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 Six. To read Chapter Five, click HERE.
Four days it had taken them to walk the moors from the Spur to Ferth, the sort of squalid town that, while bustling and cheerful, had never known a paved street beyond its market square. At every step of the way, Clarus had taken new pains to elaborate for Karai and Selnin the strange ways of the prophet, how Vashear’s tics and nervousness, to say nothing of his erratic swings from glorious benevolence to hollering, red-faced fits, were divine in and of themselves, and not the sort of behavior that was open to question.
“It’s entirely beyond the Unified Church,” he’d said, more than once, his tone earnest, wondering, and, more often than not, fretful. “The man is a miracle unto himself. The blow he took, the blow to the head? You’ll see him reach up and touch it, sometimes many times in a row. And for those he blesses, he lets them touch it, too. It’s soft,” he explained, touching his own skull just above and behind his left ear. “It’s as if there’s no bones left there at all.”
More than once, Karia had pressed Clarus to let her speak to the extricator who’d worked on Vashear, but he shied from every attempt, at last admitting that the woman had vanished a few days after Vashear had woken up. Did he suspect foul play? No. Had he ruled it out? This question, too, he’d been forced to answer with, “No,” although it was all he could do to say so.
In those rare moments when she and Selnin were left to their own devices, he made sure to apprise her of both his opinion and his contempt. “Vashear’s lost his mind,” he said, “if he had one to start with. I know these Senatorial Guards, and most of them don’t have brains enough to sneeze.”
Karai wasn’t so sure. “God’s miracles are ongoing,” she said. “We will proceed with an open mind.”
“You will, maybe.”
“I can’t force you,” she said, “but I, at least, owe it to my faith and my order to at least consider the possibility that Vashear, for all his troubles, may have been chosen. That he may be acting, in some way, as a divine messenger.”
“Weren’t you listening? Clarus says he babbles. He pisses himself. How is that divine?”
“Who ever,” said Karai, summoning every last ounce of her rapidly diminishing authority, “said that divine grace would be clean or placid? ‘God’ is not a synonym for ‘predictable’ or ‘serene.’ God is God.”
In the meantime, Selnin’s excessive familiarity was becoming a worry. His devotion to his duty (protecting her) was never in doubt, but his motives were open to all sorts of interpretation. She was ashamed now for having taken such note of him during their crossing from Vagen, for it was clear that he’d been all too aware of her stolen and sometimes lingering glances. From the very first night of their march to Ferth, he’d made it quite clear that if she wanted to share his blankets, she was most welcome, and it hurt her pride to find that he was such a pushover, and that he expected her to be the same. It wasn’t that her interest in him had waned (it hadn’t) or that he wasn’t just as striking as she’d first thought him to be (he was). The fact was that she wanted to be the one doing the choosing, and wished, also, to be the pursuer. For Selnin to be so available took all the sting out of the game and revealed her, besides, to be horrendously vain.
She consoled herself that at such close quarters, she would have refused him in any event, which was true: she would never have allowed a bed-time romp to compromise Mother Coal’s mission, whatever that now was. Fact-finding at the Spur had been limited to gossip, since she and Selnin had been herded away from the Beacon Tower with no chance whatsoever to examine it. Selnin, at least, had been amused. “Shepherded by shepherds,” he said, his tone wry. “I suppose next we’ll be cowed by cows.”
“Shut,” said Karai, “up.”
But now it was the evening of the fifth day, and they were marching into Ferth, accompanied by Clarus and a half-dozen others, all of whom cheerfully self-identified as Pilgrims of Sister Blue. To Karai’s ears, the name grated on many levels. First, these people couldn’t be pilgrims of Sister Blue, since they hadn’t come from Sister Blue. Second, to be a pilgrim meant more than just faith and travel, it implied humility, which these folk seemed to have lost. It was as if whatever bilge Vashear had been spouting had given everyone he encountered a strong, medicinal dose of purpose, but without the requisite dash of common sense and skepticism. They were happy to be a collective troop of pilgrims, even if another term––“ambassadors,” perhaps––might have been more apt. For those who’d joined up, being part of the movement was far more important than thinking through the nature of that organization, or so it seemed to her. No doubt Selnin would have disagreed, had she asked him. Handsome though he was, he seemed to disagree with her about everything.
Clarus led them to what had once been a guesthouse tavern and was now, as he put it, “a public venue of a different, more reverent, nature.” It was certainly just as rowdy as a tavern, and perhaps more so. A hemisphere of gawkers surrounded the guarded doorway, but the guards were swapping jokes with the crowd and looking anything but foreboding. The noise coming from inside was downright bracing.
“Party tonight?” asked Selnin.
“The moods of the Prophet are various.” With a gloomy look of disapproval, Clarus nodded to the two guards and led the way inside.
Karai’s first look at Vashear was through a gap in the crowd of singing, cheering, drunken celebrants that had taken over the tavern’s largest room. Her clear line of sight lasted only a heartbeat, but she knew at once that the man she’d glimpsed, seated and merry, was Vashear. Even if he hadn’t occupied the best seat in the house, close by the roaring log-and-peat fire, his carrot-red hair was a dead giveaway.
