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SITTING IN the kitchen, Otoro wrote on a small bit of paper with an odd pen.
“What strangely colored ink. It looks like blood! What language is that?” asked Firr.
“Never heard of it.”
“What are you saying?”
“ ‘Emperor gone. Confirm rumors Sankyan. Satelemark.’ ”
“You haven’t heard the rumors?”
Firr shook his head.
“Tracluse are saying the Sankyan Wilderness has moved. On clear days, I’ve heard some say, you can see it. It’s apparently moved over Infinitus.”
“We haven’t had many clear days lately,” remarked Firr. “But if that’s true …”
“A new Age has begun.”
“A new Age has begun.”
The news seemed to inflate him. He held still for a moment, said, “Satelemark?”
“We use it to inform the Saeire Insu that we don’t expect to live much longer.”
Firr nodded gravely, but the happiness he exuded at the news of the Sankyan did not go away.
“Come,” said Otoro. “Let’s get the Arrowsparrow on its way.”
They left the kitchen, fetched the bow and bird, and stepped out the back door into the yard. There was a tiny clearing directly above; the slight yellow glow of city lights coldly graced the lowest of the low clouds and peeked through the tree canopy. Ammalinaeus was out there, but Otoro hadn’t seen it in many months. It was like Aquanus was trying to cover the infected wound that was Imperium Centrum.
“I don’t get it,” said Firr. “You’re going to shoot a bird off a simple bow, and it’ll somehow make it to the Eastern Tangent and beyond?”
Otoro shook his head. “Hold out your finger.”
Firr stuck his index out.
“Call the bird to you.”
“Come here, little one,” said Firr kindly.
The bird gave a tweet and jumped down to his finger.
He gently stroked its tiny head.
“Now, without talking, tell it what you want it to do. Focus on it. Close your eyes if you must.”
Firr closed his eyes. A moment passed in silence, interrupted only by a breeze that rustled weakly through the thick boughs above.
The bird gave a stronger tweet, and then began sparkling out of existence. Firr opened his eyes and gawked. The sparkles lengthened and brightened, flowing into each other in a long shaft that solidified and dropped from his finger, which Otoro caught.
“Arrowsparrow,” said Otoro.
Firr’s wide eyes caught the bare light of the gloom. “That … that was … phenomenal. I heard … no: I felt—felt—the bird’s intelligence … its spirit.”
Otoro grinned. “To say the word ‘spirit’ in such a context is an automatic death sentence.”
Firr grunted. “Ha! It’s what I felt!”
“Let’s get him on his way.”
“Her. It’s a she.”
Otoro fitted the Arrowsparrow and lifted the bow. The arrow that was a bird was beautiful, streaked blue and gold, its colors plain even in the dark.
“May I?” asked Firr. “I was once an expert archer, a sniper in the army.”
Otoro lowered the weapon, handed it over. Firr hefted it with practiced skill, even with a finger missing on his left hand.
“It’ll fly all the way to the Tangent?”
He aimed up through the small gap in the trees, pulled back on the bow with surprising strength, and released the Arrowsparrow, which disappeared instantly up and away. He lowered the bow and handed it back.
“How will it get through the Tangent? I doubt even the emperor can do that.”
“It will stop there. It won’t go through. Saeire Insu are stationed there. When the Tangent opens the message will be given to the proper personnel.”
This seemed to inflate Firr even more, who said, “What’s next?”
“I have no idea. Let’s go inside. We’ve got a couple days yet to form some plans. Come.”
“I report back for duty in three days,” said Otoro. “I’ll be back here in the late afternoon indefinitely, however. It’ll take months to build new barracks.” He stopped, stared.
“What?” said Firr.
“An unpleasant task awaits.”
“Let’s get it over with, then.”
Senior Tracluse were given significantly more freedom and privileges than their underlings. One was the freedom to claim as many as three slaves to themselves. To that end they were given personalized brands to mark the slaves as their own.
Firr insisted on stoking the fire himself and seeing to the brand, which was, thankfully, relatively small, maybe half the length of his thumb and no wider. He lifted the iron and inspected the cherry-red end.
“It’s close enough,” he said. He had already stripped his shirt off. His chest and back were covered in scars.
Otoro took the brand from him and inspected it. “I never thought I’d use this thing.”
Firr stared at it, and then, with surprise, at the small first-aid kit at Otoro’s feet.
“I never thought I’d live to see it, or believe it. The executioner is a compassionate man.”
Otoro gave a humorless chuckle. “I’m an executioner because I’m a compassionate man. Hold out your left arm. That’s where the brand goes.”
Firr held up. He took several deep breaths, then held it out. “Make it quick.”
Otoro did. As swiftly as he swung his axe, he snatched Firr’s wrist and in the same motion twisted it and brought the brand down on his forearm. He held the cherry-red end on the flesh for only half a second, and concluded the action by tossing the iron back into the fire.
Firr bellowed and instinctively tried to pull away, but Otoro kept a firm grip on him.
“Goddamn you and goddamn the Imperium!” cried Firr. “You heartless, butchering sons of bitches! How I long to see you all die! Let me go!”
He tried to free himself, but Otoro’s strength was far superior to his. Otoro took the continuing barrage of insults deafly. When Firr tried to punch him with his free fist, he blocked it easily and then grabbed it too. “Stop! STOP!” he yelled. “STOP!”
He released him when he was sure it was safe to do so, and then reached for the salve and applied it liberally over the burn, which smoked and blistered grotesquely as he watched.
Firr, eyes streaming, clutched his branded arm into his center, cradling it. “I need a bandage!”
“No. The salve speeds the Healing power of air. It is an aecxal medicine of my people. It’s very effective. Don’t wipe it off, and don’t touch it. The pain should start abating in a few minutes.”
