LOST COLONY CH. 05-2

Lord Toph several days earlier had mentioned that the pilgrimage would visit another fallen airship. By means of a guttering ring of torches, and the light from both of Kaybe’s moons, Sparr could see that he was correct. The clearing that Liette led the group to was shaped like a tiny amphitheater, with several rows of rough wooden benches on one side, and the looming hulk of an airship on the other.

“When we say that Omm cast down the machines, you will see that this is more than a metaphor! Before you is one such machine, just as Omm left it. I remind you of his second step in the journey…”

Sparr excused himself. Hoping his curiosity didn’t draw too much notice, he crept around to the end of the airship and slipped inside. There was barely enough light to see, but Sparr could make out that, like the first one, this airship had been stripped. It appeared to be a mid-range flyer which would have been used to shuttle colonists and supplies across the continent. Such a machine would have been fabricated after colonists arrived. Somewhere, possibly in Shong, there had been a fabrication site. What remained of it, Sparr had no idea.

Inside the hulk of the craft, Sparr couldn’t see or hear Liette’s sermon. He tried to imagine how the ship had come to make the clearing its final resting place. It wasn’t a warship, but would have had redundant flight and safety systems. Unlike the other ship, this one showed no sign of having crashed. Had it simply been abandoned, or had there been some traumatic event? Did the colonists purposefully give up on technology?

There was a sound behind him. Startled, Sparr turned. He sought out the crude knife he had taken from one of the attackers.

“It’s me.”

Sparr eyed Kern warily. The man had been cold toward Sparr since the beginning of the pilgrimage, treating him more like a trespasser than a member of their party.

“Just checking out the machine.” Sparr hoped he hadn’t violated some Origin teaching by exploring the airship.

Kern waved his hand dismissively. “Relax,” he said, before leaning back against the hull. He stretched. “Hell of a day.”

“Yeah.” Sparr didn’t sense an immediate threat, but the man still unnerved him. “I understand attacks like today’s are rare.”

Kern nodded. “Yes. Usually if you’ve got three or four guards you’re safe. And you were right, by the way.”

“About what?”

“The men who ambushed us today. They weren’t organized at all, just hungry.”

“They’d have killed us just the same,” Sparr said.

“Right again.”

For a time neither spoke. The two stood near one of the viewports, long since stripped of its glass and seals. Now and again Liette’s voice drifted in, deep in the retelling of Omm’s journey.

“So I guess you saved my life today.” Kern seemed uneasy with the unexpected admission.

“Maybe,” Sparr admitted. In fact, the warning he had issued had almost certainly saved most of the guards, Kern included. What would have befallen the other members of the pilgrimage was less clear. “We’re all looking out for each other.”

Again, Kern seemed uneasy. He shifted awkwardly before speaking again. “Well, that isn’t entirely true.”

“Oh?” Sparr said, thoroughly confused.

“You know I work for the Governor, right?”

“Sure. Toph provided the wagons, but not the guards.”

“Yeah,” Kern said, before another long pause. Whatever was on his mind was uncomfortable. “The Governor wasn’t happy when Liette bought you and Efreem.”

As much had been evident at the time. Whatever uneasy balance of power existed between the priestess and the Governor had been tested when Liette spared the two at the arena. The Governor had been intent on seeing one or the other slain. Liette had arranged otherwise.

“I noticed,” Sparr said.

“He has no intention of letting you return to Vonde.”

It took Sparr a moment to fathom the meaning. “You mean you have no intention of allowing me to return.”

“The man practically rules the city,” Kern said.

“And carries a grudge, apparently.”

“He doesn’t like being crossed.”

“Liette crossed him, not me.”

“Don’t be naive,” the man said. “He can’t touch Liette. But if you don’t return, some will get the message, especially if on the last day of the pilgrimage you wake up dead.” Kern made a throat-cutting motion with his finger.

A chill shot through Sparr. He might be able to best Kern in a one-on-one fight, but that wasn’t the only challenge. The other guards surely must share the mission.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“You had my back today,” Kern said. “You had everyone’s back. You and Efreem.” He shook his head, the motion barely discernible in the gloom of the airship. “I’ve been doing this a long time, Alain. That’s your name, right? Alain?”

“Yes.”

“A long time,” he repeated. “I don’t know about where you came from, but in Vonde, strangers that have your back aren’t exactly commonplace.”

