Taramiel and Sartore finally meet, and Maisero grows bitter.
A storm raged on the day Sartore and Taramiel first met. It had brewed overnight, and now poured into the ocean. The ship traversed against the chaotic waves that rocked it in every direction. No one could sleep through it, but few were willing to be awake.
Sartore wasn’t bothered by it. He awoke to the colorless dawn, unsure how much of the day had already passed. Through the constant patter of rain, Sartore heard the creaks of some of his neighbors stepping through the hallway, and quickly went to follow them.
The few that had been brave enough to leave their quarters now pressed their bodies against the walls to keep from falling over. Sartore walked past them. He stopped at the staircase up to the deck, and saw a young man at the top clutching the handrail to keep the wind from blowing him away. After a moment it reversed course and slammed him into the wall, before switching directions again. In a moment of calm, the man tumbled down the steps, shoved past Sartore and scrambled back to his cabin. Sartore took his spot.
Just as he did so, Sartore heard a shout from one of the sailors:
And indeed, through the fog came the shadow of a vessel, heading straight for them.
“It’s not one of ours,” another sailor said.
“Start arming the boat,” came another. Half the sailors dropped from the sails and ropes, opened a hatch in the deck and fell into it. Soon after a fraction of them resurfaced, bringing with them crossbows and bolts, harpoons, spears, and knives, then began fixing these onto the rim of the ship. When they finished, the sailors still on deck returned to their former tasks, but kept their heads turned to the shadow. At that moment, Sartore could only hear the waves and the rain, and it was loud, but it was empty.
Then the other ship came crashing through the curtains. Thirty-some arrows flew towards the sailors, and each of them ducked to the floor and crept towards their own artillery.
Five cannons fired from the mariner ship. Four of the cannonballs dropped into the water at the other ship’s side, and the last bounced off the other ship’s hull. Another round of arrows fell, a little closer to the mariner’s feet now, but still too far off.
The mariners, now hidden behind the rim of the ship, gripped the handles of their weaponry. They poked their heads just high enough to see the small army of soldiers crowded onto the other ship’s deck, partly armored. Each of the mariners shot low. Most of the shots connected, digging into the soldier’s midsections. Those soldiers soon fell. One mariner stood up and loaded a pointed metal rod and fired. It pierced through one of the soldiers’ chests and sent him back into a few others. In return, an arrow sunk into his shoulder. The mariner kneeled and pulled the arrow out of his shoulder, then slotted it into his bow and fired again.
Sartore stepped a bit further into the deck. His eyes fell naturally on a man standing at the head of the other ship, had to be the captain, Sartore thought, who somehow seemed taller than all of the other men despite what appeared to be an average height. That captain fired again and sent an arrow cruising an inch above one of the mariner’s heads.
A wave launched the other ship into the mariners, the soldiers’ bowsprit colliding with the ship’s side, but the ship was sturdy, and although the impact left a serious dent, the wood held. The other ship bounced away and settled parallel to the mariners.
Another round of cannonballs rang forth. Each one hit, leaving an uneven set of holes in the other ship’s hull. Now the crashing waves were leaving deposits of water in the other ship.
The face of the captain turned to Sartore. The man’s eyes widened for a moment, then hardened again. He raised his bow and fired three shots in succession, but Sartore jumped back before any could hit.
“Get the boy!” the captain shouted. Sartore peeked again, saw the mariners waving him away, and decided to fall to the ground, out of everyone’s sight, tucking his knees onto one of the steps and keeping an eye on the battle.
“Get on the damn ship and find the boy!”
The front row of soldiers dropped their bows and each picked up a grappling hook at their feet. The mariners stopped for a moment, but it was long enough for the army to throw their hooks over the edge of the ship, catching hold. Some of the hooks crashed into the crossbows and destroyed them. The mariners pulled out their knives and made quick work of the rope, which fell to the side of the ship, and the hooks falling at the mariners’ feet.
Another round of cannonfire. Each struck true, near where the first successful shots had hit.
In reply, the soldiers threw another array of grappling hooks, this time backed with better timing by arrows. One mariner was shot, the arrow digging into his brain.
