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His Third Home
Shirt O' Cannonballs
The Storyteller's First Mate
Kaza of Theseus
Echo and Touch
Honest With Each Other
Honest With Each Other
THE OUGHMORI GATEWAY along Ae Infinitus lay west of the newly moved Sankyan Wilderness by only sixty-eight misons. The Selaki and Arilyceum approached it under the cloak of Antarctic Cottonwood.
The Oughmori Gateway was where the two singleships would part into separate oceans. From there both would travel back east along the Great Pier to the Gaian Tangent. Kaza wanted to split up once it became clear that Anurag was well from his startling encounter with the godlike woman, but Anurag, for reasons he couldn't put his finger on, insisted on accompanying him here.
Random images and feelings kept bubbling to the surface of his consciousness, ones he was sure weren't his, but hers. The streak of lightning, the blinding flash, the world-crashing roar, the wailing multitude ... she was the cause of them, and she wanted him to bear witness to her power. Through those images he saw Imperial warships near the Sankyan, sailing or anchored safely distant from the mysterious shores.
Safely. That's what the Imperials had thought.
Anurag and company had sailed less than a day when they came upon an Imperial destroyer—or what was left of it.
It was like the iron fist of God, set aflame, had smashed down on it. The warship was in scorch-burned pieces no larger than his forearm, and fell into sopping black ash when lifted out of the water. Dragha identified the vessel only because he recognized part of the bowsprit, which was the largest remaining piece of it.
They stared silently as they passed through the flotsam, which was scattered so widely they weren't sure what they were sailing through until they were almost out of it.
They saw no bodies.
The singleships had survived the same way he had. The same woman appeared between the bows of both, and ordered the men to their knees and to cover their heads and close their eyes. Like Anurag, they obeyed without question. And they too saw the streak and flash, though they weren't looking at it; and they too heard the monumental roar and the screaming multitude. When it seemed safe, they looked up.
The woman was gone.
Tray frantically pulled his 'scope open to locate Anurag. When he couldn't, he went into a full panic.
"Wait! Wait!" Dragha yelled. "He's ... well, I'll be! He's in his cabin! He's in his cabin!"
Kaza and Tray leapt over to the Selaki, and with Dragha rushed into Anurag’s quarters. There he was, lying on his back, unconscious. Dragha checked his breathing and pulse.
"I'll be god-damned ... he's alive!"
Several hours later he woke.
The first words out of his mouth were to Kaza, who stared at him as though he'd just returned from the dead.
"We need to be cloaked."
Aside from lightheadedness he felt just fine, he reported. He got up, the others following, and descended into the forward hold, where he ate like a starving wolf.
"I don't get it," said Dragha, who insisted on giving him "a full looking-over" once he'd eaten his fill. "She spared you; she spared us. Why?"
"Why do we need to be cloaked?" pressed Kaza.
Anurag looked up from his bagel, the third he'd eaten.
"I don't know. I just know we need to be. I saw inside her mind ... She touched my wrist and I … I saw inside her mind ... She's angry. She's angry at the Imperials ... at the Lord Emperor. She knows he wants to kill her—the Apprentice."
Kaza glanced at Tray. "Make us invisible."
Tray nodded and hurried up out of the hold and out of sight.
Anurag repeated what the woman told him.
" 'When spirit becomes flesh.' What does that mean?" said Kaza.
Anurag shook his head, and then his eyes widened. "Your sea paper!"
The men piled out of the hold and leapt over to the Ari.
"We's invisible, Captain," reported Tray, who appeared alarmed by the sight of the others rushing towards him. "The Selaki too!"
He followed them into the cabin, where Kaza unrolled his scroll of sea paper.
It was blank.
They followed him to the railing, where he attached the scroll to the end of the pole designed for it, which he dipped it into the sea and pulled up. He detached the scroll and hastily unrolled it.
The dripping sea paper came alive, yellow lines filling in, resolving: yellow lines that mapped the enigmatic land ten misons away.
"It's gotta be throughout the entire Saeire Insu," said Anurag. "Mine started filling in the moment I opened it on shore. It's gotta be ..."
"We's won't know till we's get there," said Tray.
They all nodded in agreement.
Three days and at least three more obliterated Imperial warships later (one of which must have been a dreadnought, for the flotsam took nearly an entire day to get through), Dragha, watching the Gateway draw ever closer, grumbled, "I don't get it."
"Get what?" said Anurag.
Dragha motioned towards the Gateway with his chin.
