Ventus – Day 32 of 135

11

When Jordan awoke again, it was to the sound of a flock of geese honking their way south. He climbed stiffly out of bed and went to the window to watch them. Calandria was already up–or she had never returned to bed at all.

Autumn was coming. The smell of woodsmoke pervaded the estate, and the dawn chill reminded him of waking at home to find snow on his blankets. He would drag his clothes into bed–icy and stiff, they would start him shivering immediately. Better to warm them under the covers, than to step into the cold air of the loft and put them on there. Quickly he would stomp downstairs, carrying his chamber pot like a lamp to set near the fire if its contents had frozen, otherwise by the door. And then to the chores, and breakfast.

Sleepy winter. He felt a sorrowful ache, remembering and knowing things would never be the same. Resting his head on his hands, he stared out at the brooding sky.

He heard movement near the fire, where they had lain August. He was awake, staring at the ceiling with a puzzled expression on his narrow face.

When Jordan walked over to him, August said, “It doesn’t hurt,” in a thin voice.

“It will if you move,” Jordan warned. Axel had coaxed him on that point. August was almost completely healed. They would have to trick him into thinking he was still hurt.

“I’m thirsty.” Jordan nodded and went to get some water from the table. He tilted a cup to August’s lips, and the man drank awkwardly.

“Where are we?”

“The tower. We’re going to move you to town tonight. You can recover there, out of sight of the Boros.”

“Ah.” August appeared to consider this. “Will I have a commission to come back to? Duelling is frowned on.”

“What about self-defense? You can claim you were attacked while you were out taking a piss.” Jordan shrugged. “We’ll think of something.”

August’s eyes squinched shut for a second. “Thank you,” he said. “I’m beholden.”

“I don’t think so.” Jordan sat back on the wood floor. “Why were you fighting?”

August sighed. “I saw Sheia’s man Andre acting suspiciously. I think he was stealing. Anyway, I followed him and challenged him, and he took me on. Maybe I should have raised the alarm, but… Linden has a curfew, and I was breaking it. I’d have had to explain myself too. And what about you? What were you doing out of your room?”

Jordan pointed to the window. “You woke me up.”

“Oh. …Sorry.” August grinned ironically. “We thought we were being so quiet.”

Jordan scowled. “Duelling is stupid.”

“I know.” August looked very serious now. “My older brother was killed in a duel.”

“So why did you do it?”

August stared at the ceiling pensively. “It gets easier to risk your life as you get older. I think women understand that when they have children. Suddenly they know they would give their life for their child, and it doesn’t bother them. With men it’s different, but we… trade our allegiance in the same way. At some point, if you’ve grown up at all, you have to decide that something outside yourself is more important than you are. Otherwise you’ll be a miserable bastard, and you’ll die screaming.” He closed one eye and peered at Jordan. “That make sense?”

“I don’t know,” Jordan said uncomfortably.

“You get perspective. You can stand outside your own death, a little. Not while you’re dying, though.” He frowned. “Shit, I was scared. Scared…” He closed his eyes.

“You should sleep more,” Jordan prompted.

“No. I like being awake. Alive, you know?” His face wrinkled; for a moment he looked as though he would cry. Jordan sat back on the wooden floor, blinking in surprise.

August swore. “Stupid, stupid, stupid! Things are coming to a head between my master and Sheia. He needs me right now, and I’ve let him down.”

“Yuri decided in favor of your master,” said Jordan.

“Yeah, but we know Sheia won’t stand for it. He’s going to lose everything, because his queen is going to lose her war. His only hope was to shelter under the Boros title. Now he can’t do that. We don’t know what he’s going to do, but he’s going to have to do it soon. Yuri’s living in his garden if he thinks Sheia will just accept his decision.”

Jordan shook his head, puzzled. “But what can Sheia do about it?”

“Don’t know.” August scowled. “He’s devilishly clever, the bastard. He’s probably celebrating my death right now; one less man to defend Linden.”

“Linden should leave.”

“And leave Sheia alone with Yuri’s family? No. We stay.”

A key rattled in the door. It opened and Axel poked his head in. “She here?” he asked.

“No.”

“Okay.” The door slammed again.

Jordan sighed. “You’d better rest,” he said to August. “I have to go study.”

§

Axel found Calandria on the manor’s roof. He’d thought she might be here; this was a good spot from which to signal her ship. The Desert Voice maintained a high orbit, waiting for its order to obliterate Armiger, and Calandria came up here to listen for its pulsed radio beacon every day. She seemed to need the reassurance of its presence, which was one of those unlikely character traits that people who didn’t know her well would find hard to credit.

