“There is only one lesson to be learned from shatranj: no matter who wins the game, the pieces return to the same box.”
– Dread Emperor Benevolent the First
I’d never been in crypt before but it smelled about what I’d expected. Cool, wet stone and a little like dust. The scent was heavy and cloying, but it wasn’t the reason I felt rattled. I almost withdrew my wrist from Masego’s grasp before realizing that might get me expelled from… whatever this was and froze instead. Splendidly uncaring of my wariness, Hierophant let my wrist go the moment after. I looked around. Still here. I’d say that was good to know, but I understood next to nothing about what was going on. That was an unpleasantly familiar feeling, truth be told.
“Masego,” I whispered. “Can they see us?”
We were on the outskirts of the crowd but there were a few attendants close by near a sculpted ramp leading upwards. If they could see us, we’d stick out like sore thumbs. Neither of us could pass Keteran by skin tone alone, much less if clothes were brought into it. Hierophant shook his head.
“We can only subtract from this, not add,” he mused.
That loosened some of the tension in my shoulders, so I allowed myself to take a slower look around. We were at the beginning of the shard, by my reckoning. Most of the grievers were still filing in, and it’d be about half an hour before they king’s corpse was brought in. Less than that before the Bard walked in from a place not within the shard and sat down next to Trismegistus, though. Two of the attendants a little higher up, veiled young women, spoke in a low voice. I frowned.
“They’re still speaking Keteran,” I said.
Masego turned to me, lips curving in a sharp smile.
“Subtraction, Catherine,” he said, “does not preclude acquisition.”
My brow rose.
“You can ransack their brains,” I said.
“Don’t be absurd,” he replied. “The actual brain matter is long gone. I can appropriate an echo of their consciousness, including working knowledge of their language.”
I blinked in surprise.
“Wait, that’s something you can do?” I said. “You can dig out an entire dialect from someone’s head and put it in someone else’s?”
That would have been damned useful to know. Wouldn’t have had to spend so many evenings trying to learn Chantant if there was a shortcut like that. Without Learn to help me along, I’d come to the realization that my talent for languages was average at best and that the most widespread language in Procer was a horrid chore to learn. So many fucking exceptions and whoever had decided that plurals for masculine and feminine names – or even that there should be any of those – deserved to be drawn and quartered. If it’d been a possibility to lift that knowledge out of the heads of criminals, with consent and a reduced sentence dangled in exchange, I would have taken it.
“Theoretically speaking,” Masego agreed. “Of course a living mind is much more complex to excise information from than what can be found in this imprint. Likely the extraction would break the source entirely, what would be obtained would be contaminated with connected gibberish and the bestowal itself drive the recipient mad. Human minds were not meant to process that much knowledge instantly.”
I grimaced. Yeah, it figured. Should have known that if this was a feasible shortcut, Warlock would have cut open a few ‘expendables’ and the Calamities would be fluent in every single Calernian language.
“But you can do it here safely,” I pressed.
He eyed me amusedly, which was a pretty ghastly sight considering his glass eyes.
“For myself, I can rely on my aspect to handle the worst of the backlash,” he noted. “I will have severe migraines for weeks or months before it has all been processed, but I have herbs to alleviate this.”
“And me?” I said, already expecting the worst.
“Human minds were not meant to process that much knowledge instantly,” he reminded me gently. “You have regularly employed powers beyond human capacity to understand, and indicted by the principle alienation that ensued. It will be no more unpleasant than when we employed absolute alignment together.”
So a bunch of spikes through the forehead. Lovely.
“I’ll cope,” I sighed. “Work your magic, magic man.”
“Must you call me that?” he asked.
“Be grateful Indrani’s not here, or she’d start hinting about magic fingers,” I replied without missing a beat.
She wouldn’t even be wrong, to be honest. My time with Kilian had taught me that the jokes about mages having clever fingers were well founded.
“Silver lining,” he muttered. “The attendants will do for our purposes, I suppose.”
I glanced at the two young women.
“A question,” I said. “Can you extract from the Trismegistus and the Bard?”
He nodded slowly.
“Broader, more complex minds will be more difficult to work with,” he warned. “But in principle, yes. I must caution, however, that was is taken will be removed from the echo permanently. After the extraction, the actors will be… impaired, for lack of a better term.”
“We’d be fucking with the imprint,” I summarized.
“Fucking is not a term that applies to this subject,” he sighed.
“It’s a term with surprisingly broad applications, Zeze,” I said righteously. “You should expand your horizons.”
Huh, so he could glare with glass eyes without resorting to a light show. Nice to know. The work took too long. We were only halfway through the span of the shard, but the Bard was long gone and Trismegistus remained far from the other grievers for the rest of it. We used the time to get more comfortable with our sudden knowledge of Keteran. Or, as it was actually called, Ashkaran. After he broke the first attendant – a chunk of her face was now missing, like it’d been vaporized – and shoved a blue bubble into my forehead, I’d felt a rush. Like my mind was a cup being filled beyond capacity, until the cup shattered and Winter flooded my veins. It’d been… strangely pleasant. Like cracking your neck after a long day’s work. Hierophant’s own acquisition had seen him go still for a solid thirty heartbeats, and his face had been twitching in and out of a wince ever since. He admitted in a low voice that the aspect had not warded off backlash as much as he’d anticipated.