"Look at it, Captain. It's completely quiet. No ships, no demons overhead, nothin'. That woman's blast leveled everything, even seventy misons away!"
"It didn't touch Infinitus, though," said Anurag, who gazed upon the Great Pier with a smile.
"If she's so damn powerful, why not just wipe out Emperor Necrolius herself? Why not descend on the
and lay waste to it
and the vermin crawlin' about it? She would save thousands of Saeire Insu
lives, thousands! I just don't get it ..." Raped
"She can't reach far beyond her shores," said Anurag, speaking almost before he was aware that he was. "And that wailing we heard after the explosion ... I'm certain that was the emperor himself. She blew him up."
Dragha's face lit up. "She killed him? She killed that bastard? Then ... then it's over! Isn't it? Why not?"
"Her power ... it's not the right kind. It can't kill him. He'll Heal. Don't ask me how. I have no idea how you Heal after being blown into a million bits."
Dragha muttered a frustrated curse.
"She visited the Sankyan," said Anurag. "The Apprentice. I can almost see her face. I’ve dreamt of her before, but I can never keep her likeness fixed in my mind." He shook his head. “It’s like my memory can’t hold it.”
“The Apprentice sailed to the Sankyan? Did the Saeire Insu take her there?"
"I don’t think so. The emperor was there too. He tried to kill her. And the king was there. He went to save her. And ... and ..."
"And what?" he pressed when it was obvious that Anurag had sailed too deeply into the sea of self-absorption. "Where was the woman?"
"I ... " Anurag shook his head to clear it. "I don't know. It was like she was there but also not there. Don't ask me how."
He held up, his brow furrowing as he concentrated.
"There ... there was someone else there too," he said in a faraway voice after a long pause. "A ... a presence."
Anurag nodded. Though his hands were on the wheel, he'd completely forgotten about steering.
"I've felt it—that presence—every night since. No, not felt it, not felt ... heard."
"The presence speaks? Is it a man or woman?"
"It's not a voice ... it's ... music," said Anurag airily. "Music. I can almost hear it, just like I can almost see the Apprentice's face. It's there, just out of reach. I can hear it plainly in my dreams. But in the morning it too flies away. I can't grasp it, try as I might. It haunts me ... My mind tries to find the melody ... It's ... beautiful ... beautiful ..."
He glanced at his first mate, who was clearly anxious to hear more.
"It's just a guess, but maybe it's that presence that's waiting for whoever it is in the Saeire Insu. Remember me telling everyone that?—that there were souls in the Sankyan waiting for someone in the Saeire Insu?"
"But you said souls. More than one. 'A presence' is but one."
"I know," said Anurag, frustrated. "That's all I got."
Dragha's face fell.
Gateways were along both Great Piers. On average, five hundred misons separated one from another.
The Great Pier at a gateway splits apart, the two wings rising high over the water, curving out then back in over the course of a full mison, where they become one Pier again. The wings at their apex are high enough that ships can pass beneath them, which makes them natural ports of trade and commerce. Beneath the wings, at both points where they split then come back together again, the Pier dips into the water at a sloping angle, spreading as it approaches. Ramps.
Men, of course, congregated to gateways, as money, both legitimately earned and ill-gotten, could be made at them. Before the Imperium the second sort predominated; as a result they came to be known as somewhat seedy and dangerous places. Whole towns were built on them, right on the Pier itself. Generally speaking, the closer one was to Aquanicentra along either Great Pier, the bigger and busier gateways were.
Oughmori Gateway was two thousand misons away from Aquanicentra, which in the best of times should've made it little more than a single-manned through-point. But the nation of Chrienthsos, just four hundred misons west, and which was split through its middle by Ae Infinitus, made it convenient to traders and military craft sailing back and forth from the Verisimilius and
Even during these dark times of the Imperium, this through-point should've been
bustling. Senecum Oceans
Instead utter silence hung over it like a frightened breath caught in one's lungs. As the shadow of the north wing swept over the singleships, the crews of both looked around for signs of life.
Aside from circling sea vultures, there was none. The large wooden and stone buildings that stood over the silver-green rampways had been flattened. Small pieces of charred wood bumped against the boats like soggy corpses and clogged the channel from one ocean into the next. Anurag pulled his ship alongside the Arilyceum.
"Let's land,” said Kaza, startling everyone. His voice seemed magnified hugely in this place of mass death. “You take the east ramp, I'll take the west. Dragha, Tray: no Transforming. Let's stick together."
The two first mates acknowledged the order with nods.
"What do you think we'll find?" asked Anurag.
