Daigre

Daigre“We have recent maps of the livable areas,” the shoddily dressed lowguard said, offering a scroll to Daigre. “We’re pretty sure no flooding has taken place since they were made.”

“I am familiar with the Nakajima’s design,” Daigre replied. “I will not need one.”

“Whatever,” the lowguard shrugged, putting the scroll back in his satchel.

Daigre scowled at the lowguard’s lack of respect. Those who served in such a role, essentially a jailer, rarely showed the proper etiquette toward a superior. He had every right to punish the man for his insolence, but had no time to do so – his mission for The Guile took precedence. Not that he looked forward to his descent into the sunken spaceship, or even wished to find the man he was sent after, but The Guile’s orders were to be obeyed without question.

A pillar crew arrived from the village nearby with tool bags and fresh lumber. Their jobs were unenviable – they spent their days maintaining the massive wooden framework that supported the upper half of the Nakajima. In the time of the Founders, five hundred years earlier, magnetic fields separated the massive ship’s opposing hulls by a hundred meters. Of course, those days were long gone. Since all electronic devices on Arion failed, workers kept the upper Nakajima aloft with a complicated latticework of wooden trusses and wires. It was an amazing feat of engineering that required constant vigilance. These workers, despite their menial jobs, were considered among the most honored of all Jovians-they kept The Guile’s stronghold aloft as a symbol of his eminence.

Daigre gazed across the Jovian Sea and sighed. The spaceship that once brought a million colonists across the galaxy for a fresh start became the epitome of contradictions. The lower half degenerated into a mold-infested dungeon, while the upper half became a palace. He doubted the Founders intended for their vessel to end up in such a condition, but it was not his place to judge. As the pillar crew trudged by, Daigre checked his pocket watch. The Guile was not known as a patient man.

Once the pillar crew got out of the way, Daigre made his way to the stairwell leading down into the hull. A second lowguard appeared with a torch, some extra cans of fuel, and a small pouch of antiseptic. Daigre stared at the pouch, troubled that it was considered standard issue where he was going.

“Take these,” the lowguard said, giving him the supplies. That angered Daigre-no soldier should ever allow a superior to enter a dangerous area alone. Once again he overlooked the disrespect, but intended to handle the matter after he finished The Guile’s task. He tied the cans to the bottom of the torch, put the antiseptic in his travel bag, and descended into the once-revered spaceship.

An hour into his search, Daigre found himself fixating on driblets of water cascading down the bulkheads. He tried reassuring himself that the Nakajima could not sink, as it was embedded in a supportive cradle of cement wisely prepared by the Founders before its descent from space. Still, he was unnerved by the knowledge that he was already far below sea level. He’d heard of hundreds, even thousands, being killed by hull breaches at this depth. It sickened him to think he could join them if any one of the ancient bulkheads surrounding him collapsed.

Daigre took special care to navigate the corridors that led further into the ancient spaceship. Black, slippery algae coated every surface, forcing him to stay in areas where there were handholds in the walls. The handholds were a hazard in their own right, nothing more than holes made with an axe. After cutting the palm of his hand against one of their edges, he knew why the guards provided antiseptic. He held up his torch to look for anything resembling fresh water, but decided it was a lost cause. He applied the salve directly to his dirty hand, then pulled a bandana from his travel bag to use as a dressing.

Moving further into the depths, he encountered residents who might help him. He mentioned the man’s name, Benac, but the people were afraid and uncooperative. He did not fault them-no one of any importance descended to their level with good news. They avoided him by swinging away on vines that grew from the ceiling cracks. Noting their example, he tested a few of the dangling plants. They reeked of mildew, but held his weight easily. His pace quickened once he gained some proficiency using them.

Daigre finally reached the Nakajima’s agricultural deck, Benac’s last known location. The deck had little resemblance to its counterpart in the upper hull. Torches fueled by unrefined sap lit piles of refuse far beyond the scattered assortment of teetering shanties. The smoke from the torches rose to the vaulted ceiling above, where it created a polluted miasma of toxins. He found his way to the village center and began asking passersby for assistance. The people there were just as uncooperative as those he’d met along the way, even more so when he insisted he was on The Guile’s business. It wasn’t until he held out the antiseptic pouch that they stopped ignoring him. A man reached for it, but Daigre pulled it back.

