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In the Wake Of Sister Blue – Chapter Five

Sister Blue Title
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 Five. To read Chapter Four, click HERE.


Chapter Five

Karai, standing on the deck, watched the towering black rocks close around the ship and all but brush the gunnels as the Swellrunner slid into the cove. Above, the stone ramparts that rose to the Spur disappeared in a blanket of hovering fog, a marine layer now rushing inland as a cold, grim gift from the open sea.

The waters were calm, and while Karai knew the ship’s crew to be more than capable, she had the sense that it was the Spur itself, lost in the mists above, that was now in charge––that if it wished, it could send massive shards of stone crashing down to split and sink them in an instant. She wondered if those who’d lived here over the centuries had felt similarly dwarfed and enthralled. How could they have felt otherwise?

Behind her, the ship’s captain was readying landing boats, and in a moment, her own command, long dreaded, would commence. She was only a novitiate, after all, yet here she was, about to go ashore at the head of a company of no less than ten Devoted, to a man powerful, muscular, and generally very handsome, each one sworn to do her bidding no matter how whimsical, murderous, or unexpected. Not that she planned to be anything but calm and mature. Even so, the idea that it was she and not some more established or grown-up member of the Most Devout who had such force at her beck and call was nerve-wracking. Why had Mother Coal entrusted her with this mission? And what, other than a fallen tower and flame-consigned bones, was she expected to discover?

The hike up the steps: that, at least, Karai looked forward to. The long days on shipboard had not done nearly enough to stretch her legs, and Karai was a person who liked her exercise. How many steps had Mother Coal said there’d be? Eight hundred and twenty-nine? Or was it eight hundred and thirty?

As the crew of the Swellrunner lowered the sails, dropped anchor, and guided the landing boats over the side, Karai remained in the prow and did her best to look as regal as possible. She wore an extra shawl, blue and black, to keep off the wind and she’d covered her hair in a loose sky-blue scarf that hooded her face. This last had been on Mother Coal’s advice. “Don’t worry about being fifteen,” she’d said. “You’re more than up to the task. But make sure to carry yourself with authority. Foster a sense of mystery. How do you think we Mothers wield the power we do?”

Good advice, though difficult to follow. All through the voyage, she’d done her best to repress her tendencies to smile and laugh, and she’d resisted (which took some doing) the charms of the most handsome of her Devoted, a new recruit her exact age and so pretty, so gold-locked, so southern, that she couldn’t wait to get back to Vagen and begin a proper, thorough seduction. She’d long since begun picturing how his pale skin look when pressed against hers, hers that was so much richer, a warm ceramic brown so lustrous that her own mother had confessed to outright jealousy. And how would the pair of them look once wrapped in the best silk sheets the Unified Church had to offer? Oh, she’d been daydreaming a great deal about her return to Vagen, but for now, gold-locked Selnin would have to wait. She had a mission to command, and while she had no doubt that a full-fledged Mother could get away with any affair she liked, even on shipboard (and would do so with the pride and confidence of a conquering hero), she had no headband of her own, no real authority to flaunt. As Mother Coal had understood, whatever respect she had, she would have to earn.

Earning that respect meant being the first (besides the oarsmen) to go over the side and clamber down the net ladder into the landing craft, and this she managed without undue hesitation, and without becoming entangled or losing her balance sufficiently to require assistance. She whispered a thanks to God and then to her parents, both of whom had allowed her free rein, as a child, to climb any tree she could find. It was amazing, looking back, how her seemingly random, all but feral D’rekaani childhood now served her so well. Unlike a good many of her fellow novitiates, she could think for herself, take care of herself, and not be at all awestruck by the prospect of mounting eight hundred-some stairs.

The Devoted followed her over the side, led by their captain, Trudek, a beefy veteran with a distinct paunch. He was an anomaly among the Devoted, for besides being repellently unattractive (he had the face of a pop-eyed fish, and he cultivated a long, heavily waxed mustache), he was that rare member of the church guard who’d stayed in the service past twenty-two, the age at which most were thanked for their service and discharged. Why Trudek had stayed with the Devoted into his thirty-fifth year was a mystery to Karai, but she had no doubt that Mother Coal knew. Mother Coal (that tricky old crone) knew everything.

Karai at once berated herself for being so critical toward the Mother who’d been most supportive of her path through the various stages of a young priest’s career. And yet, Mother Coal invited, even demanded, such scorn. She was arch, predatory, fickle, and prone to favoritism. That she was also diabolically intelligent only added to her mystique. Karai had often found herself defending Mother Coal to other novitiates who’d caught the sharp end of her unpredictable and sometimes illogical temper. Karai herself had never been on the receiving end of one of Mother Coal’s legendary tirades, and had often wondered why she’d been spared. Perhaps she really was, as Mother Coal had assured her more than once, special? It worried her to think that this might be so. In the most uncomfortable ways, it made her think less of those around her.

Once all of her ten Devoted were seated, Karai counted to three, and only then nodded to the oarsmen to cast off and pull for shore. They did so with a will, and once they’d nosed the boat against the stony beach (the scrape was truly jarring, thanks to the noise-swallowing fog), she allowed herself to be helped from the boat, lest her feet be wetted by the cove’s gentle, insignificant waves.

“You will wait for us here,” she told the oarsmen. “We’ll be back before dark.”

The order sounded firm and sensible, but they had arrived at the Spur later in the day than she’d hoped, and she had no clear idea of how long it would take to ascend, much less descend, the steps that led to the top. Nor did she know what she would find once there. Still, the giving of the order felt like the sort of thing someone in command ought to say, and the specificity of the timing lent it weight. She and her men would go up, explore, and be back by dark. It was logical and eminently achievable.

No one on board the Swellrunner had ever been to the Spur before, so it took a moment to find the base of the stairs, but they discovered it at last, and Karai led the way, lifting her long robes clear of her feet to avoid a stumble. The guards followed after, their shoulder gear clanking like metal dishes against their mail shirts.

Up until reaching the steps, she’d entertained a fantasy that she would be able to ascend to the top of the Spur without pause, and that she’d leave her Devoted behind in the process, but she soon realized that at least the former proposition was prideful nonsense. The pitch was merciless, the stairs irregular and twisted; more than once, she encountered individual steps as high as her knee. Fit though she was, she was forced to stop many times, but she took solace in the fact that the Devoted fared even worse. They puffed and groaned and labored, and of the lot of them, only Selnin had the energy and good cheer to cry her a greeting, from several landings below. “Ahoy,” he called, well out of sight in the gathering, blowing fog. “You didn’t tell us we’d be climbing to the stars!”

