Arrested on accusations of witchcraft and treason, Chant finds himself trapped in a cold, filthy jail cell in a foreign land. With only his advocate, the unhelpful and uninterested Consanza, he quickly finds himself cast as a bargaining chip in a brewing battle between the five rulers of this small, backwards, and petty nation.
Or, at least, that's how he would tell the story.
In truth, Chant has little idea of what is happening outside the walls of his cell, but he must quickly start to unravel the puzzle of his imprisonment before they execute him for his alleged crimes. But Chant is no witch—he is a member of a rare and obscure order of wandering storytellers. With no country to call his home, and no people to claim as his own, all Chant has is his wits and his apprentice, a lad more interested in wooing handsome shepherds than learning the ways of the world.
And yet, he has one great power: his stories in the ears of the rulers determined to prosecute him for betraying a nation he knows next to nothing about. The tales he tells will topple the Queens of Nuryevet and just maybe, save his life.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.40(d)|
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A Conspiracy of Truths
THE SEVENTH TALE:
The Glass-Merchant’s Wares
. . . there was a woman who owned a little shop where she sold glassware. Beautiful, fine work by the best artisans in all the city, little fantasies of crystal. She also had some poorer work, which she kept for people who weren’t quite high enough in society to be able to afford the very best, but who were clawing their way up as fiercely as they could, who wanted to seem like they were doing a better job than they were. It was a rather boring trade for the woman—she had inherited the business from her father, and she had not much use for or interest in glass, except for the money that it brought in and the reputation it granted her, but the shop was known throughout the city for its exquisite wares.
One day a lord of the city came in. He needed to buy an entire new suite of wineglasses, for a clumsy servant, dusting the shelf, had knocked it loose and the whole glittering collection had fallen and shattered into the smallest fragments.
(I paused for the faintest moment here to see if Taishineya would have a reaction—a bark of laughter, perhaps, or the declaration that she hoped the lord had dismissed the servant immediately, but she just sat there and looked . . . innocently blank. At the time, I thought she looked like she was obviously feigning inquisitiveness, but in hindsight she might have been feigning the feigning of inquisitiveness.)
The lord was hosting a great banquet that very night to celebrate the engagement of his eldest son to a young woman of much renown—he needed to go home with the glasses that very afternoon.
The glass merchant nodded calmly, but her heart had gone still in her chest. She simply did not have that many wineglasses in stock, certainly not of the quality that this lord was looking for. But she had a clever idea, and she had a lot of poorly made wineglasses, enough to supply the lord twice over.
“Well, my lord . . . Usually I wouldn’t suggest something like this, but since your whole collection has been destroyed . . . It just seems like true serendipity that this would happen to you, today of all days,” she said.
“Why?” said the lord.
The glass merchant shooed her assistant out of the shop, locked the front door, and beckoned the lord close. “I’ve just received a shipment of wares so rare that only a very few people in this entire city have ever seen them before.”
The lord’s interest was piqued. “Show me these wares.”
“I shall have to go into the storeroom and count the glasses to make sure I have enough . . . but I think I might. It will be very close.” The lord nodded eagerly, and the merchant vanished into her back room, where she counted the wineglasses, ran a dust cloth over them, and composed herself. She brought back one, covered in a piece of fine white silk, and she set it on a velvet cloth on the counter, peering out behind the lord at the street, as if to make sure no one was looking in. “I don’t display them, my lord,” she said, “for fear of thieves. These are rare indeed. Made by the blind monks from the abbey of Silverbed Lake, on the top of the mountain Eibe in far-off Vilarac.”
“Goodness,” said the lord, marveling, “if they’re blind, how do they blow glass?”
(“Yes,” said Taishineya Tarmos, her head a little on one side.)
“My lord has cleverly spotted the source of their rarity,” said the merchant, with great pride. “I expected nothing less. It is said that the gods guide their hands, my lord, although they may have some small assistance from novices who still have their sight. They use an ancient method, handed down in secret from generation to generation, which no one outside the abbey has ever learned or been able to replicate. Owning these glasses is like owning a relic from a thousand years ago. They are, to make a gross understatement, priceless. I had planned to sell them one by one to some of the best collectors of fine glassware in the city—” and she named several of the lord’s peers and superiors, all of whom were noted for their good taste. “I didn’t think the opportunity would come along to be able to preserve the set in its perfect entirety. It would have been a right shame to sell it in bits and pieces—like separating members of a family and shipping them off alone to each of the corners of the world.”
The lord urged her to show him the glass, and so she whirled the silk cloth off it with a flourish and let her breath catch in her throat, as if she were overcome.
“Behold, my lord: Vilarac Unseen glass.”
The glass was thick and heavy, and the bowl was set just slightly off center on the stem, but she had polished it clean and put it in a patch of sunshine, where it reflected light into the lord’s eyes and dazzled him so that he could not quite see it clearly. And then she whirled the cloth back over it, looking with great concern out of the shop window behind him. “Pardon, my lord, I thought I saw an urchin peering in.”
“Never mind the urchin. Did you say you had enough of those?”
“My lord, I have merely one more than you asked for,” she said solemnly.
“And what price are you putting on these priceless glasses?” The merchant named a number, and the lord paled slightly and adjusted his neckcloth. “Perhaps,” said he, “we might look at a few others that you have on offer?”
“Certainly, my lord, I would be happy to show you. I understand that perhaps the Unseen glasses may be too much for you. . . . I see now they could be considered rather ostentatious for something like an engagement.”
She led the lord to a shelf holding one of her finest pieces, a tall flute with a stem shaped like a seahorse, decorated with rubies for eyes. “But surely you wouldn’t want something this gaudy and garish.”
“Surely,” the lord said, uncertain. She nodded and tossed the glass over her shoulder, and it shattered.
“And surely you wouldn’t want anything this shoddily made,” she said, picking up a simple cup of glass as thin as gossamer, through which the light broke into rainbows. “It’s trash, really. I never should have bought it from that charlatan, that reprobate.” And with that, not waiting for his reply, she smashed it on the ground also. “Not to worry, my lord, we shall find you something that perfectly suits your needs. Not this one, though, I’ve sold this to thirty families in town,” and she smashed yet another glass. “And my lord surely doesn’t want glassware that simply everyone has, do you?”
“Perhaps I’ll take another look at the Unseen glasses,” he said nervously.
“Ah, certainly,” she said, without missing a beat. And he saw by the delicate, careful way she handled them that this was the real treasure. He bought all of them, even the extra, and the glass merchant immediately packed up and left town, with enough money to comfortably retire on.
But she needn’t have done so—the lord spoke grandly to all his guests of the history and quality of the pieces, and they were all terribly jealous. So everyone lived happily ever after.
Then I said, “Madam, what was the difference between the shoddy glass and the fine glass?”
“Quality of craftsmanship. The lord should have known she was swindling him.”
“Then why didn’t he?”
“He was a fool,” she said with a delicate shrug.
“Who is permitted to vote in this country?”
“Any adult citizen.”
“And how many of them do you suppose are fools?”
There was a long pause between us. “Oh,” she said at last.
“The quality of craftsmanship wasn’t the important distinction. The difference was that the Unseen glasses had a history. They had a story. And humans value stories above all else, whether they know it or not. I travel through a land gripped in famine, where food should be the most valuable thing, correct? But I can stand up in front of a starving crowd and sing for them, and whisk them away from their hunger for a moment, and I’ll have at least a crust of bread when I’m done. Enough to get by on.
“Another story, a shorter one: There was once a king who hated the neighboring kingdom. They had a dispute over which of them owned a mountain on their shared border—a mountain filled with silver. So the king told a story to his people that taught them that they were the ones the gods truly favored. He made their suffering noble. He made their little successes into heroic victories. And then they followed him into war and obliterated themselves and most of the opposing army. For a story someone once told them.”
Taishineya Tarmos nodded and pushed the small animal off her lap. Smoothed her skirts again. “I have a lot to think about,” she said. Her voice was clearer than it had been the entire time before. I hadn’t realized how much of a falsetto she’d been adopting.
“Will you have my message carried?”
After a few heartbeats, she nodded. “You sang for your crust of bread. It was good advice. I will see that it is done.”
Days later Vasili walked up to my cell and unlocked the door before I could even put down my book. “You have a visitor.”
“Young man by the name of Ill-thing or something.”
“Right, that’s it.”
“In the visiting room, apparently. Get up and follow me. You carrying anything that could get us in trouble?” he hissed. I had continued feeding him little scraps of information about the Tower of Pattern, but I was trying to wean him off of it now. Consanza’s rebuke had adequately spooked me, and considering how many things Taishineya Tarmos had heard about me . . . Well. Anfisa had much more elegant intelligence systems. I could only cringe at my poor judgment and hope that perhaps the worst parts might slip through the cracks.
“I have nothing! Is he all right?” I scrambled up. Vasili gripped my upper arm and pulled me out of the cell and down the corridor.
“Looks like he’s in one piece.”
I didn’t miss him, mind you. Not at all. I was just rather pleased to know he wasn’t dead—it’s not every boy or girl who wants to run off and become a Chant, to unname themselves and to disavow their homeland, to sink it beneath the waves. I haven’t let Ylfing do it yet; that’s why he still has his name. He has time to back out of it, if he’s going to.
My heart was behaving rather oddly—felt all light, like a soap bubble. Not because I was happy to see Ylfing. I was probably having a heart attack at that moment, that’s all.
Vasili took me to a small room, like the one where Zorya Miroslavat had brought me for my first so-called hearing for the stupid espionage business. Right before the door opened, Vasili instructed me that I was not to come within eight feet of Ylfing, that he had been patted down just as I had, and that we would both be searched again when our visit was over. “I don’t think you’d do something like that,” Vasili admitted. “But I have to say it just for formalities.”
“Yes, yes, yes, all right,” I said, and he opened the door, and it was all I could do not to hobble across that room and catch that stupid boy up in my arms, even if he is half a cubit taller than I am.
He looked . . . not as well as he could, but well enough under the circumstances. A little thinner than when I’d left him. And he had—on his neck—! “What is that?” I demanded, jabbing a finger at it.
I swear it to any god listening: that terrible child turned purple, clapped his hand to his neck, started stammering.
“Is that a bite mark?” says I.
“No?” he said, trying all he could to make puppy eyes.
“You’d given up on me?”
“Chant! By all the gods, no!”
“Don’t lie to me! You were lolling about in some haystack with one of those smelly shepherd boys you like so much.”
“He’s not a shepherd boy!” Ylfing shrieked, hand still clamped to his neck. “And he’s not smelly!”
“Instead of looking for me! You were—you were canoodling Canoodling. While I was languishing in prison, you were canoodling.”
“It wasn’t canoodling!”
“Even if he wasn’t a shepherd boy, he was one of these horrible Nuryevens.” I switched over into Hrefni. I’d had enough of this goddamn country, and having no one with whom I could bad-mouth it. Hrefni is a comfortable language, and it was a great relief. “It was some rich city idiot who kept you in silks and fed you peeled grapes, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? While I was in prison.”
“There weren’t grapes!” he squeaked. “Not a single grape! And no silks! And he’s not rich! I looked for you all I could, I asked everyone in Cayie where you would have been taken, and I came straight here when they said that’s where you’d be!”
“And then you get here and—” I stopped, gasped. Clapped my hand to my mouth. “Prostitutes?”
“I didn’t go to any prostitutes!”
“What have I told you about those places? You have to be careful! Did you use a sheath? I hear there’s paperwork involved here—you read everything carefully before you signed anything, right?”
“I am not talking to you about this, Chant. I am not. Talking to you. About this.”
“You’re talking to the gods and everybody about it, my boy, with that bruise blazoned there for all the world to see.”
“It was just once, a few days ago! I met him at the House of Law when I was trying to find out where they’d taken you—when I was looking for you.”
“You’re fucking an advocate?” I shrieked.
“I am not fucking anyone!” he shrieked back. “I spent the night, past tense, one time, with a scribe of the courts. Is that acceptable to you? At least it’s not a shepherd or an advocate!”
I turned away and folded my arms, glaring at the wall. Had to think about that. I supposed I didn’t have any grudges against the court scribes. None of them had screwed me over, not yet.
Ylfing should really learn to restrain his sarcasm. No respect for his elders, none at all. He bullies me, you know. It’s a terrible thing.
“They wouldn’t even tell me if they had you at first,” my errant apprentice went on. “And then—they kept moving you around, didn’t they? First you’re in the House of Order, then Order doesn’t have you and won’t tell me where you are, then I hear a rumor that you’re in the Tower of Pattern, then after that, all they tell me is that you’ve been transferred out of Pattern again. . . . I tried to come to your hearing the other day, but there was a huge crowd and they wouldn’t let anyone in.” He huffed, then added, “That’s when I met Ivo, by the way. He’s got beautiful handwriting. Much better than mine.”
“I wish you two the greatest happiness together after I am dead,” I sniffed.
“Dead? Wait, what have they really charged you with? Everyone keeps telling me something different—first it was witchcraft, then they said it wasn’t witchcraft, that you’d been convicted of something odd like ‘heinous behavior in the twelfth degree’—”
“Brazen impertinence,” I muttered.
“Yes, that’s the one—can’t say I was surprised about it—but then they said it was espionage!”
I turned around again and sat down at the table with a great sigh. Ylfing backed up—good of him, I’d forgotten that we weren’t to come within eight feet of each other. We both glanced at Vasili, standing at the door, who shrugged.
“What did you do, Chant? Did you do something bad?”
“I didn’t do anything but what you saw me doing in Cayie! I was doing my job, and they came up and arrested me!”
“Maybe it was because you rubbed herbs all over that woman’s goat’s udder even though she asked you not to.”
“It was inflamed. I was healing it for her.”
“I think she probably thought you were cursing it.”
“I wasn’t cursing it, obviously. She should have known.”
“I just think that it’s not very polite to touch other people’s goats when they don’t want you to.”
“I was helping!”
“I know, I know,” he said, holding his hands up all defensive. “At home it wouldn’t have been a problem. She would have listened if you said you were good at healing goats.”
“You should stop calling it that. Home. One day you’re going to have to—”
“Sink it beneath the waves, yeah, I know. Unless you run me off before I become a master-Chant,” he chirped. “Then I will go to my home, and I will probably be the best at many things, and I’ll know more stories than anyone in all the villages. I’ll probably get taken to every Jarlsmoot.”
“And I’ll be dead and all the things I have left to teach you, lost. All the things my master taught me before she died, the secrets she told me on her deathbed . . .”
“Not all the things. You’ve had other apprentices.” And yet I was pleased to see him look at least a little unsettled.
“You want me to die, I suppose, so you can sleep around with court scribes and shepherds.”
“I don’t want you to die at all!”
I sniffed and abandoned this line of argument. He isn’t very satisfying to snipe with, not like Consanza is. That woman loves an argument like she loves her own breath. Ylfing just protests and wobbles his lower lip. I turned to a new subject: “Do you have any powers of prophecy?”
“What, so I can tell you how the trial will go?”
“No, I had to make a deal to get that message to you.”
Ylfing slapped his hand to his forehead. Disrespectful child. “Did you promise someone I’d read their future?”
“I promised the Queen of Commerce that we would attempt to scry to see if she will be reelected next year.”
The disrespectful child groaned. I glanced at Vasili—fortunately, we were still speaking Hrefni, which has no relationship to Nuryeven whatsoever. He didn’t seem to mind that we were speaking a different language, but I supposed that we didn’t look much like two people who were plotting anything suspicious, like how to break one of them out of prison or how to convince the Queen of Coin that we were really reading her future. “Stop that whining, Ylfing, we have to think of something. Can you scry or not?”
“No! I don’t think so, anyway. Although one time, I had a dream that my friend Bjorn went to the Jarlsmoot with his father and proved himself the best at fishing of all the children, and then he did go.”
“Did he win at fishing?”
“Well, no, but he did catch a few good ones. Not the best, not the worst. That’s a nice place to be.” He blushed and ducked his head. “You know, Ivo taught me a little of scribing the other day. I wanted to know how to write beautifully like him—do you think he might be the best scribe? He can’t be, he’s only a year or two older than I am, but he must have practiced for a long time. I bet he’s the best out of all the other scribes our age.” He plopped himself down into the other chair. “Did you know they don’t teach the foundations of an art here? If you want to learn scribing, you just learn scribing, you don’t have to learn ink making or paper making or how to whittle pens or make nibs. He says he knows sort of how to cut a quill pen, but they mostly don’t use quills, unless you’re some sort of official person writing something fancy, and even then Ivo says you’d only use a quill from some exotic southern bird and everyone would know you were trying to brag about how much money you have. They’re rather odd here, don’t you think? They think having money is a skill, and that if you have lots of it, then you must be the best out of everyone, like a jarl, but if you don’t have any, then you should be ashamed. Seems like most everyone here feels that way most of the time, but why would you be ashamed of not having a money skill? Nobody in Hrefnesholt has money; should we all be ashamed? The Umakh didn’t either, not really.”
“The Umakh have a lot to recommend them,” I agreed, as soon as I could get a word in edgewise. “They didn’t imprison me, for example.”
“Yeah. They’re odd in their own way, though—that sour milk they drink all the time, ugh! And Syrenen didn’t notice that I wanted him to show me how to shoot a short bow from horseback.” He looked terribly crestfallen. He’d been crestfallen back then, too.
“It’s a good thing he didn’t notice. You noticed they were a little dubious about men together—‘women own the men and the horses,’ as they say.”
Ylfing shrugged. “I just wanted to learn. I didn’t like him that way.” Which, if that was true, gives poor Syrenen the dubious distinction of being the only young man in the entire world Ylfing hasn’t mooned over.
I sighed. “Well, O young man of so many skills, how are we going to persuade the Queen of Coin?”
“What’s she like?”
“Flighty. Smart, though, smarter than she wants anyone to notice. Much concerned with seeming. I told her about the glass merchant’s wares; she appeared to take it to heart. She’s bored with politics, but she wants to be reelected. Pure vanity.”
“Then just tell her she’ll be reelected!”
“We’re not in the business of telling lies!” I snapped.
“What are you talking about? You lie literally all the time!”
“Little white lies to ease the way, nothing that hurts anyone,” I scoffed. “Nothing that they’ll ever find out wasn’t true.”
“Then tell her you don’t know. Or tell her she should either do something that makes her happy or try harder to be good at politics.”
“Brilliant idea, genius apprentice, and after telling her that, I’ll go ahead and tie my own noose, lay my own pyre. Perhaps you can invite that Ivo to watch the spectacle! I can’t speak as to how romantic it will be, but I’ll do my best to come up with some kind of tragic monologue, if they even let me have my last words. All this knowledge, gone! You might never find another Chant to teach you, and even if you did, they might not apprentice you. Then you’ll never be the best Chant.”
Ylfing rubbed his hands over his face in a gesture I recognized that he had stolen or inherited from me. “Then tell her something so vague that she won’t be able to tell whether or not she’ll win.”
“Do you think I haven’t already thought of all this? Do you think you’re coming up with new ideas? She’s not going to buy it if it’s vague; she’ll know we’re swindling her.”
Ylfing ruffled his hair with his fingers in frustration, a gesture that was all his own. “What if you gave her a conditional, then? She’ll win the election if she does such and such—if she slays the dragon, goes on the quest, finds the lost relic, kisses the forest queen. Something like that.”
“I don’t know what conditions the election would hinge on! And I can’t find out—I’m stuck in here! There’s only one guard who will speak to me, and he’s standing there at the door, and I don’t even know if I can trust him to give me good information! So I can’t find out!”
“I’ll find out for you! Obviously!”
“You’re the worst at being polite,” I snarled.
“Being polite isn’t a skill,” he countered, “but if it were, it is better to be bad at something than to be good at it, because it is pleasanter to anticipate the journey than to nurse your blisters.”
“It’s a wonder your people bother to learn anything at all, then!”
“Learning is how you live prosperously,” he said, disgustingly earnest. “It’s a duty of honor to your family and to your village. No one ever fed themselves by looking at the water and waiting for the fish to catch themselves.”
“Fine. Go find out, then; find out every possible thing about Nuryeven elections, and do it all before they manage to throw me to the executioners for spying.”
“But if you haven’t done anything, surely they can’t convict you without evidence.”
“You remember all those stories I told you about Xing Fe the Sailor?” He nodded. “He ended up here, apparently. Made some mistakes. Got convicted. I . . . may have mentioned in court that we were friends. I didn’t know they knew him. It was part of my apology—had to apologize as my sentence for brazen impertinence.”
“Gods, that’s it? That’s all they have on you?”
“So far—and anything else I’ve accidentally told them.”
Ylfing nodded, somber. “You do lecture a lot. At anything that stands still long enough, I used to think. You’ve probably told them a lot of things.”
“You’re one to talk! You’re the one who should be convicted of brazen impertinence! And I so appreciate the vote of confidence. Where would I be without that?”
“Who is your advocate?”
“Consanza Priyayat—I don’t know her last name, just the matronymic.” The naming system is complicated but consistent, and I’d overheard enough names by that point to have slowly gleaned the structure of ’em.
“Oh! Oh, I didn’t realize—in the crowd, at your hearing, everyone was talking about her. She’s amazing, apparently; she’s won all these cases. I think someone said she’s never lost one? And Ivo said she’s one of the very best at arguing. How lucky you are! You got one of the very best ones!”
“Ivo can shove it up his ass. He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about. She’s awful. She doesn’t care about this case. It was just assigned to her as a requirement to keep her license. Well, okay, she does care about it a little bit now that the Primes are involved, because she wants to, as she put it, kiss ass like she’s never kissed ass before. She wants to have a cushy desk job waiting for her in ten years when she’s ready to retire from idiotic courtroom theatrics. Lazy twit. We don’t get on.”
“I bet I’ll like her,” Ylfing said, all sunshine. “You just don’t like people with strong personalities. I bet you’re just clashing horns with her. I’ll go see her and introduce myself. I bet if we put our heads together, we can come up with a way to get you out of this.”
“Optimism is the surest sign of a fool.”
The very next morning I was rudely awakened at a truly obscene hour. “Chant!” someone hissed. “Chant, wake up!”
“Fuck off,” I muttered, pulling the blanket up to my chin.
“I have food. Fried dough with sugar on it, they were selling it outside the courthouse! They’re called monk’s-puffs! I bought a lot—Ivo lent me some money, I saw him again last night, so there, now don’t make a fuss about it—and when I came here, I gave half of them to the guards and they let me bring in the rest to you! And look, open your eyes, Consanza is here too!”
“What time is it?” I cracked one eye open. “It’s still dark.”
“Don’t know, but it’s getting towards winter now so . . . It’s just like home! So dark and cold! And I saw the northern lights last night, just a whisper.” He sighed with great nostalgia, only half joyful. “Look, the monk’s puffs are still warm, wake up and eat. Consanza said they only feed you slop, and you looked so thin when I was here yesterday. Get up! Get up or I shall throw them at you, and they’ll get all over the floor, and I know how much you dislike eating off the floor.”
I pushed myself upright. The blankets didn’t help much with the discomfort of sleeping on a bench, and it was so narrow that it wasn’t easy for me to turn over or change positions in the night, so I always woke up cramped and stiff and achy. Consanza, already smoking, was poking a crumpled-up piece of paper into the brazier, which had burned low overnight. When it caught a little lick of flame, she piled small logs of twisted straw on top of it.
