This is one section of a serialized novel presented by Black Gate magazine. It is offered at no cost and appears with the permission of Mark Rigney, and may not be reproduced in whole or in part. All rights reserved. Copyright 2015 by Mark Rigney.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or current events is purely coincidental.
This is Chapter Eleven. To read Chapter Ten, click HERE.
Only one street over from Lelanarshik’s official residence, a sprawling, multi-layered affair that had always reminded Maer of a colorful set of ill-made, jumbled-up traveling bags, they nearly ran headlong into a troop of six Sindarin guards jogging two abreast and headed, like themselves, directly toward Lelanarshik’s. At the last possible moment, Cullen backed out of view and pushed both Maer and Doss around the corner and into an adjacent alley while the guards, clanking in their breastplates, hurried past.
“Those helmets,” Maer whispered to Doss, as soon as she thought it was safe. “They’re like the ones on the men we saw this morning, the ones who were headed out.”
Doss frowned in agreement. “So it looks like they forgot something.”
“And now they’re coming back for it.”
“I’ll bet you Cullen’s best boots that we know what they’re after.”
Maer had to agree. The troop of Sindarin had come back for Bethanian. Was there anything more valuable in Lelanarshik’s purview? She doubted it.
Cullen had guessed this, too. “Are they after the same bird we’re after?”
The captain nodded. “Seems likely.”
“Six of them,” Cullen said. “More inside.”
Even in the darkness, Maer could see Doss’s feigned dismay. “We’ll have to give up, then,” he said. “Shamble home, tails between our legs.”
Refusing to dignify Doss’s performance with any sort of acknowledgment, Cullen abandoned the shelter of the alley and motioned for the other two to follow. “Come on,” he said. “Pick up your heels.”
The night had grown darker as clouds had moved in, and Cullen led them through darker places still, keeping always to the edges of things, to the thickest, inkiest shadows. Their boots seemed far too loud on the cobbles, and refused all attempts at silence, no matter how they placed their feet. Even so, the houses around them remained dark, just as they had throughout their crossing of the Sindarin Compound, and now, as they turned a final corner, it seemed that no one was going to notice them at all, not even the last of the six helmeted guards, who was just then disappearing through the gates that led to Lelanarshik’s residence. Maer and Doss had been through that same gate many times, and Cullen, too, when he visited from the docks, and they knew there’d be a guard stationed by it, in a recessed, sheltered hut on the inside. The stone wall into which the gate was set would not be impossible to scale, but they had no ropes with them, nor any other useful equipment. The gate would have to do.
“Must be nice,” mused Doss, “to live like a king when everybody around you is as poor as hen’s teeth.”
“The Lord Of the Foundering Reefs,” said Maer, agreeing, “made sure he got the biggest house.”
None of the three had spent much time in the above-ground portions of the main house, not in any of its various wings, apartments, or towers. Their quarters had been in the basement, adjacent to the tunnels by which Lelanarshik had first brought them into the Compound. “For your own security,” as he’d explained. “You have bargained for your freedom of movement, and I am a man of my word, but within my own home? You must permit me to place you where I deem you safest.”
While Maer was not as positive as Doss that Bethanian was being warehoused somewhere in the building, she had to agree that it seemed logical––all the more so now that it looked as if an escort had arrived. If Lelanarshik had made use of the day’s many disasters to establish a new base of operations, then he’d surely wish to bring Bethanian along, to keep her close. Bethanian and, she realized, herself. Wasn’t she also an asset, at least in his mind? Perhaps the escort they were following was not for Bethanian alone.
Doss pointed to the highest and largest of Lelanarshik’s three dilapidated towers, none of them straight. Lights showed in the windows, a gentle glow of candles and oil lamps. “That’ll be her,” he said. “Working late as usual.”
Maer grimaced. “You have no idea what her work habits are. You’ve only met her once.”
“Oh, but I can guess. A woman who’s making the grandmother’s best spyglass? I’m thinking she keeps late hours.”
“Is that a fact.”
“Maer. How else can she test her work?”
A fair point, though one she had no wish to concede. Given the task Bethanian was set upon, it might make sense to work by night and sleep by day.
Under his breath, Doss began to sing.
“The dairy-folk rise at dawn
For that’s when cows are lowing
But never plough at noon
Unless it’s sweat you’re sowing.”
“Now?” Cullen grumbled. “You have to sing, right now, of all times?”
“What? It’s a fine song. Used to sing it to Marlie half the damn day, all nine verses. She couldn’t get enough of it. And you have to admit: very educational.”
Unmused and unappeased, Cullen said, “Do I remind you of a child in any way?”
Doss studied his second mate with a critical, sardonic eye. “No,” he said at last, “I’d have to say you don’t.”
“Then let’s go,” said Cullen. “Time to say hello.”
Doss pulled him back. “Why not just wait where we are? Set up an ambush right here on the streets?”
Cullen, looking mulish, shook his head. “They outnumber us, remember? So we need tight spaces to even the odds. Besides, if we fight out here, who knows how many of their friends we start waking up. Trust me. We’re going in.”
“But the gatekeeper…”
“Knows us, remember? Stop fretting.”
It was either follow Cullen or stay put, and after exchanging a mutual look of dismay, Maer and Doss set off in the second mate’s wake. Cullen walked straight to the gate, turned under its pointed arch, and didn’t even pause in his stride as he gave the guard a nod, and kept walking. Maer, more nervous, couldn’t help offering more. “Hi,” she said to the implacable guard, a man she did indeed recognize, though barely. He had watery eyes, a scar on his high forehead, and, in his hand, a six-foot cudgel, polished black. “Long day,” Maer went on, knowing she should stop but unable to help herself. “Time for some sleep, right?”
The guard raised his eyebrows, as if she were some sort of house pet and he’d never before realized she was capable of speech, but before she could say more, Doss have her a shove from behind. She moved past, following Cullen toward the front door, and did her best to ignore Doss as he hissed at her like an old goose, demanding to know what she thought she was doing.
“I was trying to make conversation! Does it hurt to be friendly?”
Cullen waved them both to silence. He’d already swung the door wide, and from inside, they detected pungent incense and the smells of cooking, a rich aroma of spices and oil. “Doss, you know the layout better. Which way?”
The hallways ahead kinked and twisted; like so many of the Compound’s buildings, nothing seemed either straight or level, and no one wall was set at right angles to anything else. Maer found the whole building to be laughable (back at the Spur, she’d built lobster traps that showed a better flair for carpentry), but in the dark, headed to sections that she knew were out of bounds, it was also sinister. With Doss in the lead, they passed many openings, some covered with intricate strings of beads, others with elaborate, printed curtains. Doors were infrequent and closed. With every step, the front entrance grew farther away, and the number of potential enemies blocking their exit grew.
At last they found stairs. These led up in a modified spiral that squared itself off at irregular intervals, as if consistency was somehow too troubling to be bothered with. From somewhere high above, they caught the sound of raised voices, one––the loudest––female. Doss and Cullen locked eyes, agreeing without words that yes, that would be Bethanian.
