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 Four. To read Chapter Three, click here.
Even in full flight, running for his life, Belner thought of his father, a man who’d spent the last four decades harrumphing around and depressing all who would listen with endless diatribes about how pretty much everything had been better back when, how children today were lax, how the senate had long since worn through what debates there were to be had, how the very fish from the sea no longer tasted as good fish should, and how the Devoted, in particular, had grown soft. Undisciplined and weak.
Well, thought Belner, as he flew ‘round a corner and ricocheted off a startled laundry boy––the boy’s head-balanced basket fell, sending colorful D’rekaani-made trousers in all directions––you got that part right, Father. Soft enough to care, that’s what we Devoted have become––or at least I have. Undisciplined, too. We carry out our orders, or we make some token attempt at resisting, but either way, we can’t live with what we’ve done. And as for weak, well. Belner was pretty sure that if he ran another ten yards, his lungs would burst.
Somehow, they didn’t, and the sounds of footfalls pounding on the cobbles behind gave him a fresh burst of energy. The five men pursuing him were fleet, and not one was burdened by even his level of piecemeal armor. They would catch him, in the end, unless he could somehow get to safety. But where, exactly, would that be? Normally, he’d have gone straight to the halls of the Devoted, or to the garrison of the city watch, but since the men chasing him were members of both, men he knew by sight and even, in one case, by name, it seemed best not to push his luck. Best to run on, to keep sprinting until he either hit on a bright idea or died from a ruptured lung.
The day had started well. It was, in fact, his day off. Which explained why he was wearing his colors but not his sword. He had no priests or novitiates to guard today, no ceremonies to supervise. No, he’d had nothing more onerous on his mind than a trip to the harbor to bargain down a lace merchant, and afterward to present his prize to a would-be sweetheart, a senatorial clerk whose breasts, smile, and hair made him weak-kneed from thirty paces distant.
A good thing, he thought, that the lovely Stasha wasn’t in view at present. Being weak-kneed, at this moment, would get him killed that much more quickly.
Not far downhill from the Devoted barracks, his ambushers had assembled in his wake like a gang of alleyway dogs, picking up his scent one at a time, then joining up and making a point of kicking stones and stomping whenever possible. He’d broken into a run only after having turned several corners, only after it became impossible to deny that he really was being stalked.
Now the end game seemed imminent. He knew Vagen’s streets and alleys well, but despite his best efforts, he hadn’t been able to make what crowds he’d found into blockades or safe havens. The harbor was fast approaching, with its low-slung warehouses, its maze of docks and piers (dead-ends one and all), and after that, boats, ships, and water. He could swim, yes, but where to? Two hundred some miles to the next of the Six Lands?
Belner ducked a low arch, hurtled up a short stair that quickly hooked a right and aimed back down. His pursuers, forced briefly into single file by the narrowness of the way, slowed. A flicker of hope gave wings to Belner’s feet. That was the secret, surely: find the narrowest possible course. Then, if he had to turn and fight, he could deal with one assailant at a time.
Good plan, he told himself. A very good plan. Except he didn’t have his sword, or any blade larger than a whittling knife. That, and he was surely too winded to fight properly.
Of course, the odds were that his pursuers were also too tired to mount a proper assault. Did that even the match? Not really. It was still five against one.
The alley he was in zigged and zagged and wound up in a public courtyard. As he darted among the little knots of pedestrians, a woman ran up to him and, instead of either attacking, as he thought she might, or getting out of his way, which would have been sensible, she fell into step beside him. Dressed in loose trousers and a linen shirt, she nodded an amused greeting and said, “We’ve been looking for you. If staying alive is part of your plan, follow me.”
His pursuers poured into the courtyard just as the woman veered left and through a propped-open doorway. Without thinking, he followed, and the door, worked by some third party, slammed behind him.
It was very dim inside, and he stumbled over a workbench and stepped directly on top of a bellows––it let out a ghastly wheezing groan as his boot depressed it––before hearing the woman calling, “This way, quick, this way!”
He ran on, narrowly avoiding a passing stranger who was equally bent on avoiding him, and then he was in a corridor, a narrow passage, candle-lit at intervals. Behind him, he heard loud pounding on the door through which he’d entered, and yelling, a great deal of yelling, back and forth demands to open up, and indignant responses citing private property and threats to call the city watch. He ran on, catching glimpses of the woman running ahead. He was gasping now, staggering more than running, but she urged him on, you’re almost there, we’re almost there.
