FREE FALL INTO A VOID with no visible bottom was absolutely petrifying. Anna’s stomach abandoned her, recklessly jumping ship. Her mind blurred; the only thought that remained clear was that she did not want to die here.
She was still screaming when she hit black water.
The impact was almost as much of a shock as the cold that enveloped her. The force with which she smacked the water drove all the air from her lungs. She plunged deep beneath the surface with a gigantic splash, driven down by sheer momentum. Her feet did not touch bottom.
Panic and a desperate, blazing need for oxygen brought Anna back to herself. Frantically, she began kicking her feet for all she was worth, trying to drive herself back up to the surface. Her lungs burned; it was all she could do to keep herself from opening her mouth and dragging in a deadly draught of water. Bright spots danced before her eyes.
Just when she thought she was done for, Anna broke through the water to clear air. She sucked in a gasping breath and promptly choked on the water she’d inhaled along with it. Coughing, she nearly went under again, but managed to keep her head above water at the last second. It was difficult; her arms being tied behind her back shifted her weight and made it difficult to keep herself afloat in such a fashion that she could still breathe. Her boots made her feet felt like they had been encased in lead blocks.
These ropes have got to go, she thought frantically, writhing her hands behind her back. One hand came free of the ropes and she went under again while she ripped her other hand free of the knotted mass. She popped back up again to breathe, cough, and resume treading water, but she did not let go of the rope.
Not yet. Not until I know I don’t need it.
Old habit, that. When you lived on the fringes of society the way she, her brother, and their crew did, you tended to hang onto things for a while in case they might prove useful.
The water and the cavern walls magnified her harsh breathing and every cough; aside from a ripple or two, it was all she could hear. The water was cold, but probably not cold enough to prove dangerous. At least, she didn’t think so. Hysteria bubbled up in her chest, but she shoved it down and took herself firmly in hand.
Stay calm. You’re alive. That means you can get out of this.
Whatever this was, exactly.
Anna still couldn’t see anything. She blinked a number of times, even tried bringing a hand out of the water long enough to wave it in front of her eyes, but still…nothing. Lobai’s minion had disappeared with the lantern, leaving her alone in the blackest black she’d ever experienced. And considering the Iliana had once lost power—including the backup emergency life-support system—in deep space, that was saying something.
“I must say, lass, that scream could have woken the dead,” drawled a deep, accented voice from the darkness somewhere behind her.
Anna jolted in fright, inadvertently splashing and nearly dropping her rope, and turned instinctively toward the male voice. Fighting hard to keep her voice from quavering, she called out, “Who’s there?”
“Got on old Lobai’s bad side too, did you?” the voice asked conversationally. “He’s remarkably short-tempered.”
“Who are you?” Fear and annoyance made Anna clench her teeth. “Where are you?”
“There’s a bit of land over here. Found it after a great deal of pointless swimming around, I might add. As for who I am … ” the man sighed, rather theatrically. “You may call me Colin.”
“Are you going to tell me your name?”
Anna arched an eyebrow through the dark in his direction. “Don’t know yet.”
“I see. Well, are you going to tread water all day?”
“I told you, there’s a bit of land over here. Swim toward my voice—you can swim, I hope?—and you’ll find it.”
“Swim toward you?” Anna felt like she was lagging a step behind. “Why would I do that?”
“If you’d prefer to drown, you’re welcome to do it. I must say, though, I don’t fancy having to listen.”
Blinking again, though this time from sheer confusion, Anna considered her options. I can stay out here until I’m so exhausted that I drown myself, I can swim around trying to find a way out, or I can take him up on the dry land thing and go from there.
She stayed where she was.
“Why did Lobai throw you down here, Colin?”
He did not reply for a moment. When he did, his voice was deceptively light. “Let’s just say it was a business deal gone wrong and leave it at that.”
“Look,” he said, after another awkward pause, “if it makes you feel any better, my hands are tied behind my back.”
That startled Anna; she instinctively flexed her own fingers in the cold water. “You couldn’t get free?”
“No,” he said shortly. “In fact, I almost drowned after his thugs dropped me in the drink. Blasted double-crosser.”
Anna bit her lip, thinking furiously. “Okay,” she said at last. “I’m coming toward you. But I warn you—my hands are free.” The threat was implicit.
“I’ll not lay a finger on you, lass, unless you wish me to.”
