by London Lampy
The pair are cagey about exactly who they are. They introduce themselves as Vixen and Stag, but those are not their real names, I hope. It has become hot and humid inside the carriage, the humidity probably down to the puddle of rain water I created, the windows have a layer of condensation on them and the woman has removed her black jacket. Underneath she is wearing a close fitting dark grey cotton top without sleeves, and I find myself examining the tattoo on her sleekly muscled arm. From a distance it had looked like nothing more than inky black lines and scribbles, but sitting next to her I can see that it's a tree, the branches spread out under her top and look like they go across her chest and shoulder, while the roots snake their way all the way down to the back of her hand. It takes up her whole arm, and more. It must have hurt like hell, I remember how painful my own small band was.
"Do you know what it is?" Vixen asks when she notices me looking.
"Um...it's a tree."
"It's not just a tree, it is the tree. The tree of life, through which all living things are interconnected."
I nod. I have no idea what she means.
"If you pretend to understand when you don't you never learn anything." Stag says. His unfamiliar familiar gaze fixed uncomfortably on me.
"You've never heard of the tree of life before." I turn back to Vixen and she smiles warmly. "It's not surprising, it's part of the old religion, the one that came long before the current ridiculous panoply of gods and goddesses, and will one day outlive them too. I come from the wild grey moors on the far south of this island, where life is hard and the people are harder. We live close to the cycles of nature and we still respect the old religion, unlike here in the city where everything is disrupted and you never feel the real soil beneath your feet, or know what it means to go hungry because your crop has failed. We still remember that everything is linked, from the clouds in the sky to the very foundations of the land."
"That kind of sounds like Gui, the echoback god," I reply.
"It's not so far away. In many ways your race has more in common with my people than we do with many other human races. We don't seek to bend nature until it breaks like most humans do, instead we let it shape us."
"You visited the great forest, you saw the destruction caused by the loggers," Stag puts in. "You understand."
How do they know about that? "Do you know Barney?" I ask.
"I know...of him, we have communicated," Stag replies. "But I have never met him in person the way you have. I also know of your ties to him, and how far back they go."
"Why the hell do you know so much about me?"
"Exit, don't look so worried," Vixen says gently. "It's not a bad thing, you are an interesting person and we sought to find out as much as we could about you, that's all. You may think that you're small and unimportant but you have connections to, and a degree of influence over, some powerful people."
"I don't," I retort.
The two of them look at one another, smiling in a most annoying way. "Barney," Stag begins, counting off on his fingers, "Rylance Jonas, Admiral Blaise and his son, Sampson and his lackey Vin, and I believe that you even met the Twin Island's president recently."
"Yeah...but I didn't even know who he was." They both laugh at this.
"It doesn't matter," Vixen pats me on the arm. "You have away of effecting events, whether you know it or not."
"I do not...I'm sometimes just there, usually I don't even want to be. A lot of other people are there too."
They laugh even harder at this. If I was Topher I'd start sulking round about now, but as I'm not I just scowl and look out of the window. The rain is much lighter now, little more than a persistent drizzle and the clouds have begun to split apart to reveal blue patches amongst them. We have reached the point in the city where there are green spaces between the buildings and elegant trees line the streets, soon there will be fewer and fewer buildings and more and more green until the city gives way to fields and farms. If I want to change my mind now is the time to do it, before my only option for getting back home is to hitch a lift on a farmer's cart. However for all their annoying secrets and smug looks I'm curious about these two, and if they're telling the truth about knowing Clearwater I will be saving my department, and myself, many hours of work.
We travel all through the night. I find out little else about the pair of them other than the truly unexpected fact that they are mother and son. They both seem to enjoy my surprise, with Vixen explaining to me that she had been younger than I am now when when she gave birth, and that Stag shares more of his looks with his father than with her. I can see something of her in the shape of his eyes and the angle of his cheekbones now that I know. Once the sun had set we ate a meal of bread, cheese and apples washed down with water and shortly after that I began to doze, waking some hours later to discover that I couldn't remember where I was. My confusion was made all the worse by finding myself looking at a complete stranger fast asleep lying across the seat opposite me; a small man with a shaved head but plenty of dark body hair from the bits I could see. When she realised that I was awake Vixen put a hand on my shoulder and told me quietly that his name was Brock and that he'd been our driver up until now but Stag had relieved him so that he could take a break. After that I slept fitfully until first light when I became aware that the carriage had stopped moving and someone was calling my name.
"Exit...Exit," Vixen says softly as I open my eyes.
"Hello," I reply, trying to work the kinks out of my neck.