“Get them!” the soldiers’ captain shouted. Two soldiers crawled onto each rope. Despite the continuing volley from the other ship, the mariners reached out with their knives and cut at the ropes, albeit slower this time. A few ropes were cut through, and those soldiers fell into the water. A few others managed to reach the mariner boat first, swung their legs aboard and raising their swords above the mariners. A few stood and ended with arrows in their spine and blades in their throat. The rest fended off the soldiers long enough for friendly fire and the mariners’ work at the soldiers’ legs to bring them down.
Then came the final shot of cannons. Again, each connected. The hide of the ship was shredded now, water pouring freely into it from above and below. The soldiers’ ship was sinking.
“Drop the boats!” the captain shouted, continuing to fire on the mariners. The remaining soldiers ran to the opposite side of the ship and untied a set of knots holding up lifeboats. The mariners still standing continued firing, and the mariners from below finally hopped up from the hatch and manned the empty posts themselves. Before the soldiers fled, one mariner arrow managed to find a target, sending the victim to the ocean.
And then the soldiers were gone. It took some time for the abandoned ship to finally sink; the mariners dropped their weapons and turned their ship away from the wreckage to keep them from colliding again. When it was finally taken by the waves, the mariners were unable to find the soldiers that had escaped.
Bodies still lay on the deck. They slid back and forth in the rain.
The weather seemed to calm then. A few of the sailors dropped their work again to tend to the fallen. The bodies of the soldiers were thrown overboard. Four mariners remained. Those bodies were lifted up by those still standing and carried to the sailors’ cabins. Then all but one returned to the ship, the last pulling arrows out of the deck and tossing them into a stockpile of loose supplies at one corner of the ship.
“Boy!” came a shout. Sartore saw that it was the same sailor he’d seen the night before. The sailor walked to him and sat on one knee. Sartore noticed that the other sailors were watching him.
“Do you know why those men were searching for you?” the sailor said, narrowing his eyes. Sartore shook his head.
“Ever seen any of them before?”
“I—no, but—” Sartore stopped, tried turning around to walk back to his cabin but was stopped by the sailor’s grip.
“Keep going or I’ll force it out of you,” the sailor said.
“The captain’s face reminded me of something.”
“I don’t know.”
The sailor sighed, rose and examined the wet shin of his pants, then ruffled the boy’s hair.
“They’ll be back for you soon. You’ll be surprised how fast their type can turn around. I’d like to talk to you sometime after the storm rolls over, because I won’t be happy letting you walk with them looking for you. Where’s the old man I came in with?”
“Sleeping, I guess.”The sailor laughed.
“I’ll get him out of there too, when the sun goes up.” The sailor looked at Sartore one last time, then walked back to his station and got back to work. The others, after hesitating for a moment, did the same. Sartore had an unsettling feeling in his chest, as though something had fallen out and slid away somewhere else on the boat. After a moment, he went back to his cabin.
With one foot into his room, Sartore heard whimpering from Maisero’s. Sartore stepped over and saw him with his face crushed into his pillow and his body shaking. There was no hint of vomit, thankfully.
“You should get up, Maisero,” Sartore said. Maisero swiveled his head to look at the boy before shoving his face back into the bed. Sartore laughed and walked to his own, his body sinking into the covers and his mind smuggled away by the rain.
Sartore knew this place, before he had even opened his eyes to see it. But when he did, he was lost. There was a small lake in front and a short hill in back, and he was standing in the middle on a thin strip of sand. The sky was slowly being fed to a great furnace at the horizon. Some commotion emerged from behind—some screaming, some horses neighing. He turned towards it, and only saw a black wooden house on top of the hill, with small windows facing the water. Sartore stepped back from the noise, dipping one of his boots into an emerging wave; but he wanted to see nonetheless.
Sartore now stood at the top of the hill, beside the house. He stood at the outskirts of a village, one he recognized—but couldn’t remember. The village had been destroyed; most of the houses had been levelled, the rubble spilling onto the village floor. Bodies lay still in the wreckage. Presiding over it were a collection of men on horseback—each riding identical black horses, each wearing identical sets of silver armor and carrying the same long and bloodied sword.
