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.
Once, it was said, pirates had come to the Spur just prior to a storm, specifically to put out the Beacon Lamp and cause a shipwreck on the spikes of wave-dashed rock, all for the sake of plunder and hoard. Maer believed without question every version of this tale she’d ever heard, the bloodier the better, but on this day, there were neither pirates nor storms in sight, just the supplies boat. It didn’t matter that the boat was little more than a far-distant dot on the shining glaze of the sea, a sea already growing restless, furtive, even with hours to go yet before the advent of Sister Blue. No, what mattered to Maer was that the boat was making progress, closing as best it could, and it would arrive well before dark. She was so excited she couldn’t focus on soaping the sheets, as she was supposed to be doing. Instead, she ran up the spiraling stairs, open to the room below and hugging the curving walls, all the way to the Beacon Room so she could bring the news to Elsbeth, but the Keeper of the Beacon was not impressed.
“Get on, girl,” the keeper muttered, trying to drive Maer away with dismissive waves of her knuckle-boned hands. “It’ll be ages yet.”
Maer, hopping from foot to foot, refused to be shooed. “If I bring your lunch first, can I meet them at the docks?”
“So long as you’re out of their way.”
Maer pounded back down the stairs and sped to the kitchens. She met no one; there was no one else to meet. For all its bigness, and for all its many rooms, the Beacon Tower stood mostly empty. She and Elsbeth shared it, and it was sizable enough to all but swallow them. In a typical month, the only other folk who ventured to the Spur came with the supplies boat. True, the occasional shepherd dropped in, in search of sheep truly ambitious in their wanderings, the kind that liked stony crags and knife-edge promontories jutting toward the sea, but in the six years since her arrival from the orphanage, Maer could count those visits on less than her ten fingers.
In the echoing, whitewashed kitchens, Maer dug into the barrels for salt beef and soda crackers (Elsbeth, old now, ate little on the best of days), added a handful of dried hand-apples, and put the whole lot in a sturdy wooden trencher. Back up the stairs she went, carrying the trencher and a skin of blackberry wine.
“Here you go,” she said, on arriving back at the beacon, which was, it being daylight, unlit. Its enormous glass disc faced out toward the sea, the oil lamps affixed to its concave side standing ready with the pool of phosphorock beneath, all waiting for nightfall.
“On the table,” said Elsbeth, who was scribbling something mathematical on a vellum sheet. By the shape of her pursed lips, Maer decided the keeper wasn’t pleased by the results.
“I’ll go down to the docks, then.”
“I already said.”
Maer raced away. There were thirty-three steps from the Beacon Room to the sleeping floor, another thirty-three to the base of the tower (kitchens and stores), then fifteen outside from the top of the Spur to the level, meadowed ground that stretched in a narrow causeway up to the rocky peaks and moors beyond. But Maer wasn’t headed up. Her nimble feet darted sidelong to the meadow and down, down to the Sea Steps, numbering in total eight hundred and twenty-seven, although most days she counted either eight hundred twenty-six or eight hundred twenty-eight. Magic, said Elsbeth, smirking. Steps so old refuse to be counted.
Down and down the twisting, kinked chaos of a staircase, half the stones cracked and sprouting grasses. Some had been hollowed from bedrock; others were built of brick. All had been worn by generations of keepers and keepers’ girls, girls like herself who’d given their youth and often their lives to hauling whatever was needed up from the landing, up and up and always up. Few items ever came down. Today, some would come down, and hopefully with Doss’s help: books, the last month’s shipment. Up would come a fresh lot. Life as a keepers’ girl was lonely, true, full of elbow grease and drudgery, but she had never wanted for books, and Elsbeth, despite being a difficult, prickly overseer, had been very sure to teach her her letters.
At the first landing, Maer paused, not because she was out of breath––given all her stair-climbing, she could hardly have been more fit––but because the stone hut there, tile-roofed and perhaps twice the size of the Beacon’s privy, contained a spyglass. Maer ducked through the sheepskin flap of the door, grabbed up the spyglass, and pressed it to her eye. The hut smelled cool and mossy; a wet wind blew through the arch of the one cramped window, threatening rain. Landward clouds were building, yet the sun was still shining far out to sea, making the water gleam silver-white. The light on the swells was so bright that for a moment, Maer, practiced as she was, failed to pick out the supplies boat. Indeed, it took her so long to fix on it that she was half fearful she’d imagined it, that today was not, after all, going to be a good day, a fabulous day, a day with conversation and laughter and maybe a swig of beer (which the keeper nearly always forbade).
But then she found the boat, a fat, wide-bottomed slug of a vessel tacking closer through a lazy crosswind and making fair progress, all things considered. Her smile in response swelled so her face couldn’t contain it. This was a smile that warmed her belly, curled her toes, and brought her whole body into its embrace. This would be a glorious day, indeed.
