"To the Last Syllable of Recorded Time"
He had grown rather fond of the clock that stood in his chambers, in the way that its rhythm played out with his heartbeat in an elaborate tattoo. He liked its age, liked its smooth pale brown finish, liked its three beats for every two that twitched and rushed at his throat and wrists. He'd lain more than one day there, by the clock, counting minutes in heartbeats, counting lifetimes by life.
But this was, perhaps, not the best time for musings. He had before him now a task, a direction, in the form of a report whose truth resonated in his very being, in the flesh above his wrist, in the brand upon his skin.
His steward was there in a moment. "Sir."
He hesitated. Dios stood patiently, familiar with his employer's indecision. Still, this time, it was different from the paralysis of before. This new information...perhaps it was temporary, but at least for the moment, it had given him new vitality.
Still, was it the right choice? This demanded action, but delicate action. The wrong decision could spell a loss for his nation. It could spell disaster for the lesser nations.
And what was to guarantee loyalty? He had heard the rumors, and that blight of five years earlier was still fresh in his mind...And quite the blight it was. Had the man not been so clever with his defense, insisting that he was but a mere tool to the bishop, he would have been hung for high treason. Had he not been so clever, so invaluable, he probably would have been hung for high treason anyway.
Let this be a test, then, of his loyalty, of his skill. Let him take to the land where first he had failed.
The bishop once again looked down at the report. Layers upon layers; convolutions upon convolutions. Parallels, and sentimentalities. He could see where the true loyalties lay: with God, with country, with family, or with ambition. It was all far too much to pass up.
"Bring me Albert Silverberg."
And Dios nodded, and went to do his bidding, and Sasarai smiled, and felt as though he had awakened from a long sleep.
They didn't know much about the man with the grin and the red hair. He seemed friendly, if a touch condescending, but it was hard to tell when he'd said perhaps ten words to the entirety of the serving wenches at the bar. His accent was charming, cultured; he liked wines red, and sweet, and relatively inexpensive. Every day of every work week, he would come in early and position himself under a window, leaving only when the light had achieved that peculiar, thrumming quality when it's too dark for fine work but too light for candles; and then he would close his book with a thump, scatter a handful of coins across the table, and go off to god only knew where.
He did nurse his drinks, and several of the more irritable wenches had grumbled about that at first, but he smiled frequently enough and tipped well enough that they forgave him of it. Besides, they would never remove him; his mystery provided diversion to them. Julia in particular had become fixated on him, deciding that he was a deposed prince of some exotic land who had suffered numerous trials and hardships, but was merely waiting for the moment when he could seize his birthright once again and return to his homeland; his cheerful smile was merely a brave front to conceal his inner pain. The others laughed at her.
Nevertheless, they were all quite interested when a woman, somehow at once mousy and bold, walked in just after the noon rush and sat opposite the smiling man. To their dismay, the two began speaking in a language that Maria guessed was from the Toran region, but they managed to convince Aemilia, the cook who knew a great deal about a great deal, to eavesdrop on the two.
"So have you accomplished what you came for?" the mousy woman was asking as Aemilia made her subtle way over toward the window-table.
"Oh, yeah," the smiling man replied. "It takes a real genius to learn every thing there is to be learned, but I'm nothing if not a genius."
"Knowledge is not something you obtain, my dear Apple." Perhaps that was some sort of pet name? "It's indefinite. You never stop learning. My journey is interminable."
The woman muttered something, and the smiling man laughed.
"Why, my dear Apple! You've become quite tart."
"Caesar – "
He lost his grin as he leaned forward. "I like it here. Have you seen the library? It's a nice library. And the wine here is good. I never even knew I liked wine, but look! I'm on a journey of discovery."
"You can get all that in Chisha."
"Yeah, but here – no one's even vaguely heard the name Silverberg for a good, what, two hundred miles around. And even if they had – why would they care?"
"I've never known you to run from notoriety."
"Not my notoriety I'm running from." He took a long sip of his wine, and when his head came back up, his smile was fixed firmly in place. "So. What brings you here? Death in my family, maybe, and someone's willing to trade a bit of info for a courier service? A wedding? It'd have to be someone fairly important, for a clan gathering..."
"You're wanted, Caesar."
"Oh? Tax evasion, probably. I can't remember having killed anyone – "
"Ha, ha. The Grasslands and Zexen are going to war."
"Well, color me surprised. Is it really that time of year again?"
"Caesar – "
"No, really. I mark my calendar by it. Hell, I mark my daily schedule by it. 'Grasslands and Zexen are at war again. Muffins are done!'"
"I don't think you get it. They're going to war, together."
He blinked. "Not against each other? Together?"
"And they want me?"
"Against whom." Caesar scowled; she shrugged. "Tinto."
"Tinto? Do they even have an army?"
"Quite a formidable one."
"Yeah. That's – What the hell happened?"
"Lilly Pendragon went missing."
"Lilly Pendragon goes missing every minute and a half."
"Well, I can't delve into the mind of Gustav, but he decided to get worked up over it this time, so here I am."
"And they want me. Don't they realize that there are a hundred hundred better strategists out there? I could compile a list for them."
"They know you. They think of you as a...uniting force."
"They have a uniting force." Apple was silent, and Caesar groaned. "They somehow managed to misplace the Flame Champion."
"Geddoe believes that he fulfilled his obligation to both lands, and Chris is a Zexen and Hugo a Karayan, and therefore everyone thinks them biased. So they need a third party, one without ties to either side in particular. Someone famous."
"As I live and breathe. I'm to become a figurehead. Never saw this day coming."
"Oh, come on. You'd never let them not let you take the entire thing into your own hands."
"This is all just wonderful. Give me numbers."
"Zexen has maybe twenty thousand. Grasslands has half again that. Kamaro has promised somewhere in the vicinity of five thousand."
"And they have...?"
"A hundred thousand. Maybe more. They're calling for assistance from their old allies around Dunan."
"Good God. What are their chances of getting it?"
"Couldn't tell you."
"A hundred thousand. Lord."
"The man wants his daughter back."
"At least he feels loyalty toward her. Pretty rare to find a family like that, these days."
"Well? Up for another run through the Grasslands?"
"Why the hell not."
"Good. I'll give you time to sober up, and – "
"Oh, really. You never start on about your brother unless you're at least a little drunk."
"I didn't even mention Albert. Did you hear me mention Albert?"
"Not a once. Where are you staying?"
He glared at her a moment, then stood up and jerked his head irritably. As she stood, he reached into his pocket and scattered too many coins across the table – more by far than he normally did – and the more astute among them realized right away that this would be the last time they heard from the man with the red hair and omnipresent smile.
You remember that bit I that I said before was the prologue? Yeah. Not so much.