And when they all turned to Sartore, he saw that they all had the face of the soldiers’ captain.
The nearest of them turned to Sartore. Hands shot up from the earth like weeds in the path between them—from the dead bodies that lay there. The horseman moved slowly, and the horse crushed each forearm and wrist with the accompanying crack of a twig.
A woman leapt in front of Sartore from the rubble, knees bent and hands outstretched. She tilted her head back to Sartore, enough for him to see her, and she whispered: “Run, Sartore, please,” before facing the horseman.
The face reminded Sartore of something, he thought. The horsemen laughed, and Sartore didn’t move, couldn’t. The woman looked back, eyes wide and pleading; but inevitably, she stopped. Her hands drifted to her side, and she rose from her stance, let her shoulders roll forward and her head bend down, hair like a curtain to hide her face The horseman moved closer, and drove his sword into her chest. He lifted her from the ground, and tossed her to the side and back into the rubble.
Finally, the horseman stood above Sartore. The horseman’s ride neighed and raised its hooves, then rode over him. Sartore could feel his bones crushed, the metal imprint of the horseshoes in his flesh, his body collapsing into the dirt—and as he died, he woke up.
And when he did, Sartore thought he was in bed at home, with his parents waiting for him in the kitchen, and that in a minute he would jump out of bed and run to his parents and tell them about his dream, and they could comfort him and laugh with him. For a minute, Sartore could only see the night’s aftertaste.
And the feeling disappeared when he realized he didn’t know what home, or kitchen, or parents his mind seemed to refer to. He was on a boat at sea; the morning light was falling into his face from the cabin window.
Sartore got out of bed, slipped on his boots, and walked to the deck. The sun was bright and hot in the clear sky. To temper the heat came a cool breeze that carried the seductive and repulsive smell of the ocean deep, while the gentle skipping of the boat against the tide sent up a cold spray of sea water, which was almost soothing, if it would just stop flying into his face.
Other passengers had come to celebrate the good fortunes as well, and ogle at the damage left behind from the previous day: the arrow punctures in the hull, the hooks in the rim of the ship, a shorter crew. Sometimes a passenger would stare at one of the sailors, and the sailor would look back until the passenger turned away.
Sartore noticed after a few minutes that all of the sailors were watching him. He looked around, and saw the sailor who’d spoken to him a few nights ago walking towards him. The sailor was bald, and the gray bristle on his face was growing into a fur.
“How long’ve you been awake, boy?” the sailor asked.
“Only a minute,” Sartore replied.
“Get the old man and bring him here. I need to talk to you two.”
Sartore nodded, and the sailor followed suit, before walking back down the deck. Sartore ran to Maisero’s cabin. The old man was asleep, rolled into a ball with the sheets tucked under his chin. Sartore walked to the side of the bed and pushed Maisero back and forth: no response. Sartore crawled up the bedframe and fell on top of the old man, and Maisero awoke immediately. Sartore hopped off the bed and laughed. Maisero opened his eyes slowly, lifted his head, then dropped it back into his pillow.
“Oh, child, have we landed yet?”
“No,” Sartore said, still laughing. Maisero groaned.
“Child, why did you wake me? This journey has been trouble enough.” Sartore stopped laughing.
“One of the sailors wants to talk to you. And me.”
“Tell the kind sailor that we can speak once we’ve landed on shore, I’m in no shape to speak on any important business.” Maisero placed a hand over his mouth, shut his eyes, and wiggled back beneath the covers.
Sartore ran back to the sailor to report the news. The sailor did not find the news very amusing, and walked down to and stood in Maisero’s door frame.
“You slug,” the sailor said. Maisero awoke again, eyes wide and afraid for a moment, bu he quickly closed them again and shifted to the opposite side of the bed.
“Hello, sailor, welcome—”
“Get up. Now.”
“I don’t think I’m in any shape to follow your order, sailor.”
The sailor walked up to the side of Maisero’s bed and cast Maisero’s blankets aside.
“No, don’t, it’s cold.”
“It’s going to be a lot colder in a minute when I throw you overboard. Now get up.”