She was halfway to setting the spyglass back in its nook when she spotted a second dark blemish on the rolling, silver swells. Farther out, this one. Hard to be sure, but––yes––squinting––there could be no doubt. A second boat was sailing her way, tracking the wake of the first. Most boats in the Circle worked well around the Spur, just in case the weather (as it could do, in a moment) changed. But not this one. She couldn’t yet make out its prow, but there was no mistaking its course: it, too, was headed for the cove.
Her excitement, which she would not have thought possible, grew. Two boats, two in a day, and the second looked to be twice the size of the first, maybe more. Two boats!
Maer turned and raced back up to the Beacon, fearless on even the most irregular and decrepit stairs. By the time she made it all the way to the Beacon Room, she was truly out of breath, a fact that caused the keeper to look up in some alarm, for Maer was more than half mountain goat and not prone to exhaustion.
“What?” she demanded, stabbing her quill back into the inkpot. “You can’t possibly have gotten to the bottom and back already.”
“A second boat,” Maer gasped.
Elsbeth’s left eyebrow rose, an expression of disbelief that Maer knew better than to think of as friendly. “Headed to the landing?” she demanded.
“I’m certain, yes.”
“Flying what flag?”
“Too far out to tell, and against the sun.”
The keeper let out a gusting snort. “The sun! Damn the sun, that’s what I say. Of all the days not to cooperate.”
Expecting the keeper to say more, Maer waited. She held her hands intertwined before her, as she’d been taught. Not that standing at attention did a thing to still her mind, and a thousand questions jockeyed for primacy. Why was Elsbeth so annoyed with the sun, of all things? Was there something in particular, this night, other than Sister Blue, that she hoped to see in the skies? Was this to be one of the long, long nights––usually Elsbeth warned her––when they opened the roof and used the Great Spyglass?
Maer’s eyes strayed to the Great Spyglass itself, currently shrouded with an old muslin bed sheet. It stood near the back of the round room, the front being where the Beacon itself stood, ready to warn any stray ship of the rocks below. When Maer had first been ordered to the Spur and given over to Elsbeth, the room had had nothing else in it, or nothing much, but over the years, Elsbeth had completed the Great Spyglass, spending months and months on its lenses and assemblage. As a quite simple final step, she’d rigged a black curtain just behind the Beacon, so its encompassing glare couldn’t flood the room and blind her “starlight miracle.” And then there were the shelves, the desk, the ever-increasing notes and star-charts. It was a very busy room, and one that the keeper rarely left.
At length, Elsbeth stirred. It was not a warm day, and she wrapped her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. “Check again,” she ordered. “Perhaps it’s close enough now. Use that one,” she said, flicking out a finger to indicate the larger of the two forward-mounted spyglasses, a series of interlocking brass tubes that Maer had polished more times than she cared to remember. “And mind you don’t touch the lens.”
Don’t touch the lens. It was, she thought, the first lesson learned at the keeper’s hand. Almost any other transgression might be forgiven, but never that: don’t ever, except with a special rag and certain optical solutions, touch a lens.
“Well, girl?” the keeper demanded, as Maer fought to get the bulky, somewhat unwieldy spyglass to orient. “What do you see?”
“It’s definitely Doss with the supplies,” she said. “Unless some boat besides the Southwind’s gone and put up a pig for a figurehead.”
“Not that one, the other.”
Even a year ago, Elsbeth would have searched out a ship on the Circle all by herself, but her eyesight was failing. Her impatience, however, was not. “Hurry up, girl. If you could spot it from the steps––”
“Got it. It’s big. Two decks, a proper forecastle. The sails are––no, thought they were red, but they aren’t. It’s checkered. Red on plain canvas.”
“Maer. Why do you think I care what colors they’ve dyed their sailcloth?”
Chagrined, Maer squinted harder, trying to make out the ship’s flag. “There,” she said. “It’s a triangle, maybe brown or black––no, wait. It’s not a triangle, it’s a mountain. A big cone of a mountain on a field of pale blue.”
The keeper’s triumphant, one-note laugh startled Maer into turning around. The old woman’s chin was up, and she’d balled one hand into a half-raised fist. “They’ve done it. They’ve come after all.”
Blinking, Maer said, “Who’s come?” She’d had no notion that anyone had been invited.
“Never you mind,” the keeper said, shifting all in a moment from stillness to action. “We have much to do––and I had enough to do already. But by all the clouds on Sister Blue, if this weather won’t clear…”
Again, the keeper froze, caught at the center of a dozen possible tasks. Maer settled the spyglass back in place, then said, carefully, “What do you wish from me?”
“From you? Meet the supplies boat, and let’s be glad it’s Doss. He’s not a total fool, pig standard and all, and he might even help––tonight of all nights, he’ll have to. We could lose the jetty, you know this, right?”