Almost where? he wondered. Unless he missed his guess, the corridor was a tunnel; they’d doubled back under the slope of the island. If so, they were deep underground now. Plenty of folk had a cave or two on their property, mostly scraped-out holes used for storage, but this? Even the vast Church Complex had only the most limited catacombs––or so he’d always been told.
The corridor kinked left, hooked right. Sloped upward. Narrowed. He wasn’t running now, just shuffling, and his guide had slowed as well. “Truly, we’re almost there. Just a little farther…”
“Where…?” he managed to puff, and then, he arrived at his own answer: a rounded room like the bottom of a well, lit by two lanterns, and with a ceiling of slats and joists some thirty shadowy feet above his head. Metal rungs pounded into the stone led up, and up, and up.
“I can go first if you like,” the woman said, sounding almost offensively cheery.
Belner leaned on the nearest rung, panting for his life. The best answer he could make was a feeble lift of his arm.
“Don’t worry. The men chasing you, we diverted them into a different tunnel. Much shorter, and it’ll take them back out to the streets. Still, no sense in sitting around down here, now, is there?”
She put a foot to the lowest rung and started up, climbing with the ease of a shepherd girl in a verrel tree.
He would have watched, if only to make sure he knew how to get through the ceiling once he got that high, and had he met with this stranger nearly anywhere else, he would have watched in any case, for she was lithe and pretty, with loose hair, good teeth and the indeterminate skin of someone neither fully northern or southern. Plus, she’d saved him. Or seemed to have saved him. He wondered, as the oxygen finally made its presence known in his relieved, grateful lungs, what awaited him at the top of the ladder.
Above, he heard a creaking sound. A trap door had opened, and when he looked up, he could see light above and the woman’s kicking legs disappearing over the rim of the opening.
Right, he said, chiding himself. The day has not yet come to pass, no matter what his petulant father might think, that a member of the Devoted, no matter how exhausted, could not mount a ladder.
He got hold of the first rung and ignored the protest of his weary legs. Up, and up again. It was a near vertical, but he’d scaled ladders, not to mention ship’s rigging, before. Up, and up, and then helpful arms had grabbed him under the shoulders and he was being hauled up and out and into a sizable chamber, one done up with the friendly, familiar sigils of the Unified Church. The woman who’d led him stood not five feet away, all smiles. The two men who held him stepped back, deferential as could be, and not clad in any uniform he recognized.
“So,” called a voice from the far end of the room, a woman’s voice, elderly but ringing. “You must be Belner.”
He turned to see a priest, a priest standing only with the aid of a walker. She wore the order’s headband, and her robes were black and clean. He knew her at once: Mother Coal, as close to a senior head of the Unified Church (which he had sworn to defend) as any woman alive.
It wasn’t required to kneel when in audience with a member of the Most Devout, but he was so tired, he did so willingly. “My name is Belner, if it please you,” he said.
“Of course it is,” Mother Coal replied. “Now come over here and sit with me. We’ll get you something to drink, and then you can tell me all about why a group of your very own Devoted is suddenly so intent on killing you.” She chuckled, as if this were a very fine jest, and one to which she perhaps already knew the punch-line. “While we’re at it,” she went on, as she folded herself into a seat and pushed away the walker, “you’re going to tell me everything that’s happened to you, every last little jot, from the moment you first arrived at the Spur’s Beacon Tower with my good friend Mother Sand. All right? Excellent. I can feel it in my bones, you and I are about to become the best of good friends.”
In all the old tales, extrications were full of chanting and rites, incense and mumbo-jumbo, but Vashear knew now that the reality was far less colorful, and far more tawdry. Had the woman bitten him? On the back of the neck? He didn’t like to believe it, and his memory since the Spur was so untrustworthy, so fractured, that he couldn’t be perfectly sure, but she’d certainly had him sitting upright on a hard-backed chair, and she’d come around behind him, and she’d most definitely cradled his head with both hands, and then she’d asked about the Beacon Tower, and the battle, and the keeper, and Davleen, and he’d done his best to recount every last detail, and then, with those two shepherds watching, Clarus and Trelloy, whom he’d taken to be his friends, she’d leaned down fast and…and…
There’d been others there, too, mostly women: two local prayer mothers, three signatories, the mayor, others he couldn’t now bring into focus. A large group, some seated, some standing, their faces yellow in the lantern-light. Some had looked somber, others excited; their lips had been parted, as if they couldn’t wait for whatever would happen next.
