Seemingly abandoned, Sebaste considered his circumstances.
The noise and the chatter had died down in this makeshift prison, as if the building itself remembered, after a brief shock, that it served a loftier purpose. And sure enough, the seals and the writing in three languages outside proclaimed it to be the House of Dositei of the Ecumenical Province of Rome. In reality, though (and here Sebaste slowed that thought, since reality was a fragile thing) the building only served as the goods entrance and transit bay for the actual House several miles away. Right now, most of the building he sat in only contained vacant trains.
Also unlike the actual House, the ascetic furnishings of the outpost were incidental rather than designed, and as such accented the building’s current role of both judgment house and jail. There were few comfortable places to sit, for one, so Sebaste fidgeted as he tried to trace in his mind the path which had led him here, swaying at the same time between excitement and marvel at having witnessed Dositei and all it stood for — as well as what it literally stood upon — and a burning desire to forget it, turn back time and remain in his own Province.
(Best not entertain that thought; for all he knew, he could do that.)
Rome was death. He knew this when he decided to come here. Knew it all his life, from lullabies and votive dolls and ghost stories told in springtime festivals. Rome was the missing land of Christendom and it would stay that way, never to recover from the time it was stolen, even though its captors had long perished to the sands. Dositei was meant to be a triumph over that belief, a proof that Rome could be reclaimed, but —
Sebaste blinked and shifted, wincing at a sudden cramp. The guard was new to him, somebody obviously junior judging by his stance and the way his attention fled from Sebaste, drawn repeatedly to the doors of the impromptu cell. He still had his outcoat on, and powered up at that, meaning he still needed it as armour. Sebaste sighed, not meaning to snap at the guard but not apologising either. He was too wound up. “Well?”
“We thought, maybe you could — maybe you could talk to the prisoner, sir. I understand that you speak –”
Sebaste stared at him, and this time the young man winced. If he’d intended to say anything like “obsolete languages”, Sebaste was going to bite his head off. And as he thought that, the image of it — both gruesome and comical, somehow — became so real to him that he bit down on his tongue to think of something else. (Pain was tolerable; pain, at least, made him focus on himself instead of endangering others.)
“Please,” Sebaste said to get them both on track. “You were saying I can help.”
Unnerved in front of a Council delegate, the boy seemed likelier by the moment to be merely someone’s novice, and was no more a prison guard than the building was a prison. It occurred to Sebaste that the only soldiers this place had were the men that rode the sides of carriages when the House’s guests were shuttled between the outpost and the hub. They were only really there to intimidate the priests and pilgrims into staying inside the trains — here the words “for your own safety” echoed in Sebaste’s mind, an ubiquitous local mantra — but was grateful for their presence when his coach got broken into, in the middle of transit mere hours ago.
In the middle of a poisoned desert, and of poisoned open air.
“Thing is, ser,” this non-guard said, revealing himself fully as a student by his latest choice of honorific, “I know this will sound strange, but it sounds a bit like the Roman you hear in school –”
“– and never bother with again,” Sebaste finished for him, heart sinking. “Am I right?”
“Ser,” the guard agreed, as if relieved to be put in his place. He must have finished his novitiate and had likely had his post here negotiated by a wealthy parent. Sebaste didn’t judge him much for that; he would have done the same for the novice he had mentored, but that boy would have deserved the post. Porphyri, for one, would never have capitulated before a Roman dialect… if this boy here wasn’t raving, and the prisoner did speak something that was centuries out of use.
Had it been a day or two prior, Sebaste would have laughed at this suggestion, and taken it for the kind of joke that fellow scholars would come up with, fuelled as they were by good wine and plenty of spare time; this is how Ecumenical councils tended to go for the bookishly inclined among the clergy. But two days ago was a long time now, and plenty had changed since.
Which still didn’t mean that the boy was right. “So what you’re saying is that you have captured a demon –”
The guard blushed in embarrassment for his colleague who’d spread that rumour back at the Council, and put Sebaste somewhat back at ease. “No, good Lord above and saint Muraz his servant,” he said, crossing himself, “nothing like that; it’s just the language. I mean, we might have asked the locals to translate? They might still speak it. But you know how it is, ser. Talking to them is just as –” He stopped himself here, belatedly aware of his calling and its insistence on humility.
