Ventus – Day 108 of 135


They had done nothing but ride and sleep for the past several days. At first it was an aimless run into the desert under the wheeling stars, then the cold white daylight of early winter. Galas rode sidesaddle, hugging herself and shivering. When the horses had to stop from exhaustion, they stood them together, nose to tail, and huddled together for a brief sleep.

Galas’ mumbled descriptions and Armiger’s observation of the evidence of the recent passage of an army allowed them to find the ruin of one of her experimental towns just before sunset on the second day. By that time Megan was cradling the queen in her arms as they rode, and the horses were weak and plodding slowly.

The razed town was surrounded by the burnt remnants of wheat fields, and a cracked spring spouted dark, iron-flavoured water in the town square. The houses had been burnt down, all save one that was only half-gutted. There were whitened skeletons everywhere, some lying next to the weapons they had used in a futile effort to save their families. Galas awoke enough to weep when she saw the devastation.

Armiger let the horses drink and refilled their water bags, then turned the animals loose among the straggling, greying wheat stalks. He made camp in the half-ruined house, lit a fire and shuttered the windows. They had no food, but at least it was warm here. There was even some bedding that had survived, and Megan bundled the queen under it near the fire.

She and Armiger sat together, arms around one another, and said nothing as the sun set. Gradually the chill in their bones receded, and after a log in the fire popped loudly, jerking them both awake and making them laugh, Megan said, “I did not believe we would survive.”

Armiger was surprised, and a bit offended. “You were with me.”

“I know. But how could you stop me from taking an arrow when you weren’t there?”

He didn’t answer for a while. “I’m sorry I brought you into that place,” he said at last.

“I’m not sorry you did. I’m glad you cared enough for me to want me by your side.” He hugged her closer, but said nothing. “Sometimes you’re like a whole world unto yourself,” Megan whispered. “And sometimes you’re just a man. If you do this thing to the Winds… conquer them, or heal them… which are you going to be after that?”

“More world,” someone whispered.

It was Queen Galas. Her eyes glittered in the firelight. “More world than man,” she said.

The queen levered herself onto her elbows. Her hair was a black tangle, and her eyes had deep hollows under them. She smiled weakly at Megan. “But speaking as one who has been in that position, he’s going to be very lonely if he doesn’t have someone by his side.”

Megan ducked her head. This queen always made her feel awkward.

“How are you feeling?” Armiger asked Galas. “Can you ride tomorrow?”

“If I have to.” She fell back and stared at the ceiling. “But why should we?”

“You may not wish to survive, but I do,” said Megan. She stood, one hand on her lower back. “There must be something to eat in this forsaken place.” She bundled her shawl around her shoulders, and left the house.

“Fine. You eat. You survive,” said Galas. She closed her eyes. “Leave me here tomorrow.”

“No,” said Armiger. “We have much to do.”

“What?” She sat up. “What is there left to do? I’ve lost everything! My home, my people, my honour, my crown! Men and women have died by the thousands to bring me to this. They died for no reason. And now the jackals have the kingdom. They’re all quislings for the Winds, and they’ll sacrifice their own babies rather than defy them.”

“I intend to tame the Winds,” he said. “I need your help.”

“You are insane! I was a fool to believe the things you told me. You are the very swindler I thought you to be.” She rolled herself into the bedding, turning away from him. After a few moments he heard her weeping.

Armiger rose, and went outside to see to the horses.

The clouds had swept away again, and it was cold again. He stood for a moment looking up; no telltale moving stars betrayed the presence of starships in orbit. Ventus remained miraculously untouched by the march of Archipelagic civilization. He could only hope it would remain ignored long enough for the metamorphosis he now knew he must perform.

Megan was crouched in the street, digging up a skeleton. “I think we can salvage some of these clothes,” she said. “A piece here and there. Many of the women were… well, their clothes were removed before they died.”

“See what you can find.” He moved past her.

Megan touched his arm. “Where are we going?” she asked. “Or don’t you know?”

He nodded. “The Titans’ Gates. It’s by the ocean.”

“I know. I’ve heard of it.” Satisfied, she returned to her task.

He brought the horses into the house. The animals huffed and shook themselves, and blinked down at Galas when the queen sat up to stare at them. She shot an inquiring look at Armiger; he shrugged. At least they would be warm here tonight.

One of the horses pissed unself-consciously, filling the room with the reek of urine. Galas groaned in disgust.

Good, thought Armiger. At least she was distracted from her larger misery.

He and Megan bustled about, and eventually Galas was sitting up, blankets off, watching them. It didn’t seem to occur to her that she might help. Armiger inventoried their gear, and fixed some straps that had broken on the horse’s tackle. Megan had found some withered carrots and other unidentifiable roots, and had stripped several hands-full of wheat. These still had their husks, so she spent a while hammering them into dust with a brick, then poured the resultant grit into a pot she’d found, along with the roots and some water. The husks floated, and she skimmed them off carefully.

Galas spoke for the first time in nearly an hour: “We’re actually going to eat that?”

“Yes.” Satisfied that the pot was at the right height over the fire, Megan left the house and returned with a pile of stiff, mottled clothing.

Galas looked at the clothes as though they were snakes. “Where did you get those?”

“Here and there. It all needs to be cleaned. Tomorrow we can do that.”

“We need to ride early,” commented Armiger.

“Then I’ll rise earlier than early.”

Galas had started to cry again. Megan looked at her in exasperation. “Oh, what is it!”

Galas pointed. “I can’t wear the clothes of people who died because of me!”

Armiger stood up. Megan looked at him, then down at the clothes she held. She was blushing.

“How can you be so… so…” Galas swayed to her feet. “Doesn’t any of this matter to you? We’re camping in someone’s house! People who died because of me! And you’re just plundering their graves without a second thought!”

Megan looked down. Armiger came over to Galas and offered his hand. She took it and continued into his arms, to cry into his shoulder. “Forgive our insensitivity,” he said. “Megan has lived a harder life than you, your highness. She is more used to sacrificing dignity in the service of life. And I am unused to feeling at all.”

Galas pushed him away. “Did you bury them?” she demanded.

Megan looked down. “One must have priorities,” she said.

“Give me your shawl,” said the former queen of Iapysia. Startled, Megan complied. Galas grabbed up the stout digging stick Megan had leaned by the door, and went out.

Megan started after Galas, but Armiger stopped her. “Let her,” he said. “She’ll be better for it.”

They sat down by the fire, and she tended the meagre soup while he sorted through the clothes of the dead. Outside they could hear Galas digging. She did not come in to eat, only moved farther afield, searching for the bones of the people who had trusted her, carrying them to a pit she had dug with her own strength in the frosted ground.

It was still dark, and the temperature well below freezing, when Armiger walked to the edge of town and sat down on a broken piece of masonry. His breath made a white cloud before him; the sand crunched under his feet. He adjusted his body to the cold, and gazed up at the stars.

No ships. Just the faintest hint of the Diadem swans, a slight iridescence at certain degrees above the horizon. Beyond them, Diadem itself glowed bright and constant.

He had not yet had a chance to test the knowledge he had taken from the boy in the cave. He was, Armiger thought ruefully, too human now to focus his concentration that well. During the ride here he had thought about his companions, about the war, about his intentions when they reached the Titan’s Gates. He had tried to think about Jordan’s implants, but the kind of thought required was nothing like human cognition. He was quite simply out of practise.

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