Kaza shook his head. "Nothing. I'm just thinking of our training: 'Information is as precious as loose Infinitum.' So let's gather some—and maybe there'll be supplies we can grab too."
Up the deserted rampways both crews walked. Anurag and Dragha had to pick their way around the debris while simultaneously swiping away great clouds of flies attracted by the thick stench of death. Just up from the water's edge they finally encountered bodies—or what they thought the congealed red splashes of flame-kissed gore once were. Sea vultures fought over the carnage and took flight with the disturbance of their feast. They squawked their complaints, the squawks echoing and sending more aflight, including many across the way with Kaza and Tray. As far as Anurag could tell, none were unlikely Imperial Transforms.
Demons had died here, too. The flies and vultures left those remains alone.
Imperial insignia, torn flags lifting weakly in the slight breeze, empty and shredded armor, more charred gore. Dragha slipped in some, fell to his stomach. He got up, his big belly covered. "Gaaach!" he spat, cursing, then angrily wiped his hands on his pant legs while trying to swat flies off his person.
At the top of the ramp they turned in the direction of Kaza and Tray, who had yet to appear, and looked.
The town atop the Oughmori Gateway had been wiped clean off it. Aside from the decimated ramp structures below, and death's fetor wafting up from it, and the scattered and pulverized stones and bits of wood, there was no evidence that anybody had ever lived here, let alone visited.
"Are you witnessing her power yet?" asked Dragha grimly.
Anurag shook his head disbelievingly.
Kaza and Tray emerged up the west ramp. They waved across the mison-wide gap. It was so quiet up here that Anurag thought he could yell across and be heard. But Kaza beat him.
Anurag acknowledged the order by waving again, as did Dragha. They began making their way back towards the ramp.
"Wait!" Kaza's voice was like an otherworldly echo, distant and eerie.
Anurag turned to look. Both Kaza and Tray were motioning towards the north wing and walking quickly in that direction.
"What do you think it is?" asked Dragha.
"No idea," answered Anurag. "There's nothing left up here. Let's go."
The men mounted the north wing. Fifteen minutes later the crews met at its summit.
"What's going on?" asked Anurag.
"Look," said Tray, handing him the telescope and pointing north.
He lifted it, peered through it. "What am I looking for?"
"On the horizons, Captain," said Tray. "Due north."
Two Imperial warships, probably eighty misons distant. One was smaller ... a frigate ... the other ...
"Son of a bitch," he whispered.
"You think it's the same ones that captured you?" said Kaza.
Anurag peered through the 'scope one more time, then collapsed it and handed it back to Tray.
"How much you want to bet it is?"
He stared north, his eyes lightless.
"We's still cloaked. Theys can't see us," said Tray.
"This is where we part ways,” said Kaza. “We need to make double time to the Eastern Tangent. I know what you’re thinking, Anurag. I won't be able to help you again."
The vultures squawked and screeched. The Couriers stared into each other’s eyes.
"You could order me," said Anurag in an inflectionless voice.
"And would you follow those orders?"
Kaza nodded in appraisal. "You want me to order you. You don't think you can resist the temptation—that is, if it's them. Right?"
Anurag didn't respond.
Kaza shook his head. "I can't do that. I can't and I won't. You've earned your vengeance. But just let me say this—"
"She wanted me to come here, to follow you here," said Anurag. "The woman. I know now it was she."
"And you think it's because she knew those warships would be coming here?" said Dragha.
"Now I do, yeah."
"I've changed my mind,” said Kaza. “I'm going to give you a direct order, Anurag. Here it is. You've got one night: tonight. But that's it. Tomorrow morning I want you sailing east at speed. I won't use my powers to call up wind, which means you and I should be within two days of each other by the time we reach the east end of the Sankyan Wilderness. We’ll meet at the Hieron-Taman Gateway. You’ve got tonight. Understood?"
This was the first time Kaza had given him a direct order. For that reason Anurag knew he wasn't joking around.
"Yes, sir," he said.
"Send an Arrowsparrow when you get underway."
Three days ago Kaza had given him a spare sprig of Antarctic Cottonwood. With it the Selaki could retain its cloak without the Arilyceum.
If it was La Argentina and the Gourei out there, they wouldn't see him coming.
The crews parted with handshakes and hugs.
"See you out east, Captain," said Dragha. "No worries. I'll take care of your boy."
"One night," said Kaza.
"One night," repeated Anurag.
Kaza grinned. "Tell your dad hi for me."