“They keep it too cold in here,” Ylfing said to her. “He could get sick, he could die—that wouldn’t be fair, would it? Him dying before they’ve even convicted him of anything. It’s negligent.”
She shrugged. “Take it up with Vihra Kylliat.”
“Maybe I shall,” Ylfing said with all the loftiness of youth.
“I don’t recommend it.”
“But you just told me to.”
It was bitterly cold, and it would be until the fire was going again. I wrapped a blanket around my shoulders and shuffled up to the bars. Ylfing handed me a piece of those sweets he’d brought—it was as soft and warm as he’d promised, even in the bitter cold. He must have kept it well wrapped.
“Isn’t it good? Consanza said the guards love little treats.”
“Your accent is atrocious,” I said, sitting back down on my bench and nibbling the thing slowly. “What are these called again?”
“Monk’s-puffs, generally,” Consanza replied. “Some people call them other things.”
“How did you get him in here? I had to go to the other room last time.”
My advocate shrugged. “Told them he was my apprentice.”
“Chant, Chant, Chant, listen,” Ylfing said, breathless. “I started talking to people about the Queen of Coin, and Ivo helped me, he told me all about how elections work—”
“You saw him again?”
“I already told you I saw him again.”
I eyed my apprentice. He had a very convenient scarf wrapped around his neck, but so did Consanza, and Ylfing was still wearing mittens, even. “Where’d you get the new clothes?”
“Borrowed them from Ivo. I already told you about that, listen—”
“Consanza, do you know this Ivo fellow?”
“Can’t say I’ve met him,” she said, scratching her chin and adding another few straw logs to the brazier. “There’s dozens of court scribes, and advocates don’t usually have any reason to interact with them. But,” she said, sucking pensively on that damn pipe, “from what I’ve heard from Ylfing since he came to my offices yesterday, I feel like I already know him.”
“I haven’t talked about him that much,” Ylfing muttered into his monk’s-puff.
“I think I could recognize Ivo simply by looking at his handwriting,” Consanza added to me. “It is, or so I hear, beautiful.”
“Ivo says,” Ylfing began loudly, his cheeks all pink like a maiden’s, “that Taishineya Tarmos only won Commerce by three percent. Ivo also says that Commerce is elected every five years, making it the shortest term of all the Primes. Ivo also says that most people don’t think she’s doing a very good job. He doesn’t think she’s embezzling from the treasury, but she did throw a silly party with Commerce funds, under the guise of wining and dining some merchant speculators from Cormerra. And he doesn’t like her, nobody likes her. He says she’s raised taxes a lot in the last four years. A lot.” Consanza nodded grimly at this in the background. Ylfing continued, lofty, “Ivo also says that my handwriting is getting much better.”
Consanza snorted and blew smoke. “Ylfing, you’d better tell Chant about that dear thing Ivo said to you this morning. What was it? Something about—”
“My hair, he said he liked my hair. Except he didn’t just say it as, ‘I like your hair, Ylfing,’ he said it like . . .” My twit of an apprentice dropped his voice lower and hooded his eyes and, I think, attempted to purr: “I like your hair, Ylfing. Do you hear the difference? I like your hair, Ylfing. It just sounded so full of meaning. And he kept curling a little piece of it around his finger when he was telling me things about the election, and it was really distracting, but so sweet, right? It made my heart all fluttery. Don’t you think he sounds nice?”
“Ivo should take up poetry,” said Consanza. She winked at me, and I felt more camaraderie with her in that moment than I ever had before. It took all I had not to laugh.
“Oh, oh, I agree!” And then Ylfing wittered on for several minutes about various other allegedly adorable things that Ivo had done; Ivo this and Ivo that, which I will not inflict upon you—it was all how much he knew about everything, and how much he cared about things, and how he sent money home to his family in the country, and so on. Meanwhile, I finished off the rest of the monk’s-puffs and Consanza and I just looked at each other in silence (she, at least, seemed incredibly amused) while Ylfing talked himself out. It’s a good skill for a Chant to have, the ability to talk at great and elaborate length, but Ylfing has yet to learn how to sift out the most interesting parts of a story and discard the dull ones. For example, he waxed poetic for almost a full minute about how handsome Ivo’s hands were, and how attractive to see his fingertips stained with ink, and isn’t it beautiful to see someone’s craft upon their skin—and if you think that a minute isn’t a long time to talk about hands, then I recommend you try it for yourself. I couldn’t very well tell Ylfing to stop chattering, for every few sentences he’d remember some other useful piece of information that Ivo had provided him and then off he’d go on another wild tangent, and Consanza stood over the brazier the whole time, just smirking with an odd kind of fondness at Ylfing and occasionally dropping a comment—which only encouraged the boy, and I tried to signal to her that she should stop.
At long last, when Ylfing paused to gasp for breath, Consanza slipped in, “They’ve scheduled another hearing for you.”
“Ah,” I said. “Wonderful.”
“Wonderful is what you might think, yes. You’ll need to finish up securing Taishineya Tarmos’s support before that. What else have you to bribe her with?”
“Not much money,” Ylfing said, dejected. “I don’t think she’d want our pennies anyway.”
“Secrets,” I said. “That’s all I have. Secrets and stories.”
Consanza nodded. “Sure. What secrets you got?”
“Not many of those either.” I scowled. “I’m not a spy, you know. My knowledge is a cross section of things most people know. What have you been doing, anyway? Haven’t you been working on any kind of defense for me in case this grand plan doesn’t work?”
“There’s a lot of paperwork to do,” she said absently. “I think Anfisa Zofiyat might try to file for having you serve another stint in the Tower.”
“Better there than here,” I grumbled.
“Seriously? Seriously? After telling everyone who would listen that she has a blackwitch in the Tower? Say good-bye to your head if she gets custody of you again!”
Ylfing looked at me with huge eyes. “Chant! That’s not a little white lie! That’s something someone could check!”
“She can’t know I was the one who said it,” I scoffed. “Surely it’s not that wild of a theory. All this spookish stuff about Weavers!”
“Who else could it be?” Consanza said. “No one else has come out of the Tower recently, and Vihra Kylliat is threatening to file an appeal to the other Primes to possibly enter the Tower with patrolmen and search it top to bottom.”
I fidgeted. “Well, yes, I expected she might do that. All she needed was an excuse—but she won’t find any blackwitches, so it’s not a problem! If she finds something else, something illegal, well.” I folded my hands. “I certainly didn’t put it there, so I can hardly be blamed. And if Anfisa has nothing to hide, then she won’t be more than a little irritated at the inconvenience. If she’s upset when I go back to Pattern, I’ll just talk her out of it.” I don’t know why I thought that I could do that—I was feeling quite sure of myself, probably overconfident from how deftly I fancied that I’d handled Taishineya. “I know what I’m doing. It’s not like Vihra Kylliat is expecting to find an actual blackwitch.” I hadn’t thought Vihra Kylliat to be the type to swallow a story whole. I’d just meant to shake her up a bit, fan the banked embers of her superstition and paranoia.
“You think Anfisa Zofiyat will be a little irritated when Order seizes anything that looks like it might be valuable to them, under the auspices of investigating?” Consanza demanded. “Justice will, of course, back up Vihra Kylliat’s petition if she chooses to submit it. Anfisa Zofiyat is fighting tooth and nail, and I’m sure she’s started playing some of her dearer cards—even the famously upstanding Vihra Kylliat has some stains on her petticoats. And you! You’re just digging your grave deeper every time you open your mouth.”
“They’ll keep me alive as long as I have information. That was the point you were making with Vanya’s swans, wasn’t it?”
“They’ll keep you alive as long as you’re still a useful pawn,” Consanza snapped. “So we can kiss Pattern’s support good-bye, unless she plans to have you released so she can kidnap and torture you at leisure.” She tapped the mouthpiece of her pipe against her chin, looking speculative. “I suppose that would be fine. It wouldn’t be my problem then.” I squawked in protest, but she continued heedlessly. “I wonder if we should have been courting Law instead of Coin. But Casimir Vanyos is so reticent, so neutral, and he wouldn’t want to get in between Pattern and Order and Justice except in an official capacity. It’s a difficult situation. But let’s discuss your defense. They’re going to keep asking you about your relationship to Xing Fe Hua—”
“What did he do, exactly?” Ylfing asked.
“Tried to blow up the House of Law while the Primes were in session together—with the Seconds in attendance. The Dukes and Duchesses, that is.”
“Is that what he actually tried to do, or is that what they convicted him of?” I asked.
“Hard to say. I’m trying to get the records unsealed.” She sighed. “These things take time.”
“How do you get them unsealed?” Ylfing asked.
“You fill out a lot of forms. Then you fill out some different forms. Then you hire a new assistant for this case only, because the forms have to be filled out in quintuplicate and filed with the office of each Prime, separately, and one simply does not have enough hours in the day. Then you go home very tired to your family, having eaten dinner at your desk again, and you fall straight into bed without enough energy to do more than kiss the children and your spouses good night. And the next morning you get up and you fill out more forms, and you visit the clerks to see if anyone has read your requests, and they say no. And you do this once a day for a week or so, and if you’ve filled out all the paperwork perfectly, then you flip a coin to determine whether or not they unseal the records for you.”
“Gosh,” Ylfing said, eyes wide. “That sounds like a lot of work. Why’d you decide to become an advocate?”
“The glamor and the personal glory, of course,” Consanza said. “I thought that was self-evident.”
Consanza’s mention of kidnapping and torture had overcome me with a sudden black feeling. The lingering sweetness of the monk’s-puffs turned bitter in my mouth. “Ylfing, I need you to stay here for the rest of the day.”
“Eh? Of course I will. But what for? I was going to go out and learn more. Ivo’s invited me to meet some of his friends.”
“No. Stay. It is necessary to prepare for an unpleasant eventuality.”
“Oh, gods above and below, you’re going to throw a tantrum about paperwork?” Consanza shook her head.
“No,” I said. “I’m going to teach my apprentice all I can, because in a few weeks I might be dead.”
“There’s no way to know for certain yet,” Ylfing was quick to say. “Consanza will think of something. Won’t you?”
She shrugged. “I did hire an assistant for your case, Chant. I’m doing what I can. But as I said, what happens to you when you get out is a fate of your own making.”
“Ylfing, lad. We have to get to work. There’s things I haven’t even begun to teach you yet. There’s things I won’t be able to teach you—”
“Consanza, do you have paper with you?” Ylfing asked. Rude child. He didn’t understand how serious it was. “I have to practice my handwriting anyway. I’ll write everything you say down—”
“You can’t just write things down! You have to learn them! Memorize them! Remember them! What good are bits of paper? You can lose them, they can get burnt or stolen! If they get wet, the ink runs!”
“Yes, that’s true. But if they’re just in your head, then if you die, they’re lost. If you get old and senile, they’re lost.”
“That’s why you tell them to other people. If lots of people remember them, they can’t ever be lost.”
We bickered while Consanza unpacked some blank paper for Ylfing and left, and I abruptly tired of the argument. It was an old one, and we’d had it many times before. Once we settled into the work, I was surprised to find what a comfort it was. Hours passed, and I could see that Ylfing was getting tired. He stopped writing several times to shake the cramps out of his hand, but . . . I couldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t let him leave. I hungered for the work in a way that I hadn’t hungered for it in years.
Brought me right back to my youth, you know. I was just about Ylfing’s age, or a little younger, when my own master-Chant tumbled into my life. I don’t often think about those earliest days, and I never think about my life before I met her. Not that there was anything particularly terrible there, but why would I spend even a second dwelling on what I left behind, when what I gained that instant I first laid eyes on my Chant was so much more, immeasurably more?
There’s moments in your life when something suddenly clicks into place in the clockwork of fate. Sometimes it’s a moment that seizes you, that thunders within you, unheard by anyone else, and makes you think, Ah! Yes, this, this, here it is! And sometimes it’s a moment, like when I met my Chant, when the noise fate makes as its mechanisms engage is no louder than that of a single grain of sand dropped onto a sheet of copper, and in the moment you pause and think, Hm? and then forget about it. And it’s only days or weeks or months or years or decades afterwards that you look back and say, Oh, now I see. That was the moment it all changed, the moment the river of my life diverted its course: it was when I first heard your name spoken aloud.
I’ve never regretted my river’s diversion for a moment, even when I was lying in a filthy cell waiting to be either sentenced to death or released and assassinated.
And so I talked and talked until my voice cracked, and then I talked some more, until both of us were trembling with exhaustion and hunger, and Ylfing could not even muster the strength to grip the pen anymore.
He left for the night, and when the guards brought my evening slop, it was accompanied by a familiar gold-edged calling card.
We had determined that pyromancy would be the best course of action—we had the brazier already there, and there’s something romantic and primal about fire, something that makes people in big cities and thick-walled stone houses remember that there is a wilderness out there, dark forests, hungry beasts.
The other part of it was that there are interesting things you can do with fire that require no magic whatsoever, fortunately for Ylfing and me. He brought in a little bag of arcanum duplicatum, bless him, all ground up into a rough white powder the texture of salt. There was a fresh pile of sticks to add to the brazier, and another bag of an odd variety of incense, which Ylfing had found in a dusty back-alley shop, staffed by an ancient man of Arjuni descent, like our Consanza.
The sun was setting so early those days that it was already twilight when Taishineya Tarmos arrived in the middle of the afternoon, resplendent in rich plum silk. She had brought a smaller retinue this time, no lunch or dish of candied apricots, and no sign of that odd fluffy creature from her first visit.
“Master Chant!” she cried, as if we were old friends reunited for the first time in years. “Delighted to see you again, dear, just delighted. So pleased we were able to find your apprentice, too—is this him? Charmed, young man—and what is your name?”
“Ylfing, my lady,” he said, and bowed a little awkwardly. I made a note of that; the Hrefni don’t bow to each other, and we hadn’t had much truck with persons of authority in the time since he’d begun traveling with me. Just one of the thousands of things I’d have to teach him before they killed me.
“Ill—how did you say it? Elfin?”
“Ill-thing!” There was that tinkling-bell laughter. “What a funny name. I’ve never heard it before.” She settled herself on the cushioned stool and folded her hands. “Shall we begin?”
“If you wish.” I nodded to Ylfing, who began to build up the fire. I sat cross-legged on the floor, with the horse blanket folded under me for a cushion. “Would you like to send your guards out of the corridor? It is uncertain what knowledge the spirits will impart, but it often has . . . private significance.”
“No, no, it’s fine, just get to it.”
“Are you sure?” I dropped my voice. “I don’t wish to alarm you, madam, but you never know who you can trust. You never know who might be . . . taking your portraits from someone else’s hand, if you understand me. Some people can get their ears into the oddest places.”
She ended up sending her guards away after all—far enough down the hall that they could hear her if she called, too far away to hear us speaking in normal tones.
“Now focus on your question with all your will.” I nodded to Ylfing, and he threw a handful of incense on the fire and heaped twigs atop it. The thin smoke took on a heady, dark perfume. I let my eyes drift half-closed and stared into the fire. Ylfing added more sticks until the flames were licking high and the heat on our faces became uncomfortable, though my back was still tense with cold.
I groaned suddenly, throwing my head back. Ylfing, right on cue, scattered the bag of arcanum duplicatum over the flames. They turned a ghostly violet, and Taishineya Tarmos gasped.
In a rough fisherman’s dialect of the language of my homeland, in a gravelly rumble, I intoned: “These are just random words. Sunflowers. Mountain. Turquoise. Seventeen. You think they sound very mystical. You’re a bigoted twit who would rather believe gossip than get the facts straight for yourself. I hate the way you laugh and I think it’s ridiculous that you don’t know how vapid it makes you sound. Fire. Brazier. Prison. Thirty-eight. Awkwardly. Maritime. I have no respect for people who pretend to be stupid. Uphill. To dance. Fish knife. Complaint. Ambitious. Quickly. Shuggwa’s Eye is watching you.” Then, in Nuryeven, “The future is in flux. There is still time to decide your fate. A day will come when the people will choose a great leader, and that leader will bring the nation into a time of prosperity and fortune the like of which has never been seen in this realm before. That is a certainty. It is carved in the stone tablets of destiny. There is a blank space to carve that leader’s name. Pick up the chisel. Pick up the chisel. To win the election, you must pick up the chisel.”
I fell backward, sprawled across the floor, and I stared at the ceiling and twitched slightly, muttering, “Sandwiches, sandwiches, sandwiches,” in that same dialect of Kaskeen.
The violet flames gradually faded back into their usual yellows and oranges and slowly died down. “Is he all right?” Taishineya Tarmos whispered.
“I hope so,” Ylfing said. “It’s very hard on him, reading the future. He’s not as young as he used to be.”
I made a mental note to scold him about that later.
“Shouldn’t you get him something?”
“I can’t help him when he’s locked up in there. He’s not twitching too badly, so he’ll probably be okay as long as he doesn’t swallow his tongue.” I heard him shuffling around. “Did you see the flames go purple? That’s a good omen.”
“Purple’s your color, isn’t it? Your dress.”
“It’s just the color of my office,” she said absently. “All the Primes wear the colors of their offices. What did he mean, pick up the chisel?”
“Oh . . . I’m just an apprentice, I don’t know all the ways of interpreting the visions. He said there was a blank space on the stone tablets of destiny—you have to carve it yourself.”
“But it was a chisel,” she said. “Specifically a chisel. And stone tablets. Why is destiny recorded on stone instead of on paper? Stones and chisels . . .” I heard her stand up. “It’s odd. I think it means something.”
“Good! Keep it in your mind. Many times the spirits speak through us in ways that we speakers don’t quite understand. Sometimes it’s only the asker, like yourself, who can truly understand the symbols the spirits use in their answers, because those images are only meaningful to you personally. It’s quite usual. If stones and chisels are ringing a bell for you, pursue it.” Ylfing managed to say this with great earnestness—because he actually believed it was true, I supposed, even if the prophecy itself was made up.
“I will.” There was a soft jingling. “Here. This is for you—or your master.”
“Thank you, madam!”
“I suppose I will see you at the hearing in a few days.”
“If they will allow me in the courtroom, certainly.”
“Good day!” I waited until the rustling of her skirts had disappeared down the corridor and then I cracked one eye open. Ylfing was sitting by the brazier, poking through a palmful of coins. He looked at me when I sat up. “A generous tip from the Queen of Commerce,” he said, all smiles. “I’ll be able to pay Ivo back.”
“I’m sure he’ll be delighted.” I pulled myself up off the floor and got comfortable on the bench. “Is there water or food?”
He winced. “I brought some, but not enough—the guards took all of it.”
“Never mind.” I leaned back against the wall. “So, you like Ivo.”
He blushed immediately. “Oh, you know . . . Sort of.”
“And,” I said quietly, “you know that if I’m set free, we’re leaving immediately. We’re running far, and fast, and we’re not stopping to say good-bye.”
“I know,” he whispered, not meeting my eyes. “I’m prepared for it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” He nodded. Then, with more confidence, “Yes. I like him very much, and his handwriting is beautiful, but I wouldn’t give this up. For anything. For anyone. This is what I was meant to do.”
I was probably having a heart attack again, and it was the smoke from the fire that was making my eyes sting and water.
I went to the hearing. The details don’t matter, and I didn’t pay very much attention anyway. They didn’t let in any of the crowd except Ylfing and some young man accompanying him, whom I assumed was Ivo of the much-revered handwriting. They came in with Consanza—I suppose she said they were her assistants. Her real assistant was with them too, a harried-looking woman of Consanza’s age or slightly older.
Consanza did her best, I suppose, making arguments about how association was no proof of malicious intent, but Justice was just as set on their accusations as ever they had been, and chillingly, Anfisa Zofiyat’s tide had turned against me too. She asked me several sharp questions—don’t remember what they were in reference to, and she gave nothing away in her expression or her tone, but I knew . . . I knew. Something was happening, something was in flux, and it was my fault. The scales had been tipped out of their delicate balance, and I was no longer a useful tool, but an outright enemy.
Well, they voted on my guilt. The ballots were secret but the results were easy enough to read: Law, in compliance with tradition, publicly abstained; Pattern and Justice called for my head; Commerce recommended mercy. There was another abstention, which could only be Order.
I was to be executed in one month’s time.
Ylfing did me proud. Didn’t cry, didn’t interrupt, just sat there with Ivo, still and pale.
The three of them—Ylfing and Ivo and Consanza—came to the House of Order that evening after I was safely locked up again. The guards were a little more lax about the things they could bring me, now that I’d been sentenced—or maybe they’d just pulled together enough of a bribe to have the guards look the other way. Consanza had a basket with a pot of tender stewed goat, a whole roast chicken, crispy with salt and rosemary, seven or eight steaming potatoes baked in their skins, and a mincemeat pie for each of us. Ylfing had another basket, this with three sweet fruit pies, still molten hot in the middle, a paper bag of monk’s-puffs, two bottles of a surprisingly fine white wine (only Echareese, rather than Vintish, but it made no difference to me), and four sets of cups and plates. The treasure of the feast, however, was a few tablespoons of fragrant, fresh-ground coffee in a little silver pot, ready for brewing. I couldn’t imagine how expensive it must have been to buy it this far north—it would have had to come all the way from Tash or Zebida, at the very least.
For a meal like that, I wouldn’t mind being sentenced to death every day.
“Coffee or wine?” Consanza said while Ivo carved the chicken and Ylfing served up a little bit of everything onto each plate. The lad—Ivo, that is—had been openly agog as they unpacked the baskets. I couldn’t blame him—I too have rarely seen so much food in one place. The only really surprising things in the basket were the wine and the coffee (and I now suspect Ivo had never tasted the latter before in his life), but it was all good, hearty food of quality that any moderately well-to-do family would have been unashamed to put on their table.
“Coffee later,” I answered. A treat that fine should be saved for the end. “Wine now. After today, I need the fortification. Don’t you have a family or something?”
“Sure do,” she said. “My two wives, one husband, all our children.”
“Four. Fifth on the way, coming in late winter or very early spring.”
“To their health,” I said, taking a draft of the wine. “Why aren’t you with them tonight?”
She pulled up a chair next to the brazier and took a plate from Ylfing. “Don’t much feel like going home yet,” she said, after a long pause.
“I’ve never lost a case before. Well—there’s still time for an appeal or two, so technically I haven’t lost it yet. Haven’t lost it until you’re . . . you know. But that’s not proper talk for dinner. I’m not going home yet because I don’t know how to tell them.”
“What are you worried about?”
“Wouldn’t say I’m worried,” she said, picking at a piece of chicken. “Helena’s going to come up to me when I get home, and she’ll kiss me and say, ‘Did you win all your cases today, darling?’ like she does every day, except today I’ll have to say that I didn’t. And I’m not quite ready to do that yet. It’s none of your business, anyway.”
“You sound like you’re very fond of her. Helena.”
“Very fond of all of them,” she muttered around a mouthful of food. Her Arjuni skin was so dark that I couldn’t tell if she was blushing, but there seemed to be a bit of blush in her voice. “Particularly fond of her, though.”
“Tell me about them. All of them.”
“Miriana and Velizar were married first—primarily a business match, but they get on famously. Always taking each other’s side, always plotting something. They go everywhere together. The three of us are all the same age—I knew them when I was just a student, and they married me a few years after I received my license.” She smiled a little wryly. “They thought it’d save them some money to have a live-in advocate. And then I met Helena six or seven years ago and brought her home, and we’ve been married for five. That was purely a love match. Turned out she wasn’t too bad of a business match either. She’s a schoolteacher.”
