The Crossroads, Chapter 18: An Image of Failure

Ty was well-traveled, used to the discovery of new places, cynically just as used to leaving them forever at a moment’s notice.  He’d lived in the Shrah, upon the slopes of the Gravestones and amidst their foothills.  He’d scavenged for nearly a decade in the Basin of Hazan and traveled among the nomad tribes that casually defied its scorched, arid landscape.  He was well familiar with wastelands, and the Riverlands were emphatically not a waste.  Which is why it was strange to him that they were so damned empty.

His three days of journeying since the meeting with the Dragon had been circuitous and painfully slow.  The sudden flight from the Crossroads had left him low on supplies, which, in the absence of any nearby smaller villages–and a distrust for the secrecy of any caravan he might attempt to contact on the road–he’d had to painstakingly forage from the verdant but unfamiliar biome.  And after two nights–and one nocturnal rainstorm–of camping alone and off road, Ty was beginning to suspect that at this rate, if he arrived at the Southern Reaches at all, he would do so with either a dearth of strength, an abundance of pneumonia, or both.

On the third day, he finally caved, surreptitiously joining a caravan by way of his magical knacks, and he asked a merchant’s manservant where, for the love of the gods, the river, and the Green, he could find any vestige of human civilization south of the Crossroads.  The manservant was confused, though whether this was for Ty’s sudden emergence upon his conscious attention or because he saw no sense in an alternative when the Crossroads was scarcely a day’s walk away, Ty couldn’t tell.  Reluctantly, he shared that he knew of another village close by, a short ways south and across the river, though he knew his employers to be uneasy about stopping there.  Ty wasn’t sure what that meant–and the manservant had been unable to clarify–but he was running out of options.  It would have to do.  He found a point where the river’s current was particularly lazy, swam the gap, and headed south, following the tentative directions as best he could.

By nightfall, he reached the village, if one could call it that.  Against the cloudy orange of the sky, he could make out a tepid gathering of twelve huts lit by a row of raggedy seed-oil torches, with a scattering of farm shacks on the horizon.  Much more interesting, Ty felt, was the dense copse of trees rising in the distance behind them.  He wondered if the “village” had more of its population squirreled away in the woods, but he supposed he would check here first.  As he neared, he noticed a woman sitting on a bench by one of the huts, cleaning a bundle of some sort of fiber.  Meeting his gaze, she set her work aside and rose, hobbling to where Ty approached, at the head of this village’s approximation of a street.

“Good evening, stranger,” she called with a warm and practiced smile.  “Have you come seeking rebirth?”  Ty blinked, pausing mid-step.

“No,” he said.  “Uh, no.  I can’t say that I have.  Just looking for some food, a tent, perhaps a place to spend the night.  I have some coin to pay.”  The artifice of the woman’s smile melted, leaving an expression that seemed at once relieved and disappointed.

“Ah, just a traveler.  Your sort is a rarity these days.  Well, come.”  She motioned over her shoulder and began shuffling down the street.  “We have little to spare that you can carry with you, but we can at least provide a roof for the night.”  Uneasily, Ty followed.

Despite the strangeness of the woman’s greeting, the village itself did not seem especially strange–it just seemed poor.  Ty noticed a few more villagers outside their huts as he and the woman made their way through.  Most of them stared him down for a short while before growing bored and returning to their leisure–or at least their idle work–but they seemed all of a kind he’d seen before: undernourished, raggedly clothed, all possessing the stoic sunkenness in the eyes of those who have learned to vivify their drudgery.  It wasn’t until they had nearly made it to the end of the street that he realized that something actually was off.  All along the way, the door of each hut had been decorated by a large, round rock, about knee-height, placed beside the opening.  At least Ty had thought they were rocks.  Upon approaching the end of the street, he noticed beside the stairs leading up to the final hut–a smaller house than the others, built upon stilts–was a gleaming, polished, silver sphere.  Exactly the same, he realized, as the rocks beside the other doors.  This one was just clean.

The woman offered no explanation for the objects, nor, as far as Ty could tell, any indication that she had noticed his wandering attentions.  Instead, she brought him to the door of the house beside the stilt-hovel, a larger structure that looked capable of sheltering multiple families.  She opened the door and stepped aside.

“You may rest here tonight, traveler,” she said.  “Come morning, you may take some food if you need it, but it would be best if you do not linger.”  Ty thanked her and stepped through the door of the hut.  Oddly, her implied wish that he would get gone was more reassurance that he was safe here than any more traditional gesture of hospitality.  In his experience, none was more trustworthy in the world of the scav trade than someone who was unhappy to see you.  Regardless of any resentment they might harbor, one could always tell exactly what they wanted.

Inside the hut, by the light of a single glass-shielded candle–the most conspicuous human luxury Ty had yet seen in the village–he could see row upon row of straw bed mats, most empty, but not all.  In a corner, away from the light, three scrap-clad beggars sat, attempting attention to a figure, speaking softly, sitting before them on a wooden stool.  Ty could make out little of the figure’s appearance save that its demeanor and voice seemed vaguely masculine.  The beggars, however, were visible and uniquely pitiable.  One was missing an arm and a leg, jealously cradling a piece of malformed driftwood that Ty could only guess might have been her crutch.  Another, the least clothed of the three, stared at the locutor, open-mouthed, toothless, and dazed; arms, legs and most of his face covered in scabs.  The third, face covered, seemed to be looking past the figure, gazing idly upon the bare wall beside Ty.  Blind, perhaps?