Trudek also called to her, warning her not to get too far ahead. “We don’t know what’s up there!” he cried. “You need to wait for us!”

But that, Karai was not inclined to do. She’d grown up with room to roam, thriving on the space and freedom of D’rekaan’s dry forests, but she’d since spent long years on Vagen, a cramped, crowded city where finding any time to be properly alone was nearly impossible. In the course of this errand, she’d been cooped up on the Swellrunner, and although it was a big ship, designed to carry fifty or more, it had no more elbow room than a box. Now she had a staircase that led up and up to who knew where, with lovely open moors beyond (from the ship, she’d gazed at these with genuine longing, before the fog had closed in). Pleas from a tubby Devoted captain were not about to hold her back.

She reached the top almost by surprise, for the fog was thicker now, a mass of gray, phantom tatters, and the last of the stairs were hidden in a cleft, so only as they ended did the summit of the Spur make itself known. Breathless but pleased, Karai stepped onto the grass, let the wind whip the hood of her scarf halfway off her head, and stopped dead.

Instead of the deserted, charred tower she’d been expecting, she faced a throng of nearly a hundred people, most of whom had gathered at the landward side of the ruined Beacon Tower and were down on their knees, chanting in low tones with their arms outstretched on the grass before them. By their clothes, she judged them to be poor, villagers and townsfolk, the kind the State tended to claim were wealthier than they really were. Everyone, after all, was guaranteed wages and food, even if they did no work whatsoever, but of all the Six Lands, the island of Aylis was the most distant from Vagen, and Karai had long suspected that here, the influence and promises of both senate and church must be haphazard at best. The rabble before her seemed to offer immediate confirmation.

Somewhere off to her right, along the vanishing spine of the Spur, she caught the complaining bleat of milling sheep. Shepherds, she thought. I’ve stumbled onto a roving band of nomadic shepherds, and for some reason––some truly crazy, inscrutable reason––they’re making camp for the night at the very spot I’m supposed to investigate.

So intent were the gathered people on their prayers and invocations that for a moment, no one took note of Karai’s arrival. She edged closer, straining to hear, but whatever they were saying was not done in unison, and the wind, against her, stole and garbled much of what otherwise might have been clear. She caught only individual words, words that included “martyred, “the spyglass,” and “Vashear,” a name she immediately recognized as that of the Devoted who hadn’t made the return journey on Mother Sand’s ship. Just as Mother Coal had predicted, Mother Sand had gone to great lengths to alter the ship’s manifest, but Karai had put church coin in the right palms and learned the truth. As for Vashear, she’d assumed he was dead.

The other repeated phrase that caught her ear, though it was never spoken as a proper chorus, was, “We await you, Sister Blue. We bless you, Sister Blue.” Which sounded like nonsense. Since when had their next nearest planet demanded or commanded such consideration?

Not a camp, thought Karai, but a cult. These crazy folk, out here in the middle of nowhere, have turned the beacon’s tragic end into a cult.

Just then, a man standing at the back of the crowd turned and spotted Karai. Their eyes met, his surprised, and hers hardly less so.

“Friends!” he cried, raising his arms. “We have a visitor.”

In an instant, she became the center of attention. Without meaning to, she took a step back. It wasn’t that the people now turning toward her looked hostile, or even fearful. It was simply that there were a hundred of them while she, so far, stood alone. She thought to cock an ear for her Devoted, still struggling up the steps somewhere behind and below, but they were too distant to be heard. Whatever happened next would be up to her.

“I bring greetings,” she said, “from the capital and Unified Church. In the name of God and the Circle Seas, I wish you peace, and I wish you fortune.”

Her greeting produced glares, whispers, and a discomfiting rustle of movement. Which was odd in the extreme. What on earth had she said that could be interpreted as anything but friendly, pacifying?

“Be that as it may,” said the man who’d first spoken, more to his cohorts than to her, “unless you’re here to worship, you should turn right ‘round and head back to wherever it is you came from. I suppose you have a ship? Or something?”

She surprised herself by defiantly raising her chin exactly as Mother Coal would have done, and said, “I am here on official church business.”

“To finish what you started?” leered a woman in the front row of onlookers, a woman with bad teeth and a bent back.

“Oh, shut your trap,” said the man who’d spoken first, but he was drowned out by counter-protests, most of them aimed at Karai, who flinched despite herself. Some were hurling generic abuse, but most seemed to be accusing her of wanting to set fire to what was left of the tower, or of wanting to kidnap Vashear. That, at least, was revealing: Vashear was alive.

As the babble threatened to get out of control, she raised her hands, palms up, in a gesture that both asked for silence and simultaneously surrendered. The throng quieted, muttering, though their ugly mood remained.

“My friends,” she said, “I come with only peaceful intentions, and as you know, news of all kinds, both good and bad, travels slowly. I sense you know more than I about what has happened here, and knowledge is all I seek. I can see you are angry, but not, I think, with me, for I have done nothing to upset you. Indeed, I have never been here before. Can we not talk, and share, and stand before God as one people?”

“Take her to Vashear,” said a man at the back, a man she couldn’t see, and a second voice took up the cry, saying, “Aye, Clarus. Let’s bring her to Vashear!”

Clarus, the man who’d spoken first, looked doubtful. “For what?” he said. “Are we accusing her of a crime?”

“She’s church!” cried the bent woman. “And wasn’t it church that tried to shove their steel through Vashear in the first place? Wasn’t it church that burned the holy tower? Wasn’t it church that wrecked the spyglass and stole our view of our cousins?” She paused for breath, and shook a wagging finger first at Clarus, then at Karai. “If those aren’t crimes, then I don’t know what is!”

This time, the crowd surged forward, and Karai realized they intended to seize her, or possibly bull-rush her right off the cliff. Flight seemed ridiculous––how fast could she possibly go down stairs so steep?––but just as she’d steeled herself to accept being grabbed and maybe even pummeled, Selnin sprang up the final steps, loosed his sword, and emplaced himself between her and her would-be captors.

“Back!” he yelled. “Back in the name of God and the church!”

And fall back they did, all but cowering in the face of Selnin’s sharp, swinging sword.

“Karai,” he hissed, “get back down the stairs. Now.”

“But something’s happened here,” she said, one hand reaching tentatively for his shoulder, as if she didn’t already have his attention. “I need to find out––”

“No, you don’t. Get down the stairs.”

She nearly did run then––common sense was tempting––but instead, she drew herself up and said, “I‘m the one in command here.”

“You were. But not now, not now that your life’s in danger.”

