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Chapter 43
late Sp'mo' to late Su'mo'

1

After the conversation between Arnold Sullenhest and the Hillrats had been concluded, Thew tried calling Evan, to let the family know he was alright. However, Evan had gone home by then, so the call didn't go through. Instead, Thew left a voice message, which Evan received the next day, 22 Sp'mo'. He returned his nephew's call, and said he was glad to hear he was safe, and would pass that on to the rest of the clan, particularly Thew's father, brother, and sister. He also said it would be best if they didn't communicate for the time being, barring emergencies; he didn't say why not, and Thew didn't ask.

Thew, Taryn, and Josh arrived in Kimrin on the evening of the 29th, and Thew spent the night with them at their home in the foothills of the Kimrin Mountains. They lived in a cave, with a wooden door built into the entrance. The cave itself was better furnished than Thew would have expected, for hill rats; but then, he'd never met any, before. He felt quite at home there, having spent more than half his life living underground, himself. This led him to joke that "We Hobbits have to stick together," a reference the Hillrats didn't get, so he spent the remainder of the evening explaining it, before they all went to sleep. The next day, he had breakfast with them, thanked them again for the long ride and the hospitality, then bid them good-bye, and headed out to explore Kimrin on his own.

A part of him felt that he should try to get to Near Port and rescue the Chaos, but of course he knew he had no chance of accomplishing such a thing on his own. Besides, he'd promised not to get involved. So he decided to do whatever he would have done if they hadn't been captured. This meant looking for adventure, as he'd done for the past year, in villages closer to home. But before getting caught up in anything too exciting, he felt it would be best to familiarize himself with the area. He allowed a week for that, spending each night in a series of inns, dining at different restaurants, and checking out various shops. Once he'd gotten the lay of the land, he began thinking about what to do next. The first step in seeking out adventure was reading the local paper, seeing if the classifieds provided any opportunities for minor quests appropriate to his age and skill level, as a relatively new adventurer. He also looked around town for any posters advertising such jobs. He hadn't seen any in the past week, but you never knew when something new might come along.

He was rather disappointed that he failed to find anything that way. But he also tried hanging out in the sort of seedy taverns where people on the fringe of society liked to gather, hoping to pick up on word-of-mouth suggestions. To his surprise, no one seemed to be talking about adventure. He'd always assumed a place like Kimrin would be rife with potential adventure, but the closest thing he heard was about the criminal activities of LandOrder. Even that sounded boring; apparently capo Capp Primus, who was also the don of this village's branch of the gang, ran a very tight ship, so to speak. He didn't allow his gangsters to get out of hand, or do too much harm to innocent citizens. And there was no danger of gang wars, as LandOrder was the only gang in town. In any event, Thew had no interest in getting involved in such matters. So finally, he decided to just head into the mountains, and see if he could find any adventure for himself. At the very least, he figured it would be good exercise. And with any luck, he might encounter some ogres or orcs. And, you know, he said to himself, see if they invite me to join them for a spot of tea.

He set out on Wor'ginday, 8 Sp'yet, and for the first two days of his mountain trek, he encountered various wild animals, but no people, nor any semi-intelligent creatures. "At least it is good exercise," he said as he set up his tent Tuesday night, "and camping out is always fun."

He came across a stream shortly before noon on 10 Sp'yet, and followed it uphill for a few hours, before arriving at the top of a pleateau, which was located in the center of the mountain range. And on this plateau was Kimrin Lake; the first lake Thew had ever seen. It was quite a beautiful sight, so he decided to sit and enjoy the view, while eating some jerky and hardtack. Thew was roughly at the midway point along the lake's 500-mile length, not far north of where its width, about 250 miles across where he was, began expanding toward its ultimate width of 300 miles. He'd heard that the local orcs mostly dwelled in the mountains north of the lake, while the ogres lived in the mountains west of the lake. He wasn't sure which species would be more fun- or less dangerous- to encounter, but he didn't suppose he had much chance of getting across the lake. So, he figured he'd start hiking north, and take his chances with the orcs. He just hoped they weren't too much like the ones in the books he and his brother both enjoyed so much. Reading about them was one thing; meeting them would be something else entirely. Meanwhile, he decided to make camp right here, for the night, and see if he could catch some fish for his supper.

That evening, as he was building a camp fire, he was surprised to see someone suddenly emerge from the water. The person was equally surprised to see Thew on the shore, though he was better at hiding it than Thew was. The man was wearing a wetsuit, and there was a large, transparent bubble surrounding his head. He pressed a spot on his neck, and the bubble vanished. "Hello," he said, "what are you doing here, son?"

"Uh... camping. What's it look like? Never mind, better question... what the heck was that thing on your head?"

"Oh... he waved his hands down and back up the length of his body, saying, "this is a scubsuit. It generates a magic bubble of air to facilitate breathing under water."

"So, are you a Sorreter, then?"

"No, it's just a spell device, so anyone can use one."

"Okay. But isn't it a bit early in the year to be diving?"

"The suit is better-insulated than it looks, but it also has a secondary spell for regulating body heat. Seems kind of early for camping, though."

"I guess, but at least it's warmer out here than it is in there," he nodded at the lake. "Anyway... I'm Thew Protestant. May I ask your name?"

"Stavros Supprus."

"Supprus, huh? I expect my surname needs no explanation, though I can't imagine what yours means."

He shook his head. "It's not important. Just... something from a pretend language a friend and I made up when we were kids."

Thew's eyes widened with sudden realization. He whispered, "Lanwich..."

Now Stavros's eyes widened. "What did you say?"

"Lanwich. That's the name of your language, right?"

"How did you know that?"

