Three in a church
Chapter 6: Desperate Times
Timeline: Soon after "Panic!"
Mei, Josep,and Azzo ran out of the back alley,through the ash-stained streets,towards the church when out of nowhere a tall, muscular man appeared with a dagger appeared. "The Governor wants to see you, automaton," he said with a thick, rough accent.
Azzo's sword was in his hand before he even remembered the pistol tucked into the waistband of his pants. With the way the man closed the distance between him and Mei, and Azzo's lackluster aim, the revolver would have been a danger to them both. Even a sword was a risk in close quarters. He put Josep behind him and tensed, waiting to see how Mei would handle herself and ready to move in if she faltered.
'Don't look back,maybe he won't know it's you.' "I said the Governor wants to see you!" He put the dagger to her neck, she sprouted claws out of her knuckles and fingers."Holy F**k!," he ran for it. "Let's get out of here," Mei pleaded hurriedly.
Azzo lowered his sword as the man ran past, putting out an arm to keep Josep firmly behind him. The boy strained to see around him, craning his neck to see what could have sent the man running. It was a small blessing, Azzo thought, that he he hadn't. There were limits to what a boy could cope with. When Mei turned to him and begged him to hurry, he slung his arm around Josep's shoulders and urged the boy forward.
They finally arrived to a large church with two statuesque towers attached made of carefully maintained white stone and ran inside. As Mei entered the strange building, she couldn't help but winch at the depiction of a man in pain on what appeared to be a strange torture device.Yet at the same time, the church seemed like a place of peace, a sanctuary of sorts and not just in a legal sense.
Mei for some reason found herself softly singing a song once taught to both her and Shou's daughter, Kaguya.
She turned her face up to the starlit sky
And on this night began to wonder why
She knew that soon the day would come"
In the cool, incense laden air of the church was soothing to Josep too, who immediately slid into one of the smooth wooden pews. Even Azzo relaxed. With a murmur to Josep to stay close, he touched Mei's arm, wary of the knives that automaton had sprouted earlier. "There's a room behind the altar that leads to the belfry," he said. "And onto the roofs if need be, but I doubt anyone will follow us there."
Mei could tell that she had unnerved Azzo. Well, maybe she didn't choose to be an automaton, to have literally been made for violence, or to have to hide her gears so she wouldn't be treated as a freak! "Sure, let's go there." She was frustrated, angry, and sad all at the same time, after all the great thing about the Steamhawke is that everyone, captain and crew accepted her. Sure,Carol was scary and somewhat deranged, but not towards her anymore than anyone else. The girl didn't quite look him in the eye, "I know what you saw back there, but you'll have to accept that I'm...more different than I look and can do things other people can't."
Azzo looked at her levelly. "So can I," he said, and the words carried the weariness of the resigned behind them. "Can't do that," he nodded at her. "But I can do more than a man who's spent his life behind a plow." He shrugged. "You kept yourself alive. That's --Josep!"
The boy had strayed to the door. At the sound of Azzo's voice he yanked his hand back. "I have to find da!" he said plaintively and when Azzo shook his head, the edge of his voice rose into a wail.
With a sigh, Azzo went to the boy and lowered himself to eye level with a groan. "Your da's orders were to keep you safe," he told the child. "And I mean to do that. Are you going to help me?" The child opened his mouth to protest and Azzo cut him off. "Anh-" he interrupted "Soldiers follow orders." The child wavered, obviously in the middle of an intense internal struggle as his anxiety fought with his desire to please. At last he nodded, looking dispirited. "Good lad." Azzo held out his arm to him and Josep clung to him as he stood.
Heaving the weight of the child to his hip, Azzo turned to the stairs. "My body and soul together," he said, looking back at Mei as he made his slow way towards them. "That's all I want."
("My body and soul together",is that a nice way of saying don't kill me?) Presuming the remark could mean many things,Mei-Xiu walked on towards the room Azzo mentioned before,noticing the many statues surrounding her.