When Cullen started up the stair, Doss checked him with a hand to his shoulder. “They’re armed, man, and you’ve got nothing.”
Cullen shrugged. “Tight spaces, remember?”
He pulled free of Doss and resumbed his climb, leaving Doss to turn on Maer. “You stay here,” he said. “Don’t move.”
“What, stay in this creepy hallway, all by myself? No, thanks.”
“I’m coming with you.”
Doss threw up his hands as Maer squeezed past him and darted up the stairs. “Worse than Kryssa. If you live out the night, I’ll be stunned.”
As she hurried up the steps, she could hear Cullen overhead, doing the same. She couldn’t see him––the spiral conspired to keep him out of view––but she could gauge his progress by the creak and groan of the treads overhead. If the Sindarin didn’t hear them coming, it would only be because of Bethanian, who was still dissenting at the top of her lungs. Maer could make out individual words now, the occasional phrase, and it sounded as if the old lens maker was refusing to budge for any reason, or to pack up her gear. So much the better, she thought. More confusion to add to the mix.
The stairs straightened out, turned right, then returned, for one final twist, to a spiral. Maer caught up to Cullen just as he reached the top landing and encountered a Sindarin guard. The guard, who’d had all his attention directed through the adjacent doorway where Bethanian was setting up a tremendous hue and cry, didn’t have time to do more than register Cullen’s presence before the second mate stepped in close and delivered a powerful knee to the man’s groin. The guard whooshed out a lungful of air and doubled over. With a single smooth motion, Cullen reached for the man’s scabbard, withdrew the short sword stored there, and used its pommel to conk the guard on the back of the head. The guard slumped over the edge of the steps and tumbled toward Maer, who had to plaster herself against the wall as he rolled past.
“Doss!” she cried. “Look out!”
In the same instant, she clapped her hand over her mouth. What had she done? One fierce, castigating look from Cullen was all she needed to know: she’d sounded the alarm.
Below her, Doss cried out as the Sindarin guard slammed into him and took out his legs. Above, Cullen whirled into the doorway as the first Sindarin rushed through. Their confluence happened so fast that Maer could barely register what happened, but somehow Cullen sidestepped and shoved his opponent in the back; in no time, the Sindarin was following his cohort down the stairs, and once again, Maer had to leap to avoid him.
This time, however, the Sindarin was actively trying to brake his fall. He reached out and grabbed at Maer’s ankle, and for a second he had her; she bumped to a sitting position and only dislodged him with a strong kick to his nose. With a cry and a snarl, the man rolled away, only to get a second kick, in passing, from Doss.
“Maer!” Doss called. “You all right?”
“Fine! Get up here!”
She was on her feet and racing toward Cullen. The grunting and groans of combat were all too audible from above, and she reached the landing and burst through the doorway before she thought to consider, even for a moment, what she would do once she joined the fight. Lucky for her, there was no fight at first to join, for the room was large (far larger than Cullen would have wanted, she was sure) and crammed with work benches and implements of all descriptions. It smelled of metal shavings and unwashed, moldering clothes.
At Maer’s feet, a lone Sindarin moaned and crawled, making for the exit. He had a sword wound in his leg and another in his arm. The remaining three had pinned Cullen in a distant corner, where they were pushing a heavy table, all covered with charts, toward him. In seconds, he would have to make a choice between jumping atop it or rolling underneath, and in either case, he’d be met with three Sindarin swords.
Maer jammed two fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle. Three Sindarin heads whipped around, as did Bethanian’s: she’d taken refuge behind a raised bed and mattress, half-hidden in the room’s most isolated alcove. She wore a headscarf the color of blue ocean surf, and she looked terrified.
“Hey there!” Maer called, to the Sindarin. “It’s me you want, not him!”
All at once, the wounded Sindarin at her feet uncoiled himself and dove for her legs. She tried to leap clear, but too late: he seized her in a below-the-knees bear-hug, and knocked her flat to the floor. She landed on her back, the breath knocked out of her, and as she tried to struggle, she had time––a painful, chest-collapsing flash––to think that this must be what hooked fish felt, when pulled from the water into air they couldn’t breathe.
The Sindarin who held her was speaking, but in his native tongue, and Maer couldn’t understand a word. The tone, though, that was clear: die, girl. You’re going to die.
She wouldn’t have cared to argue the point. She couldn’t draw enough breath to coordinate her arms, or to try to wrestle free, and the blood-smeared Sindarin was crawling closer, crawling along and atop her, and now he had a dagger clutched in one hand, and he was raising it to strike, to sink its tip in her heart. She gulped, closed her eyes, and then felt the man’s grip go slack. Surprised to be alive, she opened her eyes to find Doss standing over her, a stubby sword in his hand, a sword whose point dripped red droplets to the carpeted floor. She tried to whisper a thanks, but he was already gone. As Maer tried to rise to a sitting position, the sounds of battle erupted from the far side of the room. In Cullen’s defense, Doss had joined the fray.
Gingerly, still amazed and gratified to find that even a little air could be forced into her lungs, Maer rose to a crouch and set about searching for the dead Sindarin’s sword. She fumbled around his belt for a moment, and then through the loose folds of his tunic and doros before coming to the conclusion that he had none––or at least didn’t have one now. She cast around, wondering if perhaps he’d dropped it when he engaged Cullen, and sure enough, there it was, kicked under a nearby stool. She crawled toward it, wincing as she went, convinced that she’d never be able, ever, to draw a full enough breath, and promising herself, too, that in future, she’d remember to be grateful for every proper lungful of air, all day and forever.
As she at last got hold of the sword, the cries and crashes from the room’s far end receded into a pleasant nether distance, one she could afford to forget about, and she sat for a moment, the sword lifted like a prize before her, ready for inspection but certainly not ready for use. It was pretty in the way that all finished metal is pretty, but worn and pocked like an old coin. Nor was she quite sure what she should do with it. Cullen hadn’t taught her how to use it, or even how to grip it. The closest they’d come was one afternoon’s practice with a fish-knife.
“Maer! Where are you?”
The cry came from Doss, and she shook her head, feeling surprised to hear anyone calling her. The shaking made her aware that her head hurt, and when she reached behind to check, she felt an enormous swelling. She’d fallen harder than she’d thought, and hit her head; fallen, she supposed, when the Sindarin on the floor had tackled her.
In an instant, the fog cleared. She leaped to her feet, fought off a wave of dizziness, and responded to Doss. “Here!” she cried. “Where are you?”
She need not have asked. Doss was racing toward her, unarmed and wide-eyed, with two Sindarin at his heels. Without thinking, she spun as Doss passed and, aiming low, whirled her sword around. It caught the lead man below his breastplate and bit deeply into his hip; he roared in pain and wrenched sideways, dragging the blade from her hands as he stumbled into a workbench and clattered with it to the floor.
