When the Galioux landed in the clearing outside the barony proper, Eugene Everette was there alongside Aster, several servants, and his wife Katherine.
The skyship gently descended in a cloud of its own blue vapor, scattering nearby birds and woodland critters.
Katherine stood next to her husband in the open air, heart beating quickly with anticipation, praying this reunion with her children would be a fresh start.
She could not leave hope’s ledge despite the many times she had fallen from it. The view was too intoxicating to resist. Old memories and wounds were partially forgotten. This time things could be different between them – more like the parent and loving child dynamic that was so normal for other families; no more cold, hostile glances, no more being treated like an unwanted outsider in her own home, no more being humiliated to please the father.
Katherine loved her children. Of course she did. She was a mother and that’s what good mothers were supposed to do.
Yes. She loved them very much.
Out of the hatch came stumbling Theodore and Veronica, still familiarizing themselves with normal gravity. Veronica had grown flawlessly into her womanhood – all dark hair, light skin, and subtle curves that were not so prominent two years ago. She had the crew wrapped around her finger – several of them eagerly hauling out the trove of luggage she had brought.
Theodore descended the ramp next. He looked the spitting image of his father in everything but hair color. He had the blonde hair of his mother, much to the Baron’s disappointment. He was dressed in Machian fashion: pea coat, grey slacks, suspenders, and brimmed hat, currently tucked under one arm. His heavy-set build and beady eyes left no doubt as to who his father was. He looked paler than Katherine remembered, though, and was wiping perspiration from his forehead with a folded handkerchief despite the chill of the night.
“Father!” Veronica skipped the rest of the distance into the Baron’s arms.
“Hello, pumpkin. Look at you! A lovely young woman! What happened to the little girl I let go two years ago?”
She giggled and kissed him on the cheek. “She’s right here, father! Oh, it is so good to see you again!”
They separated from their hug. Katherine turned to Veronica.
“Welcome back, sweetheart,” she smiled weakly “how was the flight?”
“Hello mother.” She walked off to direct the men with her luggage.
She hadn’t been expecting much from her daughter, but still the little gleam of hope for a loving relationship with Veronica all but died.
Shoulders tensed, she took a ragged breath and hastily repeated her mantra.
I love my children I love my children I love my children….
Surely her son would not treat her the same.
Theodore was shaking hands with his father.
“Father. I have returned.”
The Baron nodded. “Your studies are proceeding well?”
“I expect you were at the top of your class?”
“Good. Go get settled in. You and your sister meet us in the dining room when you’re ready.”
Theodore moved on to his mother as the Baron disengaged to go speak with the captain.
She felt more nervous than she would like to admit. How would their relationship be after two years of not seeing each other? Would he treat her like Veronica did? He was always the closest of her two children, but her family tended to scorn her like a disease, like the outsider – the undesirable tainting the Everette name.
Theodore wasn’t smiling as he approached her. He looked worn out, like he had just made it through a taxing ordeal.
“Mother,” he said.
She forced a tenuous smile. “Hello Theo. How you’ve grown! Very handsome.”
He sighed and walked past her, pausing long enough to touch her arm and give it a weak squeeze.
For the first time in memorable history, Katherine felt joy. She almost smiled.
The night grew thicker over the barony proper as the siblings settled into their old rooms and prepared themselves for the first evening meal. They both knew what to expect: their father would use the opportunity to invite everyone worth inviting, and some arguably not. He would want to show off his children and their accomplishments, and reassert their authority in the barony while they were home for break.
With that in mind, Veronica had her servants draw a bath while she went about selecting her outfit for the evening. She welcomed the distractions – it kept her mind off the monster that might still be prowling the woods, waiting for her. She had insisted on a detachment of guards to be assigned to her as a personal escort. It was a relief to know that they were just outside in the hallway, should she need them.
Theodore, meanwhile, sat heavily into the chair in his old room and took a quick nap. The flight, combined with the stress of lying to his father’s face, had exhausted him mentally and emotionally. Just before slipping into unconsciousness, he had brief, disconnected thoughts about Twosford, Gracie Newel, and his terrible, failing grades.