Who were they? Guardians? Spirits? Wealthy patrons? Lesser gods?
She was pretty sure these people were the ones with only one god. Reaching the altar,Mei pushed aside a black velvet curtain revealing a small door,which Mei had to bend down to get through.On the other side,there was a rather plain room with a crowd of people staring at her somewhat fearfully which caused her to stare back and wonder if she should say something."Um, hello...can we come in here?" she gestured to Azzo and Josep.
Apparently they hadn't been the only ones to seek the sanctuary of a church. The memory of his days in the Prussian army tugged at Azzo. Time and time again he'd trooped into village churches, tired and bloody, to let the huddled villagers there know they were safe from the bandits that plagued them. Here were the same people; the women holding babes, the men with their makeshift weapons, the sniffling children.
All that was missing was the good news.
"They've gone no farther than the end of Water Street," he told the small crowd brusquely, already pushing through them. "Only the shops. Your homes should be safe." He hitched Josep higher on his hip and wove through them silently as the buzz of talk sprung up among them. Setting the boy down on the first step, he urged him up the stairs to the bell tower, then followed limping behind him.
At the top of the stairs, the air blew in fresh and salt-laden and the sun shone through the slanted slats of the windows. Josep paused briefly to admire the ancient, giant bell that hung in the center of the room, then went to investigate the pile of half rotted bell-rope that someone had left discarded in a corner. Azzo took to the windows instead, searching the bird's eye view for the Barnacle. "No smoke, at least," he remarked to Mei-Xui before turning away from the window. The floor didn't offer the most comfortable seat, but it got his legs out from under him, at least. Taking stock of his injuries, he found that he wasn't as worse for wear as he felt. The cut on the back of his head still bled sluggishly, but past that, his aches were those of a body not given enough time to heal, not one newly injured.
No smoke at least?!
What if there was smoke! How could she know there would be a ship...or a crew to get back to?
Mei sat down on the cold floor and sank her head. 'No," she thought to herself, 'The Steamhawke will always get us through everything.' "I'm scared," she admitted quietly, without thinking. She raised her head, "I may fight well, but I need her, the Steamhawke that is, more than she needs me."
Azzo raised his eyes to the automaton with a long, appraising look. What a strange young woman she was. With her odd, mechanical body and arsenal of explosives, she was a fighter he didn't doubt could hold her own. When she spoke though, her words didn't carry the jaded suspicion that he would have expected. Instead she sounded almost...lost.
"The Steamhawke will be there," he said quietly. "And your captain." It was the closest to reassurance he could offer. It was the rest of Seaport he was worried about, he didn't add aloud. Instead he shifted in his seat, twisting towards her. "Help me bind up this cut before it ruins the coat," he asked.
Mei gave a small but genuine smile at Azzo's response that the Steamhawke and her captain would make it."Of course",she glanced around quickly,she didn't see anything very useful or sterile and didn't want to rip the curtains.Realizing the obvious option,she took a red arm band off her armor and gently pressed it against the wound on the back of his head."Thank you for what you did back there."
Azzo flinched as the cloth touched his scalp, then relaxed as Mei applied a steady pressure. "We're crew now," he answered. "The way I see it, its the same as the army: you look out for the fellow next to you. Besides," he gestured at Josep, who was peering out at the city through the slatted windows. "His da has had my back quite a few times now. I owe him for that, and his grandma for giving me a place to sleep when I first came here."
That sounded familiar...Mei-Xiu protected her crew because they were her friends and the Captain gave her a home without caring about her being a risk and she would do just about anything for a certain father figure of hers who had always looked out for her.The young woman watched the boy become bored with the bell and come back with a fist of colorful stones. "Want to play marbles?" the boy's young voice piped up.
"Okay,but I only know 'Ringer'."
