Ventus – Day 7 of 135

3

Dawn found them walking. Jordan was cold, and almost deliriously tired. For hours now, he had let the wet leaves slide over his face without raising his hand to fend them off. The Lady’s hand remained clamped on his, and a strange passivity made him follow her. For the first part of the walk, she had spoken constantly and unhurriedly to him, her voice and the feel of her hand the only realities, until he seemed to lose touch with his body entirely. It seemed they were a pair of spirits, drifting through the underworld.

Morning in Memnonis, Jordan’s country, began with the gradual realization of shapes in the dark of the forest. Jordan began to see outlines of tree branches if he looked up, although they seemed etched onto a medium as dark as themselves. And as more became visible, the cold of the night settled to its absolute bottom. In the distance, he heard first one, then another bird begin to sing. The sound made him realize that, for hours, all he had heard was the dumb crashing of his feet in the underbrush, and the slight breaths of the woman ahead of him. Now he could see her, caped back swaying slightly as she trod over the matted leaves and fern beds. She was very close to him, the hand that held his fallen to her side, his own held stiffly in front of him. His own fingers felt numb; hers were warm.

His self-awareness returned with the light. No sharp line divided his passivity from memory and decision, any more than day came like the lighting of a lamp. He simply became more aware of his situation as he became able to see around himself. He was far from home; his sister remained lost and in some peril he may well have not been able to save her from. It was partly to salve his own conscience that he had run after her, and he did feel better for having tried; but as he walked he was troubled by the inadequacy of his parents’ response–and his own, for what had he planned to do when he found her?

Now, as color returned to leaf and branch around him, he considered what Emmy had done, and the decision it had forced on him. Whether she and he returned to their home again, they could never again be the daughter and son he had always imagined they were. He and Emmy stood apart from their parents now, and that meant they would have to stand together.

But they could only do that if he could find her. He and the lady Calandria May were now profoundly lost in the woods. Was Emmy going to creep back home after a cold night in the woods, finding him gone and no one to stand with against mother and father–and Castor and Turcaret? Jordan knew the consequences if a search party was called out, and if she was found alive and in good health: she would find the anger of the whole village aimed at her.

The first fingers of sunlight slanting through the treetops overhead told Jordan exactly which direction he and the lady were walking. They were going north-east.

“This is the wrong way,” he said. “I knew walking was a bad idea. Who knows how far we’ve gone?”

“This is the right way,” said the lady quietly. Her steps did not falter.

Jordan opened his mouth to object, then stopped himself. She knew they were going the wrong way. It had never been her intention to return to the manor. And somehow, she had mesmerized him into following her. The last few hours were a blur; and even has he realized this, he continued to follow her, step by step.

He stopped walking. “What did you do to me?”

She turned, her face serious. “I need your service, Jordan Mason. Last night, you were too wrapped up in your search to listen to what I had to say. Now, in the light of morning, perhaps we can talk like adults.”

Morning light provided Jordan his first good look at the lady. Her oval face was beautiful and strong: her dark brows and the lines around her mouth spoke authority, while her soft skin and the delicate bones of her jaw opposed them with an impression of fragility.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” she continued. He stood still, glaring at her. May crossed her arms and sighed. “Look, I can save your sister from Turcaret. All I have to do is send a message to one of my people. She’ll be safe.”

Cautiously, Jordan stepped closer. “Why would you do that?”

“In return for your coming with me. And if you don’t, then I don’t send the message, my man doesn’t find her, and Turcaret does; and you’ll still come with me!” She turned abruptly, brushing leaves from her cloak. She glowered over her shoulder at him. “Consider her my hostage.” She walked away.

Jordan was sore and stiff, and emotionally battered. “Why are you doing this?” he mumbled, as he followed her. “Because you have information I need,” she said. “Very important information.”

“I don’t,” he protested weakly.

“Come come,” she said, her voice no longer smooth but peremptory. “If I promise to protect your sister, will you promise to come with me?”

“How do I know you can protect her?”

“Astute.” She pointed through the trees to a brighter area. “Clearing there. We’ll camp and catch up on our sleep.” She waved him ahead of her. “You know about the war between Ravenon and the Seneschals?”

He nodded. “I work for Ravenon,” she said. “Right now I do, anyhow. I’m searching for a renegade from the Ravenon forces.”

“But the battle,” he protested. “They were all killed by the Winds.”

“Not all of them. I’m not alone on this journey, Jordan, and Turcaret is in debt to my people. He’ll do as I say, at least for such a small matter as your sister.”

She was probably lying, but it might do him good to let her think he was gullible. Meanwhile, he stumbled through the brush to an area where young, white birch trees thrust up through the ruined stumps of a very old fire.

May looked up at the open sky. “Six o’clock,” she said matter-of-factly. “Well, do we have a deal?”

“Yes,” he said. He resolved to escape later, as she slept. She was not of Castors’ family. She had no real hold over him unless he decreed it.

