Authors: Ken Scholes
As he sat, his mind took him back through recent events as he cataloged every face, every sideways glance, every overheard word as he spun the Rufello lock and looked for the ciphers that would open this newest mystery to him. He went back to his first entrance into the city, then to Y’Zir itself, and found nothing. Despite the pounding of his head and the blood that bubbled in his nose, Vlad managed to sleep, and in sleeping, he dreamed.
He saw the tree again, but the field of seedlings had grown up into a jungle, and the tree was now a tower, massive and white against an azure sky. He heard quiet voices from the canopy of trees, the whisper of lovers, and he turned his ear in that direction, reaching for the staff to aid his hearing.
“This dream is of our home,” he heard a girl’s voice whisper.
He took another step in the direction of the voices and stopped when he heard a commotion from behind him.
Spinning, he saw the kin-raven as it dropped from the pinnacle of the tower to land upon a large white stone that could’ve been the parent of the stone in his pocket.
“Endicott,” the kin-raven croaked.
The tower he descended bore little resemblance to the one he’d climbed, and Neb found himself moving at a slower pace, his eyes and nose taking in the sights and smells of the temple as it emerged from its long slumber. The light was brighter, and it cast a warm glow over walls and floors that slowly came to life. He found trees bearing unfamiliar fruit and sampled them as he went, his mouth watering from the mix of tart and sweet that intersected with his palate and his growling stomach.
As he walked, Neb thought about the girl and wondered where she’d gone even as he marveled at the beast that had taken her. He knew it was no accident, and he suspected strongly that after calling it and being consumed by it, Amylé had then commanded it to bear her where she wished to go.
Along the way, he conversed in quiet tones with Petronus, describing what he saw and experienced, listening as the man told him the same. When they met in the middle, Neb gasped at what he saw.
The old pope was recognizable, to be sure, but only because Neb had grown up beneath the smile of the younger man’s papal portrait in the Great Library of Windwir. Now, Petronus was even younger than that visage.
His hair was thick and brown; and he was less portly now, though stocky, with the muscular build of a man now just a decade Neb’s senior in appearance. And as surprising as that was, the biggest surprise was the silver robes the man wore.
The sight of the man overpowered him, and Neb found tears filling his eyes. “I don’t understand it,” he said. “But it is good to see you.” Then, he looked beyond the man. “Where is Aver-Tal-Ka?”
There was sadness in Petronus’s eyes even as awe filled his voice. “He’s dead.” He held up his hands, and Neb saw him studying them. “What he did to me cost him his life, but he gladly gave himself to it.”
He felt a stab of grief himself but pushed it aside. “But you were able to receive the dream.”
At the mention of the dream, Petronus’s face shifted from sorrow to something Neb had not seen in what felt like years. It was joy. Or hope. Or both. “It was…” Petronus couldn’t find the words, and Neb watched him look for them. “It was like nothing I’ve ever seen. Rafe and the others experienced it, too. Even the mechoservitors.”
Neb sighed. He’d come so far and yet missed so much of what he’d journeyed here to do. Regret and guilt pushed at his heart, and Petronus must have seen it. He settled his large hand onto Neb’s shoulder, and their eyes met.
“You’ve had few choices in all of this, Nebios,” Petronus said. “And yet you’ve risen admirably to everything you’ve faced. Do not for a moment see this as failure.” He offered a gentle smile. “You trusted the dream to bring us here, and now, the temple is unsealed.”
Neb nodded, but his words didn’t lift the veil of his sadness. “Yes.” He looked around, remembering the gloom and must and lifelessness he’d seen along the way. “It’s nothing like it was before.”
But what now?
He lacked the staff necessary to command this place and had no sense of how to retrieve it. Or how to bring about whatever was needed to bring Winters and her people home.
They stood outside an ornate door that breathed, an aroma rising from it that called for his fingers to gently touch it. Even as Neb reached for it, he saw Petronus doing the same, and when their hands met the door’s warm surface, it yielded to their touch and spread itself open. Beyond it, a large and high-ceilinged room stretched out before them.