Clearly, Josep had inherited his father's blithe optimism. How many times had Tomas teased a solemn-faced Azzo, reminding him that the sun had always risen before and either way, he might as well have a pint tonight? Josep seemed to have decided that the inn was likely to remain, and in the meantime, the boy busied himself drawing out a ring in the dust on the floorboards.
Taking over the task of pressing a cloth against his scalp from Mei, Azzo came to crouch by Josep. "I warn you, I've a few years practice at this," he told the boy.
Was Azzo...smiling? If he was,he certainly should do so more.It wasn't a broad and charismatic one, rather it was small, sweet, and a bit cat-like. Mei snapped out of it in time for Josep to hand out the marbles, Mei was given seven marbles of many colors, from a shiny pearl colored one to a sparkly multi-colored one. Azzo was given seven as well and Josep kept seven for himself, many of which were aggies.
Azzo rolled the shooter Josep had given him between thumb and palm. It was a clear, dark glass, the color of a green bottle. His sister, Hanne, had a favored shooter that had been clear glass as well, though hers had been blue. The oldest boy and the oldest girl in the family, they had squared off behind the cow shed many afternoons, crouching with their toes curled into the dirt and shouldering away their audience of younger siblings. He'd been sixteen the last time they played, and she fifteen. He wondered if she'd married Markus, as she'd been planning, and how many children she had now. Even the youngest of his siblings, Hilde, would be old enough to have a sweetheart now. She'd been too young to watch them play before he left. Someone had balanced her on their hip and let her suck on her fingers while they watched the marbles click out of the circle. His shooter, he remembered suddenly, had been dark clay, flecked with white. He looked up to see if Josep had one like it, but the boy's was an onionskin, and Mei-Xiu's was a mica.
"Do you play with seven?" Azzo asked, curious.
"How do you play?" Josep asked, then smiled when Azzo leaned over and tipped the seven Josep had given him back into his hand. "Where I come from, we start with thirteen and its first to seven wins. Since we've three, we'll make a starting cross of twenty, first to seven." The younger children had played that way sometimes, bending the rules. Hanne would have been appalled. "Line them up and we'll lag. Do you know how to lag?" he asked.
Josep looked affronted. "Of course!"
Azzo looked over at Mei. "Do you?" he asked.
Mei-Xiu closed her eyes,thinking.Lagging? She put her hand to her cheek,it didn't sound familiar...She thought a bit more before realizing she really didn't know what he was talking about and realized that maybe the way they played Ringer back in Gamshan was wrong.
"Now that I think about it,I'm pretty sure I don't."
"Here!" Josep hurriedly toed a line in the dust. "You gotta get your marble as close to the line as you can without going over." He tromped back a few feet and tossed his marble. It bounced and rolled, stopping a few inches past the line. "Aw dung!" Josep complained.
Azzo scooped the marble up. "Here," he said, handing it back to the child. "We'll shoot at the same time. Otherwise I could just play safe as long as I didn't go over the line." He crouched down, setting the first two knuckles of his hand against the floor and holding the marble in the cup of his hand. "Its easier if you knuckle down rather than tossing, too," he added. Josep, who was now watching him as though he was royalty, nodded. "Ready Mei?"
Mei turned to him,smiling. "Ready!" She eyed the line,trying to align herself properly."One"
She went into position."Two",she focused."Three",she knuckled down.
"Go." Azzo's marble rolled to a stop a few inches shy of the lag line. Josep's continued past it, stopping a hand's breadth after. "It was a good try," Azzo encouraged as Josep frowned. "Remember, I've been doing it for longer."
"Yes,I'm sure you'll make it next turn."
An hour later the marbles had been cleared away for the last time and Josep had curled up sleepily on Azzo's bundled coat, his treasured shooter still tucked into his fist. Azzo had won each of the several rounds they'd played, but by less of a margin each time. Both of the others had improved with every game, Josep as Azzo would have expected for a young boy, and Mei-Xiu with a startling, steady methodicalness. Had they played for much longer, Azzo guessed she would have routed him.
