The Grand Reunion
“Well,” Roshan said, “We’re here.”
“Where is everyone?” Isa said, looking around.
“And where do we go next?” Eithne added. “I am cold and wet and tired, and I dare say the rest of you are as well. Tired people don’t think properly. They make mistakes.”
Roshan nodded, she had a point. “We need to get off the streets. It’s a bad sign they are deserted this early in the evening. The last thing we want is to run into a bunch of Stripies enforcing martial law.”
“Too true,” Rika muttered. Roshan smiled at her.
Everyone looked at Roshan. He realized with a start that they were looking to him for a plan. He hadn’t thought much behind reaching Ater-Volante and confronting the Don. Now that he was here, he realized that he had no idea where the Don might be hiding, or how to find him. He needed time to think.
“Right,” he said. “Well, follow me then,” and he turned and walked up into the City. For lack of a better idea, Roshan led them towards The Tipsy Turtle, his original destination those six long months ago. He had been planning to lay low there before trying to escape the city on set-down day, but had been rescued by Rika and Isa instead. That had certainly been preferable, though he hadn’t known it was an option at time. Anyway, all the things that made him head towards the Turtle then were true now. It was quiet, out of the way, and the owner didn’t ask any questions. Most important, it was close by.
Roshan kept the group to darkened side streets and even darker alleyways. The main avenues and thoroughfares were more brightly lit, and seemed to have a heavy watchmen presence. Off in the distance they could hear the tramp of boots, and the occasional shout or scream of protest. It appeared things in the city had changed much since his precipitous departure.
Through a combination of luck, and Isa and Rika’s skill at covert infiltration, they managed to reach the back door of the Tipsy Turtle without anyone noticing them. A few members of the watch would wake up in noxious alley gutters with searing headaches, but Roshan wasn’t very concerned about them. There was enough conflict in the streets already that any Stripies sapped by Isa would just be glad to be alive. The Turtle’s back door was dingier than its main entrance, but only just. The alley it opened into was a dim, damp passageway between two brick tenements. The bricks themselves were stained with water damage, and the walls seemed to bulge outwards over the alleyway. The cobbled street itself was clean. A whiff of rotting foodstuffs suggested that it had been emptied recently, and swirls of multi-colored liquid and grime on the cobbles pointed towards a less than thorough cleaning.
Eithne raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Really?”
“Do you want to be warm and dry?” Roshan asked.
“Yes, but I don’t want fleas either.”
Roshan made a placating gesture. “It’s a lot better inside, I promise. The Turtle is disreputable, but it’s not squalid.”
“I’ll hold you to that, mister,” Eithne said in a warning tone, but her eyes were smiling. Roshan smiled back.
“The Turtle?” Rika asked. “As in, the Tipsy Turtle?”
Roshan looked at her, surprised, “You’ve heard of it?”
She grinned. “Isa, Trentor, and I surveyed most of the city taverns when we were here.”
“I’ll be you did,” Evan muttered from the back of the group.
Rika grinned at him, and glanced at Isa. “Do you remember it?”
“It had the mock turtle soup, right?” Rika and Roshan nodded at her.
Roshan said, “It’s famous for it. No one knows what’s in it, but everyone’s certain it’s not turtle. Tastes good though.”
Eithne made a face, “Ew,” but Isa bobbed her head in agreement.
“It’ll do,” she said.
Evan gestured at Roshan. “Lead on then, I am eager to try this soup.”
“It’s an experience,” Rika said drily as the group followed Roshan up to the doorway.
“Ew,” Eithne said again.
The inside of the Tipsy Turtle was just how Roshan remembered it. The main common room was filled with several rough-hewn wooden tables and benches. It was difficult to tell their original quality, as all of them were scratched, stained, and scarred from decades of hard use. The room itself was dim and empty, except for a scattering of older men and women, most of them determinedly drinking alone. They picked their heads up and regarded the group with a wary disinterest. Roshan was surprised. Set down and take off were usually a holiday from classes, and he had expected the place to be filled with raucous students. He shrugged. It would have made blending in easier, but it would also be conspicuous to back out now that the patrons had noticed them. Squaring his shoulders, he made his way to the front of the room, where the bartender was cleaning a dirty glass with a rage that looked even dirtier. He recognized her as Madam Reira, who Roshan was glad to see still owned the Turtle. She had single-handedly kept order in her tavern for years, and any student of Eolas with a healthy sense of preservation strove to keep on her good side.