White trees grew up within that room, limbs heavy with unlikely fruit—gems of various size and shape and color that cast rainbow light over the room. And at the center of the room, a ring of white stones that surrounded a smaller tree. A memory that he should not have tickled at the back of his mind, and Neb looked to Petronus as they both whispered the words that formed, unbidden, in their minds.
“The Library of Elder Days,” they said in unison.
They moved into the library together, spreading out to cover more ground. The room was far larger than it should’ve been given the space it occupied in the tower, and already, a lush grass—punctuated here and there with flowers of a dozen colors and scents—grew up to meet their feet and ankles with soothing coolness.
As Neb passed beneath the trees, he felt the slightest tickling of their whispered voices in his ear, though he didn’t understand what they said. There were too many of them. He paused beneath a tree bearing emerald-colored stones and touched one with its finger. The color rippled across it at his touch, and a voice became clear, dropping into his head like a stone in a pond.
Authorization for library access is denied. Please see the Firsthome Temple administrator to request library access.
He looked across to Petronus. “Did you hear that?”
The man shook his head, his face curious. Then, he stretched out a finger and touched one of the stones that dangled from a different tree. His eyes went wide. “Oh.”
They met at the ring of stones and stepped into it to study the smaller tree that grew there. At first, Neb wasn’t sure exactly what he saw hanging from it, but as he drew closer, he saw that most of the branches had been picked clean. He stretched out a finger to touch one of the dozen silver rings remaining upon the tree. This time, there was no voice and no call to visit the administrator.
“What do you think it is?” Petronus asked.
Neb looked over his shoulder, then back to the ring. “I don’t know.”
He took hold of it, and pulled and as he did, he heard a growl and stopped. A familiar tree shuddered nearby, thorns suddenly springing from its branches as its dark fruit turned on him like eyes. He released the ring and stepped back with his hands held high.
Petronus leaped back. “What in the hells is
What had Aver-Tal Ka called it?
“A Watching Tree. They are guardians of a sort,” Neb said.
“Maybe we should leave,” Petronus offered.
They backed out of the library and watched the door fold closed. Once they were alone in the wide hall, Neb released his held breath. “I wonder who the administrator is?”
Petronus smiled. “At this point, I suspect it’s you. You heard the story, Neb. These are your people.”
He shook his head. “You unsealed the temple. Maybe that makes you the administrator.” He took in the younger pope again, noticing the thick brown hair on his arms and the ease of his stride. “They’re your people, too.”
A momentary cloud crossed Petronus’s eyes. “Certainly, we’re all descended from them. But I’m so many generations removed from it that the world your people made no longer recognizes me. It only serves me now because of what Aver-Tal-Ka did.” He held his hands up again and studied them. “And this is temporary. When it plays out, I’ll not be good for much administrating.” His laugh was brief and bitter. “Not that I ever enjoyed that work especially.”
The darkness was there again in his eyes, and with the bitterness of the laugh, Neb knew there was more Petronus wasn’t telling. But then again, he also knew the old pope—no, not old—kept his own counsel and invited others into it in his own time. “I need the staff,” he said.
Petronus clapped him on the back. “Yes. And I’ve no doubt you’ll find it.”
The pools had been tampered with, and their ship had been destroyed. Neb hoped the mechoservitors that awaited below might have some idea. And if not them, perhaps they’d be able to somehow repair the ancient mechanical that had brought them here with its song and it would know. Or maybe he could find Amylé, wherever she’d fled, and convince her somehow to tell him.
Beyond those things, he did not know what else he could do.
Neb took a deep breath, held it, and released it. Then, once more, he resumed his descent.
Rudolfo stood at the entrance of the amphitheater flanked with Yazmeera’s guards. The general had traded her dress uniform for an ornate robe, and he recognized her rank sewn into the silver piping. He also recognized the silver knife she wore at her belt.
