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eBOOK: The Wizard's Way (Kindle and ePub)

eBOOK: The Wizard's Way (Kindle and ePub)

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A smart steampunk fantasy from H.P. Holo & Jacob Holo.

About this premium eBook

Monsters. Murder. Swashbuckling pug butlers.

J. Chaucey Thatcher has a monster inside him, but this is the least of his worries.

A murderer prowls the Iron City, slaying inventors. An angry mob storms close behind, blaming wizards. Any they find, they burn alive.

Chaucey is an inventor. He is also secretly a wizard, and the only person who can help with this secret was just murdered before his very eyes.

But when it comes to investigating, Chaucey is as dogged as his best friend is dog. With the help of his loyal pug butler, his sparky (almost? maybe?) girlfriend, and a sleuth of rambunctious bears, he has vowed to unravel the mystery of these murders and save the city from the grips of terror.

But the monster inside him burns for escape.

Will he save the Iron City? Or will the monster destroy it first?

A smart steampunk adventure for fans of the Parasol Protectorate (Gail Carriger), and the Cinder Spires (Jim Butcher) series!

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐


"
The Wizard's Way is a lively and engaging novel. It's so much fun that's it's easy to overlook how much thought and detail has gone into the underlying world and its complex politics. I'd definitely read more by these authors." - Jane Lindskold, New York Times bestselling author

"Masterfully written, edited, designed, and crafted well... A veritable love letter to steampunk fans. Not only does it beautifully present its story and genre, it does so with enough panache and humor to temper the non-stop action into a story that is difficult to put down. In sort, if you love worlds and stories such as Foglio's Girl Genius, then you're going to love this. Highly recommended." - anonymous, Amazon Reviewer

"Marvelous mind candy." - Rose, Amazon Reviewer

"H.P. Holo's debut novel (co-written by husband and sci-fi author Jacob Holo) is well-written and captivating. The Wizard's Way is definitely worth your time." - austriana, Amazon Reviewer

"The Wizard's Way is a fun, exciting read that takes you to a place where bears run a library and a pug can fence." - Erin Harrison, Amazon Reviewer

"This book is BRILLIANTLY written! The Holos created a whole world with incredible finesse. I absolutely cannot wait for the next one!" - Elizabeth Thomas, Goodreads Reviewer

"Those who love action, awkward relationships, and magic and of course a bit of destruction, this book is for you... My favorite book of the year." - Ethan Kollat, Goodreads Reviewer

"Can't help but love this book just for the pug." - Justin Griffin, Goodreads Reviewer

"Quirky, fun, not a cookie cutter book." - Nekko, Amazon Reviewer 

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Enjoy a sample from THE WIZARD'S WAY

There was a man hanging by his neck, and it had nothing to do with the festival.

He dangled from an Iron Wand in the center of the city park, a black sack covering his head, painted with haunting white eyes and a jagged grin. From his neck, in equally jagged script, hung a sign reading:

 “WIZARD”

 Chaucey could see it plainly from his workshop roof. He saw people in the park pass by, look up, but then continue on with their morning constitutionals. They were in no hurry to take it down.

He’d brought an apple and some cheese up for breakfast with a view, but not that view, and certainly not this week.

J. Chaucey Thatcher would turn eighteen in seven days.

The thought rose upon him like the sun on an execution morning.

It was not hyperbole. It was fear—deep, cold-bellied fear that in one week he’d receive a letter from The Queen that was tantamount to this wizard’s fate.

Something clawed inside him.

It was why, as he bolted out of his workshop, his singular thought was this:

“What the hell. I’m going to fight a bear, and then I’m going to jump.”

 ***

Evolution had first intended the bear’s claws to swat holes in its prey, but at the moment they were occupied by the pages of a book.

Behind the bearman loomed a great iron gate wrought into leafy curls and barky branches in imitation of the surrounding greenery. The way he positioned himself before the gate—feet planted wide, chest puffed and bold, shoulders back—suggested that he was meant to be guarding it. However, the measured relish with which he absorbed the pages suggested that he sensed few threats against which to guard.

