Jin Li Tam
For Jin Li Tam, the seventh forest manor and the town that surrounded it teemed with rainbow-colored life. The house itself was set upon a slight rise, and the town around it gathered in close-a collection of cobblestone streets and one- or two-story buildings made of finely planed lumber, and glass windows painted in a multitude of colors. The people wore cottons primarily, though she occasionally saw the silks that her own Emerald Coasts were famous for.
She wondered why she’d never visited before, but quickly brushed that thought aside. There’d been no reason to. The Gypsies kept to themselves, far from the machinations and intrigues of the Named Lands. Once in a while, she’d heard of Rudolfo riding south with his scouts to attend various functions. But they were never the functions she attended, and for the most part the Ninefold Forest Houses kept to their edge of the world.
She walked the streets alone, mindful of the scouts who followed her at an appropriate distance. They meant to give her the illusion of independence, but she suspected that it wouldn’t take much to bring them running. Of course, this far from the war, she should be safe enough. The scouts weren’t even magicked.
As she walked, Jin listened to the voices around her, picking up fragments of day-to-day life in the forest. A patchwork quilt of hunting stories, rumors about the war and about Windwir, bits of gossip about who was sleeping with whom and what so-and-so’s son had seen limping about the seventh forest manor.
“He was dressed as an Androfrancine, he said. But made entirely of metal.”
She had wondered how long before the secret was out. Certainly, most people were familiar with the mechanicals that the Androfrancines had gradually revealed to the world. Small things like the bird her father kept in their indoor gardens, beneath the crystal dome. The little golden bird was unlike any other she had ever seen, and it could sing in sixteen languages. It could also say small phrases-simple things like asking for water it could not drink or food that it could not eat. It had been a gift from one of the Popes, she thought, years ago.
But Isaak was different. Fully the size of man-perhaps even a head taller than average-slender yet solid in build, and perhaps the most amazing spectacle she had ever seen. At one time, according to some of the heresies, there were nearly as many metal men as people. Those were the days long, long before the Age of Laughing Madness. But when P’Andro Whym walked the ruined basement of the world with his scattered band of diggers and scribes, the metal men were all but extinct.
And now they’d been brought back-at least, a handful had. And if Rudolfo had his way, she realized, those few-built from the parchments and scraps found in the Wastes-would be here, helping Isaak rebuild what Sethbert had destroyed.
“Lady Tam,” a voice said beside her. She looked. One of the scouts had slipped to her side.
She looked at him. He was young but not a pup, and unlike Sethbert’s Delta Scouts, Rudolfo’s men did not swagger. “Yes?”
“The…” He paused, looking for the right words. “Isaak would like to see you.”
She was surprised. She’d seen him just an hour before and had asked after his planning and his correspondence with the Androfrancines. “Very well.”
She walked the half league back to the manor and met Isaak in the courtyard garden. He held a scrap of paper in his hands and s hie w he stood there, eye shutters blinking at it.
“What is it, Isaak?” she asked, stepping toward him.
The metal man limped toward her, his dark robe hiding the angles of his lean steel frame. “I’ve word from the Papal Summer Palace,” he said. His eyes flashed open and shut.
“That was very fast,” she said.
“It was not in response to the message.”
Curious, she thought. “What word does it bring?”
Steam blasted from his exhaust grate. “It is a Papal edict, decreeing that all remaining Order resources and personnel are to be inventoried at the Papal Summer Palace.”
She felt her brows furrow. “How can that be? Surely the Pope is dead?”
“I-” He stalled, whirred and clacked. She regretted the words instantly. But he recovered and continued. “Androfrancine Succession is complex-there have been volumes written on it over the last two thousand years. Though traditionally the Offices are passed on through the laying on of hands, there are contingencies upon contingencies. Pope Introspect could very well have passed the Office on in some manner before his-” Isaak stopped. His eyes blinked back water and he looked away.
Jin put a hand on his shoulder. “Do not forget, Isaak, that Sethbert was the hand that moved you.” Isaak nodded. “Regardless, the edict bears the mark of the ring.”
Could it be something that had slipped past her father? She doubted it, but anything was possible given the events of the last week. She knew the answer to the question before she asked it, but she asked anyway. “What does it mean?”
“It means that I cannot stay here,” Isaak said, head downcast, his voice sounding weary-something she didn’t think possible in a man made of metal. When he looked up at her, she thought perhaps that she’d never seen such a look of conflict on any human’s face, and it amazed her that she had already assigned such human features to this metal man based on how his eyes or mouth moved and how he held his head. “I am the property of the Androfrancine Order,” he finally said. “Constructed to do their bidding.”
And if her suspicions were correct, he was also the greatest weapon the world had seen in over two thousand years.
He stood there, not moving. “Is there more?” she asked.‹ sd.
He nodded slowly. “There is. Pope Resolute’s first act as Holy See was to sign a Writ of Shunning.”
A Writ of Shunning. Now the Entrolusians would truly stand alone, cut off from the world. A Shunning from the Androfrancine Pope would sever all ties of kin-clave between the scattered governments of the Named Lands and whoever it named-a powerful tool that had only been used (to the best of her recollection) three times in the history of the Named Lands.
“That’s good news,” she said. “That will only aid Rudolfo’s cause.”
Isaak shook his head. “No, Lady. You misunderstand.”
She looked at him and she felt her mouth drop open. “You mean…?”
“Yes,” Isaak said, “the Writ of Shunning named the Ninefold Forest Houses and Lord Rudolfo, General of the Wandering Army, as culpable for the Desolation of Windwir, and declares his lands and holdings to be held in escrow until a Conference of Findings has convened and made a final determination.”
Jin Li Tam felt the air go out of her. Shouting for a bird and paper, she stormed into the manor, her mind already coding the message to her father.