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IN THE cabin of the Selaki he put the swallow—what in truth was known as an Arrowsparrow—in a large doorless birdcage hanging over his desk. There were seven others already in it, who welcomed the newcomer with a round of friendly twittering. They were all crowded into one nest of two, and made room for their fellow, who hopped in with them and got comfortable. He checked on their food and water; satisfied that it was okay, he tossed a dark sheet over the cage so they could continue to sleep.
He sat down at his desk and absentmindedly shuffled through papers and copies of old manifests. He pushed them away and leaned back, lacing his fingers over his stomach.
The Apprentice has come.
He'd seen the message with his own eyes before it faded away. But he still couldn't believe it. The Revolution was here.
He looked up at the covered birdcage, then down at the bow leaning against the desk. All eight of those birds were going to be sent on their way later with the news.
It was just past seven. The sun would be up in an hour or so. Already the fog was brightening to a dull, glowing milky-white and lifting a little. He tossed the tiny scroll into a top drawer full of them and then got up and made his way about the singleship, giving her a good once-over. She was going to have to be ready by this evening. Shore leave, as short as it was, was over.
He was kneeling at the opened forward hold two hours later, taking an inventory of foodstuffs, when the Imperial messenger strode onto the dock. The man waited for Anurag to notice him; once he did he bowed and cupped his hands.
"Osz firick, Bouchard."
Anurag stood and threw down the hold door, which slammed shut with a loud bang.
"What do you want, Donny?"
"Donny" was a skinny man a bit younger than Anurag. He had a squeezed look about him: a long forehead, thin, glistening eyes, and no chin or shoulders. He was a native to Anthtree, a hated "Native Guard," so called by the Imperials who had conscripted him.
His countenance darkened. "Donny" was a derogatory term meaning "weakling" or "wimp" with connotations of betrayal and backstabbing. His actual name—Donal—was an easy one to mangle. Anurag took the chance every time he was presented with it.
"You play with fire, Bouchard, without a proper return greeting. I could report you."
"You say that every time, Donny," replied Anurag, enjoying the fact of getting under the other's skin. "But here I am, still 'free.' " He spat that last word.
"You are making ready to sail?"
"That's what I'm doing," said Anurag, getting back to work.
"Have you notified the Constable of your change of plans? Has he given you permission?"
Anurag had disappeared into his cabin; he emerged a few moments later with, "What—?"
Donal's agitation was clearly increasing. "I said, have you notified the Constable of your intent to sail, and has he approved those plans?"
"The Constable is probably still in his big, cozy bed stuffing his latest personal assistant. I'm busy here, Donny. Give me your message."
The Native Guard sniffed. "He wants to see you."
"What does the personal assistant want with me?"
"No, Bouchard, the Constable. The Constable wants to see you."
"Really. That fat tub o' lard is actually awake at this hour?"
Donal cleared his throat. His face had attained a nice plum color. "No, Bouchard. The message was given to me last night to give to you first thing this morning. I went by the lighthouse, but your mother reported that you had left. Naturally I assumed you were on your vessel."
"He wishes to let you know that he wants to see you immediately."
The men stared at each other.
"Well?" demanded Anurag. "You've delivered your message, now go! I'll drop by to see your precious Imperial crotchsniffer later!"
Outraged, Donal turned and stomped off the dock, disappearing into the lifting fog. Anurag watched him go. He chuckled and shook his head, then got back to work.
His mother was waiting for him at the door.
"Donal was looking for you," she said as he removed his hat, scarf, and coat, hanging them on the hatstand.
"He found me," he grumbled.
"Breakfast is on the table," she said as she got out of his way. "I assume you were tending the Selaki?"
He could smell it from here: eggs and bacon. Though he had eaten earlier, he was still hungry. He sat and dug in as she waited for an answer under the kitchen's doorjamb.
"I'm leaving tonight, Mom," he said.
"Tonight? But you just got here! I haven't seen you in nine months and now you're heading back out so soon?"
He put down his fork, turned in his seat to look at her.
"The Apprentice has come."
She held silent for a long moment. "I see.”
It was clear that the news disturbed her greatly.
"I got the message this morning." He turned back in his seat and resumed eating. "I couldn't sleep so I took a walk. The Arrowsparrow found me at the statue."
Anurag’s nephew walked past his grandmother and into the kitchen, where he joined Anurag at the table.
Orion de Bouchard was a very handsome young man, a bit on the thin side, and tall for his age, which was just a few months from five Aquanian-years. His dark eyes and strong chin were framed by wavy, reckless black hair pulled haphazardly back into a ponytail, one that his grandmother constantly threatened to chop off.
