She lay curled in the long grass, weeping.
The wind off the ocean was kind, that night, and it swept over the long grasses atop the cliffside, lending a sense of security in concealment. Nobody would be looking for her tonight. Alektos has seen to that, with a polite marble wall that stood waist-high at the perimeter of the field.
She knew they’d be asking for her, and accepting the low wall as indication enough that she was not to be disturbed. Not for anything worth less than vaulting a wall for, anyway. There wasn’t an enemy scout for miles, Alektos was certain, but they’d learned in the last year what letting their guard down could cost.
“Alektos,” she whispered.
“We couldn’t save them. Again.”
No. We could not. We have avenged them.
“That doesn’t bring them back, Alektos,” she whispered. “I don’t want to avenge them. I’d rather protect them.”
She curled tighter around the locket in her hand, and let the sobs roll through her.
We cannot be everywhere. We are vigilant, but we are one. You need many to guard many.
The wind rose, and at the first hint of chill, marble shone on moonlight as Alektos gathered her up. The tower grew around her, and rose up, up, so she could sit up and stare at the moon hovering over the ocean, over the long waves of grass swaying in the night wind. Alektos sheltered her from the wind, and gave her all the world to see.
Nothing moves tonight. You are safe.
“It’s not enough that I’m safe, Alektos,” she whispered, pressing her cheek to the marble. It was warm as her mother’s arms had once been, as safe as her father’s had felt before she’d buried him.
She pointed out to the firelight behind them, the smoldering pits of the war camp. It had been a refugee camp, once. Alektos’s stout walls had changed things for the better, but walls alone weren’t enough.
“They need to be, too.”
I am not strong enough yet. I will not be in your lifetime.
“I’d give you the rest of my soul, Alektos, if you were.”
I would not let you. Because you would not let one of them for you, if you could help it.
She digested that, one gentle hand reaching out to brush the warm marble. “Why? Why not take it all, Alektos?”
I would still not be strong enough. We are one. And they are many. My vigilance is yours.
“I wish we could be many,” she said, resting her chin on the windowsill, her eyes studying the sea. Far away, a fisherman’s boat-light was a speck on the water, one lonely star floating on a moonlit sea.
What would we do, with the strength of many? Be vigilant for them all?
She nodded, and swallowed. “Start with the refugees, Alektos. The ones who’ve hurt. First their bodies. Walls. So nobody can hurt them. Then I’d fix them. Make it so they didn’t hurt. All the ones who lost someone.”
We do not know how to fix that.
“No, but someone out there does. Someone must?” she said. “Someone can fix me.”
You are not broken.
“My heart, Alektos,” she whispered, clutching her locket. “My heart is.”
You are not injured. I am vigilant.
“You can’t understand. You’re a spirit. It’s all just food to you.”
You know that is not true.
“Then show me you understand, Alektos. Show me you’ve finally figured it out. Why it matters that they’re dead, that more are dying every day out there. You’ve had two years to figure me out.”
You are very different from me.
“No, you’re half of me, now. What good is our pact if I can’t protect them?”
I am vigilant.
“That’s not enough, Alektos. Not for this. Not for them. I need you to be vigilant for them. For everyone.”
There was a long silence.
Nothing is wrong.
“Then why are you suddenly so quiet?”
I am thinking.
When no further answer was forthcoming, she curled up on the warm marble, and pulled her cloak around her. “It’s late. I’m going to sleep. Keep an eye out.”
I always do.
She slept, and the wind pushed grass and waves until the moon had set. It was very dark when Alektos stopped thinking about the problem, and began to plan.
She rattled with each breath, her eyes patient and rheumy as she stared up into the sky. Her voice had long since gone as papery and thin as her skin with age. But she had made it to old age. That was miracle enough.
Her hand brushed the warm marble of her tomb, and she smiled.
Would you do it all over again?
“Of course I would Alektos,” she whispered. Whispers were all that were left to her, and she knew by now that even those had faded. Only her tomb would hear her voice, anymore.
Will you do it all over again?
“Now what do you mean by that?”
