Authors: Ken Scholes
When she’d slipped from her cabin below deck, she’d checked Jakob in his crib after casting a glance toward the narrow bed where Lynnae slept. Her hosts had tried to give her and her son separate quarters—the captain’s quarters, no less—but she’d refused and had insisted that the three of them share a single stateroom and displace as few of the ship’s crew as possible. The regent, Eliz Xhum, had not seemed surprised by this. But the crewmen, already gazing upon her with something akin to adoration, now looked upon their Great Mother with a different kind of respect.
As I intended,
she realized. She needed their respect and any favor it might purchase her; she would bend their worship of her and her son into whatever tool or weapon she might use to accomplish the work she was made for. And beyond that: She needed to keep Lynnae near. It was bad enough, a mother bringing her child into this situation. She would not leave him unsupervised among these blood-loving savages.
Not that she could stop them if they chose to take Jakob from her. She’d known this when she agreed to leave the Named Lands in the regent’s care, but she also believed her sister—the long lost Ire Li Tam—when she assured Jin that the boy would be safe. And her grandfather’s voice, tinny and far away, offered her a measure of confidence as well when it whispered from the beak of the golden bird.
No such assurances for me.
And yet, she stood here, committed to a path now difficult—if not impossible—to retrace, hundreds of leagues from home and sailing toward an empire she could only imagine … in order to kill its Crimson Empress.
She paced another hour as the sky grayed with morning. As she walked, she counted the steps and quietly noted the few sailors that worked the deck. She’d already mapped most of the vessel, familiarized herself with most of the crew, and inventoried most of its armaments without effort. It was an instinctive hypervigilance drilled into her by her father and his siblings during a preparation that had begun before she had conscious memory. Each Tam was shaped to be an arrow fired into the heart of the world to do their father’s work, even as her father had been trained to do the same by her grandfather.
Obedience without question; trust without doubt.
Only these past two years, since Windwir’s fall and since becoming a parent and a wife, she’d questioned and doubted a good deal.
“And yet I’m still here,” she whispered.
“Yes,” a voice whispered near her elbow, “you are.” She jumped at the sound of it and spun, reaching for knives she did not carry. “And now I am too, gods-damn it.”
She knew that voice, muffled though it was by scout magicks. “Aedric?”
“Aye,” he said.
She felt her jaw go slack from the surprise of it, but only for a moment. Then, she felt anger spark. “Why aren’t you with Rudolfo? He needs you now more than ever.”
She heard his own anger in the careful clip of his words. “I serve my king by watching over his son,” he said slowly. “And if I’d not been harried by their Blood Guard I’d have taken him from you before you boarded this ship and returned him to his home.”
She willed ice into her voice but couldn’t find it within her. She could hear the fear at the edge of his rage and knew why: His father’s closest friend—a man who’d been an uncle to him his entire life—had lost his son. It wasn’t lost on her that he referred to watching the son.
Not the wife.
She took a breath, and when she spoke, the words were quiet. “You should not have come.”
“I will see my king’s son safely home.”
She heard the resolution and love in the man’s voice, lending the words a heaviness that made her momentarily sad. Her choice to strike out on her own without even discussing it with Rudolfo was unconscionable. At the very least, he deserved the respect of knowing where she went with his son. She’d have been furious at any less from him, and she knew that by now he had to know and had to be enraged.
Her romance with the Gypsy King had been a strange partnership initiated by strategy, sealed with passion, and then broken by betrayal. Jakob had given them a shared focus, and a type of love had taken root in the midst of the events since his birth. But there was also the hard truth that she’d spent most of Jakob’s life separated from Rudolfo.
She forced her attention back to the ghost that shifted before her. “Aedric,” she said, “we will both see him home. You have my word.”
“And you,” he said, “have my word as well. The first sign of danger and I will take him from you without hesitation and I will cross any waste, any ocean, to return him to his father. You should never have left with him.”
She heard boot heels on the deck and looked up quickly. Eliz Xhum, wrapped in a heavy red robe, made his way toward her. She felt the faintest brush of wind as Aedric slipped away into the gray of morning.
