Look, as The One is my witness, I only missed the trap because my brother distracted me. Which was a good thing, else I might have figured out the death-shade too late. But a dive into Hell was not in my plans for the day.
I’d just ridden into that armpit of a village and turned my horse toward the only inn. It was set back behind head-high adobe walls that pretended to keep the road dust at bay. These were cut by a broad open gate with blessings carved on each post – exactly what I’d been seeking.
Terrell, Prince of Silbar by Imperial appointment and birth-right from our mother, my liege-lord by my own choice, and secretly my twin brother, had been haranguing me for the last hour. Yeah, all the way from his palace back home in Aretzo, his voice inside my head. I bet he wishes he could talk to the rest of his knights the same way, but as far as I know we’re the only two who can share our thoughts and sensations mind-to-mind in all of Silbar – maybe in all of the Empire, or the whole world. Might be it comes from sharing our mother’s womb before we met the cruel world outside; or maybe it’s the old family curse. Terrell was trying to convince me to let my Shadow out to hunt for a mysterious mountainous Darkness that he’d seen in a vision.
*Not a chance in the Nine Rings of Hell,* I told him silently. Seraphs and demons, wasn’t it enough that I’d ridden nine hundred miles across our conquered country at his Royal Request? A month’s travel from the capital to this arse end of nowhere, a place so spattered with dirt and despair that it made me homesick for the cheer of Aretzo’s slums.
*Kirin, you can command Shadows! That’s a Talent like none known to any Mage or Priestess in all the histories of Silbar,* he complained, shifting on a silken cushion while my own ass ached from saddle-sores. I smelled cinnamon and incense – he was in the Royal Chapel. He often went there to talk to me, sending the servants away to protect our secret. *Nobody in the whole Empire!* he continued. *Why won’t you use it more freely?*
Some days I could just strangle him. *Because it’s a Talent straight out of Hell. Because it scares the living piss out of me. Because I don’t want the Temple to burn me for a demon. I’m probably more than half damned just for carrying a Shadow around inside me!*
As always, I didn’t tell him the worst bit. I wondered again why I’d ever agreed to let him knight me. I’d been happier not knowing my real ancestry, being a simple acrobat in the DiUmbra Troupe in Aretzo. If I’d never learned the truth, my wife might still live. I might still be . . . many things.
Terrell clenched his manicured fingers on the altar rail; I felt teak under my own hands instead of leather reins. Distracted by the scent and touch of a room nine hundred miles away, I barely noticed the metal spires flanking the inn’s gate. My horse started to plod through the opening.
*You are not damned!* He denied. *Not half, not the slightest bit! You are my –* he paused, peeking through my eyes; his voice changed as he spoke. *Wait, Kirin, aren’t those –*
And then spells hit me like spears.
I jerked on the reins, so shocked I nearly fell out of the saddle. Confused, my horse stopped half across the entry and left me forked between the wards.
Faster than lightning my Shadow ravened up from my belly. It swept Terrell aside like a leaf in a monsoon and the ghost chapel with him. The Shadow grabbed my eyes, I barely stopped it there. All my inside shields leapt up to blunt the pain and then turn the barbed spells aside – by The One! It lasted only a breath, or maybe a long slice of forever. Even as my ears rang and my vision blurred, I pinned my Shadow before it could escape.
Then the spell-shock drained out of me. I panted like a new kid his first time on the trapeze. I barely managed to not fall off my horse, and stared at what I damned well should have seen earlier.
Iron Ward poles had been built into the corners of the inn. Two more spires flanking the wood gate-posts were made of The-One-bless-it bronze, and damn finely crafted too. They weren’t just painted, but engraved with dozens of runes. It was solid work, strong, fierce, and triply recast. The awakened magic sheeted around me, flaring blue fire to my gifted sight.
I shook off the spell and fought the grip of my Shadow. Slowly I drove it back down into my belly, until it grudgingly submitted.
Free of its grasp, I heard my brother’s distant calling.
*I’m here,* I answered thickly.
*Kirin! Thank The One! What happened?*
*Some triple-damned piece of mage work just bit me.*
*Are you hurt?*
*Only my pride.*
*Please, let me see.*
I let him into my eyes again, and he peered hard at the gate wards, using my unique senses. It itched.
*That’s amazing,*He finally said. *On the surface it looks just like an ordinary guardian spell.*
*Balls!* I snapped back, in no mood for manners. *I’ve been sneaking through guard spells since I was seven. This one’s different.*
*Because it’s focused like none I’ve ever heard of before.*
In my see-how-patient-I-am-with-you voice I asked, *And how’s that?*
*I don’t know, I just told you I’d never heard of this before.*
*You are sooooooo helpful,*I growled.
I glared at the gate wards, thinking furiously while he babbled on in the back of my head. Any bandit would have to be a triple-damned fool to assault this place, or even dare enter it without invitation. Sheer strength could beat down wards such as the carvings advertised these to be; the hubris of a great warrior or the might of a powerful mage. But no simple cutpurse or common thief would cross this threshold unremarked. And that peculiar focus …
Hubris? Subtlety? Peculiar focus? I was thinking with his mind again. I wanted to spit. I shook it off, but then the real wonder of the thing came to me.
*This must’ve cost a fortune!*
*At least six hundred gold royals,*he agreed. *One could probably buy the whole inn for that.*
*And the innkeeper’s wife and daughter, too.*
He ignored that, though I felt the flicker of his frown. *What could the owners of this place possibly fear, to spend so much?*
The spell furled itself without alarm, quiet again – I’d passed its test. I put a hand to one gate-post with all the caution that I should have shown earlier. Deliberately, I lifted a bit of the Skin of the World in the way that I can, and looked inside the spell. The cold bronze chilled me even as a hot fire of Power spiraled about the metal like a hawk ready to tear out my liver, and a thousand eyes peered all ways at once. But behind them all, despair screamed.
*What in the Nine Hells is that?*
Terrell caught part of the magesight from me. *I was right. It’s some of the best Guardian magic, easily sufficient to repel any brigands Silbar has ever seen.*
*Salim take it,* I cursed the spell. It had just probed me, casually, the same way it would any who passed this gate. Only my unique Talent made it feel like torture. Most folk with a Talent would have felt a bit of prickling on their scalp, while the un-Talented felt nothing at all. But I can feel any spell ever made, no matter how subtle, and guard against it too – when I pay attention. After two decades of life you’d think I’d remember to do that.
My Shadow gaped greedily at the power and surged into my fingers, trying to suck the spell dry. I forbade it and snatched my hand away.
Then the piece of moldy bread that I use for a brain realized that I’d felt something else. Gingerly, I fingered the dry wood of the gate-post next to the metal shaft, keeping tight grip on the hungry Shadow within me.
*There’s a deep nick here, about the height of a man’s heart if he rode on a horse. An arrow hit here once, then was pried out. An arrow shot from inside this inn.*
Terrell paused for a long moment, and then quietly said, *Maybe you should find some other place to stay tonight.*
*But this is the place you Saw in your cursed vision.* Cuttingly I reminded him: *The place you sent me to find! I’ll be damned if I turn away from it now.*
I glared at those faded whitewashed walls. Plain, solid, everything you’d expect of a poor country inn in a poor country town. With a fortune in guardian spells on the front gate.
My nose got my attention before either of us thought another word. I smelled flowers and saw a flowing spring that burbled in a waist-high stone basin, round as a wheel. Half the basin was cupped by a fenced and trellised garden, the other half jutted into the courtyard. Cool shivering water overflowed the basin and passed through a horse trough, then spilled into a gutter that ran between cobbles. Clay pipes left the basin towards the inn itself. I know how plumbing works - some of that wonderful clean water had to go inside.
*Look! There might be a bath.*
*Now don’t get distracted. Something’s very wrong with this place.*
*I don’t care. This has got to be tied to what you sent me to find. It’s the only inn in this village and I haven’t had a decent bath in a week. Right now I’d fight the hordes of Hell bare-handed for a damp sponge. You sent me, I’m here – so I’m going in.*
I urged my horse inside, dismounted and rolled my pack onto my shoulder. I noticed a fancy carriage parked in the stable and a dozen horses – I wouldn’t be the only guest. A boy came out of the stable and caught the reins that I tossed to him.
*Kirin, are you sure about this?*
I can be stubborn too; it’s a family trait. Terrell sighed and shut up, just watching.
“Innkeeper!” I called as I shoved open a woven-stick gate. Before me spread a stone-flagged garden grown lush on the water. Someone sat in the shadows under a grape arbor, but not the innkeeper, for he bustled out through the door. Thin, stooped, nervous, he wore his gray hair tied back in a working man’s knot; a patched apron covered most of his worn trews and threadbare shirt. Though he was clean and neat, which told me encouraging things about the kind of place he probably ran, he also looked defeated. I’d seen thousands of Silbaris like him on this journey, especially here in the north, but he took the accolade for sheer sadness. Maybe it was the sagging jowls.