Anurag and Dragha picked their way down the ramp back to the Selaki, watching as Kaza and Tray did the same a mison away. The crews boarded their respective vessels and, waving, sailed in opposite directions. The Selaki got clear of the flotsam and lengthening shadow of the Gateway as mid-day settled into late afternoon. Looking back, Anurag saw that the Arilyceum was gone.
He retrieved the sea paper and dipped it into the
pulled it up. Verisimilius Ocean
Darkness descended over his visage like night come two hours early.
Indeed, indeed. La Argentina and the Gourei were sailing for them at full speed.
The Selaki came within a quarter mison of the Imperial warships as the sun sank below the horizon. Both warships had by then dropped anchors and dispatched demons and men to the gateway. The Mephastophians flew; the men, Emasculated, were forced to take longboats.
He and Dragha spoke in whispers. Several of the longboats rowed so close that they could smell cheap liquor on the breath of the Tracluse.
Three hours later he slipped into the sea and flashed. Dragha, whose Transform was a cormorant, flashed on deck (Antarctic Cottonwood conceals all but the tiniest portion of aecxal flashes as well) and winged into the night.
Hippolyto de Bouchard woke abruptly, having thought he heard movement in his cabin. A bitter taste was in his mouth; the back of his teeth had mushed pulp on them. He was having a nightmare where he couldn't breathe and something was being forced into his mouth, an angry voice telling him he could take a breath if he chewed and swallowed whatever it was, which he did.
It ... wasn't a dream!
He lifted his head from the pillow, glanced around.
"Serlye, is that you?" he grunted while massaging his windpipe. Whoever was responsible for this outrage was going to bleed buckets as soon as he discovered their identity!
But the low voice that answered from the starboard shadow of his quarters did not belong to his personal aid.
"It's your son, Father—"
Something hard smashed into his forehead. He went to call out for help, senseless and sputtering, but he was struck again and went unconscious.
He came to with a gag in his mouth and his hands bound tightly behind him.
"Make so much as a grunt and I'll run you through. Now get up."
He felt the tip of a sword dig threateningly into his lower back as he struggled to his feet.
There he was! His son! His damnable illegitimate son outfitted in odd, form-fitting, glistening black armor of some kind!
"No one can see you now; and they can't see me," said Anurag in a quiet, emotionless voice. "I'll cut you into bits and no one'll be the wiser. Move."
The captain of La Argentina stumbled to his cabin door. Anurag opened it and both went through to the topdeck.
Hippolyto de Bouchard made his way toward the warship's quarterdeck, his son following. Tracluse passed by, oblivious. At the bottom of the quarterdeck’s stairs he waited until the night bosun came down and passed by. Anurag thought the old man might do something foolish like bump into him or grunt or otherwise make him aware of his presence, but he stood still and straight as a statue, unrepentant and proud.
"Up," growled Anurag in his ear.
Moments later both stood at the stern of the warship. The Gourei was anchored close by, the soft rainbow glow of Ammalinaeus shining dully off her polished hull. There was no one but them back here, so Anurag didn't try so hard to keep his voice down.
"Watch," he ordered.
For a long time, nothing happened. Demons winged blackly overhead, evil shadows beneath large, puffy clouds swollen with rain. On the water, in the direction of Infinitus, two longboats were making their way slowly back to the ships.
All at once, the Gourei blew up. It was there one moment, its strong bow bathing in the night light of the great gas giant; the next it disappeared in a massive concussive blast of blinding yellow-white light.
La Argentina rocked violently, felling the captain, who landed hard on his side. Anurag barely held on to the ropes he'd grasped. The noise was deafening. Violent heat broke over the ship like a rogue wave as chunks of the Gourei flew everywhere.
He turned to see his father struggling to get to his feet as bells sounded out and men rushed about, crying out and shouting orders. He stomped on his back.
"Where the hell are you going?"
He stomped again, this time much harder. The old man squirmed and coughed. "You've got only one destination now, Father. Now get up and move."
Hippolyto de Bouchard struggled to his feet without his help, then calmly made his way off the quarterdeck. Anurag followed close behind. Men and demons were rushing about; Anurag would on occasion push him into them. The men would fall with him; flummoxed and angry and looking for the fool who ran into them, but not seeing him, they would scramble to their feet and hurry on. The demons barely noticed anything. One, rushing by, stomped on him as it passed. Eventually the old man was very slow getting to his feet, his nose and ear bleeding, his gray face scratched, his eyes narrow with hate. Anurag sheathed his sword and approached, stooped over, and jammed two fingers into his nostrils while grabbing his long gray hair and yanking him up. The captain bellowed with pain, but no one heard. The ship was listing helplessly to port.