"I..." he paused, and considered what to say. Suddenly he grinned and asked, "How do you say 'amazing coincidence' in Lanwich?"

"Umussic syncodaze. Why?"

"Because it's an amazing coincidence that I should happen to run into you, like this. I mean, not like this, because this seems... I never could have imagined meeting anyone, this way, specifically. But... I find it terribly improbable that I should meet you at all. Because I'm acquainted with someone by the name of Alecstar Inco, who you would know as Alec." As soon as he'd said it, Thew suddenly flushed as he thought, Damn, I probably shouldn't have said that. It could get Alecstar in trouble. But a moment later he thought, Oh, wait... he's already in trouble, and surely Stavros already knows his alias. But maybe I just got myself in trouble.

While these thoughts had been going through his head, Stavros had said something, and it took Thew a moment to realize that. He'd said, "How do you know Alec?" When Thew didn't immediately respond, Stavros prompted, "Well?"

"Oh, uh... I met him in Triscot. He and some friends were heading north, so I asked for a ride, and they obliged. But I was hoping to see Kimrin, and they were going to Near Port. So... when we happened to meet some other travelers who were heading to Kimrin, I got a ride with them, the rest of the way. When I arrived in Kimrin about a week and a half ago, I read in the paper that Alecstar and his companions had been imprisoned as accused rebels. That sure surprised me; they all seemed so nice. But I guess you never can tell, about people. Sure glad I left their company, when I did."

"And he told you about me, did he?"

"Well, he mentioned someone named Stavros, and he talked about Lanwich. Didn't say much, though. It seemed painful for him to talk about. I don't know why, exactly, but I got the sense he felt... well, that you had betrayed him, somehow."

Stavros was silent for a time. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah, I guess I did. Didn't mean to, though. I just... made a stupid mistake, and when things didn't turn out as I planned, I never got a chance to explain, because he disappeared. It's the greatest regret of my life. But since then, I-" He suddenly halted his speech, and narrowed his eyes as he looked at Thew. "You did say your name was Protestant? So I would assume... your parents were anti-Order, during the war?"

"Um, yeah. They both died in the war, when I was like six. After that I was raised by my aunt and uncle, who weren't involved in the Protestant Movement. They'd always been against my parents' position, but when the surname law was passed the next year, they chose the name Protestant to honor their memory. I've always thought that was kind of weird; we're probably the only people named Protestant who are actually Orthodox. Anyway, I don't really remember my parents very well, and I really wish they hadn't become Protestants. But I do still miss them, and I'm sure my aunt and uncle miss them even more, having known them better than I ever had the chance to. So I guess I understand their choice of surname."

Stavros studied Thew's face for half a centhour before saying, "You know, before the war I always wanted to be an investigative reporter. I developed a knack for telling when people were lying, which still comes in handy, even though I ended up as a career officer in the Army, instead of following my original dream. Your story's not bad, kid, and I suspect there's more than a grain of truth to it. But I can tell you're definitely hiding something. Can't say I blame you; I wouldn't want to admit to an officer of the Second Order that I was anti-Order, if I was you."

"But... there's amnesty even for those who were part of the Movement, and I've certainly never been part of that. I was much too young. So what would I have to lie about?"

"You already admitted to being acquainted with rebels."

"But I didn't know that, until after we parted ways!"

"So you say. But I also saw you blush, immediately after you said you knew Alec."

"Well, I was worried you'd get the wrong idea. Which it seems like you are."

Stavros smiled. "Relax. The fact is, Colonel Woodman had no legal right to do what he did. Even if he gets his law passed, it won't retroactively justify his actions. So I'm certainly not going to duplicate those actions by arresting some kid, especially on a vague hunch."

"Oh. Well, I appreciate that, sir. But, if you think he was wrong... does that mean you think these Chaos people might be innocent?"

"I couldn't possibly say. But if it was up to me, they wouldn't be locked up, right now. Not until there was reliable evidence of their guilt. To the best of my knowledge, Woodman's people so far haven't found anything that would hold up in court. But then again, if the law passes, he may not need such proof. And that really worries me. There are people in this world who it'd be very dangerous to give too much power, and I'd say Charles Woodman is one of them."

"Well, if their case ever does go to trial, maybe I could be a character witness. I didn't know them well, and if they are guilty, I hope that comes to light. But I can't help doubting they were really planning anything so terrible."

Once again, Stavros studied Thew, this time with a smile. "Huh. Still not being entirely honest. That's very interesting. I wonder what you could possibly be hiding?"

"I don't know what you-" and then, something occurred to Thew. "Wait. What are you hiding?"

Stavros's grin widened. "Who, me? I'm not hiding anything, I think I've been pretty plain. Cautious, perhaps, but everything I've said has been perfectly honest."

Thew stared at him for a few moments, before looking askance and mentally reviewing all that Stavros had said. Tried looking beneath the surface of the words for some hidden meaning. Began thinking about the fact that he'd apparently been about to say something, then stopped to ascertain where Thew's own loyalties lay. After he had decided that Thew was lying about his attitude concerning the Order, he'd... yes, made it plain that he was opposed to the imprisonment of the Chaos. And opposed to Woodman- no, not just Woodman, but people, plural- gaining too much power. But what did that mean, exactly? What kind of power? In this context... it seemed like Stavros was implying that certain people might abuse any power they got. Use the law to break the law. If Stavros was against that... maybe he was trying to let Thew know that he could be trusted with the truth. Then again, that could be a trap, in itself. But when Stavros had claimed to regret his betrayal of Alec, that had seemed sincere. Thew wished he had Stavros's knack for reading people. What could he have been about to say? 'Since then, I-' what? 'I've been trying to make up for it,' perhaps? But how would he do that? Work against the Second Order, from the inside? That hardly seemed plausible, and yet-

Stavros rolled his eyes. "Have you just about worked it out, yet?"

