Friday, October 22, 2021

Old Friends

So, for the purposes of this week's story, dear reader, Friday is Thursday? Apologies, but the days got lost for me this week. Still, here we are on the back side of October and we have reached the end of what I think I'll call Teacher's Secret.

Please enjoy this tale of recovery and dark paths and, most of all...

Old Friends - a short story by M. K. Dreysen

Mel and Greg met two, sometimes three times a week. Lunch, dinner with the families, coffee. They'd held themselves together as friends, somehow. Even as all their other friends had blown town and never looked back.

School, the big city jobs and then they'd both found their way back here. They carried a lot more time and adventures than any of their parents had ever believed possible.

Even with Veronica and Ed Grange and what had happened.

So when Mel had called, Greg had answered, simple as that. Not that a trip to the old bank was a hardship, it was just a drive down to old Main, right?

Just at sunset on a Saturday. When the park just west of the bank and the post office had settled into beer league and the kids had all gone back to their evening games and movies.

They'd argued, called each other as soon as they both started driving that way. "Where's this headed?"

"How are you planning on getting the step loose?"

"What do we tell the cops?"

Only, the "We buried a time capsule twenty years ago, after Veronica..." story wasn't necessary. Not when the top step had heaved itself up, cracked in the middle and walked high enough to get an arm through to what lay beneath.

But even that much wasn't necessary. "Is that?" Greg whispered.

Of the young woman sitting on the top step. Thin. Straight fine hair blowing and tangled like she'd had a rough go of it these past few.

Her hair grayed as Mel and Greg, hesitating, walked closer. She got thinner, and she'd been skinny anyway, but Greg noticed how her knuckles and wrist knobs stood out.

In echo to the lines at her eyes and the corners of her mouth. By the time Mel knelt in front of her and tried once twice then succeeded at reaching for her shoulders, Veronica Abernathy had gone from a teenager lost and alone to Mel's older sister, just like them showing the hesitant signs of forty on the horizon and life behind and head in almost equal measure.

"Ronnie?"

Greg felt a weight he'd grown used to bearing slip just a little, lighten a bit when Veronica smiled through the tears.

****

"He... we needed conservation of energy, mass," Veronica explained from the front seat.

They'd taken Greg's car, Veronica in front and Mel in the back ignoring the Toyota's ever insistent beep to buckle his seatbelt. "Transference, right, I get that. But you could have used sand or something?"

In the teleportation booth Veronica and Grange had built in the middle of the high school lab. All in a rush because Ed had come home Friday night, then called the Abernathy house first thing as soon as he'd found the boys trapped in his rose bush.

Greg rubbed his eyelids, wrists. The tiny black dots where the rose bush's inch long thorns had embedded themselves and fed from his blood. Mel had similar scars; both their respective better halves had suggested they go to a dermatologist, Mel's Jenny more than once. But the weight had helped them ignore such vanities.

The weight of not knowing what the smoking mess in Grange's lab they'd both awoken to meant. Only that they'd come to there.

And Mel had gone home to his sister missing. Only explanation? "Mister Grange called Friday night, said he needed his star pupil's help with a project. Veronica just said it was something big and that you two were helping."

"We had to finish quick, before. Before we had to come up with a story of what had happened to you."

She stopped there. To look at the old house, Ed Grange's property abandoned long since. Windows broken from storms and teenagers, shingles steady giving up the ghost. "I used some bags of concrete, Dad had some in the garage. It should have worked."

The transference. A rigged-up, half-finished, all-crazy attempt at something that was a century at least premature. Because the rose had been hungry. Thirsty. "I tried, you know? First?" Veronica said. "But the bush tore a little of your flesh away when anyone got to close or tried to grab the canes." She looked at Greg when she said it. "And then it started chewing on you."

Greg shuddered. There'd been a long sense of darkness between kneeling down to dig up some of old Grange's mushrooms and waking up in the lab.

Broken only by the pain. Yeah, he remembered the needle pierce of the thorns, and the tearing. "What went wrong?"

"Why didn't it work?" Mel finished.

Veronica sighed, then pointed at the barely-together gate to what had been old Grange's garden. "I think we'll find out back there."

****

"Sand and gravel can't replace flesh, not for this," Ed Grange told them.

Well, Ed Grange's spirit. Or whatever it was that spoke from the depths of the rose now grown to engulf the garden. "When blood and sacrifice come in, plain old physics just isn't enough. Older philosophies must also be addressed."

The trio, Veronica in the lead, did hesitate at the gate when it opened on its own. And the arched rose canes forming a path through the labyrinth. But there was no other real choice, not if they wanted to get their answers.

"Apparently," Veronica said.

"Right. Our calculations were incomplete." The rose encompassing their dark little world shrugged, somehow. "I admit, I never did understand such things. I still don't, not completely."

Greg stepped back at that. "You're not..."

"No," Grange said. "But you should go. I have only so much control of the garden and its appetites."

"Is there anything we can do?" Veronica asked.

"It's far too late for that, Veronica. Now run!" The canes shook, desperation and hunger squared off.

Veronica, Mel, and Greg didn't give either combatant a chance to win. They ran, tripping, bleeding, but helping each other through and then out to front yard and the car.

And the gasoline can in the trunk. One of the big old metal cans. "Will he thank us?" Mel asked.

Veronica pulled a road flare to light. "Some part of him, probably."

"We hope," Greg finished.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Adrift In A Moment

This week brings another piece of the story I've been following these past couple weeks, dear reader. I'm not sure yet what to call the whole story yet.

Perhaps that means, like Ronnie, I'm...

Adrift In A Moment - a story by M. K. Dreysen

Ronnie floated; the ground had forgotten her. She'd been here so long, she had forgotten what the feel of dirt underfoot meant. Had the ground been here that much longer then?

The world bent differently, too. That meant something, Ronnie felt. But what?

She'd forgotten that part. If she'd ever known it. Kind of like her name.

He... yeah, he hadn't really called her Ronnie, had he? He... because he couldn't say her name. Not fully. Not until he'd... turned four? Vronnie? Was that it? Was that her name?

No. But that's as far as Ronnie could bring the sound forward. Here where the sky didn't so much hold as it accepted. She had nowhere else to go, right? And the curve of sky defined something, didn't it? A limit, a boundary, but Ronnie believed that the boundary was what kept her here, not the sky itself.

Here. In between. She'd tried, she thought she had, to push against memory. Ronnie Vronnie something... and that's when the ground suddenly remembered her.

Not that the sky rejected, no, she fell and accelerated (such a strange word did it mean force or something else here where the sky didn't fold properly and the ground only turned left to right...) downward.

And so Ronnie stopped pushing against memory. The ground didn't let go of her, not right away. It held her until the smell of it, dirt and dirt and pain coming. She ignored the smell teasing at memory, she closed her eyes against the motion and the wall coming up at her face.

Until the ground forgot her again. When she had tried this push against her boundaries, the ones that defined her world, and paid in panic for doing it, Ronnie held her eyes closed until she'd stopped and drifted and came still again. Back where she'd started, somewhere between a not-quite right ground and a sky that bent the wrong way 'round and a boundary made of.

Made of something. It felt wrong, but Ronnie left that feeling aside. Feeling meant remembering if she let it. No.

Ronnie held onto the fact that the boundary that held the sky, that bent and warped, that boundary was built of something.

And then, one day when she'd forgotten everything else but that, Ronnie felt herself drift upward. Toward the boundary. The one that held her here.

The boundary that, being built of something, could be broken.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Teacher's Garden

Remember last week's story, when I told you that story was a short short story?

Ah. Well, about that...