Clarus pushed through to the front of the encompassing ring of villagers. He, like Karai before him, held his hands in a gesture of peace. “Wait,” he said. “We’re all of us being hasty. You have to understand, these last few weeks, the things we’ve heard, the reputation of the church… Look, let us take you to the prophet, so you can meet him, hear what he has to say.”

Karai hesitated. The prophet? What prophet? Did he mean Vashear, who, if she remembered her church records correctly, was all of seventeen years old and had nothing in particular to recommend him?

Seeing her reluctance, Clarus said, “You’ll travel under my personal protection. On my life, on my honor, for whatever that’s worth, I swear no one will harm you.”

Karai was all set to open her mouth and accept, but the bent woman beat her to the punch.

“It’s a trick!” the woman screeched. “There’s more coming up the stairs!”

Sure enough, the sounds of hurrying boot-steps sounded from below, along with the telltale clank of ceremonial armor. Next, Karai heard Trudek’s indignant voice urging his men to step lively for once in their lazy, stupid lives.

Karai did the only thing she could think of. “We surrender!” she cried, in her loudest voice. “Selnin, lay down your weapon!”

Selnin shot her a wild, sidelong glance. “No, Lady––!”

“I am in charge of this expedition, and I order you to lay down your sword.”

It was as if she’d frozen him, leaving him so uncertain that he was no longer, capable of doing as she’d demanded. Slowly, so as not to break the spell, she reached out, took hold of his arm, and pressed it toward the rocks and jutting grass. “There,” she said, as his sword’s tip reached the ground, “trust me.”

His expression suggested anything but trust, but he let loose his grip on the hilt, and stepped away from his weapon.

“If this really isn’t a trick,” hissed someone from the crowd, she couldn’t see who, “then make the rest of your guard-folk go away.”

“I will,” Karai said, in a spirited voice. She felt stronger than she ever had in her adult life, more in charge in this moment of surrender than she ever had as an obedient novitiate. She turned her back on the shepherds and villagers and walked to the top of the stairs, where Trudek was only just now charging into view some twenty feet below.

“Stop!” she cried. “Captain, not another step.”

Gasping and sputtering for breath, Trudek halted, leaned his arms on one knee, and gazed through the fog, his face pink, his confusion evident. She doubted he had any idea of the crowd she and Selnin were surrounded by; the steps were much too steep to grant him any view.

“You,” he spluttered, “have got to be kidding.”

“Captain, as you are Devoted and I am Most Devout, you will follow my next orders without question. Do you understand?”

He started to say one thing, then switched to another. Ducking his head with sweaty, exhausted deference, he said, “Lady. As you will.”

“Return to the ship. Return with all your men. Wait in the cove for three days. If I do not return, sail for home and report to Mother Coal––Mother Coal and no one else, do you hear me? Tell her that I ordered you back. You will tell her also that it was my express wish that no shame was to come to you on account of your having done your duty and obeyed my orders.” She paused, balancing on the razor’s edge between stateliness and the mad scramble to think up what in the world she ought to be say to maintain that aura.

Unable to settle on any additional strictures, she demanded that Trudek repeat back her orders, which he did, with hardly a variation. Good man, she thought. Perhaps that was why he was still in the guard; unlike so many of the handsome ninnies the guard normally took on, he was, at rock bottom, competent.

Even so, he refused to leave without lodging a final, formal objection––although for this, too, Karai had to give him credit. He might have looked like a fish, but he was doing his best, even winded and confused, to protect her.

“It’s all right,” she said, when he’d finished. She even gave him a smile, a tactic she was sure Mother Coal would be the first to approve of. “Selnin will remain here to ensure my protection, and between the two of us, I’m sure we can deal with, well…with any unexpected developments. But it will be best for all if you go. Now.”

“As you command.”

With difficulty, and only by seating himself on one of the steps, he turned and oriented himself back downhill. “All right, you hogheads!” he roared, to those beneath and behind. “About face and back to the Swellrunner!”

Audible groans of disbelief and protest reached Karai’s ears, complaints that struck her as comic because they were made entirely out of sight and seemed to emanate from the fog itself. Turning away from the stairs, she stepped ahead of Selnin and once more faced the encompassing crowd.

“I am of the church and of my word,” she said, looking as many as she could in the eye as she spoke. “We are in your hands, and we look forward to meeting your prophet. Will you be so kind as to guide us to him?”

Clarus chuckled. “Neatly done,” he said, and he held out a grubby, callused hand. “Come on, then. Let’s see if this time, the church and Sister Blue can learn to get along.”

*

On the deck of what had been the Southwind, and was now, according to her new paint job, the Star Of the North, Cullen perched on a fat cask of wine and rubbed at the back of his neck. He’d been doing this for some time, ever since Maer had presented herself and said, as Doss had warned him she would, that she was ready for her lessons.

“You want,” he said, “to learn self defense.”

“Yes.”

“Mmm.”

Cullen tried rubbing at his eyes instead of his neck, but it wasn’t an improvement. Of all the things his captain had ever ordered him to do, this was the most distasteful, and what made it worse was that he was not entirely sure why. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel he could be of some help. He’d been in a number of fights, and the men and women of the Free Rim had taught him more than his fair share of tricks and feints. One-on-one, or even in a brawl, he knew what he was about. Possibly his reluctance owed something to his having tried, with no small success, to put his years with the Free Rim out of his mind, to bury that chaotic period as an undeserved punishment that he could, with time and effort, expunge entirely from the record of his life.

To Maer, he said, “How old are you?”

“Thirteen. And a half. Why?”

Cullen scratched behind his ear. Faced with this ridiculous task, it was as if his whole body was one extended itch. He sighed. Thirteen (and a half). A grand total of some six thousand, seven hundred and fifty days of existence.

“I’m a year past the marrying age,” she said, reading his thoughts. “If I’m old enough for that, I’m old enough to learn how to fight.”

“Maybe marry first,” Cullen said, with a smile he didn’t feel. “Maybe that’ll learn you how to fight.”

Arms crossed, a look of fury on her face, Maer said, “Doss ordered you to teach me. So get up. Do something. Teach me.”

Squinting against the sun, Cullen looked her over and shook his head. “First,” he said, “cut your hair.”

“What?”

“If you’re serious, hack off your hair.”

“I’ll do no such thing.”

Cullen looked to stern, where the hills and forests of Farehl were dipping slowly below the horizon. He wasn’t from Farehl, but he’d always liked trees, and he still preferred solid ground to water.

To Maer, he said, “Listen, Doss said teach you self defense. Well, I’m teaching you. In my own way. The first thing an opponent’s going to do is grab your hair. It’s long––“

“It’s not!”

“It’s long on top, which makes it easy to get hold of, and pulling hard enough’ll hurt you. In fact, if someone who knows what they’re doing gets hold of you, he can use your hair to break your neck. So do what I tell you, and cut it. Come back when you’re done.”

