“To seek to ascertain the worth of even a single a soul through morality is to force unnecessary mysticism onto a simple matter. As in all things, supply and demand determine the price.”
– Extract from “Bought and Sold”, a collection of the teachings of the Merchant Prince Irenos, founder of Mercantis
“I’ll admit it,” I said. “I was expecting a library.”
My previous trips into dreamland had not led me to expect a great deal of nuance in the matter, though admittedly that’d been my own mind. Might just be that Masego was a little less straightforward in his way of looking at the world. The lack of swamp and shambling horde certainly implied as much. Instead Hierophant’s dream was order gone mad. A pane of crystal under my feet, tethered to the centre of the massive structure by a long length of gold, kept me aloft. Unfortunately that did little to put my old fear of heights from rearing up its head. It was one thing to leap down from the sky when I knew my legs would unbreak themselves within moments, another to have only a thin sheet of crystal being the only thing keeping me from falling into endless void.
“Fucking Hells, Masego,” I muttered. “Would it have killed you to put up a railing?”
Aside from the very real possibility of falling down forever, I had to concede there was a strange beauty to what I saw. It reminded me, in a way, of the depiction of astral spheres I’d once seen in Black’s mansion in Ater. Though, instead of circling the sun the way mages had along ago proven Creation did, everything here was circling the sphere of shivering translucent flame held within a deep basin of gold. From it spanned long tubes of gold holding up lesser spheres all wildly different. Crystal and frost, roiling wind and swarms of small silver constructs. My own platform, like all the others, circled around the central sphere with a slow and measured ticking sound. I could glimpse gears and cranks beneath the basin that kept it all moving along. I shivered, though there was no wind here. Perhaps because there was no wind. There was something subtly wrong about what lay before me, though I would not deny its eerie splendour. It was not a perspective, the way the cold machinery behind Black’s eyes could be understood. It was…
“A way of understanding Creation,” I finished out loud.
My voice felt dim and there was no echo. The void swallowed it all. My platform kept moving, and I shook myself out of the fugue. Odds were that I’d be able to find Masego within the sphere at the heart of this. I looked down at the gold support beam and winced. It was round, after all. If I slipped after making my way down… Well, I wasn’t sure what the consequences of falling into the void would be, but considering Hierophant’s mind was bound to have some very nasty defences I suspected it would not be pleasant. Not that my own little journey into Winter dreamland had been a treat. My fingers clenched. Don’t think about it, I told myself. Winter had been trying to grind me down, by lingering on the remembrance I was only playing its game.
“So shimmying across that beam is a bit of a stretch,” I decided. “That leaves trying to move from sphere to sphere.”
I turned my gaze to the moving structures. While I couldn’t discern the exact pattern yet – some beams extended at specific sections of the rotation, while others withdrew – I could at least grasp the likely length of the beams. And, more importantly, if one was ever going to come close enough for me to leap across. One, two, three – no, just two, that last one was moving back without warning and staying there. It’d have to do. I considered allowing a full rotation to take place just so I’d avoid running into any surprises, but there were no guarantees the pattern would remain the same every time. And, by the looks of it, this was going to take a while. Not all spheres were rotating at the same speed, but mine was fairly slow. Hard to properly measure time and distance in here, but I’d guess at least two hours for a full turn? Leaping uncertainly would be a risk, but so would be waiting that long when I was uncertain of the relative time flows in here and outside.
“I understand you’re a man of deep and complex thought, Zeze, but you’re not making this easy,” I sighed. “You know what’s the worst people have to deal with, in my mind? Condescension Queen and Lady Backstab. And that one endless horde of dead trying to kill them, but let’s be honest – that’s not exactly out of our wheelhouse.”
I’d kind of expected one or both of the twins to materialize and mouth off after that, but I remained alone. Shame. Probably could have made rope out of intestines, maybe used bones for a hook. I paused.
“I’m not being unnecessarily gruesome there,” I defensively told the void. “I don’t know how to make rope out of hair, and to be solid enough to hold my weight skin would have to be tanned first.”
Nothingness did not answer. Pointedly so, I felt.
“Well, fuck you too,” I muttered.
It wasn’t murder if they were projections of your unconscious mind, I comforted myself. Probably. I’d never looked up if the Empire had laws on the subject. Testing the platform beneath me, to my distaste I found it rather slippery. That was not going to be pleasant. I tried to see if Winter was willing to get involved, but I was reaching for nothing. No, I thought. Not nothing. It was just distant. Interesting, but it wasn’t helping me in the slightest at the moment. The first outer sphere passed close after I spent half an eternity dawdling in the middle of nowhere, but I let that one pass. The sphere was wind and barely contained. Too much of a risk. The second rotated close after the rest of eternity passed me by, and I winced. Fire. Silver flames that flickered without a sound. Well, it wasn’t going to be pleasant if I stumbled into those but it was still better than falling. The boots on my feet were old, nothing like those I now wore though I vaguely recalled having owned that pair before being apprenticed to Black. The wiggle room for my toes was nice, but the softness of used leather less so. I had to balance my weight carefully when I took a running start.
