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HE STOOD with Orion at the top of the lighthouse at sunset.
"Look, Uncle. A break in the fog."
Orion wasn't looking out over the ocean, like he was, but back towards the village.
The fog had indeed broken. There was the village and Eliannah two misons distant, and the rocky hills behind them, and ...
Orion pointed up.
In other parts of Aquanus they were known as Sky Fir. They were tremendous floating trees with great twisting limbs covered in emerald-green needles. Anthtree bark was (at least from down here) purplish-brown and streaked with frost and snow. Most Anthtrees looked like huge, curved commas with limbs growing out of them or hanging off them, or were S-shaped, but some grew into more intricate shapes. Adult Anthtrees could grow to three misons in height or higher. Through the break in the fog Anurag could see two of them floating well inland over the distant
. The light of
the setting sun painted them a sleepy spectrum of mountainy colors. A thin
ice-white cloud laced through the middle of the nearest, curled around and up
its mammoth trunk. Poetry
"Legend has it that the day Eliannah died one of those Anthtrees died too,” said Anurag. “It's said the sound of it crashing down could be heard in Neptonius fifteen hundred misons away, and shook the entire Wolfsnake."
"Whoa ..." gaped Orion. "That must've been amazing. Has anybody ever gone up into the mountains to see what happened to the dead tree?"
"I went there once," said Anurag. "Years ago. I was younger than you. It broke apart in four or five pieces. It flattened a few hills and damned up a river. It also wiped out most of the earth-bound forest beneath it, which has since grown back, a lot of it on the Anthtree itself. It's beautiful but very dangerous territory. Even on its side, the trunk and branches are taller than a lot of mountain cliffs. It's rotting, and can give when you walk on it. People have disappeared when a big chunk of rotting Anthtree bark collapses under their feet. The dam it formed will break one day, too. And then all that water in the big lake behind it will flood the valley. We're lucky the village isn't in its path."
He thought then of the missing Mephastophians. Was that what happened to them? Were they wandering around up there and fell through rotting Anthtree? If so, what were they doing? There were people scattered all along the Wolfsnake, unknown and unconquered by the Imperium, organized in loose tribes that lived straight off the land. He'd met them. Had the Mephastophians discovered them? Had the Poets, as they were called, somehow found a way to kill demons?
"What are you thinking of, Uncle? You look troubled."
He gazed at Orion. His nephew was almost as tall as he was, but those bright, youthful eyes still shone with childlike innocence and purity. They clashed violently with the Constable's hungry, dead gaze from earlier, and with the world as it existed today.
He made up his mind.
"I'm thinking of how much I'm going to miss you," he answered, only partially lying.
Orion nodded sadly. "How long will you be away this time?"
"Where are you going? Can you tell me? Will the Imperium know? When will you write? Will you send an Arrowsparrow?"
Yes. He was going to do this. So it did not matter if he told him. He'd be safe.
"I'm sailing for the Eastern Tangent. I can probably get there in forty days if I sleep only a couple hours each night. The Imperium ... Don't worry about the Imperium, all right? I'm not going to. You’ll hear from me after I get there. Don’t ask me how. I’ll think of something. It won’t be an Arrowsparrow, no. Neither you nor Mom has any idea what to do with one if it showed up—for your protection, remember?"
"Are you going to meet the Apprentice, you think?"
"That's up to the king. I'll get new orders at the Tangent, if not sooner."
"I wonder what she's like," said Orion with the same gaze he had looking at the skying Anthtrees.
Anurag shook his head.
"Do you think she's like Eliannah?"
"What, dead and buried?"
Orion laughed and punched him in the arm. "No, you know what I mean. Is she as powerful as Eliannah was, do you think?"
"At least. She'd have to be to be able to destroy the emperor."
"It must be weird to be that powerful. I mean, how do you make friends? How do you live any kind of normal life? Think of it, Uncle. If she got a boyfriend and got mad at him, he'd be smoke!"
Anurag laughed at that, though, in truth, it wasn't all that funny. How could the Apprentice, who was prophesied to be a young girl, lead any kind of a normal life given her abilities? What kind of fits did she give her mother? How could her mother possibly handle her? He thought of his own mother, and chuckled anew.
