This is the last of the "story noses" I wrote over the summer. It's pretty much just a "info dump." The basic premise was much the same of the Velvet Night Islands -- a previous civilization has left artifacts behind. Most are just pieces of technology that the current civilization does not understand. In the story, one of the provinces is threatening civil war, though it is certain to be defeated, by the combined forces of the other provinces. So why does it seem to be pursuing this course? One suggestion is that they have uncovered a WORKING artifact from the previous civilization that will allow them to triumph. The heroes of the story set out to find this artifact, if it exists. The reason the story never got written is that I could not think of a way to, one, make it any different than a sort of intrigue/spy story -- they track down clues within the threatening province while trying to avoid capture, and two, what could this artifact be. I didn't want to do a GIANT ROBOT... I just came up short in the imaging department. I just could not come up with something to make it unique enough to bother writing.
I had several opening. In some the war had already began. But this is the only one I can find.
Chapter 1 May 14
Twenty-seven books will not fill a wall of bookshelves, not even the wall of a very cozy dormer office under the rafters of Croft Hall, Wayscross University. This came as not a complete surprise to me. I had hoped, however, that by artistically spreading my twenty-seven books out across the shelves – displaying the larger volumes cover out – I might create the impression that the shelves were more filled than they actually were. Sadly, this proved not to be the case. Indeed, rather than disguising my scarcity of books, it seemed to emphasis the barrenness of the shelves – each book a lonesome cry of despair.
Stepping back to consider my options, I sent the coat tree teetering, saving it from crashing onto my desk with a desperate grab and an angry curse.
'I would think, Nies, that after seven years of travel up and down the Great Serpent you'd have accumulated enough rusty talismans, curiosities, nicknacks, keepsakes and lightprints to fill a little bookshelf like that,' said a once familiar voice from the open doorway behind me.
It had been all of those seven years since I'd last heard the voice of my best friend. Still, it had been seven years, so it was with both eagerness, and wariness, that I spun to greet her.
She hadn't changed. Not too much. She was leaning on the door-frame, hands in the pockets of her long dark green traveling coat, with a rather shapeless felt hat at the back of her head. She stared down her long nose at me, took me in, and then leisurely withdrew her hand from the coat's pocket and extended it.
I took her cool hand in my own, and then, what the blue beyond, pulled her close and gave her a bear hug as well. She didn't resist, and may've even tapped me on the back once or twice herself with her free hand until I released her, to hold her at arm's length.
'It is wonderful to see you. I wrote you...'
'Six letters, I believe.'
'Five. Two to your Boulevard of Evening Blossoms address, two in care of the Ministry of Trade, and one to Hayvale. The sixth was to your father asking about you. He, at least, replied, if only to say that he was unable to help since you don't keep him any better informed of your whereabouts than I. He did, however, invite me down to Hayvale, with or without you, and I will certainly take him up on that. Hopefully with you. So why didn't you answer any of my letters?'
'You are indeed. I withdraw my complaint.' I said, gazing on her fondly. '
There are not likely all that many people in the world who can gaze on her fondly.
Ashra Bedoux, Baroness Roudorn is a hard person to be fond of. She is tall as I, though slimmer. Her face is long, with a wide mouth that naturally settles into a disapproving frown. She can, however, with very little effort, twitch into a condescending sneer. Back when I first knew her – when we were students – she often found it necessary to make that effort. She held her head in such a way that she could look down along her long, thin nose on you, regardless of your height, with unspoken contempt in her green eyes half hidden under lazy eyelids. Now, as then, she wore her chestnut colored hair very short. In her youth she could, and often did, dress and pass herself off as a boy, despite the fact that she holds male sex in contempt. Or perhaps because she does. By passing herself as a boy she may've been trying to show us what we should strive to be, given the possibilities of our sex. All in all, many people found her to be unpleasant and uncomfortable company. And yet, when she laughs, or even smiles, she's almost pretty – confidential, rather than condescending. She rarely smiles and hardly ever laughs.
Still, I've seen more than my share of those rare smiles and laughs, for as I said, she was my best friend throughout my university years. There were even a couple of years back then, when I was in love with her. Blame it on my youth.
I came to my senses. 'Come in, sit down… What am I thinking of?' I said, drawing her in to my new office.
'I have no idea. However, having found you, I shall now return to my room to sleep. It was a rough night passage from Litabay – no sleep at all. No sleep either on the rail carriages from Southarbor. I've taken a room at the Station Hotel. Hire some horses and pick me up there at four. We can ride out into the countryside and dine at one of the outlying inns.'
'I won't hear of that. I've a spare room in my digs. Let's get your bags. You'll stay with me.'