After you die, you will linger until all your memories are mine. I am vigilant. I will let none other steal them from you. Then you will go to the Divine, and be renewed, and go to your next life.
She held her tongue in patient silence, as her breath rattled in her throat. Her skin had gone cold, and her fingers and toes blue. Safe in her warm tomb, she feared nothing anymore. But Alektos was acting curiously, and that was reason enough to listen.
In the moment between return and rebirth, I could pact you again.
“How would you know my soul from any other soul, Alektos, in all the vastness of the void?”
I am vigilant.
“And without my memories, how would I know to trust you?”
Would your soul not know me, old friend?
She was dying in earnest now, but the thought made her smile, her eyes closing beatifically as the shadows in her vision closed in. It was her last breath, and she would make it count: “I think it would.”
His hands of warm marble closed around her soul, tender and careful. He clutched it to his concept, his form in the void, and ever-vigilant he drove the parasites and predators away. They circled, eternally hungry for any scrap of memory, eager for any chance to feed and grow. Once he had been among them, one more shred of concept, primordial, birthed from the void and without form.
It was a word she had once taught him: Escrow.
To be vigilant over that which was precious, to hold it in faith. A terrible hunger for her was in him, but he was not that primordial shred of the Void any longer. He could delay his gratification. He could think, and plan.
There would be many memories yet to come, this way. No struggle and fight, no lucky happenstance, no assembling the memories of languages and words and concepts into communication.
This was better. To delay his nature, to grow and harvest instead of feast and starve as the scraps that circled would. She was not the crop, any longer. She was the seed.
Her soul knew him, and it gave. Pouring everything precious, all that she was, into him alone. He savored every memory, shuddering as the power of their emotions filled him, as magic swelled within him, the other half of a feast he had once claimed so very long ago. This was his reward for a lifetime of service. And greedily he drank her in, every moment, every glittering jewel of riches her life would offer.
Her life flashed before her, and into him. Her last memory given was sweet: Anticipating his bond again, with joy.
But he was vigilant.
Souls came and went by the uncountable multitudes, in every moment, in the timeless void between the veil and the Divine they moved. No spirit was as vigilant as he, none had ever learned to value the attention of the precise now. What meaning had time, for them? But Alektos’s first feast had been because he understood the value of vigilance in the now.
He saw the soul emerge anew, far away, and he followed. He caught it as it sped in yearning for the world beyond the veil, as hungry for its birthright and memories as the primordial scraps of spirit.
One by one, he summoned the memories. The kind ones, the good ones, the formative and useful ones she had entrusted him with. He kept for himself the memories that would be of no use to her; the times of boredom, of frustration and ill-ease. They were the lesser memories, of lesser power than the finest ones she had given him, but they were enough.
After a few memories, she nestled gently into his hands, and reached for him in the same gestalt they had once shared. He took her soul in hand, and broke it neatly in half, but for the scrap that was forever hers, that he could never take. And into the painful gap his hands had gouged in the soul, he refilled it with memories, with knowledge remembered. Her mortality was assured, but her memories would live on. Inside her, and him, over and over again, until she asked no longer.
It diminished him, in no small way. Other spirits circled at the periphery of his power, primordial and developed alike, watching the moment unfold. To give back what had been taken, to return it so, was anathema to them. It was as contrary to their nature as to ask light itself to cast a shadow. Yet Alektos did.
When he had filled the gap as much as he dared, he released the soul, and consumed his half. His light pushed back the Void, and drove away the eternally hungry competition that lurked. The little soul in his hand fled at the first release, diving through the veil. Alektos followed.
Go. I will be vigilant.
Bleating lambs stirred Consuela from her slumber. She turned in bed, and nestled against her husband.
Husband, she thought, with a sleepy smile. The word was new to her, shining and golden, and it was good accompaniment to the warm comfort of her dreams.