To emphasize his point, Cullen took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He expected feisty little Maer to scream and call him names, but instead, he heard her pivot and stalk away. Good, he thought. She’ll go running to Doss and complain, and then I’ll get to tell him that in my school, we play by my rules.

This, he knew, would not win him any points with his captain, but he and Doss had had an understanding from the start: Doss would take him on, despite the brand he carried on the back of his neck, the two crossed hatchets that forever marked him as an Oar of the Free Rim, provided that in all things nautical, he, Doss, was in charge. It had been too good a deal to refuse. He knew little of ships, hadn’t grown up with them, but he needed work, and work that avoided scrutiny. Doss and Felson taught him everything they could about the sea and ships, knots and rigging, and in return, Cullen taught his captain and crew (which at the time had included Varney, the Southwind’s wavereader) the basics of wrestling, punching, and kicking. Only Doss had a real knack for it, but it didn’t matter. Having Cullen aboard made the rest of them feel safe.

He wasn’t pretty, he knew that. And he wasn’t especially imposing. He could have been, with another man’s posture, but he slouched, and on top of that, he’d always tended toward the heavy side. His cheeks, especially, were thick with baby fat. He knew, too, that his appearance helped when trouble came, because his opponents invariably underestimated him. For that reason more than because of outright martial skill, he could take on three or even four attackers and at least hold his own. As Doss had put it, “If you’re at my back for one tavern brawl a year, or stand by me for that one harbormaster who thinks short-changing me is a good way to line his pockets, you’ll be well worth the investment.”

And, in remembering that statement, Cullen knew his place and his status exactly: he was an investment, and one Doss expected to make good on.

All of a sudden, he heard footsteps returning, then stopping right in front of him. Annoyed to find his reverie spoiled, he opened his eyes, and there stood Maer, with a huge serrated knife in one hand. With her other hand, she’d pulled back her hair, and the blade stood ready for a sawing first cut.

“This is what you want?” she said, her eyes flashing, tears very ready but held, so far, in check. “This is the price for your famous expertise?”

Cullen blinked. He hadn’t expected her to do it, much less force him to watch. She was an attractive girl, when he stopped to think about it, and her hair, especially––all those loose, black curls––was lovely. Was this really the toll he’d exacted?

She’d evidently meant her question to be rhetorical, for she didn’t wait for an answer, she simply started sawing away. Hanks of hair fell to the deck, all but noiseless. When she was done, she looked, more or less, like a boy who’d had his hair chewed by a shark.

“There,” she said. “I think I’m ready now.” Hilt first, her hand on the blade, she handed him the knife.

Cullen took the knife, set it down, and pushed himself to his feet. He really had expected her to give up and go away, and her return, her willingness to do what it took to meet his admittedly petty demands, left him feeling lethargic and grim. Didn’t she understand that forcing him to action, even in the restrictive arena of teaching, was dangerous? Couldn’t she intuit that what he wanted most to do, at almost every waking moment of his life, was to lash out and hit someone––and was it such a great leap to expect her to realize that she should not be tempting him, that she should not in any way be putting herself in his line of fire?

“Fine,” he said. He took two steps toward her. She took two steps back. “Try to hit me.”

“What, just like that?”

“Just like that. Use a fist. Really try.”

Maer squinted at him, hauled back, and let fly. Cullen leaned away, let her fist swing harmlessly past, and returned to his former position.

“Again,” he said.

Twice more she swung, and each time, he dodged without so much as adjusting his feet. Then she moved in closer, and aimed not for his head but for his midriff. Cullen, approving, waited for her to begin her punch, then sidestepped and caught her by the arm. In an instant, he’d twisted her around and put a lock on her elbow.

“Oww!” she gasped. “That hurts!”

He wanted to break the bone, snap it in two. He wanted to leave her crumpled on the deck. If he did, he could tell Doss she was hopeless as a student. Oh, the temptation. It took a truly heroic effort on his part to simply let her go.

Once he had, she backpedaled, rubbing at her elbow and looking fearful. Her bangs were in her eyes, and he thought about ordering her to cut those, too, then gave up. Slowly, with arthritic precision, he sat back down on the cask.

She said, sounding aggrieved, “You nearly broke my arm.”

He nodded.

She studied him, gave her elbow a final rub, and let it drop. “You’re quicker than you look. How did you know what I was going to do?”

To put that knowledge into words required thought. He’d never had a pupil before, of any kind, and what few explanations he’d found in life had been aimed at, not given by, him. Still, he liked having his skills noticed, so after a moment, he said, “When you were standing farther back, I watched your knees. The knees don’t lie. To do anything with force, you have to anchor yourself, and to really lash out, well. You have to bend to do that.”

She nodded. “You weren’t looking down.”

“Peripheral vision.”

“And then?” she persisted. “When I stepped in close?”

Thinking, he pursed his lips, then said, “It has to do with reach. You can’t aim high when you’re in close. Shoulders don’t work that way. So it has to be a body blow. You had one foot forward. It made sense that you’d strike with the opposite hand. Better balance. Better power. You did that by instinct, and I blocked you by knowing that’s how you’d move.”

Maer nodded. “All right. Shall we try again?”

Cullen couldn’t help a rueful laugh. “I’m trying to get rid of you!”

“I know, and it won’t work. So get up. Let me try again.”

He stood, closed the gap between them with three mighty strides, and loomed over her. “You’re an orphan, is that right?”

She quailed, but held her ground. She nodded.

“So am I, and twice over, too. For that, not because Doss says so, I’ll teach you. Because we both know what it’s like to be abandoned. Understand?”

Again, she nodded. With a furtive hand, she brushed her bangs aside, only to have them fall right back into place.

“All right, then,” he said. “Take a step back. Disguise what you’re doing if you can, and hit me. Hit me the way you want to hit yourself.”

Maer’s mouth popped open in protest. “I don’t––!” she cried, but Cullen silenced her with a single raised finger.

“Between us, between orphans,” he said, “we’ll tell no lies. So I’ll say it again. Hit me the way you want to be hit.”

Maer swallowed and eased out of her ready stance until she was standing straight and proud. She said, “I’m not what you think.”

“So you say.”

All of a sudden, he’d lunged forward and delivered a blow to her shoulder that nearly (but not quite) sent her sprawling. What saved her was her realization, at the very last second, that he’d flexed at the knees. Like a cat, she thought. Like a cat at the moment it springs.

As she sidestepped to keep him in view, she realized, he was showing her his flank. Not his back, no, but his shoulder. Unguarded. Unprotected. Had she been looking for such an opening, and had she been armed with something sharp…

“Good,” he said, smirking. “You noticed.”