“We’d better not. I can’t rebuild it, not all by myself––”
“Never mind that, we haven’t lost it yet. Listen: once you’ve unloaded, you’ll need to bring enough up for a good meal, and I don’t mean for two. That’s a senator out there, unless I very much miss my guess, and she and her clerks expect to be fed even if they turn up on a glacier.”
The keeper whirled on her, but for all her closeness, she looked distant, distracted. “You and I, girl, we are going to show them a thing tonight. God grant that the clouds will be kind, and if they are, I promise you, we will see secrets our world has never known. Do you trust me?”
Mute, Maer nodded. The Keeper of the Beacon (her full formal title, never employed, was Lightkeep of the Kel’Aylis Spur) stood close enough for Maer to smell fermented berries on her breath. The veins on the backs of her hands were pearl-blue, and a match for her slowly clouding eyes, while her skin was pale, beginning to drape in folds over what had once been the proudest of jawlines. A true southerner, Elsbeth the Keeper, as Maer was very much not.
“Never mind. Not a word to Doss, not a word to anyone. You go down, you unload, you come back. With supper fit for the best. You hear me?”
“I do, ma’am. I’ll be quick as I can.”
Off she went, legs a-twinkle down the spiral steps, one floor then two, and outside to a sudden bolt of sunshine and a breath of salty ocean breeze. Once more she reversed––she’d forgotten the mail satchel, and the keeper had been writing a great many letters of late––and then, satchel in hand, it was down and down, brown legs in brown leggings scampering along, heedless of the drops, the switchbacks, the dozen places where a slip of any kind would plunge her over the edge. Her curls, cut short at the back of her head, bobbed and flew. Elsbeth, she knew, would have preferred her head shaved, but this (for reasons obscure even to herself) Maer had fought as she’d fought nothing else. Wild hair suited her, as did her skin, rich as a carpenter’s wood stain. Let the keeper have her straight, blonde tresses (silver now, or worse). As far as Maer was concerned, the keeper looked bleached, sickly––and besides, Doss had hair like hers, skin even browner, and he (might God and Sister Blue always bless him) was a man with his very own boat!
All the way to the bottom then, down and down, patter and patter. She arrived in the cove just ahead of the Southwind, Doss’s heavy, slow-going lump of a vessel. It wasn’t even painted, and its sopping hull bore the waterlogged color of a long-submerged shipwreck.
“Ahoy the ship!” she cried, cupping her hands. Her voice echoed up the crags and cliffs around her, five hundred vertical feet or more on every side. Gulls wheeled and a dozen other shorebirds squawked in competition. Their nests dotted the cliffs like flecks of paint. Elsbeth was up there, somewhere, the Beacon Tower just out of sight. Since the waves weren’t yet playing too roughly––there wasn’t much wind, though that would change once Sister Blue made her appearance––Maer was fairly sure the keeper would have heard her shout.
Doss and three sailors were on deck, readying painter lines and dropping their sails. Doss, the tallest of the lot, rangy and (to Maer’s unpracticed eye) wickedly handsome, wiped a fall of midnight hair out of his face and called back, “Ahoy the shore! Permission to land, your highness?”
“Permission granted, and don’t be stupid,” Maer called back, crossing her arms to underscore her impatience, her haughty refusal to be teased. It didn’t work, of course; she was grinning far too much, which Doss could see, even at a distance. “Here,” she cried, as she hurried across the jetty’s solid wood planking, slick with sea spray but no impediment to her. “Throw me your ropes!”
The supplies boat, no more than forty feet from stem to stern, tied off, and Doss hopped over the gunnels, graceful as a cat. He strode up to Maer and clapped both hands on her shoulders, something he’d never done before. His grin was appreciative, as if he were sizing up a mule at market.
“You’ve grown,” he said, and released her.
“It’s only been a month.”
“Aye, and that’s fifty live-long days, which makes all the difference in the world. Any boys come calling yet? Randy little shepherds?”
“No.” Wounded, embarrassed, her eyes flashed.
“All right, all right. Peace. Here, give me the mail sack and tell me this. What’s the vessel on our tail?”
Maer’s eyes darted out to sea, but the cove’s entrance was narrow, and the senator’s ship wasn’t yet in view.
Her consternation made Doss laugh. “I know, we can’t see her, either. But I don’t employ a wavereader for nothing.”
One of the men on board, still fussing over a coil of rope, gave Doss a sour look. “If you can called it ‘employment,’” he said.
“The Senate sets the wages, and you know it. I’d be the first to say you’re worth more.” He returned his attentions to Maer. “He’s really very clever. Picks up the waves that bounce off their prow and into our stern, if you can believe it.” He shook his head, one conspirator to another, implying he wasn’t so sure he believed it himself. “Of course, if we’d been going with the wind, we’d be none the wiser, but impressive even so. And it’s true, isn’t it? Someone’s following us.”