“Do you have a bath here?” I asked, heedless of my upbringing.
*What a deft start to a negotiation,* Terrell whispered drily.
*I’m spending your money, so stop distracting me.*
I looked as filthy as I felt; the innkeeper peered at me and hesitated. Taking in my skin, too pale despite the dust. My ears, too pointed for a native Silbari yet not pointed enough to be full-blooded Imperial. My Aretzo accent, that practically shouted ‘city boy!’ There’s no way to disguise what I am for long. A half-blood from the place the country folk with mud between their toes like to call our ‘decadent capital, ayuh’, riding alone on the Storm Pass Road toward the Gwythlo Empire beyond. No followers meant no money – he couldn’t know how wrong that was. His first temptation, sure as camels spit, was to turn me out cold.
Then his eyes caught that silver-and-purple Hand on my shoulder, nested in the mandorla where two silver circles overlapped, and all his calculations changed. The Prince’s patronage! Or had I stolen it? To pass his wards I need only intend no harm to those within, I might be the most pale-hearted traitor to Silbar in all other ways. I tapped my fingers suggestively on the hilt of my long knife so my amethyst knight’s-ring would glitter. I was barely taller than him but I carried less than half his years, ten times his rank, and a lot more sharp steel. Calculation and caution warred briefly in his face, then made a truce as he bowed deeply.
*I bet he’s a lousy card player,*I sneered.
*Or perhaps he’s more subtle than you guess.*
“Yes, O Hand of the King, divine blessings be upon him and you,” the man piously intoned, piling it on with a shovel. “Heaven smiles upon you today, for a bath we have, such a bath as a worthy young gentleman like yourself might rightly disdain as scarcely fit for washing swine –”
“Fine, fine,” I interrupted. “I need a room for the night, and I want it to myself.”
The innkeeper pulled a long face, probably the better to hide his glee as he calculated the size of his fee.
“Alas, O Hand, we only have beds in the men’s common bunk-room tonight,” he began, ready to drive up the price by claiming scarcity. “All four of my private rooms are occupied by a notable priestess and her acolytes. I am tragically unable to provide your exalted self with the privacy that a man of your rank deserves.”
“The small room,” said a voice. The innkeeper startled, lost the thread of his spiel. The man under the grape arbor had risen from his bench while we talked. Now he stepped forward and repeated himself. “Give him the small room. The one above the kitchen.”
I took a long look at him.
*Soldier,* Terrell said. Yeah, that erect bearing and commanding voice fit the part.
*Imperial soldier,* I answered as he came out into the light and I saw his pale, sun-reddened skin. A Gwythlo for sure.
*Retired Imperial soldier,*Terrell added.
I silently agreed as I spied the gray in the man’s thin yellow hair, his age-splotched and wrinkled skin, and the honor braid pinned to his shabby tunic.
The innkeeper turned to stare at the old soldier, I thought in astonishment. His jowls flapped as he gobbled “But – but –”
The soldier made a chopping gesture. “It’s the right one,” he said, too urgently to be the casual suggestion of an employee or a nosy hanger-on. “Give it to him at half price. It’s the right one,” he repeated, staring at me. He had sharp blue eyes, still clear and unclouded as the summer sky, though the skin around them was age-mottled and lined a hundred-fold.
The innkeeper stared at the soldier again, then at me, and I found myself being bored through by four narrow eyes. It put my back up.
*I don’t like this,* Terrell grumbled. *You should stay someplace else; there’s something wrong here.*
*Don’t distract me,* I answered mulishly. “The price for a private room?” Maybe I could salvage my, ah, clumsy start. “And meals, laundry, and a bath –”
*Don’t forget the horse.*
“– and care for my horse?”
The innkeeper named a number half the amount of the one I expected. I was so surprised I didn’t even bargain him down, but merely said “Done. I’ll bathe before supper.” Terrell choked in the background but kept silence.
The innkeeper took my money, flicked his eyes at the soldier, and scuttled inside without another word.
“I’ll show you the room, Sir Hand,” the Imperial said. He led the way without looking to see if I’d follow. I hesitated, shrugged, and did.
I felt Terrell staring avidly through my eyes as I looked around. The interior walls were plastered, faded and cracked but clean, and the flagged floors had been worn down by a few centuries’ worth of passing feet. I grew up in Aretzo’s Old City in those long years before I found out who I really am, and knew the like. The stairs were stone and I went up silently, noting that the soldier puffed a bit at the top; his age showed in more than his hair. But the bastard’s back was regimental stiff and he marched rather than walked, no matter the cost in pain. A thirty-year man at least.
*Forty more likely, Kirin. He’s old.*
The hallway at top was narrow but still wide enough for two to pass, if they trusted one another and minded the candle sconces. I followed him past the two common sleeping rooms with the usual men and women marks on the doors, around a corner and past four more doors. The walls became shabbier and the sconces disappeared, we must be in the family’s own wing of the building. He stopped at a door and, after a brief struggle with the wooden latch, opened it. I stopped in the doorway, casually holding my pack between us, and looked inside. My twin was appalled.
*Room? That’s a closet! My pages sleep in bigger rooms!*
*Will you please shut up? I can’t afford to miss anything.*
Yeah, it was a small room, shallow and narrow as any tenement cubby back home, but it had a large window that looked over the courtyard. I went to that window first and opened the shutters. The latch stuck, then it gave and the shutters creaked open. Straight across was the gate, below lay the cobbled yard, left the stables and right the garden. The drop was on the long side but I’d made worse day after day when I’d been an acrobat, without a bruise or sprain to show for it. I stepped aside to let the fading sunlight pour in and eyed the room itself.
To my left a narrow bed with head-and-footboards nearly as tall as me took up a third of the wood plank floor. A rickety table and a three-legged stool completed the furnishings, all coated with years of dust and cobwebs. The walls were plain whitewash save for a triangular board hung above the bed; a painting.
That was the kind of crude work that children make in Temple school when they’re learning the Aspects by which we Silbaris know The One God. The top overflowed with the many-armed swirl that’s the closest picture we ever make of our God’s united self. In the middle the four Great Seraphs – Umana Mother-Healer and Haroun the Father-Defender on the virtuous side, Salim the Tormentor and Desrey the Temptress on the sinister. Below those crowded at least a dozen of the Lesser Seraphs, the Gray Judge in the middle holding her scales, the rest obscured by cobwebs. Soot speckled the wall around it in a wide arc, but there was none on the painting.
“Been long unused. Why?” I asked him.
“Business’s been a mite slow,” allowed the soldier. He looked around like a man struck anew by an old memory that shamed him.
Slow? That sure didn’t match with being so crowded there weren’t any other rooms empty. I said nothing and just balanced on the balls of my feet, watching him. Terrell lurked silent inside my head though I could tell he was bubbling with questions.
The gray soldier dodged my gaze and fingered the doorframe, which made his loose sleeve fall to his elbow. I noticed odd scars on his forearm and old calluses on his thumb and first two fingers. The thrice-damned Imperial archers use big bows and the three-fingered draw; they all have calluses in those same places.
“I’ll make sure the maid dusts it while you’re in the bath,” he said. “And turns out the bed linen.”
Years without use meant all the bed-vermin would probably have died. Of course, my Shadow could clear the small life from any room if I wanted it to. Meanwhile the window let in that breeze I’d hoped for.
“That’ll do.” I kicked off my spurs, toed the stool aside and dropped my pack under the table, leaned my sword and long knife against the wall and fished out a clean tunic and a pair of hose. “Warn her not to touch my pack, I’ll lay out my own things later. Just show me that bath.”
The soldier silently led me down the front stairs and then down another flight, into an actual cavern carved from the living stone. Steam rose from a spigot that gushed noisily into a huge stone trough. The innkeeper’s wife was laying out a pair of threadbare towels and a crock of soap. She gave me an unfathomable look, then left without a word. I glanced at the old soldier as I hung my clean clothes on a peg. If he offered to scrub my back I was going to offer him a mouthful of knuckles. But he just showed me how the inside latch worked and then slid out to find the maid.
I stripped and set my dusty clothes outside the door for the laundry, then latched it and lowered myself into blessedly warm water.
*Say, that feels good!* Terrell exclaimed.
I was surprised. *Hunh? You bathe every day!*
*But you don’t, and I notice. Notice how you feel, I mean.*
I didn’t care to be reminded of that! The mind-speaking we share could be more intimate than pillowing – even after almost three years, his mind just being there inside mine could make me squirm.
I cleaned a stone weight of dirt off me. There was a plugged drain to let the water out, so I selfishly drained the dirty water and refilled the tub. Their kitchen boiler had to be huge, or someone was a fireworker, I had no shortage of hot water. For a while I just soaked, letting my aching muscles relax slowly as my brother’s mind roved.