Sebaste walked wordlessly past him, unwilling to listen longer. Far from it that he was free of snobbery himself; Sebaste was mindful of his own shortcomings, and arrogance was certainly his sin. What he had no patience for was dross, and even though he was a stranger to this region he knew that any “locals” present at the outpost, much less the House, came from areas as foreign to the desert as he was. They might have lived closer, possibly even on the western side of the bordering mountain range, but nothing lived near Dositei for scores of miles around.
Apart from his assailant, apparently.
“Caution,” the guard said, starting up the safety litany. Sebaste hummed to shut him up and proceeded to unpower and unhook his own outcoat, before throwing it at the boy. If he was going in as an inquisitor rather than a target, he might as well look the authority.
Master Everim stood in front of him as the doors slid open, filling most of Sebaste’s view with his bulky frame and bulkier clothes. He was in charge of the outpost’s staff, and that way in charge of its security as well, or as much of it as there was in a place this inhospitable. The architects of Dositei knew before they drew their plans that the landscape itself would provide protection, since the landscape itself was dangerous. “Delegate,” Everim said. “Honoured guest. I am sorry to cause you further distress –”
“You are not a cause of my distress, good master,” Sebaste said, and the bluntness of his words must’ve told the man more about Sebaste’s state of mind than the words themselves.
But the master, as practical as any man fit to live here must have been, took no offense to that. “I’m afraid we haven’t made much progress,” he said, offering frankness in turn. “I’m certain this is the man who caused all that upset back at the Council, but how he survived out there –”
Sebaste frowned, catching himself before he strained to look around Everim’s shoulders and past the anteroom. That would have been truly impolite. “Man?”
(But of course it was a man, it occurred to him. Sebaste only saw a woman in the carriage because he’d expected to see one; he’d let his imagination run with rumours at the House, falling to the bizarre charm of the place and… really, he’d expected to see Mary. And for the first time since Mundi left, he was glad he was alone. She’d never let him hear the end of it if she thought he’d fallen prey to fancy and folklore.)
“Yes,” Master Burim said from somewhere in the back. He was the outpost’s medic, which meant his duties alternated between providing genuine assistance to the House’s staff, exposed to the elements as they sometimes were, and serving as a human echo box to the elderly guests, the priests who only needed someone to assure them that their ailments were severe, and then provide them with a pretend cure. Some of those men were pushing two-and-twenty, sure, but most of them just wanted to complain. Sebaste was familiar with this, as he’d spent a good deal of his journey to the west trapped with the same sort.
Mundi must’ve felt it even more, getting flocked to as the lone woman in a sea of clergy, but she’d fled them now. Sebaste couldn’t fault her for it, and prayed that she was well as his thoughts drifted to her and whatever challenges awaited her. He missed her sorely, and her sound agnostic mind.
“A Roman man, and an unusual specimen,” Burim said, sidling closer in the shadow of Everim’s bulk. “I can see why our young and impressionable colleagues thought he was a ghost. He’s got some colour back in his face by now, but he looked like he’d been left out in the sun too long, and his hair and skin got bleached. Can’t say what the desert might have done to him. I’m astonished he’s alive,” he chuckled, “never mind his putting up a fight. He’s got extensive damage all over his –”
“And the eyes,” Everim said.
Burim sagged in response. “And the eyes, yes. Suffice to say,” he added with a sharp, exasperated glance at his fellow master, “that they would’ve got him killed in the bad old days.” He made a shorthand gesture for the kind of death reserved for the liars in the “bad old days” and Sebaste shuddered, reminded that the punishment wasn’t as eradicated as the scholarly young medic thought it. “Actually, that’s a thought,” Burim said, and reached inside a pocket for a scratchpad. “I’ll get him something to mask them off for now, since I can’t trust this superstitious mob…”
He grumbled to himself, pulling items out of his many hidden pockets and putting them away in others. Sebaste didn’t wait for him to fish out lenses before he turned to Everim again. “Do you at least have a name?”
“Nothing,” the old master said. “All we got out of him is a lot of anger. Delegate, do you know why he might have sought you out?”
“Has he?” Sebaste said. He had his own suspicions, but very little need to share them with anyone who wasn’t Mundi; he wouldn’t even have trusted Porphyri with them, and the boy was as loyal and reticent as Sebaste could have wished. Unlike his mother, he knew when to not ask questions — but it was Mundi’s character Sebaste needed now.
