Xenolith, Page 49A. Sparrow
Chapter 41: The Enemy’s Xenolith
The Eldest Brother beckoned him to his table. Tezhay took a deep breath before stepping forward and peering inside the lacquered box. What he saw nearly jolted him off his feet. Inside rested a perfect xenolith, ensconced in satiny yellow cloth. Tezhay could see that it had been recently active from the way its iridescence cycled and flowed. He closed one eye, opened it and closed the other. The stone’s shape and color seemed to shift slightly. No other stone displayed such ambiguity of light and form.
Tezhay’s breathing accelerated. He felt like taking the xenolith out of the box and smashing it under his heel. He could have done so easily enough. Xenoliths were soft and brittle stones.
But if he followed through on this impulse, though Ubabaor’s enemies would no longer possess a xenolith, but the Cuerti guards would ensure that Tezhay no longer had a head.
Perhaps, if he remained patient and learned more – how they found it, how they used it – better options would arise. The Initiate had to have brought them here for something more than providing the Eldest Brother an opportunity to gloat. Tezhay capped his emotions and returned to the bench.
The Eldest Brother grinned. “I can tell that you recognize this object, don’t you?”
Tezhay forced a smile. “You have a pretty stone,” he said.
“A pretty stone, he says! A pretty stone that opens doors into Ur,” said the Eldest Brother.
Tezhay kept his face rigid. He glanced at Frank, whose gaze had been captured by the tapestries.
“My contact in Ubabaor told me of people like you,” said the Eldest Brother. “You are a Traveler, are you not?”
“I am,” said Tezhay. If the Eldest Brother knew enough to ask, Tezhay gained nothing by denying it.
“Perhaps we can find a way to help each other, then,” said the Eldest Brother. “I am trying to understand these stones better. Our contact assured us that he could predict the opening of these doors. However, this one opened far earlier than he expected. Not only that, it was heavily defended, despite his assurances that our emissaries would be met by a diplomatic escort.” The Hiloru sighed.
Tezhay restrained a smile. The presence of defenders came as good news. And as a keeper of stones, he knew that fragmentation increased the frequency of convergences while decreasing their intensity – knowledge that was not widely shared beyond the Academy of Philosophers.
“Why, exactly, are you smiling?” said the Eldest Brother. He narrowed his eyes and continued. “Regardless, the following day – the day your emissary originally assured me that the door would open, we brought the stone to the parade ground and surrounded it with two companies of archers. What do you suppose happened?”
“Nothing,” Tezhay guessed. “Nothing happened.”
The Eldest Brother leaned forward abruptly. “And how do you know this?”
“Because that stone is not what you think it is. It may resemble a xenolith superficially, but in the end, this one is just a rock.”
“But a door did appear the first time. An entire regiment of Crasacs witnessed it.”
“Are you certain the stone before you is the one that opened it?” said Tezhay.
“What are you suggesting?”
“That this stone is not what you think it is. That it may, perhaps, be the wrong stone.”
“You’re saying that we were deceived?”
“Perhaps.” Tezhay realized that he might be putting a countryman at risk with such an implication, but he held little sympathy for one who would desecrate his precious xenoliths.
“How can you tell it’s not real? You’ve barely glanced at it.”
“I am a Traveler. I know these stones,” said Tezhay. “May I touch it?”
The Eldest Brother waved his palm. “Please.”
Tezhay pulled the stone carefully out of the box, and held it carefully in his palm, feeling the subtle fluctuation in weight that marked a xenolith to an experienced handler. He improvised, running his fingernail over the surface. He showed his finger to the Eldest Brother.
“Do you see that grit under my nail? A real stone would not leave such a residue.” He dropped the stone back into its box.
The Eldest turned to his Initiate. “Could it be so, Dembon? Might this stone be false?”
“This is not possible, my Eldest,” said the Initiate, earnestly. “An entire regiment witnessed Uriol and his guard pass. Some in the regiment passed along with him.”
“Yes, but are you sure they collected the correct stone afterward?”
The Initiate stared at the stone in its box, looking uncertain. The Eldest Brother frowned and opened a drawer in the table, pulling out a sheaf of wooden slats, some of which slid linearly, with others attached to disks that spun around pegs. The sight of a tabulator in the hands of a Sinkor cleric, may Tezhay feel ill.
“If you are indeed a Traveler, then you should be familiar with these,” said the Eldest. He folded all of the slats together, zeroed out the wheels and handed it to Tezhay. “Come, demonstrate your skill. Tell me, when is the next expected opening for this stone?”
Tezhay opened the topmost protective leaf, reading the legend indicating the former location of this particular stone. He knew this one well: a reserve stone that had been positioned several kilometers beyond the city wall east of Ubabaor. He adjusted its concentric dials to indicate the phase and position of the moon at dusk, the sun’s location at midday, and added seasonal corrections. He collected a reading and laid the tabulator back on the table.
“Well?” said the Eldest. “Do you know what it says?”
“Six days from now, a moderate event is expected for the stone associated with this tabulator, peaking an hour after sunrise.”
The Eldest Brother seemed impressed. “That is almost exactly what my contact told me, although he did not indicate the precise hour.” The Eldest Brother scratched his chin. “I may wish to retain your services. Would you be interested?”
“What would you want from me?”
“Truth and advice. Our contact is returning with another stone either tomorrow or the next day. I am afraid that you would have to remain in our custody, but if you cooperate, we can remove you from the labor pool and put you in more comfortable quarters. Would you agree to such an arrangement?”
“That is most generous, Eldest,” said Tezhay, bursting with the strain of faking politeness when he really only wanted to murder this snide patronizer, this desecrator of xenoliths. “What about my friend?” Tezhay hoped the expression he forced looked like a smile.
“Well, he is Urep’o, is he not?” said the Eldest Brother. “He knows the language and the land?”
“He does. And he is also a doctor,” said Tezhay.
The Eldest Brother crinkled his eyes. “Him? A doctor?”