“And the children?”
“The oldest is fourteen, the youngest is two. Two girls, two boys, and I guess we’ll be breaking the tie one way or another with the baby. Radacek, Inga, Nedyalka, Andrei.”
“Radacek, Nedyalka, and the new one definitely are. Inga is from one of my former lovers—before I met Helena, that is—and Miriana isn’t sure about Andrei.”
“You don’t differentiate between legitimate children and bastards?” Ylfing asked.
“Inga and Andrei aren’t bastards,” Consanza said, blinking at him. “They were born within wedlock.”
“But they’re not Velizar’s?”
“Oh, I just thought that was interesting. Where I’m from, you wouldn’t have children with anyone but the person you’re married to. But we only have love matches. People don’t get married for business like you do here. People don’t have other lovers, generally, and when they do, everyone’s angry about it.”
“What a backwards way to live,” Consanza said, then laughed. “Sorry, no insult intended. You probably think we’re backwards too.”
Ylfing shrugged. “People are the same everywhere.”
“What!” I squawked. “I drag you across this godforsaken earth for three long years while you hang off my sleeve or the sleeve of some smelly shepherd boy, and that’s the big conclusion that you come to? ‘People are the same everywhere’?”
“Well, they are,” Ylfing protested. “Even in somewhere like Map Sut, where love matches are almost unheard of, they still understand love stories. Everyone does. And everyone understands stories like the ones about Sappo.”
“Who’s Sappo?” Ivo asked.
“A man with two very stupid older brothers,” said Ylfing. “They’re greedy and rude, and always getting into trouble, and Sappo always comes up with a clever way to get them out of it.”
“Ah. Yes,” said Ivo with great satisfaction. “I have two older brothers.”
“See!” Ylfing said to me. “People are the same everywhere. That’s why we have a job.”
“We have a job because people are different everywhere.”
“But that’s not the story we tell them! We tell them about one another so they know: ‘Ah yes, on the other side of the world, people live just the same as we do.’?”
I put my head in my hands. “I can’t die yet,” I groaned.
“Ivo,” Consanza said suddenly, “this is shaping up to be a long argument if we let them go at it. Ylfing keeps talking about how fine your handwriting is; would you mind scribbling a bit?”
“You’ve been talking about me?” Ivo asked him. Ylfing turned bright red and muttered something I didn’t quite catch, and Ivo grinned. “Sure I will, advocate. Do you have paper?”
“Chant does. Chant, stop groaning and get out your paper for Ivo.”
As it turned out, the lad did have a very nice hand, a clean, round one with neatly sloped slants and delicate, spindly ascenders.
The admiration of Ivo’s admittedly lovely handwriting effectively distracted Ylfing from arguing with me, and the conversation turned to other things for a time, though the weight of my sentence hung heavy over us.
Consanza eventually packed up the dishes into one of the baskets, while Ylfing put all the leftover food into the second basket and left it right next to the bars of my cell. She nodded to me as she prepared to leave. “I’ll file an appeal tomorrow.”
“And if it fails?”
“If it fails, then you die in one month.”
“That won’t be determined for a little while yet. Could be anything.” She shrugged. “If two appeals fail, I can always file one to demand a more merciful death. Poison, if you like, or the ax. Something gentle or something quick.”
“You’re simply brimming with generosity.”
“Wish me luck with my family tonight,” she said with a heavy sigh, hauling up the basket of dishes.
“Good luck winning the appeals,” I said dryly. “I don’t want you to have to tell them either.”
Ivo and Ylfing lingered for a while after that. I hounded Ivo to tell me about himself, his life. He’d grown up in the far western edge of the country, he said, near the mountains. “My parents were coal miners, all of them,” he said. “I would be too, but I was lucky—we had a school.”
“Lucky? I was under the impression that there was some kind of law about it.”
Ivo snorted. “Oh, there is. Fat load of good that does.”
“Why is that?”
“Because they’re paid for out of the treasury, which is run by Coin. And every year the Coin Prime makes a big fuss about what a terrible state the schools are in, and isn’t it a shame, those are our children, our future. Then they say they’re raising taxes so they can do something about it. But somehow, amazingly, nothing ever changes. They open five new schools in the cities, and close fifteen old ones in the country. So yes, I was lucky—I had a school right down the street from my house. Some of my friends had to walk twenty, thirty, forty miles, and people would let them sleep on their hearths, or in the barns. I was lucky.” He took a breath then, as if he were going to continue, but then he shook his head.
“Why did you come to Vsila?”
“Same reason everyone does,” he said in a flat voice. “I wanted to live. There’s no living out there, just surviving. Scraping what you can from the land and giving most of it up anyway. It’s better in the city. Sort of.” Ylfing was looking back and forth between the two of us, puzzled. “It’s better as long as you keep your head down and your mouth shut.”
“Well,” I said, “you’re young and you have a good job—”
He barked a laugh. “I’m a civil servant. A scribe.”
“It puts you in a good tactical position,” I said. “You meet people, don’t you? Lots of people. And you learn as much as the law students do. You could be an advocate yourself in a few years, or all manner of other things. And then you could start trying to—”
“If you’re going to say ‘change things,’?” he began sharply, but Ylfing made a startled noise and Ivo paused before he spoke again, and continued more mildly. “If you were planning on saying that, please don’t.”
“All right,” I said. I think I was as startled as Ylfing was. “It just sounded like that was something that mattered to you.”
“It does matter to him,” Ylfing piped up. “Don’t mind Chant, Ivo, he always thinks he knows best and that nobody else gets good ideas before he does.”
“Hmph!” I said.
Ylfing smiled brilliantly at me. “Ivo has good ideas too, you know. I said he ought to run for office someday, but he told me about—”
“I’m sure Chant doesn’t want to hear about all that,” Ivo said suddenly. “It’s getting late, isn’t it? We should go. It’s been a long day, and I’m tired.”
“Oh,” Ylfing said. “I’ll tell you about it another time, Chant,” he said, while Ivo pulled him to his feet and started piling layers of clothing onto both of them—things from Ivo’s own wardrobe, I assumed. They were well-worn; not ragged, but clearly years from new. We said our good-byes and good nights, and Ylfing hesitated just before they turned away.
“Am I really wrong, Chant?” he asked. “About . . . what we were talking about. About people being the same everywhere.”
“You really are, my boy,” I said. “What’s so great about sameness? Difference is what makes the world interesting. If people were really the same everywhere, we wouldn’t have a job. We could just stay in one place, knowing people are the same everywhere. We wouldn’t have any stories to tell, because people in the stories would all be the same. And,” I added, “no one would ever come up with any new ideas—no new ways to farm, or to make war or music or love, no new way to design a ship or a hammer or a boot.”
“Is it possible that you’re both right?” Ivo asked; he wasn’t bothering to hide how impatient he was to leave.
“Maybe,” Ylfing said, at the same moment I said, “No.”
“Listen,” I said. “Saying that everyone universally understands a love story is all well and good, but you can’t just leave it at that. It doesn’t matter that they all understand it, because the important part, the part that matters, is the details of their experience of it: how they understand it, and what it means to them when you tell it to them.” Ylfing didn’t look convinced. I went on: “Any fool in the world can tell you, ‘Yes, that’s a love story, everyone knows that,’ but what matters is whether they think that story is a tragedy, or a cautionary tale, or—here. I’ve told you about Hariq and Amina, haven’t I?”
“Yes,” said Ylfing, and then, turning to Ivo, “Typical star-crossed lovers, their families forbid them from seeing each other, but they disobey and run off in the night and get married, and they come to a tragic end. It’s very sad.” Ivo nodded.
“Congratulations on sucking all the feeling and soul out of that story, Ylfing.” I looked at the ceiling and prayed to the gods that they would keep me from death while this half-trained idiot was loose in the world. “But all right, we’ll take it. You’re illustrating my point for me. You tell that story to an idiot from Hrefnesholt and he remarks on how sad it is. You go to Map Sut and they snort and say, ‘They got what was coming to them, they shouldn’t have betrayed their families like that.’ Why is that? Why would they say that? If you ask them whether it’s a love story, they’ll certainly say yes, and they’ll understand why Hariq and Amina came to no good end. But in Hrefnesholt, they sympathize with the lovers, and in Map Sut, they sympathize with the families of the lovers. People are not the same everywhere. They are astoundingly, elaborately, gloriously different.”
Ylfing nodded begrudgingly and glanced at Ivo out of the corner of his eye. “So . . . Do you want to hear it?” he asked, adorably shy.
Ivo looked down at himself, already gloved and cloaked and scarfed and behatted, and he looked at me, and when Ylfing entirely failed to notice his hesitation, he said, “Yes, all right.” I made Ylfing tell it; he needed the practice.
THE EIGHTH TALE:
The Tragedy of Hariq aj-Niher and Amina aj-Mehmeren
A very long time ago and half the world away, there was a city made of golden stone, high on a plateau that overlooked the desert. At the city’s feet lay a great lake of sweet fresh water, the Glass Sea, and at its back stood a tall mountain. These people were worshippers of the sun and the moons, and they called them the Bright One, the White One, and the Stately One.
(This was all fine, but his delivery was a little flat and over-rehearsed.)
There were three temples in the city, each of which received the patronage of a great noble family. Twice a year, at midsummer and midwinter, the three families would send a child of their house to sit in vigil by the treasure of each temple: the eternal fire of the Bright One, the great silver disk of the White One, and the black celestial stone of the Stately One.
(He hesitated a little over the last two, likely trying to remember which went with which, but I don’t think Ivo noticed.)
The doors of the three temples faced one another across a triangular courtyard, and a child of each patron house would sit on the steps twice a year, often all by themselves, and they would guard the temples vigilantly from dusk until dawn. The three houses were all competing with one another, and so the temples were too.
One of the daughters of House Mehmeren was named Amina, and she was sent to sit vigil at the temple one midwinter night. There was a great feast beforehand, and celebrations all through the city, and Amina was washed and combed and groomed to within an inch of her life, and put in the grand regalia of her house and temple: the white-and-silver cloak of the White One, soft white leather shoes and gloves, and a diadem of silver and diamonds, laced through with fresh jasmine so that wherever she walked, sweet scents followed her.
(Ylfing loves unnecessary detail. Can’t resist it. The only thing that matters is the cloak. He added in the rest.)
She was put on a snow-white horse, and in a great parade of all her family and her family’s friends and the common folk who lived within their district, she was taken to the temple and put on the steps. There were musicians playing all around her, and girls casting rose petals and jasmine in the air until the pavement was thick with them. (See what I mean?)
As she mounted the temple steps and looked across the court, she saw the heirs of the other houses taking their places as well—the Bright One’s heir in gold and the Stately One’s heir in black and gray. At any other time of the year, great crowds from each house gathering like that would have turned into a rioting mob, but just twice a year, the families managed to studiously ignore one another for the sake of their worship.
As the sun sank, the crowds dispersed, and Amina made herself comfortable on the steps. She wandered in and out of the temple to keep herself warm, to do her duty by checking on the silver disk of the White One, a thirty-foot-wide circle of hammered silver, suspended from the ceiling of the temple by two thick chains. The night grew colder, and she bundled her cloak around her and drank the coffee that her family had smuggled behind the temple door, so that she’d be able to stay awake the whole night. She did so surreptitiously, just as her older cousins had firmly instructed—it would not have done for the other heirs to see that she needed help to keep her vigil.
(He has a tendency to linger rather, drawing a story out—which is no bad thing, I suppose. Refinement will come with time, and Ivo was clearly sufficiently taken with Ylfing that he was willing to listen no matter how unpolished and undisciplined Ylfing was. So it didn’t matter.)
Around midnight, the White One was at her zenith and the Stately One had just risen above the rooftops in the east. Amina was struck with an odd whimsy, and she descended the marble steps of her temple and crossed the court to the fountain in the middle. She thought about approaching one of the other temples but hesitated. If she went to the Bright One first, then the Stately One would surely take offense and there would be trouble between their families tomorrow. And if she went to the Stately One first, then the Bright One would do just the same thing.
(Now, if I had been telling this, I would have left all that out. One doesn’t need to explain it. Feuding families are not so uncommon that one has to spell it out for one’s audience.)
Instead she sat on the edge of the fountain, facing the other two temples, and waved at them. They were both watching her—the Stately One’s heir had been pacing back and forth across the black granite steps, and the Bright One’s heir had been huddled up close to the braziers that burned on either side of the tall golden doors.
The Stately One’s heir started forward first. When the Bright One’s heir saw this, he was quick to follow after. They both arrived by the fountain at the same moment, eying each other and Amina with suspicion.
“Happy Midwinter,” Amina said to them politely.
“Happy Midwinter,” they echoed. The Stately One’s heir, dressed rather severely in a high-collared black robe edged in fur and a solid band of iron for a crown, crossed his arms and glanced again at the Bright One’s heir. The Bright One was the source of fire and warmth and life, and so it seemed that his heir was, apparently, supposed to have no need of clothing appropriate to the season. The Bright One’s heir wore the same costume for Midsummer or Midwinter—a knee-length, sleeveless toga made of cloth of gold, sandals, and a golden crown hung with tinkling bells.
The Bright One’s heir hugged himself and rubbed his arms briskly.
“What are your names?” Amina asked.
“Hariq aj-Niher,” said the heir of the Stately One.
“Piras aj-Behet,” said the heir of the Bright One, his teeth beginning to chatter.
“Don’t they give you warm clothes?” Amina asked.
“The Bright One’s warmth touches us all,” Piras replied. His lips were beginning to turn blue.
“Would you like to borrow my cloak for a minute? I’m warm enough—I’m wearing two pairs of trousers under this big skirt.” She lifted up her hem a little to show them. “And three pairs of socks.”
“I’m fine,” said Piras.
“Perhaps you might invite us over to the temple of the Bright One so we might all be touched by its warmth,” Hariq said. “I didn’t have quite the foresight to wear multiple pairs of trousers, or more than one pair of socks.”
“I don’t know you,” Piras snapped. “And I’m supposed to be guarding the eternal flame. If it goes out—if you put it out—then I’ll be in trouble.”
“But surely the Bright One would see that I was the one to do it and he’d curse me, wouldn’t he? Or give a sign so everyone would know that I was at fault and you were innocent? And anyway, why would I want to put out the only fire on a cold night in the first place?”
“If Piras takes my cloak and we all sit by the fire, we’ll all be the same amount of warm,” Amina added. “That’s fair, isn’t it?”
“It is Midwinter, after all,” Hariq added. “We’re all at peace today.”
“Fine,” Piras said. “Give me your cloak, you. You didn’t say your name, either.”
“Amina aj-Mehmeren,” she said, undoing the round silver clasp and swinging the cloak off her shoulders and around Piras’s.
He pulled it around him immediately. “Oh Bright One, it’s warm.”
“Um,” said Amina, “If we’re sharing the fire . . . I have some coffee.”
“Coffee!” Hariq said, lighting up. “Go fetch it! I have some cakes.”
“I don’t have anything,” Piras grumbled, turning around and walking back to the Bright One’s temple.
Amina and Hariq scuttled off and a few minutes later, they were all huddled around one of the braziers on the front porch of the Bright One’s temple, passing around Amina’s carafe of coffee and Hariq’s sticky honey-cakes, all folded up in a bundled napkin.
“Why’d you wave us down?” Hariq asked, once they were sufficiently fed and coffee’d.
“I was bored. There are still hours left of the night to go.”
Hariq nodded. “Midsummer is easier. It’s a comfortable temperature, and the night is shorter then, of course. I just brought a book along last time.”
(That’s the other thing Ylfing does—he thinks about people a lot, and he’s always trying to sneak extra crumbs here and there into characters to make them more relatably human. It simply doesn’t occur to him to wonder whether his audience cares about how Hariq entertains himself on vigils, because of course Ylfing cares. Remind me to tell you about the time he made up a story about Nerelen, the Bramandese god of wine and a famous cad, falling in love with—you guessed it—a beautiful shepherd boy. I swear it, I was too confounded to know whether I should be outraged or proud.)
“I wouldn’t know,” said Amina. “This is the first time I’ve stood vigil.”
“I’ve been volunteering to do Midsummer the last few years—thought it was time I should try out Midwinter. Is it your first time too, Piras? I’ve never spoken to the Bright One’s heir before, and usually it’s too dark and too far across the court to see who is sitting vigil.”
“I did Midsummer once, a few years ago. Certainly wouldn’t have volunteered to do Midwinter.”
“Why’d you get sent? In my family, it’s always a volunteer.”
“Got in trouble,” Piras muttered. “Dad thought I should do penance or something. To build discipline.”
“Well, it certainly takes discipline to sit vigil, particularly on a midwinter’s night for the Bright One, it seems,” Hariq said agreeably. “And Amina? Did you volunteer, or is this punishment?”
“Neither. My family always sends someone different to the White One every Midwinter, someone who’s never done it before—we try to, anyway. For Midsummer, we don’t mind repeats. I heard that the Midwinter before I was born, all my cousins were sick except one, and he was only two years old. He stood vigil officially, but of course my aunt, his mother, had to stay with him.”
“How can you stand doing it?” Piras asked. “Over and over again? It’s so dull.”
(Much like Ylfing’s interminable dialogue! Of course I wasn’t going to interrupt and shame him in front of Ivo, but I was grinding my teeth by this point and wishing he’d get on with it.)
“I don’t mind it,” Hariq answered. “I can’t get to sleep at night anyway, most nights, and I like being by myself and thinking. And the city looks so much different in the dark. And I like feeling close to the Stately One.”
They sat there talking all night long, and Amina found herself quite struck by how cordial and mannerly Hariq was, and how intelligently he spoke, and the line of his jaw, and the color of his eyes. . . .
Well before dawn, Piras gave Amina back her cloak, and she and Hariq gathered up their things and scampered back across the court to their respective temples, settling themselves in wait to be collected by their families. There would be more festivities in the morning, but Amina’s eyes were growing heavy and tired, and she fancied the idea of going to bed. Before she sat down, she looked into the temple at the White One’s disc. As expected, it hadn’t moved anywhere.
Months passed, and Midsummer came about, and Amina was again dressed in the richly embroidered robes of white and silver, but this time they felt heavy and burdensome. She was uncomfortably warm, but she remembered that Hariq had said he liked to volunteer to sit vigil for Midsummer. She rather looked forward to seeing him again. It would have been utterly forbidden to exchange even a glance with him at any other time—it would have sent both their families into an uproar.
So there was another feast and another parade to take her out to the temple, and pretty much as soon as the sun had set and the last of the revelers had left the court, she and Hariq were both running down the steps to the fountain, chattering almost as soon as they’d gotten within earshot of each other.
(Here Ivo said, “Aww,” and couldn’t hold back a smile. He’d already forgotten we’d told him it was a tragedy, already forgotten Ylfing had spoiled the end and how badly he’d wanted to leave a few moments ago. I could see a bit then why Ylfing liked him—for all my apprentice is a genuine idiot, I’ll allow he can spot a soft heart from a mile off. Or perhaps it’s just that hearts soften after he spots them.)
And then they went up to the temple of the Bright One, but Piras wasn’t there. It was some older member of the house, and he just sat there and glared at the two of them. So they sat on the base of the fountain for a while and talked, and they walked back and forth across the square so they could be sure to keep an eye on the relics. Amina had seen the heaven stone from a distance before, because even if the Stately One was Hariq’s house’s temple, the Stately One was everyone’s god, just as the Bright One and the White One were. Hariq brought her inside the temple and showed her around—the heaven stone was the color of blackened iron, and it was the size of a wheelbarrow, all lumpy and odd-looking.
They talked all night, and it being just the two of them, with a fountain and the stars and the moonlight—things got a little romantic. By the end of the night, they had agreed that they had to find a way to keep talking, no matter what. Hariq showed Amina a loose stone on the side of the Stately One’s temple, and they devised a plan to leave notes hidden there for each other. At Midsummer’s dawn, Amina kissed him and ran across the square to the White One’s temple, just before the processions arrived.
Need I describe the months of delicious subterfuge?
(I thought to myself, “Oh gods, please don’t.” But he didn’t.)
The cunning excuses they found to pass by the loose stone in the temple wall? The close calls that each of them risked, Amina trembling like a leaf when she was almost caught with a letter, or Hariq with his heart in his throat?
By the next Midwinter, they were in love and out of hope. Hariq was to be wed. He had persuaded his family to let him sit vigil once more, and he begged Amina to find a way to do the same. She made honey-cakes, sweet and sticky, and she mixed in a measure of a certain herb she knew that would make a person very ill. Not dangerously ill, but ill enough they wouldn’t want to move too far from the chamber pot. She made platters and platters of the sweets, and when her whole family gathered together to dress her cousin up in the robes and send him off to the temple, she made sure that her cousin ate several of the cakes, and that all her other cousins who hadn’t sat vigil ate them too. By the end of the party, more than half the family was lying about in agony, and the other half was panicking for the doctors.
(He got dangerously close to calling attention to a key flaw in the story, which is: How did she make sure all the cousins ate the tainted sweets, and how did she escape suspicion? But we must not inquire too closely into the internal logic of stories like this. It needs to happen so that Amina can sit vigil again, and so it does.)
Amina helped her cousin take the heavy robes off, since he was already sweating buckets and clutching his stomach. “What shall we do?” her aunt cried. “Have we angered the White One?”
“You must stay here and take care of everyone. I’m feeling fine, so I’ll go to the temple. I’ll pray all night!” Amina said. Her aunt nodded. Amina was the only unmarried one who wasn’t ill; she was the obvious choice.
Amina didn’t even look across the square to see who was sitting vigil at the Bright One’s temple when she arrived. She flew up the steps of the Stately One’s temple and into Hariq’s arms by the heaven stone. They wept together for a time, and Amina declared she couldn’t live to see Hariq marry anyone else.
And here Ylfing broke off and frowned.
We all stared at him for a time, waiting. “Go on,” says I at last. I’d bitten my tongue so much during that story that I’d almost gnawed it right off. “Finish it. You’re doing fine.”
“Um,” says he. “I’ve forgotten the last bit.”
“Forgotten the last bit!” says I. “Forgotten! How could a person forget?” How could a person forget? I ask you now. But, “Forgotten!” I says.
“Not the whole of it,” he protested. He could see I was spluttering. “I know they die in the end, and—”
“Oh, well done,” says I. “Now you’ve gone and ruined it for Ivo twice over.”
But Ylfing had gone and forgotten the bit that linked their declarations and their death. I couldn’t roll my eyes hard enough. What a time to sputter out! Right at the climactic moment. So I had to take over, but it wasn’t the same. You can’t start a story from the end; it just don’t work. Didn’t have any time to get rolling, you know, to work myself into it. They’re like hot baths, stories. Gotta ease into ’em slow. I made a muss of it, I’m not too proud to admit, but it’s Ylfing’s fault anyway. It was a mere summary at best, like this:
They run away. Piras, once again on vigil at the Bright One’s temple, sees them and raises the alarm (that was the bit Ylfing forgot). Their families come after them. Amina’s family thinks Hariq seduced or bewitched her. Hariq’s family thinks Amina seduced or bewitched him. They flee on horseback from the two mobs, and, cornered where the plateau drops steeply down into desert, and overcome with despair and desperation, they fling themselves off the cliff to their deaths. When their families climb down, they find the bodies too broken and bloodied to identify, but still clutching each other. The end.
