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 Ten. To read Chapter Nine, click HERE.
Mother Coal banged her way around the bunker room, venting her spleen by making as much noise as possible, while Arjay, tired and sullen, listened to the old woman’s ongoing harangues with failing interest. The room itself was part of what had brought her mood so low, since it came with more than its share of bad memories; this underground hideout was where she’d first introduced Mother Coal and Belner, after she’d rescued him from a beating or worse on the streets. It felt to her that she’d hardly seen the sun since, for Belner had gone straight from here to an extricator, and then on to another of Mother Coal’s private subterranean warrens to recover. Had it only been this morning that he’d woken at last, then flown into a rage and tried to kill her? That felt very long ago, but yes, this longest of days was still slipping past, and outside, had she been in her usual apartment, a tidy little domicile just outside the Church Complex, she could have watched the sun dousing itself in the sea, vanishing in the general direction of Lemphier. She’d watched many a sunset from her west-facing window, and more often than not had remembered to thank Mother Coal, if only silently, for the privilege. The old priest didn’t call on her often, which left her free to hire herself out to whichever city shoemaker most needed her services, her skills with leather, soles, and boots. Either way, the rent was paid; Mother Coal, in exchange for “the most minor services,” saw to that.
The bunker lay beneath Mother Coal’s church apartments, and was accessible from a false wall in a crowded closet. The other entrance led to the streets: the same tunnel by which Arjay had once escorted Belner. Inside, there were four rooms, which was fortunate; it gave the four Devoted who’d carried Mother Coal’s litter and then hoisted her down the bunker steps a place to be out of sight and on their own. What the rooms lacked was a proper supply of food and water, at least not the kind designed to wait out a siege. Worse, as Arjay was beginning to see, there wasn’t any thumis. None. No wonder Mother Coal was crashing around like a wild dog, newly caged. She needed another dose of wakefulness.
“Unacceptable,” Mother Coal muttered, as she began yet another clattering circuit of the room. “That they even dare to call themselves ‘pilgrims’! They have no concept of the term. Burning, looting, spouting nonsense…and with Karai’s help! I’ll flay that girl, Arjay, so help me, I will. I’ll do it myself.”
With a dull knife, thought Arjay, harking back to Mother Coal’s last tirade, perhaps all of fifteen minutes past, in which she’d threatened to cut off Karai’s nose, ears, and fingers, all with either a dull knife or a very rusty hatchet. The priest’s repetitions were becoming louder, more jumbled, and more frequent. At any moment, Arjay was sure the topic would return to Belner, to the “How could you?” tone of her complicity in his death. How would she react this time? Cry, as she had on the first go-round? Stiffen with pride and righteous anger, as she had at the second? Or feel faint and riddled with guilt during interrogation number three?
Hoping to evade exactly that scenario, Arjay pounced on a brief gap in Mother Coal’s litany of complaint, and said, “Perhaps I’d better get outside. Reconnoiter. Lay in some supplies.”
“Oh, supplies, is it? How about some cheese, and a cutting board?”
For once, Arjay spat back. “Yes, why not? And while I’m at it, a pound of thumis and a bottle of honeysap? Or don’t you mind that the whites of your eyes have gone green?”
Mother Coal stopped in her tracks. She blinked several times in quick succession, and got a renewed grip on her walker. “Get me a looking-glass,” she said. “Quick, now.”
Arjay folded her arms and remained where she was. “Mother, where do you think we are?”
The old woman leaned closer, lower, like a serpent preparing to strike. “What do I pay you for if not to supply this place? To supply it with things I need!”
“Don’t you look at me like that. You’ve never needed a mirror before.”
Mother Coal’s glare softened. “I’ve never run out of thumis before. So I suppose I need that more than a hand-glass, you’re right.” She reached up to her face with one hand and explored an eyelid, poking at it as if the greenish cast could be identified by touch. “Is it so easy to see?” she asked, in a low, private tone. “Do you think the Devoted noticed?”
“For both our sakes, let’s hope not.”
What they would have noticed, even young as they were, was the smell. Like soft cheese, left too long in the sun. Mother Coal would sweat that scent like heavy perfume for a day, perhaps longer. What a time, Arjay thought, to be bottled up underground––and all the more reason to get out, if only for a while.
“Listen,” she went on, “I’ll need coin. Wakefulness doesn’t come cheap.”
“You know a dealer?”
“I’m not a child, Mother.”
“You don’t chew it yourself, do you?”
For a moment, Arjay was tempted to say yes, if only to see if that would once more put her in the old priest’s good graces––if it would help the woman’s mood to be trapped not just with a subordinate but with a fellow fallen addict. Instead, she said, “Coin. Or I’ll be coming back empty handed.”
Mother Coal reached into the folds of her robe and produced a small embroidered purse, which she weighed in her hand, and then stowed away again in favor of a second purse, red, with less heft. “Here,” she said, tossing it over. “And learn all you can. I need to know if the Sindarin still hold the Complex, and if so, which Sindarin. They’re not all the same, you know. Those people have more factions––”
“––than a hill has ants, yes, I’ve heard.”