*What is that old soldier’s position here? He moves about the place as if he knows it very well. Too obvious to be some kind of spy, his pale northern skin stands out.*
*Even more than mine,* I muttered. Terrell grimaced at the point, and then babbled on.
*A retiree, long-time resident?*
*Then why retire to this hole, of all places?*
*Is he perhaps a part owner, perhaps married to a daughter?*
*He sure didn’t show the humility you’d expect in a son-in-law, Gwythlo or not. And what was that gas about ‘half price’? It should’ve been code for ‘fleece him’ - but the price really was low.*
*I defer to your superior experience on that point.* He paused, said, *My pages have lost their patience, they want me to start behaving like the Prince again instead of praying in a dark chapel. The Exchequer’s got an audience with me over supper tonight. I have to go, Kirin.*
*Go earn your keep, brother,* I answered. *We’ll talk more later.*
*You’re very near that tall dark shape that I Saw. The One be with you; and be careful!*
*Aren’t I always?*
He answered that with a snort, and I felt him withdraw from my skull.
Truly alone again, I gazed up at the ceiling. Small shadows flitted over rough stone as the candle flickered. Shadows. My curse and my blessing. I had questions, I wanted answers, and Terrell did too. Well, damn his eyes, without even knowing it I found I had already decided. I was going to try what he wanted. I made a face there in the dimness. This was privacy enough to dare, a little, safely contained inside stone walls and a latched door of heavy wood. After a long tense moment, I relaxed and finally let that eternally damned piece of Darkness, which dwells always inside me, come forth. My very own Shadow.
Night enfolded the bath, entwined my limbs like a robe, and then peeled off to swirl in rags through the air about me. My Shadow is a creature of Darkness as cruel as any cat, yet it worships the Light from which it flees. Terrell’s mere presence can quiet it, for the Light dwells in him like a living lamp. But I, I can walk with the beast. I swore once that I never would again. I clutched the small gold ring that I wear on a chain about my neck, seeking strength in memory.
My Shadow grew a face, leered at me, and dark fingers caressed my chest. I shivered, knowing it too well, loving and hating it. Wordlessly it tugged at me, trying to draw me into Vestibule of Hell, the waiting place before the Dais of Judgment. There the Grey Judge weighs our souls before She sends them on to Heaven or down to the nine Hells. I snarled my wordless refusal, then thought a command at it.
Reveal the Magic to me.
It drew together into a human outline and bowed mockingly, though I could still see the candle-flame through it. Then it surged over me in a rush. The Skin of the World parted and I sank within. The flame dimmed and the bathing room vanished, yet still was there, and I became Darkness. I saw the world as shadows see it.
The cave dissolved like salt in the sea and I reeled through a vastly larger place, with an endless deep below me crisscrossed by the sinews and bones of the World. My Shadow offered me a claw, shapely as a courtesan’s hand and deadly as a sword, but I flinched away. I flailed for balance, nothing beneath my feet, and found the six guard spires bracketing the inn. They flickered like towers of flame defining the outer corners and the gate. I leaped at them, seized one and clung like a bug. Painfully, I told my guts this way was down and that way was up and this was front and that was back, until they finally believed me. When I thought I wouldn’t fall into the void, I craned my neck and looked around, hunting for every source of magic in the inn.
One by one I searched through the rooms. First I sought the priestess the innkeeper had mentioned. She should have been a pure white flame somewhere upstairs, but all I could find were three smaller glows. Acolytes, of fairly high Power, too. Their mistress must be in the village.
I searched further. Elsewhere there were a few other splashes of minor magic. Someone upstairs was an air-worker, strictly household-grade. Someone in the kitchen did have a little fire talent, probably just enough to light lamps and heat water. Their spring was artesian, no lifting spells there, and it’d probably been magically channeled at least a century ago. They were lucky it still worked. I searched the place top to bottom and front to back, and found only pale embers and sparks of old magic within the walls. A few household implements, well-used, their magic near death. Yet the guard spells had been renewed recently. Why not renew the tools too? Money, of course.
I stretched, peering outside the walls until I found the village temple, and there was a flaming torch that could be none other than the visiting priestess. A pure yellow coruscation bright as a small sun – she had to be sixth or seventh-tier in the Temple Hierarchy. I wondered what a woman of that rank was doing traveling this road. Would Terrell know? Yeah, sure. Does the Hierarch tell the Prince what mischief she’s up to? Hah.
I hoped I could stay out of her way – and she out of mine.
I stretched myself, searching all the village and surroundings as far as I could reach. I found nothing more than what I expected; shepherds with beast-talents, a few healers, and a handful of element-workers. For the rest, only household tools and a fading suit of armor that hadn’t been renewed since the Conquest. This village and inn were every bit as poor as they looked, except for that staggering guard spell.
I caught at the Skin of the World, wriggled through it, and fell back into my body.
To find my Shadow embracing me in a human form with rippling brown hair and tender loving eyes. A form I knew well, a woman I hungered for to the edge of madness. The love I couldn’t ever touch again in life. Couldn’t bear to even see again, when I knew she was food for worms three long years ago.
“Maia.” Her name escaped my lips, and the Shadow-shape smiled sweetly, cruelly, and kissed me.
No! You’re NOT her!
I arched in its grip, trying to push the false thing away and fold it against me at the same time. Unreal hands roved over me in remembered ways, so agonizingly familiar and yet utterly untrue. I bit my tongue and found in pain the strength to refuse it. Even then I was clumsy-gentle, unable to harm even this pretense of her.
Go, liar, I demanded. You’ll never be her.
It finally withdrew. The last lingering tendril of darkness ran down my chest like a finger, circled her ring, and then vanished into me even as I gasped in a breath to swear at it.
I splashed cooling bath water on my sweaty face and shuddered, tried to master my body. I will not be a slave to this damned deceit, I told myself. She is dead, gone, I’ll never hold her again. And thought it over and over, clutching my only memento of her, until finally my traitor loins yielded and I could collapse weakly against the stone rim. Then tears took me and for a moment I wallowed in grief for what I had lost; what had been taken from me. I silently cursed every mischance and error that had left me alone. I cursed till words ran dry and the wound in my heart scabbed over again and left me quiet and empty.
Not quite empty.
There was that little warm glow, down there at the bottom of my heart, the link to Terrell that had been forged in our mother’s womb, and, once awakened, left me never quite alone again. Wearily, I looked inward at that banked fire. It waited patiently. His thoughts had been dealing with Exchequers and policies and the ancient machinery of rulership over Silbar, the Gwythlo Empire’s richest province. He couldn’t See me once I let my Shadow out, couldn’t hear me, didn’t know what happened to me in these times.
I would never tell him.
There was still work to do. I rested my chin on one fist and thought hard.
They had much less household magic here than usual for an inn, even a poor one. All the money was going into those guard spells, none into spell-lifted water or mage lamps or any of a hundred other modern conveniences. What did they fear? And why?
On my second try I managed to get out of the tub and drained it. I forced myself through one of my acrobat’s stretching routines to banish the lingering effect of my Shadow, then dried and dressed. By the time I belted my money pouch back on I was breathing normally, and I even went back up both flights of stairs two at a time. Through a small window at the very top step I saw a blood-red sliver of the Father-sun wink out between the distant mountains. Stars began to crowd the night sky.
The door to my room was open and someone moved within. I stepped silently inside.
An old woman had just finished making up the bed. The dust had been banished and some of the soot with it. The roof was free of cobwebs and that odd arc still splashed the wall - but the painting had been carefully cleaned. A fresh earthenware pitcher and bowl sat on the washed table and a fat nightcandle burned in a shallow cup.
The woman turned as I came in. Her back hunched and her hands were wizened claws, but her small spark of magic glowed proudly, unbowed. I could guess who the Inn’s air-worker was. She mumbled ‘dinner soon’ and scuttled out. I latched the door behind her.
My pack hadn’t been touched. I lifted it onto the bed, sat next to it and rummaged within. My fingers found the small bundle of oiled cloth, slipped it out and unfolded it to reveal the little wood box, opened that and extracted a smaller wrapping of doeskin. Inside nestled the cards that Seer Jina had given me. They’d been made of the finest stiff paperboard and inked with thousands of tiny brushstrokes. Ensorcelled by means I didn’t understand against dirt, damp, and thievery, they practically cried out to be used. I thought they also had goals of their own. I might have feared that, but my Shadow quailed from them; anything it feared, I was inclined to trust. I fingered their edges, already rich with memories, then shuffled them and turned one over.
Fear and the Maiden. The maiden stared out through a border painted like a window, eyes beseeching, hands spread and mouth wide in a scream.
Not a good card.
