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 Three. To read Chapter Two, click here.
Mother Coal, who considered herself to be an incisive judge of people, dogs, politics, and the weather, was certain as certain could be that Mother Sand was lying to her, but for the life of her, she couldn’t make out the specifics. What exactly was Mother Sand hiding, and why (equally crucial) was her fellow priest taking such pains to volunteer half the pieces to the puzzle?
“As you know,” Mother Sand went on, hunching in her chair as if the task of telling made her cold, “my whole reason for going to the Spur in the first place was that you sent me. In your stead.”
This was true enough. Senator Davleen, while never having evinced any particular love for the Most Devout, or any other aspect of the Unified Church, had always been friendly with Mother Coal, and had approached her, in confidence, to suggest a journey to visit the Spur, to visit Elsbeth. The keeper intimates that she has important information, some new discovery. Those had been Davleen’s very words. I trust her implicitly, and she is not a woman to lie. It would be mete to grant her request, and make this pilgrimage. I know we come from different backgrounds, you and I, and have often disagreed, but we both value our world, our city, our civilization, and we have both known and trusted Elsbeth. If there is revelation in the offing, I cannot think of a more valuable ally with whom to share it. Will you join me?
But Mother Coal’s congenitally ruined legs had answered for her. She went nowhere without the aid of a walker, or attendants to bear a litter. A sea voyage, if not an actual emergency, was out of the question. She’d sent Mother Sand, instead––which was, in hindsight, a clear error.
“But as I say,” continued Mother Sand, “after we’d arrived, and eaten––it was a very good meal––something must have gone wrong with the Beacon Lamp. There were flames everywhere, in an instant. If I hadn’t, by chance, been nearest the stairs––for as you know, I’m not as spry as I used to be––well. I’d have been cooked along with the rest.”
Not spry. Mother Coal frowned at the dig, intentional or otherwise. One thing she herself had never been was spry. One thing she was very good at, perhaps in compensation, was the art of the insult, which was why she had somehow forgotten to don what Mother Sand currently wore, the traditional headband favored by their order, a simple, elegant affair set with three unobtrusive ebony stones. She assumed that her compatriot had already taken the headband’s absence as the slight it was intended to be.
“So,” she said, considering the matter. “The Six Lands have lost a senator and a lighthouse all in one night. Both will need to be replaced.”
“Exactly so. And I felt you should hear the news first, before it becomes general gossip.”
The two priests stood in Mother Coal’s receiving room (she preferred this to an office proper), an airy apartment with arches and billowing pastel silks that divided the space and gave to certain corners the illusion of privacy. One set of windows, open to the balmy sea air, faced downhill, toward the city and the bustling harbor. Vagen: capital of all the Six Lands and epicenter of the Circle Seas. Its bustle and industry never failed to inspire Mother Coal, even now, in her sixty-first year.
The other set of windows opened onto a courtyard where various novitiates and clerical staff were sitting on the lawn, praying, chatting, drinking drae. Some were no doubt wholly engaged in matters of the soul, or at least in the pressing vagaries of church business. Others were out to enjoy the air. Vagen’s weather was as near perfect as any city could want, and today seemed even closer to perfection than most.
“So,” said Mother Coal, consciously repeating herself. She liked to think on her feet, by speaking. “The Spur’s beacon, which had survived for who knows how many generations without any significant accident, went up like Grandfather Mountain as soon as you and Davleen walked in the door.”
Any hopes she’d entertained of getting a rise out of Mother Sand were dashed. Her guest simply looked at her, her rheumy eyes glinting in the light. “God’s will,” the younger priest said. She was younger, though not by much, and to a casual observer, she might have appeared to be the elder. Continuing, she said, “We now have a situation. One of no small interest to the church. With one of the select gone, she will need to be replaced.”
This could not be denied. The senate, as the sole governing body of the Six Lands, depended for its power in large part on its longstanding guarantee of peaceful, orderly transitions. Twenty-seven senators it had in total, women one and all, fourteen elected by the citizenry and thirteen selected by those already in office, each with a life term unless they chose to step down or were ruled unfit by medical tribunal. There hadn’t been a transition for nearly two years, so the impending selection of Davleen’s replacement would indeed be significant. The choosing would affect the Grand Debate for years to come, and so of course Mother Sand was correct: this was an event that would be of keen interest to the Unified Church.
Mother Coal decided to toss her opposite number a bone, the kind of bait that might tease out more than it gave. “I knew Elsbeth well,” she said. “She was a scientist. Could have taught at the Academy. Or anywhere else of her choosing. But she chose the life of a keeper, instead.”
“As you say.”