“You would do well to remember,” the figure said, barely audible over the rustle of Ty’s clothes as he sat against the far wall.  “She does not empathize with you.  She will not pity you, and if you should persist at the wood’s edge in an appeal to that pity, she will harvest your body for parts.”

Instinctively, Ty’s eyes darted to the figure’s silhouette, still obscured by shadows even now that his vision had adjusted.  Their words were alarming, and, he noted, something about their voice was…off.

“Did each of you bring an offering?” the figure asked.  The beggars nodded.  The scab-covered man reached into his threadbare vest and withdrew a small, pale figurine.  He held it out to the figure.  “Very good,” they said, and without moving or otherwise acknowledging the beggar’s gesture: “Hold it for now.  It is not for me.  For the rest of you, know that she will accept or refuse at her discretion.  But she prefers that which is magical, mechanical, or beautiful.”

That was it, Ty realized.  The figure wasn’t moving.  At all.  Staring closely, he realized that no portion of the silhouette so much as fidgeted.  They didn’t even appear to breathe.

“In one hour, you will travel to the wood,” the figure continued.  In a strangely smooth motion, they lifted their arm to point at the crippled woman.  “You will go first.  I will let you know when it is time.

“You will approach the wood with your offering and hold it outstretched in your palm.”  Their forearm shifted, turning their palm upward.  “If you hear the song and see the lights within the trees, you may proceed inward.”

With that, the figure rose to their feet and turned toward the door, pausing to answer the question that remained, bubbling ominously in the instructions’ wake:

“If you see and hear nothing, come back another night with another gift.”

They moved to the door, making a peculiar hiss with each step, turning briefly to face Ty as they went.  Ty gulped as he caught sight of them, the silver glint off their arms and fingers, the lipless, skull-like steel of their teeth, the thin hoses running from their temples to the base of their neck–this was a humanoid shape, comprised, save for its glistening eyes and spare bits of connective material, entirely of metal.  But they said nothing to Ty and disappeared through the doorway.

It was abundantly clear to him now why the merchants did not visit this place.  He imagined his risks were not so acute–he, unlike the merchants, carried not “offerings” this cult might covet–but it was still a cult.  If you stuck around, you’d be pulled in or torn apart.  All that was left was to figure whether the villager woman’s one night of begrudging hospitality qualified as “sticking around.”  As he considered it, a clear of a throat across the room grabbed his attention.  He turned to see one of the beggars–the one with the covered face–beckoning him over.

“Hail, stranger,” he said.  His voice was soothing in spite of the clear effort he put into speaking.  “Have you also run out of places to go?”

“No,” Ty called back, guarded.  “Not yet.  Just looking for a place to rest, then I’m movin’ on.”  The beggar with the missing limbs seemed to start at the sound of his voice, glancing between Ty and her companions nervously.  The beggar with the scabs didn’t react at all and continued to stare, slack-jawed, into the dim.

“Is that you, Ty Ehsam?” the blind beggar asked.  It was Ty’s turn to start.  Instinctively, he jolted to his feet and seized his pack, but something about the beggar’s smile, now visible beneath the layers of cowl covering his eyes, gave him pause.  Then, a spark of recognition:

“Bernard?” he asked.  The beggar sighed, his smile deepening.

“It is good to hear your voice.  And good to know my refusal to give up your whereabouts has borne fruit.”

Ty relaxed slightly and heaved his pack over his shoulder.  He stepped cautiously toward the beggars and their corner, at once relieved–to find a friend in this remote and altogether spooky place–and chilled: Bernard had not been blind when Ty had last seen him.  He hadn’t been a beggar either.  In Hazan, Bernard had been a small-time dealer–like Marko but with smaller stakes and more mobility.  He was an uncommonly clever man and one of the kindest Ty had ever encountered in his horrible line of work.  And his presence in this place spoke poorly of his fortune since they last met a few months ago.

“Did you know my whereabouts?” Ty asked.  Bernard laughed, the sound coming out somewhere between a cough and a wheeze.

“Of course not,” he said as the fit subsided.  “All the more reason to refuse.  I can claim the moral high ground that way.”

Ty took another hard look at the other beggars, trying to determine if he knew them as well.  No, he didn’t know their faces, he concluded, and if their bewilderment was any indication, they didn’t know his.

“He came for you, then,” Ty said.

“He did,” Bernard replied, pulling the cowl from his head to reveal a cascade of oozing, melted flesh all down the top half of what used to be his face.  “Surprising in retrospect that he didn’t have me killed outright.  S’pose it helps his reputation to have a few examples of his wrath around to precede him.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You didn’t steal the stone, did you?”

“We got attacked by another scav group.  I was the only one to get out.  I’ve been tracking the stone ever since.  I’ve found–”

“Then it’s not your fault.  And if you don’t mind, I don’t want anything more to do with it.”  Ty nodded, swallowing his excuses.

“Okay…” he said, unsure how to ask his question.  “Why, uh–”

“Why’ve I hauled what’s left of myself here?”  Do you know where you are right now, Ty?”

“I’ll admit I’m a little lost.”

