11 August 2011

Carnivale Mechaniste

Chapter 7: Sold

The machinery around Jax hummed, loud and incessant, a low, deep sound that rattled his bones and teeth, buzzed his eardrums and shook his stomach. Not that he noticed it anymore. The drain chamber tended to do that to you, after the first month or two. He couldn't remember how long he'd been here, shackled, collared, connected to the magic-sucking agony-machine...it had to be more than six months, or maybe six days. Time was distorted in here. Everything was distorted. He was distorted, even. Maybe the distortion was coming from him, and he just thought the other stuff was all twisted. The machines, they hummed in a rhythm, a cyclical rising and falling, hum-hum-hum-HUM-HUM-HUM...he tried to measure it against his heartbeat, three heartbeats per hum, he thought it was. He'd counted eight thousand hums, once. Then he lost count, but only because he fell asleep, or passed out. Whichever. There wasn't much difference anymore. He stayed awake, counted heartbeats, counted hums, counted breaths, counted motes of dust floating in front of his nose, counted arm hairs, counted numbers just to count. He thought of Thyra...a lot. He thought about all the different ways he would kill Aric, just as soon as he figured out a way out of here. There didn't seem to be one, which was the major problem.

He was strapped to a cruciform table, arms and feet chained. The chains burned, imbued with some evil spell. They didn't burn like fire, and it wasn't too bad, at first, like a mild sunburn, but it never went away, and after awhile seemed to get worse, even if it didn't. The collar, now...that was the worst part. That damn collar. He hadn't seen that in the vision, at first. Of course, he hadn't seen the drain chamber in the visions, and he hadn't seen Aric's berserk fit of rage either...or all the devastation he'd left in his wake. But they'd happened. The collar...Aric had paralyzed him somehow, magically, and snapped a wire-thin length of black metal around his neck, the ends clicking together magnetically and hissing with sudden fierce heat at the back of his neck as the ends welded themselves together. When the hissing heat stopped, jagged spikes of pain had shot into him from the collar, knifing through him, sizzling into the well of magic within him. Jax had tried to shift, only to be thrown to the ground by a spear of electricity arcing down his spine, churning his insides to jelly. He'd vomited blood, felt something warm and sticky running down his legs. A phase-phage collar, Aric had called it, designed to prevent shape-shifting. Damned effective, as he hadn't tried to shift again. Then Aric had dragged him by his heels to a small trailer, lifted him onto a table, wrapped his arms and legs to the table with lengths of chain that burned into his skin and stuck there, buried in the flesh; once he was secured, Aric had taken thick hoses, garden hoses they looked like, but with four long, needle-like prongs at the mouth, and jabbed them into Jax, one in each pectoral muscle, one on each side above the hipbone. Aric then chanted a short spell at each machine, causing the machine to cough and chug into life. The hoses had jerked and snapped and writhed like serpents, then settled into a slow slurping, sucking greedily at the reservoir of magical essence within Jax.

Oh god oh god, here comes a flashback. They struck like hurricanes, the memories. The only blessing to them was that they distracted him, for a while. The first temporal tremor shook Jax like a rag doll, tossed and dropped him into the day that he and Thyra had returned to Carnivale Mechaniste. It was a home-coming, for both of them, a relief and a joy to be back after such an experience. Jax pulled up a memory of riding horses at a summer camp, shifted into a huge bay. Thyra had put on Jax's undershirt, a long tunic-type garment that hung to mid-thigh, so at least she was covered. She seemed to know exactly where to find the caravan, directing Jax with gentle knee pressure steadily eastward. As he trotted, Jax had thought back, in the human part of his mind, to the entire time they'd been on Pleuria. The Carnivale had been traveling for months without stopping, through a wilderness of forest and prairie and valley and mountain foothills, never seeing another person, except Gregor. They'd been traveling eastward, always east, following the rising sun, following the same wide, smooth-packed dirt road. Where were they going? And where were all the people? He had asked Thyra that question mentally.

We always arrive in a realm far from civilization, she'd answered. It's a safety precaution thing. If the people know how we get here, things would get messy. People would want to know where we come from, how the magic works, they'd want to go with us...it's just safest if they never know exactly where we come from or where we go, or how. So, when we arrived in Pleuria, we were over a thousand miles from the nearest village. I don't think Daddy meant to be that far away, but the realm-shift isn't a precise science. We'll spend probably over a year here, local time-line.