What had happened next?
She’d been behind him, whispering to him. She’d held his head in her hands, her fingers splayed. She’d leaned lower, seductive and calming, but also somehow vicious, and then, like a striking snake, she’d clamped her teeth into his neck. He wasn’t making that up, he was sure of it, and he’d wanted to shove her away, fend her off, but somehow he couldn’t move. With her lulling touch, her will, and her fierce, hungry jaws, she’d rendered him both pliable and helpless.
And what had happened then, in that dim, half-lit hut? How long had she held him with her teeth? Minutes? Hours? And once she’d let go, the rictus of her mouth red and slippery with his blood, how long had she swayed there behind him, speaking his memories aloud in a haunted, sing-song chant. The voice might not have been his, but what she’d said was accurate to a fault, and he’d had to sit there, still immobilized by whatever fell powers she had, and hear again each vivid, awful detail of the events at the Spur.
He reached tentative fingers to test the back of his neck for any sign of a wound. Sure enough, it was tender and sticky. He hadn’t imagined it. Clarus and Trelloy really had taken him to an extricator, and at least here, in the pig-sty market town of Ferth, this really was how extricators worked.
The worst of it was, the two shepherds had apparently abandoned him. He was alone in a cheerful upstairs room with several windows and no furniture beyond a trio of beds. On the sill of the east-facing window stood a ceramic vase loaded with flowers, and sunlight spilled in bright beams across the slowly warping floorboards. Had he not been alone and disoriented––had he not been grappling with the splintered memories of the night before––he’d have thought the room a very fine domicile indeed. Instead, it felt like a prison. In looking at the door, which was closed, he had a funny idea that if he tried the handle, he’d find it locked.
He rolled to a sitting position. He put his feet on the floor. He was dismayed to find that he was naked, and even more dismayed to realize that he was only just discovering this. What else was he failing to register? He gave himself a quick quiz. Name: Vashear. Occupation: Senatorial Guard. Home: Vagen, at the barracks of the Senatorial Guard. Age: seventeen and a half. Marital prospects: many. Hair color: red. Recent doings: assisting a group of shepherds on the moors of Aylis by mending fences, herding sheep, and entertaining their children.
Where were Clarus and Trelloy?
He rose, found his clothes, and dressed. After discovering a nook in the wall that displayed the Twins, he offered them a perfunctory prayer, a plea for grace and courage and sea winds calm enough to bring all sailors safely home. As he did so, he became aware of a susurrant murmur outside the windows facing the street, a sound like many voices neither hushed nor noisy. A gathering. As for the usual street sounds of vendors and traffic, of clopping mules and shouted greetings, he heard nothing.
Odd, yes, but not of crucial importance. The first thing was to figure out where he was, and where his companions were, and what the plan was now. Was he staying on at the village (this had been discussed), or was he working his way home, using Ferth as a jumping-off point to the port of Squall? Nailing down this decision felt even more imperative in the wake of his night with the extricator. It felt, in fact, as if firming up his next move might erase all memory of the extrication––it was already fading into diaphanous tatters of shadow––and there was nothing in his life, at this moment, that he wanted more desperately.
He went to the door, and tugged it open. It wasn’t locked after all, but on the other side, at the top of a crooked staircase, stood two armed men. The sigils on their tight-fitting leather jackets made it clear they were both members of Ferth’s constabulary.
So, Vashear thought, he really was a prisoner. Had he done something wrong? Or maybe extrications themselves were illegal? He thought perhaps they were, and that once, not so long ago, he’d known that. They were certainly outlawed in the capital––and perhaps this was a measure of just how far he’d traveled, in having arrived at Ferth…?
“Good morning, sir,” said the nearer and taller of the two constables. He straightened up and saluted. “Are you feeling any better?”
“I…I’m feeling well enough.”
“Very good, sir. Will you be wanting breakfast?”
“No, I…” He hesitated, got his bearings, and thought about whether he could, unarmed, knock the two constables one against the other and, in so doing, make his escape.