“I wouldn’t go looking right now if I were you, but the forest near this village isn’t really a forest, not like any you’ve ever seen.  This forest has trees made of metal and a witch who rebuilds people who bring her the right gifts.”

“Gods, Bernard.”

“What, Ty?”

“That’s a False God,” Ty said, trying as best he could to convey how alarming every piece of this felt to him, but Bernard just scowled.

“Don’t give me that.  Look at me, Ty–I’m trying best I can not to blame you and your crew for it, but I’m at the end of my line.  Either this Ben Gan Shui is gonna fix me, or she’s gonna put me out of my misery.”

Ty exhaled, speechless.  He hated the logic, but it…it made sense.”

“I’d do it myself if the upside weren’t a possibility,” Bernard added.  The silence stretched, the candlelight wavering as a breeze outside blew a draft through the boardinghouse.

“Ben Gan Shui, huh?” Ty asked at last.

“I don’t think it’s a real name,” Bernard said.  “I think it’s the sound the machines make.  You heard the man in here before, right?”  Whenever he moved–” Bernard mimicked the hissing noise of the man walking: “Bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI.”

“Is he a machine?”

“Obviously, but they say he is a man as well.  He had something wrong with his lungs some time ago, and the witch made him new ones.”

“Other things too,” Ty said.

“I can only surmise,” Bernard replied.  “But now he functions as a guide.  Perhaps you noticed: This village is a sort of annex to the Ironwood, under the witch’s protection so that they make sure all the rabble seeking her make an orderly queue.”

“That’s…oddly civilized,” Ty admitted.

“The witch herself is civilized, they say–in her way.  She has her rules.  She abides by them.  Just wants people around here to understand that they’re here at her pleasure.”

The walls of the house creaked as another draft blew through, but this time, it carried the faint sounds of a conversation ambling through the village.  And the sounds, Ty noted, were distressingly familiar.

“…keeps an emissary here?  Lives with…” came a growl Ty recognized as Bleeding Wolf’s.

Fuck.

“I have to go, Bernard,” he whispered.  “Good luck.  Please don’t mention I was here.”

“Who was here?” Bernard wheezed through a smile as Ty dashed to the doorway, peering out onto the muddy street.  Maybe fifty feet down, he saw the outlines of three figures walking past the torches.  One was the woman who had greeted him.  Another, based on the bristling hunch of his shoulders, was certainly Bleeding Wolf.  Ty did not recognize the third, but he was not especially curious.

Taking a deep breath, he exhaled mana and slipped out the door, around the side of the house, into the brush surrounding the village.  He pushed through it, moving away as swiftly and silently as he could, even as Bleeding Wolf called out behind him:

“Show yourself, mage!”

Ty, of course, did not.  The people of the Crossroads knowing where he was, where he was going, only put them in more danger, to say nothing of the danger it invited upon himself.  No, he put the calls and the flickering lights of the village behind him and made his way back out into the wet, sticky, mosquito-ridden wilds of the Riverlands.

“I’m glad we came to a mutually agreeable conclusion on that matter,” Ty’s mouth said of its own accord, triggering a wave of panic down his spine as he attempted to reestablish control over his jaw and tongue, to no avail.  “Come now, did you forget our arrangement already?” it asked.  Ty paused.

“Well, now that you remind me,” he said.

“Good,” the Dragon replied.  “As it were, I would have insisted you depart even if you had not found your own reason.  If the trinket man had noticed what you are, his mistress would have become far too interested, and I’ve no desire for any collaboration with that worm.”

“Yeah, you don’t seem much for collaboration in general,” Ty muttered.

“Sayeth my own collaborator?  You wound me.  I collaborate with jollity given the proper opportunity and leverage.  But not with her.”

“History?”

“Oh yes.  I fear she never forgave me for our last collaboration.  She would only try to take advantage of me now, and I’m sure such advantage would come at the expense of your bodily integrity.  Veer left here, away from the trees.  No need to stray so close to certain death.”

Ty complied, finding the Dragon’s explanation grating–but plausible enough–and gave the woods and village both a wide berth as he drew a zigzagging, uneven route back to the river.  In spite of the moonlight, it was dark as shit, and he knew he would lose his bearings if he didn’t find a landmark before making his next move.  Eventually, though, he made it back to the dull roar of rushing currents and earth that squelched beneath his feet.  He pushed aside the reeds at the river’s edge and confirmed the dazzling dance of the moon and stars upon the gleaming water as he pondered what to do next.

No thought had time to arrive, however, before the sound of striking flint range in his ears, and a bloom of fire all but blinded him.  Shielding his face, Ty made out the shape of a vessel tucked onto the riverbank not ten feet from where he stood, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized the figures on it.

Brandishing the newly-lit torch was the dilettante scholar he had met on the initial journey north–Naples, if he recalled.  Cowering behind him was an emaciated boy that Ty dimly recognized as Orphelia’s brother.  And of course, standing at the prow of the boat, posed dramatically with a hand on his hip–

“I understand you are heading to the Southern Reaches, Mr. Ehsam,” Lan al’Ver declared.  “Might I offer you conveyance?”

“Fuck,” Ty’s mouth muttered.  He wasn’t sure whether it was him or the Dragon who said it.

