by Helen W

It is a quiet grief. It creeps up in the silence, taking its time to appear, stealthy. It comes when there's calm; like when she starts the long, cold climb up the Cartography Tower to her quarters, brushing the ancient stone with her scabbards, and

“So, does anyone know this dodgy Velasquez bastard?”

Jacques was leaning on the rail of the ship, looking out to sea and enjoying a pipe. He looked up at her approach, then shook his head and spat after a passing gull. “Heard of him, never worked with him. Matteus says he's met him socially.”

Sebastian joined them both, walking with the sure, rolling tread of years on deck. His hair was pulled back in a sailor's tail, revealing the wings of grey at his temples, and he looked entirely at home. “I don't like it,” he growled. “This was supposed to be a De Almedia mission.”

“Is it true that he's got purple eyes?” Kit wanted to know, with something between serious curiosity and girlish gossip-mongering in her voice.

“Go over and see for yourself,” Jacques replied, tilting his head towards the stern. A lone figure sat in the half-light, back against the mast, eyes closed.

“No thanks,” Kit laughed. “I don't play well with nobles. No offence, Jac. You don't count.”

Jacques quirked a smile and nodded the point, watching the gathering dawn. The thousand sounds of the ship and the sea were muffled, peaceful. All three stood staring out over the rail, silent and companionable.

“I hear he's worked with one of your cousins,” Kit said after a while.

“Which one?”

“Anna. The Blood sorceress.”

“Ah, her. Shame, I could have asked her about him before we left.”

Ropes creaked, sails luffed and slapped in the breeze. Down the ship, a young man watched three figures, framed against the rail, through his lashes. The sun came up.

just for a moment she stumbles, the scent of salt water already fading from her nostrils. An empty potion bottle slips from her pack and smashes against the stone of the spiral staircases, and she swears. Money's not tight now, but the old habits of thrift die hard; that's another Hexa she won't see back from the Alchemy department. She starts to bend down to pick up the shards, then starts back as if she's seen something in the broken glass and hurries on up the stairs. Someone else can deal with it.

Then there's bustle; throwing her pack down on the bed (lumpy, with an uneven mattress, but pure luxury after weeks on the road), deliberately ignoring the pile of messages she's brought up from her official chambers on the ground floor, sorting damaged bolts from true and digging out the sorry scraps of her second-best jerkin and bracers for the armourer to look over. After a while, she opens a bottle of the Faculty wine that's supposed to be reserved for special occasions, and

woke up with her cheek pressed against cold stone and a lingering memory of bad dreams. The terrible pain in her head and eyes faded slightly, enough that she could try to sit up, but a Southern-accented voice shouted something and a boot planted itself in the small of her back. As she was kicked down, she realised her hands were tied. The last thing she remembered was coming over the wall just after Jacques, dashing through the driving rain towards where she thought Fal-Kar was, then a figure turning to meet her eyes and darkness…

…which was clearing, from her eyes, at least. If she shifted just a little, not enough to attract the guard's attention, she could see a limited amount before her. The others were here too - some, at least; she could hear a sudden outburst from Sebastian, cut off by the sharp sound of a punch, and a muffled, bloody-sounding cough she recognised as Jacques. The young Velasquez sat a few yards in front of her, looking peculiarly at ease with the situation. And as the mad sorceror who had captured them, who could easily kill them, began to talk about oaths, he caught her gaze and held it, lips silently forming two words:

“Trust me.”

spills it over the fresh shirt she's got out to wear to the Fellows' formal supper, where she intends to reintroduce herself into polite society. She drinks down what's left of the bottle, and throws the ruined shirt in the laundry pile. Rank hath its privileges; the pile will soon mysteriously disappear, and one of the head butler's extensive staff of giggling city girls will return it in a few days, just as mysteriously clean and folded. Her cupboard reveals no other clean formal shirts. She sighs, pulls on a serviceable but patched tunic and goes to the pub instead.