“I want Benac,” he said.

The man mumbled something unintelligible.

“What?” Daigre asked.

The man opened his mouth to show he had no tongue. It had been cut out recently, and there were signs of infection. “Benac,” he enunciated as best he could, “must not know I told you.”

“Agreed,” Daigre said. “Show me where he is, and you shall have the antiseptic.”

The man set off quickly, shoving others out of his way until he reached a stairwell on the distant western bulkhead. He led Daigre up several decks, but stopped when they reached a dimly lit corridor. The man hesitated. He pointed to the far end of the corridor and shuddered. He held his hand out for the antiseptic, then disappeared back down the stairs when Daigre gave it to him.

An oily old man with a candle appeared and brandished a rusty dagger at Daigre. Daigre responded by unsheathing his titanium sword and reflecting the candlelight back at the man’s face. The man dropped the dagger and went down on one knee, his hands held up in surrender.

“Benac,” Daigre said.

The old man pointed to one of the rooms in the hall, then gestured for Daigre to follow. Daigre complied, checking blind spots behind piles of garbage for traps. If the savages decided to ambush him, they would regret it.

The room was decorated with rusty odds and ends, not much cleaner than the rest of the lower half. Flies buzzed around a storage bin full of dead rodents. To the locals it was probably a symbol of high status; to Daigre it was no more than a disease-ridden refuse container. A one-legged woman sat behind a table next to the dumpster, picking maggots off a dead rat. She did not notice Daigre until she raised a handful of the squirming larvae to her mouth. When she saw the sword in his hand, she dropped the maggots into a bowl and hopped into a back room. Daigre soon heard the sounds of squeaky mattress springs and frantic whispers. The woman returned and hid behind the food bin.

A fat man emerged. Splotches of animal fat adorned his frayed shirt. He held a makeshift scepter at his side, a length of pipe with a decorative fixture on one end. There was no doubt he was the man Daigre was sent to retrieve. His distinguishing characteristic matched The Guile’s description, but not like Daigre imagined it would. Whatever cleaved Benac’s lower lip in two had been precise, not a slash from a sword. It made Daigre wonder if Benac had actually gotten the wound in battle as his record detailed. The cut was clean enough that the lip might have been saved, but was never tended after the injury. Nothing held his lower lip together above the gum line now, and no physician could change that.

“To what honor do I owe a visit from The Guile’s agent?” the fat man asked, his voice slurred by his lip’s uncontrollable wobbling.

“You are Benac.”

The fat man hesitated as if tempted to run, but realized that Daigre blocked his exit. “I am Benac, at your service, sir.”

“Come with me,” Daigre said. He motioned toward the door, then added, “leave the blade.”

Benac feigned confusion, but saw that Daigre was not to be fooled. “Yes, of course,” he smiled. “You understand one needs to be careful in this place.” He put the pipe down slowly. “Take care of it,” he told the woman. The woman picked it up and pulled on the decorative fixture. It slid out of the pipe, revealing a rusty, bloodstained sword. She locked the blade back in place within the pipe, hung it on the wall, then sat down and began eating maggots from her bowl.

The lowguards barely noticed Daigre and Benac emerge into the sunlight two hours later. Benac shielded his eyes, unaccustomed to the brightness, so Daigre steered him toward the awaiting midguards at the foot of a spiral staircase that led to the top half of the Nakajima.

When they reached the staircase, Benac hesitated. “Am I to be executed?”

“My order was to deliver you,” Daigre replied. “I do not know what fate awaits you.”

Benac adjusted his outfit, a futile effort on his part to look dignified. The senior midguard gestured for Daigre to wait where he was. Daigre acknowledged the order with a simple nod. He did not wish to linger, but knew it was not his decision-he served at The Guile’s whim. The midguards directed Benac up the stairs and disappeared through an open cargo door at the top.

