The Sunlit Man | Chapter Eight
Old women? That wasn’t as exciting as he’d hoped. But, hey, maybe one was secretly a dragon.
Nomad could tell from the behavior of the others that these women were in charge, though they weren’t wearing anything regal—just common black dresses, gloves like everyone else, and hats, even here indoors. The heavyset one was pale skinned, while the other two were of a more familiar, darker skin tone.
The three ladies sat at a table, taking a report from a burly man with dark brown eyes and a black beard that could have hosted a fine topiary, if it had been trimmed. Nomad had a cousin back home that looked a lot like the fellow. He had a blast mark on one arm, the jacket there burnt, exposing the glancing wound. Another member of the raiding party.
“Confidence,” Rebeke said to the first and tallest of the women. She had blue eyes. “Compassion.” This was the shortest of them, and the frailest in appearance, with light brown eyes. “Contemplation.” This was the woman of wider girth, the one with pale skin but black hair—obviously dyed—curled up on top of her head. Her grey-green eyes matched the shawl she wore. “I have recovered my sister,” Rebeke continued after a nod of respect to each of the three.
“So we’ve been informed,” Contemplation said, rubbing her chin. “I believe you were told not to be so brash.”
“And you lost your brother,” Confidence said. “One sibling sacrificed for the rescue of another?”
“We couldn’t—” Rebeke started, but the short woman they called Compassion had risen. Walking unsteadily, she stumbled over and grabbed Rebeke in a hug.
Rebeke lowered her head, stray locks of hair falling around her face, and held on.
The room fell silent. It was probably heartwarming or something. Nomad was more interested in the kettle of tea on the table. He grabbed a chair and pulled it over, then got himself a drink. He dripped water on the floor from his sodden clothing as he did so.
The tea was cold. But otherwise not bad. A little too sweet, maybe.
Everyone in the room stared at him. So he leaned back and put his boots up on the table.
The fellow with the beard pushed them off. “What type of person is this, with such terrible manners?” he demanded.
The man trailed off as Nomad stood. Again, though considered a short man in his homeland, here he had a good half a foot on anyone in the room. With his clothing ripped, they undoubtedly could see his muscles—earned, not simply a result of his Invested status.
The bearded man looked him over, then backed off, letting Nomad settle down again. He pointedly put his feet back up on the table, rattling the teacups of the three older women.
“Before we sent Thomos to the healers,” Zeal said, pulling over his own chair, “he muttered something deliriously. That he’d seen this man touch the sunlight and live.”
Thomos had seen that, had he? Nomad had almost forgotten his moment of feeling the sunlight before being yanked out of it. Perhaps the prisoners had been forced to watch the executions. Nomad’s opinion of Glowing Eyes went down even further. That was an act of distinct cruelty.
“Sunlit,” Contemplation said. “A Sunlit Man.”
“If it pleases the Greater Good, I disagree,” Rebeke said, taking her own seat at the increasingly crowded table. “Accept this observation: if he were a Sunlit One, he’d be helping us, not acting like … this.”
“He speaks gibberish,” Zeal said. “Like a baby not yet weaned.”
“Does he now?” Contemplation said. “Curious, curious …”
“If it pleases you, I thought perchance you’d be able to say what manner of man he was,” Rebeke said. “And honestly … he insistently followed us in here. We’d probably have to freeze him to get him to leave.”
“Maybe he’s a killer!” the bearded man said, leaning forward. “Our own killer! Did you see how he glared at me?”
That … was not how Nomad had expected this man to respond. The fellow was smiling, eager.
Rebeke shook her head at the bearded man. “If he were a killer, I think I’d know it, Jeffrey Jeffrey.”
Jeffrey Jeffrey? Nomad liked that one too. “Hey, Aux,” he said in Alethi. “What do you …”
Oh wait. Right. Auxiliary wasn’t around.
Everyone stared at him.
“Such odd words,” Compassion said. “I offer this thought: do you suppose he’s from a far northern corridor? They speak in ways that, on occasion, make a woman need to concentrate to understand.”
“If it pleases you to be disagreed with, Compassion,” Contemplation said, “I don’t think this is a mere accent. No, not at all. Regardless, there are more pressing matters. Zeal, may I be granted the blessing of seeing the object your team recovered?”
The short man reached into his pocket and withdrew something wrapped in a handkerchief. Outside, the wind was rising, the rain drumming more furiously on the metal ceiling and walls. The tapping on the ceiling was like nervous fingers on a bell, demanding service. All of them ignored that, however, as Zeal unwrapped a metal disc almost as wide as a man’s palm, with an odd symbol on the front. One that Nomad could read, but which he absolutely hadn’t expected to find on this planet. Storms.
What were Scadrians doing here?
“It’s real …” Contemplation said, resting her fingers on it, feeling the grooves in the metal.
“If it is not offensive,” Confidence said, “let me speak with bluntness. Do we know this is real?” The tall, elderly woman took the disc. “It could be a replica. Or the legends could be false.”
“If it is not too bold of me to say,” Zeal replied, “I offer dissent. It would not be fake. Why would the Cinder King have cause to think anyone would steal it? Few even know about his pet project.”
“This was my sister’s plan,” Rebeke said. “This is our way to freedom. Our only way. Zeal … you did it!”