“She had a particular fondness for optical lenses, and for the stars.”
For the first time, Mother Sand shifted in her seat. She said, choosing her words as if she were navigating a field of prickers, “I seem to recall a number of spyglasses. Some of them right in the tower, the Beacon Tower.”
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?” Mother Coal leaned back in her chair, the very picture of relaxation. She looked out the window, past the harbor, across the causeway to the mountain. From her present vantage, she couldn’t quite see the peak. Would it, this morning, be breathing out smoke? Very likely it would; Grandfather Mountain had been spitting smoke and ash for weeks now.
Mother Sand, unhappy in the protracted silence, said, “Makes me wonder what?”
“Oh, you know. The why of things. Elsbeth went looking for something. She seemed to think she’d found it. You showed up, and she died.”
Mother Sand exploded out of her chair. “You accuse me? Of what? Tampering, meddling, setting that fire?”
The very picture of beatific serenity, Mother Coal spread her hands. “I wasn’t there, was I? How could I possibly accuse?”
Mother Sand, with her wizened hands balled into fists, stood stock-still and said nothing.
“Very well,” said Mother Coal. “Since you won’t get on with it, I’ll tell you what you’re doing here today. You know you can’t return without making a report, since it was I that sent you in the first place. You’re covering your tracks, for what I don’t know, because something went horribly wrong, and the next supplies boat that shows up at the Spur will be sure to report back in turn, after which the whole thing will be public knowledge. You’re convinced you can lie your way through whatever happened, because the Spur is remote and news from it travels like mud. You wish to put my mind at rest by volunteering the worst possible news. Well, my mind is not at rest. Legs and all, I should have gone myself. I believe the outcome would have been very different.”
Trembling with righteous, barely contained indignation, Mother Sand rapped one knuckled fist on the table and said, “Whatever happened, I like to hope you would have done the same.”
“Oh? And what exactly would that have been?”
But Mother Sand snapped her mouth shut and made for the door. Only there, as she tugged it open, did she pause, intent on having the final say. “Do you know,” she demanded, “how little it would take to unravel our lives?”
Mother Coal cocked her head and frowned. “We are all of us fragile things,” she said, relying on regality to milk her old friend for more. “Fragile and mortal.”
“There is real danger here. Genuine”––Mother Sand hesitated, savoring the word––“peril.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’m meeting the Sindarin ambassador here in an hour. There’s more danger in the bangles on that man’s arm than in your entire body.”
But Mother Sand was undeterred. With one wrinkled hand clutching the edge of the door, she stooped as if folding in on herself. “Cut the right thread,” she hissed, “and you can undo an entire weaving in an instant––and I promise you, that’s what your good friend Elsbeth was about to do. That fire was justice. That fire was divine. God’s will! And I, for one, do not question God’s will.”
She whirled out, failing in the drama of her exit only at the last: the door proved too heavy, its hinges too sluggish, to slam.
Lips pursed, Mother Coal remained in her seat. She ignored a titter of laughter from the courtyard, and considered. Mother Sand had never been a friend, but throughout her career with the church, she’d been as reliable as the rising sun, and a hard, hard worker. Sending her to the Spur had not been a punishment, it had been––well, not an honor, either. They were of equal rank, she and Mother Sand, but even so. She could likely have prevailed upon almost any of Vagen’s many Most Devout. She had chosen Mother Sand, and this, this frightened, brittle combatant of a woman was what she’d gotten back.
How little would it take to unravel her life? Not that Mother Sand had meant either of their lives, specifically. No, she’d meant the known world, the civilization of the Six Lands, anchored by Vagen. Besides a handful of satellite islands, all of them lying snug against one of the larger shores, there was no other civilization to be had. The Circumnavigators Project of a hundred and eighty years past had proven this, trekking in small fleets around the grandmother at every latitude and finding, except for ice sheets to the north and south, no dry land whatsoever. Theirs was a world of water, salt and brine and brine and salt, with the Six Lands standing as an infinitesimal, anomalous exception.
Still, it was a good question: what would it take to undo all that her forbears had built? And what would go first? The Blackpowder Treaty? The traditional and always controversial ban on surnames? The integrity of the Sindarin Compound? The thumis trade––illegal, of course, but oh, so necessary?
Perhaps Mother Sand was thinking of governance. With so many centuries of peace at its back, the senate was unpracticed at rapid decisions. If change came, and came quickly, would the senate be nimble enough to respond, or would it crack under the strain, fall prey to the ancient cries for a single, strong leader––a despot––or worse, a revival of the monarchy?
Hypotheticals bored her; they always had. The only question Mother Coal cared about was, what exactly had Mother Sand seen?