“No. No, no…”
The shorter man spoke up, his voice surprisingly deep and resonant. “We could even get you wakefulness, if you prefer.” His offer drew a look of rebuke from the taller man, but not a contradiction.
On another day, Vashear might have taken the man up on his offer. He’d dabbled in thumis before, especially when in the company of a pretty girl, but at this moment, in the wake of his nightmare bout with the extricator, he couldn’t imagine anything worse. He did his best to stammer both his thanks and a demurral, and then he stepped back, ready to retreat to his room and close the door.
The shorter man pressed his hand to the door, preventing it from closing. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir. The folks have been waiting quite a while to see you. If you’re feeling up to it, now might be a good time to show your face.”
“To show my face…?”
Both constables smiled, and not, Vashear thought, at all unkindly. “How about we bring you downstairs?” said the short one, his voice so warm and reassuring that Vashear couldn’t help but trust him. Mostly. He trusted him enough, at least, to press a few questions.
“Where is Clarus?” he asked. “And his friend, Trelloy?”
The two constables exchanged an inscrutable look.
“You have been sleeping,” said the taller man.
“Three days, to be exact,” said the other. “Listen, I can see how this must look, but you’re not a prisoner. We’re here just to make sure you get your rest. Not that I’ve had any experience, but I hear extrication’s no walk in the park. As for your friends, they waited a day, but then they had to get home. Flocks and families, you know shepherds: they’ve got their priorities. But we’ll send word you’re awake, I promise, and they did say they’d come back. Really, the thing to do now is to come downstairs. This is a big moment for this town. Very big indeed.”
As the man chuckled, Vashear tried to make sense of how his descending a staircase could in any way be a significant event. Just how much of a backwater was Ferth, anyway?
“All right,” he said, though he didn’t mean it. “Let’s go.”
The shorter constable led the way, Vashear came next, and the taller man brought up the rear. The stair ended in a branching corridor, and thanks to a quick glimpse of a common room to the right, Vashear now felt certain that he was at an inn, possibly the same one he’d first come to upon arriving in town. There was no time to think about it. The lead constable pushed open the front door, and they emerged into the street.
Under a watery sky of haze and gleam, hundreds of people fell silent as Vashear emerged. Most were dark-haired, and a few were blonde. None were carrot-topped, as he was. All were focused on one thing: him.
“You know,” whispered the shorter constable, in helpful tones, “they could see you better if you were to step up onto this here barrel.”
The man indicated, with a jerk of his head, a large beer barrel standing near the door, and Vashear, as if moving in another man’s body, clambered atop it and stared out at the crowd, a gathering limited only by the confines of the bent street and its shoulder-to-shoulder buildings. People leaned out windows, perched on rooftops, stood in tight groups on wagons. Every single face was focused, expectantly, on him.
He felt himself blushing, a whole-body experience that sent him right down off the barrel again. The sense of being someone else, of this all being ordained and proper, was gone. They wouldn’t let him go, though; the two constables caught him and shushed his protests and assured him that everyone there already knew his story, already knew his secrets, already believed. “Believe what?” he said.
“In Sister Blue,” said both constables, nearly in unison. “In,” said the taller man, “the visitation to come.”
The visitation. Vashear hesitated. Was that what he’d promised? Was that what Elsbeth had actually predicted, back at the Spur? It all felt so fuzzy, so imprecise––and yet, it was that exact sensation that made the imminence of Sister Blue seem so forceful and real. So trustworthy.
“All we want now, if possible,” said the shorter constable, “is the details. The how of it. The when. I tell you, the extricator’s already done the rest.”
A chant was growing, low but steady, a swelling, rising rumble of, “Sister Blue, Sister Blue, Sister Blue…”
“I don’t know what to say.”
The short constable shrugged. “Say good morning, if you like. What matters isn’t what you say. It’s that you know we’re all behind you, one hundred percent.”
By the time Vashear got himself atop the barrel for a second time, the chant had grown to a cheer. Vashear flashed back to his boulder-top performances at the village, and how the children had always applauded him. He looked down at the faces below and saw there the same wonder and adulation, the same unqualified, unearned trust, and all at once, he knew what to do. Beaming, he raised his arms to the sky.
The crowd, in response, erupted into cheers.