The Crossroads, Chapter 17: A Fish Which Flies

It had been hours since the feeling set in, but Lan had not been inclined to worry.  The river was, at its heart, a chaotic process.  Eddies, whorls, ripples where the surface was disturbed–all were commonplace.  But what was not common was constancy, and as dusk fell, and Lan docked beside a shallow crossing, and Gene and Bleeding Wolf disembarked heavy with apprehension which Lan knew–uniquely perhaps–was ill-founded, he found himself more and more distracted, more and more irritated with the anomaly he had apparently left behind in the Crossroads.  Alone on his vessel, he stared down the river’s burbling surface, contemplated the currents’ beginnings and endings and assimilations.  And there it was.  The constancy.  The source of his unease, it seemed, was not a ripple–it was a ripple which had disappeared.

This was serious.  He made up his mind to return to the Crossroads.  Then he was there.

Stepping off his boat with highly irregular purpose, he made for the tavern at the end of the tradesmen’s street.  The timbre of the cricketsong told him the apothecary was presently occupied, and the other ideal witness was…compromised.  This left the fateful stowaway repacking his experience with mulled wine in the tavern’s soft candlelight.  Ah, yes, he was there: Lan kicked open the door, slamming it into its hinges hard enough to dislodge a nail, to the clear consternation of the proprietor and her patrons.

“Where is the girl?” he barked at the third table from the door.

“Ah!” Naples gasped, looking up with a jolt from his journal.  “Captain al’Ver, I’d thought you were awa–”

“Answer, man!  Everything depends on it!”

“What?”

“The girl!  Miss Orphelia.  You were to be watching her.”

“But, I,” Naples sputtered.  “What–no!”

“No, of course you never agreed to,” Lan said, charging the table and grabbing Naples by the shoulder, “but you certainly intended to.”

Even in the dim light of the barroom, the shock on Naples’ face was electric.  In the split second of silence that followed, though, the presence of the tavern’s denizens reintruded.

“Mr. al’Ver–” the barkeep began.

“Captain!” Lan corrected.

“Yes, uh, what is this about?” Lan swept his hand dramatically in the direction of the bar.

“A girl has gone missing, my lady, and Mr. Naples is to help me locate her!”

“I swear to you there was nothing untoward about–”  Lan interrupted Naples limping excuse with a roll of his eyes:

“Yes, yes, you wanted to investigate her connection to my illustrious self.  I am very interesting.  Now gather your things.  We have work to do!”  

As he snarled the order, Lan instinctively scanned the rest of the tavern.  Most of them were visibly bewildered by the intrusion, a small few were adeptly ignoring the interruption which, for all its suddenness, was still in no way their business or their problem, but there was one set of eyes fixed significantly upon Lan with intent that was not immediately readable nor obviously benign.  It was an old man with a hat at the table in the corner.  His presence wasn’t right, Lan noted, but it was far less wrong than Orphelia’s disappearance, and time was short to get Naples moving.  

He turned, twirling his umbrella, and exited as Naples scrambled to catch up.  Outside, he paused and stared up at the half-moon between the night’s murky clouds, as much for the pragmatism of allowing his new disciple to finish his exit as for respectful consideration of the ill omen that the damn sky always seemed to bring him.

“I truly have not seen her since this afternoon,” Naples said, stumbling through the doorway behind him.  “She was sneaking out of the apothecary’s, went to the market, then toward the old theater. But that’s when I lost her, I swear to you.”

“I have no reason to doubt your sincerity, Mr. Naples,” Lan replied, still staring skyward.  “And I will admit I already knew the answer to my first question.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“‘Where is the girl?’ Mr. Naples.  It was a trick question.  Miss Orphelia is currently nowhere.”  After a brief silence, Naples attempted a response:

“I…don ‘t follow.”

“The river runs always, Mr. Naples, from today to tomorrow, from spring to summer, from one year to the next, and we all swim in its current like so many fish.”

“A lovely turn of phrase, Captain.”

“And so much more besides,” Lan said, beginning to wander up the street.  “The trouble is that Miss Orphelia seems to have leapt from the stream.”

“Well, to run with the metaphor, fish do jump sometimes,” Naples offered.

“Except she has not come back down.”

“Ah.”  Naples went silent, thinking for a moment.  “Like a flying fish?  Or perhaps a fish snatched by an eagle and carried elsewhere.”

At the words, Lan felt a surge of fire run up his spine, and the clarity of the old man’s gaze upon him in the tavern returned.  He had been familiar, Lan realized.  The wide-brimmed hat.  The burning in his eyes.  Ah, yes.  That one.

“We had best apply our razors, Mr. Naples.”

“Sounds danger–oh!  Like the Thagosian idiom?”

In spite of the foreboding complexity manifesting in the currents, intruding upon Lan’s consciousness, so rudely calling “Wake up!” at this inappropriate hour of night, he could not help but smile.  Naples continued to be a pleasant reminder of how long it took for humans to truly forget anything.

“Precisely,” Lan replied.  “If you don’t mind, I have further want of your aid.  It has come to my attention that a few old friends of mine have come to visit.  One is at the apothecary now–let us go and meet him.”

***

“Lazy fucking idiot.  Wake up!”

Devlin started awake at the rough voice, inches from his face, as a rough hand grabbed him by the throat and dragged him from his bed.  He opened his bleary eyes to see a shaggy face and a singed hunter’s jerkin by the dim light of Brill’s infirmary before being flung, skidding to the floor.  He whimpered.

