Ventus – Day 12 of 135

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Jordan watched Calandria May get to her feet at the bottom of the hill. “I’m soaked!” she shrieked, laughing. It was the first time he’d heard her laugh in any genuine way.

She was a hundred meters below him, with no obvious way back up. He debated turning and running–but he had no idea where to go. Doubtless she’d be able to track him down, even if he got a half-hour’s head start. He sighed, and started picking his way down the hill.

About halfway down he took a long look at the lights burning in the distance, and felt a chill greater than the rain settle on him. He ran the last few meters a bit recklessly, but arrived next to May still on his feet.

“Don’t you know that’s a Wind manse?” he said, pointing at the distant lights. “If we go in there, we’ll be killed!”

She had that serene, unconcerned look about her again. “No we won’t. I have protection,” she said. Ahead of them, tall stately red maples stood in even ranks. The underbrush was sparse, as if someone regularly cut it back.

Jordan shook his head. They jogged through tall wet grass and into the shelter of the trees. Calandria pointed to a brighter area ahead. “Clearing. I guess there’s extensive grounds around this one.”

She led him on. After a minute he said, “So you’ve been in other manses?”

“Yes. I have a way of getting in.” She stopped and rooted around in one of her belt pouches. “This.” She brought out a thick packet of some gauzy material, which she shook out into a square about two meters on a side. “We wear this over us, like we’re playing Ghost.”

She held it out to him and he touched it. The material was rather rough, and glittered like metal. It crackled a bit when it folded.

“Stand close.” Reluctantly, Jordan did so. She pulled the sheet over both their heads. It was easy to see through, but a little awkward to walk with, as it tended to bell stiffly out. They had to take handfuls of the stuff and hold it close. “Put your arm around my waist,” she directed him when it became apparent they were not walking in rhythm. Jordan did so with the reluctance of someone touching a snake.

He forgot his wariness when they came out from under the trees. His hand tightened around her and he gasped. Calandria stopped as well, and smiled.

The forest was cleared here in a perfect rectangle almost a kilometer long. They stood at one end of a green, clipped lawn dotted here and there with artfully twisted trees. Square pools of water trembled now under the onslaught of the rain; under clear skies they would be perfect mirrors. Softened by the haze of rain, made shadowless by the cloud, a great mansion rose up at the far end of the lawn. Its pillars and walls were pure white, the roofs of grey slate. The windows were tall and paned in glass, which lit up every few moments with reflected lightning. Behind some of the windows, warm amber light shone.

Jordan indicated the lit windows with his chin. “They’re home. How can we get in when the Winds are home?”

“They’re not home.” She nodded sagely. “That’s part of the secret. The Winds never visit these places. You have a lot to learn, Jordan.”

“Everybody knows the Winds live here,” he said sullenly.

“I know they don’t. You may have a lot to learn, but you are going to learn it, never fear. Let’s call this a good first lesson for you. This way.” She stepped onto the lawn and led him along the edge. “Wouldn’t want to be hit by lightning on the way in,” she said.

There were no horses tethered at the front of the huge building. Though light glowed from its windows, Jordan could see no movement within. The marble steps leading up to the tall doors were well swept, but there were no servants visible. He hung back as May trotted up the steps; she took his arm and pulled him gently but inexorably after her.

He held his breath as she reached out to the door handle and turned it. She pushed the door open, letting a fan of golden light out into the blue-grey afternoon. “Come,” she said, and stepped in.

He hesitated. Nothing happened; there was no sound from within. Reluctantly, he put his head around the doorjamb.

“I’m soaked!” Lady May yanked the water-gemmed sheet off and tossed it down. “Look at this.” Her legs and backside were covered in mud.

Jordan stared past her uneasily. It was warm here, and dry. Light came from a great crystalline chandelier overhead. That meant there must be servants to tend the lights. They were bound to show up at any moment.

“Close the door please, Jordan.” He eased in, closed the portal but kept his back to it.

This place was bigger than Castor’s mansion. They stood in a bow fronted vestibule at least two stories tall. Two wide marble staircases curved up to either side. Ahead was an arch leading to darkness. There were tall wooden doors at the foot of both staircases. Everything looked clean and straight, but the style was ancient, as if he’d stepped into one of the etchings in his father’s book of architectural mannerism.

He looked up past the chandelier. Gold arabesques over the windows. The ceiling was painted with some torrid mythological scene, framed at the edges by ornate gold guilloches.

Lady May followed his gaze. “Derivative,” she said. “Venus restraining Mars.”

