The refugees, when they came, were not many. Two men and a woman who had been inmates or guards. The line between those was not clear, though the floating cities had been the prisons of this world. Way they saw it, it didn’t matter how you got in there, only how you got out. So you worked your way up the ranks. Your fellows voted you your freedom.
Amazing, the things a world will think of. All gone now, of course, the cities sinking in the swamp. Whatever formed anew on Thaeron, it could be nothing like the old. There weren’t enough people left.
I vowed to keep that in mind as I welcomed my guests.
They seemed surprised by the modesty of my tent. But that’s just old military wisdom. Separate, do not elevate. So I was part of no circle, and kept my fire as I liked it. But I had nothing I had not ordered my men to have for themselves. And I never would. My tent was only larger than most for the purpose of accommodating meetings such as this.
“Please sit,” I said. We all sat, on sacks of flour absconded from a barge sitting at the docks. At least they were carefully arranged. Ash had seen to that. We ate mostly in silence.
“Tell me what it was like,” I said, near the end. “Tell me what it’s like to be an Auger. What it’s like being infected by the nightwind.” It was not the purpose of the meeting. But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t hurt.
Ki, the woman, began, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Guardian, it’s not like you think,” she said. “There’s no...you’re not mindless. They don’t take everything away. They add things. I finally thought my body was great. I felt attractive, like all the men would want me. You feel included and important. I thought I’d finally understood the secrets of the universe. The meaning of life, death, it’s all so clear. It’s the New Profusion. All our lives had been pointing toward the moment we accepted it. And when I did I was finally complete.”
The stories of the men were much the same. Tevantes, a tall wiry man, had discovered a nascient gift for mathematics and abstract theory. Renly, absurdly handsome, had finally healed from the deaths of his parents when he was a small child. The common denominator was that it had all come so quickly, an epiphany the moment the nightwind figured out what would work to switch you over.
Then one of the questions I’d actually called the meeting for. “And now? Now that there is no nightwind? What do you think? How do you feel?” I needed to know what I could expect from them.
Tevantes spoke up. “Guardian, my father was a drunk,” he said, looking down at the reed mat which I passed off as carpet. “Had been all his life. Said there were years he couldn’t remember. When I was ten, the Temple finally convinced him he needed to sober up, or he finally decided it himself. Well, he did. He really did. And it was good. He was calmer than he used to be. He spent more time with us.
But every now and then something would happen, a surprise or something, and you could see that he was scared. Not terrified, just wary. Like he half-expected the universe to trick him. Funny, huh? Anyway, this is like that, I think. We’re okay. We know the nightwind was a lie. But what’s to say you’re not lying, too?”
His eyes widened. He bowed quickly, almost hitting his head. “Our Guardian! I apologize.”
“Nonsense,” I said. I helped him up. “I am leading you off to war. But if I have lied to you it has been poorly. I have told you we would work. I have given you work aplenty. I have told you we will fight the enemy. We will see enemies very soon. I have told you we will reclaim the world. And we are leaving tonight.”
Three pairs of eyes on me. “Ash tells me you all hail from Redmarak. I don’t care why you were there or your status when released. I’m giving you your status now. Ash is overburdened. I need senior commanders. You know the swamps where you’re going. Each of you now directs a third of our boats. The individual captains report to you. You report to Ash. Ash reports to me. If anyone changes that, it’s going to be me. Understood?”