“Oh, shut up,” the man sneered.  Devlin blinked his eyes open, shivering as he pushed himself half-upright.  The man, he could see now, was tall, tall enough that the candlelight didn’t reach his face above his beard.  But that notwithstanding, Devlin had never seen him before in his life.

“Wha–what do you want–” he began to stutter, but the man reached back to a quiver tied behind his waist.  He drew a short spear with a gleaming, serrated tip, and Devlin stopped cold.

“Where’s your sister?” the man asked, testing the tip against his forefinger.

“I don’t…I don’t know?”

“Really, fucker?  Been outta the hag’ claws three days now, and you still think that’s an acceptable answer?”

“I don’t know–”

I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the man mocked.  “Best start payin’ attention, then, huh?  And don’t try to feed me any crap about being sick–you haven’t been sick since that fop pulled the bitch off your finger.  You just figured that if you could still be sick, then it couldn’t have been your fault you killed your stupid mom.”

At this, Devlin sobbed and, scrambling to his feet, tried to run for the door, but the man grabbed his shirt and pulled him back, slamming him against the wall.

“And while you were making excuses, your idiot sister jumped into the deep end of the river.  Time to take responsibility.”  In a motion Devlin couldn’t really follow, the man pulled a hook-like implement from his belt, slotted the spear into it, and flung it backward.  The spear embedded itself with a thunk in the wall.  “You’re gonna fish that girl outta there, or I’m gonna kill ‘er.  Those are the only two options.”

At that moment, the apothecary door on the other side of the infirmary curtain burst open, and Devlin stared, terrified, into the man’s burning eyes for several horrible, silent seconds before the curtain was swept aside by a man Devlin only dimly recognized.  This one had come with Orphelia often when she came to visit him back here.

“Daniel,” Lan al’Ver said sternly.  The shaggy man grunted disdainfully without taking his eyes off Devlin.

“Minding the shop now, are you, ‘Captain?’” he asked, curling his lip.  Another man stumbled in behind Lan, freezing upon seeing the situation in the room.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “Oh dear.  Uh, who are you?”  The shaggy man turned to face the newcomer, his venom now tempered by the slightest tinge of confusion.  “And, uh, yes.  Why are you threatening the boy?”

Daniel stared the newcomer down, weighing what Devlin could only imagine was a clear urge toward violence against unknown considerations.  He kept his cool, apparently, backing begrudgingly away from Devlin and turning back to Lan.

“Stinks of cruelty, dragging an innocent into the Gyre,” he said.

“I navigate the waters as I please,” Lan replied.

“With passengers?”  Daniel’s laugh was bitter.  “You’ve a poor track record with what you carry, you know?”  With that, Lan drew his rapier, defiant, scowling, prompting an outburst from the third man as Devlin tried as best he could to sink invisibly into the corner of the room.

“Hold on now, both of you!” the man said.  “Whatever this is about, we need to find the girl, right?  Orphelia.  Let’s set the weapons down and talk!”  At the mention of his sister, Devlin perked up.  He did not understand the nature of this sudden interruption, though he was certainly glad for it.  But more people looking for Orphelia made him even more anxious to find her.

The room was silent for a moment before Daniel straightened, reattaching his hook to his belt.

“Minding the shop indeed,” he muttered.  Then, to the third man: “Fine.  You two go get the girl out and take this little bastard with you.  He owes it to her.  And to Harmony.”  Devlin gulped as all the men renewed their attention on him.

“Who took her?” Lan asked.

Rom,” Daniel said, with a tone that Devlin could swear smelled of smoke.  “I understand there is a certain Jin Gaenyan he wants pulled back into the fold.”  Lan nodded, sheathing is sword, and Daniel retrieved his spear, all to the third man’s obvious bewilderment:

“Captain, what does all of that mean?”

“Fear not, Mr. Naples.  We have our destination now, and we shall make sure that dear Orphelia and young Devlin are reunited once more!”

Daniel, meanwhile, made for the door.

“The personas, all three of you,” he muttered.  “Who the fuck wants humanity anymore?”  And then he was gone.

Devlin looked up, shaken, as Naples approached him with the ersatz, showy alarm of a concerned citizen with only an arm’s-length notion of how one ought to interact with children.

“Dear boy, are you quite alright?”  Devlin nodded, limping away from the wall, which seemed to satisfy the man, as his focus returned to Lan: “Captain, please no more oblique reference–what on earth was that all about?  Who was that?”

“That, Mr. Naples, was Daniel Patch.  He is part of an entity called Harmony.”

“The cult of Matze Matsua?”

“Precisely.  And yet also not at all.”

“Captain…”

Devlin took advantage of the moment of pleading confusion to swipe his ring from the table by his bed.  Over the past several dazed, he had attempted to reach it several times, but his efforts had been thwarted: The table had been kicked, its contents had been swept aside for a bowl of soup, he had received a sudden, semiconscious hug from Orphelia–each had, at the time, pushed the ring just out of his grasp, and each, he was beginning to realize, had been the direct or indirect work of Captain al’Ver.  He had little idea why the Captain would care about the ring or his possession of it, but he certainly didn’t want to ask.  And to make sure he wouldn’t have to, he decided to hide the reacquisition of his treasure.

