August 25th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Teno
Rose and the rest of the captives had been, for the most part, well-treated. Food was rationed and words were sharp. There were some people who’d been wounded, but they’d been promptly treated. Everyone had been hustled about a lot at the start. Fred had gone missing long enough for her to worry, but not long after their packs had been returned—seemingly not tampered with—Fred had arrived, his head wrapped in a bandage, at the line of tents set up by the mine fields for the Eastasian army’s “guests.”
So she could hope, she finally concluded, that things weren’t so bad as they seemed, and it seemed that she was right.
“There are conventions,” she told Jill. They shared one of the small tents, next door to Fred and Pastor. There was little security. Anyone who wished to take to the desert was only wished good luck in turn. Rose was digging a comb from her pack. “I guess they follow the rules, so they won’t hurt us.”
“Look what they did to the Tenoans,” Jill argued. She’d been pacing, slightly crouched due to a low ceiling, already dressed. “And what now? What good is ‘go west’ now? We went and we’re here.”
“Just as an army is invading that we knew nothing about,” Rose agreed. “At Glitterford.”
Jill stopped pacing and stared at her. “You think this is what you were heading out for? That voice or dream or whatever it was?”
Rose didn’t commit to an optimistic answer, but said, “The darkness is afraid of it. Pastor said so.”
“Well, if he said so.” Jill was glib when she was nervous. Even so, she let her worry drop down a notch and started talking about how difficult it would be to learn Eastron.
Rose let her go on about it with a small smile at the familiarity of her friend’s habits. She listened with half an ear and with the rest of her thoughts tried to think how any of this would stop the Slight Twice King. Was it a snag in the plan, or something helpful? Another thought rose in her mind: Were there others like her who had followed a dream? Was this drive something greater than desperation or hope? Could it be nature itself, rebelling against this fairy tale hell the King had built?
Rose kept these thoughts to herself, not trusting to hope too much. They were all walking in the dark now, in some way or another.
Meanwhile, Fred’s reaction to the whole ordeal was the opposite of Jill’s (and she gave him venom for it). He walked around the camp as much as he was allowed, at first taking Pastor with him to help him measure the place out as he needed to get around. Pastor was not threatening and Fred’s honesty was endearing and so they soon made a kind of name for themselves and gained favor with their captors. Fred was soon moving easily amid even the soldiers at times. He asked to learn words in Eastron, laughing when he sensed he was being duped into saying or eating strange things. He managed to introduce Rose and Jill to a few people. He tried to coax the other captives from their tents, but Rose was surprised to see how determined they all were to sit and be silent.
“It’s just a matter of time before they start torturing us,” one woman said. “You can never trust an Eastasian. They have no emotions.”
Jill prayed more often these days. She’d pulled out her small psalter for the first time in weeks and studied her runic psalms in the morning and evening, humming at times to herself. Rose understood that her friend put herself in mind of eternity because the finite world was too much to bear at times. It did her a great deal of good, though a downside was her focus on the here and now faded in importance. Rose let her alone and spent more time with Pastor, though, hoping she’d see her best friend more herself as the fears of Carlotta faded behind them.
Pastor had lost his staff in the attack. With only two hands and the choice of keeping it, their supplies and Rose, he’d decided accordingly. The soldiers had been kind to him and someone, finding Rose searching a pile of sticks with him one evening, fetched him an old cane. It was straight and had a grip at the top and a strap for his wrist. The wood was carved into a spiral below the top, making it pliant and easier to keep a hold on. He tapped it carefully as he went, but when he and Rose walked together, he let the cane hang and held her arm instead. After a few days, this arrangement seemed to draw smiles from some of the women watching from the commissary tents. That it was easy for her to fake a smile in return for them bothered her.
“It can’t end this way,” she said one night, half against the worry she was growing complacent.
“You’re sure?” Pastor asked.
“The drive’s still there.”
“The darkness is at the border now,” Pastor told her. “It was further off before.”
Rose looked up from a thoughtful inspection of her fingers in surprise. “Do you think it’s me?” she asked. He’d mentioned some hint to that effect.
“I thought it was bad before now,” he worried in reply. “I wish I knew what it was following for.”
It was near sunset, so Jill had evening prayers. In a beat of silence, they could faintly hear her singing.
