by Dan Hiestand
The Alchemist and Barrister
The Alchemist and Barrister
“When it comes to politics and war, timing is everything.”
Aquamarine (March) 16, 2013
They walked for what seemed like a very long time.
Relic following closest behind Foy.
Until now, the caverns and grottos surrounding the Outriders seemed naturally formed. Around the final corner, that changed: Here was an area created, or at the very least molded, by human hands. Raw veins of mineral stood out above and around the visitors.
Uncovered, but not exploited. It was, Relic thought, not exactly the Republic way.
The walls were symmetrical and the floor was level. Ages had been spent in the wall carvings, creating decorative flourishes that wound around and over pulsing tides of stone. Relic’s eyes stopped on an opal so large, he thought he would be able to see his face in it if he leaned close.
The walls swirled and spiraled with tan and white and gray and gold all around the gems.
Relic stopped for a breath or two, lingering near that magnificent opal with its rainbow sheen—
But he had no time to think twice about it: Isabelle was stepping past him. She bent down to face the silvery stone, her smile reflected in glassy facets. It’s beautiful, she breathed to her reflection.
“Yes, it is certainly that. And much more, too.”
Gabriel Foy slowed, glancing over his shoulder at Isabelle. She bobbed up when she saw him, regaining her feet and taking up the space behind him. Foy’s eyebrows drew close, like two gray caterpillars, as he briefly regarded Relic.
In a sign both knew without speaking, he urged: Stay put.
“Naturally, it was the opal deposits that drew settlers here. There were thousands of miners at first.” Foy said. “Them in the so-called heartland can’t imagine the depth or scope of the veins here, even to this day. If they knew better, this settlement would be ten times the size.”
Foy waited to be sure he heard the right footsteps around him. Then:
“Even Artemus didn’t know it when he came knocking, mercifully. But the real story isn’t the stones; it’s what they’re embedded in. These tunnels, far as anyone can tell, are pure kaolinite.”
Isabelle was tracing her fingertips over the walls.
Glancing up, she asked: “What’s that?”
“Kaolinite is a rock-salt mixture found on every continent except Emren.” Foy turned slightly to Jace, as if he had asked. “Great deposits lie in places that, millions of years ago, were covered by the sea. The falling tides left behind these layers of salt.”
With his hands buried deep in his pockets, Jace nodded slowly.
“Awesome. I mean, I don’t care, but …”
But Gabriel Foy was still in the middle of answering Isabelle’s question.
“—and potassium, giving them vibrant colors. If you know where to look, you can find it even on the Glate Mountains in Winterwine. All things considered, it lends a lot of weight to the idea that the world as we know it was once no more than a churning ocean.”
“It kind of looks like an elaborate tapestry,” Isabelle said.
Gabriel reached up and adjusted the straw hat on his head.
“That is a far more apt observation than you could possibly know, young lady.”
Even when no more opals could be seen, that tapestry of endless color glittered bright enough to light their way, but only just. Each dozen feet or so, there stood a decorative niche – every one of them occupied by a griffon statue in a solemn pose. Some held theirs wings closed; others, out.
Their jeweled eyes glittered attentively as the Outriders passed. As Isabelle saw them, one word was in her mind instantly: Guardian. She thought of the similar statues on porches and window sills all along the streets of Sandia.
Relic finally spoke up:
“They say all precious stones were born of kaolinite the way all matter was born of stardust.”
Mmhm, Gabriel rasped in his throat – an utterly inscrutable little sound.
“Huh,” Jace mused as he popped open his tin of cigarettes, selected one, and eyed it critically for a few seconds before slipping it into his mouth. The tin went back into his cloak as he glanced over at Relic “And who the hell are they, I wonder?”
Relic’s expression went blank, looking but not seeing as Jace shielded his lighter-flame from the wind out of pure habit and touched it to the tip of the battered hand-roll. It wasn’t until he heard the snick of the lighter closing that Relic snapped alert.
“I don’t know, man … they. Like … they say you’re an asshole.”
Cedwyn stepped up, still behind, but just between them now.
“They’re right,” he chimed in.