I shuffled it back into the deck, was about to draw another when a breath of chill air made me look up.
A girl stood at the foot of my bed. She had soft doe eyes, infinitely sad, in a face framed by a cascade of long brown hair. She wore an apron over homespun and her work-reddened hands clutched each other, but her skin was polished walnut, pure Silbari. I knew without looking that the door was shut and latched. I caught my breath as she turned away, half-stepped towards the window - and vanished.
I drowned the room in Shadow, but she wasn’t there. Hastily I withdrew it, forcing the darkness back within me, and jumped to my feet.
It was two full steps to the window, there’d been no time for her to reach it. There was no way she could have leaped out without me seeing. I bent double to look, but she hadn’t dropped to the floor either. The footboard of the bed went nearly to the floor planks, no one bigger than a child could squeeze under it. Old habits run deep - I grabbed the candle and looked beneath. I found not even a cobweb, the old woman had been thorough. I looked out the window, too. The stable boy was forking hay down from a loft. Both moons rode high among the stars and gilded the empty courtyard. The front gates were open, beyond stretched the dirt track, its emptiness sprawling past the town and into the hills; the paved road vanished to either side.
I turned away from the window. The door was still latched and there was no girl in my room. My eyes fell on the foot of the bed and I noticed something I hadn’t seen earlier.
Stains. I knelt and held the candle close by, taking comfort in it even though I of all people least need light to see. Dark stains on the dark wood of the footboard; more stains puddled on the floor below it. I followed the fan of dark stains up across the wall, arcing around the painting. The wall was spotted in two shades; flat black for soot, and scattered dots and dribbles of a richer black the color of the stains on the bed and floor. The ceiling was similarly spotted, but looking closer I saw that part of it was outright burned. The part almost directly above the foot of the bed. The char did not seem to go very deep, and was shaped like a ragged half-circle, its arc bulging towards the window.
Fire and blood. What had happened here?
A part of me wanted very much to believe I hadn’t really seen her. My Shadow coiled within me, looking for prey to strike. I put the candle back on the table, picked up the cards again and absently shuffled, then drew.
Fear and the Maiden.
I stuffed the cards back into their wrapping, shoved that inside my clean tunic, and quit the room. For some reason, I belted my long knife on, though the place was peaceful as a grave.
At the foot of the steps I crossed paths with the innkeeper. He was carrying an empty tray and looking harried, or maybe worried. I cornered him against the kitchen door, out of sight of the common room, and glowered at him. His smile froze and he held the tray like a shield.
“My room seems to come with an extra tenant,” I said.
A muscle jumped in his left cheek and his eyes twitched; his smile began to slide downwards.
“We pride ourselves on the quality of our service, my lord,” he gulped, then began to babble. “Even though we are but a poor-“
“Who is she?” I cut him off. “No, who wasshe? And how long has she been dead?”
“My daughter, Elaina. Almost twenty years.” He hung his head, avoiding my eyes, which I knew were growing unnaturally black as my Shadow stirred restlessly inside me.
“I’m a Hand of the Prince,” I told him coldly. “Only the truly stupid interfere with my duty.”
I glared at him while he stared at my shoulder. His eyes were fastened to my badge like a drowning man clutches a thrown rope. I didn’t care for that thought.
He spoke to my badge. “Any Silbari may petition the King for pardon. Even though the crime be decades old. I beg, my lord, for your –” He hesitated slightly, then finished with “Your lord’s forgiveness. And your intercession.”
A part of me squirmed inside, and it wasn’t my Shadow. I sighed.
The innkeeper’s lips twitched in a ghost of satisfaction. That sigh told him that he had me, and he didn’t even have to state the Ancient Lesson aloud to hammer his point home. We are less than nothing if we are not the servants of The Light.
“What was your crime?” I grated harshly.
He whispered “Collaboration - with the Empire.”
My own mouth twisted in a fiercer grimace. “You say that to me, a Hand of the Prince? Since the Conquest, Silbar’s an Imperial province and you and I are Imperial citizens as much as any Gwythlo. Whose law is broken?” Frustration made me add “And why do you have that triple-damned guard spell on your gate?”
A clatter of trenchers recalled him to his work. “Ask Cadraul,” he said and fled through the kitchen door.
I didn’t have to ask who “Cadraul” was. I glared at the innocent door for a moment, started to damn the innkeeper to a special fire in the Eighth Hell, then thought of the wards outside. Was their cost a measure of his guilt? Twenty years of that - my anger drained away and I felt cold.
I dragged hard-won calm over my face like a mask, and went into the common room.
It was lamp-lit and furnished with two large trestle tables and assorted stools. The usual icon decorated the far wall, symbol of the One flanked by the Chief Aspects, the two Good Great Seraphs; Mother-healer Umana and Father-defender Haroun. It had the same look as the childish piece upstairs, only more polished, as if the artist had grown up and reached some confidence. But the paint was fading, aged; twenty years aged? The room was open to the trellised garden along most of one side where doors folded back to let the evening cool inside. The temple entourage filled the table nearer to the garden, right in front of me.
The priestess must have returned while I cornered the innkeeper. She was just now seating herself at the head of her table, the usual gauzy yellow veil covering her face between eyes and throat. Her three acolytes and five attendants stood ranged down the sides, then sat in unison after her. I paused and looked at the assemblage, matching faces to the soul-lights I’d seen through my Shadow.
Mistake. She noticed me, casually at first, but above her veil her old eyes were still sharp and they sped to my badge and stared.
Naturally, her entourage did likewise. Two of the acolytes frowned as their eyes flickered over me repeatedly, trying to square my badge with my skin. Racial-purity snobs. I could practically hear the never-to-be-cursed-enough old nursery rhyme in their minds. Pale skin, eyes of jet, pointed ears, Demon’s get.
I came to attention, bowed formally to the priestess, a civil authority acknowledging a religious. I made a good show of it, giving her the full seven nods for her rank. I thought it galled her to return the gesture, but she gave me the nods for my own rank, though as shallowly as possible without being outright rude. Her robed crew was dead silent, staring at me and my badge of purple and silver.
Too late, I realized that there were only five stars sewn on her wimple. Five, not seven. She was traveling in disguise, and I’d just told her and her whole crew that I saw through it.
A riff of laughter rescued me. Six men joked boisterously at the next table. They had been listening to one of their number and not yet noticed me. I gratefully moved towards them.
Three of the men were clearly travelers, a grizzled merchant, a younger man probably his son or nephew, and the last their mercenary guard by his chainmail, helm, and sword. Three others wore homespun and knotted their hair in the rural way, obviously local craftsmen.
The innwife bustled up and bid me sit with the six men. A polished board had already been set for me so that I would face the garden door and the table where the religious sat. I wondered if her husband had spoken to her, or if she had listened from beyond the kitchen door, but her bland eyes betrayed nothing. I sat and allowed my own eyes to briefly sweep past the religious table and out the open doors. Doubled moonlight streamed through the arbor, lighting two smaller tables outside. A lamp flickered there too, and I saw the old soldier sitting in a chair turned towards the room. Cadraul, a Gwythlo name.
Watching the door by which I entered.
I had bare time to make civil greeting to the six men before the old woman who’d cleaned my room took a position beneath the icon. She tapped the bell three times, and everybody stood, proving we were all good Silbaris. Oddly, out in the garden I saw the Gwythlo soldier stand, too. The old woman’s papery voice invoked the protection of the One’s Father-Aspect and the healing of the Mother-Aspect over all present, rattling off the age-old ritual like beads on a string as we responded. When she finished, we sat, and her son and his wife carried in laden trays. He took the religious table and managed to keep his back turned towards me, no mean feat when serving nine people. His wife was as closed and distant as before even when I thanked her.
I ate noodles, spinach with onions, and roast mutton. It must have been the oldest sheep in the valley when it went under the knife, there was gristle all through it. I answered the polite formal dinner wishes of the merchants and craftsmen with equally polite and formal nothings, minded my manners, and downed two mugs of watered wine. A kitten couldn’t have managed to get drunk on it, but I noticed that the merchant threesome were already tipsy. I soon noted the guardsman top off their three mugs from a wineskin, the scent bespoke quality. He pointedly didn’t offer any to half-breed me, though he filled the three peasants’ cups. His employers were too far gone to notice, the elder was busy answering his own questions and well launched on a long soliloquy about some damn thing. The craftsman across the table to my left, a carpenter by the sawdust in his clothes, noticed the snub, and had the grace to look ashamed.
Sometimes I find decency in the strangest places.
“You here for the Visit, Sir Hand?” he asked me in a low voice, looking meaningfully at my badge.
“Visit?” I answered, hoping I didn’t sound as stupid as I felt.
“The Visit.” He jerked his head towards the courtyard, whether at the Priestess or the Gwythlo or the moons beyond I couldn’t tell. “The Dona can end it, we’re all bettin’ on her. She’s gotta, it gets worse every year.”
