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His Third Home
Shirt O' Cannonballs
The Storyteller's First Mate
Kaza of Theseus
Kaza of Theseus
HE WOKE to the sound and feel of a boat sailing at speed: the swelling sea and the vessel riding it expertly, the snapping of tight canvas in a steady wind, the sense of forward motion and the beckoning scent of brine pierced by a sure and solid bow.
The portholes above his head revealed blue sky. He sat up, then rose and dressed.
He felt like a new man. And he was. He looked down on his bare chest and abdomen before pulling a shirt over them. The scars were still there; and here was his pinkie finger, half what it once was.
He stepped into the bathroom to relieve himself and to find a brush to run through his hair, which had grown long from his captivity and needed to be cut. He emerged minutes later hungry and ready to get back to his boat.
On deck, he was greeted by Tray.
"Breakfasts is served, Cap'n. Forward hold. You's look much better, I's must say. Go on n' eat. Then we'lls get ya back to you's girl."
"That sounds really good."
He looked right.
The Selaki was just starboard, riding the same steady breeze, one almost certainly brought to life by the man at her wheel, who was staring at him and waving.
Kaza of Theseus.
Anurag waved back.
A bona fide hero of the Saeire Insu, Kaza Lucanson was the only known Thesean to survive the Gyssian invasion. Necrolius’ soldiers had literally exterminated his countrymen down to the last child and burned every city, town, and village to the ground. Kaza escaped by means of his wits and determination and the cultivated Infinitum his sister had thrown to him in her last moments before being eaten alive by a demon. The Arilyceum was a gift from a mortally wounded government functionary he happened across; he got to her just moments before the Gyssians tried to blow her up. Injured and bleeding and burned, he narrowly escaped, but was pursued by at least five Gyssian Capsizers, each with a crew of thousands, not including the demons in their holds.
And that was only the half of it.
The man waving to him now stood before the Lord Emperor himself and with his Storyteller powers survived the encounter, one he refused to talk about. Whenever asked, Kaza's response was always the same: "I told him I would be there when his destroyer came for him. I mean to keep that promise."
He survived the flight to the infant Saeire Insu Armada, a journey that covered nearly five thousand misons, and just to add to his accomplishments he rescued Tray and a Dreamcatcher on the way. That should have been the end of it. Any other man would have made it and then hidden in the rear while the principals fought it out. But not him. He and Tray (the Dreamcatcher vanished, ostensibly to save her own skin) picked up swords and were in the very maw of the battle that saw the Saeire Insu emerge, against all odds, victorious.
As a wide-eyed recruit many years ago, Anurag visited the Memorial Room deep inside the
where the exploits
of the greatest of the great heroes were inscribed in broadswords and set in
the circular wall. He entered the room unsure of the future and his place in
it, and uncertain if he had the guts to fight the Imperials back on Aquanus. He
stood before the broadswords and read the stories, and the uncertainty swelled
within him like an infection. That is, until he came before the broadsword with
Kaza's story on it. Kathlin
Reading it would change him forever. Anurag felt like it had been placed there especially for him, to embolden and encourage him. For Kaza had to have faced great uncertainty—monstrous uncertainty. Uncertainty in fact infinitely greater than anything Anurag had ever experienced to that point. And yet he pressed on. Nothing was guaranteed except unyielding adversity that would've crushed most men right from the start.
The day came when Anurag met his hero. He wasn't much older than Anurag himself. And the only thing more astonishing than Kaza's heroics was his humility. Kaza befriended him from the off and helped him with his training, and was there to get him ready for his mission once his orders came down.
Anurag would be a Saeire Insu Courier just like his hero. He would be the conduit by which the Resistance communicated. He would prepare the way for the Armada’s return, would keep an eye on the Imperium and its actions, and, if possible, recruit others. This last was the most dangerous job of all, for Tracluse were everywhere, and Native Guards, and, worst of all, a somnolent populace who had accepted Gyssian rule and were unwilling to stand against it or tolerate those who did.
There were four Saeire Insu Couriers on all of Aquanus. Anurag was one of them. There was no greater honor in his life.
The steady breeze suddenly died, the Ari's sails deflating, the legendary singleship settling contentedly in the water. "The cap'n's comin', Cap'n Bouchard,” called out Tray. “You's gets down to the hold now and eats so's it doesn' spoils. Then we'lls get you's back to you’s girl!"