The three laughed – and Cedwyn looked up just in time to keep the others from running into Foy. The old man and Isabelle had suddenly ground to a halt, and the others hovered all too close for a few moments before they picked out the reason why.
There was a door up ahead.
A very ordinary-looking door, Relic reassured himself—
Yet, somehow, the first grumblings of anxiety only grew.
It was plain indeed, set with iron rivets along plated bars at the top and bottom, and a small, rectangular slit was embedded at eye level. Cedwyn, Jace, and Relic exchanged silent glances as Gabriel Foy leaned toward it.
A thin stream of smoke traced up from Jace’s cigarette as he took a wary puff. Isabelle pushed her way back past Cedwyn, rolled her eyes, and plucked it right out of his mouth ─ taking a drag of the stranger come back in the dark before dropping it on the floor and crushing it.
Jace stayed stock still as he was relieved of his cigarette—
But he touched her shoulder as Gabriel Foy pounded on the heavy oak door.
“Password,” said a muffled voice, quiet and serious.
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. One – the green one – drew just an inch from the slit.
“Ah, yes,” he responded slowly. “The password.”
He looked down, sighed in what seemed deep thought for a moment—
And then snapped his fingers as it apparently came to him.
“The password is: Open this door right now before I reach in and pull you through that slit.”
He stopped to briefly clear his throat, and seemed to remember something more:
“That is correct,” the unseen Mr. Brayden answered, his tone not a whit different.
The slit slid closed, and that quick squeak of metal was followed by the door groaning open on heavy hinges. Foy strode right in without the slightest hesitation, leaving the Outriders standing amongst themselves in a sort of collective daze.
“Outriders on me means on me, young ones,” Gabriel’s voice came back from the darkness. “Not on me until the end of the hallway, if you please.”
Jace stepped forward, the first to follow Foy past the threshold. Isabelle absently traced her fingertips over his forearm as he passed, a stolen moment that belonged only to them. When the others were gone, she lingered only long enough to look back.
In the half-dark there glinted the sunrise-colored eyes of a griffon guardian.
Isabelle straightened her back, took a silent breath, and followed the others.
It was a room, not another cavern, and that alone was enough for relief.
Jace’s lips quirked in a grimace as he realized it was, well, a cellar.
His eyes met Relic’s for an instant as they looked around, instinctively seeking trouble – though, in deference to their host, their weapons sat idle. What they saw was a chamber of cobblestone: Surprisingly cool compared to the still, warm air outside.
Not far off to the right, a stair led up to another door. Beyond it, they sensed a great commotion: Loud discussions, snippets of song, the clinking of glass. From the corner of his eye, Relic saw Jace jerk to a halt, every muscle poised, his full attention on the door.
The Librarian found himself drawing closer to watch his comrade’s back—
But before he could do more, Jace’s shoulders slumped and he let out a laugh.
“It sounds like the Last Chance Saloon in there,” he said. “Been a while since I’ve seen an inn.”
A thought prickled the back of Relic’s neck. He said: “Oh, yeah? How long, exactly?”
“You should know,” said Jace, briefly clapping Relic’s shoulder before turning to Gabriel and the two strangers who had stood up to join them as soon as they entered. One fellow was tall and young; the other, squat and powerful, graying, with a mustache nearly as big as his muscles.
A well-chomped cigar shifted from one side of his mouth to the other as he looked over.
But Jace was looking down: To where very familiar hand crossbows hung at their sides. The other weapons seemed to be whatever they could find: A butcher’s knife, tailor’s shears. They were merely a distraction compared to what even one of those crossbows could do.
And both men carried two – just like an Outrider.
“Then you’re in luck,” said Foy. “This is no ordinary inn, my boy: It’s a hideout.”
At that, the two men grinned – the elder of them added. “A legendary one at that.”
“I’m not one for long introductions, and even if I were, we don’t have time to make them,” said Foy. “This here is Brayden Scofield.” Foy motioned to the one standing closest to him. “The handsome young fellow is Irick. To be honest, I can’t quite recall what his last name is …”
“Aringill,” he said with a grin, extending his hand to Jace. “Irick Aringill.”
“Jace,” he said, grasping it. “Dabriel.”