He leaned his spine back against one of the wooden beams of the belfry, stretching out after time spent crouching over the marbles ring. Through the slatted windows, the sun was beginning to cast long shadows. Azzo stirred restlessly. Taking Josep back would be safest once the sun fell and they could slip through the streets unnoticed, but the itch to know what had happened at the Barnacle dug at his soldier's training to stay put. Instead he shifted again, and settled firmly into a seat against the beam. "So where are you from, soldier?" He asked with studied patience.
Mei was lying down on the floor,smiling at the sleeping Josep.She hoped that Kichi was safe and happy too back at the ship.Then Azzo asked a simple question that managed to pierce through her and unlock many bad memories.Tossing and turning,Mei-Xiu wondered why he had called her soldier,sure she was wearing armor but not the standard issue type.
More importantly,should she answer truthfully and risk more questions? "Well",she down looked at her nervously intertwining fingers."I'm from Gamshen",she practically blurted out,"A terrible place full of bad memories that you never want to visit." The young woman hoped this would stop more questions."Where do you come from?" She ended up using a monotone voice and a vacant stare by pure accident.
Azzo flicked his eyes over at Mei. That was the voice men used when they talked of the trenches. Azzo had vaguely heard of Gamshen; somewhere on the other side of the Slavic Imperium, it was a land of curved swords, strange foods, and lengths of shimmering silk. For Mei, evidently, it held other memories, the kind that needed to be pressed down and locked away.
"Poel," Azzo answered. "Insel Poel. You would say it 'Poel Island' its in the sea off the north coast of Prussia, close enough for bridges to the mainland. Farm country, with farm families. There were eleven of us when I left: me, then Hanne, Ulrich, Engel, Suse and Marlis, Stieg, Tillo, Rebekka, Nicklaus, and Hilde." By nature not normally one to prattle, Azzo let himself rattle on. "We grew wheat, and potatoes, and beans, and a vegetable garden, and a couple of apple trees. And wild cherries, by the river, in summer."
Mei's mechanical heart relaxed as she breathed a sigh of relief,no more questions.She decided the best course of action would be to ask more questions as to keep him from asking about her.The image Azzo's story painted seemed to be of a very quaint and peaceful life making her wonder why he'd want to leave it for that of a soldier.Ten siblings and counting,if nothing else you'd never be lonely. Mei had just discovered that she had a sister...who lived inside her,she wondered how things would be now that Kaguya was around."What was it like to have all those siblings?"
He shrugged. "Crowded? Busy? Loud?" He closed his eyes, feeling the memory of heat of the summer sun against his face again, and the smell of tilled earth. For a moment the blood trickling down the back of his neck vanished and it was sweat and the chaff blown from the fields that stuck his hair to the back of his neck and dried it in funny clumps. Hanne would be standing at the pump outside, washing the hands and faces of the youngest children, while Azzo and Ulrich and Engel finished the day's work in the field and Suse . The voices of his father and brother carried across the land as another hot gust of wind stirred the wheat. "Eleven wasn't an odd number. I had twenty seven cousins on the island as well. Farming families need to be big; daughters help with the house until the marry away and sons work the fields or sign on to service for king and crown." How many might be left on Poel now, he had no idea.
He slanted his gaze over to the mechanical woman. Her face was still neutral, but not carefully so. "Do automatons have siblings?" he asked.
Mei's eyes moved slowly back and forth as she tried to figure out how to answer that question.If the answer would be anything,it would be complicated."Well,I don't know about literal siblings or much about other automatons,I never met another one.To be truthful,I think there are few people who know we exist." That was true,even in Gamshen's wanted posters she was listed as a felon with body modifications."I...I sort of have a sister,a different kind of sister..."
Mei-Xiu raised her eyes and tilted her head in contemplation,this was not going to be easy."She's- Her soul at least is inside of me.She's the daughter of the first person to ever care about me and I think she helped me find him." The young woman sincerely hoped he wouldn't have to ask for Shou's name as she refused to endanger him.
