Jin Li Tam
Jin Li Tam rode across the prairie ocean and watched the metal man beside her. He’d been silent most of the day, his eyes fluttering as the lids flashed up and down. He was drumming his long, slender metal fingers on the saddle.
Every time she looked at him, she remembered his tone when he’d told her he knew how Sethbert destroyed Windwir. Somehow, Sethbert had used this mechoservitor to bring down a city and end an era where knowledge of the past was carefully preserved… and protected.
She shuddered. “What are you doing, Isaak?”
His fingers and eyelids stopped, and he looked over at her. “I am ciphering, Lady. I’m calculating the supplies and surface are cnd eyea necessary to rebuild the Androfrancine Library.”
She was impressed. “How can you possibly do that?”
“I’ve spent a number of years logging expeditionary expense ledgers and cataloging the financial reports of various holdings,” he answered. “Once I’m finished, I will modify my numbers based on the economic growth patterns between now and the day the reports were written.” A gout of steam from his back. “These will merely be initial inquiries,” Isaak said. “I will have to present Lord Rudolfo with something far more accurate.”
She smiled at the metal man. “You really mean to do this, don’t you?” He turned to her. “Of course I do. I must.”
Jin Li Tam chuckled. “It’s a giant task.”
“It is,” he said, “but a pebble shall fell a giant and a small river make a canyon over time.” She recognized
the quote from the Whymer Bible. She couldn’t pinpoint the exact passage-and she certainly couldn’t find it if you pushed that heavy, square book into her hands.
“Hopefully you’ll have help.”
“I’m sure Lord Rudolfo will free my brothers.” He paused and blinked. “But of course, there will be other Androfrancines that were not in Windwir when I-when it fell.” He looked away.
Others, she thought. Others. The expeditions, the scattered schools, missions and abbeys. They would be out there, and soon-if not already-they would hear about the fall of Windwir.
“What do you calculate the library holdings outside Windwir to be?” she asked.
“Ten percent. The mechoservitors-all of us-account for another thirty between us.”
“Gods,” she whispered. She thought about all that was lost, but it was quickly burned out with what they could save. Forty percent of that massive library would still be a significant trove of knowledge. This was what Rudolfo had chosen when faced with the end of an age. And he’d made this decision, sending them north to the Ninefold Forest, before he made his final decision about going to war.
That was a rare thing. A man who thought of what to guard before he thought of what to kill. She smiled at this. Of course, this Rudolfo seemed to be a man who could do both at the same time.
And she smiled at that, as well.
“I am hoping you will help, as well, Lady Tam.”
Now it was her turn to blink. He was clever, this metal man. “I see.”
“Your father’s bank holds the Androfrancine accounts,” Isaak said. “I’m sure that Lord Rudolfo intends to combine some form of Entrolusian reparations supplemented by Androfrancine holdings in order to fund this venture. It far exceeds the Ninefold Forest Houses’ economic capacity.”
“I’m certain my father will be interested in this endeavor of Rudolfo’s.”
He certainly would be. She wouldn’t be surprised at all if there were a bird waiting for her already, encouraging an alliance with the Gypsy King to keep House Li Tam connected with what little knowledge of the First World remained.
She wasn’t sure she minded that at all.
When the summons arrived, Neb decided to use it as an opportunity to see exactly what he was up against. He listened to the Overseer’s chiding, all the while counting the guards, counting the steps he’d need to take and planning his route to and from the Overseer’s assassination.
Sethbert was well guarded, especially since yesterday’s defeat at the hands of the Wandering Army. They’d at least doubled the contingent of honor guard that took up positions within view of the Overseer and his creaking wooden throne. And there had to be Delta scouts nearby, though Neb couldn’t see them.
Magicked or not, he doubted he’d survive the attempt. And he wasn’t even sure he’d be successful. The
Overseer was easily three times his size, and Neb had nothing but his rage to guide him. Beyond a few
fistfights with the other boys, he’d never raised his hands in violence… much less raised a knife.
The woman’s words came back to him: Sethbert has destroyed Windwir. He felt the anger stir inside him, and he summoned a memory of his father, Brother Hebda, with his arm around him sitting in the park. He reminded himself of how that would never happen again because of this man, because of what he’d done.
Even if it cost his own life, Neb had to go through with it. He could think of nothing else to do. He heard shouting, and looked up.
An old man was running toward him, shouting a name he did not recognize.
“Del,” the old man said, “thank the gods I’ve finally found you.” He looked vaguely familiar; Neb couldn’t place it.
He was a large man-not nearly the size of Sethbert, but broad shouldered and powerfully built. He had to be approaching seventy, but he moved like he was younger. His white beard stood out from his face, long and unruly, and beneath his straw hat, wisps of white hair poked crazily out. His eyes were set in laugh lines and crow’s-feet, and before Neb could react, he’d been swept into the man’s embrace, squeezed and lifted by those massive arms. Putting him down, the old man gave him a stern look. “I told you to wait for me.”
Neb looked at him, not sure what to do or say. Sethbert cleared his voice. “You know this boy?”
The old man looked surprised, then turned. “Yes, certainly. Humble apologies for interrupting, Lord-I
was overcome with relief.”
