Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XXI

“It was the Public of the Guilds,” he said. “They were almost all Blooded. Ryn worked for twenty years to see to that. I know because I was his man in the Miners Guild, only I never got up far enough to matter. People said I was careless with that cut-load that did me, and it cost me credibility. But when Batyst kept encouraging me to try and I saw one of the other Guild heads at a Blooding, the rest wasn’t too hard to figure out. He never did say, but he didn’t deny it, either.

“Anyway, the idea was to have the Historian mediate some dispute between the Guilds, late at night when they’d be the only ones in the Speaking Hall, right? I know because Batyst asked me to come, only I told him I’d be a real liability with this leg, and not being a Guild head anyway. Maybe I should have gone. I tell you I’ve never seen that man upset. But he was anxious. He was positively rattled.”

“It was too perhaps soon,” Adlasola offered. “I think he was not ready.”

The barkeep nodded. “Yeah, he mentioned something about maybe being infiltrated, and that he had to hurry to get ahead of them. But we know he didn’t. So he didn’t get the High Historian to the Speaking Hall alone. And by the number of armored suits that went clanking by here in the middle of that godsforsaken night, I suppose he probably didn’t come that close. None of the Guild heads did.”

“But they only executed Ryn today,” I said. “What about the others?”

Our compatriot shrugged. “They wanted Ryn Batyst because they knew who he was. They wanted information, probably still do. As for the rest...”

“Oh gods,” I said. “He offered the Public right into the Historians’ hands. Salaan got everything out of this he possibly could have wanted.”

Adlasola’s sharp intake of breath told me that she understood. “You mean he...murdered them? All of them? Even without arresting them?”

The barkeep looked at her. “Executions are the message, miss. They’re the letters the Historians send to the world. But all the meanwhile, they keep a secret journal, where their real power is. Anyone asks, it was a rivalry of the guilds escalated into outright assault. The High Historians Salaan, graciously accepting the responsibility of mediation at such an hour, arrived in time only to arrest the sole survivor and count the bodies where they lay.”

Adlasola looked as though she would be sick. “The Public of the Guild will be weak for years,” I said, because I thought it might distract her. “But you said the Temple probably still wanted information. Why? Ryn couldn’t have withstood the torture. No one does. Why haven’t we been taken, too?”

The barkeep met my eye. “By the time the Historians got to Ryn, it wouldn’t have mattered. The Blood of History wouldn’t let that happen. Information doesn’t get out. Ever. The minds of the ancient dead, he once told me, are deeply conservative machines.”

I shook my head, thinking I knew to what he was referring. “But the loyalty compulsions get overridden all the time. All you need is something to change the chemicals in your mind. If I had a coin for every time Ryn sent me to obfuscate something some drunk said in a place like this on too late a night...”

“No,” said the barkeep, shaking his head. “You don’t understand. What you think, it wasn’t going to happen. The Temple could have tortured him any way they wanted to, and Ryn could have told them everything he knew. But the Temple wouldn’t get names, wouldn’t get places, ever. Wouldn’t even get real words out of him. Ever, zero chance, and it’d be the same for you or I. You understand?”

I did, and was nearly sick myself. “So the Blood scrambled his brain,” I said. “That’s why he was quiet. There wasn’t anything left of him to talk. It was the Blood. It’s already inside us, all the time. So he didn’t say anything, because he wasn’t there to say. Ryn, the real Ryn, was already dead. The Temple was torturing a corpse. They were beating up a body. His mind was already gone.”

Adlasola sat very still. We all sat for a long time, staring into the darkness. There was one customer, an injured miner like the proprietor himself, whom he served while we two sat in silence, and whom he ushered quickly out. When the barkeep came back, Adlasola was more composed and I was halfway through drinking the pitcher of ale. I have no head for spirits, but thought it did not matter. Nothing did. I only dimly noted that the barkeep now held an index, one of those kind on which so many merchants keep their ledgers. I have never needed one.

“So what do we do?” she asked him, or quite possibly no one. “What perhaps would Ryn Batyst have wanted us to do?”