"What message?" he repeated before stealing one of Anurag's strips of bacon, getting his hand out of the way before Anurag could slap it.
"I assume you've finished winding the light?" demanded his grandmother.
"Just," he answered, chewing.
"Brinkley is through with you? Has Tal arrived? He'll want your help with polishing today—"
"He's not here yet, Gran. Don't worry, I'm not going to ditch him. Now … Uncle … what message? The way you two were whispering, it must be important."
He waited expectantly for an answer.
Anurag glanced at his mother. "We were whispering?"
But she only glowered back at him.
"I see no reason why he shouldn't know," he shrugged.
"I'll give you one very good reason," she snapped back. "He's a boy."
"Not according to the Imperium," replied Anurag darkly. "He's Registered and Emasculated. They can snatch him up any time they want. That makes him a man in my view."
"But not in mine—"
"The Apprentice has come," he reported to his nephew, whose eyes grew very wide.
"Anurag!" yelled Claire de Bouchard.
He looked away from her white-hot glare and at Orion. "It's time to put all those secret weapons training lessons to good use. You ready?"
"Oh—" And with that she stomped away.
"She's scared," said Orion when it became clear she was nowhere within earshot.
Anurag, looking down at his plate, nodded.
"Are you, Uncle?"
Anurag finished eating and set down his fork. "Sure. Sure I am. But that's not the question you should be focusing on. Everyone has fear. But few are prepared. Prepared up here—" he tapped his own temple. "You prepared, Orion? You prepared up here?" He tapped his temple again.
Orion held up. "I ... don't know."
"Then it's time you got that way. It's here. It's real."
His nephew nodded uneasily.
"I'm leaving tonight," said Anurag.
Noting Orion’s downcast demeanor at this news, he reached and grabbed his neck, ruffled his rebellious hair. "We've got work to do before I go, though. The—"
"The rotation!" interrupted Orion, his face brightening. "That's right! Let's go!"
"You head on over. I'm going to have a word with Gran. I'll be there shortly."
Orion rose from the table. "She'll get over it," he said. "She always does."
He patted Anurag on the shoulder as he left the kitchen.
Anurag sat in silence for a few moments before rising himself. He thought: She may not get over this.
"She still angry?" called out Orion at the top of the lighthouse as Anurag made his way up the spiral staircase. His nephew looked expectantly down at him.
"Actually, she's furious," said Anurag as he stepped on the landing a few moments later.
Brinkley was there and gave him a short nod. Brinkley had been an employee of Claire de Bouchard for many years and was considered a member of the family. He was a taciturn old man, and, despite his advancing age, still freakishly strong. His godson, Tal, had joined him in the tower four years ago. The pair were indispensably loyal and hardworking. Anurag often gave thanks for both while away on his long voyages, as it seemed nowhere could be found two fiercer protectors of Claire de Bouchard and her lighthouse.
"I told him, Uncle," reported Orion. "I told Brinkley about the Apprentice."
"Does Tal know?" asked Anurag.
"He knows," said Brinkley. He turned his grumpy glare to Orion. "And that's all that gets to know, boy. You understand?"
"Not true," answered Anurag. He walked around the great lighthouse mirror, whose ponderous rotation had been halted. Its brilliant beam shot out, immobile, into a retreating fog bank due east, setting a perfect circle on it aglow. The sea was unsteady today; a good, stiff wind had kicked up with the dawn. It cleared the fog with unnatural haste. "We need to reset the light's rotation from thirty seconds to twenty-four seconds, precisely."
"If the Constable finds out …" said Orion worriedly.
"Without a report filed or permission granted, we'll all be fed to the demon," added Brinkley, who twisted his steel-gray beard angrily.
Anurag looked the two of them over. "If I've learned anything in my travels, boys," he said, "it's this: the Imperium is an overwhelmed bureaucracy, most especially out here, near the Edge. That blubberous Constable couldn't care less about Anthtree or its people, and his Tracluse are rarely seen outside the walls of the Imperial Ascendium. They've had it so easy for so long that they've become complacent. His ass-kissing staff have no time to take note of everyone's movements—though they certainly want you to believe they do. They've left it all to the Native Guards. They're the real issue.
"Is there a chance those traitors will find us out?" He shrugged, nodded. "Sure. Sure there is. But we have to play the odds on this one. We're all prepared for the consequences, and besides, we're not the only ones about to do this. But it starts here, right here, at the end of the Wolfsnake, and the message is going to go all around the world. We've got to have the guts to send it."