The second Sindarin, torn between continuing his pursuit of Doss or changing course and running down Maer, hesitated. His indecision proved costly, for Maer, terrified, snatched up the nearest object with any weight and heft, a fat glass disc, and hurled it at the Sindarin. Her aim was high, but the Sindarin, in trying to dodge, ducked the wrong direction and the disc, one of Bethanian’s half-finished lenses, struck him edge-first in his left eye. He keeled over with a groan so soft, it could have been a sigh.
As the Sindarin crumpled to the floor, Maer swayed on her feet, stunned by her own success. Had she really just dropped not one but two opponents? True, the man she’d cut with the sword was doing his best to rise, but blood was spurting from his upper leg, and he no longer looked to be in a fighting mood. Indeed, he swung toward her with frightened, panicked eyes.
“Bind me up,” he said, a pleading edge to his voice. “Help me!”
Maer started toward him, then remembered where she was, who he was. She glanced around, and spotted Doss by the door. He was checking the stairwell, as if expecting fresh company at any moment––perhaps the two that had tumbled down the stairs at the beginning of the fight?
“Where’s Cullen?” she asked, as the bleeding Sindarin tried to staunch the flow with his hands.
“Here,” came a tired mumble from the far side of the room, and as Doss pointed that same direction, Maer looked over to see Cullen struggling to his feet. So far as she could discern, he wasn’t bleeding, which reminded her to check her own head. A quick touch with her fingers told her she wasn’t bleeding, but that she’d have a whopper of a goose-egg come morning. Lucky, she decided. The Sindarin around her hadn’t fared nearly so well.
A movement past Cullen caught Maer’s eye, and she spotted Bethanian rising into view from behind her raised bed. Her long hair was in wild disarray, and the larger of her two eyes was orbiting in its socket as if it wanted to slide free and run.
“It’s over,” said Maer to the lens maker, trying to sound both helpful and self-assured. “You’re safe.”
Bethanian swallowed, then said, “They wanted to move me. All my equipment, my charts, everything.”
Nodding, Maer said. “Lelanarshik’s on the move. Or so we think.”
“I refused to go.”
“So we heard.”
An agonized groan from the bleeding Sindarin brought Maer up short, and she started toward him, peering at his wound. “Doss, we need some cloth, some sort of bandage.”
“Maer, he’s not our concern.”
She shot him a reproachful, frustrated look, and as he offered the very shrug she knew he’d give, she spotted a scarf hanging from a nearby peg. She grabbed up the scarf and approached the Sindarin, who was sitting upright on the floor with his chin on one upraised knee, a position that she supposed was helping keep the wound at his hip as closed as possible. As she came close, all but tip-toeing, she said, “You’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
He looked at her through muzzy, half-focused eyes. “Bind it tight,” he said. “Tight as you can.”
Again, books and long years of reading came to her aid, and she seized a wooden spoon from a nearby shelf and held it out to the Sindarin. “Bite down on this,” she said. “Hard.”
“Maer,” called Doss, from the top of the stairs, “we don’t have time for this!”
“Bite hard, now,” said Maer, ignoring Doss and crouching next to the injured man. “Here we go.”
She got the scarf around his leg, then wound it under and around and cinched it tight. The man let out a wail and keeled over backward; the spoon dropped from his mouth, and blood welled at his hip. By the time he hit the floor, he was unconscious.
Just as well, Maer thought. No need now to worry about biting down. She concentrated on winding her makeshift bandage as many times around as she could, but it was tricky: the wound was higher than the join of his leg, so she had to make the fabric wrap up and around his lower torso, and before she’d finished one rotation, her hands were slick with warm blood, making the whole job that much more difficult. But, in the end, she judged that she’d slowed if not stopped the flow. With luck––God’s, Fengreth’s, someone’s––she thought the man might live, and she hoped he would. The only person she wanted dead in all the Circle Seas was Mother Sand.
When she regained her feet, she found that Cullen had joined Doss at the door, and they were having a whispered conference. He stood with one arm wrapped across his chest, as if holding himself together. In the opposite direction, Bethanian was still behind her bed, eyeing her unwanted guests with tangible ferocity.
“Cullen?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
“Ribs,” he said, wincing. “That bastard kicked like a mule.”
“Can you carry Bethanian?”
“Carry…? Fengreth, Maer…maybe. I can try.”
Doss stared at her. “Why not me?”
“You’re not hurt. We’ll need you with a sword.”
At this, Cullen laughed. Looking to Doss, he said, “She learns fast.”
Shaking his head, Doss agreed. “That she does.”
For her part, Maer couldn’t believe that Cullen had laughed. Had she ever in all her time with him on shipboard or at any point since seen him so much as smile? No. Never.
But there was no time to dwell on Cullen’s morbid levity. “Listen,” she said, turning back to Bethanian, “you were right to say no––to them. But you need to come with us.”
“Why with you?” the lens maker demanded. “I want to stay here.”
“Not safe,” said Doss. “The only place for you right now is somewhere well away from Vagen.”
Bethanian shook her head with such violence that her larger eye jiggled. “No,” she said, and she dropped back behind the bed. “Never.”
Such a bald refusal had an energizing effect on Maer. “Cullen,” she said, “gag the man with the hip wound, and put him in a corner, out of sight. Then get Bethanian. Doss, find some swords, at least two.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get as many of these supplies as I can.” She’d located a large satchel, and was already filling it with rough-hewn hunks of glass, polishing supplies, cutting tools, and anything else she could put her hands on that felt somehow essential. Tables, charts, and diagrams: these, too, she stuffed into her satchel, and when she’d filled the first, she found a second and began on that. Across the room, Bethanian set up a new round of howling protests, until Cullen––Maer chose not to look––did something to make her go quiet. Doss, with two new belts at his waist and a scabbarded sword on either hip, was back at the door, listening.
“Company,” he called. “Base of the stairs.”
“Those first two again?”
“I think they maybe ran off, but no way to be sure.”
Cullen appeared at his captain’s side, with Bethanian over his shoulder. Both men looked from the staircase to Maer, and Doss said, in a plaintive voice, “What do we do?”
As she made a grab for a last handful of tools––calipers and a compass––Maer said, “What do we do? We walk out the way we came in.”
“Walk out? Maer, we’re covered in blood, we’ve got Bethanian…”
“Exactly. And those men coming up, if they’re household, they know us, remember? We tell them the truth, or part of it. We were attacked, they tried to take Bethanian, she’s hurt, we’re getting her to safety. And then we just walk out.”
The captain and the mate exchanged a disconcerted look, each double-checking the other’s reaction. Sounding doubtful, Cullen said, “Could work.”
“Aye. Or it might not.”
“I’ll lead,” said Maer. “I’m not armed, and they’ll be stupid enough to think I’m harmless.”
She started down, with Doss behind her and Cullen bringing up the rear. At the top of the straightaway stairs, Maer met three house guards working their way up, each looking more nervous than the last. They were armed with a motley assortment of weapons ranging from a meat cleaver to a pitchfork.