Mama was right. Sheep farm or not, any home I can share with my husband is a palace. She draped a languid arm over her Julio’s chest, and let her fingers tease at the curls of his hair there. She nestled in, smiling, appreciating the lingering twinge he’d left in her hips in last night’s ardour. The bed was too comfortable, and she didn’t want to leave it, but the lambs outside were bleating to be fed. She reluctantly opened her eyes.
It wasn’t their bed. Her attempt to sit bolt upright was ruined by the softness of the mattress beneath her. The blanket over them was good plush wool, and white as a dove’s breast. The bedframe was white stone, as if it had been carved as one piece out of marble.
Raising her head, she cast her eyes about their bedroom, eyes wide in terror and wonder. Their room was twice again the size she knew, with walls of smooth marble. The window that looked out upon their patch of pasture a great, latticed thing more at home in a cathedral than any meager farmhouse.
Were we stolen away to Castro Rivera as we slept? she wondered.
“Julio,” she whispered, shaking her husband’s shoulder. “Julio, wake up. Wake up! Something is wrong!”
Julio stirred, knuckling sleep-gummed eyes. “The lambs are just hungry, Consuela. I’ll be up to feed them soon…”
He trailed away slack jawed, as his eyes rose over their bed. His gaze followed the curve of the sweeping arch and marble ceiling. Consuela curled up against him, as much in fear as for her own comfort.
“Where are we?” Consuela asked, her worry turning her breaths into puffs of sharp-smelling breeze, like vinegar. “How are we here? Who took us in our sleep?”
“I don’t know, my heart,” Julio said, jutting out his chin the way he did when he was trying to be brave for her sake. “But whoever brought us here, also brought our flock. Those are our lambs outside, I’m certain,” he said. He shifted his way over to the bedside. “Stay close. I will have a look around.”
The bed was taller than the one they had slept in, and Consuela grimaced as her feet hung over the side, expecting the bare stone floor to be painfully cold. When she slid off the bed, however, the stone proved to be as warm as sunbathed wood. She wiggled her toes on the floor, and craned her head. All around her, now, she could hear the faintest bit of choral tones, as if the temple’s choir was sustaining an aria just within earshot. The music came from the bed, from the roof, from everywhere around her. All of it, magic.
Julio was staring around with her, assessing the flows of conjured marble that made up the chamber.
“Julio? Are we dreaming?”
“I don’t know, my heart,” Julio said, moving around the bed and taking her hands in his. “But if we are? There are worse dreams than to live as a Don. I bet your family had a hand in this, or mine? Some kindly prank for the newlyweds.”
Consuela laughed softly. “I don’t think anyone in my family is this good at conjuration, Julio. Perhaps one of yours?”
Julio shook his head. “No,” he said, looking around. The initial shock of the moment past, he looked around and smiled. “But I wouldn’t put it past my brothers as a gift. Perhaps they hired a schooled mage for the morning?”
Keeping hold of one of her hands, he coaxed her toward the open bedroom door.
Ordinarily, farm life meant a lack of modesty as newlyweds, but Consuela steered him towards the nearest dresser. “Not in our bare skin, Mister Garcia,” she said. “Who knows who’s out there?”
“As you will it, Mrs. Garcia,” replied Julio, smiling.
Their dresser was no less fine on the inside than the outside; where ordinary farmer’s clothes had hung, instead, inside, were gathered fine conjured silk robes. Julio and Consuela exchanged glances, and shrugged them on.
This is silly, thought Consuela, as she fiddled with her robe. But it’s nice. A fun mystery for my first day as a wife.
They crept through room after room, all made of the same fine, carved, warm white marble. The rooms were big, some larger than her entire little shepherds hut had been. But despite the coverings of white marble throughout the building, a nagging suspicion grew in Consuela’s mind.
“Julio,” she whispered as her eyes fell on an oven alcove fit to bake five days’ worth of bread, “this is our kitchen! Look. The oven there, and the stove there. The pipe is even crooked, remember how your brother’s hand slipped when fitting it?”
“Ai, I remember. It leaked smoke when his cursing lit the stove,” Julio said, frowning as his eyes roamed the kitchen. It was familiar, but expanded luxuriously, every surface covered with the same fine-grained marble, the morning sunlight through the window at odds with the distant pitter-pat of rain.