Local time-line? What did that mean? It turned out that the Carnivale had their own calendars and clocks by which they operated. They spent so much time in other realms or eras that they needed a form of time-keeping that was unique to them, so they knew how much time had passed. Local time was a fluid thing, she had explained. Magic was a strange and unpredictable thing, and it had side-effects. If you spent enough time around magic, practiced it, used it, had it all around you in a constant state of flux, then it began to change you. One of the ways in which magic changed you was age, it seemed: you didn't age the same, you didn't feel the effects of time quite as much. Time was a physical thing, in some way that Thyra didn't entirely understand and couldn't adequately explain, but she knew that if you lived around magic extensively enough, then time would slip off of you, like raindrops sliding off of a bent leaf, wicking away, leaving little trace of its passage. A year of local time, then, would seem to float by as a matter of days, to someone like Harman, who'd spent his entire life, from childhood to adulthood, with the Carnivale. Thyra herself had experienced more than three years in Earth's 21st century, but it had felt like three or four months, at the most.

They had seen the caravan while still several miles off, but it still took them several hours past sunset to catch up after the caravan had stopped for the day. When they came to the edge of the camp they were stopped by a sentry, a young man with a torch and a rifle. Thyra identified herself, to the utter shock of the sentry. The young man, Weslan by name, called into a walkie-talkie, “Thyra's alive! She's here! She's back!” Thyra hadn't gotten down from her seat on Jax's back, telling him silently, I don't know what kind of reception you'd get, so let's see if we can pretend you're just a horse for now. I doubt it will fool anyone for long, but we've gotta try, right? Jax had agreed, letting his equine instincts rule, stamping impatient hooves, flicking away mosquitoes with his tail, ears rotating and pricking, head bobbing. Aric had arrived at a dead run, followed by a knot of shocked carnies, all milling around Aric as he lifted Thyra from her seat and hugged her to his chest, genuine tears running down his face.

He had stepped back, then, and taken in her appearance, her state of undress, her mount. A look of suspicion had colored his gaze, his pale face turning red and hard with anger as the truth dawned on him. Won't fool anyone for long indeed. Jax shifted back to human form when he realized Aric saw him for himself. He was wearing the Corsair armor still: tight, knee-length pants (which he thought might be called breeches), spiked greaves and heavy leather boots, spiked gauntlets, thick sword belt hung with saber and axe, molded leather cuirass covered in scale-mail. The distinctive armor he wore, as well as the fact that it was slightly too big for him, told the story to Aric, without Jax having said a word.

“You rescued my daughter?” He demanded. “From the Corsairs? Alone?”

Jax just nodded. Aric seemed torn between anger and gratitude, and Jax wasn't sure how to tread. “I had to,” he had said finally. “I saw them take her...and I just...took off after her. It wasn't even a thought.”

“Well, I am grateful. It was quite an accomplishment. No one has ever, in a thousand years, ever escaped the Corsairs. I thought her gone, like her mother.” Jax just shrugged. It was a tense moment then. Aric looked from Jax to his daughter and back, searching, considering.

“Why is she wearing that? Where are her clothes?”

Jax thought carefully before answering: “If I shift while in contact with another person, they shift too, for a few seconds. That's how we got away alive: I took the body of a Corsair, got on deck where the prisoners were held, and jumped off with her. I shifted into a bird just above the ground, giving her a chance to slow her fall before turning back. You know what happens when you shift back without proper visualization...I gave her my shirt and we came back. That's it.” It was all true and plausible, he just left out...a few details. He held a mental picture of his version of events in his mind, keeping any thought or fragmentary image of their time together out of his head, just in case Aric tried to pry into his thoughts. Aric looked as if he were trying to believe Jax, and failing. The carnival-master walked up close to Jax, mere inches away, smelling, probing mentally, searching, feeling...Jax stood his ground, waiting.

“You lie, shifter-boy.” And that was the end of it. Next thing, Aric had hit him with that brain-melting paralysis-ray, or whatever it was, and then kicked him in the head, rendering him unconscious. Woke strapped down to this table, the magic, the life, the sanity being sucked out of him.

He missed a lot of things (aside from freedom from agony, and freedom in general); he missed music...a lot. He missed the pounding beats and grinding, thrashing guitars, the growling, screaming vocals...he missed his mom's incessant mantra: “I just don't understand how you can like this evil music. Doesn't it make you feel angry all time?” No, he'd tell her, just the opposite. By listening to metal music, he felt less angry, like it leached the anger and hurt and negativity out of him. She'd never gotten it, though, no matter how he tried to explain it.

He missed sunlight, he missed rain, he missed the Carnivale and all the outer-folk and Harman and Helfdane, he missed shifting, more than he could bear to think about. Most of all, he missed Thyra. The only way he could keep himself from letting go and just floating away into the shrinking spaces of his mind, into the spreading stain of madness, was to close his eyes and go to back to that precious night, relive it over and over again, see it, feel it, burn the images and remembered sensations into the fabric of his identity. She was his only companion, his only peace, and she was a memory.