Mother Coal’s eyes turned frosty. “Outstripped me, have you? Learned all you can at the old bitch’s teat?”
Surprising no one more than herself, Arjay made a show of flipping the priest’s purse up in the air, catching it, and stowing it in her vest pocket. “I know this much. I’ve got the run of the city, and you’re stuck here.”
“You ungrateful, ill-bred…”
Mother Coal said more––much more––but Arjay didn’t stop to listen. She knelt, hauled open the room’s heavy trap door, and clambered into the shaft beneath. She made sure to get a good grip on the old iron ladder rungs, cool to the touch and worn enough to be slick. She considered closing the trap, then had second thoughts. Let Mother Coal manage it, if she could––and if she couldn’t, so much the better. One thing Arjay didn’t want, for all her bravado, was to be locked out.
Down she went, descending in near but not total darkness, for the bunker itself was well-lit. Mother Coal’s invectives echoed down from above, each syllable caroming off the walls and swirling together into one long sonic whirlpool. It was unnerving, to be called so many names, to be the target of such wrath, even if she knew it was the thumis (or lack thereof) that was doing the talking.
She has no right, Arjay thought, as she reached the bottom and set off along the tunnel, following it by means of a thin rope mounted at waist-level along the left-hand wall. A new thought struck her, one so unexpected that it felt inherently heretical: she didn’t have to go back. She could leave Mother Coal right where she was, marooned some twenty vertical feet below the Church Complex she’d dominated for so long.
The idea was tempting. God above knew that she’d spent enough time of late underground. Arjay paused in the darkness, her fingers resting ever so lightly on the lead line, trying to tease out all the possible ramifications. Abandon Mother Coal? If she did, her future would look like…what? And Mother Coal’s future would be…?
No. It was all too cloudy. Too much had happened, too much was in flux, and there was no reason yet to come to any final decision. At the very least, she would head into the city, gather up what information she could, and return with a meal’s worth of food, plus enough thumis to calm the old woman’s spent nerves. That much, she owed, or was at least willing to grant.
But after that? Later in the night, or on another day?
With a renewed sense of optimism, Arjay hurried toward the tunnel’s exit, and the world of possibility beyond.
Lounging in the seat that was traditionally occupied by Mother Coal, Karai, wearing a purloined sky-blue dress very much on the fancy side, watched as Vashear struck one studious pose after another, each more earnest (and, therefore, more laughable) than the one before. The Oratory Hall rang with hoots of enthusiastic derision and cheers of support from the many Aylis pilgrims that had gathered in the enormous space, and Vashear, egged on by his followers, flung his arms wide and pretended to be giving a summation to the greatest speech the senate had ever heard. Applause rang out, and Vashear, beaming, bowed.
Karai clapped, too, but Lehnier did not. The Academy philosopher sat next to Karai on a much smaller chair, the one that she herself would have claimed only a few weeks past as one of Mother Coal’s favored novitiates. Seventeen senators who’d been rounded up by the Aylis mob sat in a line two rows above, some to her left, some to her right. They would normally have sat in the first three rows, a luxurious vantage afforded by their rank. Karai suspected that for most of these privileged women, it had been a decade or longer since they’d sat so far back from the stage––and of course not one of them had ever been privy to a spectacle as impertinent or immature as that put on by the conquering Prophet Of Sister Blue.
“Hello to all!” Vashear cried. There were a number of spectators even at the very top of the house, and he waved to them. They waved back, with varying degrees of commitment.
Growing coy, Vashear said, “You know, I’m almost tempted to sing.”
Don’t, thought Karai. What sense was there in mocking the establishment he’d so lately toppled? Or, as her father the farmer had sometimes said, “Don’t piss on a chicken. You never know when it’s heading for the stock-pot.” She’d always found this particular image to be revolting, and she’d done her best down the years to put this supposed shard of wisdom far from her mind, but now it seemed newly apropos.
The bulk of the pilgrims didn’t share her views. “Yes, sing!” they called. “Do it, for glory and for God!” And one lone voice, from high up in the stands, yelled out, “Sing so loud, the Sister can hear you!”
Blushing, Vashear seemed ready to take the dare, then crouched in a semblance of a battle-ready stance. “How about a re-enactment, instead? My time at the Spur! My glorious defeat of the two most wicked Devoted ever to stick toes in boots!”
Embarrassed on her lover’s behalf, Karai covered her eyes with a hand while Vashear drew a mock sword and performed a clownish maneuver that began with a whirl, evolved into a tumble, and ended with a lunging thrust. For every move, Vashear provided narration. Karai couldn’t believe it. Who did he think he was performing for, children? But the applause he received was loud and passionate; his pilgrim followers seemed to love him no matter what he did, at least today, the day where they’d unintentionally, accidentally conquered the capital.
All at once, Vashear drew himself up and turned serious. He gestured to Lehnier. “Apologies,” he said, “I don’t want to be rude. And you, sir, I interrupted you when I arrived. Interrupted you in mid-debate. What was your topic again?”
Lehnier, as if anticipating being allowed back on the stage, stood. He smoothed down his Academy robes and said, with great dignity, “I had just mentioned the value of disagreement amongst a ruling theological tribunal. Ecumenical disagreement, that is.”