Doss’s laugh echoed off the rocks and drowned itself in the cove’s shallow breakers. “Pirates?” he hooted. “In the Circle Seas? Not likely.”
Abashed, grinning, Maer opted this time for truth. “No, it’s not pirates. And they’re not following you. It’s just coincidence. The keeper invited a senator, and now she’s actually come.”
“A senator? This far out from Vagen proper? Now I’ve heard everything.”
The wavereader, still coiling, managed to turn his sulk into a look of minor triumph. “Told you we were being followed. I told you.”
“You did, and I’d double your wages if I could.”
The wavereader, a crewmember Maer had not laid eyes on before, let his coil drop. “I don’t trust senators,” he said, as if Doss ought to do something about it, “and that’s a fact.”
The very picture of the unjustly accused, Doss spread his hands. “Two hundred years of peace––two hundred––and you’re upset with the leadership? Please.”
Refusing to be placated, the wavereader said, “As if you’re any fan of the State. You of all people.”
The captain turned back to Maer, head shaking. “You see what I have to put up with? But never mind. We’d best get to work, eh? What with the Sister on the rise.”
By the time the Southwind’s hold was empty––or empty, at least, of the supplies intended for the Spur––the second vessel was very much in view and bearing down fast. Doss, leaning on the piled-up detritus of his delivery, picked at his cuticles and shook his head in appreciation. “She’s a big bird, right enough,” he said. “I love my toad of a boat, I do, but I’d trade her for that any day of the year.”
Maer, who’d been trying hard to tune out how alive she felt at being so near to Doss, how thrilled, surprised herself by asking, “Are you staying?”
“What, overnight?” Doss looked to his first mate, a thin-faced, sinewy fellow with more than his share of freckles. “Felson, what say you?”
Before replying, Felson glanced out to the sea wall that narrowed the cove’s entrance. It wasn’t a true sea wall, not a constructed one like those at the great harbors on Vagen; rather, it had formed when a great spit of rock had tumbled as one, in a line, into the sea. No grandfather’s grandfather remembered a time when it hadn’t been there; it predated, so the Spur’s records insisted, even the first Beacon Tower.
“Assuming the astronomers know their trade,” Felson replied, “then Sister Blue’s hard against us tonight. I’d prefer to be well out to sea starting now, but at the very least, we should drop anchor fifty feet off. Ride out whatever she brings. And all those bags and crates had better get at least twenty feet higher up, if you want to be sure they don’t wind up at the bottom of the cove.”
Doss eyed the cliff, the twist of the Sea Steps, half of them hidden by fangs of dark, volcanic rock. To Maer, he said, “I don’t suppose there’s room at the inn?”
Maer shook her head, regretting now her impulsive offer, one she’d had no right to make.
Ever gallant, Doss made light of her mistake. “No matter. We’ll bed down here. Two on shore, two on the boat.” He grinned again, dog-like in his easy friendliness. “Come on. We’ll help you get this stuff to high ground.”
Maer knew that he and his crew would likely have offered their help in any case, given that a month’s worth of food and other goods (including, this time, new slates for the Beacon Tower’s roof) was no small thing to shift. Fifty days of stores and provisions: backbreaking stuff, truly. But on this day, with Sister Blue due over the mountains all too soon, there was no need to play games. The crew would help. They had to.
Off they trooped on their first of many shuttling trips to the store house, a whitewashed hut set just far enough back from the shore, and just high enough up, that it could ride out even the worst of storms. On the final leg, Maer looked up to discover that the clouds, miraculously, had drifted inland. The keeper would be ecstatic.
The job finally done, there was no time for added delay, no time to bask in Doss’s company or her own dizzying desire to keep herself in reach. She selected what she hoped would serve for a proper feast (and this, too, was challenging, since she had never in her life either consumed or cooked a feast––had, indeed, only read about them in books) and, after shouldering her load, started up the steps. She forced herself to make eye contact with Doss before she set off, but looking away was a blessed relief. Why did the man have to be so amusing, so insouciant, so merry?
Her goal was to get to the kitchen and back down before the senator’s vessel docked––although perhaps it wouldn’t dock, it might be too big; they’d have to row their way to shore––but when she got to the Spur, Elsbeth was there, waiting. To Maer’s amazement, she insisted on helping prepare the meal, and she ordered Maer not to go down to greet or escort.
“She’ll find her way,” the keeper said. “Senators usually do.”
After chopping carrots for a time, Maer got up the courage to be nosy, a trait the keeper both insisted on and despised. There was, as she often put it, a fine line between common gossip and a healthy intellectual curiosity. Maer’s question, timidly put, was, “Ma’am, the senator. You know her?”