But the proprietor pointed to the ledger, with all its rows and columns. He slid it across the table toward me. I stared at it stupidly, as though I were some animal. “This is really what he came by for,” he said. “He knew I wouldn’t go. But he wanted someone else to know, and he made clear that you might come by and I was to give this to you if you did. I haven’t deciphered it, but I guess it’s the list. Every Blooded whose ever stepped inside the earth, their name, residence, age and occupation. What you were supposed to do with it, I have no idea. But he was damned clear what I was to be about.”

“Keep it,” I said. “I don’t want it.” I pushed it back across the table at him.

“Del,” said Adlasola, putting her hand on the page. “Don’t do this. The world has many frightened men. Don’t become another.”

“I won’t take it,” I said again. “I quit the Blooded. I forsook the Blood of History. The ancient dead are mad. They’re nothing to do with me.”

“It wasn’t a question, kid,” said the barkeep, pushing the index back. I did a quick reckoning and figured I might or might be able to overcome him. But nothing I did was going to make Adlasola happy.

“I’m done,” I said, closing my fist. “There’s nothing you can do that will make me take it back.”

“Del,” said Adlasola, “you I think are being idiotic. This is not the Blood of History. It is a paper only. It endangers this man while it is here. It endangers everyone. This man has connections to his guild, who they know had contacts with Ryn Batyst. They will be coming here.”

“Everything he did,” said the barkeep, “he did to protect the rest of us. If you don’t take it, the Blooded die as an organization here and now. I’ll burn it. It’s too much risk. Take it or the Historians win. Take it or our friend died for nothing!”

I sat still and did not move a millimeter, my eyes fixed on the edge of the table opposite. This time, I didn’t respond at all.

“Despite everything,” said Adlasola. “Despite everything you did and said toward the end, he still believed in you. This perhaps is his dying wish. Did you perhaps not believe in him at all?”

I shook my head. Adlasola took the paper and folded it inside her sleeve. “Then I will believe in you, until you perhaps are ready. I think it will be hard for me not to think somewhat less of you. I believe my own guild head, after all, may very well be dead. You are not the first person in the world to suffer, Del Tanich.”

When the barkeep started to protest her using names, she raised an arm to silence him. “You already know who he is,” she said. “We all know who he is, except for him. But he’s the only one who wishes he did not.”

I let my eyelids fall until they were almost closed. If I cried, I did not know it, but I heard the barkeep walk off to tend his glasses, before the evening crowd arrived.

“But still,” said Adlasola, “there are perhaps things which must be done. Neither of us I think has family. So I need to paint if I am going to eat tomorrow. And you need to go to the docks if you are going to work this week – this is the day your barge arrives, is it not?”

The proprietor must have overheard. “Oh, didn’t you hear that?” he said. “There’ll be no barge today. Maybe not ever. The war’s begun outright. Kasora’s taken Nesechia, too, as well as the Shuni Plateau before it. So they’ve got all Ostara now.

“So it’s the big one, the war between the continents. Historians always said that would be the last one, that the north would go one way and the south would go another, and in the end there’d be nothing left, and that was why we should all be loyal. But I never figured they’d start it up themselves.

Regardless, someone’s commandeered the ships. All our Profusionist ships slipped right out from their docks, whether there was anything or anyone aboard or not. And then they headed south. That’s true, I hear, for everywhere between here and the docks at Sepira by the sea. The Faith can’t do a thing about it. So no, there’ll be no barge this week, none of any kind, that’s certain.”

Adlasola dragged me toward the door. “We’ll find a way,” she said.

I could almost hear the barkeep shake his head. “Not if what they say is true,” he said. “Not if that was the work of them there spheres, those Orchids, as they call em. Not if this was all their doing, and they’re taking sides in our own war. Maybe it’s all bound up together. That much power against us, I don’t even want to think about.”

Adlasola shrugged, and steered me wavering through the door, and out into what had suddenly become a very steady rain. And I saw that we had spent the entire afternoon inside; dusk had dropped its great cloak, grayer even than my own, all across the city.

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