That is until his nostrils twitched and the scent that carried through them drew him to quick attention.

As a bearman, he prided himself on the acuteness of his sense of smell. He could pick a wily Grimhawk dame from a flock of corseted Iron City ladies miles below in Arling Park simply by the scent of sea salt and citrus in her hair. He could identify and trail a cutpurse on the distinct tang of his fright alone. In fact, he could distinguish the nervous fear of a burglar from the exhilarated fear of a schoolboy about to swipe a candy on a dare. All humans carried particular scents to which their own noses were oblivious.

He tested the air again: the crisp evergreen, open mountain air, distant coal-fueled choke of industry, and, ooo! Candied nuts! The festival dealers had opened!

But mingled with these scents of the Iron City, he detected one very particular smell:

Aged wood absorbed from a Sixth Aurice building, no doubt. Mechanical grease. The cool nip of iron. Sweat. A musky cologne applied to cover the scent of sweat. The earthy, mineral smell of underground. And not a single nip of fear.

He’d encountered this scent before.

Of course, his nose being incredibly acute, he could not yet see the person to whom it belonged, so he returned to his book.

Fifteen minutes later, he tried to look surprised when two human feet stomped up to his own.

“I demand entrance to the Crystal Heights,” the feet said.

The bear clapped his book shut as if startled from a trance, then peered down over his half-moon spectacles.

Before him stood a boy as thin as kindling, face firm in a scowl that was clearly unaware of his own size or the bear’s or the relation between the two—or simply didn’t care. The boy locked his dark eyebrows in a practiced glare and planted one foot on top of the wooden box he’d wheeled along with him. This gave him the look of having conquered something, but his physique interfered with his intentions, for he had very much yet to grow into himself. His bare forearms crossed his chest like two toothpicks over a half-eaten sandwich. A very impudent sandwich, and one that was plainly searching for trouble.

The bear guard put on his widest, toothiest grin.

“James Chaucey Thatcher!” he exclaimed. “Why, it’s been months! You know, it’s been so quiet since you were put away that I’ve almost caught up with the Tales of Ambrist!” He gestured toward his book.

“I’ve no time to banter with you today, Banderlin,” the boy stated. “I must enter the Heights as soon as possible. It’s urgent.”

“Did you say ‘banter’?” Banderlin said. “You’re using smart words today. You must be up to some mischief.”

“What?” the boy snapped.

“The only time you ever put your vocabulary to use is when you’re trying to pick fights with people. Otherwise, you’d just say, ‘I don’t have time to talk, Banderlin. I’m late for tea.’”

Usually Banderlin’s voice came in a deep, alveolar grumble, not because he was actually grumbling but because that was how bear mouths handled words invented for human mouths. When he attempted Chaucey’s voice, it became a high, reedy thing, like it might have come from a talking squirrel.

“I do not sound like that,” Chaucey objected.

Which was true, Banderlin admitted. The boy’s unruly puff of hair and burgeoning sideburns gave him the look of a small lion that hadn’t grown into his mane yet. That was what he sounded like—a mewling cub that hadn’t aged into his roar.

“And I am never late for tea,” Chaucey clipped. “However, I do have urgent business to attend to that needs to be handled soon.”

Banderlin crossed his arms over his chest. “When a scruffy thing like you says he’s up to ‘urgent business,’ I’m inclined to think he’s up to no good. Especially when he’s got an odd-looking box with him, and especially when his wrists are still raw from The Queen’s shackles.”

The boy shrank at that. He twitched to hide his reddened wrists but decided against it, and instead he planted his arms firmly akimbo where the wrists were clear.

“Really, boy, it surprises me that Inspector Ashdon hasn’t made you your own custom pair by this point. You’re such a regular in the tunnels.”

“My record has nothing to do with today’s task,” Chaucey groused. “And how can you call me scruffy? You’re a bear!”

