Lal sat as a lotus on her cot. Her sharp nose flared as each wave of air streamed, with uneven rhythm, in and out. Her stone-cut stomach pumping, while her eyes pressed tight against unseen advances. Lal's lotus was unlike the water-bourne flower, it was instead the common market verity of corded cloth - rigid. She let out a frustrated sigh and let her eyes snap open.
The day was calling the shadows from the north, and they flowed from Chayya's chambers. Lal had been working her breath since shortly after the sun crested its zenith. Ten thousand strings pulled at her attention, too many for her to weave on Harapo's wheel. Her mind would not abide silence. She stayed as flower on water, but allowed her eyes to drift over her palatial quarters. A harsh statement about the rest of the Mavim's accommodations. Her room had a larger set of windows, glass cut like a slab of elephant skin, but lighter so as not to burden the great ship in flight. The windows, three abreast stood at half her height, reaching from head to hip. Ten easy steps across from them stood a grand table, secured to the deck, with a flickering Surdipa bolted firmly to it's surface. The Surdipa on the table, along with the one fixed next to the door across form her cot, gave her chamber the warmed glow of a soldier's bunker. It was enough light to work by, even in the darkest hours. She fixed her eyes on the work, piles of reports sat to either side of her table and on it, all gripped by the fine fingers of the securing wracks. Those white leaves, scrawled with the thoughts of eyes and ears in unknown numbers, were the strings. Above the ones on the table hung the tapestry, the grand map, the unconscious focus of her attention.
The Grand Domain of the Water Republic sat prominently at the center of the map, at the center of the world, sitting proudly on the foot-hills of the Hima mountain range. Below them stretched the extent of the republic with all of the unified holdings of the mother-houses. Forests, swamps, rivers, and scattered unevenly about, were the blighted regions. Swamps still eating the forgotten refuse of Mara's age, the triumph of his machinations. Even the furthest Southern City-States, buried in their forests and swamps, had blighted areas. North of the Hima range was the great waste, burnt land with scattered water, and further to the North-west was where the Dragon Throne ruled. The world was a vast place, even with a Vimana it would take years to cross its full extent. Lal had heard legends from the dusted past that told how once every common man could travel to any remote corner of the world they chose, simply by drinking the black blood of the divine mother. Lal was not sure those were wholly fanciful tales for the age of Mara. Now there stood the great wastes, blighted lands, raging waters, and Indra's wrathful war-hosts. It was a vast world, hidden by Chayya's shroud.
Lal had met merchants, spies, and scholars who cared about the uncharted lands. Most others cared only about what was close to home. The problem was that trouble comes by wave or over land, but it always comes from the shroud. Even the prophecies warned of the same. Scouts from various mother-houses had wandered, but leashed to coin could only travel so far. Any reports of trouble were normally kept close to the house that sponsored the report. Even with all the eyes and ears of the houses and the mahapanch lined together, it was like placing a grain of sand every one thousand leagues. Himavana himself could have walked shroud-ward into the heart of the central chambers of the great panch and would not have been noticed. The grey ships that had appeared a little under a decade ago were much smaller than the great god Himavana and had been sighted many times before finally coming to the attention of the panch.
Meetings had been held, voices had been raised, grand plans were drawn up and now Lal was stuck on this behemoth, leading an expedition she had no business leading. Lal inhaled and exhaled trying to regain control of the spinning wheel in her mind. She rose off the cot, letting her feet touch the ground and find good grip before padding across the room to the windows. Outside, half-hidden by the mist and rain, flickering lamps danced to the tune of soldiers establishing camp. The Mavims upper deck was well placed to watch the display. Five skiffs, each pulled to the great walls of the cove, and lashed tightly to the mammoth cut-stone blocks. Each skiff held a compliment of one-hundred and fifty men at arms, full compliments. Their support was supposed to be stored aboard the Maha-Viamana, with a full supply of food, munitions, medicine, and command staff all on one giant boat.
