“In service of knowledge, eh?” said Deviatka that night at dinner. They were still living in the Freys’ former stables, though it had been transformed. Quartermaster Jagels’s crew scrubbed the outbuilding so energetically the mortar between the stones nearly washed away. Ofira had caught every mouse in the vicinity, and politely spit her pellets into nearby compost heaps.
The formal diplomatic mission arrived a week after the landing; though the Risenton Council was offered a fact-finding mission of its own to Eisenstadt, all six declined in horror. The diplomats' arrival relieved Professor Adewole of most of his duties as translator; along with Ambassador Weil came a small cadre of Middle Rhendalian scholars. Adewole spent two weeks teaching them the Risenton dialect--some as he learned it himself--and by the middle of Juli he found himself more or less free to do as he wished. "I would very much appreciate having you on the island for consultation," said the Ambassador. "You still possess greater linguistic skills than the rest of the translation corps. While I almost understand the aristocracy here, the common people are near-incomprehensible."
Adewole assured her his fellow academics would soon be up to speed but he'd be delighted to stay, "especially if I might be granted access to the University of Risenton Library."
Councilwoman Lumburgher was in nominal charge of the University, and upon applying to her, Ambassador Weil was repelled. "I suggest you try directly, Professor," she said. "You have dealt with Henrik Blessing. I'm sure you can manage Imogen Lumburgher."
"Keep a sharp lookout, people, guns away for now," said Berger.
"Oster," called a Council member, an irritable-looking man in blue, "what are you doing here?"
Peter's face veiled itself in stupidity; he touched a knuckle to his forehead. "They landed in the turnip field, sir. Asked me to come with."
"And you let them? Who are you to let a gaggle of--of clearly deranged people onto my property!"
"Peter Oster, move off," called Captain Winston. "These are none of yours."
Risenton Road ran straight over almost flat country; any unevenness folded more like a wrinkle in a sheet than a hill. As they walked along, the roadside became less rural and more urban.
Within two hours, they entered the City. The buildings here were far, far older than anything they’d seen elsewhere on the island, or in Eisenstadt, where old buildings tended to be torn down and replaced. Soaring buttresses, arches and magnificent carvings reminded Adewole of the thousand-year-old cathedrals and palaces found on the Rhendalian plains, decorated with chiseled mottoes only scholars like Adewole could read these days—mottoes much like the ones he found inscribed all around him. Even among these ancient and impressive structures, newer cob buildings and larger ones of salvaged stone squatted in the margins, their roofs thatched and their few windows unglazed.
Peter sat down next to Deviatka to finish his sandwich. “Ask him what they eat here,” said Deviatka.
Peter shrugged at Adewole’s translated question. “Depends on what’s to hand. Ma does well with frog, rat or snake—rabbit and goat when times’re good, but most all our rabbit and goat go to the City. Most everything goes to the City.”
“And when times are bad?”
“Times’re allus bad. Thass what angler bugs’re for.”
“Ask him what an angler bug is,” said Deviatka.
The road warden and his kin asked Peter many questions in a fast patter; Adewole had trouble keeping up. The warden knew about the expedition from Dunalow already. Were they oathbreakers? Not as far as he knew, Peter said, since they hadn’t taken the oath to begin with, but yes, they did have metal flying machines as they’d heard; Peter had seen them himself. Adewole wondered how the warden had learned about them. Many couriers had passed them, but all at a fast walk not a run; none had stopped to talk, and none as far as he knew had seen the flying machines.
The autogyros returned with the support crew, the mission readied itself, and the explorers moved out. Sergeant Jagels and Corporal Wirtz took picket. Peter Oster followed; the two professors and Major Berger walked beside him. Signalman Oberman rode herd over Doctor Ansel, who was forever finding matters of high biological interest on the roadside, and Lieutenant Lentzen and Corporal von Sülzle brought up the rear.
The journey took them along what Peter called the Great Road, which he said ran around the island’s entire circumference: “They do say a wall once stood here, all round the island.” A pastiche of stone and bricks, many crumbling, made up the road’s surface, repaired piecemeal over centuries. Time had eroded what must have been wheel ruts; animals had once drawn carts here. No carts traveled the road now as far as Adewole could tell. Barrowmen and fast-moving people on foot passed them in both directions, most hailing Peter Oster and goggling at the expedition, especially Adewole. Those on foot—the ones Peter called couriers, who delivered small packages and messages—slowed down to stare at the party, often walking backwards to get a good long look. No one ever stopped; Peter said unlike him, they couldn’t afford to. “Couriers and such, their job’s in not stoppin’. Do I stop, I get work. Not them. See Kolbsgate in the distance?” said Peter, nodding toward a stone edifice far off down the road. “Thass that we go to.”
Adewole didn’t dare turn around, but he sensed the soldiers creeping forward. “Major, get behind us,” called Lieutenant Lentzen.
“No need for alarm yet, Izzy,” murmured Berger.
“Dark man, do you tell ‘em we mean to take ‘em in to see the Council—by force do we mun,” the woman called to Adewole. “We’re on’y four, but more are on the way.”
“Nay, that is to our liking,” the professor responded. “We wish to speak with those who lead you.”
“Totty’s the talk wi’ the noose round yer neck!” yelled the excitable man. “The Council square oathbreakers up right!”
The owls finished their approach and took up perches in the branches of the willow overlooking the pond, each a careful distance from the other two. Adewole followed Major Berger to stand before them. The owls' feathers ranged from tawny to chestnut; black framed their large amber eyes, and a fringe of white feathers surrounded their faces. If Adewole hadn't known they were there, they might have blended into the tree bark entirely. The largest one blinked solemnly, while the two smaller ones swiveled their heads from side to side, scrutinizing the Eisenstadters. "Greetings, owls. We come from the land below and would meet the humans of this place," said the Major.
The two swiveling heads stopped abruptly. All three birds stared at him, then swiveled their heads in unison to stare at Adewole. "Perhaps they cannot speak?" murmured Adewole.
"We speak fine," rasped the largest owl. "Here you shall find t'is you that speak bad. We understand one another, but you mayn't understand t'unfeathered 'uns hereabouts, nor they you. Not easy, any road."
Dean Blessing waited in the hangar beside Minister of State Faber and the General of the Eisenstadt Defense Force. To Adewole's surprise, Blessing greeted him brusquely but professionally. "A momentous day, gentlemen. I hope we are all prepared for it?"
"As best we can be," answered Deviatka.
"Good," said Blessing, clapping him on the arm. He shook hands with Deviatka and then with the astonished Jerian. "Karl, Adewole, safe journey."
"Safe journey, sir," blinked Adewole.
"See?" said Deviatka as the Dean stumped away. "Not all that bad a man, really, but I'll be damned if I let him sell anything more out from under me, and that's a promise, friend."