“You are loved and blessed!” he cried. “It is assured! For what has God done? We are gifted with brethren, new brothers and sisters that until now God had chosen to keep secret. But this new truth is ours to share, and we must not hold back. We must bring the news to all. We must tell everyone in the Circle Seas that God has given us friends on Sister Blue, and we must prepare to welcome them with open arms, open hearts, and open minds. Think of our blessings!” he cried. “We, we right here today, stand at the dawn of a new age, and it will be our privilege––our privilege and our task––to welcome it! Are you with me?”
The roar of approval that answered back rattled windows and doors up and down the street, and when Vashear called out again, “Are you with me?” the clamor of response was so tremendous that he thought he would burst with happiness. They were with him, body and soul, even if they didn’t know what they were with him for, or why, or what it was exactly he knew, or said he knew. None of it mattered. He stood at the head of a holy army, a happy rabble so delighted by its own newfound zeal that he could turn them (he knew it) in the palm of his hand.
Vashear had never been religious, not really, not when he was being honest with himself, but in that moment, atop that barrel and surrounded by the most loving throng that any man could ever want, he offered up a prayer to the skies, to God, and to Sister Blue specifically. Guidance, he prayed. You spared me once and maybe twice. Don’t let me wreck whatever it is I’m supposed to accomplish.
The crowd, seeing that he’d closed his eyes in what they supposed could only be prayer or supplication, cheered as they’d never cheered anyone in their lives.
The crew of the Southwind had never planned to stop for any length of time in Brokerudder Bay, but as the first day passed into a second, and the second rapidly into a third, Felson and Cullen settled in and got to know the town. Doss gave them both free rein, and why not? Maer changed her mind at every turn. One minute she’d be so angry over Elsbeth’s murder that she wanted nothing more than to set sail for the capital with a sword at her belt and a dagger in her teeth. The next, cooler thoughts would prevail, and she’d recall that with a sword, she had no more skill than did a fish with a shovel. Twice she ran away, fleeing into Farehl’s forests, and on her second escape, she lasted a whole night before hunger drove her back to Durnian’s scrubbed, unassuming, workaday mill.
Doss never pushed her, and his crew, acting on orders, never came near either her or the mill, but Durnian bent her ear at every possible opportunity. What he wanted precisely, Maer could never fully discern, but he certainly didn’t want her to disappear. “Not an option,” he harrumphed, whenever she brought up any course that might lead to a quiet life, a life devoid and in denial of Elsbeth’s revelations. “You’re in too deep already.”
She saw now that her initial liking for him had been hasty, born of a nascent need to hang her heart on any friend of Elsbeth’s. But was Durnian a friend? In thinking over the correspondence she’d read (illicitly, on the Southwind), she had to admit that expressions of true fondness had been lacking. The keeper had approached Durnian as a kindred spirit, a fellow scientist and a useful ally, but she had neither ended nor begun her missive with the sort of sentiments one reserved for friends and family. Initially, this hadn’t struck Maer at all, since Elsbeth had been, as Durnian pointed out, a distant person, even cold. If anything, demonstrative language on the keeper’s part would have immediately set Maer’s teeth on edge. Even so, she was no longer inclined to think of Durnian in generous terms. He was wry and amusing, yes, and he kept her fed and housed without complain, but while his wrath over Elsbeth’s demise was admirable, she felt, under his gaze, like a mouse caught in the open by a sharp-eyed hawk. She discovered him gazing her way daily, even hourly, with a look that approximated longing, but he never seemed shame-faced to be caught staring, as more than a few sailors had been back in the Spur’s cove. No, whatever he had in mind, he wasn’t much interested in undressing her, as the sailors had been. He seemed more to be studying. Assessing. Plotting.
On their fifth day in Brokerudder Bay, Durnian called a town meeting (for a miller, he demonstrated an exorbitant sway over local affairs) and, once there, announced that his present houseguests had brought momentous news from the capital. The exact details were, he claimed, still in the process of being verified, but the gist was that the Unified Church was in talks with the senate to radically update church doctrine. There was every chance they would soon be revising the beloved People’s Prayer such that the line, “We who are your only children” might be altered to suggest that God had populated the cosmos with more than one set of needy, intelligent orphans. “Imagine the implications,” Durnian said, then paused to make sure that everyone in attendance had time to savor every last potential horror. They took that moment, one and all: a jam-packed crowd comprising the mayor, the local prayer mother, and the usual host of petty State functionaries––recorders of this, assessors of that, dispensers, signatories, and form-tickers of all stripes. Even Maer and Doss, holding up a weather-chewed, clapboard wall at the back, couldn’t help succumbing all over again to the rippling disjunctions such news would cause.