“Aye,” chimed in the man to my left, who smelled of sheep. “We gotta drive all the flocks indoors for the night, so’s the silly-pates don’ run themselves to death. An’ it scares the dogs so bad we can’t get a lick o’ work outta ‘em for two, sometimes three days after.”
“Who’s visiting?” I asked, owning up to my ignorance.
“You don’t know?” He looked doubtfully at me. “Eight years runnin’ now, so we thought the King’d finally heard an’ sent somebody …”
“Would this Visit be by a dead girl named Elaina, who appears in the little room upstairs, then disappears?” I asked.
The carpenter looked at me with horror. “Elaina too? The One preserve us!” He scrambled to his feet, hissing “Just stay indoors, s’long as you stay indoors it’s all right.” His two companions followed hastily, the three of them bolted for the door and were gone.
The guardsman looked quizzically after them, then deigned to notice me.
“Wot was thet all ‘bout?” He asked in a thick mountain accent, grudgingly nodding to my badge and adding “Sir Hand.”
“Wish I knew,” I said sincerely. “But I think you’d better get your charges up to their beds.”
I nodded to him, then quit the table and walked towards the garden. I had to pass close by the foot of the Priestess’ table to get there. Her eyes were riveted on me, brows frowning above her veil. They followed me as I went out the garden doors. I’d bet half of Silbar my presence wasn’t making her more comfortable.
I’d made two careless moves in one day. I must be slipping. I hoped that what I was about to do wasn’t a third mistake.
The air outside was cleaner, sharp with the scent of herbs and swelling green grapes. I welcomed the breeze after the closeness of the common room. The soldier sat at a small table beneath a hanging oil lamp, still watching me with those shifty eyes. He gripped an empty mug in scarred hands, absently turning it round and round. His thin hair was bleached near-white in the moons-and-lamplight.
I took out my cards and rifled them. His brows lifted a fraction.
“Care for a game, Captain?” I asked him, recognizing the rank-mark on his honor braid.
“What game, Sir Hand?”
“You choose.” I sat down and spread the deck for him to see. Whips, swords, cups and veils, and all the Arcana, painted in colors to rival a sunset. Nothing hidden but their meanings.
He briefly admired the beautiful cards before nodding approval. “For a deck that pretty, the game has to be Vacche. Know it?”
My own brows rose a fraction. Games of chance go with soldiers like fleas with dogs. A game of skill I’d not expected.
“Yes.” I gathered the cards, shuffled and set the deck. He cut, I dealt eight off the top to each of us and set the rest aside.
Vacche is played with a hand of eight, from which you pick the best four for your purposes. Points are scored based on the spread between your four and your opponent’s, but the Arcana alter that balance in many ways and it is possible to take the round with the fewest points, if you play the right trump cards. I had the six and four of cups, three of whips, deuce and eight of veils, no swords, the Queen of Whips, the Ship, and the Desert. A middling-weak hand, but with some promise; and winning the card game was not my goal. I led with the eight of veils, inviting him to squash it, which he did with the eight of cups. I countered with the Desert and he raised with the Pilgrim. I could have taken it with the Queen, but chose to add the three of whips instead, strengthening my hand only slightly. He played the four, o’er matching me slightly, and I responded with the Ship as my final card. He played the Tower and trumped me. I notched a score stick for him with my belt knife while he shuffled the deck.
“That game is best played with more than two,” said a flowing contralto voice. “May I join you?”
It was the Priestess.
I kept my eyes on the soldier’s face and caught the flicker of emotion that sped across it. Could that have been hope? Why?
Cadraul stood slowly and bowed with great ceremony, though from the jerkiness of his movements I guessed his back must have given him hell for it.
“We would be honored,” he husked. His eyes looked hungry but he gave no more away.
“As would I,” I added drily, standing and bowing once.
I slid my chair around the table to make room for her, while putting my back to the trellis and setting the common room at the edge of my sight. Her people had stayed at their table, and were all trying very hard to pretend they weren’t watching us. The merchant was being helped upstairs by his son and his guard. The fountain burbled mindlessly.
“Dona Serena DuVego D’Ahrama, Quintissima”, the priestess courteously began the introductions with herself. She used both the basic honorific attached to every priestess’ name, and the rank her five stars claimed; her eyes were on me as she finished. I wondered if she was daring me to contradict her.
“Sir Kirin DiUmbra,” I went next, using only the two names, one of which isn’t even really mine. Her brown eyes waited and then realized I was not using a middle name. Let her think I’d adopted the mad Imperial fashion that drops a man’s mother from his bloodline, as if she wasn’t important.
“Banner-Captain Cair Osanwic Cadraul, retired,” the soldier completed introductions, parsing it in the Silbari fashion to show that his mother’s family name had been Osanwic. We made a nice pair, with the Gwythlo naming himself Silbari-wise and the Silbari half-blood naming himself in Gwythlo fashion. Under her gauzy veil I saw the ghost of the Dona’s lips curve in an appreciative smile.
We all sat. Since the Dona was on his left hand, Cadraul politely offered the cards to me, and I passed them on to her. She gave me a startled look as she touched them, then an expression of understanding. Of course a seventh-tier priestess would recognize what they were – and how little that was likely to help me. Then she shuffled them expertly and offered the cut to me. Well, I didn’t think she’d have asked to play if she hadn’t already known how. I cut, she dealt, and we all examined our cards. At least two games were about to begin.
The innkeeper brought mugs of wine for the Dona and me. I expected more of the local squeezing, a watered vinegary swill better for pickling than drinking, but was surprised to find it a pleasant Cerrai. The priestess sipped and her eyebrows twitched, she looked briefly askance at the innkeeper. Her earlier drink must not have been this good either. The innkeeper refilled Cadraul’s empty mug and returned to the kitchen without a word.
We each laid out a card face down, then flipped them. I had the highest and so was first. I played the deuce of whips, a trash card if there ever was one, and mused aloud “You were a Banner-Captain in the Imperial Archers, Cadraul?” We all knew it wasn’t a question.
He nodded as the Dona understatedly topped my whips with the three of cups, inviting him to take the first set with practically anything.
“Aye, Hand DiUmbra; the Dragonsfire Brigade.” His eyebrows quirked slightly. “But I was always a bowman before I was a Fire-flinger.” He dropped the Pilgrim in the center of the table, thoroughly squashing both whips and cups and seizing the lead in a mighty grip.
Fire-flinger – a soldier trained to use the sorcerous signal-rocket tubes. That explained the odd scars on his forearms; I remembered Terrell telling me that sparks from the rockets were a hazard in that line of the Imperial service.
I blocked his Pilgrim with the Sea and commented, “A heavy responsibility.”
The Dona asked innocently “Does that mean you’re an Imperial scout?” as she overrode my Sea with the Ship. Her eyes strayed to me as she spoke, and I wondered which of us the question was really aimed at.
Cadraul played the Tower, which when joined with Sea and Ship became the Lighthouse and gave the second run to him as well. He nodded even as he corrected her with “Retired now, Dona. But I was posted here for twelve years. I came to Silbar in the Year of the Snows.”
That was a tactful way to tell us he’d been a soldier here two decades ago, during the Conquest when Gwythlo took Silbar by sword, fire and spell.
I dropped the eight of swords, trying to force a few more Arcana into the open. Cadraul was entitled to ask innocent personal questions of either me or the Dona now, but the bastard simply glanced repeatedly from one of us to the other.
The Dona again understated my card, with the Dagger, one of the weakest of the Arcana - unless she was holding one of the two others that could turn it into a trump. I frowned a little. It’s hard to play to lose when someone else is doing the same. And a challenge to meet two players who grasped the nuances of cards.
“So you came back here to retire,” she commented. “Silbar must have charmed you.”
“Charmed? Oh, I can’t say that,” Cadraul snorted before dropping the seven of cups onto the table. “Dragonsfire spent five years based in this valley, chasing down rebels and brigands through these cursed hills. Five years marching back and forth over the same roads, past the same farmers and shepherds. I spent every day of it wondering when I was gonna get an arrow in my back.” He added “And wondering who was loyal and who was traitor.”
Pilgrim, Lighthouse, and seven cups, his hand remained the strongest, depending on what he played for his fourth card, and what cards the Dona held. I played the six of cups, signifying a valiant but losing hand, as I quietly buried the Hanged Man and Grief of the Father in the discard pile.
“Silbar had never been conquered before,” I stated the obvious. “Many couldn’t accept it, and thought they’d wake from the nightmare if they just fought long enough.”
I shuffled the deck, he cut, and I dealt. The Dona fussed with her cards while Cadraul frowned sadly across the table at me.
