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Xenolith, Page 54

A. Sparrow

  Chapter 46: The New Stone

  As the veil of daylight slipped away from the mesa, the stars reasserted their dominion over the sky. Tezhay stood with Doctor Frank by a stagnant pool in a garden, waiting to be summoned inside the Eldest Brother’s quarters. He stooped and fished out a moth that had been struggling in the scum on the surface. The moth rested briefly on his palm, ascended his thumb, and flew off.

  “Is this how it’s going to be, then?” said Doctor Frank. “We’re basically camp slaves … for how long?”

  “As long as they have use for us,” said Tezhay. “Which may be not so long after this night. This visitor … it may be challenge me not to murder him.”

  “So what’s the big deal if these guys get one of your stones?” said Doctor Frank.

  “Those stone is our survival,” said Tezhay. “They save us many time during invasion. But not just that. Your world has so many dangerous thing. Thing that our Philosopher could have bring, but they reject. These Venep’o people… they will bring anything here. And if they give your people a way to come here … that would be the end.”

  “But we’re not all that bad, are we? As bad as these … Venenites?”

  “Worse,” said Tezhay.

  Doctor Frank scuffed at the dirt with his foot, frowning. Tezhay was afraid he had insulted him, but the doctor had other things on his mind.

  “They are going to feed us here tonight, aren’t they?”

  “Of course,” said Tezhay. “Why would they not?”

  Two claps came from the doorway. They turned to see Dembon already ducking back in. Tezhay led Doctor Frank past the two Cuerti flanking the entrance of the foyer, into the sitting room, which was bathed in a sepia glow from oil lamps backed with bronze mirrors.

  The Eldest Brother greeted them from his cushion on the floor with a faint smile and a tip of his head. The visitor glanced sharply over his shoulder as they entered. For an instant, the young man’s visage revealed the suspicion and frustration that Tezhay’s presence had engendered, but he composed himself rapidly. Tezhay saw no hint of guilt in the visitor’s calm, clever eyes. Might he not perceive the depths of his treason?

  The visitor groomed and appointed himself like a high level functionary. Strands of his otherwise trim and angular beard were twisted and bound with silver beads. He wore an immaculate high-collared and heavy-cuffed jacket embellished with a gossamer scarf of a fabric no longer available on the mainland since the war.

  Two other Sesep’o men loitered near the door cradling bowls of steaming infusion. They looked as uncomfortable in their formal attire as wolves wearing feathers. Tezhay guessed they were escorts, possibly trainees from the military academy in Ubabaor, more accustomed to homespun and armor.

  “Damn. Looks like we’re late for dinner,” said Doctor Frank. The low table held the remains of a repast: empty bowls of stew, a picked-over tray of roasted meats.

  “Don’t worry. They will bring for us. I am sure,” said Tezhay, his eyes lingering on a ragged sack on the table. It slumped beside the ornate, lacquered box holding the xenolith that the Eldest Brother had revealed to him in their first meeting. Two tabulators lay folded between.

  The visitor rose to greet him. “Comrade Tezhay, I presume?” he said, brushing shoulders. “I am Eghazi, of Diomet.”

  Tezhay nodded, and brushed shoulders almost without touching. He found it difficult to be cordial.

  “The Eldest tells me that this one is some type of healer?” said Eghazi, smiling a little too broadly. He spoke Sesep’o with the over-enunciated precision cultivated among the elite.

  “So he says,” said Tezhay. “Though, I see no sign of such skills. His name is Doctor.”

  Recognizing his name, Frank held out his right hand reflexively to Eghazi, but upon remembering the customary Sesep’o greeting, retracted it and instead bumped shoulders with Eghazi. He came a little too hard, rocking him backward.

  “And you are a Traveler,” said Eghazi, regaining his balance. “It must be … fascinating … interacting with other cultures. How did you both end up here?”

  “This one … went astray during his transition,” said Tezhay, referring to Doctor Frank. “He … trespassed, and the garrison here took us in. But the Eldest Brother has been most kind as our host, I must say.” He smiled and nodded at the Eldest.

  “Come,” said the old man, patting one of the cushions beside him. “Join us.”

  He and Frank settled onto floor cushions on either side of Eghazi. The doctor kept glancing towards the door, perhaps expecting or hoping to see a servant enter with a pair of steaming bowls. Tezhay didn’t have the courage to tell him that it didn’t look like they would be eating that night. Asking for food directly at this point would only insult their host.

  “I expressed your concerns about the first stone to Master Eghazi,” said the Eldest Brother. “But he insists that the stone is genuine.”

  “I know for certain that this stone is real,” said Eghazi, vehemently. “I witnessed its convergence.”

  “How curious that a regiment of Crasacs was there to watch it with you,” said Tezhay with a hint of acid, his gaze locking onto Eghazi’s.

  Eghazi looked unfazed. “Please. This is a matter above your station.”

  “Above my station? I am a Traveler. Xenoliths are my purview.”

  “Sesei is not ruled by keepers of stones,” said Eghazi.