He went on. “Imagine, too, what might have prompted such a discussion. Perhaps those busybodies at the top know something we don’t, and think we aren’t yet ready to hear––or at least not without first preparing the ground. Think: if we are not alone in the stars, then those who rule in Vagen might have secrets of the most extraordinary kind. They might,” and here he let his fierce gaze sweep the assemblage, “have already been in contact with these supposed cousins of ours. Perhaps they’ve been in contact for years. And without our knowledge or consent.”
Durnian stood back and basked in the rustles and whispers that followed, but if he felt gratified, Maer felt icy cold, and in looking at Doss, she caught him licking his lips, a tic he had when at sea and the winds and currents, ever-changing, were not to his liking.
“I want to get out of here,” she whispered.
“Right,” he said, and, as the assemblage took to voicing questions, he guided her by the elbow and steered her outside. Behind them, Durnian had launched into an even more revolutionary line of rhetoric, asking a question for which, in a larger hamlet, he would surely have been imprisoned: “Should we really give our allegiance, my friends, to a government so willing to slink through such a quagmire of secrets?”
Outside, the night was cool but not sharp, and enough starlight shone through the patchwork clouds to light their way. The windmill tower beckoned on the next ridge over, at the far side of town, its mighty blades slumbering in the still air.
“So, girl,” Doss said. “A prettier evening there never was. Time to run off again?”
“Why? You can’t blame a man for wanting a little levity, after that,” and he gestured back to the grange hall they’d just left.
Feeling feisty, Maer rounded on him. “Why haven’t you run off?” she demanded. “Why are you still here?”
Doss gave his habitual, careless shrug. She’d come to loathe that shrug, its dismissiveness, its louche, whatever-comes abnegation of any single, solid position, and she loathed herself in turn for hating it.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” he said, as if telling the truth were a new idea. “That old man’s feeding both me and my crew. For so long as he does, hey. I’m content to drag my feet.”
“So you’re for sale to whoever feeds you.”
Back turned, she set off again, walking quicker now, but Doss caught her up, as she’d known he would. As, perhaps, she’d wanted him to.
“Feeling hot, are we?” he asked.
“I have every right.”
“Is that a fact?”
Again, she drew up. “They killed her! Don’t you get that? They killed her!”
“And you’re angry.”
“Of course I’m angry!”
“Good. Now stop being angry, at least with me, long enough to listen.”
Maer’s snort was derisive. “Advice, just what I need.” She resumed her walk, though not with much care; her goal was motion more than the mill.
“Not advice,” Doss said. “A story. Have I ever told you how I became a boat captain?” When Maer didn’t answer, he shrugged again––he could do this even while walking––and said, “Aye, well. Here’s how it went. I grew up in a port, and my father was a net fisherman. Took me out on his boat just as soon as I could walk. Not that I wanted that life. I liked trees better. Those woods you keep running off to.”
“But you’re not from here.”
“Not by birth, no. My parents were just as D’rekaani as yours, but they moved, see? The State said move, so off they went, dutiful as anything, and I was brought up right here on Farehl. Not here exactly, not quite Brokerudder Bay, but not so far from here, really, if you want the truth. Anyway. I came of age for work, twelve, younger than you are now, and next thing I knew, I’d been apprenticed to a supplies boat captain. No more choice in the matter than you had, as an orphan. Just delayed a few years.”
After they’d covered the next ten yards of cobble and stone in silence, Maer said, “Your point?”
“Only that it wasn’t me that chose this life. The state did my choosing for me.”
Maer’s hands went up and out, a gesture of baffled frustration. “Why are you telling me this?”
“Can you manage addition?”
“Can I manage…? Of course I can do addition.”
“Good. I’m going to tell you a second story. Then we’ll see if you can add one plus one.”
Maer walked faster. Doss, whose legs were longer, increased his pace to match, and made the doing of this (to Maer’s annoyance) look easy.