Teacher's Garden - a story by M. K. Dreysen

If anybody had asked him, Ed Grange would have said that his garden was really the center of his life. Sure, when he went to the Master Gardener meetings, everyone else there gave him a bit of the side-eye. Or, more than a bit, he would have cheerfully admitted.

That's what you get for growing the fun stuff, Ed would have said. Nightshades and carefully treated rotten logs seeded with the deadliest of mushrooms, various toxic toads and frogs; the one single pure perfect rose, a wild beast grown now across the entire back fence and threatening to bring the whole neighborhood into the family. So very many other toxic or deadly species, beautiful and ugly and all of them wonderful.

Ed Grange rehearsed the speech in his mind. How he'd show off his wonderful, deadly little creations to an interested questioner. Similar to the speeches that he gave his kids every year when he brought in samples to show them. "Look at them, won't you? This is what the fungi have in wait for you. There, a wonderful little button mushroom, tasty and safe, growing right next to its closest, most deadly of cousins."

He showed the students a picture, and then most delightful of all, he brought out his traveling log for all to marvel at. Death cheek by jowl with mundane yet wonderful life. "And only a few delicate specks to show you the difference. At night, you can't see them at all, even with the best flashlight available."

Mister Grange had, of course, practiced that particular speech every year for most of the past thirty years of science teaching. First half of his morning, freshman science. Second half senior physics but by then even Mister Grange recognized that the kids had grown tired of his schtick. That's when he introduced these budding scientists to the lab.

In the meantime, he practiced, in his mind, the art of showing off his wonderful garden. With no real expectation that he'd ever have the privilege, of course, but just in case. And because, he did admit, it didn't hurt to have a more or less constant devotion to safety.

Not when your evenings and weekends were spent in a garden with this many ways to kill you.

****

"Veronica told me Old Grange said that there are days he has to suit up in HAZMAT gear," Mel Abernathy said. Veronica was Mel's older sister, by two years. So Mel had the advantage of older student gossip, both in navigating the tumult of high school and in trying to understand Mister Grange's oddness.

Greg Washington scratched his head. His sisters were all younger, so he'd be the one passing on gossip and secrets, rather than benefiting from it. But Greg mostly thought of Veronica as impossibly beautiful and impossibly out of reach. About to be valedictorian, head buried in books and marching band and almost anything else but gossip.

"Veronica said that, did she? So what?"

"She also said that the seniors will pay a hundred bucks to anyone who scores a psychedelic mushroom out of Grange's garden. Senior Blowout's coming up, and there's been a Grange's magic mushroom bounty that nobody's ever had the courage to claim."

Senior Blowout, the great fuckoff party of the senior year. An annual tradition at Jefferson High, all the adults pretended not to notice the next-day hangovers.

So long as nobody drove, nothing got burnt or destroyed, and everyone showed up to class the next morning, the Blowout stayed a quiet tradition. "And when they all get busted for drugs and screw up our turn?" Greg asked.

Mel shrugged. "Sure, that's probably why nobody has every tried."

Greg had moved to Jefferson in between freshman and sophomore year; here it was, after spring break and headed for the end of his first year here, and he'd discovered how much of the little community ran on these sorts of little understandings.

Like, because the Gulf was only a half hour's drive, every kid got a little bit of leeway on those occasional days when the wind and surf and sun were too good to pass up. So long as they kept their head down, nose clean, and didn't attract the attention of the cops or the national park rangers when they blew class for the beach.

Or how, it was similarly understood that the big Spring Break, when all the college kids from up north came down, that nobody at school got any bright ideas to go out and join them.

That way, when the Jefferson spring break came around after the college kids had all flown back north, the cops and the rangers didn't come out in force the way they did for the older kids.

These and a thousand little, quiet rules that kids like Mel, who'd been here since third grade, somehow had picked up through osmosis or something. "I'd have thought raiding a teacher's backyard garden for magic mushrooms would be breaking the rules," Greg pointed out.

"Most years, sure," Mel agreed. "But I've got a little secret. Grange is going to a science conference this spring."

"And?"

****

By brutal tradition, Senior Blowout took place on a Sunday night. That was the deal, go out and blow off the steam, get loaded up on beer or trashcan punch and then stumble into school for the longest Monday of your young life.

Ed Grange went to his physics conference, this particular year, the week before Senior Blowout. Not on purpose, really.

Ed, nice as the strange old science teacher was to those patient enough to listen to him, had still not connected well enough to any of his students, nor any of his fellow teachers, to have heard of the Blowout. Not even after damned near thirty years of teaching at Jefferson. It was pure accident that the physics society had scheduled their conference that particular week, and even greater an accident that Ed noticed in time to take the vacation days Principle Vickers had been nagging him to use.

"Does he have dogs?" Greg whispered.

"Nope, just cats. And we aren't going inside."

And, though the two sneaks didn't know the future, they also didn't have to contend with what by now be ubiquitous wireless security cameras. And even the cats weren't a problem, since if Ed Grange had any real fear of his garden it was that Snowball and Midnight would get into it and go for a taste of the rhododendrons. Or the foxgloves.

Mel had parked his ancient Chrysler, Mom and then Veronica's hand me down, at the Circle K a mile or so away, and then the boys had walked the rest of the way. Pure daylight, "He's not here so there's no point getting Mrs. Kravitz or somebody calling the cops on us after dark."

Greg liked that part a lot. Jefferson wasn't the whitest suburb in the city, but it was an awful damned close second. Greg knew damned well what kind of trouble he'd get into if he ended the year on the kind of note that began with "Mom, about the cops...".

He said to himself, even as he walked up to the door and knocked. "You're sure he's out of town?"

"Yeah, Veronica said he bragged about going for the past month."

"Why are we doing this, then?"

"A hundred bucks and years worth of bragging rights. Don't worry Greg, it's perfectly safe."

The pair waited, listened. And then Greg walked around and opened the side gate to the backyard. "After you, Master Abernathy."

"No, no, by all means Master Washington, you proceed."

****

Mel at least had sat through Ed Grange's mushroom lecture, and the demonstration with the carefully treated log.

He'd also heard, because his grandfather was a Master Gardener, that it was a carefully constructed scam. "Ed's not quite that crazy," Grandpa had told him. "He plants that log just so he can scare you all. But when he shows his slides, he's got the different species of fungus more segregated than that. Sure, he puts the logs next to each other, but they're only crossed by accident. One species per log."

"You asked your grandfather about Grange's magic mushrooms?"

"Oh for fuck's sake," Mel said. "No, shit for brains, I asked him about our goofy-assed science teacher and the mushroom demonstration. Grandpa provided the rest on his own. Now that you're through showing how little you trust your best friend, can we get on with the fungus picking? Pretty please?"

The logs were artfully arranged around the yard, most in the shade and protection of larger plants. The sunlight helped the boys match up the live specimens against the forager's book that Greg had found at the library. "Ah, here we go," he murmured as he knelt down next to one particular log, set off by its lonesome. "One of my cousins said he used to go through cow patties to get shit like this."

"For himself?" Mel asked, kneeling next to his friend.

"Nah, he sold them to dumbshits like us. 'Kids too poor and stupid to get high any other way'."

Mel snorted. "Not one of your favorite cousins, I hope?"

"Nah, Burn's an asshole. Great stories, but really he's kind of a fuckwad." Greg laid out a couple of sandwich bags, and then pulled out a pen knife. "How many, do you think?"

"Couple dozen, I'd guess. Enough to prove it, not enough for Grange to suspect. And come on, how many of them are gonna try these things, anyway?"