The first, no more a leader than the rest, growled a question at Maer, demanding to know what was going on, and Maer, straight-faced, explained that they’d gone to visit Bethanian, only to discover she was in the act of being kidnapped, so they’d effected a rescue. “Better head up,” she said. “A few of them may still be alive, and Lelanarshik might want them for questioning.”
“I thought they were ours,” said the rearmost Sindarin, a man Maer now recognized as the one who’d been posted by the gate.
“Well, you were wrong,” she said, and then moved to go past. “If you don’t mind, we’re in a hurry, and we all know how Lelanarshik gets when he’s kept waiting.”
That did the trick. The three Sindarin scooted to one side and allowed Maer, Doss, and Cullen to pass on the landing. Bethanian, knocked cold, remained limp as a rag doll over Cullen’s strong right shoulder. Behind them, the Sindarin guards headed up, and Maer, having given her feet a renewed license to hurry, headed down, and down, and down, twisting this way, then that, then around and around the final drop of the spiral staircase until they’d reached the main floor and were headed at a trot out the door, through the garden, and toward the gate. Would it be guarded? No. There was no one there. But the gate was closed.
For a moment, Maer felt panic rising like a gorge in her throat, but she forced herself to think it out: the guard who’d been on duty had been summoned within, so of course he would have closed and locked the gate––on their side. All she had to do was locate whatever mechanism held it, and release it––and sure enough, it was no more difficult than a pair of wrought-iron bolts, each as thick as a fat man’s thumb, and once these were slid back, the gate, with a creak, swung wide.
“See?” said Maer. “Nothing to it.”
She let the two men go first, so she was the last of the trio to discover that in the small plaza outside Lelanarshik’s residence, six shadowed figures were just arriving via the largest of the intersecting streets, and that to judge by their sudden, disorganized halt, they were just as surprised to see Maer and her troop as she was to see them. The clouds overhead persisted, so the light was poor, so it wasn’t until the newcomers’ leader raised his amber-tinted lantern that Maer could make out that five of the six were Sindarin, the best and most handsomely dressed being the man who held the lantern.
“My, my,” said the man, who was tall and built like a bull and wore more bracelets than Maer had ever seen on a single person, “if it isn’t young Maer of the Spur.”
“What?” said the sixth of the newcomers, a woman. “Let me see.” She stepped closer, pushing into the lantern’s circle of light; Doss and Cullen averted their gaze, each doing his best to keep his eyes adjusted to the surrounding nighttime darkness.
Maer did the opposite, and tried to stare past the raised lantern to where the woman stood. For a moment, she couldn’t place her––she wasn’t wearing traditional black, or her ebony-embedded headband––but then she knew. She was face to face with Mother Sand.
Mother Sand recognized her in the same instant. “Kill her,” she said, to the man with the lantern. “In the name of God and Sister Blue, kill that girl this instant!”
At first, Kehlen’s maritime plan to abandon Mother Sand and escape Vagen had gone without a hitch, and it was only once he was well out to sea, with the sails rigged just so and catching the night winds in a pleasing, reliable manner, that his plans began to unravel. First, the wind had come around to match the current, and this forced him west, along the north shore of the Middle Isle, when what he wanted to do was go east, skirt Grandfather Mountain, and then aim south to Farehl. Instead, he was being borne back in the opposite direction, and while he reasoned he could always come around Vagen and start south from its western tip if need be, he felt that the odds of being accosted by a coastal patrol boat rose by the minute so long as he stayed in close proximity to the city.
In the end, there was nothing he could do to combat the capricious winds, not on a boat meant to be operated by a minimum of two sailors, not one. Worse, he began to see additional faults in his plan, defects that he (or perhaps the day’s constant intake of thumis) had conspired to sweep under the rug, namely that to make a seven-to-ten-day voyage by himself, even in the best of weather, was not a recipe for safety or success. And then there was the question of supplies. How much fresh water had he brought aboard? He gave his cauliflowered ear a good hard scratch and tried to recall. He’d laid in a good supply of bread and cheese, he was sure of that, plus two lengths of wild boar sausage, but as to fresh water––he was discomfited to find that he didn’t know the answer, and he was on the verge of going below to check––it was either that or drop the mainsail in order to make for the next available harbor––when a loud popping noise sounded from below, and he knew that the unthinkable had happened: a board had burst free from its pegs, and he didn’t need to listen further to know that water was even now pouring into the hold.
Maintenance, he said to himself as he hurried below to see if the damage could be repaired. When was the last time he’d done any sort of maintenance on his precious boat? The fact that he didn’t know this, either, sent a whole new shiver up his spine, for the Daisy Meadow, won in a bet (name and all), had been his for several years. Had he paid attention? Done the work required? Had he remembered to honor even once his father’s advice that boats were like livestock: they demanded regular love and attention, and if they didn’t get it, betrayal lurked no farther than the horizon line, and probably much closer. Good advice, Kehlen thought. What was it about life on Vagen that had caused him to be so diligent about ignoring it?
By the time he descended into the hold, the Daisy Meadow had tilted to port and more than a little to stern, leaving a deep and growing pool at the back of the hold. He knew he had to wade into to it to see if the board could be repaired, but he delayed and deferred, for he was like a finicky cat when it came to water: he hated to be wet. To stave off the inevitable, he turned up the oil lamp and adjusted its perch, and then he listened to the Daisy Meadow as she groaned and complained at her new and untenable station.
At last he could procrastinate no longer, and in he went. There was no help for the sprung board, though of course he got himself soaked in proving this. The lamp cast more shadows than light, rendering an unhelpful chiaroscuro that forced him to do most of his diagnostic work by touch. The board had popped outward, and he imagined that if seen from outside and underneath, it might have looked as if the Daisy Meadow had developed a hangnail. He managed at last to reach through the gap and get a grip on the traitorous board, but he couldn’t pull it shut; even if he’d been stronger than the board, which he wasn’t, his fingers were in the way. The only possible way to force the board back into place would have been from the exterior of the boat’s hull.
Meanwhile, water was gushing in and sloshing around his shins, then his knees. As it reached his thighs, he abandoned his efforts in favor of bailing. This didn’t work any better than tugging at the popped board, since he couldn’t get the lone starboard porthole to open, and its twin on the port side was already underwater. Did he have time to run up and down the ladder, bucket full in one direction and empty in the other? Not at the rate the water was flooding the hold, no.
All this time, the Daisy Meadow drifted west, away from the port he’d started from and ever closer to the one region of Vagen he really wanted to avoid, the Sindarin Compound.
When it became beyond clear that bailing was hopeless––the Daisy Meadow was listing to the point where it was difficult to keep his footing––he climbed back on deck, braced himself as best he could, and considered the problem of what clothes he’d have to shed in order to swim the considerable distance to shore. His boots, certainly, which made him sad. He’d had those boots for a year now, and they’d molded better to his feet than any pair he’d ever owned. The prospect of having to break in a new pair felt more depressing by far than losing the Daisy Meadow, which he recognized as a sign of aberrant, misplaced attachment, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved his boots, and he couldn’t bear to think of them drifting to the bottom of the Sindarin harbor.