No one fed him, but he never wasted away, never gave him a drink, but he never dried up and died, although the thirst and hunger continued to build up to ever-more unbearable levels. The cart would rattle and rumble sometimes, for hours on end, evidence that the Carnivale was still traveling, eastward presumably. One day, he heard the shufar sound, heard the calliope churn and hoot into life, heard voices shrieking and laughing and chattering. They'd finally reached civilization, after months of travel. He was missing the first show on Pleuria. Oh, that burned him, that did. He got angry and desperate enough then to try to shift again, something small...an ant, red and powerful...he burst into flames from the inside, his guts and muscles and fat and very blood burned burned burned, turned incandescent, sun-hot, his skin heated up next, his hair and nails and teeth and eyeballs, until he was a conflagration, he was a pyre, living and breathing fire made flesh, aflame but not consumed, he saw heat waves rising from him, saw little licks of flame rise and flicker from his skin, spread and grow until he was all alight, a torch, a martyr at the stake, oh god oh god oh god it hurt, it burned he couldn't stand it couldn't take it couldn't couldn't he was burning...

He woke up and his skin was blackened, with ragged ripped patches of pink where the skin had sloughed off. It was a very long time before the dead, burned skin all fell away and grew back, a very, very long time indeed. Dozens of shows happened beyond the doors, and once in awhile he heard a familiar voice, once he swore he heard Thyra's voice, and it sent him dreaming and wishing.

Show sounds...silence and loneliness and agony...show sounds...pain and horror and dreams and insanity and desperate wishes for death and release...over and over again for an interminable unending eternity, until all blended and blurred together into a muddy foggy haze of nothingness. He grew limp, gave up thinking and dreaming, grew weak, unable to move even his toes, unable to feel his magic within him anymore.

Then, when he couldn't even hold his eyes open anymore, or form a coherent thought, Aric showed up above him, saying, “You've lasted longer than I thought you would. Longer than Haroun did, by double. In case you were curious, you've been in here for three local years. The end is near, though, so just hold on. We're about to shift realms again, so I'm going to have to...dispose of you, somehow. I'm thinking I might stake you out for the Corsairs to find. That would be fitting, I'd say. Don't burn out yet, Jax my boy. I wouldn't want that, now, would I?” No, of course not. What a ridiculous notion.

He was pelted by a freezing spatter on his naked skin, a buzzing cold pricking his toes and washing over him slowly upwards like sinking beneath icy water. This was the realm-shift, he realized muzzily, he was feeling it from a distance, absent the jarring subtle melting thunder of the spell in close proximity. He was floating, suddenly, weightless and soulless and spineless, drowsy and lolling in the enveloping folds of infinity, it was bliss, for Jax, complete ecstasy, the freedom from pain and all other sensations, he didn't miss anyone, for there was no one to miss, there were no power-snakes spiked into his skin and sucking his essence like hungry leeches, just nothing...and it was glorious.

It was over all too soon. He slammed back down into his wracked husk of a body, breath coming in ragged heaves as the agonizing welter of thirst and hunger and pain cascaded through him once more. Aric was above him, unstrapping him, tossing him to the ground on his stomach, wrenching his arms up behind his back and tying them to his throat in such a way that if Jax moved even an inch, he tightened the noose. Aric gestured with a hand and Jax lifted up into the air and floated behind him out of the drain chamber; the new realm was blindingly bright, oppressively hot. Now it would begin in earnest.

There was a roaring, rushing noise off to the left; Jax twisted his neck to see a wide window in reality, a swirling rip in the fabric of existence. Jax had once seen a show, late at night with Danny, about a group of people that traveled from dimension to dimension...what was the name of that show?...Jax racked his memory, trying to distract himself. Sliders, it had been called...that was it. This whirlpool was much like that show, a silvery, wavering, translucent pool, except unlike in that show, Jax could see through into the world beyond. Jax desperately wished he could go there, instead, it was a lush, dense rainforest, hung with lianas and dripping with rain. Here, there was nothing but dusty wind and cracked dirt ground, distant mirages and sand-dunes, all heated by two giant red suns. Another fact that he hadn't noticed in the vision: this world where Aric had taken him was red, deep red, bathed in crimson as if the sun had been drenched in blood. Apropos, it would seem.

Aric telekinetically floated Jax about thirty feet from the drain chamber and the portal, then released him to slam into the hard ground. From a pocket, Aric produced four long, needle-pointed silver spikes and a rubber-headed mallet. “This will be...painful, I expect,” Aric said, grinning maliciously. “Too good for you, but I promised Thyra I wouldn't kill you. At least not directly. Try not to move, or I might miss.” Aric sent a brief arc of pain through Jax mentally in warning before placing the first spike against his left palm. Jax's arm was stretched out as far as it would go, and as Aric lifted the mallet, Jax took a deep breath, gritted his teeth and prepared himself, steeled himself...but no force on any earth could make him ready for the unbelievable pain that coursed through him as Aric hammered down on the spike. It was far more than mere physical pain from metal being driven through flesh and bone, it was magical in nature as well, a lightning bolt raging through him, sending flashes in his head, stars in his vision, even against the blackness as he squeezed his eyes shut. Almost against his own will, Jax thrashed, struck Aric with his fist, bucked and kicked, only to receive a sharp blow to the temple from the mallet, rendering him unconscious, all too briefly. He was brought back by the second spike through his palm. Aric had stretched his right arm out far enough to dislocate it, then drove the spike in, inch by inch. His feet were next. Aric was especially vicious in this, driving the spikes between bone and achilles tendon, a brand-new kind of agony Jax hadn't thought possible.