Here, at least, there are no awkward questions. She's deliberately picked a quiet inn in the poor quarter; the beer is atrocious but it's not noisy enough for adventurers. She stares into her cup and remembers writing in her diary - eighteen months, or a hundred years, ago -

”…poverty makes for strange bedfellows, and he came through for us in the end on the Breathing Isle - even if a man who refuses to kneel to a God might not be the best choice for negotiating with dragons.”

She paused and sharpened her pen again, trying to keep her mind on the simple things. The rain. Whether she had enough ink to last her to the City of Silk. The simple things were best. If she let her mind wander, she started remembering… other things. She had to keep her mind on the job; she couldn't cock this one up, this was Sirius Panastra

(snoring loudly on the other side of the campfire)

and Vincenzi Velasquez,

(scratching himself and drinking steadily from an apparently bottomless wineskin)

these were men of legend. She had something to prove here; if she could return to the City with those two speaking well of her, she'd never need worry about money again. The noble houses would be fighting to hire her as guide, cartographer, scholarly expert. They'd stop looking at her with fear when they thought she couldn't see, and staring at her forehead, and asking why Jacques hadn't come back from the Port. Maybe then the dreams would stop, and the…

No. Stop. Concentrate, she told herself, taking deep breaths and staring at the paper. Simple things. The diary. Pen. Ink. Write.

“Set out from the White City this morning with Sirius, Vincenzi and our Fearless Leader in low spirits. The weather is abominable…”

- and how cautious trust turned swiftly to outrage when he scared off the first dragon -

“What sort of man thinks that magicking a demigod blind is 'diplomatic'?”

- and what came afterwards. She tugs her cloak a little further forward as a pair of acolytes from the local Temple to the Princes duck inside the doorway, joking with the barman and arguing animatedly over the pillar of black fire

He faced the Lady over a bowl, and Her eyes caught fire. Someone was screaming, far away.

Later, he healed her. It left a mark.

that is still visible, even now, off in the Western sky. She has no intention of being recognised, or answering questions, and is grateful for the deep shadow of the alcove she's positioned herself in.

The grief comes in the silence again, later, after a half-decent cheap supper and some nowhere-conversation with a barmaid who's clever enough not to ask why she keeps her hood pulled down so low. She's left the pub and started to walk back to the College - back home - when the crisp, dry silence of the winter night suddenly inclines her to walk down by the river for a way. There's a small meadow by Traitor's Bridge, and it's as she's walking there that the grief appears at her shoulder, listening as she thinks about the abstract she's sent to the Department of Medicine for approval.

“Alchemical potions - with the obvious exception of those used for Purification - all induce a certain degree of euphoria, some more than others. The euphoric qualities of healing potions, in particular, are notoriously addictive. The advantage is that these potions not only heal the damage of a wound, they counteract the pain with a relief probably incomprehensible to those who have never been badly wounded.

“You want proof of my power?” His eyes were gleaming, drunk on his own arrogance. She could see that he knew he was going to win this, no matter how recalcitrant the dragon seemed. He just needed to sell it right. “Kit, come here.”

“One merely has to observe any group of mercenaries or adventurers for a few hours to observe the same anecdote repeated again and again, in different circumstances and voices; how, dying from his wounds, the narrator was able to cling on to life just long enough for his companions to aid him, strengthened by the thought of the sweet healing effects of a potion.

She approached, cautious, but hopeful. He'd implied he could remove the brand, stop the burning, leave her whole and clean again. Perhaps this was it; perhaps he intended to kill two birds with one stone, to prove his healing powers to the dragon by fixing her. He put a hand on her shoulder as he might touch a frightened animal. There was nothing - no apology in his eyes, not even amusement - nothing but cold purpose in his face as his sword plunged under her ribs. She opened her mouth to shout, but found the breath stolen from her lungs; she made no sound as he withdrew his sword, and she fell.

“Name sorcery, when used to heal, has no such euphoric effect. The wound is merely gone, as if it was never there. The body is simply, suddenly whole. Confused by such a rapid change, the subject will almost certainly still feel phantom pain for some time; other adverse effects have so far not been noted. The exact mechanism by which this banned art heals is still unclear, but…”

She pushed herself unsteadily to her feet, her vision clearing. The snow beneath her was stained red, but when she touched the neat hole in her shirt, the skin beneath was unbroken. There was a burning pain deep in her chest; she coughed, spat blood. Sirius was watching her, ready to charge the lordling on her signal, but she shook her head as she staggered back to the edge of the coomb. Not yet.