“Yeah, we know who you are,” Irick said. He released Jace and turned to Relic. “Both of you.”
Relic looked over to Jace with a somewhat sheepish expression. Dabriel only shrugged.
A ripple of amusement rippled through Foy and even Brayden, but none said a word.
“I mean …” Irick cleared his throat, and now he was the one looking sheepish. “We know who all of you are, of course. You broke the time loop out in Westwood. All of you did, I just meant that Jace and Relic …” He paused and looked back at them. “Can I call you Jace and Relic?”
“Um … yeah,” Relic said.
Jace just gave a thumbs up.
“G-good, thank you!” He gulped, clasping his hands. “I just meant – everyone here knows you. I just ... here.” Holding up one finger, he plunged his other hand into his cloak. A loud scrunch accompanied Irick whipping out a bit of wrinkled old parchment.
He held it out and Relic took it instinctively, turning it around before he began to scan the words. “Friends and neighbors,” he read aloud. “This chronicle of the Night of the Outriders shall ...”
Waiting no longer, Jace fixed a cockeyed expression on Irick.
“You get the herald delivered out here?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Brayden, letting out a low, thoughtful whistle.
“We have the latest one, too, if you need it,” Irick went on. “Of course, that’s not our only way of knowing – ah, thank you,” he said, accepting the parchment back from Relic and half-folding it, a futile gesture. “You should see what that old sparrowhawk is saying about you now.”
“Awright, take it easy there, lad,” said Brayden, stepping up at last. He had been content to stand by, rubbing his peppered beard in thought at the sight of four legends out of the pages of history, but now he extended his own callused hand to each Outrider in turn. “Brayden McTaggart.”
Cedwyn grasped his hand, looked him in the eye, and said: “I think we’re in a cellar, Brayden.”
Brayden smiled widely, pushing the cigar ever-so-slightly further into the corner of his mouth.
“Must be that famous Outrider intuition,” he said, the smile staying in his voice—
As he moved a sly step to his left to stop in front of Isabelle.
There he hesitated, reaching up to finally pluck the cigar from his mouth. His voice was like honey. “Faeries above and below,” he said, taking her hand as gently as to suggest he might bow and kiss it. “You’re a frightfully gorgeous one, aren’t you?”
Isabelle tilted her head to the side. “Yes,” she said. “As I’m sure you’ve heard.”
Foy opened his mouth to respond, but Irick’s dazed voice interrupted them.
“Why, nothing in the herald ever said that Isabelle Talabray looks just like—”
“Well!” said Foy, and all eyes were on him.
Irick crinkled the folded herald in his fingers and glanced away, abashed.
“Now that we’ve all remade those introductions I just said we have no time for, I wonder if you lot would indulge an old man a bit further.” He turned and made for the stairs, slowing only a beat to touch Irick’s hand where the paper was clenched in it.
Irick looked up, mouth opening slightly, and finally put the thing in his pocket. It was as if he and only he had caught a vision of the thoughts Foy left unvoiced, and his nervousness melted away. The Outriders saw a faint smile quirk one side of his mouth.
They didn’t need famous Outrider intuition to tell them what they saw there.
Love, as simple as shaving soap, Relic thought, and it hurt his heart to know it.
Foy gazed back at them from the top of the stairs: One eye green, the other hazel.
Irick and Brayden started to shuffle forward and the Outriders followed behind.
“Welcome to the Blue Sun,” Foy said, his voice the warmest it had been yet.
As he opened the door, light spilled over him and onto the stairs. The sounds washed over the assembled Outriders: Pools and eddies of heartening, happy noise. This was the opposite of the condemning darkness and the damning silence they had left behind.
Chatter filled every corner as men gathered before a great bar made of yellow birch. There was a bartender, so busy he hadn’t so much as looked up at the newcomers. He was moving mugs at a fast clip from two frothing taps – needing no orders as he served each outstretched hand.
“Stand pat,” said Foy. “I’ll return presently. That means later, incidentally.”
Relic leaned over to Jace as he watched Foy’s retreating form.
“The ladder downstairs must extend from a trap door behind the bar.”