Anna could hear the smile in his voice and it made her bristle. “I don’t think you’ll need to worry about that.”
Colin actually had the gall to chuckle. “If you say so, darling.”
Reluctantly, Anna struck out toward the sound of his voice. Her leather jacket made her movements more cumbersome, but she was not about to shuck it off.
“Keep going,” Colin called out. “You’re getting closer.”
It was very disconcerting to swim toward something she couldn’t see. Anna’s strokes gradually became shorter; without knowing what this ‘bit of land’ looked like, she was afraid of smacking into it and hurting herself.
Colin’s voice grew closer with every stroke as well—and she wasn’t sure about that either.
“You can take him,” she muttered to herself.
“What was that, lass?” He sounded amused.
With her next stroke, Anna smacked her arm onto something solid instead of black water. She winced, but was too grateful to have found solid ground to worry about the pain shooting up her arm. Looping the rope over one arm, she latched onto what felt like a rocky ledge jutting out into the water with both hands.
“I said — ” she hauled herself up out of the water and sprawled on the rock for a few seconds to catch her breath, “ — how long have you been down here?”
“What time is it?”
“In the evening?”
“Oh, well, then I haven’t been down here more than a few hours. I met Lobai at three.”
A few hours? Anna gaped in his direction. “And you couldn’t get free in all that time?”
“As I said, his minions were rather…thorough.” She heard the grimace in his voice. “I believe they’ve cut the circulation off to my hands.”
“Ouch.” Anna made a face. I guess Lobai was serious when he said he didn’t want Viktor as his mortal enemy. There’s no other explanation, other than sheer incompetence.
“I don’t suppose you could — ”
“I’m not untying you,” Anna interrupted flatly. “Not yet.”
Colin changed tacks without missing a beat, “ — tell me your name now?” He paused. “I mean, if we’re going to be bodiless voices in the dark, it’d be nice to at least put a name to yours.”
She caught her lower lip between her teeth. What could it hurt? “Anna,” she said shortly. “My name is Anna.”
The way her name rolled off his tongue absolutely did not send shivers down her spine.
Scowling, Anna dropped the rope on the ledge beside her and pulled off her boots one at a time. She dumped out the excess water and shoved her feet back into them. The last thing I want to do is lose something in this pitch black. “Ugh. I hate wet boots.”
“That makes two of us, darling.”
“Stop calling me that,” she said, without looking in his direction. It was difficult to gauge his precise location with the way sound bounced around in here, but she thought she was probably within two meters of him on the ledge.
“Force of habit.”
Next, Anna stripped off her leather jacket, shook it to relieve it of as much water as she could, and proceeded to wring out her shirt and vest. Her pants she was forced to give up as a lost cause; the only way she’d get anything out of them was if she took them off—and that was definitely not happening.
A terrible thought stilled her fingers. What if Lobai threw me down here with this guy so he wouldn’t technically be responsible for something happening to me? Given what she knew of Lobai’s thought process, it made a disturbing amount of sense.
“You’ve gone awfully quiet over there, lass.”
Anna pressed her lips into a thin line and glared through the darkness at his invisible form. I wouldn’t put that past Lobai at all.
“What are you thinking?” An edge slid into Colin’s otherwise jovial tone, as though he was deeply suspicious of the gears turning in her mind.
“I’m thinking Lobai wouldn’t personally harm me because he’s afraid of my brother, but he’d be perfectly fine with arranging for a stranger to take care of things,” she said boldly.
Colin made an exasperated sound in the back of his throat. “I told you, lass, I’ll not lay so much as a finger on you unless you want me to. My mother raised me a gentleman.”
“Oh, really. A gentleman, what? Thief? Pirate?”
“Businessman,” he said curtly. “I run a small shipping company.”
“I hope you mean that figuratively, lass.” Colin paused. “Although…if you could see in the dark, that would come in particularly handy just now.”
Anna rolled her eyes, scraping her bedraggled braid off the back of her neck and wringing it out. Water splashed down into the black lake. “You’re ridiculous.”
“I’m also in pain. My arms are throbbing, and have I mentioned I can’t feel my fingers?” Though his tone remained conversational, irritation threaded through it.