She shook her head. 'No. We must think of your new career. Your new colleagues will be watching you. You must choose your friends wisely. I'm not a wise choice…'
'Trust me. There are important people in the University who will remember me…'
'True, but they also remembered me as your boyfriend. That didn't seem to matter.'
'I'm sure they're hoping Sunset has knocked the foolishness out of you. You mustn't disillusion them. We'll ride in the countryside where we can talk freely without covert glances and wagging tongues.'
I didn't think she was right, but I wasn't going to win the argument. I never did. 'Well, we needn't hire horses. I have a new three-wheeler. We can take it on a long drive and dine far from the gossips. I'll pick you up at the station entrance.'
'A runabout? Was that mystery find of yours a King's Talisman that you can afford a runabout?'
'I'll tell you all about that find as we drive. It is the better part of seven years of unspent wages that allow me to purchase a small runabout, a Gough and Hardinge Four.'
' Did you go native and live off a game in log huts?'
'Mostly I lived in tents. However, the Institute provides all the necessities while you're in the field, so as long as you keep to the field and didn't gamble or keep an expensive mistress, you needn't touch your salary to live. I kept to the field. And now, with a free summer and a great deal of leave owed to me, I felt a GH 4 would allow me to get reacquainted with…'
'Camalea, in any event.'
'Can you pilot a runabout?'
'I'm learning. It's not hard.'
'Never mind, I can. The station courtyard at four,' she said, and turned to go.
'Wait, let me get my hat (it had fallen on the floor) I'll walk you back to the station.'
She glanced back to serve me one of her sneers. 'Did nothing I said about gossips penetrate?'
I sighed. 'You're wrong. But we won't argue. At four then.'
She nodded, and slipped into the dark corridor. I stepped to the doorway to watch her walk down the dim lit corridor and disappear down the stairwell. Seven years and it seemed that nothing had changed. I was rather happy.
Baroness Roudorn selected me as her boyfriend five days after we had arrived at Wayscross for our first term. We both had digs in Tungstand Hall. She came to the univeristy to study economic history and I, arcaneology. I'd like to think that her interest in the economics of the Third Age (a field study that she was inventing), and mine in the arcane remains of the Three Lost Ages was the deciding factor, but I've never summoned the courage to ask her. I had a feeling, and still do, that her reasons, if she had any at all, were not very flattering, given the fact that she never made any secret of her tastes in lovers. She'd openly walk arm in arm, hand in hand with her girlfriends, her “sisters”, as she called them, regardless of how she dressed for the day – as a girl or as a boy. She once said that she needed n official boyfriend to give the masters of the University some small comfort – they could, if they cared to, dismiss the obvious by saying, “Be that as it may, she does have a boyfriend, you know, so...” Of course the fact that she was a young Avadorian Baroness may also have defused any scandal. Avadore Provence aristocracy are notorious for their free and easy ways in such matters so the young Baroness' flaunting of conventions could be viewed as merely the youthful indulgence of a headstrong, rebellious girl – a phase that would pass in time. The former may've been true, the later almost certainly wasn't. Unless she had changed in these seven years.
Still, somehow, despite my figurehead status, we grew close. With our shared interest in the Lost Ages, in their artifacts and what history could be pried out of dusty volumes written in Sumbarian, we grew to be in fact, the best of friends. I knew her only as a boy. A carefree, mischievous boy, who, with the self-assurance of an Avadorian Baroness – maintained that the rules simply didn't apply to her. She carried me off on many an ill-advised adventure during our five years at Wayscross. Art galleries were far more enjoyable when you had them to yourself – at midnight. The museums so much more interesting when you could rummage through their basement storage rooms, after closing hours. The dockland dives of Southarbor, offered far more authentic dinja music than anywhere else. Their questionable clientele merely added the spice that the music needed to be fully appreciated. Or so she claimed. To this day I never hear dinja music without a shiver snaking up my spine.
There was also a bright, far less risky side to being her pal – an idyllic month of deep summer spent in the heart of Avadore Province on her estate of Hayvale. Hayvale, as estates go, is quite small – little more than a large farm, a small village, and lots of wooded hills. But the great house was old and imposing, her father, Allader Bedoux, the Baron Roudorn, a great but kindly, man, and her step-mother, Contraina, a pleasant down to earth woman who was also a most marvelous cook and the author of several highly regarded cook books. The Baron is a famed economist, a schoolmate and close friend of the Grand Duke of Avadore, Lord Brydane. He's as settled and serene as his daughter is (or at least, was) wild and untamed. She, I'm given to understand, was much like her mother at her age. She died in a riding accident when Ashra was twelve years old. Two years later the Baron married Contraina, who, even as the wife of a Baron, takes a hands-on approach to preparing the meals at Hayvale. To Ashra's great credit, and to everyone's surprise, she accepted her step-mother without a fuss. It may've been due to the fact that Cantraina was content to be the Baron's wife, and not his daughter's mother. Or it may've been her cooking…. In any event, each summer I'd spend a month roaming the countryside with Ashra, ridding, hiking, swimming, and touring the province on horse back. I also fell in love with her in Hayvale, adopting, for a time, the old masters' belief that her taste in companions was just a passing fancy, as it had seemed to be with her mother.