Rose turned her coin in her hands, watching the light of the hanging lamp glint on the profile on one side and the seal on the back. Which president was it again? Or was it one of those historical person’s coins? Her grandfather had never said.
“That woman, back in Broken Arch,” she began, “at the temple…”
Pastor sensed the change in subject and turned his head habitually, though of course there was nothing to see.
“She said something…”
There was a call from outside the door.
Rose recognized the voice of Pinyin Liu, the man who had interviewed the captives. Most speakers of Westron called the man Henry.
“Yes?” she said reluctantly.
“May I come in? Or could you come out?”
Rose deliberated. Henry had asked her and her friends a great deal about the Western Fair Folk at their interview, but it was unusual to hear him among the tents.
“Just a moment, thank you,” she said.
She ducked out of the tent and behind her Pastor picked up his cane. He stopped at the entrance to listen. Rose was surprised to see Henry standing in the narrow lane between the tents, backed by two soldiers with expressions and stances fixed at attention. Not only was this visit uncommon, it seemed very official.
“Sorry it’s so late,” said the interpreter, as if the escort weren’t there, “but your other friend, he said you were in here.”
“There’s someone here, asking for you.”
The general’s tent was not lavishly decorated. It had only spartan furnishings, and even the mirror that stood in one corner, perhaps for dressing and shaving, was a thin, cheap thing, frameless and chipped at the edge.
Farthing let his charms dance silently around him as Henry passed his and the general’s guard at the entrance. It didn’t matter, he reminded himself, that the translator knew “what” he was. Farthing’s aura was not the perfume or blood-tinged haze of his peers. It was simply surety, the sense that things were working out, though the human mind could not quite grasp how. Such an aura could work wonders in a chaotic place because it subtly made nothing feel dire. People liked to feel things would be alright because someone who was not them had their head on straight
“So where is this mystery girl?” he asked. “And the general, he said he’d return…?” He let the unspoken question hang politely.
“I’m afraid I have to apologize, Mista Fahding,” said Henry in his precise, accented Westron. He passed him as he entered, moving to the small table in the corner with unhurried steps.
Farthing turned around to follow his path, narrowing his eyes in what he hoped was a practiced expression of mild offense. “For what?” he asked, wondering why the man did not look at him.
“It seems that the general considers the hostages too valuable to hand over to your president,” Henry answered.
Farthing straightened his shoulders. “I’m sure we can come to an arrangement,” he said diplomatically.
“There are one hundred and three prisoners in this camp,” Henry said. He continued to let his eyes look elsewhere. On the table sat an empty metal cup with a stem, and nearby it stood a water pitcher. Henry picked up the cup and turned it in his hands as if in thought. “Day laborers, tradesmen, even government employees, such as engineers and clerical workers.”
“Yes?” Farthing said, wishing he’d get to the point, but easily hiding his impatience. There was a kind of waiting only a mountain could have, he knew, because a mountain would live forever and a mortal man had only his lifetime to beat at its stone, wishing to pass.
“It seems strange to the general,” Henry went on, “that of all the prisoners we have here your king has sent you to bring back only four young people, all with no careers to their name, not even goals for university or trade school. Four people, taking a post-graduation trip as many graduates do.”
“That is their story,” said Farthing easily. “The native-born terrorists start them young. They give them the religious upbringing that uses their youthful recklessness to their best advantage. The blind man, for example, we knew his mother to be a particularly loud fanatic on social media and at town events.”
“You do know that she’s dead?” Henry asked. He spun the cup in the air a moment with a light little toss. “I thought it was a very sad story when I heard it.”
Farthing didn’t bother thinking on the records they’d found. He only thought of mountains again, because it was very irritating how this interpreter, alone in his senior’s tent, was going about toying with the man’s things and—besides that, ignoring Farthing.
“So you identify all fanatics equally in your country?” Henry asked curiously, when the diplomat did not answer.
“Of course not. Like any citizen, it’s a matter of loyalty,” said Farthing expertly. “One man’s fanatic is another man’s vigilante for hire when political hands must remain clean. We let them come and go as they please if they destabilize our trouble spots.” He rubbed his hands uncomfortably on the side of his trousers with a sudden, inexplicable shudder. “Why waste pent up energy on something as expensive as education or mental health services?”
