This time, there was no city. There was barely a geography. You could stand on Lookout Point and see the Wavemont, a standing mountain of water, before you. Behind you would be the extensive and rambling buildings of the Yetzirah-Thoth base worked into sandstone hills sculpted like cumulus clouds. To your left and right, there was only sky, below as well as above. Suns of various sizes—or the Sun at various distances—swam through the depths or floated overhead on loose schedules.
Two days before (as measured by clock, not sky), the Bythos had come sailing over the Wavemont, waited for the favor of the irregular tides of Yetzirah, then entered a lock. Presently, she would sail back over the Wavemont at a different angle, through ever-gentler mists and fogs, and come by a winding course to Brequelle.
“It’s not complete chaos,” Charliehorse had assured them. “That’s just an abstraction; I don’t think it can exist. And we’d die long before we reached it. This is chaotic,” he admitted, “but not too bad. These hills are stable enough—been here for millennia—there are five different sets of ruins tucked in among the base buildings. You don’t have to worry about Lookout Point.”
So, moved by a desire for privacy, the fifteen remaining lungmao gathered on Lookout Point to settle their plans.
They came straggling up to the Point approximately at the appointed hour, exclaimed over the view for a bit, then sat in a circle as they had often done around campfires when on the road. Then, they had roasted game on sticks, or cooked up stews of whatever local meat and vegetables looked palatable. (They had never accidentally poisoned themselves, and Doug now suspected this would have been a clue to their fairy immortality, if only they could have recognized it.) And where had the stew pot gone? They’d had three different stew pots over the last two years, and the last one had apparently been left behind in Huspaan.
This time, there was no fire and no stew. Instead, Gus and Doug had gone shopping at the commissary and piled the results in the center of the circle: candy bars, jerky sticks, bags of potato chips (“crisps” in Grand Norman British-slanted English), packs of cookies (“biscuits”), cans of soda, cans of beer, cupcakes and meat pies—junk food, home food, in the very wrappers they had last seen years and worlds ago, and had eaten with human hands and teeth. “Dig in, guys,” said Gus, and they did, though laughing and reminiscing in a way such stuff hardly ever earned.
“So is this a farewell party?” asked Aaron.
“You said you wanted to compare notes,” said Neil.
“Both,” Doug answered. “We’ve talked and planned on board ship for more than a week, but never all together, and we thought it would be good if everyone heard everybody’s plans. And, yeah, I think this may be the last chance for all of us to meet together.”
“At least, for a long, long time,” amended Gus. Doug nodded. If they all met again, it would probably be ages hence, and what would they all be, by then?
Neil sat up straight and gave them a serious look. “So what are your plans, Captains?”
“To retire,” said Doug, standing suddenly and gazing out at the Wavemont. “I guess we’re done captaining. You don’t need anyone to organize the survival effort any longer. We’ve survived!”
“We’re going back to Chicago,” Gus said, staring at Neil and Aaron, who were not going back to Chicago. Thus endeth the Windy City Squad. “The Grand Normans’ll fit us out with glamours and pay the air fare. Rahul and Dan are going home too.”
Doug abruptly sat down again. "Then, I guess, we’ll try to work out how to be h– human again.” He stared down at his tail, once more laid across his knees. “The Grand Normans will try to find leads on teachers.”
“We kind of assumed that’s what everybody would be doing,” said Gus, stretching out and propping himself on an elbow. “But we were wrong. Let’s hear it. Neil? Aaron? Brett? What about you?”
“Well, we told you two,” Neil answered, “but maybe not everybody knows. Aaron, Brett, and me, we’re joining the navy. This navy. The Grand Norman one.”
“They’ll take you?” asked Philippe. “Does that mean you’re becoming Grand Normans?” asked Rahul.
“Yes, and yes,” answered Neil.
“You were in the US Navy,” Gus remarked, “before. And you swore an oath to uphold the US constitution.” He did not speak this as an accusation, but his tone invited a reply.
Neil nodded. “We’re not giving up our old citizenships. All Grand Normans have cover IDs anyway, and the US government will never know. And I don’t think Grand Normandy is planning any moves against America.”
“Same with us,” said Virat. “Only we’re joining their infantry. That’s me and Marco and Ralph and Arthur.”
“It’ll be a lot like military contracting,” said Marco. “They mostly use their infantry to run support for other branches, and to staff bases like this one. They don’t have wars like we do. Did. Like un-Sundered countries.”
“Yeah, when they tangle with other cryptics, it’s more like gang wars,” said Ralph. “And for that, they have a branch they call the Vanguard. That might be fun, too, someday. But we’ll need to be able to change back for that. Navy and infantry are mostly off-plane.”
Doug nodded. He had heard all this before, but wanted all of them to know. He wished the five at Netzach-Isis could know. Well, there were the mails.
This, he reflected lined up perfectly with Fletcher’s talk about twenty “elven knights” being a great find, to treasure as potential allies. How much better to have seven of them sign up with your military?
It was, Doug had to admit, a tempting choice. It gave them a place to be, a somewhat familiar one from which they could reach home when they were ready. And, for these seven, they would be ready when they could really turn back.
He looked around the circle and found Jon, Ted, and Philippe sitting together as they usually did. He nailed them with his gaze. “You guys want to tell everyone your plans?”
Jon stared back, a touch of defiance in his face. “We’re joining a troop.”
A mutter arose, became angry, started to grow to a roar.
“Pipe down!” Doug barked. “And hear them out.” And that, he thought as the noise subsided, was probably the last flicker of my captaincy.
Jon, Philippe, and Ted stood up, a little apart from the circle. “Listen!” said Jon. “We’ve spent five years talking about the hive mind—three while we were in it! And, yeah, it was creepy and... and invasive–”
“Rapey,” someone growled.
