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 2016 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 Twelve. To read Chapter Eleven, click HERE.
Arjay’s first stop on leaving Mother Coal and her memory-laden, claustrophobic bunker had been the cobbler’s shop that employed her most often, but on arriving, she discovered the entire block had been burnt to the ground, leaving only bricks and smoldering ashes. The fury that rose in her then was unfamiliar, near to debilitating, and instead of leaving (as most of her emotions, ever mercurial, did), her anger settled. For a time, she hardly knew what to do with herself, and took to stomping her way through the streets, traversing much of the south side of the island and cursing every burned-out building in her path. Every street reeked of smoke; cinders and grit flew through the air; a dusting of gray, powdery ash covered every available surface. She was so angry that she tempted fate more than once by stalking right up to stray bands of Aylis rebels and all but daring them to fight her. Luckily for her, they declined, although she did manage to start two good shoving matches before her would-be opponents moved off toward less irate pastures.
What at last doused her anger was the very act of fighting one of the still-active fires, a tiring, grubby, hot pursuit that did double duty as penance and prayer. Either way, the fire won, taking down a two-story chapel one timber at a time. Somewhere inside, the Twins twisted and writhed in flame. Had the Aylis folk torched the church intentionally? She had no way of knowing.
Too tired to hoist another pail of water, Arjay at last handed her bucket to a cohort, one more weary stranger lining up to help as best he could. She staggered to a distant curb, where she sat, legs splayed, her back to a handy wall, and watched as the fire kicked sparks, hot and orange, into the ink-black sky. It was beautiful, in its way. Playful. Mother Coal had referred to her as “fiery,” once or twice, on better days, and so had her best boss, Zhorin the cobbler.
Thoughts of Zhorin reminded her that she had unfinished business, and after cupping her hands for a drink from a nearby fountain, she set off again, not angry now but purposeful, on her way to a second cobbler’s shop. She frequented five around the island, and tried to pick up work at each at least once a week, in part because this indulged her paranoid streak: she used the shops to cache emergency supplies. Even during her weeks spent watching over Belner––Belner, that perfect idiot––she’d made forays to the cobblers as often as possible to do a bit of labor and remind each of the artisans therein that no one on the Middle Isle knew better than she how to mend a shoe or make a boot. Leather bent to her will, and always had, and the various workspaces gave up their secrets as needed, providing stashes and hiding spots that their preoccupied owners never seemed to notice.
At the shop she eventually arrived at, she lifted a section of flooring and pulled from the hollow beneath a lumpy sack of nautical supplies––a compass and a sextant, among other things––along with dried fruits, a stoppered clay jar of wine, and a little stone gimcrack box just loaded with thumis. For whatever reason (an oversight on her part, she supposed) there wasn’t any honeysap, but she concluded this was of secondary importance. Being able to bring wakefulness back to Mother Coal, that was the main thing; cosmetics and masks could wait.
She set off for Mother Coal’s bunker feeling better about the world, secure in the notion that even if the entire city burned down (which seemed less likely by the hour), she could commandeer a sailboat or even a dory and still have the tools required to survive and navigate at sea. “Expect the worst,” that had been her family’s byword, growing up, and her mother’s in particular. Expect the worst and prepare accordingly. And why not? With Grandfather Mountain as a restless next-door-neighbor, it was the very height of sanity to remain equipped at all times for a rapid departure. “Expect the worst”: it was maxims such as these that had led her to Mother Coal, then kept her there. Not only did her loose association with the old priest line her purse, she found herself privy to all sorts of secrets––and secrets, as she divined early on, allowed one to plan ahead. Grandfather Mountain might be beyond mortal scrutiny, but the doings of the State and Unified Church, on every subject from taxation to the launching of the latest pirate-quelling excursions, were always laid bare for Arjay in advance. The fact that knowing such confidences failed to lessen her fears of impending disaster never registered. Others lived for family, or wakefulness, or work; Arjay lived, like her aged mentor, for information.