“Oh, yes. We grew up together.”
“You, and she…?” This was a whole new plateau of conversation, unheard of and unexpected, and Maer found herself unable to finish the thought.
“Grew up on the the Middle Isle, yes.”
Maer couldn’t help herself. “So you’ve seen the wall. You’ve met a Sindarin.”
“Yes to both.”
“But they’re…they’re heretics. A cult.”
“Well, they do make the mistake of claiming to be God’s chosen people, and I’d be the first to admit that they do have their share of ridiculous beliefs––quite charming, some of them, in their way––but most Sindarin are decent enough, just like anyone else. And as to the wall, it’s there for their own protection, so they can shout all they like about rights and freedoms without getting themselves killed. Peace does not come without cost.” She paused, and peered sharply at Maer. “Good God, child, cutting that fast, you’re going to lop off a finger.”
“I am not.”
Maer was doubly annoyed at the criticism, since it led not to the cutting off of a finger, but to the summary execution of what had promised to be a tremendously revealing line of inquiry. Elsbeth had actually met a Sindarin! And she’d grown up on the Middle Isle! That was a very new idea––although since Elsbeth was undeniably cultured, educated beyond any expectation, she’d clearly grown up in some city, somewhere. Why not the Middle Isle, where the great city of Vagen covered all but the rocky mesa at its center, the mesa with its bottomless azure lake? Could it be––her reading, her books, were talking at her again––that the keeper had been the victim of scandal? That she’d been sent to the Spur not to pursue some specific scientific inquiry, as she loved to imply, especially after a second cup of wine, but had been dumped here instead as an exile?
“Tomorrow, girl, sharpen these knives. I’ve seen logs that would cut a potato better than this.”
It took real effort to suppress a giggle, but somehow Maer managed to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and with a modicum of a curtsy to boot, even while shaking her head at the sheer absurdity of being told how to run her kitchen by a woman who had never, not in six years, set foot in it. Yes, this was turning out to be a day among days. A day, even, for the ages.
The next time she stole from the kitchen long enough to take a gander at the cove, the great ship with its red-checkered sails had dropped anchor, and a prodigious rowboat was nosing its way toward shore.
“On their way,” she reported to Elsbeth, who was trying, with increasing desperation, to wipe a sticky lump of dough from her fingers.
The keeper’s only reply was, “Is the oven hot?”
“Yes. You need more flour.”
“You think I don’t know that? Lord God above, girl, I have the Great Spyglass to set. I don’t have time for this.”
The Great Spyglass: the one that aimed not at the sea but through the trapdoor in the Beacon Room’s roof. The spyglass that aimed at the stars.
“Let me finish with the food,” Maer implored. “You deal with upstairs.”
Equal parts grateful and humiliated, Elsbeth acceded, and soon Maer was alone in the kitchens, her ears pricked for voices or footfalls on the steps outside. It was a demanding climb, and it might be an hour yet; they might not even arrive until after dark, in which case they’d best bring their own lanterns, for the steps weren’t lit, weren’t even provisioned to be lit. But come they would, she was sure, and given the ascent, they’d likely come with an appetite.
In the end, the timing of the senator’s arrival was providential, for Maer had just completed setting out all she’d made. There would never be enough chairs, she could see that at once. The winded, staggering party that filed, one by one, into view at the top of the Spur numbered eight in all: a very well-dressed woman in white, loose garments and a diadem on her forehead (surely the senator), a second woman, even older, dressed in the black clerical robes of the Most Devout, along with three younger women whom she took to be the senator’s clerks, well-dressed in their way but no match for the finery of their employer. Each carried a lantern, lit. At the back, puffing hard, came three guards, burly men with swords and heavy shirts of chain mail. Two were Devoted, the Unified Church’s elite guard; sunbursts emblazoned their shoulder plates. The third stayed close to the senator, and wore lighter armor. A bodyguard, Maer surmised, and not only handsome (for a red-head) but forward, too. Less tuckered than the others, he spotted her at once, and gave her an impudent wink.
Flustered, still in the doorway, Maer bowed and greeted the arrivals. “Welcome to the Spur. The Keeper of the Beacon Tower is expecting you, and supper is prepared.”
The senator and the priest exchanged an amused glance. “Very gracious,” murmured the senator, and she touched her right index finger to her forehead in the exact kind of respectful greeting that Maer had read about but never expected to receive, much less from a senator. “I do think, that after such a climb as that, a repast would be very much in order.”
“Those steps,” the priest said, as if they offended her, “how many?”
Maer smiled. “Eight hundred and twenty-seven,” she said. “Except on days when there’re more.”
The senator laughed. “What’s your name, girl?”
“Pretty. You may call me Davleen. Except in public, when it might be more prudent to call me Senator. This is Mother Sand.”