Greg grunted. "Right, I know I'm not eating any of the damned things."

Greg reached beneath the branches of the largest rose he'd ever seen in his life, thorns almost as long and thick as his thumb, and started cutting their harvest free.

Overhead, unnoticed by either boy, the vines of the rose began to contract. All of the other fungi in the yard were protected by either their own poisons, or those of the plants they had been set beneath.

Ed's magic mushrooms, on the other hand, were protected by his one and only rose.

****

Ed Grange came home from his conference with a handful of new ideas, and a handful of new addresses to mail mushrooms to. And other of his garden's delights, depending on the season.

Most of them were, he told himself, perfectly respectable research contacts. The toxins Ed grew were, after all, of great scientific interest. That was his view of it. If some of his colleagues like to experiment on their own person, that was their business. Ed just made sure that he used the proper conventions of labeling and that the addresses all pointed to real labs.

The old science teacher set down his bags, then happily puttered around in his kitchen, petting Snowball and Midnight, for most of an hour before he noticed the rose.

And its well-captured prizes. "Ah. All these years and it finally happened. Someone finally just couldn't resist."

Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Hole It Fell In

I had a completely different story in mind for this week's edition, dear reader.

But this one jumped me and refused to let go. Pre-October warmup, I guess. Super short, but that's also why the voices in the back of my head wouldn't let me do anything but get it down and get it out. And every time I tried to extend it I just screwed it up, so here we are. Please enjoy, and be careful not to step into...

The Hole It Fell In - a (short short) story by M. K. Dreysen

Hey, when's the last time you went to the bank?

No, not that one, the old bank, you know, old downtown?

Right, across from the post office, yeah, with the pink granite. You know how the doors are so hard to open? The spinner even, you gotta grunt a little...

They weren't always that way. It happened when they remodeled and replaced the old oak doors. Everything set to new and clean and level, so far as tools can measure.

Why the stiff doors though? Well, you know those big steps they added out front?

That's where they buried the pocket universe. The one Mister Grange made in high school lab.

Friday, September 24, 2021

Got To Keep Groovin'

I'm on the road for the day gig this week, and with plenty of time for Pandora to work overtime. Which always results in pleasant soundtrack, but a handful of tunes really popped into my head.

Stevie Wonder, I Wish

The Amazing Rhythm Aces, Who Will The Next Fool Be

Ella and Louis, They Can't Take That Away From Me

An then a song that didn't come via Pandora, but rather through internal trains of thought.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, You Got Lucky (and no, I can't explain the visuals here, either. Other than that they're a delight of early 80's ridiculousness on par with Buckaroo Banzai...)

which, there's a little bit of a story there. In on particular long-gone relationship, as the cycle wound through and then to its inevitable end, I had three moments of clarity with respect to the lady in question, all of them musical, two of them direct and then the last indirect long after we'd parted our ways.

The second moment involved the song You Got Lucky, and that the lady in question didn't recognize the singer, to the point of asking "Who the hell are you listening to?" when Tom started singing.

The other two moments involved similar reactions to Prince and Bruce Springsteen. In retrospect, as much affection, friendship, and respect as I do still have for the lady, I kind of knew that we were better off taking different paths.

But this isn't about dragging. The point instead is that it's weird and strange and wonderful how we can react to songs (stories, art, moments) and incorporate them in ourselves. And in ways that show up long after for reasons that relate only nominally to the music, yet still rise up so incredibly when the notes march.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Don't Be So Precious With It

For this week's story, I'm thinking about a few things. Red dirt and what it might feel like to work under low gravity and high trouble conditions. What sort of jobs might be accessible when robots and humans are a functional, customizable build team.

What it might feel like when you can't quite let go of a life's work. And what someone who can't let go might do when they realize that they've reached that point.

This week's story, dear reader, is a reminder that, even with the most important works of life, there's a point where we have to let go, and remind ourselves,

Don't Be So Precious With It by M. K. Dreysen

"Don't be so precious with it," the voice over the radio told me.

Don't be...

Precious? I don't often want to throw somebody off a hundred foot fucking drop. But this seemed to be one of those times. "Hey Chuck, listen. Where's your junior engineer?"

"She's around somewhere. Why?"

"I think I'm going to need her to take a look at this. In person."

"Well, are you sure?"

"Chuck, there's an I-beam right in the middle of where the valve is supposed to go. Yes, I'm sure."

Chuck grumbled about it, but he did get Channa headed my way. "Leina, she'll be there in about an hour. Other side of the plant."

"Right, I'll rig down for her." Tab up the commands, acknowledgement from Specs that they were bringing me down.

Then, "Hey, Specs, we've got a guest coming in, human, I'll need to bring her up to get a look at the problem."

"Right boss, two humans in the lift for visual inspection. Do you need Wally or Fitz with you?"

"Nah, we'll just need Lift and Tuck on the horn. We'll probably need to lift that valve into place, I can rig it."

"Boss..."

I sighed. I programmed Specs, I know why they're the way they are. "Are they idle?"

"Wally's inspecting the welds for tomorrow's lift, assuming we're on schedule. Fitz is on cleanup."

"Ok, send Fitz my way as soon as you see our guest."

The hour gave me time to work on my schedule. Wally and Fitz could go to work on the hundred and one other bits of the job, so the overall schedule hadn't come into a squeeze. Yet. That left me checking my programs and assignments.

Every job's custom, especially out here. I ignored the various itches and faint pains, the kind you can touch when you're not in armored pressure suits. Lots of practice. I've even gotten used to working through the clumsy gloves and head's up display that my helmet gives me.

And I do like how hard it is for someone to sneak up on you. My team and are the only ones allowed inside the work perimeter unsupervised, so we've got plenty of cameras rigged up for safety. "Hey Leina, you called for me?"

"I did. You're going to want to strangle whoever did the structure work." Story of my life there. I always bid the whole job. And then the client's Specs equivalent parses out the job the way they're programmed too, trust and cost mapping and here we are, one part of the whole.

And, showing the proud young design engineer that the structural contractor had put a fifteen centimeter piece of steel right in the middle of where her control valve was supposed to go.

Oh, and doing so from a swaying crane lift suspended a hundred feet in the air. Not so bad here as back home, gravity and its magic, but it's still a hell of a long way up. "Well damn," Channa muttered. And then started in on taking her pictures.

One of the three classic reactions. Cursing, or get on the phone and start the blame game. Or like Channa was doing, break out of it and get started on the rebuild. I kept quiet until she got to the only real question. "Can you fix it?"

"Yep. The boneyard's got the steel, we'll take a day and rework the structure. Just do me a favor and doublecheck my drawings before you go."

I'd asked for as-built drawings, knowing full well they'd appear about six weeks after I was on to the next job. Such is life sometimes. But I definitely needed to make sure whatever I built fit Channa's design.

I worked on the programming for Wally and Fitz, then sketched in Lift and Tuck's, while Channa verified our drawings. "You're good here, Leina. How much?"

"A day, no need for parts, and it's all mild steel? That's in the contingency schedule." Twelve days contingency on a sixty day job. High for a traditional schedule, but I'd learned a bit since we started Mars work. Usually what ate time was parts availability, especially anything with exotic metals. "But I have to warn you, when this kind of thing happens..."

She looked confused on the HUD; our helmet glass isn't really see through, so helmet cams do the visual overlay for us. "What do you... you think there will be more like this? But..."

I chuckled. "That's usually the way it goes. And it's not a comment on the structural crew, that's Jim Manning's team, they're pretty good." I meant that, too, Jim's good people.