“A bear who knows how to dress properly for the High Districts,” Banderlin countered, gesturing along his attire with a dainty flourish. “You will observe my finely tailored Wosth & Fandy waistcoat, neatly pressed dress shirt, and staunchly starched collar, complete with silk cravat with a lovely floral design, to match my gate. I thought of that last touch myself, by the way. You, on the other hand, look like you were just belched out of The Caldron and smell like a pile of wet dogmen’s underwear. In fact, take a mint, boy.” Banderlin reached into his waistcoat pocket. “I’m not sure what you’re on about with that smell of yours, but it could stand to be a bit more pleasant.”

“It’s not that bad,” Chaucey countered.

Bûrgl! Not to a human,” Banderlin replied as he opened a paw-sized tin. “To a bearman, your scent is a distraction. Here.” With two claws, he plucked a white mint from the tin and placed it in Chaucey’s begrudging palm, which fell under the weight. For a bear mouth, the mint was perfectly sized. For a human, it was the size of a large biscuit.

“This won’t even fit in my mouth,” Chaucey stated.

“Then at least rub it on your clothes, or in your armpits or somewhere,” Banderlin responded. “Anyway, it’s all further reason not to admit you into the Heights. You’ve made so many bad fashion choices today that I’m not sure I can trust you to choose wisely on any more complex decisions you might have to make.”

“I wore a cravat!” Chaucey defended, puffing out his neck cloth.

“A cravat alone does not a gentleman make,” Banderlin argued, “especially when he doesn’t even have the decency to wear a clean suit with it. You’re not even wearing a jacket, boy. You may as well be naked by human standards! That’s even more reason not to let you into the Heights unpermitted.”

“Unpermitted?” Chaucey puffed up his chest. “My employer should have secured permission through Arthur Maberley.”

“I’ve received nothing from Lord Maberley today. Or Charles Farwude, for that matter.”

“Check your envelopes!”

“I already checked them this morning.”

“Then check again! Farwude should have sent a message.”

“Charles Farwude should do lots of things that he doesn’t,” Banderlin grumped. But then he rolled his eyes and brought a stack of envelopes from a pocket. He made a show of examining each letter, taking it gingerly between two long claws, drawing it to his spectacles for closer examination, then raising it into a nearby sunbeam for further scrutiny, as if it held a message only discernible by sunlight.

“Eat your mint, boy. That’s a Bernia mint,” he said as he reviewed each letter.

Chaucey broke off a chip, as commanded, and kept his eyes on Banderlin.

 

***

 

There wouldn’t be a Farwude letter.

There was supposed to be a Farwude letter. There were always supposed to be Farwude letters, but if Farwude could be relied on for anything, it was to make life difficult for his apprentice.

This was why Chaucey and Banderlin knew each other so well that Banderlin would give him expensive Bernia mints, and why Chaucey knew that, despite their familiarity, Banderlin would soon tire of the distraction he provided.

It was why he knew several alternate routes into the Heights, all of them impossible today.

This in turn was why he recognized that the gate he wanted to pass was only a bit taller than the bear blocking it, why he knew the bear’s shoulder would make an excellent step if he could reach it, and why he’d brought this particular box in the first place.

It was not the cleverest of his plans, but it was quick, or would be if he timed everything correctly. And, he now noted, very possible if he could just get Banderlin to back up another foot.

Chaucey popped the mint chip into his mouth.

“None,” Banderlin confirmed, returning the letters to his pocket.

Chaucey slumped into a sigh as if he’d heard the most depressing news of his life.

“Could I bribe you, then?” He reached into his trouser pockets and inched the box forward.

“Bribe?” laughed Banderlin. “That’s uncharacteristic of you.”

Inch.

“I could bring you a fish from Arling Park Lake,” Chaucey offered.

Inch.

“Ah! Do they stock salmon lightly dusted with dill and lemon now?”

Inch. Inch.

“No. They stock fish. The wet kind. Still wriggling.”

Inch. Inch. Inch.

Banderlin’s eyes widened as if scandalized. “Surely you don’t mean to imply that I’m heathen enough to eat my fish live!”

The box tapped against his clawed toe, and instinctively the bearman stepped back.