He awoke to the sound of his door creaking open. In walked a petite serving girl, carrying folded towels.
“My lord, I brought – “ she paused when she saw him coming out of a nap.
Fear swept over her face.
“I’m so sorry! Forgive me, I didn’t realize you were asleep!”
She hastily dropped the towels on a nearby counter and fled back out the door. Alone in the room, Theodore sat there, feeling embarrassed and self-conscious. He straightened himself out and combed his hair pack in place, cheeks burning.
The encounter, mundane though it was, stayed in his head even as he was walking out the door to dinner. It blended with the uncertainty of the coming social encounter. He hated the feeling – halfway between reliving the past and fearing the future. The run-in with the servant girl had been different, though, from what he was used to undergoing at the University.
He realized as he traversed the cold hallway that it was the first time someone had been afraid of him in a long while. He was a lord again. People here feared and respected him.There would be no more insults and slander, at least not to his face.
He shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but he had grown used to the life of a city hermit, where self-isolation and social avoidance had spared him the humiliation of being out in public.
But no more. Here, he was at the top. He was a lord again.
As he turned the corner and passed by the parlor, he lit a cigarette and reflected on the servant girl’s face.
She must be new, he decided. She had been awfully pretty, in a simple sort of way. He found his pulse racing.
Pretty and petite. And terrified of displeasing him.
He entered the dining room then, and was assaulted by greetings and warm welcomes. Quickly made uncomfortable by the attention, he snatched up the first drink he saw and downed the glass for courage. With desperation he reminded himself that here, he was top dog.
You’re not in Twosford anymore. You’re a lord. They are afraid of you, not the other way around.
Another drink couldn’t hurt. He shook the hands of the guests milling about the dining room table as he secured himself another glass.
They are afraid of you. You are not afraid of them.
The mold of the young lord of the Silver Weald had been empty for a long time. He stepped into his old role and pulled it snug about him. He now saw how the guests spoke to him with flattery and compliments, knowing well the danger of gaining his ire. Theodore drank it all in as he did the wine, intoxicated by the power.
He couldn’t help but smile. It felt good to be home.
The dining room glowed with an inviting warmth. It featured a great hearth, putting out heat on cold winter nights and unusually chilly spring evenings like this one. It had a veranda opposite the entrance, overlooking the barony proper to the east.
Of course, the room would not be complete without a table, and this particular table took up eighty percent of the floor space. It was old mahogany, its story well archived in the dents and scratches carved on its surface.
Carefully laid out in equal spacing on the table were three candelabra made of barony silver. Regiments of oatcakes, warm bread, stuffed sausage, and sharp cheese were arrayed tastefully between them. Fluted wine glasses stood stoically beside clean plates and sparkling silverware, waiting to be filled with the best red wine from the barony cellar.
Sitting at the table was everyone the Baron could think of inviting: the stablemaster, the bailiff, the captain of the Condor Guard, the forgemaster, the archivist, and, of course, Duncan Le Treu. The Baron sat at one end of the table, his wife Katherine at the other.
Aster stood behind the Baron in the corner, calmly surveying the performance of his servants, moving with clockwork efficiency to serve the guests.
Veronica and Theodore sat on either side of their father. Directly next to Theodore, on his right, was seated Ernst, the Bailiff, dressed cleanly and smelling lightly of perfume. He was slightly drunk on wine before the first course was served, and was recounting Theodore with his own tales of studying in Machia.
“Now, keep in mind, this was back in the thirties: things were simpler back then. No Dardassa, no pirates north of The Reach, and none of this ‘Liberalism’.” He was talking a little too loudly for Theodore’s liking. It was hurting his ears, and drawing attention away from other conversations.
“This was also right after the war, mind you, when Machia was struggling to rebuild its economy and soldiers were returning from abroad looking for employment back in the cities. Sure, money was scarce, but back then you could get a nice meal for ten pity. At the time, I was working for a ……”
Ernst droned on. Theodore was forced to sit there, nodding politely.