The Mavim were impressive in the air, and during high summer could soar at 3.048 Kimaras, their massive bubbles glittering like fiery rainbows. During the monsoons that number was halved and the ships looked like bulbous, pieces of corn, struggling to stay aloft. Through the entire trip the wind worked to unseat the Viamana, as if affronted by its presence.
That was why the Fel'Masal had decided to divide up the stores among smaller support crafts that he had hired unsupported by the mahapanch's Rajani Oversight Committee. Never put all of your eggs in a single basket, as the saying went. Lal was pleased that the Fel'Masal was competent enough to understand the basics, and resourceful enough to find the boats. Her reign as Rajani would be short if her command staff were mentally compromised.
The cost of rallying the mother-houses, let alone floating a fifth Mavim and all of it's support was an insane proposition. And if you were to raise such a force why would you not provide it the support needed for success? Lal thought, feeling the prick of anger.
Panic was fuel to foolishness of all sorts, and a welcome invitation to malign interests. The pranic masters were always muttering to themselves, and anyone else in ear shot, about balancing the Prana. Know the amount it takes and how much you can make.
All temple Aco's were stringy, the Aco's of Indra's temple were a league apart, and inevitably they ended up as chief-under-panche of numerical resistance to any damn thing. Lal was surprised to find her voice along side the Chief Aco's, arguing in favor of better equipping the expedition. The protestations of the Indra's Acos, the Panch Acos, and the mother-council of Lal's own mother house failed to dissuade the panche's command.
The Mahapanche's confusion and resistance stemmed in part from Lal's election as Rajani. Her victory was an unexpected shock to many of the more powerful interests within the panch. One of Chayya's daughters had not had that honor for the last eighty years, not since the end of the war of illumination. The other mother-councils had ordered their representatives to place the mountain between Lal's house and the throne. History was poison everywhere that men have lived and the Mahapanch was no exception.
Every house remembered the last time that Chayya sat the throne. It started well enough and the problem for which the Rajani was selected was promisingly resolved, but over time every shadow held an ear to listen, or a sooted knife. The war of illumination nearly shattered the Temple of Chayya, and it's supporting Houses. Only the intervention of the other temples had prevented the total annihilation of the Shadow Daughters. Lal could feel the seething glares of other panch members, could hear the tone in the shouts of protest when she had been elected,. That her house had managed to garner the necessary votes was more source of worry than triumph. They had waited eighty years for a chance at redemption, and now the throne was in the shadow. Whether she wanted that responsibility or not, Lal was now Rajani.
The frown that failed to crease her jowls would have only been noticeable to those who knew her, and only in the light of day. Here, on a Mavim, accompanied by a poorly supplied division, in the middle of a storm, it was as cast in shadow as the rest of her life. Lal was elected to protect the interests of the mother-houses, many of whom were doing everything to ensure her failure. She knew her position.
She closed her eyes, and released her breath with loose lips trying once again to regain control of the spinning wheel noisily clacking away in her mind. All thoughts for another time, she told herself.
She turned her attention to the table, the flickering Surdipa held in it's embrace the focus of her attention. She stalked over to the table and seated herself. Three reports sat where four should be, all sharply stacked at the center of the green writer's stock. A nagging doubt about the reports kept surfacing. What was missing?
Lal knew that Das, her chief clerk and mentor, had hand selected the clerks to filter and edit the reports. The mother-houses were sending the store of their knowledge about the current events, including sightings of the gray ships, but many were clearly fabricated. Even after the vote the mother-houses held tight their secrets. The whispers on and around her desk were filtered, with correct information added where available. Even accounting for every missing piece, Lal felt that there was something vital she was missing. A fourth string for the tapestry that would reveal something about the nature of the gray ships. The journey to the expiditions current resting place had given her enough timeto go over every scrap of data: food-stocks from the mother-houses, troop dispositions, pranic stores, and on. The three most important pieces stood in front of her. The reports on the four other expeditions sat at the top of the stack. The report was marked with the Ministry of Interiors spade and shield, although rightly it should have worn the crossed iron spear and sword of the Defense Forces. The Captain's Mutiny had left little faith in the iron cross, and now the fleets stood under command of the MoI. Lal picked up the report and flipped the file open, her dark eyes scanning the first pages.
