I thought for a while, sipping my drink. Priam waited. When I finally spoke, I had a half-dozen thoughts jumbled together.
“That’s what you care about,” I said, pointing at him. “You care about the investigation and someone in Fate stopping you. But there’s a lot of stuff you’re not telling me. And first of all—” I watched myself jump from one big thought to another. It was the strangest in-body, out-of-body conjunction. “—you’re going stop giving me this patronizing, you’re-so-clever excrescence. I will not ask every question five times so you can admire how far ahead of me you are. I don’t care about your problems and Fate, and I won’t do that.”
And instead of arguing, Priam waited. When I didn’t say anything else after two seconds, he said, “Okay.”
“Why is Koru so powerful? Who cares about rats? It’s not like people, gods, are falling over themselves to make friends with him and the rats. What do the rats give him?”
Priam blinked slowly, thought, and suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, you have that backwards. He’s not powerful because of the rats. Because there are a lot of rats, we know Koru’s powerful. If he wasn’t powerful, all the critters that eat rats would eat them. Aepoch hates rats, and his hawks pursue them. Aepoch would exterminate Koru if he could, and he’d exterminate all rats if he could as a sign of power. He hasn’t. That means Koru is powerful enough to at least protect his creatures.”
At my further incomprehension, Priam explained, “We don’t know who’s more powerful, Koru or Aepoch. They’re not fighting each other in the halls. You’re a fighter. If you want to know if you’re a better fighter than someone else, you fight them. Gods don’t do that. But Aepoch does want to exterminate all rats, and Aepoch is powerful. Aepoch hasn’t exterminated all rats, which means Koru must be powerful.”
“Oh.” I said myself. A moment later I added, “Then back to my question. Why is Koru so powerful?”
I’d actually always wondered that.
How powerful was Koru? No one liked him. He hadn’t demonstrated the ability to shake the world or tear thunder from rocks. Yet he had palaces. Celestials like Hoarfast worked for him, and Hoarfast wasn’t in it for something other than the money. Koru had enough money to orchestrate a hit on Mallens. You don’t just casually put together a hit on the Lord of Creation. We’d failed, but we’d had a good run. Koru had something.
He paused again. “You will find out.”
“No,” I said instantly, before even thinking about it. I surprised myself as much as him.
“Mr Kog,” said Priam. He tapped my folder. “This is not a request.”
“Mr. Priam,” I answered. “There is nothing in front of me but death. You compiled the folder. You’ve got the iron.” It had reapealed in his lap. He’d never drawn it that I’d seen. “If I go for you now and win, I burn the folder. If I die, I die. But if I leave, I die. If I go back to Shang Du, I die. You’ve got nothing on me. Worst, you turn me in, I tell everything about Koru, and then he dies too. I have nothing left.”
And I looked between the folder and Priam.
The desk between us was large and glass. It had two sandstone supports like saw-horses, each resting on two feet. The stone rose from the feet, joined, and arched away from the center. The table was big and broad. I’d have to break the desk and go through, before he shot me, or go over.
Breaking the desk would create a lot of broken glass. I might not need to go at him. I could shatter the desk, dive behind the stone table-legs while he fired his first shot, and take him with the glass while he was compensating for the recoil. It was a huge gun.
“Curiosity?” asked Priam.
“No, I think I can take you.”
Priam sighed. “No, you idiot. Are you curious about why Koru is so powerful?”
“That is not a good way of talking me out of violence.”
“Mr Kog–” He rubbed his temples. “Mr Kog, I’m offering you a way out. If you attack me, even if you win, you’ll have attacked a judicial director. In Fate! Clearly that will not end well.”
“But my folder will be gone, and–”
“And you’ll have attacked a Judicial Director, me, in Fate! If I live, I’ll still know everything in your folder. If I die, they’ll catch you. Have you met our security service?”
I thought of the boulders. “Yes.”
“How do you think that’s going to go?” Priam demanded.
