant said softly, then his voice grew more audible as he addressed the room. “Long ago—centuries before I was even born—the Arezza Monarchy employed an army of automatons.”

Noting the confused looks in the chambers, Flippant clarified. “Clockwork men. They were warriors. Wind-up knights built for the protection of the royal family. Powered by demosynthetic magic.”

You mean brought to life by,” Elias said flatly. “They imbued machines with sentience.”

Flippant nodded. “Demosynthetics were widely practiced in the ancient times. Only recently in history has the art become…arcane, shall we say?

There was a story I heard as a boy. Just a fairytale. About the head of the Clockwork Guard being bestowed with a gem—an enchanted geode—to be precise. It was said to be enchanted with the soul of a human knight. A great knight that had been offered the princess’s hand in marriage. He’d have been a prince—had he returned alive from the battlefield, of course.”

My God,” Marz said, crossing his chest in genuflection. “That’s blasphemy. An abomination of the flesh!”

So now we’re a good Pilgrim, are we, Captain?” Flippant accused. “After attempting to kidnap the king’s daughter and hold her for ransom?”

I never—”

Forget all that!” Cutter cried, slamming his fists on the table. “Finish the story, Flip.”

I agree,” Elias said. “Continue, Flippant.”

Yes, well,” Flippant went on, “the gem gave the Clockwork Knight the ability to lead the Guard with a sense of battle strategy. A way to decide right and wrong without puppet strings. But it also gave the creation a fiery lust for the princess. She was disgusted by the Clockwork Knight—much like our pious pirate here—she thought the thing was a mockery of her would-be prince.

After the wars abated, the king ordered the Clockwork Guard destroyed, and the dearly departed knight’s soul released from the geode. But he couldn’t be brought in. And he’d developed a certain kinship with his Guard. He began to hide away what was left of his men. And from the brethren that had already fallen, he began to…gather parts. Gears and metal, cogs, anything from anywhere he could find it. And he started to rebuild himself. Bigger. And stronger. Big enough to sack a castle. Strong enough to take back his princess.”

How?” Elias asked. “How was this abomination able to do this?”

Flippant shook his head. “Maybe the magic of the geode combined with demonsynthetic energy? Who knows? It was just story.”

What happened to the knight?”

Well, as the story goes, wizards from all walks of magic united to take down the monster before it reached the castle. They somehow coaxed the land to swallow him whole.

Look, you have to understand this was all just a story. It was meant to teach wizard children the importance of sharing magic for the greater good—not separating into factions or sects,” Flippant said wistfully, shaking his head.

So, you’re saying that thing my men reported is your Clockwork Knight reawakened?”

Impossible!” Cutter broke in. “My workshop…my project…it—it can’t be!”

What are you talking about, boy?” Flippant asked.

Quell and I found an automaton in a mountain outside of town,” Cutter admitted. “We’ve been trying to get it operational, but—it was just a Ferrous Golem! I read about them!”

Flippant shook his head negatively. “A Ferrous Golem is a mechanical man powered by demosynthetics, true. But those glorified workhorses were barely taller than I am. No, if you say the princess is inside this thing—it’s much, much bigger than a Golem.”

Not a Golem,” Cutter muttered, shaking his head. “No.”

Flippant,” Elias said, “if this is the Clockwork Knight, and what you said about my crest—about the end of the Arezza family—is true, then what happens next?”

I’m not sure, Your Majesty—in the fable, the Knight just wanted his princess. But it sounds like he already has that.”

There was an inscription on the console that trapped Princess Maria,” Cutter said, looking directly at no one. “Old Ruxu. A gentle wing, a royal hand. I needed—it needed the princess to awaken itself.

She was the key.”

A conduit,” Flippant wondered aloud. “A demosynthetic conduit.”

Maria,” Elias whispered. His face looked tortured for a moment, painful, then his jaw grew taut, serious, and he stared down Flippant. “How can we get her back? And stop that thing?”

Cutter stepped forward. “I don’t know if I can stop it, but if you get me close enough, I’ll get back into the chamber that holds the princess—I can rescue her, Your Highness. At the very least. I owe Maria that much.”

Elias thought it over a moment, then turned to Flippant. “Master Wizard?”

If everything we have hypothesized here today is true—and this thing is using the princess as a conduit—the Clockwork Knight will await moonrise, when the charge of demosynthetic energy is at its peak,” Flippant explained. “We might have a chance to stop it first.”

We would need an army,” Elias said. “Far more than just my Royal Guard on horseback.”

Well,” Marz squealed from the window that he’d slunk off too. “This has been a particularly lovely afternoon. I do hope you get your daughter back, King—I’ll just be going.”

Stop,” Elias said and stormed up to Alven with a whirlwind flutter of his cape. “Captain Alven, you have held this family hostage, feigned the kidnapping of my daughter and spun it as a rescue—all but staged a coup of the Monarchy—and you think you can just slink away?”

More hoping really,” Marz said with a plaintive smirk.

Elias kept from grinding his teeth. “You are going to help us get my daughter back. You are going to fly your armada for the crown, do you understand me? When this ends—if we succeed—you will be…compensated. But for the most part, you are going to do this for the treason you have committed!”

Treason,” Marz mumbled to himself. After a moment, he snapped to attention, giving his best salute. “Captain Marz Alven reporting for duty, Your Majesty! The Skyhammer Guild is at your—” He gulped. “—disposal.”

Good,” Cutter said, snaring everyone’s attention. He placed his hands onto the tabletop, like a young politician. His grin returned, cracking across his scuffed face. “Now, dear fellows, what’s our plan?”

To be concluded in part 6 CUTTER

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