“We’d like a room, please,” Roshan said. Reira grunted at him in acknowledgement. She was a robust woman, with a squashed nose that had been broken several times. She had a scar on the outside of her jawbone that ran from her short, greasy hairline down to the sparse, grey hairs on her chin.
Roshan clinked a coin purse onto the bar. “We can pay,” he said. The woman’s dark eyes flickered from him to the coins and back again, and narrowed in suspicion. Then, they widened. She stared intently at his face.
“Roshan!” The woman leaned across the bar and flung burly arms around him in tight hug. Roshan felt Rika and Isa start forward, but he managed to wave them off with a free hand. It wasn’t easy, Reira’s grip was tremendous.
“I thought you were dead!” Reira continued in her deep voice. “All Aki told me was that you had vanished, and with the Stripies rounding people up, well…”
“Please Reira, keep it down,” Roshan made a calming motion with his hands.
Reira just laughed. “Everyone in here’s a regular. There will be no telling tales out of school,” she raised her voice, “Right?” All of the Patrons who had been listening suddenly looked away, feigning intense indifference. Reira sniffed in approval.
Lowering her voice to a more normal level, she said, “So, you weren’t dead, after-all,” her eyes narrowed again. “You weren’t skippin’ out on your tab, were you?”
Roshan sighed and plopped another jingling coin purse next to the first. “I was hoping you might have forgotten,” he said.
Reira snorted. “I never forget a bill. Or forgive one,” but she smiled warmly as she said it. “Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Returned.”
“A room for my friends and I” Roshan said. “to start with. And then I want to hear about everything that has been going on.”
Reira’s face looked grimmer than usual. “It’s quite a tale,” she said. “Let me show you upstairs.”
Several hours later, and full of soup of a delicious but questionable provenance, Roshan addressed the others.
“What next?” he asked, looking around their room. Like the rest of the Turtle the room was dim, lit only by the low glow of a single Fòrsic lantern. The wood-paneling on the walls was mostly dirt free, and the pallets on the floor were clean smelling and stuffed with fresh straw. Reira kept the place clean, although she preferred a rundown look. She said it kept away the riffraff. Rika and Isa were sitting on one of the beds, leaning against one another.
“I’m concerned about how much the Prime and the Choisant are cracking down,” Rika said. “It’ll make it hard to move around.”
“But it could drive more people to support the Resistance,” Isa pointed out.
“Is that what we are concerned with?” Rika asked.
Isa shrugged. “I think we are,” she looked at Roshan. “Do you want Rika and I to try to contact Syd and the others?”
Roshan shook his head. “Eventually,” he said. “But we’re still getting our bearings. I don’t want to confront the Don until I have a better idea of why he left us for dead, and left Alsce so precipitously.”
“Contacting Syd doesn’t mean confronting the Don,” Rika pointed out. “And she might be able to tell us what is going.”
Roshan rubbed his chin, feeling the scruff there. He was well overdue for a shave, but he thought the beard made him look rakish. Maybe he would keep it. “I don’t want to risk it,” he said.
“What exactly do you think would happen?” Isa asked. “Do you really think he would try to kill us again, or something?”
“I don’t know,” Roshan snapped, and then sighed. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t want to contact the Resistance until I have some sort of leverage on them.”
Evan nodded. “That makes sense. Something to compel an explanation, and make it so they work with us, rather than us for them.”
“That’s a good point,” Rika said, “even if Isa and I don’t feel it’s necessary.”
Eithne smiled, “I think I have just the thing,” the group turned and looked at her.
“What?” Roshan asked.
Her smile was a grin now, “The Don has the Foinse-rod, but what you are all forgetting is that there are two of the things.”
Roshan stopped, he stared at Eithne, his mouth open. “You’re right,” Rika said, musing, “I had forgotten.”
“What’s the good of another of those… what did you call them, Foinse-rods?” Evan asked.
