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saga juliet

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  1. “Grievances?” Hand to the heart. Drop of a jaw, round like that of a pufferfish deflating itself. Innes had been ever fond of the ambiguous flourish. “No, no, never. Perish the thought.” Behind the helm the Ebon Knight was raising his eyebrow. It could not be seen behind the helmet but Innes knew it to be there. From afar the man appeared mysterious enough, but strip away the armor of distance and armor was no real bulwark at all. The Knight laughed just as easy as everyone else, and had the same tolerance of Innes’ bullshit as everyone else. Maybe even a little more. It was in the way his body moved, sure as marble. The archer knew the limits to which the Knight would entertain him. The archer had an affinity for moods, and for attuning himself to the temperament of the people he met. By the account of most, that was exactly the problem. The man was the sort who’d drive a priest to sin, and a monk to distraction. “It’s fine talk of politics, sir, a subject of which you have the utmost command – and perhaps more of than the dickless jesters currently directing the war – but I do wonder if the darling Exarch would be willing to play that game of give and take and love and hate.” Innes stacked his feet on an unoccupied corner of the mess table. “Practically speaking, I don’t think he’d be in much the mindset, on account of him having just lost a slightly different game of ‘avoiding the rape of my country’ to your very own self.” Innes picked up a paper, cast an unseeing eye over it – some drivel about Glian troop movements. “Well, you are right, conditionally. Should he fall into darling Jill’s honeypot, the Empire would suffer a great and unexpected loss. But that would be your making the very same mistake that we so often accuse the Princesses of making – treating all others as pawns. The Exarch’s got a heart of his own, and we’ve quite thoroughly enjoyed shitting on most of it.” He gestured to the smashed statues, the arrow-filled portraits. Then, thinking better of it, he waved the report in his hand towards the open window. “Alright, maybe most of the shitting and enjoying was my doing. But the point stands. He’s no excess of love for Byrn. And certainly no excess of love for his armor-doppelganger. There’s little use in putting forth the effort to think of such impossible futures now.” He picked up a stale seed from the old snack-tray which lay precariously balanced atop two other stacks of parchments, flicked it at the bird which made itself comfortable on the Ebon Knight’s shoulder. “Surely, priestess, whatever mad smoke-and-mirrors future you’ve conjured for us, still relies on our efforts to bring it about. The future in which we swim in women and sip coconut-wine on the North Shore of Glia and Jill gets the dicking she’s needed for, oh, twenty-five-odd-years now, will not come by us merely dreaming of it.” He shrugged. “That’s about my angle, sir. No grievances, simply a caution against having our head in the clouds. The Glian’s been a thousand years overdue for a good ass-kicking and we’ll be the ones to do it, but they haven’t rode out those thousand years on nothing. And this new breed of extra-nasties aren’t going to make it easy. Best not to think of warm and fuzzy futures and holding out for hope.”
  2. Somehow, she had been expecting adversity, so when the time came and she found none, Lily didn’t have much to do but to stand there and feel all the tension drain out of her. They were in Madon’s old chambers now, almost pristine, even while the remainder of the palace – and indeed, the city proper – lay in shambles. The grand arched windows, taking up the whole height of the wall, were open to evening, and the curtains blew with dust like awaiting spectres, standing guard over the aestival overlook. Soldiers worked to restore the buildings they had burnt; the armories locked, and the locks already rusting with disuse, as they wielded hammer and rope to reassemble the city. Isore would not fall again…so they hoped. Jill locked the door once Lily had planted herself onto the bed, which had laid in disuse for months. The girl did not show any intention of moving. “Innes,” she said suddenly. “That’s his name…right? That man who stood behind the knight in shining armor.” Her voice lacked the cadence of a joke. She wasn’t sure if it was anything but a jest, herself. Then she produced the dragonstone. It swung a pendulum in her hands. Counting seconds. “I’ve made it all the way to the Ebon Knight and now I don’t know anything. I don’t know if I am a prisoner or I am merely a message.” Suddenly, all the camaraderie she felt for the brothers had vanished. The younger brother sat stiff-backed against the wall, at guard. They had been tasked to protect her on her travels, and so in doing so they were companions. Now the task was complete. Rolliam defaulted, as they all did, to awaiting orders and, in the absence of them, doing absolutely nothing. What he thought of, he didn’t dare give voice to them. Not because he might be punished for it, but because it was simply not the thing to do. “Rolliam. Talk to me. Tell me what I’m here for. You and your brother spent an awful long time keeping me company. I feel like I spent so many weeks asking, “are we there yet?”, and now we’re here and I’ve got just no idea. What about you, lady knight? What am I doing under the burned roof of Isore, with those who burned it?”
