Sunday, April 20, 2014

Page 638

“Many of the reapers joining us have been in isolation for ages,” said Salazar. “They’ve never chosen a side, because they’ve never needed to. Most of them originally died long before it was common practice for governments to record any meaningful details about the lives that their citizens lived. And as floating, imaginary beings, it’s easy to live beneath everyone’s radar, so a lot of the time, the only thing we have go on is word-of-mouth: what reapers tell us about each other. And that’s not much.”

It’s a simple matter for Abolish to sneak agents in as one of these “unknown” reapers,’ said Armengél.

“The Vanguard may be larger than ever, but it is definitely not stronger,” said Salazar. “It’s disorganized, and corruption has taken full advantage of that.”

Zeff’s gaze hardened. “Corruption? That is a bold accusation, General Salazar.”

“No, it isn’t,” Salazar said flatly. “The Vanguard has always had its share of eccentrics and troublemakers. I’m sure you’ve met plenty of them. They’re valuable assets, but they thrive in chaos. And they make it worse.”

Mariana found herself in agreement there, at least.

Armengél hovered behind his partner, nodding deeply. ‘Ideally, we would slow down the recruiting process in order to give ourselves time to adjust, but saying that now is like telling a dog to chew its food more.

At the ensuing discomforted silence, Salazar’s expression lightened again. She grabbed a rice cake from the tray beside her and took a bite. “Have any you heard of the Vahgrakaanas?” she asked.

The word was familiar, but Mariana couldn’t place it. She didn’t need to, though.

It’s a group of five rogue servants, all of moderate fame,’ said Shenado. ‘And the name. Vahgrakaanas. It means ‘vagrant lords’ in Old Mohssian.

“That’s right,” said Salazar. “They’re still small and comparatively weak, but they’re capitalizing on the times and gathering clout right now. A lot of people suspect that they’re trying to become a fourth major player, equal to the Vanguard, Abolish, and Sai-hee.”

Five deserters, is what I’ve heard,’ said Axiolis. ‘From both the Vanguard and Abolish, supposedly. Not sure I believe that, though.’

“It’s true,” said Salazar. “But they won’t be five for much longer. Because I will be the sixth.”

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Page 637

It’s always nice to see a friendly face and have a pleasant chat,’ said Axiolis, ‘but I get the impression that’s not really why you’re here now.

“It does seem odd that the two of you are traveling alone,” said Zeff.

“Why?” said Salazar. “Is it dangerous here?”

“Even with your level of strength, someone as important as you should have some kind of security detail,” said Zeff.

That left the General quiet, but after a moment, Armengél responded for her. ‘There aren’t that many people we trust right now.

“Why?” said Mariana.

“Let’s table that question for a bit,” said Salazar. “There are some other things we should discuss first.”

Do go on, then,’ said Shenado.

The butler chose that moment to arrive with aforementioned snacks, which further delayed the discussion between the three servants as Salazar politely complained that there wasn’t anything alcoholic. The reapers, however, continued talking while Mariana and Zeff just listened.

In terms of raw manpower, the Vanguard is stronger now than it has ever been,’ said Armengél. ‘Twenty years ago, we hardly had five thousand active servants, but now we have ten times that. In the past year alone, we’ve gained over three thousand new recruits--many of them, reapers who have never taken on a servant before and therefore require considerable direction.

Startling numbers,’ said Axiolis. ‘Abolish must not be pleased. This business with aberrations has only ended up reinforcing our cause.

Poetic justice for not upholding the Old Law,’ said Shenado. ‘If they keep allowing their pets to break neutrality agreements, Sai-hee might even start helping us out.

“You’re being too optimistic,” said Salazar now that the butler had ventured off again. “It’s nice to imagine that the enemy’s plan has blown up in their face, but that’s not exactly the case here, unfortunately.”

Explain,’ said Shenado.

“As Armengél said, the Vanguard is larger than ever,” said Salazar. “Too large, in other words. Bloated. And still growing. All these new recruits--who’s to say some of them aren’t Abolish spies?’

That is why they are vetted,’ said Axiolis.

Which, at best, is a difficult process,’ argued Armengél.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Page 636

Juliana Salazar had always been unpredictable for as long as Mariana had known her, so it made a certain amount of sense that the woman would just show up unannounced like this. She was loud, obnoxious, and way too easy-going.

She was also a General of the Vanguard’s ground forces, as well as Mariana’s previous commanding officer.

As Mariana recalled, the first thing that anyone noticed when they looked at Salazar was her hair, and fifteen years later, she saw that had not changed as Salazar strode into the welcoming chamber with a rainbow falling around her face. On anyone else, Mariana imagined it would have looked ridiculous, but on Salazar, somehow, it seemed all too fitting.

Salazar’s reaper followed in behind her. Armengél was this one’s name, and even through the filter of perception that was every reaper’s appearance, he still managed to look dour. His flaming eyes rounded down, as if sullen about something, but Mariana knew that was just the way he usually was.

The rainbow woman smiled that giant smile of hers as she saw Mariana. “There you are! Oh, and Zeff! How are you?!” She didn’t wait for any responses and just moved in for a big hug.

Mariana still had her gun but was able to endure the hug without using it. “We are very well. What brings you to here?”

“Why, you, of course,” said Salazar. “No offense, but Aguarey isn’t exactly my ideal vacation spot. We wanted to talk to you.”

About what?’ said Shenado.