Anurag opened the forward hold and climbed down the ladder-stairs. An oil lamp was lit next to Tray's bunk; next to that was a small table and two chairs. The table was set for two and included a Gaian dish called "corn flakes," which was served with something called "almond milk"; more poyshe fruit, and, finally, a buttered "bagel," also Gaian.
He smiled. Kaza was going to eat with him.
He sat and picked up a bagel half and bit into it. Bagels were one of his favorite Gaian foods, a treat he hadn’t had in over two Aquanian years. He ate slowly, savoring it against the wishes of his grumbling tummy, and listened as Tray bustled about on deck.
Then came a familiar and welcome voice:
"When you get a chance, get the 'scope out and look south. Tell me what you see. He downstairs?"
"Yes, sirs, Cap'n” said Tray. “Down the hold, yes, sirs ..."
There was the sound of an extra pair of boots jumping onto deck. A second later a shadow filled the hold hatch, and then Kaza Lucanson descended the stairs. At their foot he stopped, smiling at Anurag in the way a friend does when one somehow survives a deadly illness.
Anurag stood, and the men came together in a tight hug.
"Unbelievable," said Kaza, pulling back. "I honestly didn't think you were going to make it. You look good, Captain. A bit on the thin side, but who gives a damn, right?"
They gripped hands and held them tightly.
"I owe you my life," said Anurag. "Thank you."
"Enough. Don't mention it," said Kaza with a dismissive wave of his hand. "Let's eat."
They sat and ate.
"It was Dragha, actually," said Kaza after several spoonfuls of corn flakes. "He's set up in your hold. I think he’s still asleep. It surprised me that the Imperials didn't clean it out once they captured you. It was a wreck but we eventually got it sorted while we worried over you.
"You'll like Dragha. Salt-of-the-earth, as they say on Earth. Filthy jokes and drinks like a fish, but a first-rate Healer and a very tough son-of-a-bitch. I suppose Tray told you he's an intuitive? He somehow knew you were in it up to your eyeballs, though I have no idea how. He's never shown such ability in the past."
He grabbed Anurag’s shoulder, "But who cares, right?"
Anurag was in mid-nod when Kaza said, "Have you seen 'em yet?"
Kaza grinned and downed the rest of his juice. "I thought you would've noticed them earlier when we were waving at each other. They've been waiting for you. You'll see."
They finished breakfast and mounted the ladder-stairs to the topdeck.
Kaza pointed well above the Selaki, which was now moored to the Arilyceum.
Anurag looked. At first he didn't see anything. But then he spied circular streaks of movement in the hazy blue, thin and lightning-quick ...
It dawned on him.
He gave a happy laugh and gazed at his friend.
He'd completely forgotten about the Arrowsparrows.
"They've been following us since the beginning, since we found you," said Kaza. "They've probably been following you since you got caught. Maybe even earlier. They're probably exhausted. So, Captain," he bowed and flourished an arm toward the Selaki, "let's give them a well-deserved rest, what do you say? I relinquish command of your proud girl. Shall we be on our way?"
Anurag looked up at the Arrowsparrow swarm. They'd wait for him to board the Selaki, and they'd be upset with him dawdling here.
Tray approached, telescope in hand.
"What do you see?" asked Kaza.
"Haze is too thicks to see rightly, Cap'n, but I’s sure as my’s right hand thinks it’s land!"
"Land?" said Anurag.
"Take a look," said Kaza.
"Here, Cap'n," said Tray, handing Anurag the telescope.
Anurag brought the brass piece to his eye and focused it south.
"Due south," said Kaza, "exactly where land shouldn't be, and wasn't two weeks ago, and doesn’t register on my sea paper. See it?"
The sea-hugging haze was indeed murky today ... but sure enough there seemed to be mountains way (way) out there, tall peaks and a lower, undulating landmass on both sides that spread east and west for a good amount in both directions.
Land that indeed shouldn't be there.
"What ... the ... hell—?" murmured Anurag, trying to focus the 'scope more and failing. "How can land suddenly be there when a month ago it wasn't?"
“ 'Tis the Sankyan Wilderness, I reckon," said Tray solemnly. “ ‘Tis moved, it has. A New Age has begun.”
Anurag lowered the telescope and stared at the men next to him.
"Is that what you think—a New Age?"