It gradually dawned on Sparr that Kern was trying to help him. “So where does this leave us?”

Kern sighed. “If you make it back to Vonde it’ll be both our necks.” He looked around nervously. “I guess I’m hoping you’ll find the right time to slip away before it comes to that.”

For a moment, Sparr’s anger surged. Once again, the perverse order on Kaybe was placing him into an untenable situation. If he served the Origin as required, he would return to the temple in Vonde, where he would, as Kern put it, ‘wake up dead’. However, as he thought on it further, he realized the guard captain’s revelation presented an opportunity. Sparr was already planning to slip free from the pilgrimage, either upon arriving in Shong, or before the caravan returned. Kern would make a powerful ally in such an escape.

“I see,” Sparr said. He let the words hang in the air. The more Kern thought that fleeing the caravan would be dangerous or inconvenient to Sparr, the more likely he would be to help. “You don’t think Liette can change his mind?”

“No,” Kern said, grimly. “She’ll know what’s happened, but not before. Anyway,” he continued, “don’t think she’ll stick her neck out for you.”

Sparr already knew as much. “Fuck!” he swore. “I’m temple property. I can’t just wander off.”

The guard captain thought on it for a moment before replying. “Look,” he said, “Shong is a bustling place. If I say you got caught up in some sort of trouble, Liette will have to believe me, and I can tell the Governor that I took care of you.”

It was just the sort of offer that Sparr had hoped for, although he tried not to show it. “Fuck,” he repeated. Again, Sparr dragged the moment out. “Well, I guess I should thank you. For telling me, I mean.”

Kern shook his head. “I’m sorry Alain,” he said. “Listen, when we get to Shong, we’ll figure something out. That’s the best I can do.” The man stood, shrugged, and left, leaving Sparr alone in the dark.

There seemed little else to learn in the hulk of the airship. In fact, its exploration had raised more questions than answers. Sparr was no closer to learning what had befallen the original colonists. It was clear they had thrived for a time. Setting up a fabrication site was an iterative process. To create the mid-range flyer, the colonists first would have to locate and extract minerals, create buildings, power plants, robotics, smaller machines, and finally the flyer. Agriculture, dwellings, safety, and communications certainly would have been higher priority. Sparr had witnessed evidence of decades of progress, but discovered no clue why that progress had been abandoned.

***

The airship had given Sparr a single artifact to consider. The outskirts of Shong, in comparison, were more like a curio shop overflowing with trinkets.

The approach to the city at first brought near-imperceptible changes. More foot traffic was evident, as well as a few more carts and wagons. The countryside changed as well. Here the road pressed close to the ridge, itself rockier and more imposing than those Sparr had observed during his landing. The plains they had skirted for the past week turned into soft hills, either left untouched, or planted with unfamiliar fruit trees. Drian, flushed with excitement, darted to one such tree, returning with a round, yellow fruit with a delicate, almost transparent skin. He and Sparr cautiously tasted the fruit, which reminded him of lychee.

“Don’t eat the pit,” Lord Toph called from the wagon. “It will give you the runs for a week!”

As the day drew on, the changes became more pronounced. Stalls selling fruit, steamed shellfish, or jugs of wine began to appear along the road. Crafts were also available, especially textiles. One woman woman’s stand was topped with a series of poles which she draped with a dazzling selection of fabrics, the quality of which rivaled that of the Origin priestesses. Others called out the merits of their baskets, shoes, glass, or metalwork.

It was the last of these that most drew Sparr’s interest. So far, with the exception of a pair of fine swords that he and Efreem had fought with in the Vonde arena, he had seen little evidence of skilled metalwork. Metal weapons appeared mostly to be fashioned from flattened scraps of various sizes. Even the short swords that the Governor’s guards carried were scarcely finer, just more carefully sharpened.

The metalwork he saw now seemed more advanced. Clasps, buttons, and hooks competed with more decorative objects such as pins, tiny spoons, and rings. Most were highly polished, glittering even in the modest light of Kaybe’s star. Whatever metal was used in their construction, it must be local.

The caravan stopped for a break shortly after passing through the first town, really little more than a wide spot in the road with a greater concentration of stalls and shops. As the draybeasts munched on their fodder, Liette gathered the pilgrims.