“I’ve seen the other bearmen do it,” Chaucey said as he hopped onto his box. Yes, with the assistance of Banderlin’s forearms, he could make the leap from here.

“Yes, but they’re not as civilized as I—” Banderlin didn’t finish.

Chaucey pulled one hand from his pocket and bashed it straight into the bearman’s nose.

He launched from the box, leapt to the bear’s shoulders, and cleared the gate—

Almost.

As he passed Banderlin’s head, a great, fleshy paw whomped into his face and thwapped him down to the boards with a sickening crack! The impact rang like a thunderclap in his head, dark spots flickered across his vision, and a pervasive screeching whine rose in his ears. Still, through the addled ringing, he could hear the bearman bellow:

What is this devilish concoction?

It would have struck terror into Chaucey’s heart had he not been looking for this reaction in the first place.

Banderlin’s arms flailed like furious windmill blades. His face squinched to such a pointed grimace around his nose that his gums were visible in an unintentional but no less comical snarl. This all centered upon a shiny, purplish splat that soaked his snout and part of his waistcoat.

He sneezed. A bubble blooped out of his nostrils.

It was hard to be afraid of a sight like that, even in bear-struck addlement.

“It’s emulsified soap…and…olive oil,” Chaucey slurred. He tried to stand, but his legs were as wobbly as his tongue, and he collapsed face-first onto the boards.

“Don’t talk science to me, boy! I am not in the mood for it!” Banderlin roared.

Chaucey propped himself up on his elbows and shook his head. “Farwude’s valet…uses it to…soften clothes.”

“This substance is absolutely monstrous! Barbaric! Diabolical!”

“It’s fabric softener,” Chaucey groaned. He shook his head again. Slight dizziness swam through his senses, but his vision had cleared and his ears had returned to normal. Good. He tried to stand again, this time successfully. Better. He crept forward, dragging the box behind him.

“It is a chemical weapon!” Banderlin persisted. “Agh, this smell!”

“It’s not that bad. It’s just flowery,” Chaucey said, hoping Banderlin wouldn’t notice that his voice now came from a different place. He crouched by the gate lock and reached into his waistcoat.

“You are not a bear,” Banderlin continued. “Your nose is two thousand times inferior to mine. It is not just flowery. It is a lavender-scented weapon of unparalleled caliber!”

“You’re not even dying,” Chaucey pointed out.

Banderlin froze.

“What are you doing, boy?” he growled, squinting to the place where Chaucey had been lying.

From his pocket, Chaucey pulled a thin, rectangular case, and from that he slid out a lock pick. “Recovering,” he said, clenching the pick in his teeth. “Checking for broken bones. Same as I usually do when we meet.” Next he slipped a little L-shaped tool from the case.

Banderlin’s ears twitched, listening. “No, you’re not. You’ve moved.”

Chaucey didn’t bother answering; he knew it wasn’t a trick that could last long, and Banderlin’s paws were already inching around the gatewalk, orienting him where his eyes and nose could not. He wasn’t even growling now; his ears flitted about in all directions, attentive. Chaucey had to move fast.

He hooked the short end of the tension wrench into the bottom of the lock and slipped the lock pick in over it. Gingerly, he clicked along the tumblers on the inside, seeking the pattern that would finagle the lock into compliance.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. His pick ran along the lock’s tumblers.

Click.

He found it.

He twisted the tension wrench.

The lock pick snapped.

Banderlin’s ears sprung erect. A fierce huff of recognition sprayed from his snout. He whipped to face Chaucey’s direction, a growl bubbling up in his throat, eyes burning red with fury and lavender-scented soap. He stomped forward.

Chaucey yanked another lock pick from his case and jammed it into the gate lock.

Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.

Banderlin’s steps tromped heavy on the woodwork, slow, cautious, but bone-jarringly powerful. Three more steps and the bear would be on top of him.

Click. Click. Click.

Stomp!

Click. Click.

He turned the tension wrench. It gave, but not totally.

Click. Click.

Stomp!

Turn.

Clank!

Chaucey flung the gate open, grabbed his box, and bolted.