It took me two years to realize that wasn't the case. She made it clear that she had no more desire to make love to a boy than I had – she hoped. I guess it made sense, she was a boy at heart, and will likely always be a boy at heart – a boy, but never a man. Our friendship survived the crisis, but with no ties to bind us together once we finished our studies, we parted ways, I for the great continent of Sunset, to make my name digging in the ash and dirt for the rusty fragments of the Lost Ages, and she to a post in the Avadore Ministry of Trade. And though we have kept in touch over the years with long, but infrequent letters, it can not overlooked how far apart we've been these years. While I find that she's still as dear to me as she had been, I must wait to see how life had changed her – and me in her eyes.
Wayscross Rail Carriage Station and Hotel is a grey stone building, built in perpendicular style with five stacks of bowed out windows on either side of the wide entry arch rising four stories to dormers in the steep-pitched roof. The central entry arch leads to the glass roofed platforms, with a buffet and shops on the left, and the hotel dinning room on the right. It has a busy stone paved courtyard in front where passengers and goods are dropped off or picked up.
Arriving a bit early, I cautiously edged my runabout into the fringe of the busy courtyard – crowded with electric and horse-drawn cabs, delivery lorries, wagons and people, recklessly dodging the carts and cabs. A GH 4 is a light, low-slung vehicle, two wheels forward, one in back chain-driven by a voltaic-cell powered engine. From my low slung seat, I could look up and see the bellies of the draft horses staring down at me with suspicion, if not ill-concealed hostility. I took their warning to heart and declined to press my luck by pushing too deep into this throng.
I was greatly relieved when I spied Ash, impeccably dressed, emerge from shadows of the station arches. She was an elegant young man this afternoon – brown and white shoes, white twill trousers with a matching jacket, unbuttoned to show a bright yellow and blue stripped sweater over a pale blue shirt with a yellow silk scarf under the stand up collar around her neck. She had added a large pair of amber framed and tinted glasses to her look and finished it with a flat cap set at a rakish angle. Spying me, she picked her way though the throng, with a haughty look of disdain on her aristocratic face.
'Slide over, I'll drive,' she said as she reached the runabout.
'I can manage.'
'I'm sure you can. Still, I'll drive. We don't have all afternoon. Move.'
I could spend the rest of the afternoon arguing with her, and she's still end up driving, so I moved, sliding over to the passenger side of the narrow seat. She swung her leg over the low side panel of the runabout and as she slipped down into the seat, she drew the other one in. Taking the wheel in hand, she threw the runabout in reverse and twisting about started it moving decisively backwards. And with a few sharp warnings to unwary pedestrians, quickly extricated us from the courtyard and out into the stream of High Street traffic. I half turned in the cramped, or rather cozy seat, and took Ash in.
'You realize, my dear Ash,' I said as we drifted along in the mixed horse and electric traffic of the stone paved High Street. 'That if any of those people I'm supposed to avoid while in the company of Baroness Roudorn should happen to see me driving out with the foppish young man you're playing this afternoon, it will not do my reputation any more good than seeing you as you were this morning.'
'You're wrong. It will do you a great deal of good. Oh, I suppose that if some of your new bachelor scholar colleagues catch sight of you driving out with a bright young man like me they may be madly jealous. However, they'll get over it soon or later, and when they do, I'm sure you'll find them ever so nice and chummy.'
'They're not like that at all…'
'Ha! Wait and see… You'll be one of the old boys in no time.
'I don't want to be one of the old boys.'
'That's your choice. I'm just doing what I can to help you comfortably settle in to the cozy Wayscross academic society and make new friends.'
'You're not. You're merely having fun. At my expense. Hopefully no one will notice, and if they do, they won't recognize me.'
'They're noticing me,' she replied brightly, and flashed me one of her rare smiles. 'Where to?'
'Since you commandeered the wheel, so I guess it's your choice. You know the countryside as well as I.'
She considered our options as we left the busy High Street behind for the long, terrace house lined, tree shaded streets, of Wayscross's residential environs. 'The Angler's Rest?'
'Dinning in the garden along the Rhym sounds like just the ticket on a day like this. Plus it's far enough away that we're unlikely to run into anyone from the University on a weekday evening,' I added.
