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The Pursuit of Knowledge

By Stormarrow All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Fantasy

Ghara, or The Moonstone Isles, 1151

Clayton groaned about his moonwife, worried over whether she was safe. This had become his habit. He spent a week in fits, like a dog missing its master, until at last the paeon offered him a soothing draught, brewed with chamberries and slacken root. He still brooded, but more reservedly in the days after he downed his dose, and without the desperation that distracted him from work.

A clearing had been cut away amongst the trees for the Bisolkian base camp. Island breezes wafted warm through the tent rows and the ruins, thick with the scents of war and strange overripe fruit. These smells of death and sickly sweet decay danced in the air, perfumed the soldiers’ hair, clung to their clothes. Clayton’s nose wrinkled as a current carried them anew over his workspace. Arrin Solomon Seward Jr., the paeon whom he served, never complained of the stench. Years of brewing wicked substances in damp, cramped dungeons had left his nostrils singed beyond healing. If anything required sniffing, Clayton was his nose--just as when reagents needed gathering for the poisons and potions requested by their contractors, Clayton was his hands. Those very hands busied themselves inside an abandoned mud-hut, with tools and daggers spread out on a canvas bag. Their owner sat cross-legged, flexing his toes in the sand.

“I’d think you were hiding from your duties if I knew you no better,” said Seward as he appeared in the doorway.

“But yeh do--know me better.” Clayton looked up from his instruments. “What is it yeh want.”

“I require your assistance.”

“So does my knives. They gone dull.”

Seward rolled his eyes at that. The slacken root assuaged his famulus’ panic, but also made him sullen, dour as a spinster at her sister’s wedding. “It is time to deal with the subjects granted us by our good lady-general.”

Clayton grunted and set about gathering up his things, arranging tools in their proper pouches and pockets before he stood. He was a head and shoulders shorter than his master, and hirsute where the scientist was hairless. They made a strange sight striding across the encampment, Seward with his bony arms folded behind his back, and Clayton glumly shuffling behind him. “I got a feelin’, mate, and good it ain’t.”

“You have said as much before,” said Seward as they passed beneath a palm. “She will be safer on the ships than here in the thick of things, don’t you agree?” He paused to study Clayton briefly, then strode on ahead. Theirs was the work of the future, and a concubine mattered little in the scheme of things. The hunter worked better happy, that was true, but happiness oft lay in productivity, Seward had long ago decided. “Twelve men and women from the nearby village. Three were caught in the first round of acid gas. I want to see how a brief and mild exposure affects the lungs, so like as not they will need restraining. Some of the others suffer from the island fever. I have two methods of treatments we will commence today on separate subjects. Both are a fortnight’s round of medicines, which is a long while, truly, but cannot be helped.”

“Aye, as yeh say.”

“Don’t pout, friend. It’s unbecoming.” They came around the Biskie soldiers at their campfires, cooking meager meals and regaling one another with tales of their conquests--or of the heroic deeds of friends or friends-of-friends.

“And they captured the princeling,” Seward thought he heard one say. Though his nostrils were ruined, his ears were still as sharp as any. “Up in Sarin’Dahl, north of the river. Stupid of the king to send his heir, I thought. Why would they do that? But that’s how Westdogs are: honor and glory over good ol’ common sense!” The man’s fellows guffawed in agreement and raised their drinks.

“If that be so, then ain’t a choice ‘ave they got but to meet Bisolkian terms,” another man said.

Seward smirked and strode on by. Westmeath would sooner burn than bow to Bisolk, he thought, and that was well and good. ‘War meansh want and want meansh profit,’ Vays Bendtsen had taught him. That was a lesson Arrin Solomon Seward never forgot. He felt the soldiers’ stares upon him as he picked his way between their tents, and savored their mistrust with his head held high and his double breasted paeon’s cloak billowing behind him. Their suspicions never did unnerve him. If anything, they emboldened him, and gave him such amusement that by the time he and Clayton passed under the tent flap to his makeshift laboratory, he wore a grin that spread from ear to ear.

“What are yeh so giddy over,” Clayton scowled. In cages, bound and gagged, several moonie prisoners--with their green eyes and their muddy colored skin and their dark wiry hair sunstreaked and matted--sat shivering in terror. They shied away from the light when their keepers entered, and trembled worse when the flap fell closed. Two prisoners held hands through the bars of their cages, and Clayton stomped on both their fingers. “Get back,” he growled like the dog he was--and they squealed like his prey. Seward drew open his cabinet, still grinning.