Shifting his gaze back to Stavros, Thew said, "I can't help feeling like you're trying to bait me into admitting some wrongdoing, which I haven't done."

"Ah, he speaks truth! But if you haven't done anything wrong, then whatever you're hiding must be someone else's wrongdoing. Your alleged aunt and uncle, perhaps? Or perhaps you know the Chaos are guilty, and yet don't want to expose them. Which wouldn't make sense, unless you're opposed to the Second Order, yourself."

"Maybe you're opposed to the Second Order, and don't want to risk my exposing you to the authorities."

Stavros laughed. "Not bad, but no. If I was a rebel, I would have done a much better job of hiding it. And if I was worried about you revealing the truth, it would be easy enough to silence you, here and now. But I'm not going to do that. No, I have nothing against the Second Order itself, just certain individuals within the Second Order. Alas, I have no idea exactly how many of them there may be, nor who they are, nor how many laws they may have already broken. But there are most assuredly people who consider themselves above the law. People who abuse the power they already have, and constantly strive to obtain more. And I would like to expose them, but I can't do so without irrefutable proof. That, in fact, was what I was diving today in search of. And what I may have found, though I still need to do more investigating before I can go public with my accusations. Especially considering Woodman publicly announced a few weeks ago that he had broken the law, and no action has been taken against him. It makes one wonder just what it takes for the public to wake up and demand justice."

"True, but you can't blame people for being scared by the threat of rebellion. Although it could be the alleged rebels are just like you... not against the entire government, just certain people within it."

"You think so?"

Thew shrugged. "Just a vague hunch."

Stavros smiled at the echo of his own words. "So, kid... I'm guessing you're a novice adventurer, out here on your own like this. And I'm guessing so far you haven't found any excitement. If it's adventure you're looking for, I could provide you with one. And if you help me with my problem, maybe I could help you with yours."

"Who said I have a problem?"

"Your friends are in the clutches of our common enemy. I'd call that a problem."

"But I never said they were my friends."

"Sure you did."

"In what language did anything I said hold that meaning?"

"Interesting question. Your words held the sound of Landish, but the feel of Lanwich. Luckily, I'm fluent in both."

Thew couldn't help grinning at that. "Well then..." he thrust out his hand, "I'd say we have an accord."

Stavros shook his hand. "Excellent! I'll be in touch, Thew Protestant. I'm guessing you already have a red t-mail bubble?"

"You're a good guesser...."

2

On the morning of Wor'ginday, 2 Sp'yet, Captain Rufus Botanical was preparing for the departure of the Sp'yetflower, on what would be the first leg of its final voyage before both he and his ship retired. The next few months would be bittersweet for him, he imagined; but he took great pride in the fact that, unlike most ships, he had been the Sp'yetflower's only captain throughout its fifty years of operation. He'd commissioned its construction when he was only 25, though at the time he certainly hadn't expected to spend this long doing the same thing. He probably would have found the idea dreadfully monotonous, but now, looking back, he didn't regret a moment of those fifty years. He was looking forward to finally relaxing and enjoying the fruits of his lifetime of labor, but he knew that now and then he'd miss life at sea.

About an hour before the passengers were to arrive, Rufus's nephew, Commodore Scott Botanical, stopped by to see his uncle off. Joining them at the dock was Scott's wife, Hanna, who was brigadier of the First Sea regiment of the Marine Corps. As was the custom with any merfolk who had reason to frequently interact with humans or elves, she wore a latex swimshirt in such company. Scott had brought a picnic basket, so the three of them could have brunch together, on the beach. This was mostly for the benefit of Rufus, who likely wouldn't be eating quite as well for the twenty days he was about to spend en route to Ship. However, it also counted as a date for Scott and Hanna, who didn't get to see each other nearly as often as most married couples. Such were the quandaries of a human-mermaid union; neither of them were particularly shocked that they were, as far as they knew, the only such couple on the Land. But in spite of the unique challenges their marriage presented, neither of them would trade the other for anyone in the world.

"Well, Uncle," Scott said when they'd all finished eating, "I'm not quite sure what to say. I expect you have mixed feelings about your impending retirement, but I for one think it's about time. I can't imagine I'll still be so active, when I'm your age."

"When I was your age, I wouldn't have thought I'd still be doing this thirty years later, either. But life's unpredictable."

"It can be, but it's not like you had to keep at it so long. You could have retired ten, or even twenty years ago, if you'd really wanted to."

"Yes, it's not just circumstances that can be unpredictable, but one's own feelings, as well. Anyway, I intend to savor this voyage, and the return trip, in Su'mo'."

"You know," said Hanna, "if you wanted to delay your retirement, just for an extra month, I suspect you could convince your passengers to stay in Ship for the World Fair, after they return from Monab."

"Hmmm, not a bad idea. Of course, my crew and I will be there all through Su'gin, and at least the first week of Su'mo', while we wait for them to get back to Ship. So I'm sure I'll get to enjoy a bit of the Fair, either way. But you're right, it would be nice to stay the whole month. Not just to delay my retirement, but... my work has prevented me from attending the first three World Fairs, and after four years of retirement, I don't know that I'll be up for a trip to Kurok for the fifth. So I'll talk with the crew and our passengers about it, after we put out. Thanks for the suggestion, my dear."

She smiled and said, "You're quite welcome, Uncle."

"But enough about my plans. What are you two going to be up to, for the next couple of months?"

"I'm hoping to actually do a little relaxing, myself," said Hanna. "And I'm hoping Scott can, too. So maybe we can see a bit more of each other. You know, Manat translocated me here today, on his way to Near Port, where he's got some business with Colonel Woodman."