You see? How can you forget all that?
“I’m sorry for making a mess of the ending,” Ylfing said to Ivo.
“It’s all right,” Ivo replied immediately. Ylfing had been making puppy eyes at him again, and I defy any boy to hold out in the face of that. Ylfing will be an excellent Chant one day if he can learn how to make that face on purpose. “But we’d really better go.”
“Oh, right!” Ylfing fussed with his scarf and cloak and pushed the basket of leftover food closer to my cell. “Ivo’s taking me to meet his friends, since I missed it before.” He reached through the bars and patted my knee with his hand, thickly mittened. “Don’t mope about today, all right? Consanza will think of something.”
Ylfing came again early the next morning, with another paper parcel of monk’s-puffs. He poked them at me through the bars and spread his cloak—or Ivo’s cloak, it probably was—on the ground. Had a bag with him too, with a wad of paper and a thin sheet of slate that he balanced across his knees.
“How was your night out?” I asked, once he’d gotten settled in. I spoke in Hrefni; it was cozier than Nuryeven.
“Meeting Ivo’s friends.”
“Oh. Yes. It was fine, I think.” He seemed distracted.
I frowned. “You think it was fine?”
“Mhm.” He didn’t meet my eyes. “Do you want to get started on today’s work? You can tell me about . . . something.”
He’ll be an excellent Chant one day if he can learn how to lie. “Actually, why don’t you tell me about something.”
“Hmm?” He fidgeted with his cloak a little, fussed with the brazier. “I don’t have anything.” He brightened. “This morning I heard some sailors from Tash singing a sea shanty I’d never heard before—”
“Why don’t you tell me about how the rest of your night went?”
He twitched. “Oh, you don’t want to hear about all that.”
I made a mental note to teach him better evasion and redirection techniques. There are times Chants have to keep things to themselves. “Actually, young apprentice, with every moment my interest grows.”
“It was boring.”
“You said it was fine. And I’ve never once seen you bored with a new acquaintance.”
“I—I meant the people were fine, but the things we did were boring, that’s all.”
I pinned him to his chair with my eyes. “So you did some things.”
“No,” he said quickly. “That’s why it was boring. The lack of things! Really dull.”
“So you and Ivo’s friends sat in stillness and silence.”
“Yes,” he said.
“Lying.” And if I hadn’t been sure of it before, the blush that lit his cheeks would have done it. I leaned forward, narrowing my eyes, peering hard at him. “You’ve got shadows under your eyes, so you were up late, but you don’t have any new hickeys, so I seriously doubt that you were alone with Ivo very much. What were you up to, staying up so late if the company was so boring?”
“Sure doesn’t seem like nothing.”
“Chant,” he said weakly. “Please don’t ask me. I can’t tell you.”
“You can’t tell me? Well! That certainly puts me right at ease!” I’d been curious before, but . . . something about his face . . .
“I’m fine, I promise. It was just talk. You don’t have to worry.”
“Talk that you can’t talk about.”
He bit his lip. “I said I wouldn’t.”
I squinted at him again. “Did they make you promise not to tell anyone about this so-called talk?”
He said a phrase in Hrefni, hwæn weo, which I can only translate as, “Well, you know,” but it has more layers to it than that.
“Ylfing,” I said. “My lad. I want to make something clear—if you truly, truly cannot speak about the conversation you had with Ivo’s friends last night, if you are confident in the necessity of your vow of silence, then tell me now and we’ll forget all this.” I paused for a heartbeat or two, just long enough for him to squirm. “But if, as I suspect, you’re not certain, if you have an instinct about it, then trust your gut. You’re my apprentice; you’re allowed to ask for guidance if you need it, and I can keep a secret as well as anybody. You know that.”
He looked wretched. “I want to tell you.”
“Then do so. I’m your master-Chant. My job is to guide you.”
“But they said I shouldn’t tell you. Specifically.”
He swallowed hard. “Ivo said—and his friends said—that the Queens might try to drag information out of you, if they thought you knew something.” His voice lowered to a whisper, though I doubt there was another Hrefni speaker within a thousand miles. “He said they might hurt you for it.”
“Torture? They haven’t tried it yet.”
Ylfing tilted his head back and forth, which is the gestural equivalent of hwæn weo.
“Don’t you think I could come up with a more enticing story to tell them, if they did try that? Stories always make more sense than reality.”
“Ivo cares so much,” Ylfing said, quiet and sudden. “About so many things. The minute I saw him, I knew he was a person who really, really cared about something. I could see it in his eyes.” He looked into the fire. “I’m . . . confused.”
“No. No, gods, no. I’m more confused about . . . myself, I guess.” He took a deep breath. “Have you ever—do you notice—” Another breath. “What do you do when someone tells you something, and another person tells you something else, and they both sound like they’re certain of the truth, but it’d be impossible for both things to be true at the same time?”
I couldn’t help but beam at him. “My boy!” I cried, so full of pride I could have wriggled with it. “You’re asking very Chantly questions these days.” But I saw how helpless and lost he looked, and I got myself under control. Goodness, though. I’m pleased to bits even remembering it. Think how proud you were every time one of your oath-nieces came home from her first successful hunt, with a fat bustard or an egret hanging from her pommel. That’s how proud a master-Chant is when their apprentice starts asking such questions. “You’ve stumbled upon something very fiddly and very important, lad. You want to know what to do? When you start noticing discrepancies, then you close your mouth, and you watch. Carefully. You sharpen your eyes and you examine every word they say to you.”
“But . . . Ivo wouldn’t lie to me. Would he?” He was nearly wringing his hands, and his brow was knotted up all fretful.
“Not on purpose, lad,” I said, as soothingly as I could. “Ivo is telling you a truth. He can’t tell you the truth, because he doesn’t know what it is, and that’s not his fault. You look at Ivo’s truth, and then you look at the truth you’re hearing from other people, and you pick it apart, and at the end, perhaps you find a truth somewhere in the middle.”
“And that’s the real one?”
I sighed. He’s still got a ways to go yet, even if he is starting to trip into Chantly questions by himself. “No, that’s just Ylfing’s truth, separate from Ivo’s.”
“It’s messy, lad, it’s all messy.” I waved my hand airily. “You just question everything that anyone tells you and assume they don’t really know what they’re talking about, even when they sound like they do, and you remember that everybody has a reason for telling you something in the way that they do and that most reasons are selfish. It will be second nature to you by the time you’re a master-Chant, not to worry. But what’s the thing Ivo is telling you that’s different from what you’ve heard elsewhere?”
His voice was faint and a little dazed: “He says Nuryevet is a bad place.”
That didn’t bring me up short like it should have, didn’t give me pause at all. “That’s because it is a bad place,” I said.
“Consanza doesn’t think so.”
I bit my tongue hard on my response to that, let me tell you. “Never mind her,” I said. “Focus on Ivo.” Looking back on it, I can’t believe I actually had to encourage him to tell me about Ivo. May wonders never cease.
Ylfing took another, final deep breath. “Ivo and his friends meet every so often to talk about how bad it is here. He told you what it was like growing up here.”
I nodded. “The schools, yes.”
“He says that it hurts people, living like this. He says people starve, or die, and that no one’s allowed to say anything about it. He says people get angry about the taxes, and they try to argue about it, and they get arrested. That happened to some of their friends, so now they meet in different places, secretly, and—”
I sat up very suddenly. “They’re revolutionaries!” Hrefni doesn’t have a word for that, so I had to cobble one together, but Ylfing seemed to get my point, because he looked hunted.
“No,” he said firmly. “Not like that. They just talk. Like I said before, just talk.”
“Except for the ones who got arrested. Go on, then, what do they talk about?”
“How to make things better, that’s all.” He squirmed. “I did promise not to say anything. I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”
I eyed my apprentice and wondered which of the two of them, him or Ivo, had the other wrapped around his little finger. Ylfing was terribly, terribly taken with Ivo, obviously, but Ivo . . . Well. There was potential there. Not that I could trust Ylfing to manage things delicately. “I’d like to talk to Ivo sometime,” I said. “If he wants to.”
Ylfing squirmed again. “I’d have to tell him that I told you. . . .”
“Were you planning on keeping that a secret?”
“Yes! I was!”
“All right. Well, if you happen to change your mind, then.” Or, more likely, if he ended up being unable to manage the ticklish matter of finagling Ivo for information. He’s so bad at lying. “You might as well find out as much as you can from that boy, either way. You can tell me all about it if we manage to get away from this horrible place. Now. To work?”
We had a bit of a squabble, again, about whether he was going to write down everything I had to tell him or not, and it ended up that he won simply by moving out of my reach and refusing to put aside the lap desk and his supplies. I was too distracted to argue with him anyway. The cold had set in during the night, and even though Ylfing heaped twigs on the brazier, I couldn’t shake the chill out of my joints. Terrible thing, getting old. Bits of you that used to work start breaking. You start noticing parts of your body you never had reason to notice before.
“We only have a month,” Ylfing said. “We can’t go all wild and frantic like yesterday. It’s a waste of time. So we’ll make a list of all the important things you have to tell me, and then you can tell me about each one and I’ll write it down.”
“However you want,” I said. The monk’s-puffs Ylfing had brought lay in my hands. They’d gone cold during my interrogation about Ivo, and now they were nowhere near as appealing. The twist of brown paper they were wrapped in crinkled a little, and I set it aside.
“Well, there’s definitely no time for languages, and I can learn those myself wherever I go. So we’d better start with things I can’t learn myself, or things that are hard to learn, things that take a lot of time.”
“If that’s how you want to do it.”
“So we’ll go alphabetically. By . . . by the name of the place, I guess.”
“The Ammat Archipelago.”
Ylfing nodded and bent over his lap desk. The pen nib scratched. He was a very painstaking scribe. “The . . . Ammat . . . Archipelago,” he mumbled. “Okay. Go.”
“You’re going to be giving away everything you own while you’re there, so don’t get attached to objects, and leave anything you particularly care about on your ship, or in a safe place with a friend somewhere else. When you meet someone, they’re going to give you a gift, and you have to take it, and you have to have something to give back to them—”
“Wait, wait, hold on!” my stupid apprentice cried. “Everything . . . you . . . own . . . Give me just a minute to catch up.”
“Ylfing,” I said, “we don’t have time now to write it down.” It was a great struggle not to shout at him, but we didn’t have time for that, either. Gods, though, the more I thought about Ivo’s little band of revolutionaries, the more frustrated I got that I couldn’t go out and handle them myself. “Why don’t you listen closely and then write it down later?”
“But I might forget—”
“Ylfing. We don’t have time. You know it. I know it.” My chest was getting all tight again, probably just another heart attack or something, nothing to worry about. “I’ll tell you a secret that only master-Chants know: all Chants forget things. You can’t transpose one person’s knowledge into another person without parts of it getting muddled or lost. It’s all right to forget some of it. You just need to learn to recognize what’s important and remember that. Or remember how to remember. It’s not a science, my boy, it’s an art. And art is messy. And that’s okay.”
He took a breath, and then I noticed that he was trembling. At first I thought it was from the cold. I’ve never claimed that I wasn’t a fool. “Ivo says . . . Ivo says he’s going to help Consanza with your appeal.”
“Don’t cry,” I said immediately. I don’t know what I would have done if he cried. I’ve never been very good at it when strangers do it, let alone people I know, even if it is just my lovesick fool of an apprentice. I’m not afraid of it, mind you. It’s just very awkward for everyone. It wasn’t like I could do anything but reach through the bars and sort of pat him on the shoulder anyway.
“I’m not crying,” he said, but his voice was all thick. Made my heart stop in my chest, I tell you.
So: “Don’t do it,” says I.
“I’m not,” he said, and he seemed to have gotten it under control a little more that time.
“The Ammat Archipelago,” I said quickly. “Tens of thousands of islands, hundreds of thousands of tribes. Live in little huts by the water. I’ve told you pieces about them before, I think.” Drilling facts, yes, that’s what he needed. “See what you can remember—magic?”
“Shamans,” Ylfing said. He swiped his sleeve over his face and sat up straighter.
“They—they have a bond with a spirit, and they can’t cross water.”
“Uh . . .” He sniffed loudly. “Well, they can, the shamans can, if they really had to, but it’d break the spirit bond and they’d have to start over. They’d lose all their ability and start from the very beginning, because it’s the spirit that does the actual work for them.”
“And is it learnable, or blood-bound?”
“The magic? I . . . I don’t know.”
“No one does. Not everyone can be a shaman. It’s rare. And not enough foreigners stick around with them long enough to find out.”
Ylfing nodded and glanced at his paper.
I shook my head. “Ask questions. They’ll help you remember.”
“Yes. Uh. Who—who becomes a shaman? Is there a pattern?”
“They say it has to do with souls. For example, an old soul in a new body, or someone whose soul doesn’t fit right in their body, or a body with more than one soul in it, or half a soul. Or they have a full soul, but it’s a particularly bright one. But who knows what any of that means? This is what I was told.”
We continued in that vein for several hours. Ylfing got some practice at asking the right questions, I got a good lecture into him about things he ought to know. Not too many real facts, after we’d finished discussing the Ammatan. It wasn’t just about collecting bits of information about people—it was about telling it. Matching the person to the right story—you remember what I said before? The right story fits like a familiar shoe.
Towards noon, Ylfing went out to get us a bit of lunch and himself some fresh air. Thank goodness—I don’t know how long it would have taken us to hear the news otherwise. He came back in all aflutter with it. Anfisa Zofiyat, Queen of Pattern, had been arrested by a team of Order guards on suspicion of harboring a fugitive, accessory to witchcraft, and, confusingly, treasonous espionage.
Ylfing scribbled off a message to Consanza and loped out again to find someone to run it across town to her office, against my advice. Didn’t see why he thought it was necessary to tell her about this or ask to talk to her—I suppose it was a significant event, but I was already sentenced. This would only distract her from working on my appeal.
It took another precious hour of the day to settle Ylfing down enough for us to return to work. Boys his age are jittery, flighty, not prone to great sweeps of concentration, unless it’s on the contents of their trousers.
I allowed him to write for this one—told him a great list of all the places he could go that knew about the Chants, places where we were welcomed, places where he should exercise great caution. I finished that list with, “Of course, remember never to get arrested for witchcraft in Nuryevet. You’ll regret it to the end of your days.” It was supposed to get a bit of a giggle out of him, but it just made his nose go red and his eyes well up again while I flapped my hands and squawked at him to get himself under control. Chants can’t go around flinging their emotions about willy-nilly.
He sobered soon after that, and asked how he should . . . Gods great and small, he asked how he should sink his homeland beneath the waves, if the month should pass without much luck.
“Can’t,” said I. “You’d do that at the end of your apprenticeship.”
“I know, but you said I’d never find another Chant again, probably.”
Crossed my arms at him. “No, you probably never will.”
“Even if I went to Kaskinen?”
“Even then! What do you think we have, universities? Perhaps a secret conclave, a coffeehouse where we all meet up? The Chants haven’t been from Kaskinen for thousands of years. They belong to everywhere now. And everyone.”
He fidgeted and shrugged a bit. “Surely there’s people somewhere who know where the other Chants are, then.”
“Only in the vaguest of terms. ‘Oh yes, one of them went east from Mangar-Khagra a month ago.’ Good luck with that. Have you gotten a sense of how big the world is, child? And how small we are? You’d be lucky to run across a second Chant, and luckier still if he or she didn’t have an apprentice along already.”
“Just give me directions! I’ll follow them to the letter. I’ll learn everything I can—please.”
“Directions?” I snapped. “Directions for the next seven years of your life? And leave you to wander this world on your own with perhaps a tenth of the knowledge you need to be a proper Chant? We haven’t even touched on any of the rites—”
“I’ve never seen you do rites. What are they?”
“All right, they’re not rites so much as . . . tenets. Laws. Reasons for . . . for why.”
“I don’t need a why.”
“Stupid child, of course you need a why. You need a why for yourself, but you probably already have that one. Wouldn’t have left Hrefnesholt if you didn’t have your personal why. There’s other whys. A personal why can change. The others don’t.”
“You mean for why Chants exist? I know that. You tell me that all the time.”
I flapped my hand to wave off his words. “I could tell you there’s a clearing in the woods, and a lake in the middle of the clearing, and an island in the lake, and a tree on the island—and you could see it in your mind’s eye, but I haven’t told you why the tree is important, or the taste of the fruit that grows on it, or the kind of beetle that dimples the surface of the water at the edge of the shore, or the smell of the breeze at the very cusp of spring. I might have told you a very shallow why before, but it’s not the really important part.”
“What is, then?”
“I can’t tell you—it’s not something that can be told in words, boy, otherwise any fool could be a Chant. It’s . . . a story, and the only way to truly know a story is to hear the story, and this is a very, very long one. It’s something that has to be learned. Uncovered slowly. Savored. Like someone beautiful lying beneath a sheet and smiling at you.”
“But I want to be a Chant. I don’t want to go home. I don’t want home, I don’t need it.”
I think I must have been getting pneumonia or something from being in that dank cell so long. There was an uncomfortable lump in my throat. I poured myself a cup of water and swallowed it down. “I’ll teach you all I can in the time that we have. And . . . and the appeal might go well.”
“What if . . . Well, what if it doesn’t?” he said, with a wretched look. “What if I just kept . . . going? Without you?”
I shrugged. “That’s on you, boy. People do.”
“But I wouldn’t be a Chant.”
“I suppose you could call yourself a Chant if you couldn’t bear to do otherwise.”
“But I wouldn’t be a Chant. I wouldn’t be the best Chant.”
“No such thing as the best Chant, boy.” He wrapped his arms around himself. I heard footsteps down the hall. “That might be the guard. Don’t make a fuss if they’ve come to throw you out for the day.” It wasn’t, thank goodness—Ylfing wasn’t in a state to go wandering the streets by himself. He could have gotten mugged or something. (Like when those damn urchins took my turn-toe boots off me in Map Sut, may they have all died early and gruesome deaths.)
“So,” I said to him. “You need to explore the whys. Why can we ply our trade wherever we can speak the language? Why do people feed us when there’s a famine, even when the other beggars on the street starve?” Ylfing opened his mouth, but I held up a hand. “It’s a question for you to think about. Not for today, not for the next week. This is a question Chants ask themselves their whole lives: Why can we do what we do?” He nodded. I gestured for his paper and ink. “Hand those to me and I’ll show you something.” I drew a large square with a gap in one side, and I picked up a few bits of debris from the ground—a chip of stone, a short piece of twig, a leaf that someone had tracked in, that kind of thing. I placed them on the piece of paper and said to Ylfing, “Watch.”
I didn’t really pay attention to what I was doing, I just sort of poked the things around randomly, made them crash into one another, made them go through the gap and around the square I’d drawn. . . . Carried this on for thirty or forty seconds while Ylfing watched intently. Then I used one of the twigs to flick the leaf off the paper onto the floor. “There. What did you see?”
He took a breath. “The big man who owns the house, he was bullying his children, and then one girl went outside to see if anyone was coming, and she and the boy looked around for something, and then they went back inside and saw the man intimidating the other girl, and then they all killed him and got rid of the body.”
I nodded thoughtfully. “That wasn’t what you saw.”
“Yes, it was!”
“No, you saw me playing with a piece of paper and some bits of trash. You saw me moving them around as the whimsy took me. You didn’t see a big man, or a house, or three children. You saw paper, and a leaf, twigs, a pebble. So where’d these characters come from? Where’d the story come from?”
“Don’t pretend I’m stupid, Chant, you made it up. It’s like puppets, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t make up shit, lad. Didn’t even make up this game. Chants made it up generations and generations ago, showing their stupid apprentices what people are like. What did you see?”
“Twigs and a pebble and a leaf and a square drawn on a piece of paper,” he said sullenly, still not convinced.
“And your little human brain grabbed onto them and tried to make sense of them. Entirely random events, and you forced a story onto them.”
“It just happened, I couldn’t help it—”
“Quiet, boy, it’s not a bad thing. Would you listen to me? I’m trying to make a point.”
“Fine. Fine, what’s the point?”
“The point is that I want you to take this paper and—are you seeing Ivo tonight?” His blush was answer enough. “Show this to Ivo. You can use coins or a saltpot instead, or bits of bread and cheese. Whatever you like. Clear your mind, and just toy with the damn things. Just move them around, and then ask him what he saw.”
“You can try it on Consanza, too, if you like, but I daresay she’ll just say she saw bread and crumbs and paper.” I snorted. “Useless woman. No respect for illusions.”
Ylfing shook off the twigs and pebbles and rolled up the paper. “Is this something to think about for years too?”
“Obviously. You can show it to anyone—drunks in a tavern, farmer’s daughters, nobles and peasants and merchants, women soldiers you meet on the road, smelly shepherd boys. . . . Just don’t bother explaining to them what it means. Don’t point out to them that they didn’t see whatever it is they see. Most people don’t take well to being told the story in their head is wrong. And you can learn something about people from what they see in random movements like this. It’s like reading tea leaves or looking for constellations.”
“Can I explain it to Ivo if he asks?”
I shrugged. “You can tell anyone you like, it’s just not always a good idea. Especially kings and folk like that, people who can have you killed or . . . you know, thrown in jail for witchcraft. Just say it’s a story someone once showed you and you thought it was an interesting little piece of whimsy. And listen to what they tell you about it.” I took a breath. “It’s not going to be easy, if you choose to go it alone. You’re young, you haven’t learned the things that make people people.”
“I know some things,” he grumbled.
Well, he was Hrefni, after all. They have this way about them, always assessing their own skill levels and those of the people around them. Very realistic about it too; only children bother with vanity in Hrefnesholt. So I shifted my viewpoint and spoke to Ylfing as one Hrefni would to another: “You’re not the best and you’re not the worst,” I said, and he relaxed. Amazing what speaking the same language will do for two people trying to have a conversation.
“Yes, that’s true. Do you think I could do it? By myself?”
“I don’t know. If I knew, you wouldn’t be my apprentice anymore—I’d have let you go if I knew you couldn’t do it at all. I’d have had you sink your homeland beneath the waves and sent you off as a journeyman if I knew you could. I don’t know either way. That’s why you’re still here.” He nodded and dropped his head. I pulled my horse blanket around my shoulders. “Would you like to keep working, or do you think that’s enough twisting of your brain for the day?”
“Both,” he whispered.
“Go take a walk. Buy some more monk’s-puffs. Splash some cold water on your face; it’ll do you good.”
Well, that was the night that everything changed. I even heard some of it, distantly: a great commotion off somewhere else in the prison, shouting and doors slamming and running feet. It sounded noisier than it usually did when new prisoners came in—some of them screamed, but it was mostly quiet except for the creak of cell doors echoing down the long, bare stone chambers, the clash as they slammed closed. People calling out, weeping sometimes.
But this much disquiet and fuss in the night? I’d been there long enough to know that wasn’t usual. It was days and days before I knew what was going on, but for your sake I’ll describe it as it happened.
As I said: a great commotion in the night, and then Ylfing wasn’t allowed in to see me—not that I knew about that, either. He just . . . didn’t turn up. And didn’t turn up. And didn’t turn up. I thought for a few days that he’d been sidetracked or that he’d fallen on misfortune and then that he’d decided he didn’t want to be a Chant after all. I had some wishful fantasy that he’d set up with that Ivo; at least then he’d have an ally at his back. In barbarian countries like these, you need all the allies you can get your hands on—no pun intended.
