Through Fire – Snippet 14

Lucius Keeva frowned at the boots. “I beg your pardon about those,” he said. “But I think your feet are at least a size larger than mine.” His gaze swept upwards. “The rest fits well enough.”

I realized these had to be Keeva’s clothes, and that the two men were almost exactly the same size. How had I not noticed it before? They were very different types of men. Lucius might be scarred, but the features beneath that were regular and beautiful enough. Carefully assembled, likely. As carefully as mine had been, gene by gene and protein by protein. Alexis’ had been assembled by an unkind mother nature. Living couldn’t improve on them. They weren’t exactly horrible to look at, but they were rough-carved and only the intelligent and attentive eyes beneath the heavy eyebrows relieved what would otherwise have been a brutal aspect.

Besides there was posture. Lucius Keeva had been trained to command, and he looked every inch of his six feet six or seven, or perhaps more. Alexis, on the other hand, whatever he had been, wherever he’d come from — conspirator, condemned man, servant — would have been trained to hide his size and any appearance of menace. And he managed to project being much shorter and smaller than he was. But he was massive. No wonder he’d been able to drag me. And no wonder Simon trusted him to keep me safe.

“As I was saying,” Lucius said. “I can offer hospitality to Zenobia, and you can trust me to keep her safe as your… ah… Good Man commanded. But I don’t think I can accommodate you, at least not for the night. You can have dinner with us.”

Alexis looked like he was going to protest, but Lucius interrupted, “Through that door, there is a young man waiting. An ensign. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, they change so fast.” Tiredness again. “We send them out to fight much too early. But he’ll show you to the unmarried men’s quarters. You can make sure you have a place for tonight and then you can come back here, if you choose, for dinner or to verify I haven’t killed Zenobia. But I assure you, it’s not needed.”

Alexis looked like he was going to protest. There was a mutinous look in his eyes, and he looked like he wanted to give vent to it. Perhaps he would have, but I suspected the training to obey people who acted this way and gave orders this smoothly went bone deep. He didn’t exactly bow, and he didn’t exactly make a sound of acquiescence, but there was a suggestion of both in the way he headed out the door.

And I felt, unaccountably, bereft, as though I too couldn’t trust Lucius Keeva not to do something awful to me. Which was ridiculous, of course. I could at least trust him as much as I trusted Brisbois. As Luce had said, we’d fought side by side.

I returned to where I’d been before Brisbois had interrupted us. “Suicide?”

“What do you think it is, for any of us, the ones who look obviously modified, or at least… enhanced, to go to Liberte? If they’re hunting for those who stand out? We’d stand out just for being strangers — foreign. And what do you think our chances are of doing anything in time to free Simon?”

“I was hoping for armed men.” I stepped backwards, to let myself fall onto a chair. “So, when you offered help–”

He shook his head. “I could have got you help if you were… involved with Simon. Some help. Not personally,” he said. “Certainly not personally. My face is too well known the world over. And not Nat. If you saw him fighting on broom back, or really just fighting, you’d know his enhancements are as hard to hide as ours. Hereditary, sure. I don’t think his line has seen the inside of a test tube for generations.” He paused, as though a sudden thought had intruded and chewed at the corner of his lip, as though trying to digest an unpleasant thought. “Though I wouldn’t bet on it either. But I understand they’re going after people who inherited enhancements, too. And most of my helpers, most of my circle here, is obviously enhanced. So I couldn’t ever offer you help of that kind. But… since you’re not involved with Simon, I don’t think I can even offer you that.”

I started to say that I could lie about being involved with Simon, then I thought about the implications — this would be claiming a relationship on the level of marriage. It probably meant that if we saved Simon, I’d have to stand by it. I’d been married once. I thought of Len, of what I’d had with him. Simon was a different creature. “I’d been dreading his proposal.”

“Understand,” Luce said. “I’m not trying to be unkind, but I think that to attempt to save Simon right now is nothing more than a complex way to commit suicide unless you went in with overwhelming force, and I don’t know if we can get overwhelming force.”

I bit my tongue, but I couldn’t keep it in. “We helped when you needed it. He helped with your… revolution. But now you turn your back on him.”

He let air out through his nose with a noise like a sneeze, but infused with something like repressed temper. “No. Simon helped us when it suited him. Yes, he was part of our councils and our efforts, because he’s been a friend of the Remys since they were all very young. But Simon is himself. If he’d been a true ally, an auxiliary, our group would put itself out for him, whether there was a chance of success–” He stopped. “No. Maybe not. That’s my own quixotic impulse. The Usaians always weigh their chances of success. Or at least they did when Nat was arrested — even though he’s one of their own. This is why they’ve survived so long. But I can’t even take the case to council. I don’t know how aware you are of what brought this about, but Simon was trying to manipulate things at a vulnerable moment, and he fell on his face. If someone is shot while trying to steal something, you can’t really say that others have an obligation to risk themselves to save his life.” He must have read my confusion. He shook his head. “No, I don’t propose to explain,” he said. “It would take too long and some of it I can’t tell you because I got it in confidential reports from Liberte. But let’s say that Simon was playing with fire, before he got burned.”

“Aren’t you all playing with fire, though?” I asked. “Isn’t that the definition of a revolution?”

For a moment he looked like he couldn’t believe I’d say something so incredibly stupid. Maybe it was even true. Maybe I had violated good sense. It’s impossible to know in a different world. There are different ways; different expectations. He narrowed his eyes. “Not… in the way I mean.”

“Do you mean that he failed to conform to your ideals?” I asked, as I thought I understood his hints. “But he’s not of you. He’s not an Usaian. How can you demand he conform to your ideals, before you assist him?”

I got the impression I’d upset him. “There are,” he said, “ideals of human decency of — of being human, without which we revert to the rule of the Good Men. Or worse.” He seemed about to say a lot more, but I got the impression he was holding himself back by an effort of will. “I can’t help you, in any case. I couldn’t help you even if Simon were more closely allied with our cause. The council would never permit it.” He took a deep breath. “You’re an old battle comrade. You’ve helped me and … and us… our cause, in a very tight spot. I will extend you my hospitality as long as you wish it, and will help you find more permanent accommodation.

“As for Simon, he’s become a matter for international bargaining and international maneuvering.” He held up a hand before I could speak. “It’s not that I don’t want to help, understand me. It’s that I can’t. With all the best will in the world, I can’t even plead for the council to send someone on a suicide mission to save him from the results of his own folly. He made himself head of a revolution that meant to make all men equals, knowing he could never be equal. Things were bound to leak, and things were bound to happen. He knew my identity is out in the open and that we broadcast. He helped us defeat controls on the broadcasts. Did he think the knowledge would never make it to Liberte?” He took a deep breath and seemed to draw himself into composure by an effort of will. “And now, please excuse me. I have work to do. I do not know if I’ll be able to take time to eat, but I’ll make sure you’re served dinner. You are, of course, free to go where you please, but remember the house is a military installation, and refrain from making the guards nervous.”