Without making eye contact, the old priest nodded in Maer’s direction. A trio of ebony stones glinted from a band at her temple.
“Now,” Davleen went on, managing to sound imperious even though she was clearly exhausted, “run tell Elsbeth I’m here.”
The ensuing meal was confusing, to say the least. All but Mother Sand, whose left hip had not enjoyed the climb, stood while eating, and Maer darted between them, refilling cups and providing seconds as needed. As to overheard conversation, she understood very little, which left her irritated, sulky. She’d never, not since coming to the Spur, had to serve so many, and the task left her disoriented, especially when, right in the middle of the meal, Elsbeth sent her upstairs with orders to light the phosphorock. That took twenty minutes, and left her helplessly behind upon her return.
What really caught her ear was Elsbeth’s inscrutable question, “How goes the Grand Debate?” to which the senator shrugged, laughed, and said that most believed it was still a draw, no victor in sight. Which, she went on to say, was as it should be. In her view. At least for now.
What was this Grand Debate? And how could a debate, any debate, be grand? In this, Maer’s book-learning was no help. Her diet was fiction, old tales and romances, with not infrequent doses of epic poetry. What hard news came from the capital was in digest form, cryptic factoids about the marriage of so-and-so to so-and-so, or occasional notes comparing, among other things, this year’s prawn harvest to the last. No significant debates, grand or otherwise, had ever come to light.
The meal dragged on. The guests were evidently dependent on the keeper for their cue to move on to whatever business was at hand, and Elsbeth, newly loquacious, seemed in no rush to give it. To Maer’s amazement, the keeper even told jokes, and told them well. The idea that the keeper might be a nimble raconteur, if given the chance, had never entered her head. Her aspect on the Spur had always been stoic, even grim. But on this night? It was a remarkable transformation.
Finally, Elsbeth signaled for silence with twice-clapped hands and a raised voice. “My friends,” she said. “It’s time. You’ve been told you would see something remarkable, if you came here this night, and so you shall. The clouds are being kind after all, so we’ll have a clear view. Come upstairs, all of you. Maer, take care of the washing up.”
The entire assemblage trooped in a line up the spiral stairs, out of sight. Maer was in agony. Had they been going only one floor above, she’d have been able to eavesdrop, but two? She’d have no idea what game Elsbeth was up to, not a clue what was being said, and this, in the end, was intolerable. After a brief, half-hearted pretense at scrubbing the first of the filthy, stew-laden trenchers, Maer dropped the wretched thing into the washbasin and stole outside. Quick as a cat, she hastened to the south side of the tower and, with practiced, nimble motions, scurried up the waiting ladder, a near-vertical snake of bespoke iron that ran all the way to the tower’s conical roof. She’d scaled it many times, though never in the dark. Repairing lost slates or helping rig the keeper’s all-important trap door system was daytime work, of course. Still, she had no fear of the ascent. The Sea Steps, especially in a storm, were at least as bad.
Maer reached the roof just as Elsbeth, from below, flung wide the trap doors. The pulleys involved made a sound like mice squeaking, and Maer knew that in the morning, she’d be called to mount a ladder and oil each one.
Once the concussive thump of the splaying trap doors had faded, Maer could hear every word said below. The wind was up, but it wasn’t howling, and the crash of the sea was far away. At that moment, Sister Blue wheeled into view over the inland peaks. It wasn’t quite a full disc, for Maer’s own globe had contrived to shadow it, but even so, in the vast majority where it caught the sun, Sister Blue was glorious, a dappled mix of green and beige, blue and white, spinning slowly, as if reluctant to show too much, too soon. Coy Sister Blue: the most beautiful of the planets, by far the nearest, and the only one that was in any way blue. “Like us,” Elsbeth had once murmured to her, as she stared through the Great Spyglass. “With all our oceans here on the grandmother, I’m sure we look blue to them, as well.”
Maer had frowned, wrinkling her nose. “But that’s silly,” she’d said. “There’s no one up there to see.”
And the keeper had said nothing in reply.
On this night, Sister Blue was larger than Maer could ever remember it being before. The keeper had said an especially close orbit was imminent––what was that other word she’d used? No, it was gone: the right term whisked out of reach as soon as she reached for it.
From below, Elsbeth’s voice sounded, very much in charge. “Now, if you wouldn’t mind drawing that curtain––thank you, it keeps out the light from the Beacon Lamp, which of course we cannot ever leave unlit, for the sake of ships, shipping… Where was I? Ah, yes. The reason, my old friend, that I’ve asked you here. We’ve all seen Sister Blue, of course, but tonight she passes closer than she will for another decade, by my calculations. It will be a wild night for tides. I trust you’ve given your anchor chains plenty of slack?”