As his fingers touched the cold silver, he heard the faintest sound of flapping wings outside the infirmary.  It chilled him, and it comforted him, and while he could fathom the reason for neither, he was far too afraid to lose his last link to his family to question any of it.

“The magic of legend itself shrouds them, Mr. Naples, and even I cannot speak directly of what binds Mr. Patch and his colleagues.  You will have to pardon me in this respect.”

“Very well,” Naples replied, dejected.  “But what of the names he mentioned–Rom?  Jin Gaenyan?”  Lan laughed.  The bravado of the gesture seemed uncharacteristically brittle.  “What?” Naples inquired.

“Well-read as you are, I expect you’ve heard of them,” Lan said.  “The second is the clue we needed, for though the name ‘Jin Gaenyan’ has been lost to all but the most observant chroniclers, I can assume you have encountered some mention of the Saraa Sa’een?”  Naples scratched his chin.  Devlin, unsure of what to make of this conversation, began to inch toward the door.  He didn’t trust these men, and he wanted to find Orphelia before they did.

“The Saraa Sa’een was killed by the Barabadoon nearly sixty years ago,” Naples mused, “with–oh you clever dog!  This is exactly where we left off three days ago!  They did it with the help of–”  Lan snatched Devlin’s hand as he attempted to sneak out the doorway.  He froze, looking timidly up at the Captain.  The man’s grip was amiable but frustratingly firm.  He smiled warmly down at Devlin before facing Naples again.

“My friend, you should know better than most how history may play reanimator to even the longest-dead,” he declared with the inflection of a showman.  “But in this case, the Saraa Sa’een is quite literally alive.  He was, as it happens, captured, to be used as a defensive measure by the architect of the place where dear Orphelia will reenter the stream.”  Naples exhaled, the expression on his face souring.

“The Chateau de Marquains,” he confirmed.  He glanced at Devlin and grimaced.  “That’s no place to bring a kid.”

“No.  But it is as Daniel said.  We are navigating the waters together, and my path is thus ordained.

“Hmm.”

“Mr. Lan?” Devlin piped up.  “Are you sure this place is where we need to go to save Orphelia?”

“Indeed I am, my dear boy.”  The man’s smile was still warm, and Devlin still found it suspicious.  But needs must.

“Then I’m not scared.  Let’s go!”  It was partially true: Devlin truly did not fear the Chateau de Marquains, in large part because he knew nothing about it, but he was terrified for his sister, for the violence that had seized the both of them weeks ago and, it seemed, would not let them go.  Would not let her go.  He felt the wind of wingbeats brush against his cheek.  He needed to save her before it was all gone.

“We are decided, then!” Lan proclaimed.  “Let us depart before Brill discovers your intrusion, Mr. Naples!”

“A fate to rival the False Gods,” Naples joked mirthlessly.  He moved to follow Lan out of the infirmary, pausing momentarily to look in the direction of Devlin’s bed.

“Come on, Mr. Naples!” Devlin called.  Shaking his head, the man turned and exited.

The Crossroads, Chapter 16: Mr. Ruffles

Recent weeks had been short on both comfort and normalcy, but Orphelia was beginning to rediscover all of their annoying side effects now that they had returned.  For the first time since the Bad Stuff, she had a place to sleep, food she didn’t have to steal, even a daily routine running errands for the apothecary and the blacksmith’s apprentice.  Devlin’s illness had improved dramatically: He was still bedridden, but he was spending more time awake every day.  However tenuously, things felt as if they might turn out alright.  And gods was she bored with it.

Part of that was certainly a lack of freedom: She had been running messages and packages across town for days now–nothing valuable, nothing salacious, nothing interesting–but Brill’s oversight remained draconian.  Every day, the apothecary would run errands of their own, asking questions of Orphelia’s contacts the previous day, making absolutely certain she had not defected, absconded, sabotaged, or otherwise deviated from her terminally uninteresting schedule in any way.  And this was to say nothing of the uncanny frequency with which she found Captain al’Ver on her path–or at her destination–on “business” of his own, no doubt in truth to facilitate her supervision.

To their credit, if she found even a shadow of a reason to cause trouble, she totally would.  But their constant anticipation of it was just exhausting.

Still, beyond the benevolently oppressive gaze of her newfound caretakers, Orphelia was slowly beginning to accept what had likely been apparent to both Ty and Bleeding Wolf during their odd sojourn to the Bloodwood: There was a capacity in which she thrived on the threat of violence–and that she was feeling it call back to her after only three days of peaceful stasis…it scared her.

But in spite of her apprehension, she found herself growing excited for the incremental change in status that would arrive that afternoon.  Captain al’Ver was leaving for a day, taking Bleeding Wolf and the blacksmith a short distance down the river, which meant she would get to talk to Mr. Ruffles again.

Amidst her friend’s few words since the Bloodwood, she had been keeping careful track: He had not stopped speaking to her–he simply would not speak to her when Captain al’Ver was present, and it turned out he was present all the time.  He had parked his boat next to the apothecary’s shop, so he was within earshot of the room where she and Devlin slept.  He was at market when and where she was carrying her deliveries and notes.  More often than not, he was somehow loitering on the tradesmen’s street when she returned.  Orphelia liked the man well enough, of course, but she found his omnipresence troubling, to say nothing of the silence it seemed to instill in Mr. Ruffles.

