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THE NEXT morning—or what Anurag thought was the next morning—the hatch swung open again. Down the stairs came two sailors. But neither was holding a whip, and the Dreamcatcher wasn't among them.
What they were holding—a bucket for one, and a large yellow sponge for the other—made him stare.
Were they going to drown him?
The one holding the sponge dropped it and unlocked and slid open the front bar assembly and pulled down on the lever, hauling Anurag up, who cried out with the pain of it. The sailor locked the contraption, then stepped back and retrieved the sponge. The one holding the bucket set it down between Anurag's legs. The one holding the sponge nodded to him, and he left.
The Tracluse dipped the sponge in the bucket, pulled it up. The sponge dripped suds, fine curls of steam rising from it. He slapped it against Anurag’s body and began washing him down in broad, businesslike swaths.
The warm soapy water felt intensely good, so much so that Anurag couldn't swallow back the groan that escaped his lips. It felt so good that while it lasted the pain in his stretched shoulders and hips were submerged completely by it, so good that it took all he could not to beg the sailor to continue.
But the sailor was in no mood to dither. As the other descended the stairs with another bucket, the first lifted the one between Anurag's legs and heaved it full at him, splashing him head to toes.
The other approached, set the new bucket down.
"He still smells rotten," he told the washer, a look of disgust and loathing on his face as he regarded Anurag.
"Think the captain'll mind?" said the washer.
"He said to clean him up. He didn't say nothin' about the smell."
"Rinse him down," said the washer. "I'll go fetch my blade. If he still smells after that, I'll steal some of Gilger's cologne—that crap he wears for the whores."
"More'n this one deserves," said the other. He approached until he was nose to nose with Anurag.
"Captain said to leave him be," said the washer. "Said he doesn't want the Healer to be anywhere near him 'ceptin' when he's around."
"Oh, I think there's plenty of ways to be hurt without showin' that ya are," said the man, who jerked his knee up into Anurag's testicles. Anurag bellowed with pain, but not before slamming his forehead into the man's, sending him backward, where he tripped over the second bucket, spilling himself and the warm water. He was up in a flash, his fist about the hilt of his dripping sword.
The other stopped him.
"Ya just don' listen, do ya, Velin? As mean as they come, this 'un. That's what the Dreamcatcher said about him, an' he would know." He eyed Anurag, whose yelps emptied into the gloom beyond. "Now go and fetch my blade an' get a fresh bucket o' water. I'll take care o' the rest. You'll just cut his throat while I'm away and we'll both end up down here with him, or walkin' the plank with 'im tomorra. Now go!"
"I'm lookin' forward to watchin' you die, dylige!" yelled the man who, swearing richly, stomped away while holding his bruised forehead in one hand and the empty bucket in the other.
"I'm smarter'n him, see?” said the washer after Velin disappeared up the stairs. “I do what I'm told, and for my trouble I'll prob'ly get to whip the next sea rat we catch out here. Ol' Velin there," the sailor chuckled, "he just can' delay the satisfaction of watchin' you rats suffer!" He added, "The captain's a fair and generous man—if we do our jobs, that is, and if we're a little patient ..."
He picked up the sponge and squeezed out the soap. "See, I could just say you're clean and leave it at that. That soap on ya, it'll dry in a bit here and when it does it'll itch somethin' awful. You won' be able to scratch at it, and then it'll raise big red hives on ya. But then the Healer, see, he'll have ta come and set ya right again, and if word gets back to the captain, he'll have me whipped topside, five or ten lashes, nothin' like what you've gotten. But it's bad enough ...
"So I'll wash ya down with clean water, make ya right for the visit comin' up here, and you'll be shaved too, see, with my own blade even! Got it fresh in the Emperor's August just three weeks ago! Velin doesn't see the payoff. He's got short-term thinkin', he does; he doesn't see the big picture, the long view. I do."