  3. The pair of horses went across the plain. Their hooves plowed ditches through the same ash that had been turned a hundred times over and despite this, the lieutenant always had a new story to tell her. He did not possess a talent for histrionics, nor were the contents of the stories themselves particularly interesting. In the present time, however, where inconstancy was a method of waging war and routine was found only in the scripture chorus of the endless drumming march, Rue had begun to find their evening rides together to be the only thing that did not disappoint her. They rode together, and he stuck close to her left to the west, hunched low into his horse as the sun set far beyond them both. She had become somewhat fond of the lieutenant’s silhouette. Every so often, they would pass beneath the shadow of the some peak of Egon’s, and the lieutenant, struck by some solemn post-monition of the past, would swing his arms wide and gesture to some stone formation which had parted around the imaginary aspect of trees, or left the impressions of huts unscathed in a plain of flood basalt, and he would tell her about all the many dead villages buried beneath the ashlands. “Ridenium, Iakotho, Coridaelos,” he said. “I knew all of those places. Spent a fair few summers wintering with my aunt who lived around here, a hamlet called Eleuthiera. She cleared out before Egon blew, bless her.” He pointed out a crevasse in the mountains, where he’d gotten lost with a gaggle of troublemakers and wild children he’d called playmates, and had to overnight in cave full of glittering gems. The lieutenant still nursed snatches of memories from childhood enough to orient himself in time. “You might think that was a long time ago, but I came back just a few years ago to help my auntie pack up and I could still find just about every tree there was right where I remembered it. It was all the same, sleepy, for so long. Totally unchanged.” He was still amazed. “And then everything was suddenly different. Natural results for messing with the powers that be, I guess. No disrespect intended, ma’am.” “Oh, I wish I had the guts and the brawn to pull something like that off.” Then she thought better of herself. “No, don’t take that seriously. I don’t have something like that and I hope I never will.” “Well, ma’am, long as you’re on our side I can say that I don’t mind it.” A cool shade blew over them. Above, a mighty spar of rock jut out from Egon’s wounded flank. “Theory is that rocks and the shape of the earth are determined by small, constant things, like the force of wind and water, but I just can’t buy it. Nothing changes, and then when the gods put a whim to it, everything does.” “Uniformitarianism,” she said. She shrugged off the man’s stare. “One of my old friends did landscapes. Very...enthusiastic about the workings of nature and earth. He ended up off the deep end in geology at the academy.” “You went to an academy? I’d thought that you were a rough and tumble sort of character, ma’am.” Surprised? Amused? They all knew of her as Crowley’s apprentice, so under the table there must’ve been rumour concerning where he’d found her. Coupled with her characteristic scruffiness and lack of grace...impressions were difficult things to change, particularly when they were true. She leaned into the mane of her horse, hiding her face. “I...well, that’s just a memory.” It had come up unbidden. It wasn’t a part of her now. “Uniformitarianism,” she said again. “The theory of wind and water, as you called it.” “Sure. Well, so much for little steps. One eruption,” he snapped a finger. “And just like that, an end of an era of peace. Now Caigh Ayrd’s a deathtrap on the best of days. Towns all smoked to a crisp and Magmin crawling across the countryside burning everything they touch. Wicked beasts, they are.” “Looks peaceful enough. That’s hardly deathtrap material.” “Well, we just about cleared them out between the Leggies and us.” The lieutenant pointed out a crumbled pillar of basalt. “Hard to tell, but that used to be one right there. Gave us a little trouble a few days ago. Private Dance got burned a little trying to cut off a horn to take home.” “They sounded pretty terrifying?” The lieutenant broke into a laugh. “Them’s just the stories. A dozen good men and good steel can take one, no problem. But they’re mighty intimidating in peacetime to ordinary adventurers and the like.” “How come Andelusia doesn’t come and clear them out for good then? Isn’t Oakenshield Town on fire half the time on account of these?” The lieutenant shrugged. “Mountain keeps spewing them out. There’s no real stopping it. And there are always other enemies to fight. This business with the Leggies. Peacekeeping on the rough side of Corinth. The army’s stretched thin enough as is. It’s too bad about Caigh Ayrd, but…” He spat into the ground. It was black with ash. He gave her a smile twisted by the ashen wind into a snarl, and she saw soot-blackened teeth. She must have had the same. “All honest, ma’am, there’s nothing left of what I remember here. It’s a shithole. Can’t grow crops, no wood left unburned. Just dead land. Ask me, Oakenshield ought to get out of here instead of throwing their little boys into the furnace over and over again. But the civvies can be stubborn, eh?” He shrugged. “Guess that’s all wind-and-water, then. If there’s anything that’ll put an end to the magmin, it’s for this land to heal over time. No grand strokes are gonna solve Misral’s problems.” Wind and water. Slow changes. Rue kept her eyes right ahead as they rode up the mountainside. Dark, billowing pillars rose from the war camps carpeting the valley, unintentional smoke signals carving shadowy relief into the eventide light that spilled over the tips of the mountains. For now, they were a part of the skyline, but they wouldn’t last. Nothing here would be changed permanently by their presence, for better or for worse. Crowley was waiting at the center of a disc of flattened volcanic rock. Whether or not it had been flat before the Oathblade had gone there the first time was anyone’s guess. Orenmir was no Guzon. But Crowley, the man, was as enigmatic as the wind and water. In the center of the disc was his usual perch, a small boulder which doubled as a bench rising from the otherwise featureless rock. The man was sitting there now, nodding to her as she dismounted. The lieutenant saluted, then vanished into the jags that surrounded the clearing which struck into the air like bristling quills, nearly enclosing the area. The damage that had been done to this former plateau had been enormous; hidden thus by cracked lava which had dried shards of glass, Crowley seemed to favor the place as his own escape from the larger world. It was a little outside the Corinthian warcamp, but in generally friendly territory. Still, the lieutenant escorted her as precaution, and he was out there now rooting out any spies or legionnaires who’d lost themselves in the mountains. There was little else that demanded his attention at the moment. The Corinthian army had dug down and fortified themselves while the Pact had done the same. Soldiers picked up their swords and mounted up only to posture. Blood was spilled chiefly by the chickens slaughtered for the stewpots of either side. The game was to wait. For the Oathblade and his protégé, it meant a return to more stringent days of training. She was happy to do it. War was best at a distance. She had managed the first battle without needing to kill anyone. Rue had said her fair share of thanks, but they came out empty anyway. It wasn’t something she had cared to repeat. Swinging at rocks, though, she could handle. Every time she did it, she felt even more convinced she wouldn’t have to do it without the training wheels. Rue clasped in her hand a wooden spar, one of the many that they had left lying around the clearing from past days. She looked like she didn’t want to be around. Of course. She’d looked like that for months. It was only starting to lessen now. “Are we gonna start?” @Wade
  4. This has never happened to her before, is her first instinctual thought, and it’d be true but not in the way that anyone ought to think of it. Sand, as far as the foot can carry her, which is not so far, and beyond that, sea. In the distance, across miles of open water, the towers of Onstade aspire in the noonday sun to be nothing more than fragmented dreams and faulty memories. Every time a jolt of pain splits her head, which is often, the images waver, grow mistier. It is not what Owend expects. Therein lies the mystery. She has never blacked out to wake up on a desert island before, is what Owend means. Beside her in the shade of the island’s lone palm lies Tolok, sucking his thumb and turning over in his sleep. He is missing just about all of his clothing, except a set of boxers to save his modesty. Cast over him is Owend’s riding cloak. The man is at peace. Oh – well. She picks at the corner of the fabric. Owend doesn’t know where most of her clothes are, either, but they’re both decent enough to quell any doubts she might’ve had concerning impropriety. More likely, they tried to go midnight swimming. “Shit. Gods-damn, I’d like something to drink.” She put her face into her hands, massaging her temples. It feels like she’s been breathing sand the whole night. Lucky enough that they were both still breathing. But, of course she could lead the both of them through whatever trial they’d decided to embark upon. Even dead drunk, Owend was sharp as a razor. One didn’t make it through Severa’s banquets without such a faculty. She shook him. “Tolok? Hey. It’s morning.” Again, the sort of thing that’s true but not in the usual way. Small little lies keep the dream of normalcy alive. When she picks herself up it feels like she’s been stabbed in the small of the back. The feeling is familiar. Bad sleeping posture, worse beds. The sort of thing that a soldier learns to avoid after the first few hellish nights breaking camp in the woods. Sand doesn’t fit the bill. When she looks at the rock that she passed out on, she finds a wooden box instead. Inside are about three bottles of whiskey. Owend smiles. Sharp as a razor, alright. By the time the boat arrives, she’s in fine mood again, with two left to share.