The problem of a proper meal remained: food for herself, Mother Coal, and the four (putatively helpless) litter-bearing Devoted. To provide this, she had in mind an all-night tavern quite near the bunker’s tunnel entrance, a place where the kitchens took advantage of Vagen’s disinterest in curfews (oh, the poor Sindarin) and never closed. Indeed, the cooks would be only too glad to work up a meal in exchange for good church coin. However, just a block away from the tavern, she entered a small plaza and discovered a man sitting by himself on the curled stone lip of the central fountain. The plaza was otherwise deserted, and unremarkable except for the fountain’s elaborate orgy of stone and brass fish spouting jets of bubbling water, but the man had his face in his hands and was shaking head to toe with mighty sobs.
A kernel of seething anger still burned in Arjay’s heart, and the last thing she wanted at this late hour was to bother with comforting a stranger, but then, quite unbidden, one of Mother Coal’s favorite quotes rose to mind, “The true grace of affliction is to sunder the heart of the witness.” She paused and gave the man a second look. It was still fully dark, with dawn at least an hour away, so seeing much besides shadow was impossible, and the man still had his face in his hands. Thinning hair, that much she could see, and his clothes––well, he didn’t dress like a man of the Middle Isle. If anything, he looked to hail from Aylis.
She approached, letting the noisy splash of the fountain cover the sound of her movements. Only when she’d closed to within a yard did she speak.
“Friend, can I be of some service?”
He looked up mid-sob, and showed an open, haggard face, washed in tears. He seemed incapable of delivering any answer, not even a headshake.
“Are you hurt?”
At this, he leaned away from her, as if she might be ready to do him an injury, and she put out her hands, half thinking to catch him if he threatened to topple into the fountain’s wide, shallow basin.
“Please,” the man said at last, wiping quickly at his face with one sleeve, “I just want to go home.”
“All right. Where’s home?”
“You won’t have heard of it.” He blinked at her, as if taking her in for the first time. “Kind of you to ask. You’re very pretty.”
The compliment bounced away, useless to either of them. She already knew herself to be attractive, especially to sad, older men like the one before her now.
“Come,” she said. “Let me help you get where you’re going.”
Again, he drew away. “You’d help me get to Squall, or Ferth?”
Squall, she knew: one of the bigger ports on Aylis. Her guess was borne out. But now her curiosity had been roused. “You came here just today, right? With the prophet?”
The man laughed. “I did, fool that I am.” He sniffed, and directed his sleeve to his dripping nose. “Should’ve stayed home.”
“So you know him?”
“Know him? God above, it might be my fault he even exists.”
Now he had her full attention. Even the thought of food dwindled into the background. She was on the verge of firing off the first of a whole raft of penetrating questions, when he took a deep breath and did the work for her.
“I wasn’t the first to find him,” he said, as if that in itself were worth apologizing for, “but I was one of those who took him in. Fed him, clothed him, gave him work. And then, later, with Trelloy––you don’t know him––no matter. It was the two of us that took him to the extricator. And after that, it just went all out of control.”
At the word “extricator,” Arjay went rigid. Everything the man had said so far suggested worlds of information buried beneath, and to get at it, to mine it for every last vein and gem, an extricator was precisely what was needed. Mother Coal, distempered and all, would be ecstatic.
Collecting herself, she said, “May I know your name?”
She gave him her name in turn. “You’re a long way from home, I know, but there’s a good tavern right around the corner, and I was just on my way there. I’m picking up food for friends, and where they are, it’s a safe place, well out of harm’s way. No fires, nothing. Maybe––my friends and I––maybe we can help.”
The look he gave her could have taught an infant how to plead; all his self-pity had turned at once to hope. “Really?” he said. “You’d do that? I do have money, a little…”
“Shush now,” she said. “This will be my treat. Now, you’re not injured, are you? That’s lucky: I hear the hospitals are full tonight. So, here we go. It’ll only take a minute, but tell me, as we walk: you’ve spent time with the prophet, up close? What’s he like? Impressive, that’s what I hear. But what do you think?”
