Van Buren rises.
William goes into the heart of the matter.
Pem faces her fear to become a champion.
Rogger owns the death she deals.
"Gaucho" begins anew, soon.
I’m not certain if Van Buren is a city or a fort. Once the city walls rose from the sand, we found more and more rooms. Rooms, which turned out to be buildings. Many are locked. We have no way to open them. Rogger found some explosives and is trying to limit the charges to small blasts. She wants to ensure we don’t harm anything or anyone that might be inside the rooms.
Pem is fretful these days. She wants to run back to the Station and hide and sleep and eat. I worry she will wonder off. She spends longer days walking the walls than she used to. And she doesn’t talk to me anymore.
The roilbeasts pound the walls at any time during the day. The sounds are like gongs or harbor ships, like pots clanging in a megaphone. But the walls hold. I think they were made for this.
The Princess also sends dandercrabs, which are trickier. They can scale the wall and are very fast. They aren’t difficult to catch. Rogger and Pem eat them, but I can’t bring myself to. I’m living off coconuts, bananas, cherries, and whatever ration packs I find around Van Buren.
I found a leather jacket in a satin room. It fits me perfectly, as though it were molded to my bones and skin. Its smell is comforting, too, like a family fire or a hug from a parent. I wonder what that all means.
Winds come every few days, bringing birds. When I see a hawk, I feel safe. When I see a raven, which come in twos, I feel mystery. When I see owls, I worry.
There is a chapel near the center of the main excavation. Smaller sites are being unearthed on lower levels, and some even outside the wall as Van Buren continues to rise. In the chapel, there is a map painted on the back wall. It seems to match Van Buren, though it has not been updated recently. I’ve been sketching it, which is coming along nicely. I’ve been trying to map the current state of things, which is not going well at all. I fear I’m not much of a cartographer.
The dagger I found sings to me. It looks lethal but also gentle. A kindly blade, if there can be such an instrument. I look at it in the sun’s bright light and the stars’ glow, too, my reflection everchanging and warped.
Broken pillars near the northern walls are where Rogger spends most of her time. She braids her beard there and slowly dusts the columns, smokes her pipe, and feels the etchings. I can make no sense of it, nor I suspect can she, but she enjoys it.
I find myself feeling safer and safer here, but also quite lonely. My ring finger no longer points and rarely itches. Pem says that’s a good sign, but I don’t know. It feels empty to me.
I wonder what will happen when the rain comes.
Along the horizon, I see them, wrapped in cloths, covered in pouches, a long staff or a rifle in hand, sand kicking out behind.
Van Buren responds in its typical way. Rampart turrets arm and swivel to lock on; however, they don’t. The turrets search but cannot find the figure on the dunes.
“Uh oh,” I say, then scramble to the armory, find a rifle, load it, and call out, “Rogger! Rogger, where are you?”
I hear the clanking of tin and cursing before she responds, “I’m here, William! Along the Southern Wall!”
“Trouble from the West!”
“Meet you there!”
We convene at what we call the Western Wall. Rogger has a theory that Van Buren rotates insidiously, and perhaps asynchronously.
“I’m all set here, William. Got the shot.”
I see Rogger with her rifle poised, beard flowing in the breeze, old hands steady.
My best approximation is not nearly that, but I’m in position, too, ready to punch holes in this person, if they wish us ill.
When they are about fifty meters out, they stop.
I wait to see what they will do.
They appear, also, to be waiting.
Rogger calls out, “Ahoy there!”
“No, no,” they say.
I look to Rogger.
She curses, says, “I know we’re not on a boat. Who are you?”
They unwrap a scarf, lower a breather mask, and raise goggles.
They, to me, look like a woman.
“I am Stephane,” they say.
Rogger nods. “What be your intentions, Stephane?”
They motion over their shoulder. “There’s a storm coming. I need shelter.”
A cautious eye wanders from Rogger’s scope to the horizon. “We’ve seen no signs of a storm.”
Stephane chuckles. “Trust me, dwarf. There’s a storm coming. Will be here within the hour.”
I whisper to Rogger, “Where did they come from?”
“Stephane, from whence do ya hail?”
“Crystaline. Well, recently, anyhow.”
“So, you have word of the Princess?”
“To hell with the Princess.”
Rogger asides to me, “Oh, I like that.”
I get bold enough to speak directly. “Have you by chance seen a warrior in full plate? Black mail, dark as night?”
For reasons I can’t unscramble, I feel disappointed.
“I will not trouble you for long-term accommodation,” Stephane says, “and my skills are plentiful. I am certain I could be of service for while I stay.”
“We’ve had some trouble, see,” Rogger says. “We are good and kind folk, but we’ve been beset by foes. A new face is not welcome right now.”
Stephane nods. “Dandercrabs?”
“I understand.” Stephane throws down their staff. “I bring no mischief. No quarrel. I am true in my terms.”
Pem appears by my side, hisses in full strength. “I don’t trust her, William! Open fire!”
I look to see if Stephane heard. If they did, they are unfazed.
Rogger says, “Listen. We’ll take you in, but you must submit to our every inspection, each request, in full. We apologize if there be any indignity. ‘Tis not our way, nor our wish. But we must maintain security.”
“I understand and agree to your terms.”
Rogger looks to me.
“Pem,” Rogger says. “Open the gate.”