Then again, if she had my mother for her mother ...
He came back to the present. "All right," he said, "let's give the light one more test. And then I've got to get going."
Orion nodded, pulled a silver watch out of his pocket. "Ready."
They both watched the beam as it circled beneath them.
"Go," said Anurag when the beam swept due west. Orion watched the light as it swung south, then east, then north, and, finally, west again.
Orion checked his watch. Smiled.
"Twenty-four seconds on the nose."
"You and Brinkley and Tal make quite the team," said Anurag. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there to help later."
"Are you in trouble with the Constable, Uncle?"
"You asking me a hundred times isn't going to change my answer," replied Anurag with an exasperated grin. He grabbed his nephew's shoulder, gave it a hard squeeze. "And so my answer will be just like the other ninety-nine: don't worry about it. I'll be okay."
The sun had set. The fog, seeing its chance, closed the gap that revealed the floating Anthtrees as it billowed back in from the ocean. The day’s steady breeze settled and cooled. A cold mist began falling. The sounds of the surf crashing into the cliffs next to the house and the last call of unseen seagulls was all that could be heard.
"C'mon," he said. "Let's get down. You can help me pack."
Orion followed him down the ladder leading back into the light room, where they chatted with Tal for a few moments, then down the winding staircase that would take them out of the tower proper.
It was done. The tower lighthouse was rotating once every twenty-four seconds, precisely. The news was going out to all who had been taught to look for it.
The Apprentice has come.
Orion convinced him to stay for dinner. Gran was peaceable, if not on-edge. She said very little, only cracking the occasional smile at his and Orion’s back-and-forth banter. Anurag helped clean up after, then went upstairs and packed his clothes and belongings with Orion’s help. He pulled him into a hug at the door while Gran looked on.
"I'll be back as soon as I can."
"I know," said Orion. “Write as soon as you get there.”
Anurag released him, looked at her. "I need to talk to you outside."
She nodded and stepped out on the porch, closing the door behind her.
He turned back to Orion. "Take care of her.”
"A new day's coming, Orion. A day without the Imperium and Conscription and Mephastophians and dreadnoughts and Lotteries. She's not ready for it, so you're going to have to deal with her when she gets moody. You can handle it, right?"
"Things are gonna get pretty scary. Get yourself right up here—" Anurag ruffled his hair one last time—"and you'll be all right."
Another nod, though this one was much less confident than the others.
"Good," said Anurag. "Good." He opened the door and stepped out on the porch with his mother. He gave Orion one last look before closing it.
His mother was staring at him in that way that told him without doubt that she had uncovered his mischief and was about to hold him accountable for it. It was a look he had grown up with. She waited for him to speak.
"Tracluse will come calling tomorrow," he said, quietly. He didn't want Orion to be able to hear the conversation.
"Why?" she demanded, also with a lowered voice.
He didn't answer. He wasn't going to allow her to badger him. "Tell them I got a late message from the Dreamcatcher, along with orders to sail immediately. Tell them you don't know where to, that I told you the orders were confidential, and that I just received them and left in a hurry. Got it?"
"Answer my question. And why the Dreamcatcher?" she pressed. Motherly concern and dread colored her eyes. Anurag could feel the anger in him swell.
"You just don't get it," he murmured. "You never have."
"Get what?" she said. He could see blue fire cross her eyes, and knew from long experience that they were headed for a fight.
"Get this," he hissed, motioning angrily around him. "This."
"And what exactly is 'this'?" she demanded.
"You think we're at peace. We've never been at peace! We're slaves. Does it not concern you that your grandson will probably be snatched up by the dreadnought once it returns?”
"Stop," she commanded. "I'm not going to listen to this."
He grabbed her shoulders and gave her a strong shake. He had never done that before. She stared up at him, half in horror and half in defiant motherly anger.
"Then you had better start, Mom!" He could no longer keep the volume down on his voice. "Everything I've ever done has been for you ... for you and for Orion and for Brinkley and Tal and that lighthouse! Everything!"
"Let me go," she ordered.
He released her. She went to open her mouth, but he cut her off.
