After take-off, Soviet cosmonaut Akilina “Leena” Chirikov finds herself thrown into another dimension, a world of strange science and ancient mystery. There she meets another time-lost person from Earth, Lieutenant Hieronymus Bonaventure of the Royal Navy—who left home to fight the forces of Napoleon and never returned—and Balam, outlaw prince of the jaguar men. They agree to help Chirikov find a way home.
But Hieronymus Bonaventure's own story began earlier, in the novel Set the Seas on Fire (out now from Solaris books), a Napoleonic-era naval adventure (with zombies!). Now, I'm thrilled to be presenting "Ill Met in Elvera," an an original short-story, debuting here for the first time anywhere, which bridges the gap between Set the Seas on Fire and Paragaea: A Planetary Romance, and explains how Hieronymus Bonaventure and Balam met for the first time.
"Ill Met in Elvera"
Hieronymus Bonaventure, always slow to anger, was still mourning the spilled lager when the jaguar man overturned the table. The loss of the drink, his third of the evening, put him in a philosophical mood, and he ruminated briefly about mortality and the vagaries of fate. Then he was struck from behind by a traveling merchant’s errant blow, unseated and knocked arse over kettle, and by the time he was back on his feet, his thoughts had turned towards violence.
At what point the boisterous free house had degenerated into an all-out melee, Hieronymus couldn’t say, but it must have been sometime after his third round was served. Service, clearly, had been interrupted. The wait staff were nowhere to be seen, having wisely retreated behind the heavily barred doors behind the counter. Unable to replace his lost lager even if he wanted, there was nothing for it but to mete out justice.
In the aftermath, no one was certain who has started the ruckus, though in its course it swelled to embroil all of the free house’s patrons. The habitués, naturally, blamed traveling merchants and other outsiders, pointing fingers at any number of nameless strangers who, when questioned, invariably claimed to be blameless, having stopped in for a brief jar of the fabled Elveran spirits before continuing on their way. Elveran locals who were caught up in the brawl, but who did not frequent the free house, insisted that the city fathers should tighten restrictions on all unaffiliated drinking establishments, pointing to the eruption of violence as evidence of innate corruption. That some of these Elverans represented different distilleries, all of whom had unsuccessfully lobbied the free house to join their patrons’ families of public houses, did not escape notice.
Such consideration as cause or fault, however, were immaterial to Hieronymus as he plunged into the fray. He knew only that his evening solace, the brief span between his day’s labors and slumber, had been interrupted, and that someone must be held to account.
There were, by this point, only a handful of targets for his ire. The room was littered with the insensate forms of patrons who had already fallen, and the combatants still standing had the courtesy, at least, to step gingerly as they trod upon their outstretched, bruised limbs. In the midst of the open space before the counter, a towering black-furred jaguar man faced off against a Themanite trader, while a short distance away a Canid with the emblem of an Azurian courier on his lapel bared his fangs at an Elveran man dressed in a suit of fine blue linen. The Elveran, lids drooping and weaving unsteadily on his feet, brandished a broken table leg like a club, laying about him on all sides. The Canid, no less unsteady on his clawed feet, ducked when he should have weaved, and caught a clot from the table leg across his snout, falling to the ground with a whimper.
Hieronymus blinked, his vision blurred, beginning to suspect that the lost lager had not been his third, but some higher iteration. He turned his attention to the jaguar man, who had so recently turned his table end over end. He advanced, while the jaguar man made short work of the Themanite, whose heart clearly wasn’t in it. Hieronymus didn’t consider for an instant drawing his saber from its sheath; this was a matter to be dealt with by hand.
Before Hieronymus had closed with the jaguar man, the situation took a turn. The Elveran continued to swing his cudgel back and forth with force, having failed to notice that his opponent lay whimpering on the floorboards, until his orbit brought him in contact with the jaguar man, who leant heavily against the counter, winded from his exertions. The Elveran’s blow against the back of the jaguar man’s head must certainly have carry little more force than a love tap, but it was sufficient at least to annoy, and the jaguar rounded on the Elveran with fangs bared and claws out. Hieronymus, weaving across the floor, watched as the jaguar man swatted at the Elveran as a house cat would at a chew toy, buffeting him up and over the counter, where he crashed indecorously into the mirrored wall.
The jaguar man, rubbing ruefully at the back of his skull, turned around just as Hieronymus reached him. He smiled down at Hieronymus, wavering unsteadily on his feet.
“And what can I do for you, friend?”