There were murmurs of assent, but nothing very firm. The actual sailors, Maer was sure, were back with the ship, and those gathered in the Beacon Room were speaking out of hope and faith, not certainty.
“So. We come to the heart of the matter. You all know what a spyglass is. I have here a much larger version than you’ve ever encountered before, and of much greater quality, as you’ll discover. Given its powers of resolution, I don’t use it for searching out ships. I train its eye on the stars. Planets, too. Sister Blue in particular.”
She paused, and Maer, unseeing, could picture her relishing a sip of wine.
“Two years ago, during her last pass, I trained my Great Spyglass, then very newly completed, on Sister Blue. The sky that night was patchy, and the orbit was not ideal. Even so, what I saw forced me to rethink, and rebuild. To order and demand better lenses, hone my craft. I dare say that I am now the second best optician who’s ever lived.”
A woman laughed: the senator, Maer presumed. “Modest, too,” came the amused reply.
“No,” said the keeper. “Proud. Very proud. And yes, I realize that most of you suspect me of being a hermit driven mad by isolation, but believe you me, sometimes, to make the greatest leaps, you need only stay still and think.”
Maer imagined more than heard the sound of Elsbeth giving her Great Spyglass a loving pat.
“So,” the keeper went on, “tonight, you will see what I saw two years back, but much more clearly. Senator? If you’d care to put your eye to the eyepiece, here? That’s it. No, don’t squinch. Open wide. I’ll adjust the aim. Sister Blue moves quickly, as you know. We’ll all have time to take a turn, but––no? You don’t see anything?”
“I see darkness, and stars.”
“Here, let me. Wait just a moment.”
From above, still lying flat on the roof (both for safety and comfort), Maer pictured Elsbeth bent to the controls, fiddling the knobs, depressing the pedals. The others would be standing around, impatient, suspicious that they were watching a charlatan at play. Maer smirked. If there was one thing Elsbeth was not, it was a fake. The keeper and her marvelous stargazing toy had taught Maer more than most people living had ever known about the heavens. She’d seen all five planets through it, and knew the characteristics of their orbits, and a number of oddities that an orbit might affect––how you could, for example, measure the year not by the grandmother’s current ten-months-to-a-year calendar (five hundred days in total), but instead by her four hundred and twenty day journey around the sun, or by the approximately biannual passage of Sister Blue, or even (if you happened to somehow visit there) by the three hundred and six day trip maintained by Pelger, the innermost planet, the one that looked like an overripe plum, a bruise reluctant to heal. Twice, on very clear nights, she’d even seen Pelger’s pet, a planet in miniature that Elsbeth called a “moon” (and an object to which she devoted a great deal of study). “If we on the grandmother,” she mused, “had to contend with something of that size, so close, trolling around us every day? Our world would be a very different place.”
Different places, exotic, impossible locales like Pelger and the Sister, thrilled Maer, and she loved imagining what life on each would be like. Why, on Pelger she’d be a good deal older, at least if she used its actual orbit as a guide; instead of being only thirteen and a few months, she’d be twenty-two. She wouldn’t look different, or feel different; she’s wouldn’t actually be older. Even so, if she moved to Sister Blue, with its much longer orbital cycle, she’d be a mere six-and-a-half.
The silence below continued, and Maer adjusted her position––quietly, ever so quietly.
“There,” came the keeper’s voice. “Davleen, please. Try it now.”
Maer couldn’t quite hear the swish of cloth as Senator Davleen once more seated herself, but she did hear an immediate coo of surprise, followed by an exclamation of, “Oh, it’s enormous!”
“Sister Blue is no larger today than any other day, but she is closer, and, through the spyglass, magnified.”
“And what am I supposed to be…?” Silence, then an easily audible gasp. “No.”
Maer strained to hear. Above her, Sister Blue was already making short work of her path across the night sky. Elsbeth had tried to explain the why of such hurtling, awful speed, and Maer thought she more or less grasped the essential concepts, the notion, as the keeper put it, that when Sister Blue came so near, it was because of its highly elliptical orbit, one that, if drawn, could be demonstrated to have two narrow ends. Such an orbit had real consequences, as everyone in the Six Lands knew; even now, the ocean below strained against the Sister’s presence, pulling and struggling, hauling at unseen chains.
“As you look,” came Elsbeth’s voice, quiet, patient, vindicated, “imagine the view you might see if you were standing on a high mountain, looking down. On Mt. T’erid, for example. You’ve been there, I know. You’ve looked down on the cities and walls from above. You’ve looked down on villages, crops, barns. You know those patterns, as if seen by a bird. And because you know that, you know now why I called you.”
This pause was briefer, and more charged. The senator said, “Elsbeth, are those…? Are you telling me…?”
A new voice brushed the senator’s question aside. Maer could tell Mother Sand’s clipped tones in an instant. “Senator, I demand to take a turn.”
