“We don’t actually have that much water,” Akshainie said. It was the evening, and she had joined Michael and I at the apartment for dinner. She was, at this point, responding to Michael asking about the sanitation conditions in the prison.
“This is a water-aligned city of water spirits!” Michael cried. “How could it possibly be lacking water?”
Akshainie set her fork down and glared at him. “You know, for someone who prides himself on magical knowledge, you sure are stupid sometimes.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“This is a river city. It gets its water from the River Network. Do you know what the River Network is?”
“I’m aware of it.”
“Then you should be aware that its nature is defined, to a large degree, by the actual rivers of the mortal world.” She took up her fork again and stabbed it into her rice. “The physical rivers that your ancestors cut us off from.”
“Wait,” I said, “are you telling us Iravati has been severed from the River Network this whole time?”
“All the water we have in Iravati is the water that was within our borders when we were separated from the world, and any water we’ve been able to carry in or magically summon. It’s why we have to leave the city and then go into the physical river to access the River Network, and that’s a recent development. It took us 70 years to figure out how to travel to the mortal realm after the schism.”
“Akshainie, I’m so sorry,” Michael said. “I didn’t realize, I don’t think they knew—”
“Do you think it would have mattered to them if they did know? Do you think that would have stopped them? Look at the history of your empire and then look me in the eye and tell me they wouldn’t have seen that as all the more reason to do it!” She glared at Michael for a moment, apparently expecting a reply. When she didn’t get one, she stormed off toward the bedrooms. I looked over to Michael, who was staring into his rice with a blank stare, and then rose and rested my hand on his shoulder.
“It’s good to know how important this work is,” I said, “so you can better understand how to address it.” He nodded, and I patted his shoulder before heading back into my bedroom. Akshainie was tightly coiled on the floor, her arms crossed under her chin and resting on her tail as she stared off into the distance. I sat on the bed next to her. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how bad things were here.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I suppose not. But you do know it’s not his, either, right?”
“Yeah, I know,” she grumbled.
“I’m not going to tell you not to be mad at his family, or his country, or even him for all the ways this has played out for each of you. I know that it doesn’t undo any of the problems your people have faced while being cut off. It doesn’t erase the past.”
“Then why did you come in here?”
“To make sure you’re okay. And remind you that the reason you’re able to have this conversation at all is that he’s here, now, trying to make it better. Please don’t forget that you’re talking to a Hudson, maybe the only Hudson, that is listening and willing to act on what you’re telling him.”
She uncoiled enough to lean over and lay her head on my lap, and I began to stroke her hair. “Do you know what she has us soldiers doing?”
“No. I’ve noticed soldiers coming and going at the edges of the site, but I don’t know why.”
“Because of what happens if it doesn’t work. If this doesn’t do what Michael promises, there’s the chance it will make us vulnerable. Iravati has enemies, just like everywhere else does, and if we align the city incorrectly we don’t know who will suddenly have access to us.”
“You’re preparing to repel a surprise invasion force?”
“Essentially.” We sat in silence for a while before she spoke again. “I’m scared, Bene. The world has changed while we’ve been cut off. What if we’re not ready? What if this creates new problems we can’t handle? What if I have to stay here to fight a losing battle?”
“I don’t know. But I trust you’ll be up to the challenge, whatever it is. You’re very capable and your city is resourceful. You’ll get through. And if it’ll help, I’ll stay as long as I can.”
“I think it would, but I can’t ask you to do that. The Brood has to fall.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to do that without you, anyway.”
She rolled over to look up at me. “No, you probably can’t.” We both laughed as she got up and I stood.
“You ready to finish dinner?” She agreed, and he went back to the table.
From the records of Father Benedict de Monte. Dated 7 March 2007
That first evening was primarily focused on Michael explaining the plan, the Queen of Heaven making changes based on updated information about the state of the divide and the city, and assigning tasks. The real work of preparation began today, and quickly became something that neither Akshainie nor I were equipped to assist. Within two hours of the day’s work beginning, we found ourselves sitting on a hill off to the side and watching.
“Are you enjoying being home?” I asked, handing her one of the fruits I’d bought that morning.
“It’s nice. There are things you don’t realize you miss until you slow down and actually enjoy them again.”
“I have experienced that. Last time I was in Tettnang.”
“A town in Germany, where I grew up. I visited occasionally when I was studying, but last time I got to really just be there and take the place in, I was surprised how much I’d forgotten.”
“When was that?”
“Seventeen years ago. When my father died.”
“Oh. I’m sorry, Bene.”
“It’s okay. I’ve had some time to process it.”
“How are you enjoying Iravati? This is your first time really getting to experience it without me guiding you everywhere.”
“It’s a very nice place. Worthy of all the devotion with which you protect it. Though one thing does occur to me.”
“And what’s that?” she asked, laying back in the grass and starting into her snack.
I laid next to her. “I was standing in my bedroom this morning, and looking around, and remembering the house your family lives in and your talk about how you have no cultural need for separate sleeping spaces. And it came to mind that Iravati has been much more accommodating of my lifestyle and expectations than the mortal world has been of yours.”