"Oh, something to do with the Chaos?" asked Rufus.

"Yes, I think so. But of course he can't say too much about his work. I do know he and the rest of Congress have been doing a lot of deliberating over the matter, over the last two weeks, and I don't think they're getting much closer to making any decisions. I can only guess that this visit has something to do with that. Hopefully the situation will be resolved soon. Meanwhile, I'm sure you know that for awhile there, all three branches of the military were under orders to increase training and be on high alert, because of the rumors of rebellion. Since the alleged rebels were caught, that's been reduced somewhat, though we've all still been busier than usual. Which means that Scott and I have had less time together, and our opportunities to see each other tend to be limited, even at the best of times. However, I've put in a request with the Commandant for some time off in Su'mo', and Scott has done so with the Admiral. That's actually what prompted me to mention the World Fair. We're hoping to spend some time there, ourselves, though of course I won't be able to get around as much as he will. Anyway, at this point we don't know if we'll get the time off or not, but if we do, it'd be nice to see you there."

"Well, I hope your requests are approved. But... on the subject of the Chaos, I wonder what both of you think about all that?"

"I'll be honest," said Hanna, "I'm not sure at all. It's particularly complicated for many of us in the Corps, since we originally fought against the Order, during the Coming. So the idea of rebellion has made some people question our loyalty. Which is understandable, but it's still irritating. I mean, the war only lasted a few months, and since then, we've been on the same side for eight years. So... I can't help feeling a certain sympathy for the Chaos, but at the same time I resent them for putting my people and me in this position. Of course if they started a new war, the rebels would be my enemies, and I hate the fact that so many people in the Army and Navy doubt that."

Scott put his arm around his wife's shoulders and gave her a squeeze. "Don't worry, I've made sure no one in my fleet has any doubts about merfolk loyalty. And I'm also confident that Marshal Primus trusts the Corps."

"Thanks, hon." She gave him a peck on the cheek, and put her own arm around his torso.

"What about you, Uncle?" asked Scott. "What's your opinion of the Chaos situation?"

"My feelings are mixed, as well. Of course if they're guilty of plotting rebellion, I'd say they should be put away for life. But it does bother me that that colonel did what he did. And I'll tell you, I've heard rumors, over the years, to which I never gave much credence, rumors of various kinds. Some say the Order never stopped meddling in the government, as they said they would. That the Plan which supposedly ended in 903 is actually still going on. I've heard other rumors about some kind of secret society running things behind the scenes, whether or not the First Order is involved in that. Oh, there are no end to the rumors one hears, especially when transporting people from different villages. People in my line of work get to hear more varied rumors than those who spend all their life in just one place, and it's curious when people from different places spread the same gossip. Most rumors seem to be unique to their own village, but when there's similar talk from various places... one has to wonder. And it's hard for me to imagine someone in a position of power circumventing the law the way that fellow did, and not suffer any repercussions. Of course, it's early yet. As you said, Hanna, Congress is still debating whether to pass the law he suggested, and I suppose they could also be debating what, if anything, to do about the colonel himself. Maybe he will yet be punished. Or maybe he'll be rewarded. I feel like if he keeps his job, it could be because there are people supporting him, but quietly. If so, they're not to be trusted.... Although maybe I've said too much. After all, I don't know how your brother feels about him."

Hanna laughed. "Oh, Manat has his secrets, that's for sure! I do love him dearly, but if there is some secret society, I'd hardly be surprised if he was involved somehow."

Her laughter was infectious, and neither of her companions could help joining in. "It does sound kind of silly, when you say it," Rufus allowed. "I know what you mean, about him, but he's always struck me as basically a decent chap. I'm sure he wouldn't condone the military breaking any laws. But as for that Woodman fellow... I have to admit, if the Chaos bring the actions of people like him into the public eye, maybe they're not so bad, after all."

"Careful, Uncle," said Scott with a smile. "Talk like that could get you arrested, too."

"I'll take my chances, Commodore," he said with a wry grin. "After all," he nodded toward the dock, where the passengers were now beginning to board the ship, "I'm well-known for ferrying pilgrims. Been doing it for over a quarter century, now. Makes me a holy man, by proxy, and therefore above suspicion."

"Right. Just like the Orderlies who are still manipulating the government, according to your rumors."

"Shh, Nephew! Talk like that could get you arrested."

Hanna laughed again. "You two are crazy! No wonder I love you both..."

3

There came a knock at the door, on the morning of 22 Sp'mo'. Darius called out, "In the water closet!" A centhour later he said, "Okay, come in."

Woodman entered. "Good morning! You may be interested to know that an announcement was made last night, about your capture. The world now knows you and your friends are here."

"Oh, good. I trust that means we'll be provided with an attorney, forthwith."

Woodman laughed. "Oh, you. I'd suggest you take that comedy act of yours on the road, but of course, you won't be seeing roads, any time soon. No, still waiting for that new law to pass, as I mentioned the other day."

"Meanwhile, you've broken the current laws by arresting us. Surely the police will be here to arrest you soon enough."

"We'll see. Anyway, down to business. I thought I might ask about the name 'The Chaos.' I understand that it's the opposite of Order, which is what you're rebelling against, but it still seems a bit strange, to me. I can only assume you people want to return the world to what it was like before the Coming of the Order, just as the Protestant Movement attempted to prevent the Coming. But honestly, it's not like the world was really chaotic, back then. The Land has never been chaotic. The Coming may have simplified some things, but it didn't actually change that much. The only really big change was making spell devices available to everyone, especially t-mail. The rest is just window dressing. Anyway, even Drag was willing to share spell devices with non-Sorreters. Would anything really have turned out differently if magic had been used to bring the world closer together on his terms, rather than those of the Planners? And for that matter, what exactly were his terms? I understand if the Protestants didn't approve of the Order's methods, but surely neither they, nor you, nor anyone could disagree with its goals. So, really, why 'Chaos'?"