The Captain's Mutiny started shortly after Archafe Vidoyim was executed for treason. The outrage caused by that foolish act had triggered the defections of a significant number of captains. The Archafe was particularly popular among the low-born because of his attempts at reform. Most of the defecting captains went to ground in villages and townships that had long ties with the defense forces. Conflicts between the villages that remained loyal and the defectors had resulted in a thousand small fires in every direction. The defections were fifteen years ago, but it was no more than ten years ago that the Mahapanch stopped negotiating. Pressure from the great-houses to regain their vassalages was pressing. Six years ago the Mahapanch had launched the great expeditions.
The Green Mother's Embrace they were named, the Red Sister's Kiss they were called. The four Mavim and their support fleets were each under command of Yuverajani, since they weren't officially authorized. Lal's four “daughters” were each fighting their own lone wars, and only Sammui was using guile and blackwater, not that the villages and their guardian captains hadn't quickly learned to see knives hidden in plain sight. The midlands and eastern shores had become a war zone of competing factions, and the Mahapanch was directing its literal energies to fuel the advance of the other four expeditions.
Lal sighed. Valuable prana was being wasted on the whims of the great-houses while strange ships roamed and priests quoted prophecies from the Book of the Wheel. She set aside the report and picked up the second file, stamped with the blue flame of the pranic Aco's. The Pranic Stores were her biggest concern.
Every house, no matter its size, found a way to produce prana. The energy of living flesh was the fuel for nearly every enterprise, be it war or commerce. The last fifteen years of conflict had drained the stores directly under the control of the Mahapanche. What hadn't been stolen during the Great Mutiny, or was being stolen by the great houses, or the black rings of thieves, or horded by villages, was a mouthful to the ocean that was needed. The embers of the Red Sister's advance burned the hottest around the pranic stores of villages and towns, and moved like slow water other-wise. The mother-houses were scrambling to save as much as possible and shortages were being reported from nearly every quarter. In the southern reaches, where few remaining cities could still keep their call-towers in operation, the Mahapanch had already lost territory to the far-wilds.
The fifth expedition was in worse condition, a march to war was supplied with nine-months fuel, and more to be delivered when needed, on the sworn words of the council. Lal snorted in derision, the sound muted in her small chambers. The council's sworn word couldn't even carry the weight of basic meaning, much-less the weight of obligation. Lal could sooner plan her campaign with the legends of hidden pranic wells in far off jungles than she could with all the council's written promises. Even if the Mahapanche could keep its promise the range of the expedition would be far too limited by the resupply lines, to fully study the nearly one-hundred sightings of the strange ships. Now, her fleet was stuck three months into an indefinite expedition with six months of fuel remaining.
Any doubts Lal had about the Fel'Masal and his loyal Offra's dedication to the success of their mission had been put to rest when they had gladly agreed with her proposal to send smaller, faster scouts to verify the ship sightings. Lal's banner was shone in good light when her own loyal cadre had volunteered for the task. The shadow's own for tasks to be done in shadows.
Lal set down the pranic reports and picked up the historic compilation, emblazoned with the archive's stamp. This was the piece that had caused her to recognize that something important was missing. The scout's report was sailing toward it's destination, but between the archivist's reports of the ship sightings and the scout's report stood something of great importance. Das would know what the missing piece was, but Lal sorted through the documents anyway. The fact she recognized that there was a piece missing, and that she knew where to look for the missing link, was enough to convince her that she could uncover the last piece.