  5. A long time before they came into Trebula they found the first bodies. Men from the city turned spade and tossed soil atop the piles stacked two or three high. In the shallow ditches, they were all naked, but even so Suzie could tell by the long pale sickle lines scarring their backs and arms and the way that the paleness began at the base of the neck, where the helm began, that they had been soldiers. “That’s no good,” Timothius grumbled from the horse beside her. “They ought to be burning the things.” Things, no help to the living but for the gravediggers’ guilds and the autopsists. Suzie brought her horse around to the far side of the road, keeping distance. Mostly, it was the wearied demeanor of the diggers that she feared to be contagious. The bodies had not started to stink. The battle must have been fresh. Wagons moved up and down the road. Those coming toward carried bodies. The others were stacked high with dented armor. Good steel, all of it. Bloodied, perhaps, but blood nothing more inevitable than rust. Evening hid on the far side of the mountains. The clouds above were illuminated, and the light landed very far away. The air had the feeling of cool water. Stacks of smoke rose from all across the plain, provenance unknown. The girl had never left Corinth and she had not had the imagination to dream of distant places, or distant people. These people looked a little different, and this land had a paleness to the earth that was different, too. Still, they died the same. Suzie didn’t know; was it the Corinthian regulars that squared off against the legions? Or some other mainland-sympathetic force? Maybe it wasn’t that the people here died the same, but that they were killed the same as in those wars in Corinth. A long time before the came into Trebula they found what they were looking for. A mass of tents spread out across torched farmland. Refugees, displaced from other villages in chain as the armies chomped at the bit in the shadow of Tellius’ Rest. It was a miracle that Trebula still stood, she heard Master Salamanca muse. Bearing upon its broken back the weight of a half-dozen other villages, and a tide from the north besides. The people of Thraece had built beautiful buildings in their cities, but now they lived in tents such as these while the fires burned. Timothius was rightly pleased, in the same grim way that doctors in need seem to present themselves. “It’s going to be a cesspool. Hope you’re up to the task, Suzie.” She was pleased, too – not pleased, rather, but thrilled. Daunted? Importance heaped on her as heavy and real as the weight of the medicines upon the mule’s back, pulled along in their caravan. “Always. We’re here to make a difference, aren’t we?” Awful lot of that to be made, she thought privately. @Wade
  6. Mark of interest. A few thoughts, all interrelated: 1. I assume we will not be choosing our partners; will they be random assignment from the pool of contestants? 2. We will be actively competing against our partners, yes? (Insofar as one can compete in light of such fluid criteria). Not that I imagine this poses a particularly strong conflict of interest in practice (ideally, the spirit of the competition is to shine with your partners), but what do you expect of the mechanics of this oddly balanced relationship? One post owes its own strength to the situations and opportunities created by another, after all.
  7. The world can change so very quickly – beyond anyone’s ability to predict. Who would have expected that upon his first visit to the Walled City, a place so long spoken of with hushed tones – a fixture in the fates and fortunes of every empire in the last thousand years, a city with history – Innes would end up walking up and down the Exarch’s own palace, scuffing dirt and ash down every carpet, stomping on the shattered portraits of an unbroken line of kings, sleeping in his bed? The man wasn’t at all ashamed to admit that he liked it. Nobody had dreamed of this, but the gods had seen fit to make it happen, and he should have everything and that some other man, who once had all this, now had nothing to his name. Sometimes, Innes stopped in the middle of a hall just to admire it. The audacity. He even felt bad for the Exarch. It sent a shiver down his spine to think of it. A city brought to its knees, a king put to flight. So very quickly can the world change. Once, when the duty of watching over this dead city had become too droll, he had even propositioned Jill to amuse himself. “Suppose,” he said, squeezing her shoulder and walking his fingers round the nape of her neck, “the two of us went up to the Exarch’s personal chambers and fucked in his bed. Hm?” Red as smoldering iron, she demanded a duel to the death on the spot. That had amused him proper. She would have won, of course – so he ran, leaving behind coarse laughter like the braying of a monkey. But that was the way of things. Jill, too, was acutely aware of where now they stood, of how easily they trampled over the Exarch’s belongings both physical and ephemeral. She gave such wonderful reactions because she understood that they were capable, really, of destroying what little dignity remained in this city. They had been the axe that had levelled it; and now they were the rope that restrained its last stroke. Innes made sport of filling the portraits with arrows. He shot the eyes out every bust. Those hollow holes watched him as he went through these ashen halls. Seeing a bastard. A bastard who was proud of it. That was an illusion. Honesty masquerades as pride to those who search for sin. Innes was nothing more than a man who was honest with himself. Or a bastard who was honest with himself, anyway. The Ebon Knight may have disapproved, and may even have been disappointed by this tendency in him. But there’s faith in an honest bastard. Innes didn’t hate anyone, nor was he cruel – except perhaps to Jill, on occasion. He was loyal, faithful to his country, zealous in his action, and swift in rising to the occasion. If the next day, they found themselves in reversed positions, fighting alongside the Exarch, he knew that Innes would not have blinked, nor questioned it, nor act any less zealously to support him. If nothing else, you could trust an honest bastard. Even if the bastard pretended to be obstinate. “If the time ever comes for good relations between Isore and Byrn, Jill will be the best one to forge that bond.” Innes sat by the window, watched the two scouts and girl come in. A flicker of familiarity, all too brief; then, forgetting it, he canted his head at the Knight’s gentle rebuke. “Au contraire, sir, if there ever comes a time when Isore must be sacked, and its throne room turned out, and its people destroyed, and its king slain, she shall be the least prepared of them all,” he replied. “Ah. And I wonder when such a time might come about?” Innes scuffed the ground with his boot, kicking up a cloud of ash. He approached the table which the Ebon Knight had appropriated from the war room into the main hall. The man himself had not seemed to move from the table in the past month. Always thinking of war. Always thinking of how to hold the front together while they postured against the Glians in the north, quelled Isorian mainforcers in the south, and established lines in preparation for the great push soon coming. War, day and night. That was the business. And the man still had the mind to think of impossible futures? “Besides, there’s a reason they make sure political marriages are loveless. Peace between nations doesn’t come when both parties are thinking with their cocks.” Innes pulled up a chair. “I do wonder if sitting in his seat has made you sentimental. Or, god forbid, sympathetic. I suppose you may call me simple-minded, but the Exarch is at the moment, our enemy. Perhaps he is not the enemy, but he has fled now to that perfidious country, Glia. No doubt, they shall begin aggressive movements soon. I’m certain they will show us no mercy.” It was all old news. Although the Knight made himself busy, the matters of establishing the front were routine and pedestrian. They all knew when the real uncertainty began to take hold, when the coins were to be tossed. They had been waiting for the day for a long time. And now, the day drew close. The scouts’ arrivals heralded its approach. Innes stood as the doors fell open, bringing the trio in. “Roland. Rolliam.” He nodded to the two scouts. And looked at the third. “Is this the girl spoken of in your reports, Roland?”