"First of all, I told you, I'm glad the Order's goals were achieved, which is why we're not rebelling. As for 'The Chaos,' I'll admit we jokingly considered calling ourselves that, at one point. I played dumb on that point, when Monogwrangle brought it up, because I was offended by his most unexpected suggestion that we were plotting anything-"

"From what I hear, he found it interesting that you showed no surprise at the accusation."

"Well, you yourself have seen that I'm not much for visible displays of emotion. As I was saying, we'd talked one time about what to call our group of adventurers. The Band already had their own name, of course, but we quickly came to enjoy each other's company... The Band, Tom, Tiejo, and myself. And we thought we might try traveling together more often, after completing whatever our first adventure was to be. But we hadn't even picked a definite adventure, let alone decided on a name. I suppose someone must have overheard us talking, and thought we had chosen 'Chaos.' Or perhaps someone just thought that name made us sound guilty of something. Like rebellion."

"But who would want to falsely accuse you of such a thing?"

"I don't know. Maybe InterGang. They did pick a fight with us, for no reason, which led LandOrder to involve themselves with us. Probably that made their rivals even more interested in hurting us."

"Sounds plausible. Or it would, if we didn't have evidence against you."

"Well, I look forward to hearing and rebutting your evidence at our trial."

"Yes, that should be entertaining."

"By the way, I've been meaning to ask if I could get my coat back."

"Are you cold? It feels warm enough in here, to me."

"The temperature is fine. I just like that coat."

"Let me think about it... No." He stood, folded his chair, and said, "Well, this has been fun. See you again, sooner or later. Have a nice day."

For Darius, the days, and soon the weeks, all blurred together. He had no way of telling how much time passed, aside from the meals, if they could be called that. One "meal" might consist of a piece of dry toast; another might be a couple of segments of swe'cit, or perhaps a few threenuts. About once a week, he was given an actual sandwich. Clearly, his captors didn't want him to remain particularly healthy or strong. Exercise was pretty much out of the question, aside from a bit of pacing each day, to limit the atrophying of his muscles. He spent as much time as he could just sleeping, though it wasn't easy, given the lack of any comfort. His waking hours were mostly spent trying to avoid thinking. He expected thinking to lead to depression, though such bouts came surprisingly rarely. He wondered if it was because he simply didn't have the energy to be depressed, or perhaps he was actually relieved not to have to constantly be around people. He supposed solitary confinement was almost like a vacation, for someone with social anxiety.

Nevertheless, he soon found himself looking forward to his chats with Woodman, just to break the monotony of his current existence. The colonel's visits came irregularly; sometimes two or three days in a row, other times just once a week. But they never lasted more than half an hour, and often not more than a few centhours. Nothing of any great importance was ever said. Woodman continued to ask, in a strictly conversational way, about the rebellion, and Darius continued to deny any such plans. Darius also made a point of asking how his friends were being treated. "Same as you," Woodman said, "except that their interrogators aren't as important as myself. You should count yourself lucky. Oh... but there's also another, more marked difference, concerning Mr. Piper's treatment. I'm sure you understand. But let's not talk about that; I do so hate unpleasant conversations."

One day in early Sp'yet, when Darius had been there about two weeks, Woodman came into the cell rhapsodizing about the budding trees and blooming flowers. "The kind of day that makes you glad to be alive!" he exclaimed.

About a month later, he began the conversation with "Good news! The High Court has ratified the Counter-insurgency Act! So, your trial could begin any day now. Though we may have to put it off until next week, because I don't want it to interfere with my plans for the weekend. I'm heading upta camp, make sure everything's ready for Summer. In fact, I may be seeing you less often, over the next couple of months. I plan to spend most of my free time at the beach. Swimming, cookouts, beer, all kinds of fun. People from the southern villages don't appreciate such weather, the way we do up here. Oh, and this will be the first Summer with radio! That should be a nice addition to the festivities. Yup, shame you won't be able to make it."

"That's okay," said Darius. "I never much cared for the beach, anyway. Can't stand the sight of people in swimsuits."

"Oh, right, the shy thing. Sorry about that."

"I'm not shy, it's much more serious than that. You know full well that I suffer from... feh, never mind."

Early the next week, Woodman returned to say, "Well, things are looking good at the camp. But I'm sure you don't care about that. I do, however, bear news of greater interest: your trial is over. I'm afraid you've all been convicted. But on the bright side, that means you get to stay here with us, indefinitely. Won't that be fun?"

"What trial would that be? I wasn't invited to participate. That hardly sounds like a proper trial, with the accused not being involved."

"It's funny, an associate of mine said pretty much the same thing. He thought it seemed a shame to waste the new law that was passed just for us, and which was completely justified in being created. Said we should give you people a real trial. But of course, we already know you're guilty, and while we almost certainly could have proven it, there was always the slim chance that you might have been exonerated, in spite of your guilt. And then you could just go back to your plans. And when your rebellion did happen, the public would think we'd been fools for letting you go. But if we keep you here, we may yet get you- even just one of you- to reveal details of your plans, including who your allies are, so that we can prevent them from doing any harm."

"And your associate went along with that line of reasoning?"

"Well, he wasn't happy about it, but he had to admit I had a point. And not just me... there are others who all had a say. Majority rules, you know."

"And I suppose they're all comfortable with breaking the law. Probably quite used to it. Presumably people who already have a great deal of power, legally. Seems strange that they're not satisfied with that."

