Queenstown had been strangely subdued when they rode in. Graeme’s senses, trained from his early years, began to jangle in a sort of discordant disquiet. The grey-green Assiniboine River, ancient and implacable, provided some relief from the dry local climate, and the moisture soothed his parched skin and gritty eyes. The market that lined the canal in the verdant shadow of the domed ruin of the Queenstown Legislature was well underway, but it seemed to him there were fewer merchants than he might have expected at the High Summer Festival. There were even some spaces unused; though the dirigibles were loading and unloading as usual and the Trans-Dominion bullet train arrived at eight o’clock, as expected.
He’d sensed something; he wasn’t sure what. It was almost like a smell, an unpleasant undertone of mold or rot in a barrel of healthy looking apples. The miasma wafted through Queenstown, past the train station and the marketplace, past the dirigible launch station; past the finely-dressed ladies in their ruffled crinolines taking tea on the steps of the ruins. Lightning didn’t like it either. His ears were lowered and twitching. The sense of wrongness lingered as they rode past the hostels, the factories, the telegraph station, the sanitarium, and the voltaic recharging station, even past the tall, ancient stone building that bore the white fan of the Courtesans. He didn’t study this closely, though first a lithe blond youth, and then a fine young miss about his age with scarlet ringlets, peered over their fans to wink at him. She hiked her petticoats up a little and he blushed and looked away. It was a sign of his mixed heritage. Full-blooded sidhe did not blush.
He scanned the populace. His attention was drawn for a moment by a small band of Mantis-folk dickering with a family of gnomish apothecaries. Astride Lightning, he was about eye level with their Speaker. His silver-blue eyes narrowed as he wondered if this was the source of his disquiet. The Mantis-folk could be violent, certainly unpredictable; but no, the bugs weren’t posturing, nor were they clattering or fiddling, as they were inclined to do when agitated. The gnomes grouped tightly around their Eldest, chattering at each other in long liquid syllables that sounded like water in a stream. Before long the senior gnome, with a white beard almost to his knees, held up his hands to silence his little clan He reached down to wind a tiny crank at his belt buckle, and his footwear popped open. Scaffolding folded upward from his shoes, slowly lifting the white-bearded gnome a foot or so upward, so he was closer to eye level when he shook the Mantis-folk’s “Speaker to Other’s” three-fingered manipulator in the ancient sign of a deal struck and bargain made.
Graeme shook his head in wonder at the ingenuity of the gnomes, and their endless fascination with complicated little gadgets, as he made his way through the marketplace. He hoped the buyer they had come to meet had been on the train that just rolled in. It would make their job that much easier if he could take the money for the horses, buy some things for the ranch, and be out of town before sundown with no fuss or bother. But the half-familiar scent continued to tug at his attention. The more he worked to put it aside, the more it seemed to dig at his awareness. He tried to put his finger on why it was so troublesome.
He decided to wait for the train to unload before he searched out stabling, mostly on a hunch, and he sent Henry on ahead to find lodging. About half of the passengers had finished unloading when the Gunslingers stepped off the train. One was a burly, square-chinned woman with some silver in her long black hair. The other was a young, unusually tall gnome with a scruff of curly black beard and chocolate brown skin. He wore bronze spurs and by his relative youth Graeme knew him to be an Apprentice like himself. An older man with steel-grey hair and black almond eyes stepped off with them. They saw Graeme and Piper, nodded, and made their way to them.
“Howdy,” the Lady Slinger greeted them as she tipped her hat. They returned the gesture. “Guess you’d be the Walshes. You got your father’s look there, son. Graeme, right?”
“Yes ma’am,” he said with a formal nod. She chuckled. “And that would make you Piper.” She shook both of their hands. “This is Mr. Ping, our purchasing agent. Let’s have a look at our new line here.”
The horses, all too aware of the importance of this exchange, started posturing for their benefit. Graeme found himself bristling a little when their teeth and hooves were examined – as if there’d be any less than the best care on the Walsh ranch! – but the young horses seemed to take it all as a matter of course. They needn’t have worried. They all passed Mr. Ping’s inspection. “This way, if you please,” said Mr. Ping to the yearlings then, and they all stepped proudly and tossed their heads as they filed onto the train. The Gunslinger, Dame Rosa Hanover, jokingly offered to buy Lightning along with the rest of the remuda, and the indignant horse snorted and stamped the ground to make it clear he was not amused.
Laughing, they saw the visiting Slingers to a respectable inn just up the street from the alchemist’s, and promised to return to play some cards once they’d found their own sleeping arrangements for the night. Apprentice Ned Dickens swept his hat low as he bowed to Piper. “Right honoured to meet you, miss,” he said with a winsome smile. Piper giggled and didn’t blush. Graeme narrowed his eyes a little. Seeing this, Piper grinned broadly and added, “Right honoured to meet you too, Mr. Dickens.”
The gnome brightened. “Perhaps I can buy you a lemonade,” he offered cheerfully.
“She’s fourteen,” Graeme growled.
“Perhaps you can,” Piper said, completely ignoring her brother.
“I’m only sixteen myself,” he explained to Graeme, running a hand self-consciously over his face. “The beard’s a little early. It’s the dwarf blood, you know.”
Graeme relented. He supposed it was only natural for his sister to want to start talking to boys, and he guessed she could do worse than another Slinger; though their father certainly would not approve. “All right, we’ll see you later,” he nodded. Ned Dickens smiled and tipped his hat, and they returned it, mounted up, and swung their horses around to head for the inn they’d noticed around the corner as they rode from the Canal.
“Just what right do you think you have to inspect my dates?” demanded Piper. Her eyes flashed with fury.
“I’m your older brother.”
“That don’t mean you have the right to ...” and that’s when the shots rang out. The Walshes drew their rifles and whirled their horses back around.