Velin trudged down the stairs a few minutes later with a fresh bucket of warm water, plunked it down at his compatriot's feet.
"Your blade's on the bottom," he groused, throwing Anurag a look of icy hate.
"Causta's over there," said the washer, motioning toward the stove. "Grab it."
Velin slouched and grumbled into the shadows for a long moment. "I don't see no causta ..."
The washer shook his head. "See?" he said quietly. Then, louder: "Half a bar, second shelf down."
There were the sounds of rummaging and swearing, then a moment of quiet.
Velin reappeared holding an eroded bar of what looked like brown soap. He slapped it in the washer’s palm.
"Off with ya,” said the washer. “This 'un ain't gonna give me no trouble. We gots us an understandin'. He ain' gonna try nothin'—" he gave Anurag a companionable sideways grin—"are ya now?"
Anurag stared expressionlessly back. The pain in his testicles had radiated up into his gut, making him want to vomit.
"To hell with 'im,” said Velin. “He's a dead man anyway, what do I care?"
He marched up the stairs and out the hatch.
The washer sponged the soap off Anurag's body, talking all the while about what it takes to please the captain and getting ahead in the Imperium, about how much better he felt since ingesting a Tracluse, how clear he'd become in his thinking and how since that day his problems "all melted away." Bothersome aches and pains seemed to have disappeared as well. He grabbed the causta soap and rubbed it vigorously in his hands, creating a rich lather. He abruptly quit talking and eyed him suspiciously.
"Now see, I've been a-treatin' ya nice. Gave ya a bath, didn't beat on ya, not once. I coulda, and I coulda let Velin do some revengin'. We're both real good at hurtin' folks without makin' the injuries show. We coulda had some real fun with ya, and I've wanted to all this time, but I've held back."
He opened his soapy palms.
"I gotta shave ya now. Captain's orders. I could have Velin down here, see, keepin' your head restrained, and all that time he'd probably be kneein' ya in the kidneys, making ya cough up blood, havin' some fun. But I sent him away. Ya followin' me?"
"So you keep yourself from havin' fun with me, and I won' have no fun with you. Here we go ..."
The sailor’s big hands approached his face. The Tracluse was a large man, big-boned and solid on his feet. In the best of times he would make a formidable opponent. Anurag didn’t move. The sailor lathered up his beard, saying, "There ya go. We understand each other, we do. You have no fun, and I have no fun ... just a shave ... good razor I got, clean'n sharp, bran' new, will feel good to have a clean face ... Captain's orders ... get ya cleaned up ..."
He reached into the bucket for it, approached without fear.
"Long-view thinkin'," he said as he shaved him. "I was a damn good sailor in my own right, back before the emperor claimed all ... I tol' the captain that before I came down here, not braggin' or anything, just sayin' ... and the ol' captain, he looked at me and nodded. Know what that nod means? It means 'Good on ya, an' if ya do this little job for me, see, maybe I'll send ya to that pris'ner's boat and let ya crew 'er for a while, sleep in that cozy bed ya got in that cabin,' as I hear it. Captain's a fair 'n generous man, he is. Least he is to those who do as he says, don't give him no trouble, gets the jobs done. That's me, see. So maybe I'll get to take the wheel of that vessel of yours, that little thing that won' sink...."
He laughed. "Tell ya, we shot at that tub like we was in a real firefight, we did! Not a dent on her! Not one! Shot up your sails, had to replace those o' course ... Captain's right convinced your little boat's gonna make him a voivode or perhaps even a quarternial. Doesn't tell no one that, o' course ... but ya can see it in his eyes. He found a right prize with that little boat of yours, he did. He knows it."
Despite the Tracluse's considerable size, he wasn't clumsy. The razor slid across Anurag's cheeks smoothly, the quiet, grainy static of his beard coming off filling the gaps in the monologue.
"You're doin' real good here," said the sailor as he cleaned the blade in the bucket of water. "Now lif' your chin so I can get at your neck ..."