The senator spoke again. “I’m looking at cities,” she said. “I see roads. Fields! Those shapes, those green shapes, those are cultivated fields!”
“What?” Mother Sand’s outburst did not suggest she’d misheard, only that she didn’t appreciate the message. “Let me look,” she demanded. “Give way!”
There was a scuffle, though not a real struggle, and Maer grinned, picturing the senator, the priest, and the keeper, three old women, competing for space, all trying not to appear too ridiculous in front of the guards and the much younger clerks.
The senator couldn’t stop talking now; she was animated, pleading. “You’ve put an image inside your spyglass, that’s what you’ve done.”
“But I’m not seeing what I’m seeing really, am I? The implication…”
“It’s not an implication, it’s a fact. Sister Blue is inhabited.”
“Heresy!” cried Mother Sand, and Maer heard the slap of flesh on metal, a muted crash. Mother Sand, in her anger, had struck the Great Spyglass.
“‘The truth cannot be heretical,’” Elsbeth replied, quoting.
“We are God’s children,” Mother Sand hissed. “Whatever you’re seeing, up there? It’s a lie.”
Maer imagined Elsbeth shaking her head, a favorite pastime of hers. So few things failed to meet with her displeasure.
“Mother,” said the keeper, no doubt still shaking her head and probably looking cross, “what’s up there is a fact, and the fact is this: we are not alone.”
A new voice chimed in, one of the clerks, asking if she, too, could see. “Of course,” was Elsbeth’s answer, and then everyone was talking at once, and Maer could glean little more than excitement and perturbation and curses. Only the guards seemed to be keeping silent, for Maer heard only women. She wished, with all her heart, that she could be there, too, and get her own turn at the Great Spyglass. If she didn’t look tonight, it would be two years before she had another chance, and even then, there would be the matter of clouds, which so often scrolled over the Spur like a blanket. Cloudy nights––cloudy months––were those when Elsbeth drank hardest. If two months passed by without a clear sky (and it had been known to happen), those were the nights when Maer knew to expect a beating. Or an attempted beating. In truth, Maer was very adept at avoiding a raised hand, for she never, ever allowed herself to be pinned in a corner.
All at once, the voices stilled. Senator Davleen had their attention at last. “Do we agree,
we assembled here, on what we have just witnessed?”
A general murmur of assent greeted her, after which the senator spoke again. “Then we must admit to standing at the gates of a new era. A new history. A history where the old arguments re-open, like wounds. There will be much to lose, much to risk. To know, for a fact, that we are not alone…”
Elsbeth took over. “Our energies will turn to reaching them, communicating at the very least. Just as their energies, once they notice our presence, will be bent on reaching us. For all we know they’ve seen us already. Think about that. In theory at least, Sister Blue will soon do more than just pass by. We shall have visitors from the skies.”
A collective murmur of voices sounded from below, until Davleen once again took charge. “Mother Sand,” she said. “Most Devout, you surely know better than any of us the chaos this news may bring.”
The pause that then ensued had, Maer thought, the nature of a snarl, the kind of cold fury that began in silence, throttled up through the back of the throat, and ended in animal danger, claws and snapping fangs. She tensed, pushed herself up; one shod foot groped for the ladder’s topmost rung.
From below, Mother Sand spoke. “Senator, you are correct. I do understand better than any of you. Which is why I must do as God wills.” As if reluctant to continue, she cleared her throat. When she spoke again, her tone was loud, commanding, a voice pitched to sweep away doubts. “Devoted,” she said, “kill them. Kill them all.”
Maer’s breath caught, while below, Senator Davleen had time to say, “Mother, what?” before the snick of swords sliding from scabbards drew screams from the clerks and a cry of, “No, you can’t!” from Elsbeth. It was a cry cut off before its final syllable, and Maer heard with terrible clarity the spongy crunch of steel slicing through flesh.
Maer let out a scream of her own, and nearly missed the ladder in her hurry to reach it. Below, in the Beacon Room, men and women both were yelling, and steel rang on steel: at least someone was resisting. The senator’s bodyguard? Surely yes, but he was outnumbered, and the guards of the Most Devout were legendary for their prowess.
With her feet on the ladder, Maer, spider-like, started down. Below, the battle seemed to be over. Already! She could still hear choked screams, the kind made by livestock at slaughter, but the sounds of clashing metal were over. Mother Sand had won.
Overhead, Sister Blue, a silent spinning witness, rose unsullied toward its zenith, and looked down, or seemed to, like a great uncaring eye. Below, far below, the sea raged like a mad thing while Maer all but slithered down the ladder, braking with her hands, burning her palms.
When she reached the ground, she ran, but not for cover, or escape. She sprinted straight for the tower’s wide front door.
End Chapter One
Read the second installment of In the Wake Of Sister Blue here.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.