They worked hard the next five hours. Tal had joined them; they snuffed the brilliant darqiosi flame (knowing full well that the local fishers would be blind without it in this fog, which had held stubbornly on against the steady onshore breeze), and he and Orion got busy with polishing the great mirror as Anurag and Brinkley set about retiming the light's rotation. They checked their results. The mirror took twenty-five seconds and change to make one turn. More work. The second try: twenty-four and three-fifths seconds. Gran came out with sandwiches and ale. She called up from the bottom of the tower to let them know, as she always did. She handed the tray over to Anurag without a word, wheeling about and marching angrily back to the house. He watched her retreat inside before chuckling silently and shaking his head with a sigh.
The men napped at first break in the lightkeeper's quarters just below the light. The room wasn't nearly large enough to accommodate them, but they had solved the problem years ago. Anurag, the largest, reclined on the landing to the room; Brinkley took the bed; Tal, the smallest, stretched out on the work bench; and Orion lay on a mat next to his uncle, his head next to Anurag's thigh. The break was for an hour; Anurag snapped awake forty-five minutes into it.
The goddamn Constable!
He got to his feet.
"Where are you going, Uncle?" asked Orion quietly, looking up at him. Tal and Brinkley hadn't stirred. Tal snored on the workbench; Brinkley was facing away, curled up on the bed.
"I've got something I forgot in town," said Anurag. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
The Imperial Ascendium was an imposing solitary structure at the western edge of Anthtree. It had been built by Anthtreeans under orders of the Imperium, but it had none of the friendly commonalities to the neighboring architecture. It was an ugly building despite its grandiose appearance: three bloated, overdone stories of bare gray stone. It was surrounded by a wide, intimidating rampart with guard towers at the corners. On the far side of the rampart were the guard's quarters, which were attached to the wall by means of an underground fortified tunnel.
The Imperial presence in Anthtree was comprised minimally of the Constable and his staff—eight people total; there were sixteen Tracluse guards, one pathetically weak Dreamcatcher, and a Mephastophian (not weak), which usually only came out during Conscription or the Lottery, though folks had spotted it roaming atop the rampart before.
The presence of a Mephastophian had proved more than enough deterrent against any over-the-line rule breaking or insurrectionist activities. When the Imperium invaded, a single Mephastophian was fed an entire corral full of villagers, mostly men, the strongest and stoutest among them. At the points of swords the rest of the village was forced to watch what happened to them.
The corral was replaced by this structure shortly after. And Anthtreeans talked of that day still. They didn't dare challenge the Imperium. Not enough, certainly, for the Constable to call out the demon. Since the arrival of the Imperium it had been summoned only three times. The lawbreakers were quickly apprehended and their shattered and mutilated remains piled at the foot of Eliannah.
The fog raced just overhead with the steady breeze, obscuring the sky. At the gates of the rampart Anurag stopped. The guards on the ground stared at him flatly, indifferently.
"Yes?" grunted one. His voice was as dead as his gaze.
Yellow goddamn Tracluse. Because the
was designated as a "Lottery Civicus," the Tracluse were confined to
the guards and the official Imperial presence, and not forced among the
citizenry or the Native Guards. Anurag wasn't sure what the worse of the two
evils was: Tracluse or Lottery. village of Anthtree
"Anurag de Bouchard to see the Constable," he grunted back, imitating the flatness of the guard’s voice.
The second guard looked up from a parchment roll. "You're late."
"And you standing there not letting me in isn't helping," barked Anurag. "So if you two fine gentlemen would open the gates and let me go on my way, that'd be just really wonderful."
"Search him," growled the first.
"Right," snarled Anurag. "Because this time might be the time I come armed."
The second gruffly threw the parchment on a stand-up desk in a dark corner and patted him down.
"He's clean," he reported.
"Only after I wash your filthy paw prints off my body," snorted Anurag.
The first opened the gate. The second gave Anurag a hard shove in the back as he went through.
The gate closed behind him.
The courtyard was well manicured and stately. The walk was lined with flowers and shrubs and at the foot of the stairs had an ornate fountain. He looked up. Inscribed in the portico above him were the words, written in Gyssian:
Obstaepi Emperus vir'g nitidqua poma!
The translation: Freedom is the Emperor's truest blessing!
He stared at it. When he was no older than Orion, he was forced by the just-arrived Imperium to help with the building of this edifice. He remembered the large slab of stone with the inscription being hoisted up and cemented into place. He was part of the team of workers who did it.
Gyss was the official language, and so everyone was forced to learn it. Closer to Aquanicentra other languages were brutally outlawed; but out here, where almost no one lived, where not even a nation-state existed before the Imperium came to claim everything, the native languages along the Wolfsnake were minimally tolerated if heard by the invaders. There just weren't enough soldiers to quash violators save for the most basic infractions against the law; besides, there was simply too much territory to cover. Gyss was the official language; but among friends and out of earshot of the Native Guards, Anthtreeans spoke to each other in the softer and friendlier tones of the language Eliannah herself had spoken.