“All in order,” he half-whispered. “Bring me the one marked red, the one wheezing.”

Clayton took the keyring from his belt and fitted it into the lock on the red tagged enclosure. An islander barely a man sat on the cage floor, coughing into crossed arms, hiding his blistered face. He yelped when Cole pulled him upright, and all the other moonies stared. The boy was skinny, and scarcely more a nuisance to his wielder than a buzzing fly--though he struggled and scratched with all his strength. “Come on,” Clayton urged him like he would a frightened pony. “Worse for yeh if yeh flail and cry, y’idjit. Come.”

“Numbing, do you think, or no?”

“He’ll die either way after yeh slice ‘im.” The boy spoke not a word of the common tongue, but terror showed plain on his face when Clayton forced him down upon the operating table and began to strap him in. He hit him once or twice about the head to stop him squirming. Once, the patient kicked at him, but Clayton Cole was accustomed to handling subjects as a famulus for the Paeonic Order, and secured the boy without incident. He had even served under Vays Bendtsen for a time, and that, both men knew well, was no appointment for the faint of heart. Seward had oft heard Cole say that Vays had made a man of him by shoving his hand up into a woman’s womb to pull her half-formed babe from within her while she writhed. Lost me innocence once to a barmaid--but a second time for true elbow deep o’er that table, he swore. Seward did not doubt the Master Paeon’s capacity for such a thing. Nothing must keep a paeon from the pursuit of knowledge, and like as not a grain of that tale was true--but Clayton did like to embellish where he could. The doctor smirked as he turned with a needle in hand to inject the man with sleeping draught enough to calm him. The veins in his arm bulged, swollen from his struggle, and so they were easy to find. Nearly as soon as the liquid entered his body, the boy relaxed and his breathing slowed to sleep-pace. This was more for Seward’s own sake than out of mercy, for incisions should be straight and precise, and screaming would draw the attentions of Marla Harris’ men, whose meddling, distracting natures were among the last things he wanted to suffer.

He took a vial from its shelf, uncorked it and mixed it in a beaker with twice as much water. “Tip this to his lips,” he told his famulus. “Hawthorn’s draught. Do you remember what it does?” Some famuli were as dense as mountain stones, but Seward would not have his own assistant be so ignorant. There might come a time when he would need to think for himself, and for that reason he was pleased that Clayton listened.

“Keeps the heart beating,” said Cole, accepting the brew. “Through bleedin’ an’ through shock.” Seward nodded his affirmation. The subject had been long without water, and drank eagerly when the offered potion was pressed upon him. “Just like water, only sweeter,” Clayton recited.

“Very good.” Seward took a pair of gloves from the drawer of his table and pulled them over his long fingers. They fit tight and snapped against his skin when all in order. Then he washed his scalpel in boiled water and honey lather, and strode over to the table. Clayton rolled a rag and stuffed it in their subject’s mouth before the doctor commanded, “Hold his shoulders,” and he did.

Metal sliced through skin and sternum and green eyes went wide. Smooth was the blade’s glide, like a ship’s bow through the glassy sea, and elation possessed the doctor then to see both bone and muscle part. The ribs he counted twelve on either side, the same as a mainlander’s structure. Of this he took note, for some Lemniscate scholars wondered if the island peoples, small in stature as they were, had fewer. A whimper sounded from the moonie boy as Seward made four more swift slices and peeled back his skin. From a corner cage, another prisoner began to weep, but the sound was as faint to him as a cock’s crow through deep sleep, and the doctor would not be woken from his mania.

On the table, the subject’s body went rigid; his eyes rolled back in his head. Now and again, he twitched, but his limbs and torso were sturdily strapped down, and so this disturbed the doctor little. His blade, sharper than any soldier’s sword, sliced into bone after bone down the right side of the child’s chest, and he removed the severed ribs for access to the lung behind, and for later study. One by one, meticulous in his proceedings, he set the bones out upon the table, and all the while Clayton watched, holding the boy’s shoulders. The draught kept him from crying out, but not the onlookers from wailing. They shrieked strange curses in their island tongue and beat their breasts like apes. Clayton gritted his teeth. Seward only worked. He would have to remember to cover the cages in canvas during his next operation. The subject selected for that would not come as easily as the first now that he knew what awaited him. One through six, he set the ribs up in a line on his platter from thickest to most narrow. His incisions drew straight as an arrow, and made a window for his blade to reach that spongy tissue there beneath, rising and falling with each belabored breath the body on the table drew.