To learn that, shy of garnering some sort of confession, she decided she had two options: outwitting Mother Sand by teasing out the truth, or employing an extricator.
The latter choice was extreme on any number of levels, not least because extrications had been outlawed. Did even the most retrograde corners of the Six Lands still rely on them, openly, with regularity? And was there a practicing extricator left, anywhere in the capital? Even she, with all her informants, had no answer to this.
No, extrication would be an option of absolute last resort. For now, there were other, less illegal methods of learning what she wanted to know.
She rose, with an effort––all rising, for her, was an effort, no less so simply because she was used to it––and went to the courtyard window. She called over one of her favorite novitiates, Karai, a northern girl, tall and very brown, and Karai, who never disappointed, got up at once to join her at the sill.
“I have two errands for you, my dear. And both are…I don’t want to sound dramatic, but these are for your ears and yours alone.”
“Of course, Mother.”
Ah, to be so young and so submissive. Mother Coal could hardly fathom it. At that age, she’d been as rebellious as a thunderstorm, useless legs and all. Boys, girls, thumis. She checked herself at the thought. Yes, a dose of thumis would be welcome, just as soon as Karai was gone.
“Your first stop, the harbor master. Tell him I need to see him. Today.”
Looking doubtful, Karai said, “He’ll want to know why.”
“Yes, because he’s a crusty bastard and he knows he’s not mine to order around. Still. Tell him the church will be needing a ship. No, better. Tell him that I personally require a ship, and that I trust implicitly in his judgment as to which.”
“Second, there’s a ship in the docks right this minute. It was last chartered by Senator Davleen. I need you to find the manifest and bring it to me. I want to know who came home, and who went.”
At this, Karai looked troubled. “I wouldn’t know where to begin…”
“Karai. Begin with a smile. You’re a lovely girl. First, find the ship, then ask for the Duty Officer. He’ll bend over backwards to help. Now, off you go.”
And off she went. Mother Coal was fairly sure she’d be rebuffed on this second errand, and that even if she got hold of a manifest, it would by now have been altered, probably on Mother Sand’s orders. Fortunately, two additional avenues presented themselves: since the church guard had been involved, they’d have their own internal records, stored right here at the Church Complex, of who had gone where and when. The Devoted were nothing if not diligent in their records-keeping, and if she could get to them before Mother Sand, who perhaps, in her ongoing state of fitful panic, had not yet thought to expunge them…
And then there was the mail. To summon Davleen in the first place, Elsbeth would have had to send word by post. Very likely Elsbeth would not have revealed too much (if she’d given over what secrets she had too blatantly, Davleen would not have embarked on her journey in the first place), but whatever letter had been sent might contain at least a hint or two––and at this stage, hints would put her several steps ahead of the pack.
Davleen had been a meticulous woman. Unless she’d perceived correspondence with Elsbeth to be a danger in and of itself, she’d almost certainly have saved the letter.
It had been years since Mother Coal had truly relied on her carefully cultivated network of spies and helpmeets, and she wasn’t at all sure who to tap for the sensitive job of pilfering a senator’s private stock of mail. Luckily, several names presented themselves, all equally skilled, equally discreet. She gave herself an hour to make the decision.
So thinking, Mother Coal pushed and dragged her way to her medicine cabinet, a massive wood construct with multiple tiny drawers and handy jade knobs. She withdrew a stoppered glass canister the color of molasses, unscrewed the lid, tipped a handful of shredded thumis into her palm (getting low, time to resupply), and gulped it into her mouth. Ah, bliss. The first taste, the drug’s first contact with the wonderfully absorbent lining of her gums, was an ecstasy. No wonder the street folk called it ‘wakefulness.’ And today she’d need it, perhaps more than any day in memory. She’d never made a true enemy before, though she’d hatched innumerable plots and brokered many a rise and fall, but in Mother Sand, in those fidgety, pinched eyes, she thought that now, at last, she’d made an enemy of the very worst kind: one who was not only resourceful and driven, but who carried a potent, soul-eating secret. Mother Sand was afraid, and to deal with a well-connected enemy hounded and corroded by fear would be a task for the ages.
So be it. After giving herself two droplets of honeysap (without it, the thumis would stain the whites of her eyes green within the hour), she shut up the medicine cabinet, chewed and swallowed the last of the thumis, and drew a deep, resonant sigh.
“My apologies, Davleen,” she said, aloud. “I should have said yes.”
