Want to know what’s happening? The first book Dust and Sand was serialised here at Geek Pride. A summary is available here. You can also buy the definitive edition of Dust and Sand at all good eBook stores.
The Sister and Reeves went to say some goodbyes. It was only polite: they’d stayed with the Governor for a few days, gotten to know his family and servants. Downright charitable of him, really. But the delay suited Joshua. He would enjoy his last moments of guaranteed privacy in the coach. Make sure everything there was still secure.
At the front entrance, the servant he’d handed the carriage to waited, white gloves and shirt pristine. Joshua turned him around roughly and said, “Get me my carriage, boy. Now.”
Joshua gave him a kick as he went, leaving a dusty boot print that the servant wiped off as he jogged. That made him chuckle. Then Joshua realised he was staring at a man’s ass, and felt like a damn cock-sucker for a moment.
The negro soon brought the carriage around with fresh, deep scratches in the paintwork. In the wards that would’ve protected them in the Badlands. Joshua nearly bit through his tongue: their mission had just been made a damn sight more difficult by the fool’s carelessness.
“What in the name of damnation is that, you fucking ni–” Joshua caught himself. He’d have to get out of that habit for a few days. “Nincompoop,” he finished without gusto.
“What do you mean, sir?”
“That, you boot-licking son of a bitch!” Joshua pulled the whoreson down from the carriage, two big handfuls of his shirt, ripping the seams. He dragged the fool over to the scratches and forced his head against the damage. “You see that, huh?”
“That’s… That’s not my fault, sir. Didn’t drive the thing all the way. Dutchman took over so’s I could get back here. Musta been him that did it.”
“I don’t care who did it, you little shit,” Joshua punctuated his point with a punch to the teeth. “I put you in charge of Solution property, so I hold you responsible. Not that I should have been foolish enough to have trusted a damned… servant.”
Joshua was about to punch him again when the Governor’s side door opened. One used by friends and family. Plenty of folk had walked past this exchange without batting an eyelid, most having former-slave servants themselves and so knowing how it could be with the damn fools. But it might be Reeves, so Joshua stepped back a little, let the useless servant bleed onto the floor.
Sister Irujo stepped into view. Her caramel brow creased as she saw Joshua with raw knuckles and the servant getting to his feet.
“What has happened here?”
“Damn servant here’s busted up my carriage,” Joshua said, gesturing to the scratches. “I was just disciplining him. ‘Specially as this is gonna put us out on our… quest for the Governor. Damn useless son of a bitch!”
The Sister glided past him to the uneven servant. Black skin pale from shock. His lips bled, adding crimson to his ripped shirt. Repairing that’d come out of his wages, such as they were.
“You perhaps should have let his employer discipline him,” Sister Irujo said as looked over the man’s wounds. “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”
The servant shook his head, a wild panic possessing him. “No, ma’am, please don’t tell the Governor ’bout this. I’d rather take a short beating from sir here.”
“It wouldn’t be no short beating, boy.” Sister Irujo’s expression gave him pause. “But go on, get, before I change my mind.”
“Thank you, sir, and I’m mighty sorry ’bout your carriage.”
With that, the servant ran off. Sister Irujo watched him go, a look of concern on her face.
“You wondering why he’d rather take a licking from me than punishment from the Governor?”
The Sister looked back at the house. Slowly, she nodded.
“Me, I can only give him a few licks before it’d look unseemly. Though, with it being Solution property, maybe I’d get to give him a good thrashing. But the Governor can hit him where it really hurts: take away his wages, make his kids go hungry. Even they look after their kids, want to see ’em full of an evening.”
She looked disgusted. “You think yourself merciful in comparison.”
Joshua shrugged. “Mercy don’t come in to it. I’m just telling you how it is. And his own reaction ought to tell you the truth in my words.”
She kept staring, her eyes boring into the alabaster walls. Eventually, she looked away. “Maybe in some of them. Anyway, may I examine your carriage, Mister McManaman?”
“Be my guest. It’s fair on ruined for our trip any way.”
The nun walked around the carriage, continuing her damn annoying habit of not replying. Was that a Church thing or something about being Spanish? He assumed she was Spanish. Or maybe a tribal from Mexico or below. Whatever she was, he thought it damned rude. Getting revenge for Eleanor was going to be hard enough without this nun raising his ire all the time.
Sister Irujo circled the carriage a second time, then returned to the scratches. It was once one of the Solution’s great triumphs, a network of magic spells which masked it, its passengers, and its horses to creatures of the Triangle. Black and silver, ornately carved, intricate. Like a royal coach or something a king would be buried in.
At least, it was all that before the scratches. Now, it was just a rough wooden box with purposeless scrawls along its hide.
“This is impressive,” Sister Irujo said as she knelt by the scratched wards. “You are approaching what the Vatican were capable of ten years ago.”
Joshua ground his teeth. “Beg pardon?”
“The wards and spells you use, they approach the power of those the Papal coach was warded with a decade or so ago. Your Solution has come far: I was told to expect far more primitive artefacts than this.”
“Thanks, I suppose.”
“Shall I repair this?”
“Beg pardon?” Joshua asked again, though not so angrily this time.
