The ashes of dead dreams accompanied the painful reluctance of the door to open. It was, Masoko Okamura, Master Shipwright of the Order of the Talon, thought… appropriate, given how little she was home.
Finally, the door creaked open, flooding light shot through with a tide of dust into the Jerusalem apartment that was, formally, where Masoko lived. In theory. In practice she spent weeks in Greenland, Malta, or on a plane or ship for every day she spent here. A clockroach’s occasional attentions kept the engineer from choking on the dust that coated what few belongings she owned, but there was more than enough to make her eyes water as she made her way inside and turned on the lights. It was not a large or luxuriously appointed apartment like some members of the Order had. It did not need to be. Formally, this had been her residence for a little less than a year. In truth, she had barely spent a month here.
There was, Masoko quietly noted, surprisingly little to indicate that a twenty-eight year old woman, much less a brilliant engineer and member of an ancient conspiracy that spanned the globe, lived here. A tiny, unadorned bedroom. A kitchen that had been used twice in the time Masoko had owned the apartment. A bathroom. Only in the small study was there any trace at all of the apartment’s owner.
Inside a glass display case rested a naginata, the Japanese polearm traditionally seen as a woman’s weapon. This one had been passed down, mother to daughter, for more than two hundred years. It was unlikely to be passed to another young Japanese woman upon her betrothal. Recovering it at all had been difficult, and Masoko’s face flushed with shame as she recalled the Order’s insertion of her into Japan that previous winter on a doomed effort to reconnect with the family she had left behind. Inscribed on the white oak shaft of the naginata was a simple motto. Kome Hyappyo. Literally, one hundred bags of rice, but the phrase recalled a famed statement by the samurai Kobayashi Torasaburo, warning that pain must be endured in the present for the sake of a better tomorrow. According to Masoko’s mother, when she had secretly given her wayward daughter the weapon, Torasaburo was one of their ancestors.
Masoko didn’t know if that was true or not, but given her present circumstances it certainly lent credence to the existence – and sense of humor – of God.
Beside the display case was a small, simple wooden desk. Nothing Masoko actually worked on was permitted in civilian quarters, even in so rigorously protected a neighborhood of Jerusalem as this, and there was all too little that didn’t fit into that category. A scale model of the CSS Hunley, a ship far too advanced for its time. A vase of roses that had died long ago of neglect. And one photograph resting in its frame.
It was a teenage Japanese girl on a soccer field, spattered by rain and mud as she blocked a goal in the final seconds of that match in the youth league tournament’s final seconds, ensuring victory for her team. The girl was soaked to the bone, covered in mud, and blocking a fast-moving soccer ball with her gut, yet she was clearly having the time of her life.
Masoko wondered where that girl had gone. That girl, so full of life and joy. She wondered if the girl would recognize the stranger staring at the photograph now. The stranger who had made the choice to betray everything she knew in favor of what she believed, a decision with a price she was only now beginning to understand.
It had been only two years since Masoko accepted that old man’s offer in Tokyo, leaving the Empire of the Rising Sun with a satchel full of classified documents and joining a strange group of warriors in the desert. Only two years, and between proven ability, a fiery attitude, and a bullheaded determination to get her way, Masoko held the title of Master Shipwright. But that meteoric ascent had cost her. Deirdre Winters had been a shocking, wholly unexpected joy in Masoko’s life… and they saw each other perhaps twice a month. The Order was intent on using her. Or using her up. Perhaps both, as the Order required.
And, Masoko knew quietly, there was no alternative. People like her – people aware of the Order’s mission, activities, and technology – were rare. Most of them could be charitably described as eccentric. All of them, from Saint Veritan the Thunderer who could never fully conceal the melancholy behind his eyes to the profoundly gifted yet desperately lonely Lady Maria, had suffered for it. In the name of a higher power, whatever dreams they might have had were deferred. Any chance for a normal life, denied. None of them had anywhere else to go.
Masoko thought about that as she slumped onto her bed. Did the Order seek out such lost souls because they had nowhere else to go… or did such creatures seek out the Order because they had no place left? Now, they had all seen too much. They knew too much. Not just about the Order, but about the world and perhaps about themselves. How could any of them go back to their homelands and pretend that everything was alright? There were Allies in Jerusalem, and Soviets. There were former employees of the Mediterranean Syndicate, a few rogue Imperials like Masoko, and at least one disillusioned American rebel. There were even a handful of Chinese men and women, survivors from the bombs and even a couple of renegade clones. All of them came to the desert in search of something.
There were no crusaders in Palestine. There were no knights. No avenging angels or holy warriors.
There were pilgrims.