Everim withdrew. “Fair point.” He’d just admitted, after all, that they couldn’t talk to the prisoner at all. He struggled inwardly with something briefly, then came to a decision. “It’s that book of yours, Delegate. It’s the first thing that came up when I looked beyond the biography the Council issued for you, and I think you’ll forgive me for doing so. It’s the only link I’ve got.”
“Keep it in mind, then,” Sebaste said by way of concession. “But let’s see if we can hear it from him, hm?”
He was tired, hungry, and faintly dizzy, which was most likely down to the hunger and exhaustion but also sat like an odd heaviness inside him in a way he couldn’t quite pin down. It only started when he entered the room, and might have been a fault of ventilation. The outpost wasn’t structured like the House, he theorised, and more of the outside air got recycled than was tolerated inside Dositei proper. The others didn’t seem to be as bothered by it, but then they’d had more time to acclimatise to this.
He couldn’t wait to leave.
The room behind Everim was large but, in accordance with the mysteries of storage spaces, led on to a number of screened-off sections or further passages, some already dinged with use. Still no prisoner. A clerk sat there instead by a fold-out table, and read out as he wrote in a book that was larger than the desk that “Delegate Stamaria-under-Baptist is now present.”
“That’s… fine,” Sebaste said, marvelling at the insistence on tradition even in this distinctly un-monastic space. “Can I have this recorded, though? I might be able to work out his language better later.” What he really wanted was to wrap this up and go, but it wouldn’t do him any good to show he was impatient.
“Oh,” the clerk said, scrambling to get up without toppling his little desk and ruining his penmanship. “Of course! Good thinking, sir.”
Sebaste let his silence communicate what he thought of that remark as he waited for the man to wipe the echo box and set it up anew. While the clerk was at it, the box reverted to its main purpose of broadcasting the sounds of the Council chamber, which now meant mostly silence. There was however enough impression of the life inside Dositei in it, with faint voices and distant bells complete with the ceaseless grinding of moving floors. The sound transported him back to the House, hours and a lifetime away now.
“There you go, sir,” the clerk said, returning to his post. “Should have thought of that myself, really. We’re just not… used to this, at all.”
Of course not, Sebaste thought; why should you be? What need is there in the civilised world for holding cells and interrogation chambers on hallowed ground? But Rome wasn’t civilised, his mind threw back. Sebaste knew this better than anyone, since “that book of his” managed to get a man gruesomely killed just as the Ecumene moved forth to claim its long-lost Province, and declared it safe.
Two incidents, and him the only link.
“All right,” he said. “Where’s this man, then?”
Master Burim sidled past to tap a section door, which opened up to a shallow but wide room. He had a pair of darkened lenses in his hand but nothing much to do with them, as the prisoner was in no shape to take them or have someone put them on.
In the absence of any proper holding equipment — no locks on these doors, but again, why should there be? — he was tied to what appeared to be an oversized footstool. They’d probably intended to use a chair (Sebaste hoped) but those were built for comfort, and there was no way to wind a piece of — was that silkwire? — securely around their smooth and curving forms. Fettered to this thing the man was forced down to a crouch and bent forward almost double, and that there was, Sebaste witnessed in distaste, definitely silkwire holding him in place. Not just rendered immobile, the man was even breathing carefully to prevent it lacerating him further.
“For the love of God,” Sebaste gasped. “Is this necessary?”
“Nothing else would hold him. Sir.” The guard who said that was one of the two who’d defended him on the train, so Sebaste found it in poor form to argue further. The medic, thankfully, disagreed.
“It’s barbaric,” Burim said, looking around so as to address both the guards and Master Everim, still holding post by the main cell door. “You’d already knocked him out in the carriage. If you’d let me treat him we could’ve made some progress, but now it’s come to this.”
“You saw what he did to the door, Master Burim,” Everim replied. All heads, except that of the bound man’s, turned towards the door Sebaste thought got dented in some loading mishap. “We’ve no strength to match, with all respect to my crew, and your drugs did absolutely nothing. How else do you suggest we protect our guest?”