Just then, a second boat hove into view from behind. Presumably it had been bearing down on him for some time, and he’d been too distracted to notice. It was larger than his by some measure, a supplies boat by the look of it, a tubby, wide-bodied, slow-poke of a vessel, but it was making good time, considering. It was also running without lights, which surprised him; even he, in the midst of an unscheduled, unapproved voyage, one undertaken without a shred of State-sanctioned documentation, had not had the temerity to put to sea without placing the requisite red and green lanterns both fore and aft. His surprise did nothing to check the impulsiveness of what he did next, which was to hail the second craft and yell with all his might.
Knowing as he did that sound traveled well over water, he understood that this was a gamble. He might well be heard by whatever night patrols the Sindarin and the State had each put on the water to guard the Compound’s single greatest weak point, the harbor––and he was in close now, closer than he’d realized. The longer of the two breakwaters was no more than a hundred yards away. But there was no help for it; discovery by the authorities was a risk he’d have to take.
“Hey!” he cried, cupping his hands and staggering a bit as the Daisy Meadow lolled into a new, lower angle. “Ahoy the ship!”
He received no answer, but he thought he could see two figures on deck. They stood close together, as if conferring. He yelled again, made it plain he was sinking, and then took a fresh measure of where the bigger boat would pass. Yes, there could be no doubt: unless it changed course, it would cross his bow with less than thirty yards to spare.
After patting his pockets to make sure he had both his purse and his thumis handy and secure, Kehlen took a running jump and dove headlong into the dark, lapping water. He was an unpracticed swimmer, but (again, cat-like) he managed well enough under duress, and he knew not to waste time wiping the stinging salt from his eyes. Heavy boots and all, he set to work to intercept the passing ship, splashing along with determined strokes and his head above water more often than not.
“Man in the water!” he called, as much to encourage himself as to alert the crew of the mystery ship. “Throw a rope!”
And sure enough, as he and the boat drew together, a heavy, knotted rope flew over the side and landed not two yards away. Catching it was still a near thing; the boat was traveling fast, and only a desperate lunge on Kehlen’s part allowed him to close his fingers on the lifeline.
“Got it!” he cried, again for his own benefit as much as anything. “You can pull me in!”
The rope, however, remained where it was, leaving Kehlen to calculate the value of climbing it––this would be difficult, since the rope would twist, leaving him perpetually on its underside––or remaining where he was, a piece of flotsam to be towed along the starboard side until the boat docked or dropped anchor. In the end, he elected to stay where he was. The boat (he’d made out the name, the Star Of the North, just prior to catching the rope) was heading into the Compound harbor, and one way or another, it would be stopped before long. Even if the crew––damn their eyes––never did bother to reel him in, the climbing would be much the simpler if the boat itself weren’t in motion.
His nose quirked as it caught a sudden whiff of rotting fish. He glanced around, trying to find the source. The water of the harbors was never the cleanest, but could it possibly be producing such a stink? Surely not. That left only one obvious culprit: the ship itself. What in the name of Fengreth’s toes were they carrying?
Above him, he could hear the main sail coming down. When he looked over his shoulder, he was just in time to see the Daisy Meadow roll right the way over so that its masts lay (for a moment) flat across the plane of the sea. The sails trailed on the water like giant pantaloons until they, too, were pulled beneath the waves as the Daisy Meadow finally sank. The last Kehlen saw of his boat, she was showing her keel to the sky and the waves were nibbling at her upturned bow as if feeding on it.
The speed of the rope through the water slackened; all the sails on the Star Of the North were down. He could make out voices, though he wasn’t sure how many. A man’s, for certain, and a woman’s. Perhaps there was more than one of each? They appeared to be complimenting each other, as if they’d never before worked together. Odd, he thought. Why would two total strangers take a boat of such size for a spin around Vagen, at night, of all times, and wind up in the Sindarin Harbor, of all places?
Not long after, he heard a tremendous splash, and his motion through the water came, moments later, to an abrupt halt. He reasoned that the splash had been the anchor, and decided it was high time he got out of the water. He looked up with the idea of checking the rope and found two faces peering over the rail, staring down at him. The man was thin-faced and bony; the woman had a great deal of hair. In the darkness, it was difficult to make out much else.
“Not going to pull me up?” he said. “Or throw a ladder?”
The man spoke first. “Anyone else on your vessel?”
Out of habit, Kehlen fell back on falsehood. “Originally, yes. But I lost my mate.”
The man’s head cocked, and Kehlen knew he was growing more, not less, suspicious. “Weather’s been good,” the man said. “Lost him how?”
“Drink. Too drunk to stand, he tried retching over the side and went over himself. I was up in the rigging, and by the time I got down…”
The woman whispered something that Kehlen couldn’t hear, and then the man said, “Yours was too big a craft for just you to handle her.”
“That’s why I was making for shore.”
“And then you sprung a leak.”
Kehlen was having some difficulty in drawing a full breath. “Listen, friend, I don’t wish to be rude, but are you aware that your vessel reeks of fish?”
Again, the woman whispered to the man. Kehlen decided he didn’t like her, not one bit. After a quick conference, the man said, “Do you know where you are?”
Kehlen considered saying, “In the water, hanging on a rope,” but thought better of it. “No idea,” he said. “Vagen, someplace.”
“Lucky you,” the man replied. “You’ve washed up in the Sindarin Harbor.”
“Oh.” Kehlen feigned a new level of agitation. “Well, when you put back out to sea, if you could drop me pretty much anyplace else…”
“No. We’ll be leaving you here.”
Now the woman spoke, and he detected a Lemphieri accent. “The nearest dock is only about twenty yards.” She pointed, so that her arm stuck out directly above his head. If he’d been able to leap straight up and grab it, and then hang onto her long enough to clamber aboard, he would have. Could she possibly be serious? They were asking him to swim for it, when he was already attached to their ship?
They were serious. Their silence said so loud and clear. He reconsidered climbing the rope, this time with the express intention of boarding the vessel and murdering its standoffish crew. They’d deserve it, and he was sure he’d find the whole business cathartic. He’d killed before, and presumed he’d do so again before his time ran out. He’d honestly expected his crimes to weigh more heavily than they had, but because death for him had always been an abstraction, the act of killing lacked weight, moral or otherwise. It was just something that happened, and sometimes––God, let it be tonight––his was the hand that slammed the door.
Pushing these thoughts aside, he looked up at the woman and tried to summon his friendliest, most harmless expression. “Please,” he said. “And I take it back about the fish. I can manage if you can.”
“Sorry,” the man shrugged. “We’ve got business tonight.”