“Oh, lots of things. Got any snacks? I could go for some snacks.”

Mariana exchanged glances with her husband before waving to the butler by the door. The man scurried off, and they moved their conversation into the next room where they could all sit down on the cushioned furniture with silver embroidery.

Nice house,’ said Armengél. ‘You steal it?

“No,” said Mariana. “It’s been in Zeff’s family for generations.”

Salazar clicked her tongue. “Oh, that’s right. We never did visit you after the wedding. Always meant to.”

“I imagine you were very busy,” said Mariana.

“Aren’t we all?” said Salazar.

Page 635

“You--” tried Luther, but David wasn’t done.

“And here, channel eight--oh. Non-stop infomercials. Always something interesting there. Then you have your channel for music videos, your channel for food, your channel for wildlife. And of course, I made sure to include several religious networks as well--I know how pious you are, so I’m sure you will enjoy those. Ah, and my favorite: the crackling fireplace. I am not even sure what you would call this channel, but I find it very soothing.”

Luther just shut his eyes and rubbed his forehead. What a bastard, David was.

-+-+-+-+-

Mariana wasn’t very fond of unexpected visitors. Perhaps she’d just spent too many years in places where such visits only ever meant that someone had come to kill her. Marriage and children had not softened her in that regard. If anything, they had made it worse. Or better, depending on one’s viewpoint. All of her children knew how to hold, fire, and clean a few different types of firearms--even Ramira, who was nine years old.

So when the guards out front radioed in with the message that some woman was requesting to see her and Zeff, it was no coincidence that the first thing Mariana did was slide the speaker box over and reveal a hidden recess in the wall. A handgun lay there, and she grabbed it. It wasn’t loaded, of course, but that was why she always carried a spare magazine around with her.

Would you relax?’ said Shenado.

There was a very simple answer to that question, but Mariana decided not to be rude. To her eyes, Shenado and Axiolis were both darkly orange foxes. Each had multiple tails that flickered with ethereal fire, just like their burning eyes.

The speaker box stilled worked fine in its new position, and Zeff asked the guards, “Does this woman have a name?”

A pause, and then, <“She says it’s Salazar. Says you know her.”>

Zeff blinked at his wife.

It’s been fifteen years,’ said Axiolis. ‘What’s she doing here?

Mariana pressed the button and told the guards, “Let her in.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Page 634

With all his spare time lately, Luther had been thinking carefully about what type of hint he should give his brother. He could simply lie, of course, but that would no doubt kill any further attempts to barter. Worse, it might even make David refuse to speak with him again, and given that Luther would probably be stuck down here for quite some time, David’s traitorous company was one of the few things he actually looked forward to. Not that he could ever let David know this. It would only give the man an advantage.

So he had to tell David something, at least. And he knew what. “The hint, then. The extra precautions I took before the night of my undoing, as it were. I will only tell that it has to do with money.”

“Ah.” David rubbed his beard. “I suppose that is a satisfactory clue.”

“Unless you give me something else, you will get nothing more from me,” said Luther.

“Okay,” said David. He stood and reached into his vest pocket. He pulled out a small remote. He hit one of the buttons.

The screen on Luther’s television turned to gray static.

Luther folded his arms. “Have you forgotten? You signed a written agreement, and one of the stipulations--”

“--Was to ensure that you be given certain numbered channels, yes. I read it quite thoroughly; I assure you. But if you look closely, you will see that I did give you those channels. For instance, channel six--” David flipped over to the specified channel, wherein the picture returned. “See? You requested this one in particular, and here it is.”

Luther stared at images of an animated sheep walking on two legs through a very boxy-looking city.

“Normally, channel six is merely a boring network with daily soap operas and nightly news programs,” said David. “Fortunately, I knew you would not be interested in any of that, so instead, I had a special receiver installed in your television, and now your channel six is twenty-four hours of cartoons.”

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Page 633

“I am surprised our sister lent you her pet just for this,” said Luther.

“I’m sure she was merely concerned for your safety,” said David. “If you escaped out there into the world, who knows what might happen to you?”

“Ah, so if I were to escape, you are saying that this young lady here would not immediately hunt me down and cut me in two?”

David glanced at her a moment, then smiled at Luther. “I doubt she would need to kill you in order to subdue you. But then again, I have been wrong before. Feel free to give it a try.”

“Hmph. Can she not speak for herself, this one?”

“I am sure she is a lovely conversationalist, but I did not request her company for her verbal skills.”

“Perhaps she simply knows better than to talk to us snakes,” said Luther. “Smart girl.”

The look she gave him was distant, as if she were hardly even paying attention, like Luther wasn’t even worth her time. In a way, it was more frightening than if she’d been glaring at him. And more irritating.

The maintenance man finished up and exited the cell. Luther stood to inspect his work. Rather a small screen, he felt, and placed a bit too high up for his liking, but it had all the channels he wanted, which was the most important thing. He looked around. “No remote?”

“You can change it by hand,” said David.

“Agh. This must qualify as cruel and unusual punishment, surely.”

“You have your television. I have held up my end of the bargain. Hold up yours.”

Luther put on a frown. In truth, he was a bit relieved. He’d expected David to come up with some kind of clever catch, but this was just petty nonsense. And he was perfectly fine with that. “Very well. A hint is all I promised--and for this meager display, that is certainly all I will give.”

“Out with it, then. If your hint bears fruit, then perhaps this meager display will change.”