Maisero didn’t reply. The sailor waited another second before leaning forward and grabbing Maisero’s wrists. The old man’s head shot up, face like a terrified raccoon’s, but he still refused to move, and tried wrestling his wrists from the sailor’s grip. After another moment of Maisero’s struggle passed, the sailor pulled him out of the bed and let the old man drop to the floor, first his head and hands, and then inevitably the rest of him tumbling down. Maisero moaned, then balled up on the floor and stopped, moving only when the ship forced him to.
“Get on your feet,” the sailor said. Again, no reply.
“Listen, old man,” the sailor continued, crouching down a few inches from Maisero’s head. “If you aren’t up and moving in a minute, I’ll be dragging you the rest of the way. I’m sure everybody else on deck will think it’s pretty funny, the rest of the crew, all the passengers out there enjoying the weather, and then you, an old, petulant cripple getting handled like a bag of dead meat in broad daylight. I don’t like you much, but it looks to me like you’re the kid’s escort, so I’m going to be taking you out either way.”
Maisero lifted his head, looked past the sailor and to Sartore, standing by the doorframe, with the same, animal’s eyes. Sartore hid momentarily in the hallway until he heard Maisero starting to rise. Maisero had his hands at either side of the floor, one leg up, and now the other one—now he was really crouched like an animal—and then finally made the slow progression to straightening his wobbling legs. He managed it, eventually, one hand against the bed frame, another against the wall to keep him steady: bit the victory was short lived, as the long-festering vomit finally slid out of his mouth. The green bile collected in a corner of the cabin like leftover stew. The smell started searing Sartore’s nose, so he plugged it with his hand. The sailor didn’t react at all. He handed Maisero a towel from his back pocket, which Maisero desperately needed, now snot-nosed and green-lipped.
“I’ll have someone clean up for you by the time I let you back. Let’s go.”
“Thank you, sir,” Maisero muttered, and shuffled slowly behind him. The sailor motioned for Sartore, who emerged and lead their little gang across the deck, the sailor tenderly nudging him in the right direction. As they crossed over the deck, Maisero kept his hands firmly around his face, to keep everything other than the sailor’s heels out of sight. Sometimes Maisero would stumble, but the sailor would always catch him before he fell, and righted him.
The sailor led them to a door in the bow of the ship, which he opened, ushering Sartore and Maisero in. The three of them had arrived at a better furnished cabin, with a table in the center and five chairs orbiting it, and large wooden chests against the walls.
“The seats are for you,” the sailor said. Sartore hopped onto the closest one, his feet still a few inches over the floor. Maisero shuffled around the boy and sat with a chair between them, dropping his elbows to his knees and hanging his head in the empty space. The sailor sat down behind the other side of the table.
“What’s your name, kid?” the sailor asked.
“Sartore. The old man’s?”
“Maisero.” Sartore turned to see the old man’s reaction, but he hadn’t moved.
“Alright, listen kid. Those people you saw yesterday were a troop of the Sacredate’s army. You ever heard the name Sacredate before?”
Sartore was shaking his head slightly, while Maisero was lifting his head as though he had just woken up.
“The Sacredate’s men were here?”
“They stopped by for a quick visit.” Maisero’s face became alarmed, and the sailor laughed, but with little humor. “They attacked us during the storm.” Maisero’s alarm grew larger, but a glare from the sailor frightened him and he dropped his head back between his legs.
“No,” Sartore said. “Maybe. It sounds familiar.”
“Not surprised. It isn’t a new word. It used to be the title of a particular line of kings, although they’re long gone now. The new royalty is just trying to live up to the old Sacredate’s ruins.” Sartore nodded vaguely. He didn’t understand most of what the sailor was saying, but he liked the sound of the sailor’s voice, something about the way he seemed to growl when he spoke.
“This Sacredate’s different. He’s been calling himself that since the first time he ever got anybody’s attention. He says he’s been chosen by the Gods to liberate the people from the current rulership. He says the Gods talk to him and guide him, and they give him visions of the future. He uses that to justify massacring entire villages and towns, raiding and burning cities to the ground. Sometimes he chooses to have a public speech somewhere first, then destroy it. Those who listen, or those who don’t escape, join him. I’ve never heard of him or any of his army losing a battle—last night must’ve been some sort of miracle.