“Oh! Must be quite the business.” Kehlen made every effort to keep his tone jaunty and light. “Putting the entire Harbor Patrol to sleep, that’s quite the stunt.”
“Let go of the rope,” said the woman. Behind the Lemphieri accent, there was real force in her voice. This was a woman who was used to being obeyed.
“Right,” Kehlen said. “Thanks for picking me up.”
The man said, “Any other night, my friend, and you’d already be aboard.”
Kehlen waved him away. “Yes, and looking for a nosegay. So, no hard feelings. I suppose I’m always game for a nice nocturnal swim.”
So saying, he let go of the rope, picked the best course he could, and set off with bold strokes for the nearest pier. He took stock as he swam, beginning with himself. He was wet, and would be for the foreseeable future, unless he found clothes to steal. He had money, though precious little. He had thumis in his pocket, but it would be unpleasant to chew, being both soaked and salty. It might not be a good idea, in any event. Something significant was about to transpire at the Sindarin docks, and having his wits fully about him seemed the wiser plan. Besides, he still had his boots, with no need to kick them off on such a short traverse, and who needed wakefulness when he was still in possession of his best boots?
As to what was going on, he had more questions by the moment, and it occurred to him that delivering the right answers to the right person could be worth a good deal of coin, and more than a few favors. Now that his plan to decamp for Farehl was bubbling its way to the bottom of the sea, he had a renewed need of favors, and he knew the person to whom he’d deliver the news, as soon as he had it: Mother Sand. Of course, she’d be furious that he’d abandoned her, but with the right information, a sufficiently unique and fabulous story, he suspected all would be forgiven.
His new plan, then, was simple. Climb the dock’s ladder (he had his hand on a rung already) and find a corner in which to shiver and drip and keep watch on the Star Of the North. Soon enough, whatever plot was afoot would reveal itself, and when it did, he’d either bear witness or insert himself into the mix, depending.
Either way, he felt that Vagen was welcoming him home, and he was surprised to discover that this, even more than a peaceful, self-imposed exile on Farehl, was exactly what he’d wanted all along.
Maer moved first. She dropped the two satchels she’d shouldered and rushed at Mother Sand. A primitive, guttural battle-cry rose in her throat, though she was in no way conscious of making it, and the fact that she had no weapon besides her fists didn’t slow her in the least. She made a beeline for the old priest with one thought only, to get her by the neck and strangle her until she was dead.
She would have done it, too, for Doss was slow to react and Cullen, injured, still had Bethanian slung over his shoulder, but Dowerin Rennafrin interposed himself at the last second, grappled Maer into a bear-hug, and lifted her kicking feet right off the ground.
“Ho, there,” he said, as he tried to dodge her flailing heels, “let’s not be hasty. Nobody’s killing anyone here, not tonight, not on my watch, no matter what the good Mother says.”
With a glare sharp enough to melt ice or crack steel, Mother Sand moved in close. “At the very least, she must be taken to the Senate. Tried for treason!”
“Treason?” The ambassador snorted a laugh. “This shrub of a girl? For what?”
“Assumption of titles, for one. Fomenting rebellion. All these Aylis islanders looting and pillaging, setting fires, don’t think for a moment they’d have come without her.” Mother Sand shook her finger at Maer as if scolding a two-year-old. “She was there! She was at the Spur, and she’s taken Elsbeth’s ravings and tried to make them gospel!”
“Lies!” Maer spat, twisting and bucking. “Let me down!”
The other four Sindarin had formed a protective shield around the ambassador, three facing Cullen and Doss, and the remaining man interposing himself between Mother Sand and Maer. The old priest beat at the ambassador’s chest with her palms, trying to pummel him into moving aside, and he stood there and accepted the abuse for a moment, then gripped her by the wrists, swung her off her feet, and planted her down again several yards further back. “Enough,” he growled. “Get control of yourself.”
“Maer,” said Doss, one hand extended in a pacifying gesture, “if you can calm down, maybe we can be on our way.”
Maer stopped struggling, and the ambassador had time at last to assess her companions. “On your way,” he repeated, as if this were a very novel idea. Addressing Cullen, he said, “And who might that be? The one on your back?”
Cullen and Doss exchanged a look. “No one,” said Doss, while Cullen, in the same moment, said, “Bethanian. The lens maker.”
Dowerin laughed. “How convenient. The very person I was coming to visit. I had an idea, you see, that she was not entirely safe here in the clutches of Lelanarshik, and it seems I wasn’t far wrong.”
“You can’t have her,” said Maer, wriggling again. “She’s coming with us!”
“I arrest you!” cried Mother Sand, who, having failed to get around the Sindarin bodyguard, was standing on tip-toe to peep past his shoulder. “In the name of the State, the Senate, and the Unified Church, I hereby exercise my authority as Most Devout to place that girl there under arrest!”
Lights had appeared in surrounding windows, and more were being lit. Curtains were parting, revealing curious faces peering out from behind. In Lelanarshik’s sprawling residence, a new commotion was rising, and through certain windows, shadowy impressions of people could be seen hurrying back and forth, carrying candles and lanterns. Maer saw that the ambassador had noted the increase in activity, and all at once he dropped her back on her feet.
“Don’t,” he said, one finger jutting into her face, and it required no great leap on her part to understand that his single word covered everything, or at least everything she might possibly do of her own volition.
To his bodyguards, Dowerin gave clipped, efficient orders in Sindarin, and in another moment, two of them had Mother Sand by the arms and were bearing her away down a side street, as fast as they could go. Her protests dwindled with distance, though the old priest never gave up voicing her objections.
“Now then,” said the ambassador, his tone brisk. “The wider world believes the Sindarin to be the greatest warriors of the Six Lands. By and large, this is a lie. We maintain only the smallest police force, and even they receive very little training. However, the personal bodyguard of the ambassador,” and here he touched the fingertips of both hands to his chest, in case there was any doubt to whom he referred, “they are another matter. They have trained in all the ancient arts, and they are lethal with or without a weapon in hand. So.”
The ambassador paused, and swung around to encompass the entire assemblage, from his own bodyguards to Maer and the two sailors. On Cullen’s back, Bethanian was beginning to stir, and she let out a tentative, semi-conscious groan. No one moved.
“Good, then,” said the ambassador. “You will all come with me. When I have heard your stories, I will decide what to do.”
Maer felt a thunderhead building; she felt like Grandfather Mountain, an eruption imminent. “You decide nothing,” she announced, planting herself in front of the ambassador, who truly was one of the most enormous men she’d ever met.
If she’d thought he’d back down, or quail under the force of her will, she was disappointed. Without missing a beat, he said, “Those were orders, not offers. And I can carry you, if you insist.”
“I absolutely refuse––”
He made a grab for her, and although she tried to dance out of reach, he had the quickness of a fox snapping up prey, and once he had her, his long arms, strong as cables, gave no quarter. Ignoring Maer’s caterwauling howls, he jerked his chin toward Doss and Cullen. “If they’ll walk, well and good. If not, carry them.”