Lal found the page she was looking for and scanned its content for the hundredth time. The title of the page read simply “Confirmed Sightings of Gray Ships.” The sightings were neatly organized into columns; region of citing, date, conformation where available, size and number of vessels, sources of sightings where available. All the confirmed sightings were from the west, the eastern reaches were too chaotic to find any reliable information. The dates stretched back seven years, with an intensification in the east in the last four. The mid-sized vessels were most prevalent in the west, while the eastern had the largest concentration. The dates. Lal paused. The dates of the eastern and western sightings were spread wide, except for four clusters where they were just weeks apart. That held Lal's attention. The sources of the sightings varied from fisher folk to merchants. Lal stared at the sheet, her mind turning the figures over and over.
The surdipa by the door blinked twice, paused then blinked again. The scouts had returned.
The ante-chamber made for her living shields was devoid of their solid frames. Save for the corded figure of Das and his meager effects, and the stacks of documents, the place was bare.
Das stood patiently by the adjoining door which lead into the main section of the ship, he had scrolls tucked under his arm and held a cane his right hand. Lal strode to the door just as Das opened the portal to the corridor. She cast a glance at him, “you have news of the east?”
Das' dower expression did not change. “We see only what is in front of us, but know much else besides. What we cannot see or touch,or smell, or taste, or hear, we can still understand.” Das intoned the passage from Saraswati's Journey Through the Shadow Kingdom, in his cracking high-pitched voice.
Lal paused to arrange herself before she strode forward, “indeed.” she said while exhaling naturally.
Lal stood impassive, shoulder to shoulder with Das and Fel'Masal Sobek Singh at the throne of the table. The tactical map spread before them was a vague layout of the Grand Collective's borders as they should be, not as they were. The location of the fleet was marked with a single red pin, and no other information was presented. Luval Mepon Dar stood impassively at the foot of the table, neither focused nor considering anything upon the map.
Lal tried to maintain her silent breathing, as she had been taught in the temples, while considering the men and women to either side of the table. She was still more distracted by the click of the spinning wheel in her mind than the Luval's report. Dar's words were worrying but ones she oddly expected, not in detail but in general. Only the implications had yet to be sorted.
Lal's mind drifted to her trained senses, which were getting clear knowing from too many of the Offras. They were unshielded: prayer day practitioners of the most basic ritual of mental defense. I will have to address the problem later. She thought sanguinely as she turned her attention to the Fel'Masal.
Sobek stood to her right, sharply dressed in green and brown uniform, his shoulders decorated with crossed baton and saber enveloped in a lotus blossom wreath, above which stood the Sarnath lion. They symbols of his authority as Fel'Masal. His mind was unknowable, and even Lal's temple trained senses could only get a feel of iron discipline from him. She caught the movement of his hand running through his silky-dark beard from the corner of her eye. Lal's eyes refocused on the Laval with a quiet exhalation of breath.
“Did the test on the hulls of the smaller vessels show the same?” Her words pulled the captains back from their contemplation.
“The decks of the smaller ships were too close to the water Rajani, if we had approached, our frog-men would have surely been caught.” Dar's words were spoken unapologetically, he never apologized for facts.
“Then how do we know?” chirped Vishnava, one of the younger captains. He was a slender man with sandy hair and freckles across his nose. Lal considered him, wondering how he had not come to the conclusion already.
“Your pardon captain. If seven of their larger hulls, and 13 of the mid-range hulls can hold the magnetic weights, each to the exact weight of the others, it stands to reason these people can produce smaller vessels with consistent iron content in their hulls.” Dar noted what most others at the table already had guessed.
The magnetic weights had been one of the more brilliant ideas of the fleet's engis and crafters. The devices were simple magnetic disks with consistent magnetic forces. Each disk had a weight attached to one side. The lightest weight was no more than 10 kilos, the heaviest was 100 kilos. The strength of the magnet could only hold the disk on an object depending on the attractive force being exerted by the object. Eventually the weight would get too high and the disk would fall off. The scouts had attached disks to the hulls of each of the mystery ships until one of the disks had fallen off, giving them a rough estimate of the iron content in each hull. What was most fascinating was the none of the hulls were one-hundred percent iron, each was around forty percent. Lal considered that level of consistency in ceramic hulls. They clearly showed a high degree of craft skill.
