Ventus – Day 76 of 135

26

The landscape was all curves. Gentle undulating dunes of a wonderfully pale tan color stretched off into a hazy horizon. The sky was full of rounded, white balls of cloud. The sun was bright, but it wasn’t hot, which somewhat dashed Jordan’s preconceptions about what deserts were like. The rolling hills, though, the color, and the taste of grit in his mouth were all the way he’d imagined.

They had been travelling for several days now. To his own surprise, Jordan felt pretty good. For once he wasn’t under the control of somebody else. He could plan the day’s travel, set their pace, and admire the scenery as he wished. His thoughts seemed to be getting clearer with each morning that he woke to find himself master of his own fate.

Tamsin’s shoulders were slumped like the dunes. The farther they went into the desert, the more despondent she became. She had not spoken about what she expected to find here, but Jordan had his suspicions. None of those thoughts were good.

He walked his horse up next to hers. The horses were a bit nervous in this vast emptiness, but Jordan had Ka constantly scouting for water holes, and so far they had been lucky. At one hole the water had been a red color, and Ka said it was poisonous. Jordan had commanded the water to purify itself, and it had.

Miracles like that should have puffed him up with pride, but they did nothing to penetrate Tamsin’s air of gloom, and that was his main concern right now. He had no miracle to cure her of her grief.

She glanced wearily at him as he matched her pace. “How are you doing?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I dunno.”

Jordan took a pull from the waterskin he had bought in a hamlet outside Rhiene. “Shall I tell you a story?”

She considered this idea. “What kind of a story? I don’t want you to cheer me up.”

“Well, I could tell you something depressing, then.”

“No.”

“How about something that’s just true?”

“I don’t want–” she gulped. “To hear a story.”

They rode on in silence for a while. Jordan was thinking. Eventually he asked, “Have you ever seen the queen’s summer palace?”

“No.”

“You want me to describe it to you?”

Tamsin sat up straighter. “Look, you don’t have to–okay, why not. But not like it is now, all covered in blood. Tell me what it used to look like before the war.”

Of course Jordan had never seen it that way, because Armiger had arrived well into the siege. He could imagine it though, with his mental blueprints and eye for the architectural detail buried under the siege scaffolding. And there were many places inside that were untouched.

“They built it in a valley where there’s a tiny oasis, centuries ago. The first building was a chapel of some kind–you can still see traces of it in the stonework at the base of the high tower. It’s all built of stone the same color as the sand we’re riding over. Now there’s a big ring wall around the oasis. This has five big towers on it, and one smaller. The biggest tower, on the east side, has a big causeway stretching up to it, and you’d think that that would be gate, but the entrance there was bricked up centuries ago. It’s the west tower that has the main entrance.

“If you come in the main gate you’re channeled between two more walls to the main keep. This tower is huge, Tamsin! It must have six floors, at least, and it steps at two points. Sometimes the queen walks around these balconies and she can look out over the hills and watch the sunset. Her chambers are in this tower, high above the earth.

“Let’s see… if you come in the main doors of the keep, you’re channeled again through it, to the great hall which is a big rectangular building attached to the keep on its east side. The great hall is magnificent. It’s buttressed, with a pitched roof, with mullioned arched windows and a beautiful staggered triple lancet window on the east facade–”

“A what? What does it look like?”

“Oh. One time when Armiger walked through the banquet hall he looked up at it. It’s three very tall arched windows separated by thin mullions–pillars, you know. The glass is leaded in a flame-like pattern. Very beautiful. But I only caught a glimpse of it, because Armiger never looked at it again.

“Anyway, the queen’s garden lies south of the great hall. Then there’s houses and shops all around the foot of the keep on its north and south sides. The rest of the ground inside the big ring wall is full of tents now. The rest of the queen’s army. But I guess it was parade grounds and so on before the war.”

He did not tell her that the beautiful copper roof of the great hall was holed in a dozen places by Parliament’s steam cannon, or that the arched windows were half shattered, nor that the lovely pink marble floor of the banquet hall was almost invisible under a maze of stacked provisions.