“I am really not like you.”

“Hit me, Maer. Before I hit you.”

*

Ensconced in her usual seat, stone-carved and roomy, Mother Sand frowned at the tow-headed youth currently holding down the stage with a well-rehearsed but terribly tired defense of artist-oligarchs. She’d heard it all before, as had every last one of the gathered senators, Devout, and general citizenry. Indeed, the Oratory Hall positively rang with the rustling of clothes and the whispered undercurrent of a full dozen separate conversations, none of which were supposed to be happening. In this hallowed space, with its domed roof, vaulted arches, and extraordinary plaster work, all were to be silent when a speaker took the stage. Respect, that was the byword of the Oratory Hall. Respect for history, and respect for ideas. Respect for manners above all else.

To Mother Sand, the whole enterprise felt, especially in the wake of the disaster at the Spur, like so much childhood pantomime, ineffectual play-acting that had less than nothing to do with the real business of governance, or maintaining the peace. Her mood soured further with every point the young man made, and while he was clear, articulate, and even engaging, not a word he uttered mattered in the least. The Master Of Debate had announced that the young man was Farehli, a backwater lad who’d won a state-sponsored contest where the prize was to present and declaim at the capital. A more enormous waste of time and resources she could not begin to imagine.

The young man soldiered on, aware that he he’d lost (or never had) the attention of most of those gathered in the vast semi-circular chamber. He’d drawn a crowd, as nearly every event in the ongoing Grand Debate did, but a good number were up and wandering around, greeting those they knew, glad-handing those they wished to know better. This, too, Mother Sand had seen before. While it was the height of patriotism to laud the Grand Debate and champion its exchange of clever, bloodless blows, the real thing rarely did more than disappoint, and she knew she was not alone in her jaundiced assessment.

She considered simply getting up and returning to her apartments, but then she spotted Urnua, her favorite novitiate, angling toward her through the throng. Urnua was a short northwesterner from Lemphier, the island north of Aylis and west of D’rekaan, and she was a favorite for no better reason than that Mother Sand trusted her not to go running to Mother Coal. In her first days in the Church Complex, Urnua had accidentally tripped against Mother Coal’s walker, and knocked the old woman down. Urnua had never been forgiven for that, for Mother Coal (as Mother Sand well knew) hated above all else to be reminded, in public, of the obvious, glaring weakness of her crippled legs. After that, ostracized Urnua had been easy to take under her wing; all little birds needed shelter in a storm.

Down on the stage, a senatorial clerk had joined the young man and was rebuking him for perpetrating nonsense on the good people of Vagen. This was formal, an expected opening, and not personal. After a few traditional slurs and slights, she’d get on with the business of rebutting his main thesis, and after she’d made three or four points, he’d break in and rebut her in turn––if, that is, he was up to the challenge. Usually the contest winners were left alone, and it was a measure of how bored the onlookers had become that someone had bothered to crash the poor boy’s party.

Meanwhile, Urnua, awash in white novitiate’s robes and a waterfall of black hair, had reached her side. “Mother,” she said, and curtseyed.

Mother Sand eyed the girl with distaste. Two years she’d known Urnua, and for two years she’d admired the girl’s olive skin and despised her total lack of initiative. Why didn’t she take steps toward claiming a title in the priesthood she claimed to adore? Why become a novitiate at all except to rise within the hierarchy of the Unified Church? Yet Urnua seemed content to run errands and plug away at menial tasks, eschewing wherever possible theology, history, or even the ethical dilemmas of the senate’s Grand Debate. A cipher, this Urnua, but a trustworthy cipher at least. So far.

To Urnua, Mother Sand said, “I assume you have some crumb of news?”

Urnua, who always seemed amused by Mother Sand’s disparagements, said, “Two crumbs, Mother. First, the ship you were looking for, the Southwind, it’s been found.”

“Keep your voice down.”

“Yes, Mother.” Urnua came around behind the solid back of Mother Sand’s seat and lowered her voice to a breath. “The Southwind has been reported at anchor in Brokerudder Bay, on Farehl.”

Mother Sand chewed on this, then said, “Farehl. The Southwind worked Aylis, not Farehl.”

“Yes, Mother. But I trust my sources. The news is seven days old, but at least then, it was accurate.”

“Very well.” Mother Sand scratched at her jaw and tried to tune out the spirited on-stage attack of the senatorial clerk, who continued to excoriate the prize winner. For his part, he looked ready to fold, bolt, and flee. “What of the crew?” she asked.

“The Southwind sailed for the Spur with a complement of four. They had four still at Brokerudder Bay, one of them a girl. They all seem friendly with a miller in the town, but the miller…”

“Yes?”

After a quick hesitation, Urnua said, “The miller is apparently an exile. An Academy scientist named Durnian.”

“Durnian!” Mother Sand sat straighter in her chair. “There’s a name I haven’t heard in many a year. Help me up, child. We’ll continue this discussion in my apartments.”

But Urnua did not come around to the front of Mother Sand’s chair. She said, as Mother Sand squirmed closer to rising, “That’s the other crumb, Mother. Your apartments are currently occupied.”

Craning her neck around to better read Urnua’s expression, Mother Sand said, “Who? Who’s in my apartments?”

Urnua shrugged helplessly. “A Sindarin. He wouldn’t tell me his name.”

Mother Sand felt her stomach lurch. She knew her eyebrows had already flown toward the rafters, and she despised herself for being so easy to startle. Possibly Urnua had set her up to elicit precisely this reaction. Possibly, or even probably––in which case, the girl had gotten exactly what she wanted.

Rising under her own power, which was no easy task, for the seat was both expansive and sunken, and her hips and knees, especially after her adventures at the Spur’s Sea Steps, were not much to crow about, Mother Sand hobbled around to Urnua, apologizing as she went to those in her path. To actually leave during a debate was the height of rudeness, no matter how dull the performance. She made a mental note to draft an apology both to the Debate Committee and to the young man, whoever he was.

“Come,” she whispered to Urnua, “and tell me about this girl from the Southwind’s crew as we walk. Did you get a name?”

“She was going by Maer.”

This time, Mother Sand managed to keep her emotions in check. Maer. She’d almost expected Urnua to say that very name. So Elsbeth’s servant girl was alive, which meant several things. First, there were three witnesses to the destruction of the Beacon Tower, the other two being herself and Belner. Second, it meant that the crew of the Southwind had almost certainly heard Maer’s story––and, given the fire, which would have been visible for miles, they very likely believed it. Third, it meant that Belner had lied. He’d claimed he’d found Maer lurking near the tower’s privy, and that he’d done as directed and pushed his sword through the girl’s throat. And had she, Mother Sand, done what she should have done and checked? No. She’d been too hasty, too panicked in the wake of the bloodletting, to insist on checking the body herself. She’d been a perfect idiot, and taken Belner at his word.