It was not long before a loud clang rang out behind him, followed by a satisfying clink and a fierce animal roar.

James Chaucey Thatcher!” Banderlin snarled.

Chaucey had no reason to fear that snarl now. By the clang, clink, and roar that had followed him, he guessed that Banderlin had smashed into the gate, closing and locking it with his girth, and though the bear had a key, he was still blind and impaired by the overwhelming scent of the fabric softener. He could chase Chaucey in that condition, but it wasn’t advisable, for there was a reason why the Heights were called the Heights.

The boards beneath his feet creaked and swayed at the whim of the mountain wind, and the wooden mansions that spread out and up from this row did so with careful, plotted eccentricity. Some were shaped like predictable polygons, as their foundations allowed, but others spiraled like whimsical labyrinths up and over several sets of foundations, as the mountain demanded, and all looked to have trees sprouting out of their rooftops because they did. Beneath the walk spread a great forest of massive oaks that had been alive since the beginning of the Queendom, claimed by an ambitious set of Fourth Aurice architects, and then rendered comfortably habitable through an intricate system of bolts, flexible joints, and sliding beams braced to secure the mansions in relative place. Several hundred wooden houses lingered in the canopy of the mountain’s forest, protected by the hundred-foot drop that waited beneath them.

No one in the Crystal Heights ran without knowing the edges, which was why Chaucey ran with brilliant confidence in his stride.

And why his bones froze when he felt the walkway judder to the distinct thudding rhythm of an ursine gallop.

Banderlin was giving chase.

Chaucey didn’t bother looking back. He gathered every bit of spirit he had left into his legs and ran as best as his box would allow.

Banderlin barreled up behind, streamlined now on all fours.

Chaucey strained his muscles and sprinted forward even faster.

Ahead, the walkway split, branching into ramps both upward and downward, and from there it wove an ant’s maze of artificial paths through the ancient trees. Chaucey dashed up. The slant of the run would be hard on his legs, but he needed to be high to make this worthwhile. The higher the better, where the view was clear and the fall was brutal. Otherwise this would all be for naught.

At the top of the slant, the forest canopy opened. Brilliant sunlight streamed onto the wooden walkway, and Chaucey’s hand shot up to dull the shock of sun blindness. It was inconvenient, but Banderlin would suffer it, too—worse, with his irritated eyes—which might afford him some more time. He pressed forward, heart pounding, muscles burning. Other branching paths presented themselves, and he took them, the nearing chuff of Banderlin’s breath drawing ever closer in his pounding ears.

A few more ramps, just a few more ramps, and then he’d be high enough on the overlook of Lord Arthur Maberley. Then he would jump and be free of Banderlin’s teeth.

He ran harder, forcing his legs up the next incline.

And was met with a stairway. Damn it, a stairway! He could clear the stairs under less dire circumstances, but he couldn’t be slowed today. If he opted to thump the box up, Banderlin would be at the stairs before he could even reach the top.

He stared at the city below.

The view was clear. Some tents and wheeled vendors sprawled from the base of the mountain, but he could handle those when they were relevant. This was the best spot circumstances would allow, and now was as good a time as any.

He flung the box to the ground and tore at its lid—

—just as a bear-shaped shadow rose over him and a claw thrashed him to the ground. His face smacked hard into the wood. He rolled over and tried to scramble to his feet, blood spurting from his nostrils, but found himself pinned by one massive padded foot before he could even sit up.

Chaucey clawed at the foot and shouted, “Get off me!” He meant it to be a snarl, but it squeaked out more broken and vulnerable than he’d intended.

Perhaps hearing the strain of organs being crushed in the tone, Banderlin eased his foot off. Chaucey turned onto his side, groaning as a fresh stream of blood spilled from his nose onto the planks.

“Stop bleeding on everything, boy. Blood isn’t fashionable in these parts.”

Chaucey tried to reply with an indifferent grunt, but in his condition it came out as a weak whimper.

“And stop your moaning!” Banderlin snapped. “You’re a Calderling! You’ve survived worse than a mere slap. I must say, you’ve been uncharacteristically dumb today. Did you really think those shenanigans would work?”