“But I don’t want to work for Fate!” I yelled back.
Priam had been pinching his nose, looking at me around his cracked hand, and now moved the hand aside. “Why?”
“Because I hate paperwork!”
Long silences tend to end in gunshots or screaming, and this one ended with, “Yes, there will be a lot of it.”
I looked at him expectantly.
“It’s a fair complaint,” he said.
“And the intern cubicles are awful.”
“I would arrange for you to have an office.”
“With a window?”
“No, probably not. However an office with a desk and a door. Walls.”
“No! I don’t want to work in an office. I don’t want an office job. I don’t want to be an office-man. I don’t want to do paperwork and nothing but paperwork all day long while–”
“I’ll have you taught Hesio’s Gift of Breathing.”
I paused. “What is that?”
“Power, Mr. Kog. Pure power. Are you familiar with ground fighting?”
“Yes,” I said uncertainly. I knew ground fighting, but I had no idea where he was going. Priam didn’t look like he rolled much.
“Breathing is power, isn’t it? When your oppoent has you and you can’t breathe, not only do you fight worse, but you think worse. What is it? Exhaustion makes cowards of us all? You know how it feels when you can’t breathe.”
“Yeah,” I said again.
“How would you like to move in the other way. How would you like to be better? Fight better? Train harder, recover faster, and the next time you meet whomever did that–” he waved a finger at my side. I thought I’d been hiding it well. “—things will be different.”
“How would that even work?”
“Breathing is power. Manna is the game of heaven.”
I felt confused. “The free bread in the morning?”
“Yes and no. The free bread is an act of Horochron.”
“The Sun?” I asked.
“Yes. Spirits have a store of power. You mortals–” he paused. “Horochron, the Sun, had a lot of power, and even after Mallens threw him into the sky, Horochron’s power remains. He’s bound to the Web of Fate, and every morning, his power manifests in bread on an appropriate plate. The power that every spirit has is called manna, but the bread is called the same thing because you’re eating the Sun’s manna.
“That’s why Mallens threw him up there,” Priam said. “Horochron was trying to pull the spirits of the world to support him, not Mallens, and Mallens did not approve.”
“But mortals don’t have that power,” I said. I didn’t have any power.
“Well,” said Priam, and he hesitated again. “Spirits have great storehouses of power. Horochon’s dead, and his manna will last for eons. But spirits can spend it down. There are very few ways of getting it back. Spirits can pass it around among themselves but can only gain more by taking it from others. Aph gets it by drowning rats.”
“Oh.” And then I understood. “He sells it. That lets other spirits spend their power as they will.”
“And Mallens gets this power by murdering mortals,” I leaped ahead.
“No,” said Priam.
“Yes,” I argued. “That’s why it’s forbidden knowledge. He kills people like Aph kills rats. We speak, we have power. We breed on our own. Mallens destroys us to feed his plans.”
“You’ve got a good train of logic. It’s just wrong,” said Priam. “You’re missing something again. The treason.”
“Dash the Seven Pointed Crown, everything is treason! I’m not overthrowing him! It can’t all be treason!”
Priam shot his head toward the door. We went silent. Nothing happened.
When he did speak, he stabbed at me with his finger. “You should never swear like that. Not here, not ever.”
“The Rebellion of the Forgotten was treason. It was true treason. The Forgotten tried to throw down Mallens, and before that, Mallens had been a bit domineering but that was his right. After the Forgotten tried to cast him down from Mt Attarkus, he changed. He saw traitors and plots in every shadow. Any crime became treason. Before the Forgotten Rebellion, things were different. Many say they were better.”
Discussing this was definitely treason now-a-days. I leaned forward in my chair.
“The Rebellion failed. The Forgotten were slain, but Diadred had not the power to take them after they died. Like Horochron, they had bound their final acts to the Web of Fate. There were seven of them, and from their power, they created the seven breeds of mankind. If you trace your lineage far enough back, you will come to the Lesser Silence, before which no mortal bloodline is recorded. The Lesser Silence is the Forgotten Rebellion. When the rebels died, they became men, and you are their progeny.