“If this is supposed to be like our house,” he said, nodding to a large, whitewashed wooden door, “That will be the door to outside. Steady, Consuela.”
They opened the door to a rainy Venician spring morning, cool wind from the north sea driving rain over the ordinarily temperate grazing lands. The lambs raised a cry from their pen the instant their door opened, bleating for their breakfast.
As they left the threshold of the home, their robes faded back to their regular, daily clothing, though they had been cleaned and well pressed since last they’d been worn. Consuela looked down to her clothing, and laughed softly. “I guess we leave the fairy tale at the door, Julio. You feed the lambs, I’ll take in some oranges for breakfast?”
They both wanted to explore the enchantment within their home, but a farm was a farm, and the lambs had to come first. So while Julio fed the livestock, Consuela gathered oranges, humming to herself.
The cool rain chased her inside, and the welcoming enchantment was nice; water wicked away from her clothes and hair, and the sunlight shining in through the windows betrayed none of the gray, wet gloom she’d left behind. She chose a sunbeam to stand in as she cut and peeled oranges, amused to discover her knives had all been replaced by the same white marble.
A shame they couldn’t conjure more than this, she thought to herself. But it’s a pretty effect. A stone knife. I hope the supper pot isn’t stone as well, I’d rather good iron for cooking in.
Three days later, the novelty had entirely worn off. Six weeks later, the morning sickness began in earnest.
The baby girl at her breast was perfection. She had skin and eyes as brown as the good earth the new lambs grazed over. She had cried but once, upon being born, and then had found her breast and taken lustily to it. Now her baby looked up at her with sleepy eyes, and the corners of her mouth would tremble as if trying to smile.
Consuela smiled at her daughter, and rocked in the white marble rocking chair. Her pretty brown eyes were irresistible, and so she spoke very softly in the hopes of keeping them open:
“Lita, hello Lita. Who brought us this fine rocking chair while we slept, do you think? Was it your papa? Or maybe my mother? It wasn’t here when we slept.”
The baby girl at her breast suckled greedily, tiny, perfect brown fingers clutching at her breast. The lambs were asleep, and so was Julio, and it felt as if the entire world was all for her daughter. Lita’s brown eyes stayed open, just a fraction, turned vaguely towards the sound of her mother’s voice.
“I’ll bet it was your grandfather, my father. It’s the sort of thing he’d do, you know? Something kind, and never tell a soul.”
She brushed her fingertips along Lita’s perfect cheeks, and smiled. “Your grandfather would say: Oh, little Lita. Make of your life a conspiracy of joys.”
As she fell asleep, Lita smiled.
Consuela’s hand drifted down to the rocking chair, caressing the smooth, warm marble of it in wonder. She could hear the very faintest, sweetest hum of the magic that sustained it, like a held note on a beautifully-tuned viola.
I don’t know who to thank, but thank you, she thought, and poured her gratitude into the stone, mote after mote. It drank her magic greedily.
Lita came awake instantly, and slid out of bed. In careful, tottering steps, she made her way down the hall. Her father’s hand hung from the bed, and she wrapped tiny fingers around his hand, and tugged.
Julio came awake with reasonable aplomb for a man woken by his daughter scarcely a year old. They’d had months to get used to her talking instead of crying. And so he swung his feet carefully off of the bed, and picked her up into his arms.
“What is it, little princess? What troubles you?”
“Alektos says there is a coyote.”
“Oh? How does he know there is one?”
“He is vigilant, papa. Always. There is a coyote. Get your bow, papa.”
Her voice was tiny, and so very high-pitched yet, but her tone and expression were solemn. Carefully, he lifted her into bed and lay her down alongside her mother’s back.
“Then stay here, close to mama,” he said, covering her carefully. “I will keep the lambs safe.”
“Alektos will help,” she whispered back.
As you wish.
“Give Alektos my thanks,” he said.
