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Infinite Present - Part 3

Chapter 2

The second sunrise over the hidden valley arrived an hour after the first. Though smaller and less obviously impressive, especially when obscured by trees, "Little Sister" still offered a second blessing of light and warmth each day to the people of Pachakuti.

The timing of three men emerging from the jungle at that precise moment had a striking effect. The added light refractions from the second sun made the differences between them and most of the people living in the valley unmistakable.

The most obvious difference was that all three men were well over six feet tall and bearded; making them at least half a foot taller than most of the people living in Biru. Anyone watching then would have found it easy to assume that not only were they not from Pachakuti, they also were not likely to have been from the planets Cefurbo, Batali or Sablo either.

They strode into the valley, without obvious signs of tiredness or injury, and as they did so, murmurs of their arrival traveled ahead in the direction of the Emperor. Visitors to the valley were not all that unusual. There were many who remained sympathetic to the Emperor and were still willing to stand against the invaders who had taken control of the system. Of course, for most of them it was a simple matter of self-protection but there were others who found the cruelty of the conquest had been a price that could not be fully paid by the riches that had come with it.

Despite this, the chatter filling the town was laced with nervousness. This was what happened whenever any tall, bearded men stepped out of the jungle and into the valley. It had even happened with the arrival of poor Santiago Kent and only his grievous injuries had calmed the fear-infected talk that would otherwise have turned him into a spy sent to discover them.

Fear was not the only thing that the Gollana people of Biru felt that morning. Hope was there too. This was the hope that came from desperation and isolation and it was the hope for some news of family and friends who had been left behind. There was little expectation of good news but even bad news was better than being left to wonder. For reasons Palacio could not entirely explain, that kind of thinking had always reminded him of words the Emperor had once said to him: "Letting go is always harder until you have no other choice."

The three men reached the square in the centre of the town, built in the shadow of the Emperor’s house at the top of the hill. Other than a few narrow walkways, the square was enclosed on all four sides by low walled red stone buildings.

These were the buildings where the administration of what was left of the empire was supposed to take place. But since all that was left of the empire was a small town of a few hundred people, these buildings were rarely used or needed.

Pacha Runa was the only administrator left by then. She was based in the only building built up to two floors, which lay at the far end of the town square from where the men were walking. Despite being twice as tall as the other buildings, it was still only about two thirds of the height of the smallest of the lustrous green trees, whose trunks and roots broke through the grey stone that paved the surface of the square. When it had first been built, the Emperor had suggested that this building would make an excellent meeting place. The need for such a purpose had never arisen until then.

From inside the building, Pacha Runa saw the three unfamiliar silhouettes move into focus through the shadows and the veil of mist that was still refusing to surrender to the growing heat of the day. She went out into the square to meet them. They may have been strangers and it had been months since their last visitors from outside Pachakuti but Runa had never sacrificed good manners unless it was unavoidable.

The men went to her. Quiet and dignified in a way that suggested they did not wish to draw any more attention to their differences than was necessary.

“Hello there,” Runa said, when the faces of all three of them were visible to her.

The response they gave was the only reassurance needed. All three of them spoke at once and told her, “Santiago has sent us, and we bring news to the great Juna Gollana.”

When Palacio Altair told him about the three men, the Emperor was sipping a thin vegetable soup that had become the only real food he ate. Palacio knew from experience that the unpleasant looking liquid was not worth eating for its flavor, while any nutritional benefits were also minimal. He was just glad his friend was eating at all, even though he could not ignore how thin he had become; seemingly little more than half the man he had been only a few short years earlier.

The Emperor did not speak until he had finished the soup, and almost at the instant that the last drop had been painfully swallowed down, he asked for the visitors to be brought to him. His voice was calm as he spoke although Palacio had known him long enough to recognise a little excitement in it that reminded him of much better times that seemed very long ago.

When the Emperor met the men in his study he was not alone. He sat behind a desk flanked by five of his aides along with Palacio Altair and Pacha Runa. All of them were dressed in their best clothes, with pistols and other weaponry displayed in a way that could not be missed. He gave the men a warm welcome and they responded by introducing themselves.

The first of them to step forward was Thomas Nelson, whose dark hair shone surprisingly bright in the artificial light of the room. He was the tallest and thinnest of the men and was dressed in a long dark coat that was subtly trimmed with a little gold at the seams. He stood with an exceptionally straight back, except when he bowed to the Emperor and took a single step back to allow his companions to move forward.

Fernando Vallejo had darker skin than Nelson although his hair was lighter and much thicker. His face was less angular and harsh too and like Nelson he was wearing a long coat that did a good job of obscuring what he wore underneath.

When Vallejo stepped away, Samuel Rushmore came forward. Like the others, he bowed to the Emperor, who nodded his head in response. He looked younger, although that was only obvious by looking past the hints of gold in his brown hair and the light marks on the darkened skin of his face and into his clear, blue eyes.

Palacio thought there was something familiar in his face and something else about it that did not suit that familiarity. He could not place it and wondered if it was just that Rushmore seemed a little out of place with his companions. He was dressed like Nelson and Vallejo, in a long dark blue coat rather than green or black but he still looked as if life had not weighed on him as heavily as on either of them.

Thomas Nelson moved forward again and Rushmore moved back. From across the room, he fixed the Emperor with a serious but friendly gaze and set about explaining why they were there.

“Your Excellency,” he began, “We come to you looking for a safe haven away from the men who have stolen your empire and who continue to punish your people through their greed.”

The Emperor did not respond. Instead, it was Fernando Briceno, standing by his right arm, who asked, “But how can the Emperor know that you can be trusted any more than the men who have betrayed him so many times in the past?”

Palacio was unsurprised by the tone of the question. Briceno was well known for his bluntness and, in this instance, it was needed. There were few better at getting to the meat of a conversation so quickly even when the words themselves showed the need for caution.

Nelson did not falter. He still looked towards the Emperor as he nodded in agreement with Briceno’s words.

“Of course you’re right,” he said, “We are men who are in this system for the same reasons as the men who stole your empire. In that way, we are no better than the Saxonfield brothers were.”

He paused for a moment, letting the last few words hang in the air. Then, for the first time since he had greeted all three of them, the Emperor spoke.

“Were?” he asked.

Palacio thought he saw the beginnings of a smile on Nelson’s lips.

“Oh yes. All four of them are dead,” the man said.

The colour drained from the Emperor’s face and he shook his head.

“Even Kurt Saxonfield?” he asked.

“Yes,” Nelson replied.

“That’s not possible.”

“I assure you it is your Excellency. You’re looking at the men who killed him.”

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