Across from him, flanking his father, sat Veronica, trying not to be bothered by the poor table manners of the stablemaster, Christoff, who smelled like horse and hacked wet coughs filled with phlegm.
On Theodore’s side, past the chatty Bailiff, sat Duncan Le True, laughing at something Nico, the Captain of the Condor Guard, had said. Theodore wished he could have sat next to Duncan, if only to ask him about how he killed the Render.
The forgemaster, called ‘Chief’, was laughing alongside Duncan, trying to cut in his own recounting of the same comic moment. He was by far the largest of the three: broad and thick, with biceps the size of his bald, bearded head. Captain Nico still had the energy of youth about him. With a face that never seemed to age, he looked to be in his mid twenties, fifteen years short of his actual age. Only the little flecks of grey in his otherwise black head of hair betrayed the illusion of youth. Duncan said something at Nico, who pretended to be offended, causing more laughter from the other two.
Baron Everette watched the proceedings of the table. Sensing the atmosphere, he waved Aster over his shoulder and gave the command to begin with the feast.
Marmalade-braised duck legs with brussel sprouts was to be the main course, preceded by blue cheese bruschetta and followed by a summer salad in a basil vinaigrette.The night was to be ended with the Barony’s best brandy and chocolate tart.
The first course was served. Everyone dug into the bruschetta, pausing in between mouthfuls to continue the conversation. Most had drained their second or third glass of wine by the time the appetizer was being cleared off the table, and Christoff was sneaking sips from his flask of liquor, unaware that everyone at the table could see him.
Katherine nibbled at her food, trying to avoid eye contact with Duncan Le Treu and to ignore the masculine antics of Nico and Chief as they tried to steal from each others plate. Stephen, the barony archivist, sat on Katherine’s right side, stuck in the midst of this. He was the only one not drinking. Quietly he flipped through a notebook with thin fingers, his discomfort apparent. He wore the same old drab cotton pants and cracked belt around his thin waist. His forehead bore a black tattoo of the Arcanus Lex, or its rough approximation, signifying him as a Rector.
Katherine watched Theodore awkwardly navigating the conversations at the far side of the table, becoming increasingly bold with each glass of wine. This filled her with love and sadness. Love – for the young man that was her son; quiet, shy, and still good inside. Sadness – for the struggle he was clearly fighting through. She didn’t know exactly what it was, but he was hiding something painful from everyone. That much she could see.
From one end of the table the Baron led the conversations, conducting everyone to pay their compliments to his children and to be grateful for the honor of sitting at the table, which they all did with smiles on their faces. Veronica spoke up.
“Father, when are you going to tell us about what happened with the Render?”
As if on cue, the room went quiet. Everyone wanted to hear the answer.
“Is it true a Ranger killed it?” Asked Nico. Some nodded along, having heard the same rumor.
“That’s a load of shit,” said Christoff through missing teeth. “It was Duncan, of course!”
Duncan’s fork and knife went still in his hands. He didn’t look up from his plate.
“Duncan! C’mon now! Tell us about it! What was it like!”
With a loud clatter Duncan threw down his silverware unceremoniously onto his plate, startling everyone. No one said a word. When Duncan Le Treu was pissed, it was best not to.
Christoff muttered a hasty apology, seeing his fatal error. The Baron looked around the table
“It wasn’t Duncan,” he said.
Sensing an answer to their question, everyone forgot about their food to listen. Duncan sat unmoving, hunched over his plate.
“It was a traveller,” The Baron continued. “A stranger not from here. He fought the monster and slew it.”
No one hid their surprise. Stephen the Archivist was now looking up from his book. Veronica was hanging on every word. Theodore risked a glance at Duncan – sitting still as a statue. A very angry statue.
Christoff spoke next: “So it was a Ranger? Did he survive?”
The Baron gestured with his pudgy hands. “No, no, he isn’t a Ranger,” he lied. “We managed to keep him alive.”
“And the body,” Veronica cut in. “Did you recover the monster’s body??”
The Baron looked at her with surprise, as if he hadn’t expected her to be interested.