Kehlen had found a passable if not ideal lookout spot, the shadowed door of a weathered clapboard outbuilding partway along one of the Sindarin Harbor’s main piers, and from beneath its open porch, he had a fine view of the Star Of the North, although given the darkness, the fat little ship was barely more than a silhouette, a black shadow on a murky tide of ocean. The darkness also prevented a proper view of the two Star crewmembers who’d “rescued” him––as if that were in any way an accurate description of what they’d done! Rescued and then dumped him, more like. Never had a rescue felt more like a beating, and he was still soaking wet.
Meanwhile, time was becoming an issue. Dawn was threatening the horizon, and once the sun rose, the Compound’s curfew would be over; within minutes of the sun’s first light, the harbor would be swarming with Sindarin, none of whom would be pleased to see him.
Still he waited, certain that the Star, too, faced a dawn-time deadline. He was pleased to see that she’d attracted company, that what he’d taken for inattention on the part of the coastal patrol had instead been a case of patient maneuvering. Not one but two patrol boats had sidled up behind the Star, and she would be helpless to leave without navigating between them. How they might stop her, he wasn’t sure, but he’d heard stories of boarding parties, weighted nets, harpoon-like grappling hooks, even hurled cannonades of hot oil.
He coughed, not for the first time, and wished he’d been better able to repress it. Too much noise, too much sound. The harbor was as close to calm as the north-facing ports ever got, and if it hadn’t been for the shore birds waking and wheeling, complaining about every least little thing, he figured the two on the boat would have long since heard his chattering, clicking teeth. God above and Fengreth’s bones, but he hated being wet. And who in the salt-wave deep truly believed Vagen’s climate to be so perfectly perfect? Maybe it was, when you were warm and dry––which he wasn’t. Plus, the air stank. Smelled like smoke. If only the Daisy Meadow hadn’t sprung that leak…
If. He hugged his arms tighter around his chest. Whatever he was waiting for, he felt more than ready for one astonishing payoff.
And then, just as he was martialing himself to shift and rise and flee, the payoff arrived. A company of seven figures was approaching on the next dock over, the one that ended closest to the Star Of the North. Impending dawn or no, the lighting was terrible, low and hazy with drifting smoke, and Kehlen had to squint to make out anything useful. A Sindarin in the lead, that was sure, and another bringing up the rear. A third walked more or less in the middle, and he was a massive specimen, huge. Around him were others, impossible to figure, but not Sindarin––at least not by dress. One a young woman, probably. Another quite bizarre, thin and angular, wearing an off-blue headscarf and hanging back; a thickset man walking behind kept prodding the thin one in the back to keep her, or him, or whoever, moving forward.
Kehlen remained where he was, but he sat straighter. His teeth, though he didn’t notice, stopped their chattering.
At the end of the dock, the lead Sindarin climbed down a short ladder and readied one of several bobbing rowboats. The others, minus the biggest Sindarin, followed, although when it came time for the skinny one’s turn, there was a scuffle and angry, whispered threats, then a quick slap to the face. Altercation and all, the rowboat cast off moments later, leaving only the big Sindarin on the dock, and he stood there like a monument, as if daring the world to shift him.
With a clumsy plash of oars, the rowboat sculled its way toward open water and the silent, waiting ship. The rowboat did not manage the trip in a straight line; indeed, it seemed to pick a new course with every fresh pull of the oars. There followed a hushed but sharp discussion about who should be doing the rowing. It looked to Kehlen as if one of the prisoners (if prisoners they were) was trying to take over, but the Sindarin who controlled the oars held firm, and eventually the other man gave up and sat back down. The rowboat continued its erratic, uncertain course, but the distance wasn’t great, and soon enough, they’d drawn alongside the Star Of the North. A rope ladder flopped over the side, the very ladder he’d wanted to have dropped for him, and one by one, four of the rowboat’s passengers scurried up the ladder, although the thin one in the headscarf once again required prodding. Was that person whimpering, and then swearing a blue streak about a sudden stench of fish, the kind that could water the eyes and curdle a stomach? Kehlen’s ears were sharp, but the gulls were squalling, and he couldn’t be sure.