“Nonononono-” I valiantly screamed, realizing with horror halfway through the leap that the sphere was withdrawing.
I had no power to call on, no mantle or Name that could save my hide at the last moment. The stark understanding of my helplessness brought back something I’d begun to forget – fear. Not the dim worry for events yet to come that haunted my every hour since I’d taken the crown, but the colder thing that was having to look death in the eyes. I twisted forward, and my fingers caught the edge of the platform. My life was not owed to my own merits. The sphere had just withdrawn only slightly.
“Oh Hells,” I panted, forcing my other hand to clench so the trembling would stop while I brought it up to clasp the platform’s edge.
I felt sweat drenching my back, another sensation I’d near forgotten. My palms were growing moist as well, and that was a lot worrying since they were the only thing between me and falling.
“Godsdamnit, Masego,” I said. “Godsfucking-“
I took a deep breath, then pulled myself up with grunt of effort. It was awkward, and my palm slipped when I got my leg over the ledge. I ended up falling awkwardly on the side, rolling in panic towards the fire to avoid the fall. Wait, had there really been enough –
The Conjurer was an utter fool, yet somehow he still lived despite Masego’s best efforts. His lips twisted into a sneer and he traced Form and Force, weaving the formula his words shaped through them. Air clustered into three arithmetically perfect spheres and shot forward, though in his irritation he had allowed the proper angle to/
Seven full months had he studied the theory. It was the simplest working he knew, transmutation of power into heat and light, yet his every deviation from the original formula to craft his own had resulted in failure. The numbers were perfect, he knew it, but somehow the spell would not/
“We’re not bleeding people, Apprentice,” she said accusingly. “We’re not that desperate.” He blinked, more out of sheer affront than surprise. What kind of a blunderer did she take him for? He opened his mouth to snap/
– I rolled out of the silver flames, my body shivering. That had felt… I patted my own stomach, reassured to find it flat. For a moment there’d been a disconnect and I’d expected to find otherwise. I closed my eyes and laid there for a moment before slapping my own face with an open palm. The sting snapped me out of it and I dragged myself into a crouch.
“Memories?” I murmured, glancing at the sphere.
Maybe. I’d felt genuinely nettled throughout all three glimpses. The third time had even been directed at myself, which was giving me a headache since his recollection of that conversation was a lot more vivid than my own. There’d been a common thread. It might be the same for every sphere, a sort of archive. Gods, his mind was so weird. I was starting to feel a lot better about the murder swamp in my own. I shook myself out of the trance. The rotation had continued while I was elsewhere, and for longer than I’d thought. I couldn’t even see the crystal platform I’d started on anymore. Still, screwed as that had been I was in a much better position now. There were twice as many spheres circling close to this one than there’d been for the last, and I picked on that looked like an orb of pure white marble for my second leap. There was no nasty halfway surprise this time. Time was hard to gauge, in here, but by my fourth leap I felt like I’d made some decent progress. I was more than halfway through, though difficulties had come with the advance. This close to the centre of the structure the spheres moved a lot quicker. And, I saw with a frown, the platforms around them were smaller. Not a lot of room for mistakes there.