“Nightmare? Aye, that’s what they made it, all right. A living, breathing nightmare that didn’t end, day or night. I had half a hundred lads cut up in ambushes, pink-cheeked boys wanting only to serve their Emperor. A good dozen times my squads got treed on some hill and I had to call for help with the rockets. Years after the war ended, Silbari fools were still killing my boys in this valley.” He shook his head wearily. “All a damned waste. Emperor Brion even married your young Queen, even made his own first-born son Osrick, born of a decent Gwythlo marriage, made him swear to let that half-blood brat of theirs have Silbar’s throne. And still every pox-raddled robber in this valley thought he had a damned holy mission to murder any pale skin he saw.” He fumbled out the Ship.
The Dona played the Scales, which could have meant Judgment and likely given her the round if he hadn’t already had the Ship out. Now it just meant Trade and merely put her ahead of me. I laid down the five of veils. Cadraul looked over his cards, considering.
“I’ve no wish to belittle your painful past, Banner-Captain,” she murmured. “But let us not forget what led his father to force that oath on young Prince Osrick. Twins were born to that marriage, but only one lives today. The young Osrick had one of his half-brothers murdered before the babe was a week old. Emperor Osrick is a fratricide, a great sin by even Gwythlo measure. Few indeed are the Silbaris that can bear the shame of serving such a man.” Her eyes flicked to me.
I’ve had enough practice that I didn’t twitch. Keeping a secret is easier if you just ignore the truth whenever it rears up in your path. Besides, he really had meant for me to die, and would be furious to learn I hadn’t.
For a moment Cadraul looked like he’d bitten a lemon. We went silently around the circle a few times more, laying out whips and veils and cups and swords. Then he snorted ruefully and cocked one eyebrow at her.
“Aye, the past holds sin enough to damn us all, Silbari an’ Gwythlo alike,” he said wearily. He played the Soldier and took the hand, then gathered the discards and shuffled. The Dona cut and he dealt, silent for a moment. “But killing my boys from ambush, then slinkin’ away, that’s lower’n a hyena’s belly.” He played the River.
“It’s unusual to hear a Gwythlo speak of sin,” the Dona commented, and set out the Mountain. Maybe she didn’t intend to lose after all.
He smiled sadly. “A dozen years can change a man. I went back to the fields ‘n forests of the north and found they weren’t home anymore. The shamen talk o’ spirits, an’ spill horses’ blood and man’s blood on the sacred stones, but they don’t know nothin’. Blood for blood and gold for blood, and potterin’ over entrails, and old tales of battle and rape, but when a Gwythlo dies he’s still as dead as any slave. If fightin’ and ruttin’s all life holds, what’s it all for?”
“To purify our souls, we Silbaris would say,” I commented, and played the Queen of Veils.
“Purify,” he muttered. “Like a washwoman bleachin’ a tunic?”
“Or a mother cleaning a baby’s loincloth,” rejoined the Dona as she played the King of Swords and cut down my Queen. Well, she would know. No woman makes high rank in the Temple if she hasn’t borne at least one child.
“Washing the shit out.” He nodded a little as he played the five of cups. “Even when it’s nasty. You Silbars are big on emptyin’ yourselves, wit that confessing-thing you do.”
“Secrets have their place, but they can become cancers, too,” she replied, examining her cards while waiting for me. “Confession has rescued many a soul from despair, and put their feet back on the path to heaven.”
This was dangerous territory for me. My secrets could cost many more lives than my own. I played the four of cups and twisted the conversation back where I wanted it with “How did you deal with them, those ambushers?”
“Double patrols; no men out in less’n triples at any time ever.” Cadraul squinted as the Dona added the trey of cups to the play. He put down the Wheel. “Wasn’t enough; too many of my boys still died when they went to squat in a bush, run through from behind by a devil-cursed sneak with a long sword. I had to stop that. So I spread some gold around, leaned on a few, made some threats. It got results.”
I capitulated with the eight of whips and he’d taken the hand again. “Spies,” I said indifferently. “That’s an old game, and not a simple one. You can’t ever be sure that you’re getting truth.”
He nodded ruefully at that. “I wasn’t, and sometimes we got bit anyway. But I cut enough of ‘em down that way to make it easier. The worst one was hardest to crack, that sneak with the long sword. He’d killed nine of my boys and maimed two more; I wanted him bad. Took a long time to find anything on him. When I finally did, damn if he wasn’t orphaned, no family to press, had nothing but his pa’s sword and a grudge against Gwythlos as big as the Mountain. He kept moving, a different place each night. Had fast feet and a faster horse, dodged arrows like a snake. Even found a way to get another horse when we shot his first out from under him. Just kept coming back and stabbing at me and the boys here and there, and by the Gods! He was fast with that sword.” The old soldier shook his head in remembrance. “Never stood to face even one of us, always stab and run and laugh like a bane-shee.”
The innkeeper brought up a fresh bottle.
“So did you finally take him down, or did he stop?” I could guess.
“I found a way to bring him to me.” Cadraul smiled unpleasantly, in mingled triumph and pain. “Got him in a trap of my own. Or thought I did.”
“Ahhh,” said the Dona as she dealt the cards. “You found a traitor.” The innkeeper’s hand twitched as he refilled her mug, he spilled a drop on the table.
“I found a man who’d suffered from the loss of trade, who saw the war dragging on like a carcass three weeks agone and none the better for it.” Cadraul hawked and spit to the side as his own mug was filled.
“This innkeeper,” I said, looking from one to the other. The innkeeper paused in the act of turning away from the table. A cold chill started in my own spine as I examined my cards. The Dona played the seven of cups.
The innkeeper stiffened as if expecting more, but Cadraul was silent as he examined his own hand, then played the King of Whips. A powerful beginning, I could lose to it easily - but it was time to change strategies.
“Only not everyone living here shared his feelings.” I feigned nonchalance as I played the Lovers. The innkeeper whirled as if about to speak, saw my card and shut his mouth, staring.
There was silence as the Dona played the Dagger, trapping my Lovers between pain and treachery. The soldier and the innkeeper stared at the cards for a long moment. With a great effort, Cadraul played a card - the Fire.
And I laid down Fear and the Maiden.
The wine jug shattered on the patio as the innkeeper dropped it. I raised an eyebrow at him, but his gaze went to the warded gate.
“He’s come again,” whimpered the innkeeper. His jaw hung slack, gone into his own private hell.
Barely noticing a sudden scent of cinnamon as my brother touched my mind, I leaped out of my chair and onto the broad rim of the pool. Old reflexes balanced me on its slick stone as I peered into the night. The broken gates gaped and across the road’s thin stone line a dirt track wandered away into the hills. The huddled village walls shrank away from that path even as I saw, far away but growing nearer, the dark shadow of a horseman. The night was still as death, save for the sound of distant hoof beats. Every creature in the village was struck dumb and cowering.
“He comes back,” Cadraul said hoarsely. “Every year, this night, he comes back.”
“For you?” asked the Dona, still seated but pushing back her chair.
“For Elaina,” I said, pointing to the window of my room.
And there she was, limned in two moons’ light. She had soft doe eyes, infinitely sad, in a face framed by a cascade of long brown hair. A gag forced her jaws apart and stopped her speech. A tall black metal tube pressed against her chest, between her breasts, thrusting up from the floor high enough to raise her chin. She’d been roped to it and to the footboard of the bed, pinned cruelly between.
“You motherless swine,” I hissed to Cadraul. “You tied her to your rocket tube!”
He shuddered. “We had to tie her, I knew she’d have warned him if she could. He’d killed nine of my boys, I’d’ve done anything to catch him! She was why he came here, that night. She was telling him all our movements.”
I glared at the innkeeper. “You sacrificed your own daughter for money!?”
“No!” He groaned. “I didn’t know it was her. Not till you,” he shot a venomous look at Cadraul, “came in the dark and tied us all up. I knew the raider was him, but I never knew she loved him. The One forgive me, I didn’t know!”
“You should’ve known,” Cadraul snapped at him. “You should’ve! Left me to straighten her out, you blubberin’ on the floor! She wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t tell, though I tied her hard to the cold metal and left her to think on it while we waited for him. It was my only chance to end it!”
“End it?” I snapped. “By blowing her head off with a rocket?!”
“I meant her to be scared, not killed! I thought the charge was empty! But Moggle had reloaded it in case we got trapped again. Her hands were tied, I didn’t think she could reach the striker nohow, and – and –.”
*The rocket would’ve been right under her chin.* My brother’s mind sent me a searing image of the deadly device.
“And so she found a way to warn him after all,” said the Dona, wide-eyed with horror.
“I was at the window, with just an eye ‘round the frame.” Cadraul shook as he relived the moment. “My back was to her, I had my bow up and arrow already nocked. He rode straight through the gate, never stopped, came right at me. I would’ve had a perfect shot. But she got a hand free enough to reach the sparker. Just as I stepped square into the window and drew back to shoot, she set off the rocket.”
