The Last Respite
Aki had tears in her eyes, and she squeezed Roshan as tight as she could.
He returned the favor, and it was a long moment before she could gasp out “What are you doing here?”
“Why are you here?” Roshan asked at the same time. They grinned at each other.
Maz stepped forward, “Questions later,” she said. “Someone undoubtedly heard us. We need to leave.”
Roshan looked back at his own group, who nodded at him. “We’re at the Turtle,” he said. “Meet you there?”
Padraig appeared on the second story balcony. “Wait,” he said, “What about the rod the Don wanted us to grab? Why did you take it?”
Roshan, Aki noticed, looked uncomfortable. So did the rest of his group. She didn’t know them at all, but she knew Roshan, and she recognized the expression as a guilty one. Just what, she wondered, was going on?
“It’s a long story,” Roshan said after a moment of awkward silence. “One we don’t have time for, but I promise to explain everything at the Turtle.”
Aki nodded. She trusted Roshan still, at least for now, and there weren’t many left outside of her Engineers that she could.
The dark-haired woman stepped forward, and Aki cocked an eye at her. Much to her surprise, the woman was still glowing. It was faint, but her arms glimmered with what looked like traceries of Fòrsic runes. Aki had never seen Fòrsic technology like that before, was it a woven sleeve? But no, it looked to be her actual skin! The woman cleared her throat, and Aki realized with a start that she had been staring, and looked away. She hadn’t meant to be rude.
If the other woman cared, however, she didn’t say. Instead she said, “My name is Isa. Could you get a message to some Resistance members? Quietly?” She pitched her voice low enough that only Aki could hear, and Maz.
“Maybe,” Aki hedged. “I haven’t met many of them yet, but I know a few.”
“There are three of them,” Isa said. “A tall, silent woman named Syd, a taller red-haired man named Simon, and a loud, short man called Trentor. You’ll know him because he’s so annoying.”
“I have heard of Syd,” Aki said, “She’s one of the Don’s advisors. It shouldn’t be difficult to slip her a message.”
Isa nodded firmly, “Good. If you can, tell them Rika and Isa want to talk to them at the Turtle. And give them this,” she handed over a sealed envelope. “Don’t let anyone else know. Especially the Don.”
“I…” Aki wasn’t sure if she could promise that. Her suspicious nature had perked up its head at that last bit. Why shouldn’t the Don know?
Isa pressed her, “Please?”
Aki glanced over at Roshan. He met her eyes and nodded. Aki sighed. She would continue to trust Roshan. She looked back at Isa, “Fine, I will do my best.”
Isa flashed her a smile, “I think that will do.”
“If you two are done whispering,” Padraig said from his perch, “We really do need to leave. I see lights approaching.”
“Drinks are on me,” Aki said, looking at Roshan.
He smiled, “Good luck,” he turned back to Isa and the rest of his group. “Let’s go!” They vanished out the other side of the chamber. Aki turned to Maz.
“You okay?” There was a blackened scorch mark on the front plate of Maz’s suit, about the size of Aki’s head.
Maz shrugged. “I’ve had worse. Impressive group though.”
Aki nodded. How did Isa throw around energy like that? She didn’t have any visible equipment. Presumably, Roshan would tell her when they caught up with them. Now, though, it was time to be gone.
“Is the way prepared?” She asked Osta.
The girl nodded. Aki waved the others in, and they headed up the stairs. Padraig met them on the landing.
“The staircases are over this way,” he said, waving his arm towards the back of the room, behind the balcony he had been standing on.
Aki and the others trooped after him, taking care not to make any noise. That had doused any Fòrsic lights, and the chamber was just as dim and dark as it was before they arrived. She thought she heard the outside doors creak open, but they were around the curve of the staircase by that point. As long as they kept moving, they would be fine. Maybe.
The third and fourth stories were pitch black. Aki knew the interiors to be filled with books, but she could barely see the stairs in front of her. They spiraled upward, all in a line, until they stumbled out onto the broad, open roof. The sides were crenellated in artful, arcing curlicues of grey slate and stone. Plenty of places to affix a grappling hook. The roof tiles themselves were slick, requiring careful steps. Heedless of the rain, Aki went to the edge and looked out. The night was a swampy morass, she couldn’t even see the curtain wall of the University, somewhere out below them. It was the wet season in the desert, and the city was still passing through a low cloud.
“Can you make it?” She said to Maz.
Maz stepped up beside her and peered out into the darkness. She nodded.
“Good,” Aki said. “Now where’s the rope?”
As Aki had requested of Sephina, Osta’s compatriots had left a coil of rope and an iron grapple on the roof. They found it wrapped around one of the crenellations, almost invisible in the dark. Maz took the hook and affixed it to the side facing the lower city. The other hand she tied around her waist, and clambered up to the top of the low wall surrounding the roof. Without saying a word, she engaged the crystals in her suit and leapt outwards. She glided down and away, and was quickly swallowed up by the rain.