I would have spared him some sympathy but I was still busy wrestling with the fact that I had servant gossip a few millennia out of date rattling around the back of my mind. I was less interested in who had been sleeping with who in the royal kitchens, or the speculation that the… head household servant for halls and commoner rooms – there was no Lower Miezan word that carried the same breadth of implications – had been getting cheaper candles and pocketing the savings.
“You know,” I said out loud, “for all those rumours about chambermaids being saucy this is surprisingly tame stuff. You hear filthier in taverns.”
“Maybe the sort you frequent,” Masego muttered. “There’s a reason I refuse to go drinking with you and Archer. Last time I saw a rat.”
I snorted. Yeah, maybe Dockside had been a bit much for Hierophant. He liked things clean, and that part of Laure was anything but. We split to see if there was anything interesting to dig up, and to my surprise there was. A surprising amount of information could be obtained from overhearing idle conversation, if there was enough of it. For one, I confirmed that the people with the copper circlets were royalty. Sons and daughters of the dead king, whose name had been Iakim. The oldest child was the heir to the kingship of Sephirah, which I assumed to be the name of the ancient Keteran kingdom. The title of that heir, Zekiah, wasn’t prince. Not exactly. The term was more like lesser king, and by the sound of it Zekiah had shared rule of the kingdom with his father for years now. Of Trismegistus, or whatever his true name was, I heard nothing. The nobles, or at least the man and women bearing titles I assumed to be something like nobility, among the crowd did not speak of him. Apart from the entombment, the favourite subject appeared to be the war with the ‘People of the Wolf’.
Aside from the usual accusations of savagery and wickedness that always sprouted on both sides of any war, the rumour of cannibalism was often repeated. That and transforming into giant man-eating wolves, but I had my doubts about that one. I’d seen no hint of a power like it when passing through the battle shards. No one seems particularly worried about the war, though, not even after King Iakim’s death. The People of the Wolf were apparently no match for walls of stone, and the ‘Conclave’ had finally agreed to enter the war. From context, those seemed to be mages. Had the lack of effectiveness of mages we’d seen so far come from the fact they were just amateurs? Could be. It wasn’t what I’d come here to find out, though, so when the shard began again I found Masego and headed towards the upper alcoves where I knew the Dead King and the Bard would come to talk.
“Heard anything interesting?” I asked.
“Some blame the plague for the war,” he told me, though he didn’t sound all that interested. “They say it was the deaths in the outlying villages that attracted the wolfmen.”
I cocked my head to the side. I’d chalk that one up for Hakram’s tale of the fall of Keter.
“Is wolfmen how you’d translate it?” I said. “It struck me more as-”
“Ah, capitalized,” he breathed out. “I see. Formal address, which would be spoken ‘People of the Wolf’. Difficult to know which of us is correct without seeing the term written, of course.”
“I can’t read it,” I told him. “The girl was illiterate.”
“I have some semblance of the knowledge,” Masego frowned, then winced as his headache flared. “I cut too narrowly, it seems. I cannot quite remember it.”
I patted his shoulder.
“Don’t get a migraine,” I ordered. “I need you sharp for the important part.”
We were both standing, when Trismegistus strode up the ramp and came to rest by a pillar. He looked calm, in the magelight, and did not visibly react when the Wandering Bard slipped through the darkness and plopped herself down in the alcove to his side. She put down the lute on her lap and chuckled.
“There’s nothing quite like looking down at one’s work, is there?” she said.
Her Ashkaran was flawless and without accent, as if she was a native speaker. Trismegistus did not look at her.
“Intercessor,” he said. “I wondered if you would come.”
“Intercessor,” the Bard repeated amusedly. “Not the worst thing I’ve been called. Heard a thing or two, have you?”
The young man glanced at her, mildly curious, before returning his gaze to the ceremony unfolding below.
“You were companion to Nasseh the Great, when he fought for the submission of the twelve cities,” Trismegistus idly said. “You were at Queen Sadassa’s side as well, during the worst of the Wars of the Rat. Fortune and misfortune both draw you like carrion.”
“And which do you think you are, I wonder?” the Bard mused. “So few of them even remember you exist, Neshamah. How horrified they would be, to learn what the prodigal son has wrought.”
Neshamah, I thought, fingers clenching. I finally had a name.
“You come in the service of Those Above, then,” the man said, and he sounded almost bored. “Tedious.”
“Below has already blessed you quite enough, my friend,” the Bard shrugged. “You don’t need the nudge. But I’m not here to put sticks in your wheels, if that is your worry. Too late for that. Maybe if I’d had a few years to shape your opposition, but you played it well enough I had no openings. And I already burned my fingers tossing those bones with odds like this with the giants.”
Neshamah finally turned to face her.
“You have my attention,” he said. “If not intervention, what is your purpose here?”
