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Xenolith, Page 62

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 53: Entering Gi

  Tezhay passed from infernal air and glare into a cool twilight, alighting on a thick bed of matted leaves in the bottom of a shallow, rock-rimmed sinkhole. The convergence quivered like a pond set on edge, displaying a sandstone overhang like a protruding reflection. He stepped over Doctor Frank’s prostrate form to push beyond the portal’s tug, peering cautiously into the dense forest surrounding them, worried that an escort might be arriving for Dembon.

  Doctor Frank crept along on his knees, straining against the force of the xenolith. Tezhay reached down and grabbed his collar, helping him along.

  “This place … smells different,” said Frank. “Could this be Piliar?” His voice rose with excitement.

  “No. It is Gi,” said Tezhay. “Come, we must move. Someone may follow.”

  The ripples in the air contracted, taking the sandstone cliffs with them. A frantic voice carried through the portal, distant and distorted. Tezhay backed away as a figure holding a long dagger hurtled through the shimmer and thumped hard against the floor of the depression. Heavy gasps sought breath.

  “Eghazi!” shouted Tezhay. Before Eghazi could orient, Tezhay sprang atop him, and seized his wrist. He twisted the dagger away and dashed it against the wall of the depression. As he turned back, Eghazi’s knee caught him in the face. Eghazi wriggled free and scurried after his dagger on hands and knees.

  “Get his blade!” said Tezhay, but Doctor Frank had already retrieved it, holding it awkwardly, but giving Eghazi pause enough to allow Tezhay to tackle and pin him in the leaves. He dragged a stick over and pressed it against Eghazi’s windpipe. Eghazi ceased resisting immediately, struggling for air in desperate rasps.

  Tezhay looked up at Doctor Frank, who stood poised but frozen on the verge of joining in the fight.

  “Watch the portal! Soldiers may be coming.”

  “Uh, I don’t think anyone else will be passing through that thing,” said Doctor Frank. Tezhay pushed the stick down and looked over his shoulder at the faint traces remaining of the portal. Eghazi snorted and wheezed from the pressure on his windpipe.

  Tezhay let up slightly on the stick. Eghazi coughed and struggled for breath. His frantic eyes scanned the forest surrounding them.

  “Are you expecting someone?” said Tezhay, in Sesep’o.

  He anchored one end of the stick with his knee, maintaining pressure with the other hand as he used his free one to pat Eghazi down for other weapons.

  Eghazi worked his hands under the stick and tried to twist free of the knees planted on both of his arms. Tezhay pressed on the stick until it squeezed off Eghazi’s breath entirely.

  “Hands off! And stay still or I’ll crush your neck!”

  Eghazi complied instantly, letting his body go limp. Tezhay eased off. He unstrapped another sheathed dagger from his hip. A vicious little blade with a swervy edge resided in a slotted belt cinched tightly against the small of his back. A leather band holding four finned throwing knives encircled his calf.

  “Do you always carry so much metal on your body?” said Tezhay.

  “When I sleep in a Venep’o military camp, yes,” said Eghazi.

  He tossed each weapon, one by one, over to Doctor Frank.

  “What should I do with these?”

  “Put them on. I don’t care. Just keep them away from this man.”

  Tezhay fished his hand into Tezhay’s satchel and pulled out several stuck-together pieces of waxed parchment covered in tiny script, each decorated with a dollop of blue wax impressed with the shape of a teardrop.

  “What are those?” said Doctor Frank.

  “For prayer,” said Tezhay. “This man is Sinkor. He worship the gods of Venen.”

  “Cra … not for just … Venen people,” complained Eghazi, in English.

  “Ah! The traitor knows some of your language, doctor. Perhaps he have plans to travel.”

  Tearing at the cloth, he retrieved yet another tiny dagger concealed in the false bottom of the bag. In another pocket, he found some biscuit crumbs, some loose herbs for tea, bits of tinder, an ornate bar of flint and bundle of cord. He hauled Eghazi up and secured him with his own cord to a root snaking over a ledge.

  “You may mean well, but your actions are misguided,” said Eghazi.

  “Shut up,” said Tezhay.

  “You sabotage our only chance for peace.”

  “I told you to be quiet. Do you want the stick on your throat again?”

  He put his face inches from Eghazi’s, but Eghazi evaded his gaze, keeping his eyes trained on the forest.

  Tezhay turned abruptly and peered over the rim of the depression, but saw only wilderness in the dim, dawn light, no trace of human activity. Only insects and bird song and the distant whumping of frogs disturbed the silence.

  “So who is it? Who do you expect will rescue you?”

  “All these trees,” said Doctor Frank. “And the air’s so damp here. Where the hell are we?”

  “I already tell you,” said Tezhay. “It is Gi.”

  “Is … Gi … any closer to Piliar?”

  “Not closer. Much farther. Across ocean, plain, mountains of Venen. We are thousands … maybe ten thousand kilometer from Piliar.”

  Frank’s head snapped around. His face bloomed red. “What?”

  “I gave you chance for go home. Not many exile get such chance.”

  “You could have at least told me where you were going.”

  “Yes, I have so much time to explain,” Tezhay said.

  “Can … can we go back. Some other way?”

  “Not by stone. Even once is too much … for exile. You want Piliar, you have to walk through Venen. That, I don’t think is possible.”

  “So I’m stuck here?”

  Tezhay shrugged. The exposed ledges of pale, grey limestone told him that they most likely had passed into the sparsely inhabited karst lands of Gi’s Western valleys. The closest functional portals he remembered were far to the East, hidden along the road to Maora where the militias of the Second Gi Expeditionary Force had supposedly assembled. For reasons unknown, a closer portal, on the outskirts of Raacevo, Gi’s largest settlement, had ceased opening convergences earlier that year.

  Tezhay had never traveled before to Gi through the present portal. It was a cryptic, untrodden route, separate from the group of stones the Philosophers had released to the military. It meant that a Philosopher or a fellow Traveler must have been involved in the plot.

  “Who gave you this stone?” he asked Eghazi in Sesep’o, still watching the forest with the wide eyes of a zealot.

  “That’s of no concern to you,” said Eghazi.

  “As a keeper of stones, of course it concerns me.”

  “Keeper?” Eghazi chuckled. “You fetch … for Philosophers. No more than an errand boy.”

  “You underestimate me,” said Tezhay.

  “You have no idea what you’ve wrought. Months of careful negotiation … undone. We would have had peace, an end to war, restoration of territories.”

  “You would surrender our only advantage … for a promise?”

  “So we give up a stone or two. Is that not worth a chance for a lasting peace?” said Eghazi. “I don’t expect someone of your calling to understand. But the treaty is the only way Sesei can survive. Trust me.”

  Tezhay took a long, slow breath to help him settle his irritation. He would need to maintain his patience if he was to deliver this traitor intact to those who could benefit most from what he knew. He refused to believe that the plot had permeated his entire government.

  But something in the trees made him jittery. He saw nothing, just sensed a shift in the air. Not a change in the weather signaled by the temperature or moisture of the wind, but something more subtle, like those vibrations too fine for humans to perceive but which warned dogs of imminent earthquakes. When the birds suddenly stopped singing, the susuruss of insects did not suffice to veil the growing murmur.