Chapter 73

The table was long and narrow, the familiar satin steel swirls of its surface covered with a simple white linen cloth and an assortment of dishes and bowls of food, but Jim paid little attention to the strange collection of offerings. He was looking instead at all the people who'd shown up for dinner. There were at least a dozen, everyone from Major Crime and even, Jim saw with a sense of unhappy surprise, Pops and Stephen. He took a fast gulp of his beer, hoping it wasn't his birthday or, worse yet, someone else's that he'd forgotten about. On the other side of Blair, Simon sat looking with dark solemnity at him, and further down, near the foot of the table, Pops and Stephen were both grim-faced in their silent disapproval. The chill emanating from them was as solid as the wall between them had always seemed. Jim's beer bottle frosted over, and he shivered.

Still unwilling but without any options, he came slowly to the table, the thirteenth man at a cold feast. At his place was a bottle of dark wine and a loaf of flat bread. He didn't want the wine, and unleavened bread seemed cruelly frugal when there were so many better things on the table, but understanding that it was expected of him, he tore a piece of bread for himself and passed the rest to the man at his left. Though he hoped Blair was beside him, the hand that took the bread from him wasn't Blair's at all.

Jim shivered again, his heart heavy, and reached for the wine. The corkscrew was awkward in his hands and he fumbled with the bottle, still trying to find the right words for this grim, anonymous celebration. "For memory's sake," he managed at last, the safest compromise with ignorance he could devise, and the cork slid from the neck of the bottle, dripping wine as thick as blood.

"Ellison!" boomed a heavy voice, and for a moment Jim wasn't sure if it had been his father or Simon who spoke. He looked to Simon first, entirely willing to let him take over officiating at whatever this party was supposed to be. "You're going undercover," Simon said instead, pitiless command hard in his voice. "You need to leave now."

"But...." Jim wasn't enjoying the dinner, but he didn't want to leave the loft either. He hadn't even gotten to talk to Blair since he arrived home, and that made him feel cheated of something valuable.

"No 'buts'! Just do your job!"

How many times had he heard that in his life? Jim sighed, resigned, and set the wine bottle on the dresser in his bedroom.

It wasn't the clothes that Blair noticed first, or the people themselves. Not the dry, dead grass, or the scrub-covered hillside, or even the procession of cattle with their horns oiled and gleaming, thinly draped in garlands of straw as dusty and dry as the landscape, all moving slowly in the hot and bruising wind. The first thing Blair noticed as the door swung shut behind him, cutting off Dr. Buckner's final, angry expostulation, was the quality of light. In Cascade the light was fat and golden, its shadows always green with the promise of rain and incipient life. This place couldn't be Cascade, because the sunlight was piercingly thin and white-hot, casting shadows that were black and without depth upon the stony, barren ground.

Blair took another step forward, more alarmed at Jim's absence than at the unfamiliar landscape. He had heard shouts, ugly, bloodthirsty cries, and he had been terrified for Jim, but no one was shouting now. The families were chanting and singing as they drove their cattle forward, and their song was seductively liquid in the parched desert land. Blair followed the procession, keeping his distance even though there was nothing threatening about these dark, beautiful people leading their offering of cattle to an unknown destination deep in the wilderness. The only hostile thing around him was the climate, and it ruled the land. A hot wind blew Blair's hair off his forehead, scoured his cheeks and cracked his lips. What grass grew in this inhospitable place was so brown and brittle even the cattle scorned it. A line of twisted, stunted trees with tiny, hard leaves followed the trace of a long-dried riverbed to the west, where the hard blue sky was just beginning to shade orange on the horizon. There would be no rain tomorrow, either.

Rain. That was what these people were seeking, and suddenly Blair knew where he was and who these people were. It was as plain and inescapable as the cloudless blue sky. From time immemorial the King of the Rain and Storm had lived on a hill at Boma, near the mouth of the Congo. Every spring the people of the surrounding countryside brought an offering of cattle and other good things, and in return, the king on the hillside drew rain down from the sky and gave life to the dying land. Blair was journeying with them to greet the Namvulu Vumu, the King of Rain and Storm.

No one had seen this ritual enacted in more than a hundred years, and yet somehow Blair was in the midst of it to bear witness. He would see the great lord stretch out his hand and bring rain down from the heavens, see the land turn green once more. The wonder of it dazzled him. There were so many questions about these rites, mysteries that would have remained sealed forever, except somehow Blair was going to be a part of it. His scholar's heart and his scholar's mind were filled with religious awe. He did not know how his presence was possible, but that detail didn't matter compared to the things he could learn. He journeyed forward, anxious not to miss a single, precious moment of the experience.