Much later, Daigre heard footsteps descending from the upper Nakajima. When Benac reached the bottom flanked by the same two midguards, Daigre almost laughed. The fat man wore Founder’s Armor, the kind which hadn’t been used in centuries. Other than a missing helmet, it was in decent condition, with metallic threads running throughout the dark fabric weave and a filigreed breastplate. It might have even looked good on a thinner man. As it was, only the boots seemed to fit. Daigre’s stomach pushed the breastplate up too high, revealing his old, stained shirt beneath. The side fasteners did not come within ten centimeters of each other, and so rattled noisily under his arms when he moved. He had managed to fasten the tasset around his waist, though it looked painfully tight. The collar remained unlocked-otherwise it would have choked him. Daigre wondered what kind of example The Guile was making of Benac.

“Fool,” Benac snarled at Daigre. “What are you smiling at?”

Daigre knew before Benac spoke again that their roles had been reversed. In his appraisal of Benac’s outfit, he had failed to notice the pendant of a nobleguard hanging around his neck. Instead of the slovenly oaf he found in the bowels of the Nakajima, Benac was now a member of The Guile’s inner circle of trusted generals. “I apologize, nobleguard,” Daigre said, bowing humbly. “It was not my desire to offend.”

“I should have you killed,” Benac uttered menacingly, “but The Guile wishes for you to serve me.” He turned to the midguards. “Give me his sword.”

Daigre bristled at the command. His sword was his trusted weapon, given to him upon earning his title of garden keeper. No one could order him to surrender it without The Guile’s expressed consent. Nobleguards had such authority, however – to refuse the order would be treason. Daigre quietly unbuckled his belt and handed it over. The junior midguard took it and presented it to Benac.

“I trust you cared for this sword,” Benac sneered as he adjusted the belt.

“It is sharper than ever.”

“Give him the walking stick,” Benac ordered the midguards. “You will use this piece of wood from now on, Daigre.”

The junior midguard handed Daigre a dried section of tree branch. It was about the same length as his sword and similarly curved, with only a basic sash to fasten to his waist. “Wear it,” Benac ordered.

Daigre’s face burned with humiliation. To be given such a piece of refuse was worse than any demotion. He might as well join the unwashed horde in the lower half if that was the only weapon The Guile trusted him with. “Thank you, master nobleguard, for bringing this to me. I will use it with all my talents.” The words hurt to speak, but paled in comparison to the pain of seeing Benac wear the trusted sword he had used for a decade.

“Prepare horses and supplies for a long journey,” Benac ordered. As he set off down the ramp to the village by the Jovian Sea, he added, “I will be at the tavern waiting for you.”

“There are several taverns,” Daigre called out. “Which one will I find you at?”

Benac continued without answering.

The senior midguard looked sympathetically at Daigre. “Your orders,” he said, and handed a scroll to Daigre. “Read them as you prepare to leave for the Plainsman Territory. The Guile knows you will respect his commands.”

“I will do as he wishes,” Daigre replied. “Promise him that.”

“Indeed, noble garden keeper,” the guard replied, giving Daigre a bow that he was not required to. As they started up the stairs, the senior midguard spoke under his breath, “the release is near your right hand.” With that, he turned and led the junior midguard back up the staircase.

Daigre frowned. The release? He ran his right hand along the wood and found a tiny seal etched with the ancient kanji denoting wisdom. When he pushed it, he felt a nearly imperceptible click within. The walking stick separated near the seal, revealing a glint of metal beneath. Daigre pulled the two sections apart, and gasped at what he found. He had never seen such workmanship in a sword before. The titanium had been carefully smelted and folded into an exquisite blade. He pulled the sword from the unassuming sheath and examined it. There was not a single imperfection, even with close examination. Yet, the sword was only half of the masterpiece. The sheath itself was surprisingly strong, its sun-bleached texture merely an illusion. As he slid the blade back into the sheath to become a walking stick once again, Daigre realized it could only have been made by one person. It was made by the garden keeper whose name had been stricken from all official records. It was made by the one formerly known as The Silent Gardener.

Daigre knew he had received a gift of the highest honor from The Guile, a special item that few could ever possess. Founder’s armor, despite its antiquity, would never measure up to it. For that matter, the sword Benac took from Daigre now seemed like a cheap trinket in comparison. Daigre could not help but smile. He tied the walking stick’s sash around his waist and followed after his new master.

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