“Good.” She kicked at an old log, judging how decayed it was, and sat in the single ray of amber sunlight that made its way almost horizontally through their clearing. Little wisps of her black hair floated up, gleaming in the light. “You weren’t well prepared when you left the house last night,” she said. Jordan had nothing other than his clothes and the lantern that had banged against his hip for the last few hours. He looked down at himself emotionlessly, then around at the soft moss and wild flowers that had taken over the ground. The need to sleep was overpowering.

“Go ahead,” she said. Reaching up, she unclipped her cloak and held it out to him. “It’s still cold, cover yourself with that. I’m going to go send word about your sister.”

He took the cloak. “What’s to stop me running away while you’re away doing that? Are you going to tie me up?”

“I’ll send the message from here.” Uncomprehending, Jordan knelt down, then let himself topple sideways onto a mat of vivid green moss and tiny, finely-etched ferns. He started to draw the cloak over himself, but was asleep before he finished the motion.

§

Calandria administered a sedative shot to the youth. Probably not necessary, judging by his condition, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

She sat back, and let the exhaustion she’d walled off these last few hours wash through her. Finding Mason last night had been unbelievable luck. His disappearance, which she had been trying to arrange for days, would now be seen as misadventure, a family tragedy to be sure, but unlikely to be caused by foul play. Because search parties would be out in force by noon, however, she’d had to get him as far away from the village as possible, and chose the deepest uninhabited forest to hide them.

She would program herself for three hours’ sleep. But first, she had to adhere to her part of the bargain. She had no idea if such a bargain would help with the boy, but it was worth trying; and he needn’t know that, as soon as she learned the trouble his sister was in, Calandria had resolved to do what she could about it.

Closing her eyes, she activated her Link. “Axel,” she subvocalized. Spots of color floated in front of her eyes, then coalesced into the word CALLING.

“Cal?” His voice sounded pure and strong in her head, as it had on the several occasions they’d talked last night. She had been in touch with Axel Chan from the moment she found Mason on the trail. If the youth had gotten away from her, Axel would have scooped him up.

“What’s your status, Cal? I read you as ten kilometers northeast. Still have Mason?”

“Yes. But I have a job for you, to help cover our tracks.”

“Go ahead.”

She told him about her arrangement with Jordan. Axel grunted once or twice as she spoke, but made no other comment. “Think you can take care of her, Axel? Keeping her safe from yourself too, I might add.”

“Cal!” He sounded hurt. “I like ‘em experienced, you should know that. Yeah, she’s safe, as soon as I find her. What about you?”

“I’m taking Mason east and then north. There’s a manse located about twenty-five kilometers from here, we’ll make for that first. Then west again. What say we rendezvous at the Boros manor in one week?”

“Unless you get Armiger’s location first, right?”

“Exactly.”

“Will do. I’ll call you as soon as I get the girl.”

“Good. Bye.”

The connection went dead, but Calandria did not open her eyes. She accessed her skull computer, and told it to initiate a scan of the area. “Check for morphs,” she told it.

Gradually, from left to right, a ghost landscape appeared behind her closed eyelids. The scan was registering all the evidence of the Winds in this vicinity; mostly, it showed lines like the ghosts of trees, and the pale undulating sheet of the ground. But here and there, bright oblongs and snake-shapes indicated the third of Ventus’ divisions of life–the mecha, distinct from the ordinary flora and fauna.

The scan showed evidence of a morph about three kilometers south of her, but it was moving away. Still, that was a bit close for comfort. She hoped it hadn’t heard her transmission to Axel.

She opened her eyes. The scan had shown a very small mechal life form nearly at her feet. She squatted and shuffled leaves aside until she spotted it, a nondescript bug form.

Watching it crawl brought a strange sense of betrayal to mind, as though the world around her were somehow fake. It wasn’t–but of all the planets she had been to, Ventus was somehow the oddest. Maida had been a world of glaciers and frozen forests; Birghila was enwrapped in lava seas, with skies of flame; and Hsing’s people lived on a strip of artificial land hovering in tidal stress thousands of kilometers above the planet itself. But Ventus seemed so like Earth; it lulled the visitor, so that when you ran into a morph, or a desal, or witnessed the serene passage of a vagabond moon or the buzz and smoke of mecha life forms devouring the bedrock, a kind of supernatural unease was awakened. She’d felt it when she first arrived, and watching that little bug, knowing the earth and air were full of nanotechnology as thickly as with life, made the prospect of lying down to sleep here unpleasant. The sooner she accomplished her purpose and left Ventus behind, the better she’d feel.

There was no indication that any of the nano around her was aware of her. It should have been; this was the greatest puzzle of Ventus, why the Winds did not acknowledge the presence of the humans who had created them. It seemed to have become a small hobby of Axel’s to discover why, but Calandria was merely grateful she could pass unseen.

She checked once more to make sure the morph was really heading the other way. Then she lay down on the damp earth next to Jordan, and compelled herself to sleep.

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