May 2019


“You will stand down there, boyo, and show me your papers, or you won’t like what’s coming next!”

Mercer, gritting his teeth, began weighing his options. He could take down one night watchman easily enough, but if he alerted his fellows, if they raised a hue and cry, then the game was all over. Before he could say anything else, though, the massive form of Pyfer had waddled up to the watchman and laid a gentlemanly arm on his shoulder.

“Friend,” said the Aul, “I recall a time when three students of the Lightfaith were arguing about whose teacher was superior. The first student said to the others, ‘My teacher is the best. He can go days without eating.’

“Uh-huh,” the watchman said.

Pyfer continued, smiling: “Then the second student replied, ‘My teacher is the best. He can go days without sleeping.'”

“Hm. And what did the third student say?” asked the watchman.

“The third student said, ‘My teacher is so wise, he eats when he’s hungry and sleeps when he’s tired.'” Pyfer grinned widely at the punchline.

At this, the watchman guffawed. “You’re all right, friend,” he said. “And clearly you too are a wise man who’s been eating when he’s hungry, eh?” He tapped his cudgel lightly on the Aul’s massive stomach. “Go on, get out of here. And tell your friend to be a bit less of an arse to people what’re just doing their jobs, eh?”

“Of course. Peace on you and yours, friend.” The Aul motioned for Mercer to follow him through the checkpoint.

Mercer quietly slid his blade back into the sheath he kept concealed in the small of his back and followed.

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“I beg your pardon?” the Aul said.

“Can you walk?” Mercer snapped. “I need to know if you’re capable of moving. That will tell me if this job is impossible or merely difficult.”

Pyfer grunted and hauled himself into a standing position. The Aulite immediately fell to his knees upon seeing this, reciting a reverent mantra under his breath.

“Good,” said Mercer. He stabbed a finger at the Aulite. “You there. Get up. I need you to get some things for me.”

The Aulite did not move. “I must do my obeisance,” he muttered. “You do not command me.”

“Brother, do as he asks,” said Pyfer. “The Aul commands it so.” He spoke in a gentle, almost genial tone.

“I’m going to need two yards’ worth of cloth, a pin, and one of these draperies,” Mercer said. “And a needle and thread.”

The courier hated speaking about his miserable time as a clothier’s apprentice, but the skills that had been smashed into his skull by Cullis’s watchful eye and swift hand came in handy. It only took him about an hour to fashion the drapes into a set of robes that served to cover most of Pyfer’s immense bulk, and the fabric that the Aulite brought made a fine turban to cover up all those ginger curls.

That just left the Aul’s intensely green eyes.

“Squint,” said Mercer.

Pyfer narrowed his eyes a shade. “Like this?”

“Squint harder, like you’ve just emerged into bright sunshine,” Mercer said. Looking again at his charge’s bulk, he added, “If you’ve ever seen the sun, that is.”

“How’s this?” The Aul’s eyes were mere slits now, and the distracting icy green was barely visible.

“Excellent,” said Mercer. “If we can get you sat in a wagon, you may just pass for a Naix.” He gestured to the door. “Come on, let’s go. It’ll be nearly dark now.”

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Flicking the paper with the address into the flame, Mercer unfolded the parchment, which contained his instructions.

Collect one Aul Pyfer from this location. You may be familiar with the Aulite sect; Pyfer is regarded by Aulites as their incarnate god and has been since his discovery at age two.

You will escort Pyfer to an Aulite agent in Eastfall; the specific address is at dead drop #13. Under no circumstances is he to be harmed; under no circumstances is he to be identified. Do not surrender Pyfer to anyone, be they Aulites or government.

If the mission is compromised, burn all papers rather than surrendering them. Money for expenses is at dead drop #13 and your complete payment awaits at the destination.

Mercer frowned. The Aulites? He remembered them proselytizing in the center of town, dressed in colorful rags and making strange sounds. It had amazed him, at the time, that the Lightfaith had allowed them to persevere.