“Good morning, Great Mother,” the regent said. His smile was genuine, wide upon his scarred face.
She inclined her head. “Good morning.”
“You’ve the look of someone who’s paced the moonfall.”
She nodded. “I have.” She decided to be forthright. “I couldn’t sleep.”
“Perhaps the sea disagrees with you.”
“Perhaps,” she said. “You’re up early as well.”
Now he nodded, looking out over the water. “Yes. Well, I often rise early for prayer. But this morning is actually somewhat special.”
She felt her eyebrows rise. She’d watched the Mass of the Fallen Moon and had read of other holy days within the Y’Zirite faith. “Really?”
He offered her his arm. “Walk with me and I will show you.”
She suppressed a shudder as she took his offered arm and let him set the pace as they moved forward. When they reached the bow, he placed his hands upon the railing. “This,” he said, “is a historic moment for us all.”
She stood beside him and looked out and ahead but saw nothing initially. “I can’t—”
He lifted a hand. “Wait.”
She waited as minutes crawled by, and then she saw it in the distance. At first, she thought perhaps clouds rose on the horizon, dark and moving rapidly toward them. But she realized quickly that wasn’t the case. The sound of wind moving over canvas and water slapping against wood betrayed the truth, and she felt her stomach sinking into nausea at the sight that unfolded before her.
Hundreds of ships took shape on the ocean before her, at first ahead and then suddenly surrounding her own ship. They moved past relentlessly, and on the decks she saw soldiers in formation all facing her own ship with hands upraised in salute.
At first, she thought they saluted her, but when Eliz Xhum raised his own hand to return the gesture, she realized it was the regent they honored.
It took several minutes for the armada to move past them, and when it did, Xhum lowered his hand. “It’s begun,” he said in a quiet voice.
She wanted to ask what had begun, but she already knew the answer, and she knew there was nothing she could do about it.
Jin Li Tam closed her eyes and swallowed against the lump that grew in her throat. And in that moment, she wished she were a woman of prayer, that she might bid someone help her people in the hour of need that now fell upon them.
But at the deepest core of her, she knew it wouldn’t have mattered, and she knew that even if the Named Lands could rally itself, a foe approached that they could not long withstand.
So she closed her eyes instead and willed them strength—willed herself strength—for the dark days ahead.
The sky was crisp and blue and the wind was down when Winters stomped across the muddy snow to the gathering of wagons covered in drab tarps offset by the bright colors of the Gypsy Scouts’ winter uniforms.
She’d not seen Rudolfo again after their meeting outside camp, and she felt the sting of his displeasure though his personal quartermaster helped her collect supplies. His anger toward her would not keep him from making sure her people were fed and reasonably warm until they arrived at Rudolfo’s Seventh Forest Manor in the growing city of Rachyle’s Rest. Winters had heard Lady Tam say a few times of the Gypsy King that he always knew the right path and took it. She could see that clearly in this and in a dozen other instances.
I wish I had a compass so sure.
She was anything but sure of the path ahead. And she could only see the week ahead. When they arrived, she would help her small tribe get settled into the transitional barracks that had grown up in answer to the Entrolusian refugee problem. There was plenty of work to be had at the library between reproducing its holdings and constructing that receptacle to house the vast collection. And despite the town’s rapid growth prior to Rudolfo’s closing of the borders, that library had created a demand for labor, skilled and unskilled.
And then what?
She glanced up, though the moon was not out. She’d done that more since she learned that it was the home her people had awaited all this time. She had no idea exactly how or when Neb would take them there, but she knew that somehow he would. Until then, she supposed she would wait at the library and use her time there to learn what she could about their new home.
She reached the wagons and met the young scout lieutenant Rudolfo had assigned as a part of her escort. He inclined his head as she approached, and Winters returned the gesture. “Lieutenant Adrys,” she said. “Are we ready?”
He looked up and down the line. “Nearly, Lady Winteria. We still have some people rotating through the galley tent.”