But Consanza didn’t show up either, and that was odd too.
So all I heard was what I could glean from Vasili, my little friend amongst the guards, who brought me my two meals per day, my allotted basket of pathetic sticks and twisted-straw logs for my fire, and a relatively fresh bucket. Vasili was tense. More than usual, I mean, all the guards were—more sullen and stoic than usual too. I kept asking and asking for someone to send word to my advocate, or to my apprentice, and it was only when I began asking to speak to Vihra Kylliat or to send a letter to Taishineya Tarmos that I started getting any idea that something bigger might be afoot. It was the look in their eyes, a sudden startled twitch when I spoke the names of the Primes. It was the sudden disinterest Vasili had in hearing anything I had to say. It was the distracted air, the efficient way they shoved food at me and left instead of lingering for a verbal jab or a cold, wary glance. I wasn’t worth their breath anymore. I was slated for execution still—both dead and alive, in some sense, stuck in this little iron box underground.
I started hearing people screaming down the hall. I saw people being dragged past, too, and the whole cell block got a little more lively. I began hearing whispers between the cells—unfair arrests of common citizens, of civil servants, of suspicious-looking foreigners. . . . This is always the way when a country begins to gnaw at its own flesh. It is a sign of sickness, a sign that things may be about to get much worse than they are.
Someone, down the corridor, screamed that they were innocent, that they had nothing to do with it, that it was all her, that they’d testify however they were told to testify. Two guards walked by a few minutes later, having silenced the screaming one way or another.
And then, at last, I got a little solid information. One of the guards muttered to the other as they passed, and the part that I caught was, “A Prime hasn’t been arrested in fifty years, y’know.”
“Arrested? A Prime?” I said, springing to the bars of my cell. “Who? Why?”
And then, for some reason, they told me.
“Anfisa Zofiyat,” said one of the guards. I don’t know their names, so we’ll call them Ana and Mila to save on confusion. “Treason, harboring a fugitive, and witchcraft.”
We all know how a Nuryeven witchcraft trial goes. I was . . . unsettled, to say the least. “Aha,” I said.
“Order’s arrested several of her blackwitches,” Ana said. Innocents, I assumed, the same as me. Normal people, minding their own business, who got caught in the middle of things because someone thought they looked suspicious. I suppose I ought to have felt sorry for those poor accused souls, ought to have felt a kinship with them. Maybe part of me did feel that way: I didn’t want anyone innocent to be found guilty, of course, but . . . I’m only human, and in my ugly parts, I thought it served them right. “You were the one who told Vihra Kylliat that they were there, right?” She gave me a grudging nod of appreciaton. “I’m sure she’ll be grateful.”
“As soon as she’s got a moment to spare a thought,” Mila agreed.
I couldn’t even be relieved at that. I was already slated to die. What good would it do me either way? “A moment?” I said. “Well, I suppose she must be very busy with the, ah . . . situation.”
They both gave me a hard look. “Watch your tongue,” Mila said.
“What did I say?”
“I don’t know; what did you say?” Ana said, stepping forward. I retreated from the bars, out of her reach. “It sounded like disrespect.”
“I’d have to know what was going on to be disrespectful of it! I’m ignorant—what is she so busy with, if not a situation?”
“She’s been arrested, idiot,” Ana said, as if I were supposed to be a fully informed citizen instead of a man moldering to death in a jail cell.
But arrested! Vihra Kylliat! “How?”
Ana leaned against the bars, crossed her arms. She looked at me for a long time; Mila hung back. “I guess,” she said after an age of silence, “that you wouldn’t have heard from anyone.”
“I could hear from you, if you’d tell me,” I said.
“Vihra Kylliat was arrested by the Coin enforcers.” See, I’d thought Order was the only one who could arrest people, which is . . . mostly true. But supposing Order starts misbehaving—who arrests them?
Order handles the vast majority of criminal arrests, but Pattern has its Weavers, and Commerce has a small force of its own too. The reasoning is that Commerce-related offenses are rather more delicate, require a certain amount of expertise to investigate, and can often be resolved without throwing someone in prison to await a lengthy, boring trial. It takes a trained eye to identify forgeries, for example, or to ensure that the city bakers are adhering to mandated quality standards. The Commerce enforcers track down debtors, tax evaders, and merchants operating without licenses, and when they’ve found an offender, they simply . . . balance the books. If they can’t, then the criminal is turned over to Order and Justice.
“Arrested on what charges?” I said.
“Stupid ones,” Mila answered.
Ana added, “Suspicion of embezzlement and accepting bribes, criminal nepotism, and brazen impertinence.”
“Those are stupid ones,” I agreed, as quick as I could—best to agree in situations like this. “What does Taishineya Tarmos think she’s doing?”
“She thought she was next,” Ana said, again as if I were an imbecile.
“Because of what happened last time.”
“Oh, I see.” I looked back and forth between the two of them. “What happened last time?”
THE NINTH TALE:
What Happened Last Time
About fifty years ago, things were really screwed up. The King of Order wanted to go conquer Enc, but he needed a lot of money to do it, so he bribed the King of Coin to approve his budget in return for, uh . . . land rights or something.
(“Canal tariffs?” Mila said uncertainly.
“Coin would have had those anyway.” Ana turned her attention away from me, away from the story.
“They would have had the land whatsits too.”
“Yeah . . . Anyway, it was something like that,” Ana said. “It was something that was supposed to go to that King of Coin individually, not to the office or the Ministry.”
Anyway, all that isn’t important. They were colluding together on shady dealings for personal profit, is the thing, and they were going to drive Nuryevet into ruin in a war that would have bankrupted the country for a stalemate. And even if we had won it, we wouldn’t have had the resources left to manage what we’d gained. Everybody knew it was a stupid plan, and nobody wanted to go to war with Enc on that scale—we’ve been picking at each other’s borders for a thousand years.
So the Queen of Law tried to pass some legislation that would have upset the balance of power, so that she’d be able to overrule Order and Coin and stop the mess. Order accused her of treason and arrested her. The Queen of Justice knew that was a spurious accusation and arrested the King of Order. The King of Coin then arrested the Queen of Justice for tax fraud, on the grounds that the advocate who prepared her paperwork had listed his name without his patronymic. Then the Queen of Pattern stepped in and put a stop to all of it, and that was that.
I was silent and expectant. “That’s it?”
“Yeah,” said Ana.
Thrice-curse these people! “What about the ending?”
“How did the Queen of Pattern stop them?”
“Oh. They were impeached, all four of them.” She said it casually, offhanded.
“What!” I squawked. “For what? All those silly charges?”
She blinked at me. “For being criminals.” Mila was frowning at me too; she clearly couldn’t understand why I couldn’t understand.
“What sort of criminals were they?” I asked, careful not to snap at them.
Ana sighed. I could tell she didn’t have much patience left. “Do I look like a history scholar? I don’t remember all the details; ask someone who cares.”
“I know Justice was harboring a blackwitch,” Mila said suddenly. “I remember that from school.”
Of course she was, I thought to myself.
Ana nodded in agreement. “And in all the trials, it came out that the King of Coin had some very unsavory sex-related offenses that he hadn’t kept quiet enough, so he ended up getting kicked out of office too.”
“Doesn’t matter how quiet your scandals are, though, because Pattern always hears about them,” Mila grumbled.
“So witches and sex scandals,” I said.
“And bribes and things,” Ana said in that same careless tone. “You know, the usual sort.”
“Is it? Usual, I mean? Common?”
Ana and Mila shrugged in unison. “They’re politicians,” Mila said. “They’ve all got their plots and such, haven’t they? Except Vihra Kylliat.”
“Yeah. She doesn’t like games. If she did, maybe she wouldn’t have gotten arrested,” Ana mumbled. Mila gave her an inscrutable look.
“Fine, fine, but what happens next?” What happens to me, that’s what I meant.
“Well, with the three of them locked up—”
“Three? Who else? You’ve only mentioned Pattern and Order.”
“Her too?” I shrieked.
They gave me a long, cool look. “You don’t seem happy about it,” Ana said. “Are you working with her?”
“She did come to see him a while ago,” Mila muttered to her. “We’d better mention that to the Duke’s office.” The Duke of Order, they meant—Ardan Balintos, Vihra Kylliat’s second in command.
“I’m on trial, that’s all!” I hurried to assure them. “She came to discuss that with me, nothing more. But who arrested her?”
Mila leaned in and whispered something into Ana’s ear; Ana nodded sharply in reply, and they both turned on their heels and off they went down the hallway, leaving me alone with dozens more questions than I started with and only one or two more answers.
I had to piece together the rest in scraps like a quilt of rags. Taishineya had panicked, I guess—arresting Vihra Kylliat was a severe miscalculation on her part. But it was a panic mixed with overconfidence: fear that she was on the cusp of losing everything; confidence that she could protect it with all her powers and expect no consequences in return. And perhaps it would have been different if the dice had fallen otherwise. I daresay no one would have batted an eye if she’d gone for Anfisa Zofiyat’s throat, but Vihra . . .
Well. Order and Justice had always been cozy with each other, hadn’t they? That’s what Consanza said. Taishineya should have known she couldn’t touch Vihra Kylliat without retribution from Zorya Miroslavat.
I suspect that part of the miscalculation was rooted in what I’d told her in our little meeting—I certainly hadn’t given her the impression that she had anything to be particularly wary of. Or perhaps at that point she felt that “pick up the chisel,” as I’d told her, meant “start playing their games, get involved.” But she’d tried to play her game, not theirs, and hers was about social circles and knowing people and reputations. She wasn’t playing the political game, which is a game with teeth.
Vsila did not quite fall into chaos. People don’t really need a fully functioning government; it’s just a very helpful thing to have. Business went on as usual, for the most part, but it was strained, labored. All this I heard from Ylfing later, so if you want specifics, you should ask him—though I daresay he missed a few significant sections too. He would have been very absorbed in sticking his tongue down Ivo’s throat.
Vihra Kylliat, Taishineya Tarmos, Anfisa Zofiyat. Three Queens arrested in two days. Those two days, that was when the first tremors started, though the cracks wouldn’t show for a little while yet.
I expect you’re thinking that I seem awfully indifferent about this, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I’d been in a murky, sluggish mood since I’d been found guilty and sentenced to death—you know the sort of mood I mean? That kind of mood always makes me feel like a blunt knife. Everything becomes dull and cottony, and I stop feeling hungry. Sometimes I’ll put food in my mouth and move my jaw, but my tongue doesn’t wet and it’s a struggle even to rationalize why I ought to waste the effort on swallowing. Most times, I don’t even notice it coming upon me; I don’t even notice it until there’s a cup of water in my hand and I’m having a serious debate with myself whether it’s worth raising it to my lips—it was that sort of mood that had crept over me, locked in the cold, damp little cell, huddled in my threadbare blankets next to the brazier that I nursed like an orphaned puppy with a supply of twigs that had become, more often than not, too miserly to noticeably improve the conditions.
My fate was to bide and to trust my neck to Consanza. There were still the appeals. The whole mess with the Queens had bought me a little time. And as I sat in that cell, I thought to myself that if it all settled down and it turned out they were angry at me for lying about the blackwitch in Pattern, or for putting ideas into Taishineya’s head, well, what were they going to do about it? Kill me?
It dawned on me that I had nothing else to lose. Perhaps I was going to die. And perhaps, before I did, I could give someone else the power to avenge me.
I hoped and hoped that Ylfing would be as bad at lying as he usually was. I hoped he would bring Ivo to me again.
You know, they weren’t telling me the truth about things, Consanza and that steward in Pattern. They swore up and down that Nuryevet was no different from any other place, that it was normal. They had gone out of their way, both of them, to tell me how lucky they were—how lucky that they got to choose the person who exploited the office for gain, how lucky to have money wrung from them like they were dishrags. There were other choices available, lots of others, but such a thing had never occurred to them—they knew in their bones that they were lucky with what they had.
Yes, Nuryevet was already sickly when I arrived. Consider how the Pattern Primes kept abruptly dying in office. Consider the very existence of Taishineya Tarmos as a viable choice of elected official. Consider how offhandedly Mila and Ana talked about political corruption and bribes—people aren’t bored with things like that unless they are obnoxiously common. Consider what Ivo had said about the country schools and what Ylfing had told me about Ivo’s friends.
But I’ll be honest: I hadn’t been in Nuryevet long enough to really get my hands into it, to uncover the depth of the rot for myself. I arrived and was snatched up and thrown in jail within a week or two; there was no time for me to be out amongst the people, taking the pulse of the country, listening for the rattle in its lungs, looking for sores on the back of its throat. What little time I did have in freedom was out in the country, the villages and farmland.
So you’ll just have to take my word for it, I suppose: Nuryevet was already sick when I arrived. Perhaps, without me, it would have staggered forward on its own momentum for another generation, perhaps two. But sometime, eventually, it would have broken down. That, at least, is a certainty. So when I tell you what I had to do to escape, to save my own neck . . . Just remember that much. Nuryevet was dying. Perhaps I hastened its death, yes, but isn’t a swift death arguably preferable to a long, slow, lingering one? There’s no way to know how many deaths I caused, but there’s no way to know how many lives I saved—from slow starvation, from sickness, from despair, from a bloody civil war. That’s got to be worth something, hasn’t it? There was nothing in Nuryevet worth saving, and everyone knew it, even if they refused to say so aloud. They only wanted better for themselves and their families, and then to be left alone.
I should clarify. When I say “Nuryevet” here . . . How do I describe this? Nuryevet wasn’t a real thing—it was a story that people told one another. An idea they constructed in fantasy and then in stone and mortar, in lines of ink in labyrinthine law books, in cities and roads. It was a map, if you will, drawn on a one-to-one scale and laid out over the whole landscape like so much smothering cloth. So when I say there was nothing in Nuryevet worth saving, that’s what I mean: the story wasn’t worth saving, and none of its monstrous whelps were either—the government, their methods, the idea that they could feed their poor to the story like cattle to a sea monster so the wealthy could eat its leavings. And not only the wealthy. Even the well-to-do like Consanza and her family, who could afford coffee, good foreign wine—hell, meat. That came about because of people like Ivo and his family paying taxes for schools they never saw built and roads they only saw maintained for the good of the tax caravans. You’d never see someone like Consanza thinking to change anything. She’d told me outright that she wanted a cushy desk job in Law or Justice; she wanted to do the bare minimum she needed to get by, and of course that left no room to care about anyone but herself.
Perhaps it is unfair of me to lay any blame at her individual feet—it’s not as if every aspect of her life was the result of simple good fortune. I bring her up only as an avatar, an example, a symptom of Nuryevet’s sickness. She, like many other people, was in a position to do something; she had the means, the education, the social standing. And yet her highest concern was to avoid as much real work as possible, and to protect and advance herself. To kiss ass like never before, and to win herself comfort, ease, and security. She had even balked at helping me in any way that might hurt her chances, and I was her job.
The Queens’ trials dragged on interminably, and the first snow of winter fell around the same time that the riots started in the streets.
It was colder than hell in the prison, and I almost caught my blankets on fire more than once, huddling up to my brazier. Outside, there were people dying. Ylfing told me that there was a whole week or so when you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread for love or money anywhere in the city.
I ate my usual gruel. My usual apple every three days. I wondered if everyone had really abandoned me. I thought that was the low point, that it couldn’t get any worse, and I remained vaguely grateful to be alive, though the cold sank into my bones and made me ache and ache.
And then Casimir Vanyos died—he’d been ancient and decrepit anyway, and he’d probably been fading out for months or weeks, but to die now in the midst of all this . . . I heard there were some suspicious circumstances, but it may have been pure speculation and rumor. An equal number of people attributed it to stress.
In any case, it was Zorya Miroslavat’s next move in the wake of that that clinched things for the speculators. She declared martial law and appointed herself interim Queen of All until the judiciary proceedings could be carried out and Casimir Vanyos’s sudden demise investigated. At which point Ardan Balintos, the Duke of Order and Vihra Kylliat’s second, promptly arrested Zorya Miroslavat on suspicion of the murder of Casimir Vanyos in an attempt to grab total control of the government.
I sound like a historian instead of a storyteller, don’t I? I apologize—it’s difficult to tell a story this fresh and raw when I wasn’t actually involved in any part of it, when I was shut away from the action while all the excitement happened to other people. And this, I suppose, was history, and it was happening before our eyes. In any case, I commend your patience with me. I’m nearly finished—I wasn’t shut away from all the action, just the first half of it.
I’ll make it quick: Ardan Balintos patched things together. He got trade moving in the city again, got people fed and warm. It took nearly a month, but Vihra Kylliat was cleared of all charges. Criminal nepotism had been a frivolous charge, something that was on the books but never actually brought up in court. Apparently, the so-called nepotism she’d been accused of was a personal tendency to play favorites amongst her junior officers and some kind of sex scandal from twenty years ago.
Ardan Balintos and Yunia Antalos, the Duchess of Justice, were most likely sleeping together, which brought up a whole host of ethical concerns, but together they cobbled together a solution: for Vihra Kylliat’s trial, Yunia presided on the panel, supported by the four youngest judges there were in Nuryevet at the time—ones whom Zorya Miroslavat herself had appointed, and recently. Ones who would rule in favor of Zorya’s other protégée—Vihra Kylliat’s accusers didn’t stand a goddamn chance. It was criminal nepotism being used to brush off a charge of criminal nepotism. You can’t make this stuff up.
Vihra Kylliat was released from prison and, as the highest-ranking free member of the government and using Zorya Miroslavat’s decree of martial law as leverage, seized sole control of the government. Ardan Balintos and Yunia Antalos put up no objection. I thought that was an unexpected act of loyalty and honor, considering, but Consanza explained later: while some little bit of honor may have been in play, it was mostly a show. Ardan Balintos was young, and mostly unknown; he had no military glory to rely on in a political campaign—he’d been in the quartermasters’ corps for his entire career with Order, and had been sent on only two brief, mediocre wars with Cormerra. But he wanted to run for King of Order one day, so he needed at the very least to be known as an orderly, rule-of-law kind of person. In short, releasing Vihra and reinstating her power made him look good.
She wasn’t a merciful Queen—she enforced a curfew, sent troops of guards to patrol the city, and expanded the situations in which the use of force was authorized. My time in jail got markedly less lonely quite soon after that as the cells filled further. The prisoners whispered through the bars to one another while the guards were elsewhere, and it was then that I heard the parts that I had been missing.
Gyorgy Imros, the Duke of Coin, was implicated during Taishineya’s trial, and Vihra promptly had him arrested on charges of unlawful arrest of a citizen and the making of fraudulent accusations; the embezzlement, bribery, and general corruption charges, which had come to light in court, were tacked on as more of an afterthought than anything else. Gyorgy Imros was sentenced to a year’s imprisonment and stripped of his title. This in particular was a terrible idea on Vihra’s part, because it meant that no one was captaining the ship of Commerce, and it contributed to the mess that followed later. I’m sure she felt very pleased with herself at the time, having defanged Coin like that.
Vihra Kylliat came to me the night that she sentenced Gyorgy Imros. The guards had spent the day moving prisoners farther away from me, crowding them into another wing of the prison: Vihra Kylliat and I were alone in the room. I heard the clanking rhythm of her step several moments before she appeared in front of my cell. She drew up a chair, and I noticed that she too sat close to the brazier. She wore a thick red woolen half-cloak with white trim—she wasn’t fine enough to spring for fur lining, or perhaps she didn’t want to seem like she was showing weakness by needing the warmth. Or perhaps she was merely accustomed to the cold.
“Pretty necklace,” I said, nodding to an oddly shaped pendant of twisted metal hanging from a long chain around her neck. I hadn’t seen her wear jewelry before.
“It’s not a necklace,” she snapped, and stuffed it beneath her tunic. “You used witchcraft in the service of Taishineya Tarmos, I hear.”
“You read her future for her.”
“Oh. Does that count as witchcraft?” I muttered. “I don’t know that I really believe in such things. . . .”
She waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter to me one whit whether or not you actually told her future. She believes that you did, and her staff believes that you did. I’ve just had them questioned. Anyone can make up things and sound like an oracle. Be vague enough, and anything you say can be somehow interpreted to fit the circumstances that actually happen. Is she paying you?” she asked suddenly.
“For information. You’re a bit of a slut with your mouth, aren’t you?” She snorted at me. “You’ll blab information to the highest bidder.”
“Only to save my life,” I said dryly. “As I don’t owe loyalty to anyone but my personal beliefs and my life’s work.”
“And your apprentice.”
“Sure, the kid’s all right. Don’t want to see him hurt. He’s like a nephew to me.”
“Certainly. I’m no barbarian, Master Chant. I don’t hurt children to get information from their parents. Or parental figures,” she added. “Why tear out his fingernails when you have ten perfectly good ones?”
I swallowed. “Fortunately, ma’am, I’m fairly fond of my fingernails where they are, and I’m willing to be a . . . how did you put it? A slut with my information, in order to keep them. How can I help?”
“I never said I wanted your help.”
“No? My mistake.” She wasn’t making me nervous or anything, mind you. She—well, she was an intimidating woman, that’s all.
“You’re known as a person who knows things.”
“Depends on the things you want to know.” I swallowed again. “I know a few things, maybe. And, like many people who have lived as long as I have, I have a good bit of experience in worldly matters. Are you sure I can’t help? What is it you want of me?”
She sat in silence.
“Perhaps I can make a guess, then, Your Majesty,” I said, inching closer to the bars. “You’re a strong woman, and you’ve inherited a bad situation. You’re the only Prime at liberty now, and that’s a tricky position to be in. Delicate. That said, Coin’s not an issue anymore, and the Duchess of Justice and the Duke of Law aren’t causing you any trouble. Thing is, maybe you’ve noticed you have . . . you have a wealth of opportunities available to you. Maybe you want someone to help you choose the right path. Maybe you want to know what would happen if you were the only Queen. Maybe you—”
“I’m no traitor to my kingdom,” she snarled. “I won’t be the only Prime.”
“Oh,” I said. That surprised me—if it had been me . . . I take what opportunities are handed to me, you know? But perhaps she was even more like the General of Jade and Iron than I’d expected. I took the opportunity to stop running my mouth. “So . . . to what do I owe the honor of this visit, then?”
She tapped the fingers of her hand against her knee.
There was a long silence.
“Things are falling apart,” she said at last. “They’ve been falling apart for a while. I want to fix them.”
“Perhaps the system is broken.” Like I said before, Nuryevet was already sick when I arrived.
“The system is fine. I won’t go making wild changes, especially not while I’m in this position. I have to be careful. If Casimir Vanyos hadn’t died . . .”
“I got the feeling he wasn’t much respected amongst his peers.”
Her jaw tightened. “He was a good man. He worked for the realm for decades, he knew more about the law than anyone else alive today, and he had principles and ethics. More than I do.”
“Taishineya Tarmos seemed to think he was weak.”
“As water is weak, perhaps. But water flows downhill—it will get around barriers, it will wear through stone, it will quench fire, it will rise through the air and rain down on dry fields. He was careful, precise, and deliberate, and his understanding of his Ministry was second to none. We are lesser without him.”
“And his second? The Duke?”
She shrugged. “We’ll see, I suppose. He will take over until Casimir Vanyos’s term of office ends in four years, and if he does a good job, he may be elected in his own right. That remains to be seen. I’ve never felt that he was a particularly forceful personality, but I suppose Casimir Vanyos didn’t give that impression until you got to know him either.”