Five minutes later we put the row houses behind us and drove through hedge boarded cottages until even they grew thinner on the ground, leaving us only with the hedges. The white road stretched ahead of us, bordered by tall dark green hedges that hid the countryside beyond them from view, leaving us in a world of sunlit tree tops of distant woods, the pale blue sky, the bright white clouds, their flat bottoms silver grey as they sailed the sky, the purring of the wheels and the songs of the birds. On reaching the crest of a hill, we were rewarded with a brief glimpse of the next valley and the next hill beyond, hazy in the mild May sunlight and soft with distance. Occasionally the road would take us past or through the cool shadows of a woods, fresh with new leaves. Behind us, we left a thin cloud of white concrete and chalk dust – the main roads of Camalea are paved with concrete gravel excavated from dead cities – the ground up bones of the Lost Ages.
'How fast does your new toy go?' she asked, accelerated to answer her own question.
'They say it has a top speed of 30 to 35 miles per hour. But unless you want to walk home from The Angler's Rest tonight, you'd best keep it at 20.'
'Not much better than walking…'
'A great deal better than walking. You can put 200 miles on without charging, if you keep it at 20. And it will get you home.'
'The Angler's Rest isn't more than 25 miles…'
'Are you in such a great hurry to eat, my dear?' I asked, staring at the road ahead as the hedges started flashing by with rather alarming rapidity. I'd traveled this fast before, on the carriageline of course, and in bigger, more substantial vehicles of the Baron's as well – with Ash at the wheel. We hadn't ended up dead in a ditch. But it had always seemed rather touch and go. More touch and go than I'd prefer. It still did.
She sighed and slowed down – after having shoved the accelerator pedal to the floor board. As we drifted down to 20, she asked, 'Now tell me about your great find. The one you alluded to in your last letter from Sunset. Reading between the lines it sounded like you'd found an Iron Giant or a King's Relic, or even, working wizard's talisman? It has be one of those, given your great reluctance to say anything more than tantalizing hints about it.'
'Well, I didn't want to say too much until we had secured it. In the wilds of Sunset, you can't be sure what your rivals will do for a possibly intact First Age relic.'
'That's what you found?'
'Ash, this must stay strictly between us. Even though the relic is here in the Institute’s Wayscross warehouse, we don't want word to get out.. You know how it is. Find something too important and certain people get interested….'
'Like the King.'
'Like the King. Right now, it certainly doesn't meet the King's Find criteria. But it's hard to defy the King if he or his agents should take an interest in it, so it's better to keep things quiet for now.'
'We're all the King's men,' she said sarcastically.
'Right. And it will be his if it is his by right,' I replied. The kings of the 19 Provence of Andareia have laid claim to any working Lost Age relic or magical device that should be uncovered. It is extremely unlikely than any such relics or devices exist, since the First Age, known in myths and folklore as the Age of Iron Gods lies some 40,000 years in the past and the Second Age, the Age of Iron Wizards, lies more than 35,000 years in the past. I've spent more than a decade studying the science of arcaneology, and for the last seven years overseeing arcaneology digs on First and Second Age sites in Sunset, and so can say with a fair amount of certainly that finding anything more than crumpled, corroded metal amongst rubble fields of concrete or patters of rust and impressions of decayed components in the ash is an extremely rare occurrence. That I chanced upon one artifact that may be at least partially intact, was the break of a lifetime, my ticket to, if not fame, notoriety within the arcaneolgist community.
'So what is it you've found that you are hiding from the King?' she asked with a sidelong glance. 'You secret is safe with me.'
'I don't know. And may never know. But what makes it so special is that the vast majority of First Age finds, the metal appears to be largely free of corrosion. Rather than trying to reconstruct an artifact from the patters and layers of rust in the ash, we may have the artifact complete. And, if the metal enclosures are intact, we may be able to study the so-called talismanic parts of a First Age relic.'
'How can you be sure it's not just some Third Age machine? If it is intact, that would seem to be the most likely explanation.'
I shook my head, 'No, it is embedded deep in Fist Age ash. I suspect that it has been buried under the glaciers, frozen in permafrost these many eons, to have preserved it so well.'
The Third Age peaked a mere 2,000 years ago, and we are still living in its embers. There are those who claim that Andareia is the beginning of the Fourth Age, but in reality, we are, at best, Third Age point five, or the Northern Third Age. The Third Age was a southern and eastern continent phenomena, and what is not Andareia was an agricultural colony of the vast Sumbarain Empire, one of the great powers of the Third Age. The Sumbarian Empire has long since decayed into dozens of small, sleepy, agricultural based, nations, like Sumbara itself, much of its Third Age scientific and industrial wonders lost.
'So how did you come across it?'