Curious. Nomad was piecing things together. This hadn’t simply been a rescue operation—indeed, the rescue might have been intended to cover up a more interesting heist: the theft of this item, which he knew for a fact to be a Scadrian authorization key. Plastic key cards were, of course, eschewed by them. They had a fetish for metal.
This disc would open a door somewhere. And the people at the table seemed to know it, even if they didn’t understand completely what they were doing.
“But can we operate it?” Compassion asked. “Can we find our way in, past the ancient barrier?”
“We don’t even know if the legends are true,” Confidence said. “Yes, perhaps the Cinder King believes them. But I offer this contrast: what proof is there that these mythical lands beneath the ground exist? A place untouched by the sun? I speak with firm conviction: I will not lead this people in confidence without evidence.”
“Sometimes,” Contemplation said, “no evidence can be found. I offer that, for a time, we must move by faith alone. Elegy—our appointed Lodestar—believed. She is the one the Greater Good trusted to guide our way in the darkness. This was her goal; that is enough for me.”
“I find that offering difficult and strange from your tongue, Contemplation,” Confidence said. “What of your calling, science and reason?”
Contemplation took the disc and held it reverently, her face—though aged—marked with lines of joy, her eyes dancing and aglow with the fire of new knowledge. Her dyed black hair might have been seen by some as vanity, but Nomad recognized it as a token of self-possession. She knew how she liked to look. And she didn’t care that others knew it was artificial. In expressing herself, the artificial became more authentic than the original.
“Even in science,” Contemplation said, “faith plays a role. Each experiment done, each step on the path of knowledge, is achieved by striking out into the darkness. You can’t know what you will find, or that you will find anything at all. It is faith that drives us—faith in answers that must exist.”
She looked to the others in the room, skipping Nomad, but including Rebeke, Zeal, and Jeffrey Jeffrey. The respect she showed them proved that the leaders were not uniquely important in this society; everyone mattered.
“It is a wild hope, these stories of a land untouched by the sun,” Contemplation admitted. “But we must ask ourselves. How long will we survive in this darkness? Elegy was right to move us here, but it was an act of desperation. And even now, our people wilt. We cannot grow food. We lose more ships and laborers every time we venture into the dawnlands.
“I offer this grim truth: we will die out here. Yet undoubtedly if we return to our previous corridor, we will be consumed by the Cinder King. We haven’t the knowledge of warfare and killing to fight him; we have not been graced with such brutal and carnal instincts.
“I offer a further grim insight: he will never again be taken by surprise as he was today. His killers will stand alert, prepared in wisdom against further hostility. The Cinder King will ne’er again allow a clever hack of their bracers, and his people will ne’er again let themselves become so distracted by their games that they slacken their guard.
“Today was our greatest victory as the people of Beacon. But I offer, in contrast to that peak, that today is the day we begin to fade. Without a solution, we will die. And so I ask: Confidence, is a little faith—a little time spent chasing a legendary reward—not worth the chance that we can avoid our fate?” She turned the disc over. “We trusted Elegy to get us here. We should trust her again and find this Refuge.”
“We should, by duty of our current accomplishments, test this key,” Compassion said. “And Zeal’s team should be commended for their willingness to steal it for us.”
“I offer this reminder:” Confidence warned, “the Cinder King will chase us for that token.”
“If it pleases you to be contradicted,” Compassion said softly, “he would chase us anyway. He desires greatly to destroy us. And that sense of purpose will have been bolstered by today’s events. He must destroy us now, lest more of his people question how far his authority extends.”
Nomad listened with interest to the exchange. Yes, they understood what that key was. But they didn’t know the truth of what they’d find by using it. He was confident that even if they did open a door somewhere with the key … it would not give them some mythical “refuge.” That was a modern device, borne by Scadrian surveyors, to let them be located and give them authorization to return to one of their small, exploratory starships.
The conversation moved on as the winds raged even harder, rocking the city. They mentioned a “great maelstrom,” which he understood as a storm, not unlike a highstorm, that followed the sun at dusk. So he’d guessed right—this cloud cover was the aftermath of sunset, and right at sunset was some kind of terrible storm.
He imagined the place as a planet with five phases. First: the lands he’d passed, where reflected sunlight grew plants. Second: the constant cloud cover, where rain was scattered. Third: the maelstrom at sunset, where sunlight vanished, leaving a cyclone born of pressure and humidity changes. Fourth: the superheated landscape where the sun reigned. Finally dawn, where men and women were left to die.
How odd to have found a land where instead of being chased by a storm, the people snuck up on its tail and hid within the edges of its cloak.
Regardless, Nomad’s earlier rudeness—his barbarity in shoving his way into this room—suddenly seemed shameful. Yes, he had moved on from the man he’d once been, overly concerned with propriety and order. He knew that, like a teen leaving home for the first time, he often went too far in trying to prove himself. He still rebelled against the man he’d been and, in his selfishness, had become a man who could blunder about like a blind chull.
Nomad moved his boots off the table, feeling a loathing for himself that—remarkably—even he couldn’t blame on his circumstances. Not this time. He stood up and—surprising the people in the room—strode to the door and pushed his way out. Through the hallway, through the lightlock.
Into the storm.