“You subdued him on the train,” Burim insisted. “How can someone who couldn’t even hold down a glass of water when he came to suddenly overpower two grown men? These aren’t novices.” He caught himself waving the spectacles around and pointing, and stuffed both hands in pockets. “The courtesy of my job doesn’t only extend to the House.”
Sebaste observed the prisoner during their argument. He was eager to see the wire removed since his own skin had started to sting in sympathy, but also to determine what on earth had possessed him to imagine he’d encountered Mary, of all things — the Faceless, the Whisper, the sand-blown terror of so many tales. There was only the pallor, really; the man indeed looked ghostly, but that was largely the effect of being caked with dust and wearing nothing but a torn and tied piece of bleached cloth patterned with the emblems of the House. Probably a bedsheet or a tablecloth; Sebaste had seen plenty back at Dositei, and recognised the quality of their make.
“No clothes,” he murmured, thinking out loud without realising, and the medic heard him. “It’s a mystery, isn’t it,” Master Burim said. “As I was saying, there appears to be extensive damage all down his back, what looks like old scars but… I don’t know. Might have been made worse by the elements outside. And look at the wrists.”
Sebaste had not missed the wrists. Those were scarred as well underneath the binds, but not quite like the flesh revealed by the shapeless tunic. If anything, their wounds seemed burned into the skin, remarkably in the shape and placement of the liars’ prayer bands.
(Or so Sebaste guessed; the few liars who had, by the Ecumene’s magnamity, been present at the Council had dressed like any other citizen, and some had even borne pilgrimage tattoos. All he had to go on was his knowledge from old books and, he admitted to the Mundi in his head, his own fancy. To any eyes less trained the man was simply Roman.)
Whatever had caused those marks was now compounded by silkwire, which was a more urgent matter. “I can’t talk to him like this,” Sebaste told Everim. “Cut the wire, for the life of Christ.” Added, when the master wouldn’t budge, and speaking without any guarantee, “I assure you I will not be harmed.”
Besides, he very badly wanted to see the captive’s face, pushed towards the ground as it was in his position, and hidden behind sheets of pale matted hair.
Everim took a moment but then sighed consent, and the medic moved at once with a burner he must have held ready in a pocket. It lit up, humming as it dried the wire just enough to crack and flake off on its own. The guards both tensed, staves at the ready. “Thank you, Delegate,” Burim said.
The man at first did nothing. Nobody relaxed, and continued to stay tense as he moved exceedingly slowly, as if not believing that his binds had gone; flexed his hands, feet, back, exhaled, then sighed again as he moved to sit up on the grotesquely tiny stool. Ended up pushing it away and sitting on the floor cross-legged, one hand still flexing into a fist and back, the other rising to rub at his neck with his face still down. Wordless all the while.
Sebaste glanced at Burim, who shrugged, and Everim, who fingered at his ceremonial but more than adequate knife. Heat-based weapons were forbidden indoors but that had only inspired people to get creative in the more traditional arts. If the master thought he was out of options…
And just as Sebaste took a breath to address him, eager to say something before hostilities resumed, the prisoner spoke up.
“You have no friends in this place. Better you learn now.”
Sebaste let that breath out slowly. That was definitely Roman of the hear-in-school variety and, just as he’d suspected, spoken around Mary’s time. Well, around the time of the Return, at any rate — Pope Kazarin, his memory supplied; the failed Crusades, the crisis of the kingdoms, all that chaos of the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries — and Sebaste strained his mind trying to string up a sentence that would sound colloquial when all he’d read dating that far back were epistles and annals.
“No friends in the house of God?” he replied. “Hardly so. Why, you can find friends here as well. I am sorry for the way you were received; I am sure it was an error. But we know not who you are. Tell me, and be welcomed.”
The effort of retrieving the right phrases and the rhythm of it helped relax him some, but only some. That statement, out of nowhere, about having no friends here — there was no sound reason for this man to know anything about Sebaste and his falling out with Little Brother Parasimon back at the House, or the changes that had made Sebaste leave the Council early; but as for un-sound ones, the possibilities were countless. (And each of them, no matter how bizarre, impossible to discount. He forced this thoughts away from this, for fear of rendering them true.)
All things put together, it somehow stood to reason that this improbable survivor of the desert, who spoke a language a millennium dead, looked — once he looked up, incongruously sharp considering his state — the way Sebaste had imagined Mary, the way that would have truly had him killed until not long ago.