Yes,” Chaucey retorted. “I don’t do things unless I think they’ll work.” He propped himself up on one elbow and touched the back of his hand to his bleeding nose. “Besides, I was out of quicker ideas—Ow! Figs! I think you broke my nose!”

“I’m a bear. Did you expect a love tap? Here, let’s see that.” He crouched down to Chaucey’s prone form and tweaked his nose between two delicate claws. “No, it’s still in place,” he declared, then extended a paw.

Chaucey took it, expecting to be pulled to his feet, but instead found himself flung across the bearman’s shoulder like a sack of potatoes.

“Oof! Banderlin, what are you doing?”

“I don’t trust you to walk yourself,” Banderlin replied, taking the box handle in his other paw. “There’s too much trouble you could get up to, walking.”

“Put me down! I’ll look stupid to anyone who sees.”

“Well, you should have thought of that before you ruined my favorite waistcoat,” Banderlin replied, beginning to canter down the walkway. “You should be grateful, you know. For most men who rush me, looking stupid is the least of their worries. I go easy on you because you at least cause interesting trouble, and you’ve helped me find ways to better secure the Heights.”

“Glad to be of service,” Chaucey clipped, and then twisted as best he could to face the bear’s ear. “Banderlin, you have to let me go today. It’s important. Listen, I’ll buy you all the fancy Bernia mints your heart desires. I’ll even throw in a keg of Bruunhead.”

“Mints and mead, is it? How could I ever turn down an offer like that?” A happy rise in the pitch of his voice gave Chaucey hope, but that dissolved when Banderlin continued. “I will say, I was disappointed in you today. Using your own stink to mask the lavender stench was clever, granted, but I’d expected a fancy machine to come into play—something more intricate than a lock pick, anyway. Maybe a modified track hook for the trees, or some equivalent. What’s the matter with you today? What’s the reason for all these hijinks?”

“Cumulus congestus clouds,” Chaucey said.

“You’re talking science again,” Banderlin stated.

“Towering cumulus,” Chaucey clarified. He pointed toward a patch of sky that had earlier been blue but was now punctuated by dark poofs that looked like foam billowing from the top of a freshly poured beer. “They mean a storm is on its way, and bad weather will interfere with…a thing I need to do today.”

“What kind of thing?”

“It’s a surprise,” Chaucey said lamely.

“It wouldn’t be like the surprise you gave that Ferantin prince’s balloon last fall, would it?”

“No, that was unintentional!”

“It was still on fire. And it still landed you six months of trapfinding labor, didn’t it?”

“That’s why you have to let me go,” Chaucey insisted. “My birthday’s this week. The Queen’s going to send her agents to see if I’ve satisfied The Grace, and if I don’t do something impressive—really impressive—to overshadow the mess with the prince, they’re going to send me back to The Caldron.”

“Boy, they’re not going to send you back for that debacle. It’s the combination of that and all the other things you’ve done that’s the problem. Look at the facts. You’ve been out of The Caldron for ten years and have spent one month for each of them sentenced to trapfinding.”

“I never committed any actual crimes,” Chaucey objected. “Just…badly timed accidents.”

“That’s what this next feat of yours is going to be, too. A badly timed accident, whatever it is.”

“No, it won’t,” Chaucey insisted. “I’ve planned it down to the finest detail, and the conditions right now are perfect, and—”

“I’m trying to keep you out of trouble, boy,” Banderlin barked. “You’re the first Gracetaker in years to even make it to eighteen, and all your disasters have at least happened in the pursuit of noble ambitions. I’m sure The Queen will take that into account, too. This said, the Quincentennial Festival seems to be starting up. Go buy yourself some candied nuts and try to impress ladies at the carnival games. Keep yourself inconspicuous and worry about The Grace later.”

“I risk too much by doing nothing. Right now everyone thinks I’m just a polished ruffian with a lot of dangerous inventions.”

Banderlin snorted. “Well, you are.”