"But my dear boy, it's not about personal power. It's about doing what's best for the world! Naturally we can't let rebels run around loose!"

"We... are not... rebels. Even if we wanted to change things, we'd do so within the system."

Woodman leaned forward in his chair. "Why Mr. Lonewander, that sounded like a confession, to me. Glad to know justice has been served by your conviction. I'm sure Tovan will be relieved to hear it, too."

"I didn't bloody confess to anything!" He didn't quite manage to raise his voice, but he hoped Woodman would hear the implied exclamation point.

"All I heard was 'we wanted to change things.'"

"Even taken out of context, that doesn't constitute..." but he trailed off.

Darius's recent conversations with Woodman had been getting shorter, and he'd been speaking more softly than he used to. He no longer had the energy to say much, and it was increasingly difficult to concentrate. Besides, he felt there was little point in talking, when Woodman surely already knew what he'd say. While he'd found these visits a relief from boredom, for the first month or so, he now found them tedious and exhausting.

One day in late Su'mo', when Darius hadn't seen the colonel for over a week, Woodman seemed more cheerful than ever. "Sorry it's been awhile, but I was on vacation in Ship, for the World Fair. Boy, that was fun. You should have been there!"

"Oh," said Darius weakly. "We were hoping... to go to that. I wanted to get some kettle corn."

"Yes, I had a bit of that. Not bad, but there was so much food to try! Vendors everywhere, you know? And I'm more of a yakitori man, myself."

"And tempura. I wanted-" but he stopped himself. "No. Let's not... speak of food."

"But oh, the calamari, and fried potatoes, shaved ice, fruit smoothies, qutn candy, fried dough, sausages, sou'citade, dango... I could go on and on. I tell you, the Fair was a veritable smörgåsbord! And I must say, some of the local breweries in Ship make the best beer I've ever tasted."

"Prob'ly not as good as my dad's."

"Your father let you drink beer, when you were what, like 13?"

"What? Oh... no... I just... always wanted to try it. Never got the chance, thanks to you people. But I heard it was... pretty good. But then, he was... from Ship. Originally."

"Huh. It's been awhile since I've heard you string so many words together. Still a bit slow and labored, but it's encouraging. Anyway, I also wanted to tell you about this completely unexpected new event that debuted at the Fair. People were racing these carriages that were powered by internal enchantment engines. I'm sure if you'd been there, you would have called it 'bloody awesome.'"

"Sounds... great. Maybe I'll dream about it. Reminds me... of Tiejo's dream... about trains."

"What are... oh." His subword sense kicked in, and he said, "Neat. Maybe we'll have something like that, before too long. Anyway, I can see you're tired, so I'll let you get on with your dreaming."

Woodman left, and Darius thought, Bloody idiot, I am. Hunger's making me... lose... something. Shouldn't have said... dad.... God, I want something to eat!

A bout of depression overtook him, but he didn't have the strength to cry, at least externally. In his mind, he was wracked with sobs. It was at least a half hour before he calmed down, and thought a silent prayer. God, I know I don't pray much... and considering what Thew told us about your... non-omniscience, I don't know if you can even hear prayers... But dammit, this isn't fair! Maybe I did deserve this, for having thought of rebelling. But I changed my mind! Surely thoughts without actions can't make us guilty. I want... I just want to go home. Can't you help me go home? But even if I must stay here, my friends don't deserve this. It wasn't their idea, it was mine. So please... help them? Please? He continued thinking the word "please" over and over, as he drifted off to sleep.

4

By the time the Sp'yetflower had reached Ship in late Sp'yet, Captain Botanical had indeed convinced passengers and crew to stay in the village, upon the pilgrims' return from Monab, til the end of Su'mo'. However, the pilgrims had convinced the captain to join them on their trip to Monab, and stay there throughout the month of Su'gin. Rufus agreed, partly because it did seem fitting, for his final time transporting pilgrims, to join the annual Pilgrimage, himself. Moreover, it would give him a chance to visit his brother Collin, whom he hadn't seen for a few years.

The Botanical brothers weren't privy to the meetings held by the spirit-talkers who came to Monab from villages around the Land, for one month out of every year. But they did have plenty of chances to talk with both Monabites and travelers from near and far, during the pilgrims' free time. However, most of the brothers' time was spent catching up on each other's lives. Collin had retired as Chief Councillor of Monab two years ago, supporting his friend Mallory Secundus's campaign, rather than seeking a third term, himself. Rufus teased his brother about taking early retirement, considering Collin was seven years younger than himself. But the younger Botanical insisted he kept busy... even though he was no longer in politics, he spent a great deal of time working, in an unofficial capacity, as a gardener on the grounds surrounding the Church of the Bishop. He'd spent forty-four years working there, before being elected Chief Councillor in 904; for twenty of those years, he'd been Chief Gardener. He had many friends among the spirit-talkers and secular folk of Monab, though some of the younger gardeners still found it shocking to be working alongside the former political head of the village. The current Chief Gardener found it amusing to have his own former boss as an unpaid employee, of a sort.

The Church of the Bishop was not far from Archibald Hall, the primary meeting place of the Pilgrimage. It was common for pilgrims to pass by the Church grounds on their way too and from meetings, to admire the landscaping. And so it was that as a group of four spirit-talkers left the Hall late one afternoon in early Su'gin, they overheard Rufus relating the conversation he'd had a month earlier with Collin's son and daughter-in-law. The brothers stopped talking as the spirit-talkers approached, feeling such talk inappropriate in their presence; and the spirit-talkers refrained from commenting on what they'd heard. One of them simply said, "Good afternoon, Collin, Captain."

"Soon to be good evening, Mal," said Collin. "And good evening to you all, Arch-bishop, bishops. How was today's meeting?"