Henry set the cup back on the table, but did not release its rim. He seemed lost in a thought for a moment. “So these young people, they have some sort of knowledge or plan the Slight Twice King is afraid of?”
“They are part of a dangerous sect and must be made examples of,” Farthing answered readily. “They could do the same to your government if you buy their act. They’re anarchists, lawbreakers.”
“General Gao thought they seemed more like desperate optimists to tell the truth,” said Henry. He hefted the cup again and took a few steps towards the mirror. “On that note, what do you think of our general?”
Farthing blinked in surprise. Was this some kind of ploy, he wondered? This “Henry” was being very casual in the absence of his superior so suddenly. Farthing felt a sudden twinge of hope. Perhaps this meeting was an unscheduled one. Perhaps the interpreter had come around to see things his way and that stoic general need not be involved…
Even so, he had to play cautiously.
“I’m not sure that question is one a diplomat should answer,” Farthing countered.
“We can all respect each other here,” said Henry. “He takes after his mother in appearance, but after his father when it comes to winning loyalty with his stories of a better world. I would think you’d see the resemblance even after a short meeting.”
“To whom?” Farthing asked, and wondered if this was a cue.
Henry stared into the mirror. Farthing warily did as well.
It was unnerving, being in a room where no one looked at you when you wanted to be looked at. It made it hard to think, really, hard to remember which mask you were supposed to wear. Farthing was irresistibly drawn to mirrors in times like these, and he didn’t like it. It was an instinct, compulsion even. If you weren’t careful, you’d be caught like a moth drawn to flame.
“Your escorts are only human?” Henry inquired.
“Of course,” said Farthing. “There are too few of us now.”
“I heard something to that effect in Eurasia when I studied abroad,” said Henry, already replying to his first remark. “Your court was missing someone too.”
Farthing frowned. ”You are human?” he asked, for the first time wondering. He would have known, wouldn’t he? You learned to see each other, to know the masks….
“Of course,” said Henry with a nod. He stepped out of the way of the mirror, still turning the cup. Farthing almost didn’t notice. His eyes lingered on the small crack in the mirror stretching from where its edge had been chipped. Farthing rubbed his hands together anxiously, caught himself doing so, and stopped.
“The general knows about the missing Fair Lord, Mr. Flask,” Henry explained. “Mr. Flask taught him something very useful.”
Farthing felt himself stand up straighter. “The President will be surprised to hear he’s still alive,” he said, forcing a bright tone against his misgivings. “What has he been up to?”
“You say ‘alive’?” Henry noted.
“Well,” said Farthing reluctantly. “We thought otherwise.”
“If these four strangers have intelligence we might find valuable, you will need more than diplomacy to get them from us,” Henry explained. “But as for what the general learned from your friend, he’s told me all of it. I found it interesting. I enjoy studying Westron literature.”
“Oh?” asked Farthing, now somewhat distracted.
“There’s a certain phrase that makes much more sense in the language you’ve chosen, rather than ours.”
Henry flicked a finger at the metal cup. It rang like a fine bell.
“Mirror, mirror on the wall…,” he intoned with it, solemnly.
Farthing felt a chill shoot up his spine. Without meaning to, he found his eyes drawn, once again, to the mirror hanging beside Henry, and, within the mirror, his wide-eyed reflection.
“…who’s the fairest one of all?”
Farthing suddenly shuddered from head to toe. He thought he might fall over in shock, but he could not move.
Staring back at him in the mirror now was something… empty. It had no eyes, just holes through to the back of the room behind it. Its clothes were rags, threadbare, chewed at by creeping things with too many legs or none at all. What passed for skin flaked and tore with every worried twitch. Its color was paler than white wood ash…
“Mr. Flask, you see,” Henry explained, fixing his grip on the stem of the cup, “is General Gao’s father.”
Farthing could think of nothing to say, his eyes fixed on the hollow visage of his true self, a wizen shadow of a creature, fading without observation, hardly solid enough to even be called a corpse. Farthing felt his hands clawing—in the mirror they looked like talons—as he reached them up to touch his face, to disprove his own recognition.
Henry said, “Goodbye, Mr. Farthing.”
And smashed the cup against the glass, shattering mirror and Fair Lord both.