“I look it,” Chaucey objected. “When they look at me, they don’t see that I’ve singlehandedly run Farwude’s shop, that I can read now, that I haven’t stabbed anyone in ten years. They just remember that I did stab someone, and that I’m from The Caldron.”

“Let’s be fair, Chaucey. You ravaged a whole gang—”

“In self-defense!”

“And set their base on fire.”

“Accidentally!”

“When you were seven.”

“People who aren’t from The Caldron wouldn’t understand,” Chaucey objected. “Besides, I haven’t done anything like it since! But no one sees it that way, and that’s my problem.”

“Your problem,” Banderlin stated, “is that when someone tells you not to do something, you hear ‘Find a different way to do it.’ Which, I admit, is not always a character flaw and will serve you well in your line of work, but is nonetheless problematic when a person tells you not to trespass in private districts or not to test your improved fireworks in the city.”

“Those fireworks worked spectacularly,” Chaucey objected. “They just did it in a direction I hadn’t intended.”

“James Chaucey Thatcher, none of your catastrophic muck-ups are intentional, which is another of your problems. Ah, here we are.”

“Where?” Chaucey asked. He looked down at the surrounding treetops with their particularly dense branches but didn’t see anything otherwise exceptional about them.

“Do you think you’ve recovered? No dizziness, headaches? Good coordination? Steady on your legs?”

“Sure. Why? Where are we?”

Banderlin didn’t answer, but instead jolted Chaucey off his shoulder and caught the front of his shirt in his claw. “I won’t be taking you to the Inspector today.”

“So you’re letting me go?” Chaucey said hopefully.

“In a manner of speaking,” Banderlin replied. “Brace yourself.”

It was then that Chaucey noticed how close he was to the edge—and that he was moving closer.

Oh, nonononono! Banderlin, don’t!”

“Stop your whining. It’s not like you’re unaccustomed to this.”

He let Chaucey go.

A cluster of trees thick with age whooshed up to swallow him like the walls of a tomb. Stripes of wide metal flashed by in empty air, and then the branches resumed. Their twigs thwacked against his face and cut his skin, but with a twist of determination, he turned himself to face the ground and grabbed at whatever branches his hands could reach. The first several broke under his velocity, but they also lessened it, and when a thick one struck him with a meaty thwap, he snatched hold and clambered on to get his bearings.

Just in time to hear the whish of his box zoom past.

It crashed in the underbrush fifty feet below.

“Are you alive, boy?” he heard Banderlin shout from above.

“Yes,” Chaucey spat back. “No thanks to you.”

“You’re a Calderling,” Banderlin dismissed. “You’ve survived worse.”

Chaucey had, but he wasn’t about to give Banderlin the satisfaction of hearing him admit it. When he heard the creak of Banderlin walking away, he deflated against the branch. Residual bursts of terrified energy still coursed through his veins, so after making sure his important bones were whole, he made use of them and began his slow way down to the Underoaks.

Even if he’d wanted to climb back up, he couldn’t. The trees closest to the walkway had been shaved of their upper branches and sleeved in wide, iron bands, making it impossible for the average climber to reach the Heights from the ground beneath. They’d been put there to deter courageous thieves, but enhanced because of him, which was why some were barbed with poisoned spikes. (This he’d learned the hard way.)

So he jumped, slid, and wrapped himself around branches until he made it to the mossy undergrowth.

He found his box, and it looked undamaged. He’d built it hardy in anticipation of days like this, with a spring-supported inner chamber that would absorb sudden shocks in place of the contents. All the branches the box had broken during its descent had probably helped with the shocks, too, and the mostly wooden parts inside would bend first before breaking, so his equipment was probably intact.

Unfortunately, it was at the bottom of an old, spiked war pit, which complicated things.

He cursed the Old Auricans for not filling in their war traps, but soon rigged a harness from some thick vines and recovered the box, no worse for the wear. It had crushed most of the rotting wooden spikes, anyway.

Now with box in hand, he crawled out of the underbrush and hopped an iron fence onto a bricked street. Some passersby gave him odd looks but continued on in polite silence, and so he tidied himself as best he could and began his trek back to the High Districts.