He gazed down from the inscription and then spat to his side before mounting the stairs and proceeding to the large door, where he knocked hard.
The door swung open. Another guard.
"The Constable wants to see me," he grumbled.
"Hours ago," came an inflectionless female voice to the left. She sat at a desk, and looked up at him briefly before marking something on a thick stack of papers. "The Constable is upstairs—" she pointed with her quill—"taking his late lunch. End of the hall, double doors on your right."
"I know the way, Nenei," he said.
Her face darkened. Anurag knew she didn't like her first name used by the villagers.
He pushed past the guard and into the foyer proper, staring at her. In another life the Constable's secretary would've been very attractive. Her blonde hair and large eyes and high cheekbones gave the impression of exquisite and lively breeding, but the dead spirit emanating from every pore of her body told him that she was forever wedded to the decay that fed her and ruled every aspect of her existence. Decay that was about to be swept away.
The Apprentice has come.
Up the wide stairs he trudged, and then down a long, high-ceilinged hallway. At its end was a double door of mullioned glass that led out onto a large balcony. That was where the Constable stood when he made speeches or proclaimed new laws or pronounced sentence against the condemned. It was also where he loomed during the Lottery and Conscription.
Anurag thought of Orion. It was only a handful of months until the dreadnought showed again and took both groups away. The Lottery: Men and women and, sometimes, children randomly picked to "bless" the Emperor—and who never returned. Conscription: young men forced into lifelong military service to the Imperium. When the dreadnought docked both groups would be chosen—and Anurag was determined to his last breath to see that neither his nephew nor his mother would ever be selected. He had long ago taken the first steps ...
(Brinkley and Tal were both too old to be Conscripted; as for the Lottery, they had received special exemptions from being selected due to their indispensability to the community-at-large. Even the Imperium in its violent bluntness recognized that one cannot haul off certain members of a village or city without causing utter mayhem among the populace. Brinkley and Tal, having roots in Anthtree that went deeper than almost everyone else’s, were two such individuals. Anurag had been exempted from both by virtue of his unique knowledge of the Wolfsnake, having as a young boy been selected by the former courier as the one who would replace him when he retired. That selection had literally saved his life.)
At the last doors on the right he knocked and waited.
The doors opened. The man staring at him he knew well; he had gone to school with him.
"Where is he?" demanded Anurag.
The man—his name was Jen—had the look of an abused child. He shook his head. Very quietly he said: "He isn't happy with you, Bouchard."
"When is he ever?" said Anurag in a plain voice as he stepped past him towards another set of doors, which he opened over Jen's hissing: "No! No, Bouchard! He isn't finished with his lunch yet!"
The Constable sat at a table facing a large picture window. The window looked out on the side courtyard and the penned stable where Lottery picks were chained before being shipped off. His back was to Anurag.
"Jenen,” he growled, chewing, “I'll have your skinny ass whipped; I've told you a hundred times if I've told you once—"
"It isn't Jen," said Anurag.
The Constable cut off. Without glancing over his shoulder, and in no particular hurry, he finished chewing, swallowed. Jen approached him from behind with a knife and fork, hastily cutting more of his steak and pouring him more wine. He whispered something into the fat man's ear before hurrying past Anurag back out of the room, closing the doors behind him.
The Constable speared a cube of meat. Without looking up from his plate, he said, "We've got a problem, Bouchard."
Anurag waited. He was certain "the problem" was he and wasn't about to incriminate himself. He clasped his hands behind his back and studied the layers of stubbly pinkish-gray blubber packed around the Constable's neck. The silence of the room was punctuated only by the lonely sound of one person eating and the occasional muffled busyness coming from Jen beyond the doors.
The Constable, chewing, chuckled. He swallowed, burped in a very genteel fashion, then patted his mouth with the large cloth napkin stuffed into the front of his robe. He grunted. "How's that good mother of yours?"
"She’s fine," said Anurag.
"Such a dear woman," said the Constable after spearing and consuming another cube of meat. He took a sip of wine and added, "I spoke with her outside
Market Square oh,
probably six months ago. I'm always impressed with her grace. It's ... it's
tangible. She carries herself with such grace. Grace and pride. She'd have made
a fine queen in another age."
Anurag held silent.
"I don't want to be indelicate, and so I have never asked about the scar on her cheek. It's always fascinated me. Most scars ... they don't fit their owners. They don't belong with them. They're intrusive, a mark of violation. But her scar ... it fits her. It's long and clean and perfectly situated, just like it belongs there. It gives her queenly countenance an air of unyielding severity. Fascinating ...