“At eleven,” he said, in jaunty tones, “my favorite uncle took me, for the first time, to a proper tavern. I felt so grown up I was ready to bust my buttons. He bought me a brew, and told me to go slow. I did, too. I was a good lad. But in the time it took me to finish my first, he had four, and next thing I knew, he was up and arguing with a man from the next table over, and push came to shove and shove to push, and before I could so much as put down my mug, my uncle took a proper swing at someone, and a real brawl broke out. Well, I’m family, right? And that’s my flesh and blood, so I jumped to my feet and rolled up my sleeves.”
Still striding along, still matching Maer step for step, Doss fell silent. And stayed silent.
“So?” she demanded. “Did you get your backside handed to you?”
Doss laughed. “I never threw a punch. A man I’d seen but didn’t know, older fellow, he clapped a hand to my shoulder and said, right in my ear, he said, ‘Son, do you know your enemy here?’ And I was so surprised––that question sounded so ridiculous––that I just stopped. And I looked at my uncle and I saw…” He paused, reaching for the right words. “I saw a sweat-faced, angry, out-of-control fool. No one was fighting him. They were just getting out of his way, and he was the one who’d started the whole thing, taking offense where no offense was meant. So I stayed out of it, and I watched until he fell down, raving, and eventually he passed out right there on the floor. Which, as I later learned, he did almost every night. And you know what he never let go of, that entire time?”
Feeling obligated, Maer said, “What?”
Exasperated but unwilling to slow, Maer said, “How is this helping?”
“Addition, girl. Who’s your enemy?”
“The people who killed Elsbeth. The church.”
“Wrong? Wrong?” Now she not only stopped, she tried to give Doss a hearty shove in the chest. No good; he danced out of the way. “Why,” she demanded, “can’t you shut up?”
He backed away, hands raised in surrender as she stalked him. “I ask you, who’s the enemy, and you name the church. All right. Fine. It’s Maer against the entire Unified Church and all their Devoted. What could be finer, hey?”
She stopped, hands jammed on her hips. “Make your point.”
Knitting his fingers together, Doss stepped closer. “The church and the State, Maer, they’re like this.” He held his intertwined hands right to her face. “I believe you that at the Spur, it was one against the other, but back on Vagen––and even right here, way out here in Brokerudder Bay––they’re two sides of a coin and thick as thieves besides. The folks that picked my life’s work and sent you to the Spur in the first place, they’re no different from those that put your keeper to the sword. They’re one and the same. That’s my point.”
They’d made it to a five-way intersection, and they stood now in the middle of it. Not far off, two members of the Farehl night watch kept a disinterested eye on them. Brokerudder Bay, being a peaceful place, had no official curfew. Most towns on the Circle Seas did not, and so, while Maer and Doss, under cover of darkness, might have felt that they had the streets to themselves, were only two of many townsfolk out for a stroll or headed home, at last, to bed. It wasn’t even especially late.
Looking directly at Doss, her anger mostly drained, Maer said, “So you’re in Durnian’s camp. You think I should ‘do’ something. Bring Fengreth’s claws right to their doorstep.”
Instead of his usual affable shrug, Doss said, “I used to wonder, out there on the ocean, what it would take to bring down the state. A hero, I supposed. A shining knight in shining armor. Not me, in any event. Never me. And still not me, at least not by myself. But you…”
“Little Maer of the Spur.”
“I don’t have a title.”
“Illegal, I know. But when the crown fits…”
Maer hugged herself, her arms tightly crossed. “You said you were wanting to retire. You said you knew a little port where they always wear a smile.”
“I do, aye. Might even go.”
The two watchmen were paying them more attention now, and Maer, noticing, said, “Can we please walk on?”
“Sure. As I said, beautiful night for a walk.”
Together, slower now, they worked their way uphill, mazing their way through the warren of streets and, toward the end, paths. As they crested the last rise, Maer said, “You have a plan.”
Doss rocked his head from side to side, a movement that began with his shoulders. “Yes and no,” he said. “Durnian, he has a plan.”
“He’s shared it with you.”
“You’re very direct, you know that?”
She supposed she was. After living on the Spur for so many years, the social niceties of beating around the bush––the kind of behavior she’d read about in books but rarely seen practiced––these skills were, she knew, largely a mystery. And Elsbeth herself had been nothing if not straightforward, demanding. She’d been a woman who asked for (and got) what she wanted. With the keeper as her only regular role model, Maer supposed she could have reacted in opposition and turned out demure, bashful, and reticent––provided she’d been, to start with, a blushing violet. But she wasn’t, and never would be.