When Mr. Ruffles did speak, he did not mention Captain al’Ver, though he did seem apologetic for his silence.  He also hinted that an important message was forthcoming and that Orphelia’s destiny would “shake the sea and sky both”.  She had no idea what that meant, but she was surprised to find herself looking forward to finding out.  She realized that it had been a matter of days since she had been praying for safety, and she supposed she still wanted that for Devlin, but for her part, she thought she might be ready for the sort of danger that a destiny entailed.

“Daydreaming again, Orphelia?” Brill asked from across the shop.  She looked down at the bottle that had been in her hands the last five minutes.  Devil’s Breath (Distilled) the label read, with a double-X next to the title, indicating that the substance was never to be ingested alone.  It belonged across the room, on the shelf behind Brill’s counter.

“No!” she protested, calculatedly embarrassed.  She’d gathered by now that if she was, inevitably, to have a reputation as a liar, it was better for her lies to be stupid, easily detected, trivial.  She rose and hurriedly carried the bottle over to Brill.

“Careful with that,” they warned, snatching the bottle and placing it gingerly at the back of their shelf.  Then, softer: “What’s on your mind, child?  Your thoughts have been wandering all morning.  I do apologize, I know cataloging is not the most interesting of–”

“Captain al’Ver’s leaving today,” Orphelia volunteered.

“Ah, yes,” Brill said, quieting.  Their brow furrowed.  “I don’t think you need to worry about Mr. al’Ver–”

“Captain.”

“Yes, Captain al’Ver.  I’m sure he’ll be back soon.  The others, however…”

“Where’s Dog Boy going?” Orphelia asked.  The particulars of the expedition had been hushed in her presence before, but Brill seemed worried now–worried enough that they might actually spill the details.  They frowned, clearly considering their words.

“Bleeding Wolf and Gene are going to speak with a, uh, dangerous person.  To ask them for help.”

“Ooh!” Orphelia gasped, unable to prevent her face from lighting up.  “Who is it?  What are they asking for?  Why is Gene going?  Isn’t he old?”  Brill shook their head, grabbing the bridge of their nose with immediate regret, and began examining their order ledger in defiance of Orphelia’s barrage of questions.  She continued to press for several minutes, finally eliciting a response:

“In my opinion, child, Gene should not be going.  He is old.  Too old–we all are, these days.  Except Bleeding Wolf.”  They sighed.  “Dear, we need to get back to work.  And I would appreciate if you did not repeat what I’ve told you to anyone in town.”

“That’s okay!” she replied cheerfully.  “I don’t talk to people in town!”  Fairly speaking, that was true.

Orphelia was more efficient in the ensuing hours, excited to be engaged–even fruitlessly–in the Crossroads’ preeminent controversy, and she worked, peppering Brill with questions they refused to answer, into the mid-afternoon, at which point the apothecary kicked her out of the shop.  They had an errand to run over by Marko’s, they said, but they also instructed her not to be back until dark.  She had her doubts that any errand Brill could make would actually take that long, but she supposed they could both use the time free of each other.

As she stepped out onto the yellowed afternoon shade of the tradesmen’s street, clutching Mr. Ruffles under her arm, she considered where she wanted to spend her hours of lurking.  The market street seemed like the obvious choice, but no sooner did she turn onto the alley leading there than Mr. Ruffles, right on schedule, offered an alternative:

Marko’s theater, my dear.  That your journey may begin.

“Are you sure?” she muttered beneath her breath, in spite of the empty alley’s lack of eavesdroppers.  “They saw me last time I went there.”

Do not be afraid.  One must invite the beast’s passing to harness its wake.  Today, you shall learn to navigate the waters.

Orphelia paused, now at the alley’s mouth, glanced right, then left.

“Like Captain al’Ver?” she whispered.

There is no better teacher.  Few more terrifying, besides.

She turned right, toward the town square–and Marko’s.

“Then why are you teaching me?”

Because I would teach you what he would prefer you not know.  Perhaps what he would prefer to un-know himself.

The market street was still busy at that hour, though its intensity was beginning to tend toward outflow.  Even so, there were countercurrents of merchants and wagons still weaving their way into the traffic from both the north and south ends of the street.  Among them, Orphelia felt familiarly unseen, the way she had before her frightful previous encounter in Marko’s theater.  It wasn’t invisibility, she knew, not exactly.  Pedestrians on the street would step around her, stop to let her pass, react to her presence–subconsciously, at least–but not one of them made eye contact.  None of them acknowledged her as a person, not to her, not–as far as she could tell–to themselves.  And with the feeling of anonymity returned its companion: power.  At these people’s periphery, with free reign to exploit any blind spot, with freedom from all their stupid control–it reminded her why she had trusted Mr. Ruffles, how he had helped her and Devlin to survive when no one else would.  After moments among the crowds which felt much longer than moments, she reached the square.  Marko’s theater, ostentatious in spite of its weathered exterior, loomed from the other side.

“Why wouldn’t he want me to know it?” she said back to Mr. Ruffles at last.

Because it is in our nature to regret where we falter.  It requires both strength and insight to recognize the ways in which our failures become gifts in their own right.

“Are you saying Captain al’Ver failed at something?”  She approached the theater’s currently makeshift front door.

Hardly.  I am saying merely that he thinks he failed.