“I suppose you could call it curiosity,” she said. “I’m starting to understand how little I understand, you see. So I seek knowledge. About how they make people like you. I won’t solve the riddle with the tools they gave me, so it seems I must learn craftsmanship of my own. Which takes me to you. You’re not impossible, my friend, but you are unlikely. Your father did not look Below when he earned his Blessing. But you did, at an age where most children worry about the nature of supper. Was it your mother’s death? Ugly affair all around, I’ve been told.”
The man smiled.
“You think it kindness to offer me an excuse,” Neshamah said. “But it is an insult, Intercessor. There is nothing in what I have wrought that deserves excusing.”
“The plague alone killed hundreds,” the Bard said. “That will grow to thousands, when the cities begin to be touched.”
“And?” he patiently asked.
“Your people bleed for power,” the Bard said. “But only ever themselves. You would break cities in the name a plan that will not bloom for years yet.”
“I destroy flesh that will destroy itself in time,” he said. “There is no theft in this, Intercessor. It is mere movement of the soul as was ordained, only now given proper purpose.”
The Bard hummed, then pulled at her flask.
“The drow didn’t teach you this,” she decided. “The Twilight Sages conisder death the only sin, they would be appalled by what you speak of. Most tribes beyond the lakes can barely even use sorcery and their allegiances change with the seasons. Was it the Chitterers? I genuinely believe the Gods made them out of whatever was left after the rest of Creation was done. Shoddy craftsmanship, that lot.”
“And still you believe I must have been taught,” Neshamah said. “As if my actions were not the only lucid answer to the truth of this world. There are none closer in any lands to the Gods, Intercessor, so tell me this – why must we die at all? Why were we shaped with such inherent imperfection?”
“Because the Garden was a failure,” the Bard easily replied. “Immortals always fall into closed circles. There are no answers to be had from them.”
“You grasp too little and too much,” the man said. “The Splendid are bound to repetition because they are feared, Intercessor. Because with the span of eternity before them, they might learn beyond what they were meant to learn were they not so tightly constrained. And so mortality is the answer to the deeper question: how do they loosen the bindings without birthing their own usurpers?”
Neshamah smiled, his golden brown eyes aglow.
“Why, by cursing their work with decay,” he chuckled. “By ensuring the banner can only be carried for so long by any one soul before it is recalled at their feet.”
“Below’s favour comes with the end of aging,” the Bard said.
“Blessing from it also calls the blessed to strife in all things,” the man dismissed. “It is a curse of unmaking as certain as that of age.”
“Yet you took a Blessing as well,” she said. “And you’ve birthed no small amount of strife. The People of the Wolf, the southern cities, even your father – all dancing to your tune, every death another stone for your tower.”
“Is this judgement I discern?” Neshamah drawled. “You must have been human once, Intercessor. Do you not recall the urgings of one’s blood? I forced nothing. They do as they will, by their own choosing. All the forces of this war precede me. My forbear slew that of the Witch Queen, and so enmity was birthed between our peoples. Blessings of opposite bent set her against my father to the death, leading to the night of his passing. And war? Ah, war is but the accumulation of a thousand choices. Beyond the guiding hand of any single man. All I have done, Intercessor, was hitch my chariot to a falling star.”
“Oh, I won’t ever forget my first face,” the Bard murmured. “Or the first few after that, when I evened the scales of the debt. I leave judgement to the Tribunal, my friend. To every force its purpose, and that is not mine.”
“We must seem like golems to you,” the man said wonderingly. “Our incantations written by the hands of Gods instead of men, yet not so different peering down from your perch. Eyeless things toiling for purpose we cannot understand.”
“One day, maybe,” she said. “When I will have grown used to dying. Until then I still weep for what we do to ourselves, without needing a single nudge.”
“I have pondered, since I first learned of you,” Neshamah said. “Whether or not your service is willing.”
“They make us better, when we listen,” the Bard said. “Even yours. It is a terrible thing you will do, but no less great for it.”
“Yet you seek to escape your purpose,” the man said.
“I have,” she said lightly, “always loved a good story.”
“What a clever jest,” Neshamah mused. “That there are none to seek intercession for the Intercessor.”
The Wandering Bard laughed. Like he was her friend, and not a monster who was scheming to destroy a kingdom and a half for his ambition. I shivered at the sight of it, for the second time. For reasons darker and deeper than the first.
“Pity, from you?” she said. “People never do cease to surprise me. I look forward to your ending, King of Death.”
“O ye of little faith,” the man who would be the Dead King smiled.
The Bard pulled at the flask again, saluting him jauntily, and sashayed away without another word. I did not follow her. She’d disappear, stepping into an alcove and vanishing into thin air. I stood there in silence for a very long time, watching the man that would become the Dead King look down at his father’s burial. Masego, for once, sensed there was no place for conversation.
“Take us out,” I said quietly.
“I have not extracted from either of them,” Hierophant said hesitatingly.
“Tomorrow,” I said. “We’re done for the day.”
“Catherine?” he asked, but it was more worry than question.
“Take us out, Masego,” I said. “It looks like I need to prepare to fight an entirely different kind of war.”