“These are mage-spikes. They're like the collar, but whereas the collar causes pain when you shift, these spikes prevent any magic whatsoever. They also send out a signal to thousands of dimensions, for anyone to pick up. Kind of like homing beacons from your native world. The only ones who know how to pick up the signal, however, are your old friends, the Corsairs.” Aric stood up and looked down at Jax, adding as an afterthought, “and one other unique property of mage-spikes, they prevent you from actual death, while allowing you within a hair's-breadth of it. You'll wish you could die, but won't be able to.” Jax was long-past wishing for death. He'd gotten to that point a long time ago, in the drain-chamber. Now, he was starting to wish he'd never been born, never met the old woman on the bus, never heard of Carnivale Mechaniste. He couldn't quite bring himself to wish he had never met Thyra. He just couldn't do it. Aric, now...Jax had whiled away countless hours devising horrible, awful, gut-wrenchingly vile ways of killing the bastard...

Aric turned to leave, kicked Jax viciously in the side, breaking at least one rib. He stepped through the portal, casting one last sneering glance at Jax. Beyond him, Jax watched as Harman and Helfdane held Thyra back, wrapping strong arms around her as she struggled and thrashed wildly. He could see her screaming but heard nothing, like a TV on mute, she was fighting so hard it took both Harman and Helfdane to hold the girl back. Jax couldn't even form a thought coherent enough to send to her, and he doubted it would reach her, but he tried anyway, telling her he loved her, telling her it would be okay, telling her to be strong...she met his eyes, and he could feel her thoughts trying to burrow into him, and failing, blocked by the collar and the spikes, but the look on her face was enough. He used the last of his conscious strength to mouth the words he'd never said to her out loud, even once: I...love...you...

She slumped to the ground, then, the fight gone from her. Her face was tear-streaked, her breast heaving with sobs. Aric touched her on the shoulder and Thyra reacted with a viciousness he didn't know she possessed, drawing a knife from some hidden pocket and slashing at his arm, freeing a ribbon of blood, scrambling to her feet and rushing at her father with the knife, thrusting and stabbing, connecting at least once before Helfdane wrapped his arms around her and lifted her away. The portal closed as Aric looked at his daughter in stunned shock, looking confused and hurt.

Darkness stole over Jax, washed through him and claimed him, then. It was merciful and peaceful, for a while.

The twin red suns spun and whirled through the sky at a breakneck pace, rising and falling in some weird synchronous orbit, twisting around each other and looping through the sky in an endless parade of blood-tide dawn washing in, necrotic sunset fading out. Perhaps all sensation of time's passage had left Jax, or perhaps this world simply passed the days faster than anywhere else...either way, the orbiting of day-night-day-night hurtled around him in a procession so fast, so unending that he lost track, lost the ability to discern light from dark, dawn from sunset, noon from midnight, dream from reality, memory from truth...he was a million souls in gyrating alternation, he was Master Chief from Halo, he was trooping through the jungle with an M1 carbine in Call of Duty, he was show characters, book characters, he was his past teachers, he was Danny, he was himself, he was a hawk wheeling in the sky, stooping after a fleeing, terrified rabbit, a panther stalking in the tree-tops, he was nothing, he was the passage of time itself, he was...he wasn't....he wasn't anything at all...just jangled nerve ends, pain embodied, agony made undying flesh...

Through it all, she was there, breathing, singing, laughing and watching, near him, above him, in him, pulsing through him; that night beneath the moon floating above the grass in a tangle of ecstasy, that endless night soughed in his soul like a long cool breeze on hot flesh. He held on to it, on to her, as to a life-raft, a spar holding his head above hungry waves. All the while, whirling suns, blood-light washing over him, spikes in his hands and feet crucifying him. He willed himself to die, willed blackness to overtake him and hold him under, but every time he popped up above the rolling roiling waves of unbeing. He desperately wished for blissful death, but at the same time he held a small sacred fragment of himself safe and hidden deep deep down, a little sliver that held to life, held to Thyra—he forgot his own name, forgot everything, but he couldn't forget her, no, never—held tight, clung close and gritted teeth and gripped with all he was, survived to come back, to find her and rescue her and love her. Of course, vengeance boiled within him, seethed within him, revenge was as much a reason to survive as love; bound together, love and hate formed a core inside him, he who still had no name, no past or future.