Or still could.
In reality his eyes weren’t that remarkable, let alone demonic; a bit washed out, like the rest of him, and something that might well occur in nature with some frequency. But even now the guards were crossing themselves to ward him off, judging by the squeaking of outcoats. Sebaste groaned under his breath and motioned at Burim, who handed him the spectacles. He stopped himself before he passed them on, however, or attempted to explain what they were for.
“Could we not give this man some food and clothes?” he asked the clerk. “Or let him scrub that dirt off. I didn’t think you’d let a particle of dust get in, by the number of times you ask your guests to stay indoors.”
The young man turned to Everim, who ignored him. “What’s he saying?” the master demanded of Sebaste instead. “Sounds like you can talk to him.”
No “delegate” now, Sebaste noted without showing that he did. The master was on duty, after all, and none too happy to relinquish authority to a House guest, however qualified. “I think I can,” he said. “Your young guard there was right; this is Return-era Roman.”
“Perhaps,” Sebaste said. “Have you never joked about Rome being far behind the times, and what a waste it is to go there?” He gestured to indicate he didn’t want an answer, so as not to put the head of the outpost in an awkward spot. “For all we know, there could be areas so isolated –”
“– ridiculous,” Everim said again, but with less conviction. The prisoner’s looks were in themselves compelling evidence in favour of Sebaste’s thesis, so local to this godforsaken Province as to render him more foreign than the guests, no matter how far travelled. “No one can survive out there. You can’t tell me otherwise, Delegate; we’ve lost too many men. Ask him where he’s really from.”
“I have. Perhaps he might be more forthcoming if we showed him some goodwill? Master Burim, if you will…”
Unlike the clerk, the medic didn’t need permission. He bowed to Sebaste in agreement, glad to find an ally in his quest for civility, and disappeared once more. Sebaste, for his part, sat on the floor close to the prisoner. Everim’s disapproval was more palpable than the inconvenience, not to say discomfort, of the hard and perfectly smooth floor, but Sebaste resolved to ignore both. “I want to help you,” he said, firm and quiet as if in confidence. And he did want it. He had no intention of causing more injury or grief than he already had, however unwitting.
“I think you need help more than you can offer it,” the captive said. “I want to leave this place, but so do you. These are not your friends.”
“You sound certain of this,” Sebaste said, attentive underneath benevolent amusement.
“No,” the man said, stressing it with a gesture typical of liars. “You sound certain of it. I just listen.”
Sebaste considered this, striving to make sense. “You were at the House of Dositei,” he ventured, piecing sentences together the best he could. “There was a congregation of your people there. Were you with them, or meaning to find them?”
Those two options made the most sense, though the liars admitted to the monastery had all been cultured people who spoke and behaved as well as Romans could be expected to. They’d been invited to the Council to demonstrate the future Province’s diversity and tolerance, an unspoken condition of its accession to the Ecumene — as well as proof that the Ecumene could tidy up its own. Besides their minor faith, if liars even had one, there wasn’t much they had in common with this prisoner.
Sebaste had struck something with that fairly blind stab, though. “So they were,” the prisoner said, eyes closed in relief. Had he not known? “We must find them.”
Sebaste almost laughed at the turn this took. “We?”
He could sense the guards getting restless at all this talk without translation and swung around to face them, nodding at the clerk hovering over his book. “I’m trying to negotiate some compensation,” he told them. “You have nowhere to keep him, and sending him to an actual prison would incur so much paperwork you’d no longer be on friendly terms with your civilian contacts.” He didn’t need to say more to people who had very few venues of communicating and trading with the rest of the world. “I mean, what has he actually done?”
One of the guards started up, incredulous. “He broke into your –” He clamped up however at the hiss of Everim’s unsheathed knife, and resumed his stance.
“My carriage, yes,” Sebaste agreed. “But to attack me? You two were faster, which I’m grateful for, but for all I know he could’ve had no other place to hide from the elements.”
Everim was not impressed. “He tell you that?” He remembered to tack on a “delegate” to the end of it this time, which only stressed his diminishing willingness to entertain a guest. “With all due respect, sir, the clerics of the House will decide –”
“But I’m the injured party,” Sebaste pointed out. “External injured party.” Behind him, the prisoner muttered something about waiting long and having to go back. Sebaste had absolutely no intention of returning to the House, and ignored him.