Anurag did as told. He couldn't help the wish that bowled through his consciousness, the one that wanted the sailor to "have a little fun" and cut his throat and kill him then and there. He halfheartedly beat it back and waited.
"Tha's good, real good. Ya get a nice, clean shave, no problems. Good bath, too. Mos' pris'ners, they get nothing but a-whippin' or a-burnin'—" the Tracluse motioned to his left, towards the cast-iron stove—"and then they get a sword in their belly or across their neck, or the captain just doesn't send the Healer down, and they die after a day or two or three. But those are only for the real bad ones, the ones that upset him."
He smiled. It contrasted violently with his dead, indifferent eyes. "The women we capture, o' course, they get a little somethin' extra before we send 'em off." He gave a conspiratorial wink. "You must be a special case, gettin’ this special treatment an' all. The ones the captain has some respec' for, he just gives 'em a shirt o' cannonballs after a day or two on the stretcher here an' walks 'em off the plank. That's your fate tomorra prob’ly, providin' o’ course that you make no trouble between here n' there ...
"Almost finished with ya ... There we go ..."
He stepped back and appraised his work. He swished the razor in the water and then folded it, then dropped it into the bucket. He grabbed the sponge and swabbed the remaining soap off Anurag's face, smiling all the while.
"All done," he reported.
"One question ..." said Anurag in Gyssian.
The sailor had reached for the handle to the contraption; looking at him with some surprise, he waited.
"Where am I?" asked Anurag. "Let a condemned man know where he'll meet his end. Give me that much."
"Ya been good to me, no problems," said the Tracluse, "so I see no harm in it. We're anchored a day or two from the Emperor's
." He pointed
at him as a parent would at a child they were proud of. "We're jus'
waitin' on tomorra an' your execution." North August
He released the lock, and Anurag fell hard to his butt against the wall.
The sailor dropped the sponge in the bucket and left him in the dark.
Anurag did not sleep over the many hours that followed. It wasn't the interminable pain of being constrained and spread, or of his impending execution, that kept him awake.
Of it, his execution, he could only wish that indeed he'd be walked off the plank. That's what occupied his thoughts. That's what kept him awake. That and remembering his training. Because if he was walked off the plank, his training might just keep him from drowning.
"A passive aecxal claim must be made active in order to void it," he repeated over and over. A "shirt o' cannonballs" sounded like a passive aecxal claim. A big, heavy, passive aecxal claim.
The ship was anchored. For him.
He couldn't keep from growling.
But they weren't growls of pain or fear.
The morning of his execution came, and with it two more Tracluse. As one hefted a broadsword, the other hoisted him off the floor and locked the contraption in place. That one left, leaving the armed sailor alone, who, sheathing his weapon, took a position under the oil lamp, where he stood guard.
Presently another pair of Tracluse descended the stairs and disappeared into the shadows to his left. A minor commotion followed, what sounded like heavy chains being lifted and dragged across the floor.
The sailors reappeared soon after. Indeed, they were pulling a large, long, rusted chain, one that had cannonballs welded to smaller chains hanging off its thick links in regular intervals. With some effort they tugged it along until it was almost under his feet, where they dropped it and left.
Not long after the captain descended the stairs.
He was dressed unmistakably as such, the big brass buttons of his navy-blue uniform glinting dully in the weak yellow light. He wore a large black and burgundy hat with a white feather in it—a dash of personality that surprised Anurag—and his gaunt, gray-bearded face had long, pink parallel scars up near his right eye.
That was the other surprise—his eyes. They weren't dead, flat, indifferent, but alive, animated, engaged. They were wide, too, as they stared at him.
He approached as though appraising a priceless work of art, staring without blinking, looking him up and down, walking slowly around him, which he did twice. Eventually he came to a stop directly in front of him, very close, where he stared wordlessly at his face for a long time. He gave a quiet exhalation of astonishment.