Then, distant thunder grumbled, out of sight. The crimson suns were high, directly above Jax—the thunder had brought him back to his senses—and then a shred of dark cloud drifted across one sun, a forerunner, a scout, followed by creeping spreading billowing black storm-clouds, a continent of clouds in the shape of an arrowhead, a shark-tooth, moving like a freight train. The thunderhead spewed rain, vomited lightning, disgorged a Dreadnaught. The airship scudded out of the clouds and banked around, nosed downward and drifted to a slow stop over Jax. This was all a dream, he felt, a remembered dream, or something that had really happened, once upon a long time ago. He watched as a dozen thick wiggling ropes were thrown over the side and black-and-red-armored shapes slid down them and gathered around him, gazed down at him with awful painted grimacing masked faces.

“Someone must've have a powerful hate for you, boy,” one of them said in scraping voice, “to drain you more'n half dead and then mage-stake you naked on the Blood-Moon of Issus. I wouldn't do that to my worst enemy. Profit is profit, however, and now you're ours.” The speaker bent down and yanked out a spike from Jax's hand, eliciting a weak howl of pain. The other hand was freed, and then hands and feet, and Jax considered trying to resist, even attempted it, but all he could manage was a limp flung hand that flapped against a breastplate, hurting his own hand.

“He's still got fight in him, he does,” someone said, laughing. He was lifted, un-gently, and flung over a shoulder, jounced and jostled as the Corsair climbed the rope up to the ship. He was tossed roughly to the deck, whereupon he lost consciousness yet again.

He awoke to shocking cold and voices murmuring desultorily around him. He groaned and struggled to open his eyes; when he managed to pry them open to slits, he saw that he was penned in corral between the masts, as Thyra had been, and that the group of captives was much larger. He was on a different ship, as well: the masts were wider and taller, the sails were square-rigged and there was a long spar extending off of the front of the ship—the bow, he thought it was called—and to this spar a tall triangular sail was affixed. The ship as a whole seemed bigger, and the structure at the back of the ship—the stern?—was higher and had more doors and balconies than the one he'd been on.

“Yer awake now, are yeh?” A stooped, grizzled old man with thick tufts of eyebrows helped Jax to sit up. “Sleep the whole way, I thought yeh would. More dead'n alive, yeh were. Well, alive yeh are now, though yeh might wish to th' nine gods of Issus yeh weren't, come voyage end.” The old man slurred and clipped his words so thickly that he was difficult to understand. It was comforting, nonetheless, to have a friendly voice talking to him.

“Where are we going?” Jax asked, “and is there any water or food?”

The old man gave a coughing, laughing wheeze, saying, “Neh, there ain't nothin' like that, not for hours yet. They'll feed us other side of the shift, I'ma guessin'. As fer where we be bound, that's a guess you could make as well as I. The Corsairs, they sell slaves all across the realms, they do, amongst other trade stuff.”

“They're traders, too?” Jax was surprised to hear this. He'd thought of them as solely slavers.

“Sellin' slaves is just a side thing, and not every Dreadnaught does it. Most just take enough captives as they need for power supply, and when they've gotten their use out of 'em, they sets 'em free. Still a barbaric practice, right enough, but it sure beats slavin'. These what gots us, though, they're slavers.” Well, he'd expected it, in one sense, but the reality was entirely different. Jax put his back against the nearest mast and stared out at the star-stream beyond the ship. At the bow of the ship stood three figures in hooded robes stood in a triangular formation, extending their hands in front them, palms out, then sweeping them backwards towards the stern of the ship, as if physically pulling the Dreadnaught through space.

“Who are they?” Jax asked, nodding the three figures.

“Them? Eh, they're the mages what make the realm-shifts. Called 'sorcerani'. They specialize in...eh, whassicalled...somethin' fancy I can't ever remember. Interdimensional transportational magic. Though it ain't specifically different dimensions, from I know. They're the root of the word 'sorcerer' that pops up in the legends of so many different realms.” The old man stuck his large, wrinkled hand in Jax's face, saying, “I don't know what it's like wherever yer from, but it's plum rude to not introduce yerself. Farrago, I be called, and tinker's my trade.”

Jax shook the proffered hand. “Jackson Magnus. Jax.”

Farrago looked inquisitively at Jax, as if the name struck a bell in his memory. “Magnus, yeh said? Magnus...I knew a man named Magnus, long an' long ago, that was, an' far from here, indeed.”

Jax felt a strange fluttering in his stomach. “You did? When? Where? What was he like?”

“Well, now, that's a story to take up an age, that one is, long and winding, indeed.” Farrago narrowed his eyes at Jax, tilted his head to one side, plunged a hand into Jax's shirt, came up with the necklace. Jax had completely forgotten about the necklace his adoptive father had given him, so long ago, so far away. He had been wearing it the entire time, but hadn't given it a second thought until Farrago held it up. The strange thing was, every item on Jax's person had disappeared when he had first shifted, except this necklace.