“It’s a counter,” Roshan spoke slowly, drawing out the words as we worked through the implications of Eithne’s reminder. “Eithne, I could kiss you,” he said, and did. He looked back at Evan, his excitement growing, “The Don has one already. If we have the other, we’re his equal. In Fòrsic capabilities, if nothing else.”
“At the very least,” Isa added, “if we have it, he’ll have to talk to us. If only to be certain we won’t use it against him.”
Roshan nodded. “We need it. Do any of you have any idea where it might be?”
Eithne shrugged. “The last I read of it, it was in the Rare Fòrsic Artifacts exhibit in the Eolas Library. If only the Don and we know what it can do, it’s probably still there.”
Isa rubbed her hands together excitedly. “Let’s go get it.”
Rika nudged her, “We need a plan, silly, we can’t just break into the University Library.”
Roshan’s spirits felt buoyed by the conversation. They had a base, they were warm, dry, and fed, and they had a next step. He could feel his luck starting to change, although his previous dark mood still clung to him.
“I’ve asked Reira to get a message to my friend Aki,” he said. “Aki will know more, and she might know what the Resistance is up to. In the meantime, I don’t think we can wait. The Don is surely aware of the potential of the second Foinse-rod. We have to get it, tonight.”
“And do you have a plan?” Rika arched an eyebrow at him. “We can’t just waltz in a grab it.”
Roshan smiled at her. “You know, I think maybe we can.”
Several bells after the Committee’s meeting, Aki’s head was still spinning. The Don’s arrival had been like tumbling into a whirlwind. He raised all the committee members up and twirled them all around until he had them pointed in the direction he wanted. Aki had learned hard lessons in tactics and manipulation over the last months, and even she had been swept up in the fervor of his words. It was quite an experience. In short order, he had taken over the running of their little rebellion, parceled them out into teams, and given them instructions and Aki found didn’t begrudge him that in the least.
“Are you sure you know what you are doing?” Maz asked, whispering. The two of them were tucked away in the shadows beneath one of the walls surrounding Eolas. Dark had fallen, and the night sang with a wet, blustery wind as they passed over the desert outside of Dak. Ater-Volante had risen into the sky, albeit several days behind schedule. Aki was happy to get off the ground, even if she had been part of the plan to delay it in the first place. There were too many variables on the ground. Now it was just the Resistance and the Prime. By the time the city set down a month from now in Crystalis, it would all be over. The Don had promised.
“Of course, I do,” Aki said. “And if I don’t, then the Don does.”
“You are fine not being in charge?” Maz sounded skeptical.
Catching the tone of her voice, Aki winked at her in response. “At least the Don is competent. Working with the Committee was like fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”
Off in the darkness to her left, Aki heard Padraig quietly laugh. “I hear that,” he said, “Some of those merchants couldn’t find their ass with both hands if they had a map,” he and Ora were stationed on the side of the building opposite her and Maz. The better to keep an eye on all the approaches to this section of the wall.
Aki shook her head, smiling. “Well, we don’t have to worry about their map-reading skills anymore,” she paused, “we still have to work with them, though, so keep your opinion to yourself.”
“Yes, boss,” Padraig said, still grinning.
“And be quiet.”
He nodded. All four of them stood in silence. “Think they will be here?” Maz whispered.
Aki thought about telling her to be quiet, too, but decided it wouldn’t do any good. “Sephina is cantankerous and stubborn,” she said back, keeping her voice as low as Maz’s had been. “But she’s not a liar. Her friends will be here."
Maz inclined her head, but otherwise didn’t respond. It seemed that was all she wanted to know.
The wind picked up. A few fat raindrops sprinkled the cobbles, indicative of Ater-Volante’s return to its customary level. Aki hoped the clouds would hold. They ought to, considering they were out over dry steppes, but you never knew. She would hate to have to scale Eolas’s outer wall in a rainstorm as well as windstorm, but needs must. The Don had asked her to steal a certain rod from the University’s Rare Fòrsic Artifacts museum. He had been light on the details as to why, but she knew it had something to do with the weapon he had. Perhaps he wanted to make another one. That would certainly be worth the risk. The University was heavily watched these days, by members of both sides, but Sephina said she had some informants willing to get them in. Sephina wouldn’t risk her people stealing it themselves. Aki understood, it was hard to find good informants. Plus, it would be nice to walk Eolas’s grounds again, if only for a moment.