Then the two Sindarin in the rowboat did something Kehlen had not expected. They pushed off and headed not for shore but for the nearest of the two patrol boats. Kehlen frowned, and glanced at the big Sindarin on the dock. The man hadn’t moved, and his attention seemed to be fixed on the rowboat, its ungainly progress. Kehlen looked the other way, toward shore, and discovered a great many Sindarin dock workers on the move, fanning out, heading this way and that, greeting each other under the lightening, brightening skies, and getting on with their business. None seemed put out to see motion on the water. So much the better, thought Kehlen. He had no idea what they’d say or do when they found him, and he was in no rush to discover the answer.
The rowboat reached the patrol boat, and one of the Sindarin stood and tossed an object up to waiting hands on the larger vessel. Kehlen had to shift again to get a decent view, but it appeared that on the deck of the patrol boat, a scroll of some sort was being unfurled and read. The man who did the reading then spoke to the rowers, and after a quick back-and-forth, the rowboat sculled away, making for the docks.
Kehlen guessed what would happen next before it occurred, and he was gratified to have his theory borne out. The two patrol boats began a silent conversation via signal lanterns, one on each ship. He couldn’t make out what was said by the boat the rowers had visited––the angle was wrong––but the responses were clear as day, and he’d known the basics of lantern codes since boyhood. The Star Of the North was free to go, that was the bottom line. Just like that.
He reviewed his options. His situation was compromising at best: wet, cold, and lurking for no good reason around the docks, in the heart of the Sindarin Compound. He had no permits, no day pass. He might well be arrested if found. As for what was going on, he confessed to having no idea, but the notion that secret missions were being carried out at the Sindarin Harbor would surely be of intense interest to Mother Sand. The odds were good that he could extort a fat purse for such intelligence.
As the Star Of the North raised her sails, and as the Sindarin rowers returned to their enormous, stoic master, Kehlen peeped out from his hiding place to get a better sense of who was headed his way down the dock. It seemed that God was smiling on him, for despite the bustle of activity almost everywhere else, the whole length of his particular pier was deserted. He scrambled up, winced as new continents of cold fabric brushed his skin, and set off at a jog for shore.
So fixed was he on the wide-open course before him that he failed to see the two Sindarin stevedores who’d long since crept to the rear of the hut he’d used for concealment, and he’d taken no more than five steps before a long leg stuck itself out and tripped him. Kehlen went sprawling, and in a moment, the two burly stevedores had him pinned, one straddling his chest, the other sitting on his legs.
“Now what have we got here?” demanded the one on his chest. “No, no. No struggling. I’m in a merry mood, but if I have to break your nose, it’ll set my day back who knows how far. So don’t tempt me. Clear?”
Kehlen nodded, and did his best to relax.
“Ho, there!” came a voice from the neighboring pier. “Is that a fish you’ve caught?”
Twisting his neck, Kehlen spotted the speaker, and his heart sank. It was the big Sindarin, and he and his two cronies were looking straight at him.
The man who sat atop his chest said, “Yes, sir,” and grinned with all his many teeth. “Wet enough to be a fish, that’s for sure. Do you want us to bring him along?”
“Please do. We’ll meet you at the foot of the pier.”
Kehlen struggled then, and with real vigor, but he got nothing for his pains except two punches to his midriff, the second of which left him helpless.
“Told you,” said one of his captors. “And I really would break your nose, but I hate to get blood all over my nice clean fingernails, so…”
“A fair fight,” Kehlen muttered, still gasping for breath, “one on one.”
“I see,” said the dock worker. “You’re a dangerous foe. Your ear’s lost a fight or two over the years, I’ll give you that. Well, sorry if we’ve stung your pride, but the ambassador wants to see you, and that means it’s the ambassador you’re going to see.”
Prompted by a swift kick or two, Kehlen marched down the dock, and all the way he cursed his overconfidence, his failure to find a better hiding place. It was the dawn, that was what had done him in; time was the enemy, because time had brought the light. He felt stupid, despondent, and abandoned. How on earth was he ever going to reach Mother Sand?