And where was Belner now? She’d tried to have him pushed overboard (and more than once, too) on the voyage back to Vagen, but somehow (the man had Grandfather Mountain’s luck!) he’d never quite gone over the side, and, crazier still, seemed unaware that his many close shipboard shaves had not been mere accidents. Then, once in Vagen, once she’s pulled together a cabal of men she could trust, she’d tried to have him herded to the harbor, where she’d hoped to have him imprisoned ever so quietly on a ship of her choosing, where she could interrogate him one more time, then drop him to the bottom of the bay. Instead, he’d been snatched from right under her nose, and had not been seen since. How this had happened, and who’d been behind the abduction, she had no idea, but now, with Maer turning up alive––Maer, who might possibly have heard her give the order to murder the Spur’s keeper and all those with her––well. The wheel was in spin now, no question. Plus, there was a Sindarin in her room. How by Fengreth had he gotten there?

All this time, she and Urnua had been hurrying through the corridors, working their way from the sprawl of the senate buildings to the Church Complex, and Urnua had been chattering away in a non-stop whisper that paused only when greeting passersby. She covered what Maer looked like, what she ate, what the crew looked like, what the crew ate, and how Durnian the exile really did grow, according to her nameless informants, the juiciest, sweetest melons on the southern islands––and it was this choice tidbit that prompted Mother Sand to realize for the first time that Urnua had now developed extensive networks of her own, networks that might, in times of greater need, be all but impossible to control.

Urnua kept right on talking, until eventually Mother Sand said, “Enough, enough,” and aimed a quick slap at Urnua’s hand for emphasis. “The Sindarin. How do you know he’s Sindarin?”

“He told me so.”

“And you believed him.”

Chastened, Urnua said, “I know you think I’m a half-wit, but I’ve seen Sindarin before, at the Common Market. They have a look. And his clothes…he’s wearing doros.”

Mother Sand snorted. “Any fool can wear a disguise. Next you’ll be telling me he’s got filed teeth, proper fangs.”

Urnua, no longer able to mask her annoyance, said, “Yes––and the left one was two feet long. Shall I bring drae?” They’d arrived at the wide double doors that led to the priest’s apartments. “Or maybe something stronger?”

Waving her off, Mother Sand said, “I can serve my own. What I want you to do is to bring me as many Devoted as you can round up. Have them stand guard––and if they hear me screaming bloody murder inside, they could have the decency to break down the door and rescue me.”

“As you wish.”

“Urnua.”

The novitiate, halfway gone already and still looking hurt and stormy, turned back. Mother Sand made sure to give her a kindly smile. “You’re not a half-wit, and I’ve never thought that. Thank you for coming to fetch me, and for your work on finding the supplies boat. I stand in your debt.”

A flicker of appeased gratitude crossed Urnua’s solemn features. “Thank you, Mother.”

“Step lively, then. We both have our tasks.”

Mother Sand turned away, threw open the double doors, and half-strode, half-hobbled inside.

On the far side of the resplendent bath, an inset pool decorated with sea-colored tiles and constantly supplied by a cleverly hidden duct of hot water, Mother Sand’s visitor waited. His colorful tunics and billowing doro made him look thick-set and strong, which Mother Sand suspected he probably was, even without his traditional Sindarin garb. He had a proud face and a prouder stance; the trim black goatee at his chin gave him a princely air. The rest of his head had been shaved, waxed, and brought to a high shine.

She’d thought she would recognize him, since she knew all the official Sindarin envoys, but she knew at a glance she had never seen this man in her life.

Making sure to close the doors behind her, she drew herself up, gave the intruder one more baleful stare, and said, “Whom do I have the pleasure of addressing?”

The Sindarin’s thin lips pulled back in a wide, toothy smile. “You address Lelanarshik Ferrasan of the House Lelan Shandor, Third of the Houses of Old, and Lord of the Foundering Reefs.”

God on high, Mother Sand thought, spare me the titles. Spare me the surnames. Of all the ancients’ wisdom in first founding the State, it often seemed to her that their greatest gift, their most exceptional perspicacity, had come with the banning of both surnames and titles throughout the Six Lands. Impossible to enforce in the more distant reaches, of course––people had their vanities––and the Sindarin had been in open rebellion ever since, but for the rest? For the bulk of the State’s many and varied citizens? What a fine leveler that one small codicil had been.

To Lelanrshik, she said, “You may call me Mother Sand.”

“I know.”

Smugness was a trait she could not abide (it had long since driven her from Mother Coal), and she thought she had never met a more arrogant individual than the man who now stood before her.

“How,” she asked, “did you get in?”

He shrugged. “Your doors are unlocked.”

“But you didn’t come through them. You’d have drawn far too much attention.”

He inclined his head, looking pleased. “They told me you had a sharp mind, and I see that they were correct.”

“If ‘they’ told you all that, then they also told you I am not to be bought with cheap flattery. I’ll ask you one more time, how did you get in?”

Looking her right in the eye, he said, “And I, once more, shall evade the question. Why? Because if I were to tell you, you would not believe me.”

“God grants credulity as befits the situation, so perhaps you should let me be the judge of that.”

Lelanarshik shook his head and folded his arms firmly across his chest. “Hear me, Church Mother. You and I, we are both defenders of the old ways. Tradition.”

Tradition. She could have kicked him. The Sindarin were monarchists to the core, and if there was one thing the State could not abide…

“Hear this also,” he went on, as if accepting her disapproval and running with it, “your god and mine are not the same. I fear yours will continue to lead you astray.”

Smug, cheeky, and overbearing, all in one man; Mother Sand could hardly believe her ears. “I have guards assembling outside,” she said. “Trained Devoted. So if you’re considering anything untoward…”

At this, the Sindarin threw back his head and guffawed. “It is the farthest thing from my mind. Come, shall we sit? I see you have an excellent stock of wine, and if you prefer, I have brought a pinch or two of thumis––although I seem to recall you do not partake.”

He gestured to her sitting area, a mix of cushioned cane chairs and, on the floor, a series of enormous pillows (her back often pained her, and she never knew from day to day what new and awkward position might be most comfortable). She considered refusing, and to demand instead that he get on with whatever it was he’d come for, but instead she acquiesced. Wine sounded enticing, and the excuse to drink some, so early in the day, even more so.

