The transdimensional empire, the Unity, has dissolved, its ruling powers forced into exile - but empires don't die easily. The living planarship Ways and Means has come to medieval Earth and ended the Black Death, but it keeps its intentions to itself. Someone is trying to kill its agent Osia, who is suffering through her own exile. Spy-turned-anthropologist Meloku becomes a target, too, when she catches Ways and Means concealing the extent of its meddling. While they fight to survive, Fiametta - an Italian soldier, mercenary, and heretical preacher - raises an army and a religious revolt, aiming to split Europe in half.
File Under: Science Fiction [ Last Throes | The Saviour | Let It Burn | Crisis of Faith ]
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There was no such thing as a restful day at sea. Not on this boat. Not for her. But some days were worse than others.
She had known this one was coming.
She’d filled the day with distractions. Her crew bickered just above the range of her hearing. Metal clanked against metal, thunked on wood as they wound the capstan. The sails scraped and ruffled, rhythmic as breath. The banks of oars trailed silently along the water, the wake of their passage the only evidence that the boat was moving.
She took no part in that work. Not today. Her crew bustled about it. They were willful. They had their own opinions about what was suited for their talents and when she’d get in the way. She'd made them that way. They’d all woke with the teal-gray predawn, slender lanterns dancing across the deck.
She sat at the edge of the deck, by the railing, her legs folded.
She had been released from active service on her other ship, her real one. She was to survey and scour these oceans, learning everything there was to learn. One of her crew dropped a survey probe. After a muted splash, there was a steady, whip-fast uncoiling of rope.
There was still little enough light in the sky. But more than there should have been.
A finch-tail comet brushstroked the southern horizon, shading the sky crimson. It moved like no comet should have. It traveled perpendicular to the path of the sun. It glowed brighter than any comet. This was the first night she had sailed far south enough to see it.
Had she breath, she would have held it.
Soon there would be cloudless nights when the whole sky turned cherub. The comet’s glow would hide the stars. The horizon would be curtained red. Everything would become the backdrop of a theater.
Theater was the right word for it. It was all stagecraft. All of the sky was a performance.
The false comet cut a line across the far southern horizon, heading eastward and gradually northward, following the path of the winter sun. Seen at this steep angle, through so much intervening atmosphere, the exhaust plume appeared cherry-red, haloed in orange.
The intruder knew the effect that comets had on this world’s peoples. She tried to put herself in their place, see it how they saw it. She couldn’t. She thought of herself as an imaginative person. But she couldn’t forget everything she knew about the ship burning across the sky, about transplanar travel, about the amalgamates. Even with what she knew, it was at times too much.
No wonder that, the first few times it appeared, cities had burned.
That had been years ago. These days, watching and waiting and trembling, the natives tended to get on with their lives. Like most people the multiverse over, they had little choice and less control. They mattered only in the abstract. The comet persisted regardless.
She should have been up there. Not at sea, trapped in horizons. She’d been stranded on this plane with that ship: the living planarship Ways and Means. She’d been one of its thousands of crew.
She’d departed for her own safety. Now its crew wouldn’t even call her by name. They just called her the One Who Stopped Them. Even when they knew she was listening. It was as if she’d been erased.
She hadn’t actually stopped anyone. She had no say. Ways and Means reserved all final decisions for itself. They knew that. But, when she’d spoken up, their master had apparently picked her alone to listen to.
The rest of the crew couldn’t despise Ways and Means. It had wormed its way into them. They had needed another target.
She’d been right there, on offer. Ways and Means had made her visible.
She gripped the railing, dug in her fingers.
When she pulled her hand back, her index finger had left a long and shallow divot against the grain of the wood.
She stared. Her finger was slender, ink-black, and blunt at the tip. She had no nails. The railing had left no mark or splinter on her demiorganic flesh.
She hadn’t meant to do that. It was possible for her to lose control of her body. But it had not happened to her before.
The noises behind her had stilled. Her crew was watching her. They were perceptive.
She should not have sailed this way. Should not have looked up. Eventually, though, there was going to be nowhere on this world from which she could not see the comet.
She unfolded her legs and planted her feet against the deck. Her finger-length toes unfurled. She levered herself up.
Her cheeks were hot, and the corners of her eyes burned. These feelings were psychosomatic, a lizard-brain response. She didn’t have a real body. Hadn’t for centuries.
It didn't matter what today was. She shouldn't feel any different on another. She hadn't the day before. Or before that.
Of course her skin radiated heat. She’d been out in the sun too long.
She glared at her crew. All of them pretended to have been hard at work. Her engineer busied herself with the rear sail’s outhaul. Her divers pretended to be measuring the wind.
Osia opened her mouth. For the second time that morning, her body betrayed her. She had something to say, but not the strength to say it.
She was going to have to reprogram her crew not to be so nosy, so perceptive.
She turned back to the sea, and this time managed not to look upward. It didn’t matter. Her memory was perfect. She knew exactly what she would have seen.
Worse, she knew where it was going next.