From a convenient perch atop a rounded boulder, Vashear demonstrated again, for the umpteenth time, how he’d dispatched the two hulking, murderous Devoted. A slash here, a driving blow there, a kick to the chest. Oh, he was marvelous, swirling this way and that like a swordsman straight out of a story. He was moving so fast, he nearly pitched right off his boulder and into the little swarm of shabby, clapping children below.
They were shepherd’s sons and daughters one and all, and they didn’t mind that Vashear didn’t have a sword (he claimed to have lost it). He was making do with a broom handle freed from its twigs, and he was without doubt the most entertaining thing they’d seen in their short, lonely lives.
Clarus and Trelloy watched the performance from where the flock’s path forked, its wider track leading downhill to the village. Like all the folk of the southern moors, they were pale-skinned and windblown. Like their children, neither had ever been far from home, but they’d been, they figured, far enough. Far enough to have seen red-heads before, once or twice––and God above knew that Vashear was as carrot-topped as any man living––and far enough, too, to know how a senatorial guard dressed, and how he ought to behave. That Vashear had been found wearing exactly that garb was not in doubt, but as to how he comported himself, now that a few weeks had passed and he was up and about, his wounds largely healed, well. Soft in the head, that’s what the prayer mother had said, and then she’d cackled and said, “Yes, yes, it’s true! This time I mean it literally! If you get close, give him a press above the left ear. Soft as cottage cheese. But don’t press too hard, not unless you want bloody fingers.”
As for his heretical insistence that two Devoted had tried to kill him, and on a priest’s orders, the village as a whole had dismissed this as utter nonsense. Even the children, addicted though they were to his dramatic retellings, thought the whole thing was bilge water. Or that part of it, at least. The Devoted were holy warriors, noble guardians of the Most Devout. They didn’t strike out and kill people, especially not good folk like Vashear (or themselves). Clearly the poor man had been hit in the head one too many times (though not by the church), or he wouldn’t talk such nonsense. And yet…not everything he said came across as specious or nonsensical. His ravings about Sister Blue, those had begun to stick.
Clarus spoke first. “We have to return him.”
Clarus chewed on his lower lip, then released it. “We’ve got lambs to bring in. It might be a little early, but we could go next week. Take him with us, leave him in Ferth, let him find his own way from there. We’d have done our duty.”
Unimpressed, Trelloy spat out a hunk of gristle he’d been chewing on since breakfast. “We’d get a better price on those lambs if we wait.”
“Aye. But do we want him around? Any longer than we can help?”
On the boulder, Vashear executed another clownish, prancing leap. “He was up again!” Vashear cried, egging on his audience. “I thought to myself, how many times can a man get up? I’ve hit him four times, cut him twice! He must be a demon. And if there’s one thing a senatorial guard is sworn to fight…”
The children screamed the answer for him, crying out, “Demons!” in delighted, raggedy unison.
“Demons.” Trelloy spat again. “If anyone in this village is a demon…”
From the boulder, Vashear hollered to the clouds, “Victory! Victory in the name of my brothers on Sister Blue! Victory in the name of those who will come! The divine children who are waiting, waiting as decreed by the Keeper of the Beacon Tower, and waiting only on our welcome, to bless us and grace us with their presence!”
“That right there,” Trelloy said. “Touched in the head.”
“They do say that only the truly sane go crazy.”
“Oh, do they? Who, exactly, says that?”
Clarus got his friend by the shoulder, brought him close. “Say what you like, call him a demon, call him crazy, but last night, my wife, she brought down on my head a whole lecture about how we’ve got two years to prepare, and we’d better start now, because two years isn’t more than a twinkling. When the Sister comes back around, she says, we have to be ready, because they’ll be coming. ‘The divine children of Sister Blue!’”
After giving his friend a defeated, searching stare, Trelloy said, “But that’s just what I mean. That’s crazy talk.”
“It’s spreading. He’s the talk of the moors for miles around.”
“Which goes to show, you should never believe a man with hair that color.”
Clarus gave his friend a shove. “The women, the children, and at least a quarter of the men, they’re half in love with him. Hanging on his every word. Tales of what he ate in the capital. The beds he’s slept on. Makes me sick––makes you sick, too, I know it––but he’s got them eating out of his hand, and you know why? Because he’s beautiful, and because he’s not trying.”
But Clarus would not be shushed. “If we don’t get him out of here, he’ll convert half the moors inside of a month, and he won’t even know he’s done it. We’ll all be worshipping a planet––a planet, mind you! And doing our best to talk to folk we can’t even see.”