“You just said you weren’t injured,” Burim said, appearing out of nowhere with a well-loaded trolley. “Which I’m very glad to hear, of course.” He pulled out a sealed clothes pack and weighed it in his arms. “I had to dip into the stores,” he told no one in particular. “Not many people here can stand shoulder to shoulder with our Master Everim.”
“He has no money, so I wish to be repaid in time,” Sebaste told Everim. “Personal service.”
Burim fumbled with the pack, having nearly dropped it. “Should I fetch an outcoat, then?”
Everim had had enough. He stopped the recorder and set the echo box back to its relay mode. “Call the Abbot’s office,” he told the clerk. “Whatever he’s told you,” he rumbled at Sebaste, “will have to be interpreted by one of our own men. I have no fault with you, Delegate, but too much disturbance surrounds this man for me to trust him with your company any longer. For as long as you are here, your safety is my responsibility.”
And wouldn’t you like to keep me here, Sebaste thought. (Or, to be more accurate, the clerics of the House would. Sebaste wondered briefly if anyone had punished Little Brother Parasimon for showing an outsider where the monastery got its power from, or for presuming he could bring a fellow scholar into confidence without consulting with the architects of the entire scheme. Unless he’d acted with authority, of course, which would only make this worse; any way he turned it, Sebaste found his research misused yet again, and now by people he’d thought friends.)
How could he have missed all this?
“I’ll be happy to relieve you of it, Master,” he said, getting up as elegantly as he could. He smoothed down his clothes with care and in doing so surveyed the room, watching Burim in the corner of his eye as the medic mimicked unsealing the clothes pack by way of instruction, and slid it to the prisoner across the floor. Not the most elegant approach, but then for all his scorn of superstition Burim had still witnessed this man bearing down on armoured guards, and knew better than to take his chances. “I would indeed like an outcoat to be added to that pack,” Sebaste said. “And I’d like to register this matter as resolved.”
“You must have not been listening,” Everim said as the clerk began to tear out a form from somewhere in the book. “I have good cause to believe this man trespassed upon the House itself, never mind one of our carriages. If you wish to drop it that is kind of you, but this is an internal matter.”
“Internal to whom,” Sebaste asked, matching stare for stare despite Everim’s hulking frame. “The body of the Province, the Church, or the Ecumene? The House and the Province are as yet unofficial,” he reminded, “much as we all pray that they join the fold. Whereas I have full authority as a Council delegate, representative of my home Province, to treat any loss to myself on this pilgrimage and in duration of the Council as a self-contained and pre-approved judicial matter concerning the Province of Three Sails. I may also remind you that I hold the title –”
“A loss,” Everim said. “You just argued that there is no loss.”
“No injury,” Sebaste said. “In loss I refer to the absence of my personal assistant, Gloriamundi Stoteleimon, who the Council sent on a new mission. If you’re talking to the Abbot’s office do remind them of my compensation.”
“Surely we can spare a novice,” the clerk said, eager to fill out his form now that he’d prepared it. “This is pretty much the only time we’ve had more than the core crew –”
“Wait here,” Everim said.
That the House had sent a party out was obvious from this delay. Sebaste skimmed the roster in his mind, preparing to argue each of them down, unless they simply sent a batch of fresh new soldiers —
“If you must pace from place to place,” the prisoner spoke up from where he sat (having decided that the clothes pack was a cushion, Sebaste noted to Burim’s despair), “at least pick one where you’re ahead.”
“What in the lives of Christ are you on about,” Sebaste half-spoke, half-hissed. “What do you want? I have enough to deal with here, and for your sake as well. I’m trying to help you!”
“I want us to get out of here,” the man ground back. “I can’t do it, but you can.”
Sebaste almost missed that this exchange was not in Roman, caught up as he was in figuring out what he’d have to deal with next. The language was still ancient, but it came from the liars. Which wasn’t something Sebaste expected to be comfortable in, or even speak it to begin with, but then he had spent decades reading private correspondence, arguments, stories and plays, and a lot more day-to-day matter than he’d ever got from the proper and reserved — and highly edited with age so as to appear even more solemn — tone of documents from the Christian side. Ridiculous, but there it was, like so much else happening to him.