Someone else must have been amazed as well, since they’d been annihilated a week or two ago, with all their adherents and clergy rounded up in a vicious pogrom. They were likely waiting trial or dead by now, so why had their god somehow survived?

He shrugged and gave the arranged knock. It wasn’t in his job to ask questions. Wondering was free, but answers were costly.

A timid-looking man in ill-fitting peasant clothes answered the door. “You are the courier, yes?” he said. “The Aul awaits.”

Shown into an interior room, Mercer was ushered through a muslin curtain into a candlelit room. Immediately, he put his head in his hands.

“Greetings, courier,” the Aul said. “You need not bow to me like that.”

He was a literal mountain of a man, more than six feet tall and clearly north of three hundred pounds. His skin was darkly bronzed, probably from applications of moisturizing quinon cream, which Mercer could smell hanging thickly in the air. Above it all, the Aul had a mop of ginger curls and incredibly piercing, grey-green eyes.

Even if no one had even seen an Aulite in their life, they would remember the Aul.

“What have you been feeding him?” Mercer snapped at the scrawny usher.

“The Aul is our incarnate god,” the man said. “He has wanted for nothing.”

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On this day
We must be
Very careful
About whom
We remember
Lest we
Realize all
Of those
Still living
Whom we have
Forgotten

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“When one awakes from a dream, that world is destroyed. It persists only in memory, and even then it is imperfect memory, as we dreamers well know.” The Margrave spoke calmly, letting the words flow out at a languid pace. “Nevertheless, the dreamer often will try to cling to fragments of the dream, fragments of memories. There are things that are worth saving in that dream. Though they are not real, we value them.”

She paused a moment. “If this town were a dream, and you were to awaken, what would you remember? What would you struggle for, even as it ran away like sand in your fingers?”

“My mother.” Ruby said fiercely. “My brother. My friends.”

The Margrave scoffed. “You remember family, individuals here and there, the occasional event. It could have happened anywhere. What is there about this town that is worth remembering, worth saving?”

Ruby’s lip began to tremble. Slurs in the dark, whispers of atrocities past, and the grinding everyday…what did she have?

“You cannot think of anything. No one can. But for the incidentals, the rosy spectacles of childhood, there is nothing.” The Margrave smiled lightly. “Let it die.”

Still speechless, still trying desperately to think of some rebuttal, Ruby had sunk to her knees, sobbing.

“What we have here is a dream that is worth fading away. I have seen it a thousand times or more, and this may yet be the last. You must awaken, the dream must fade away, and there will be no awakening for those who cling to it.

“You could say that about a hundred places,” Ruby snarled through her tears.

Those impenetrable eyes shone, dark and deep, as she continued in her strange singsong register. “Yes. And I say it now, about this place. There may be a million places worth destroying across time and space and possibility, but this one is mine.”

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Aldebar is a merchant along with his kin
There’s nothing in town he hasn’t smuggled in

Ilona his daughter with a head full of trade
Competing all others into an early grave

Cousin Tor who handles the bulk of the work
The other names shine, but the other names shirk

Old Vittorio sits on a throne made of steel
The kingdom is safe, but what’s the unease he feels?

Young Otho his son, a warrior of reknown
So rarely seen by any here in this town

Octavia walks the halls of their home
Decked out in mourning, but is it her own?

Alma, shining, now the lady of artists
Bereft of a mate who was not the smartest

Alonzo the wealthy, flush now with gold
From whence did it come? The trail grows cold

Silvio the chatterbox, always ready to talk
His golems, though silent, prepare now to walk

Lord Ivan with a secret in his chest
Nobody told though for time he is pressed

Young Tibor his nephew, long thought a fool
Has now found himself a useful new tool

Gizela, once heir with mail in her glove
Now lost and cut deep by one she did love

Melbourne counts his coins of gold
But imperiled are his dreams of old

I see dark Sydney, born of greed
A mother by an unknown’s seed

Fell Mortimer, her uncle hewn of stone
Who three times now turned down the throne

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