Without meaning to, Trelloy glanced down the track to the village temple, an open-faced grotto of stones build against a face of exposed, blue-black rock. The emerald grass around it shivered in the wind. Inside, somewhat sheltered, there’d be the clay forms of the Man and the Woman, as there had been since time immemorial, and if he were there, too, dropped to one knee in prayer, he would whisper, We thank you, Lord, we who are made in your image, we who are your only children…
To Clarus, he said, “Vashear got hit on the head, or something, who knows, but the idea that there are people, people on Sister Blue…no. We’re it. God’s children, right here.”
“He came from somewhere. And he’s right, the Spur’s beacon really did burn down.”
After Vashear had first been found, wandering, bleeding, out of his head, and been brought back to the village, a trio of hardies had been dispatched to the Spur to check out his fragmented story. What they found was difficult to parse: the Beacon Tower had been burnt, yes. Only the lower third remained standing. In the cove, even the small craft were gone, or smashed to smithereens. The supplies hut and the privy and the temple had not been touched.
“For all we know,” said Trelloy, sounding bitter, “he burnt it himself.”
Back on the boulder, Vashear finished his performance by pretending to be one of the Devoted, and he died in agony, skewering himself with the broom handle tucked under his arm. The children clapped and cheered.
“Whatever happened,” said Clarus, “and for our sake more than his, we need to get him away from here. I’ll volunteer to take him––tonight, at council. If it comes to a vote, will you offer a second?”
Trelloy thought of his wife, who was very sensible, and wasn’t the sort to go haring off after strangers, rumors, or new wrinkles on old religions. But then, hadn’t it been only this morning that she’d brought him his mulled wine and oatmeal and said, as if it were the least important thing in the world, “I wish we had a spyglass, here in the village. Maybe next time you’re in Ferth, you could find one?”
To Clarus, he said, “I’ll second you. But only if our reason for taking him to Ferth is to bring him to the extricator.”
Trelloy was unmoved by his friend’s dismay. “We need to know the truth.
what he really saw, what really happened. For my wife’s sake, my children’s, all of us. We have to know.”
“The extricator…Trelloy, no matter what we learn, he might never be the same after.”
“He’s touched already. Where’s the harm?”
Over by the boulder, Vashear had come down to mingle with the children. They were inviting him to play and he, mindful of their parents, aware that he had no right to their attentions, or at least not for overlong, was shooing them back to their chores and flocks, promising hide-and-seek at some later point. He waved as they departed, a perfect avatar of sunny good will.
“Maybe you’re right,” Clarus conceded, watching.
“It’ll stop this Sister Blue nonsense in its tracks.”
“Aye. Or it won’t.”
He spread his hands, a shrug that was in no way a surrender. “People believe what they like,” he said. “Proof, extrications…we’ll see.”
Finding Durnian had been no trouble at all. The address Elsbeth had provided, “Durnian, The Windmill, Brokerudder Bay,” had seemed vague on reading, but clear enough on arrival: the village of Brokerudder Bay had but one windmill, and it had been clearly visible even from well out to sea. As for Durnian himself, aged but still formidable and built like a wrestler, he’d been gregarious and welcoming from the start.
“Come in, come in,” he said, to Maer and Doss, as he beckoned them under the low, sturdy lintel. “From Elsbeth, eh? And how is my friend the keeper keeping? Well, I trust? Come in, come in!”
He had not taken the news of Elsbeth’s demise calmly. He’d gone from sitting and stroking his voluminous beard to striding around, pounding on the table, and swearing bloody vengeance. “Unified Church my backside!” he’d crowed, loudly enough that Maer was glad he had no immediate neighbors. “I’ll flay the lot of them. Most Devout––by Fengreth, what a name! They’ve been begging for an uprising for ten generations, and by God, I might live just long enough to give ‘em what they want!”
With the evening meal and good wine in his belly, he was calmer, ready to inspect the elaborate, quite technical drawings Elsbeth had sent. Through an eyepiece, he poured over each diagram, muttering to himself. Maer watched intently, a cup of warm drae clutched in two hands. Doss, stretched on a cushioned bench by the fire, was feigning both exhaustion and disinterest. Maer knew better. He’d made a long voyage, and had done so off the books; if ever he did venture back to Vagen, there’d be hard questions to answer, and a likely suspension of his captain’s license. Just getting him this far had required most of the ready coin and several of the bank drafts she’d found in Elsbeth’s mail pouch. And had he thanked her for her largesse? Grudgingly, yes, but mostly he’d accused her of turning him into a smuggler.
“Nobody’s forcing you,” she’d said.
“Aye, no,” he’d agreed, “but you might at least concede that my choices are limited.”