Sobek spoke “Thank you Laval, you may return to your men.” The Laval had faced six hours of questions from the captains. It was close to dawn and he was clearly stiff but showed no fatigue as he pounded a closed fist over his heart and left.
Harapo's divine presence filled the room as all within returned to their contemplation. It was Vishnava who finally broke the silence. “We still have no clear vision of the eas...”
Captain Nena La Ma, a woman built like a tree trunk cut him off. “Are you expecting clear days for all our planning? Perhaps signed logs of their activities?” Her words were like rock salt.
Captain Aakar, a man with dark wispy hair and serpents eyes, interjected in support of Vishnava. “We must know more before we commit.”
The others began jumping in, but it was clear the majority wanted to know more before moving. Only the crown of the table stood silent. The wheels in Lal's mind were spinning faster now, and she saw no reason to interrupt the discussion. “We are blind in the east, we have only rumors and guesses. We need better...” Vishnava was pressing.
“The east is not unknown to us...” Sobek's words were as soft as air, but the power behind them instantly silenced the Captains. “We know that two sightings were of the same ships.”
Das' voice picked up where the Fel'Masal's had left off, “you've managed to confirm this?” the question held implications about Sobek's networks. His confirming nod opened a range of possibilities to the already overworked spinning wheel in Lal's mind. She set the strings aside to follow later.
Instead Lal added her own observations to the tapestry they were all weaving. “Four of the sightings, East and West, were mere weeks apart. Large hulls in each case, along with a compliment of mids and smalls.” The captains were fully attentive now.
“That is a considerable fleet. To support such a fleet would require considerable resources,” the stony-faced woman, Tattwa Asam, the expedition's scout commander, added. “The fires burning in the Eastern shores raise too much smoke for us to see the comings and goings of these ships with clear eyes. Pardon Fel'Masal. The conformations you mentioned,were they among the Rajani's four?”
Sobek shook his head. “Each of the confirmed were small hulls and more recent than the sightings that the Rajani spoke about.”
Asam registered the new information with a curt nod. It seemed she was leading the meeting now and she allowed the room to lapse back into silence as she collected her thoughts.
“Eight years of sightings, fires burning so hot we cannot confirm the majority, strange ships with masterfully crafted hulls, whole fleets visiting our shores, and not a word from our far eyes about them,” Asam's voice was even as if she was writing a list.
“The ships, small or large, bear no sails and at forty percent iron are likely too heavy to move by sail.” The scrawny fleet engineer Shivanath Kumar added, as he twirled his thick mustach. “Likely powered by prana, but the reports I've read and the sketches I've seen, show only thin smoke stacks with little excess smoke. Whatever they burn, it burns cleanly.”
“Significant to move such vessels from beyond our farthest far eyes,” Vishnava added to the confirming nods of the other captains.
The wheel was spinning faster now, weaving together the loose threads that each captain had delivered. With those threads Lal's mind was adding threads from old texts taught in every temple. She wondered if she was the only one allowing her mind to drift to the Book of the Wheel. The silence that filled the room again seemed heavier this time, weighted by the implications of the words just spoken.
Captain Sot Ching-da spoke, letting out a frustrated sigh. “What is this, what are we facing?” his soft, blue eyes sharpened at the last word.
No one spoke. Ching-da's words hung in the air between them. Lal could scarcely hear over the wheel and loom as the tapestry began to reveal itself. Her mind wanted to scream the words. She remained silent, waiting.
Vapulli Tumbi, the fat, bald captain with a bulbous nose, the man with so much ink scrawled on his skin that he looked like a demented child's coloring book, the very last person Lal expected to quote the New Vedas, broke the silence. “And the wheel turned, with it came fire from the shroud. Rising from the ashes of countless victories, comes again an empire, upon which the sun shall never set.”
The wheel in Lal's mind stilled, the room followed suit.
Could it truly be? Lal thought as she finally found the stillness she had sought since yesterday. After all this time? A hemispheric power...?