She’d not thought that he’d glimpsed her in turn, but all at once the room was quieting, and she heard Vashear calling for silence, silence for two important visitors and the return of Clarus, Clarus my friend, how are you, how are you keeping, and how is the Beacon? Truly ruined? A tragedy. We’ll send masons. First thing tomorrow. It’ll be good as new in a fortnight, you see if it isn’t.
Vashear rambled on, picking up one tangential thread after another until he’d asked, in quick succession, about Clarus’s wife, the price of turnips at the market, and the best type of wood for the making of chairs. “Because this chair,” he said, giving it an affectionate whack, “is much too hard. Surely God has seen fit to give us something softer to work with, a wood more pliable and, and…I don’t know. Appreciable!”
Clarus, nodding gravely, promised he’d look into it, and then he waved Karai forward. Selnin, one hand on the hilt of his sword, the other brushing a dagger in his belt, trailed in her wake and whispered at her about the danger of crowds in tight places.
“May I present Karai, a novitiate of the Unified Church, and her Devoted, Selnin. We found them at the Spur, but prior to that, they had come directly from Vagen, your grace.”
To Karai, the cascade of emotions that swept Vashear’s face was both amazing and alarming. He seemed delighted by Karai, unmoved by her status with the church, and yet was terrified of Selnin, going so far as to scooch back in his chair, as if convinced that at any moment the Devoted might strike him. But that fear was gone the instant Clarus named the capital, replaced by a piercing curiosity.
“From Vagen?” Vashear said. “I haven’t been there in…” He paused, and pressed two fingers to the soft spot above his left ear. To Karai’s horror, both fingertips came away bloody.
“Clarus,” he went on, “how long has it been since I’ve been on Vagen?”
“I’m not precisely sure, your grace.”
At this, Vashear smiled anew. “You hear that?” he said, addressing Karai. “He calls me ‘Your grace.’ They all do. A wonderful sign of respect. Next thing you know, I’ll have a surname! Wouldn’t that be something?” Without waiting for an answer, he rose and took her hand, making very sure never to glance in the direction of Selnin. “You’re a beauty,” he said. “Would you like to go to bed with me?”
Karai had to force back a laugh. She wondered if she would ever think of her own self as forward again. “Thank you,” she said, conscious now of how quiet the room had become, how focused and anticipatory, “but I’m very tired from our journey.”
Again, a flicker of a half-dozen different emotions danced like summer lightning across Vashear’s face. “Of course,” he said, once again courtly, charming. “I apologize for even hinting otherwise. But you must tell me one thing before we send you to whatever chambers we’ve prepared. We have prepared a place for our guests, yes? Oh, very good. I will not have it said of our flock that we do not welcome the stranger. Now, where was I?”
He looked genuinely baffled, like a child who, having put down a favorite toy and then turned in some new direction, cannot imagine where it’s gone. She took pity on him and said, “Your grace, you were saying that you had one thing you must tell me.”
“That’s it!” He all but crowed with the pleasure of having picked up the trail. “What I want to know is this. Do they know of me in Vagen? Do they know about Sister Blue?”
Her first coherent thought was not “What do I say?” but “What would Mother Coal say?” What would her mentor even want? Diplomacy above all, that was one favorite watchword. Keep your secrets close, that was another. Be polite. If you have claws, never show them. If you don’t, make sure the world thinks you do. A great cynic, Mother Coal, but a grand mentor, too, and Karai was all too aware that she’d spent her entire time as a novitiate sinking slowly beneath the inexorable, honeyed weight of the old priest’s instruction.
“Your grace,” she said, “those who knew you on Vagen believed you dead. Mother Sand returned to the capital with stories of a disastrous fire and a great loss of life.”
He grinned at her, looking suddenly like a death’s head.
“As for Sister Blue,” she went on, “every child in the Six Lands knows of her, and of her visits.”
“Ah.” A new look settled in his eyes, something so keen and febrile that she knew she stood in the presence of genuine madness. “Tell me this, then, church woman. You’re telling me nobody realizes what is to come?”
She ducked her eyes, not out of fear, but because it seemed prudent. Perhaps even Mother Coal, proud as she was, would have done the same?
“Your grace,” she said, “I am of the church and of my word. When you speak of what is to come, I swear that I stand in complete ignorance of what you mean.”
He rose as if ejected from his seat. All at once, he stood nose to nose with her, and if she hadn’t held out a restraining hand, she was sure that Selnin would have dashed in to push him away.
With that same gleam of lunacy dancing in his eyes, he loomed over her––young he might have been, but he was tall, formidably so––and said, his every word a whisper and a threat, “Then I will tell you what I mean. God has seen fit to reveal to me that Sister Blue is not some deserted ball flying through the heavens. No. Sister Blue is crowded with God’s children, our cousins, and they are coming here, coming to join us and lift us up, in two short years’ time. When next Sister Blue appears in our skies, we will be visited, yes. And when we are visited, we will be judged, and when we are judged, those who are found worthy will reap rewards your vaunted church and senate and state could never begin to imagine.”
He stepped past her so that he stood between her and Selnin, and raised his head to address the room at large.