"Bit dull," said Mallory. "Spent the first few days on pleasantries, mostly, and now we're getting into the tedious stuff. That should last a couple weeks or so, though I expect by mid-month people will be ready to move on to certain more interesting topics."

"A wonder you all don't start with that," said Rufus. "Saving the best for last?"

"Perhaps in part," said Mallory. "Though mostly, I think people want to be sure we complete necessary work, before getting into talks which might well take up so much time, we'd never get to the more mundane stuff."

"Ah, very wise. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone in the world were so responsible?"

"It would indeed, Captain. Well, good day to you both."

"Good day," said the brothers. Mallory's companions nodded at them as they passed. Rufus and Collin went back to their discussion, once the spirit-talkers had gone.

Mallory led the way past her church, and into her parsonage. While her guests seated themselves, she began heating a pot of tea.

"Interesting discussion those two were having," said Arch-bishop Talak. "I must say, I've heard similar rumors to the ones they were talking about. Durell, you have a friend or two who work for Colonel Woodman, I believe. Have they ever mentioned his being involved in some secret society? For that matter, might they be involved?" Durell paused to consider his response, and his hesitation made Talak curious. "Or perhaps you're involved, yourself?"

Durell smiled. "Me? The closest I've ever come to being part of a cabal was when I worked with all of you during the Coming."

"I suppose we rather were like a cabal. But one whose actions were limited in scope and duration. Naturally we had no desire to control the world. Still, I kind of like the idea that there could be another group out there, like us, but making sure history stays on track, and that groups like the Chaos can't undo all the good we did."

"I like that idea, too," agreed Bishop Dalin, of First Village.

"I don't know," said Mallory. "It goes against Kizin's intentions. And I find the thought of people doing things in secret, operating above the law, rather frightening. Who knows what they might do to anyone who they thought was a threat? A few months ago, I helped Durell convince InterVil to attempt to question the Chaos, but we didn't intend for them to be arrested. I also find it disturbing that their trial is to be closed to the public. We have no way of knowing that it will be a fair trial. And if there is a secret society behind all this, they must have nothing against lying or bending the law to suit their purposes. For all we know, they might even execute their enemies. They very well could have done that to the Chaos without even revealing they'd been captured, if Commissioner Gothic hadn't taken an interest in them. I wonder how many people might simply disappear, or be killed, without any explanation?"

Dalin said, "I'm sure if they exist, they must have some kind of accountability, at least internally. They must have reasons that the entire group agrees would justify their actions. But of course, all this is fanciful speculation. For all we know, Woodman really did act on his own."

"Possibly," said Mallory, "though I know for a fact that Gothic would like to have had him arrested, but bowed to pressure from both Congress and the High Court. I suppose they could simply have agreed that Woodman's actions were in the best interest of national security and that the law he suggested made sense. But still, it makes you wonder."

"Yes," agreed Talak, "and I've heard that Marshal Primus was none too happy about the situation, himself. But there's no indication of his having even reprimanded the colonel. Whatever comfort I may take in the idea of a group secretly safeguarding the country's interests, it does seem unfair that people in positions of legitimate authority, such as Gothic and Primus, could have their rightful power undermined by people who make decisions no one gave them the authority to make. I mean, just imagine if some vice-bishop were in such a group, and it gave him or her the power to tell bishops such as you all what to do or how to do it. Or even to tell me what to do!"

Mallory nodded. "I don't think 'internal accountability' would make up for that."

"I agree it sounds disturbing," said Dalin, "but no one gave us the authority to change the world in the first place, and our actions certainly turned out alright."

"True, but it was always part of the Plan to eventually reveal our actions- most of them- to the world, and let the people decide whether they supported the end purpose of those actions. We may have manipulated events in secret, during the first few years of the Coming, but ultimately, the Plan would have gone nowhere if a majority of the people had been against it. I strongly suspect that if this cabal exists, they have no intention of ever revealing their existence to the public."

Dalin was about to respond, but was cut off by a sigh from the Arch-bishop. "In any event," said Talak, "it's not our place to worry about it. It's a matter for InterVil, surely. I don't doubt that this Chaos business will prompt some kind of investigation. Perhaps by next year's Pilgrimage, the results of such an investigation will provide us with a new topic of conversation. Meanwhile, we have plenty of matters that are our business to occupy our attention, this year."

With a grin, Durell said, "Though I daresay our present conversation is much along the lines of the 'interesting topics' Mallory mentioned to Collin and his friend."

"Brother," corrected Mallory.

"Anyway," said Talak, "I'm sure Woodman, and the Chaos, and the new law, shall all be discussed and debated, not that it's any business of the Order. But there's no need for the idea of a cabal to enter into such discussions. Heaven preserve us from that. "

Durell felt that the time was right to change the subject, so he said, "Lovely tea, by the way, Mal."

5

Luther Smith had been in attendance at the day's meeting. After it was adjourned, he heard Bishop Mallory Secundus invite Arch-bishop Talak Archman, Bishop Dalin Bishop, and Bishop Durell Turner, over to her place for their own private confab. The invitation had also been overheard by Armin Steadfast and Calvin Barber. The three of them had given one another a nod; obviously any conversation between those particular people held the potential for including information which could be of interest. So, Luther hurried out of Archibald Hall, and let himself into the Parsonage, for which he had a key, being one of Bishop Secundus's most trusted aides. He waited in the hiding spot he'd used often enough over the last twelve years, going back to the days when the building had been the home of Bishop Kizin Planner. Once the current occupant's guests had left, and Secundus herself went upstairs, Luther quietly let himself out, and headed to the church, where he knew Armin and Calvin would be waiting in the bishop's office.