  8. A plea for help. Olivia pretended to contemplate it. Orsola was not desperate but she was showing cracks. Pressed from within, responsibility weighed on her like an explosion she struggled to contain within herself. The search for her mother; the shock of knowing her dead father; and whatever else she thought would eventually come to pass, and assuaging dark futures. The girl had the Princess’s sympathy. Not too much of it, and not all of it, but she knew how to felt to be semi-divine. And that was what it was. All of them had some belief that history turned on their dime. Their actions were the important ones. So she understood how difficult it was for Orsola to ask such things from any other. “If you don’t ask for promises, you won’t receive them. Even if they’re willingly given.” Her eyes pointed straight ahead, steely. “They are all under my protection, Orsola. Isore, Dodon, the Valley – even Zenith and Byrn. And everyone within. Madon included. We will give an end to this madness that has taken the Erasmia over. That much, I do promise.” “Armor as protection for the soul...huh?” She reached over, poked Tolok in the chest, made a face. “Well, no armor for your tender heart now, is there?” She didn’t know what else to say. Severa had been right after all; the knight was a simple man. He was simple, but far from simple-minded. Though the list of them dwindled by the hour, he still believed in the good things, and repudiated the bad. Admirable? “Well, your father must have been a brilliant man. A master smith, and he could see the future too.” Owend rested her face on her palms. Tolok was bitter, yet shone, red-faced the way that one was when overcome by the deep shame of spilling one’s heart. Although he tried to keep his eyes flat, emotionless, she could see they were really more overcome with the opposite. Just like about every other man in the world, she knew that he wasn’t really about to cry, nor could he be made to; but this might’ve been the closest he could get. “You’re a good person, aren’t you? No wonder they call you a knight. Even if you never had a lord.” “War is hell, but it’s important to stay frosty, Tolok. There’s still a world out there for people like us –“ Owend grimaced. “Well, for people like you. Though I’d rather not think about myself at the moment.” “Maybe you should take the same advice. We’re here, Tolok, and that’s all. For now, we don’t need to be angels wading through hell the way you think of us. For now, we’re just ordinary people. We can be that way. And we’re allowed to be. We can’t change the world alone, and we can’t change the world now. But once we’re through with it, I think you’ll find that we’ve done our damndest.” She lifted her glass, a sort of half-smile on her lips. “So. Relax a little. Maybe this is a bit too much self-love, but here’s – here’s to us.”
  9. “But this is war for you,” Rolliam shrugged. Resigned? Maybe she could understand. Even now, looking at the Walled City, Lily was filled with a sense of dread, but from far-away, as like thunderclouds on the horizon, or silence at dawn. A feeling that she knew she was supposed to feel, but not really feeling it. It was simply there. A limp corpse from limpid yesterdays. The two brothers reminisced while they took their lunch, laid out theory and conjecture. “It was inexplicable. We had no business winning that battle…” “What if the Glian spies did see them?” “They had received no word. Completely unprepared.” “Sacrifice can be hefty…but a leader is more important than a thousand soldiers with no orders…” If Lily were in sharper mind, if she cared enough to listen to what she heard, there might have been something interesting there. Something like a shadow of politics darkening the sky. But from where she sat, and from this particular vantage, all their words came off as nothing more than trivia. Truths that simply emerged for no reason from the business of war. In chaos, things as improbable as miracle sounded like a simple matter of fact. The brothers weren’t trying to solve a great mystery of their time, nor were they concerned by the boons that the gods gave them. They only knew that these things happened, sometimes, and they would continue to happen. There was nothing more to do with any of that than pray for more miracles to keep them alive. “Yeah. Accidents happen. I read – I read plenty of them. In history, I mean.” She watched the shadow of the city move across the plains. “I guess it doesn’t matter how or why it happened. Isore was always going to fall. And it happened, just like I knew it would. Doesn’t matter what anyone did.” The breeze stirred up the grass. Underneath the only tree for miles, they watched the evening stretch long. Rolliam sighed. “They’re nice people,” Rolliam said. “Really. The squad is a good bunch. That’s all I’ll say. Though it’s up to you to decide.” She would decide for herself. Lily didn’t say that aloud. She wasn’t going to trust the opinion of people like these two. But, as time went on, she wondered if she hadn’t started to understand them.