Rose felt her focus tighten. She caught sight of her own reflection in the television screen as the feed continued to stream from the general’s own tent into the surveillance center, a larger tent across the camp, where men and women at monitors in headsets kept eyes in the air and on the ground through planted cameras and airborne drones. The chatter was at a minimum so late at night, which gave her a murmur of quietude to think through, as what she’d seen finally sank in.
“Anyone can use the invocation with any breakable mirror,” Gao was saying in his clipped but clear Westron, “but the Fair King or Lord must see himself, and for that he must lose sight of his own illusion.”
Rose stared as Pinyin Liu took up a dustpan. Unhurried, he saw to the shards of glass and the spill of ancient dust of what had once been someone. Rose didn’t answer. Instead, she stayed acutely aware of a prodding at her mind: The subtle, unshakable charisma of this general, a gift from his immortal father, made her want to stand up straight, be strong, act like seeing someone die in front of her was something she was used to as much as he was, though this would only be the third time for her.
Everyone in this tent, she thought, this whole base, possibly the entire Eastron military, must be feeling this way, and he’s not even trying.
Who was this Fair Lord Flask, that he had raised such a son?
Just behind her, Pastor had been watching something on the screen too. He spoke up, interrupting her wary thoughts.
“They’re… withered,” he whispered.
Gao turned to meet the sockets of his eyes without flinching.
“Some are,” Gao corrected, “especially those of the West.”
“Why?” asked Rose.
Gao considered this, then explained slowly, “Think of it this way: They might starve a man who is caught up in thrall, because that man believes he is eating a great feast; or they might kill a man the same way, because the man believes he is being cut to pieces. A people without hunger or pain cannot enjoy satisfaction or pleasure either, not the way a human can. They neglect their own sustenance when they’re lured by their love of mortal rarities.”
“Then why make us suffer in reality?” Rose asked. “Mr. Spade doesn’t make people think they’re dying. He kills them.”
“Your friend knows.” Gao looked past Rose again, at Pastor. Something in his dark eyes had changed. Rose turned because of that look.
“They’re addicts,” Pastor said. There was something old about his voice, deep and warm and secret like dark fire.
She was watching, Rose realized, and felt her breath catch in her throat. She shut her eyes a moment to calm herself. It didn’t feel right, with the general there, to stare like she wanted to.
Tori went on: “So many mortals, all affected by them, depending on them, they feel more real—Being real itself is the idea that’s really alluring to them, isn’t it, General?”
“It is,” said Gao, with a nod that was almost a bow. “Is it the same for you?”
“No, because I am real,” said Tori patiently, and the stones might had crumbled from their lack of confidence, in light of her surety. She went on, “Eventually, illusions just weren’t enough. They had to get involved.”
“Begging your pardon, milady,” said Gao with a nod.
“But they’re not real—it’s all a mask,” Rose said, startled by his easy acceptance.
Tori nodded. “And, like any addict, it takes more and more to get the same high, and the consequences start to matter less and less than the feelings.”
Gao studied the blind teenager while the low chatter of the surveillance tent pecked the air around them. At last, he dropped his voice to a murmur and said, only loud enough for them to hear, “My father did well to send out that dream. Of all the ones who could have answered, I think you two are a kind likely to succeed.”
It seemed to Rose unwise to ask if the ultimate goal of this help was war, or how much his people knew about the secret of President Kennick. “You think we can do it?” she asked instead.
“I hope you can,” Gao said. “It’s why my people will be willing to help you enter your country again when I ask them, though it’s best you continue as you have on your own.”
In case someone comes here to replace us? Rose wondered, but, again, knew better than to ask.
Pastor bowed his head, shook it once, and leaned more heavily on his cane. Rose fought the urge to reach for him. This was hardly a private place for such a gesture.
“What about Fred? Jill?” Pastor asked.
“You are more likely to succeed if you aren’t alone,” Gao said. Rose sensed the cold calculation of a military mind in this answer. She didn’t like it but, again, it seemed foolish to voice such dissent. “You have a few hours to rest, but come midnight we’ll send the four of you northward.”
Rose hesitated. It sounded like a dismissal. “Who else answered?” she dared, wondering at their value to the son of an immortal.
“No one,” Gao answered, and Rose hoped he couldn’t lie, so she could feel some relief.
“Then we’re alone,” said Pastor quietly, and proved there’d be no relief either way.