Hieronymus almost fell as he cocked back his fist, so unbalanced was he, but through sheer force of will was able to connect with the jaguar man’s jaw without losing his footing. The jaguar man, already much abused, moaned as, eyelids fluttering, he collapsed in a heap at Hieronymus’s feet.
“Nobody move!” came a shout from the door.
Hieronymus turned, as the Elveran constabulary streamed into the room through the open door.
“Wha-?” he managed.
“Don’t worry about that one,” the chief constable said, pointing towards Hieronymus, who wore the maroon livery of an Elveran gaoler. “He’s one of ours.”
As the constables took the combatants into custody, Hieronymus staggered to the door, avoiding eye contact with anyone, and debating whether to stop for another drink on the way to his lodgings.
It had been only a few months since Hieronymus Bonaventure traveled west. After the events in Masjid Empor, and the death of Greenslade and the calif’s daughter, he’d lost his taste for larceny. In the city of Elvera, he’d found work as a guard in the city gaol, watching over prisoners intended for the arena, and besides a few coins each day, he felt that he was earning some small degree of penance. The excessive drink he purchased with his meager income he liked to see as a salve to his guilt, though he knew he drank only to crowd out the memories of that night in the calif’s palace.
He’d adapted to the Elveran lifestyle easily enough. In many ways the culture was the most like that of George III’s England of any of those he’d traveled through since first arriving in the strange world of Paragaea years before. That the natives spoke one of the three Paragaean languages Hieronymus knew made the city all that more attractive. There had been in ancient times a dialect specific to Elvera, but centuries before it had been supplanted by Sakrian, the common language of the plains, and now Elveran survived primarily as an accent—principally a lengthening of vowel sounds and a tendency to bite off fricatives—and a handful of loan words, nearly all of them vulgar in nature, the antique tongue spoken aloud only in religious observances, and even then only by a small class of clerics.
Elvera sat at the boundary between the western woodlands and the Sakrian plains, where the River Gihon bifurcated, the main branch continuing to the south while a tributary snaked off into the west, marking the division between the forests of Altrusia in the north and the Western Jungles to the south. The city had been a hub of trade since the days of the Metamankind Empires, a crossroads between the cultures of the plains and of the jungles. With the rise of the Sakrian city-states, Elvera’s star began to wane, but while it was no longer the economic force it once had been, eclipsed by younger cities such as Laxaria, Lisbia, and Hausr, it still retained much of its former influence. If worse came to worst, and the culture’s only revenue stemmed from the export of Elveran spirits, always in high demand all across the Paragaean continent, their income still would be considerable.
If Hieronymus had a reservation about living in the city, and working in the gaol, it was that in Elvera, justice was severe.
The next morning, Hieronymus reported to work at the gaol, bleary eyed, to find the jaguar man occupying one of his cells. Still dressed only in a green loincloth and a leather harness, he lounged against the rear wall of the cell, knees drawn up and arms folded lightly.
“You look worse than I feel, jailer,” the jaguar man said, chuckling. “And I hadn’t thought that possible.”
Hieronymus straightened his maroon vest, conscious of the ache pounding at both temples. “It was… a difficult night.”
“You look familiar, my friend,” the jaguar man said, narrowing his amber eyes. “What is your name?”
“Hieronymus Bonaventure,” he answered, nearing the bars. “I was drinking at the free house this last evening.”
“Ah,” the jaguar man said. “He-, Heron--. Hero. A difficult name.” He paused, and then with genuine concern asked, “And did I hurt you?”
Hieronymus smiled, and shook his head. “You only spilled my last lager of the day.”
“Oh, my, no!” The jaguar man laughed, a rumbling noise deep in his chest, like distant thunder. “Then I have most seriously wounded you, indeed.”
The jaguar man climbed to his feet, straightened, and inclined his head. “I am Balam, former prince of the Sinaa.”
“Hieronymus Bonaventure. But why would a Sinaa prince be drinking in an Elveran free house?”
A cloud seemed to pass over the jaguar man’s features, but it lasted but a moment, and then he forced a thin smile. “I am in exile, which accounts both for my desire for drink, as well as my choice of locale.” He clapped his large hands together, and gave a short nod. “Friend, you must allow me to make amends. When I have gained my freedom, please allow me to purchase a round as recompense.”
“I’ll not refuse a courtesy,” Hieronymus answered, smiling. “Most of those convicted of drunken disorderliness are back on the streets after a single bout. What was your sentence?”
