March, 1640 — Nieuw Amsterdam, Nieuw Netherland
It is barely bright enough for them to see, but men with wide hats and great baskets are already picking their way around the garbage and potholes of Broadway, pulling doorbell chains and passing on again after a respectful wait or, if the door should open, greeting the house’s kitchen servant and cheerfully presenting their wares.
In their over-burdened baskets the grocers carry great six-pound loaves of bread and wax-covered wheels of cheese. One man staggers with the weight of an entire firkin of butter, hoping to sell it a scoop at a time, not caring a whit whether the tiny coins he takes in payment bear the stamps of the Dutch Republic or of Catholic Spain. Both places are equally remote, and copper is always copper.
Closing the shutters against the chill morning air, Michael turns to examine his upper-storey office. With a gesture he lights candles on the side tables and a cheering blaze in the broad masonry fireplace. The guest who will visit him soon needs comfortable temperatures no more than he does, but he wants every detail of her arrival to be perfect. Although he has often visited her, she has not seen the Earth in more than a thousand years.
Today she will do more than see it. Michael has no doubt that she will depart into its remotest distances. For quite some time now, there has been no question as to whether she would leave. The only question now is whether her departure will be for a time, or forever. When he realizes he has made a second completely unnecessary pass around the room, Michael seats himself at the table, and composes his mind to wait.
When he acquired this building shortly after his arrival at the little public wharf on Pearl Street two years ago, his first act after moving in was to re-position the portal to the Refuge, anchoring it in the closet that he is now facing. Looking at the well-constructed double oaken doors, he thinks of how many times he has sat before this exit, in all of the various locations where he has placed it through the long years, and waited as he waits now. He thinks of how many times he has said goodbye to a friend.
The wait has been long even for warriors such as himself. For the lesser beings, the teachers and messengers, it has been unending torment: eleven and a half millennia of concealment within the Refuge, or brief, furtive ventures into the world of men. But those forays are themselves a sharper kind of torment. Seeing the descendants of the children whom they once taught enslaved by the machinations of the Filii Lucis, generation after generation, is an experience few of the teachers can endure. A few of them return to the Refuge but many, faced with this choice, have elected to drift away: to live in seclusion, unable to replenish themselves, until their own lives finally draw to a close.
And it is his rule that kills them. His decision that no life shall be released from the Vault for those who depart. Without a supply of the concentrated energy of life, they will fade and die in not much more time than a child—an ordinary human being.
He does not command them as a general in an army. Few among the Filii Veritas are willing to obey commands, and none are willing to give them. But the responsibility for Vault, as well as the Refuge is his alone, given to him by the Great in the hours before their destruction, and he must carry out his duty as he sees fit to do. In the long millennia since he agreed to end the Sequestration, his position has been that the energy of the Vault must be retained for those who are willing to remain faithful to their old duty: to wait through the centuries for the return of the Great, to remain ready to play whatever role they can in the redemption of this fallen world.
So, down the unending years he has always waited like this at the exit when one has made the decision to leave. He has met them as their friend, and their executioner.
In the ranks of the Filii Lucis, a being of Michael’s rank would control those beneath him with force, fear, and deception. But while the Filii Veritas abhor such methods, they are equally able to band together for great works. They, however, are bound to their common enterprise only by each being’s understanding of their own place in the greater good, and the duty that each feels toward it. It is a harder path than that of the so-called Sons of Light, since each being must carry their own understanding of the law within themselves rather than simply submitting to its imposition from without.
But can duty always be understood? And if duties conflict, can that conflict always be correctly resolved? How is it possible to choose between the Great to whom he owes his allegiance, but who have been absent for twelve thousand years—and the friends to whom he owes his guidance and protection, and who have waited and watched with him, who have suffered with him and fought beside him for all those long years?
In recent times, the answer has become painfully clear. Such a conflict cannot be rationally resolved. But then, when he chooses one path over another, is he not simply acting arbitrarily? Is he not simply letting personal preference guide him? When he lets his friends walk away to their deaths, has duty not become simply a mask that he uses to hide his shame? And, if so, will he continue the charade until the last of them have died? When he sits alone beside the last flickers of energy in the Vault, will he whisper to the gathering darkness It was my duty?
Long minutes pass as Michael lets the old questions and doubts wash through him. And feels how the answers have, at last, begun to change.