“Well what do you think I’m doing,” Sebaste began, but the man spoke over him. “How about this one,” he said, acquiescing to Burim and getting off the pack to open it. “We’re on the train, they’re in pursuit, the air is good to breathe and there’s a very puzzled chicken in the carriage with us.”
Sebaste must have mistranslated that, but the plunge towards absurdity rendered the scene complete in such compelling detail that he had no trouble projecting himself there, whether he wanted to or not. “That is the stupidest thing I’ve ever —”
“Well,” the stranger said. “I figured it was worth a try.”
The chicken clucked and went about its chicken business, completely unperturbed to be inside a very fast and spacious train, already within the reach of the Red Mountains. “You don’t seem puzzled,” Sebaste said as if that made sense, as if anything at all made sense.
“It’s a chicken,” the man said. “Not much it can get confused about.”
“My name is Arber,” the man continued as if nothing unusual had happened. “I am glad we’re both alive. The odds were very much against us, which is something you should keep in mind if you feel like trying this again. Best advice I have is, don’t.”
“A few times, at the monastery,” Sebaste murmured absently, dragging a hand over the entirely real and solid window, and the handles of his seat.
Arber frowned. “Yes, that was unwise,” he said, “but it helped me find you.” He shifted his attention to the clothes pack, which had somehow also manifested in the train. “What is this thing?”
“Clothes,” Sebaste said, and then snapped back to both attention and a lingering annoyance. “What the hell is going on? Am I some sort of fugitive right now?” But he couldn’t be; whatever else had happened, he still had the authority and protection of the Province of Three Sails and the Ecumene proper. Whatever else was going on in Rome — wait. Wait. Had he made himself a fugitive, along with whisking himself off to a suddenly existing train?
He flinched when Arber put a hand on his. The nerve of it and the shock of being treated like some sort of civilian kicked him out of his burgeoning panic, though, so he pulled his hand away and merely glared. “Just stay where you are,” the liar said. “You gave us enough time.” He went back to his clothes pack and, giving up on it, just tore the whole thing open.
“There’s a tab you pull,” Sebaste said in a tired mix of liar and old Roman. “Because it’s not supposed to tear. Are you even human? How did you survive outside in –”
“I hate that question,” Arber said, looking around the carriage and exclaiming in triumph when his tapping on all doors eventually revealed a bathroom. Standing up he really was as large as Everim, in height if not exactly girth, and had to duck to get himself inside. “The only joy it gives me, priest,” he said behind the door and the rustle of fabric, “is that you’ll be asking yourself the same the longer you’re alive.”
Any question Sebaste might have had at that — and he had plenty — got prevented by the sound of a shower and a cut-off yelp of somebody who, as Sebaste figured, didn’t know how silkwire cuts reacted to hot water. He winced in sympathy and leaned against the window, overwhelmed and not a little sorry for himself. He wanted Mundi, wanted his life back, wanted to know nothing about Rome and, predictably, none of these things happened just because he wished them to. But the absurd chicken was still there to mock him, dozing on an unused chair.
By the time Arber reemerged, looking a lot tidier and much less like a ghoul, the train was nearing its first stop outside of Rome. They’d done the longest uninterrupted stretch of the track and now had options as to changing their direction. Sebaste wasn’t entirely pleased with the “we” part of his situation, but he couldn’t really think of an alternative. Besides, there was something of the hand of Providence (he hoped; the alternatives to that were far less comforting) in the fact that Mundi and the people Arber wanted to catch up with travelled on together. The Council had tasked her with the role of a “cultural companion,” as Father Zefeon had put it. A bridge between the locals and the incoming Church.
A spy, in other words.
Sebaste grew more ill at ease, understanding better why the Ecumene — that part of the Ecumene that had started to build Rome, that is; it wasn’t fair to implicate the entire lot — was suddenly so kind to liars. All that dross about overcoming differences and superstitions! When Sebaste raged against these superstitions in his epistles and pamphlets, he’d meant it. When his colleagues had agreed, he trusted he was making progress. And it turned out all the while they had believed the tales and folklore, and had actually gone out west to seek them out. Then struck gold with Dositei, but needed liars and their fabled skill to fully make it work.
Except, it dawned on him as the pieces fell together, it wasn’t the liars who had this skill… or at least not now. Arber had told him as much.
It was him.