“Cool,” Jace replied absently, and in turn he leaned over to Cedwyn.
“He means the large building we saw through the archway last night?”
Cedwyn nodded slowly as he looked around, taking in as much as he could. Through the crowds, his eyes focused on the corner: There, where he’d expected a virtuoso playing the piano, stood a great mechanical half-clamshell: A gramophone. There was a piano, too, but it stood empty.
“Probably,” Cedwyn said, distracted. “But I’m not so sure it was last night.”
“What do you mean?” Isabelle asked, listening in as they shuffled forward. To anyone watching – and they saw no one – it would seem they were looking for a place to accommodate four. They orbited in a slow circle, keeping to themselves.
“There’s something about those tunnels.” Cedwyn said. When he unexpectedly caught the eye of a patron, he turned his chin away and added curtly: “We’ll talk about it later.” The others understood, and he indicated the machine in the corner with a broad wave.
“Nice music,” Isabelle said, not quite glancing toward the fleeting face in the crowd.
“What I’m wondering right now,” said Cedwyn, “is where they got that thing. Eh?”
“These were new when we left the Republic,” Relic pointed out. “It would cost thousands.”
“Couldn’t help but notice their weapons, too,” Jace added, letting his meaning hang there.
Cedwyn nodded, appreciation on his face at just how subtle Jace could be when he wished.
Under the light of a massive wagon-wheel chandelier, the Outriders stood back to back in loose formation. Yet, no matter where they looked, they saw nothing but a roadside inn any town would be glad to have. The only problem was that it was a hundred miles underground.
Irick approached from the bar; Jace was the first to accept a glass of vivid orange-brown liquid. He brought it to his nose, then downed it in one shot – warm, mulled apple cider. His other hand flexed instinctively for a few seconds, then he gave the kid an appreciative murmur.
Irick nodded back and went about serving the others.
Jace found his attention drifting to the stuffed trophies that lined the wall above the bar. Their gazes were vacant, pelts tattered and dusty, though they’d been staged with care: The massive grizzly bear looked ready to spring forth, despite the corn cob pipe stuck in his mouth.
“Thank you,” Relic said, never lifting his eyes from the gramophone as he sipped his cider.
“You like the song?” Irick asked; Relic only half-heard the question, but nodded. “It’s a Julia Duchenne piece, one of the first pressed in wax.” He turned briefly to the others and was still blushing from Isabelle’s acknowledgement when he looked back. “Pineapple Rag.”
“I was just thinking about that,” Relic said, and he would’ve gone on—
But at that moment, Foy – who had been speaking to another group of his men in hushed tones – jumped up on one of the tables and raised his voice so all could hear. “And just who told you lot you should break out the good wax before our honored guests even got here?”
“Nice to see you too, boss!” an unidentified wise-cracker responded.
Gabriel held up his hand to dismiss the comment, much to the amusement of the others.
“Hey boss,” shouted another. “Jaden is lookin’ for you – she says someone broke her lamp!”
“Good!” Gabriel bellowed. “I always said that thing was ugly as hell, and I’ve been there!”
He stepped down spryly and faced Brayden, who had been conferring with a second group.
“They made it as far as Ordeals around sundown,” Brayden told him without preamble. He reached up to touch his cigar with a disgusted expression. “Then crossed to Parnassus and made camp on the pass, just as you suspected.”
Foy nodded. “He’ll attack at dawn or soon after. Under the sun, so Arkhelan can see.”
“Right.” Brayden cleared his throat. “We’ll be ready this time.”
“See to it you are,” said Gabriel Foy, and excused himself, starting another orbit of the taproom.
Irick turned to Jace. “Valith, Irenus, three or four sky fire units, and at least two dozen minotaurs.” When the Outrider looked at him blankly, he added: “In case you were wondering.”
“Interesting,” Jace said with a contemplative pout. “Too bad I have no idea what that means.”
Brayden let out an amused sigh.
“You’ll have to excuse the lad. I’m fair certain he expects The Hero of Fairlawn to know everything … even when naught’s been told to him just yet. You have to understand, this new Point Team ya’ll got goin’ has been our outfit’s mission since Citrine.”