Fortunately, he’d mellowed on the voyage, a journey of nearly two weeks, thanks in part to the necessary dodging of official State patrol boats, and his old jocularity had returned, in spurts. With Maer, he’d gone from cold to cool to a sudden sidelong embrace, one of his long arms pulling her in tight as they both stood in the bow, watching the coast of Farehl slide past to starboard.
“Not your fault,” he’d said, and a world of meaning rolled in behind the words. “Not your fault at all.”
His conciliatory gestures eventually prompted the apology Maer had been trying to make for days. Referring to Varney, the Southwind’s drowned wavereader, Maer said, “I’m sorry about your friend.
Doss knew without asking whom she meant. “He wasn’t a friend,” he said, though it seemed to pain him to say so. “Felson and Cullen, those two are friends for certain, but Varney? I don’t know, some men are born to complain, and it doesn’t matter why, they’re just… Aye, well. He wasn’t an easy man to have around. No, the issue with him going overboard was strictly principle. The master of a vessel, even a tub like the Southwind, doesn’t take kindly to the ocean stealing his crew.”
“I’m still sorry.”
“Mmm, well. Be that as it may, no more apologies. Let’s get on with the luck we’ve been dealt, hey?”
Maer had never been to Farehl. She’d grown up on D’rekaan, the northernmost of the Six Lands, first with her parents, then at the island’s principal orphanage. Once assigned to Elsbeth as Keeper’s Assistant, she’d never left the Spur, which despite its nautical importance was hardly more than an outcrop, a lonesome promontory. To travel across so much ocean left her not only seasick but hollowed out with possibility (it was difficult to conceive that what she’d expected to be a life sentence at the Spur was irrevocably over), and to travel alongside a landmass as big as Farehl, one that looked both like and entirely unlike the Spur, was exhilarating and daunting. She knew from the Beacon Tower’s maps how Farehl was shaped, but to see it with her own eyes, bobbing along past towns, ports, and the thick, coniferous forest between, it was astonishing. She hardly dared go to sleep for fear, even at night, of missing something.
Durnian. She’d chosen him above the rest of the strangers’ names in Elsbeth’s mail pouch because to him, she’d sent the longest letter, the most detailed drawings, and the richest purse (a purse she’d left entirely alone, the better to ensure a warm welcome). She still wasn’t certain if she’d made the right choice, but Brokerudder Bay seemed reassuringly harmless and she found herself liking their rugged, untidy old host. He’d won her heart (if not her mind) with his pre-meal assessment of Elsbeth: “That woman was the stubbornest, moodiest, most recalcitrant genius I ever met. Amazed you survived her with your skin intact, truly I am. Must mean you’re no dummy yourself.”
Maer had dismissed his flattery, but her heart positively swelled on hearing him offer such a harsh opinion of her former employer. She’d often felt the same herself, but had been in no position to say so, not even to Doss or the captains and crew of the other regular supplies boats. And yet, complaints and all, it was clear that Durnian had nothing but the deepest respect for the keeper, and her notes and drawings held him rapt.
At length, and with the sun long since set, Maer gave up waiting for him to explain what he was reading, so she got up and began clearing away the meal. Doss went on pretending to nap, and made no offer to help. When the fire burned low, she fetched cordwood from a woodpile she’d seen outside, and when one of Durnian’s candles burned down, she fetched another and lit it, placing it near him so as to help with his reading.
“Girl,” said Durnian, looking up with sudden attention, “this old brain…tell me your name again.”
“That’s right. Tell me. This Great Spyglass of Elsbeth’s. How much could you see?”
Maer lifted her hands, searching for words. “You could see shapes on the other planets. Well, on Pelger, at least. Bumps. She thought they were mountains.”
He nodded, impatient. “Yes, but Pelger’s far off. What about on Sister Blue?”
“I told you. I was on the roof.”
“So you did.”
He got up from the table, poked at the fire, raising a cloud of persnickety sparks, and stood leaning on the mantle, stroking his beard. “What about two years ago?”
“Two years ago, when Sister Blue passed, we had a good look––sort of. It was cloudy, so we were looking through gaps, and the lenses––I don’t understand it all, but she spent almost all her time these last two years modifying the lenses. I believe she said the spyglass is––was––at least two and a half times as powerful as before. So I believe what they said they saw. Or, I mean, when they claim they saw crops and constructs…if that’s what they said, and they all said it, no one was disagreeing…”
Rubbing his hands together as if warming up for a fight, he rounded on her. “Who else knows?”
“Well…I don’t know for certain. But we handed off the rest of the mail to another supplies boat, one bound for Vagen. Almost everyone else she sent word to was in the capital, so that’ll arrive…”
She glanced toward Doss, who finished her estimate without opening his eyes. “Already there,” he said. “Probably two days’ back, so my guess is that all the rest have been delivered, as of today.”