“So what will you do? You want something from me, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
“Casimir Vanyos was wise,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard me. “In some ways, you remind me of him. I don’t actually think you’re wise in and of yourself, but you say wise things sometimes, and . . . as I said, you are known as a man who knows things. The higher you go in society, the colder it gets, you know. Queen of Order is a wintry place to be indeed. The Queen of All, even more so.”
I pounced on that spark: I laughed softly. She raised an eyebrow at me. “Sorry, Majesty. It’s just . . . I know what you mean.”
“How could you?” She flicked her eyes over me. “You’re a pauper.”
“I am a friend of queens and princes, madam. I have sworn by my blood to be a brother to chieftains and lords.”
“And yet you say you hold loyalty to no one. You have no honor, have you?”
“I swore to them as men and women, not to their titles. I owe their titles no loyalty, no. I owe them the loyalty due only to a friend.”
“And so you think you know how I feel?”
“I’m more familiar than you think I am. I spoke to you once about the General of Jade and Iron. . . . But you probably don’t want to hear me yammer about her anymore.”
“Genzhu was a powerful empire. Still is, in its way,” she murmured. “I would have dreaded to go up against its armies, in my youth. Before I was retired from service and put out to pasture.” She smacked the palm of her hand on her knee above the prosthetic.
I nodded. “General Ger Zha was a great tactician. They used to call her the Sword of Heaven. For fifteen years, she was the empire’s worst-kept secret, but that was a century ago. She was fading from memory when you were just beginning your career. But in her day, she gave new meaning to the word ‘glory,’ and she did it without taking the slightest scuff to her honor.”
Vihra Kylliat grunted, pretending not to care, but she said nothing, and so I took a gamble.
THE TENTH TALE:
The Sergeant of Yew and Silk
A long time ago and half the world away, a young woman named Ger Zha joined the army and swore to serve, to be steadfast, to advance the glory of the Queen of the World, Earthly Daughter of the Glorious Sun-Tiger, Reflected Brilliance of the Mirror of Heaven, the Empress of Genzhu, En Bai. She was given a war bow, and the first thing she learned was how to care for it—to push her knee into the belly of the bow when stringing it, to unstring it when it was idle or at the first sign of damp, to fletch her own arrows, to never pluck the string without an arrow nocked to it, to whittle a draw-ring from antler or bone, and to draw to her cheekbone, always her cheekbone, in perfect unison with the rest of her company: Nock, draw, fire. Nock, draw, fire. She learned the singing twang of the silk bowstring, the hiss of arrows flying past her ears—the offbeat volley from the second line, behind her. She learned the painful snap of the string against her inner wrist when it rolled off her draw-ring instead of releasing smoothly, the lashing sting of it that she could feel even through her leather vambrace.
Ger Zha learned to march in formation, to shoot from horseback. By the time she saw any real action, she’d loosed more arrows than she could possibly count and worn through a dozen draw-rings. The blisters on her hands had risen, healed, risen again, healed again, and formed at long last into the particular calluses that distinguish all Genzhun archers from any others.
Genzhu sent her west, across the river valley and into the mountains, and she was glad to go—with each arrow loosed from her bow, she expanded the reach of the empire and redoubled its glory.
It should have been a fairly simple campaign, and likely it would have been in the hands of a younger commanding officer, a more energetic one who was still excited about their studies of tactical treatises. And indeed, in his youth, General Hei Ano had been known as the Ravening Bear. But just as the year turns and the bear, having gorged itself, trundles into a cave to sleep through the winter, so too had time overtaken General Ano. It was a shame he had amassed so much glory, because when his mind started to go, no one was brave enough to suggest it might be time for him to be put out to pasture. He made a series of stupid decisions on that campaign, from trouble with the supply chain, to working the horses lame, to an unfortunate mismanagement of a cholera outbreak amongst the troops. By the time they reached the mountains, their glorious force had been reduced by a quarter, and every soldier was tired, hungry, and footsore.
General Ano not excluded, of course, and if we are feeling charitable, we might attribute what happened next to the sheer frustration and weariness of a cranky, tired man much too old to be playing at being a young man still.
We’ll just go straight through and have done with this damn fool thing, he said, which turned out to be exactly the wrong thing to do.
Ger Zha, in the meantime, had already been elevated to the rank of corporal and then, technically, was the most senior corporal present amongst her particular archer company—the cholera, you see, had taken out a good number of the others. Two had been seized by river monsters one night in camp, and the last had been sent home with more than several broken bones when his horse, struggling up a hill, slipped on the rocks and fell atop him.
So. General Ano said to go straight through the mountains, and they did so. And they were promptly obliterated by tiny bands of mountain people harrying their fringes to nothing, like minnows nibbling at an elk’s carcass in the river until it vanishes.
Ger Zha was one of only twelve soldiers who survived. Of the other eleven, ten were archers from her company, and one was General Ano, with two broken legs and a concussion. As the story goes, the ten archers pointed out to one another that Ano was already 90 percent dead, and the thing to do would be to dispatch him the last 10 percent, sneak out of the mountains, and make their way home. And why not? He had caused the death of a good two and a half thousand Genzhun soldiers, not to mention the camp followers, horses, oxen. . . . If you added in the material cost of the equipment lost—food, cookpots, boots, wagons, carts, chariots, maps, armor, swords, sabers, daggers, spears, javelins, tower shields, round shields, short bows, longbows, quivers, more arrows than the mind could possibly fathom, abacuses, nail files, shoelaces, et cetera . . . Surely even a great and venerable man deserved at least 10 percent of a death for this outrage?
Ger Zha disagreed most strongly—her argument was that honor was honor, and as long as General Ano breathed, they had an obligation to protect him and see him safely delivered to the capital at any cost. There was no room for compromise, and the last eleven archers of the glorious Genzhun army came to no agreement that night.
Corporal Ger Zha slept with her arms around the unconscious and feverish general so that the others could not kill him in the night, and when she awoke, she found that they were completely alone. The other ten had deserted her, had taken every scrap of food, every weapon, every arrow. They left her only the clothes she wore and the contents of the pack she’d used to pillow her head: a spare uniform, a small folding knife, a tinderbox, and some letters. She was alone in the wilderness with only these, and the boots on her feet, and an aged, sickly man to whom she owed her solemn fealty.
The ten archers made it back to the capital within the month, tattered and grimy and footsore and sullen, and they told the story of how the army had been wiped out. They were given long robes from Empress En Bai to honor their sacrifice and bravery, and they were named the Ten Noble Heroes, and each of them was awarded an arrow with a shaft of silver, a golden head, and peacock-tail fletchings. A dozen solemn banquets were given to honor the perished general and the glorious army’s tragic stand against the mountain barbarians, and the Ten Noble Heroes attended each one, as solemn and haunted as any soldier would be.
At the stroke of midnight during the twelfth banquet, just as the dancing boys were winding up their long veils and collecting their tambourines, when all the guests were stuffed like roasted geese and swaying with the vapors of rice-wine, of barley-wine, of tamarind-wine, the great doors to the feast hall opened, and a woman in an army uniform stood in the doorway, lit by the torches and candles. The Ten Noble Heroes froze when her eyes caught theirs from across the room and glittered like thin black ice crusting a deep river. She was bloodstained and mud-stained, but her tunic was cinched neatly at her waist. Her boots were scuffed and water-marked and worn through, her leggings torn, her hair cropped short and sloppy.
And she bore a war bow of a strange, snow-white wood, strung with braided red silk.
And she bore a red quiver, with red-shafted arrows fletched in feathers of every bird of the forest.
And she bore, shining on her breast and on each shoulder, battered lieutenant’s pins of a style older than she was that had nevertheless been polished to shine like flames and glittered no less brightly than her eyes.
And behind her, palace servants, nervous and wary.
“Who is this?” the Empress asked. She stood, great and terrifying, with her child swaddled and sleeping at her breast—the crown prince, Jou Xi, who would one day die of river fever well before his time.
“No one,” blurted one of the Ten Noble Heroes, and it was at that moment that their fate was sealed.
“My name is Lieutenant Ger Zha of the Third Camellia Company, and I am a survivor of the campaign to Hashelon.”
This was a little unsettling, of course. There was an elegance to how the Ten Noble Heroes had presented themselves at the gates of the city. It was an easy story to tell—this brave group of loyal comrades fighting their way out of hostile enemy territory, surviving against all odds, and sticking together all the way home. The heralds had proclaimed it all through the city, and the troubadours had begun composing songs about it.
And Ger Zha merely appearing out of nowhere struck a blow against all that. But then she spoke, and the empire learned the treachery of their celebrated Ten Noble Heroes.
Ger Zha had carried General Ano on her back out of the mountains, traveling only at night to avoid the mountain tribes. She had foraged for food, which she fed him now and then when his fevers allowed him to wake up, and she trickled water into his mouth, and she—
Vihra stopped me. “What’s the purpose of this?” She had been surprisingly quiet until then.
“Of telling you about it?”
I was rather taken aback. “You didn’t like it?” That was interesting—the first tale about Ger Zha had held her rapt, but this one she scraped off her boots like mud without a second thought beyond impatience.
“Is this all you do? Come up with stories?”
“I don’t come up with them. This one happens to be true.” I sniffed. “I thought it would be helpful.”
“How? How is a syrupy story about someone else’s problems ‘a long time ago and half the world away’ supposed to be helpful?”
I shrugged. “Maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s useless. Maybe you wouldn’t have seen your problems reflected in the mirror of the general’s problems. I just thought you might be interested, that having a little of her in your head might help you.”
“I don’t have time to listen to all this right now,” Vihra snapped. She pushed herself to her feet. “I don’t care about her steady adherence to ethics and honor, as if that’s supposed to make her special. That’s the bare minimum required of a decent person, and she deserves no adulation for it. And I? I’ll do the right thing. There was never any question about that.”
“What’s the right thing?”
“Abide by the law. Use the system we have in place. There will be proper trials.”
“Even for Zorya Miroslavat?”
“Yes,” she said, without hesitation. “Of course.”
“Even though her second got you acquitted?”
“Even so. That was their decision; this is mine. They should have known this is what it would be. She was arrested, so she will have a fair trial. I have no doubt that she is innocent, but that must be proven lawfully, or there’s no point at all and it’ll plague both of us for the rest of our lives. And, moreover, they arrested me for criminal nepotism, and I won’t go proving them right.”
“May the gods smile on all your endeavors, then.”
She left, in a swirl of wool and a clank of more metal than her artificial limbs—I heard the separate ring of at least two daggers on her. You learn to hear these things after a while, and I wasn’t surprised that she’d come armed. When a woman like Vihra Kylliat has a convicted spy and an accused blackwitch in her custody, she takes no chances.
In accordance with Vihra Kylliat’s declaration to me, Anfisa Zofiyat was investigated for the charges that had been laid against her. An inquisitorial team was sent into the Tower of Pattern, where—not to my surprise—everyone claimed to know nothing about any blackwitches and insisted most staunchly that all who had been arrested on those charges were completely innocent, upstanding members of society and loyal civil servants. I don’t know what hard evidence the inquisitors were expecting to find. Vihra Kylliat was not pleased with me.
“You lied, didn’t you? You made it all up,” she hissed through my bars. “You’ve made me look a fool. I should have you killed tonight.”
“You’d be wasting a resource,” I said quickly. “I can help you, I swear it.”
“From a cell? Bound and gagged, so you can’t spout any more lies and turn my guards’ brains to clay for you to mold?”
“Keep looking,” I insisted. “She’s got something to hide, surely, and if she doesn’t, she’ll just try something as soon as you let her out. The blackwitch was just a rumor—maybe they were trying to frighten me into compliance! It was psychological torture, is what it was.” I had already lost the argument, though. That would have been it for me, but . . . well, I’d been having terrible luck for weeks, and I was due for a favorable roll of the dice. We both heard a commotion elsewhere in the prison—there were screams. Vihra Kylliat vanished at speed, and I sat back to twiddle my thumbs and wait. As I had been waiting for weeks. I thought about resources—which ones I could offer to Vihra Kylliat, which ones I had available to get me out of this mess.
The greatest resource one can have in times like that is a friend. I thought of all the people I knew, all the people who could have helped me if they weren’t half the world away, who had helped me in the past—Pashafi, who found me thirsting to death in the desert and pulled me up from the sand onto his walking hut, shaded me with his own shawls, shared his water with me. Ciossa, sensible woman, who taught me to play draughts and never once lost, who always saw through me like I was made of glass and yet was kinder than I ever expected I’d deserve. Heba and Azar in Xereccio, whose love was like something from stories, who opened their home and their hearth to me, who whiled away long, starry summer evenings with me, laughing and joking, all of us plying one another with wine, trading stories as they looked at each other and held hands like they were still in the first wondering flush of young love. Ylfing, sweet child, who always thinks the best of everyone, who gives his whole heart to the world. Ivo, with his anger, with his dream of something better for his country, with his friends.
And you. I thought of you. I thought how, by this time of year, you must have made your way to the foot of the mountains with your horses and all your kin. I thought how perhaps at this moment you were sitting by a fire as other clans arrived and built the vast tent city to shelter for the winter. I thought of you trading your smoked meats and your furs, and of your wizards humming songs of strength and warmth as they pitched the tents and picketed the horses. You, of anyone in the world, you were the closest. Two weeks’ ride away, that was all. Less, perhaps, if the weather was favorable and the horse bold-hearted.
So close. I had fantasies of sending for you, how you might come over the mountains with your horse-tail banners and parlay for me, or ride in like thunder and snatch me away, out of the jaws of death.
If only, if only.
My thoughts were interrupted.
The first thing I noticed was foulness. It was familiar—I’d sensed it before, right before I met Anfisa Zofiyat. It prickled over me like flies walking across my eyeballs and filled my mouth and nose with a scentless miasma of death, and it grew stronger with every heartbeat.
I didn’t hear the footsteps, of course. When the four figures appeared in front of my cell, I knew two things immediately—that they were Weavers, and that they were here to kill me. I would have known without their blue-and-charcoal uniforms. They had scarves over their mouths, and their skin had been grayed with ash, all the better to keep any kind of light from shining off them. Even with the faint light from the banked embers, I could barely see them.
I was frozen in terror.
Now, there’s no need to fret, is there? You see me sitting before you, clearly not gutted or drowned in the bay. I would not have lived to see you again if it hadn’t been for two small pieces of luck. First, something I did not know at the time: Weavers rarely work in groups. They are trained as lone wolves. Second: the lock on my cell door, ancient and rusty, stubborn on the best days.
One of the Weavers dropped to their knees to try to pick the lock. Tense moments passed; I was crammed against the back wall of my cell, unable to even scream. The foulness pressed against me like a physical force—the Weavers didn’t seem to notice it at all, and I thought to myself, Magic. The Nuryevens have magic in their earth and water. They were immune; they couldn’t feel it.
Three of the Weavers carried crossbows, including the one failing to pick the lock; the fourth was unarmed. One of them was breathing like a dying man, a long, slow rasp.
“It’s jammed. Rusted.” A man’s voice. That’s all I could tell. He rose from his knees and raised his crossbow as if to smash the lock, but the fourth Weaver stepped forward silently.
They raised their hand and brushed the lock with their fingertips. I felt a sudden pulse of the foulness. The lock creaked. Rust spread across it, ate away at the metal like a hundred years of neglect had set upon it all at once. It crumbled to pieces and fell, and the Weaver breathed with an awful, death’s-rattle in their chest.
Blackwitch, screamed the animal parts of my brain. Get away, get away.
There was nowhere to run.
A clatter at the end of the corridor; one of the Weavers shouted and fired their crossbow, and I heard the thunk of quarrel hitting flesh, the gurgling cry of pain. The others’ attention was wrenched from me, and then chaos descended.
Three of the Order guards went down with quarrels in their necks as soon as they turned the corner, and the Weavers drew long, wickedly curved daggers and flung themselves at the others. They moved like water in the dark, swift and deadly, but they had been trained to fight individually, assuming that each would be defending themself alone. The Order guards trained in squads and teams, and they had the advantage of knowing their own territory.
The Weavers’ daggers rang against the small bucklers the guards carried. A Weaver went down, and two more guards, and the tide would have turned against Order if reinforcements hadn’t arrived from the other end of the corridor. The Weavers were summarily butchered in front of my cell. They died in silence. None of them begged for mercy. None of them looked at me. The guards slit all the Weavers’ throats, even the dead ones, just to be absolutely sure.
“B-blackwitch,” I stammered, pointing. “That one. Blackwitch.” The guards froze and stared at me for a moment.
They fell upon the body of the blackwitch. Hacked it to pieces. Dumped its head in my brazier.
There was a scream from another part of the prison. “They’re going for the Queen,” one of them shouted, and they clattered off back down the hall in a great rush.
I sat there and looked at all the corpses for three or four hours. The blood pooled all across the floor—you’ve seen things like that, you know how much blood is in one person’s body, and there were eight or nine in here.
As soon as I could move again without feeling like I was going to throw up, I piled all my spare twigs and grass logs onto my brazier. I tried not to look at the head, though as the flames rose, I had no choice but to smell it—first, the sharp acrid bite of the hair burning, then the flesh after. Better that than the alternative.
The alternative was to sit in the dark with all those dead bodies and wonder why it was so important to dismember a blackwitch, even when you were sure it was dead.
I closed my eyes tight to fan up the flames as high as they could go and tried not to think about any of it.
They barely spoke to me when they eventually came to drag the bodies away, but a younger Order soldier, assigned to cleaning duties, came with buckets of water and rags, and he let me have one of his cloths to wipe off the blood that had spattered across my face and hands. “They were coming to take me,” I said to the kid. “They were going to kill me, I know it.”
“Not just you,” he grunted, scrubbing the stone floor. “Anfisa Zofiyat. She was in the central wing, max security, and up a floor.”
“Oh,” I said. The guards had said that, hadn’t they? The Queen, they’d said. I thought they meant Vihra Kylliat. “Did they . . .” I swallowed. “Did they get her out?”
He shook his head. I saw that his hands were shaking, and he kept swallowing hard. Not the strongest stomach, perhaps, or just not used to mopping up an ocean of blood. “No, they . . . they didn’t. They fumbled it. Didn’t think—well, they’re Weavers, aren’t they? You don’t hear about Weavers fumbling a mission like this. They’re supposed to be like ghosts.”
“They sent too many,” I said. “They were fighting right here in—well, you can see that, I guess, you’re in the aftermath up to your elbows—”
I had to pause while he threw up. It didn’t make the floor any worse than it already was.
“Sorry,” I said. “Anyway, they went in as a big group—they should have sent just two. One for Anfisa Zofiyat, one for me. Then they would have gotten away, but they sent too many and they weren’t used to working together in so many numbers.”
“I know,” he said, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. “We arrested them. Um. Most of them.” He closed his eyes and gagged again, but managed to keep whatever was left in his stomach down this time.
Poor kid. He was about Ylfing’s age but had nothing of Ylfing’s coloring or manner. He had the broad, flat features of the west-country Nuryevens, limp dark hair, and rather fine and luminous hazel eyes. Ylfing probably would have looked him over at least twice.
“The blood ran into my cell,” I said. “D’you have another spare rag? I can scrub up in here for you.”
He had several tucked into his belt. He pulled one out, dunked it in the water, and handed it to me, moved the bucket over near the bars of my cell so I could reach it. With some difficulty, I lowered myself onto the floor and tucked the horse blanket under my knees so that I wouldn’t be in too much pain the next day. “Never seen blood before, have you? Not like this.”
He shook his head.
“You don’t get used to it, so don’t try. You’re either born with the stomach for it or you’re not, and there’s no shame in not having it. Some people just can’t learn to dance; some people just can’t deal with blood.”
“Can you stop talking about it?”
He wiped his sleeve across his nose. “They were going to kill you, you said?”
“Yes. No.” I stopped scrubbing. “If they’d just wanted to kill me, they could have shot me through the bars.” I swallowed. “If they’d gotten me out, I would have been as good as dead anyway. I mean, I’m as good as dead even now.”
“I was told not to speak to you,” he said, wiping his face on his upper sleeve.
“Said I was a blackwitch, didn’t they?” He nodded. “I ain’t.” I picked up a stick and poked aside some of the twigs on the brazier. “That’s a blackwitch.” The head was blackened, the flesh sputtering. The foulness hadn’t yet eased.
The kid gulped, but he didn’t flinch or look away. “You should build the fire up more. Make sure that thing burns. You don’t want it coming back again.”
I don’t think he could have said anything more effective. I scraped up every bit that I had, which wasn’t much, and flung it all onto the heap, until the flames licked high and heat washed through the room.
I wrung the rag out into the bucket and kept scrubbing. It’d take a few days to get the stain out, if it ever came up entirely. It had already seeped into the mortar between the stones. That blood might mark this cell for the next hundred or thousand years.
“Vihra Kylliat was angry when she heard they’d come for you,” he whispered, glancing over his shoulder down the corridor. “I don’t know why. I’m just a slop boy.”
“Why are you telling me?”
He shrugged. “You’re helping me clean this up. I just thought I’d warn you. In case she moves your execution up, you know. So that you can write letters to your family or . . . or pray, I guess. Do blackwitches pray?”
“No, but I do,” I grumbled. “Seeing as how I’m not a blackwitch, or any other sort of witch for that matter. I don’t have any family anyway.”
“I thought they said you had visitors a while ago.”
“My apprentice, his new lover, and my advocate. None of them have come to see me in ages. They’ve all abandoned me.”
He glanced up at me and frowned. “I didn’t think advocates were allowed to do that.”
“What, run out on a case? She kept talking like she was going to. Said I had to convince her it was worth it for her to stick around. Not surprised that she lost her patience, to be honest.”
“I thought they were just barred from the jail, the last couple weeks.”
“Because everyone’s trials have been frozen until the mess with the Primes is sorted out. That takes precedence, obviously—at least, that’s what my old mum told me. She’s a court scribe, see.”
“Is she? You should ask her if she knows this boy Ivo.”
“Okay, I don’t know his last name or his ’nymics, but would you ask her? And if she does know him, could you ask her to ask Ivo to take care of Ylfing?”
He blinked. “Ask my mother to—Who is Ylfing?” He drew back. “I’m not supposed to carry messages out of the prison, actually. They’re very clear about that in training. Very clear. So I’m sorry, but no, I can’t do that.”
“Of course you can’t,” I said soothingly. “Of course not. I shouldn’t have asked you. I’m sorry. It’s not really a message—Ivo is my apprentice’s lover, you see, and since my stupid apprentice has decided to run off and abandon me as I always knew he would, I just wanted to make sure that—” It wasn’t working, I could see that, so I fell silent just in time to hear the distant metallic rhythm of Vihra Kylliat’s approach. “Well, never mind. You’re going to need to change the water in that bucket,” I said, tossing the rag towards him. “It’s all full of gore.”
He dropped the rags in and, stifling another dry heave, scrambled to his feet just as she rounded the corner. He jumped about a mile in the air when he turned and saw her. “Ma’am! Sorry, ma’am, I’m still working on the mess here, I just was going to go and—”
She seized the bucket from him and flung the bloody, grimy contents over me in one sharp movement. I gasped with the shock of the cold. “You,” she snarled at the lad. “Get out of my sight. And you.” She turned to me. “What have you to say about all this? Another pack of lies for me?”
“Nothing!” I cried. “Nothing! I told you she’d be up to something, I told you she’d try something, didn’t I? Didn’t I?”
“Clearly you know something of her secrets. They wanted to get you out before you spilled everything to me, didn’t they?”
I struggled to my feet and started pulling off my wet rags. “No,” I said miserably. “I expect they just wanted revenge for me telling you things that sent you haring off into Pattern’s personal business.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t have to, I guess. You’re only going to kill me anyway.”
“Not,” she hissed, “until you tell me everything you know. What was all that about that general? Some kind of hint?”
Nearly naked, I huddled up to the brazier and rubbed my skin, thinking that if I didn’t have pneumonia before, I might by the end of the night. I was so dirty and smelly by that point that I wasn’t sure if the water had lessened or added to it. The smell of blood likely would have attracted more lice and fleas, if the weather hadn’t been so cold. “Hints,” I said. “I guess it depends on what you think is a hint.”
“Tell me what it meant!” she screamed.
“Nothing!” I snapped. “I was trying to butter you up so you’d maybe think about not killing me!”
“So you did make it up,” she said, triumphant.
I pointed one finger at her. “No. That, I told the truth about. And about the blackwitch!” I pointed to the head in the fire and to the pile of rust and mangled parts that had once been the lock of my cell. It only occurred to me then that I could have run, I could have pushed open the door and escaped. I felt sick with terror just thinking about doing it.
“Guesses, weren’t they. The strategic truth. To kiss ass.”
I hid a flinch. “Yes, well, we all have to do it sometimes, I suppose, to save our lives.”
“It hasn’t saved yours. I’m having you moved to another part of the prison.”
“Because I won’t let Anfisa’s little puppets dictate to me when I get to execute my prisoners. Their little gamble bought you some time, old man, because if I killed you tomorrow, they’d probably just be happy about it.”
So then I was dragged up to the new cell—it was cleaner, much more like the cell I’d been held in when I was first taken on accusations of witchcraft, before they’d buried me alive under a warren of stone tunnels. There was a window at the end of the hall, but it was glazed, and the temperature, while still chilly, was much more bearable than it had been down below. The walls weren’t caked with mud and filth, the floor was swept, . . . The difference was that the bars below had been about a hand’s width apart, and this area of the prison was all stone walls and tiny doors with no openings but a flap at the bottom where, I supposed, the food would be pushed through. The door had five locks on it, all of them shiny new—which wasn’t much of a comfort. If the Weavers came again, maybe next time they wouldn’t even need a blackwitch.
The guards shoved me in and slammed the door. There was the standard-issue bench, bolted to the floor. I looked around for somewhere to lay out my wet rags to dry—they already reeked of blood and I didn’t have much hope that they’d be bearable to use anymore. My smelly horse blanket was just as sodden, and the wool had soaked up what felt like ten times its weight in water. It might go mildewy before it dried, but that wasn’t too much more of a loss.
I heard footsteps in the hallway. They stopped just outside my door. I went and scratched at it. “Someone there?” I said softly. No answer. I got down on my hands and knees, then put my head to the ground and poked up the flap in the bottom of the door. I could see the heels of a pair of shoes directly in front of my face, and the butt of a crossbow, but that was about it. The boots’ owner seemed to have settled in for the next few hours.
A captive audience who refused to speak. I love nothing more. “I’m bored,” I said—bored, and frightened, and wanting comfort. “And you are too, probably, so I’ll just talk to myself and you can listen if you like. If you want me to stop, I’ll be needing some new clothes for the night and a blanket—Vihra Kylliat rather made the ones I have unusable.”
“Well, just let me know, then,” I said. “I’d like to sleep at some point, and I’m sure you’d like to get some shut-eye on the job too. I won’t tell anyone. Anyway, I’ll keep you entertained until then. No tricks or witchcraft, don’t worry about that.”
THE ELEVENTH TALE:
Nerissineya and Adrossinar
A very long time ago and half the world away, there was a republic that had come together and called itself Illinleyelassalia, which means the Nation of a Thousand Towers at the Foot of the Great Mountains. That was a thousand years ago. Now they call themselves Elanriarissi.
There has always been a peculiar belief in this nation, going back as far as there are stories to tell about it, which is that the uncovered face renders one as bare and vulnerable as an uncovered body, or an uncovered soul. The Elanri, from the time they are named as babies, wear masks over their faces. They never take them off, even to sleep.
Adrossinar was a wealthy man in Illinleyelassalia. Some say he was a merchant or a noble. Some say he was a senator, or the consul himself. Whatever the truth, he was rich, he was respected, and he was extremely important. He was blessed with a family whom he loved dearly and whom he ruled with kind discipline—his wife, four sons, and a daughter.
When the girl was born, her parents saw that her face was stained by a dark birthmark blotching across her eyes and cheeks, like a mask itself. I imagine you are shocked, but see it how they saw it: a daughter who would always be masked, even when unmasked. Who would always be protected. It was a blessing from the gods, in their eyes, and they made no secret of it. They delayed naming her for a week, and then two, so that they could show their friends, and the friends of their friends, the great gift that they had been given.
But the time came, and Adrossinar and his wife took the child to the temple and paid the priestess for a name: Nerissineya, a good-luck name to match the good-luck mark across her face. The priestess gave the baby a mask as well, of red-purple velvet the exact color of her mark.
Nerissineya grew into a fine young woman: graceful, lovely, accomplished. Everything a man like Adrossinar could ever want in a daughter. He gave her the finest and most beautiful masks there were. She had a thousand of them, each one different and more beautiful than the last, but she had three that were particularly glorious. The first was a mask of the softest leather as white as a snowy mountaintop when the sun hits it at midday, with long wispy white feathers all around the edges that floated in the barest breath of breeze. The second was a mask of gold and silver, beaten with intricate patterns and inlaid with chips of dazzling jewels, a waterfall of silver-colored pearls falling in strands from the bottom edge. The third was a mask of purest black, so dark it seemed to draw the light into it, so dark it made her skin and eyes seem to glow like the faces of the moons, and it was wreathed in trailing veils of black silk.
Nerissineya hated each one of them, for she had a secret. All her life, she had looked into the mirror and seen a masked girl. The mark across her face was her greatest burden. A curse, not a blessing. “How,” she would ask herself, “will I ever know who I am when I can’t see my own bare face?” How, too, would anyone else ever really know her?
One day Adrossinar summoned his daughter into his presence and told her that the time had come for him to give her the very last gift a father gives his daughter: a wedding mask. He had already visited the finest mask makers in the city, and each of them had sent him their designs. “Choose,” he told his daughter, “for I love you more than life itself and I would see you in the most beautiful mask the city has ever seen upon your wedding day.”
Nerissineya looked at the drawings and said, “They are all so lovely. I could never choose.”
“Come now,” Adrossinar said. “You say that every time the mask maker visits.”
“Your taste is so fine, Father,” she said. “You’ll pick out the best one. I like them all exactly equally.” In fact, she despised them all equally.
“Hmph,” said her father. “Well, my taste says that none of these is beautiful enough for my daughter. I shall send them back.”
“Perhaps that is best after all,” she said, and smiled behind her mask of shimmering blue feathers.
Adrossinar sent the drawings back. He began to talk about suitors and husbands and marriages almost every moment of the day—but the husband seemed less important to him than the mask he would have made for Nerissineya’s wedding.
A week later he summoned his daughter again. The mask makers had come up with new designs, even more elaborate and fantastical than the first. Again, Nerissineya declined to choose, and again Adrossinar sent the drawings back.
Each week a new slew of designs would arrive, and each week Nerissineya hated them even more. The girl was deeply troubled. She donned her white mask, the mask with the floating feathers, and told her parents she was going to the temple to purify her soul for marriage.
On the way to the temple, she passed a troupe of actors from Faissal. Faissal is gone now, its land absorbed into the southern kingdoms of Girenthal and Borgalos and its people driven out and scattered over the wide world. But even in those days, they traveled too, performing great feats of skill all up and down the peninsula.
Nerissineya looked out and saw the players performing on their makeshift stage, scandalously unmasked. She envied them, but she passed them by and continued to the temple to pray and sit in contemplation, as a dutiful daughter ought.
She dreamed that night of the troupe of players, and she dreamed she was amongst them. One of them reached out to touch her face, and she realized she was unmasked. She awoke suddenly and it was morning.
That day, her father declared that he had chosen a mask—he had searched high and low and he had found a little-known mask maker of foreign origin, who had devised a mask unlike any that had ever been seen before. It was to be a marvel of velvety crimson suede, tooled and pierced in lacelike patterns and laid over a foundation of beaten gold, and it would have feathers of the rarest kind, and sparkling strands of crystals and opals draping across the forehead and hanging in long, delicate threads over her shoulders and down her back. Each of these crystals, the mask maker said, would be enchanted with the tiniest shard of starlight, and the mask would be a glory, a masterpiece, a treasure so unbearably beautiful that legends would be told of it for hundreds of years to come—and, as you see, so they have.
Adrossinar’s eyes filled with tears when he looked upon the drawing the mask maker had provided him, for he didn’t see a mask of legends. He saw, in his mind, his daughter wearing it, and smiling, and standing next to her betrothed as they were wed. He saw the mask hanging in his daughter’s bedroom in her own house as his grandchildren played beneath it, just as Nerissineya had played when she was a child. He saw his granddaughter wearing it, his great-granddaughter, a whole legacy of daughters to come who would wear that mask in happiness, and his heart swelled and ached in his chest. He looked at the mask and he saw a symbol of joy, a blessing to be passed down through his line forever.
He gave the drawing to Nerissineya, and her eyes filled with tears, and she could not speak. She went to her room, and put on her golden mask, beautiful enough that no one would notice her weeping, and she went to the temple to pray for a divine intervention of one kind or another.
She saw the Faiss players again on her way home, and she remembered her dream so vividly that she stopped to watch from across the street, full of fire and want when she saw the men and women unmasked. When the performance ended and the players came around collecting money from the few people who watched, Nerissineya stepped forward and dropped a coin into the cap of a tall boy with a wide face. He had pimples on his forehead. Freckles across his nose. Blemishes on his cheeks. A scar on his chin. She wished again to be rid of her mask so he could see how the mark across her face grew darker with blushing.
She dreamed of the players again that night, of the boy watching her while someone else touched her face and wiped away the mask stained into her skin.
The wedding mask arrived in the afternoon. It was everything, and more, that the drawing had promised for both father and daughter. Nerissineya hid her sorrow behind her mask of swallowing black and slipped away when her father was occupied with paying the craftsman. She took her mask of pure white, and she took her mask of bright gold, and she left her home.
She crossed a bridge and she flung the white mask into the water. She passed a public latrine and flung the golden mask into the pool of night soil. And finally, she approached the circle of the Faiss players’ wagons and their fires, and she flung her black mask into a campfire that was unattended, and then, with nothing on her face but her mark and the shadows, she knocked on the door of one of the wagons.
I paused there, to see if the guard would speak, just as I always pause when I tell this story. What happened to her? people ask. The guard didn’t, so I didn’t finish it, but I’ll tell you since I can see you want to know: She begged the Faiss players to take her away with them, and at first they refused, for she was clearly the daughter of a noble house—they could tell by her dress and the softness of her hands. But the freckly boy whose face she had seen bare, he spoke up—he’d seen her at the performances. He’d seen her watching, seen her hunger. He’d listened to her plead for a place in the troupe, and he could recognize that the dearest desire of her heart was aligned with his own. So the players took her in and hid her, and left with her, and she learned the arts of the stage by sweeping up after them and cooking their dinners and listening as they rehearsed and performed until she knew all the lines, back to front and sideways.
The first night she ever went onstage as a player herself, the freckled boy blotted out the mark across her face with a thick paint that players use on their skin, and she saw herself in the mirror for the first time, unmasked by a mask of paint.
The boy became her lover, and she became the greatest player south of the Silver Mountains. She wrote forty plays and made the legendary theater of Elanriarissi what it is today, but all that is history, not story.
After I stopped talking, my eyes were heavy; I gave up on annoying the guard to death and curled up to sleep on my bench.
Over the next few days, I ran through a chunk of my repertoire that was impressive even to me. The guard never spoke, so I hadn’t the foggiest idea whether he or she was actually listening to me.
Vihra Kylliat came back on the fourth night. She opened the door and I shot up from my bunk—I’d wrapped my clothes around me for what little good they did me, but they’d dried crusty and stained. She staggered into the room, dragging a chair behind her, and placed it in the middle of the room. She didn’t bother closing the door, but I suppose if I’d tried to make a dash for it, she would have had me pinned dead against the wall as soon as I twitched in that direction. She fell, unsteadily, into the chair—her face was beet red and she smelled strongly of drink.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Why are you sitting around naked?”
“You dumped a bucket of filth on my clothes last week,” I said. “They’re ruined.” I held up one wooden-stiff arm of a tunic. “I’m afraid it might snap off if I try to put it on.”
“Private Vidar!” she bawled. “Vidar, send someone down to the debtors’ ward and get some clothes for whosits. This guy.” She squinted at me.
“Chant,” I said.
“It’s the only one I’ve got these days.”
“Chant,” she said. “Chant. Chant. You know what, Chant?”
“What, Your Majesty?”
“I killed Anfisa Zofiyat today.” She slumped in her chair and waved one arm. “And I mean that. I killed her. Me. I mean, execution, yes, it was all official and everything, but I held the sword. Took her head right off.”
My blood ran cold. “Her trial went badly, then.”
“Trial, trial. Yes, badly. I probably would have had to let her out, but then her stupid puppets came and tried to break her out. Got her on conspiracy, then, and also conspiracy to commit murder—that was when they tried to kill you, of course—and trespassing on government property.”
I raised my eyebrows. “You killed her for trespassing?”
“No, I killed her for conspiracy. And attempted murder. And also trespassing.”
“She wasn’t the one who trespassed, though. The Weavers did.”
“Yeah, I know. Killed them, too. All of them. There were twelve of them that came to the prison. We killed seven in the fray the other night, including those two blackwitches. Arrested the other five, put ’em on trial, and executed them within six hours. Anyway, there won’t be a Ministry of Pattern anymore.”
“No. I read the books on what I get to do, being the only active Prime and Zorya Miroslavat having already declared martial law for me. Convenient, really. Laws about it, you know. So I disbanded Pattern.” She threw one side of her cloak back and fumbled a silver flask from a pocket of her trousers. She pinched it awkwardly between her artificial hand and her chest and used her other hand to work open the cap. She took a long swig from it, then closed her eyes, dropped her head back, and offered it to me. I took it slowly and dared a small sip. It was strong. Made me gasp for breath, made my eyes water. “Disbanded Pattern. No more of that nonsense. I reallocated all their property through the other four offices.”
“So you thought there was merit in what I mentioned after all?”
“What?” she said thickly.
“When I thought that you might be interested in what would happen if you were the only Queen.”
“Oh. That. No.” She pointed at me sternly. “I’m not taking over. Not permanently. We’re just in a crisis right now and we can’t afford to be arguing about everything. I’m just going to fix it,” she said loudly, “and then we’ll have elections. And then it’ll be fixed.”
“What will you do about tiebreaks now that you’ve disbanded Pattern?”
“Ah, see, we didn’t always have five,” she said immediately. “We can manage with four, just like we used to back in the old days. Fewer than four, even. Anyway, Law is supposed to abstain. And Pattern was a waste of space and money no matter how you look at it. Most of what Pattern did should’ve belonged to Order anyway.”
“Diplomacy and foreign affairs? Espionage?”
“Exactly. Sounds Orderly to me. We’ll handle it now.”
“If you say so,” I said, though I disagreed—there had to have been a reason for Pattern in the first place, right? The area Pattern covered didn’t seem to me like it could be so easily “reallocated,” as she put it, but that was none of my concern.
“I do say so,” she said. “War’s a foreign affair. And war’s always belonged to Order. So now we’ll just look after all of it. Better this way. Loads more work, though.” I handed her the flask, and she took another huge gulp of it without flinching. I admit, I was more than a little impressed. That stuff could have eaten through leather. “I was thinking,” she said suddenly, “about that general.”
“The one you told me about the other day.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“When I was killing Anfisa Zofiyat, I was thinking about that general.” I remained silent, and Vihra Kylliat soon continued. “She had to kill people in cold blood for the good of the empire, didn’t she?”
“I thought of her. When I was doing that. I wondered how she felt about it.”
“I don’t think anyone feels good about killing in cold blood.”
“Some people do. Some people are fucking crazy.” She toyed with the cap of the flask. “We hire them as executioners. Only thing they’re good for. Not good soldiers—too hungry for blood. They murder people on the street, they always want to go fuckin’ pillaging . . . Can’t control ’em, and it’s like a plague, you know. One weird guy who gets hot over killing, he can fuck up a whole squad. So you make ’em executioners and you keep ’em on a short leash. At the front of the army, so they’re the first to get killed if you’re attacked, and so they’re far away from the camp followers.”
“You seem to have a good deal of experience.”
“Years,” she muttered. Another swig from the flask. “Killing in war, that’s different. Your blood is up, everyone’s in a mess together, the other folks are usually trying to kill you at the same time you’re trying to kill them. It’s not like execution. It’s not like making a handcuffed woman kneel and lay her head on a block.”
“Why didn’t you have one of these short-leashed executioners do it?”
Vihra Kylliat was silent. “Because,” she said slowly, “because of a lot of reasons. She was a Queen. She deserved the honor of a quick, clean death from a peer. And also, I don’t think that . . .” She stopped herself and laughed. “Vidar!” she shouted. “Go down the hall, stand at the door.” Vihra Kylliat lifted her head and whispered loudly, “They all try to eavesdrop when they can, you know. Don’t blame them. Did the same thing when I was a kid like them.” We listened to the steps recede down the hallway. “I was saying—I don’t think that I could have had someone else do it, because I don’t think that her charges should have”—her voice dropped to a whisper—“ended in a death sentence.”
“Even with the conspiracy and murder and so forth? Not to mention the trespassing?”
“Even then. Should have had her stripped of her titles and exiled. Bound up and shipped off to somewhere far away, left with nothing but the clothes on her back and the boots on her feet.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“She’s sneaky,” Vihra Kylliat said immediately. “She would have come back. Like rats, you think you’ve gotten rid of them all, but they always come back.” She stopped and shook her head. “No, that’s not true. That’s what I’ll tell other people. I killed her because I wanted her dead. Because I was afraid of her.” She fixed me with glassy, bloodshot eyes. “Because I thought she tried to kill me.”
“Few days ago.”
I waited, but she didn’t seem like she was planning to continue. “What happened?”
“Went home, and there was someone in my house. In the dark. No lamps lit. They’d gotten past all the guards and through all my locks and past my dogs. They were in my bedroom. Under the bed. They waited until I got in and then they—” She stopped and drained the flask, then threw it aside. She licked her lips. “But they didn’t check the bed first,” she said, almost giggling. “There’s a dagger under my pillow and a club hidden as part of the bedpost, and I’d put my leg and my arm on the night table, and these both have sharp things hidden in them. Pretty heavy themselves, too.”
“You clearly defended yourself well.”
“Not well enough. They ran off, dove out a window. No tracks, no traces. Must have been a Weaver. No one but a Weaver could’ve done that.”
“So it wasn’t just conspiracy to murder me that you convicted her of.”
“Couldn’t bring up the assassin in court, though, because then I would have had to recuse m’self as a judge, and then I would’ve had to testify—too much trouble. Had blood on my knife, that was good enough for me.” She rubbed a hand over her face. “I could’ve given Anfisa Zofiyat a different sentence. I didn’t. So my ruling is blood on my hands, instead of on someone else’s. It’s only fair. And this way—this way I made sure she was dead.”
“General Ger Zha killed the pretender, when the throne was retaken by the rightful emperor. I don’t think she liked it either, but . . . It was necessary. And what you did was necessary.”
“Was it?” She looked at me. “Or are you lying to me again, trying to save your own skin?” I was lying. There was no rightful emperor after all that, and Ger Zha died with the Eminent Prince and his mother.
“Does it matter? If you hadn’t thought killing was necessary, you would have done what was. I know your reputation, madam. I know what kind of a woman you are.”
She snorted. “If you say so. I suppose you’re just trying to make me feel better about it.”
“There’s no way to feel better about it. You’re trying to do what’s right, aren’t you? That is rarely an easy path, or a comfortable one. Take what consolation you can get, when you can get it. You’ll live another day, and you’ll keep trying to do the right thing. Maybe one right thing will include letting me appeal my death sentence, and maybe you’ll send me far, far away instead of killing me. I live in hope.”
“Hah! We’ll see.” Which was better than go fuck yourself or keep dreaming, old man, I supposed. From beneath her tunic, she pulled out that strange necklace of twisted metal I’d spotted before, and toyed with it. Not a necklace, she’d said. “The guards say you’ve been chattering away nonstop.”
“Through the flap in the door. Every moment you’re awake, unless you’re eating or shitting, they said.”
I shrugged. “I’m bored and cold. My apprentice is vanished, or lost, or dead maybe. My advocate has left me to die.”
“Has she? How do you know?”
“She hasn’t been to see me.”
“Because I’ve barred all visitors to the prison, stupid,” she said.
Well, that’s what the kid had said too, that guard who’d been scrubbing the floor, when I thought about it. My brain didn’t seem to want to listen to reason. It was easier to conclude that I’d been abandoned, even if I knew better when I thought about it logically.
Vihra Kylliat was still speaking: “I thought something like the Weavers’ raid might happen if I let visitors in. But there aren’t any Weavers anymore, except psychopaths who might keep on keeping on out of odd loyalty to Anfisa Zofiyat, or some crusade to avenge her. You get lunatics everywhere. But she’s dead now, and Casimir Vanyos is dead, and it’s just me and Taishineya and Zorya Miroslavat.”
“Zorya Miroslavat is still imprisoned?”
“In a nicer cell than this one,” Vihra Kylliat snapped. “But yes.”
“Oh. That’s surprising.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I thought you would have freed her by now. The two of you seemed . . . friendly.”
“My personal regard for her is irrelevant. She has to have a fair trial. These are extraordinary circumstances, and we have to be lawful. I told you I wasn’t going to be a traitor, didn’t I? And besides that, it’s for her own protection.” I wasn’t convinced, but Vihra was clearly doing an excellent job convincing herself. “The Weavers might have tried to kill her, too, you never know. We’ll finish investigating Casimir Vanyos’s death soon, and then we’ll get this mess sorted out.”
“So may I have visitors again?”
She waved one hand in a big wobbly gesture through the air. “Everyone else will be, as soon as word gets out that it’s allowed, so I don’t see why not. You’ll have to speak through the door, though. No one’s getting in or out of this room but me.”
I relaxed. I’d been thinking of you again, you see, and I had come up with a plan—it seemed fanciful and improbable, and I really needed Ivo to be able to work it. Before anything, I needed information, and he was the only one who might be able to tell me what I needed to hear.
And Consanza and Ylfing came soon after, as soon as they heard that visitors were permitted again. I saw their shoes coming down the corridor, lying as I was on my smelly, bloodstained horse blanket and chattering stories through the door flap again. I didn’t cry. Obviously. I can’t remember the last time I cried in my life. I’ve probably never cried ever, come to think of it. I was just relieved, is all. I was glad to feel not so alone in my little white plaster cell. Ylfing crouched down and clasped my hands when I reached them out to him. “Gods, Chant, are you all right You got all the messages I left for you, didn’t you?”