The slither of a rope on stone interrupted her reverie. The knotted end slapped against the stone of the wall near them. Aki stepped forward and tugged it three times. Two jerks of the rope answered her. She tugged the line once more, followed by another jerk. She turned to the others. “This is it. Maz goes first. Ora next. Padraig and I will bring up the rear. Quick and quiet, now go!”
Aki kept a watchful eye out as the others ascended the rope, but the street where they had crouched remained deserted. No one wandered the city any more, not with the threat of the Stripies and the Choisant breathing down their necks. She smiled, not without a good reason, anyway. Then it was her turn. Like the others, Aki wore soft-soled boots, perfect for gripping the rough stones of the wall. Only Maz wore one of the Fòrsic suits. Aki rarely saw her out of one, these days.
Aki walked up the wall, using the rope to keep her upright. The position strained her stomach and her arms, but she set her jaw and continued upwards. The wind blew wisps of cloud and small rain droplets around her. The rope swayed in the stiff breeze, but by tensing her legs, Aki could keep her position. She muttered prayers to dar-Alos that the clouds not open further. Climbing the wall was hard enough. Ahead of her, Maz darted over the top of the wall and began helping to haul the rest of them up and over. As their weight left the rope, it became harder for Aki to keep her footing. She slipped. Fortunately, she kept her grip on the rope, but she swung forward and slammed her knees into the stonework.
Aki had to grit her teeth to not curse wildly. She looked up, and saw Maz’s head poke over the wall. Aki couldn’t see Maz’s expression in the darkness very well, but she saw her shake her head. Soon afterwards, the rope lurched upwards, carrying Aki with it. She ignored the indignity.
Maz and Padraig pulled her up over the wall, while Aki did her best to keep her legs from becoming more scraped that they already were. She could feel a bruise forming.
Maz helped Aki back to her feet, “should have worn a suit,” she said.
Aki shook her head. “Stealth over strength, remember?”
“I’m sure your limping will be very stealthy.”
Aki ignored her. Instead she looked over to where Ora was comforting a scared looking blond girl dressed in brown robes. “Sephina’s contact was an apprentice?” Shock warred with anger and worry in her mind. Apprentices were children! They didn’t deserve to be thrust into this conflict.
Padraig nodded. “She said there were others, but they left her to keep an eye on the rope. A group of people waiting up here in the rain is suspicious, but one small figure could be overlooked.”
Maz shook her head, her expression one of distaste, but she said nothing. Aki agreed with her, surely, they could have left someone other than a terrified girl. She watched Ora share her hip flask and nodded approval.
Ora looked up at Aki. “She says that her name is Osta,” she said. The girl glanced up too. The dram of whisky in Ora’s flask must have been showing its restorative properties. She had blond hair so light as to be almost white, and pale green eyes. She also looked to be no older than twelve, and Aki fought an urge to shake her head in condemnation. However young Osta looked, she was part of the Resistance now, and deserved to be treated as such.
“If it please you,” Osta’s voice was very quiet, Aki had to strain to hear it over the wind. “I’m to guide you to the museum.”
Padriag snorted. “We were all students here. We know where it is.”
Aki shot him a glare, but Osta didn’t appear to notice his condescending tone. “They’ve set up wards around the buildings. You need a pass-stone to get in,” she pulled a thin leather thong from beneath her robe, threaded on it was a dimly glowing crystal.
“That must make attending classes difficult,” Aki said.
Osta nodded. “The Professors have to lead us from class to class, and back to the dormitories afterwards. No wandering.”
Aki had heard security at Eolas had been tightened, but she hadn’t realized it was so strict. And it was unlikely to get better after they pilfered the museum. Well, it was a war, after all. Hopefully it would all be temporary.
She offered Osta a hand up, “Lead on.”
Visibility in the University commons was low. They appeared to be moving through a cloud, and the wind swirled grey mists everywhere. It was difficult to see more than ten feet ahead, despite the openness of the commons. It was the perfect night for getting in undetected.