Without checking to see if he’d be obeyed, he set off in the same direction as the men who’d taken Mother Sand. Doss and Cullen followed, surly but meek and thoroughly cowed. Maer wasn’t surprised, nor could she find it in her heart to be disappointed in them. It had already been the longest of long days, and it was becoming more difficult by the moment to deny her own extreme exhaustion.
It wasn’t that she fell asleep while being lugged through the night by the Sindarin ambassador, but the journey did feel timeless, as if the continuum of her life was being briefly interrupted, and before she knew it, they had entered a shop and occupied a back room. What the place sold, she could not have said; various wrapped packages, most of identical size and without labels, had been piled and stacked along the walls. Doss and Cullen followed them in, and the two Sindarin bodyguards took up positions just inside the doorway. One lamp was already lit, and Dowerin lit two more, then hung them from a brass fixture that dangled like asymmetrical antlers from the ceiling.
“Now then,” he said, as he blew out his match and reclined with evident relief into a mound of colorful cushions, “I am speaking to all of you, though mostly to young Maer. Hear me, strangers, and hear me well, for I tell you now two true things. First, I do not make idle threats, and second, my sister is an extricator.” He savored the pause that followed, then said, “Maer––Maer of the Spur, if that’s who you really are––you may begin.”
Standing, sometimes pacing, she surprised herself by doing exactly as he asked, and she told him all she could, omitting details only by accident, as a consequence of having hurried on past them, and when she caught herself doing this, she doubled back and corrected herself. She left out only two things: the profusion of feelings she felt for Doss, and any mention of Durnian. She knew why she failed to mention the former (shame and embarrassment), but her omission of Durnian was one for which she had no explanation.
Partway along, Bethanian woke, and one of the bodyguards fetched drae and soda crackers, and Bethanian took these and kept silent, as if she’d awakened so far from her habitual environs that no other option besides silence remained. Both her eyes, large and small, tracked Maer’s every move, and Maer wished more than once that she could tell her story to Dowerin and to Dowerin alone. He was certainly a flattering audience. He sat very still and drank in every word, every cough and hesitation, every passionate outburst, and when at last the tale ran down and she had brought herself right to the present moment, he spread his hands, the very picture of munificent appreciation, and said, “My dear young woman. You are beyond generous. Now please, sit. Take my place, here. I won’t be a moment.”
He rose, Maer sat. He conferred in hushed, hurried tones with his guards, and then he said, to Doss and Cullen and Bethanian, “You have no reason to trust me, but you will, for a brief time, do exactly that. I must speak with Maer alone, but I swear, on my honor as Warden Of the Flint Ridges and on all the ancestors of House Emflen Shuslan, that I will return her safe to you in less time than you might think.”
“Oh?” inquired Doss. “And how much time might that be?”
Dowerin gave him a tolerant smile. “Let us say…ten minutes.”
“Do I have a choice?”
The ambassador’s smile turned to regret. “None, I’m afraid.”
“Right, then. Ten minutes it is.”
Having obtained permission––like a suitor, Maer thought––the ambassador returned to her, held out his hand, helped her up, and escorted her through a curtain and into a passageway that led back and back again into a low, whitewashed cavern of a room in which bits of the ceiling littered the floor like dust, a peculiarity, as Maer had come to know, of all the Sindarin Compound’s underground warrens. A dozen or more lamps burned cheerfully on the one modest table; the glass of each had been constructed of colored shards such that each lamp glowed with its own particular broken palette, blue here, brown there, and several lamps of red or orange. There was only one place to sit, a wide cushioned bench with no backrest.
“Maer,” said the ambassador, joining her on the bench, but at a respectful distance, “the honor is truly mine. Your arrival, a pleasure. Your presence, a blessing, and I apologize for any rough treatment or suspicion on my part, but I had to be sure of you––for the name Maer is one that has reached me from many quarters these last few days, and while I knew that Lelanarshik had guests, I knew you by a different name. Jayvin, I believe it was.”
“We weren’t guests,” she said. “To be a guest is to be beholden.”
The ambassador clapped his hands in delight. “Very good! And yes, so it is. But again, it was your names that threw me. Everyone said you were Jayvin, and that you were with three others, all men. The boat captain was Turahl, and we had no record of him, no papers, no registry for his boat. All very mysterious, but not worth my spending any time on. But I clearly wasn’t thinking. You were Maer all along, and I failed to realize.”
“Sorry,” she said, although she wasn’t.
“Yes, well. And you must admit, you didn’t make it easy on me, rushing at the Mother like that.”
Chastised and confused, Maer could only nod.
“Now, I must begin with a question. You say you left Aylis the morning after Sister Blue passed. Did you or any of your shipmates speak to anyone not on your ship before leaving?”
Maer shook her head. “No.”
“You’re nobody’s fool, so you’ll see what I’m getting at. The supposed prophet who arrived today, preaching about our ‘cousins’ on Sister Blue…you had nothing to do with that.”
Screwing up her face, Maer said, “What prophet? Is that what went on at the southwest harbor?”
The ambassador’s face never lost its authority, but he seemed to Maer to grow more kindly, avuncular. “My point is this. Someone survived Mother Sand’s massacre, someone besides Mother Sand and yourself.”
“I told you, she had at least one of her Devoted with her when she came down the steps.”
“Yes, but I mean someone else. Someone who walked away and went inland, met with the locals, and somehow, against all the odds, founded a very fervent cult.”
Again, Maer denied it. “Wasn’t me,” she said.
“No, apparently not. But now, I would give you some advice, if you’ll take it. First, tell no one what you have just told me. It’s much too revealing. Compromising. You are trusting by nature, and that’s a gift, a blessing, but in this climate, in days such as these, it will get your throat slit. Many have heard your name. Many, by rumor alone, believe it was you who landed yesterday and set fire to half the city. You can see the implications.”
Mute, Maer nodded.
“Good. Second, you wish to avenge the death of your friend, your mentor. Very well, and even admirable, in its way, but for this, you would transfer your vengeance to the State? Why? Mother Sand is one old, frightened woman, and ineffectual, too. You’ve seen the proof tonight. She wanted you killed, but did anyone lift a finger against you when she said it? No. On this, Maer, you must trust me: Mother Sand is not the church. She wasn’t even supposed to be on that mission. No, it’s true. Elsbeth invited Senator Davleen, and the senator invited Mother Coal. Why Mother Coal did not go most likely has to do with her legs, her own insecurities over her powers of mobility, but she acted in error when she sent Mother Sand in her stead––as we have seen.”
Maer swallowed, nodded. She tried to marshal her thoughts, for she sensed that she had objections to what the ambassador was saying, and to his easy, baritone confidence, but her thoughts refused to coalesce. She kept doubling back, re-thinking what he’d said of her desire for vengeance. She did want to avenge Elsbeth, yes, and always had, but to hear someone else say so made that seem like the most tired and tawdry of goals. To kill or at least unseat Mother Sand might be justice, but what then? What real goals did she have, long term? Would Elsbeth have approved of her course so far––if, indeed, her sometimes rudderless changes of direction could even be branded as an actual, definable course?