“–but we spent two years chewing it over, on the road, and we all admitted there were things about it we liked. The energy, the– the flow! Always being in the zone.”
“Or zoned out,” said a detractor.
“And the teamwork! ‘Teamwork’ is too weak a word. We moved as one! And the trust! Look, we argue and fight, like we’re doing now, but even two years later, I know all you guys, better than I ever knew anyone. No lies! We still can’t lie to each other, knowing each other so well. I miss the certainty, the insight that’s based on. We miss that!” With a synchrony that Doug still found eerie, even though they’d been doing stuff like that for two years now, Ted and Philippe each put a hand on Jon’s shoulders.
Three friends, really tight friends. That’s what they’d been before and during and after, getting tighter at each step. Gus muttered something too low even for lungmao ears, but Doug knew he’d said, “Gotta wonder if they really left the troop all the way.”
A silence fell. Rob broke it by calling, “It was the chain around our necks!”
“It was a bond!” Jon replied. “What if you could have that bond without the tyrannical war-lady at the other end? What if you could have just the good parts, eh?”
Suspicious muttering answered.
“ ’Cause we’ve been asking around, asking Randirel and the other fays on the ship. They say fays pop in and out of troops all the time. Some of ’em, anyway. And there are different kinds. Troops can be looser or tighter, have a boss or not. And a couple of the centaurs, Buckjack and that paint, they say they know a guy on Brequelle, a fay-lord just starting out, an up-and-comer, who might want to take us on under good terms. We’ll see. If not, well, maybe we’ll sign up with the infantry.”
Back in the days of the troop, the hive-mind, different emotions would have sloshed through everyone’s heads until some blend prevailed, and they would have all reacted the same. Now, some turned away in distaste, some stared at the threesome in regret, some pondered uncertainly.
At least there was no outrage, no risk of a brawl. Doug gratefully dismissed an image of someone going over the edge. Where would the local gravity lead? Into one of the skies? He shuddered. “Maybe we shoulda found another picnic spot,” Gus muttered. “But I guess we’re okay.”
The threesome started to leave, but Gus gestured for them to sit back down. They obeyed, and the others scooted aside for them. “And now I’m done,” Gus murmured, just loud enough for Doug to hear. He nodded back. The Lion Host had no captains, now.
“Is that everybody?” asked Marco.
“Nope.” Rob stood up. “There’s me. I’m leaving tomorrow.” A buzz of curiosity rose. “You know about the trails?” He waved back toward the base. Behind it, in the hills, trails branched out through twisting landscapes to Hod-Amon, Yesod-Thoth, and various points in Yetzirah. “And you know that big caravan putting itself together in the main yard? Well, I’ve hired on as a guard. Going to Hod-Amon.”
“And after that?” asked Doug.
Rob shrugged. “Guard a caravan coming back, maybe. I’ll rattle around here for a while. Shop around.” He laughed and gestured out at the skies. “Get the lay of the land. Then decide.”
“Not trying to get home?” asked Gus.
“Not trying to change back?” asked Doug.
Rob shrugged. “That’ll all happen, someday. I’ll be sticking around the Grand Norman territories, so I’ll be seeing you, off and on.”
What a complete contrast, Doug reflected, to all the little groups we’re spawning here. The Rugged Individual, that’s Rob. “Well,” he said, “keep in touch. Check your mail when you come through here. We’ll write. Write back.”
Rob smiled and flipped a salute. “Sure thing, Captain. I’ll report back if I find any bad mojo that I can’t put down myself.”
And he turned to leave, but Dan said, “Wait. What about the Lion Knights?” Two dozen slit-pupiled eyes stared at him curiously. “Doug and Gus said they wanted to start an order of knights, the Lion Knights.”
Now all the eyes were trained on Doug and Gus. Doug felt himself blushing. “It ... was an idea I had,” he muttered. “So that something good could come out of this weird mess. To give us direction. But you’ve got your directions now.”
“What do Lion Knights do?” asked Rob.
“They ... we ... are brave and honest and loyal, like knights are supposed to be, and we never stand idly by when someone innocent is being yanked around by mind-magic, like we were. We ... don’t stand for it. Or that was as far as I got with the idea.”
“Ah!” said Rob, enlightened. “With vows and stuff to give it ‘moral force,’ right?”
“Right,” muttered Doug, staring at his tail across his knees.
“Sure,” said Rob. “I promise. That’d stick in my craw anyway.” And a chorus of agreement followed. Doug could not tell if every one of them promised, but a lot of them did. “See you around,” Rob said, flipped another salute that was more of a wave, and strolled back toward the base, a candy bar in his hand.
“Goodbye!” Doug called, and “Bye, Rob!” Gus echoed. Soon, the others trailed after him. Dan was last.
“Was that good enough?” he asked.
“That was fine, Dan,” Doug told him. “We’re a bunch of elven knights. That’s what Fletcher told us the day we met. And we’ve promised to protect the innocent. That’s all there is to it.” Dan smiled at him, so he smiled back.
Gus shoved a cluster of jerky strips into Dan’s hands and clapped him on the shoulder as he left, then spent a minute shoving wrappers, cans, and the few leftovers into a plastic bag. “Let’s not litter chaos, right?” he said to the ground.
Doug squatted down and helped him pick up. “I don’t think we exactly founded an order of knighthood here,” he said, also addressing the ground.
Gus looked up at him. “But we didn’t fail, zhījĭ . Like Fletcher said, we’re just done. Anyway, how many Lion Knights do there need to be?”
“Two. Two is enough.”
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