Irick was almost falling over himself to add, “Back when you broke the time loo─”
“Yes, lad,” Brayden said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Cool your forges now.”
“Outfit?” Isabelle asked.
Brayden took the cigar out of his mouth as he turned his attention to her.
“Tribune Duchenne came to an agreement with the boss. It was all their doing, together.”
“Aleister Duchenne, the lawyer?” Jace asked.
“And philosopher,” Relic added.
“And playwright,” Isabelle said without missing a beat.
“And senator,” Jace concluded, “dealing with a bunch of two-bit outlaws?”
Irick was blushing again, hotter this time. Brayden pressed on.
“We’re his foothold in the provinces, you might say. Keystone – that’s him – says there’s no way to imagine the future without understanding the past. These provinces, this desert, that’s where the past comes alive, innit? Sometimes, if you’re unlucky, it even hides in your boot.”
“There is no greater obstacle to God than time,” Cedwyn muttered.
Brayden nodded as if he’d heard something profound, but didn’t like the sound of it.
“We’ve been watching and watching out. For any sign that violence might be afoot. For anything at all that might end the peace between heartland and provinces. Sure enough, this seems like the beginning of the end. When things went wrong, we were called in.”
“Is that so?” Relic said, and Brayden raised an eyebrow before answering—
“Well, some of us have been in a bit longer than others,” he admitted, a bit shaken. “When there was a mite less action around here, that’s when we all worked together to build up the wall. It was one of the first things the boss—”
“Show me that,” Relic said all of a sudden.
“What?” said Brayden.
Relic pointed to something at the man’s hip. “That. Now.”
Carefully, Brayden brought up a metallic object dwarfed in his massive hands.
Relic forgot himself, forgot all courtesy, and snatched it from the man.
It was ...
“This pocket-watch ...” He turned it over, ran a thumb along the bottom edge. “My father made this.” Relic’s teeth clamped together in a stressful tic; he would have started pacing if not for the other Outriders around him. “That makes you – this – all of it ...”
“The Stopwatch Gang,” Cedwyn said aloud. “That’s been plaguing the area forty years.”
“How did you get this?” Relic demanded of Brayden, who had raised his hands.
“We bought it,” said Brayden. “As you well know, Relican.”
This took some of the tension out of Relic’s shoulders – and he calmed more as Cedwyn spoke.
“It was said the Stopwatch Gang could pick a coach completely clean in three minutes and disappear without a trace in three more. But after the armistice set in, they took on a much older name: The Blades. The blades in question being—”
He gestured to each man before him in turn.
“A barber’s scissors, a tailor’s shears, and a butcher’s knife. Fighters who couldn’t be disarmed by an occupying force even in times of peace. It’s said Sandia was founded by three blades – their own jailer let them go when the fourth escaped, rather than face execution.”
Taking a long, shaky breath, Relic surrendered the pocket-watch back to Brayden.
Cedwyn went on. “I take it you’re not robbing coaches any longer, are you, boys?”
“No, sir! N-not in my lifetime, sir!” said Irick. “And even before—”
“And the crossbows?” Jace interjected. “How did you lay your hands on those?”
“His doing,” Brayden said, looking to where Gabriel now stood on the landing of another set of stairs in the corner. “Built from scratch, mind you, with his own drawings – not stolen, a’course.”
“Foy trained all of you?” Relic said, a strange mixture of awe and disgust in his words.
“Some of us better’n others,” Brayden admitted, nodding companionably toward Irick.
It was as if Gabriel knew the moment his name had been spoken. Having completed his rounds in the taproom and gotten all the information he needed, he let out a low whistle like a bird’s. The Outriders each knew the sound instantly and came together as a group—
An arrow pointed toward Gabriel Foy.
“Never a’thought they’d be so impressive in person,” Brayden admitted into Irick’s ear.
The younger man nodded vigorously, his hand closed on the shell of his pocket-watch.
They watched the assembled Outriders go a few paces before they fell in line to follow. Foy paused a touch longer, nodding to himself as the song playing over on the gramophone changed to something else, something Irick well knew was among the old man’s favorite tunes of all.
On this storm-tossed sea of time ...