“No. We don’t have a body.”
The color drained from Veronica’s face. “So the Render could still be out there…”
“I doubt it. The traveller did have its weapon in his grasp when we found him. And his story seems believable.”
Veronica glanced back down at her plate, looking quite ill.
Another pause. The Baron looked to the servants hesitating at the edge of the room.
“What are you waiting for,” he hollered, face as red as the wine. “Bring out the next course!”
That was that. He had ended the questions and brought the discussion to a close. The guests were fine with that. They had been given enough information to fuel several years of gossip and conjecture.
As the lavish supper was winding to an end, the hunter sat alone in his cell on top of his mattress, nursing the hangover that still raged inside him. His pain, though by no means lessened, could be muddled through enough to hold a thought. And he had nothing if not time to think.
In fact, it seemed to be all he had left – time to think. His gear and all possessions were lost, along with his money. His health was gone. His freedom – taken. His mission – failed. That last one hurt the most. He had been without all the others before. But take away a man’s purpose and what is he left with? Survival? The habit of staying alive?
What bullshit. Just kill me now if that’s all I have left. He snorted. It was hard enough with all that I had.
These thoughts were his spade, and with it he dug himself deeper.
It is because of these thoughts that the man was so desperate for solid ground, for something to arrest his unending plummet into despair. He felt panicky, seeing the dwindling light of reason and composure grow far, far away, and the mysterious depths of dementia rush toward him.
So he thought of the one purpose left to him: the encounter with the mountain lion. If what Duncan said was true, he had ended up far off the mountaintop after the battle. Which means – like his feverish recollection suggested – he actually followed the puma somewhere after he was shot.
It must have shown me something! Something incredibly important…Why can’t I remember?!
He rubbed at his aching head.
Regardless, if there was even the slightest chance that moment had occurred, he would get to the bottom of it. He would find out what it was that beast had revealed to him.
He would need to revisit that mountaintop with the ruined aquifer. Maybe there he could retrace his feverish steps, or at least remember some clue that would help him figure it all out.
That meant he would need to recover his health – at least to the point where he could trek back out and find that mountain again.
That was to be his new purpose. He clung to it.
Alone, he reminded himself. I need to do this alone.
He didn’t trust anyone here, especially not with such a personal matter, one that he suspected could change his life forever.
He glanced at the thick door to his cell. He would need to find a way out eventually. The door didn’t have a lock on the inside, unsurprisingly. It’s iron reinforcements made it impossible to break down. He would need to wait for the right moment for someone else to open it from the outside before making his escape.
But that was a long way coming. Regaining his strength came first.
Just then, the door opened. He hadn’t heard anyone approaching, so he was surprised. So surprised, in fact, that he considered bolting for the door and making his escape right then and there.
In walked a thin, balding man in old court attire, cold blue eyes peering at him from above a curved, beakish nose. His white-gloved hand held a small cloth package.
He considered asking the intruder his name, but felt the energy and willpower to do so was out of his reach, so instead he watched as the pale stick-man gently placed the package on the table and went about unravelling it with private ceremony.
The hunter couldn’t see what the package contained, but briefly had the image of a pistol, soon to put an end to his misery. He considered whether this would be a good or bad thing and broke out in dark laughter.
The balding man turned to regard him with a look of mixed confusion and distaste.
“What do you want,” the hunter said. “Here to interrogate me? At least be creative about it.”
Aster ignored the question, and turned around to reveal what he had been carrying: a long syringe and a corked bottle of milky-blue liquid. He stuck the needle through the cork and drew out the substance into the syringe.
The hunter tensed. “What is that?”
“Medicine. It should help with the pain and your recovery.” The thin man’s voice was soft and devoid of emotion.
He approached the hunter with needle upraised.
“It will. Lie back down, please.”
He hesitated for half a second before complying.
His left pant leg was rolled up, and with a brief stab of pain the needle was inserted into the vein of his ankle.
A blue wave, that’s what it was.
It’s tidal forces came sweeping over him, gaining momentum as it crested over his head, casting a shadow that blotted out his cognizance.