The nun gestured toward the scratched paintwork. “These scratches, which now render ruin unto this carriage, do you wish for me to repair them? Return the overall spell to working order?”
Joshua shook his head. “I don’t know. These’re complex spells here, Sister. I don’t want you poking about with it and ruining the whole thing. Or hurting yourself.”
She frowned, confused. “It is a simple, albeit well-engineered, lattice of obfuscation magics, silent prayers, and spells using the Nations’ sigils. There is little complex about it, aside from the fine balancing of where to put each spell. Besides, only these four symbols,” she gestured to some Masonic lettering, “are damaged enough to affect the whole pattern. The others are designed to fortify and bolster the walls. As such, I would be in no danger.”
“You think you can repair it?” Joshua’s fists balled at being talked to like he was only five. “Fine. Have at it. But, if you get yourself hurt, it’ll be on your head that our posse halted before it even damn well began.”
The Sister shook her head, which only elevated his rage further. If he’d had a gun on him, Joshua might’ve drawn it. He struggled himself back down to a simmer, waiting for the stupid bitch to fuck up the carriage and blow her damn head off.
Best to keep his temper under wraps, he told himself when a bit calmer. It’d been too long since he worked with other people. Well, with ‘normal’ folk. He had to remember why he was here. What really mattered: Dustin Longe’s death.
Sister Irujo nun put her hands either side of the scratches, closed her eyes, and whispered prayers in Latin. Her body shook like she had a fever. Her words trembled. Just as Joshua was ready to laugh at her messing with shit she didn’t understand, her eyes flashed yellow. It wasn’t a long burst, but she was casting actual magic. That gave him pause.
The Sister stopped whispering and concentrated her gaze on the carriage. Vibrations filled the air, drilling into his skull. There was a pop, like a cork gun. The wood bounced back into place, like the scratches had been ripples in a pond that dissipated: the surface calmed, stilled, and then the paint returned as though summoned.
“Amen,” she said as she took her hands away.
Impressive as that was, popping the wood and paint back into being hadn’t necessarily repaired the magic. Joshua jumped onto the roof of the carriage and crawled over it to check the spell’s power source, a small glass sphere of blood from a creature of Melting Flesh. Set into the roof, it powered the whole carriage. And it was still whole and sickly green. Joshua flicked it lightly with his cracked nail. The magics thrummed in response, like a distant voice singing one note.
“Please, do not blaspheme before me,” Sister Irujo said as she marched over to stare up at the carriage. “It is unkind.”
Joshua noted another damn thing he’d have to hold back on. “My apologies, but that was pretty impressive. They teach you that in the Vatican?”
The Sister gave him a small smile. “It, like all magic, is an ability given to me by God Almighty. I have merely been taught how to channel it.”
The Vatican’s little con was going strong. Though, con as it was, it clearly got results.
“Well, I’m sure glad of it. And I assume you have other such abilities too?”
She nodded, but would say no more.
“Anyway, thank you.”
“It was no trouble.”
Joshua hopped down and turned to hide his troubled expression. If the Sister could cast such spells with little preparation, she was no normal Christian. He’d kind of known that from her writ of authenticity, but this sealed it: the carriage would’ve made things easier, but it wasn’t vital. That means the Sister had cast complex magic as a favour to him. No, maybe she’d done it to protect the servant and his kids, but she’d still done it with little debate. She was strong. Damn strong.
Obviously, the Vatican would send someone strong to help capture the Wanted Man, but this strong? Not just for a favour. Joshua reckoned they might have their own agenda. Ever since they’d purged their ranks of Omnis worshippers, it was clear this new Pope had plans for America. And those plans might easily involve the Wanted Man, converting or using him.
Suspicion found fertile soil in Joshua’s imagination. This Sister had gone from a hindrance to an enemy of the Solution. Of Mister Naismith.
“I’ll check things in here,” Joshua said. “We’ve got some important artefacts which might’ve taken a beating from that fine spell of yours. Give me a knock when Reeves arrives, will you?”
“Thanks.” Joshua replied, plastering on a smile.
The Sister knelt to pray. No one was listening, of course.
The coach’s compartment was just a box. Much like ones travelling quacks sell their wares from, one with no home comforts that opened at the back. Mostly it held food, water, bullets, and weapons. Joshua’s personal effects were in there as well. Some of which might’nt’ve survived whatever magic the Sister played with.
Ducking by a barrel of water, he collected his pack from behind some tins of food. Within was the special map and the vial. Neither was spoiled or damaged. He also checked the Solution communication sphere and found it in good order.
Just after he’d put the artefacts back, Joshua fair on shit himself as Reeves jumped into the carriage.
“Mister McManaman, you in here?”
Joshua quickly stood. “Yup. I was just checking on our supplies. You know what servants can be like: they sometimes think you won’t miss one or two cans.”
Reeves was careful to keep his expression neutral. “Anything missing?”
“That’s good. You ready to mosey out, then?”
Joshua nodded. The Marshall stepped aside so Joshua could climb out of the carriage.
Sister Irujo was around the front, brushing the horses down. She wouldn’t look Joshua in the eye. Oh yes, she was a definite enemy for this trip.