“Remember always,” he cried, his voice ringing, “that the true secrets of Sister Blue were not revealed to the likes of this woman here, nor to anyone else in her wonderful Unified Church. Remember, too, that on the very day the secrets were first revealed to me, the church, on the order of a senior priest, did its best to have me killed! Why? To suppress what was to be revealed. To remove the blessings and prophecies that you and your neighbors now know to be God’s own blessed truth! Extricators do not lie. But the church, the church does. And now we know that they continue on their course. This woman admits it! In Vagen, where they need most to know God’s will, they refuse to admit to the miracle approaching. They refuse to admit to the wonders of Sister Blue! So what will we do, my friends? I’ll tell you.”
He turned and stepped atop his chair. Once up, he was so tall, his carrot-red hair brushed the timbered ceiling.
“What we’ll do,” he went on, “is bring God’s word to Vagen! We will sail to the capital ourselves, and if they won’t listen to what we have to say, then we’ll burn their precious city to the ground!”
A swift glance at Selnin confirmed that he found this just as alarming as she, but more surprising by far was that Clarus, standing next to Selnin, with his back to the popping, crackling fire, looked as if he’d just bitten down on rotten meat. As the tavern erupted in cheers and cries––“Long live the prophet!” and “Blessed be Vashear, blessed be Vashear!”––Clarus raised his eyes to hers and grimaced. Was she imagining it, or was he, too, troubled by the distinct possibility that Vashear’s presence in the world might be more malefic than benign?
Surrounded by the cheering faithful, many of whom were clapping each other on the back and swearing to all that was holy that they’d drop everything, take up arms, and sail with Vashear at a moment’s notice, Karai gave up on Mother Coal and her endless, habitual calculations. Throwing caution to the winds, she grabbed the prophet’s nearest hand and raised it, together with her own, above her head.
“I will sail with you!” she cried. “If Vagen must be stormed, then let us storm it together!”
From the heights of the ceiling, Vashear looked down in wonder, as if she’d just given him the most marvelous gift imaginable. With a wide smile, equal parts innocent and minatory, he withdrew his hand, raised his fingers to the soft patch on his head, and depressed two fingers against it. To her horror, she could see the bone give way, could see the fingers press in as if what he pushed against had no more solidity than frost-rimed mud.
He withdrew his two fingers, lowered his hand, and held his fingers to her lips, for her to kiss.
Oh, Mother, she thought, as she sucked the two fingers into her mouth and licked them clean with her tongue, look what you’ve brought me to now. For the sake of the church, for the sake of peace in our time, I shall place myself in the fires of our enemy.
As she continued to suckle Vashear’s fingers, the cheering in the room, loud enough already to shake both windows and rafters, became positively thunderous.
Mother Coal, fresh from her latest and much-needed dose of thumis, met Mother Sand as requested at the rowdy center of the common market and, having done so, favored her sometime friend with a cold-blooded smile. Each bowed to the other. Each was flanked by attendants and, as a precaution at the always suspect market, a quartet of Devoted.
“You’re looking well,” Mother Coal remarked, without meaning it.
Mother Sand, taking in the litter from which Mother Coal had just arisen, and the polished hardwood walker now supporting her ruined legs, allowed herself a dismissive grunt. “We neither of us are looking well,” she said, “you especially. We are both unacceptably old, and you have some explaining to do.”
Gritting her teeth, Mother Sand said, “I ordered Bethanian and her lens shop shuttered and closed. And what do my Devoted discover when they arrive? It’s already been shuttered and closed, and all its employees and wares have vanished to the four winds. I wonder, now, who besides me might have thought to target that particular address?”
The smile on Mother Coal’s face widened. “Well,” she said, “if we’re dispensing with the niceties, tell me. Why did you request a meeting, and here of all places?”
People from both sides of the compound wall swirled around them, the citizens of Vagen looking muted and almost funereal in comparison to the bold, bright garments of the Sindarin with their sashes and doros, their elaborate necklaces and clinking lacquered bracelets. Not a few of the women had dyed their hands bright blue or spring green, in deference to the tropics from which they came, and the abrupt line between where they’d soaked in the ink and their regular skin, visible from the wrist up to their quarter length sleeves, was not something Mother Coal had ever liked to look at. The real world, she had often thought, did not have such clear-cut divisions. In the real world, and nowhere more than in Vagen, shades of gray were always in ascendance.
With all the languor and grace of a swan, albeit an aged one, Mother Coal gestured not only at the market, but at the looming wall behind. Had any of her Devoted possessed a bow, they could, from this range, have fired an arrow right over the wall and into the Sindarin Compound. Of course, to do so would be worse than a mere violation of innumerable (and constantly amended) treaties, it would be tantamount to an act of war. There was no danger of that happening, however. None of her guards had a bow, and she doubted that a single one of them knew how to shoot one.
If Mother Sand was thinking anything like the same thoughts, it didn’t show. Indeed, a look of undisguised consternation had taken hold.
“What?” Mother Coal demanded, unhappy to discover that even with thumis in her blood, she was as impatient as ever. “What,” she said again, “did I say?”
Her opposite number stepped closer and said, in a fierce whisper, her eyes darting left, then right, “I didn’t request a meeting, and certainly not here. I thought you summoned me!”