“First,” he said, as he poured a choice wine, honey-colored and hailing from the southern tip of D’rekaan, “I will apologize for appearing so suddenly, without announcement. But it is not you and yours from whom I am hiding. I must be careful around my own folk as well, and the ambassador––all his ilk, really”––he handed her a goblet of wine, toasting her as he did so––“they would not take kindly to my acting as emissary in their stead.”

He paused, sipped grandly, as if his lips and this wine had always been meant for each other. “The sad truth is, we Sindarin are no more united in our causes than are you within your so-called Unified Church. No, don’t deny it. Mothers Driftwood, Fog, and Coral all have their little webs and plots, not to mention Mother Coal, whom I’m told is your particular favorite. And on our side of the wall, well. When news reaches us, each faction must respond in its own way. And news, I assure you, has very definitely reached our ears.”

He gazed at her, a tolerant smile on his face, as if daring her to guess what gossip he’d heard. Not having much fondness for dares, she smiled back. “News,” she said, “is so much dead weight unless shared.”

“Too true. This much, I can tell you. Mail has arrived, and found homes all over the capital. Mail sent from Aylis, from the Spur, from an outcast and near-heretic. Mail from a beacon keeper named Elsbeth. Perhaps you know her?”

Mother Sand held herself as still as any Lemphieri statue. “We’ve met,” she said.

The Sindarin nodded appreciatively, as if this were exactly the right answer. “Of course,” he said. “And, having met her, you can guess what heresies she’s spouting. Recommendations to build enormous spyglasses, suggestions to order special lenses. All in the service of proving her outrageous assertions. Claims of intelligent life––civilization, even––on Sister Blue. Trifles, in their way, these claims, but they add up to something much worse than all our supposed ‘Sindarin Heresies,’ don’t you think?”

Mother Sand had to force herself to breathe. Not an hour before, she’d felt certain and secure that she’d nipped any such sacrilege in the bud, but now Maer was alive, and somehow Elsbeth’s mail had been delivered––had that silly girl Maer been the one who managed it?––and a Sindarin, of all people, was the one telling her about it. Despite her best efforts, she felt her lips curling into a snarl.

“If this,” she said, “amounts to a threat…”

“It does,” he assured her, “though perhaps not to you.” He leaned forward, one arm resting on his knees. “Hear me, Church Mother. You’re a person who knows not only how to weather a crisis, but how to steer it. A woman who understands that when the hurricane comes ashore, you do what it takes to be ready. The sad fact is that while most of the Six Lands believe that my people are ready at a moment’s notice to rebel, break out the gunpowder, and blow up everything the State holds dear, the truth is that those in power behind the compound wall are, at heart, cowards and pacifists. Not fit to lead an army of ants. But the time is coming when we, Sindarin and Circle-folk alike, will require swifter action, bolder decisions. Leadership that understands security, and not this meek ducking of heads that passes, today, for governance. I think you take my meaning.”

She took a fresh sip of wine, and almost slugged it by accident. “You’ve come to me because you like my temperament?”

He shook his head. “You hold the loyalties of the Devoted. You more than any of your order beyond, perhaps, Mother Coal. If––and I say if––martial law were required to, let us say, put down fresh heresies, profanities built around some sort of celestial brotherhood, then I can well imagine that you would rise to command. And, yes, you might be the sort of ally whom even we Sindarin could trust to keep the peace.”

Her thoughts raced. “You’re saying you’d want assurances…”

“Yes.”

“Assurances that if I were to take personal command of the Devoted, that we wouldn’t necessarily use them against you. Your particular faction. Whatever that is.”

He inclined his head, as if impressed. “Leave us to our own affairs, no matter how much noise and shouting you might hear from the Sindarin side of the wall. I have allies there aplenty, should push come to shove, and once we’ve sorted out our own, well. I would not to be slow to repay the debt, or to offer assistance. You are aware, I’m sure, of the military prowess of my people.”

She was, and was not. That the Sindarin openly practiced the sort of sword-play and martial training that most of those in the State had long since set aside, she knew, but so far as she could tell (so far as the Unified Church’s many informants could tell), most of what the Sindarin called training amounted to ritualized dances and innumerable dress parades. A showy tribe, the Sindarin, and always willing to boast that despite their very small numbers (on Vagen, did they number even five thousand?), they could always beat an opposing force double theirs in size.

As for the notion that Lelanarshik Ferrasan of the House Lelan Shandor, Third of the Houses of Old, and Lord of the Foundering whatevers was seriously proposing that she sanction an internal Sindarin rebellion, and that any such uprising would be touched off by unrest over rumors of Sister Blue (the exact sort of rumor she’d been so driven to quell), well, it was almost beyond countenancing.

“I suppose I needn’t mention,” Lelanarshik went on, “that this meeting never took place.”

“My novitiate, the one you sent to find me––”

He waved a louche, unconcerned hand. “Oh, I’m sure you have her well under your thumb, yes?”

She frowned, looking not at him but into the middle distance. Better, always, to avoid looking too directly at anyone as magnetic as Lelanarshik––or Mother Coal, for that matter. It was a quality she had long wished to possess for herself, and despite decades of studied cultivation, had never been able to achieve.

“I believe,” she said at last, “that we have the basis of an understanding.”

He beamed.

“However,” she went on, “we stand on unequal footing.”

He almost bowed. “We Sindarin, caged by you behind our wall, are forever on an unequal footing.”

“I mean you know how to find me. But if I wish to reach you…”

Newly pensive, he nodded. A point, she thought, that he had not considered. So much the better.

“Very well,” he said, and he dug from his tunic a small pendant. “Should you wish to communicate…”

His voice trailed away as what had been a soft, distant rumble grew in an instant to a cavernous, quaking roar, and the entire chamber shook. A hand-apple rolled from its basket; a ceramic vase tumbled from a shelf and shattered; the wine bottles, thick-bottomed and weighted with liquid, trembled on their tray, while the simple clay Twins, set on a nearby table, landed face-down with a heavy thunk. Both Lelanarshik and Mother Sand sat bolt upright, their hands pressed to their chairs in readiness for flight, but just as quickly as it had arrived, the rumbling faded, the jolting room steadied itself, and the earthquake moved on.

“Ah,” said the Sindarin, shaking his head in wonder, “Grandfather Mountain grows ever more restless.”