  “Please, gentlemen!” said the Eldest Brother. “Perhaps Master Tezhay can explain what he sees wrong with the first stone, and tell us what he thinks of the new stone that you have brought.”

  Tezhay looked to the sack and box sitting on the table before him and took a deep breath. His heart pounded severely. He felt a new empathy for Doctor Frank’s ailment. He removed the older stone from its box and rotated it in his palm. Placing it on the table, he retrieved the new stone from its sack and set it alongside. He leaned in until his eyes almost touched their surfaces, and then backed out slowly.

  “It was more apparent in the sunlight, but—”

  “Dembon, bring him more light.”

  The Initiate retrieve one of the oil lamps and brought it closer.

  Tezhay picked up a stone in each hand and compared their weight. He put them back on the table and scratched each with his fingernail.

  “I must say …” he said, slowly. “Master Eghazi is absolutely right. Both stones appear genuine. I am afraid I was mistaken, Eldest Brother.”

  Eghazi’s face brightened with vindication, but a pall passed over Eldest Brother. “Then why does it not obey its own charts?” he said. “Why do we surround it with a regiment of archers and spend hours watching it only to have it behave like a … like a … rock? How do you explain this?”

  “Simple,” said Tezhay. “This stone is genuine, but it’s singular. Someone on the other side had destroyed its sibling. Without a match in the other world, a xenolith is just a rock.”

  “What do you think, Master Eghazi?” said the Eldest Brother. “Does that sound likely?”

  “I am not a keeper of stones, but what he says seems plausible,” said Eghazi. “It would explain why the convergence failed the other day. But it doesn’t account for why the convergence your Initiate used to enter Ur came early.”

  Tezhay knew exactly what caused convergence patterns to shift. Xenoliths were tuned by adjusting their mass. Damage to one of the stones in Ur or Gi would have triggered oscillations that temporarily increased frequency of convergences until the system dampened into a new equilibrium of weaker, less frequent events. But he saw no need to enlighten Eghazi or the Eldest Brother with such details.

  “Without knowing more, the possibilities are too numerous to speculate,” he said. “Xenoliths interlink in a delicate balance. Disrupting any of the four stones in a set affects them all.”

  “So how will we know this new stone is any less corrupted?” said the Eldest Brother.

  Tezhay casually placed the xenolith he held into the sack, depositing
it in one smooth motion that he hoped would draw no attention.

  “I promise you, Eldest,” said Eghazi. “This stone has a record of convergences as dependable as the moon rise.”

  “I suppose we’ll just have to see,” said the Eldest Brother. “When can we expect the next door to open?”

  Eghazi picked up the new tabulator and began adjusting its levers and slats. Tezhay watched him carefully. He moved slowly, but in the correct sequence and with no false moves, though one of the wheels looked slightly misaligned.

  “Tomorrow,” said Eghazi. “After sunset. But before midnight.”

  Tezhay smiled. Defining such a broad interval for the onset of a convergence marked Eghazi as something of a novice. Properly adjusted and read, a tabulator should provide predictions accurate to within fractions of an hour.

  “Give it to him,” said the Eldest Brother, his gaze boring in on Tezhay. “Let us see if he concurs.”

  Eghazi folded the arms and slats back to their storage configuration and passed it over. It pleased Tezhay to feel the slick wood of a tabulator in his hands again. He redeployed the arms, adjusted the slats perpendicular to each and rotated the central wheel to indicate the position of the moon at sunset. Once he read exactly when the convergence would come, he folded it back up before Eghazi could glimpse his settings, and handed it back.

  “He’s absolutely correct,” said Tezhay. “Tomorrow night it is, though I would say closer to midnight than sundown.”

  The Eldest Brother looked equivocal. “We’ll start early, just to be certain. So I suppose this means that you should prepare to travel, Dembon.”

  “I guarantee that you will find the portal will be much more secure,” said Eghazi. “This one is rarely accessed. And we’ve arranged another escort from our outpost in Gi, this time supported by your own garrisons in Raacevo.”

  One corner of the Eldest Brother’s mouth curled. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Dembon, but didn’t he offer us the same assurances the last time we sent an Initiate through his magic door?”

  “He did, Eldest,” said Dembon. “And we have yet to hear an explanation for how his simple demonstration turned into an ambush.”

  Eghazi looked flustered and speechless.

  “Have Captain Garem mobilize a regiment of archers for security,” said the Eldest Brother. “We’ll deploy on the parade ground again. And tell him that we will have no tolerance for ridicule this time. I will not have them be unruly, even if this turns out to be another rock.”

  “As you wish, my Eldest,” said Dembon.

  “Secure the stones, then,” said the old man, rising from the table. “Mercy of Cra, to all of you. Sleep well.” He tottered out of the sitting room to his private quarters, with a pair of Cuerti leading the way.

  Tezhay let the others file out of the sitting room before him. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dembon’s hand hesitate, before he lifted the xenolith from the tabletop and placed it in the lacquered box.