Mother Coal’s chin jerked up. “Don’t lie to me. I received your note yesterday.”
“And I received yours! But I sent nothing.”
The din of the market prevented anyone from overhearing, for which Mother Coal was beyond grateful, but that didn’t make her any more comfortable. There was no more dangerous place than the common market, at least historically, anywhere in the city. How many assassinations, bombings, mobs, and uprisings had it seen? The gates to the compound loomed not a hundred feet away, guarded and guarded and guarded again, but in the right circumstance, in a desperate hour, if the wrong person, driven by unknown demons, had a particular opportunity…
Keeping one gnarled hand on the walker, Mother Coal grasped Mother Sand by the wrist. “We need to get away from here,” she said. “Now.”
“Agreed. And in separate directions.”
For a moment, Mother Coal thought that Mother Sand, in her haste to evacuate, would not return the traditional farewell, but she did at last, turning back, waving a hand as if to rid herself of a bothersome fly. “Godspeed, yes. Godspeed to us all.”
“Get me to my litter!” Mother Coal cried, and she spun her walker around, but before a single one of her attendants could lift a finger to aid her, there was a massive cracking whump of a noise, then a second even louder explosion a mere fraction of a second after that, and in an instant, the air was full of dust, smoke, and pelting stones. People were screaming. Somewhere behind the fog of airborne dust and dirt, flames caught at the canvas siding of one of the market stalls; the ripping, windy noise of the flames blended with the shrieking and wailing, and sounded to her like a panting animal.
Mother Coal brushed the dirt out of her eyes and, pleased to find she was still standing, adjusted her walker. She peered through the smoke, searching for any one of her attendants, but they seemed to have vanished. She inched forward, making for the litter, or at least aiming for it, wherever it was. The smoke was clearing now, settling––she felt dry and dusty all over, as if Grandfather Mountain had belched out an ash cloud directly on to her––but not enough to get her bearings. A little farther now, and a little farther again––there. Something solid. The foot of her walker had struck against something, something neither rock-hard nor wholly yielding.
She looked down and found that her walker had bumped up against the head of one of her attendants. The man lay with his face to the sky, a piece of stony shrapnel protruding like a wall-pounded peg from the center of his temple.
“Fengreth,” she hissed, and whipped her head around, seeking aid. “Devoted!” she shouted. “To me, to me!”
The sound of her own voice, her rising panic, roused her mind. Why hadn’t she called for aid sooner? Was she in shock? Impossible. The thumis was running thick as caramel in her blood, and was there a blow in all creation that thumis couldn’t cushion?
Two Devoted appeared through the smoke, and they seized her arms and grabbed up her walker and bore her away, hustling along as though she weighed no more than a basket. Which, she thought, she probably did not.
“Mother Sand?” she croaked, choking on dust. “Did you see Mother Sand?”
“No, Lady,” said the Devoted on her left, and the one on her right shook his head also. “We can go back and look, once we have you away from the market.”
She wanted to scream at them to turn around right this moment and check, but she knew it would do no good. The mandate of even the most hare-brained Devoted was clear: defer in all things to the priests of the Unified Church, except in moments of danger, during which the situation was entirely and ineffably reversed.
So. She and Mother Sand had been the victims of a hoax designed to kill them. One of them at least had survived.
Old age, thought Mother Coal, was becoming more intriguing all the time. Someone, whether Sindarin or otherwise, had seen fit to use explosives, which meant that the Blackpowder Treaty, for the first time in three generations at least, was broken. There’d be accusations, counter-accusations, revenge-killings, riots, the works.
So much for peace, she thought, and life as she had always known it; so much for Vagen.
It was clearly time to lay in a bigger supply of thumis.
The Sindarin who led the welcoming party at the docks inclined his head, took Maer’s hand, brought it to his wide lips, and said, as if every last syllable pleased him beyond measure, “Welcome, Maer of the Spur, friend of Durnian, Exile and former Skeptic of the Academy. I am Lelanarshik Ferrasan of the House Lelan Shandor, Third of the Houses of Old, and Lord of the Foundering Reefs.”
Maer didn’t have to look behind her to know that Doss was rolling his eyes, and that Cullen, standing next to his captain, had one hand on his sword. As for the Sindarin, he had five men with him, not enough to stand out, but enough, she supposed, to overwhelm the limited crew of the Star Of the North, a ship Maer still couldn’t help thinking of as the Southwind. Even Doss had been less sentimental about the name change, although he averred, when pressed, that yes, he missed the original flag. “Only ship’s flag I ever saw that featured a pig,” he’d say, shaking his head in mock sorrow, “and I do love a good side of bacon.”
When Maer pulled her hand back from Lelanarshik’s lips, the Sindarin didn’t resist, and only smiled at her in a sleepy way, as if he were a cat considering a nap, or prey, or both. Maer had to admit that while she loved his clothes––their loudness, their loose, billowing fit––she thought she’d never met an individual she distrusted more, on first meeting, ever.
With a jerk of her chin, she indicated the horizon, just past where the stout ramparts of the compound wall met and then ran down beneath the sea. Smoke billowed from the far side of the wall, not curling up like a chimney fire or even as a single plume or column, as a house fire might. No, this was more ragged, and wide, and looming.