His instinct was to fight against it and resist its chemical influences. But as that wave broke upon his mind, all thoughts of resistance shattered. There was no fighting this. It swept aside his willpower like an empty sea shell, and he was thrust beneath its blissful current.
The warmth came first. From the feet it started, rushing up from there, all the way to the top of his head and into each hair follicle. He had never felt so remarkably warm and comfortable, like a thick blanket had been tucked snuggly all around him.
Those pains and aches in his chest, head, and back changed their tune immediately, instead serenading him with songs of pleasure and paradise. The throbbing in his head became almost orgasmic.
Deep in the wave, his surrender gave him the contentment he never knew he needed. Gone was the fear and doubt that had previously been so dominating. That dark hole he had dug himself – the one who’s exit seemed so unreachable – flooded with the onrush of blue chemical magic and out he swam, just as quickly as he had dug it.
His new purpose of finding that mountaintop, learning what the mountain lion had shown him, and escaping from his prison was completely forgotten. Who needed purpose when everything was perfect just as it is? He didn’t need to leave. He didn’t need to do anything at all.
Everything was okay – better than okay. Everything was wonderful.
The Master of Servants stepped back and watched as the hunter sagged with a sigh of pleasure, lost in the high. He was an ugly sight, Aster decided. Unkempt and ragged like a wild dog, his face was permanently scarred with wicked claw marks. A horrible gouge, now healed over, ran up the left side of his head. Aster sneered.
“You know, Mr. Monroe,” Aster said as he went about wrapping the empty syringe back in the cloth. “I’ve always hated you and your kind.”
The hunter’s eyes closed. His body curled up in the fetal position and a line of drool crawled out from the corner of his mouth. He clearly couldn’t hear anything.
“You ‘Free Folk’, as you call yourselves, are perhaps the greatest mistake in human history. Freedom? What nonsense. The only freedom you monkeys want is the freedom to practice your perverse hedonism.”
He stood with back erect, looking down at the man, arms tucked neatly behind him.
“So listen here, monkey. Your presence here is a sin – a blasphemy against God. It is because of people like you and the herbalist that so many have strayed from the true faith, instead choosing to worship the weather and the plants and the dirt under their fingernails. You and your clergy of your fake storm god are the reason human civilization struggles to progress – the reason diseases are not cured and wars are not won.”
Aster said this as he would give a comment on the weather – indifferently and without care. Not once did his face break its stoic expression.
“Imagine, for a moment, a world in which all people followed the true faith. Imagine if everyone accepted their role in society and worked toward reaching enlightenment – toward unravelling the divine construct of God and bettering humanity as a whole. Can you picture it? The progress we would make in the Divine Sciences! You think our skyship technology is impressive? Imagine what we could do with the backing of the entire human race. The real faith – the true faith would put us a thousand years into the future.”
The hunter was sound asleep in ecstasy, a big, contented grin drawn across his face.
“You know, the drug I just administered is Atrix, but on the streets of Oulette they call it Wave. They say it causes your brain to interpret pain as pleasure and muddles your perception of hot and cold. The Machian military uses it on their wounded soldiers to keep them in the fight. It’s tremendously addictive. Being without it for more than twenty-four hours will break most people, so I regret to say you are now stuck here for as long as my lord wishes. You are his property now. When he tells you to dance, monkey, you will dance. I only wish we could do this to the rest of your kind.”
Aster stepped over to the table, his back now to the comatose prisoner, and loosely rifled through Fiona’s herbs and implements with one hand. He flipped through her papers, committing their contents to memory.
“But the Machinations of Omni are all encompassing. Heathens and savages like you are included in it’s holy design. So don’t worry: druggies have a part to play, too. Perhaps this knowledge will help you better step into your new role – as the addict that serves the faithful. So for that – if indeed it is true – I thank you. I will make sure your sacrifice is put to good use, monkey.”
With that, the Master of Servants left, and the hunter was left alone in his cell – now his paradise – completely unaware of the trap he had fallen into.
End of Book Two