"I was born in
," he said in Gyssian,
very quietly. His voice was that of a younger man’s, though his teeth were
yellowed with age. His breath smelled of peppered meat. Saint-Tropez, France
"On Earth," he continued. "Earth ... where I suspect you've been. Am I correct?"
At the bottom of his vision, Anurag could see the shirt o' cannonballs lying at his feet.
The captain smiled.
France. Do you
know where that is? Have you ever heard of it?"
Anurag nodded again.
He shook his head.
The captain’s visage went dreamy and reflective.
"It's beautiful," he said. "So beautiful. A port town,
Saint-Tropez. It's in the southeast of France, and sits on the Mediterranean
Sea." He refocused on him. " Mediterranean?"
"How I miss it!" cried the captain. "The most beautiful body of water on Earth. There are perhaps only three or four seas on this odd ocean world that compare, in my humble opinion. Oh, the shores here are often more dramatic or colorful; and it could rightly be said that the waters of this world are clearer and cleaner, but ..." His aged brow furrowed with concentration. "... but there was just something extra about it, something truer about it. That's it—true. I would always return home with great sorrow, because I knew I would soon have to leave again, would have to sail away from that lovely, lovely sea, my
His gaze hardened as he came back to the present.
"Earth. How did you come to be here?"
"The same way you did," said Anurag without hesitation.
The captain caught his breath. "A storm ..."
"I was fishing."
"The southwest coast of
California? Where is
that? What year?"
He seemed intensely interested.
"The southwest coast of the
New World. Before the United States claimed it, it was called New Spain. The storm got me in the Earth-year 1999."
"Ah," said the captain, looking deeply into his eyes. "The
United States—of America?"
"It claimed the entirety of the
"From sea to shining sea," said Anurag.
It was the captain's turn to nod, which he did, astonished.
"Where were you born? What year?"
"I was born in
"And how long have you been here on this world known as Aquanus?"
Anurag shook his head. "I don't know. A long time."
"A long time," echoed the captain. "Time ... I suspect that they are different animals, here and there, on Earth. Oh, the days are measured the same—hours, minutes, seconds—but in truth they have no relation to each other, none at all. A slithering snake compared to, say, a shark swimming in a straight line towards its prey."
That caught Anurag off guard, and he tried to hide it. Did the captain know? He held silent and waited for the interrogation to continue.
"The days here are longer," the captain went on. "Longer by half. The years are longer ... much longer. The seasons ... they hold on against all reason, against all things holy!" He snorted. "Don’t you see? This is a flat world, and judging by Ammalinaeus’ constant presence in the south, this world has no varying axis tilt with respect to its sun! There shouldn't be such things as seasons! And yet they exist!"
He switched subjects like taking an unexpected dance step. "Your accent is unfamiliar." He waved his hand dismissively. "But then Gyssian hardly rewards the tongue, does it?"
Anurag didn't respond.
"A brutal language,” continued the captain. “Oh, it's efficient, quite efficient. The idea or the thought or the emotion is transmitted, surely enough. But there's no meat on the bones of it, no joy in speaking it. None at all. Not like my native French."
He smiled wistfully.
"Tell me. Where is your home—your Aquanian home?"
"The Emperor's Neptonius," lied Anurag. "Raretail Holm."
"Cold," said the captain.
"I have thankfully been ordered there only a handful of times. An empty land. And vast, so vast! Barren. Lonesome. Lonely." He cocked his head quizzically. "But your accent ... I am quite a student of them, accents, and yours ... I have never encountered it whilst visiting. Why is that?"
"I was born and raised in
said Anurag, taking great care with his answers. "American English and
Gyssian do not mix well."
"English," spat the captain disdainfully. "Even more brutal than Gyssian, wouldn't you agree?"
"I became quite fluent in it. Shall we converse in English for old time’s sake, to feel it roll off our tongues and to relive those days and those deep and blue Pacific seas?" And in English he continued: "So.
California, 1968. And your mother? Where was
she born? What year?"