“You don’t want him after you, kid. But you do.”
“The Sacredate’s men are looking for him?” Maisero said. He stared slack-jawed at the sailor.
“When the captain of that troop saw Sartore, he told the rest of his crew to kill him.”
“You think I have any idea?” Maisero looked at Sartore, and Sartore thought that edges of Maisero’s face had hardened into stone. Maisero held the gaze until Sartore was unable to, turning back to the sailor. Maisero kept watching.
“You said you recognized the captain’s face?”
“What?” Maisero nearly shouted. “Child, you know them?”
“No,” Sartore began, “I didn’t mean—”
“Quiet, old man,” the sailor said, and without hesitation Maisero did as requested, although his face became stonier still. Sartore’s eyes had become very round, and he required some strong suggestion to refocus on the sailor.
“Look,” the sailor continued. “Doesn’t matter to me how you know him. But as a general principle, what the Sacredate wants, I don’t. And I don’t want him to get you. With me so far?” Sartore nodded.
“Now, the Sacredate’s probably already sending another troop for you. Already you’re less safe than you should be. Hiding won’t do you any good, he’ll still find you; everybody eventually talks. You need some actual defense.
“Fortunately, where we’re headed, there are some like-minded folks that I’m sure don’t want you running into the Sacredate either. It would be safer for you if you stayed with them until . . . later.”
Now Sartore was looking up at the sailor with some dismay. Playing in the back of his head was the warm feeling of the sunset on his face and his arms.
“But—I didn’t come here to stay with them.”
“I know, kid. I don’t know what your plans were, but I can tell you that you wouldn’t get a day out of the port before you were swallowed up by the Sacredate’s men. When things calm down—later—you can do whatever you want. Now—where are your parents?”
“He says he doesn’t remember them,” Maisero said, still staring Sartore. The sailor held his breath for a moment.
“In that case, old man, I need you to follow him.”
“Follow him? He’s dangerous! He’s—he’s going to carry me to my death, you understand that? How can you trust him? I’m getting out of here the moment I get back on shore.”
“No, you’re not. In a few days’ time, when he’s settled down there and there are other people looking after him, you can do whatever you want, be my fucking guest. But until then, he needs a caretaker, and it looked to me like you were already doing that anyway.”
“Well, not anymore, sorry captain.”
The sailor rose and walked up to Maisero, leaving a few inches of space between them. “No, old man, you don’t seem to understand. You’re going to follow the boy, look after him, or I’ll be after you next. If the Sacredate’s men don’t catch you first. You think they’re not coming after you either?”
Maisero flapped his mouth open and shut like a fish, and made no noise. Sartore had begun to weep, lightly, and the sailor crossed back to Sartore and tapped his shoulder. Sartore’s face looked like a smushed tomato.
“I know you don’t like it, kid, but—that’s the way it is. Let me cheer you up. Want me to show you around the ship?”
Sartore nodded through his tears, and the sailor smiled. Together, they rose and walked to the doorway. Maisero watched them, still gaping.
“We’ll be landing tomorrow while the sun’s still up,” the sailor told Maisero. “Enjoy it while you can. If you want a moment in here, go ahead and take it.” And the two left.
Maisero sat still for a few minutes. He stared fixedly at the floor, playing the last few minutes over and over in his head, dwelling longer and longer on the angry stares of the sailor and the clueless, innocent face of the child. When the time had passed, he stood up, and without even the hint of a wobble walked out of the room.
Land reappeared the next day, like a mother opening the front door to her child for the holidays. The deck had settled into quiet company; the children, Sartore included, mingling and playing with each other, while the adults did analogously. Except for Maisero. He was standing on the starboard side of the ship, with his hands crossed over the wooden railing. The cold salt-tinted air he breathed n was producing a hard lump in his throat that he couldn’t swallow.