  10. Five riders made it almost halfway across the valley, and well clear of the final offensive lines of the Novirian army, when the chariot and horse uncoupled and the ash-wall snapped to an end, a dizzying drop from earth to sky. They went thirty seconds more to shake the ash from their bodies, then brought their horses around. At first, triumph. Rue still felt the bitter bulk of the entire wall, the greasy film of suspension as it roiled and tumbled in its pillar of gas, and felt the searing heat of hundreds of bodies marching back and forth without direction, seeking reconnection but finding only an insurmountable divide. Not panic, but stasis. Her skin was coated in flavors of sulfur and carbon. She breathed it, her heart squeezed with blood black as coal. She was one with the ash, and it was vile. This, the taste of triumph. Exhilaration kept her blood pumping. Her knees shook. She tried to call for a halt. She lifted her helm. The air wasn’t fresh, but it was better. She coughed up a mouthful of phlegm, spat. It was black. She held up a hand as she gagged. “W-wait up.” Her horse came to a halt, heeding its rider. “Let’s just rest here.” The riders watched her struggle. One dipped their head, offered: “It was a neat trick, Oathsworn, but we’ve got to rendezvous with the mainforcers.” The voice was identifiably female and, resonant through the steel slats of her helm, not entirely identifiably human. Garbled, slurred by the acoustics of metal. A soldier’s voice. “The battle awaits.” “Yes, b-but…” Rue felt herself shrink, her characteristic sullenness draining like bile down her throat. Crowley had been easy to ignore. Maybe that was because she had thought it was safe to do so. Now, it seemed like she’d been playing the wrong game all this time. Maybe she should’ve given up the Oathblade when she could. Even thinking that seemed like a bad joke, though, and that was because this was triumphant. She had done something. She had put a halt to the magic, at least for a little. Surely that was worth something. Even so, she couldn’t raise an objection. These people were beyond her. They weren’t recognizable as people, only her superiors, even if they did take her orders. Crowley seemed weak in comparison. Working up the courage to argue her case took too long. “Eager to get killing? Don’t take yourself so seriously. We’re in no hurry to get back.” A second rider, this one male, piped up. “The Novirians will skewer us if we linger overmuch.” “They’re Novirians. They don’t have the brain cells to break formation.” “We’ll be needed in the charge,” the first protested. “Like hell. The Devil’s with them. That isn’t a charge, it’s plausible deniability.” “That’s enough, Pyure,” a third rider said with a sharp look at Rue. Another woman. Then, to the first: “We’re here to protect the Oathsworn, nothing more. If she remains, we remain with her.” The woman seemed to be the authoritative presence, as the others fell quiet afterwards, aside from a few mumbled yes, Captain’s. The woman’s flat voice made it clear that she wasn’t catering to the Oathsworn out of generosity. Of all of them, she seemed most attentive to mere duty. Rue didn’t care whether or not she was viewed as a burden, but she was grateful that they did their jobs. They went into a stand of broken trees and meandered up a hill. The captain pulled them to an outcrop, pointed a finger. Pyure pulled his horse back from the ledge so Rue could catch up. There they watched what they’d wrought. Where the field had once been Novirian maniples arranged in neat boxes, it now underwent a transformation marked by a sweeping edge of Corinthian white, which went across the field a magician’s hand, leaving behind trampled chaos. She could hardly take her eyes away. She felt herself grow cold. The first rider, the eager one, clapped Rue’s shoulder. “Looks like ordinary madness down there. Without the magi battering them, we might cinch this without losing a sister.” Rue laughed along nervously. From this distance, she couldn’t really see anything, and maybe that made it easy to feel as if she’d done something great. But the maniples collapsed one after another, falling into retreat. After the silvery wave passed them over, hardly any motion was left at all. The four riders gave up a cheer. This, the taste of triumph. Bitter, greasy, sulphurous, something began to slough off of her. The ash wall began to collapse. It was not visible at first, and it would not vanish for long minutes more. Still, all the same, she felt the control slip her grasp. Guzon stirred. It was sufficient. They seemed content enough to sit and watch the carnage. Every so often, the captain would look over at her, as if she were a ghost that would vanish in smoke if not looked at and reaffirmed at any moment. Rue worked up the courage one of those times. She told her that the spell failed. “So much for that trick,” the captain muttered. “Tack up. We’ll ride out to meet the general, then. If we hurry, we’ll get to them before the Novirians start taking potshots.”
  11. “Camaraderie?” She laughed. Of course, Tolok was right. He was a free spirit. From the point of view of an outsider the duty soldiers had for one another might have consituted friendship. But that wasn’t quite right. That was family; indeed, an unbreakable string. But it wasn’t tied to much. Family, you didn’t have to like. Family, you didn’t talk of dreams or anxieties with, you didn’t entrust with your heart because a family was not forged from common spirits but rather duty. You protected each other, died for each other, because you were family. Nothing much else. The waitress stopped by. Owend ordered for the two of them, looking to Tolok to ask what he wanted. Her accent changed when she spoke to the waitress. Consonants rolled, vowels reverberated in her throat. There were a few words that the man couldn’t quite catch there. Although everything was written the same way as classical Glian, the speech went beyond him. “My mother was from Onstade,” Owend explained. “When I was in Academy everyone made fun of my provincial accent. But being able to speak the dialect does come in handy when I’m back here. Came here pretty often in my childhood. Though, if you’re going to ask, I’ll tell you that I had lots of friends when I was a child. Had lots of smitten little boys and girls fawning over me…” Owend grinned. “Is that what you expect me to say? Because it’s certainly true enough. Just like anyone’s glorious cherry-colored youth. But you know, things happen. Now I’m sure they wouldn’t recognize me, Lieutenant in the knighthood, and I wouldn’t recognize them, either. I think you were right, actually – camaraderie is a big part of friendship. Just a part, though. But how much camaraderie could you expect after one kiddie summer splashing about on the beach? I think people use that word, friend, too lightly. I think –” Owend paused, thought better of her rant. “Well, what about you? Being the ‘free spirit’ you are, you must have made some friends along the way.” “Nobody out of the ordinary, like all of you.” Darling man, he meant it too. “Oh, come off it. They’re a spectacular bunch, but...well, I take offense to being lumped in with that lot. I think I’m pretty ordinary, myself,” Owend laughed. “We might not be as strong as them, but we can aspire to be better, to help them however we can.” Maybe Tolok had a better sense of what it meant to cross the barrier between ordinary and super-ordinary. Not her, no. She was just an ordinary lass, her. Maybe that was why the future so daunted her. Owend gave him a funny look. “Tolok. I don’t mean to spoil the moment, but...could I ask what you’re doing here?” She held up a glass, watched the waitress fill it back up with wine. “This whole war business. I’m sure that if you weren’t tied down like so – having the Exarch, or now the Princess, tell you where to go and what to do – you probably could’ve made plenty of progress on your own...priorities. Is it just a matter of convenience?” Owend rest her chin on her fingertips. “Though I can’t imagine what’s so convenient about it. You’re from Dodon, too, aren’t you? Not exactly the sort of person I’d expect to be fired up about Isorian injustice.”
