Ventus – Day 19 of 135

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Axel had weaseled his way into the main building, naturally. Calandria had no difficulty getting directions to his room; all the servants knew him. He’d only been here two days.

She took the steps up to the third floor two at a time. Despite herself, she smiled as she thought of Axel tossing that fop on his ear. Outside his door she paused, looking down at herself. She still wore ragged outdoors gear. It would have been so much better if they’d arrived first, then she could have met him in a proper gown, with pearls at her ears. She sighed, and rapped on the door.

“Enter.” She stepped into a lavish bedroom. It was huge–and had a perfect view of the grounds. Velvet draperies hung everywhere, over the windows and framing the bed. The bedposts were carved with leaf motifs, and painted gold. Or maybe they were gold. A woman’s slipper lay half-concealed under the bed. Yes, this was Axel’s room all right.

He rose from a writing desk. He had discarded his jacket, and wore a billowing blue silk shirt. “Ho!” He opened his arms as he came to her. “And don’t hit me this time!”

She returned the embrace warmly. He still smelled of wine, but she knew him; he’d have taken a restorative before meeting with her. He held her for a second longer than she’d have liked, but that too was normal. As he broke away he gestured at the room. “Quite a place, no?”

“I expected no less of you,” she said, eyeing the slipper.

It constantly amazed her how well Axel did in situations like this. After all, he wasn’t a professional, like her; Calandria had been trained in espionage and intelligence-gathering by people who made a religion of such things. They had plucked her out of the crude reformatory she had ended in after her mother’s arrest and death, and erased all links with her past and home world. Then they had given her, not a new identity, but a repertoire of identities. Calandria had spent every waking moment since then acting. Only after she had turned rogue on her employers could she behave like something approaching her true Self–and then only with close friends like Axel.

She had met Axel in deep space, on a remote, frozen planet without a mother star. He was a smuggler. They dealt to their mutual satisfaction several times, and each time she was a different person. It took him quite a while to wise up to her act, and by the time he did she had taken a liking to him. When he confronted her, she took the opportunity to chastise him for his inattention. “If I’d been hired to trap you, you’d be undergoing decriminalization now,” she told him. “Count yourself lucky.” He had laughed at that.

Calandria needed her disguises to move through the different societies and subcultures demanded by her work. Axel just seemed to make friends where ever went, without changing one iota of his appearance or style.

“Here, look at these pictures,” he was saying now, as he dragged her to one wall. The walls were hung with large, faded photographs, apparently of ancient members of the Boros clan. “Printed on porcelain,” he said. “So they don’t deteriorate. Good idea, no?”

She arched an eyebrow. “I suppose.” Photography was permitted by the Winds, along with other gentle forms of chemistry; Axel knew that, so why should he care about these examples? They were nothing compared with even the most primitive hologram.

Axel had picked up a decanter of wine. “Oh, do stop,” she said. “It’s not even dinner time yet.”

“I think these pictures are fascinating,” he said. “Especially this one–it’s printed on vellum.” He put the decanter down on an ornate dresser under one, and stretched to grab both sides of the frame. He lifted it off the wall.

An irregular hole was revealed. Set into the plaster was the verdigrised mouth of a large horn. Calandria blinked at it. Axel cupped his hand at his ear. He adopted an exaggerated listening stance. Then he made a talking gesture at her with the other hand.

She cleared her throat. “I wonder how they did that?”

“The porcelain, or the velum?” Axel picked up the decanter, and gestured at the horn. She shook her head.

He shrugged, and upended the decanter into the horn. Red wine gurgled as it drained down into some pipe in the wall, and, she imagined, straight into the ear of whoever might be listening at the other end.

Axel cackled with glee and, grabbing up the silk doily on the table, stuffed it down the horn after the wine. Then he replaced the picture, and dusted his hands. “That was the only one,” he said. “Now we can talk.”

“Oh come now,” she said. “Why would they be bugging us? We’re just visiting.”

“Timing,” he said. He flipped a white, plush-cushioned chair backward and sat in it, leaning his arms on the back. “The whole Boros clan is here, and that’s bad. Old Yuri may think we’re spies.”

“Why? They seem like a friendly enough bunch. Not that I’ve had the time to talk to any of them…”

“Ah, you will. You’re better at this than I am, I suggest we attend dinner and you can tell me who intends to kill whom. They are a murderous lot–did you see a certain statue in the courtyard?” She nodded. “Yesterday night. A duel. I didn’t see who, or who lost, mostly because it wasn’t pre-announced. Ambush, maybe? Who knows.”

“Really.” She sat at the writing desk, and looked out over the grounds. “I’ve never been anywhere quite like this.”

“It’s positively medieval,” said Axel with a nod. “But then, look at their history. Six hundred years ago these people were still scrabbling in the muck, living in mud huts. Only a few warlords had any kind of power. It’s actually pretty amazing how far they’ve come as a society, considering the ancestors of people like the Boros.”