Vashear nodded, his expression grave. “How very pertinent. And this is how the philosophers of the Academy spend their days, is it? Devising theoretical conflicts that will never, ever be tested in the real world?”
There was much jeering and cat-calling at this, all of it directed at Lehnier and the two associates with whom he’d been debating when the pilgrims, bursting with the energies of their successes thus far, had stormed in. Lehnier withstood the clamor until it was quiet enough that he could be heard, and then said, “I take it, sir, that you’d prefer despotism?”
Silence. Karai smirked, even at Vashear’s expense. Lehnier, master that he was at the Grand Debate, had scored a hit, and even the far-flung folk of Aylis knew it.
“Clever, clever,” said Vashear. “You see me up here, and that’s all you behold? A despot by default?”
“Old eyes,” said Lehnier, dissembling with a patient, parental smile. “Perhaps I misspoke.”
Shaking his head, Vashear said, “No, let’s at least entertain the notion. For a moment. But let’s back up, shall we? Let’s think about the world as it is, the present condition of the city. Now, as I recall, I arrived with nothing but peaceful intentions, and yet I was attacked. And by whom, by what? A tiny minority, that’s what. The private armed guard of the Unified Church. And the Devoted have what sort of authority, officially? Beyond protecting the Most Devout? You know the answer: none. As you yourselves have said many, many times in these halls.”
His eyes left Lehnier and swept over the assembled senators. “You think we guardsmen don’t pay attention,” he said. “You think we haven’t got a thought in our heads. Well. Perhaps that’s been true, in recent years, but I?” He touched the soft spot behind his ear, and a gasp went up from those in the front rows, from those who could see his skull depress. “I have been touched by God. A divine encounter. I was consigned to death and spared! And I have been granted more than just my life, I have been granted understanding. So, I see what perhaps you––still!––cannot.”
He stalked closer, right to the edge of the stage. “Here’s what I found on landing this morning. A moribund system, a city so helpless it couldn’t mount a defense against farmers. And why? Because your ludicrous Grand Debate long ago concluded that a standing army was a threat to its very existence, so what did you do? You outlawed that army. The ‘Defense Against Insurrection Act,’ wasn’t that it? We memorize the date in school, and yet you people still debate the point, as if it might ever be reversed. This is a game for you, an exercise, just so much wind in your collective, fatuous sails. And what else do you debate? Oh, I know. The usefulness of a single currency, when we already know there are dozens, ten for every island, not to mention trade in kind, barter. Oh, and monarchy: there’s a favorite. But the only reason you ever cover that is to keep up our fear of the Sindarin! Fengreth, do you think we’re all such idiots?”
One of the senators stood up to rebut Vashear, but she was immediately pushed down, bodily, by a man armed with fishing spear.
All but unaware, Vashear plunged on. “I’ll tell you what you ought to be thinking about,” he cried, gesticulating with both hands. “A State that can respond, that’s what! A State that can look circumstance right in the eye and react––which it most certainly didn’t do so today. And remember, my people came in peace. Or we tried to. But what if the pirates ever get organized, what then? Imagine the combined Oars Of the Free Rim landing as we did today. You think they’d be merciful, as we were? You think they’d spare the people, as we did? I don’t think so. There’d be a massacre, and you know it.”
Lehnier had never returned to his seat, and here at last he interrupted. “That’s why we still hold the Grand Debate,” he said. “To alter course, or at least show the way. To improve ourselves.”
“Wonderful!” Vashear let out a disbelieving cackle. “And look, it’s worked so well! But tell me this. Tell me what happens now, now that you know the truth, now that you know our cousins are coming, and everything––everything––is about to change. Is your precious State really ready to take the rudder and steer that course? From what I’ve seen today, I don’t think so.”
Lehnier kept his chin up and his shoulders high. “I admit to no such truth,” he said, “though you are welcome to prove your assertions, if proof you have.”
“I don’t need your permission to prove it, old man. All I need is time.”
Up went Lehnier’s wiry white eyebrows. “Time, eh? Very good. How much time do you need?”
Vashear looked to Karai. As was usual for him, exact figures and solid facts slipped through his fingers like mist, and he often turned to her for help.
“Twenty months,” she said, facing Lehnier.
Lehnier and most of the senators flung up their hands in disbelief. “And do you propose to occupy us for that entire period?” he demanded. “Do you really think you can hold the city that long?”
The grin on Vashear’s face stretched from ear to ear. “I do,” he said, “because I’ll make sure the people of the Middle Isle see you lot for what you are, which is to say useless. Less than useless. So yes, I will be a despot. The first in three hundred years. I will rule with an iron hand, and a good heart”––he smacked his fist against his chest––“and the people will love me for it.”
“I suspect,” said Lehnier, “that even after today, most of them don’t know you exist.”
“Oh, I’ll change that, never fear. Beginning tomorrow.” He looked again to Karai, and he held out a hand, inviting her up to the stage. “But for now, it’s time I retired for the night.”