“What’s happening there?” she asked. “As we were tying off, we heard, I don’t know. Explosions.”
The Sindarin half-closed his eyes and gave a little bow, his hands pressing together, fingertip to fingertip. “An auspicious day,” he said. “We receive you, and at the same time, there is trouble in the market. Nothing to worry about, I’m sure. It happens.”
“What sort of trouble?” said Doss, piping up from behind. “The usual trouble at the common market is bad bargains and pickpockets, not smoke and fire.”
“Ah, so you’ve been to Vagen before?” The Sindarin ducked his head again, friendly as a half-asleep cat could be. “I don’t believe we’ve met?”
“Doss. Ship’s captain. My second mate, Cullen.”
Cullen, wary, gave a nod so curt that it could have been mistaken for a muscle spasm.
“The pleasure,” said Lelanarshik, “is entirely mine. Do you need assistance with the paperwork?”
Deferring, Maer turned to Doss, who gave the Sindarin a helpless “Who knows?” shrug. Sailing into the Compound’s port was three times more difficult than arriving at any of Vagen’s other harbors, and involved being boarded by armed state patrol boats, documented by sketch artists, and forced to fill out innumerable forms, over which Felson, still on the ship, was even now scratching his head.
“Very good,” Lelanarshik said, as if Doss’s response somehow settled the matter. “Then by all means, let’s adjourn to a more comfortable locale.”
And, thought Maer, finishing his thought, somewhere less visible. She’d already noted that while the compound’s port was busy as could be, all those who were not themselves Sindarin appeared to be staying on their vessels. She, Doss, and Cullen were the lone and very obvious exceptions.
In keeping with her suspicions, Lelanarshik and his escort avoided main thoroughfares in favor of alleys, each one narrower than the last, each more pocked and pitted with missing cobbles. Her nose left no doubt that the many puddles she stepped past were more urine than rainwater, and at one point they had to sidle around a woman so drunk that all she could do was lean into the nearest wall and moan.
At last, one of the alleys became a tunnel, a torch-lit way that passed under a leaning mass of slumping houses and grew dim, then dimmer, then dark. Maer threw a wary glance back at Doss, but he, ducking to avoid a low beam, merely shrugged. Again. Maer was beginning to feel a genuine repulsion for his shrugs. She wanted tougher stuff at her back.
“Here we are,” said Lelanarshik, pausing beside a thick door whose ogee looked entirely too fanciful for such a dank, unloved cavern of a space. One of his escorts opened up, and the rest went in. Maer could see lantern light beyond; incense, stronger than any cooking scent, warmed her nose.
“I’ll go first,” said Cullen, as he shoved past her.
“As you wish,” said Lelanarshik. “I realize how this must look, but believe me, we Sindarin have learned that there are spies everywhere, including in our very midst…”
Cullen had already stepped through the doorway, and Lelanarshik, as if no longer interested in what he’d been saying, trailed off. “Please?” he said, gesturing to Maer and Doss.
Maer advanced to the door, took enough of a look through to ascertain that she wasn’t about to enter a room full of carnivores or assassins, and went in. Doss followed close behind, and Lelanarshik, after joining them, pulled the door closed with a thump.
“Welcome,” said their host, “to the unofficial headquarters of the unofficial Sindarin Liberation Movement.”
Maer watched Doss as he sighed and rubbed his eyes. She didn’t need an extricator to know his thoughts: out of the frying pan, into the fire––and with a group of upstart revolutionaries, to boot. Her own thoughts were running down a different path, one that began with Elsbeth, who’d trusted Durnian, trusted him enough to make him the focal point of her efforts to spread word of what she’d found on Sister Blue. But Durnian was not a scientist only, that was clear. He was a state exile, with an axe to grind. She’d had time, during the crossing from Farehl, even with her near-constant training with Cullen, to think hard about what Durnian had said she could and should do, in Elsbeth’s name, for the sake of revenge, and for the purer cause of science, but she’d concluded, in the end, that every last word was window-dressing. Durnian had set her up with this particular Sindarin for obscure reasons of his own, and now the man before her would no doubt do as Durnian had done, and lead with his own interests at heart.
The world, as Elsbeth had always been quick to tell her, was a dense, inscrutable, and entangled place.
What was it Durnian had said about her being too accustomed to taking orders? A kind of flattery, that, a clever implication that she could do as she wished, think for herself, dream big dreams and throw down whole civilizations at a whim. And what had that flattery led her to do? It had sent her sailing precisely where Durnian had wished, to meet a man who had then brought her by the most suspect of ways to a place that by its very nature, its secrecy and furtiveness, could not possibly be safe.
It did, however, look very safe.
The room was octagonal, high-ceilinged, and would have comfortably fit twenty people at least. It had three doors in total, all shut, and no windows. Its fulsome decorations included sofas and cushioned benches, enormous pillows (these, Doss had told her, were all the rage on Vagen), and multiple censers that sprouted thin tendrils of steam and smoke, each combining to perfume the air with incense so powerful that Maer longed for a good Aylis sea breeze, or even rain, indoors if need be. Dozens of lanterns and candles lit the exquisite, ornate carvings on the walls, but not brightly, and most were set behind glass, tinted red and orange. This gave the effect of flickering amber firelight, but without an actual hearth.