He waved at the grounds. “All this is very European in style. I’m pretty sure people must have raided manse libraries here and there over the centuries. How much would it take, do you think, to build a nation? One book of economics? Another about gardening? They saved very little from the initial disaster, so they must have supplemented it from the manses, but it was obviously hard-won knowledge, or there’d be more of it.”

Calandria pictured a group of soldiers armed with pikes trying to face down several of the golden creatures she and Jordan had seen–battling their way to a manse library, grabbing a few books at random, then bolting with crystalline things at their heels.

That was interesting, but not what she had come here to talk about. “What’s the occasion for this reunion?” she asked.

“Yuri called it–the patriarch, you met his wife. Marice. Good name. There’s some kind of power struggle within the clan, and he wants to resolve it. The Boros are old money in three nations: Memnonis, Ravenon, and Iapysia. The revolt of the parliament in Iapysia has tipped the balance of power somehow, and Yuri wants to make sure it trickles through the family correctly. The Iapysians don’t mind–they get to call in favors to consolidate their position back home. Problem is, there’s two factions represented there–the parliamentarians, and the royalists. If you look you can probably make them out–at opposite ends of the grounds.”

“Hmm.” Calandria did look out. “Dinner will be fun.”

“It gets better. There’s some dispute over Yuri’s position as patriarch. Which side will he support in the Iapysian thing? That’s a touchy question, because the loser might decide to open the old wound of his legitimacy. That’s all happening down there even as we speak.”

“My.” She smiled at him. “We do pick the most interesting hotels.”

“Yeah. Well, we’ll have to be careful not to get involved. Now: how’s Mason?”

“You saw him. What do you think?”

Axel shrugged. “He looks tough. Does he know where Armiger is?”

“If he did we’d be able to send him home,” she said. “No, he doesn’t. That’s our job for the next day or two–locating Armiger. Jordan’s a bit wrapped up in his own misery right now, so we’ll have to show him the advantages of his position. He’s afraid Armiger is coming here.”

Axel frowned. “Is he?”

“I don’t know. That would surprise the Boros, wouldn’t it? I guess Armiger is a walking corpse at the moment, though he may be recovering. We have to know how powerful he is before we face him. I’m wondering how we can get Jordan to find out for us.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Axel chewed on one knuckle absent-mindedly. “We need more power.”

“Political?”

“No, guns, damn it. I don’t like this planet, Cal. The damn Winds are always watching. If you bring anything higher-tech than a wrist watch in here they’ll pounce on you and rip it off. We can’t face Armiger without real weapons–a plasma cannon would do.”

She laughed shortly. “We stick to the plan. When we’ve got him in our sights, the Desert Voice will hit him from orbit.”

“And then the Winds will blow your starship out of the sky!”

She glowered at the table top. “My reading of the Winds is that they have an abysmal reaction time. They let us bring the cutter down, and it got back to the Voice okay. Nothing technological stayed on the surface, as far as they know.”

“Yeah, but they’ll object to Armiger getting nuked. I have another idea.”

She didn’t really like the current plan either, so she said, “Go ahead.”

“We contact the Winds ourselves. Tell them about Armiger. They’re like the immune system for the entire planet; any foreign body gets eliminated eventually. Like we will be, if we stay here too long. I don’t know how Armiger’s lasted this long; superior technology, I guess–”

“Well, precisely,” she pointed out. “He’s more sophisticated than the Winds. Even if we knew how to carry on a rational conversation with the Winds, do you think they’d believe us? I’m sure Armiger’s totally invisible to them. And I doubt it’s going to change.”

“Ventus is a lot more complicated than we thought,” he said. “Some people do talk to the Winds; I’ve heard more stories in the past couple of days–”

“Stories? Axel, this planet breeds myths like fungus! None of the locals have a clue what the Winds are, and if they did they can’t affect them at all.”

“They can–there are ways. Do you seriously believe humans would co-habit this world with them for so long without working out ways to deal with them?”

Calandria looked out over the grounds again. This manor was centuries old, and the civilization that had built it was older still. And the Winds were as constant as their namesake in these people’s lives. Axel could be right. “So how do they do it?”

“It’s actually pretty simple. A couple of their main religions are ecologically based, right? The inner doctrine seems to be emulation of the Winds. If you act like the Winds, they treat you like one of them. And then they’ll talk to you.”

“Sounds too easy,” she said. “And suspiciously mystical.”

He threw up his hands and stood. “Believe whatever the hell you want! But it makes sense, Cal: the Winds are confused about humans to begin with. They don’t know whether we’re vermin or part of their grand design. How do you think agriculture gets done on this world? People placate them. It works. I think we should look into it.”

“All right,” she said. “You look into it. Meanwhile, I’m going to work on Jordan, and find out where Armiger is going.”

Axel frowned. “He really is on the move?”

“Maybe. The Desert Voice located the site of the battle he talked about, but the forces that survived it are dispersed across hundreds of kilometers of territory. I’m going to try to get some more lucid descriptions from Jordan.”

“And what if Armiger is headed this way?”

Calandria looked out at the forest woods beyond the manor grounds. “Then Jordan had better be able to warn us when he’s due.”

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