I bid my time, reluctantly, until I picked one out whose rotation seemed steady and the sphere on it not too dangerous. A slower one passed by, but I wasn’t going anywhere near something that looked like a hole of darkness sucking in everything if I could help it. A constantly moving jigsaw of ivory wasn’t honestly much better, I’d admit to myself, but at this point there was only so much pickiness I could afford. With another heroically shrill scream I leapt, and it went perfectly. Angle and swiftness, all aligned as they should be. Then my boot touched the crystal, and with a sinking feeling I realized it was rough instead of smooth. Which wouldn’t have been much of a problem if I’d adjusted my stance before jumping. I had not. I stumbled with all the grace of cart rolling down a hill, my forehead going into-
He did not understand why the orc kept seeking his company, though as long as he came with a shatranj board Masego would not refuse the company. Campaigning, much as Father had implied, was a dull thing to suffer through. It was only when Hakram sat across him, sliding open the shutters holding the pieces, that he realized he’d been awaiting Adjutant. That he had no ceased his dissection earlier because there was nothing more to learn from the subject, but because he’d been looking forward to their evening game. “White?” Hakram offered and/
“It’s a sprite,” Archer said, shaking the glass bottle. He’d known at a glance, of course, and the angry buzzing of the lesser spirit indicated displeasure at the rough handling. “I am not unfamiliar with them,” Masego replied. “They are quite common in western Callow.” The strange woman chuckled, tossing the bottle into his lap. He hastily grabbed it. “Magelight’s supposed to be hard on the eyes,” Archer said. “If you’re going to keep reading after dark, use that instead.” He started in surprise. Had she caught it for him? Why would she/
“They were the rooms of the Wizards of the West, you know,” Thief said, leaning against the threshold. Masego did not quite succeed at hiding his start. She’d emerged without warning, as was her wont. Not even Summer’s light cast a shadow on her aspect. His eyes swept across the room, finding only furniture and a bath in the Soninke manner. “There is no trace of their presence,” he informed the woman. She shrugged. “Figured as much,” Thief said. “But there’s old stories about the location making it easier to align with ‘otherworldly powers’. Thought you might want to have a look.” The tone was defensive, he was certain. It held all the right markers. Did/
My face was less than an inch away from shifting ivory as I balanced uneasily on my feet. The roof of my mouth was dry. I licked my lips, retreating half a step. That’d been much more intense than the last. More nuanced as well. I’d felt the confusion shifting to understanding like it was my own. I still remembered what it felt like, people’s faces being so hard to read. Was that how he felt all the time? I’d thought he was uncomfortable with touching because it was the way Warlock had raised him, but that hadn’t been the way at all. I just… hadn’t known what the touching was for, and I’d hesitated to act until I could correctly identify the reason. It’d been like living a world full of masks, so very few of which I could read. Slowly I calmed down. Touching my face helped, the touch of my own fingers on my own flesh. I didn’t even bother to assess how much time had passed, since I already knew I wouldn’t like the answer. The spheres moved, but I waited patiently for my openings. Another two leaps, and as I stood besides a sphere of lightning-infused amber I timed my last one.
I’d underestimated how massive the central sphere truly was. At least as large as the royal palace in Laure, and the gold basin that held it was even larger. The trembling translucent flame in front of me was unlike the other globes I’d encountered. It was not full, only a thin barrier. Through it I could make out lights and shapes, some still and others in movement. Steeling myself, I marched through. Heat licked at my skin, ignoring my clothes, but there was no rush of foreign memories. Inside the sphere, as I had thought, Masego awaited. He was far from the only thing in there. Constellations of instruments of all kinds filled the firmament of this place, gold and silver and obsidian and a hundred other tools – some I had seen before, others never even imagined existed. They all clustered around Hierophant, who stood with his back to me as he studied something I could not make out.
“Distraction,” Masego said absent-mindedly. “Kill it.”
The only other living entity in the sphere moved. I looked back at my own face, my twin snorting and unsheathing her sword. Not my twin, I thought. She didn’t wear the same clothes as me, neither in this place nor back in Creation. She wore the same plate I had that day when we fought the Princess of High Noon, and her smile was too broad to be entirely human. It was a caricature of daring and insolence, not something lips could actually do.
“Masego,” I called out.
“Ah, apologies,” he replied patiently. “Please kill it.”
The other Catherine was no longer that. Archer idly nocked an arrow, the boundary between her scarf and her face blurred. Her appearance was even stranger than my not-twin’s had been. She was less detailed, like a rough painting of herself. It was when the string went as furthest back as it could that she sharpened, and in that moment she was stunning. The hungry gleam in the eyes, the easy arrogance in her stance. She wasn’t more beautiful than the real Indrani was, but there was an intensity to her that I’d never seen in Archer. Like she was leaving an indelible mark on this moment. The surprise of it slowed me down, and throwing myself to the ground did not help quite enough. The arrow went through my chest and I grunted in pain.
Adjutant slowly spun his axe as he advanced towards me. More statue than orc, all that he was set in stone. The weight of his presence was feather-light, at first, but the longer it was there the heavier it bore down on me. He bared fangs of carved bone as too-clever eyes followed my rising to my feet. The eyes were the most expressive part of this statue of Hakram, inhumanly perceptive. As if they were the only living part of him. I broke the arrow’s shaft, biting my lip to avoid screaming.
“Hakram,” I said. “Don’t do it.”
He kept advancing.
“Hakram,” I barked. “I order you to desist.”
Still advancing. Fuck.
“Masego,” I screamed, and then not-Hakram was upon me.
The moment he struck, he was a statue no longer. He turned into flesh and blood, strength uncoiling like a trebuchet released. I tried to catch his wrist, but I might as well have been wrestling that trebuchet. He smashed me into the ground effortlessly, painfully jarring the arrowhead still in my chest.
“Zeze,” I yelled. “Don’t you-“
“Wait,” Masego said.