But even good people can get waylaid by a glitch. Maybe Jim transposed something and it propagated through the rest of the job. Maybe data transfer flipped a corrupted bit. "All just part of the gig, Channa. Maybe we'll get lucky, but I've got a duty to warn you to be prepared. If it's not a one-off, we'll see this kind of thing show up often enough that you'll want to be prepared if we do hit schedule slip."

Prepared meaning ready to get on the horn to her bosses. I like it when the client gets their yelling and screaming out of the way quick, then we can all just get on with it.

That, and we get the approvals for my soon to be oversized invoices pushed through before accounting has a chance to scream at me.

****

Specs found it.

Not the mis-measured structure, I found that. Like I'd do in turn for Channa, Jim had filed his reports and data. I poured through the video until analysis popped up the discrepancy. Just a small angle difference here, and a little extra steel Jim's Metra had needed to patch and make length.

No, Specs found something else far worse. "Boss, can you check something for me?"

Specs is mostly a state of mind. But they do have a metric shit ton of remotes, to keep an eye on us and everything else. "Where?" I followed Spec's map to the structure Wally had torn down. "What am I looking for?"

"Cuts, on the three main structural legs."

The ones that connected to the actual vessel itself, and held the weight of the platform Wally, Lift, and Tucks had torn down. About halfway up the vessel, the platform was there for observation and to make for easy access to the valves on the main feed lines we should have finished today.

The legs had been cut almost all the way through, just above the main pads where they mated up with the vessel. "Son of a bitch."

First thing, before I called anybody, was Jim's final video walkthrough. Yeah, sure, right, Jim's Ullin is just as anal about these things as is Specs, and has just as many high definition cameras to do the job right. And every weld has to be shown and inspected on final.

Jim had walked away with a clean job on this platform, the video showed it.

Which left me scratching my head. Metaphorically, I wasn't about to take the helmet off.

I called Channa first this time. Mostly because, no matter how I could figure it, Channa sabotaging the build she was so proud of didn't add up.

****

I'd given Chuck shit for his promotion. "Off-site 'director', huh? Pretty fancy way of saying desk jockey."

"Yeah, Med told me to fuck off, I'm timed out for radiation. They stuck me underground until it's time to go home."

I'd have told you that Chuck would have gone straight home rather than take a desk job. Muddy-boots engineer and proud of it. Chuck had worked this particular plant from day one, a real lifer. But even with our armored suits, there's only so much surface time available. Not if you want to make it home to spend the hazard pay.

That's the way I'd have figured it. Only, I didn't know quite how attached Chuck was to the plant. How much it meant to him to have built the place from scratch. To have babied it up to first unit production, second unit expansion, now third unit expansion.

It was Chuck's plant, and the company had taken it away from him. Once the dust settled, I had pieces to put together. How Chuck hadn't quite been able to let go, how he'd started calling Channa at all hours of the night, whenever a hiccup showed on his screens.

How he'd ignored the messages from their boss, telling Chuck to back off and hand it over to Channa. He was supposed to be teaching, only he couldn't let go of the reins.

How, not knowing that Specs and Ullin exchanged remotes for data overlap, Chuck had taken a torch to the platform legs after Jim's final walkthrough. And those three cuts weren't the only ones.

****

"I never expected I'd be so grateful for going over schedule and budget," Channa told me on our final walkthrough.

A hundred days on a sixty day job. Not bad when we had to stop and rebuild all the structural elements. For the accidental mistakes and the purposeful sabotage. "Just glad we caught it."

Channa smiled. Grimly, I think, but she'd learn. "I made sure we've got the board approval on the overages."

"Appreciate it." I'd written a report, both for the inspection board and Channa's company, and made sure that both groups knew I was submitting the same files.

But I'd also made sure to talk to Channa and her boss before I did it. Not about hard feelings, but so that they had the chance to put Chuck on his way back to Earth, and the other things that went along with that kind of fall into disgrace ride.

I do kind of wonder if, maybe if I'd had a chance to talk with Chuck a little more, maybe I could have stopped him? But that's just the ghosts and the way they talk when we're between jobs.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

(Third) Excerpt from From The River To The Sea, upcoming Book 2 of the Old Empire series

For this week's story, another excerpt, this time from my From The River To The Sea story.

We return once more to Peon, Aeneas, Rudy, and their adventures.

I love these three fools. I can't write of them without a constant smile.

(Third) Excerpt from From The River To The Sea by M. K. Dreysen, the upcoming Book 2 of The Old Empire series

Peon balanced a copper penny on his finger tips, matching the coin's weaving motion against the sea as it chased the boat beneath his feet.

He had no audience for his performance. Which was entirely the point. The sailors went about their business, as they should. Peon had paid good money for the passage, if he wanted sailors with nothing to do but watch Peon do the impossible, he could do that from any port bar in the world. Here and now, the sailors called their line settings to each other, tiller headings, the other business of putting Peon and his friends where they needed to be, with the boat still hale and whole beneath them. This time.

While Peon worked on his balance, seagulls drifted over the mast, calling to each their hope that Peon would throw bread. But he did not. Peon focused on the coin. Sea birds weren't much of an audience, either.

Memories wanted to intrude. Of card games. Of balancing a dagger rather than a coin. An adventure, not long ago, one that Aeneas might recall for the sword fight that left the Dalmation Prefect unsure of his patrynomy, but lingered in Peon's mind as the moment when he'd reached practiced fingers between the bars of the cell.

And plucked that cell's key from the belt of the guard who'd been so foolish as to fall asleep within reach of Peon's hands. Peon's treacherous mind threatened to revel in the moment of triumph, earned but not necessary to the moment.

Peon mastered himself and banished thought and memory.

He'd found the penny among the other detritus of the tomb that he'd collected. In this case, he'd tucked into the top of his boot the penny, three others of copper but with different faces, and a fingernail's width of ivory carved so delicately that only Peon's sensitive fingers could pick out the faint decoration.

Four pennies, worth as much as any other except by accident of finding a scholar with that magic combination of knowledge of the tomb, wealth to spend, and trust in an, admittedly, slightly weasel-faced thief.

A piece of ivory barely bigger than a fish scale, carved so finely that the decoration could only be felt, not seen. This worthy piece rested in Peon's baggage, below, where Rudy in his usual fashion slept through a bout of seasickness.

Peon would have shrugged at the vagaries of a tomb robber's lot, excepting that the statue, the silver coins and a handful of their gold brethren that had found their way to Peon's pockets, and that much more interesting silver wand Rudy had tucked into his own baggage, meant that, at least in theory, the three friends were indeed sitting pretty on their voyage to Cyprus.

Oh. And excepting that, just as he had banished those errant feelings of his legendary history, Peon banished the faint calls of greed to the place where heavy thoughts went when they weren't needed.

He couldn't banish Aeneas the same way. Aeneas's tread on the stairs behind, the light step of someone whose feet knew always the ground on which they walked, was as familiar to Peon as his own. Peon sighed and dropped the penny into a well hidden pocket.

"You're going to ask me again, aren't you?"

Aeneas leaned over the rail. Unlike Peon, he had come prepared for the seagulls. But Aeneas kept the bread tucked into his pocket for the moment. "No. We all agreed."

On why the trio traveled to Cyprus. "No previous... engagements." Rudy held this one in high regard. "No reason to be nervous whenever a Roman soldier walks by."

Which Peon and Aeneas could appreciate. "Plenty of commerce," Aeneas recommended. Which meant, of course, enough coin changing hands that the trio would be sure to find buyers for the bits and pieces they'd squirreled away in their baggage.