Anurag cursed himself. Translating as quickly as he was able, he sputtered, "Her ... sh-she w-wer-was b-birth-ed en
he struggled. “Mis-mile-s eas-t a California."
"Miles ..." said the captain, still in English. "A much better length than misons, wouldn't you agree? A more proper and fit measure of the distance between widely separated points, I should think.... And the year?"
He had spoken so quickly that Anurag only picked up a few words: "Miles," "length," "measure," and "year." He would have to guess.
"One-eight, er, nine f-f-ort-thee," he stumbled.
The captain gave a confused smile. "Come again?"
Anurag couldn't keep playing this game, one he knew he had lost. So he didn't.
"1943," he said in Gyssian. "My mother's birthdate."
"You might be interested to know that is almost a century and a half after I was captured by a storm," said the captain in Gyssian, gracious in victory. His smile grew wide, crazy. "Which means by Earth time I've lived centuries! Fantastique!" He shook his head in amazement. "Do you see? My theory about time here and time there being different animals is correct!"
He held onto the thought for a long time, letting it play vacantly over his countenance. He released it and refocused.
"It seems you have lost your native tongue," he said companionably. "How is that possible, since you grew to adulthood with it?"
"I lost much when I crossed," said Anurag. "For a long time I could not remember who I was. And then there was the madness ..."
"Madness," echoed the captain emphatically, whose eyes went faraway again. "Madness." As though reading an obituary, he said, "One hundred sixty-eight souls ... the storm claimed all but a dozen of us. Smashed mercilessly against rocks, nothing but that endless infernal artifact to look upon after the sea receded ... We began walking upon it ... Days passed ... weeks ... Thirst ... hunger ... One by one, my crew lost their minds. One cut the necks of four in the night as we slept before throwing himself over the rail. It wasn't long, not long at all, before there was just me ... just ... me ..."
He ran his fingertips mindlessly over the scars beneath his eye. Anurag noticed that he was missing half his pinkie finger.
"What, pray tell, was your dear mother's name?" asked the captain breathlessly.
Anurag's mother had never shared beyond the sparsest of information the circumstances surrounding his or his twin sister's birth. She had been taken against her will by a "beast of a man" in some "southeastern country" she refused to name (and which Anurag had come to believe was Hieron-Tamus). Of the man, Anurag’s father, she never knew him. He got away from the authorities; and she had to emigrate, as the country treated "fallen women" very harshly. She was young when it happened, she told him, and had no prospects or family for support. She had given birth to him and his sister, Sarí, on the vessel, which docked in Anthtree some weeks later.
That was the story he had grown up with, and it was one he had asked her to tell only a handful of times. Because the only times he had ever seen her cry was when she told it.
And so he spiced his dish of lies with a sprinkle of truth. After all, what difference between one name and another?
"Claire," he said. "Her name is Claire."
"Claire," said the captain wonderingly. "Claire ..."
He began pacing back and forth and muttering without inflection: "Claire ... Claire ... Claire ... Claire from Ohio ... born in the Year of Our Lord 1943 ... twentieth century … poor son gets caught in a freak storm, never to be seen again ... poor, poor Claire ..."
He ceased pacing, came up very close. His gray eyes had blackened.
"Your name is...?"
"Full name, please?"
"Anurag de Bouchard."
The captain inhaled sharply.
"Your dear mother Claire married a Bouchard, did she, Anurag? A Frenchman! Pray, what was your father's name?"
Anurag was flying by the seat of his training, which he knew had been riddled with holes by the captain's questions. The sense of imminent danger rang like a church bell through his being, and louder and louder, like he was about to crash into one.
Why does the name Claire bother him so much? Had he somehow put her in danger? If so, how? Why?
Look your prosecutor in the eye. Assume every question asked is of vital importance. Give the shortest answers possible.
He raced through the names common to men on Earth. Or he tried to. He was having trouble remembering them. They were lost in the tangled web of falsehoods he'd spoken.