The abstract should be back by now; she's directed it through Holtz, which was risky, she supposes. He may have forgiven her for punching him and threatening to throw him off a cliff in the mountains, during the war; or he may not. She wasn't very stable at the time, and he did deserve it. She stands on the bridge for a while, thinking that she's lived in this city all her life and she's never bothered to ask why it's called

”…thinking his head's looking at me.”

“Then close his blasted eyes. Storms, but I'm not being paid enough for this work!”

That was the sailors muttering discontentedly. Kit tried not to look at their grisly work, but she could hear the sound of metal hacking through bone quite clearly, even when she stood at the ship's rail and stared into the sun. Sirius was elsewhere on the ship, calming down in his own way; the fight had lasted no more than thirty seconds, but the weeks-long tension of subterfuge had lashed them all when it broke. Sebastian and Vincenzi were grimly overseeing the captain's men as they cut the mortal remains of her former employer into four pieces.

Sirius joined her at the rail as they sailed away from the island, staring along with her. The blood was already being scrubbed from the decks by eager hands; soon there would be no stain at all. Neither of them said anything. Far away, a broken voice laughed unceasingly, and a trick of the light made her see the ocean turn to glass as the island passed over the horizon.

Traitor's Bridge. Her hands seem to be gripping the parapet very tightly. She can see a few drops of moisture splash on the white knuckles as she looks down. Rain, maybe.

She takes the scenic route back to the College, disturbed only by the watchmen calling the hour and the occasional drunken, reeling pack of slumming young students or nobles with nothing better to do with their nights. She avoids certain alleys and ducks down certain others automatically, thinking about it no more than she has to think of continuing to breathe; these are the streets she's walked down since she could walk, and she has nothing to fear here. To her, it's

He walked in like he owned the place, had the Silken Chain around her voice before she could shout and politely invited her to sit down and have a civil conversation with him as she stood amazed. Apart from a tan and a strange fire that seemed to boil in his unsettling purple gaze, he was the same man she'd left dead and buried on the Burning Isle.

He stood in her rooms as if he had every right to be there, and told her of his survival, and his revenge.

“I think I'm going to have to kill my brother, who I happen to love, and I'm wondering whether I should get myself in the mood by killing you first. What do you think?”

She saw him hesitate for the first time, that evening, after her terror had warmed to anger, he called her a murderer and she called him a traitor. An honest word, a moment of real pain, slipped from her among the petty defiances. He didn't expect that. For once, the sheen of arrogance was flawed.

“I…I would treat you well if you served me.”

“Now there's an offer I haven't heard before.” Bitter, desperate, but underneath the black sarcasm she wanted it to be true, just this once. She wanted to trust him, needed an excuse, a promise, a faith. Something to hold on to.

“Join me and I will see them driven out and destroyed. You can be healed in mind and body; that is what I offer my servants, my allies and my friends. There is nothing that is beyond me, nothing that I can't do. I will tear the power from the Gods themselves, even as they die at my feet. That is the scale of my ambition. All the power in the world, for me and mine.”

In her head, the threats and screams of the mad gods threatened to drown out his promises. But she listened; and she brought Bill to him, later, when he asked her to.


Every wall has a story, every street a memory. She smiles sadly and breathes in the night air as she remembers. There's the tavern they met the urchin in, the one the Chain-Mage was using as a mouthpiece; the one who hired them for the assassinations. Not wishing to cause a stir so soon after the scandal caused by his apparent return from the dead, he'd taken to disguising himself as a Priest of the Light and seeing through the eyes of his snake. He'd introduced Selena to them, and she, Bill and Serafine had plotted mutiny behind his back when they found what they were working with. There's the market-square, where she and Bill staged a fight to give him the chance to break into that house and kill the child; she trails her hand along the wooden stalls, shut up for the night, and turns aside to take a shortcut through the alley which backs onto the old gaol building, now a burned-out husk. She remembers that fire, and what came before it.

The view from the top of the Cartography Tower is spectacular. Standing in the centre of the great compass-rose inlaid into the spire's summit in the pale grey pre-dawn, she can already see a blur of white in the distance that she knows to be the main Eastern watchtower. Beyond there, on a clear day you can see right to the Eastern Plains

When the dust settled, while Serafine and her brother still lay on the ground where they had fallen and Selena held the strange glass thing the First Hammer had turned into, she looked at him. She didn't have to say anything, no “I told you so”; he knew perfectly well what she was thinking. He glanced up, glared, and went back to gathering up the remains of the Chain-Snake.

and when the weather is particularly fine, can even make out a smudge on the horizon which was the City of Crossroads. Turning west, the Great Forest blackens the skyline from mountain to coast; somewhere in there, invisible beneath the rolling waves of green, she knows there is a stream which runs in a perfect circle around a hill. At the peak of the hill, there is a large flat rock,

She couldn't move, or speak. The chains bound her to the rock too tightly. There was no turning back now; even if she dared change her mind, dared disbelieve him, there was no other choice, no second chance. He raised the Hammer; she recognised the look in his eyes from the Breathing Isle. Trust me, it said.

She died a second time.

which some have called the First Anvil. There's nothing else there now, except perhaps the ghost of a boy cracking walnuts on the stone.

The mountains are too far to see in the dusk. It won't be light enough to spot even the foothills, up beyond Three Rivers, for a good while yet. It's cold up here on the tower, but she doesn't shiver; as she rubs at her arms, she has the sensation of something cold and metallic beneath her skin. More than half a year and she's still not used to it. Her mind's eye tracks imaginary shapes in the darkness, the outlines of Hope, Memory and Regret;

She didn't feel the cold, the third time she reached the Plateau of the Frost-Prince. The others seemed to. Perhaps it was this new body, with its strange tics and traits. The blades of the snow-riders had met only iron when they should have cut through her flesh; she'd done her best to bandage her wounds before the others could see, but the way Bill was looking at her suggested she hadn't been fast enough.

She started to believe in him again when he bound the avalanche. She knew these mountains, and she knew what that snowfall could do; obliterate villages as if they never existed, wipe out the landscape as if it were written in chalk. By the time the Red Gryphon, a hundred miles south-east, down on the hot plains, disappeared under a raging torrent of snow and rock, she knew he hadn't lied. He did have the power he'd promised. He could destroy their enemies.

she can name every twist of the river and every treacherous path in those mountains. She likes to flatter herself that you could drop her anywhere between Three Rivers and Dream with no supplies and no memory of how she got there, and she'd still walk out a week later, whistling.

Finally, she turns to the south. The coast is not yet visible, but when dawn comes she knows there will be a shifting dot of light there, glinting and dazzling the eye like the biggest mirror in the world. Her eye falls short of that, to the road that runs along the Great River. There's a ruin down there, somewhere off the path, an unobtrusive place built for quiet contemplation and now fallen to the weeds. It's the sort of place that, under other circumstances,

“I'm sure there's something in our contract about working with D'Artoises,” she muttered to Bill, loud enough for their leader to hear. The words were light but she was deadly serious. Bartholomew was bad enough; she was hoping he'd learned his lesson by now. He pretended not to hear her as he negotiated with the three madmen in the courtyard of the ruin. She and Bill retired a little distance, to plot mutiny.

she'd like to retire to. Become a recluse, sell maps to the passing adventurers and write letters back to her friends in the city. It's a useful dream, but only a dream. There are too many ghosts about that place,

“We'll come for you last.” Her heart sank as he spoke those words, and any chance of bargaining, of dealing with this God on equal terms, was lost. The Lord of the House of the Gods used to like her, in an impersonal sort of way; protected her when the Frost-Prince would have destroyed her. Now, one arrogant quip from their leader, and the Realm itself rose up as the Burned Lord's legions prepared to destroy them.

and not of the sort that a good exorcism can dispel. There's blood and glass on the earth of the ruined keep now, the bitter taste of betrayal and wasted days. She thought he'd lost sight of their cause; she remembers, now, the ugly dull feeling that built inside her at the pursuit of an apparently pointless vendetta. She remembers when it overwhelmed her,

fleeing the volcano, with Belor's wings bursting half-here and half-not from his back as he dashed down the mountain with the unconscious sorceror over his shoulder. They ran until they found safety, and he still hadn't awoken. His wounds weren't beginning to heal, either. The Northern chill - the knowledge that the Light Corrupt had planted in her mind - suddenly it all came together; the fire in his blood, the WaterFire, quenched by the Frost-Prince's domain. A hysterical calm came over her. The enemy of my enemy…

when she knew with a certainty as strong as ignorance that she was on the wrong side. They threatened to kill Belor when he objected, though she's still not sure if she could have. She remembers the glacier and the dreamlike return to the White City, but most of all she remembers the waiting

She was expecting his return. Dreading it, hoping against it, hoping for it simultaneously - but expecting it. They had burned him to ash and buried him in a glacier, and still some part of her knew he would come back. The heady mix of relief and terror when he did, not to mention the furious and futile dash to get to his mansion before Belor, mangled her excuses and lies; even as she spoke she realised she should have fled with Selena if she wanted a chance. He listened, quite patiently.

“Kit.” He eyed her. She didn't meet his gaze. “Twice, now.”

She tried to explain, and the words sounded hollow in her throat.

In some ways, the Oath she swore and the Name he gave her were a relief. Now, at least, she could look Bill in the eye and tell him she'd done her best, and she couldn't do it again.

and when the waiting stopped.

She absently leaves a few Hexa on the altar of the Rose-Princes in an affectionate sort of way, reasoning that there must be some Gods in the world without cause to hate her yet, and starts down the spiral stairs to her rooms. There are salt tracks on her cheeks, long dried by the fresh breeze

laughing at dirty jokes in the City of Silk, feeling strangely like his lieutenant as she shouted the mercenaries into line

which even now is howling in the ancient arrowslits. She might go down to the kitchens early,

the darkness of death coming over her again, and his magic snapping her back to life, as he fell to the ground, chained, so she could live

before the rest of the College wakes, see if she can haggle some bacon and something hot to drink out of the under-butler. He, at least, knows better than to ask her awkward questions.

the horrible tension as the Spider-Queen appeared to them with her hordes; surrounded and demoralised, they had no chance of fighting their way out; the long, long moment when she could feel him ready to say something which might damn them all with his arrogance, and the relief when he kept his peace

Her rooms are just as disordered when she enters as they were when she left; she sighs, pulling off boots,

“Run!” and she didn't stop to think about why or where, just ran. Half an hour later, Selena found her quite comfortably up a tree, sketching in blank spots on her maps, and tried to needle her about that. “He knows what he's doing,” she riposted casually, and found herself believing it.

willing the unpacking to sort itself out without her agency. Her window faces east,

Late afternoon turning the forest from green to golden, making everything shine like burnished brass. They picked themselves up and did what they could for the bodies, then left the ancient city, heading deeper into the sunset. A moment's pause, to adjust a shield, light a pipe, lace a boot, before they set off further into the Forest whose very fabric rose up against them. A last moment of calm and camaraderie.

a fact for which she is grateful. She's never had a single nightmare about anything in the East. She remembers something; caution in all things - takes a letter from her pocket, letting her eyes skim over it one last time (but she could already recite it from memory)

“With the power that I obtained from the dragon's heart, there is nothing that I cannot create, but as you all know there is a price for such creation.”

before she touches the edge to a candle on her desk. The final corner burns her fingers as it falls into ash. She lies down on her uncomfortable bed in the cramped room she still calls home despite her far grander quarters downstairs, staring out of the window with a tiny smile.

“People make their own luck, so I will wish none upon you.”

It is signed, simply,


The sun comes up.

misc/fiction/epitaph.txt · Last modified: 2011/03/31 20:31 by osj01
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