“The plan, Doss. What’s Durnian’s marvelous plan?”
Durnian’s plan was, Doss conceded, extreme. Roundabout, as well, a path so indirect that he wasn’t convinced that it was, in fact, a plan at all––insofar, at least, as a plan tended to have (built-in, as it were) a specific outcome. “What he wants,” Doss said, “is for me and the boys to sail you back to Vagen. But not just anywhere in Vagen, no. He wants to slip you, under cover of darkness and so on, all very cloak and dagger, into the Sindarin Compound.”
“I know, I know. But he says he has contacts there, and that the Sindarin are, for some reason or other, your natural allies. Mine, too, I guess. Because of that, they’ll both champion and protect you.”
“But the Sindarin…the Sindarin are… How am I supposed to…?”
He shushed her with his hands. “Maer. They’re only people.”
“They have fangs!”
Eyes popped wide, he threw back his head and barked a laugh. “Fangs? Who told you that?”
Blushing hard, Maer pouted. “Books. Sailors.”
“Well, the books are wrong, and any sailor who says the Sindarin have fangs never met a Sindarin.”
“But they’re not normal!”
“Well, they’re heretics right enough. God’s chosen folk, ‘God is imminent, miracles are constant,’ all that balderdash––and it’s true, they’re all from the north originally, so they’re pretty dark, but no darker than you––or me, for that matter––but really, the only thing that makes a Sindarin different from anyone else is the tail.”
Doss laughed all over again; the expression on Maer’s face, even by starlight, was priceless.
“Stop,” she said, “teasing me.”
“I’m not, I swear it! Why do you think they wear doros all the time?”
“Do they? Wear doros all the time?” To Maer, this seemed anything but exotic. True, with senators and priests excepted, most people from Vagen on south, regardless of their sex, wore some form of trousers or breeches, but Maer had grown up wearing doros. Her parents wore them, and so did everyone she knew. The entire north end of D’rekaan wore doros, and why not? The heat made any kind of skirt preferable to pants––but to think that for some, they were also useful for hiding an actual tail?
“Maer. They don’t have tails like a rat. Well, sort of. They’re stubby, though, mostly. And not useful for anything. Don’t think for a moment that they use their tails to go swinging through trees.”
“Oh, aye, If you know what to look for, from behind, once in a while, you can see them twitching. Like a cat’s, you know. Look sharp, you can see it right through the doro, hey?”
Maer knew she was focusing on all the wrong things, but she couldn’t help it. People, people with tails. She said, with more than a little self-deprecation, “I’ve been reading all the wrong books.”
“No. It’s more that the people writing the books are all the wrong sorts of people. They mostly don’t know their tips from their toes.”
Shaking her head in wonderment, Maer said, “But why should the Sindarin want to take us in? Me?”
“That, Durnian did not explain––though he promised he would, if you agreed to go. What he did say was, it’s time you learned to defend yourself. And me, too, for that matter.”
Without really meaning to, they’d drifted to the mill’s door. Inside, a lantern had been left burning; they could see it winking at them through the nearest window’s thick, mottled glass.
Maer said, “So…he has someone in mind to teach us some kind of self-defense?”
“No, but I do.”
“Cullen? But he’s––”
“A sailor?” Maer looked at her shoes, so Doss snorted and went on. “Yes, Cullen’s a sailor. But every man on my boat serves more than one function. Felson’s twice the man if we’re talking nautical skills, but Cullen, well. He spent time on the Outer Shores, y’know. A man who really, truly was abducted by real life pirates, and those pirates, well. They taught him a thing or two. I hired Cullen on to give my boat a little muscle. Not that I need it much out on the water, but in port? State or no State, there’s plenty of men in the world like my uncle, men who pick fights for no better reason than their own pig-headed jaundice. And when we meet folk of that sort, I surely do like having Cullen at my back.”
Nodding, Maer said, “All right. I’m strong. And quick.”
She glared, but he only grinned, refusing to back down. Next thing she knew, she was grinning, too. “All right,” she said. “Vagen it is. Vagen and self-defense. When do we start?”
End Chapter Four
To read Chapter Five, 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 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.