Ventus – Day 42 of 135


When the aerostat had finished falling, Calandria May knelt down, closed her eyes, and signaled her ship. Axel watched as her brows knit, and she frowned. She remained kneeling for longer than he thought should be necessary. When she opened her eyes, she looked at him with an expression of tired acceptance.

“The Desert Voice doesn’t answer,” she said. “I’m afraid, Axel, that we may be stranded.”

Part Two: The Wife of the World


…We shall win new feelings, superior to love and loyalty, from the field of the human heart.

General Lavin put down the book, and rubbed his eyes. It was late. He should be sleeping, but instead he kept returning to these damnable pages, to stare at words written both by a familiar hand, and an alien mind.

Distant sounds of crackling fires, canvas flapping and quiet grumbled conversation reassured him. His army sprawled around him, thousands of men asleep or, like him, uneasy in darkness. Lavin felt a tension in the air; the men knew they were close to battle, and while no one was happy, they were at least satisfied that waiting would soon be over.

He had closed the book four times this evening, and every time began pacing the narrow confines of his tent until, drawn equally by loathing and hope, he returned to it. The things Queen Galas said in this, a collection of private letters liberated from one of her experimental towns, were worse than heresies–they attacked basic human decency. Yet, Lavin’s memories of her from Court were so strong, and so at odds with the picture these writings suggested, that he was half-convinced they were someone else’s, attributed to her.

This was the hope that kept him returning to the book–that he would discover some proof in the writing that these were not the writings of the queen of Iapysia. He wanted to believe she was isolated, perhaps even imprisoned in her palace, and that some other, evil cabal was running the country.

But the turns of phrase, the uncanny self-assurance of the voice that spoke in this pages; they were undeniably hers.

He sighed, and sat down in a folding camp chair. He was having more nights like this, as the siege lengthened and Galas continued to refuse to surrender. The strain was showing in his face. In the lamplit mirror his eyes were hollows, and lines stood out around his mouth. Those lines had not been there last summer.

Some kind of discussion broke out in front of his tent. Lavin frowned at the tent flap. They’d wake the dead with those voices. He cared for his men, but sometimes they behaved like barbarians.

“Sir? Sorry to disturb you sir.”

“Enter.” The flap flipped aside and Colonel Hesty entered. The colonel wore riding gear, and his collar was open to the autumn air. He looked haggard. Lavin tried to take some satisfaction in that: he was not the only one who found it hard to sleep tonight.

“What is it?” Lavin did not make to rise, nor did he offer Hesty a seat. He realized he had spoken in a certain upper class drawl he was usually at pains to disguise from his men. They seemed to think it was effete. With a grimace, he sat up straighter.

“They’ve found something. Over in the quarry.” Something in the way he said it caught Lavin’s full attention.

“What do you mean, ‘found something’? A spy?”

Hesty shook his head. “No. Not… a man. Well, sort of a man.”

Lavin rolled his head slowly and was rewarded as his neck cracked. “I know it’s late, Hesty, and one’s vocabulary becomes strained at such times. But could you expand on that a little?” He reached for his coat, which he had carelessly slung across the back of a chair.

Hesty raised one eyebrow. “It’s hard to explain, sir. I’d rather show you.” He was almost smiling.

Lavin joined him outside. The air was cool, but not yet cold. Autumn came late and gently on the edge of the desert; south, in the heart of the land, it never came at all.

South and west lay the experimental towns, now mostly razed. Flashes of memory came unbidden to Lavin, and he suppressed them with a shudder. “It’s hard to sleep, now that we’re so close,” he said.

Hesty nodded. “Myself as well. That’s why I think a little mystery might do you some good. I mean, a different kind of mystery.”

“Does this have to do with the queen?”

“No. At least, only very indirectly. Come.” Hesty grinned and gestured at two horses who waited patiently nearby.

Lavin shook his head, but mounted up. He could see the palace over the peak of the tent. Looking away from that, he tried to find the path to the quarry. The valley was a sea of tents, some lit by the faint glow of fires. Columns of grey smoke rose from the sea and disappeared among the stars.

Hesty led. Lavin watched his back swaying atop the horse, and mused about sleep. Some nights he struggled with exhaustion like an enemy, and got nowhere. Maybe Hesty did the same thing, a surprising thought; Lavin respected the man, would even be a bit afraid of him were their positions not so firmly established, he the leader, Hesty the executor. After one battle, he remembered, Hesty’s sword arm had been drenched in blood. Lavin had killed a man himself, and felt proud and ashamed, as one does, until he saw Hesty. Hesty had been grim, his mind bent to the task of securing the town–unconcerned with himself. There was a lesson in that.

It was possible the man was acting that way now–simply doing his duty to try to ensure a night’s distraction for his commanding officer. Lavin smiled. It might work, too. Sometimes the only way to win the struggle with insomnia was to let it carry you for a while–ride it like he rode this horse.

As they left the camp, he found his thoughts drifting. The movement of the horse lulled him, though it was a hard rocking from side to side, never subtle, not swaying the body like a dancer swayed. Which made him think of dancers; how long had it been since he had attended a dance? Months. Years? Couldn’t be. No one seemed to host them anymore. None like the one where he had first seen Princess Galas, anyway. It wasn’t hard to believe that was twenty years ago–easier to believe it was a hundred.

Swaying was how he had first seen her. She was finishing a dance. At that time she could have been no more than seventeen, a year or two younger than himself. He had stood in a corner with some friends, plucking at his collar. They had all craned their necks to try to locate this storied mad princess in the moving maze of dancing couples. When she did appear it was very nearby, as the song broke up–she curtsied, laughing to her older partner. He bowed, and she spoke to him briefly. They drifted apart as the next dance began.

She stood nearby, miraculously alone. This baron’s hall held easily a thousand people, and all had to meet her, or be seen to try for etiquette’s sake. Her father’s spies would know who did and did not pay her compliments. She, like any princess, was a vessel for his favor. Lavin saw her sigh now, and close her eyes briefly. She wants to recover her poise, he thought.

His friends huddled together. “Let’s meet her!” “Lavin, shall we?”

“We shall not!” He said it a bit too loudly, and she looked up, her eyes widening just a bit. For the first time Lavin had realized she might have come to rest here because his was the only group of people at the ball near her own age. Everyone else was middle-aged or older, a fact that had been making Lavin’s group squirm.

So he smiled, and bowed to her, and said, “We shall not meet the princess. If she wishes, the princess will meet us.”

She smiled. Galas was willowy, with large dark eyes and a determined thrust to her chin. She held herself well in her formal ball dress; Lavin envied her such poise. But she was of royal blood, after all. He was merely noble.

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