  12. A gamut of blades – many looking as if they were to be wielded only by those who expected to be unopposed – ending in the point of a rapier. Roland tested it first, flicked it back and forth, then handed it to her with a satisfied grunt. She whacked it about haphazardly, while the three men made sure to stand well out of reach. It was light, breezy, and made her feel just that much more. As if there was a spirit of adventure in the thing, and by being so imbued she, too, was given over to adventure. The metal was warm, and blunt save the very tip, which was sharp as a thorn. Not much for killing, she thought. That was her favorite bit. Not unless she tried very hard to. The two brothers started conferring with one another. “I’ve heard tell that skilled wielders have been capable of taking down heavily armored Isorian Knights and the well-bred horse riders of Dodon with them in a single blow.” “Well, it might take a while to take down those turtles of knights,” Rolliam replied, “but I like its look.” “Couldn’t you two just let me have my fun with it,” she said unhappily, “instead of keeping on about…that.” Roland raised an eyebrow, as if to ask her – well, what was she intending on doing with such a length of metal, then? But he said nothing. He turned to the blacksmith, handed over a silver coin. “Seems she’s taken a liking to it.” The three of them headed back, Rolliam with his sack of food – some perishable for them to take away, but most of which was dried and ready to be squirreled away in the cupboards – and Roland with a small wagon piled high with clothing and other toiletries. All this to leave the safehouse better than they found it. If only people took the same lesson to heart everywhere they went, Lily thought, then maybe she wouldn’t need the sword that now hung over her shoulder. But no, that was a child’s view; there were no real wicked in the world. Just people caught up in different webs, dreaming of different futures. She turned the sword over and over at her hip, rested her hands on the hilt and touched it to see the way it felt. It was new, exciting, but all the same she couldn’t help but feel glum about it. Deep inside, she felt as if she’d accepted something unpleasant within her and in so doing, consigned another piece of her being to destruction. The three set off at noon the very next day. Rolliam roused both Lily and his elder brother. The two of them had hit the beds as solidly as bricks, and awoke about just as easily. All the fatigue of the previous days which had built upon them, weighty as limescale, sloughed off in the hot baths and warm beds that the safehouse provided them. Fresh horses, fresh food, fresh clothing. A fresh accomplice in Roland’s brother. It was a new day, and at last a journey of some weeks was to come to an end. They took the main road, no longer fearful, and made pace towards their destination at an easy trot. The fortress city appeared a blot on the horizon soon enough. They broke for a late afternoon dinner on a grassy hillside in full view of Isore, all of their attentions held by the silhouette of the city. Some shadow must have passed over her face and remained there, for Rolliam spoke up after a little while. “Something bothering you, Lily?” “Not in particular.” How long had it been? One month? Two? She couldn’t remember. “Maybe I just didn’t really think about where we were going.” A little while later, she said, “I can’t believe it’s still there. After all that, and it’s still there. Abandoned by its Exarch.” Her voice sounded morose. “Not that he had much of a choice, I guess.”
  13. Ash from the sky. Ash from the earth. The storm moved across the wastes nothing more than the confusion of ash, with rare figures of horses and grit-teeth knights breaching the veil like mirages. Pounding hooves brought the thunder, flickering snatches of raised lance-point the lightning, and in the midst of all this madness they had called the vanguard, as she squinted around to see a cohort of men and women – most around her own age, some even younger – with their helmets bowed to the wind and their eyes burning straight ahead, Rue remembered, somewhat incongruously, the first time she had been taken to an improvisation social. It was the fashionable thing at the time, gatherings of like-minded artists challenged to originality within the precious hours of the party. But those were just the facts. What Rue remembered was the way everyone looked there. She still couldn’t describe it. It was like the room was full of ghosts running games like Simon Says. Everyone behaved just a little bit out of the ordinary – they would talk to each other but words came out entirely meaninglessly, as if code – but she was certain that whatever they were doing had to have made sense since it was so consistent. Everyone got the memo but her. Rue learned afterwards from her acquaintances that she had come to it all wrong; that the real point – as if there were all sorts of false purposes and prophets in the world and that she should have known them all – was not to let the paint do the talking, since paint could not speak, but to assert one’s own ego as the superior after all. Sure it had to seem obvious later. But at that moment she was woefully unprepared, and there was always something new. Now was as then, but. Now she had an idea about what it was all about, and maybe that made it worse when she looked at those faces her age and younger, all fixated on singular purpose, and had absolutely no idea why. The trick is to quit thinking. Guzon was reading her mind again. The more time went on the deeper he wormed his way in there. Rue didn’t like that. He went on. We ride to war, that’s all. That’s all. Sure. That’s what it was. She was overthinking, or maybe overfeeling. Close enough. You can feel later. As for now, all it is, is the honour of the battle. “Don’t give me that horseshit,” she snapped back. Of course Guzon didn’t think that way. Guzon was a knight’s blade, to whom honor was as real as it could be to anyone. But she couldn’t abide by it. She had known enough of violence in the slums. Truth being that it was easy enough to avoid getting killed, because all it took was keeping your face to the dirt. Thugs murdered each other over money often enough, but more common was because men had egos bruised as easily as an apple. “Honor’s a damn dupe to get people to kill each other and call it right.” Well, here we are, about to kill anyway, Guzon said softly. With that, he winked out of her mind. A tell-tale shimmer out the corner of her eye let her know that he would be there for her to wield, and little else. Lingering doubts were fine things to have in peacetime, but she would have to make that peace herself. The vanguard had Crowley at the head. That hadn’t surprised her. He seemed like the sort of man to embrace that adage, great leaders lead from the front. Chivalry’s corpse still being dragged along by the ventriloquist efforts of people like him. She was just a little ways behind, with a handful of lieutenants and the riders that Crowley told to keep an eye on her. Though anyone else might have been patronized, at that time she had nothing but relief. Even if he told her she was more a prize than a predator, that was just how she felt. It was more important that they were on the same page to start out on. That had been as far as her relief had gone. Now, approaching the fatal valley, she found that her terror mounted again. A rider fell in beside her. They put a finger to the underside of their chin, then made a signal with their hands beside their visor. The message was clear enough. Eyes forward, chest puffed out, give them a fearful sight. A charge lived or died on how much fear and confusion it spread. They rounded a bluff and the valley opened out beneath the riders rounding the lip. Rue gasped, regretted it when the settling ash blew into her mouth, and still couldn’t close her mouth because it was the first time she’d seen a legion at work. They lined the hills on both valleys, cohorts arranged all the way up the steps on both sides. On the one sidem massed groups of men besieged a little raised butte carved from the rock. Sorcery arced from the far side, blasting clouds of dust from the rock where they struck the fortified position. It looked bad. It looked like every classical depiction of war she’d seen, just without all the