"This is as far as the carriage can go, we'll be travelling for a few hours on foot from here, it will be a brisk uphill walk, but nothing that should tax you." She opens the door to let me out, I don't really know where we are but it's clearly a long way from the city. We are in the bottom of a valley with high rocky hills rising all around us and not a single building in sight. Stag and Brock are already outside, Brock is smoking a roll up cigarette while Stag is facing the sun with his arms held up as if he's been caught in the middle of stretching. Vixen steps over to join him, taking up the same pose. I glance at Brock, who looks away from me while blowing out a stream of smoke that soon disappears on the morning air. The two of them stay like that for a couple of minutes until by some unseen signal they both lower their arms and mutter some words I don't quite catch, but am pretty sure from the tone is some kind of prayer.
Stag turns, and seeing me smiles and bids me a good morning. It was there before last night, but it's clearer now in the bright sunshine, I know that smile, I know I've seen it before. The knowledge of where seems to be swimming in the back of my mind but when I make a grab for it frustratingly it breaks apart like a reflection on water.
Breakfast is more bread, cheese and water. The last apple gets fed to the horse and as soon as we're finished they say goodbye to Brock and we start to walk. There are no other people around, the place is quite except for the occasional bird and the crunch of our feet on the gravelly slope of the hill. It's cooler and fresher than in the city too and at one point I even see a snake. It's brown with a patten of black v shapes on its back and it suddenly darts out from under a scrubby bush and slithers across my path. I didn't know that there were any snakes on the Twin Islands, I've never seen one before, and I say so.
"They're rare where people are," Stag replies, "and the more people there are the rarer they're getting." I nod, I'm not fond of snakes, and am glad that they don't turn up in the city.
As we travel further up hill it gets even cooler and soon we are high enough to be able to see for miles around. Far far away in the distance the blue horizon is marked by a dark grey smudge, Stag points it out to me and asks me if I know what it is.
"A fire?" I guess. "It looks like smoke."
"It is a fire," he agrees, "and it has been burning for several years now."
"Can't anyone put it out?" My question causes them to do the looking at each other and smiling thing again, which is really starting to annoy me.
"What he means Exit is that it has been lit deliberately. You are looking at the endless smoke from a power station."
"Oh." Then it's not really a fire at all.
Just before we reach the top of the hill we come to a small plateau with a few wind stunted trees dotted around. From a distance it looked as empty as the rest of the place, but now I can clearly see that there are a number of drab canvas tents erected amongst the trees, and that there are a handful of people among them too. All of them dressed in the same kinds of shades of green and brown and grey that Stag and Vixen are. We're not close enough yet for me to be able to make out any features, but they all appear to be looking in our direction.
"Are they Clearwater?" I ask as we get nearer, nervousness starting to flutter around inside me.
"Yes," Stag answers me. "They are."
For the past year and a half much of my working life has been spent hunting down and stopping these people. If Vixen and Stag know who I am them either these people already know, or soon will. The realisation suddenly hits me that no one knows exactly where I am, including me, and I'm vastly outnumbered by people who have every reason to hate me. I get a mental image of my bones lying out here, picked clean by the animals, my body never found, my fate never known. However I have nowhere to run to, so feeling sick I step into the edge of the camp.
I count seven men and three woman. Like the driver Brock, and indeed Stag and Vixen, they all have hair that's either very close cropped or shaved down to the scalp. They greet Stag and Vixen warmly as they pass, but eye me suspiciously. We stop at an awning, set up in roughly the centre of the camp, with a tarpaulin covering the ground beneath it.
"Take a seat," Vixen says to me with a smile, then looks at the people around us. "Has anyone made tea?" she asks.
"Yes," a shaven headed young woman answers.
"Excellent." Vixen claps her hands together. "Wren, can you bring us three cups please?"
She swiftly does, but whatever is in the cup the woman named Wren gives me, it is not tea. It has no milk, it has no sugar, and it tastes like grass clippings.
"It's camomile," Vixen explains, obviously noticing my reluctance to take more than a single taste. "We pick and dry it ourselves, it's very good for you."
I take another small sip, it doesn't get any better. "Do you have any sugar?" I ask, sugar makes almost anything taste good.
"No," Stag says curtly, "we don't, and you don't need it, no one needs it. You can get all the sweetness you need from fruit."
"Go easy on him, it's not his fault," Vixen chides her son.
"Sorry." He flashes me that familiar smile again. "I didn't mean to offend you."
"You didn't," I shrug. I'm used to people telling me what I should or shouldn't be eating or drinking. Almost everyone I've ever known has done it, from the nuns to Jack, I mostly ignore them, even Jack. "I'm more worried that someone is going to try to kill me."
"Why?" Vixen sounds puzzled.
"Because of who I work for, and who they..." I stare around the camp, with us at the centre of it. All the other people are looking on as we sit and drink tea that was brought to us, and I realise what an idiot I've been. "...who you are."
"Who are we? Tell us who we are Exit." Stag gestures to Vixen and himself, but never stops staring at me.
"You're all Clearwater, aren't you? You're not just two people who are on the fringes, or who know people who know people, you're right at the centre of things."
"I'm sorry for our small deception," Vixen says, sipping her tea serenely.