Karai woke late, arched her back, and stretched. In so doing, she discovered that she was alone. Vashear had gone. The room they’d chosen to bed down in revealed itself to be, as it had not the night before, a clerk’s office. Functional, dull, no windows. She knew she’d slept well past her usual waking hour, but as to how late, she wasn’t sure. Nor was she certain she cared to know. After the madcap escapades and surreal violence of the day before, time, for at least so long as she remained in this sealed, cossetted room, felt suspended. Moreover, it was she who had the power to lift the spell; all she need do was open the door. Until then? Her life and her choices were hers.
Naked, she rose and wandered the room, exploring the two small desks, and trailing her fingertips over their worn, nicked surfaces. She looked with muzzy curiosity at the various papers and notes stuffed in the recessed shelving, but made no move to withdraw any of them. Who knew how many senatorial clerks made use of this office? It struck her that she might well have been in this room before, as part of the endless back-and-forth between Senate and Church, novitiate and clerk. There was no way to be positive, since there were perhaps a score of similar antechambers scattered around Oratory Hall, but it was an amusing idea to think that once, when she’d been new and green and unimportant, she might have approached this room with a timid knock and a hesitant step. Now, she all but owned it, and all the buildings beyond. She had returned to Vagen as, though without ever intending to be so, a conquering hero. At least in the eyes of Vashear, she was royalty, a queen.
Queen of what, she wondered? Of this one unassuming, functional room? Would her crown, imaginary or otherwise, be snatched from her head if she were to open the door?
With purposeful steps, she crossed to the door and grasped the handle. Only at the last instant did she remember that she hadn’t dressed––not a stitch. Dismayed and a little startled, she felt her breath catch. She stepped back from the door, one hand straying to her collarbone and resting there with a light touch, as if to check herself, to test what seemed to be her newly intermittent sense of reality.
She wasted no time after that in getting dressed, though she noted with displeasure that her robes had suffered in recent days. They were soiled, ripped, and even––at the back, just below her waist––blood-spattered. She supposed that in low light, the pattern of now-brownish droplets could be written off as mud, but to an experienced, observant eye? Never. But what of it? As a novitiate, to be filthy and blood-stained would have been unacceptable, signs that she lacked the character for the church’s rarefied motherhood. She would have been disciplined, and likely relieved of her station; she would have been Karai the novitiate no longer. But now, in the world that dawned this day, she could find no reason to feel shame. She had escaped a burning ship, strode through one skirmish after another, and remained by the prophet’s side through stone-throwing, riots, and worse. Did queens apologize for surviving the battlefield? No, they did not. Queens rose when they wished, dressed as they saw fit, and opened doors when they cared to.
She went to the door, threw it open, and stepped out. The corridor was deserted.
For a moment, she remained where she was, surveying the hall first to the left, then to the right, and wondering at the absence of any guards (Selnin in particular), and also at her own attitude, which was one of disappointment and annoyance. But why should there be guards, after all? She wasn’t really a queen. Had the Six Lands even known a real, living queen in the past three hundred years? Those missing guards, such as they were––shepherds and handymen, the lot of them––had placed themselves by this doorway on Vashear’s account, and no doubt they’d left as soon as he did. Two questions, then, remained: where was Selnin, her supposed Devoted, and where had the prophet gone?
Vashear proved easy enough to find. He was right back on the stage of the Oratory Hall, and he had seated himself cross-legged in the center of it, a piece of stubby white chalk in his left hand. He radiated the same aspect as a young child, intent, absorbed, wide-eyed with fascination at the simple miracle of being able to make scratch-marks with chalk. A fair crowd had gathered to watch whatever he was doing, but there were no senators in evidence, nor anyone else of obvious or even local importance. To Karai’s practiced eye, it was clear that his entire audience was made up of followers from Aylis, none of whom, she supposed, had anyplace better to go.
“Ah, you’re awake! Good, good.” He was all enthusiasm, and his carroty hair bobbed as he greeted her and waved her closer. “Come see,” he said. “I’ve been working all morning on this.”
She ascended the encompassing stairs that rose, from every angle, to the stage. His self-appointed bodyguards made way for her, and although she castigated herself with real fervency for enjoying their deference, she couldn’t help herself. As she’d always seen with Mothers Coal and company, status carried with it quite wonderful advantages.