As soon as Luther had closed the office door behind him, Armin asked, "So, anything?"

"The conversation ended up with ordinary small talk, and a bit about the day's meeting. However, the first topic was more interesting. They were speculating as to whether Colonel Woodman might be involved in a cabal."

"The same cabal you found out about three years ago?" asked Calvin. "Are they a part of it, then?"

Luther shook his head. "Not as far as I could tell. At least, not all of them. They all talked as if it was just rumors, so it's impossible to say whether they're all ignorant, or if one or more were simply feigning ignorance, for the sake of those not in the know. Of course, I'm always suspicious of Durell, but if anything, I'd say Dalin sounded closer than anyone to being involved."

"It is rather hard to believe anyone from Monab could be involved," said Armin.

"Then again," said Calvin, "it's rather hard to believe there would be three spies from three separate gangs, keeping tabs on things in Monab, as we do. Much less that we'd be working together."

"True," agreed Luther. "So we're living proof that anything's possible. But honestly, I very much doubt that Mallory or Talak would be involved. They were always firm adherents to Kizin's Plan. But we all know Durell never liked Kizin, and disagreed with certain aspects of the Plan, including the fact that it should actually end. So he certainly has motive to be involved in an ongoing cabal."

"Anyway," said Armin, "it doesn't sound like you actually learned anything."

"No, but something Mallory said got me thinking... or actually, two things she said. One was that an ongoing cabal was contrary to Kizin's Plan. It accomplished its goals, and that was it, right? The other thing was that she wondered what the cabal would do to anyone who was a threat. Such people might disappear, or be killed, without anyone ever finding out what actually happened to them, or why. So I started thinking, what would have happened if Kizin had found out about the cabal's existence? Surely he'd see it as a corruption of his own Plan, and be outraged. He'd do whatever he could to expose such a group, and put a stop to it."

"Wait," said Armin, "are you suggesting the cabal had him killed? But everyone knows he died of natural causes."

"Such things can be faked. I'm not saying it did happen, just... what if?"

"But how would he have even found out about the cabal?" asked Calvin. "You yourself said you didn't believe Mallory or Talak were involved, which probably means no one in Monab is involved. And it's not like Kizin ever left Monab. He never even visited Near Port, which it was his idea to found, nor the forest north of there, which was named after him. I tell you what, if someone named a forest after me, I'd want to go see it. But he was content to stay here."

"He could have heard rumors from pilgrims," suggested Armin.

"Kizin never put much stock in rumors," said Luther. "Besides, he had faith in the basic decency of people. And he had faith in his Plan. Deservedly so, considering how much time and effort went into devising it, not just by him, but many others... including those four. And since it worked exactly as it was meant to, what would be the point in trying to continue it beyond its completion? I don't think he would have believed anyone would be so inclined. At least, not without proof. And I'm sure the cabal would take pains to make sure someone like him- in fact, he more than anyone else in the world- would never learn of the group's existence."

"So what are you suggesting?" asked Calvin.

"I think he learned about it from us."

They both stared at him. "What?" asked Armin.

"Think about it... for a few months after I first told you what I'd overheard during my trip home to First Village, Kizin acted more secretive than usual. None of us managed to learn anything about what he was up to, when he was holed up in his office. And then he died."

"You act like he went into full-on cloak & dagger mode, but he didn't. He still performed all his duties, as usual. He still saw friends and family. So he allowed himself a bit more private time than usual... so what? Lots of people get like that sometimes. Maybe he knew the end was coming. It's only natural to want to do some thinking, alone, at a time like that. Besides, I thought the whole matter was resolved after his book of the O'Gas was published, later that year. We all decided what he'd really been doing was organizing his writings from throughout his career, so the book would be ready before it was too late."

"We did agree on that," said Luther, "and I still agree that it's perfectly plausible. But it would also make the perfect cover for his secretly directing an investigation into the cabal, from the privacy and security of his office. After all, no one could spy on him in here. The walls are essentially soundproof, there are no hiding places, and there's an anti-magic spell in place that prevents scrying. The very reasons we decided to hold our own little meetings in here, whenever no one else was around."

"So I'll ask you for a third time," said Calvin, "how would he have learned about it? 'From us,' you said after I asked the second time. But as you just pointed out, people can't be spied on, in this office. And this is the only place in the world where any of us have ever mentioned the cabal, or anything else our spying has uncovered, over the years."

"Ah, but I mentioned an anti-magic spell, for that is how we, and everyone else, think of it. But we all know that some magic is possible, because he did, and Mallory does, use things such as t-mail, from this office. So it's not a blanket anti-magic spell, but rather specific anti-spells. There's anti-scrying, and anti-attack spells, though I have no idea why he ever expected any Sorreters to show up and use attack spells against him, at least at the time the protective spells were originally cast. And there's an enchanted lock on the door, for which we each have enchanted keys... even if we're not supposed to. So how can we know exactly which spells are protected against and which aren't? There could be any number of spells that are possible in this room, but which we just assumed were impossible, because... we just expect them to be."

"Are you saying," asked Calvin, "that Kizin planted a recording bubble? That he could have seen and heard every discussion we ever had in here?"

"Could be. I think we should at least look for a hidden bubble. If we find nothing, then I'll assume there's no way Kizin could have known about the cabal, and therefore no reason for them to have killed him. Frankly, I'm hoping we find nothing."

And so, they searched. And after awhile, they found what they were looking for. Luther said, "Damn." They watched the recording. Kizin had obviously replaced each recording bubble whenever it was filled, and this one was too fresh to have recorded any of their meetings. But it did show them the very last recording Kizin ever made, just before his death two and a half years earlier. When it was done, they all said, "Oh, damn..."


chapter 44

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