"Naïve,” he growled, shaking his head. “That's what you are, Mom. Naive. You of all people ... so goddamn naive ..." He had never cursed at her before, either.
"I of all people ..."
"How exactly am I naive?"
He pulled in close to her, nose to nose. She glared crossly into his eyes, waiting.
“This—is—not—peace!” he bellowed. “Wake up! This is war! It always has been! Just because the fighting stopped doesn't mean the war has!”
"So I suppose you're off now to play good little soldier for your king—?"
"For your king too!"
"And precisely what awful things will you be doing in his service that I must deceive the Tracluse?"
"They are 'awful things' that will save your and Orion's life! Is that okay by you?"
They stared at each other for a long, silent moment.
She turned on her heel and walked inside without looking back, slamming the door behind her.
Anurag stared at it, his eyes black with the urge to violence.
He snatched up his duffel bag and once more left his family behind.
He stood at the foot of the Constable's bed, staring down. The Constable lay on his back and was snoring loudly, his mouth open, his fleshy jowls trembling.
Awful things ...
The fat man gave a sudden gasp, then a snort, then opened his eyes. The northwest rampart tower's yellow flame, and the regular, sweeping beam of the lighthouse cast the only light in the room. It was by both, muted by the curtains over the windows, that he caught the silhouette of Anurag's form and the top half of his head and the bottomless gleam in his eyes.
He pushed himself up to a sitting position, no particular hurry, as though intruders were a regular part of his day.
"I must say, this is a fantasy come true, Bouchard. Please: unclothe yourself and join me. I promise to be gentle." He patted the pillow and smiled.
Anurag lifted his arm, revealing the broadsword in his grip. The Gyssian symbol near the hilt caught the flash of the lighthouse’s muted light.
"Not tonight, then, I gather," said the Constable, still smiling. "A disappointment. As will be your mother and nephew's execution in the morning."
"Nothing will happen to them," said Anurag in a flat, dead voice.
"You've got it all planned out, do you? Well," the Constable chuckled lightly, "I daresay you making it all the way into my bedroom past a fortified rampart is worthy of high praise. You're the only one who's ever managed it, so I suppose congratulations are in order. Congratulations, Bouchard, congratulations!”
Anurag stood still and silent, his lightless gaze unblinking.
“I assume the news of the missing Mephastophian was what emboldened you to move on your well-laid plans—?"
Anurag shook his head. The sword gleamed in the lighthouse-punctuated half-light.
"May I ask what it was, then, that brought you here to your death?"
"News,” said Anurag.
"What news would that be?"
"The news that the emperor's destroyer has come."
The Constable laughed. It was a full-throated guffaw, from the belly. It burst from his mouth in bubbles of rich sound.
"I never took you for one of those deluded zealots, Bouchard, that we routinely dispatch. You don't seem the type."
Anurag didn't answer. Silence enveloped the night.
"Okay, zealot," said the Constable as the lighthouse beam swung past again. "I'll give you a little heads-up. If I yell now, the guards will be in here before you get that blade anywhere near me. You killed at least one to be holding it, so you're probably feeling quite confident standing there. But even you aren't so foolish to assume you'll be able to kill them all, are you? Are you that foolish, Bouchard?"
"The guards won't hear you.”
"Shall we test that theory? GUARDS! GUARDS!"
Anurag waited patiently at the foot of the bed.
"GUARDS! GUARDS!" roared the Constable.
The lighthouse beam caught the fear that flickered in the Constable's eyes.
"How?" he asked in the refreshed darkness.
Anurag still hadn't blinked. He answered lifelessly, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Get out of bed.”
The Constable climbed out of his enormous bed, stood staring at Anurag in his underwear.
"Go to your desk and sit."
The fat man did as told, lumbering into his spacious office. Anurag followed, sword at his back. The Constable sat at his desk.
The drapes overlooking the Lottery pen and back courtyard had been drawn. Save for the here-and-gone beam of the lighthouse, it was virtually lightless in here.
"You won't get far, Bouchard. It won't matter what orders you have me write for you. The Dreamcatcher ..."
"Ah. Jen as well, I suppose?"