Whatever Vashear was drawing, he’d marked up at least half of the stage’s stone-tiled floor. White slashes and squiggles ran every which way. Some she recognized as writing, though it was abbreviated in the extreme and limited to single words like “Hello!” or very short phrases like “God loves you.” She’d thought that the work might make greater sense as she crossed it, that it might reveal some clever, emergent pattern, but on closer inspection, it disintegrated even further into the random scratchings of a––no. That thought, she could neither complete nor countenance.
“So? What do you think?” Vashear was still seated, and he gazed up at her in frank adoration, his eyes bright and clear and filled with guileless wonder.
“I…” She hesitated. “It might be best if you explained it to me.”
“Of course! What I see, what others see––I mustn’t expect anyone to keep up with what’s in my head, right? Why should I? Unrealistic. Very unrealistic. So. All night, after we––well, we won’t go into that, not in front of all these people––and hello, greetings, a wonderful morning to each and every one of you! My point is, I had a revelation. If I’m going to rule the Six Lands, which I really hadn’t planned on, as you know, but now sounds like a reasonable sort of idea, a fun idea, don’t you think? Well, if I’m going to do it, put sails on this ship, then it has to be for a purpose, and not merely for my own amusement, do you see? And that purpose is very clear. I need to be the instrument, the essential conduit for communicating with Sister Blue.”
She blinked at him, eyes narrowing. Excitement made most people somewhat less cogent, in her experience, but with Vashear? When caught up in his own giddy sense of happiness, he rendered himself completely unintelligible.
A state of high excitement did not, however, make him less observant. He spotted her wariness, and stepped in at once to reassure. “No, no,” he said, “not like that. I know perfectly well that I can’t communicate with a planet. I mean with her people. The Sister’s cousins.”
She did not feel reassured. “How do you mean?”
“That’s the problem––and I haven’t worked it out yet. These are just ideas, opening gambits. There are so many angles! Really, I should have the Senate debate them. In fact, maybe I will. That’s not a bad idea at all.”
“Vashear. What are you talking about?”
His attention, which had wandered, snapped back to her. “What to say, that’s what. What to say to our cousins up there, and how, how to say it. We can’t assume they speak our language, that’s the first thing. So we must assume they can’t, that unless God’s arranged a miracle, a divine miracle, a question of clever design such that our cousins and we are already conversing with the exact same set of terms, the same grammar and, and, and, you know, rules––but that’s absurd, of course. I mean, look at us! Even here, the Sindarin speak a whole different language, and who knows how many other dialects we’ve got if we start poking around the Outer Shores, none of which I’ve ever been to, although that does remind me, now that I’m here, I do need to file a report. A full report, you know, about Davleen. Death of a senator and so on. It’ll be very tedious I’m sure, but it’s a duty and it can’t be helped. Not today, though. Tomorrow. Tomorrow will do. Anyway, that’s not––look. The salient point is this: when it comes to Sister Blue, written language is out.”
Each new digression threw her as if she was sitting on a buckboard wagon and passing over not just bumps and stones but entire boulder fields. Even so, she’d worked hard to track his every shift, and at last felt ready to contribute. “You’re assuming,” she said, “that our cousins are watching us.”
“Oh, I think we have to make that assumption. If they aren’t, that’s all very well, but we shouldn’t presume they’re stupid, or behind us in terms of what technologies they can bring to bear. They’ll be very different, of course. Their orbit is so peculiar, I’m sure I don’t fully understand, but on each turn ‘round the sun, they’ll have two long dark periods and two shorter bright periods. Imagine what that could do to the temperatures! Or to crops. And they’ll have names for these things, all those phenomena, names we don’t even––God above, they’ll be so different. So incredibly different.”
Puzzled, she said, “Where are you getting all this? You’re not an astronomer.”
He looked put out, offended. “I went to school. I studied.”
She elected not to challenge him. Her own schooling had been governed by the church for so many years, she no longer knew what those not tracked toward the life of a novitiate learned or did not learn. To mollify him, she said, “All right. So you think they’ll be quite different from us.”
His eyes widened in mock fear and he leaned in close so as to whisper for her ear alone. “I don’t want to frighten anyone, but yes. They might be…you know. Monsters.”