Amused by his audacity, she rose, threaded her way to the lip of the stage, and accepted his hand. The thrill of being seen by so many and cheered––for they were cheering, all the many hundreds gathered there––it was humbling, energizing. It made her want to take Vashear where he stood, and not wait for whichever bedchamber he planned to lead her to. It made her want to cry.
Stop it, she told herself. No public spectacles. What would Mother Coal say?
As if it matters, said a less reticent part of her mind. Mother Coal, indeed; Mother Coal who was missing. Mother Coal, whose teeth had been pulled and her claws clipped. Mother Coal, who no longer mattered.
“Time for rest,” she whispered in Vashear’s less bloody ear. “For tomorrow, you have a city to remake in your image.”
“Oh, I’ll rest,” he whispered in turn, nuzzling her hair, “after I’m done with you.”
But his attention had wandered, settling on the row of defiant senators, and on Lehnier. “Just a moment,” he said to Karai, although she noted with some pride that he kept one hand pressed to her waist.
“Noble senators,” he said, “I nearly forgot. I have work for you after all. A new topic, as it were. I want you to debate what exactly we leaders of the State ought to do now that we know we’re not alone.”
One of the youngest senators sat forward in her seat. “I stand with Lehnier. We admit no such fact.”
Vashear’s eyes narrowed. “Then pretend,” he said. “Either way, you’ll do it, and you’ll commence right now.”
“Now?” The woman was halfway to laughter. “It’s been dark for hours!”
“I know.” He nodded at the pilgrims guarding the senators. “Prompt them if you need to,” he said. “Prompt them with something sharp.”
The pilgrims, grinning, were only too happy to oblige, and as Vashear led Karai away, a chorus of yelps and objections paved their steps. Karai couldn’t help an admiring smile; Vashear had not only humbled the senators, he’d found a way to put them to good use. Who knew? If they took their duties seriously, no matter how obdurate they were at first, they might well hit on a decent plan of action, some course that generations to come would look back on as the first official response to their Sister Blue cousins.
She and Vashear were all but gone from the hall before he thought to look back, past the little band of self-appointed bodyguards at his heels. They were a rag-tag bunch at best, with not a matching stitch between them, and armed only with blacksmith’s tools and farming implements.
After looking them over, Vashear frowned and asked Karai, “Where’s our good friend Selnin?”
Karai had no idea, and she told him so. She hadn’t seen him since leaping into the harbor that morning, but even there, she hadn’t meant to lose him, not so completely, and now the mere mention of his name left her feeling disheartened and restless, as if she’d made some serious mistake that she might still, with a little effort, rectify.
“Well, good riddance,” Vashear said. “Having that man around all the time, and so close to you? He made me nervous.”
But Karai wondered, as Vashear led her into one of the Senate’s many antechambers and began arranging what pillows and cushions he could find, what had become of Selnin, and what she might do, come morning, to find out. She’d grown used to having a Devoted nearby, and the world, even with the door locked and bodyguards stationed outside, felt less safe without Selnin. Wherever he was, she wished him well.
“There,” said Vashear, as he gave the cushions a final adjustment. “A bed fit for a queen.”
“A queen?” Karai echoed, looking doubtful.
Vashear stepped closer. He put one hand on her waist and slipped the other inside her dress. “You’re my queen if I say you are,” he said. “And won’t that scandalize those poor, pathetic senators?” He pulled her close, and his face turned serious, his expression probing. “Wouldn’t you like that? To be a prophet’s queen?”
“They’ll never accept that.”
“Vagen. The people. The church.”
He let one thumb travel the crescent beneath her left breast, and watched the motion through the fabric of her dress. Rapt and reflective, he said, “You think they’d reject you. This island’s excellent inhabitants.”
“I know they would.”
“If they were going to do that, they’d have risen up already. No, they’re shocked by what’s happened, yes, but they’re ready for change. They just don’t know how to show it.”
“I’m serious. What they’re used to now is passivity. Sitting on their thumbs. But that, see, to me, sends a signal like a comet.”
He moved his thumb higher, traversing up and over the rise of her breast all the way to her nipple, and paused there, looking up at her long enough to see that her lips had parted, that he had her full attention.
“There’s opportunity here,” he said, his voice a low, hypnotic whisper. “A quiescent people, unused to trouble for who knows how long, generations at least, and along comes us, along comes…no, see, it doesn’t even matter, the names don’t matter. What they’ve just had is harsh, first-hand evidence that their government has forgotten how to protect them––that maybe it never could. I mean, look at this place! Hardly any guards of any kind, no real police, a harbor watch that thinks the world’s greatest crime is smuggling fish––fish, for God’s sake!––and as for a proper standing army, well, you tell me. Thanks to their Defense Against Insurrection paranoia, did you see one, yesterday? Anywhere? I’m telling you, they’ll welcome a new face. A new style. The energy of a single ruler, able to issue commands without the endless deal-making, debate and debate and more debate. All they want to hear is a loud, firm decree, something like, ‘Here, rebuild. And here’s coin to do it.’ I tell you,” and here he pushed the shoulder straps of her dress down off her shoulders. She half-gasped in response. “Karai,” he whispered, “I tell you true. If we show them love, and compassion, and strength, the people of Vagen will welcome us with open arms.”