“Blasting you half-out the window, and herself into a grave,” I said. “Your arrow missed and hit the gatepost, he bolted and – then what?” The riding shadow was much closer now, hoof beats rhythmic as the Hammer of Hell.
“He got away, but then he found out,” the old archer gasped. “Somebody told him. We couldn’t keep it secret, the Inn nearly took fire and blood everywhere, her family crying and screaming. He came back the next morning, riding flat out to kill us, no thought for anything else. Two of my boys nicked him before I brought him down. It took four arrows to kill him, he was mad with rage. He died right there,” and his shaking hand pointed scant yards inside the gate.
“Except he didn’t, not all of him,” I said flatly. “The rage keeps coming back.”
The Dona looked from the innkeeper to the soldier and back. “Does he seek the killer or the traitor?” she asked, hard as judgment.
*He wants an ending,*whispered my brother.
*By all the Seraphs - do I have to give it to him?*
I looked at the Dona. She was studying the approaching shade.
“This is what you came here for, isn’t it?” I demanded.
“Yes,” she admitted absently. “If I can, I am sent to help. If I can.” Her eyes were wide and a blue nimbus surrounded her as she used her Sight. The Power in it was a living thing of beauty. Moments passed as the hoof beats came closer.
“If I can.” She sounded doubtful.
“You’re a priestess,” I said desperately. “Life and death are your domain. Can’t you banish it?”
“If it were just a ghost, yes,” she snapped at me. “Hear those hoof beats? It has form and matter. This is something more than a simple haunting. Look at it, how it drinks the moons’ light. Rage was its sire, no doubt of that, but despair was its mother. Despair born of a loss so great that death became preferable to life. Despair born of the Conquest. Despair felt by every Silbari, in those hours when we feared the One had deserted us. And it’s fed on that for twenty years, probably before he was even dead.” She shuddered and suddenly looked very small. “My power grows from the Light, but I need hope to fight that thing. More hope than I’ve got or have ever had.” She whispered “Perhaps more hope than Silbar has left.”
I saw then her own doubt, her own fear that what she served wasn’t strong enough to bear her hopes. I grated at her, “You’re quitting before the fight’s begun.”
She looked stung and snapped back “Never! I did not say I would flee this struggle, only that I cannot win it. But the reports all agree. It stays on the road out of the inn. I can shield those within until it leaves again. It only comes once a year.”
*To grow stronger the next year,*Terrell said to me. *It must have started with the rebel, but now it feeds on Silbar, on our people’s fear and bewilderment, and weakens the very hope we need to fight it. In time it cannot fail to overwhelm us all. How long dare we wait?*
I swallowed hard. The shade approached the village, I saw the walls shrink beneath it. It was already a towering horror of Darkness reaching for the stars. No wonder Terrell mistook it for a mountain. If he mistook it...
*Did you know what it really was?* I asked hoarsely. *Did you send me without telling me the truth?*
*No! You know my mind like your own, I cannot lie to you. What a joy and a strength that is to me! To have one being in my life to whom I cannot help but be true. But we must be worthy of our power, we were given it for a purpose. I sent you out into the realm because I feared our people’s despair. I thought it laired in the forts on our border, the armies of the north. But they are but the smaller part of our danger. You’ve found the greater part that I couldn’t yet see. This is our true enemy, not the Gwythlo legions. Please, Kirin. Help.*
I swallowed hard. “I wish I could curse you for this. All right then, and damn the odds.”
The Dona was looking at me strangely. I realized too late that I’d spoken aloud.
“Are you mad?” She demanded. “Why curse me for telling you the truth? I cannot fight this thing!” She collapsed back in her chair, wiping her sweating brow.
“Yes you can, or at least, you can help me fight it,” I answered her unsteadily, walking along the rim of the pool. “I need light, lots of it, and you’re seventh-tier, with three acolytes. Focus the Moons.”
“Focus – only the Inner Sisters know of that spell! Who are you!?”
“Prince Terrell’s mother knew, and he knows, and I know. That’s enough, we haven’t got time for explanations.” I jumped off the far rim of the pool, into the courtyard.
“Light alone isn’t enough!” she said urgently. “Despair turns from light, but rage attacks it! That thing will be drawn all the more!”
“Let me worry about that. Just feed me Light!” I drew my long knife and added, “It will get very dark, but don’t stop, whatever you do. Just don’t stop.”
She snapped a very un-priestess-like swear word at me, then called to her followers.
“Wait, Knight! I can help!” Cadraul called, moving in the garden, but I had no time for him.
The night was loud with hoof beats and the cobbles trembled under me. He had weight enough to shake the very World beneath his hooves. Hell lay below that Skin – and I could breach it.
I pelted across the courtyard to stand beneath Elaina’s window and face the gate. I looked over my shoulder and saw her sad eyes gazing down at me above the deadly barrel of the rocket-tube.
“You have to help me too,” I told her. “You have to trust me. Please.”
The horseman thundered towards me, hugely tall and blotting out the stars. He rose above the gate, dwarfing the crystal spears. The guardian spell leaped forth to block him. He shattered it with a single sword-stroke – his strength had grown since last year. I ate the spell’s remnants, sucked the four other wards dry as well, feeding my Shadow, but it wasn’t enough. The Dona’s voice rose in song, eight others with her, and suddenly both Moons flared like the Suns. I drank that too, like swallowing a river, and my Shadow swelled within me so the very cobbles twisted under my feet. Our World could not bear so much Power in one place for long.
The horseman stamped within the undefended gate, and now I could see him plain. He had two faces; a tortured human one underlain by a hating and inhuman one, like some strange layered mirror. Demon eyes glared at me through the man’s mad ones, fixed on me with icy hate. Hell’s own spawn, it was not impressed by me. The man/demon reared his beast and raised his sword. Hooves and black steel came down to smash me.
I leaped up to Elaina’s windowsill even as I freed my Shadow. Cobbles turned clear as glass beneath us as my Shadow engulfed the horseman and half the courtyard. That dark wave stripped Skin from the World to reveal the Sinew and Bone beneath. The land groaned, trembling under its power. Rider and horse fought for balance as my Shadow seized them like a leech.
I flipped myself through the window into the little room, and dived for the bed as walls and floor turned to glass too – stone and wood were no barrier to a Shadow grown so strong. I raised my knife as I lunged. Elaina’s finger was already moving on the sparker, convulsively tearing it downwards in her last desperate act of mingled despair and hope. Sparks flew, a fuse caught and flared to murderous life.
I cut the cords that bound her.
She fell away from the deadly device. I drank its magic as the rocket burst forth and missed us both. I dropped my knife to grab her before she was lost too. My free hand reached for the Skin of the World to pull us to safety. The frail shreds of it tore beneath the weight of my gorged Shadow –
And the transparent floor collapsed beneath us as the World gave way, shattering courtyard and room alike. I screamed as the weight of Elaina’s grief dragged me over the lip of the opening pit, but I couldn’t let her go.
Then we both fell headlong as my Shadow ruptured the World. Not just the Skin, no, but the very Muscle and Bone as well, falling towards the Heart of all that is.
I clutched Elaina against me, her long brown hair thrashing in the wind made by the passage of uncountable souls, and looked over my shoulder. My Shadow followed me down in whipping black banners all about us as the hole closed above it. The horseman came on towards me, shrunk back to man-size as my Shadow leeched his Power away but galloping impossibly on nothing as we all fell into the World. Galloping, and gaining. Close behind him fell Cadraul. He had followed me into the courtyard and when my engorged Shadow split the stones, he was caught with his nemesis.
The horseman raised his sword to hew at me, and Cadraul grabbed the hand. Clinging to gauntleted knuckles, he locked legs around the horseman’s waist and twisted the stroke awry. I didn’t think the old soldier still had it in him.
Elaina gasped against my chest, choking on Life where she had expected Death. Maybe there was still a chance. I turned to her, my face scant inches from hers, and spoke while the staccato hoof beats of rage pounded eerily around us.
“You must call him. Save him.”
“C-call him? I tried to save him, to warn him about the soldiers!”
“Yes, and he loved you so much for it that he came back, again and again, for you. But now you must do more if you truly want to save him.”
“From the Imperials?” She stared at my face, my golden brown skin, black hair, pointed ears. Her own dark skin grew flushed with suspicion and she frowned narrowly. “Or from you? Who are you!”
“Does it matter? Silbar and Gwythlo, hope and despair. I chose hope. So can you. There’s very little time left, we’re all falling into death, but if you try, you can still save both your own soul and his. Do you want to?”