Osta lead them across the grounds, leaning so far forwards into the winds that Aki thought she might fall flat on her face. Aki sympathized. She wasn’t as slight as the girl, but it was heavy going for her all the same. The roar of the wind wasn’t as noticeable here, but it still formed a pervading background of noise that made it difficult to hear anything at all. Aki hoped that would work for them, and not against them. A building materialized out of the darkness. It was grey, and rounded into a squat looking tower. Aki recognized it as one of the annex buildings of the library.
She tapped Osta on the shoulder, “we’re here?” Aki tried to whisper directly into her ear, but she had to pitch her voice louder than she wanted.
Osta nodded. The girl pointed towards the yawning entranceway. She motioned for Aki to take her hand, and Aki complied. She reached her own hand out, and felt Maz’s glove. The group formed a human chain, and Aki squeezed to let Osta know that they were ready. Holding the wardstone high, the girl led them forward into the darkened doorway.
The doors were unlocked. Inside, it was deathly quiet, the wind outside reduced to a whisper. Osta looked around, “the wards didn’t react,” she whispered to Aki, her young face a worried frown.
Maz tapped Aki on the shoulder. “Look,” she pointed to the corner. There were two Fòrsic guard dogs, constructs of iron gears and levers, and glowing crystal eyes. These ones were missing their heads, and the bodies themselves had been smashed and mangled. There was the faint, acrid hint of smoke to the air.
“Someone’s ahead of us,” Aki said. “To the museum, quickly now.”
The museum was in the central chamber of the annex, flanked by two spiraling staircases that ran up the sides of the tower to the second story. The rod the Don wanted was supposed to be on a cushion on a plinth between the staircases. The whole room was dark, and looked empty, but as they pounded through the main doorway, Aki saw a group of figures across the room. She noticed several of the displays had been smashed, including the glass covering over where the rod was supposed to be. The displays themselves were empty.
“After them!” Aki said. Maz fired a stunning blast of force from her suit, and sprang forward across the middle of the chamber. There was an answering flash, and Aki watched in shock as a blond woman with a glowing shield reflected Maz’s blast back at her. Maz collided with it in mid-air, and crashed down through one of the tables in the center of the room. She struggled to her feet, as Ora and Padraig flanked left and right around the curve of the room.
“Maz!” Aki shouted. She looked at Osta. The girl looked terrified, but was holding a small, crystalline wand, her jaw set in a defiant expression. I don’t have time to babysit, Aki thought. She didn’t have time to argue with the girl either. Instead, she snarled, “stay behind me,” and charged forward after Maz. The room dissolved into chaos.
A glowing figure in the other group was flinging blasts of pure Fòrsa around. One of them clipped a table, flipping it into Ora. She dived out of the way in a roll, and came up behind a decorative marble pillar. Meanwhile, Maz was back on her feet, trying to break through the shield held in front by the blond girl. An energy burst blew towards Aki’s head, and she went down in a slide, one leg outstretched. She popped up next to Maz, and hurled her own sizzling blasts from a slim baton. Electricity crackled across the room, but Maz stepped forward to shield the blow with the suit. Aki readied her next blast, looking around to see where the others were. Ora was still crouched behind a pillar, pinned down by the glowing figure, who Aki saw was a stocky, brown-skinned woman. Padraig was nowhere to be seen, but Aki had noticed him on the stairs before. Hopefully he was getting into position for a flank attack. Osta was still behind Aki, although she was ducking and cowering at the stray sparks of energy.
A male voice cut across the cacophony. “Aki?”
Aki’s eyes widened in surprised. She knew that voice. “EVERYBODY STOP!” Her bellow plunged the room into abrupt silence. She stared hard at the other group of thieves.
“Roshan?” she asked hesitantly
A man pushed forward from behind the woman with the shield. He looked gaunter than Aki remembered, and had an ugly beard, but the same shining light was in the same brown eyes. Roshan started forward. Maz made as if to interpose herself between him and Aki, but Aki ran past her. She and Roshan collided in a leaping hug.
Chapter 28 can be found here.