And Peon's reason for picking Cyprus as their next destination? He'd wavered. The place was almost more cosmopolitan than even Rome, safe as the Empire's second commercial jewel yet joyfully unconcerned with the questions of status and maneuver that consumed the City's residents.

"History," he'd finally put in. The island and its wonderful history, almost two thousand years or more of travelers wandering through with their stories. And the occasional lightly secured item of silver or bronze or alabaster that lent itself to the Cypriot scenery rather than wherever its owner came from or went to.

Amathus from the sea looked as interesting as any other port. Hills, villas, the incessant voices of the waterfront. Aeneas, and Rudy once he'd roused himself from his seasick stupor, fed on this sound.

Peon walked between his friends, ignoring their excited chatter. Amathus lived and the trio entered its rhythm.

Aeneas hunted for whispers of grand doings. Legions on the move, merchants adding onto their little empires. He it was who sought that which floated up in the wake of change.

Prominant children kidnapped by rivals. Messages gone astray at times most unsuitable to local political conditions. Shipments delayed, or lost completely. Aeneas bought beer for the sailors who cursed their luck and soldiers with just barely enough patience for their sergeants, wine for the lackeys of the highborn and rich.

He snuck into salons to listen to the rumors whispering between the verse and the chorus. Walked the audience at mummer's plays and listened to the jokes with the bite and the edge. "Who among them has the secret?" Aeneas asked.

"That will pay three fools their sought after wage?" Rudy replied.

"Indeed." Aeneas did not play at rumor and gossip so much as he hunted them for their rare weaving of truth.

Rudy began his hunt at the docks. Where stevedores sweated their piles from ship to shore and back again, Rudy walked. Asked quiet questions, or loud ones when necessary. Showed his calloused hands and the scars on his back, on occasion.

He sought out the mule tenders, the wagon loaders. Those who fought the flame and the iron to shoe the horses and arm the guards. Where work was done, sweat and blood given and poor recompense taken, those were the souls Rudy listened to.

Rudy liked revenge stories. Squabbling between land owners that looked like bubbling up to squads bleeding in the moonlight. The Salamarium following the Requilar out of harbor, but only the Requilar making it to her next port.

Half past midnight and three pallets of wine in the harbor, a bloody corpse no one "knew" marking their resting place. Powerful people, rich people, with tempers afire could be leveraged. Rudy liked to look for lever and fulcrum and the cracks where the one could be applied with help from the other.

Peon let Amathus wait. No.

He let the loudness of its voices wait. Flow by him, then remain in the taverns and behind the merchant's walls. The words uttered and the wind that blew them along would be there whenever he returned. In the meantime, Peon walked the hills and the roads.

Late at night, in the dark, while Aeneas and Rudy settled into the maudlin' time of the last half cup, Peon strolled the shadows.

Where the ancients waited. Decades lingered in new stones sitting on top of old ones. Marble sheathing on walls covered up last century's mud and straw bricks. The place had built itself on the top of its own bones.

Peon looked for the bits Amathus had buried of itself. Forgotten layers and the accidental wealth the grandparents never told the grandchildren of. Coins buried in the midden heap. Broken crockery piled around a statue that should have gone on the moving wagon.

Temples built and rebuilt on top of their predecessors. The gods might be forgotten, Peon knew, and the gold their worshippers threw at their feet buried with them. The whispered prayers might have long since vanished to Olympus.

But the gold yet remained. Peon trod the miles with a charcoal stick and a roll of vellum. And when he'd sketched 'til his fingers ached and walked until his feet complained, Peon went to the library.

The place where scholars congregated. And waited for someone to buy them a meal and a pitcher of beer.

Someone like Peon.

A small, quiet German scholar turned Peon on to hints of a derelict ship, hidden between tides just a day's journey south along the coast. "She foundered from too great a load," the stooped and bearded oldster whispered, between sips of an ale so heavy, Peon wondered whether the German needed a knife and spoon to consume it.

"And what temple, then, did she carry such heavy cargo to?"

"Juno," the scholar answered. But only after consuming some three more mugs of the bitter dark.

Peon gauged the German's crossed eyes. Watched then as his head drifted lower and lower, until it rested at last upon his arms crossed on the table. "Do you tempt Peon to a trap, then, oh pale and short one?" he asked the sleeping scholar. "Are my friends to be spitted upon the shore?"

"Or does the Banker's due really lie so close to Peon's grasp?" he asked himself on the way to the trio's quarters. Peon settled in that dawn with a note to himself, to return to the German's story when and if other avenues didn't present themselves.

Like the knowledge from the Egyptian, the one who'd come to negotiate the return of a portion of her master's bequest to the temple of Demeter. "Once that was done, I'd earned my freedom. So I stayed where I had some certainty of enjoying it."

"Cloistered within a temple's walls?"

She sipped wine, this one. A resinous, acidic vintage that she water-diluted in an almost ritualistic manner.

Peon had no hope the Egyptian would drink herself to the scholar's traditional near-dawn stupor. Still, Peon did admit to himself that, all else being equal, an evening beneath the stars with good conversation and slow mellow consumption of his favorite golden wine had its own dividends.

"To invest in tomorrow," Peon told himself. And the lady was pleasant company.

"My students provide entertainment, far more than enough to keep my imagination busy," she finally told Peon. Just after midnight; Peon noted the Virgin's stars wheeling into view.

Peon considered this. His companion had told him that she'd taken a position within Demeter's temple; not as a celebrant. As the temple's scholar, their record keeper.

Teacher. Of the young women, those destined to become the powers behind many thrones. "The virtuous are not known for passing rumors," Peon suggested.

"Falsehoods," the teacher corrected. "How do quiet listeners learn to judge truth?"

"By seeking out the counsel of the wise?"

She smiled. And let to Peon a painted image. Of a golden cat. "No bigger than your fist, it is said. Carved so that the goddess's favorite may observe all that takes place before her."

Peon remembered where the teacher had come from. And Bastet's place in that sun-drenched land. "Was this figure perhaps inventoried for return to a distant court?"

The Egyptian buffed her nails, then judged their polish beneath the starlight. "No mention of it was made on my master's received manifest, as I recall."

Peon congratulated himself for having avoided any need to audit shipping manifests. Nor to reconcile such between destination and origin. He also admired the scholar's patience; however the cat statue had gone missing, the Egyptian had spent some few years sifting the rumors brought to her ears by the daughters of the powerful.

"Two things occur to Peon," he said. "That the... that those who might seek such a statue..."

The lady nodded her head in acknowledgment of Peon's careful phrasing.

"Will be known to the current possessor? And..."

"And?" the scholar prompted.

"And just how such a seeker, knowing the possibility, might consider allaying the fears of the powerful?" Amathus, and the island, were far too convenient for Peon to allow any single job to cross the island from the trio's future plans. He shared some of Rudy's feelings regarding the dangers of old business unresolved.

The Egyptian pointed a finger at the sky, and then revolved her fingertip in a circle, taking in the quiet tavern, and the island surrounding it. "My students bring me other stories, you know? Of far distant lands that they have traveled with their parents. Of mountains, of seas and the lands they conceal. Have you traveled?"

Peon shrugged.

"Here, where I am, I have traveled less than a week from the place of my birth. I find myself now with the urge to go farther. To discover some new place, and new people. Those unaware of my past."

"And?" Peon said, taking now his turn to fill the conversational pause.

"And leave behind me no hint of... scandal."

"For your students' sake?"

"Nor for any who aid me."

Peon nodded. From conversation beneath star and moonlight was trust built in Peon's business.

But first, before chasing scholarly whispers, Peon must address those jobs his companions had found.

"You think too big, Aeneas," Rudy warned.