Rudolfo breathed and then jumped when he felt Ire Li Tam’s hands straightening the white scarf that accented his own dark clothing. He’d reluctantly worn the uniform befitting his rank as chancellor, refusing the green turban that had appeared with it in his dressing room. He’d found himself more distracted in the days since he’d seen Jakob in his dreams, and yet he’d still managed to assist the cooks as they prepared for his Markday Feast. He’d selected four or five Named Lands dishes with all of the same care he’d put into his betrothal dinner for Jin Li Tam, knowing full well that if all went as it should, it would largely go uneaten.
Yazmeera leaned in to take in the uncrowded rows of benches. She sighed. “I’d hoped more would come.”
Why would they?
Kin-clave may have required their attendance, but if it was being disbanded anyway, there was little point attending. The minimum number of representatives were present, accounting for very few of the benches, and the rest were locals that had been invited. Rudolfo smiled and waved his hand in a flourish. “Those who need to be here are here,” he said.
Yazmeera faced him, placing her hands on his shoulders and leaning back to take him in. “You look splendid, Lord Chancellor,” she said. “How do you feel?”
Rudolfo swallowed the truth and let the lie out with ease. “I feel splendid,” he said.
The truth would have been that he did not know how he felt exactly. Seeing Jakob and experiencing the shared dream had reinforced his decision, and something in that dream had raised his hopes in ways that didn’t feel commensurate to the times he now lived in. He suspected some kind of magick at work, and the Y’Zirites did as well. Since that day, they’d been flooded with kin-ravens bearing reports of the same thing both here in the Named Lands and from back in Y’Zir.
From what he could gather, everyone had experienced the same dream, and it was introducing an unexpected and unwelcome element to the Y’Zirites’ plans. He’d sat in meetings with Yazmeera and her advisors—including the priestesses who oversaw the evangelists and schoolteachers—and listened carefully to their heated conversations on how to best explain this unexplainable event in a way that did not undermine their worldview or their work.
From what he saw, it could only help him with what lay ahead.
“It’s time,” Yazmeera said.
Rudolfo nodded. Then, he walked out into the amphitheater and braced himself for the chilly reception he expected.
His eyes wandered the seating and found Philemus first, acting now on his behalf as over-sheriff. The second captain sat with a half-squad of Gypsy Scouts, his face without expression even as his eyes met Rudolfo’s. Near him, Esarov sat with a handful of Delta Scouts, and he recognized several others. Most, however, were unfamiliar to him, and he knew they were lower-ranking aides sent from houses that could not go so far as to ignore the call of kin-clave but also would not support it fully.
As he entered, the others followed him and took up seats nearby. Blood Guard stood at each of the entrances and took up positions at key points throughout the wide open space, one hand upon their knife hilts and the other upon the phials of blood magick on chains around their necks.
He walked to the podium and forced a smile. “I open this kin-clave in the cause of peace and under the providence of the forebears who established it.”
Their reply was muted, lips moving but the words of response impossible to hear. As he looked out over the room, he saw mostly hard stares or averted eyes. Esarov inclined his head and offered a smile. Philemus continued to meet his eyes, and Rudolfo held the man’s stare for a moment before continuing.
“We’ve been told our entire lives that change is the path life takes,” Rudolfo said in a slow and measured voice, leaning on the podium. “And there can be no doubt now that our world has changed.”
From there, he moved into his opening remarks and watched as his audience shifted uncomfortably on their benches. He kept his voice sober, and when he proposed the dissolution of kin-clave, he waited a full minute for someone among the houses represented to offer back the motion necessary to move them forward. When none did, he looked to Philemus and inclined his head slowly.
The kin-raven had been clear, but despite that, the second captain waited. Then, in a voice heavy with grief or maybe anger, the old Gypsy Scout stood and spoke. “Under protest,” he said, “I call for the dissolution of kin-clave on behalf of the Ninefold Forest.”
Rudolfo didn’t need to wait for Esarov. The man stood quickly and sat quickly. “I concur on behalf of the United City-States of the Entrolusian Delta and call for the vote of those gathered under the providence of kin-clave.”
They moved through the remainder of the Council quickly, Rudolfo briefly outlining the oath of fealty that they would soon take. None dared walk out, but he saw the desire to do so upon their faces, and he knew that Yazmeera and her people did as well, marking those they thought could later be problematic.