"P-Peter," he said after a moment too long.
"Like the disciple," said the captain conversationally.
Anurag didn't respond.
"Are you a religious man, Anurag?"
Religion was banned in the Imperium.
He shook his head.
"A good, solid Christian name, Peter," said the captain. "How your dear mother Claire would weep knowing you've lost the faith. Di immortales virtutem approbare, non adhibere debent ..."
He nodded encouragingly. "Did she speak well of him, your father?"
"And he her? Was their union a strong one?"
"He died when I was ten."
"No! How awful! How did good Peter meet his end?"
"He was run over by a car."
" ‘Car’?" He looked bewildered.
"A motorized carriage. Horseless."
"Fantastique," exhaled the captain with wide, animated eyes. His visage morphed back into one of pity and sympathy.
"How very terrible for her," he offered. "And so there she was, alone, with you and your siblings to raise. You do have siblings, don't you, Anurag?"
"They must miss you terribly. And here you are, cut off from them all forever. What a sad, sad tale!" He shook his head. "Consummatum est ... consummatum est ..."
He rubbed his chin, and then took another unexpected dance step. "This Apprentice you spoke of ... 'The Apprentice has come' ... Who is that? Another relative, perhaps?"
Anurag shook his head.
"Related, perhaps, to the 'Red Talon' you also spoke of? 'The Red Talon is coming!' you told my crew. 'The Apprentice has come!' and 'The Red Talon is coming!' Are they related? One and the same?"
Anurag shook his head again. Indeed, during the whipping he had probably gibbered every secret he had been entrusted with. He felt great shame overcome him, and bottomless rage. What he wouldn't give to wipe out this entire boat!
The captain patiently waited.
"Not related," said Anurag.
"Please, please, go on. I'm quite curious. Truthfully," he added before Anurag could speak, "I've heard other prisoners talk about this ‘Red Talon’ before, almost always in the last throes of agony, or as the last thing they utter before we execute them. It's always the same refrain: 'The Red Talon is coming!' Not very original, I must say. But it does leave one wondering exactly who this ‘Red Talon’ is. You are the first to mention this ‘Apprentice.’ So please, my good Anurag, go on, go on! I am very excited to hear!"
It was his light, contemptuous mood that did it, that brought Anurag to speak the truth. Such an attitude about either the Apprentice or the King of the Saeire Insu was no different to him than outright blasphemy.
"The Red Talon is a king," he said, just able to keep the rage out of his voice. "He defeated the Imperium at the Eastern Edge during the invasion. His kingdom has waited on Earth all these years for the Apprentice. The Apprentice is the one who will destroy the emperor. She has come."
The reaction he got was exactly the opposite of what he expected.
"Defeat?" laughed the captain gaily. "Defeat? Oh Anurag, what a grand tale you tell! I was part of that invasion, and I can tell you no such defeat occurred! As a fairly high-ranking military officer, I would have heard!"
Anurag said nothing. So damning was that defeat that the emperor had struck it utterly from all memory. He wondered what had become of the thousands of Tracluse who had survived it. Had they survived only to be destroyed by the very leader they fought for?
"Would you please share with me, sir, where you were during the invasion?" he asked.
"My ship was part of the fleet that was ordered to sail east to Zephyr," said the captain matter-of-factly. "We were three days out from Aquanicentra when we received orders to sail back to the Eternitam. Once there, we fought a pitched battle against Vanerrincourtians and Zephyrs. We destroyed them all. They had been guarding a mass exodus of Vanerrincourtians and others from the central lands, half a million or more, all languishing on the Eternitam. None could Transform. We had orders to exterminate them. We did."
He smiled confidently. "Rest assured, my dear Anurag, that the emperor suffered no defeat of any kind over the whole of this weird world. But I grant that your tale is an inspiring one, if not utterly treasonous." He shrugged happily. "But what is treason to a man who very soon will be walking the plank? And so I shall not press the matter further. It is of no consequence.