Central to the room was a low table, on which was spread a map of Vagen. Maer, a devotee of the Spur’s many maps, knew it at once, and judged it to be a fine example of its kind: it showed the whole of the island in color, from the meadow-topped, rock-shouldered mesa rising high in the center and the ring of city all around, including the Sindarin Compound at the northwest corner. And there, too, at the northeast corner, was the rough, natural causeway leading no more than a mile to where Grandfather Mountain, uninhabited and ungrazed, rose like a rocky boil from the sea.
Lelanarshik’s attendants had all exited, leaving just the four of them. From a serving table at the far side of the room, he tracked Maer’s gaze and said, “You like maps?”
“I just never expected to be here. On any part of Vagen, I mean.”
He seemed unsurprised. “Drae?” he said. “Or perhaps wine?” He was already pouring, although no one had answered.
“Are you in any way official?” Maer asked, unable to stay bottled up any longer. “All your titles…you’re not any part of the Sindarin government. If that’s what you call it here.”
“As to that,” said Lelanarshik, “the Sindarin are not allowed a real government. It’s forbidden. One of the many restrictions your people impose.”
My people. Maer decided not to rise to the bait. Instead, she said, “You didn’t answer my question.”
“It’s true,” Lelanarshik went on, as he passed out green glass cups of drae, “that we do have an official ambassador, and I am not he. And we have a provisional council, for local affairs. On-island affairs. And we have our own courts, for petty crime and so on. Which we have a great deal of, by the way. Desperate people, people with no prospects, oppressed people––they do tend to commit more than their share of crimes.”
“If I,” said Cullen, staring hard at the door through which they’d entered, “wanted to go out the way we’d come, would that door open?”
Lelanarshik shook his head. “No, sadly. But as guests, and guests who have only just arrived, why should you wish to go? And do try the drae. My wife brews it up every morning, and there is none better anywhere in the Six Lands.”
Making it very clear she was doing so, Maer set down her glass. “We’d like to leave,” she said.
“Impossible. I could not live with myself if I let any friend of Durnian depart without having treated you to a most fabulous meal.”
Behind her, Cullen was tugging at the door, testing the weight of its locks. Doss had crossed to the two doors opposite and was checking each in turn.
After wondering whether Lelanarshik’s offer of a meal was meant for Doss and Cullen, or only for her, Maer ran through the thousand and one things she wanted to say and do, which included stamping her foot, breaking down and crying, begging for release, and smacking Lelanarshik over the head with the drae-pot. This last was especially tempting, but she forced herself to remain calm, to not let one smug stranger upset what little remained of her equilibrium. Patience, that was what Cullen had insisted she have––and hadn’t Elsbeth always demanded much the same? Think it all through, she admonished herself. Don’t be rattled.
“Fine,” she said, “we’ll stay. As guests.”
Lelanarshik, looking pleased, inclined his head.
“But,” she went on, “you have to stop drawing this out. Maybe this is something Sindarin, this kind of taking forever to say what you mean. I wouldn’t know. But either way, stop beating around the bush. Who are you, why did Durnian send us to you in particular, and what exactly do you think I can do for you?”
For the first time, the Sindarin’s smile grew pleasant. Even, Maer decided, admiring.
“I’ll tell you,” he said, “and I won’t even insist you sit down, because it’s really very simple. Behind these compound walls, I am considered a difficult personality. A thorn in the side of the official ambassador, Dowerin Rennafrin, whose full name and title I won’t bore you with. He believes in concessions, and long-term planning. Calculated diplomacy. I believe in the vital rush of now.”
Draining the last of his drae, Lelanarshik plucked up a large, weighty tome in his free hand. “Now here is something that those outside the wall rarely get to see. Most would say it’s only rumor––and you should say the same, perhaps, for it would be downright incendiary to allow that this book, and its many duplicate copies, exist. But exist it does, and with good reason. It is, front to back, a list of our grievances. Our complaints and tragedies under the yoke of your supposedly benevolent State. It goes back hundreds of years, this, since we were first rounded up, herded and penned, registered and tallied, stripped of our rights and freedoms, and made to be second-class citizens. And since then, there have been untold crimes against us. Murders, assassinations––these, certainly. The obvious means of oppression. But more subtle things, too. Look, look here. Halfway along, see this entry? All our textbooks taken from us. All those documents with which we used to teach our native language, gone. And what is culture without language?”
He sighed, shook his head in what looked to Maer like genuine dismay. “We still teach it, of course. We still speak it. As best we can. But if we were caught? Flogging would be the starting point of our punishment. And for what? For being who we are? For daring to be true Sindarin? For living out our faith and our beliefs as our grandfather’s grandfathers would surely wish us to do?”
Maer folded her arms and gave the Sindarin her best glare, the one Doss had told her she should stuff in a deep chest and drown, for the sake of others, at the bottom of the sea. “I don’t want a history lesson. Let’s try again. Who are you? Why did Durnian send us to you? What exactly am I supposed to do for you?”
