Chapter 2, Part B

(C) Copyright Brian Gottheil, 2014

A crowd was forming as they emerged onto the front steps of the temple. It was small, only a dozen people, but they began shouting as soon as they glimpsed her. “It is her,” one said, and another added angrily, “The sorceress.”

Caryn was suddenly nervous, and she struggled to hide the shallowness of her breathing. Hans pushed in front of her. “Make way for the foreign minister,” he shouted.

“Piss on the sorceress,” a man in the crowd shouted back. There was grumbling, and Lana gripped Caryn’s arm.

Hans moved his hand to his rifle, subtly, a warning. Some of the townsfolk drew back. Others stood their ground. Caryn took a deep breath. Jayla would know what to say now, she thought. Jayla had a way of defusing tension, of smoothing things over, but Caryn was lost. You’re supposed to grow wiser as you get older, she thought, so why did it seem like her younger self had so many more answers than she did?

“Sorceress?” She tried to sound amiable, nonchalant. “There’s no need for that. I’m happy to talk about whatever’s troubling you.”

“And hoodwink us too,” a man said, “like you did to get this job.”

“If we had someone strong in the Foreign Ministry, there wouldn’t be a war going on two leagues from Hermannsburg,” another added with venom.

Hans had had enough. He grasped his rifle in both hands and pushed forward, the others following behind him. One look at his eyes was enough to part the townsfolk. They were almost clear when the first man shouted again.

“She’s a Steffian,” he spat.

Caryn froze, and blood rushed to her head. Hans, Lana and Janusz pushed on, but a madness took her, and she turned to face her accuser. “Excuse me?”

“Nobody ever sees you in a temple,” the man said, moving closer. “When you’re there, you don’t pray. And you use sorcery. I call you a Steffian.”

There were angry murmurs around him. Turn around and run, Caryn told herself, yet she did not. Instead she took a step toward him until his face was inches from her own. “We may not agree on much,” she told him, “but we agree on this. I hate cowards who hide in shadows and hatch secret plots to murder innocent people.” Who threaten to murder me. Who kill women in the Fringes for displeasing their fathers. “I may be many things, but I am not one of them.”

“And what if I say you are?” the man said, reaching for her —

— and he shouted and fell handily to the ground as Janusz’s shoulder drove into him. Janusz’s hand closed around hers, strong but strangely gentle. He looked at her, a look that held neither friendship nor enmity, just puzzlement. They took off down the street, and Hans fired a round into the air to dissuade the townsfolk from following.

The train had moved far beyond Hermannsburg before any of them felt ready to speak, but at last Caryn broke the silence. Some of Jayla had come back to her, and she wanted to conciliate, to make peace. It would not be easy. Lana still looked terrified, and Janusz sat sullenly, glancing sideways at her with a look she could not read. She focused her gaze at his hands, to avoid seeing his face.

“I apologize for my madness,” she said softly. “The stress of these times is affecting all of us. We will only get through if we stick together. If we trust each other.”

Lana closed her eyes, and Marwin nodded gravely. Janusz’s expression did not change, but he turned to look at her. “I certainly trust everybody here,” he said in a tone that suggested otherwise, “but in this spirit of openness, my lady, is our mission here truly just to inspect a military fort? Something that, meaning no offence, none of us are qualified to do?”

“That’s it, Janusz. It puzzles me too.” Caryn sighed. “You probably ought to know that there has been a theory circulating around Tomasburg recently. It says that we’re fighting the war because the generals provoked it, so the military —”

“Can’t be trusted?” Marwin said, shocked. “That’s treason! They should hang whoever’s saying that!”

Even the president? Caryn wanted to ask. She was exhausted. “Why do you think we’re fighting, Marwin?”

“To liberate Amim from Wassia,” Marwin said at once. “Wassia has been occupying Amim for centuries, and squeezing them tighter and tighter. Wresting away control of the Canal was meant to bury the Amimi independence movements. Somebody needed to do something.”

Caryn held back a laugh. Their propaganda was working on somebody, at least. That was comforting. “Why Brealand, then?” she asked.

“Well, they declared on us,” Marwin said. “We don’t want to fight them, but —”

“Why did they declare?” Caryn pressed. “Do we have any resources they need?”

“Not really, with their island colonies.”

“Any defensive positions?”

“No,” Marwin said. “The Gateway protects them as much as us, and the west will just be a salient.”

“So why?”

Marwin struggled for a few moments. “Look, they don’t believe in the Gods. Or in any gods. How are we supposed to understand anything they do?”

That was predictable, Caryn supposed. “What do you think, Lana? Why did Brealand enter the war?”

Lana’s eyes flung open and surprise spread across her face. She looked around as though Caryn might have intended the question for another Lana sitting behind her. Finally, she said, “My lady, you always say, about the cultural differences, Brealand needing the great powers strong to counterbalance us.”

“I know what I always say,” Caryn said. “What’s your opinion?”

Lana hesitated again. “I — I suppose you’re probably right, my lady,” she managed, and started fanning herself more vigorously.

Caryn decided not to press the point further. She leaned back in her seat, and Lana did the same. Marwin, sensing that the conversation was over, turned toward the window.

Janusz was still looking at Caryn with an expression she couldn’t read. It wasn’t exactly respectful, but it seemed genuinely curious. Caryn looked from his hands to his eyes, and then his chest. He was a year or two older than she was, but Caryn was painfully aware that after her time in the Well, she looked as though she could be his mother.

“Well, you’re the one I haven’t asked yet,” she said, in what she hoped was a light tone. “Why are we fighting this war, Janusz?”

He paused, thought. “I think Marwin’s stumbled on the answer in spite of himself,” he replied. “Religion.”

“Religion?”

“Look at who our enemies are,” Janusz shrugged. “Wassia. The New Empire. Now Brealand, for Lessandro’s sake. You have to admit, my lady, there are some strange parallels to the ancient wars. Wassia against the Old Empire, the Raolin religion against the Five, sorcerers stationed in their Wells —”

“Sorcerers?” He was testing her. Probing her. But for what? “The Old Empire used magic to learn prophecies, I’ll grant you that, even if we call it power or energy instead of magic these days. Rumour even has it that the prophecies never failed to come true. But the old wars were fought with swords and shields, pikes and arrows. There weren’t any Wells on the front lines —”

And a wave of panic rushed over Caryn, suddenly and out of nowhere. She gripped the armrest of her seat, hoping that Janusz hadn’t noticed. The angry crowd in Hermannsburg had frightened her more than she realized, the sorcery rumours, the witch hunt — but that wasn’t it. No, it was something more sinister. It was the full force of the past rushing up to meet her.

There was a Well on the front line between Deugan and Brealand. Just east of the Fort, scarcely within Deugan’s borders, stood the Gateway Well. For the first time in fourteen years, Jayla was returning to a place that had changed her life forever.

But that was a different Well, Caryn reminded herself, in a different country and a different time, and the Gateway Well was separate from the fort besides. This mission wouldn’t even require her to go near it.

Having named the source of her panic, she found that it quickly subsided. She gave Janusz a smile. “The Old Empire’s sorcery was nothing more than politics, I think. There was no substance to it. But politics is everything. As long as there is political gain in it, sorcery will never die.”

 

***

Next chapter: Chapter 3, Part A

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