He turned to the children at the sound of one of their nonsense english conversations. It was starting to give him a headache, and he found a suggestion in his mind like a letter sitting on the doorstep: kick them away, they’re driving you mad. Maisero did no such thing. He did, however, turn back to the waves when he spotted Sartore, which threatened to open up the gates and loose the black demon that was trying to emerge from his mind. It took some time for him to force the figure back down, and calm his thumping heart.
Of course he’s a spy, Maisero thought. So what if that sailor can’t see that yet. It’ll be obvious, soon.
Of course, the child had managed to fool the sailor fairly well, Maisero thought, so perhaps he really did have no escape, now that the Sacredate’s men were searching for him too.
He’d have to take care of the situation himself, and soon.
As the ship approached the shore, the shore took shape; the wooden docks, and the other ships that floated there; the miscellaneous people who idled there; the architectural majesty of the city behind it, and the green bushes and growths, the beautiful, multi-colored wildlife in-between. He had spent years studying and writing about this one shore, Maisero thought. And now that he could finally see it, the image was too bitter to enjoy.
The boat slid between two prongs of the pier, and the sailors dropped a large anchor into the water. Children had already fled to their parents, and Sartore appeared at Maisero’s side, looked up at him with a quick smile, then looked back ahead.
“Stand at my side, child, and we shall be out momentarily.” The words were rough and brittle, Maisero thought. Sartore had adopted the anxious, expressionless look of anxiety. The sailors dropped a wooden ramp to the docks, and the crowd on deck quickly formed a ball at the ramp’s mouth and trickled out slowly. Sartore and Maisero were last out.
That sailor was waiting for them at the bottom.
“Have a good trip?” the sailor said. His voice had two different cadences, it seemed: one for Sartore, who smiled and nodded; and another one entirely for Maisero.
“There’s plenty of other people who can look after the kid,” the sailor continued. “If you want out, you’re free to go. The Sacredate’s men will certainly be after you, so you’re welcome to stay as well. Up to you.”
“I’ll stay,” Maisero said, and patted Sartore’s head. Sartore looked up and smiled. The sailor nodded hesitantly.
“I’m going to take you to the local library. The people I trust should be there. Follow me.” Maisero and Sartore did as commanded.
As they left the docks, Maisero finally saw the fruits of his labor stretched out before him. Here was the vegetation he’d written his volumes about: the flowers poking out of the bushes as they might be held in the ear of a woman, white and blue and red. It was more beautiful than anything he’d ever captured on the page, through his words and diagrams; it all seemed useless and empty when faced with the real thing.
Then there was the architecture that grew like a garden a field of stone, tall, elegant and commanding, the way the buildings closer to him seemed to pass by faster than the larger ones behind forging the illusion of a massive cityscape the likes of which had yet to exist.
Sartore had slowed down to gaze at the works. This made Maisero angry.
“Hurry, child, or we’ll lose sight of the sailor. Stop dilly-dallying.” With a tug from Maisero, the child was freed from his curse, and the two walked onward.
Where the maze of the city ended, there sat the library. It might’ve been one of the tallest buildings in the entire city, the beige-colored walls towering above everything else. There was only one entrance open, at the center of the building, and it seemed to welcome them.
And the library defied all of Maisero’s imagination. They initially entered a hall that was like a spoke in a wheel, whose center was down ahead. Replacing walls were bookshelves, all brimming with pages and volumes, some crammed, others leaning over in uneven ways from the multiple books awkwardly removed from the space. Glass from above gave form to the world below, and when Maisero looked up, he saw multiple floors moving about in a similar fashion, with the end nearest him protected only by a short metal fence. He could see other men walking around, and them and Maisero seemed to share a likeness, and a manner; but they had not fallen down to some rung of decrepitude.
Why have I never been here before? Maisero thought.
“I’m guessing she’s down the hall,” the sailor said, and again the three began to march forward. Maisero only realized the scale of the library when he reached the center, and saw the total extent of the library: four floors, eight spokes, and books everywhere he looked. There were more here now than he had ever seen in his life.
The hall opposite them connected to another building: a large, quiet room of stone, where people sat, read, and studied. The sailor paused for a moment at the entrance, then walked forward towards a woman sitting towards the back corner, who had lifted her head and seemed to recognize him.