He acquiesced, looking regretful. “I have given you my name, and my titles mean little, I realize. My function, such as it is, well––you might think of it as chief agitator. I am the voice of those who oppose our peaceful, public face. I am, if you will, the underground, which is to say, the Sindarin Liberation Movement. You might think of us as the opposition party, but in the State, I suppose that has no referent. Your supposedly homogenous Six Lands have managed to exist in such placid, untroubled waters for so long that your State has neither believers nor detractors. It simply exists.
“Now, don’t misunderstand. I’m no criminal. Everyone in the compound knows me, and I know them. It’s merely my more overt activities that I keep quiet. Hidden from the State, as it were. Your arrival, for example. I confess to having cloaked it somewhat. With a little diversion at the common market, all eyes were there instead of on the docks.”
Maer glanced at Doss, and she could read in his eyes her mirrored opinion that Lelanarshik’s “diversion” had been both loud and powerful. Possibly deadly.
“As for Durnian,” the Sindarin continued, beginning to pace, “I haven’t seen him since he was exiled, but I’ve known him all my life. His mother was Sindarin. Did he not tell you?”
“He didn’t, no.” Unbidden, the thought immediately stuck: did Durnian, that fussy, irascible old man, have a vestigial tail?
“Well. As you can imagine, given how Durnian was treated by the senate, he has no love for the powers-that-be on Vagen. I hope he was frank enough to suggest as much to you––and to admit that you might be a useful tool?”
A pawn, even, Maer thought, and she nodded her agreement. She had been trying to look sour, to make certain that her face and stance in no way suggested allegiance, but it was hard: Lelanarshik’s explanations held a certain ring of truth, and even if he were lying, she found it impossible to resist the excitement of new information, and the lure (its implied compliment) of revelation.
“Now, then,” Lelanarshik said, “as to your final question, well. I’m not honestly sure. But I know, from Durnian and from rumor, that you were witness to what I am already convinced was the single watershed moment of our lifetime. In keeping with that, I’d like you to meet someone, a person whose name you’ll know––and then, when you’ve met her, you’ll understand better why I would value your presence in my humble, or perhaps not so humble, establishment.”
His pacing had brought him to one of the twin doors, and he rapped on it with his knuckles, the perfunctory knock of a man expecting a quick response, which he got. The door opened, its latch giving way with a spidery metal click. A hooded figure appeared from the far side. This new arrival was rail-thin and short, shorter even than Maer, and dressed in clothes more suited to Vagen proper than to the Sindarin Compound. When she looked up and threw back her cowl, she revealed long but thinning silver-gray hair and gleaming, garnet eyes, one much larger than the other.
“May I present,” said Lelanarshik, basking in the moment, “Bethanian, the single greatest maker of lenses the grandmother has ever known.”
No stranger’s name was better known to Maer, since there had hardly been a supplies boat in all her years at the Spur that didn’t arrive bearing at least correspondence and likely a package from Bethanian to Elsbeth. A crafter of the highest order, that was what Elsbeth had always said––and commensurately expensive.
For a moment, no one spoke. Bethanian had locked eyes with Maer, and seemed ready to throw away the key.
“Maer…” Doss spoke quietly, but the ready threat in his voice was palpable.
“No, it’s all right,” she said. “I think.”
Bethanian’s sudden grin widened her larger eye and shrank the smaller. Her teeth were crooked and turning black.
“You,” said the lens maker, in an arthritic voice, high and fragile, “delivered the mail.”
Maer swallowed, and nodded. “I did, yes.”
“I,” said the lens maker, “received and read it.”
All right, thought Maer. Good. And so…?
“I,” said the lens maker, “will never be able to go home again.”
“Not likely,” agreed Lelanarshik, as if this made everything better.
“So what now will I do?” the old woman continued. “My shop is closed, by order of the State. My person is wanted for trial, and possibly for treason. The Academy will be angry. Those dusty old scholars are so ancient, most of them, how will they read their dusty old notes, or make new ones, for that matter, if I’m not there to supply them with magnifiers and monocles?”
It was a snort from Doss, half laugh, half grunt, that alerted Maer to the notion that Bethanian was cracking the driest of all possible jokes.
“Very funny,” said Maer. “But you know what you’re going to do.”
“Oh, yes. You’re going to stay here and build a new Great Spyglass, and you’re going to have it ready in eighteen months or less.”
The old woman’s tremendous goggle eye twitched and began circling in its socket, moving without regard to its more sober twin. “So,” she said, “you saw.”
Maer shook her head. “No. But I believe.”
Bethanian’s laugh was brittle and brief. “All right,” she said. “Maybe I’ll build and maybe you’ll believe, and maybe between us, we’ll shake Grandfather Mountain right to the core of his fiery foundations. But that’s a lot of maybes.”
By way of answer, Maer looked first to Lelanarshik, then to Cullen and Doss, who stood together now, behind her, doing their best to seem fierce. It wasn’t working. Before they’d met her, they’d been sailors. What were they now? Acolytes? Body-guards? Cogs in Elsbeth’s ongoing wheel?
“No deal,” Maer said, causing Bethanian’s eyes to widen and Lelanarkshik’s chin to lift in surprise. “Not unless my friends have assurances, too. You want me as some sort of symbol, a mouthpiece, all right. But if you want me happy and cooperative, then my friends and I come and go as we please. If ‘guest’ means prisoner, then we refuse to be guests.”