Her father’s arrow was true, knocking the beast to the ground as it scrabbled at the white marble walls that had risen in defense of the lambs. When the cur finished dying, Julio lay his hand upon the warm marble wall, and bowed his head.
What does it mean?
“He’s saying thank-you,” whispered Lita.
Oh. He’s feeding me magic, too. Like your mother.
But I am not the Divine. Should prayer not go to the Divine?
“It should,” said Lita, as she nestled into her mother’s back. “But you can’t take it from the Divine. You can only hold onto it for a while, right?”
I suppose that is true. One day it must all return.
“You helped,” Lita said. “It isn’t a sin to accept what they freely give.”
I am glad. But please don’t let them mistake me for the Divine. Some spirits try that. It always ends badly.
“I won’t,” promised Lita.
The bed and her mother’s back was warm, and Lita nestled in until sleep reclaimed her. She didn’t mind when her father came back to bed, and nestled in on her other side, still smelling of coyote and blood. Between her parents, and Alektos watching over her, she was safe.
He threw himself down on the ground, just in time for the spell to sizzle into the recruit behind him. She fell with a dismayed cry, cursing.
“Cover! Take cover!” he bellowed, pushing the next two recruits into cover behind the berm.
To your left. Roll right, now, three times.
He did as Alektos told him, and the ground erupted in purple mud, splattering nearby. Not enough to mark him.
“Return fire! Focus on the treeline!” he roared.
The two recruits bounced to their feet at his order. One spat a long stream of purple mud back, in a long, scything arc as she’d been taught. The other took advantage of the wind, and broke open an ampule in his bag. Purple smoke bellowed from the thrown container, drifting towards the treeline and forcing motion and exposure.
“Got him, Alektos,” Lucius said, and shot a hard gaze into the bushes. It was only a second’s worth of a glance, but it was enough to cause a spot of virulent purple to bloom on the soldier’s leg.
A lieutenant’s whistle brought the exercise to a halt, and the recruit on the ground rolled up to her feet, cursing. “Lucius! You duck that spell just so it would tag me?”
“Sorry, Adelia. Alektos can’t throw a wall that quickly. He told me to duck.”
Adelia grunted. “Can’t save them all, huh?”
Lucius nodded. “I learned that a long time ago. I just try to save everyone I can, now.”
She scooped the purple mud off of her uniform, and made as if to throw it at him, grinning. “Oh yeah? Where’d you learn that, greenie? You’re barely old enough to shave yet.”
He shrugged. “Maybe one day I’ll tell you.”
She suggested he go put his smart mouth to work as a camp follower for centaurs, and he told her he’d need some pointers from her mother. By the time the Lieutenant was done bawling out the soldiers who’d been flushed from cover by mere recruits, they’d agreed to supper.
“How is it you’ve made it through four lives so far and I’m the first person you married?”
Lucius leaned into her, over their campfire. “I have a lot to learn, and little of it from an ordinary, quiet life,” he admitted. “I tend to die young. I get a little reckless knowing Alektos will be there, sometimes, I guess. And he can’t protect me from disease. That’s actually what got me, three times so far. Old age, tumor, pox, and pox again.”
Adelia arched an eyebrow his way. “So what do you call this, if not an ordinary life? Marrying another soldier?”
Lucius smiled at her. “The right thing to do. War keeps coming, life after life. This life, I’m learning about war. How to protect people I care about. How to fight alongside them. How to be a good husband.”
Adelia kissed his cheek. “Mmn. Mediocre, but with potential,” she said, teasing. “If this war ever ends, I’ll let you find out what it’s like to be father.”
He let out a long breath, and smiled. “You’ll probably like it. I remember being a mother,” he said. “My first life, pacted with Alektos. I had three. Two made it. Not bad for that era. We spent a lot of time as refugees.”
She put her head on his shoulder, and stared into the fire. “Don’t die young this time, okay?” she said softly. “Let’s die old, together. Isn’t that a better deal for Alektos, anyway? All those good memories.”
“You have a point there,” said Lucius. “Besides. I want to make it to General. I need to know more about the big strategies of war. What moves nations, and faiths. Maybe I can make sure my next life is more peaceful.”
She shook her head, and smiled. “I can’t imagine being born with so much baggage.”
“It’s not easy,” he admitted. “But the lessons carry over. Wouldn’t you do it, if you could?”
“Not a chance!” said Adelia. “What good is being young if there’s nothing left to discover?”
“There’s always something new to discover,” asserted Lucius. “Always.”
“You’re going to discover some sand in your bed if you don’t get in there and warm it for me, husband.”
“See?” he said, smiling.
“You heard me, Major. You know your fortress and soldiers well. I want the whores. Not all of them. I want the best of them.”
“General, with all due respect, that’s indiscreet of an officer in the Emperor’s army!”
She leaned back in her white marble chair, and fixed the Major with a look. “Major Ronduille, you’re a good man, but I’m not sure if you have too much or too little imagination. Hear me out. How many of our enlisted men and women are married? Out of any given hundred.”
“Ah… perhaps, call it one in four? So twenty-five?”
“And the solution to keeping each encampment from turning into a maternity ward is that we allow whores to be employed, men and women alike, and forbid fraternization within the forces. Correct?”
“And I’m far too old and dried out to care, at this point, what services they have to offer. So when I say I want the best of them, Major Ronduille. I don’t mean the prettiest. I want you to spread word, discreetly. Find out which of the fortress whores are the ones who have to fend off the most marriage proposals. Not the prettiest ones. I mean the best ones, the ones who make our people feel special. Find me, I don’t know. Five of them. I want to meet them. I think an army and it’s people should understand their own morale.”
“I’ll do as you ask, General, but may I recommend bringing them in the back way?”
“That would be best. As you said, it would be indiscreet for a General of the Emperor’s Army to be seen mixing with most of that lot.”
It was on the third visit that General Juliette Pizeau found what she was looking for.
The couple that were sent in were attractive, together; they moved arm-in-arm, and brought a rough grace to their bow that suggested one or both had spent some early years in a noble house, probably some questionable ‘nephew’ and ‘niece’.
But when they met the General’s eyes, they smiled. They were nervous, to be certain; but they looked her in the eyes. Not at her epaulets and insignia, not at the finery of the room or her blade above the mantle, nor at the wondrous chamber Alektos had made of the lounge.
They looked at her. And they smiled not as if she was a customer, or a patron. They smiled the way she’d watched once-refugees smile when they’d rebuilt their lives, reopened shops, and recognized one another. They smiled like she was an old family friend, and in that moment the General knew why the Major had passed them upwards to her.
“Come here, please,” she said, patting her couch. “I need your help. It’s very important.”
They sat, to either side of her.
“We’re here for you,” the woman said.
“As long as you need,” the man said.
They were spies, of course, from the kingdom of Hanshu. But the fortress was far from any war fronts and there was little of value to the foreign kingdoms to be learned from her. She’d made her career in suppressing the political enemies and rebellious houses of the Empire, and in her lifetime there’d been little friction abroad.
She knew they were spies, and they soon understood that she knew, and yet desired their company anyway. Not for what they were, but who they were. They listened, when she told them of the weight of her eight lives. They held her, apart or together, when she wept for four spouses and ten children she’d held through her lives and years.
They believed her.
And when they understood what she wanted of them, they took the riches she offered and parted, vowing solemnly to do as she asked.
It would be twenty years before they met again.
The temple was an old one, even by the standards of Hanshu. The crumbled ruins had seen better centuries, but the path to and from the temple was well-paved, and the children who ran about the brothel yards were well-fed, and quick to smile as he passed.
They welcomed him as he had remembered, smiling as they had for an old woman of power. Now he was a young man, scarce more than a beggar. The wealth once given had purchased the old temple, and the cachet of successful spies who’d averted a minor war had purchased enough political power to keep the curious at bay.
As far as the world around them knew, the temple was a brothel, favored by merchants and generous to war orphans.
He bowed to the guard at the door, and produced a coin of polished white marble.
“Please tell Haneul and Areum, a friend has come to visit,” he said.