"I was part of the French Revolution, my good man. I know an unstoppable force when I see one. If this 'Red Talon' or 'Apprentice' were real, and I'm quite certain they are not, they would face the same odds, not to mention end, that a lone peasant traitor to the Revolution would have faced."
Anurag knew nothing of the French Revolution, when it was, what had happened in it. It meant nothing to him.
"As much as I miss Mother France,” said the captain, “and my adopted home of
He gave Anurag a questioning look, who shook his head.
"—and my lovely wife Norberta, I must say I have lived to see quite enjoyable days with the Imperium. Profitable days. I shall retire in a year or two—Aquanian years, mind you—with a well-earned exemption from Consumption, and I shall live, well—" he smiled tranquilly—"like a king. I am a son of three lands—three kingdoms—three governments, to be totally accurate—and have profited thusly. Contra Felicem vix deus vires habet."
The darkness in his eyes had dissipated like a passing storm. He watched Anurag hanging there as if inspecting a side of beef. A long moment passed in silence.
He motioned to the guard standing still under the oil lamp, who came forward.
"The manifest," he ordered.
The guard instantly produced a scroll before saluting and returning to his post against the wall.
"We found this on your vessel." The captain held up the manifest like a baton before unrolling it and looking it over.
"Where is ... Anthtree?" he asked, looking up with a determined smile. "Mind you, the Imperium knows where everything is, so lying to me now is not advisable."
"The Wolfsnake," said Anurag.
"The Wolfsnake. A very large piece of real estate. Would you care to be more specific?"
He gave a significant glance down at the shirt o' cannonballs before looking once again into Anurag’s eyes.
"Four and seven tenths plus eighty-eight thousandths Eterniwise by eighty and twenty-five thousandths degrees Infiniwise," said Anurag, reciting the coordinates in the style of ancient Aquanian mariners, hoping it would confuse him.
He hadn’t given the coordinates to Anthtree, but those of the Fortress of Dhyonard at the Wolfsnake's far northern tip, ones he had memorized years ago. It was very far away from Anthtree and entirely unpopulated, but gave the impression that it wasn't by the fact of its ancient and deceptive lighthouse, which still worked, unmanned, thousands of years after it had been built and abandoned. If the captain attempted to guide his vessel—his vessels—to shore by means of that lighthouse, which many have attempted, he and his ships wouldn't survive.
He said a silent prayer that the captain wasn't aware of what was at those coordinates. The legends surrounding the Fortress of Dhyonard were known to everyone in Anthtree.
"Ah," said the captain, giving nothing away. He looked over his shoulder at the guard, who nodded. Back at Anurag, he continued, "Presumably you were there to retrieve—" he glanced down at the scroll, then up with horrified surprise—"a Constable's head? Bonté divine! Whatever for?"
"I’m a courier. The Imperium gives me a head and orders me to take it somewhere, I don't ask why."
"Of course, of course," nodded the captain emphatically. "Questioning the orders of one's superiors—never a good idea."
He looked back down at the manifest.
"Only … we found no head aboard your vessel. Why would that be?"
"My craft was overturned during a battle between Keepers."
The captain’s eyes went wide. "Keepers? Keepers? Surely you jest, Anurag! There are no Keepers, they are extinct! There are only the Lord Emperor's Antikeepers, and they would not battle one another!"
Anurag held silent. He knew the captain knew about the titanic battle. There was no way he could’ve missed it.
"But if anyone could survive such an epic conflict," said the captain, "it would be you. Your vessel is quite miraculous, isn't it?"
Anurag didn't respond.
"A simple courier with an impervious craft.” He rolled up the manifest and held it over his shoulder, all the while staring at him. The sailor was there at once to retrieve it, which he did before once again marching back under the light.
Anurag and the captain stared at each other for a long time.