“I forgot I had that,” Jax admitted. “Does it mean anything to you?”

“You mean t'say it don't mean nothin' to you?” Farrago laughed. “How 'bout this: you tell me about you, and I'll tell you the story about Titus Martianus Magnus. Deal, boy?”

“Sure. My story is short, though. At least, the part that I know.”

Farrago laughed uproariously at this. “Boy, that's a frightfully true statement, that is. Most people wouldn't think to say somethin' like that. They think that what they know about themselves is all there is. Well, best begin at the beginning, then.”

“Well, I grew up on Earth, in Detroit, Michigan, in the 21st century. For my whole life, I never knew anything except normal life. No magic, no shape-shifting, no Carnivale Mechaniste,” when Jax mentioned the Carnivale, Farrago's eyes flashed and narrowed, but he remained silent. “just...average human life: school, friends, music, video games. I sometimes felt like I didn't fit in, but all my friends felt that way sometimes. I thought every teenager did, and that I'd grow out of it. Well, my mom and dad, or who I thought were my mom and dad, well they didn't always get along too well. My dad was a drunk, and my mom never stood up to him. He knocked her around a bit, and me once or twice. Then, one day, I'd had enough of him hitting her and decided to stand up to him. I knew it'd go bad for me, but I didn't care anymore. So, I did. And when his big hard fist was coming at me, something inside just...popped, exploded, and...everything just...stopped. I could see my dad, frozen in place, and my mom, mouth open as she screamed for him to leave me alone...and then I held my hand up, it just rose up all by itself and something exploded again, from my hand this time, and my dad was thrown backwards like a cannonball had hit him or something, and he flew through the wall. God, that was crazy. I had no idea what was happening. I thought it was a dream and I'd wake up, but I never did. Still haven't. Well, I went over to check on my dad. I thought he was dead, I thought I'd killed him for sure, but when I was standing over him, he grabbed me by the throat and stood up with me, like I was a doll or something. He didn't seem surprised, much. Acted like he knew this was coming. Gave me this necklace and told me to just go, that some vague 'they' had put me with them even though I wouldn't fit, and that I'd end up where I needed to be, when I needed to be there. So I left, nowhere to go, no idea who or what I was. An old lady on a bus gave me a flier for Carnivale Mechaniste, told me how to find it, and I did. Turned into a thresher by accident and couldn't go back. Aric Thorvaldson turned me back, and I met his daughter, Thyra. She and I...well...her dad is jealous, which is how I ended up here.”

Farrago was silent for a few minutes. “I think yeh left out a fair bit from that, 'specially towards the endin', but I get the gist of it, I guess. You're a shape-shifter, then? And the folks what raised you, they ain't yer natural-born parents, but yeh didn't know that till yeh opened up.” Farrago fell silent again, thinking. “An' yeh fell in with the Carnivale, fell in love with Aric's daughter, and gotcherself left fer dead on the Blood-Moon of Issus fer all yer troubles. Quite a rough beginnin', boy.”

“Yeah, you're tellin' me.” Jax found himself unconsciously imitating Farrago's gruff accent. “You know the Carnivale?”

“Heh, everyone knows the Carnivale Mechaniste, boy. It's as famous in the realms as the Corsairs, in a way. And Aric's possessiveness of Thyra's nearly as famous. It's a wonder he didn't kill yeh outright, t'my thinkin'. She's quite a prize, that girl. She's had kings and princes and emperors beg Aric for her hand, all of 'em turned down flat. The Carnivale has left realms in a state of war over her. There's a couple places that the Carnivale can't go for a spell, till hurt feelin's die with the insulted monarch. Well, I ain't surprised you ended up as you did. Aric is nuts over the girl, and she don't take to no one. Got a temper on her, that girl. I saw her slap the King of Issus clean across the face, once, for darin' grab her too friendly-like. If yeh made a move on her, why, that's as good as signin' yer own death-warrant.”

“That's not quite what happened to me, actually,” Jax found himself spilling the truth, even though he wasn't sure what the old man wanted from him, or what he knew. “I fell in love with her, yes. And I discovered Aric's possessiveness firsthand, but that wasn't what got me here. What happened was, Thyra liked me as much as I did her, and we started seeing each other, late at night, a ways off from the camp. I would turn into some animal and sneak out, and then she would join me, and we'd spend time together. Well, I think her dad knew, somehow, kept trying to catch us. Then, on Pleuria, the Corsairs raided us and took her. I rescued her, and on the trip back to the Carnivale...things...happened. Aric seemed to know, somehow, and put me in the drain-chamber, and eventually staked me on that awful red planet, or whatever. You called it the Blood-Moon of Issus? Anyway, that's what happened.”