“How are you doing?” he asked as he settled onto one of the crenels beside her. She was staring moodily out over the estate.

“Fine.” She shrugged. “Things are getting more and more complicated, that’s all. I was hoping we could get out without impacting the local culture at all. That seems unlikely now.”

“These people are used to miracles,” he said. “They’re part of the natural order here. Look.” He pointed east, where a pale crescent hung high in the sky: a vagabond moon. Another made a tiny dot above the southern horizon. “We aren’t doing anything supernatural, as far as these people are concerned.”

“I don’t like it,” she said. “Especially after last night. August’s wound is almost totally healed. That’s one miracle already. The Desert Voice is going to nuke Armiger, which is two.”

“Well, I’m afraid I have to add to the complications,” he said dolefully.

“Why? What’s happened now?”

Axel puffed his cheeks out. “This time I really was minding my own business. I went for a walk in the gardens. You know me, I think better on my feet, always have. Anyway, there’s the usual conspirators, sitting in shady bowers here and there in pairs. Very silly. As I’m walking, who should I see coming down the path, but the bastard himself.”

“Turcaret?”

“The very same.” Axel rolled his eyes. “Anyway, he calls me over like I’m some sort of lap-dog, you know–” he gestured with one hand, as if to bring something to heel, “and says, ‘I need to have a talk with you. Meet me in my quarters at eight o’clock tonight.’”

“Talk?” She frowned.

“Yeah.” Axel shrugged uneasily. Their cover story here might be blown. “So I said yes,” he finished unhappily.

“He’s forcing our hand,” she said.

“So what do we do? I told him I’d be there.”

“Wise, but obviously we can’t just react at this point. I wanted just a day or two more to pinpoint Armiger, but…” She nodded decisively. “I think we have enough.”

“You know where he is?”

“About a hundred kilometers from the Iapysian border,” she said. “Almost due south. More importantly, I think we’ve figured out where he’s going.”

“The queen?”

She nodded. “He seems to be interested in war. If he can use his powers to save Queen Galas, he might take over Iapysia. I thought before that the battle where the Winds intervened was a test. He may have wanted to find out what it would take to attract their attention. But it could be that he really does want to conquer a kingdom. Maybe he needs a large number of men to help him search for the Winds’ Achilles Heel, or some other resource he’s after.” She shrugged. “It’s all speculation.”

He grinned loosely. “So let me get this straight: we cut and run now, Turcaret sends the king’s guards after us, and where are we running, but straight into a war zone.”

She half-smiled. “Essentially, yes. The problem is what to do about Jordan.”

“We can’t very well leave him,” he said.

“We can’t very well take him with us either. Not only because he’ll slow us down. You and I are prepared for the danger, but he is not.”

“That’s where August comes in,” he said brightly.

“Absolutely not. We’ve already involved too many people.”

Axel threw up his hands. “Will you stop whining about that! It’s their world–you can’t treat these people like children. So a few of them find out what’s going on–what kind of crime is that?”

“That’s not the point. We keep adding extra concerns that just muddy the main issue, which is how to deal with Armiger as quickly as we can and get out.”

“Is the job all you care about?” He hopped down from the crenel. “These people aren’t going to cease to exist just because we go away. We kidnapped Jordan. What’s he going to do when we cut him loose? Haven’t you considered that?–or were you just planning to get him away from Turcaret and then cut him loose?”

She glowered at him. Obviously, she had been thinking just that.

“You’re not playing the whole game, Cal, you never do. We’re not just here to eliminate Armiger, we’re here to act like decent human beings. What’s wrong with getting to know people and helping them live their lives? And letting them help us live ours? I like Jordan. He did the right thing last night; he’ll be a man of solid character once he’s able to support himself.”

“Well,” she said coldly, “you’ve decided the right and wrong of it all, I see. So my opinion now isn’t going to matter.”

Axel clutched his black hair. “Your opinion matters! So does Jordan’s. So does August’s! We’re not just assassins, that’s all! Why don’t you get to know these people? Maybe you’ll like them. Maybe,” he laughed, “you and August will hit it off! What’s so bad about that?”

She stalked away. “We’ll leave tonight–with Jordan,” was all she said as she yanked up the lead-sheathed trapdoor.

Axel watched the door slam, then cursed. She hadn’t understood a word he was saying.

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