"I wonder ... has she ever shared with you how it got there?"
Anurag lied. "No."
The Constable cleared his throat.
"Such pride she has, Bouchard. She has somehow made that scar add to it, not subtract from it. And that pride ... my goodness, how it shows in her offspring!" He continued staring out the window in front of him. "I saw your nephew as well. It must be two years since I saw him last. What's his name—Orion, is it?"
"Yes," said Anurag shortly.
"Fine lad," said the Constable. "Very fine lad. How he has grown up! So handsome—mm! My goodness!"
Anurag held his temper in check. He could feel it bubble in his colon, could feel it clawing its way up towards his lungs. He considered Jen, the fourth "personal assistant" to this vile pig.... Jen, who was probably this instant hurrying here, hurrying there, cleaning, or perhaps readying the Constable's bed for a nap, or washing his clothes, or ...
The previous three to Jen had all died brutally, spent and battered and left to rot outside the gates.
No one investigated the cause of their death. It wasn't illegal for Imperials to kill any of the conquered populace.
"Our good Donalius Shas informs me that you're planning to sail tonight."
Anurag, with clenched teeth: "With your permission, of course."
"Why so soon?" The Constable took another sip of wine. He still hadn't turned to look at him.
"What of it?"
"My orders give me variable leave. I want to get back before the Edge storm season starts."
Jen was back at the Constable’s side instantly. He stood straightly, unsurely to his right and waited.
"Retrieve Bouchard's latest orders."
"Yes, sir," simpered Jen, who hurried out of the room.
"I don't recall variance in the orders," said the Constable.
"They're there," said Anurag.
"No matter. You'll be delaying your departure for a few days."
"May I ask why?"
The fat man grabbed his napkin and tossed it on the table. He finished his wine, set down the glass, and pushed his seat back. He rose with a grunt and, finally, turned to look at him.
The Constable's face reminded Anurag of melting wax. It pooled thickly in increasing ripples at his shoulders. His sagging eyes, though flat as all Tracluse were, still held great intelligence in them. They looked him up and down with a sick relish that clashed oddly with the dour tone of his voice.
"The Mephastophian is missing, Bouchard."
He noticed that the Constable was just holding onto his temper. Jen was back at his side, parchment in hand.
"Out," the Constable snarled, snatching it.
Jen scurried out of the room, the doors closing with a silent and fearful click.
The Constable poured himself more wine, raised the fine crystal to his thick lips. It wasn't a sip this time, but two large gulps. He set the glass down.
"Locals have an intimate knowledge of the surrounding terrain," he murmured, what Anurag thought was mostly to himself.
His face was almost bursting with rage.
And then Anurag figured it out.
This must not have been the first Mephastophian to go missing. He wondered how many others had. The guards had been dispatched to find them, all without success. The Constable needed a local to guide them.
"Hmm ..." said the Constable, who hadn't opened the parchment or even brought it up to his face to look at it. "I see no mention of a variable directive, Bouchard."
He dropped the parchment at his feet. "So here's what you’re going to do. You'll head a team of my choosing and take them into that godforsaken wilderness and find out JUST WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED TO MY MEPHASTOPHIAN! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?"
He ground the paper under his heel, tearing it into pieces, his eyes wild.
Anurag did not cower. He stood straight and tall, his hands still clasped behind his back.
"You will meet the guards at the front gate tomorrow at dawn,” said the Constable in an obvious fight to compose himself. His forehead was beaded with sweat. “You will keep quiet about what you're doing. No one will know. I hope we understand each other as to the consequences should you talk."
The threats against his mother and nephew had been very clear.
The men stared at each other in silence for a long, porcine, bilious moment.
"Is that all?" Anurag finally asked. He wasn't sure he could stand here much longer.
The Constable grunted. "Take your orders with you.”
Anurag held up, then approached. He dropped to his knees and scooped up the torn parchment. The Constable's crotch was right in front of his face. He went to stand up, but a meaty hand slammed down on his head and grabbed a fistful of his hair.
"We do understand each other, don't we, Bouchard?"
He pulled his head back so that Anurag would have to look him in the eye. He sported a grotesque, wicked smile.
"We do ... don't we? Don’t we?"
"Yes," said Anurag, very quietly.
The Constable held onto his hair another ten seconds. He licked his lips.
He released him. Anurag got to his feet, the remains of the parchment in his grasp."Tomorrow at dawn," said the Constable lightly. "And please—give my very best to your mother and your handsome nephew, won't you? That will be all, Bouchard. Good-bye."