Finally the closet door creaks, and the moment has arrived. As the door swings open, Michael sees Arias standing in its frame. Behind her is not the back of a closet in Nieuw Amsterdam, but a separate world. Arias steps forward. She smiles at Michael, then glances around the room.
“Mijn vrowtje,” he stands and offers her a forthright and businesslike bow in his best Dutch manner, with none of the obsequious flourishes of the monarchies that the Republican Dutch would despise. “May I present myself?” He steps forward to take her hand in both of his, giving her a proper and businesslike handshake. The Dutch shake hands at every opportunity. “Michiel van Aaldenberg, at your service.”
Arias laughs. “Does that mean old mountain? Oh ho! Then I guess this mountain is old indeed!” Giving his hand a final squeeze, she turns to look at the room, walking slowly around the table, lightly touching its rough wood surface, smiling at the blazing fireplace.
“What are you here?” she asks him. “This is a fine place! Are you prosperous?”
“Just enough to be unremarkable,” he says, and she smiles at that. In all of the guises she has known him in, Michael has ever striven to remain, above all, unremarkable. “The Dutch are a mercantile people,” he says. “They will sail around the world to make a sharp deal. They are like Phoenicians with extra layers of clothing and the inhibitions to match.” At this, Arias laughs aloud.
“I work for a trading firm called Van Hoornbeeck’s. I am paid to make sharp deals with the English and French.”
That amuses her also, but her smile fades and she looks about to speak. He prevents her with a gesture to his table where he has placed wooden plates, a brown loaf of bread next to a white wheel of cheese, and two stoneware mugs, capped with decorative tin lids.
“Please have breakfast with me. See if you like it. I hope so! I have a crate full of these loaves for—” his carefully pleasant expression falters for a moment. “For your journey.”
He helps her to her chair, a solid boxy thing with leather pads on seat and back, then takes his own across from her, serves slices of the bread and cheese and simultaneously lifts the caps from both red-brown mugs, with a flourish.
“What is this?” she asks. The liquid reflects moving fire light.
“Small beer,” he says. “Good for every hour of the day.”
“Oh, like heket. The Egyptians.”
Now Michael laughs. “Not nearly so strong! And a bit sour. But much better than drinking the water in these parts.”
She sips the beverage and blinks at its bitterness. Dutch “small beer” is as near to a non-alchoholic beverage as it is possible to be, and yet remain sterile. They taste the food and drink in silence for a while.
“So—you are determined to leave,” he says at last.
She looks back at him, calm and certain. “Yes.”
Michael nods, his face impassive, reminding himself that he has known for some time that this was the case. The talk that he is about to have with Arias is one that he has had hundreds of times in the past.
“There are some things that I must say,” he begins. She nods.
“We cannot live as the children do,” he says, “sustaining ourselves with nothing but the food of the Earth. Our bodies—in fact even the structure of our spirits—require a more concentrated form of power than can be had from any amount of grain, or fruit, or even flesh. We, just like the Filii Lucis, require power that has been concentrated by other sentient beings. We differ from them only in our methods, not in our needs. We accept what we require from whatever the lower orders of humanity choose to offer us freely, in exchange for guidance and protection. The Filii Lucis take what they want by force and deception.”
“If you have any thought to live as we once did, perhaps quietly attracting and educating students in some remote place, subsisting on what power they can give you—abandon such hopes now. Over the years, others have tried. They have always been found quickly by agents of the Filii Lucis, who do not share this world gladly.
“The only other way for us to survive is with the stored life that was entrusted to me by the Great. They also commanded me to wait for their return. Since the beginning of our long exile, I have made it clear that my duty, as I understand it, is to preserve that power for that mission.
“We do not command each other like the Sons of Error. Your decision to go or stay must be your own. But my duty, as I see it, is to preserve what power remains for those who keep to the task that the Great set: to stay concealed and await their return. You make the choice you make, but without the power of the Vault you must soon fade, and finally die.”
Michael hesitates, then rises from his seat and walks to the wide fireplace. He looks into its flames a while before turning back toward her.
“If it were known,” he says, “that I could in any way be persuaded to change my rule for—personal reasons, then I would lose what little authority remains. The last cohesion of our forces would be scattered. Please understand.”
“I do,” she answers calmly. “You know that I have made my choice.”
“Yes. But I don’t know why.”