The jaguar man named Balam shrugged. “I’m afraid the intricacies of Elveran justice are beyond me. All I know is that I was brought before a magistrate in the early morning hours, and at the urging of some Elveran fop and his solicitor I was convicted and sentenced to eight bouts, and something about unarmed and unarmored. Can you translate that into plain Sakrian for me?”
Hieronymus’s face fell, and his mouth hung open.
“I… I may not have the opportunity to refuse your courtesy, after all, Balam.”
Elveran law was severe. All crimes were met with the same punishment: the arena. Depending on the severity of the offense, however, the prisoner was given more or fewer advantages, and forced to stand varying numbers of bouts. The most heinous criminals were ushered into the arena completely unarmed and unarmored, while petty offenders were well fortified and armed. The combat was never required to be to the death, but the maximum sentence—ten consecutive bouts of combat unarmed and unprotected—was tantamount to ordering a slow execution.
The Elveran who’d appeared at Balam’s trial, the cudgel-wielding combatant whom the jaguar man had fallen, was apparently the scion of a wealthy family, and though he’d survived the melee with only bruises to his body and ego, he had inveigled his family to have their solicitor press for the maximum penalty for the outsider who had shamed him. In the end Balam had been sentenced to Unarmed, Unarmored, Eight Bouts. It was not a death sentence, but it missed the mark only by inches.
On the next arena day, Hieronymus and the other gaolers marched the prisoners to the enclosure behind the gaol, and herded them into pens. Elveran gladiatorial combat was not fought in a grand Spectaclum as thrilled the plebes in Laxaria. Here, combat was a meaner thing, the only spectators the gaolers, the other prisoners, and those Elverans with nothing better to do and an innate hunger to see blood spilled.
Hieronymus stood guard at the pens, while the prisoners were ushered out in turn when their names were called. Balam lingered nearby, leaning casually against the fence, wearing a casual expression that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“No chance for a reprieve, then, friend Hero?”
Hieronymus had given up trying to teach the jaguar man to pronounce his name correctly. He shook his head, sadly, his mouth drawn into a tight line. “I’m afraid not, Balam. Not only have I never seen a pardon granted, I’m not sure if the Elveran justice system even allows for such a thing.”
“Ah, well.” Balam shrugged. Then, with forced bravado, he added, “I was trained in the arts of defense by the royal warmasters of the Sinaa, so these coddled Elverans should prove no special challenge.”
Hieronymus smiled weakly, and turned away. He didn’t turn back until Balam’s name and sentence was called, and then found that he couldn’t bring himself to meet the jaguar man’s eyes.
Balam’s first bout was with an Elveran man convicted of murdering one of the principals of the Seven Brothers Consolidated Shipping Concern. Both opponents were unarmed and unarmored, though the murderer was on the third of ten bouts, his hands and arms already covered by freely bleeding cuts and nicks. The jaguar man did not extend his claws, but boxed the Elveran with his knuckles, human-style, displaying an honor and courtesy his opponent would not for an instant have considered extending, had their situations been reversed.
After the murderer was laid out on the sandy ground by Balam’s third roundhouse punch, a pair of gaolers dragged the fallen prisoner from the ring, while others kept Balam motionless with the tips of their pikes. The jaguar man was not given an opportunity to rest, as the next prisoner was immediately escorted from the pens to the ring.
Balams’s next opponent was a barrel-chested, thick-nosed Kobolt, convicted of rustling infant indriks from the stables at the city’s edge. His sentence was Light Arms, Unarmored, Five Bouts, of which this was the first.
The opponents closed, the Kobolt raising a short sword, the jaguar man with his talons extended, fangs bared. Balam danced away from the sword’s arc, its point missing his knees only by inches, and reposted with a vicious swipe of his claws across the Kobolt’s upper arm and shoulder, raking through skin and muscle. The Kobolt howled in pain, but kept his grip on the sword with his other hand, and spinning around swung for Balam’s head. The jaguar man reared back, but not fast enough, as the sword’s point bit through his ear, taking a hunk of skin and fur with it.
Balam snarled, black lips curled back over teeth like sabers. “Ah,” he said, his voice strained but even. “That hurt.”
The Kobolt chuckled, but his laughter died in his throat as the jaguar man exploded towards him, a blinding rush of motion, and tackled him to the ground. His sword sent skittering across the sands, the Kobolt was pinned beneath the jaguar man’s weight, unable to move, unable even to breathe.
Balam extended a claw, and brought it inching slowly towards the Kobolt’s dangling earlobe. He smiled, viciously. “My turn.”
