A World Too Near

Free A World Too Near by Kay Kenyon

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Authors: Kay Kenyon
at it, with its towering blue-black folds, like an aurora borealis gone dark and mad.
    “He’s not coming,” Johanna murmured. She looked out toward the mustering grounds six stories below. At her side, Pai held a square sunshade. A rivulet of sweat traced a path under Johanna’s jacket. So much depended on the creature making an appearance.
    “We can wait a bit longer,” Pai said. She had steady nerves, this Chalin woman who had become her friend and chief spy, although Johanna and Pai carefully hid their friendship behind a façade of arrogant mistress and timid servant. Pai’s golden eyes swept the yard, searching for the appearance of Morhab the engineer. Today the grounds were empty, the phase of day too hot for long exertion and the troops having no maneuvers planned.
    In an arched doorway nearby, SuMing stood in the cool shade, watching them, ready to serve if called. She wouldn’t approach the edge of the walkway, having developed an aversion to heights. So still and quiet, this young retainer. So . . . chastened. SuMing’s neck didn’t bend naturally any longer, having healed poorly. She might well blame Johanna for this, but she was still her servant and now better knew her place.
    Pai wasn’t Johanna’s only agent. There was also Gao, who was at this moment searching through the chamber of Morhab the Gond and desperately needed Johanna to delay Morhab from prematurely returning.
    “Pai, where is he?”
    “Still in the watch, mistress. I’m sure.”
    As Heart of Day beat down on the yard, a dust devil skipped along, leaving a powdery tail in its wake. On these grounds officers would drill the garrison, although no one could remember if the Paion had ever infiltrated this far.
    They called this fortress the Repel, after its function to repulse Paion incursions. Laid out in a half-moon shape against the storm wall, it possessed five domains. The innermost, and so-called fifth domain, was the centrum, her home and the home of Lord Inweer. Four lines of defense enclosed the centrum and thwarted an enemy that, when it came, would likely come in hordes. The fourth domain was the gathering yard, where the stark grounds would afford an enemy no cover. The third domain, the watch, served as a barracks, and was a stone fortress in its own right. Before the outer wall of the watch lay the second domain, the sere, a sector of blackened soil exposing trespassers to incineration. Some days Johanna could see a thermal column rise above the watch, bearing the charred dust of some hapless creature. Facing the plains of Ahnenhoon in first defensive position was the legendary terminus, a maze that swallowed any life that ventured inside. Open doorways riddled this outer wall, perhaps more unnerving than a solid buttress would have been. Johanna’s understanding of the domains was collected from legend and hearsay. There were no maps or layouts, except in the minds of its Tarig builders and in the locked chests of Morhab, Lord Inweer’s
master engineer, the highest position of any non-Tarig in the Ahnenhoon Repel, save only the generals of the army.
    Gao had access to Morhab’s chests. In past forays he had found pieces of maps, fragments showing the centuries-long building and rebuilding of the five domains—most particularly, fragments pertaining to the engine’s containment chamber. He committed these to memory, assembling a piecemeal understanding of the immensity of the Repel.
    To distract Johanna, Pai pointed into the distance. “See, mistress, there is a sky bulb floating.”
    Johanna made out an airship, a mere speck hovering over the plains. It might be filled with Paion, but if it signified a fight, the sounds of battle didn’t travel this far. The Long War, as it was called, hardly registered on Johanna’s life, though she lived only a few miles from its eternal clashes. The daily presence of war-at-a-distance made her complacent.
    The Paion, whatever they were, attacked only at Ahnenhoon. The lords

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