“Michael,” she says, “our General and Strategist, I say that you have lost your way. The Great have failed. They have not returned. This world belongs to the ‘Sons of Light’ now. As strange and terrible as that judgment may seem to us, it is the judgment of reality: the result that Heaven has chosen. We have waited, and hidden, and fought in the shadows far beyond the bounds of duty. Far beyond any efforts that even the Great would have asked or expected. Finally, we must accept the verdict.
“I have accepted it. I have made my choice. I will go out and live in the world as it is, rather than the world I remember and the world that I wish for, but which is never to return. I will live out whatever life is within me to live, and when my life fades I will accept the fading. When it ends, I will accept the ending.”
After a long moment, Michael takes a breath. “Very well,” he says, expecting to continue his prepared response, but Arias laughs.
“Oh, did you think that was all?” shes asks. “I’m sure I can trouble you a little more than that!”
He blinks. “That would be—interesting.”
“That is, indeed, my hope,” she smiles.
She stands and reaches into the air to withdraw an object that she has concealed there, like a warrior producing his blade. But as the object emerges, it is solid, and does not glow with the life-force of its owner. It is made only of wood. The object is not a sword, but a walking-stick. Five feet long, it has been made from the straight, slender limb of one of the ironwood trees that grow near the edges of the Refuge. Dense enough to sink in water, the limb is covered with smooth, gray bark. Near the top, the bare wood has been wrapped with brown fabric, deftly woven.
Coming to her and accepting it, Michael knows as he touches the fabric of the grip that Arias has woven the cloth and shaped the stick herself.
“Set aside your sword,” she says quietly. “You have borne it long enough. It’s time to walk away.”
For a long moment he grips the staff tightly, then looks away from her before he speaks. “I would be honored,” he says slowly. “But my hand is still for the sword.” He leans it back toward her, but Arias makes no move to retake it.
“Walk away, Michael,” she says to him, her eyes fierce. “How long will you follow a dead cause? How many years must pass?”
He risks a glance into her eyes, then walks across to the window, carrying the stick. Light is growing in the sky, and the street is busier.
A fruit seller in worn but immaculate formal clothing, carrying an enormous basket of early strawberries, dodges a sudden shower of rotting garbage that a woman has just hurled from a second-storey window. If the foulness had struck him both the donor and the recipient of the misfortune would have considered the event as natural and blameless as an unexpected rainfall.
“For too long,” she says, “you have lived by the rules that you create for yourself. You have lived so long for duty that you have forgotten your duty to live. You have so long followed the dictates of the Great. Can you not, for once, follow the dictates of your own heart?”
“Walk away with me,” she says. “Live with me as a man lives with a woman.”
Still facing away from her, he closes his eyes.
After a time she asks, “Can you not even reply to me?”
Composing his expression, he turns back again.
“I can,” he says. “I also have prepared a gift. Also made of wood,” he smiles slightly.
Going to the fireplace’s broad mantle, he takes down a modest box and places it before her on the table. It is simple but finely made, of oak and hard maple. She sees that Michael has fashioned it with his own hands. As she reaches for it, Arias automatically looks through the wood and is surprised.
“Herbs?” she asks, stopping her hand. “The box contains herbs?”
“I-bi,” Michael says, using the old name. He takes his seat across from here again. “Now the Spanish are calling it tabaco. It is grown in fields just a mile north of here.” Again he permits himself the suggestion of a smile.
Frowning, Arias touches the box with her fingertips, and understands instantly that the box itself has fooled her perception. The appearance of herbs is a seeming, somehow embedded in the wood itself, not requiring any active effort of Michael’s to sustain it. It will endure as long as the box itself.
“This is—astonishing,” she says quietly.
The skill to create such an effect is as far beyond her as a common seeming would be to one of the children. The few remaining warriors, whom the children call archangels, normally take some care to avoid any demonstration of the gulf that separates them from common teachers like Arias. Michael’s not only showing her this difference, but going so far as to embed it in a gift to her must imply a strong desire to conceal the box’s true contents from others of Arias’s rank—and even from those few of his own? She glances across the table and finds his face completely serious again.
“Please open it,” he tells her.
The box’s lid has no catch or hinge, but fits so perfectly that it will not come off unless deliberately removed. As Arias lifts the lid, she gasps. Blue light from within the box illuminates her face. The box is filled with the crystalline vials of life, taken from the Vault of the Great. There are dozens—scores of them. Enough to sustain one of Arias’s rank for a thousand years. It is an absurd, pointless amount of energy. Unless—
Her eyes moisten as she realizes his intention, and looks up at him. This is enough life to sustain her for centuries, and then her plus one of Michael’s rank, for the duration of a human lifetime.