The captain motioned to the chains at his feet. "Honesty, my dear Monsieur Bouchard. I execute honest prisoners humanely. And that's the prize I am offering you. A quick death. A merciful death. I will have this heavy chain laden with ordnance draped about your shoulders and upper body, and I will march you off the plank, il n'y a pas de quoi fouetter un chat. You will sink to the bottom of the sea, and there you will drown. Quick. Humane. Would you not agree?"
Humane was the last thing such an execution would be. Still, Anurag nodded.
"So give me an honest answer now, and I give you my word that you shall meet your end thusly. Do not do so, and I shall call for the whip, and you will die without the Healing touch in agony right here, hanging here just as you are now and crying for death long before it comes. And—" he drew so close that their noses were almost touching—"and I shall sail to Anthtree, and I shall burn it to the ground, along with every living soul there."
A friendly smile. "Do we have an understanding, Anurag?"
"Then tell me now why your little craft is impervious."
Anurag did not break his gaze, did not blink, did not feel anything in his heart but the bitter, world-heavy ache to exact vengeance. His mouth was dry for need of blood.
He had probably spilled all his secrets. All but that one.
"My first vessel was wrecked upon rocks near Hardclaim, the Emperor's Neptonius," he said. "The natives rescued me, nursed me back to health. I became a member of their tribe. They helped me rebuild my boat. The wood they used they had brought down from the high valleys inland. They called it kandim yeysest: 'unyielding lodge.' Their canoes are made of it. We rowed up the
a hundred misons or more inland. Two days’ march up the valley is a large stand
of kandim yeysest. Medium-sized
trees, pale-green leaves shaped like a heart, white bark. That valley—that's
where the trees are. That's all I know. I had no idea it's as strong as it is,
and I have no idea what their axes were made of that could overcome its
strength." Vire River
The captain did not immediately respond. His gaze bore into Anurag's. Anurag could hear his steady breathing, could feel it on his chin and upper chest, could smell the peppered meat on it.
"Get the others," said the captain without looking over his shoulder.
The sailor standing guard under the oil lamp saluted and hurried up the hatch stairs and out of sight.
a hundred misons, two day's march up the valley, white bark, heart-shaped
leaves," he repeated. Vire River
"Can a ship this size navigate the river?"
"Only for fifteen or so misons. You'll need longboats after that, and very strong rowers. I wouldn't attempt it any other season than summer."
Summer—which was just starting.
He closed his eyes. He couldn't help it. For there were natives—Poets—along the Hardclaim coast. He'd met them. And he had just sentenced many if not all of them to death.
He opened his eyes to see the captain studying him.
"There, there," said the captain, misunderstanding his expression. "Secrets are meant to be shared among friends, would you not agree, Anurag?"
Anurag held silent.
The captain turned to see four of his crew descend the stairs.
"Wait one more moment," he ordered, holding up his hand. The men stopped.
"Earth," said the captain, turning back. "A pity for your father, Peter, run over as he was by a motorized carriage, that Healing does not exist there. You wouldn't have been parted from him so soon, think of it!"
He smiled. "When I first came here and learned of this magical 'Healing,' I thought I could not put it to good use. Men are, after all, motivated most greatly by pain and loss. I thought that this magical Healing took away that motivation. But as you can see—" he motioned to the contraption—"I found a way to profit from such a magical resource."
He turned to the guard against the wall. "Your dagger."
The guard produced his dagger, handed it to him.
The captain lifted it and smiled again. It was a cruel smile, colder than the dagger's silver blade ever could be.
He stepped to the right and grabbed Anurag’s hand. He yanked his pinkie finger back until the base knuckle broke, and while Anurag shrieked, viciously sawed into the next knuckle up. What seemed an eternity later he cut through the tendon.
He came to face him after handing the dagger back to the sailor. He dangled his pinkie finger in his face. His hands were drenched in blood; his beard dripped with it. He said:"Please give this to your mother when you meet her in the hereafter."