I couldn’t speak for a moment, so I just squeezed his hands. “No,” I said, after I’d swallowed a couple of times—I was just sick, you see, probably pneumonia. “No, I didn’t get any messages.”
“Why did they move you again?”
“Well,” I said, “did you hear about the Weavers trying to break Anfisa Zofiyat out of prison?”
“Yes,” Consanza said. “Was that to do with you?”
“Only because they tried to kill me,” I said, too sharply. I was trying not to show how relieved I was to have them here. “They were going to take me away and kill me and dump my body in the harbor!”
“I can see why they’d want to,” she mused. “I can’t blame them.” Of course the twit hadn’t changed in the weeks we’d been apart.
I freed one hand from Ylfing’s grip and wiped it over my face—sweat, you see. Just sweat.
“You’re filthy, Chant. Haven’t they let you wash at all?”
“No,” I said. “And my clothes were ruined. I pile them on top of me at night to sleep, but I have nothing to wear except a tunic they took off one of the other prisoners, and it’s almost as disgusting as my old clothes anyway.”
“Well, at least it’s not as cold here as it was below,” Consanza said.
Ylfing pulled his hands back and I heard a clink of metal. He tried to shove his cloak through the flap in the door, but the flap was too small and the cloak too bulky.
“Oi, stop that,” the guard said. “What are you doing?”
From Ylfing: “He said his clothes were ruined! How can you let an old man sit in a cold cell with only a tunic? He can have this—family members are allowed to bring things to people in prison, aren’t they? Ivo said they were.”
“I have to inspect it first,” the guard said.
Consanza made some sort of shushing noise to Ylfing, and he must have allowed the guard to take it. “So, what news, Chant?” she said. “Anything I should know about, as your advocate?”
“No,” I said slowly. I didn’t think I had any sensitive information to tell her, but I hadn’t realized the guard would keep standing there the whole time. It unsettled me. I closed my eyes and—well, I don’t usually pray, as you know, it’s not part of my personal attitude towards the world. There are gods, of that I’m sure, I just don’t think that they have any call to be sticking their noses in my business, nor do I think they’d be interested in doing so anyway, except to fuck me over. Sadistic bastards, gods. But I sent up a little prayer anyway, hoping that one of the Hrefni folk heroes might be looking down favorably on Ylfing and thinking about sending some extra cleverness his way. He’d need it—as I’ve told you, he’s a bumbling idiot of a child. “No, I’m sure you know the trials have all been frozen, so there’s nothing to do but wait until the other Primes have been sorted out and either condemned or released.”
Consanza made an assenting noise. “I’m not even allowed to do paperwork related to your case, you know. Or any cases. It’s been a lean few weeks in my household.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, is it your fault?” she asked airily. “How convenient, I’ve been looking for someone to blame. Not surprised it turns out to be you of all people.”
“Do you live to make me miserable?” I asked.
“All right, the cloak’s fine. He can have it,” the guard said. “Stand well back and I’ll open the door. Prisoner, sit on your bench and don’t move.”
I scrambled back as far as I could—didn’t bother getting up onto the bench, since it’d be difficult to get off the floor and I’d only have to get back down to keep talking to Ylfing and the twit. The guard opened the door six inches and flung the cloak in. I caught it—it was heavy wool with a thin fur collar and a lining of some soft fabric, and a simple metal clasp. I wrapped it around myself immediately and found it was still warm from Ylfing’s own body heat. It was the loveliest thing, as lovely as that big chicken dinner that they’d brought in after my sentencing. I scooted back across the floor and lay down next to the flap. “Thank you, lad. You won’t be too cold?”
“Don’t you even think of me! I have mittens and boots, and I’ll share Consanza’s cloak if I have to. She’s been taking me with her around the city, and I’ve been doing some assistant work for her for money, and—”
I groaned. “You’re going to be apprenticed to an advocate now. You’re fucking a Nuryeven court scribe and you’re going to be an advocate’s apprentice.”
“No, I’m not, Chant, don’t be like that. I can’t keep borrowing money from Ivo forever. He’s letting me stay with him, so I don’t have to pay any rent, but I eat more than he does and—and I can’t be a burden on his generosity.”
“Even if you’re fucking him?”
“Even then, Chant!” he squeaked. I could hear the blush in his voice and it made me smile.
I was dying to ask him about Ivo, to ask if he’d come clean to him about what he’d told me, but all I said was, “Do you have any spare money?”
“A little. I don’t think I’m allowed to give it to you. . . . The guard is giving me a look. I’m definitely not allowed to give you any.”
“I don’t want the money, I just want some more clothes. And a new blanket, one that doesn’t smell of horse and old blood.” The other blankets, the ones I’d earned through trickery and deception, had been too sodden with blood to bother bringing with me—good for nothing but feeding the fire.
“Blood?! What happened? Did they hurt you?” I told them, and Ylfing made all the appropriate disgusted and sympathetic noises. He’s a good lad. Dumb as a brick, but he’s got a good heart. “Well. I’ll bring you some. You don’t mind if they’re secondhand, do you?”
“Never have,” I said. “As long as they’re clean and they don’t have bedbugs in them.”
“I’ll have them cleaned before I bring them. And I’ll wrap them around a hot stone when I bring them over, so they’re warm when you put them on.”
My eyes pricked. Still not crying, just one of those odd things that happens when you get old. “Thank you. Will you be assisting Consanza, or . . . or do you want to continue your studies while we still have time? Perhaps Ivo could come along, I would like to see him again.”
“Um . . . Hmm.”
“I don’t need you for much, Ylfing, you know that,” she murmured. She sounded warmer when she spoke to him than when she spoke to me. Sort of motherly. But she’d mentioned she had a couple young boys, hadn’t she? “Give me four days of the week, and Chant can have the other three?”
“Why do you get four?” I snapped. “He’s my apprentice!”
“Because I need the money, Chant!” Ylfing said. “Clothes for you and—and maybe the guards would bring you a bucket of hot water and a cloth to wash off with, if we gave them a little present. Where’s your brazier?”
“He can’t have it in the cell,” the guard said.
“Put it in front of the door, though, so it will warm the wood and he can lean against it. Or so he can stick his hands out through the flap and—have you felt his hands? They were freezing!” Ylfing made grabby motions, and I obligingly eased my hands back out. He chafed them gently for me and my eyes prickled again. “He’s a very old man, you know. Don’t you have a grandfather or an old uncle? How would you like them to be freezing in prison in the winter, with no clothes, with no heat? It’s barbaric, is what it is!”
“Calm down, love,” Consanza said.
“But feel his hands, and look how filthy they are.”
“Is he filthy?” the guard asked. “I thought he was just brown naturally. Like her.”
“Well, right at this moment, he is both,” Ylfing snarled. “What a horrible thing to say about a person.” Despite the venom of his tone, his hands hadn’t gotten any less gentle. “Feel his hands, though, Consanza.” He let go and Consanza’s own nut-brown fingers wrapped around mine.
“Goodness. Ylfing’s right, this isn’t good for you. Guard, listen. Have you had to do paperwork for documenting the death of a prisoner on your watch? I’ve never had to, not having your job, but I’ve seen the damn stuff before, and it’s at least a hand span high. Now, you can take a gamble that he’ll die on somebody else’s watch, but you can’t count on them looking in on him to check—or reporting his death even if they did. They might just figure some other sucker could take the credit for it and pretend like they never noticed. Or you could give this man a few creature comforts in the last weeks of his life, and severely lessen your chances of having to navigate all the red tape. Not to mention,” she said in tones of dripping sarcasm, “I’m sure the gods would smile upon such generosity.”
“I don’t know where they put it.”
“The brazier? Just bring him a pot of embers. Enough to warm his hands at the very least.”
The guard sighed. “Karina Harnos,” he called. “You’ll watch them while I go downstairs, won’t you?”
Karina Harnos, whoever that was, must have replied. The guard grumbled something and stomped off.
“Oh, well done,” Ylfing said brightly. “Beautifully done.”
“Heh. You only have to know how to manage them,” Consanza said.
“That’s what I keep telling him,” I hissed. This assistant arrangement they’d worked out might not be so bad after all—he’d know more about Nuryevens than I did, by the end of it. And Consanza was a good Nuryeven to learn from, with a sneaky mind for figuring out people. “Listen, though, um . . . I need to ask you something,” I whispered.
“Me?” Ylfing asked.
In Hrefni, I said, “You need to tell me—did you confess to Ivo about what you told me?”
After a long hesitation: “Yes,” he mumbled.
“He was upset. I’m not allowed to come with him to meet with his friends anymore.”
Shit. “Could you bring him here?”
“I just want to talk to him.” And then I realized—I couldn’t talk to him. Even if he came, I couldn’t. There was a guard standing right there in the hall. There would be one right by my door. “You said he’d been teaching you how to write beautifully like a scribe. Haven’t you been teaching him anything?”
“Um . . . Stories and things. He likes stories.” I made a note to find out which stories he liked, which his favorite was—that says a lot about a person, I think.
“Like Hrefni?” I said, ridiculously hopeful.
“Why would I teach him Hrefni?”
I swore and, finding the Hrefni oaths too vague and circuitous to really express the depth of my frustration, switched briefly to Tashaz. “Fine,” I said, returning to Ylfing’s native tongue. “Here is what you do. Ivo’s a good scribe; teach him the Hrefni runes so he can read them, at least, and bring him here. Tell him I have something to talk to him about, and that we’re going to pretend like I’m giving both of you language lessons. I can’t talk freely in Nuryeven with the guards here.”
“I don’t know if he’ll want to see you. . . .”
“Tell him that if he loves his country and he wants to make things better, he’ll come.”
I think Consanza was a little disgruntled to be left out of the conversation, but it wasn’t anything she needed to know, and a few minutes into the discussion, I smelled her tobacco smoke and figured that she’d settled in to wait us out.
“That sounded awfully suspicious,” she said when we were done. “Good job you waited until the guard was gone. Did I hear Ivo’s name a few times?”
“I was only dictating my will to Ylfing for when I’m dead, since my advocate doesn’t think she can save me from the noose. Gods above, I have to do all of the work around here, don’t I?”
“Chant,” Ylfing scolded. “She just got the guard to get some heat for you. Don’t speak so rudely to her. You’ve hurt her feelings.”
“He hasn’t,” Consanza said sharply. “I don’t care whether he thinks I’m doing my job or not. I don’t give a fuck either way.”
“She really doesn’t,” I said. “I’m just some wandering beggar who has probably done something wrong, so why shouldn’t I be drawn and quartered, or buried alive, or hacked to pieces with a wooden ax, or wrapped in sails and burned, or whatever barbarian punishment the courts decree will be my fate?”
“Exactly,” Consanza said coldly. “Why not?”
“I wish you two wouldn’t fight,” said Ylfing. “I don’t like it. It’s upsetting.”
“Just do as I asked and come back on your day off from being a famous advocate’s assistant. Does she ask you to polish her boots, or was that your idea?” I pointed to Consanza’s boots as I spoke. They were extremely shiny, and that was about all I could see of her.
“Her husband does it,” Ylfing said. “He finds it relaxing.”
“How would you know?”
“I met them the other day.”
“Oh gods,” I said. “You’re going native.”
“I know you’re frustrated and lonely,” he said, “but you needn’t take it out on me like this. I’ve only been trying to help you.”
There was a clank. “Here,” the guard grunted. “Pot of coals, just like you said.”
“And now some hot water,” I said, enunciating carefully.
“Fat chance,” said the guard.
“We’re going,” Consanza said, rising to her feet. “Come on, Ylfing.” He got up slowly.
“Wait,” I said, “why are you leaving?”
“Because I have things to do today, and because even though I don’t give a fuck what you think of me, Ylfing gives one about what you think of him.”
“Bye, Chant,” he said. He sounded . . . gods, I don’t even have a word for it, but it shot arrows into my heart. “I’ll be back in a couple days, I guess. I’ll . . . The thing you asked, I’ll do it.”
I should have said sorry right then. Found my tongue in knots, and by the time I untangled it, they were gone already. I didn’t tell stories to the guards that day. I was too busy kicking myself.
Ylfing seemed to have forgotten it when he came back two days later. There was news, and that was all he wanted to talk about for the first half hour, alternating between yammering at me and to the guard, as if the guard had any desire to be invited into the conversation. He ignored Ylfing with fair success.
I had gotten no news since being isolated in this cell, beyond what Vihra Kylliat had told me—the guards in this area of the prison were rather more tight-lipped than the ones down below had been. Ylfing filled in the holes of what I had missed.
“And then yesterday the investigators presented evidence that it was Rostik Palos Taidalat Krekshin, the Duke of Law, Casimir’s second in command, who killed him! He had been poisoning him for weeks, the doctors said! So he’s been arrested, and Zorya Miroslavat was set free, and now Justice is back up and running, and people have been saying that they might start processing other trials before Taishineya Tarmos is sentenced. So—” His voice faltered here. “So that could be a good thing or a bad thing, you know. Depending on Consanza.”
“Yes,” I said. “Depending on Consanza.”
He’d brought me a few more pieces of clothing—two shirts and a threadbare pair of trousers, and he said that was all he had, because Ivo had had a lean month, what with the trials being frozen, and had needed Ylfing to pay him back some of the money, and of course Ylfing had, and Ivo had been very sweet and apologetic about it, and—
Well, and then I had to listen to another ten minutes of improvised poetry about how simply wonderful Ivo was, and I grunted here and there and tried not to say anything that might hurt Ylfing’s feelings like I had the other day.
“Did you talk to him?” I asked, when I could bear it no longer.
“I said I would.”
“He has a day off soon. We’ll come then. I taught him the alphabet in an evening and he’s already good at it.”
Eventually the kid settled down and we got to work. I was a little heartened to see him more upbeat and energetic than he had been the other day, and by the end of our session, he was aggressively optimistic about Consanza’s ability to win the appeal. I was less sure, but . . . Well, it doesn’t matter either way, does it?
Towards the end of our session, Ylfing told me more of what had happened, sort of by accident.
“Oh, what time is it?” he asked the guard. It was about fifteen minutes past the fourth hour of the afternoon, the guard said, and Ylfing scrambled to his feet. “I’d better go. I need to be back at Ivo’s flat by sundown, and it’s getting dark so early these days, just like home, really—”
“What? Why do you need to be back?”
“Well,” he said slowly, “it’s not that safe on the streets at night, and there’s the curfew to mind, you know, it wouldn’t do to have both of us in jail, ha ha,” as if he were trying to make a joke, but it fell flat on both our ears.
“It was safe a few weeks ago. You and Ivo and Consanza stayed quite late that one night.”
“Yeees,” Ylfing said. “Well. That was a few weeks ago, wasn’t it?”
“Why isn’t it safe now?”
“Um,” he said, and I could almost hear him wringing his hands. “Well. You know. The riots.”
“I knew they were rioting when—well, before, but I thought they would have stopped by now.”
“Nope. Um. Nope. They have . . . gotten worse. What with Coin being in shambles, you know. Money’s just a little tight right now, and people aren’t very happy about it! And there were supposed to be some shipments of coal from the country, but they got mislaid. . . . Anyway, I always get home by sundown, and Ivo and I keep the windows covered and we double-check all the locks, and Ivo sometimes puts a chair in front of the door.”
“Smart boy,” the guard muttered.
“He’s so smart,” Ylfing said, but I cut him off before he could waste any time explaining Ivo’s many charms to the guard.
“I didn’t know things were that bad,” I said.
“Yes. Very much.”
“House down the street from mine was torn to the ground,” the guard said. “I wouldn’t be out at night if I could help it either.”
“Does your shift go late?” Ylfing asked.
Ylfing sucked air through his teeth in a disgusting Hrefni noise of sympathy and concern.
The guard must have understood what he meant. “There’s a wagon that takes us all home when we work the shifts that end in the night,” he said. “Since not everyone is too fond of an Order guard walking alone by themselves in the dark.”
“Oh, good,” Ylfing said. “I would have worried about you.” I rolled my eyes. What did I tell you? The boy will go for any man who so much as blinks at him—all right, that was a little rude of me. Ylfing was smitten with Ivo; he only ever has eyes for one person at a time, but they come in such a cascade sometimes. You know when we were in Sharingol, he had a new crush twice a week? I’m not exaggerating. I kept a calendar and marked down all their names: Darsha, then Neric, then Tistin, then Ham, then Willet, then Pol. . . . The rest escape me. “Chant, I’ll come back tomorrow, all right? I can’t bring you any more clothes, but—sir, what’s your name?”
“Private Vidar,” said the guard. “Yours?”
“Call me Ylfing. I don’t have any of those other names. Can you maybe get a few more coals for his firepot? Please? It’d be ever so kind, and I think it’s going to be a little colder than usual tonight.”
Vidar sighed. “All right.”
“Thank you,” Ylfing said, and for a moment I reconsidered whether or not the boy was flirting. Perhaps he was just pretending to flirt—which is a good skill if you can pull it off. I used to use it myself, back when I was a young man—
Excuse me, what was that look for? I’ll have you know I used to turn heads every now and then. You know, back before my jawline started melting practically off my face. They used to say I was chiseled, and I used to keep my hair slicked back with fragrant oils when I was in the cities and had a whimsy for it. . . . Yes, I didn’t do too badly for myself back in the day.
Hmph! I’m allowed a little nostalgic vanity.
Ylfing cleared out soon after that, and the guard put a few more coals into my little brass firepot and pushed it up close to the door. It made a nice warm spot that was quite soothing when I pressed myself up against it.
I didn’t have long to enjoy it, because Vihra Kylliat came by within the hour, staggering drunk and dragging her chair again. The guards in the hall snapped to attention, and I had enough time to scuttle away from the lovely warm door and make myself as comfortable as possible—not very—on my cold, hard bench.
Her eyes were bloodshot and she all but collapsed into her chair. She had an entire large jug of some clear alcohol hooked on one finger by the little handle on the neck of the bottle. It was half-empty, and I assumed the missing half was what she had already consumed. “Chant,” she said. “Good evening.”
“Evening,” I said.
“I set Zorya Miroslavat free today.”
“So I heard.”
“Guards been gossiping? How do you do that? They’re trained never to speak to any of the prisoners. Ugh.” She settled the jug of liquor in her lap. “Who do I have to fire now?”
“No, it was my apprentice. He visited today, told me the news.”
“Oh.” She wrestled with the cork for a moment and eventually worked it free. “Don’t see what point there is in apprentices for your . . . alleged profession. Is he a spy too?”
“He’s not, and neither am I,” I said, which at that point wasn’t strictly true anymore. Gave me a bit of a vindictive thrill to think about it—as long as I was being sentenced to death for a crime, why not go ahead and commit that crime? The only reason not to would be to take the moral high ground, and, frankly, fuck that.
“Hmm.” She pulled a small cup out of one of her tunic pockets and poured herself a hefty tot of liquor.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Menovka. Local delicacy. It’s made of potatoes and whatever grain is lying around. Flavored with tarberry. Aged in stone jars—granite, usually. Always, for the good stuff. This is the good stuff. Then it’s whatsits. Distilled.”
“Strong, is it?”
“Could topple an ox.” She offered me the cup and I took a tiny sip of it. It burned four times as badly as the stuff she’d offered me a few days before, and I couldn’t feel my lips or tongue for a few minutes afterwards. Strangely, it didn’t much taste of anything, but when it was done burning it left a cold feeling in my mouth, though the actual liquor itself was room temperature. Needless to say, I didn’t have any more of it. I think she was amused by the coughing and choking, though. She drank it as if it were beer.
“I was thinking about my general,” she said suddenly. She plonked the bottle and the cup on the ground beside her, pulled her artificial leg up to rest across her other knee, and started fumbling at the button of her collar.
“The one. You know. That you were telling me about before. I keep thinking about her. I almost didn’t let Zorya Miroslavat out. I could have kept her in custody—’cause of the assassins, and the riots, I could have done that. Martial law and all, that was her idea too, she knew I could do it if I’d wanted to. But I thought about the general, and I thought about what she would have done in my position, and then I did that. Dunno why that was important. Just was.” She finally got the button undone and pulled the chain of her not-a-necklace over her head and peered at it.
“Why don’t you tell me something?”
“Tell you what?”
“What is that if it isn’t a necklace?”
“Key. To wind up my leg, not that it’s any of your business.” She turned it over and scratched at part of the calf of the leg until a little panel popped open. She fit the key into it, after two or three tries, and . . . wound it up. Just like a child might wind up a clockwork toy.
“It’s a beautiful piece of work,” I said. “The artificer must have been a real master.”
“Aye, it came very dear, and from very far away. But it’s better than a peg.” She clicked the panel closed, looped the chain around her neck, and picked up the menovka again. “And worse in some ways.”
I wasn’t quite sure whether she wanted me to inquire or leave off entirely, so I just made a thoughtful humming noise and fussed with my blankets.
“I spend a lot of time counting,” she said suddenly. I hadn’t expected her to say anything else. “The clockwork, see. I can take about a thousand steps before I absolutely need to wind it again. Around eight hundred, it starts jamming or seizing up at random, and then sometimes I stumble. So I count, all the time I count. Sometimes I find myself counting even when I’m not walking.” She picked up her cup, gulped menovka, and stared hard at the floor. “That’s why it’s worse. All things have a price. I miss the peg because I didn’t have to count for that, I didn’t have to be aware in the same way, but then it didn’t let me do as much as this thing does. I couldn’t fight with the peg, couldn’t run. So I endure, and I count and count and count. If I forget to count, I embarrass myself at best, hurt myself at worst. So it’s better than the peg, and it’s worse.”
When she volunteered no further information, I said, “Tell me something else. Anything. One of your campaigns? Something funny or sad that happened during a siege?”
“Never done a siege,” she mused. “I heard other people do it. We don’t fight that way. I’ve always wanted to try.”
“How do you do it?”
“The commander of one army, or battalion if you’re all broken up over a distance, writes insulting letters to the enemy commander, and their messengers run them back and forth, and then they say, ‘Well, let’s meet in two days on the hill with the big rock that looks like a nose.’ And then they get their troops to polish all their boots and armor, and everyone trots out in the morning two days later, and then they have a fight, and someone goes home, and someone doesn’t. I mean, I’ve read lots of foreign books about how to do war differently, but I don’t see why you would, unless you were a dirty cheat. This way has rules, and everyone knows how to play it, and you know who wins fair and square.”
“As long as you can count on the other person playing by the rules too. They don’t, always.”
“Dirty cheats,” she said again. “I might not win that battle, but they’d lose everyone’s respect.”
“Not everyone’s, not always. If you’re on the side of righteousness—or whatever people have decided is the side of righteousness, rather—you can get away with all sorts of shady things. Not that I’m recommending you should,” I added hurriedly, in the face of her stony glare. “I’m just saying, people do. Other people might, even if you don’t. Other people might have popular opinion behind them, and know it, and decide that they have a little bit of leeway to work with. Not with ethics, but with what people will forgive.”
“I don’t want to believe that people are like that,” she said. She added another slosh of menovka to her cup, even though she hadn’t yet drained it. “I have to believe that people are basically ethical and won’t forgive a duplicitous leader.”
“Surely you’ve seen it happen.”
She waved dismissively. “Might have looked like that was what was happening, but I think it was something else.”
“Tell me about what it was.”
She paused. She wavered. I held myself in readiness. And then she said, “No.”