“Do not fade too quickly,” he says.
Until this moment, Arias has not known how long and how thoroughly she has accepted Michael’s position on the Vault which he controls. Now, the violation of trust implied by the vials nestled in this simple box—each one resting in its own indentation in several layers of thin wooded trays—stuns her. It stuns her nearly as much as the statement that the vials imply.
“But,” she begins weakly, carefully replacing the lid, “you can’t. You mustn’t—”
“For once follow the dictates of my own heart?” His dark eyes meet hers, and for a few seconds he places his hand atop hers where it rests on the box made of two kinds of wood: both equally strong, but one of a species darker and more antique than the other.
“For once,” he says, “I can.”
Rising, he returns to the window, looking down again upon the morning’s increasing traffic on the street below.
“I will not keep my vigil forever,” he says. “The Filii Lucis did not attack at a random moment, but at the midway-point of this Great Year.”
On the street below, a man carrying a basket of bread approaches the door. Fine wheat loaves are prominently displayed in the large basket he carries balanced on his hip. The cheap rye loaves, dark and heavy, are concealed under a cloth. Michael casts a simple ward at his house’s front door and the man turns aside between one step and the next, probably having decided, for no reason he would later be able to recall, that ‘no one is at home’, or something of that sort. This is not a time that Michael wants to hear the door bell ring.
He turns back to Arias.
“We do not understand the workings of the Great Year, but we know that the Powers who created this world wove it into the deepest fabric of the planet, the solar system, and possibly the entire Local Chimney.” In response to Arias’s raised eyebrow, he adds: “The Local Chimney is a magnetodynamic structure that was created by a succession of engineered supernova explosions—a region of low density interstellar gas that allows the Sun to have low variability. It appears to have been the first step in the creation of this,” he gestures around them, “’new’ nursery world.”
“I believe that the mechanisms of the Great Year were embedded in reality at that time,” he says, “into the fabric of local space. But we have no way of really knowing. Even Raphael admits his ignorance.”
“What we do know is that the cycle of the Great Year, twenty-six thousand four hundred common years, appears to have effects in the esoteric realms as well as the physical. And that the Filii Lucis happened to choose the exact midway point of the current Great Year in which to mount their attack.”
“Why are you speaking of this now?” she asks.
“Because it is my belief,” he says, “or at least my hope, that our Rulers, those beings of the Filii Veritas whom we call the Great, will do the same as our enemies did long ago.”
On the street below another man dodges a load of night-soil cast heedlessly into the street, but this one shouts a curse. The Dutch colonists of the New World are punctilious in every aspect of personal cleanliness and proper attire. At the same time, they treat the public roads as a garbage dump, throwing everything from kitchen scraps to dead animals to the curbside.
“Michael,” Arias says quietly. “Isn’t the turn of this Great Year still five hundred years from now?”
A flicker of nervousness or embarrassment crosses his features.
“Four hundred,” he says. “If Raphael’s calculations are correct.”
Arias touches touches the wooden box with the fingertips of both hands, but does not move it. After a time she looks up at Michael .
“This seems a thin hope,” she says. “Unless you have some stronger reason?”
He moves in his chair and takes a breath.
“We know that the turn of the Great Year affects reality at all levels: physical, energetic, and etheric. We know that it was put in place by the Powers themselves for reasons that we do not understand. It cannot be a coincidence that the Invasion came at the precise time it did. We do not know why the return of the Great has been so long delayed, but—”
Michael’s voice falters, and he lowers his head a moment before looking at Arias again.
“No,” he says. “I have only this final hope. But it is a hope, and I must wait until that time. If it fails—if the Great do not return at that time, then I will open the Vault to whatever of our people remain, and live as a man for however long we—” he blinks. “For however long I may.”
Slowly, Arias nods. “I understand,” she says.
“It is a short time,” he adds, “compared to what we have already endured.”
“A short time perhaps for you, Michael” she smiles, but there is sadness in her eyes. “But not for me. I have waited longer than most with you. But now my heart tells me that we will never see the Great return. And I want to live, finally, in the world that we have.”
“But what I can agree to, with the help of this gift,” she touches the precious box, and reaches her other hand across the table to lay it over his, “is to not fade too quickly.”