A single discomforting thought nagged at him, even in the midst of his joy, and it grew stronger and more insistent the further he walked. Something about why the people of the desert had scattered across the land and no longer brought offerings to the hillside in Boma. Something about why there was no longer a King of the Rain and Storm, and the rituals were abandoned and forgotten. Blair hurried forward, joining the caravan. No one gave him a second glance as he pushed his way through, overtaking the slow moving families and their offerings of cattle, making his way to the front of the long line.

The heat and the cloudless sky and the dead grass reminded him of what he should have remembered all along. Sometimes the lord on the hillside couldn't bring rain with his outstretched hand. Sometimes nothing would satisfy the thirst of the parched land but the lord's own life's blood. That was how the last had died, bound to a stunted oak tree and blooded like a butchered lamb. His life blood staining the tree and soaking into the ground had made the desert fertile for one more year, but there had never again been another King of Rain and Storm.

Dread tightened around Blair's heart as he thought about the last king's end, and he forced himself to move faster, trying to run through the desert heat, his hair sticking to the back of his neck and sticking to his face when the furnace wind was behind him. For the love of heaven, where was Jim? Blair shaded his eyes from the glare of the sun on the pale, dead soil and tried to see up ahead.

There, on the cliffs so far above him the top of the mesa wavered in the heat like a mirage lake, a familiar silhouette was outlined against the sky. A man who watched as the procession wound its way up through the pass, awaiting the arrival of his followers, the people who believed he could provide for them, protect them against everything, even the heat of the summer sun; awaiting their arrival because he had sworn to protect them, regardless of the cost to himself. Oh no, Blair thought, running harder, panting in the heat. The blood was pounding in his temples and his heart throbbed as though it would burst. Oh, no, Jim.

"Do I have to go?" Jim asked, not expecting an answer from his empty bedroom. He knew what Blair would tell him, and that was why he didn't ask his friend. It would be too easy to defy his duty if Blair didn't want him to go either.

"So you're a quitter after all." The cutting voice was intimately familiar, and brought the same old sick feeling of helpless, bottled rage against injustice to Jim's stomach. He bowed his head, swallowing the bile back as his father demanded in the tone that haunted all Jim's memories of the past, "Don't make me regret raising you, Jimmy. Be the man you ought to have been, for once."

The words hurt, the way knowing that was what his father truly thought always had. All Jim had was all that he had ever had: his sense of justice and the courage to speak out for it honestly. "I don't want to go. That doesn't make me any less of a man, whatever you choose to believe."

"You're a coward, Jimmy boy, you always were. Always took the easy way out, even if it meant running out on your family." Standing as tall as he could, William Ellison was slightly shorter than Jim, but he towered above his son with the indignant righteousness that was the one constant Jim remembered about every exchange he had ever had with his father. "This is your job, your duty. Leave it, and you are no son of mine."

What son of yours am I now? Jim didn't say the words, though they had churned within him since he was seventeen. He turned away and looked over the wire railing to the long table below. He could see Blair sitting down there, the light in his face as he laughed happily at something, then turned his eyes upward to Jim. There was enough trust and affection in that gaze to chase the sick chill from Jim's gut, and he turned resolutely back. "I don't want to go," he said firmly.

The tall form pointing a threatening finger at him was Simon, face thunderous with unforgiving disgust, the cigar clamped between his teeth not slurring his words at all. "You're afraid? The big macho army ranger sentinel wants to just go home and have a nice peaceful evening? That's not the way it works in my unit, Ellison. I give you an order, you follow it, got that?"

"Come on, Simon, give me a break," Jim tried, knowing he had rarely been able to cajole Banks from his authoritarian moods but putting on his best inoffensive smile anyway. Reaching for the half-full beer, he pushed it invitingly toward Simon. "Relax, have a brew, let's talk about this. I don't have to leave right this very minute, do I?"

It wasn't beer at all, but the tall bottle of dark, sour wine, and Simon wouldn't take it from him. "You do what you're told," he said. Flat and utterly uncompromising, the answer left Jim with the same unpalatable choice he had known was his from the beginning. He didn't want to go, all his hopes and desires rebelled against the command, but he had no alternative to offer that would excuse him from the obligation. Even knowing Blair would be at his side, whatever he chose, didn't give him a reason not to go, it only made it harder to leave. Like every other time in his life, he had the ability to defy everyone and do what he wanted to do; or he could be the good son, the good soldier, the good sentinel, and honorably carry out the duty he had been given, however barren the task left his life. When it came down to the moment of decision, he was incapable of making any other choice.

"All right," he said in defeat, weariness closing around him like a cold, damp shroud. "I'll do it."

His first step took him out of the warmth of the loft, into the secret rooms on the other side of the wall, and away from Blair. That was all right, because he didn't want Blair to leave the safety and joy of their home to follow him wherever his duty would take him. There was a dread wrapped around his heart only the knowledge Blair was happy and well could keep at bay.

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