The entity froze, axe a hair’s breadth away from my throat. Hierophant turned, and I grimaced at the sight. No blindfold on his face, i here. Hollow burnt-out sockets studied me, balls of Summer flame hovering within.
“I know you,” he said.
“Catherine,” I reminded him. “Your friend.”
He frowned. His face blurred, then became calm again.
“Are you quite certain?” he asked.
Shit. He doesn’t remember anything that’s in the spheres outside, does he? I had no idea how much of the man I knew was standing in front of me.
“Masego, you need to wake up,” I said. “I came here to get you back.”
“Don’t be absurd,” he chided me. “There is so much left to study.”
He gestured towards the thing his body had been hiding and my eyes widened. It was a sphere like those outside, though much smaller. The ball of Light was wriggling violently, a wound in it kept open by silver pincers.
“It is much clearer, without the noise,” Hierophant told me. “We are making great progress.”
I forced a smile.
“That’s good,” I said. “Tell me more about that. I want to see. But I’ll need to get up, for that, and there’s a blade at my throat.”
I saw Thief’s face, for a heartbeat, and then the entity was gone. Masego was gesturing.
“Come, come,” he said. “You’re familiar with the Ligurian theory of magic, of course.”
I got up, hand on my throat.
“Of course,” I lied. “It’s my favourite.”
He offered a beaming smile. His face blurred and he was calm again.
“You’re not trying to trick me, are you?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I hastily replied. “I uh, just really hate the Jaquinite theory.”
Gods, I really should have listened more closely when he talked about that. Was being an occasionally shitty friend going to get me killed? That’d be fitting piece of irony.
“As you should,” Hierophant sniffed. “Procerans. Their idea of a proper formula is to get down on their knees and pray.”
“Just the worst,” I agreed, slowly coming closer.
He gestured again for me to stand by his side.
“Now, the Gigantes do shroud their sorcery behind unnecessary claptrap,” he lectured. “But I believe Gharan the Wise was correct when he theorized they are the eldest race on Calernia to have developed a comprehensive method for use of the Gift.”
“Only makes sense,” I said.
I was close enough to knife him, now, but would that actually help? Academic question anyway, I didn’t have a knife and not-Thief could be anywhere. I glanced at the sphere he was inviting me to watch, and my vision swam. I could almost make out something. A memory, though I didn’t live it like the others. Marchford. Night, with hundreds of columns of fire moving according to my will. A ritual repurposed, my first real stride towards understanding the deeper mysteries of High Arcana. I closed my eyes.
“You were the Apprentice, then,” I said.
“Just a title,” he dismissed. “As milestone that denotes understanding reached, but of little practical worth.”
“You’re not anymore, though,” I said. “You’re the Hierophant. How did that happen?”
A little heavy-handed, but I had a lot of detachment to bludgeon through here. Subtle wasn’t going to work. Masego smiled. His face blurred. He was furious.
“Distraction,” he said. “Unimportant.”
“Name transition isn’t important?” I probed. “How often have you seen that phenomenon?”
His face blurred, returned to calm. I’d survive to hear a reply, then. Apparently improving one’s vocabulary really was a life-saving skill, who knew?
“Not enough,” he said. “But it is all contaminated. Too much bias. Not enough left to examine after removal.”
“Oh, that’s all right then,” I shrugged.
He nodded, pleased at my agreement.
“Difficult research isn’t for everyone,” I continued. “I’m sure someone will eventually get around to explaining it to you.”
His face darkened.
“I do not need to depend on the findings of others,” he said.
“Obviously you have to,” I said. “I mean, you’re just not capable enough to study it with the bias intact. You’ve said it yourself, it’s too much.”
I would have felt a lot worse about trying to trick him in this state if he hadn’t ordered me shot moments ago. Hierophant dismissed the sphere of Light with a wave of the hand, and reached out. Plucking out a distant sphere of water in a way that should not have been physically possible, he set it in front of us.
“It can be done,” he insisted. “Simply a matter of discipline.”
“I look forward to your findings, then,” I smiled.
His face blurred, and remained that way.
“You interfere with the process,” he said in an utterly flat voice.
“I would never,” I said and snatched his hand, forcing it into the sphere.
White light, blinding. A knife going through my back.
“No,” Hierophant’s voice barked. “No, go away. Catherine?”
I dropped down on my knees. Was that blood in my mouth? Fuck, it was just a stabbing. Thief was nowhere that good at killing people, I called bullshit. The spots went away and I looked at Masego’s mortified face.
“Hey, Zeze,” I grunted. “Been a while.”
“Cat,” he murmured. “You’re – no, doesn’t matter. I can end it.”
His fingers threaded through mine, softly, and as he squeezed we woke.