Mother Sand nodded in reflexive agreement. Because she had chosen apartments that looked in the opposite direction from Vagen’s neighboring volcanic summit, she could pretend, most days, that Grandfather Mountain did not exist, and that her city did not live cheek by jowl with such an enormous and explosive force. There were, she knew, geologists who claimed that both Vagen and Grandfather Mountain, connected now only by a narrow just-above-the-waves causeway, had once been closely joined, and that it was their twinned, titanic eruption that had formed the encircling Six Lands. Indeed, so these geologists claimed, the Six Lands had once risen from the sea in concert, straining skyward as one mighty peak, until, in some long-lost epoch, it had blown itself apart. When shown on a map, she’d found this almost made sense––that Vagen, at the center of the Circle Seas and ringed by the five great islands of Aylis, Lemphier, D’rekaan, Shansindár, and Farehl, had once been part of a much more imposing and contiguous land mass. One that had not survived.

As for the recent shakings delivered by Grandfather Mountain, they’d become markedly more frequent in the past thirty days, and doomsday cultists had sprung up across the capital to proclaim that Grandfather’s sudden activity signaled God’s anger with the world; in short order, along would come the violent end of the Six Lands and possibly the universe. Even quite rational people, senators and artisans whom Mother Sand would have credited for having more sense, took the quakes to be portents of troubled times ahead. But then, perhaps they were right. Given what she’d seen on the Spur, who was to say that these portents didn’t mean business?

So thinking, she allowed herself to relax back into her seat. “Directions,” she said. “You were going to let me know how to make use of that pendant.”

“Precisely, yes. Go to the common market. Find the beadseller at the far eastern edge, and present him with this. If you wish, you could send your servant––I apologize, your novitiate––but whoever goes, all you need do is give this over, and within a day, I will appear here, at your service.”

“This man’s name?”

“Not that it matters, but he is Shansa Denloried of the House of Shansan Megren, Fourth of the––”

“Please, spare me the titles.”

Lelanarshik grinned at her. “Again, my apologies. My people do have a fondness for history.”

She took a long look at the pendant her guest had passed over. Made of a single curved seashell, it had been carved and polished such that a raised image of an eye appeared on its concave side. Sindarin symbolism typically employed weaponry or birds; the eye was new to her, and as such, it left her feeling both ignorant and less than happy.

To cover this latest battle with her poise, she rose and smoothed out her robes. It was crucial, given that she was conducting this audience in her own apartments, that she be the one to end the meeting. She said, in her most crisp, businesslike manner, “Until we meet again.”

The Sindarin rose as well, gave a small bow, and remained exactly where he was.

Mother Sand inclined her head toward the doors. “You are free to go.”

“I believe it would be best if I exited using the same means by which I entered. So while I realize it is the height of bad manners, I must ask you to be the one to take your leave––and when you return, I shall be gone.”

Amazed, both at his insolence and by the absurdity of his proposal, she laughed and said, “And you’ll do what? Vanish into thin air?”

He spread his hands and did his best to look humble. She wondered if, beneath his doro, his tail was twitching.

Whatever his tail was up to, she realized she’d stumbled into a stand-off––one that she was about to lose, unless she flung wide the doors and ordered whatever Devoted had gathered there to rush in and detain her Sindarin guest. Which, she supposed, she had more than every right to do. He’d broken several treaty clauses in appearing anywhere this side of the compound wall, unannounced and unescorted. She’d be perfectly justified in tossing him into the deepest Unified dungeon and melting down the key.

“Very well,” she said, and she marched to the doors and left, feeling thoroughly bamboozled and ready at a moment’s notice to scold or demote anyone who so much as looked her way. But no one did. Those passing in the corridors averted their eyes, as did Urnua, who’d wisely stationed herself at some remove from the doors, and as for the Devoted (there were twelve of them, well done Urnua), they kept their gaze fixed as proper soldiers should. Not that the Devoted were proper soldiers. The better half of them would likely bloody their palms just from the drawing of their semi-sharp swords. When, she wondered, and not for the first time, had the once-feared corps of the Devoted become more ornamental than effectual?

For two full minutes, she stood in the corridor, fidgeting with her fingers and doing her best to hide that fact by means of an artful fold of her robes. She’d developed a pounding headache, and the three ebony stones on her headband, which had never felt heavier, were pressing with uncomfortable force into her temple.

Two minutes, though, was all she intended to give. When she thought that time was up, she barked at Urnua to lead the Devoted inside and arrest anyone they found within. With a grand clatter of mail and boots, the Devoted trooped in, scattered, and found no one. Their leader, a captain she’d never met before, reported in clear, ringing tones that all was secure.

“Good, then,” she said, as if having a dozen Devoted search her apartments was an entirely routine occurrence. “You are dismissed.”

Once all but Urnua had left, Mother Sand sat back on one of her enormous cushions, demanded a fresh cup of wine, and began giving orders. It was no small list, and Urnua, who had nothing with which to write, stared hard at the floor in a heroic effort to take it all in.

“First,” Mother Sand began, “though not perhaps most importantly, you will have this apartment searched top to bottom. Tear up the floor if you have to. I want to know how that man got in.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Second, you will go the Offices of the Judiciary and retrieve the trial records of an Academy graduate named Durnian. Withdraw them in Mother Coal’s name, then bring them directly to me. Third, you will order, in the name of the Unified Church, the immediate shut-down of the Bethanian Lens Shop––it’s on the lower slopes, near the southeast harbor. Fourth, you will put out an arrest warrant for the D’rekaani girl, Maer. Now repeat all that back to me.”

Urnua did so, with admirable accuracy, and was summarily dismissed. The moment she left, Mother Sand went to her bedchambers and lit a stick of incense, which she set on a decorative dish and placed below a small vent in the ceiling. After checking to make certain that the smoke from the incense was trailing into the vent, she went to her study, found paper, and began drafting a series of directives for the Devoted, ranging from orders to immediately double their recruitment intake to a demand that their weaponry training be made mandatory, even for veteran officers. It would take some doing to fund such measures, or to get them by the Unified Council, but she suspected that with the right dropped hints, even Mothers Forest and Driftwood (that weakling) would support her. And as for Mother Coal, well. Mother Sand intended to play her like a fiddle.

A knock sounded on the door.

She rose, and moved to open it. On the far side stood an unassuming man with a cauliflower ear and a tired, sleepy expression. In greeting, he merely cocked a bored eyebrow.

She said, keeping her voice low, “You recall Urnua, the novitiate?”

Her visitor nodded, for all the world as if he might at any moment lie down for a nap.

“Find her. Follow her. Track her. Report back to me.”

He nodded again, still sluggish but with, now, a far-off gleam in his eye, the waking look of a hunting dog alert to the thrill of the chase.

“Consider it done,” he said, “but do me a favor. Next time, get better quality incense.”

 

 

 

End Chapter Five

To read Chapter Six, 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 SkatesSleeping BearCheck-Out Timeand Bonesyall 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 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 KingsActs 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.

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