Unsympathetic to Maer’s need for reflection, Dowerin went on. “I would note, also, that your thinking is too small. You would tell the world of what was seen through your Great Spyglass. Well and good––but I say again, small. How will this news profit anyone? At best it will distract, and at worst it will terrify, misdirect. No, telling people––even me––that we have neighbors, and that we will have proof, soon? All that will do is bring down the roof, our roof, the one we all live under. Even you.”
He adjusted himself, crossed one leg over the other, and laid one hand flat on the bench between them, not so much bridging the gap as suggesting that a bridge might be possible.
“Let me suggest something to you. Take Bethanian, by all means. She won’t be safe here, anyway. Build the best spyglass you can, just as I will direct those who remain here to do their best to do the same. But then do more. You think there are people up there, on Sister Blue? Or something like people, beings with intelligence? Then talk to them. Think of a way to communicate. If you saw walls and fields––”
“I told you, I didn’t see anything.”
“––then it stands to reason that they’ve noticed us, too––or they soon will. We must be ready not only to look, and receive a message, but to send one back. Do you see?”
“Not really. You’re a Sindarin, so you’re supposed to want to bring down the State, but to me, first you say, ‘Don’t bring the house down,’ and now you’re saying ‘Do bring the house down…’” She trailed off, lost in her own attempts at logic.
The ambassador looked at her long and hard, and it struck her, as she watched him, how different he was from Lelanarshik, how easily he wore authority. When Lelanarshik wanted to make a point, he puffed and paraded. Dowerin Rennafrin relied on nothing more than conviction and the native force of his presence and personality. Or so it seemed; so he’d want it to seem, no doubt. Was it possible that confidence as unrehearsed and elemental as Dowerin’s might be false, a tool he projected in order to pursue his own ends? Hadn’t he just told her not to trust? Hadn’t Durnian once said much the same?
At last the ambassador said, “All I want is justice for my people. How do I achieve that? The truth is, I’ve never had much hope of succeeding, so I have no proactive plan sitting in my pocket, no traps poised to be sprung. Like you, I’m thinking on my feet.” He paused, adjusted his bracelets, and went on. “But let me suggest this. A collapsed State serves no one, not even an oppressed people. Outright civil war means death, rape, and starvation for many. Perhaps that’s what Lelanarshik wants. I don’t profess to know. But there must be a better way.”
He paused again, then said, “My proposal is this. Take Bethanian. She’s our best hope for a clear view of what we face. Take her far from here––in fact, best of all, take her to Sindar. I have a brother there; I will give you directions and a letter of introduction. He will house you, hide you if need be, and give you and yours the freedom to build the best spyglass the world has ever seen, and to devise some sort of back-and-forth between the Sister and us, in case they, too, are looking.”
Take Bethanian. Build the best spyglass the world has ever seen. It was exactly what she’d planned to do already. It was what the Academy seemed to want––or some of them, anyway: Rinehl, plus a few others whose names she didn’t even know––and it would continue Elsbeth’s work. Finish the job. How often had the keeper repeated that to her, a hard-as-stone code of conduct impossible to overcome? “Always,” Elsbeth had said, over and over and over, “always finish the job.”
Still feeling skeptical, and not at all like the leader the ambassador wanted her to be, she eyed him and said, “What about you?”
He sucked on his lower lip, pondering. At last he said, “I will remain here and do my best to do what I have always done: to manage my people, and prevent any further erosion of our rights. And I will lay the groundwork with whatever authorities survive this night in Vagen, whether it’s the Senate or the Unified Church or this crazy Aylis prophet. It doesn’t really matter, so long as they listen, and plan ahead. What we must not do is panic, and to prevent that, I have a part to play.”
He straightened up, looked her full in the face, and almost seemed to be laughing. “So, despite my recent advice to the contrary, do we trust each other, Maer of the Spur? Young Maer, who is poised to steal from me my status as the Middle Isle’s most infamous personage?”
She couldn’t answer. A different question had hold of her tongue, and out it came, blurting itself before she had time to check it. “Did someone name you ambassador?”
Dowerin’s expression became a strange admixture of crafty and tolerant. He looked, at last, very much like Lelanarshik.
“Maer,” he said, “do you really need me to answer?”
She looked away, first at her hands, and then at the bright and cheerful lamps. After a moment’s reflection in which she decided nothing, she stood up and made use of what Sindarin she’d learned since coming to the Compound. She held out one hand, palm down. Dowerin also rose, and placed his hand over top of hers, flat and without gripping. She said, in Sindarin, “To hear, to speak, to see: a blessing and a privilege.”
Beaming, the ambassador said, “The blessing and privilege is mine,” and placed his hand under hers. “You’ve mastered the formalities,” he said, as each withdrew their hands. “A born diplomat.”
She felt herself blushing and wished to God that she wasn’t. “The formal ways are easiest,” she said. “The way you greet each other informally? It’s all slurred, and there must be fifty variations.”
The ambassador laughed. “A hundred,” he said. “More. Now then, shall we?” He gestured toward the door. “Our ten minutes have flown, and we don’t want to worry your comrades.”
She took a step toward the door, then stopped. “I’m not a diplomat,” she said.
“All right. What are you?”
Mouth open, she froze. The question was preposterous, unanswerable. She knew what she’d been: a child, a daughter, an orphan, a ward of the State, a keeper’s girl, a hard worker, a voracious reader, an astronomer’s assistant. These things she’d known, claimed, and accepted for years. But over the last weeks? What now did the list contain? Refugee, sailor, crew member, agitator, revolutionary, guest, leader, fire-fighter, advocate––those at least. And what else? What about killer? Had she killed the Sindarin, the one she’d struck with a half-made lens? Would the man whose leg she’d bound––a wound he’d sustained only because she’d slashed him, slashed him deeply with a sword, for God’s sake––would he survive? And what was to come? Mother Sand, Durnian, Lelanarshik, and Dowerin agreed on one point at least, that the news she brought would rock the Circle Seas and stun the Six Lands. What titles would that bring? Leveler, destroyer. How many were about to lose their livelihoods if not their lives in the service of the news that she, in Elsbeth’s name, was willfully choosing to bring?
What are you?
Such a simple question––and shouldn’t she have answered, if she were being truthful, fully cognizant, “I am doom, I am death?”
But she said neither of these things. She gave the ambassador a wan smile (the best she could manage under the circumstances), and said, as a final answer, “Oh, you know. I’m just trying to pick the right path and doing my best, just like everybody else. Which I guess means I’m nobody.”
“Alas, young Maer, you will never be that again.”
With a sigh she hadn’t intended to exhibit and words she hadn’t meant to utter, Maer said, “Well. Try telling that to Doss.”
To read Chapter Twelve, click HERE.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.