“And now,” Aki said, “we wait.” As Ora and Padraig kept a wary eye on the stairs behind, Aki watched the rope-line play out. Her nerves were taught, listening for any sound outside the wind and the patter of water and rock. A movement caught the corner of her eye, and she looked to see Ora waving at her. Once she was sure she had Aki’s attention, she made several quick, sharp signals with her hands.
“What is she saying?” Osta asked, her voice a nervous whisper.
“They’re coming up the stairs,” Aki said, and turned back to look at the rope. Still slack.
“What? They’re coming?” Osta tried to sounds as nonchalant as Aki’s, but Aki heard the fear in at anyways.
“Yes. I don’t think they know we are here yet, but they will soon.”
“What are we going to do?” Osta’s mouth trembled.
Aki checked the rope again. It was taut, the line stretching out down and away from them. She gave it an experimental yank. It didn’t budge, but she felt two answering pulls. Aki smiled.
“We’re going to run away.” She waved Padraig and Ora over.
“What?” Osta said as Ora and Padraig joined them. The two engineers pulled out pieces of thick silk from the small packs they wore. Ora handed one of them to Aki, and then looked at Osta and cocked an eyebrow. Aki understood the unvoiced question.
“I think you better come with us,” She said.
“Re..really?” Osta stuttered.
“Yes,” Ora said. She handed her another piece of silk. “It’ll be too dangerous to stay here, you’ll be safer with us.”
“Safer, but not safe,” Padraig added. “Aki, we have to go, the guards are coming.”
Aki nodded. “Go,” she said. Without hesitation, Padraig climbed the crenellation next to the rope. He swung himself into place, holding the silk above it, and launched himself into space. He sped out and down along the line, leaving only the whisper of silk behind him.
“You’re next,” she told Osta.
“I can’t do that!” The girl protested.
“Maz and Padraig will catch you on the other end,” Aki said. “No time to argue, just go.” She and Ora helped Osta into place. The girl looked back piteously, but Aki didn’t have time to console her.
“Don’t let go,” she said, and pushed Osta forward. With a yelp, the girl zipped away down the line. Ora was next, climbing up right on Ora heels. She waited a beat for the girl to get further away, then followed herself.
Aki risked a glance back at the staircase. She could have sworn she saw a glow approaching. No time to hang around, she thought to herself as she climbed the crenellation, and laughed. Once she was in position, she launched herself into space with a whoop of her own.
“Hey, Aki! Have you had the soup?” Roshan suggested as Aki entered the private room at the back of the Turtle.
Aki laughed. “You do remember that I introduced you to the Turtle, right? You can’t get me that easily.” Roshan grinned, and rose, and they hugged again. “It’s good to see you,” she said more seriously.
“The feeling is mutual,” Roshan said. They lapsed into a long moment of silence.
One of the woman with Roshan, a redhead, broke the quiet, by clearing her throat, “Uh, Roshan, why don’t you introduce us?"
“Oh, right,” he said, and Aki smiled at his awkwardness. He had seemed very self-assured in the fight in the annex, and afterwards, but she found it reassuring to see that he was still the absent-minded type. She recognized the people in the room from earlier. The room itself was dominated by a round, wooden table. Like the rest of the Turtle, the top of the table was sturdy, yet pitted and scarred from years of use. The wooden chairs placed around the outside were much the same. There were no windows, just sparse, wooden paneling on the walls. Aki thought it felt homely.
Roshan made the introductions. The red-haired woman, Eithne, was seated to Roshan’s left, while Rika and Isa were to his right. Isa had a big bowl of the mock-turtle soup in front of her, and she grinned when Aki cocked an eyebrow at her.
“It’s actually pretty good,” she said, “for a mystery broth, anyway.”
“Just don’t ask what’s in it,” Aki said. She introduced Maz, who was the only one of her people she had brought. Aki had decided to keep this meeting as quiet as possible. Maz raised a laconic hand in greeting from her position near the doorway, and went back to leaning against the wall.
Someone knocked on the door. Everyone flinched. Roshan especially looked nervous. A jumpy bunch we have here, Aki thought.
Maz slid the door open to reveal a squat, hairy man.
“Trentor!” Rika and Isa exclaimed, and hurried up to welcome him into the room.
“My lovely ladies!” He clasped them both in a tight hug, “news of your survival fills me with, if not surprise, then with gladness.”
Isa’s eyes narrowed. “You mean you knew we were alive?”
“We didn’t know, merely hoped. I’m happy to see we were correct in believing in your prowess. But,” his tone turned serious, “I find myself saddened by your presence here.”
Rika and Isa exchanged a glance. Roshan spoke up from the back of the room, “it sounds like you have some explaining to do.”
Trentor heaved a theatrical sigh, “So Isa’s note said.” He turned and dipped his body in a bow towards Aki, “And thank you, kind lady, for delivering it to me.”