The sailor bumped into a chair, drawing glares to the unlikely trio. None of them seemed to care. Maisero was almost happy to disturb the academics’ studies.
“What do you want from me, Balto?”
Despite the sailor’s (Balto was a funny name) confidence, he was suddenly at a loss for words. It was the only time Maisero would ever see the sailor off guard. He took a moment to raise to his face a crooked smile, then spoke.
“I have a gift for you.”
The woman gave Sartore a passing glance and Maisero a passing expression of disgust, which Maisero in vain attempted to return.
“This is a stupid gift.”
The sailor laughed, then sat across from her, and she turned to him. When he knew he had her attention, he leaned forward, as though for a kiss.
“The Sacredate is looking for the boy,” the sailor whispered. The woman took a few seconds to register the words. Her eyes began to widen, and she looked back at the boy as though she’d missed him entirely the first time.
“How do you know that?”
The sailor shifted, uncomfortably, it seemed, in his chair. “Two days ago a ship of the Sacredate’s men attacked us. The captain told his men to kill the kid when he saw him. We sunk their ship, but I’m sure the captain lived.”
She was staring at the sailor now, a hand held up to her forehead.
“And what’s with the old man?”
“Just the kid’s caretaker, I think. Not related or anything. But he knows a few things about the kid, here and there. You should take them.”
The woman thought it over for a moment, then rose.
“You should all follow me,” she said, and she began walking out of the library.
They left through the back entrance, left behind the dark library for the blinding light outside that rendered spots of Maisero’s vision invisible. It was a few moments later, as he could smell the fresh grass and the smell of the sea blowing past him, that he missed the smell of those old pages. He turned to see the old door behind him creak shut. The others had left him behind and were approaching the nearest road, and Maisero hobbled fast to catch up.
Just as the shore had been, so too were the streets. Lined with carnations, lilies, roses, tulips, bushes and vines left to roam wild along the tall structures man had built. From the scaly strip of cobblestone they crossed, shorter paths like legs extending from the body of an insect lead to small houses, with discolored and aging walls, topped with yellowing and whitening thatched roofs. The woman led down one of these paths and stopped at one of the doors. She knocked.
“This is an old friend of mine, don’t be too disconcerted by him,” the woman said. “You remember Edin?” she said, waiting for a reply from Balto. He nodded, and smiled.
A seemingly young man opened the door and swung it back. He would have looked young, the soft and pale skin on his body, if not for the scars of lashes that crossed over his face and his hands and arms. The room he’d opened the door into was dark, and curtains of dust hung inside.
“Hello Anastasia,” Edin began, smiling a little. “Here for lunch? I can make something quickly, if you and your guests would like some.”
Maisero wanted to encourage a positive answer to this, but was cut out quickly. “No, Edin, it’ll be alright. Would you come to the courtyard today?”
“The Sacredate is looking for the child behind me.”
Edin’s face grew cold and expressionless (although note whiter, he was already the whitest shade imaginable for a man). He nodded eventually, and shut the door without a word.
Anastasia walked back onto the street. “Balto, would you like to attend?”
Balto shook his head. “I’ll be heading back to the ship now, we should be leaving off soon.”
Anastasia grimaced, but nodded. Balto made quick work of a goodbye, making sure to give Sartore another pat on the head, then left on his way, chasing down the horizon. Maisero noticed that Sartore watched Balto fade away back to shore. Then, Maisero and Sartore followed Anastasia alone.
Theories were starting to feed into Maisero’s head. Why were these people being collected? For a secret meeting, of course. Why a secret meeting? Perhaps this was a growing resistance. A small armada gathering to build a bulwark against the Sacredate’s forces. His suspicions were confirmed when Anastasia knocked at the next house: an older woman answered, which followed with a similar exchange, although she seemed less surprised than Edin had been. She said she’d be there soon. Then came an older man, more cranky than the previous two guests, who decided that now was the appropriate time to complain and announce that he would take no steps outside of his house. After a quick threat from Anastasia, he promised he’d be there as well.