“We’re almost to our first view of Shong,” she said, her face lit with excitement. “You’ll never forget it, I promise.” The circle of pilgrims pressed in. “We won’t be able to stop there, it’s too crowded, but you’ll still get a splendid view. We’ll discuss more as a group at tonight’s lesson.”

The pilgrims began to drift away, drawn by cups of wine and plates of dried meat and fruit that Silla and Grom were setting out. Seemingly as an afterthought, Liette called back to them.

“Oh, and please don’t buy any souvenirs from the road. They’re poorly made. We’ll stop at an Origin educational boutique tomorrow where the quality is much higher.”

Sparr rolled his eyes. It wasn’t difficult to guess what the ‘Educational Boutique’ was. Gift shops were the same on Earth.

The view of Shong, on the other hand, was just as impressive as Liette had promised. Rounding a corner, the caravan emerged from a cluster of merchants to a section of the road too narrow for stalls. The left side of the road was pressed against a ragged bluff, but to the right the view swept downward and across a wide, shallow valley. At its center was Shong.

Sparr gawked. At this distance the details were still difficult to make out. Much of the town and the surrounding area were obscured by a low-lying mist or smoke, but the towers at the center were unmistakable. Each rose straight before breaking into a crazy twist or spire, different from its neighbors. This was the city he had seen from the air during his emergency landing on the planet. Ruined or not, no other place he knew of seemed likely to hold the same concentration of technology.

“Looks dirty, right?” Silla leaned over the edge of her wagon as they squeezed along the constriction in the road. Sparr had just enough room to scramble along beside the caravan.

She wasn’t wrong. The near side of the valley was green and soft, but the center in and around the city itself seemed permanently dusty. A single road led from somewhere ahead of them down toward the city. Sparr could just make out one or two even dustier patches, signs that only a few wagons were making the crossing.

“Does no one live there?”

“A few do,” Silla said. “Scavengers, mostly. You saw the metalwork in the shops? The glass?”

“Yeah.”

“Shong is mostly where it comes from. A few others sell to the pilgrims, trinkets and scraps. ‘A piece of a machine that Omm cast down himself!'” she said, mimicking a merchant.

Sparr chuckled. “You said you grew up not too far from here?”

Silla nodded. “We won’t pass through it, but yes, not too far from here.” She grew quiet.

Not for the first time, Sparr wondered what Silla felt, being so close to her home. Were their surroundings a comforting reminder of her childhood, or were such recollections painful? As with Efreem, the temple was far from the worst place to land as a slave. She could be cooking for the Governor’s gladiators, or at one of the low-grade taverns Sparr had seen in Vonde. Sparr had arrived with strong prejudices against slavery, but it wasn’t his world.

Something else caught his notice. Silla, when he first met her, had stood out with her Asian features. Distinctions between the races on Earth had blurred for hundreds of years; meeting someone so clearly ethnic had been a surprise. Now, as he surveyed the travelers around them, he realized that she wasn’t alone. There were other shopkeepers, merchants, and travelers who carried Asian ancestry. Sparr added the observation to the stack of unanswered questions about Kaybe.

The pilgrims crowded to the edge of their wagons, chattering excitedly about Shong. Even the bachelors, the solo male travelers who had been lumped into a single wagon, roused from their post-lunch stupor to gawk and boast.

“Let’s piss on the machines,” one said.

“Agreed!” bellowed another. “Whoever pisses on the most machines is king of the wagon that day!”

“King of the wagon!” the others roared. The two maidens assigned to their wagon giggled, exactly as required.

Silla and Sparr exchanged a glance. As at the temple, the chef was kept too busy for them to spend much time together, especially now that Sparr was also acting as guard, and training Drian and Tuck. He was fond of the woman. Silla wasn’t part of the sexualized, preposterous facade that the rest of the Origin adhered to. She was obliged to play no role. Silla cooked, that was all. Their conversations were among the most honest and bare of any Sparr had enjoyed. Only Efreem spoke as plainly, and he bordered on desperately quiet.

“Why do you walk so much?” Silla regarded him through sleepy eyes. Her mornings and evenings were frantically busy, preparing either breakfast or dinner for the pilgrims. Sparr suspected that afternoons in the wagon were among her few chances to rest.

“The beasts are slow,” he observed, pointing to the draybeasts that grudgingly strained at their yolks. “I can walk faster than them. Plus, I like the exercise.”