Anurag released him and pushed him on. "You think I'm going to kill you, don't you?" he snarled over the din. "Well, Dad, you're wrong. For now you are, at least."
There was the hatch to the brig. He threw it open, pushed his father in. The old man tripped and fell, falling with a hard crunch at the bottom. Anurag descended the stairs into the gloom that had been his constant companion for days uncountable. The air smelled of blood and mildewing wood and cruel apathy, stoking the fire of his rage.
La Argentina’s captain was curled into a protective ball and crying out with pain. His left forearm was broken, the bone bent into a perverse U shape. Anurag pulled him up by his hair and nostrils again, and then, while the ship listed more and the men and demons ran around, unbound his hands and chained him to the contraption. He yanked him up, spreading him wide, ready to be tortured.
The old man shrieked in agony. His broken forearm was swelling visibly.
Anurag unsheathed a knife that seemed to glow slightly of its own light and brought the blade up close to his face.
"I know where I got it from now," he said over his cries. "That coldness within me. The darkness I feel deep down. I used to think it was from Mom...."
That anger was so inviting, so inviting ... All he had to do was give into it and this evil old fart would be dead, his throat slashed all the way to his backbone. But that wasn't the plan; that wasn't what he most wanted in his settled moments.
"Whatever you did to her, she has never spoken of it. All she has is that scar. Whatever it was you did to her must've been really awful, because she and I, for all our arguments and fights, have always been, above all, honest with each other. I thought I’d pay you the same courtesy."
A Tracluse appeared suddenly at the hatch. He descended the stairs cautiously, his sword drawn. He approached the contraption, eyes wide. It had to look and sound freakish, as if it had snared a ghost in its binds.
He died right there. Anurag pulled the sword out of his back, wiped the bloody blade on his father’s pantleg, resheathed it. He still had the knife in his other grip; with it he stepped over the sailor’s body and slapped the flat of the blade against his cheek.
"You won't find her. And now your ship is wrecked. And those mutineers who defeated your glorious emperor and his mighty navy, the ones he erased from Imperial history? They're coming back. I'll be with them. And just like tonight, you'll not see us. You'll be just like that sailor—alive one moment, dead the next.
"Tell everyone you know, Father. Tell them! Tell the goddamn Imperial High Command itself! But I should think your first priority is to survive this night, which you very well may not given the state of your ship, which—" he nodded emphatically—"most definitely feels like it's sinking. Let's hope you digest that leaf and someone sees you before that happens!"
He held up the blade of the knife between them.
"You had me whipped with crappily made partially aecxal materials, which have Healed somewhat with the help of a friend. This is his blade. He tells me it's of the highest-grade PAM. Get cut with this beauty and it will take a very powerful, very skilled Healer to even get it to scar over; and that scar won't diminish or go away—ever. I hope that Healer you've got onboard is ready for a big challenge—that is, assuming he's even alive!"
And with that he walked around his father and carved his vengeance into his bare back. The old man bellowed and wailed and writhed, for all the good it did him. Besides the lone sailor, who lay dead beneath his feet, no one else bothered to look into the open hatch; no one else came down.
The cruel captain of La Argentina eventually passed out from the pain.
Anurag finished and sheathed the fine blade after wiping it off on his old man's slack shoulder. He ascended the stairs without looking back and threw the hatch closed and then, topdeck, looked around at the destruction he and Dragha had wrought.
His first mate had set the Gourei's ordnance storage alight. Anurag hoped he escaped before the frigate exploded.
At the railing he considered going back and finishing the job. But the settled, calm, and rational part of him didn't want that. No. Killing his father wouldn't make his mother or Orion any safer; nor for that matter Anthtree or the Poets.
The Lord Emperor was in a million bits. Against all things decent he would Heal, and then in the inevitable and insane rage sure to follow he'd send out his enormous fleet to the Sankyan to meet any threat, real or not. In other words the game was already up, whether or not the Imperium knew of the return of Conor Kieran Faramond Benedictus I and his navy. The war had begun.
No, he wanted his father to live. He wanted him to live because he wanted to return with his adopted kingdom and meet him in battle and finish him properly, face to face. And finish him he would, he swore.
It took only two Saeire Insu to destroy two of the emperor's proud warships. To kill hundreds of Tracluse and demons. Hippolyto de Bouchard, should he survive this night, should he survive the weeks coming on Ae Infinitus without food or fresh water, was damned now to carry that fact with him always. For on his back was carved in big un-Healable letters in perfect Gyssian: