Then she voiced it, and he wished for all the world it would burn up in her throat.
"One day all of this will pass to you, son."
"I don't want it.”
The circlet was a disgrace, like a tarnished halo. It was as proverbial to him as her face, an adulteration of her true corona—her beautiful, close-cropped platinum hair, framing her radiant jade-green eyes.
"Andreas—you need to grow out of this.”
Exasperation; it twisted her voice, abusing it like the circlet did her body.
“You're nearly twenty years old. You need to grow up and man up. I've spent your entire life trying to prepare you for ... the rest of your life. I think I’ve done everything I can for you and—”
"—and Mother, I don't want it!"
A stiff silence fell on the hall. Servants halted in mid-task and stared, their eyes wide and unblinking.
"What …?" he demanded.
… Frightened mice, huddling in the corners from his wrath.
"Get back to work!"
"—You have no choice in this and neither do I. When you were small, I ignored these unsuitable, idle inclinations. By now I had expected you to grow some perspective. You are the last of our blood and you were born for power. What would you make of yourself, a paltry bard? That’s the life of a commoner, and even if we did have a choice, I would not have my only son—”
He paced in front of the fireplace. "—I don't care, about any of it! And I don’t even care if it hurts you.”
“What would you make of yourself …?”
“I told you, I don’t care. Just not this.”
She clutched her head with a pained sigh.
The circlet coiled motionless beneath her fingertips, a gilded serpent poised to strike. Its bite would confine him to a life of splendid isolation, its curse a slow-acting venom that left no marks on the body, but devoured its victim from inside.
It would be the death of his future. The man that could have been would perish, and some new man would walk away in his place, locked into his fate by the abomination she wore with such pride.
"Does that give you a headache?" he said, “or do I?”
"What kind of a question—"
A reverberating clatter interrupted her words. Hastily, the servant who’d dropped his platter bent to retrieve it, hurrying away.
His mother lowered her voice. “You know I don’t have a choice. You will inherit this crown; there’s nothing I can do about that. And as far as our populace is concerned, the circlet is lordship. We don’t have a choice about that either.”
Only if my heart stops beating, only then will I escape. My body or my soul. If I choose to live, I’ll lose all that I am.
But suicide was unthinkable. He’d seen enough of death to know that nothing awaited him beyond those dark doors. Silence and the void—they emptied the eyes of every man.
He had prayed for some miracle. He had pushed the inescapable to the back of his mind, losing himself in his private worlds. In his music and painting he had discovered a refuge, and even more so, in the bloody, magnificent brushstrokes of combat and the artful execution of lesser men. But always, he could hear the wind howling at the gates. With each passing year, the vanity of it all struck his heart like the toll of the clocktower bell ruthlessly beating out the hours. He stood ever on the precipice, at the crest of an unfaltering, lethal wave.
Not ever will I accept it. I will find a way to stop this. Or die.
"What else …? What else do I get when I inherit this wonderful destiny? This castle—?"
"Yes," she fumed, her voice choked with bottled ire. “And you should be grateful for it.”
"What about them?" he demanded, pointing to the slaves polishing the flagstones.
"Yes, them too," she spat. "They're part of the property."
"What do I do with them?"
"They're slaves, Andreas. They work. You feed them, and they work. Where have you been your whole blessed life …?"
"Like the tapestries—?"
"You don't feed tapestries, son! What has gotten into you?"
"What's gotten into you, mother? Are you expecting to die ...? Is that why—? We haven’t talked about this since I was nine!"
He reached for her, but she withdrew.
"I always expect to die, boy. Could happen at any hour, at any minute. You get used to that. But—" she stalled his protests—“would you want to be like them ...?"
Her eyes shifted not to the slaves, but to the wall just over their heads.
She couldn’t even look at them.
Denial. Was that supposed to be his answer?
"You have a home, boy; wealth, respect, and a good title and name. You've a fine stable of horses, decent armour and a good staff, an even finer military, and a healthy crop to feed your people. What more do you want—?"
"Not that. I just want to be me. The way I am now. Not with an extra appendage that I can never remove and don’t understand. How do you not get what that seems like to me …? That thing is a disease. Are you so inured to it that you consider it as much a part of you as your skin, your hair, your eyes? You act like this is your choice, your desire. It isn’t. Your life is a lie, as mine will be. A lie against all that I am.”
She dropped her eyes.
"I didn't either ..." she sighed, the barbs gone from her voice. "... want it, I mean."
"Why? Because you knew there was something wrong with it ...?"
"No. There's nothing wrong with it … It's just itself, boy. Different is all. This crown is a privilege. In it is vested the power that has blessed our family with this fortune, the power to rule.” She waved her hand, her gesture encompassing the castle, the servants, the slaves. "Our people respect its authority, which is why they respect ours. Higher powers have given us a responsibility to care for our people. That is a sacred trust."
"Why don’t your ‘higher powers’ want a united city-state ...?"
"I ... don't know. Perhaps they do and we are meant to do it. It's something that I've thought about for a long time, but I don't really have an answer, and neither did my father or grandfather. All I know is that my earliest memories were of war. I wish I could take you over there sometime, to Talystasia West—I saw it in my youth, on a diplomatic visit. The palaces and mansions are marvellous, but built on something far worse than slavery: poverty. Even our slaves live in our castle, eat our food, and benefit from our protection. No man under our domain goes without his grain and a roof over his head. It may be modest, but it’s better than nothing. But their people ...you should see Malek's slums. There are worse things than not being able to make your own choices, son."
“Who made it? The circlet?”
“I don’t know. It found us long ago.”
"Does it do anything else besides stick to you like a leech ...?"
"I don't think so. I think I'd know by now.” She smiled wistfully. “Oh, Andreas—I miss your grandfather.”
"Then why didn't you want it?"
"Because I didn’t want him to die."
The wave struck less than a year later. Lady Ivy Telyra IV’s coffin was lowered into the ground, and her son wept on the freshly turned earth. The thing clinging to his head gave no quarter. The incubation period was over, and the disease was in bloom.
Never again would he be truly and wholly himself. This horror would be his constant companion, devouring his days.
It was a long way off the precipice and into the dark.
He stared out through the embrasure at the dim red line in the distance. The rumble of ammunition and the metallic echo of arms and armour boomed portentously along the wall as soldiers rolled mangonel stones out of storage, sharpened steel, nocked arrows to bows, and readied breastplates, gauntlets, helmets and greaves.
"Malek’s mind is gone," he noted with morbid satisfaction, turning aside to Rizaq. Shouts of anticipation crackled through the air, ignited by his own thin, certain smile.
… And so is mine. I despise what is about to happen with every fiber of my being. Why then this plague of joy in my heart? Is it only that I will kill the old man today, be rid of the scourge of my existence since boyhood? … Another will take his place. One more in an endless line.
It wasn’t that, no. His smile widened. The amassed companies on the fields below waited for death the destroyer to release them from this living hell. Their surcoats and banners mirrored the blood inside, the carnage to come.
"... Assuredly,” Rizaq agreed with composure. “I didn't know the old man could walk, much less fight ... and now he wants to have a war over a fistfight? How’s that work?"
"I have some ideas.”
("Your war involves ... more than human forces, Lord Telyra. And I'm not talking about Elder magic either, a dying power.”)
This parasite of metal—like his mother, he too had become inured to it, ashamed of his weakness.
And shame had made him complacent.
Why hadn’t he asked the dryad more? Foolish, to pass up such a chance—and who knew when it would come again. One didn’t simply request an audience with the Elders and get it. Hell, he didn’t even know how to request one.
Then again, she had come seeking answers from him. They too knew next to nothing.
Besides … why torture himself with knowledge of the disease when there was no cure?
"You do …?" Rizaq asked blankly. "'Cause he's dying he's got to take several hundred people down with him? Is that how it works? He's got most of his army out there. Please don't tell me you'd get me killed over some glorious tragedy one day ..."
“You could die today, Rizaq,” he responded with all of his dead mother’s harsh pragmatism. "I should've bet against you—six months ago, remember? I'd have won easily. But taking your money seems unfair, given that you’re on my payroll, and would you really have bet against this? Didn't we know in our hearts that Malek was going to break the truce?"
“I’ve got a cramp in my sword arm. I suppose it’s about time.”
Andreas laughed. "I've had a cramp in that arm since I wrote that bloody truce. And no matter how many times I slap that stupid girl I can't get it out."
Rizaq grinned. “Ever heard of transference?”
“Like I care.”
The wind stirred in his friend’s hair, and he shivered. "He's not giving you a choice, you know."
"What's that now, General?"
"I know what’s in your mind, Andreas. I see you question yourself. But this is a ruthless attack. His army would massacre our women and children and call it unfortunate in the name of his ridiculous conquest—"
"Yes, and I'll murder his," Andreas interrupted. "The ‘men’ included. They can't fight, haha, only kill or be killed. Pussies with worthless trainers." He snorted. “I’m tempted to just commit genocide on his entire line and finish this, except that I don’t think that’s even possible. There's a lot of Lorens. It’d take a far more dedicated and methodical mind than mine to hunt each of them down. As it is, I’ll enjoy what I get."
Rizaq opened his mouth, his eyes darting to the field and back.
"You cannot hide from me, Andreas. If revenge were your motive for satisfaction, would you abuse yourself for it?"
"Revenge for killing my mother and our friends; for spilling generations of my people’s blood since they crossed the sea at the dawn of time—?"
"No. There is no pleasure in that. There is nothing righteous in my pleasure—only my killing urge."
“And for that, a common enough thing, you damn yourself. It’s only human.”
“There’s no excuse for that, Rizaq. None.”
“This is what I cannot understand about you. There is for you. If you didn't fight back, your citizenry would fall victim to those pompous aristocratic buffoons! You have nothing to be ashamed of. There is nothing unrighteous—"
Andreas laughed. "Are you trying to reassure me, Rizaq? Against what, myself?"
"You were your mother's only son ... It's not your fault you inherited—"
"—What, drawing out a perpetual civil war and pretending I can conclude it as so many fools have before me ...? Ancestors to avenge! Family honour to redeem! Each time I participate in the cycle, I perpetuate it, but I will not feed into their rationalizations. Revenge, honour, duty—they sugar-coat their brutality. Loren's excuse—other than the same—is that I don't deserve to live because I'm ... not right. That may be the only point I have ever agreed with him on. I'm not. I want to kill people, Rizaq. Do you know what I’m feeling right now, aside from rage?”
Rizaq shook his head half-heartedly.
“… Elation. Relief. But I won’t pretend to myself that it’s about honour or justice."
Rizaq’s hand clenched around his arm. Instinctively, Andreas raised it to defend himself, before realizing what he was doing.
"Why must you torment yourself!"
"Because I will not excuse my bloodlust. I enjoy killing because I enjoy it. This is a stupid time for an argument."
Rizaq closed his eyes, and for a moment, he seemed to age. “Not all revenge is an evil, mate. The friends we’ve lost … those we never had a chance to avenge.” He turned and looked him squarely in the eye. “Because you’re not like Malek. Because you’d never do something like this.”
“Logan. Funny how rank doesn’t matter after someone dies.”
“Friendship outstrips any rank. His name will be the last word Malek hears. That much I can do.”
Rizaq nodded solemnly. "Can you believe he's got his only son out there ...?"
"Then the boy dies," Andreas shrugged.
I could die today, if I just let it all go. One glorious moment of surrender. Lift up my arms to the sky and drown in a sea of blood.
But he wouldn’t. Damn the inner voice that kept him clinging to his broken existence. It was as brutal and intractable as the crown around his head.
The slowly revolving darkness above the battlement rumbled, thunder shaking the wall like the marching cadence of Loren’s waiting army. They had yet to mobilise, but the sense of danger was pressing and immediate.
He turned to Rizaq, whose eyes were focused on the enemy line, his mouth moving silently. He blinked several times and shook his head.
"What's wrong, Rizaq—"
"I counted their companies this morning and there were six prepped for attack, but I counted again just now and they’re about half a company short."
“How could you miss that? Forty men? They can’t just disappear.”
“I didn’t. I haven’t been here. I was wi—”
The sound of an explosion ruptured his words.
Simultaneously, they turned to face the blaze erupting above the rooftops.
"That was the market square—" Rizaq called after him as he tore across the battlement to the elevator.
Leaping onto the platform, he flipped the lever that would lower him down the ropes and pulleys to the street.
As of last night, not a soul had passed through his gates without his express command, and he had set a watch on the tor. Whoever had set the market ablaze had been here for days, weeks or months, possibly even years, awaiting a signal. These people, the people he was going to kill, he had welcomed with open arms, maybe even granted citizenship.
"That's not your missing company ...!" he hollered back up to the battlement. "They're still out there, Rizaq!”
Ever hopeful, and foolishly, I ...
Six feet from the ground, he sprang, the elevator still descending. Seleda reared up to meet him, a swell of heat and muscle. Her vigour engulfed him, a cyclone in his veins flooding him with heady, unbroken hate—the animal wildness he’d never entirely trained out of her.
"THE MARKET!" he roared, gesticulating furiously to his mobilising team. Impatient, Seleda broke past them without so much as a lean or a squeeze, instinct drawing her toward the conflagration. He hardly noticed the fearful hush of the passing streets or the cold, light lash of the rain. The stench of burning wood and cooking flesh singed his nostrils.
They burst around a corner into a cloud of smoke, and the unnatural silence blew apart into a chorus of screams. Lightning made white fire of the marketplace. Silhouettes in pairs and trios twirled beyond the smokescreen like shadow puppets in a deadly dance.
Coughing, he yanked on the reins. A man was sprawled across their path, clutching a broken bottle in his rigid hand, dead eyes empty in a mask of pain he’d wear until the maggots got his flesh. His entrails, splayed carelessly across the cobbles, gleamed in the half-light like old trash. Drizzle splattered dust into mud in his open viscera.
Ash burning his throat, Andreas turned Seleda into the screaming din. Seconds later, there was a stifled shout as her forelegs slammed into something solid.
Electricity crackled overhead. He drew his sword, and it sang like a lightning rod, pulling energy from the sky, his arm shaking with liberated fury. He’d been holding this death blow pent up for so long he felt he’d die himself if he tried to hold back any longer. He cleaved it down in the wake of her viciousness, an indifferent executioner.
The head that tumbled from the neck he’d severed spattered blood on a butcher’s apron.
He caught his breath, horrified.
Then he saw the dishevelled old woman sobbing on the ground a few feet away, a gash in her side gushing blood to the cobbles like a drainpipe. A meat cleaver clattered down beside the butcher’s decapitated corpse, as red as the wound in her abdomen.
“Let me help you—" he started, dismounting.
The old woman screamed and scuttled backwards out of sight.
He whirled to defend himself.
There was nothing there.
Timbers cracked and split, the percussion of steel and the metal-bright cacophony of screams muffled by the fog.
Skewering the dismembered corpse through the ribs to free up his hands, he wiped sweat and ash from his brow with his sleeve. Seleda trotted off alone, hot on the scent of blood. Seconds later, light blossomed overhead, framing her in a hazy corona across the square, towering over her prey. The upraised dirk beneath her was as futile as a blade of grass against an avalanche of murder. In the next flash, the poor wretch was pulverized meat beneath her hooves.
Out of the smoke, a shape materialized, plunging at him recklessly. “Tonight, Telyra!” it bellowed. “Tonight you’ll sleep in the ground with the whore that bore you!”
The reckless fool took a dive for cover as Andreas again grasped his sword. Extracting it from the butcher’s remains, he hooked it between the taunter’s ribs and pulled him round.
The man’s eyes went wide with terror. Laughing, Andreas disarmed him with his empty hand. His blade felt like an extension of his body. Twisting it, he violated the man through the bloody hole in his side, driving it deeper. In the soldier’s eyes, each jolt of agony flared like torchlight, his soul twisting out of shape with his ruined insides.
Leaning forward, he smiled again, courteously wiping away the blood that foamed at his victim’s mouth.
The eyes darkened, and the body jerked once, abandoned.
A new thunder rang out across the plaza—the rumbling hooves of a dozen horses.
"The fires!” Andreas shouted. “Put them OUT, NOW!"
"But Milord—!" Mathias pulled up alongside him. “Go back to the battlement. We can handle thi—"
Andreas shook his head, parrying a blow from a new attacker.
"Damnit! I will deal with these—no more than a dozen—moved on us early." He laughed savagely, running his foe through. "Didn't realize I was still here."
Mathias snorted. “Didn’t realize any of us were, apparently. What did they hope to accomplish with such a small team?”
“FIRE,” Andreas growled pointedly, blocking a thrust from another combatant. The blades sang and parted. Whirling, he dodged the next blow and drove his sword into his opponent’s chest. “… Which will do far more damage than their weapons.” He withdrew his blade, glittering with blood. “You don’t need an army to burn down a city, or even good fighters … all you need is surprise. Don’t go thinking this is all they sent us either. There will be others.”
As he finished speaking, two figures leapt out of the smoke on either side of him. One was unarmed. The other, brandishing a short blade, flew at the vulnerable man with a maniac yell. Diving between them, Andreas threw his arm around the aggressor’s neck.
Pain seared the exposed underside of his arm, a dark cloud staining his sleeve.
Roaring, he sheathed his sword and grabbed his captive’s dirk, wrestling it out of his grasp.
"… But how do we know which are which?" Mathias asked. “They’re not in uniform—”
"Because the Loren soldiers are trained and my civilians aren't; and some of them are carrying military- issue weapons." He raised the dirk for Mathias to see, pointing at the Loren insignia at the base of the blade. "Recognize this? Look around you, it's a massacre, not a fight. Protect the ones being massacred, kill their assailants; simple. But it's no matter, I'll finish this up."
"Lord, there are more than enough of us to—"
"Don't deny me this. Get to the well!"
Mathias mumbled something mutinous but withdrew. His team rode after him, his shouts dampened by rain and haze.
The rescued townsman was still standing there, stiff as a lamppost, his eyes fastened on his disabled, writhing attacker.
"Go and help Mathias!" Andreas ordered, his eyes watering from heat and ash. “Take this.” He held out the handle of the dirk. “But only until you find something else, and keep it concealed. My soldiers may mistake you for one of Loren’s. What's the matter with you? You want to stay and watch me gut this fuck?"
"H-he was my neighbour," the man stammered, inching closer, his rattled eyes glued to the sneering enemy’s face. Clenching the handle of the dagger weakly, he withdrew.
"He was a Loren killer," spat Andreas, drawing his sword again, "and soon he'll be food for city rats. He was never your neighbour. Now go and douse those fires, or I'll kill you myself after this!"
He pressed tighter on his enemy's windpipe as the townsman fled. The soldier thrashed, to no avail.
"What were you?" he snarled in his ear with a voice like rusty knives. Smouldering, crackling beams made patterns of light in his eyes.
"What ...?" the soldier gasped.
"What were you? What did you do in my city while you waited? Were you a butcher of meat as well as men, like your dead comrade over there? Tailor? Smith? Cook? Shop keep? Did you drink with that man there you just tried to murder? Did you greet his wife and kids when you passed them in the market? How long did you wait for your master's call ...?"
He relaxed his grip enough for the man to choke out an answer.
"Bartender," he wheezed through an intake of breath.
"And?" Andreas gripped him harder.
"... T-two years!" stammered the man. "Are you gonna let me live ..?"
"How many of you are inside my walls?"
“Thirty-eight,” he corrected, and lifted his sword. The soldier's head fell backwards from his severed neck, squirting warm blood.
Dropping the limp body, he staggered for his bearings.
Restaurants and storefronts had been replaced by impressionistic blots of fire and wreckage, the pieces floating jumbled and meaningless in the haze like flotsam in a burning sea. Shredded fabric choked the ground at his feet, the remnants of colourful canvas tents now as black and crippled as burnt flesh. The wares from the stalls clogged the rubble like cremated bones.
Adrift in that formless chaos was a flickering ball of light, seemingly suspended in space between tongues of flame and broken frameworks. Wobbling, it dimmed, vanishing into the gloom.
Recognition dawning, he tore after it.
The clocktower loomed overhead, appearing out of the smoke, but just as he caught up, the torchbearer chucked his flame through an open ground floor window.
He hurled himself after, gripping the windowsill to pivot into the room. He cleared the frame, but overshot the distance. Inside, he collided with the floor, yelping as fire mauled his unprotected flesh with blistering teeth. Rolling over, he smothered it with his body, then barrelled out the door.
The torchbearer was already disappearing into the smoke, another brand lit.
Putting on a burst of speed, he leapt onto his back, and they crashed to the ground in a pile of muscle, sweat, and blood.
The soldier shoved the torch in his face. Hollering, Andreas drew his knife from his belt, plunging it into the soft flesh of his opponent’s gut.
As the soldier rolled over screaming, he grabbed his sword from where he’d dropped it during the tackle and staggered to his feet, kicking the torch into a puddle of blood.
The struggling combatant propped himself on one elbow with a protracted groan and opened his mouth, his streaming eyes on his destroyer. He moaned something, but choked on the blood gurgling out of his mouth and down his throat.
Andreas took two steps forward, lifting his boot. "What was that ...?" he asked callously, pressing down on the man's larynx, smearing mud across his neck. Without waiting for an answer, he shifted his weight and smashed the man’s spine with a crack.
Fuck this felt good.
Tilting back his head, he filled his lungs with air coming in from above, metallic with the taste of ozone and blood and heavy with the promise of a downpour. Timid drizzle soothed his scorching body, teasing him with its cool caress.
The roar of the inferno was still unremitting, but underneath it there was silence: the screams had stopped.
"—It's all finished, sir."
He opened his eyes, looking down.
A boy was standing in front of him, dressed in regimental blue and clutching his ear.
In the puddle, the torch was fizzling out.
Andreas kicked the lifeless body aside. The boy’s eyes followed the action, delayed, withdrawn. There was no acknowledgement in his face that the man he had kicked aside was, in fact, a man.
I know that look.
The strings of habit pulled, and the child gave a clumsy salute before seizing his ear again. Blood trickled between his fingers. Andreas was almost surprised when he spoke.
"Math—Captain Mathias—he doesn't think—” He started again. “They jumped their signal. That’s what he said. The enemy soldiers. They’re … or that you rather—"
His words were a spiritless muddle, witless motion in a doll’s face.
Three years ago, this child wouldn’t have been old enough to enlist. This had been his first taste of action. Some men took to combat like it was second nature. Others it stole something from.
"The fires, boy?" he inquired crisply, sheathing both sword and knife.
"They’re … this way, sir.”
He turned, and Andreas could almost see the chasm opening within his fragile young heart.
He grabbed the boy’s shoulder roughly, dragging him back from the edge.
"Don't you turn your back on me,” he growled, squeezing his trapezius.
"What—? Ow! The fi—"
Light blazed back into his eyes as Andreas slapped him across the face.
He hesitated. Should he offer more—?
No warmth, no kindness—no time for that. This boy needed to toughen up if he was going to make it through the day.
"—Just show me where they are!" he barked.
The boy opened his mouth to retaliate, but seemed to make up his mind that his life still was worth something. He turned away, leading him back through the ruined square.
"How many are dead?"
"Theirs. You think I care about ours? I can’t do anything for them; they’re dead! Tell me something useful.”
"T-ten or twelve.”
"Can't you fucking count? What, are you ten years old …?"
"—May be some bodies in the smoke! Where we can't see.” He glared back over his shoulder, narrowing his eyes.
Andreas smiled at the glare; another sign of life.
“… No, sir. I’m fourteen. We got a team runnin' back and forth to the well! Thing is—”
"—That there are more fires.”
The boy dropped his hand, stumbling and swaying around the debris. "... Yeah," he snivelled under his breath. "… Salacia Boulevard and Delia. The fires at Delia are out, but Salacia is still, umm …."
"... Are you going to faint?” sneered Andreas. “Are you a girl as well? How many dead in Delia? "
"I—I don't remember. My family lives in Delia District, sir—"
"You’re deaf as well as stupid. Use that ear or you deserve to lose it. Where's Mathias?"
"S-Salacia. The team from Delia is on its way here.” He coughed.
"—Good. Enough. Go and help with the fires and then get yourself home. Stop by the castle if the bridge is down. Ask for Kalorn—best medic I have. He’s a git, but I’d never risk losing him in the field. Bring your family if they need treatment."
The boy scampered off. There were no thanks—not for the medic, and not for the slap in the face. Andreas followed tiredly through the wreckage until he relocated his team, and wordlessly grabbed a bucket.
Dousing the fires was tedious and gruelling. There was nothing here that deserved the harsh consideration he’d shown the young soldier, so why couldn’t he bring himself to walk away while the buildings still burned?
Perhaps it was that unlike the boy, he had no choice in where he spent his energy, his life force. He’d spend the rest of his nightmarish existence trying to keep this wretched place from toppling off the edge.
Nothing here deserved to be saved, but he was part of this nothing, damned and rightly so. After all, he’d thrown his conscience into the chasm that opened inside his own heart as he’d kissed his mother’s cold forehead more than two decades ago, enclosing her body in its casket. What was left of him was as charred and eviscerated as the wreckage around him.
This city had become his tomb.
A crash of thunder shook the heavens, and the sky rumbled and deepened with colour and let loose a torrent of rain.
He collapsed gratefully under one of the few awnings that were still standing, and closed his scalded eyes.
Just for a moment, he’d allow himself a breath that was his and his alone. Two decades of falling, and he’d learned one thing: there was always another precipice, and he still had to take the time to drag himself back or he’d slide even further down the endless decline. Smoke and steam drifted away overhead. Gravity quadrupled. Beyond the beating of the rain, another sound rose from the streets and the houses, a low note submerged beneath it like an ocean, yet calling out plaintively above it.
The sound of crying. A whole city crying.
He hauled himself to his feet as the iron bell of the clocktower struck its beaten, time-worn blows into his soul, and wandered through the clearing haze until he sensed a familiar, friendly musk among the odours of death and leaned gratefully into Seleda's blood-streaked mane.
Motionless at the fireplace, Julia watched the whirlwind of activity in the great hall.