Farrago seemed honestly stunned. “You...and Thyra? She loves you back? Are you sure?”

Jax laughed. “Yes, Farrago. I'm sure. Very, very sure. She begged Aric not to kill me, I guess, made him promise. Now, I've just got to find a way back to her.”

“Heh, well if that don't beat all. Of all the crazy things. That girl had royalty and nobility and every kinda man—and women, a few times—after her, and she picks you. That sounds like Thyra though, that does. Well, I guess that's your story, now for mine.

“Titus Martianus Magnus was a Roman legionnaire, and a powerful mage, though he didn't know it for the first thirty years of his life. Now, understand, I've been a wanderin' type m'whole life, tinkerin' and travelin' and causin' a ruckus wherever I went. Well, I made my way to the Roman times, oh this was...'bout fifty years ago, on my personal calender. Now Titus was assigned to Britannica at this time, which was then a wild, back-water, ass-end-of-nowhere kinda place,” Farrago's garbled speech cleared a bit as he spoke, replaced by a story-teller's smooth cadences and archaic turns of phrase, “and it suited Titus well, for he was a wild, fierce, hot-blooded, hot-headed, reckless sort of man. He liked the unpredictable weather, and he liked the sudden raids of the blue-painted Picts and the bloody battles that ensued. He liked the women, for they were as wild and primal as himself, and plenty willing. He wasn't destined for high and mighty ranks, Titus wasn't, for he liked trouble all too well, liked his trouble, wine and women all too much to climb much past the rank of Decurio, and that suited him just fine. Well, his real adventures began about two years into his Britannica campaign, on a particular day when he and his turma, or cavalry unit, were on patrol a few miles past the wall—Hadrian's Wall, o'course—when they ran into a much larger force of Picts, and had a riotous scrum. They came out on top of course, and nary a Pict was left alive, and they were laughin' and jokin' as soldiers will after a battle. Beautiful day in the middle of summer this was, so it took 'em all by surprise when the skies darkened and turned black and they were hit by a torrent of rain and hail and thunder and lighting and the whole works, a real sudden squall, it was, and out of the midst of this storm came this thing like the most massive trireme they could imagine, but floating in the air, and they were beset by these warriors the like of which had never been seen anywhere in the empire or the farthest frontiers of it. That would be the Corsairs of Carth, of course, but they didn't know that, then. Now, where does old Farrago come in to all this, I can hear you asking. Well, I was off to the side, upon a far hill, watching the whole show from my traveler's cart. Of course, when the Corsairs showed up, I set my horses to galloping as fast as they would go, but it weren't fast enough, no sir. A Corsair saw me, and they set off after me, running with a speed no man is capable of, on his own. They were using magic, obviously, and they caught me easy as breathin'. Knocked me clean off my seat with a fist to tumble arse over teakettle down the hill. Shoulda stayed on Issus, I thought to myself as they scrambled up the ropes with me into the ship. They'd captured Titus and about twelve other cavalrymen, and they stood bloody and bound but not beaten nor cowed in the pens, like where we are now. Whatever else you can say about the Corsairs, they don't mistreat their captives, and that's a fact. Well, Titus was rash youngster, then, and given to fits of violence, so I had to sort of take him under my win, so to speak. He wanted to try to cause a set-to aboard ship and try to escape in the ruckus, and of course, I had a mighty hard time disabusin' him o' that misguided notion. I said the Corsairs don't mistreat their prisoners, well that's true enough, so long as you don't try to escape or make a fuss. Keep quiet and they'll let you alone.

“Well, I best admit that this wasn't the first run-in I'd had with the sky-pirates, and I had a plan for how to escape once they'd gotten me where I wanted to go, and it was easy enough to alter the plan to include Titus, about whom I had a gut feelin', the magic-y kinda feelin' that you don't ignore, if you're smart. When the Winds of Fate blow, you up sail and trim the jib, I've learned. Titus hadn't learned this yet, but I taught him up right, in time. I kept him outta trouble till the Dreadnaught fetched up on Helvenn, which was where I'd hoped they'd go. Helvenn is a desert realm, dry, hot, and unforgiving, but there's a few secrets to her, if you're willin' to go lookin', and I had, once upon a long time ago. Well, the Corsairs sold us to a water-seller, a turbaned, pointy-bearded man more worried about his beasts and his trading more than us. Soon as his back was turned I did a quick spell and got us out of there. We traveled about a bit, him the muscle, me the brains and the magic, teaching him and mentoring him. Eventually, I took us back to my own time and place and caught up with my son, who'd just come of age. Them two was best friends, they were, for many a year. Course, what was it that came between 'em? A woman. It's always a woman what comes between best friends, and this weren't no different. Well, to be fair, she was the most beautiful woman in a round dozen realms, Nialla Fireflower was, and so she aught to be, for she was the daughter of an emperor, book-learned, skilled in arts martial and magical, haughty, nose-in-the-air, cool as a cucumber. Nialla, she didn't figure to accept no man but the very best, and no man was ever good enough, not for her, nor for her father, Emperor of Carth. Well, Titus, myself, and my son, we found ourselves doing brisk business in the Carthian realm. Knew that was trouble, I surely did, but I couldn't see my way around it, and ignored my instincts, causing no end of trouble.