He drew away just enough to focus on her eyes, and she on his. “Now tell me again,” he said, with an impish twinkle. “Wouldn’t you like to be a prophet’s queen?”
“Yes,” she whispered, as she raised her lips to meet his. “I think I’d like that more than anything in the world…”
From the upper decks of the Oratory Hall’s stadium, Selnin came to a decision––or perhaps his weary body came to it for him––that it would be acceptable, for a short time at least, to let his eyes shut. Finding and following Karai come morning would be no great trick; she wasn’t going far, and Vashear’s new bodyguards would be loud, easy to track. Nor was he worried about anyone rousting him out of the hall, or even paying him any attention. His uniform was at the bottom of the harbor, and he’d stowed his sword, wrapped in a blanket, under the bench on which he sat. For a while, at least, he could be just one more refugee, anonymous and not worth anyone’s time or trouble.
He wondered if Trudek had made it to the armory. He wondered if the southern flank of the city was still on fire. He wondered, though not with any intensity of feeling, if his parents, back on Farehl, had the least idea of what they’d consigned him to when they volunteered him into the ranks of the Devoted. Likely not. He wished them well regardless, and sent up a quick, sleepy prayer that they might be enjoying more peaceful times than he, and that they had no reason, as he now did, for seriously considering the value of assassination as a way of keeping the peace.
It didn’t matter. Not for the moment, at least. Time enough on the morrow to think of drastic action, and how to go about it. In the meantime, the only thing that mattered (the only course remaining) was sleep.
The door to the cramped, pitch-black room burst open, and in strode a huge, heavy-set man wearing the most elaborate Sindarin outfit possible. He bore a lit lantern, and he thrust it ahead of him, as if he could push the room’s darkness into submission. Startled from sleep, Mother Sand scooted back on the cot and pulled the pillow to her chest, as if a bundle of cloth-encased feathers might offer protection. The amber-tinted lantern seemed blindingly bright, and she raised a hand to shield her eyes and squinted at the newcomer, who appeared to be alone.
“Who are you?” she demanded. “Why don’t you knock?”
“So,” the man said. “You’re alive after all.”
“Of course I’m alive, and I ask again, who are you?”
The man swung the lantern to the side so that it no longer blocked his long, solemn face. “A friend,” he said, “at least conditionally, although you don’t seem to believe it.”
She stared, and realized that yes, she knew the man: Dowerin Rennafrin of the House Emflen Shuslan, First of the Houses of Old, and Warden of the Flint Ridges––or, to put it more simply, the official and appointed Sindarin Ambassador to Vagen. She’d met with him numerous times down the years, though never in private; that had been Mother Coal’s job, as the chief Sindarin contact for the Unified Church. No other Sindarin she’d ever encountered wore so many bracelets, all of lacquered wood, on his arms and ankles. No other Sindarin spoke for his people––or so she’d always thought, until meeting Lelanarshik.
As she always did when confused or nervous, she fell back on bluster. “What do you mean by barging in on my rest? Take yourself right out again, and close the door behind you.”
Dowerin Rennafrin closed the door but remained inside the room, an unloved space that she’d been shown to by the bead-seller some hours before. He’d provided a chamber pot, a wash basin, and sheets. His parting words had been, “Perhaps I’ll see you in the morning. Or perhaps not.”
Now the ambassador stepped closer, and Mother Sand realized that he intended to sit on the foot of her cot. In some alarm, she scooted as far away as possible and drew the sheet up tight to her neck, though she still wore all her clothes. Even so. To have him so close was nerve-wracking.
Once Dowerin had settled himself, balanced the lantern on his knee, and smoothed out his doros, he said, in a more equable tone, “You have an uncommon gift for spotting enemies in all the wrong corners.”
“I said get out.”
“You came here looking for Lelanarshik Ferrasan, did you not? ‘Lord Of the Foundering Reefs.’ A made up title, by the way. Not inherited, not ancestral. But why should you seek him, of all people? Don’t you realize he did his best to kill you?”
When Mother Sand hesitated, Dowerin went on. “The bomb in the Common Market. Meant to kill both you and Mother Coal, or so my informants tell me.” He paused and picked a piece of lint from one sleeve with long, delicate fingers. “You think we have no factions here, behind the Wall? No dissidents? Fools who’d use violence and old enmities to advance their own interests? I won’t even ask if you’ve ever heard of the Sindarin Liberation Movement. Plainly you haven’t. And plainly you don’t realize that it’s your friend Lelanarshik who heads that misguided organization.”
Mother Sand had the distinct sensation that she should not have woken up, that she would have been better off remaining asleep. To be hearing so much, and to be taking it in while still blinking back the cobwebs of whatever dream she’d been having, it was all too much. “Please,” she said, “talk to me in the morning. Let an old woman rest.”
“Impossible. We need to move you to a safer locale.”
Feeling foolish even as she did it, she rummaged in her pockets (the sheet fell, but she gave up on it) and produced Lelanarshik’s pendant. “I’m safe here,” she said. “This guarantees me safe passage.”
The ambassador leaned in and scrutinized the little carved seashell. Then he straightened up and laughed. “Bunk,” he said. “That won’t give you safe passage anywhere, except maybe at a gaming house.”