"Like I said, it isn’t registering on my sea paper. It wouldn’t on yours due to the distance. I checked mine just before coming over. I have no idea why it’s giving me nothing. But if it's land, then the Sankyan has moved for the first time in over seven hundred Aquanian-years and a New Age has indeed begun."
"What's your guess as to its distance?" asked Anurag, handing back the 'scope. That feeling of fortune-potent-as-purpose surged through him stronger than ever.
"At least a thousand misons," said Kaza. "Probably closer to a thousand and a half, say five days at full sails and rest."
"And our schedule? How are we doing?"
"Word from the Tangent is that the mobilization on Earth hasn't begun yet. We've got time if we don't slouch. If that’s the Wilderness, it may have swallowed up all the Gateways to the
for God knows how
far. That may be an issue as well." Senecum
Tray spoke up. "The Imperials'll have seens it too, Cap'ns, the Wilderness. They's’ll come in force to investigates ..."
Kaza rubbed his chin. "That's true. What do you think, Captain?"
"To hell with 'em," said Anurag. "If that's really the Sankyan Wilderness, it probably swallowed a bunch of them. They'll be too busy licking their wounds to care about two Couriers sailing by—provided, of course, that we stay visible. Besides, I'll be damned if they can catch us."
" 'Tis good to have our good Cap'n Storyteller on you's side times like these, 'deed it is," said Tray proudly. "I's go and makes ready."
He left them and began preparations to sail.
"I've got something else to tell you," said Anurag. "The Imperials caught me because they found me floating with broken legs in the sea."
Kaza blinked, startled. "What the hell happened?"
Anurag chuckled darkly. "You're not going to believe this, but I got myself caught in a battle between two goddamn Keepers! No shit!" he added, noting Kaza's look of disbelief.
He pointed south and nodded surely.
"That's the Sankyan, Captain. I'm here to tell you right now it is. Too much has happened for it not to be."
Aboard the Selaki, he watched as the Arrowsparrows all dove out of the sky for him like a hail of arrows in a pitched battle, fighting amongst each other to be the first to land on his open palm. They flashed just above his head and encased him in a little avian tornado. He took the scroll off the first to land and watched as it launched from his palm through the cabin door, which he'd kept open for them.
(He was surprised the Imperials hadn’t chucked the cage, one that Tray or Kaza had cleaned and readied for their return.)
One by one, the birds gave him their tiny burdens and flew into the cabin. When the last one left his palm, Kaza, watching him, called out, "Go read them, Captain. I'll wait."
Anurag closed his fingers over the scrolls and descended the stairs to his cabin.
The Arrowsparrows were jostling one another at the food and water dishes. He felt sorry for them, for indeed they looked exhausted and close to starvation.
"I'm sorry, my friends," he murmured, sitting at the desk. "It certainly wasn't intentional ..."
He pricked his finger and swiped the pile of scrolls all at once with the blood. He waited a few seconds, sucking the stuck finger, then unrolled them and read the messages one by one.
He wasn't an emotional man, and maybe the tears that gathered wouldn't have been there had he not gone through the hell he did. But hell he had gone through, hell that would be with him the rest of his days, and so the tears welled up and made it hard to see the messages. It was no matter, because the messages were all the same: a single number:
Over the face of Aquanus, lighthouses were now rotating once every twenty-four seconds. Kaza and the two other Saeire Insu Couriers had sent the same message to their recipients, and had surely long ago received the same reply from all of them:
24 ... 24 ... 24 ... 24 ...
Years of preparation. Years of training. Years of waiting. And while on Aquanus those years were fewer than on Earth—one Aquanian-year was the equivalent of over three Earth-years—those fewer years seemed unending, interminable. The Imperium was total, its darkness complete and omnipresent. Death and oppression were everywhere and inescapable. The frozen iron fist of Necrolius was world-sized and intent on crushing and consuming everything.
But under that fist and utterly without its awareness life was daring to gather and rise up against it. Over dark and empty seas the beams swung round once every twenty-four seconds; over the Imperium itself and its mighty navy those beams flashed yellow-white and disappeared, coming round again and again and again, north, south, east, and west. And the Imperial sailors and soldiers, Constables and Dreamcatchers, torturers and Tracluse, Demons and Deputies, high government officials and Necrolius himself had no idea it was happening. Under their very noses a tenacious and insidious Resistance was gathering, was quietly arming itself, was preparing. For the lighthouses were proclaiming:
The Apprentice has come.