Peon snorted. For Aeneas's job, Peon had rounded up eight misbehaving mules and a flock of slightly nervous chickens. For Rudy's, the scrounger had needed to acquire twelve bull hides, untanned yet cured in salt. Then, forty rods of willow, thick as two thumbs, clean and supple and strong.

"Yes," Rudy responded. "But for my idea, we require no more than ourselves, a few pieces of equipment, and time beneath the stars unobserved."

Peon granted this objection with a shrug.

Aeneas ignored his friends' banter. His own preparations for the dawn's work, on the day of his contribution to the trio's legend, consisted of arraying the mule tenders he'd hired.

As well as putting together his tastefully chosen costume. At that time and place, the Emperor wished that none within his grasp be known as legionarries, except only those whom he'd blessed personally with that status. Throughout his demesnes, the First Roman's most loyal of followers let the Emperor's words go forth, in pronouncements vocal and written: "Only the Emperor's legions may wear the uniform of a Roman soldier."

Times as they were, and the sheer number of retired Roman soldiers being what they were, Aeneas had adjudged that his costume for the evening honored the First Roman's wishes. In the breach, of course, but Aeneas loved the proper gesture more, almost, than he did his lovers.

Well, except perhaps for that bastard Trini. Aeneas did wish he could see the Corsican's face. "He'd rather enjoy it, wouldn't he?" Aeneas mused.

"Before selling you to the governor?" Peon said.

"Yes..." Aeneas whispered. "The man's a snake... but..."

"Focus," Rudy said.

And so Aeneas did. "Remember," he whispered to the mule tenders. "Herd the mules in the camp, and then out of the way after that. My friends and I will take care of the rest."

"And if we need run?" the tender's leader asked. A woman of wisdom, Peon observed to himself.

"If all goes well, meet us at the Flatfish tomorrow at noon."

Aeneas's plan, as did all of his plans, possessed the virtue of simplicity. "I have procured the mules for the company," he explained to the character he had built for himself.

"And the chickens?" Peon asked.

"Dinner, of course. Forget about the chickens, Peon. Well, ok, don't forget completely, but let's look to our targets, shall we?" Aeneas raised his hand to pause his small parade.

Whatever the Emperor's motivations for addressing the rainment of soldiers, he'd done nothing about the traditional prerogatives of his governors.

That being the use of the legions to settle scores. Or whatever other games the governors enjoyed playing with the temporary loan of their master's power.

Aeneas brought his parade to a halt just outside the encampment of a company of soldiers; Rudy's job had been to find just where the "rogue" company had disappeared to after kidnapping the son and heir of a merchanting family.

A family who, as it turned out, had won a contract that the Cypriot governor's family had also bid for. From the navy. "This smells political," Peon had pointed out.

"Military procurement, Peon," Aeneas answered. "There are so very many contracts. This will be forgotten quickly."

Peon greeted this revelation with another of his shrugs. Sometimes, one needed to back their friends, even when the idea treaded the narrow line between merely foolish and manifestly dangerous.

In addition to scouring the island for eight of the most ill-tempered, and easily frightened, mules he could find, Peon had brought as well masks of a suitable nature for himself and Rudy. "Our friend's helmet will provide him with anonymity," Peon said.

Rudy nodded. "It would be a shame, then, to not join him in his design."

"Indeed."

Peon had chosen a particular type of veil for himself and Rudy. One that hinted, to the nervous sentry barring their way into the hidden camp, that perhaps the captain leading a team of mules had perhaps also procured an evening's entertainment.

Aeneas moved easily from exasperation to the look of a Roman captain's assured contempt. He nudged his mount, a red-bay mare who'd started the evening fractious and become only more so with the walk, closer to the sentry. But not too close.

Aeneas didn't want to spoil the surprise. "Well?"

The sentry, a youngster barely old enough for the job in Peon's opinion, coughed. "Ah, sir?"

"Open the gates, soldier. Or do I just let the mules kick it out of our way?"

The soldier rushed to release the chain before inadvertant questions interfered with the strange captain's absolute tone of command.

Aeneas eased the mare to the side, to allow the mules, their tenders, and his friends to pass. And to allow the mare to burn some small energy. She alternated between trotting in place and tossing her neck.

Aeneas just hoped she wouldn't trumpet, yet. He patted her on the neck, gently, and whispered low quiet reassurance. When the last of the mule tenders passed, Aeneas nodded at the sentry, walked the mare through the gate under a tight-held rein, and then stepped down from her saddle as soon as the whole of the parade came within a certain distance of the company corral.

The one that the freelancing company had built to hold their officers' horses. "What's worse, in your experience?" Aeneas had asked Rudy, when the big man had described what he'd observed of the hidden company's camp. "Riding a stallion?"

"Or a mare in heat?" Rudy had replied. "No contest, the mare's better. Most of the time."

Aeneas had nodded. Rudy's judgement, and Aeneas respected Rudy's judgement as he did Peon's, otherwise what was the point, agreed entirely with Aeneas's own.

Aeneas held tightly to the mare's reins as he walked her closer, but only just so close, to where the yellow stallion pawed ground behind the corral's fence poles. Aeneas kept that control, and that distance, until he was satisfied that the mare and the stallion together understood their part in the proceedings.

The stallion let Aeneas know that the moment had come by kicking at the corral's gate. When that proved as well-built as the usual Roman fortifications, the stallion backed up and prepared to launch himself up and over the corral fence.

Aeneas ignored the soldier voices building in the background; someone, probably a sergeant who really should, in Aeneas's professional opinion, have been more attentive to other business, preferably on the other side of the camp, was well on their way to yelling. Aeneas shook his head while he reached to remove the mare's bridle. "Rudy?" he asked.

"The far tent, Aeneas."

"Thank you. Peon?"

"Any time, Aeneas."

"Spectacular." And then Aeneas released the mare. The stallion cleared the fence, trumpeting his pride and his success.

And Peon released the chickens. Behind the mules, on the ground, with a vigourous shake, and a howling whistle and yell to give the little feathered alarm clocks the energy they needed.

Some two hours later, the three friends walked toward town with a young child gamely trotting along beside. "Stop?" Rudy suggested.

"Absolutely," Peon answered.

These were the first words either of the two had uttered since leaving the remains of the encampment.

Aeneas had monopolized the discussion in the miles between. Peon, upon consideration, allowed that Aeneas's plan had indeed worked swimmingly. The mules, the amorous horses, and the chickens had all together provided just that suitable amount of chaos. Rudy and Peon had run through the storm, screaming in as many different voices as they could summon, waving their borrowed veils aloft and sideways and stirring the mules to the fullest.

While Aeneas took full advantage of his Roman's captain's uniform. "I made sure to give every soldier I met a different command," Aeneas said.

"Yes," Rudy answered. "But what about the horses?"

The mule tenders had, as Peon suspected, run for the safety of the road as soon as the noise started. Peon and Rudy had claimed their charge from the tent he'd been held captive in, Rudy ignoring the ignominous ropes that bound the child in favor of simply tossing the kid over his shoulder and running for it.

The three friends, now four though the child was a little confused about the whole thing, didn't ask themselves, or at least Aeneas, about the horses until they'd ditched the soldier's costume and the courtesan veils and become simply three farmhands and a child walking along the dirt road to town.

"No plan is perfect," Aeneas admitted. "And everything else did go so well. How was I to know the company commander valued his horse above all things?"

Aeneas had trailed his friends to the tent, ordering nonsense and contradiction to any Roman who came within earshot; until he ran out of Romans to order about.

