Ventus – Day 51 of 135

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Many leagues away, Jordan Mason paused in his whittling and closed his eyes. He had been basking in the wan autumn sunlight and listening to Armiger and Megan with half an ear. He sat on a log by the remains of last night’s fire; he faced away from the wagon, where the girl Tamsin was hiding again.

Jordan had told a carefully edited version of the story of the Boros catastrophe yesterday. Both Suneil and his niece had listened intently. He had excluded any mention of Axel and Calandria, and said nothing about August’s duel or the attack by Turcaret’s men. Apparently the word was out that Yuri and Turcaret had been killed; Jordan simply shrugged and said he hadn’t seen that. His story was that he had panicked and run. Since he was visiting the household on his own anyway, he had just kept walking when daybreak came. Suneil seemed to accept this. It wasn’t at all implausible that he should want to get as far away from the place as possible, after all.

Suneil had arisen early this morning, but had said little. Jordan walked the boundaries of the small encampment, kicking the dirt and wondering whether his presence here was endangering these two.

When he heard Galas ask Armiger about the heavens, he forgot all about his problems. Megan had never asked about that, and Jordan was intensely curious. When he closed his eyes he could see what Armiger saw, and if he stayed still the voices became clearer and clearer, until he seemed to be there with them.

The words seemed to emerge from his own mouth. Whenever that happened, Jordan felt almost as though they were his own thoughts he was speaking, and he invariably remembered them with perfect clarity later. Just now he was saying, “The stars in the night sky have their retinue of planets. Millions are inhabited, but if you gaze up at them tonight, know that only one in every thousand you see has people living by it, there are that many. Millions have been visited and explored, but for every one of them a million more are still mysteries.

“Humans like yourself moved into the galaxy a thousand years ago. Your ancient homeworld is now a park, where few can go except by special permission. All the other worlds in the home system were settled centuries ago, and are overflowing now. The’ve even dismantled the minor planets and smaller moons and built new habitats with them. The population of that star system is now over seventy trillion.

“Many other stars have similarly huge civilizations. Add to that the dozens of alien species, genetically altered humans, cyborgs, demigods and gods, and the peace you see in the sky seems more and more like an illusion.”

“What are these things?” asked the queen. “Cyborgs? Demigods?”

“Mecha,” said Armiger curtly. “But designed by people for the most part. Some people have had themselves transformed into mechal beings, so that they can live in hostile environments, like open space, or the crushing depths of giant planets’ atmospheres. The boundary between human and nonhuman began to blur centuries ago, and now it’s completely gone.”

“And you? What are you?”

Jordan felt Armiger’s hands form fists in his lap. “Demigod. Human once, I think–but I no longer remember. I’m ancient, your highness, but mortal. Even the gods are mortal. And I will die, unless I can find a secret known only to the Winds of Ventus.”

Armiger was lying, according to what Calandria had told Jordan when they travelled together. She had told him the demigod had come to Ventus to subvert the Winds, and take control of the entire world. He knew Armiger was weakening, though, and Jordan didn’t know if he could trust Calandria May.

“What is this secret?”

“It is the secret of why the Winds ignore or abuse humanity,” said Armiger.

Galas laughed. “Countless generations have wondered that. I do too. Do you believe I have the secret?”

“I think you may know more than you realize.”

“You came to see me because of the legends,” she accused. “They say the Winds placed me on the throne, so I am assumed to know their secrets. For a god, you are rather naive, Maut.”

He waved a hand dismissively. “The legends brought you to my attention, but even if they’re wrong, I made the right choice in coming to you. I am sure of it.”

“Now you speak like a courtier.”

“My apologies.”

Galas returned to her seat. Jordan admired her through Armiger’s eyes; she was not so old as she had appeared in the throne room–perhaps in her late thirties. This war was aging her prematurely, he thought. He wanted to touch her, but had never learned the trick of making Armiger’s limbs move at his own urging.

“Why not just ask the Winds of another world?” asked the queen.

“There are no other Winds. There is no other place like Ventus.”

Jordan watched Galas’ eyes widen. He remembered sympathetically how he had reacted when Calandria told him the same thing. “But,” she started, “you just spoke of millions of worlds–trillions of people–”

“There are a million organizing principles in human space. None resemble Ventus. Your world is unique, and the records of the design of the Winds were lost in a war centuries ago. Most of humanity lives in something known as the Archipelago–an immense region whose boundaries are so vague that much of its citizenry doesn’t even know of its existence.”

“Now you’re talking madness,” smiled the queen. “Not that anything you’ve said so far would survive debate in the House.”

“Archipelago is the only answer to ruling a population of trillions, who own a million different cultures, mores and histories.” He shrugged. “It is simple: an artificial intelligence–a mechal brain, if you will–exists that mediates things. It knows each and every citizen personally, and orchestrates their meetings with others, communications and so on so as to avoid irreconcilable conflict. Beyond that, it stays out of sight, for it has no values, no desires of its own. It is as if every person had their own guardian spirit, and these spirits never warred, but acted in concert to improve people’s lives.”

“A tyranny of condescension,” said Galas.

“Yes. You worried earlier that everything was known. Well, yes and no. The government of the Archipelago has the sum of human knowledge and can speak it directly into people’s minds. But it’s only the sum of human knowledge. It is only one perspective. Here on Ventus, something quite different has come to exist. A new wisdom, you might say. The sum of the knowledge of an entire conscious world, unsullied by human perspective. Ventus, you see, is infinitely precious.”

“Then why aren’t they here? A trillion tourists from the sky?”

“The Winds don’t permit visitors. Though there are a few, I suppose–researchers vainly trying to crack the cyphers of the Diadem Swans. Hiding from the Winds, of course.”

“But you slipped in.”

“I did. The Winds know something I must learn if I am to survive. I cannot speak to them. So I must ask you, as the one person on Ventus who knows them best, to help me.”

“And why should I help?”

Armiger stood and walked to one of the tall windows. “Outside your gates is an army. That army did not need to come here. You need never have embarked on the path that led you here. And you knew things would end this way, didn’t you? It was inevitable from the moment you began to try to change the fundamental beliefs of your people.”

Below this high window he could see a crowded, hectic courtyard. Beyond that, walls, then the hazy, unbelievable crush of the besieging army.

“They had to kill you in the end,” he said.

“Yes,” said the queen in a small voice. “But I had to try… to end this long night that has swallowed the whole world.”

He turned, and Jordan felt his eyes narrow, his mouth set hard. “Then help me. If I survive, I may well be able to do what you could not.”

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