She blinked at him, feeling more stupid by the moment. “A what?”
“It’s a token, a marker, for a game you Vagen folk never play, but common as dirt on this side of the Wall, and in no way a passport or guarantor of anything. I assume it was Lelanarshik who gave this to you?”
Dumbstruck, she nodded.
“He’s played you, Mother. As he’s played all those who follow him, including the idiots who marched off yesterday to attack the Church Complex––and he took it, too, from what I’ve gathered. Don’t look so amazed. Apparently your precious Devoted were spread all across the city, fighting fires and shepherds and dying by the score. If my sources are correct, and they typically are, no more than twenty Devoted remain alive, at least on the Middle Isle.” He drew a heavy sigh, and got to his feet. “So please, no more delays. Come with me, and we’ll get you someplace secure.”
When she made no move, he said, “Mother, think. If the State collapses, we Sindarin have as much to lose as do you church folk.”
He went to the door and opened it. Dim, flickering light spilled in, and Mother Sand could see movement, shadows at least, in the hall beyond. The ambassador had not come alone.
“I won’t ask again,” he said. “As you know, ‘No man can protect the unwilling.’”
Still Mother Sand hesitated. An image of being at the Spur had flashed into her mind, a picture of Senator Davleen seated before the Great Spyglass, her face alight with the wonder of what she’d just seen––at the eruption of change it would presage. And what had she, Mother Sand, felt in response? Trepidation and outright fear. So she’d acted as any good leader should, to contain those changes and stopper that fear. All she’d really wanted, surely, was to establish some semblance of control, and to not let Elsbeth’s brand of chaos sweep the known world clean. Was that so very much to ask?
With a put-upon grunt, she swung her legs to the floor and rummaged for her shoulder bag. Once found, she hefted it and got to her feet.
“All right,” she said, hoping that she sounded as grumpy as she felt. “God grants me another day, so. Please, lead on. Show me what new indignities await.”
By mid-evening, Maer had concluded that she’d discovered a new physical law, one akin to the common knowledge basics that water froze below a certain temperature, or that a stone dropped from a cliff would surely fall. Her revelation was that if Doss and Kryssa were in close proximity, particularly if trapped indoors, they would argue, without cease and without mercy. If Maer hadn’t with her own eyes seen Doss rush into a burning building to save Kryssa, she would have assumed that he hated her beyond all others. As for Kryssa, Maer was positive that whatever love she’d once felt for Doss had long since shriveled away, leaving behind a desert of vitriol and recrimination. The betrayals she accused Doss of, some great, some small, were truly horrible to hear.
Rinehl, Cullen, and Felson had taken refuge in the street. The two crewmen, brimming with questions, had intercepted them just as they were leaving the Academy grounds, and both seemed taken with Rinehl’s company. Maer had found a different method of coping, and that was to remain in the close company of five-year-old Marlie, a dark girl with wide, staring eyes, and a child who bore precious little resemblance to either of her parents. The girl expressed no interest whatsoever in Doss, although to hear Kryssa tell it, Marlie hadn’t seen her father in so long that she had no memory of him. Indeed, the girl did her best to avoid him, and sought refuge in the bedroom she shared with her mother. Kryssa’s apartment had three rooms, so with the bedroom taken, Doss and Kryssa carried on their heated, accusatory battle in the front room and the kitchen, in full view of the silent, judgmental Twins. This left Maer and Marlie the time to work out a whole new way to play barnacle-jump, using dried peas as tiny cannonballs to knock the other player’s pieces off the board. This enterprising variation was Marlie’s idea, and Maer was as impressed as impressed could be; how many five-year-olds had the patience or acumen for board games in the first place? It occurred to Maer that she shouldn’t be surprised. She had an Academy librarian for one parent, and a woman like Kryssa wouldn’t have taken up with a back-alley dummy. What was it Elsbeth had said about Doss? That he wasn’t a total fool?
The argument in the front room raged on, and Marlie, ignoring the commotion with
stoic unconcern, kept right on tweaking the rules to the barnacle-jump board. Maer couldn’t help an admiring shake of her head, but she also wished that her playmate would provide a mite more expression. A smile, a giggle, anything. But no: Marlie not only didn’t look like Doss, she showed not a trace of his merry, gallows humor. She simply played the game at hand and remained throughout neutral, wide-eyed and alert. Not so unlike a rabbit, Maer thought, a rabbit in a meadow and thrilled with the business of eating, but always attuned to shadow and scent, aware of the hawk in the sky.
“I wish I could take you with me,” Maer confided, leaning in across the board.
“Your turn,” said Marlie, after misfiring a pea. “Your turn.”
At last, Doss and Kryssa gave up––or at least Doss did. He threw the door to the bedroom wide and called to Maer. “Come on, then. We’ve got a lens-maker to rescue.”
Maer rose and gave her playmate a kiss on the head. “Thanks for letting me join in.”
Marlie, her moon-like eyes staring, said nothing. As Maer left and Doss leaned down to give his daughter a peck, he said, “I’ll see you again. Soon. Promise, hey?” and Marlie nodded in mute acceptance, as if Doss’s return were already an inconvenient fact.