The company's true commander, once he'd shaken himself from shock to action, had commanded his men to chase down the stallion. By the time Rudy hoisted the child aloft, the Roman company had disappeared into the hills, faint calls of "Here, Buttercup, Buttercup here!" drifting behind them.

"I'd rather hoped for at least one fight," Aeneas said, when Peon and Rudy called a halt. "Something our young man could remember. You know, for later, when he's telling his papa about it."

"Scrounging for a tip?" Peon asked.

"Damned straight," Aeneas replied.

Rudy pointed at the kid, who'd spent the first mile enraptured at Aeneas's story-telling; the second mile gamely repeating the fun bits as Aeneas revisited them.

And now, as the third mile got ready to unfold, the youngster clung to Rudy's leg. Rudy scooped the lad up and held him out to Aeneas.

"What's this?"

"Your reward for a job well done. And for forgetting about the horses."

"Shit." Aeneas accepted the child, then began walking toward town.

"You know what this means, of course?" Peon asked Rudy.

The big man shrugged. "He's earned it. And perhaps next time he'll remember to hold some horses back for us."

"One can only hope." And so saying, Peon and Rudy joined their friend.

They did spare the hero of the day by alternating carrying the youngster. Otherwise, what's the point?

Some two weeks later, after returning the child, collecting their reward, and paying the mule tenders right before the hired crew boarded a boat for Spain (Peon being Peon, and not being ready to adjourn from Cyprus quite yet, he'd chosen the only strangers involved in Aeneas's master plan from among those with little time and fewer chances of spreading stories...), the three friends carried an almost-spherical, woven collection of bull hide and willow branches down to the harbor beach.

Just an hour before midnight, with the new moon and the lack of torches assuaging the stark exposure. If only just.

Rudy had delivered lead weights, and a lead weighted rope through the harbor waters, the night before. Another group of loaders hired by Peon had driven the wagon; this group Peon had hired from the crew of a naval galley headed to Phoenicia. "Did they ask any questions at all?" Peon asked. Peon being confused; he often was, at the way people just seemed to accept that his, or Rudy's, or their hero's mad galloping odd jobs made sense. Or didn't.

"Peon, they work for the Roman navy. This wasn't even the strangest load they'd delivered that day."

Peon shrugged, which jiggled in turn the leather diving bell the three friends carried across the sand. Not enough to make Rudy lose his grip; Aeneas on the other hand did complain. "Peon, please. Less juggling, more walking."

"Sorry."

When Rudy found his path rope, the trio deposited their diving bell beside it. And on top of the lead weights Rudy had arranged for the purpose. Peon and Aeneas bent to the task of securing the weights to the bell while Rudy looked out over the harbor water. And worried.

"Rudy, it's time," Aeneas said to his friend. "Put it aside, we'll know soon enough."

The big man shrugged, then grasped the main ropes on their contraption. "I'll need... help... gentlemen..."

Peon and Aeneas scrambled to join in; the bell itself was awkward; adding the lead turned their task into something else entirely. The trio struggled to drag the ungainly collection into the water.

And to the point where buoyancy finally gave them relief. When the bell at last floated free, and the lead weights lifted, just, from the sand, the trio ducked under and settled in for the long walk.

"This wouldn't work in the surf, would it?" Peon asked. The lead weights dangled beneath the bell; Peon bashed his leg on his weight more than once before he judged the distance between leg and metal properly.

"No," Rudy allowed. "A ring should work, I would think, but even that would misbehave somewhat in the surf." The harbor's breakwater insured that the bell, and the trio motivating it, didn't fight through currents and waves.

Just the tide. "Less talking more walking," Aeneas said. "Tide and lack of air, remember?"

Peon smiled and set to.

Back at the cave where they'd hidden the diving bell, Peon had wondered about Rudy's choice of jobs. "You're investing in vintage wine, now?"

That had been the only story Peon had heard of treasure sunk to the harbor's bottom. Rudy had mentioned it the first night they'd been in town, of a case of amphora from one of the more well-known vineyards in Gaul.

An Imperial vineyard. With the most valuable of seals on the amphora and everything. Apparently, the choice red had been a gift from the First Roman to the Persian court. Not so much a begging of favor as a reminder that everyone made money when certain subjects were, for lack of a better term, forgotten.

Which gesture didn't have the same impact from the bottom of the Amathus harbor, of course. In Peon's humble opinion.

"Not so much investing as... insuring," Rudy had said.

"Rudy."

The big man shrugged.

"She said you're an ogre. A man of almost infinite talents, excepting only the ability to satisfy her desires."

Rudy ignored the reminder of the insults. As he had ever since receiving That Particular Letter from his amor. "A gift, that's all it is, Peon. Surely you'd allow me the romantic gesture? The lapse into imagination?"

"The loss of your mind? My friend, Peon loves you with the devotion of a grandmother. And I say this with the loyalty of an old dog. You're an idiot."

Aeneas had nodded his complete agreement. "You are a magnificent, ridiculous human being, Rudy. A gift from the gods. And yes, a moron."

"A man in love?" Peon suggested.

Aeneas nodded again. "Yes, that's it entirely. A man in love. And we?"

"We are admirers of the virtues. Devotees of the goddess."

"We're going into the fucking ocean to recover half a dozen big ass bottles of wine because our friend is in love with a woman who despises him."

And so that's what they did, the trio. They walked to a depth of about thirty feet, darkness above and sand below, and sorted a shipwreck for the amphora strewn there. "How do we tell which ones have the Imperial seal?"

"Here," Rudy said. "I took the opportunity while we were in that Roman camp." He handed each of his friends a disk of lead, the Imperial seal proudly carved into each. "They'd built up a pile in their trash heap."

Using their feet to comb the sands, the trio found three of the rumoured six amphora jugs before Peon noticed something. Four before Aeneas did. Five before either of them had the heart to ask their Cupid-stricken friend about it. "Ah, Rudy?" Aeneas finally asked, once Peon's shrug indicated the moment had come. "Did you forget something?"

Rudy looked at the voice; darkness took the quizzical look on the big man's face. "What do you mean, Aeneas?"

"Pitch, Rudy. We forgot the pitch." Peon was proud of the way he kept the disgust out of his voice. Peon had to; the leaks and the seawater climbing up his chest meant he had too many other things on his mind to judge his friend so. "She gets five."

"Peon, please, I promised all six."

"You wrote her a gods-damned promise?"

Aeneas tisked his tongue. "Comrades, please. Focus."

Peon shrugged away the momentary anger. He had to; the water was now brushing Peon's chin. "I'm cutting the ropes, Rudy."

"Fine, fine. Just so long as I get to blame you for my broken promise."

It took more than an hour for the friends to wash onto the beach; the bell maintained enough air to float them all, and the amphorae, to the surface, and quickly. It was the swimming that took forever, while the bell slowly fought to return the amphorae to their original depth.

Exhausted, the trio lay on their backs in the sand, the tide now turning and chasing their feet. They'd left the bell to its doom; the amphorae they'd dragged above the high tide line. "Ok, Rudy, you can indeed blame me for your broken promise," Peon said, upon gathering his breath.

"In exchange for?" Aeneas added.

Peon considered it. "When did you send the letter?"

Rudy didn't answer. And he still didn't answer.

"Rudy, when did you send her the letter?"

"The one where you promised her all six of the Emperor's jugs?" Aeneas added.

"Guys."

Peon sighed. Because the new moon decorated the sky above, and the stars alone wouldn't illuminate his usual shrug. "Time to go, gentlemen. We've amphorae to ship."

"And assassins to dodge," Aeneas added.