“How many total?” Durnian asked.
“Nine. Including you.”
“Eleven, with you and Doss, here.”
“Thirteen, then,” said Doss. “I don’t keep secrets from my crew––or what’s left of them.”
“Fifteen,” said Maer. “Maybe more. I saw two lanterns coming down the Sea Steps––the stairs at the Spur. Mother Sand and at least one of the Devoted.”
With a noise halfway between a laugh and a groan, Durnian shook his head. “Fifteen. And at least two of that number wanting to keep a lid on the whole thing. No wonder Elsbeth wanted a senator on hand, somebody with some clout. And maybe some smarts. By Fengreth’s toes, you’ve seated me on a kicking mule, and that’s for sure. Do you know what these papers ask of me?” For emphasis, he reached over, plucked up one of the sheets, and shook it at her. “Come now, smart girl. You read them over, you must have.”
Maer swallowed and confessed. “You’re to order lenses. Construct a tube to fit. You’re to have your own Great Spyglass ready by the time Sister Blue returns.”
Durnian looked pleased with her response. He set the paper down again. “Not going to happen,” he said.
“What? But why?”
“Those lenses, that’s why. I can’t make them. Only one person can, or one shop, anyway––and they’re in the capital. You think Mother Sand and her ilk won’t be keeping watch, monitoring who places an order for anything better than my eyepiece, here?”
“Think, girl. I’m a noisy old goat and halfway to being a heretic––why do you think I live way out here?––but I’m not suicidal. Elsbeth wanted proof, corroboration, and I could still give it to her––in theory. But given how the church has responded so far, no. That’s not a sail I’m prepared to set.”
From the bench, Doss abruptly sat up. “Well, then, Maer. Time to go, hey?”
But Maer stood her ground. “No,” she said, gazing steadily at their host. “You have some other idea.”
For the first time since welcoming them, Durnian did more than smile. He beamed. “Maer, I’m a scientist. A scientist first, and a scientist forever. But I don’t make my living at it, not anymore. In fact, thanks to being tasked with a property that includes a windmill, I’m a miller. But do you know why I’m here, instead of at the Academy, or one of its branches?”
Maer shook her head. Doss lay down again, but this time kept his eyes open, fixed on the ceiling.
“I once published a little book in which I tossed out an idea, a hypothesis. Actually, because I was young and brash and very full of myself, I called it my “Theory Of Similarity,” though I knew perfectly well it wasn’t a theory. Not really testable or reproducible and so on. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’d looked through a few of Elsbeth’s early spyglasses, peered through them enough to see Pelger, and Sister Blue, and a few dozen stars beyond our own, and from that, I laid out this whole rigmarole about how there ought to be life on at least some of these other planets, and how whatever form it took, it would, if given time, develop very much along the same lines as life right here on the grandmother. Not identical, but with certain traits intact. Symmetrical design, for example, like us: divided in two down our spine, and more or less the same on each side. All right, I can see I’m boring you. My point is, positing even fairly unintelligent life on other solar bodies flew right in the face of church doctrine, and I was relieved of my post. Not by the Unified Church, of course, because they’ve made a meal of telling the world that under their roof, faith and rationality are ‘fully reconciled.’ That’s their phrase, and they’ve clamped down on it like a leghold trap. And they’re always going on about the balance, this perfect equilibrium they’ve got between ‘reality’ and ‘the divine.’ ‘Look out!’ they say, ‘If one or the other gains the upper hand, the snake eats its own tail, and everything falls apart.’ But they can’t follow their own high-mindedness, no, not by a long shot. So me? Me, they had to condemn, and they couldn’t even do the dirty work themselves. They left that to the senate. But the result was the same, and here I am. Not quite the village idiot, but very definitely the village miller.”
He let go of his beard long enough to down another slurp of wine. “My specialty now, such as it is, is plants. Seeds. Come morning, I’ll tour you through my greenhouses––they’re down the path a ways––and you’ll see some wonders, truly you will. Things the capital hasn’t yet dared to dream. And there’s the rub: people are like plants. They need a certain kind of environment in which to thrive. Doss, here, might prefer the ocean, but he’s got the same basic needs as me, most every hour of the day, and neither one of us likes change. We’re not very adaptable––not, at least, as a group. This news you bring, this mail”––he again reached for and shook one of Elsbeth’s diagrams––“this is the equivalent of new weather. A drought, say. Or a fresh flow of lava. This is killing stuff.”