“The trouble started when Nialla made an appearance in the bazaar. Caught the eye of both Titus and my fool of a son, and of course, when she saw them, both tall, attractive, rugged, exotic types, they both claimed she was lookin' at him. Well, as it turned out, she was lookin' at Titus. Well-known fact about Carth is that the daughters choose their mate, and that includes the imperial daughter, as long as she produces a male heir, he don't have to be royal on both sides, as long as he comes from her. Well, comes about that Titus and Nialla, they run off together, and when they come back, years later, they had a wee one, a little boy-child of but a few months of age. Then there was palace coup, a new set of blood wanting power, and Nialla and Titus were separated, Titus with the baby. As I heard it told, Nialla disappeared in the fighting, thought to be dead, and Titus fled the realm, for the new set were killin' anyone with imperial blood, and the bairn was at dire risk, and would be if ever he were found. No one ever saw Titus or the heir again, but if ever that heir were to be found, the realm of Carth would rally around him, for the new emperor is a tyrant, brutal and hated by all.

“The question you'd be asking, if you were a smart sort,” here Farrago drilled Jax with a long, meaningful look, “is, what does all this have to with me and this pendant? Well, the heir of the old blood, the Fireflower dynasty, is always a true shape-shifter, one, and always a powerful mage, two, and will always bear a rune-mark of the family. In Nialla's case, it was a pendant, which she gave to Titus to give to their son when he was old enough. This pendant is magical in nature, and no one but the true heir will be able to wear it upon their person. Do you add the figures, boy?”

“You're trying to tell me that I'm the son of a Roman soldier and a princess from Carth? Like, the Corsairs of Carth? And that I'm the heir to the throne?” Jax had trouble believing all this, but, then, it also did make a bizarre sort of sense. It was feasible-sounding, in a fairy-tale sort of way.

“Let me put it this way. The last time I saw that pendant that is about your neck, it was hanging about the neck of Titus Martianus Magnus as he held his son in one arm and fended off a half-dozen Carthian upstarts with the other. It was a vicious battle, and my son and I left as soon as we realized what was occuring. We didn't have any intention of getting involved in any palace politics, so we didn't even make the palace proper. I saw Titus from a distance, as I was casting the spell to shift us somewhere else. It broke my heart to leave him so, but the spell was half-cast, and once begun can't be aborted. I never thought to see him, or the baby, or that pendant again, but yet here it is.”

Jax breathed slowly and deeply, trying to think logically. Why would this old man lie about such things? And what was it about Farrago that struck Jax as so familiar? Did he dare believe him? Could he afford not to? What was Jax supposed to do about it, if it was true? Farrago seemed to understand the riot of questions. “Listen t'me, son,” he said, garbled drawl back in his voice, “There ain't much fer yeh t'do about it now, noways. Yeh cain't get free of the Dreadnaught till it's fetched up to a realm, and even then, it'd be mighty tricky, 'specially with that phase-phage collar about yer neck. No, I cain't get it off yeh, that's tricky magic what takes some serious time, skill, and preparation, and it ain't happenin' here. Here's what I'll tell yeh, and I don't figure it'll sit well with yeh, none, but say it anyways I will: the Winds of Fate, they're a-blowin' strong, they are, and I feel 'em tellin' me to let things happen as they will. Meanin', I might be able to free you, but I won't because yeh got took up by these Corsairs for a reason, boy, for a purpose, and if I interfere, that purpose might get mixed up, and that won't be doin' yeh no favors. Fate has a twisty, crafty, roundabout way o' getting things to where she wants. Yer caught up in big things, m'boy, big things indeed, and there ain't no sense in fightin' 'em.”

“So, you could get me free of the Corsairs, but you won't, because...Fate...s telling you not to?”

“Yep, yeh got it right ways round.”

“Well I'm sorry, but that sounds stupid.”

Farrago laughed, but kindly, not offended in the least. “Sonny, I'm a day older than the dirt and three days older than the wind, and I know whereof I speak. I know it seems cruel and stupid, as yeh say, but I can't change what Fate be tellin' t'me. I tried buckin' fate, more time's'n I care to speak of, and never not once did it ever bear me fortune or success, only more trouble an' more heartbreak. It be best to float with with prevailing winds. Anyways, that's the words o' one who be knowin' but the gods know boys'll do what boys will, and no wisdom will enter their brain matter but what gets knocked into 'em.”

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