"So if you're Clearwater you know if you tried to shoot Sampson or not, so why didn't you tell me back in the city? Why bring me all the way out here...shit, I've let myself be kidnapped, haven't I?"
"No, once again Exit, you are free to go," Stag says. "Not a single one of us will try to stop you if you wish to leave right now."
"But I don't know where I am, or how to get back home, do I?" I sigh.
"Yes, there is that, however we are not so far from human towns." He looks toward the power station. "I suspect if you picked a direction and started walking you would make it somewhere before you died from lack of water, or got bitten by a snake."
"Why did you do this?" I ask, feeling irritated with myself for trusting them.
"We told you last night," Vixen replies. "You have the ear of powerful people...more than the ear in some cases I'm told." She raises her dark, finely arched eyebrows at me. "All we want to do is to show you a few things, explain to you why we believe in what we do, for you to understand our point of view. When you get back what you choose to do with what you've learned is up to you."
"So I am going back?"
"Of course," She laughs. "We really don't mean you any harm."
"Can you at least give me the answer I came here for. Did you try to kill Sampson that night in the Empress?"
"No, we did not." Stag looks at me with his green-brown eyes. "Contrary to what the man believes we do not wish him personally dead, if we killed him someone else would just take his place. We want his company shut down, killing the man would not achieve that, and I can also assure you that if we ever did set out to assassinate him we would make a better job of it than that. Trust me when I say that if we wanted him dead, he'd be dead."
I look from him to Vixen, then back again. I don't know if they're telling the truth for sure, but there is logic in what they're saying. "Do you know who did it then?" I ask.
"Exit," Vixen laughs, "we neither know nor care, it is of no concern to us. Sampson is an evil man who is destroying our country with his power stations and all that goes with them. The coal mines to supply them, the factories they power and the dislocation from our natural state that the reliance on electricity brings with it. If he died we wouldn't waste time grieving for him, but it is of no interest to us whose hand he dies by."
I nod, then look away across the hills. Yesterday this seemed like a good idea, that I could spend a day away, get the truth out of Clearwater then go home and be congratulated on doing a good job, but that was yesterday. Today I know that I'm nothing but an idiot, and that despite their assurances the best I can hope for is that I make it back alive.
"What happens now?" I ask.
"We break camp and begin our journey," Stag says.
"There," he points to the grey smudge on the horizon. "That's our destination, with a couple of stops along the way."
"Fine," I shrug, past caring now.
"Exit," Stag looks at me. "Can you please believe that we aren't going to harm you? We are not the bad people, all we want is for places like this," he spreads his hands to indicate the landscape around him, "are not turned into dead, grey places by pollution and people. Municipal Works is the villain of this story, not us." He smiles at me again. If I ever get back Vin is going to kill me, he's going to haul me into his office and shout at me and I'll be lucky if I keep my job. Stag looks amused, he's smiling...Vin...Vin looks like that when he smiles...it's Vin, it's Vin who Stag reminds me of! Stag is taller and skinnier, his hair, or at least what I can see of it, has a reddish tinge rather than being bright red, his eyes are green-brown not very green...but still, it's there. Now I've worked it out the similarity is startlingly clear.
"You don't disagree?" he asks. With what? I've forgotten the point he was making.
"You look like someone I know," I blurt out, not really meaning to say it aloud.
Him and Vixen exchange glances. Again.
"Who would that be Exit?" Vixen asks softly.
"You mentioned him before, Vin, my boss." Stag gives me a small, knowing, nod in response.
"Why do you think that is?" Vixen speaks again.
"Stag's...related?" I frown. I don't know much about Vin's family, only that his late father was a notorious womaniser and gambler, and that when he died he left Vin's mother with nothing more than a pile of debts.
"We're brothers," Stag says.
"He doesn't have a brother."
"Half-brothers." Vixen clarifies. "They share a father."
I try to take this in, to fit it into everything I already know.
"You look puzzled," Stag says. "One brother on one side, one on the other. You're wondering why, if it's a coincidence, or something more."
"Yeah..." I think that's what I'm wondering.
"My brother took the job working for Sampson because it gave him the best vantage point from which to destroy me," Stag says calmly.
"And me," Vixen adds.
"I don't..." I shrug helplessly.
"He hates my mother and me," Stag continues, "because he believes, wrongly, that his mother and himself were betrayed by our father. His version of events is of course rather different to ours, but the one truth is that when our father died he had all of his remaining assets hidden away where his debtors couldn't find them, and he gave everything to Vixen. My mother then used that money to found, and fund, Clearwater."
Vixen is the founder of Clearwater? And she created it with Vin's father's money?
"But...I thought Knox is the head of Clearwater," I say.
"He is," Stag replies, confusing me further.
"Stop playing games with the poor boy," Vixen scolds her son.
"Sorry," he apologises to me. "We all use code names, and change then from time to time. I've gone by several monikers over the years, but my true name, the one my parents chose for me, is Knox."
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