Aki nodded back, faintly bemused by the whirlwind of his entrance. She and Maz had detoured by the new headquarters of the Resistance on their way to the Turtle, while Padraig and Ora took young Osta off to settle her with the other Engineers. Aki had managed to hand off Isa’s message to Syd directly, but she hadn’t expected this loud-mouthed man to show up.
“I think there are explanations due all around,” she said. “And I think we best begin. As happy as I am to see you again, Roshan, I am not looking forward to explaining to the Don why I have failed in the mission he set me.”
“Understandable, perfectly understandable,” Trentor said. “Why don’t we start with how the four of you,” he indicated Roshan and the rest of this group, “survived, and got here from Alsce so quickly.”
“How about you tell us why you left us to die?” Isa interrupted. Trentor opened his mouth to respond, but Roshan cut in ahead of him.
“I think we all have our stories to tell,” he said, glancing around the room. Aki noticed he made sure to make eye-contact with each person in turn. “Let’s lay out everything we know, and then we can decide what we need to do next.” His gaze rested on Aki last. “Aki, why don’t you start? I’ve never seen Ater-Volante so riled up.”
Aki nodded. She figured it was as a good a starting place as any. “Well,” she said, “After you left, I…”
** ** **
The little room had grown increasingly staid and uncomfortable. They had talked all night, and Aki felt a grainy tiredness behind her eyes. She shifted in her seat. You really needed alcohol to make these wooden chairs acceptable to sit on for long periods, but the night had been spent instead in sober, and sobering, conversation. Roshan’s tale had been interesting, even exciting, and Aki was looking forward to getting the rest out of him. If they survived, anyway. Because Trentor had gone last, and it was his news that was the worst.
“The Don plans to bring down the Prime,” Trentor’s tone was harsh, in a match to his grim mien.
“Excuse me,” Aki said, “but this isn’t exactly news. He said the same thing to Maz and me earlier today.”
“My apologies,” Trentor tipped an imaginary cap towards her. “I should have spoken more literally. The Don plans to crash the Prime, his whole council, the Choisant, AND the City of Ater-Volante itself into the Dakian steppes.”
There were shocked gasps from around the room. Aki’s belly seized in a heavy knot. There were nearly twenty-five thousand people in the city, and however corrupt the Prime was, most of them were innocent. What Trentor suggested was monstrous, and yet…
“How,” Eithne whispered, “how can this be?”
“Syd didn’t know his reasons when she told Simon and me, and I didn’t either. I’m not sure I care either, as I doubt they would be sufficient. As to the how,” Trentor looked at Roshan, “I think you know.”
“The Foinse-rod,” Roshan said without a trace of uncertainty. “If he could bring the negator to the City’s central crystal, then that’s it, it’s over.”
“Are you certain?” Rika asked. “The crystal has been running without mishap for centuries.” Roshan shrugged, his eyes were bleak. Eithne reached over and squeezed his hand, but he didn’t appear to notice.
“Even if the Rod doesn’t drain all the energy, it could still cause the crystal to crack, or even explode. It wouldn’t take much before we all wish we knew how to fly.”
“What I don’t understand,” put in Isa, “is why Syd and the rest of the Resistance members are going along with it? How could they be okay with this?”
Aki nodded, she had been wondering that too. She doubted the rest of her Committee would be so eager to support the Don if they knew what he planned.
“They don’t know,” she looked at Trentor for confirmation. He nodded, and Aki repeated her thought. “They can’t know. It would be suicide. Your Syd must have figured it out. But it’s such a terrible idea, and the Don is such a revered figure. Who would believe her?”
“Right the first time,” Trentor said. “Syd has no proof. She’s not even sure she believes it herself. She’s known the Don a long time. He’s a hard man, but this seems crazy. I think she’s going along with it because, if it is true, then she can knock him on the head at the last second and keep him from being stupid.”
“That may be what she thinks,” Maz said from her position near the door, “but what does everyone else think? He can’t reach the core crystal alone, no matter how powerful a Theorist he is.”
“I was just getting to that, you Fòrsic practitioners are all so sharp. The stated goal is to take over the core crystal, and use it as a bargaining chip and or bludgeoning device. If the Resistance controls the crystal, we control the city, see? It’s a decent enough aim, if the Don didn’t mean to blow it up at the end anyway.”
“They’ll have to go in through the tunnels,” Aki stated with certainty, just as Roshan said,
“They’ll be using the tunnels, I presume?” They smiled shared memories at one another, and Aki felt the chill from Trentor’s words lessen. She had her friend back, her partner. He might be harder and more cynical, but together they would find their way out of this mess.
Trentor nodded vigorously in acknowledgement. “Right again, my friends. The attack is scheduled in three days, at dawn.” He looked around the room, taking care to meet each person’s eyes in turn. “The question is, what are you going to do about it?”
Chapter 29 can be found here.