She listened as he went on to describe the gardens, which remained untouched, and the little cobbled streets that crowded against the foot of the keep. She seemed grateful for the distraction. And as he painted in words a picture of the palace in better times, Armiger sat like some gargoyle atop the highest parapet of the keep, and wondered what was to come in the next days.

§

Megan touched his elbow. Armiger awoke from a deep reverie; it was near sunset. For hours now he had been lost in transcendent thought.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. He examined her in the fading light. Megan’s face was thinner than when he had met her, but she also looked younger, somehow. He found himself smiling.

“I’m sorry I brought you here,” he said.

“Why?” He could see she was trying not to interpret what he’d said the wrong way.

“The assault will begin soon. It has to. I can see Lavin’s running out of supplies–the number of wagons arriving every day has dropped off sharply. I think Parliament is choking off his budget now that it thinks it’s won.”

“Are we going to die?” She asked it like she might ask any reasonable question.

“I can protect us against the soldiers. But the Winds are still searching for me, and the attack is bound to draw their attention. If they don’t intervene directly, they might still see me. Then, yes, we may be lost.”

She held out her hand, and he took it as he stepped down off the crenel. “Then let’s leave,” she said. “Surely we can sneak out of here.”

He hesitated. “We could.”

“Then let’s!”

“A week ago I would have said yes. After all, I’ve learned all I can from the queen. Or all I care to,” he added ruefully. “And there lies the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

He looked out at Parliament’s army, a city of tents sprawled in an arc to the southwest of the palace. Hundreds of thin lines of smoke rose from campfires there.

“Once,” he said quietly, “I was a god. Then it seemed a reasonable desire to rule the world. That is what I came here to do. I needed to learn the Achilles’ Heel of the Winds. My other agents could not uncover the secret, so I came here to the one person in the world who, it was said, knew the most about them. But along the way, my goals… changed.”

She smiled. “Are you complimenting me?”

“Yes, but it’s not just been you.” He kissed her. “I’ve started remembering. There was a time, ancient now, when I was free, simply a man like any other. Those memories are returning, and…”

How could he describe it to her? Such a memory would come to him like the wind after a storm, full of sweet scent and alert joy. There had been a time when his hand was just his hand, and not one instrument of many in the service of vast intricate schemes. When his eye would light on a beautiful person or place, and simply rest content, with no calculation of its utility. When he began to remember this way, Armiger had also begun to recognize such moments in those around him. The moment that unlocked this recognition had been seeing, on Megan’s face, a simple span of pleasure as she savored then swallowed some warm broth from the queen’s kitchen. For two, three seconds Megan had thought nothing, merely tasted and enjoyed. And it came to Armiger that it had been seven hundred years since he had experienced such a moment.

“It’s something that connects me to all these people,” he said, gesturing to include both the palace and the besieging army. “Before, they were counters on a board. Now, somehow, they’ve become like me. I know it can’t make any sense to you.”

“Ai,” she snapped, yanking on his hair so that he laughed. “Of course it makes sense, silly. You were a child, and now you’re growing up. All those years you were one of them, you were like an infant, all want. So now you’re surprised when you start to become like the rest of us? You are sometimes a very, very silly man.”

For a while he was completely flummoxed, and just stared at her while she laughed. Then he caught her around the waist. “Maybe I am. You made me care about you, and now I’ve come to care about these people too. And I can help them.”

She sobered. “Help? How?”

“I was a general once. I can be again.” He kissed her forehead and stood back. “It’s time to abandon the plans of the entity that enslaved me all these centuries,” he said. “And time to start making my own.”

Megan stepped back. “Armiger–”

“Galas is the most deserving ruler on this world,” he said. “I can’t let her be destroyed. Nor her people.”

Megan turned and went to the crenel, where she looked out over the sea of tents for some time. Then she looked back, her face a play of rose-lit arcs in the sunset. “You must be careful,” she said. “You may come to care too much, you know. And that could cost us more than all your uncaring ever could.”

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