"You seem to at least know what automatons are,how many of us are there?"
Azzo considered this information. "Truth be told, you're the first automaton I've seen," he said, then added "As far as I know. We heard stories of them, of course, but I've no idea if they're true." The idea that automatons might have souls was new to him, as was the idea that one could carry more than one soul in a body. Gamshen theology, he reasoned, must be different from Prussian. "How do you carry someone else's soul?"
The automaton looked at the small figure of the young sleeping Josep,he looked so sweet and peaceful.Why would anyone want to harm such a nice and innocent little boy? No matter what the answer could be,Mei decided that as long as she was with him,no one would.She was just barely listening to Azzo's answer,mentally scanning it for anything important before hearing his question."I don't know,I wonder if I'm better off not knowing..." Mei-Xiu secretly wondered if Azzo would look as peaceful and calm as Josep if asleep.
"Could be," Azzo allowed generously. Philosophy was deeper than he cared to delve. He settled more comfortably into his seat. "I find its easier not to worry about things that can't be changed."
Mei's eyes were still fixed to the small sleeping boy and a small smile was fixed to her face."He's such a good boy." She got up from the floor and began looking for a more comfortable seat.She looked around,the whole floor looked the same-wait! Mei-Xiu saw a beam and laid down on it."So what's the plan if there's still a fight tonight?"
"He's not a bad fellow," Azzo agreed, nodding at Josep. His tone grew more serious as he regarded the situation. "It was a brawl when we left. Fights like that go fast and rough. If there's people left, they've dug in. We might be able to do something there, get word out if that's what the need." He paused, taking stock of himself. The knock on his head was catching up with him. "I won't be good for anything more than that watching people's backs. Anything more than that and I might end up getting someone killed. And we need to get the boy somewhere safe."
"Then let's plan for the best but be prepared for the worst." When would it be nightfall? Mei-Xiu looked out the slanted windows,the sky was pink, meaning they had at least an hour before twilight. Speaking of which,with Azzo's injured state, they could put that time to good use."We have sometime, want to rest?"
"I doubt anything will come as far as the church, but someone should keep watch." Azzo bit back a yawn, unwilling to admit that his body had started clamoring for sleep the moment Mei-Xiu had mentioned rest. "Do automatons sleep?" he asked.
Azzo may not have been showing it but Mei could tell from from his previous statements that he he was tired.Mei may have not been much of a talker,but she was one heck of a listener.Of course she was recommending they all go to sleep,she wasn't born yesterday then again she wasn't sure exactly when she was "born". The automaton realized Azzo had a lot of questions about automatons but at least it was only (hopefully) harmless curiosity.
"I frequently sleep but I can get by for now.I'll be the look out,you get some rest.You deserve it."
Azzo grinned at that. "I'd say you might be the only person in this world who thinks so." He slipped his coat from his shoulders and doubled up the material, bunching it into a ball behind his head. "Wake me at sundown," he said, settling in. Trading watches with someone sparked an odd sort of nostalgia. He'd always been the late watch, staying up into the night while his kip-mate bedded down in preparation for the dawn watch. If he had any objections to the change in routine though, his body overruled them. Sleep came an instant after his eyelids closed, heavy and dreamless.
The girl gave returned Azzo's grin as she watched him prepare his makeshift pillow.She wondered why he said what he did,did he have a past haunting him too? Mei-Xiu's eyes widen as she realized that the former soldier was already asleep,that was surprising as most people in the cabin took sometime before finally falling to sleep.She realized something else,she was right,he did look much more peaceful asleep.
Figuring that she might be here for sometime,she began singing an old sailor song.
"Take my love
take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care
I'm still free
you can't take the sky from me
Take me out
to the black tell 'em I ain't coming back
burn the land
and boil the sea
you can't take the sky from me
Have no place
I can be
since I found serenity
but you can't take the sky from me"