“They made this’n a warrior before he sucked on any teat that weren’t his mother’s,” Clayton commented almost sadly.

“Does that perturb you?” Bending low for a good look at the pinkish-yellowish pillow full of breath, Seward made an incision. A noise like a sigh escaped the organ. The boy stopped shaking, though his heart still beat--and would for an hour or longer still, so long as the Hawthorn did its work. “Hand me my tongs.”

Clayton’s hand left the subject’s shoulder. He turned to retrieve the instrument required by his patron, and found it on the operating tray. As he selected it, he took care not to touch its ends, only its handles. The paeons had particular requirements for samples, and none could be contaminated. One loop pinched between his calloused fingers, he extended the instrument to Seward, who looked up from his work and nodded once, accepting.

Another stroke, precise and purposeful, made an angled flap of the inner flesh, and the lung began to deflate. Seward seized his sample with his tongs, and with his free hand cut another stroke, so that a triangular chunk came up as the organ began to deflate within the boy’s body. His heart beat on, and his other lung inflated and deflated just the same, as though he were not lying on some scientist’s table with his chest carved open and his eyes rolling back in his head. “A sterile container, please. Just there.” The paeon gestured to a nearby shelf, and Clayton padded over, leaving their subject limp, to retrieve the indicated glass.

The lid unscrewed neatly. Cole held out the cup and his partner deposited the chunk of lung into it with a wet thunk that made the captives weep. One retched in the corner of his cage. Another tore at her face and slapped her cheeks. Still more stared wide-eyed, too terrified to cry. Clayton replaced the lid onto the lung cup and turned to scowl at them. “What’re yeh lookin’ at! Rargh!” The hunter bared his gapped teeth and several of them flinched away; he scoffed.

He left the sample on table and turned back to Seward, who had set his scalpel aside in boiling water and bent nearly double over the table, peering through a lens into the hole he’d left in his subject, with the bulb mounted on his headband shining bright, lighting the way. “Dark flesh inside, and blistered, almost bruised.” He used the tongs to lift the flattening flesh. “And this one was far from the fighting, if sources are to be believed.”

“What sources.”

“Soldiers.” Seward looked up at him, then lifted his lens back into proper position so that he no longer seemed some strange, luminous bug. “I want the whole lung out, I think. I ought to do some tests on the flesh to see if anything can neutralize the inflammation once the gas has been inhaled without further damage to the tissues.”

Clayton nodded. “Ruby Traders brought yeh the medicines, then? Was wondering.”

“Hah. Don’t worry, old friend, you haven’t been replaced.” The paeon took up his scalpel again and set about severing the lung entirely from the boy’s body. Still, his heart beat. “Bring me a new tray, would you.” Clayton set off to do as requested.

A soft noise, barely audible over his own footfalls and the carousing of enlist men outside, floated up from the cages and over the tables. Seward did not stir. Clayton Cole ain’t got no soul. He took the tray from its shelf and turned to glare at the row of moonies. Him hungered so him ate it. The voice was a little girl’s. He thought he found her in the sixth cage down, curled on the ground and clad in rags. Dirt caked on her face and she shivered with the island fever, but still she seemed to sing, though her skin was tinted yellow and her eyes were cloudy. Some say it were the price of fame. “Quiet, girl. Yeh’ll be next if you don’t watch yerself.” So when him owed him payed it. “I said QUIET.”

Seward looked up from his work, scalpel still in hand. “Who are you talking to?”

Clayton’s jaw twitched. “Nothing. No one,” he answered. Ten pairs of wide green eyes stared up at him with lips sealed beneath them: mothers, daughters, fathers, sons. No one was singing. The little girl was asleep. He thought of hismoonwife.

“Then come along with that tray, will you? The draught won’t work forever, and the other lung I want to work at while it’s still attached.”

“Eleven’s a bad luck number.”

“Omani superstition. Come and come quick, my friend. You know better than to let that trouble you. The gods are dead and there is no such thing as luck.”

“Aye,” said Clayton, turning from the subjects, “the gods are dead.”

The boy’s heart still beat inside his open chest.

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