“Hmm. Monsters that build walls, cities. Make arable land.”
He drew back with a laugh. “Exactly. So how bad can they be? But help me think. What can we tell them? How do we begin this conversation?”
“Pictures,” she said. “Images that might be common to us both.”
“Exactly again! Karai, you’re really very bright. Did you know that?”
Now she couldn’t tell if he was being playful, or condescending, or something worse. Had he forgotten how he’d relied on her over the past weeks, as an advisor and helpmeet?
“The question is,” he went on, oblivious to her withdrawal, “is what pictures do we provide, and on what scale? And that’s what I’ve been trying to work out all morning, one scribble at a time.”
She looked out and across the stage to survey the assembled audience, and it took only a moment to discern their restlessness, their need for activity and duties. They’d come all this way on a wild impulse, and now they had nothing to do, no imminent chores, no hogs to feed or fish to scale or kilns to stoke. All they had were flat, stone seats, the endless seats and benches of the largest building any of them had ever entered, and they had, also, the luxury of sitting still and waiting for their leader to dream up a plan of action that not only furthered their quest––to hasten the news of Sister Blue––but might give them meaningful work, the kind they were used to, measured themselves by, lived and died to complete. Without that sense of imminent usefulness, all they had were their dead and injured comrades, and a prophet who sat cross-legged on a stage and doodled with chalk.
She was about to begin the business of redirecting Vashear, of helping him see that he must attend to the needs of those who’d sailed with him, when her eye chanced to reach the very back row of the stadium, and there––no doubt about it––sat Selnin. He even raised a hand in silent greeting. She did not return the gesture. Devoted, indeed. What good was he way up there, instead of by her side, as he was at all times supposed to be?
“Vashear,” she said, and he perked up, noting the fresh urgency in her voice. “You have more than a planet to consider. You have this city. Like it or not, you conquered it yesterday. You didn’t mean to, but you did, and now the Church Complex is held by Sindarin, or some Sindarin––”
“I’d heard, yes.”
“––which leaves us in charge. You, really. You in charge of Vagen, and, by extension, the Six Lands.” She made a sweeping motion that encompassed the building entire. “This, right here, is the seat of power, and you are the man who occupies it. So yes, we need to consider Sister Blue, but in the meantime, you need to think about governing. Giving your followers roles, of whatever kind. That, beyond any doubt, is your first order of business.”
Vashear hesitated, then reached to touch the soft spot on his head. He made several attempts at speaking, furtive little forays, but each time thought better of it. His head shook, ever so slightly, of its own accord. “I don’t know,” he said. “I wouldn’t know how to begin.”
“Then let me.”
She favored him with her most indulgent, confident smile. “In your name, with your permission and blessing, let me take up this burden, this task of governance. You have more important things to do, we both know that. You have prophecy and Sister Blue––and that’s enough. Let me rule Vagen.”
Head cocked, he seemed more surprised than pleased. “You wouldn’t find that too…? I don’t know. Taxing?”
“All my life, I’ve been trained for this moment. I will not disappoint.”
This sounded grandiose and possibly absurd even to her, but there it was, out in the open, delivered, and as Mother Coal had told her more than once, “A said thing always contains a kernel of truth, simply for the saying.”
True or not, ostentatious or not, the prophet seemed satisfied with her logic. He nodded thoughtfully and said, “It’s true, I do get very tired.”
He nodded again, as if thinking about exhaustion only left him all the more enervated. “Very well,” he said. “I’ll make an announcement. And then I shall have it written up, with rolled copies tied with ribbon and distributed to every apartment, business, and home. The city will be yours to run as you see fit.”
“But always in your name.”
He waved her aside as if this could not possibly be of consequence. “As you say, I need to keep my eye on the heavens. That’s where I need to put what energy I have.”
“So you’ll tell them. Make some sort of proclamation.”
With a look so shrewd that it made her step back, Vashear said, “Oh, this instant. For my well-loved consort, the reins of power await!”