And on and on it went, until eventually they had reached the end of that stretch of houses, and there were no more people to collect There was a small fence marking the end of the road, and past it was a cliff thickly covered in green vines and bushes, tipped with flowers and color, lush and green; and yet, steep enough that one step there would send you tumbling the many hundreds of feet down, onto the rocks that the shrubbery clung to, and into the water
Anastasia stopped there and turned to the two of them. Maisero had almost forgotten Sartore even existed, although he wished it had stayed that way. Anastasia paused, looking at them with some discomfort, then sighed.
“You two have to stay quiet,” she began.
The water was freezing. At first the waves had nearly shredded his small boat to pieces, crashing over his head as it did so, but as the storm quieted, he managed to find a few wooden boards floating in the water to hold onto. But that all seemed pointless in the middle of the ocean; Taramiel was lost.
Of course, Gloss would know by the time he returned to camp—if he managed it. The punishment would be severe. Another betrayal, he thought. What else could he have done? He fought with all the strength available to him, and so did his men. What could he have done to win? There was no hope, then. Why bother to fight? Why did Gloss send him to his demise, anyway? Wouldn’t he know? Shouldn’t he know what the outcome is? What power was an obedient servant like himself supposed to garner by comparison?
But those questions would only matter if he survived his journey. He looked once more around the water, and saw the horizon face back at him from every direction. He sighed. Now it was those damned gods’ choice what would happen to him. Still clutching to the wood, he let himself nod off in parts, keeping his eyes open, and himself awake, long enough only to keep a hold of his position.
And then his makeshift raft began scraping against something below. Taramiel opened his eyes, first emerging from a hazy fog, and saw beneath him soft and white earth—sand. He let his grip go for a moment and fell into the water, then started laughing. He noticed a collection of heads turn to him on the shore—he was at a shore, he thought, a shore—and watched him, eerily. Taramiel stopped laughing. The rest of his crew was there. Every single one that had lived. Of course, some of them had died on the journey, but even the bodies had decided to join them. And there was nobody else ashore.
Taramiel rose out of the water and rallied his troops together. Bodies were meant to find the places of their death, as the Sacredate commanded, and the bodies of their comrades were propped onto wooden boards and pushed into the water far enough for the tide to whisk it away. None of them knew what shore they had landed on or where the nearest spot of civilization might be, so they decided to carve a path out in the woods behind the shore and hope for something.
As Taramiel led the way, the same thoughts began to plague him. And the thought of that boy. He’d almost forgotten him, but now with a slightly clearer ahead he could see him. The realization had completely stopped him. If he had not hesitated, perhaps he wouldn’t be in the debacle he was now. What else could he have done?
He thought he could hear Gloss speaking in his head now, in reply: You had no faith in me.
But Taramiel knew it was a lie, and kept moving.
As the night grew deeper, Taramiel broken out of the trees and found a familiar path. He turned down to the left, and saw the moon hanging above a decently sized city. Taramiel walked closer some, checked behind him to make sure the rest of his crew was still following, and then stepped up to the barrier of the town, and saw the large ships sitting at the docks and bobbing in the water. Taramiel smiled. Perhaps this was one way that he could repay the Sacredate.
Balto spent a few days at sea to return home. The water was, for the most part, calm and kind. There were fewer people to take care of now, and he appreciated that. Although he missed something about the excitement of the fight. It was a feeling he didn’t have the chance to revel in frequently. Now all that remained was the aftermath.
And, strangely, he missed talking to the kid. Sartore, his name was. Balto laughed—he’d almost forgotten the kid’s name.
As the sun rose one morning, he spotted land at the horizon. He nodded at the sight of it, and he went on with his regular business.
But as they drew nearer, something was strange. He couldn’t see the town hall. Or the stadium. Or any of the other buildings, for that matter. Sure, they were some distance away, and the glare of the sun might blur the lines, but Balto thought that the image was uncanny.
Terror filled him as the ship slowly moved closer to shore. It dawned on him more and more, with every passing second, that those buildings really had gone missing. Soon he could spot the rubble where the city had been. Now the passengers had started shouting at the image of it, but Balto was frozen. The docks had been destroyed, too, with the ship skeletons part way through sinking below the water.
Balto didn’t have the strength to turn the ship around just yet. Doom, here, was inevitable.