“Yes, well, the mortal world largely isn’t aware that I’m real in the same way they are.”
“No. But I’m aware, and I have been in a position to make it more comfortable for you. And I’m sorry for not doing so.”
“So no more camping on the sides of frozen mountains, then?”
I laughed. “Among other things, yes.”
She rolled over and laid her head on my chest as we watched the mages and scribes bustling about below. I absently began running my fingers through her hair as she finished the fruit. “We could stay here, you know,” she said. “Once our work is done, I mean.”
“I don’t think the Church would recognize Iravati as a parish.”
“No, she said softly, “I suppose not.” She sat up and dusted herself off. “Better not give anyone any impressions about us.”
“Michael seems to already have some.”
“He was asking about the nature of our relationship.” I sat up as well.
“And what did you tell him?”
“We’re working together. He wanted more information about how we felt about that, but I reminded him that answers like that won’t help him finish his work here.”
“Well played,” she laughed, “I should’ve thought of that.”
“When my friends asked about you.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Nothing that wasn’t true. Come on,” she said, rising and moving down the hill. “It looks like your charge is on the move.”
I looked and, sure enough, Michael was talking to some officials and moving to the other side of the work site. I followed.
With the Queen of Heaven’s reluctant acceptance of Michael’s help came some new living quarters. He was still under guard, of which I was a part, but we were led to an apartment a short journey from the market rather than the prison. Michael immediately made use of its bathtub, explaining as he emerged wearing a towel that he hadn’t had access to one since his arrival in Iravati.
“That would explain the smell,” I said as he sank into a chair opposite me.
“It is odd, being a water-aligned city. One would expect them to have facilities everywhere,” he replied.
“Maybe they just really don’t like you.”
“That is likely. I understand their bitterness about the whole affair, of course, but I am still grasping why they seem to hold me personally responsible.”
“Did your family gain any favor or wealth by their work here?”
“And are you still benefiting from that favor and wealth?”
“Hm. I think I see where you’re going with this. But excuse me to get dressed. I”ll have to consider the matter further when I return to England.” He rose again and slipped into one of the two bedrooms. The other, I was informed when the guards let us in and took up their posts outside, was reserved for me; to ensure I was always close at hand should he try anything. The apartment was originally intended for guests to the city, I’m told, and appeared to have been designed by someone who knew guests would need separate spaces but didn’t quite know what those spaces were. The kitchen, or at least the area that appeared to be for cooking, was in my bedroom. The only restroom was in Michael’s bedroom, and the communal space with the chairs also housed what looked to be some sort of meditative or religious space. Ignoring the incense holders but lighting a candle that I hoped didn’t have alternate ceremonial importance, I utilized that area for a round of daily prayers while I waited for Michael to return. He emerged before I was done, but seemed to recognize that I was busy and sat silently until I was done. When I finished and turned toward him, he was flipping through a leather-bound book.
“Anything interesting?” I asked, taking up my seat again.
“Haven’t a clue,” he replied, closing the book and setting it aside, “I don’t know the language.”
“I could ask Akshainie if they have anything in English.”
“I do speak multiple languages, Benedict. Just not this one.” He leaned back and crossed his arms. “But speaking of Akshainie. What is the nature of your relationship with her?”
“We’re partnering on official business on behalf of our benefactors.”
“Is that the official answer, or the honest one?”
“What are you getting at?”
“Hopefully, something worth talking about that isn’t official business.”
“There is nothing between Akshainie and I to discuss.”
“And are you happy with that?”
“I accepted the terms of my office long before you were born, Michael.”
He raised his hands as if giving up the subject. “Very well, then. But one could hardly be faulted for noticing that acceptance is not the same as enjoyment.” We sat in silence for a minute before he leaned forward. “But if I could ask just one more thing.”
“I seem to have little ability to stop you.”
“I saw the way you looked at her in England. And how she looked at you. The way you two moved in sync, and worked through information together.”
“That isn’t a question.”
“Do you know how she feels about you, and does she know how you feel about her?”
“We know what we need to know.”
“You didn’t seem so dodgy last we spoke.”
“I am not a man of secrets. But I am a man of mission, and this matter is not helpful to our mission. I suspect this is a trait you’ll have to learn someday, future Lord Hudson.”
“Yes, of course. But I don’t intend to put my entire life on hold over it, and I don’t believe you should, either.”
“My life is not on hold. It is simply not guided by earthly desires.”
The door opened and a soldier entered. “The Queen of Heaven is ready for you to begin preparations,” she said.
“Thank God,” I said. Michael laughed as we both rose and followed the soldier.
From the records of Fr. Benedict de Monte, dated 6 March 2007
When we arrived in Iravati we were immediately greeted by a 20-strong contingent of the city guard, who swept us along past the gates and market into the throne room where the Queen of Heaven was holding court. The room fell silent and all activity stopped when we were led in, the crowd parting for us the only movement. We continued on until we were face to face with the great two-headed naga, who gazed down on us with a cold fire in her unblinking eyes. I began to wonder if answering the summons had been the best option for us, but before I could weigh the value of voicing that concern, I heard a door open and chains dragging on the floor. I turned to the source of the sound, in the process noticing that Akshainie was not breaking her focus away from the Queen, and as I finished turning I saw Michael Hudson in shackles. He was being led by two soldiers.