She felt proud and strong for having gotten all that out without stumbling, but her mouth had gone D’rekaani-dry, and she felt unsteady on her feet for the first time all morning. Being brave was not, apparently, so very hard, not so long as all that bravery required was to follow along, drift with fate’s winds, and do as others suggested. But when it came time to make demands? To activate the worth and value others placed on her? It was like leaping off a cliff.
Bethanian spoke first. “If you think I need you, any of you, to build what needs building…”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Maer said, and she fixed her gaze on Lelanarshik, “but you do.”
His look had returned to that of a sleepy, considering cat, the deceptive alleyway kind that was always ready, at a moment’s notice, to spring into action. “Durnian,” he said, “would be displeased if you were to vanish. But beyond that…”
“Wrong answer.” Maer’s wobbly legs gave strength to her voice. “Nine envelopes I had delivered, all from Elsbeth, and every last one included a note, signed by me, explaining what happened at the Beacon Tower. So people know my name already, and they know it best on the far side of your wall, which counts for a lot, I’ll bet––to you.”
Still soporific, Lelanarshik was staring down his nose with a look of faint surprise. What, she wondered, did he really want? Was Sister Blue anything more than a wedge, something to throw stones with? Was it possible that Sister Blue was totally unimportant to Sindarin culture, that she’d only assumed that it played a role? She realized she had no concrete idea, and doubted Doss did either. Sindarin tails, those he’d known about (not that she’d seen one for herself yet), but as to Sindarin theology, or history? She supposed he must be entirely ignorant, or close to it.
All these thoughts whirled by in a distracting flash, like noisy hounds on a scent. Enough, she told herself. For Doss and Cullen’s sake, she needed to finish making her case.
“Not only that,” she said, “but you’re right, I’m the one who delivered the mail––and before arriving here, I sent more. I wrote again to all the people Elsbeth wrote to, and a few more besides. People Doss knows. People Cullen knows. And you know what I told them?”
With an annoyed flick of his hand, Lelanarshik dismissed her. “It hardly matters, when whatever you wrote wasn’t delivered.”
“Why, because we were at sea? You don’t know much about boats. Doss, maybe you could explain?”
Looking almost modest, Doss scratched at his neck and said, “Fact is, mail around the Circle Seas is simpler than simple. You run up the right flag, and anyone going that way knows you’ve got a delivery. Common courtesy to pull alongside and take on whatever the other ship’s got. So no, thanks to the wonders of civilization, I wouldn’t say delivery was a problem, hey?”
Now Lelanarshik looked like a man having some difficulty in controlling his temper. “You presume to threaten me. In my own home!”
Maer again folded her arms. “No, what I did was I let a lot of people know I was headed to the Sindarin Compound.”
The tense silence that followed was broken by Bethanian, who let out a shrill little giggle. “Give the girl credit,” she said. “You wanted her to yourself, but you’ve been outmaneuvered.”
The Sindarin made a snarling sort of noise and strode away to a far corner of the room.
“That’s right,” said Doss. “Keep thinking, and you’ll realize young Maer, here, is a public figure, or soon will be, and she isn’t yours. Never was.”
Again, Lelanarshik paced across the back of the room, and the candles and lanterns, disturbed, flickered in the miniature gale of his wake. On the central table, one of the map’s corners rose, rustled, then fell. At last he stopped and seized a cup––for wine, this time, not drae. “Very well,” he said, pouring so fast that murky red droplets pipped onto the table, “I yield.”
He finished pouring and raised the cup; he drained it in one mighty swig, then clapped the cup down on the table. After smacking his lips, he turned to Maer and gave her what she thought might have been the first wide-open, genuine smile she’d yet seen from him.
“We have a saying, we Sindarin,” he said. “The rough translation is this: ‘Even behind the thickest cloud, the sun still rises.’ So.” He spread his hands, a beneficent gesture, and also a surrender. “You will not be my guests, no––and yes, in Sindarin, to be a guest is to be beholden, to be less than. To be in debt. Instead, you, Maer, will be my sister. And your friends will be as brothers. Go on, try the door. You’ll find that it opens. But I do have a condition. One. Think of it as a reasonable request.”
God above, thought Maer, the man twists like a serpent.
“What condition?” she asked, making sure to keep her voice centered and cold.
“That when in public you go by different names. Just for a while. Just until I am ready to announce your presence here. Please. It will be safer for you, and for your friends, and very advantageous to our mutual project.”
“Cullen,” she said, her eyes never leaving Lelanarshik, “try the door.”
He went to the door with the ogee arch and gave it a tug. It opened.
Relieved beyond measure, Maer at last allowed herself a smile. “False names,” she said. “For outside these walls.”
She nodded, and he beamed at her as if she’d just given him a present. She hoped that she had not.
He said, “This is now a joyous occasion. I salute you, I do. For showing spine, and sense. Let us work together where we may, and then, as our interests part, we will go, as brothers and sisters always do, our separate ways. I trust this will be acceptable to all of you?”
“Yes,” she said. “We have a deal.”
To read Chapter Seven, 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.