Later, on the streets and headed toward the Sindarin Compound, with Kryssa’s departing volley still ringing in their ears, Maer ventured to break the silence. “Doss,” she said, “did she really…I don’t know, arrange to have you sent away?”
A bitter chuckle was his first reply. “Maer, I know you think well of me, and maybe you’ve got a right, but you know nothing about who I was before. Let’s say, oh, five years ago. Kryssa did throw me out, yes, and with good reason, if you want to know the truth.” He paused, checked over his shoulder to make sure the rest of their quintet was several steps behind, and said, “The fact is, I was seeing two women at once.” He gave Maer a wink, which she took to mean he was setting her up, so she waited him out, made him take his own bait. “Two women, hey. A dream for many a man––and for me, I suppose. Except that one of my women was named Wakefulness, and by Fengreth’s bloody toes, with her in my life, I was the most useless bastard alive.”
It was all Maer could think to say. She’d read about thumis addicts in the books that arrived at the Spur, but she had no personal experience, and Elsbeth had warned her away from it with such venom that by and large, even a mention of it made her jittery. When she thought far, far back––to the orphanage, or even a little before––she supposed that she must have met a few thumis addicts, but she couldn’t possibly have identified who was a user and who was not. Such were the benefits, as Elsbeth had been fond of observing, of a sheltered upbringing.
“‘Oh!’” said Doss, parroting. “Well. So glad to hear your thoughts. Very illuminating.”
Maer gave him a hearty shove. “Stop it,” she said. “We’re almost there, and we don’t have a plan.”
Sure enough, they rounded a corner as she spoke, and ahead of them loomed the eastern gate of the Sindarin Compound, smaller than the main gate by the Common Market, but just as well guarded––or was it? Straining her eyes to see through the darkness, she detected neither movement nor light, not lanterns or torches or even a candle. The gate and the gatehouse beyond seemed to be deserted.
Doss, paying no attention, rambled on. “Thing of it is, see, you ought to be mad at me. In a seething fury, even.”
“For bringing you here under false pretenses. Doesn’t it all make sense now? Me, sailing from safety back on Farehl, where at least I had friends, people I could turn to? And what did I do instead? I aimed my bowsprit here.”
Maer scoffed. “Those weren’t false pretenses, you just never fully explained. And you did what you said you would. You delivered me, and you stayed by me. Now shut up and help see if there’s anyone at the gates.”
“Did you just tell me to shut up? God above, you’re worse than Kryssa.”
“Will you just look?”
He looked, he squinted, then looked surprised. “I don’t see a single soul,” he said. “Poor Cullen. The boy’s going to be very disappointed.”
Maer could well imagine this was true. Cullen, since appearing with Felson at the Academy, had looked even more taut and coiled than usual, as if he were a spring whose tension could only be released by throwing a punch. She’d even been looking forward to seeing him in action, in the service of something other than sparring; she had the idea it would be like watching a craftsman at work––a smith, perhaps––and that Cullen, once given his head, would be a kind of artist, one whose only tools were boots and fists.
To Doss, she said, “No need to tell him, I suppose.”
He demurred, and they hurried toward the gate, jogging now, agreeing without discussion it that they’d better get through while the opportunity presented itself––which they did, with no difficulty at all. Not a single guard was present on either side.
“A bad day for Vagen,” Doss remarked, in a low voice, as they drew up at the gate’s far edge and hovered in the shelter of the tunnel-like arch. “But a good day for us.”
Behind them, Rinehl and the two crewmen joined them. Cullen, looking peeved, said, “Can’t be this easy, getting in here.”
“Well, it might not be so easy getting out.” As soon as she spoke, Maer felt the truth of this settle on her like a set of lead weights. They were walking right back into the clutches of Lelanarshik, and if the disruptions that had cost the gates their contingent of guards were solved, getting out again would require force, subterfuge, or both. How many ways out of the Sindarin Compound were there? Two gates, and a dangerous, impromptu ladder set in a tree––a ladder that would be even more perilous to cross by night, assuming it had not already been found and removed. That left only one other option: the sea.
“Doss,” she said, “there’s no guarantee we can get out this way, but the harbor, by night…”
He nodded, approving, and he didn’t need it spelled out. “Felson, you and Cullen get back to the Star. You’ve got a breeze, sail ‘round here quick as you can and pick us up.”
“Captain…” Felson’s protest was muted only by the fact that he didn’t know which objection to try first. “Even at night, they’ve got patrol boats, and if you’re late, or we’re early…”
“Aye, but if there’s one night in the year where they might be distracted, this is it. Now go on, and we’ll be with you in a trice.”
Felson took a step back, but Cullen held his ground. He said, “You need me here.”
“Oh, please. Give yourself some credit, you’ve trained me and Maer to within an inch of our lives.”
But Cullen shook his head. “Not in three weeks, I haven’t. Besides, the real thing’s different. Send her, instead,” and he jerked his head to indicate Rinehl.
Felson balked. “What, her? She’s no sailor.”