“Priest,” he said, softly, as soon as he was close enough.
“Mage,” I replied.
He smirked at that, which inspired a sharp jab from the elbow of one of the soldiers into his side. The blow caught him off guard enough to nearly knock the breath out of him, and as he coughed through the recovery I turned my attention back to the throne.
“Repeat your claim, Hudson,” one of the heads of the Queen of Heaven demanded, the last word said through clenched teeth.
“Of course, your highness,” he said, before taking a deep breath and regaining his composure. The shackles glowed faintly for a moment, and when it did both soldiers adjusted the grip on their weapons as if preparing to strike. “I was recently made aware of my family’s involvement in Iravati’s severing from the mortal world. In light of this information, and in response to help received from the naga Akshainie—” Akshainie scowled when he said her name, “—I participated in a study on how to reverse the damage done to your land by my ancestors. I have come to offer the plan of realignment and, if so desired, my assistance in accomplishing it.”
As the head that had spoken to him continued to watch Michael, the other turned toward us. “Tell us what you know of this,” she commanded.
Akshainie stood at attention and straightened her armor. “My queen,” she began, “it was the Brood of Nachash. The Hudson estate discovered evidence of their presence and active operation on their island, and this man,” she indicated toward Michael without turning to face him, “was put in contact with Father Benedict de Monte for assistance. Benedict and I argued extensively about my ability to assist the Hudson estate, but in the end I was promised I could end him myself if he proved to be beneath our effort to assist.”
“You gave her permission to kill me?” Michael hissed at me. I cleared my throat but offered no answer.
“When we arrived, I referenced his family’s history with Iravati and he swore to investigate my claim. During the course of our work against the Brood, he discovered records of the Schism and, armed with those records, worked with Benedict, a servant of his named Roderick, and I to develop a spell to counter the one cast by his ancestor and their lap dog.”
“He only called upon the two of you, against the Brood of Nachash?” the Queen asked.
“He had assistance from an embodied spirit in his own region. We were also aided by two others who came from Benedict’s contacts in America.”
“These were not contacts of the Hudson estate?”
“One is a relative of the Hudsons, but was not aware of their magical work or nature until our arrival. The other was not acquainted with them at all.”
“Were these associates religious figures like yourself?” the Queen asked me. “Or perhaps mages?”
“One has potential,” I answered. “The other is an Anchor.” The room exploded into gasps and conversation. The Queen of Heaven recoiled at the last word and glared at me. “I recognize that you have valid distrust of Anchors, and would never dare to bring one here. But please understand that our methods in this instance required a means to stifle the magic of the Brood. The Anchor was crucial to our plan to weaken and then ambush them.”
“You have made strange allies in the world of man, Akshainie.” The Queen of Heaven raised her arms and the room went silent again. “Did you test Michael Hudson to ensure he could be trusted in this matter?”
“I did,” Akshainie replied. “While I do believe he is more concerned with his own interests than reconciliation with our people, I believe realignment of Iravati with the mortal world is in line with his interests.”
“There’s benefit in this for him?”
“His promise to carry out this work assured my assistance against the Brood, which he was not adequately prepared to eliminate without me. And, I suspect, he has a vested interest in establishing a sphere of influence beyond his island. He is in line to become Lord Hudson in a waning empire likely to lose its monarch while he holds the office. He traffics with spirits whose loyalty to the crown are questionable, works with agents of an external political and religious body, and has carried out this work without the permission or knowledge of his queen.”
“You think he is anticipating a time when he may need Iravati to look favorably on him?”
“It seems a possibility, your majesty.”
The Queen of Heaven considered this answer for a moment, then turned to me. “You have shown yourself to respect my authority in this place. Will you submit to me in this matter?”
“Of course,” I answered.
“Good. I will need much of my guard involved in this plan the young man has brought to us. You assist these two soldiers in caring for and supervising the future Lord Hudson. If he moves against us, kill him.” She waved us away, but as we turned to leave she stopped Akshainie and assigned her to help with the realignment among the city guard. We nodded to one another, and she left with a group of scribes and soldiers through a different door as we made our way to the prison.
“Will you really kill me?” Michael asked, once we were away from the court.
“Will you give me need to consider it?” I asked.
“I suppose I’d better not.”
Message recovered from the personal files of Fr. Benedict de Monte, dated 14 Phalguna 1928 (est. 5 March 2007). Translated from Sanskrit.
Let it be known that Akshainie, of the Brood of the Sind Krait, sword-maiden of the city of Iravati, is hereby summoned to appear before the Queen of Heaven. She is to bring also her traveling companion, the western priest Benedict de Monte.
A dangerous individual of the British house of Hudson has arrived and claims the support of this Akshainie. Akshainie and her companion are therefore called to testify to the nature and intentions of one Michael Percival Hudson, as well as his claims concerning the realignment of Iravati with the physical realm. Do not delay.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.