Silla smiled indulgently. Sparr found her Asian features exotic and alluring. “Okay,” she said. She sat back. “But you might want to save some of your strength. I hear there’s something planned for tonight. I’m not sure if it requires an Animal.”

***

In fact, Sparr found himself more fatigued than usual that evening. Not only did his guard duties require him to walk flank more often than not, training Tuck and Drian was growing more demanding. The two were becoming more controlled and sure with their weapons. They no longer took wild swings, or left themselves badly exposed after an attack. Plus, Sparr was frequently reminded that the youths were at least ten years younger than he. Though they mostly trained against each other, Sparr would sometimes face off with one of the two at the end of their session.

“I thought I had you,” said Drian. He was drawing in heavy lungfuls of breath, still recovering from their match.

“You did,” Sparr said. He too, was panting with fatigue. “If you had fully committed on that last attack I think you would have hit me.”

“Yeah, sure,” Drian replied. “Last time I tried that you thumped me pretty good.”

“It’s not always clear,” Sparr agreed. “But, caution does keep you alive.” When he was their age, Sparr was playing basketball at Georgetown, still ignoring his coach’s warnings not to drive to the hoop when the opposing team’s bigs were lurking. One attempt in four might result in a spectacular dunk or layup. The rest of the time he’d more likely have the ball swatted back into his face.

Back at the camp, Grom served wine while Silla finished preparing dinner. The chef was turning several spits of roasting animals which, on Earth, might have been rabbit. The smell was intoxicating. As he sometimes did, Sparr helped serve the pilgrims, then took a seat at the back.

As the group finished dinner, Liette began her lesson.

“I still remember the first time I saw Shong,” she began. “The sight today is no less captivating, I hope you’ll all agree.” The group murmured their assent as the priestess continued. “Tonight we will discuss the fourth stage in Omm’s journey.”

Sparr’s mind wandered. Shong was indeed impressive. The city dominated the valley, its physical presence far outweighing that of the cluster of small towns along the pilgrim route. On the other hand, the trade being conducted both by pilgrim caravans and merchants was mostly focused away from the dead city. The area was still a center of commerce, but it was as Efreem had said, only pilgrims and scavengers trekked the final kilometers to the city itself.

“… and now a much-deserved distraction that I hope you’ll all enjoy!” Liette stood, urging the pilgrims to join her. “A private and beautiful moment. If you’ll follow me.”

A large tent had been erected at the edge of the camp, just deep enough into the gloom of the night to reveal that it was lit from within by candles. Their flickering light danced against the inside of the tent as Liette and two of the princes guided the pilgrims close. Every meter or so, a gap in the tent fabric allowed those on the outside to peer into the tent without themselves being seen.

Sparr held back. Whatever show the pilgrims had been invited to witness wasn’t meant for him. But just as he began to turn away, Liette signaled him. When he moved to follow her, the priestess rounded the far corner of the tent to wait for him. It was the darkest corner, and the most private. The priestess waved him to her side.

“You may watch the show with me,” Liette offered. Carefully, she parted the gap in the fabric to peer within. Sparr was tall enough to look through above her.

Four people occupied the tent, two maidens, and two princes. Sparr recognized Velyn at once. The redhead had helped bathe him the first day in the temple. She and Phia had sucked him to hardness that day, a memorable but too brief encounter. The other girl he recognized as one of the new ‘talent’, who Liette had purchased just before the pilgrimage began. Talia was petite, with a spill of tight brunette locks well down her back. Sparr had more than once admired her perfectly round ass. Both wore pale, almost sheer white robes, and knelt on a pile of furs which occupied the middle of the tent.

In one corner a prince sat, equipped with a small drum, and dressed in the usual attire of the princes, tight-fitting yellow trousers and vest. The candlelight danced across his body, and threw shadows across lean muscles. As the crowd found places from which to observe the voyeuristic scene, he began tapping out a slow rhythm.

The fourth occupant, surely a prince, was barely recognizable. He stood at one end of the tent, wrapped in fine white cloth, much like the maidens. The wrapping reminded Sparr of a mummy, leaving only the youth’s mouth exposed. Like a mummy, he was unmoving.

With a giggle, the maidens embraced. Velyn started with a chaste kiss, then a hungrier one, offering her open mouth. As Talia slowly responded, the redhead wrapped her arms around the brunette. “It’s okay,” Velyn said, her voice so soft as to be audible only to those nearest the couple. “It will be nice, you’ll see.”

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