Firr’s cheeks were streaked with angry tears, his teeth bared. He said nothing more, but remained bent double over his arm. Presently he sniffled and looked up. “Your people?”
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, just dandy!”
“Assaulting a Tracluse is suicide.”
“You’re not Tracluse.”
“So I’m not. If you want to punch me, I won’t stop you.”
He came forward in his chair and pushed his chin out. “Have at it, free man.”
Firr didn’t look up from the brand, which was ash-white and glistening. “No. It was reflex. It’s not what I want.”
“Then what do you want?”
The Portmaster released his teeth, gave a shallow sigh. “You’re right. It isn’t smarting as much.” He looked up. “What do I want? What do I want? I want my life back! I want my family back! That’s all I have ever wanted ever since that bastard conquered Aquanus!”
“His time is coming to an end.”
Firr shook his head, gazed down at the burn. “The king is a great man. But it takes much more than a great man to bring down evil of that magnitude. His numbers, as mighty as they are, are paltry against the emperor’s forces. He’ll be overrun before he even gets to Chrienthsos. No, executioner, I fear Aquanus has forever given away her future.”
Otoro stood. “Stay here.”
The old man stared.
“Please,” added Otoro.
Otoro went into the study, then back into the closet, where he lifted the hidden hatch. He fished out a small box, replaced the hatch, and marched back to the kitchen. He sat and opened the box and selected a small, blank roll of paper the same size as the one that he’d attached to the Arrowsparrow they’d shot off. While Firr watched, he took a small pick and pricked his middle finger, then swiped the bead of blood over the paper, which he handed to him.
Firr released his branded arm, took the paper and stared at it. The blood smear had disappeared, replaced with strange letters of the same color.
“I can’t. It’s in a foreign language.”
He went to hand it back.
“No. Look at it again,” Otoro ordered.
Firr looked. His eyes went wide.
“It … changed. Well, now!”
He brought it up close.
“How did it do that?”
“Read what it says.”
Firr stared at it, then read: “ ‘The Apprentice has come.’ ” He looked up. “Who’s the Apprentice?”
“I will make dinner tonight, and you will sit there and let your burn Heal, and I will tell you who she is.”
As Otoro made dinner, and as Firr sat there, listening, Otoro told him more about Arrowsparrows and messaging, and then more about the Saeire Insu, and then what happened to the king, Conor Kieran: his encounter with the Pier god in the Temple Kentein Intersectum, how the god bestowed upon him the legendary Pearl-Yang Serpenthelm, and how he told the king to sail east for the Tangent and to accept mutineers from other countries, as he did. Once at the Tangent, Conor Kieran and his mutineers turned to fight the overwhelming Gyssian Navy, and he defeated them.
“He fought them—and won?”
The Pier god had instructed Conor Kieran to open the Tangent to Earth, and once there with his mutineers—the infant Saeire Insu—told him that he should retool and rebuild and wait for coming of the Apprentice, whom the Pier god prophesied to be a young girl. “The Apprentice, the Pier god told our king, would be the one to destroy Emperor Necrolius Anaxagorius. ‘The Apprentice has come.’ I received that message not more than three months ago.”
Dinner had been served: buttered biscuits and fish pottage with vegetables. They sat across from one another, and for that moment, their meals were forgotten as they stared at each other.
“The Apprentice has come,” repeated Otoro quietly. “The destroyer of Necrolius. Your reckoning, free man, is here.”
A long silence followed. Firr ate his meal with a bewildered, disbelieving, bloodless visage. He didn’t blink. Otoro doubted that he tasted anything.
Eventually he put his spoon down and grimaced. “A young girl will destroy the emperor? I have never heard a more ridiculous thing in my entire life.”
“You’re thinking of your daughters.”
Firr gave an agonized laugh. “Boys and the newest dresses from the Kinser District and learning to dance and present at balls, and making themselves up …” He sighed. “God almighty, how I miss them …”
“Do you believe there is a God?”
Firr held up. “You truly aren’t Tracluse. You ask questions punishable by death and don’t even blink.”
“It is said that on Earth there are metal devices the size of fleas that are placed in homes that can listen to conversations and transmit what is heard to kings’ agents many misons away.”
“It sounds as if Earth is no better off than Aquanus.”
“I was there once, but only very briefly. From what the Saeire Insu told me, it isn’t. The only difference between Earth and Aquanus is Gaians go about their days thinking they’re free when they’re not.”
“Huh,” grunted Firr, and shook his head.
“They’re branded just as you are, but in here—” Otoro pointed stiffly at his temple—“and in here.” He brought a hard fist to his heart.
The old man went about finishing up his meal. Otoro had long since finished his; the two lapsed into more silence.
“Do you believe in God?” asked Firr from the quiet.
Otoro chuckled. “Otoro Queril, butcher and executioner, believe in God? What are you thinking?”
Firr lowered his spoon and studied the undersides of his forearm. The fresh brand was flaky white outlined in blood-cracked black.
“I’m afraid to believe in anything. There is so much suffering going on. I’ve seen things … awful, awful things. And now you’re telling me even those on Earth, free of the Black Coffin, free of that cold, shadowy bastard … that they’re slaves too … willing slaves … you’d have to be to bind your mind and your soul … Suffering everywhere, endless suffering. Evil triumphs and good is crushed under its heel…. I was very devout once, a believer, a good family man. And then all the light went out in the world, and my family … gone. Gone!”
Tears filled his eyes. Otoro watched him steadily.Firr abruptly pushed his chair back and stood. “You sit there. Sit! I’ll clean the dishes! I’m a free man, and I want to clean the dishes! I want to!” He snatched the bowls and silverware and stalked to the sink. “We’ve got work to do. I suggest we stop shooting the shit and get to it.”