Sethbert squinted at him, too, and Neb wondered if the old man seemed familiar to him as well. “You’re the old man my scouts took by the river.”
He nodded. “Yes, Lord. We were returning to Windwir when the city…” He let the words trail off. “I’d been looking for survivors when-” he patted the boy’s shoulder and Neb felt the strength in the large
hand that settled on him “-when Del here must’ve wandered off.”
Neb opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it. What was this crazy old man doing? Sethbert looked at him then, his eyes cold and calculating, his lips pursed in thought. “I was under the
impression that he had seen the city fall. My medicos believe some trauma or another has stolen his voice.”
The old man nodded. “Aye,” he said. “But we only arrived after.” His voice lowered. “His mother passed some days ago; he’s not spoken since.” Then he leaned in closer and whispered. “He’s never been altogether right if you know what I mean, Lord.”
Sethbert’s eyes narrowed. “What is his relationship to you?”
The old man blinked. “He’s my grandson. His father was an Androfrancine. They wanted to put him into their orphans’ school but I wouldn’t allow it.” He met Sethbert’s eyes. “I don’t hold to their secrets and their smugness. His mother and I raised him.”
Neb had never seen anyone lie so quickly, so competently before. He studied the old man’s face, looking
for some tick that would betray him. Not cetrie hing.
He realized Sethbert was speaking to him, and looked up. “Is this man your grandfather?”
Looking at the old man, he realized he’d seen him before. In the Great Library… but where? It hadn’t been so long ago, either. Or perhaps he looked like someone else-someone well known to him. But
why would he lie to Sethbert, creating an elaborate story about a grandson and a dead mother?
Their eyes met and the old man raised his eyebrows. “Well, Del? Are you going to answer the
Slowly, Neb nodded once, then twice.
“And you did not actually see the city of Windwir fall?”
Looking at the old man again, Neb felt a stab of memory. The fire, the lightning, ash falling like snow on the ruined landscape. The screaming, hot wind that blasted out from Windwir, the ships burning and sinking in the river even as they cast off their lines to drift south.
Neb shook his head.
Sethbert scowled. He leaned in to the boy, his voice cold and hollow. “I should teach you to be more truthful.”
“I intend to do just that, Lord,” the old man said with a firm voice. “Though I’m sure he was just confused. These are dark days for all of us.”
Neb wasn’t sure what to expect next, but a scout signaled Sethbert, and the Overseer motioned him closer. Sethbert looked once more at Neb and then at the old man.
“You were bound for Kendrick when my men took you?”
The old man nodded. Neb knew Kendrick. It was a small town not too far south of Windwir. He’d been to it a few times on various errands. “I thought there might be survivors there.”
Sethbert nodded. “I find it odd that you did not tell my men about your missing lad.”
The old man went pale and stammered for a moment. “I beg your forgiveness, Lord. I heard fighting the night before and I was uncertain of how much to say.”
The Overseer smiled. “These are, as you say, dark days.” The old man nodded.
“Aye,” the first scout said. “You heard the captain.”
Rudolfo waited until they were out of earshot. “A survivor. That’s new.” Gregoric nodded. “He has another seven brigades. That’s what concerns me.” “And he’s still not brought forth his best effort,” Rudolfo said.
“He’ll have to pretty soon,” Gregoric said, looking down the slope. Rudolfo followed his gaze and saw another wave of movement sweeping in through the high grass.
This time a white bird flew up, and both of them drew their swords. The infantry on the perimeter saw the bird, too, and drew blades as well. Rudolfo shot a glance to the Captain of the Archers nearby, and the captain nodded.
Gregoric started down the hill and Rudolfo followed. At the foot of the hill they waited, and the squad raced past.
“They’re just behind us,” the lead scout hissed as he slipped past Gregoric.
And they were, only these weren’t the magicked scouts they’d so easily mowed through yesterday. This pack was made of harder stuff. Rudolfo felt a searing pain in his side and realized even as he swung his sword down that a knife had slipped in and cut him.
Gregoric went to one knee, his thigh suddenly bleeding.
No one called attention to it. They wouldn’t want their opponents to know who’d been injured. But the Gypsy Scouts pressed in, both those who had just returned and the half-squad set aside for these very reasons, and they slowly pushed the Delta Scouts out of the tree line. Rudolfo had managed to wound one of them, but held back once his own scouts were in the fray.
Medicos raced to the front as soon as the fighting had moved back, and they supported Gregoric while running him back up the hill. Rudolfo followed without assistance.
Back in camp, he drank chilled pear wine and ate orange slices and warm sweet bread. Leaning back on his cushions, he reread the note from Vlad Li Tam.
My kin-clave with Windwir is now yours. It was a brief letter, but these closing words grabbed him. He chuckled.
“A formidable woman,” he said out loud. She had told her father about his three gestures. In other words, she had publicly acknowledged him before her father. Which meant in a good game of Queen’s War, she’d moved on the tower he’d threatened with and in turn now threatened his paladin.
And of course, her father had now responded with subtle grace. The symbol Vlad Li Tam had chosen for kin-clave was an old one that had fallen out of use.
It indicated the unity of houses through strategic marriage. A formidable woman indeed, Rudolfo thought.