Jordan had heard of neither of them. He looked down. They were both dripping on the polished marble floor. Suddenly horrified at how wet, muddy and disreputable he must look, he said, “We have to get out of here.”

“Find the lavatory,” she said.

“No, what are you saying? They’ll catch us!” He fought a rising tide of hysteria, which clicked in his throat.

“Jordan,” she said sharply. “There is no one here. No one to take notice of us, anyway, as long as we keep this with us.” She held up the silvery gauze square. “It disrupts their sensors.”

He shook his head. “The chandelier–”

“–needs no tending,” she said. “And is tended by nobody. There are things here, and I suppose they’re servants of the winds, but they’re just mechal beings. You know mecha?”

He nodded guardedly. “Flora, fauna and mecha. Like the stone mother. But those are just beasts.”

“And this is like a hive for some of them. It looks like a human house for reasons it would take hours to explain. It’s not a Wind place; just a mecha house.”

“Then why are people killed who try to enter?”

She sighed. “The same reason people are killed when they enter a bear’s den. They protect their territory.”

“Oh.”

“Come on. Let’s find the lavatory.” She picked up the gauze, half wrapped it around herself, and walked dripping up the stairs. Jordan hurried after.

The halls upstairs were carpeted luxuriantly. Lady May indifferently trailed mud footsteps through the red pile. Jordan walked in her footsteps so as not to soil it even further. His heart was pounding.

Lady May found a huge marble-sheathed room full of fixtures and appliances somewhat familiar to Jordan, but more ornate and absurdly clean. As she entered light sprang up from hidden lamps near the ceiling. Jordan started and stepped back, but she ignored the indication that their presence was known, and went to a large black tub. “Aaah,” she sighed, letting her cloak slide off her shoulders. “I need this.” She began let water into the tub from somewhere.

“You’ve been here before,” he accused.

“No. This is just a very familiar building plan.” She began to unlace her shirt. “I am about to bathe,” she said in her slow drawl. “We must both remain close to the sensor sheet, so do not leave the room; but I would appreciate it if you turned you back while I disrobe.”

Embarrassed, Jordan turned around. “What you might do,” she said, “is clean my clothes for me. I’ll do the same for you while you bathe.” A sodden bundle of cloth and leather hit the marble next to Jordan with a splat. “Just dump the cloth in that hopper there, and put the leather in the one beside it for dry-cleaning. The boots can go in there too. The mecha will clean them for us.”

“Why would they do that?” he asked as he went to comply.

“The mecha keep this house for inhabitants just like us. They have ever since the beginning of the world. The manses were to be the estates of the first settlers here, as well as libraries and power centers. Their tenants never arrived–or at any rate, they didn’t recognize them when they did arrive. So they wait. But they’re more than happy to fulfil their household functions as long as they don’t think we’re intruders.”

“And this cloth somehow fools them?”

“Yes. It’s a machine.” He heard her stepping into the water. “Aaah. Do you know machines?”

“Yes. Machines are a kind of mecha.”

“Other way around, actually. Mecha is a kind of machine.”

He puzzled over that, as he sat down cross-legged facing the still-open door. The hallway was dark; he heard the sound of rain tumbling against distant windows.

“When we’ve bathed and eaten, Jordan, I will explain to you why I had to take you away from your family, and just what your dreams about Armiger mean.”

“You know why I’m having them?”

“I do. And I can end them. If you cooperate. That’s why I came to you.”

“But–” he started to say for the tenth time that he knew nothing that could help her, but a sound from the hallway stopped him. He scrabbled backward on hands and knees. “What was that?” he whispered.

Lady May was sitting up in the tub, one arm across her breasts. Steam wreathed her. “Probably some mechal thing. Cleaning the carpet, I’ll bet. Here, come close and get under the sheet.” She drew it up from the floor and draped an end over herself.

Jordan hurried to comply. They could hear a delicate clinking sound now, like wine glasses tapping one another, and then a long slow sliding sound, like a rough cloth being drawn across the ground. Jordan was terrified, and huddled next to the tub. Lady May sank back under the water, just her face showing. The gauze fell into the water and made a flat floor across it.

Something moved in the doorway; Jordan held his breath, eyes wide. He thought he caught a glimpse of golden rods rising and falling, of glass spheres cradling reflected lightning, and then the thing was past, tinkling on down the hall.

He let his breath out in a whoosh. Lady May sighed, and her wet hand rose to clutch his shoulder. “You’re safe, Jordan, much safer than you realize. Safer than you were in that village, after you started dreaming.”

“I don’t believe you,” he said.

“Your worst enemy is yourself,” she said, and her hand sank back again.

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