“Mallens doesn’t forbid this knowledge because he uses it. He forbids it because the Forgotten Rebellion very nearly won, and centuries later he is still scared of them.”
Now Priam leaned close to me and whispered across his desk. “The Seven Forgotten Names are the mortal words of power. If you master them as you mastered the Northshore words of power, you can unleash the power of your bloodline. Then you can store your own manna. It’s illegal because Mallens wants the Rebellion forgotten, but before rebelling, the Forgotten wrote their names into the Web of Fate. To unmake that, Mallens would have to end and rebuild the world, and I assure you, that has been considered.”
“Will you teach me those words?” I asked.
“Mr Kog, you’re in Fate,” Priam said, almost reverently. “Would you like to know where the Web is?”
“But you won’t teach me.”
“Goodness, no. That would be illegal.”
“And burning this folder?” I asked, pointing at the mundane folder that indexed my treachery.
“I certainly won’t burn that either. That’s also illegal. Do you know anyone with criminal tendencies?”
“But, you have it and–”
“Mr Kog, if you’re an employee of Fate, there is nothing illegal about me giving you the folder. There is nothing illegal about me giving you the folder if I suspect or have reason that I should suspect you have improper designs upon it. That’s case law. You think Fate is going to allow any of us to be prosecuted for a routine folder handover?”
That sounded like flies buzzing over the rankest of cow turds. I believed it completely.
“And what exactly are you suggesting?” I asked.
“We’ll make you a new identity, anchor it, and you’ll investigate Koru. Don’t tell anyone.”
At that moment, a sharp knock echoed at the door and before waiting for an answer, someone burst in.
“We’re missing someone that Histography wants!” blurted an out-of-breath young woman. “He’s related to the dragon thing!”
Priam stared at her, me, and asked, “Do you know any such individual?”
She noticed me as if I hadn’t been there before and startled.
“I’m right here,” I said. “Vincent Rashak, right? That’s who you’re looking for?” I took off my stolen ID badge before she could read it and handed it to Priam.
“Yeah,” said the woman. She looked baffled.
Priam looked at my ID badge, the one that said Hroth Urmain, and handed it back to me. Now it said Vincent Rashak and that today was my first day on the job.
“I’ve been here the whole time,” I told the woman. “Judicial Director Priam has been giving me some pointers career advancement.”
“Show up on time,” said Priam. “And maybe a little more initiative.”
“Understood, sir. Mind if I take this?” I tapped my folder on the desk.
“Go right ahead, Vincent.” Priam smiled. “Welcome to Fate. Aufura, Vincent has a minor errand to attend to. He will meet you in lobby in ten minutes. Vincent, here are the keys you’ll need for that errand. Drop them off with the lobby receptionist and do not be late.”
“Uh, okay,” she said.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
I took the keys and folder and held it against my chest so Aufura couldn’t read anything. She looked my age, which meant little if she was divine, but even if she was, I don’t think she was a old god. Dark hair, dark eyes, she wore semi-formal clothing people do when they haven’t quite figured out their own personal office-style. She had a white shirt and blazer, skirt that was snug without being tight, and shoes with only a bit of heel. She held the door for me because she seemed bewildered at what was going on, so I passed her and moved a step away into the hallway.
She shut the door to Priam’s office and looked at me.
I tapped the back of my treason addendum folder. It had everything. “I’ve just got to go take care of this real fast. Meet you in the lobby in ten minutes?”
“Yeah. I’ll see you there,” she said.
“Thanks.” I smiled and walked off. I was moderately covered in blood, bruises, and dust, and walked quickly through the executive hallway with a broad grin. The keys Priam had given me were the roof-access keys, and I returned to the star without breaking a single rule.
With a sense of immense pride and imminent dread, I burned the file in the bonfire of fates that never happened.