glory and atmosphere. Take all that away and all that’s left is a land strewn with unmoving bodies. The ashstorm had largely swerved the valley; patches of light poked through the clouds, showing blue behind them. The air was clear and cheery and she thought that, if the land had not been covered in ash, she could imagine picnicking here. Crowley slowed the charge to an observational trot. His helmet tilted to the side as his officers came close. Scheming a plan. Another strand of sorcery flew through the sky, arcing like a baseball. It struck a boulder and both disintegrated. Then the fireworks lulled. The cohorts on the left side of the valley were shifting about. Rotating. Something happened. The horses started jittering. Crowley looked up, shouted a command. The column split in two. The tumult picked her up and swept her along the half that went away from the man. She tried to call out to him when the mountainside exploded. The sorcerors had turned their eyes on the cavalry. The air was clear and although that made their entrance at the top of the valley grand, it made them obvious. Everyone in the valley got an eyeful. They knew who they were, why they were there. The regular soldiers were just wondering when the heroics were going to start. Evidently, the sharp-eyed mages had thought little of that idea. Another explosion, closer this time. A few men fell off blasted mounts, their armor and bodies simply ripped open by the force of it. Rue’s stomach revolted. Rue flipped up her visor, vomited off the side. She felt ice cold. She started to shake. One breath. She tried to remember whatever Crowley taught her. Oathblade first. She thought of the sparkle and shine that hung around her, omnipresent. She reached out for it. She reached too far. Her mind went past itself, outwards, into the earth that was Guzon’s boon, caked in ashed that slipped beneath her mount’s hooves, sloughing in waves. It was grimy. Rue recoiled. It wasn’t the same earth she felt before. It was bitter, suffocating. She felt blind again, just as when the ashstorm had been coming down in sheets and made even the closest riders fade into shadows, isolating her. She blinked hard. No, that wasn’t the earth that did it. She tried to wipe her eyes. Tears. All the same. Then she got an idea. She asked Guzon about it. I’m just a blade. I know nothing, he said. He was being wise with her. Still full of doubts, she reached out herself, tried to touch the ground again. And then, when it answered, she knew all she needed to know. Rue raised an arm, waved. The nearest rider came to her. Was it the same as before? She couldn’t tell. Rue held up four fingers, then pointed down the center of the valley. Then she made the sign to tell Crowley. The rider stared at her for what felt like an eternity. Of course they would not have faith when an apprentice wanted to run down the legion with four knights. But, Rue found, surely there was no faith to be found anywhere in the hell of war. Only orders to be obeyed. She made the sign again, more insistently. She was obeyed. Maybe because they were worried that she’d get herself killed in the worst of all worlds. Five riders pulled off the vanguard. Four screened ahead, lances and polearms sweeping close to the ground. One kept her head down in the back and urged her horse onwards, whispering to herself, feeling the earth move. They charged the side of the Novirian army, a straight line down the center of the valley. Five riders weren’t much of a charge; but the Novirians didn’t know that. The riders pulled behind them an ash plume large as one stirred up by a charge of a hundred, all of it thrown by the horse in the back. It chased the five like a crashing wave, collapsing in on itself over and over and growing only larger each time it did so. The ground shook, trembling with the weight of a thousand horses. The legions didn’t panic. They had been drilled to deal with the ordinary. Centurions rallied their men, formed tight lines. The legions parted, pulling out of the path to minimize trampling. Rearguard maniples shifted their shields, hemming the charge away from the brunt of the army. Five riders gladly curved themselves, threading a wide needle between the front and rear legions, cutting down any over-eager legionnaires who approached and keeping far away from the reach of the spear-walls. The cavalry charge seemed uninterested in killing. That made it strange. Centurions held their troops, wary of a trick. The plume they dragged came, and washed over the base of the valley, cutting it cleanly in two. The Novirian mages waited, held back until the dust settled and they could flood the valley with fire and fury. But the dust did not settle. It wouldn’t settle for a little while yet. All there was, was half an army cut off on one side by a curtain wall of ash, left without fire support or visibility.
  14. The shroud of dusk was drawn over the sky by the tail of the sun, and the two women talking there hardly noticed at all. The change was gradual. There was still light enough to see; evening still glimmered a brightly beaded gem on the sea. But the tides did turn. Water crept up the shore, nearly lapping at their feet. “Well, perhaps we should return,” Olivia said. “I think we’ll have plenty of time to mull over the matter later, when it’s...cheerier out here.” Orsola agreed. The features of the formation had been erased by the decline of the sun, and now towered a dark bulk out to sea like an old wreckage. A cool wind had picked up, too. Two lonesome figures made their way over the sands. Where the legate had driven off, was left another chariot with driver waiting at alert. He snapped a smart salute once Olivia and Orsola approached. The legate had been thoughtful enough not to abandon the Princess to a long evening of walking. The chariot started down the street. Olivia did something with her hands. Suddenly, all noise vanished from around them. Orsola startled, then looked between Olivia and the driver. Olivia brushed her ears meaningfully, then motioned for the girl to continue. “We can keep talking, if you like.” Orsola relaxed. “I was thinking of my mother.” Ah, the mysterious woman. Olivia laughed as it suddenly came to her – of course the girl had a mother! Madon hadn’t mentioned anything about it to her. Perhaps the man was embarrassed. More likely, it was a woman he’d yet to meet. Now that the potentiality of it went into her mind, it lodged there. It would be rude to pester Madon about it. But if Orsola was willing to share… Olivia leaned forward. “Oh, do tell. I do love gossip.” The girl shook her head. A wistful chuckle. “I wish I could indulge in something like that. But – no. The truth is...though it’s a great joy for me to finally meet my father, who’d perished before I was even born, the matter of my mother is not so cut and dry. I never knew her, you see. By the time I was old enough to remember things clearly, she had long been gone.” “I’m sorry to hear it.” The girl shrugged, as if to say that it posed no great inconvenience to her. Madon would do something just like that. Pretensions of stoicism until the bitter end, poisoned by mortal sentiment. The girl was one after her own heart, Olivia thought. It filled her with not sadness but approval. Orsola watched the pillar retreating behind them. “Well, I can’t say I haven’t been curious. Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken to accompany Madon’s force instead of striking out on my own. To see what woman he might grow close to…” Olivia tilted her head. “Not to get to know your own father? Retake that which was robbed of you?” She was gentle the way she said it. “It’s alright to admit to weakness. I might understand how you feel. My own parents were slain when I was but a child, just fifteen years ago. There’s no shame in feeling that loss. Nor missing them.” “Well…” Orsola hesitated. “My mother...you might think she fell in battle, and that’s what I’d be told initially. But Lady Owend eventually told me the truth, before I came back. She simply left after I was born – vanished into thin air.” A word hovered there, abandoned, that the girl dared not say out of fear that by saying it it might become true in her mind. Bleeding a hand full of cards. The girl was vulnerable at her heart. Olivia took a deep breath. “I see. I suppose you wish to know why? What shall you do when you do find her?”