Anna considered her options. If he’s telling the truth, he could be useful in getting out of here. “Say I untie you — ”
“I’d kiss you for that.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Anna cleared her throat and began again. “Say I untie you. Will you swear to help me get out of here? I have to get back to the — ” she broke off before she gave away their ship’s name and continued, “I have to get back and tell my brother Lobai double-crossed us.”
“Won’t he figure that out pretty quickly?”
“Depends,” Anna said darkly. “At least one of our crew is involved.”
“Ah. That does pose a bit of a problem, doesn’t it?”
Anna ignored this. “What do you say?”
“I swear it. On my honor.”
“All right then. I’ll untie you.”
Picking up the rope, Anna looped it around her waist before rising to a crouch. The ledge was too rough on her knees for her to try crawling, even though the complete darkness surrounding them was affecting her balance. She winced; her boots made a horrible squelching sound with every step. “Talk to me.”
“You have a lovely voice.”
Her cheeks pinked, even as she rolled her eyes. Should have seen that coming. “Will your crew be missing you?”
“I should hope so. I left them strict orders, but it’s unlikely that they will find me here.”
“Let me guess. You met Lobai elsewhere?” Blindly stretching her hands out, Anna began patting insubstantial air and expecting to find a solid body.
His voice was almost in her ear. Frowning, she shifted toward him and her left arm whacked into something solid.
“ … I believe you’ve found me, lass.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Anna retracted her arm enough for her hand to find a shoulder covered in damp leather jacket and trailed her fingers down a muscled arm to his hands.
Her questing fingertips encountered cold, still-damp coils of rope, and she winced in sympathy. Lobai’s henchmen had tied Colin’s bonds so tight they were biting deep into his wrists. She felt around the ropes, searching for knots, and was not entirely surprised to find something that felt suspiciously like tacky dried blood on his skin. His hands themselves felt stiff and cold.
“He really didn’t want you going anywhere, did he?”
“So it would seem.”
Anna set to work on undoing the knots, but the process was made difficult by the fact she could not actually see what her fingers were doing. Just pretend you’ve got your eyes shut, she scolded herself. You can feel them just fine—don’t overthink this.
Kneeling this close to Colin, with the damp chill of the lake cavern surrounding them, Anna could feel the warmth radiating off his body. It wasn’t much—not after he’d spent over four hours down here, but he was considerably warmer and drier than she herself at the moment.
“So.” Colin cleared his throat. “First double-cross?”
Anna snorted. “Not by a long shot.” There had been others, over the years. This one just hurts more.
“Ah,” he said wisely. “But not like this.”
Anna prided herself on being able to take things in stride; her fingers did not even falter. “What do you mean?”
His clothes rustled; he was probably turning his head to peer sightlessly in her direction. “You know what I mean, lass.”
“Actually, I don’t.” She didn’t like the tone in his voice.
“I see. Well, it goes something like this.” He paused dramatically. “You, I’ll wager, knew there was a chance Lobai might attempt to double-cross you—he’s not exactly known for his loyalty in the face of a bigger threat—and prepared accordingly.”
Anna narrowed her eyes, but kept her mouth stubbornly shut.
“Obviously, those plans failed, which means that he paid off your partner. Am I right?”
He was, but Anna couldn’t bring herself to admit it. “What makes you think I had a partner?”
“Oh, please.” Colin chuckled; it was more pleasant a sound than she’d expected. “You have a brother, and Lobai clearly meant you no great harm. You had a partner. And,” he added, only a slight strain in his voice as she yanked on a particularly stubborn knot, “you weren’t suspecting him or her to sell you out.”
Talking to Colin and working on freeing him had helped Anna shove Berenger’s betrayal aside a few minutes, but now a mix of anger, hurt, and utter bewilderment came flooding back. She had to stop and retreat for a second to keep from hurting Colin—and not caring.
Perhaps sensing this, Colin refrained from commenting.
When she had her breathing and the tears that had stung her eyes under control, Anna resumed her work on his bonds. “Didn’t see it coming,” she said grudgingly. At all.
“He got you good.” A beat. “Was a ‘he’, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.” Anna left it at that.
“Such a gentleman.”
Anna frowned at the back of his head through the darkness, but then her fingers finally gained purchase and the ropes loosened. “Ha. Got it!” She quickly freed him. “There you go.”
“Thank you, lass,” Colin said with feeling.
Galaxy’s Way is © 2016 by E.R. Paskey