She nodded. They anticipated one hot meal per day for the last leg of their journey—more than they were able to do for the first leg. “Good,” she said. “Starting out well fed will carry us farther today.”
“Aye,” the scout answered.
“Perhaps,” she said, “I’ll join them.” She turned and crunched through the frozen mud, the smell of roast lamb soup and baking bread growing in her nose as she approached the large tent.
She slipped inside, savoring the warmth of bodies and stoves as she made her way through the line to emerge with a bowl full of stew, a chunk of sweet black bread and a tin cup of hot chai. She quickly scanned the tables and spotted an old man hunched alone in the corner. She made her way to him. “May I join you?”
He looked up, and she blinked when she saw it was Charles. “Certainly,” he said.
She sat and studied his face. His beard had grown out more full than in his days at the library, and his eyes were red-rimmed and empty.
As mine were for Hanric.
No, she realized, not just Hanric. But also her father, Mardic, taken from her too soon. And the others she’d lost along the way. Her mother, though she’d never known her. Tertius, the old Androfrancine who’d tutored her at her father’s insistence.
She sighed and forced herself to sip her chai. He went back to eating, and she joined him, unsure of what to say. They ate in silence, and just as he started to rise, Winters reached out and grabbed his hand. “How are you, Charles?”
“How am I?” He chuckled. “Tired of snow. Tired of walking. That’s how I am.”
She lowered her voice. “You know what I mean.” He looked away, and in that moment she saw his face awash with sorrow.
“I’m…” His eyes returned to hers, and she saw the control he tried to exert in keeping them clear and focused. His jaw went firm, but his voice cracked. “I’m unexpectedly lost,” he said. “But I will move forward through this loss like I have all the others.”
There had been plenty of loss before Windwir and vastly more with that city gone now from the world. It was hard for her to acknowledge that given her people’s history with the Androfrancines. But for Charles, he’d lost what came closest to being his family in that genocide. And now, he’d lost a son.
The old arch-engineer continued. “We’ve all lost. And we’ve more loss ahead,” he said. “The best we can do is to serve the memory of those we’ve lost by serving the light. Though there are times that I do not understand what that means.”
No, she realized. She didn’t understand it either. Not everyone could know the right path. Perhaps in those times, the path was made by striking out where no path had been before. She leaned forward. “Are you certain then that he’s gone?”
He nodded and their eyes met. “I think they
are, though I know you do not want to believe that.”
He was right; she did not want to believe that. But he did, and that gave her some pause. “I have to believe that Isaak and Neb escaped somehow with the final dream.”
“Because your Homeseeker’s Dream compels you to believe that or because it makes sense?”
She paused. “I trust the dream,” she said. “I don’t know why, but I do. I trust Neb. I trust Isaak. They’ve a part in this that is unfinished.”
“Sometimes,” Charles said, “things are left unfinished, Winteria.” He stood, collecting his half-empty bowl and cup. “I’ll hope against hope for your Neb, but I’m certain Isaak is lost. His sunstone ruptured in the fight with the Watcher; we all felt the explosion.” He looked away again before meeting her eyes once more. “But this I’ll say; I know he knew the risk to himself when he went out into the fight to protect your so-called Homeseeker. And I know he believed in your dream as well as his own. In the end, he gave himself for it, and I honor him best by serving the light he was in service to—the library he loved so well.”
She understood that, and for the briefest moment she wondered what she would do if Charles was right and they were gone—Neb, Isaak and the Watcher along with the final dream he claimed to have. What if Rudolfo’s Ninefold Forest and his library were the closest she would come to the Home her people had been promised? Thousands of years of dreaming come to nothing. She couldn’t fathom it, and she involuntarily shook her head to cast off her doubt. “My dream and Isaak’s were bound up in one another,” she said. “And I have to trust it.”
“I know,” Charles replied. “But my faith was never in Isaak’s dream. It was in Isaak.” Then, he gave her one final, anguished look and turned, depositing his bowl and cup in the waiting bucket of wash water on his way out of the tent.