  15. Rue paused by a crenel in the castle walls, where a bitter breeze sucked all the moisture from the interior of the castle, leaving chapped rock in its wake. Outside, flakes of ash like snow. It made her uneasy. It piled up in snowdrifts – ashdrifts, she thought – and the world was stilled by its touch. Her memories mutinied. The pure white of snow seemed now merely a monochrome shade of gray. Char on the wind and a touch of sulfur, too. That much was different from snow, at least, a little something that clearly demarcated the lines. But the rest started to blend. Much of the past month was just that – an undifferentiated conglomerate of similar motions in vaguely familiar shapes. Crowley cutting a sharp figure as the keystone at the very center of it all. And armed spectres of massed men and women, riding in, riding out, disappearing to distant fields unseen. Apparently that was war, all beneath the ashen sky. Feeling disturbed, she called out to Guzon. “Ever seen anything like it?” “The ashstorm?” Guzon stirred in the back of her mind. “Not that exactly, but plenty enough of the same.” Then, at her blank look: “Desolation is the Oathblade’s currency.” “Plenty,” she repeated. For a brief moment she considered how to respond to that, or what it even meant. In the end, she decided that it was nothing more than fancy nihilist talk, the sort of fatalistic mold that souls like Guzon and Crowley fashioned themselves into – for what? Sheer romance? She carried on. Crowley had called her to the armory and to the armory she went now. Or tried her best. Although the castle’s exterior was compact and unimpressive, she had been walking for too long. Several times she had passed the same torch-sconce, she was certain of it. Rue knew she picked bad paths to walk along. She tried to keep to the exterior of the castle so she could find her bearings by the windows, but that didn’t always work. Call it an inherent lack of direction; she wasn’t good at choosing the straighter road. The swell of voices. Sword-scabbards clattering against thigh armor. When they rounded the corner they fell quiet. They didn’t try to hide it; no awkward tapering off or out-loud excuses for propriety, they just shut their mouths and marched on past her. One of them side-eyed her. It made her think of strangers walking behind her on midnight streets, the possibility of wickedness in every shadow. Except they were the ones keeping their heads down, not her. Afraid? No, not afraid. But unwilling to look at too long. She knew that feeling, too. What had been different in this past month was that that curtness-at-a-distance had hung around them like a bad dream. Them, meaning not only Rue and Guzon, but Crowley too. In Andelusia she hadn’t seen it because he’d vanish for half a day, and when they were together it was only them. Here, though, in Corinth, he revealed his rank. Apparently the man was a general. That hadn’t surprised her. What had was how the general conducted himself with her watching. Again, she couldn’t help but make comparisons. Nothing was different between here and Andelusia except that she had had the chance to see. Crowley kept to himself; in the grand empty palace it was fine, but here where he was meant to lead he seemed to be insulated from everything around him. He was not alone – the business swallowed him up to the neck – but it seemed as if wherever he went he was withdrawn from. And of course, her by extension, she conjectured. People dodged her like the plague. But had only bothered her once upon a time. She was used to it. She might have even felt better having it back. Having it passed down to her from her mentor only meant that there were two people in the same boat. So it was easier, even. Still, she did wonder. “I don’t suppose you know why things are weird with Crowley?” Weird? “Oh, quit it. You’re not stupid. The way they talk to him. He’s been less annoying with all his banter, too. Probably because no-one tries to talk to him.” A long time passed. He’s made a few enemies, Guzon admitted. “Personal enemies?” She knew that the idea strained credulity. But Guzon’s vagueness disappointed her. “You don’t tell me very much.” Enemies on, ah, principle. She dwelt on that. “Political enemies, then. Of the Crown? The people he serves now?” Crowley is a man of principle, he said perfunctorily, using that word again. It did not seem to mean the same thing, this time. He is loyal to the Oath. As you must be, Guzon intoned. Crowley was waiting in the armory, but he wasn’t waiting for her. He was distracted, ostensibly by whatever had brought them here. Duties of a general. It didn’t suit him; in the past month he had been eaten away at as if the air itself were corrosive. This sort of funk wasn’t merely occasional anymore, where she’d never seen anything like it in Andelusia. He had started, she realized, to seem inadequate to the task. Rue went to her armor without a word. The man would say whatever he wanted when he wanted to. Her armor awaited her in the corner. The donning of the armor had been practiced. Practice was everything about that armor. Yet when she went through the motions again, slipping the pauldrons onto her shoulders and buckling the greaves, letting Guzon twist the clasps where she could not reach, it felt more weighty and cumbersome than she remembered it. Entirely unfamiliar, as if this was her first time all over again. She thought of the cavalrymen who’d stomped past her on her way down here. She had been wearing costumes before. Now came the first time she wore armor. That was the other thing which prevented her from saying anything. She had not noticed it creeping up on her, but numbness was not meant to be noticed. Crowley would take the lead for her, and she would listen to him. There was no need for her to do much thinking beyond that. His instruction was a mosquito’s whine to her, but she would obey because she’d been promised salvation from him. That must have included safety. Yes, she realized now that she was afraid. It had been a while. It was a familiar feeling. War was a stupid business, she realized. She could run now, maybe. Crowley would not follow her, because he was preoccupied by war. She could, but she couldn’t. Guzon affixed the last clasp.
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