From his bench, Doss said, “We could still go, little Maer. I believe in silver linings, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to retire for years. Along you come, wreaking havoc with every tailwind I’ve ever met, and I get to thinking, maybe you’re the sign I’ve been looking for. Time to give it all up, set sail for the shores where the State doesn’t often come snooping…”
“Very wise,” murmured Durnian. “Away from the Circle Seas, you might still find a lifetime of peace. But I doubt it. Your keeper’s mail will start rumors. So will the Devoted, no matter how devoted they think they are. Mother Sand, too, even if she does her best to be silent. Next thing you know, half the capital will be buzzing. Life on Sister Blue! And with the distinct possibility of proof in two years’ time. Lines will be drawn, lines in the sand. Battle lines. Some will be in favor. Some against. The very foundations of the church, if not the senate, will rattle and crack.”
As if to himself, Doss began to sing “The Faraway Shore.”
I know a little port
On the farthest outer isle
Where they serve fine wine
And always wear a smile…
“See?” said Durnian. “Your friend can smell trouble a mile off.”
“Hardly,” said Doss, cutting off his tune. “If I could do that, I wouldn’t have sailed to the Spur in the first place.”
“So what do you want me to do?” Maer demanded. “I didn’t see anything, so all I’ve got is gossip. And I don’t want a war any more than you do.”
To this, Durnian shrugged. “Does it matter what I want?”
The big man shook his head. “You’ve gotten too used to taking orders. All your life long, I’d say, yes? The State is very good at taking care of orphans. Getting them housed, employed, fed. But not so good at helping you learn how to live. Elsbeth’s gone, my dear, and with her went your capacity for not making choices of your own. So. It seems to me you have two options. Run from what you know, or proclaim it from the top of every tower. Become, in a word, a prophet.”
“But I didn’t see anything!”
“No one will care. You know a new truth, and in two years, you can prove it. You want a new spyglass built? Demand it. In public. In as many places as possible. Then, maybe, if you’re lucky, those wretched Most Devout will feel compelled, compelled to cooperate with you. They’ll be the ones filling Elsbeth’s orders, demanding new lenses and whatnot. And then, in two years, we won’t have to skulk like rabbits. We’ll know. And science, not rumor, will be satisfied.”
By the time Durnian had finished, Maer’s mouth had gone dry as dust. Blinking, she reached for a mug, grabbed the wrong one, and only realized as the liquid burned her throat that she’d just taken a slug, not of drae, but of wine.
“Scared, are you?” said Durnian, his tone kind, amused.
“They’ll have my head,” she said.
“Our remarkably secular Unified Church will brand you a heretic, yes. And you know the punishment for that.”
Once again, Doss rolled himself to a sitting position. His boots clumped to the floor. “I’m telling you, Maer. I really do know a little place on the very outer isles. I don’t mean to be proposing marriage––Fengreth’s claws, I’m old enough to be, well, not your father, but you have to admit, I’ve got a few years on you.”
As Maer fixed him with a baffled stare, Doss, flustered, tried again. “What I mean is, we both love the sea, and the spot I’m thinking of, well, hey, it wouldn’t be such a bad place to vanish.”
Durnian cocked an eye at him. “You don’t like being a supplies captain?”
“Oh, supply runs are nice enough, and the pay’s good, but at this point, I’m more than two weeks’ overdue to check in. Since plenty of other tubs have seen us and logged our passage, well. On Vagen, they’ll assume I’ve gone rogue.”
Durnian chuckled. “According to every State dispatch I’ve ever seen, smugglers don’t exist.”
“Nor do they. Except in real life, hey?” He rose, stretched, and yawned luxuriously. “Maer, it’s late. How about we get some sleep? Time enough in the morning for big decisions.”
But Maer had both hands to the side of her head, and her eyes were staring somewhere well past the flickering, hungry fire. She said, in a whisper, “But I’m nobody. I’m not even fourteen. No one is going to listen to me.”
Grinning, Doss said, “I did.”
“I don’t even know if I want people to listen!”
To this, Durnian inclined his head as if at prayer. “You came all the way here.”
What few tears Maer had shed since the night the Beacon Tower burned were nothing to what assailed her now. Her grief rose in a wave, leaving her no chance to hold back. In an agonized voice, she managed to say, “But I didn’t understand!” before a choking sob cut her off.
Neither man made a move toward her as she quavered and shook. Doss, embarrassed, stared at the fire, then at his boots. Durnian allowed his eyes to close, then muttered a prayer, and said, “Maer, of course you didn’t understand. But you do now, and your friend is right. Time for sleep. And then, come morning…”
“Then come morning what?”
“We’ll see just how much of the world you want to destroy.”
End Chapter Three
To read Chapter Four, 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.