The Constable nodded without looking back. "You've done this sort of thing before.”
"When I've had to."
"New parchment," ordered Anurag.
"And what am I to write on it?"
"That I'm excused from the expedition tomorrow morning, the one to locate your missing demon. Write it. Now."
"And if I refuse? I'm a dead man anyway. I refuse."
Anurag lowered the sword until the sharp edge rested on the Constable's shoulder. The beam caught the motion. He leaned over, got in close to his meaty ear. "Raretail Holm."
The fat man held up.
"I need light.”
Anurag grabbed a candle on the desk and thrust it at him. "Get to work."
The Constable lit the candle, then reached for new parchment. He scribbled quietly. The regular beam illuminated the room like a slow procession of ghosts passing through. He applied the Imperial Seal, but before he could hand the parchment to him, Anurag ordered: "Set that one aside. Get another roll."
"You're confusing me, Bouchard."
"That's too bad."
The Constable fumbled around the top of his desk, produced a new roll.
"Where to?" he asked, guessing.
"Hieron-Tamus," said Anurag. "Manifest and orders, which are to include variable leave. Date the departure from Anthtree twenty days from now."
The fat man glanced over his shoulder. He still hadn't seen Anurag blink. Too, Anurag seemed to be struggling with simply standing there, with his self-control. He had begun pacing back and forth, his breathing labored.
"And what shall I say is your message and cargo?"
Anurag stopped long enough to growl in his ear: "The message and the cargo are one and the same. Your head."
The Constable held up, but only for a moment. He began writing on the parchment, his hand steady. If he felt fear, he did not show it.
"Have you ever heard of the Children, Bouchard?"
Anurag stopped pacing. "No."
"Not quite Mephastophian, nor are they completely human. They are the product of the lust of Prince Trajan and the Mephas Lord Pios. They impregnate slaves—women. Pios' progeny eat their way out of the womb, from what I've heard, killing the mother, of course, and looking for all the world like a miniature Mephastophian. It's only later that they assume human features. Trajan's progeny are born in the normal way—again, from what I've heard. They take on demonic features later. Oddly," the Constable continued conversationally, "the women impregnated by the Prince always die in childbirth." He chuckled lightly as the beam passed again. "I guess it's a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't, wouldn’t you say, Bouchard?"
Anurag didn't respond. Sweat glistened on his forehead. His breathing was deep and raspy.
"Apparently the Lord Emperor has a small army of them. They're said to be twice as ruthless as ordinary demons, and twice as hard to kill. I've put in a request for two. Imagine how many of those mountain savages they'd eradicate, Bouchard!"
"Finish—the—manifest," growled Anurag.
"Almost done," said the Constable lightly, steadily working his way down the parchment. Anurag stopped his increasingly manic pacing to look over the fat man’s hairy, sloping shoulders to read what he had written.
"You know, Bouchard, people have no appreciation of how peaceful the Imperium is. Think of it! There are no more wars, are there? No more bickering between nations, no silly posturing, no futile slaughters between piddling navies over a spit of land in the middle of nowhere ... And all the Lord Emperor asks for in exchange for this peace is the people's obedience! He isn't even a greedy Lord; he cares nothing for money; the taxes are quite minimal; all he imposes is Conscription to keep his armed forces refreshed, and the Lottery, of course ..."
The point of Anurag's broadsword dug into his neck.
"Finish the goddamn manifest!"
"It's finished," said the Constable, applying the Imperial Seal to it. He rolled up both parchments and handed them over his shoulder without turning around. "Take them. Then get on with whatever you're going to do."
Anurag snatched them out of his grip. He tossed one into a lightless corner and dropped the other back on the desk. "Open this one. Then blow out the candle and get back into bed."
The Constable obediently flattened the parchment on the desk before him. He blew out the candle.
"I think I will stay here, if you don't mind, Bouchard," he said in the dark.
The lighthouse beam flashed by and was gone.
But there was no response. The silence of the night was absolute.
"Bouchard?"The Constable’s last living act was to turn in his seat to look behind him. Flying towards him out of a blinding flash of light was a tremendous shark, mouth wide open, rows of huge triangular teeth, dead, black eyes staring.