When the drawbridge was raised, the rabble had been trapped inside the castle—townspeople who had wandered in off the streets in search of refuge, answers or accountability. Some had children in tow, crying, screaming, or scampering underfoot. They milled about in their frustration, knocking into the walls and one another, cursing and railing.
“What, three attacks!”
“… We live in Delia—”
“We need to get OUT of here! Our house is just a block from there.”
A toxic smile tugged at her cheeks, bottled laughter corroding her throat.
In a few hours or days, these people would be out of here, safely back in their cute little homes.
And if they lost those homes to the fires? Lord Telyra would replace them.
Years after they were gone, she’d still be standing here beside the mantel, as stationary as the stones in the walls, staring out at the bright expanse she could never touch. No bolted doors would bar her way, no moat or drawbridge would stop her.
She carried her prison with her always, locked around her neck.
Just another of Lord Telyra’s heirlooms, gathering dust.
She wanted to help, but each time she thought she’d spotted an opportunity, somebody else swooped in and jostled her aside.
It was strange wanting to do something. Any other day, when nothing mattered? They’d find her a million meaningless chores to fill her time. Yet today, when everybody desperately seemed to need an extra hand, when it would actually mean something, she hadn’t received a single order, hardly even a glance. How could that be?
Maybe she really had been here so long that she was dissolving into the walls.
… And so I’m as useless as this lot.
“Did the Modest Barrel escape the blaze?”
“—Who cares about a dirty old tavern? What about the clocktower?”
“—It’s not a dirty old tavern—”
The chuntering prattle was endless.
"... Best fucking news all year! My son wants to be an artisan, the stupid sod. War’ll make a man out of him.”
She snickered. So says Lord Telyra’s gardener.
"... Loren, that old maggot! His son's worse though. Hear he's a right good fighter, that 'un. Reckon we'll be seeing a new Lord Loren by dusk tomorrow!"
"Dusk? Haha. Telyra doesn't need that long to dispatch anyone, least of all a stupid old cripple. Or his overconfident son."
"I heard old Loren's too sick to do any lordin' and he’s gonna die anyway, so he's pullin’ this last stunt to go out in a blaze of glory. If you call being impaled by our Lord's sword glorious."
She tensed, her tepid smile faltering. The spell of invisibility had worn off. The speaker was leering right at her. She didn’t have a clue who he was, but clearly he’d already discovered the laughingstock of the citadel. Fury burning in her cheeks, she shoved past him into the middle of the hall.
Dorthelda’s voice surfaced above the din. "... Take this to Kalorn dear, fast; it’s for the arteries—"
Julia turned, half-thinking the order was meant for her, but no—
That was Theresee.
… Not the same Theresee. She was taller now, more mature, her brow more prominent. She still had the same golden curls, but they trailed down her back, almost to her waist. Only the wide brass collar around her neck, a twin to her own, had been untouched by time.
Drawn after her as helplessly as a kite on a line, she squeezed through the crowd toward the north wall, thinking of the numerous times she’d glimpsed her these past few years, but always at a distance, down a long hallway or across a crowded room. Theresee had become as distant as Lord Telyra had been in the first decade of her life.
They lived worlds apart; it was enough to make her think that there must be whole other countries concealed in the rooms of the castle.
Theresee was balancing a steaming bowl of soup along with a spool of thread that Dorthelda had handed her. Shifting the soup aside, she proffered the thread to Kalorn, who stooped by the wall, his hands gleaming cherry bright.
Eyes wide, Julia stumbled.
Only now did her mind register the thrashing, deformed shape on the floor, the leg gushing blood all over the cot, the white linens blooming scarlet like poppies in a patch of snow. The raucous din of the crowd was so overwhelming that she hadn’t even heard the screams, hadn’t realized part of the hall had been converted into an impromptu medical ward. And she wasn’t the only one—hardly anybody seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention.
Kalorn never even looked up at Theresee. Shaking his head at the soup, he grabbed the thread and shooed her away, handing it to his assistant. Then she saw a gleam of metal—his right hand was closing around the handle of a saw, his left pressing down on the man’s thigh.
The patient exploded into a storm of incoherent shrieks.
Squealing involuntarily, Julia turned away.
A shoulder knocked hers. Golden curls caught the light.
The older girl’s name slipped out of her mouth unbidden.
The golden-haired girl halted, turning slowly.
The word cut the air, a verbal slap.
She bit her lip; her cheeks actually stung. "Does Kalorn need any help? I can—"
"You can't do anything,” Theresee interrupted contemptuously. “Except stand there covering your bruises and worrying after that asshole. Get your priorities straight."
The beautiful green eyes that had once laughed with her, confided in her, had blackened.
Flinching, she dropped her arms to her sides. "That’s not what I’m doing. Ain’t you worried?"
"No! Why should I be? I'm a slave in his house, like you. He can burn in hell, like this fortress, like this whole gods-damned place! You can too, you filthy traitor.”
The words were fire; they scalded down her cheeks. Desperately she swallowed, trying to stop the tears, but the harder she tried, the more freely they streamed. The other girl watched without compassion, her lip curling.
Blood was spilling across the flagstones, seeping between the cracks. Kalorn had moved on to the next patient. The assistant was struggling with the amputee, barking orders at another aide who was fumbling with the thread. The leg was still lying there, ghastly and horrible. The man was roaring like an animal, his eyes locked on his severed appendage. To him it was still his leg, stolen from him forever—to the maid now rolling it aside, it was a tripping hazard.