“Good,” Michael nods at last. “Good.”
The stair leading down to the back of his house, away from the street, is wide and strong, its tread cut from hickory and the way lit by windows of cut glass. He leads the way to the bottom, where he opens a heavy door onto a private yard that communicates with the street by a lane that wraps around the side of the tall house.
Standing in the yard is a wagon, its load tarped, with a seat in front for a driver. Before it stand two matched horses, brilliant in the morning light.
“Oh, they’re beautiful!” Arias exclaims. The horses turn their heads in near-unison to regard Arias with one great brown eye each. The animals are apparently identical: entirely white in their bodies, but gold in mane and tail.
“They are full sisters,” Michael says with a slight smile, “born two years apart of the same sire. They are from theZedendaal, the ‘Blessed Valley’, seven miles north of here: a new settlement in the land of the Manhattans. A well-to-do Dutch farmer agreed to sell them to me only after I offered him enough money to offend his propriety as much as it attracted his avarice.”
“Are they named?” she asks, walking forward to touch both animals lightly on their noses. They both react by taking a short step forward and lowering their long heads to meet their new mistress’s palms, their ears forward and attentive. Arias laughs delightedly.
“That is for you to do,” Michael tells her. “And this,” he says, turning to the wagon, “is the stoutest vehicle that the art of New Amsterdam can create. And the supplies,” he pulls back the waxed canvas covering, “that I think you will need.”
Inside the wagon are two dozen more great nine-pound loaves, five wheels of cheese, and a wooden crate protecting half a dozen tall clay stoops of beer.
“How do you know I’m not sailing back to Europe? Or to Albion?”
“’England’ now,” he corrects. “But it would be a poor destination. Trouble is brewing there, I think. And there has been war on the continent for twenty years, with no end that I can yet see.” He frowns. “It is our enemies’ work, of course,” he speaks quietly. “But I cannot tell yet whether it is the beginning of some plan, or just one of their endless status struggles.”
He shakes his head. “But such sights are not your desire, I think.”
“You know my heart,” she smiles. “I would see these new lands and their peoples. Especially those not yet of interest to our battered world’s glorious new owners.”
Arias turns her face to the west and tilts back her head.
“I see water,” she says, with an interested frown of concentration. “Fresh water, in great seas!”
“Yes,” Michael smiles. “But a long journey to there, through many nations. Peaceable, though,” he hesitates, “mostly.” He sees how her pulse quickens at the thought of wide new lands, after the long constraint and changelessness of the Refuge.
“Then I will go there,” she says, turning to him. “And see what is to be seen.”
They stand facing each other for a long moment, until she steps forward to embrace him.
“Thank you,” she says. “I will see you again.”
Then she walks to the wagon and climbs into its seat, places the wooden box in a safe place near her feet, takes up the horses’ reins and, with a word to them, sets off to find a ferry that will take her across the river and westward.
She does not look back.
Michael stands looking down the road for long minutes, thoughtlessly diverting the attention of passersby until a man nearly collides with him. The man’s face registers shock for an instant. It seems to him that Michael has appeared before him out of thin air. But he quickly discards his confusion upon realizing that he has stumbled upon a potential customer.
“Mijnheer Aaldenberg! Pardon my clumsiness! Would you care to buy bread on this fine morning? The freshest and finest three-pound white loaves, and only two stuivers!”
The man is carrying a wicker basket fully four feet across, piled high with his expensive white loaves, and small rolls of egg-bread. But as he focuses on his prospective customer’s face, his expression is suddenly stricken.
“But mijnheer,” the man says, “are you quite well?”
Michael blinks. “Yes,” he says, “forgive me herr Lauwens. I am well.”
“Truly? I think that you should have bread, mijnheer!” the man grins, tilting his basket to better display his wares. “A fine loaf will cheer you! What need have you for sorrows? See! Your business is prospering, and the day is fine! But you must have food! There is no meat upon you!”
“Yes,” Michael says after a moment. “I could use some bread. I’ve given all of mine away, just now.”
“Given it away?” In an instant the baker’s expression goes from concerned to scandalized.
“Yes,” Michael says. “To a friend.”
“Ah,” the man beams again. “But how excellent! You are generous! Even in this hard world, mijnherr, we must know that God smiles upon the generous!”
Michael nods to the man.
“Let us hope so, Herr Lauwens,” he says. “Let us hope.”