Rudy waited until his friends had rigged three of the big jugs so that he could carry them; Aeneas and Peon took the other two. "Aren't you two jumping to conclusions? I'll admit, I did send the letter that morning."

"When you heard the story."

"Right."

Peon let the math run through his head. Their Amathus trip had now been ongoing for just over a month.

The delight of Rudy's life, the moon in his stars, the woman who'd vowed to string Rudy up by his toes and skin his hairy hide from his bones, resided in a palace in the sand some two weeks away by boat.

Irenala the Witch Queen had won her palace and her lands through magic and cunning. She'd aquired a navy, small and deadly, and terrified a certain subset of the Roman merchant captains with her tactics and her astonishing knowledge of their most valuable shipment schedules. Irenala's name and deeds were sung of in taverns in three different countries; Imperial scholars had begun to take notice of her many virtues and whispered-of powers.

Irenala's patience was, most notably in Peon's researches, not generally listed among either category.

By the time the trio returned to the Crab's Breakfast, sunset relenquishing the sky behind them, Peon had begun to admire Rudy's solution to this minor problem.

Or, perhaps not solution, so much as a hastily improvised covering of the trio's tracks. Rudy had paid a merchant to ship the amphorae, using unknowing intermediaries and trickling out one by one over a space of five months, to Irenala.

From five very different ports. "It's the best I could do," Rudy said, as the trio trudged to the bar.

"With the money in your friends' pockets," Aeneas said.

"I'll settle the bar tab," Rudy agreed.

Peon sipped a bitter beer; Peon felt the stimulation as needed counterpoint to the ache in his feet. And the worry in his mind. While Rudy went upstairs, to change and bring back coins for the bar bill, Peon ruminated.

By the time Rudy returned, Peon had come to a realization. "Were the merchants people we know? Respect?"

Rudy thought about it; Aeneas raised an eyebrow. "I don't believe we've used any of their services before tonight, Peon," Rudy finally answered.

"Good," Peon continued. "Ok, not good. Deplorable. Necessary. We used aliases, I hope?"

In fact, Peon and Aeneas had remained well out of sight while Rudy negotiated the details of his convoluted message to his lover. "Of course, Peon. Do you want to tell me where you're going with this? Even for you, the logic isn't..."

Peon turned to the bartender, tapping the empty mug until Peon received the nod of acknowledgement. "Tonight, we will grieve."

Aeneas didn't reply. Instead, he drained his own cup of wine, a musty white Aeneas had been saving the taste of for a special occasion, and set the empty next to Peon's.

Rudy's own beverage of celebration this night had been a bare hint of ice brandy; a rare delicacy from the Alps, Roman wine frozen and concentrated to just the right strength, then aged in barrels rumored to have been carried by the First Caesar during his campaigns in Gaul. Rudy's back ached, his knees screamed. The sip of brandy, a cup of the day's-catch soup, and now Rudy wanted nothing more than a bed and dreams of Iranela. Certainly not a night of drinking for reasons he didn't understand.

"Peon, please..."

Aeneas put his hand on his friend's shoulder. "She'll destroy the vessels, Rudy."

"The last one, at least," Peon added. "Knowing Iranela, though, she might start with the second one. Or perhaps even the first, once she realizes whose delivery they've accepted charge of."

Rudy's face drained of blood. "Oh." The big man laid aside pleasant dreams and recovery time, and set his own cup on the bar.

Long hours later, Peon watched the fire. Aeneas snored comfortably from the window seat, while Rudy lay face down across the table. Occasional mournful blubbers drifted from between the crossed arms the big man used for a pillow. Coins lay scattered across the table, change from the necessities of the evening. Peon considered going to bed.

Especially when the scholar came through the door. Peon heard the creak of hinges; this he ignored. Later than normal, this visitor, but certainly none of Peon's business.

"Ah, is anyone awake?" the voice asked.

The voice resonated in Peon's mind; it summoned memories. Peon should have ignored the twinned whispers in favor of the fire and the ale remaining to him. Or perhaps the soft bed waiting.

Instead, he turned to discover whether his ears had grown comfortable with mistakes. "Son of a bitch."

The scholar heard the words. And, likely in Peon's judgement, recognized their source. The old man, tall, rail thin, met Peon's eyes. "Ah, Pellonius."

"Peon."

Marcessus nodded. "Is anyone alive? Or have you done to the innkeeper what you've done to the ale barrels?"

Peon shrugged. "Everyone went to bed. The server told me to use the taps as I needed." Peon turned back to the fire.

Marcessus set his traveling gear, backpack walking stick and a leather dispatch bag, next to Peon and Rudy's table. Then he went behind the bar; Peon listened as Marcessus poured his own mug of something. Then Marcessus took up a seat next to Peon. "You three must have had a very good day. Or an exceptionally bad one."

"Provisionally, both."

Marcessus smiled, shook his head, and sipped from his mug. By happenstance, or perhaps not, he'd chosen the same bitter beer as Peon. "You're leaving Cyprus, then."

"Soon."

The old man accepted Peon's conversational minimalism without comment. He had some experience, perhaps. "Need a job?"

Peon looked at Rudy, Aeneas, the bottom of his cup and the faint flickers of the fire, before he turned to Marcessus. "No politics?"

"You're sitting in the middle of the Empire, Peon."

Peon admitted that politics invaded everything. And that the scholar was uniquely unsuited to leaving well enough alone. "I will protect my friends."

"Above all other considerations."

Peon shrugged. "You didn't answer."

Marcessus weighed his goals. His former student wouldn't have believed him if he'd said so, but Marcessus did actually keep Peon's needs firmly in mind. "I need to return to Antioch. Briefly, to recover a set of documents."

That, and listen for hints of Ceila's progress. Perhaps leave a letter for her. In the event of fair winds and following seas, maybe visit the location he'd hidden in plain sight on the map he'd created for the governor.

Marcessus hadn't planned on meeting his old student tonight. He was, in the event, happy to let the proceedings evolve as necessary.

Peon would have loved to have spent his life ignoring the bloody wavefront of the Empire's movement. In an ideal life, the one in Peon's head revolving principally around lovers and beer and tales well told, the trio's ears would never again be troubled by the legions and their doings.

Antioch had been one of the cities on Peon's list. To visit, to stir the dust of the ancients and sift for the fragments they'd left behind them. Rumor flew, of the Persian general and her surprise visit to Antioch. Along with several thousand of her closest and most vicious friends. And how Astilinna had spectacularly mistimed her invasion.

"Nonnian yet survives, Marcessus."

The scholar nodded. "That is what the Empire reports, isn't it?" Marcessus weighed his options, the needs of his students old and new. "Nonnian holds a map I should never have made for him. If he keeps it, uses it..."

Peon met the old man's eyes. Peon recognized what he saw there. Determination. "We are not soldiers, Marcessus. Even Aeneas cannot protect you if you insist on pretending we are something we are not."

"Asking you to do that which you will not?"

Peon turned away. The old man had never pretended. Peon knew better than to believe his mentor would change now. "What do you offer in exchange, then?"

"Ah, Peon," Marcessus said, easing down in his chair to sip from his beer, and hide the grin. "If I told you that you were the only one in the world I could trust with this particular map, what would you say?"

Peon didn't bother to hide the look of disgust that crossed his face. Though Peon did hope that keeping his face turned to the fire left the old man mystified as to the extent.

Peon pondered then the wisdom of working for someone who knew his weaknesses. "You've financing, at least?"

"Of course."

"Ah, well," Peon finally said. "We didn't really have anyplace better to go."

Marcessus's knowing chuckle followed Peon as he made his way up the stairs to bed.