"What'd I ever do to you, Theresee? You were my best friend! You were the one who stopped talking to me. We were like sisters!”
"And now you have no one,” Theresee replied, her voice as cold as stone. “You moved out! You left me there. You live in the basement, not in the damn linen closet with me. You betrayed your kind and you get what you deserve … I hope he dies. Then I can be free—and you can be lost."
"I didn't—! I tried to tell you. If you’d just talked to him, he would’ve—"
"—What, made me his lap dog too?” She snorted with laughter. “Really …? You do nothing, all day long! You sleep ten hours a day. The rest of the time, you do everything in your power not to lift a finger. Keep doing it.”
She wanted to retaliate, to scream at her, but the knot in her throat was a gag.
I don’t owe anyone ANYTHING, and neither do YOU.
She reached for her back as Theresee spun around, her hair whipping through the air, but she was already gone, swallowed up by the crowd.
So that was it—and it wasn’t just Theresee. It was everybody. They’d made a joint decision to leave her out.
They wanted her to know just how useless, worthless and unwanted she was.
And still, here I am—a tripping hazard.
This time she did laugh.
A hand grabbed her arm, digging into the crease of her elbow.
… Ugh, Thomas.
"Hey, cut it out!"
He shoved her forward. "Telyra wants you.”
His companion, a pudgy, dark-haired maid from the laundry room, laughed wildly and smacked her across the shoulders so she tripped. She leaned on Thomas’ shoulder, clearly piss drunk, her face as ruddy as a sow’s.
"I can walk!" she exclaimed through their hilarity, wiping her damp cheeks as she fought her way through.
… He was back.
She hadn’t noticed that the doors were now open, a crack of light streaming in to pierce the blood and the din and the chaos. Craning to see above the crowd, she spotted his silhouette atop his horse, clear above the racket and the insanity. Like a beacon of order and reason.
… Well, maybe not reason.
But he was back.
She approached him, the man who held her invisible chains wrapped around his fist. The hard light from outside revealed blood dripping from his hairline, the flesh of his face pink and raw over his high cheekbone.
"Master?" she called up to him, stroking Seleda’s neck.
The mare sneezed and shook her head, scattering droplets of blood to the floor like discarded rubies. Her eye was a black, burning furnace of malevolence.
Lord Telyra stripped off his bracers, his eyes on the crowd, either as unmindful of her existence as everyone else or indifferent to it. One sleeve was stained black on the underside, dripping, and he swayed precariously in the saddle. Dark streaks down his leather breastplate spoke of death at his hands. Straightening, he raised one pale hand to his audience in a blood-caked salute.
“… Said SHUT IT,” he roared.
The heads nearest turned, and gradually, silence settled over the hall, broken only by the screams and moans of the wounded and the rustle and clatter of Kalorn's ceaseless exertion. The smell of iron was thick on the air.
Something—she blinked—yes, something definitely was moving under Lord Telyra’s cloak—and whimpering. He clutched at it, restraining it.
“Master, what is that—”
"You are all wondering what the hell is going on,” he intoned.
Murmurs of agreement.
“The wounded are being treated there—" he pointed. "Kalorn's work takes priority. Any among you who allows another's pain be prolonged through negligence will receive that same pain back from me in exacting proportion once this is over. Those who need to help, do so now."
Several attendants near the back of the crowd scuttled to the cots.
"We have posted a list on that wall,” he pointed, “with the death count on our side, and the names we know. The list is short, but that will not last.
"To forestall any rumours … two hours ago, Loren soldiers lit the marketplace on fire and burned two city blocks to the ground. They also set fire to the Delia residential district and Salacia Square. The fires in all three districts are out and the dogs responsible are dead. We have lost a few homes but no one will be sleeping in the streets tonight. The homeless will be put up here in the castle until their houses can be rebuilt. I will pay for the repairs myself out of the city coffers. Same goes for businesses."
"But how did they get in?" shouted a woman.
Lord Telyra raised his hand again for silence. The thing under his cloak wailed piercingly. What could it be? An injured animal? A dog?
"They were here for years,” he answered, adjusting himself. “During our truce I accepted transplants from Loren’s side of the city in the hopes of fostering our economy and building new relationships. This was the result. I was wrong. And I am sorry.”
"Is the Modest Bar—" started a man.
"The Modest Barrel is still standing and the owner is fine, yes."
"How many are on that list?"
"Fifteen. Three soldiers. The rest … civilians. Murdered in cold blood. Most of them were defenceless or close to it."
"Was anyone from Calthaca hurt?" asked a boy.
"How many of theirs?" demanded a man from across the room.
"Twenty-four at the last report, and no. I repeat ... The Market, Delia, and Salacia. Not Calthaca. The drawbridge is down, as you can see. Any of you who wish to leave should do so now. It’s coming back up behind me—which is about five minutes from now. However, I suggest you stay. Loren’s men are still in the city."
“… Are we at war then?"
"—Give me some of that Loren scum—"
"You are a footman, Thomas," Lord Telyra cut in kindly, “and not the kind who fights on foot. We are at war with Malek Loren. But as I'm going to kill him tonight …”
—Smothered laughter from the crowd—
"I have yet to say if we are at war with his successor," he finished to groans of dismay.
"We’ve lost parents, grandparents, sons! You can’t ask us not to fight!”
"They killed my niece!" cried another. "Nine years ago."