Balam was still standing after his sixth bout, still undefeated, but the combat was taking its toll. In addition to the chunk cut from his ear, now blood streamed freely from a cut above one of his amber eyes, his other nearly swollen shut, and he kept his left elbow tucked close to his body after a hammer’s strike in the fourth bout. A constant parade of well-muscled misdemeanor offenders, whether proficient with their weapons or not, was proving too much even for a student of the Sinaa warmasters.
Balam retreated a distance, waiting for the seventh bout to begin, while the gaolers moved the insensate body of his last opponent from the ring. It fell to Hieronymus to retrieve the pair of knives Balam had taken from his opponent during the bout, while two other gaolers menaced the jaguar man with their pikes.
Hieronymus’s hand hovered near the hilt of his sheathed saber, and he moved slowly towards the jaguar man, whose broad chest rose and fell with ragged breaths.
“Not… a bad… showing, eh, Hero?” Balam said with a wan smile, his voice wavering. He held a knife in either hand, point downwards, and swayed uneasily on his feet, his head repeatedly dipping forward, only to jerk back up again, like someone trying desperately not to fall asleep.
The head gaoler called out the next opponent’s name. An Elveran, she was convicted of disobeying traffic regulations, and had been sentenced to One Bout, Heavy Arms, Heavy Armor. Hieronymus looked over as the woman was escorted from the pens. Young, muscled, and healthy, she swung a mace with the practiced deftness of a repeat misdemeanor offender, a short-hafted spear in her other hand, the plates of her armor glinting dully in the afternoon sun.
Hieronymus turned back to the jaguar man, who was already inches away from collapse. A mace’s blow or a spear-thrust would be all it would take to end the bout. But could the jaguar man survive another wound?
“This will not do,” Hieronymus said, firmly.
Taking two long strides forward, Hieronymus turned and stood at the jaguar man’s side.
“Balam, are you still interested in that reprieve?” Hieronymus drew his saber with a whisper of steel on steel, and raised its point to his fellow gaolers.
The jaguar man blinked, confused, and looked from the pike-wielders to Hieronymus and back.
“Ah!” Balam finally said, understandingly slowly dawning. “I believe… I may owe you two drinks… when this is all said and done.”
“If we live that long,” Hieronymus said with a smile.
Balam raised his knives, as the pike-wielders shouted for Hieronymus to resume his post. “Do you have a plan, friend Hero?”
Hieronymus shrugged. “Just this. Run!”
Without another word, Balam and Hieronymus broke and ran towards the exit, leaving the pike-wielding gaolers shouting calls of alarm, bustling after them.
The gaolers, joined now by the Elveran constabulary, were close on their heels when the pair reached the Hegemon’s Span, the wide bridge over the western tributary of the River Gihon. The water, silty and gray, rushed at white-crested speeds beneath the arch, snaking into the wooded wilds to the west of the city.
“We’ll never be able to outrun them,” Balam said, pausing for a brief instant to catch his breath, his hands on his knees.
“Can you swim?” Hieronymus said, peering over the bridge’s railing.
“What?” The jaguar man followed his glance, and flinched back, eyes wide. “Oh, no, I couldn’t…”
Their pursuers reached the foot of the bridge, while their shouts and whistles had drawn constables from the other bank, who now approached from the opposite side.
“Do you see an alternative?” Hieronymus said, sheathing his saber and climbing onto the railing.
Balam snarled, barring his fangs. “I only had another four bouts to go, you know. The warmasters would be ashamed.”
Hieronymus gave an abbreviated salute to their rapidly approaching pursuers, then dove off the bridge, plunging into the swift-moving waters below.
The jaguar man let loose a wordless howl, and lurched over the railing, flailing madly with arms and legs. The splash of his impact in the cold water dotted the bridge with spray.
Hours later, under cover of darkness, the two fugitives clambered ashore in the forest depths, sputtering and tired. They rose unsteadily to their feet, and made their way into the moonlit woods.
“I said that I owed you two drinks,” the jaguar man said, his fur wet and matted.
“Yes?” Hieronymus’s teeth chattered with the cold, and he hugged his arms to his chest.
“Consider them well paid in river water.”
“Balam, my friend,” Hieronymus said, putting a damp hand on the jaguar man’s sodden shoulder, “I don’t think I’ll ever be thirsty again.”
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The adventure continues in Paragaea: A Planetary Romance.
To read the first five chapters, click here.