Xenolith, Page 39A. Sparrow
Chapter 31: Vul and Pari Return
Sleep eluded Seor like a fish swimming just beyond range of a spear. She lay next to Ren on a bed of flat-needled branches, staring at a patchwork of stars and cloud. She recapitulated in her mind the litany of failures that had plagued the day: failing to secure the displaced xenolith in their haste to reach the relay, failing to recognize the weakness of the second convergence. But failing to evade Baren’s group might prove the most egregious, the most fatal failure of all.
So far, Baren seemed to believe her story, though his lieutenant, Baas, seemed far more suspicious. That might explain why a dark silhouette bearing a crossbow regularly swept past their campsite. The cadre operated so fluidly that she still had not been able to derive a full accounting of their number. But Baren had at least four others with him besides Baas and the woman who went off with Canu.
She propped her back against the wall that Baren had partly dismantled to retrieve the xenolith fragment she had hidden there. She drew comfort from picturing the second fragment lying undisturbed among ferns along a stream. That proprietary knowledge preserved some of the power and control that Baren usurped from her.
A plume of acrid smoke stung her nostrils. She spotted a faint glow across the wood. “Are they stupid?” she whispered to herself, or so she thought. “Building a fire when we’re trying to remain unseen?”
“They’re cadre,” mumbled Ren. “They know what they’re doing.”
Seor sighed as she rose to her feet. “Wearing black stripes on your arm doesn’t render you immune to foolishness.” She walked over to the source of the glow.
Baren sat alone on the forest floor before a flameless patch of embers, passing the xenolith between his hands like a little boy playing with a ball. Even in the weak glow, Seor could spot the extra increment of sparkle that marked the fracture plane, obvious only because she knew where to look.
“It’s quite beautiful, yes?” said Baren, rotating the stone over the embers. “It catches even the faintest of light. I hear that their weight fluctuates and they freeze just before a convergence. But this stone feels uniformly heavy, and warm.”
That struck Seor as an odd thing for a cadre commander to say. He spoke as if he had never held a xenolith before.
“How long have you held command?” said Seor.
Baren’s face tightened. “That’s a bit impertinent, don’t you think?”
“Just curious,” Seor shrugged.
His gaze lingered on her before he spoke. “I came to Gi a few weeks ago … in relief.”
Baren’s admission released something in Seor. He was as green as cadre officers get. Possibilities opened that would not be feasible with a more experienced commander.
“Commander Baren,” she said. “This area is densely populated. You may wish to reconsider this fire ….”
Baren held up his hand and looked past her shoulder to Ren who had come up from behind. “You, what’s your name?”
“Ren. Go and take the watch from Kera,” he said. “You’ll find her at the edge of the burial ground. Someone will relieve you near sunup.”
“Yes, sir,” Ren said, skipping off back into the darkness.
Seor bristled at Baren’s nerve in denying her the opportunity to assent. As a cadre commander, his orders took precedence, but he could have at least made some pretense at courtesy. Even Ren had been a little too quick to comply, but that was her normal reaction to authority – eager to please, slow to question.
“Come sit,” said Baren. “And don’t worry about the fire. Baas assured me that it’s undetectable.”
Seor descended reluctantly onto her haunches. She noticed several bedrolls and shoulder bags sitting furled besides Baren’s possessions.
“Does no one sleep around here? Where is your lieutenant … Baas?”
“I sent him scouting with Dieno,” said Baren.
“Scouting?” Seor sprung back up. “Didn’t you hear those sirens? A convergence was witnessed! We can’t be—”
“Simmer down,” said Baren. “It’s not risky for Baas. If there is a way for the rest of us to move upriver safely, he will find it.” He slipped the xenolith into a cloth pouch and into his satchel. He stirred the embers with a stick and tossed in another twig.
This development only made Seor feel more out of control. Trouble would come if Baas became entangled with the Urep’o. Or worse, if he surprised Vul and the others whose presence she had still neglected to mention. And Baren’s unnamed guests threw a wild card into the game. She regretted her impulse to come and chastise him about the fire. She would have been better off lying awake in her bed.
As Baren reached to feed another chunk of wood to the embers, his jacket cuff pulled back, exposing a set of intricate, braided tattoos encircling his wrists like bracelets.
Seor’s eyebrows rose. “Are you Sinkor Natadi?” she said, referring to a faith with three deities that was rarely practiced in Sesei, but mandated among their invaders from Venen.
Baren chortled. “You ask because of these markings? Every schoolboy in coastal Diomet has them,” he said, dismissively.
“The way you speak, I thought you came from Ubabaor,” she said.
“I’ve lived in Ubabaor since I was twelve, but I spent my childhood in Diomet.”
“What does … did your family do?”
“Trading mostly,” he said. “Caravans and ships. I used to know cousins in just about every province and port.”
“Ijinji, as well?” said Seor, half-joking about a city-state infamous for smuggling, piracy and corruption.
“Actually, yes,” he smirked.
“I didn’t mean to imply that—”
A series of whistles loped softly up from the slope below.
“It’s Baas!” said Baren. “He’s brought someone along. Our guests, hopefully.”
Seor’s stomach clenched. They heard footsteps shuffling through leaf litter, snapping twigs, then four silhouettes manifested in the darkness, one of them limping severely.
“It’s chaos down there,” said Baas, emerging into the feeble glow of the embers. Roads are blocked. Urep’o vehicles patrol every street. They took Ara and the other.”
“Taken?” said Seor.
“They never had a chance,” said Baas. “The constables spotted them immediately and took them away in a wagon. But we found these two. They came like dogs to our whistle.”
Two figures emerged into the light of the embers, followed by another cadre soldier.
Seor shot to her feet. “Vul? Pari?”
“Seor, we’ve lost some … friends,” said Vul, touching her shoulder.
“Lost? Do you mean—”
“Dead. We saw Cudi and Alic fall for certain. Likely Pana as well.”
Darkness collapsed on Seor. Her body turned leaden. She struggled to shape words. “What happened?”
“Crasacs!” spat Vul. “Can you believe it? In Ur?”
Seor turned to Baren, incredulous. “Are these the ‘guests’ you spoke of? How can this be?”
“We expected no military,” said Baren. “A diplomat, a few bodyguards.”
“But … Venep’o?” said Seor. “What are they doing with our bloody stones?”
“I was right, Baren,” said Baas. “The presence of this militia is no accident. The timing is too convenient. We’re dealing with a counterforce.” He gave a hand signal to another cadre member who circled behind them.
“Is this true?” said Baren, taken aback.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Seor, shuddering.
“There are those in the Council who have gotten wind of the peace process and wish to dismantle it,” said Baas. “We’ve heard rumors of detachments sent to interfere. This confirms it.” Two other cadre members arrived, crossbows raised.
“How do you intend to foster peace by bringing Crasacs to Ur? That doesn’t make sense,” said Seor.
Vul, glowering, backed away.
A cadre woman halted him, threatening with her crossbow.
“They pose a threat, Baren,” said Baas. “We need to secure them immediately.”
“Do it,” said Baren, gazing downward.
“There was another woman with them,” said Baas. “Where is she?”
“I sent her to take Kera’s watch,” said Baren.
“You assigned her a watch?” Baas said, incredulous.
“They seemed so innocuous,” said Baren. “I never expected this. Kera, go fetch her.” The woman behind Vul slipped off towards the burial ground.
“All of you get down now! On your stomachs,” said Baas.
Baren stood, looking flustered and distraught. “How did you learn about us?” he said. “We discussed none of our plans with any militia. We kept the entire operation completely opaque.”
“But we didn’t know anything,” said Seor. “We still don’t. We only wanted to go home.”