She stared at me unbelieving for a long moment while we fell through eons and the end and beginning rushed towards us. Studying my face, my ugly, half-breed face. And my purple and silver badge of loyalty. Then seeing the guts of the World hurtling by all around us, and finally gazing on the enraged shadows close behind us. Gwythlo and Silbari, wrestling in frenzied struggle. I saw the moment when she finally believed.
The sides of the deep hole vanished around us, we struck bottom, bounced, I lost my grip on her and sprawled across the wet-slick shelf at the belly of the World. The horseman struck and sprawled too, though Cadraul managed to cling on to him. The two men were separated from the horse, which my Shadow promptly swallowed as if it had never been. We all slid helplessly across the floor of the Vestibule to Hell.
The edge approached, frighteningly fast, and from it leaped the Bridge that leads to the Dais where the Grey Judge sits. I fetched up against one balustrade at the entrance to the Bridge, hit hard against something less yielding than stone. I struggled on the slick floor, dazed, hurt, tried to get to my feet, and failed.
The horseman rose to his own feet easily, still a black torch of rage, and flung Cadraul aside. The black sword rose and fell, and the old Gwythlo thrashed on the floor. Then the monster strode towards me, bloody sword still in hand. He raised it over me, murder incarnate.
“Rilbin.” Her voice was quiet but clear. “Rilbin, please don’t.”
She came towards him, also walking easily on the slick surface. They were neither one weighted down like me with leaden flesh. He paused, turned a little to look at her. The sword wavered – and the demon wavered more. Whatever she had, courage or forgiveness or something still deadlier to its kind, it cringed from her, shuffled the body it rode back half a step as if to flee.
Foolishly, I tried to get at my throwing knives, with some mad idea of pinning its feet to the strange floor under us. Maybe I was lucky, for they were gone, dropped out somewhere in the fall. My left arm wouldn’t work and I couldn’t reach my boot knife with my right.
“Rilbin,” she said. “Just hold me.” She took his free hand in her own.
And the dreadful black fire wavered and died as his demon fled her touch, and left him a man once more. With a thin cry the demon dived over the edge, into the abyss from which it came.
Rilbin dropped his sword, and my Shadow ate it, too. He touched her face, bewildered for a moment, then embraced her. They separated just enough for him to speak. “I, I thought we were dead.” His hands moved to the rents in his clothing where arrows had pierced him, touching the unbroken not-flesh beneath.
“You are,” I said thickly, pain throbbing through me.
“Rilbin,” Elaina said again. “Our time in life is over. We have to face the Last Choice. Please, come choose with me.”
I had hoped she was brave, and now I knew she was. She touched his face and then released him, turned and walked to the Bridge. I saw her face as she passed me, eyes rapt and fixed on the Dais. She left him no time to protest, but set one foot on it after the other, steadily and surely.
Rilbin stared after her and hesitated, fear rippling across his young face. He must have had fewer years than me when he died.
I struggled, managed to sit. My side ached, ribs grated, and something was wrong with one leg. I coughed painfully and he looked at me.
“What are you waiting for?” I growled at him, gasping. My Shadow swirled in tatters above us.
He stared at me. “Who are you? Why are you here? You’re not Silbari, you shouldn’t be here with us.” He sounded honestly puzzled.
“Fool,” I hissed. “I’m as much a son of Silbar as you are. If you could’ve seen that in life, you wouldn’t have put Elaina through this.”
“Yes, you. Yeah, you had help from uncounted other fools, but it was your despair that started the death-shade and trapped you both. Your stupid, little-boy despair. Why couldn’t you –” I wanted to punch him but I could barely sit upright.
He looked at me minutely, looked back at Cadraul bleeding on the floor. “I hate – hated him, for so long. Where – why don’t I hate him now?” He sounded so bewildered that I had to answer.
“You weren’t alone,” I told him wearily. “You opened your soul to that demon – and it took you, owned you. Now you’re free of it.”
He stared at me. “But . . . I should still hate him. Shouldn’t I? He’s a – he’s the one who killed me.”
“He shot the arrows, but you made yourself the target. And he wasn’t trying to kill you as we fell; he was trying to make you drop the sword.”
“Oh.” He looked at Cadraul again. “Why did he follow us here? He hasn’t a drop of Silbari blood.”
“He chose to be a child of The One, that’s why he’s here!” I panted, something inside hurt a lot. “Enough talk. It’s time for you to choose. You can wander the edge of Hell forever – and maybe that demon or another will find you again, fill you up with hate again, and it’ll have to be done all over again. Or you can learn from Elaina, who sacrificed so much to give you this chance. Are you going to follow her?”
He didn’t answer me, but stared for a long moment.
“Learn...” he muttered. “Yes. I can learn.”
Then he walked to Cadraul’s bleeding form. Awkwardly he helped the broken man to his feet, half lifting and half dragging him over to me. The Gwythlo’s head lolled on his scrawny neck, then his eyes caught at mine and he smiled.
“Thank you, Hand,” he said.
“Thank her,” I nodded to the small form nearing the middle of the span.
“We will.” Rilbin shifted his grip on Cadraul, and began determinedly hauling the old man across the Bridge. Step by step; I craned my neck to watch them, for a long time. She paused near the end, waited for them to catch up, and all three passed on to the Dais together. I listened, but there was no screaming fall into the Pit. Only the glow of the Door, briefly interrupted, then steady and eternal.
An insistent calling was making itself felt at the back of my mind, and a dim glow filtered down from the Skin of the World above through the endless stream of hurrying souls. My Shadow swirled closer, its rags coalesced and took the mocking form again. I shuddered.
“Kirin,” it said with her voice.
“Maia,” I answered.
“Kirin,” she said again. “Lover. Husband. Kirin.”
“No,” I groaned. “You’re not Maia. You’re not my wife.”
“I’m here somewhere, Kirin. All the dead are here. Now you’re here too.” She smiled at me tremulously, so real. “Come find me, Kirin; we can be together again. I’m here.”
She dissolved then back into Shadow. I looked away, and in looking away, turned toward the Dais.
Not so far away, I saw; not far at all. The Bridge was flat and slick, I could probably crawl across it somehow. The Grey Judge waited, patient as eternity. The Light gleamed through the Door, a light that was music and a music that was voice, calling as it called to all. Calling me? As I must believe it had called to Maia, two years ago. She had to have passed that way, not the long screaming fall. She had to. She had to.
But could I?
The Grey Judge raised her scales, the golden pans rocking back and forth on their chains, crying Yes! and No! and Yes! and No! and....
I need only set my soul in the scales, to know the answer.
I turned my face away, rolled over on my back and stared blindly upward. To know the answer – but too late to change it. Too late, too late, too late. I was too late to save her, too late to save me, too late, too late.
Or too early.
My Shadow folded about me, urging me to cross and free it.
“No,” I said. “I’m not ready; not done living.”
The World was far above me. I didn’t know how I could ever climb back up. But, oh, I wanted to.
The light grew stronger.
Then the Darkness split, bloodily, and Terrell reached through. Blind in the Dark, he reached and groped beneath the Skin of the World, burning himself like a torch and calling, calling. I saw the glowing hands of Healers on him, fruitlessly trying to hold his life-force in as he flung it at me. The Palace servants must be near-mindless with fear but they clung to his waist and legs, holding him back from the fall with the sheer weight of their courage.
*Kirin! Reach for my hand!*
I crawled towards him as the riven Shadow shuddered and swirled around me. A wind of Light blew from Terrell to me, shredding it to shrieking tatters that hid themselves in my chest. Tendrils of Darkness flowed up from the Pit and tried to grip my legs. I shook them off and dragged myself closer, bones grating and agony stabbing, till I was finally close enough.
*You’ll kill yourself, doing that,* I protested as he caught my good arm. *Silbar needs you more than me, and you aren’t made for the Dark.*
*I will not give up my brother so lightly,* he answered, and dragged me back into the land of the living. I found shattered cobblestones beneath me and the Inn’s broken wall at my back, Elaina’s gutted room now open to the night. The moons lit a battered courtyard empty save for us two, my scattered knives - and a white-haired corpse. As Terrell faded away back to his palace he added, *I’ve still got plans for Silbar!*
And then I fainted.
I awoke flat on my back on a trestle table in the inn’s dining room. At the next table the innkeeper and his wife were wrapping Cadraul’s body in a shroud. Two of the acolytes were tending my leg while the Dona bound my ribs. It was a struggle to open my wounds to her spells, but I did it. Her glowing fingers began to knit the broken bones together even as she frowned sternly at me.
“Ahh, at last you let us work on you. I’ve never before met a Mage who could deny three Healers even while he was unconscious.”
“Sorry.” I gasped as bones moved back where they belonged. “T’wasn’t meant to hinder.”
“I trust,” she added icily, “that you will explain these goings-on to me?”
“Someday,” I fended her off, weary as worlds. “When the time is right.”
She snorted and went back to healing my body, while my soul danced.