He whirled away from her, arms outstretched, and called in a voice that bounced to the rafters, “My friends! My people! You have been patient with me, and daring, and brave, even as our path forward has been shrouded by uncertainty and opposition, and yes, this, too, this, too: willful ignorance. But now, the mists part. The road comes clear. Our destiny awaits!”
Brilliance and foolishness, thought Karai, all rolled into one. Generalities not fit for a toddler, but delivered with such conviction, such a terrific sense of poise and pace, who could help but fall under his spell? It was a question to which she needed no answer beyond a glance at the topmost row, where Selnin lounged, arms crossed, the very image of skepticism. Ah, well. She wondered if she wanted him to be any other way.
Vashear stepped to the lip of the stage, and those nearby drew closer, surrounding him. “My good people,” he said, “our task now is to undo the damage done yesterday. To reassure this city that we forgive them for how they greeted us, and that we have nothing in our hearts but love. Love and charity, and a desire for the Middle Isle to remain the grandmother’s great hub, the sun around which all the Six Lands proceed. All of you will be needed, and all kept busy. All will be given assignments and duties and work. All will be paid, and couriers sent back to Aylis so that your families and loved ones are not abandoned due to your courage and devotion.”
He gave a violent shiver, and for a moment, Karai thought she’d have to catch him before a seizure stole his balance, but he recovered and went on, spilling in the process only a little urine on the floor, where it pooled like a rainfall beneath his sandals.
“To accomplish all this,” Vashear went on, “I will rely on a woman who knows the city already, knows it intimately, and will govern in my name in all things. You know Karai, and know, too, that I trust her. What she’ll ask of you, she asks through me. When she orders you, she orders through me. In the name of God and the Twins and mighty Sister Blue, let it be so.”
What Karai had expected from this peroration, she could not have said, but she never would have predicted what she got, which was thunderous, deafening applause. Cheering. The massed love of hundreds and hundreds of near-strangers. Bored strangers, true, but she thought that perhaps their inactivity served as an essential ingredient, that this was the moment where their quiet, simmering need surged at last to a boil. The noise washed over her, swirled around her, then twined and twisted its way into the deepest reaches of her soul. She straightened her shoulders, or perhaps they straightened themselves, and she gazed back at her raucous well-wishers, her face upturned and a regal light in her eye.
Vashear hadn’t used the words, no––perhaps this was intentional, in which case he was even more savvy than she’d thought––but he’d crowned her nonetheless, she could feel it to the tips of her toes, and now she was something she’d never thought she’d be: a ruler, a ruler with a multitude to command. Her thoughts on waking had not been illusory after all, but were instead prescient, for here she stood, a queen, queen of Vagen.
As a single Sindarin marched Kehlen down a tight, curving hallway, he struggled and dragged his heels, but he did so without any real taste for the task. He resisted in part because it seemed to be the role that was expected of him, and in part because he was offended that the Sindarin escort who’d led him inland from the harbor now deemed a single guard to be all that was required. This, too, left him torn, caught between outrage––did they not know how lethal he was?––and delight that no, they had not the least notion that he served at the pleasure of the Unified Church’s most powerful Mother. That he was, in fact, her chosen enforcer.
The corridor curved again, sloped down. What was it with these Sindarin? Did they not know how to construct a right angle? He considered voicing this question aloud, just to annoy, but then they reached a door fronted with long strands of turquoise-colored beads, and the guard told him to open it, and when he refused he got a blow to the ear for his trouble, so he opened the door, and the guard shoved him through. The beads rattled and clacked as he passed, and then the door slammed behind him.
For a chamber with no windows, the room was brightly lit and cheerful. Multiple lamps faced with colored glass globes flickered from various shelves and tables; additional lamps, just as brightly colored, hung from the ceiling. What smoke there was curled through specially bored ventilation holes, suggesting that once again, he was underground. The walls were the color of a soft, misty sunrise, not so very different from the real sunrise he’d so recently left at the harbor. There were cushions by the dozen, upholstered in every possible hue, and on one of these, like some pallid antipode to every sunrise ever seen, sat Mother Sand, prim and proper, hands clasping her knees.
“Kehlen,” she said, as if he needed to be told his own name. “You lay-about swine. You’re late.”
To read Chapter Thirteen, 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.