"—And I am doing all I can to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Don't you see that you're part of this too?"
"Put down the Loren dogs!”
"I thank you all for your enthusiasm, but we are wasting precious time. Do I need to remind you all that this is not a mob rule? Back to work, all of you. Your excitement is over."
Turning aside, he lowered his voice. "Now I need to ask—”
"What?" he asked, with a disconcerting, blood-streaked smile.
"I kinda... forgot I was here." She gave a nervous laugh. “Or I thought you did.”
"If I were nobody, I'd probably forget myself too …” He creased his brow. “Are you all right? You look—"
"Yeah, I’m fine. And you didn't forget me. Doesn’t that make me somebody?"
"I could no sooner forget you than a rat at my feet. Take a fucking bath." He leaned toward her and sniffed. "Disgusting."
"Dorthelda says that baths give you colds, and they should be taken as seldom as possible."
"Superstitious nonsense. We’ve been over this."
“I took a bath yesterday. So you’re full of shit.”
"And you're drippin’ blood on me," she added with a mock shudder.
"Now you have to take one. Unless you want to be infected by some hideous foreign disease from across the Wall." He mimicked her shudder.
"You're probably already in the advanced stages. Bet it strikes you dead before you can even find Lord Loren on the battlefield."
"You think you're smart?"
"Why shouldn't I be? You taught me everything I know."
"Maybe I deliberately taught you stupid. Now … I have a job for you."
He pushed his cloak aside and Julia stepped backward in surprise.
It wasn’t an animal at all.
It was a baby, naked, raw and red, clothed only in a sheet of drying mud. Exposed again to the light of day, it scrunched up its face and launched into a fresh, miserable fit.
"Is it—" she raised herself up on her toes— “he,” she amended, “hurt?"
"Don't think so. Not seriously. You can ask the damn doctor. Fucking doctor. I found it when I was leaving Salacia."
“Found it? Found it where?”
“… In a gutter. Abandoned. Perhaps his parents were killed. Or maybe they left him during the attacks.” His voice dropped, darkening. “… Or before the attacks.”
Awkwardly, he held out the flailing child, and half-dropped it into her arms.
"What am I supposed to do with it?” she gasped. “It's kicking me."
"I don't care. I kick you all the time and you don’t complain; you just cry. Which you are doing, and don’t think I haven’t noticed. Figure out who it belongs to if you can. A lot of these people fled here from the burning districts. If you don't find its family, find a staff member to take care of it until we can put it up for adoption. Oh, and if you do find the parents, and if you determine that they abandoned it, we still put it up for adoption. You are not to give it back to them."
“Not going to claim him for your ranks of slaves?” she asked dryly.
“Don’t fuck with me. You know better.”
"Can I take care of it?"
He let out a guffaw. "You? You, take care of a little brat? You live in a cell on a pile of straw! Hahaha - no. You must really be desperate to come up with that sorry attempt at injecting some meaning into your life. Or are you just really bored? If you’re that fucking bored, I can find plenty to fill your time."
The knot in her throat twisted, tears blinking back into her eyes. "That en't my fault! I could take care of him, even for a couple days. If I can’t find his parents, I’ll see if someone in the kitche—"
"A freewoman," interjected Lord Telyra. "Not a slave. Do you want him to have a life like yours? Your parents couldn't take care of you, whoever they were … not that I blame them. You are a handful. But they left you a lovely inheritance." He laughed and took a swig from a container at his waist.
"Are you drinking ...?"
"Water, you little shit! You could've asked if I needed some, don't you think? Do you have any idea what I’ve had to do today? You, of all people! Look at me." He gestured at his bloody uniform. "And they haven’t even charged the walls yet! And here you are, living for free under my roof and calling it my fault? Worthless, useless, ungrateful, insulting—"
"Do you need any wat—"
"No. Don't interrupt me. Second time today."
“Why don’t you get someone else to do this?”
He glanced over her shoulder to the wall where Kalorn was treating his patients. In his eyes, she could almost see the discarded leg and the broken man beside it. He’d finally passed out from the pain and the blood loss.
“… Because you know what it’s like to be abandoned,” he said, his tone softening. “Because you won’t just leave him in a corner somewhere like I found him.”
… Lord Telyra noticed the amputated man. Lord Telyra felt the pain of his loss. Lord Telyra cared about the abandoned child. He among all these people, as spiteful as he was. His empathy was a warm protective glow, screening out the madness.
This. This is what I keep holding on to.
"Are you gonna be okay? Do you want me to get Kalorn? Your arm …"
His eyes glazed, but they cleared and he shook his head. "No. No. I'm fine; it hurts, but I'm fine. I’ll get the medic on the battlement to patch me up. After you find something to do with that —" he nodded at the crying baby, raising his voice, "I want you to go to your room, and stay there."
"Are we safe here? I don't remember the last time …"
“Castle's the safest place you could be. You think I’d leave you in danger? Drawbridge coming up after I leave and I’ve tripled the guard. Don't argue with me."
"Another thing, slave. Don't ever call someone else 'Lord' again."
"'Lord' Loren," he said and took another drink.
She eyed the bottle warily, wrestling with the increasingly agitated baby. "But ... he is a lord ... There's lots of lords ..."
"Yes, but they're not your lord. Look at me."
She met his icy stare. "No, they're not. My Lord."
They watched each other for a moment; then he turned and galloped out the double-doors and into the misty white afternoon.