To everyone’s surprise, Rinehl rounded on the first mate. “Is that so?” she demanded, fire in her eyes. “You think I can’t sail because I’m Lemphieri? Or because I’m a woman?”
Maer guessed that Felson was tempted to say both. Plenty of women were assigned work on the ships of the Circle Seas, but he’d always been dismissive, the more so if they were in the least bit pretty. Not strong enough, not sufficiently quick, no sense of currents or the weather. When he really wanted to bring his argument home, he’d ask whoever was listening if they’d ever heard of a female wavereader, well aware that the answer was no.
But Rinehl didn’t give the first mate time to answer; she answered for him, saying, “I grew up on a boat. The State had my father and all my brothers working the Bay Of Kezsh since before I was born. Where do you think I first learned the stars, from some book? No. I learned them on deck. As first mate of the Horizon Spray, with my father at the helm.”
Barely able to stifle his amusement, Doss said, “Felson, my friend, if I were you, I’d take our astronomer friend along. Who knows, hey? If you’re nice to her, she might give you lessons.”
Felson glared. “Is that an order?”
“Aye. It is. And don’t be late with picking us up, hey?”
Without another word, Felson wheeled around and stalked back through the gate.
“Sorry,” said Doss, to Rinehl. “Hope you’re not regretting your decision.”
She grinned, and her teeth flashed white in the dark. She got a better grip on the satchel she carried, stuffed to brimming with manuscripts she’d rescued from outside Kryssa’s Academy building. She said, “No, I’ve been needing a change,” and then she was gone, hurrying after Felson.
“Well,” said Doss, watching them go, “if she was boasting, Felson’s like to drop her over the side.”
Maer had already moved on. Like Cullen, she was scanning the way ahead, the three narrow streets that led away from the gateway’s stone-set plaza. “Looks clear,” she said. “You?”
Cullen agreed with a wordless nod.
To Doss, Maer said, “Do you even know where Bethanian is?”
“Oh, a successful ship’s captain is always an adept at eavesdropping.” For emphasis, he batted a finger against one ear. “So yes, I know. And I know this, too. She’ll be guarded better than these gates.”
“Good,” said Cullen. “If I don’t hit something soon, I’ll scream.”
But still none of them moved. And no wonder, Maer thought. Invading the Sindarin Compound was the very definition of insanity, and treasonous to boot.
“Well,” said Doss, licking his lips, “here we are. Three against the world.”
Cullen shook his head. “You two count as halves.”
Whether the mate was teasing or in deadly earnest hardly mattered, for she couldn’t help a smile, and she was pleased to discover that Cullen’s remark had drawn the same response from Doss. He even clapped Cullen hard on the shoulder and said, “Could be, could be. Lucky for us, you count as two, so. Overall? I still count three total.”
“Let’s shift ourselves,” said Cullen, “before my good sense gets the better of me.”
They set off down the middle road, where the semi-symmetrical, semi-finished buildings, all dim and dark and glowering, hemmed them in and forced their feet south-southwest. The doors were shut tight, the windows curtained, shuttered, or both. Maer was struck by how deserted the streets were. Yes, the Sindarin (unlike Vagen) had a curfew, but it was disobeyed as a matter of course and honor, and she’d expected to meet any number of people moving about their business, whatever it might be. Instead, everyone seemed to be hiding indoors––hiding, she assumed, from the events of the day, and all the unknowns the morrow might bring. The result was streets so deserted they were disquieting. She felt as if something dreadful lurked just ahead, just out of sight, and that everyone else in the Compound, aware of its presence, had had the good sense to go into hiding. Everyone except for her and Cullen and Doss.
The second mate led the way, flitting from shadow to shadow, with Doss and Maer behind and moving as one together. Maer couldn’t help wondering at his behavior. The captain had never been more of a cipher, and yet he remained by her side––by hers, and not Kryssa’s. What she felt for him, she couldn’t have said, but she knew that if he were to be taken from her (or worse, if he left) she would fall to pieces. Was that what loyalty was? Or friendship, the deepest, most worthy kind? Or was this love, the kind she’d refused to admit to, ever?
Not now, she told herself. Not when she had a city to navigate, and a lens-maker to kidnap. Love, or whatever it was, would have to wait.
To read Chapter Eleven, click HERE.
Mark Rigney has published three stories in the Black Gate Online Fiction library: ”The Trade,” “The Find,” and “The Keystone.” Tangent called the tales “Reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I highly recommend the complete trilogy.”
Away from Black Gate, he is the author of the supernatural quartet, The Skates, Sleeping Bear, Check-Out Time, and Bonesy, all published by Samhain and featuring his semi-dynamic duo of Renner & Quist. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in Lightspeed, Unlikely Story, Betwixt, Black Static, The Best of the Bellevue Literary Review, Realms of Fantasy, Witness, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Talebones, Not One Of Us, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet and many more. In other work, Rigney is the author of the plays Ten Red Kings, Acts of God and Bears, winner of the 2012 Panowski Playwriting Competition, as well as the non-fiction book Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet). Two collections of his stories (all previously published by various mags and ‘zines) are available through Amazon, Flights of Fantasy, and Reality Checks. His author’s page at Goodreads can be found HERE, and his website is markrigney.net.