Before she could put her hand on the handle, the door barged open and Marko stepped out, Brill in tow, each with a bulging satchel slung over their shoulder.

“Not much time,” she caught from Brill, along with “…from Holme,” as the two of them hurried past her, just as oblivious as the market street crowds.

Inside, my dear.  Find the stairs behind the stage.

Orphelia shuffled quickly through the open door and past the theater’s modest foyer to the familiar, torchlit, detritus-filled audience area.  Just like before, she climbed up to the stage by way of an empty, overturned crate and crept over to Marko’s desk.  It was piled high with papers and codices, including a rolled piece of parchment sealed prominently by wax sculpted into a relief of a bearded man’s face.  Gripped by curiosity, she reached for the oddly-sealed scroll, but Mr. Ruffles’ whisper stopped her:

Don’t get distracted now.  Remember: the stairs.

She withdrew her hand, noting the shadows in the recesses of the stage.  She could make out an opening in the floor where the faintest outline of a staircase descended into the dark.  She cautiously stepped toward it, allowing her eyes to adjust to the increasingly dim light.

“Are we going to steal something from Marko?” she asked softly, testing the first step with her foot.

We will not steal anything from this Marko today.  Our aim is to make a fair and common exchange of time for space.  But only places of certain power are capable of handling the particulars–or quantities–of our transaction.

“I hadn’t realized you were such an accomplished businessman,” Orphelia said, proceeding down the stairs.  She immediately regretted her choice of words–she had never before been so familiar with Mr. Ruffles, and the thought of losing his confidence in her breach of their decorum felt icy in her gut, all the more so for the darkness closing in as she made her way below the floor of the stage.

I see the one you call “Captain” has taught you flippance.  Repelling the Deep is instinctive, I suppose.  And we all attempt it in our own ways.

Relieved by the acceptance she read in the response, she found a cadence descending the stairs without the aid of her vision as the gloam turned to pitch, and she lost sight of the stairs completely.  It wasn’t quite right to say she lost count of the steps she’d taken–she hadn’t been counting in the first place–but after some time, she craned her neck over her shoulder to find she could no longer see even a glimmer of light up the stairs from where she’d come.

Patience, my dear.

She gulped and continued downward.  The uncanny darkness continued for several more minutes before a thin, pale light began to illuminate the contours of the steps beneath her, and her descent finally opened to a wide, gently-curved staircase that spilled into a darkened sitting room.  She whirled in bewilderment, tallying the impossibilities that had suddenly materialized before her.

Despite the numerous unlit sconces and candelabras about the room, she found its features–the intricate patterns of the carpet; the staircase bannister, immaculately carved and adorned with silver catfish bearing teeth like razors; the painting which dominated the wall before her of an empty chair beside a crackling hearth–visible, well enough, by what was apparently moonlight streaming in through windows on one side of the room.  Up the stairs, there was no trace of the passage by which she had arrived: She could see the top of the staircase end at a hallway, down which she recognized the orange flicker of firelight.

Take care with your silence.  We are trespassers now, and alerting our host will bring terrible consequences.

Orphelia swallowed her objections, frantically wondering how Marko’s staircase–which by all rights should have led underground–could have brought her somewhere in view of the sky at night.  It had been mid-afternoon when she’d left…right?  She hurried quietly as she could to the window.  Outside, beyond a garden wall, she could see grassy plains stretch into the distance, rippling in the nighttime breeze under a cloudless, starry sky.  The gibbous moon, almost blindingly bright, resembled a face, half-turned, attention fixed calmly upon something nearby but elsewhere.

This one was clever.  We will need to find the entry point to his reservoir.  But first, I think perhaps you are owed an introduction, Orphelia, daughter of Errol.  Look to the bookshelf.  There is a vessel upon it far more potent than the one you carry with you.

She glanced away from the window, quickly finding the bookshelf he meant.  It was a tall piece, made of foreboding, blackened wood, towering beside the strange painting of the empty chair.  Approaching it, Orphelia found she needed no clarification as to what the “vessel” might be.  Among the numerous aged scrolls and codices, one–a thick, leather bound grimoire–seemed to seize her attention of its own accord.  Timidly, she wrapped her fingers around its spine and hefted it from the shelf.

Surprising indeed that Le Marquains collected a copy.  I only ever transcribed three, and I left none near this place.

Orphelia peeled open the cover, carefully separating a dusty title page from the leather.  Straining her eyes, she made out the words: A History of the Wars Fought Under Shadow, by Rommesse of Khet.

“Is that your name, Mr. Ruffles?” she whispered.

“I was called Rommesse of Khet by scholars far from my birthplace,” came the response, in every way the same voice Orphelia had heard over the past several weeks, but more real, more there.  She turned to face its source and saw a man in a dark robe standing beside the window.  His hair and short beard were silver, his skin was ashen, and his eyes were lined and creased with a sense of burden that belied the easy smile on his face.

“Few of them ever met me,” he continued.  “Of those that did, I was called ‘Twice Traitor’ by some.  The rest, my friends included, called me Rom.”

Orphelia opened her mouth, already overcome by questions for Mr. Ruffles–for his human incarnation–but her reply was interrupted by another voice, this time from behind her:

“Holy fucking shit.”

She jumped, spinning to face the speaker.  It was Ty, standing in the doorway at the edge of the room, staring in disbelief.