The man calling himself Daniel DuCroix leaned against the wooden wall of the ship’s cabin, wiping sweat and wash-water from his face. His eyes clenched tightly shut against the dizziness, and he swayed on his feet, and nearly toppled again. Closing his eyes didn’t help much, and so he opened them, staring into a face that had never been his.
A face that, like all of the faces of the bodies he drove, he knew he would soon forget.
He stared into his own desperate eyes, fighting the feeling of sluggishness, of an echo, to every motion and sensation. He studied those desperate eyes, and the face he had seen in many reflections but never once remembered.
I don’t even remember my own face, anymore, he thought. Damn them.
With care, he edged from the sink to his bunk, clinging tightly to every handhold the ship’s cabin offered him. With rigid arms, he slowly sank back onto the cot, and closed his eyes.
It gets worse the further I get. I thought it was instant, but none of it is. It’s fast as lightning, maybe, but even lightning can’t cross the seas fast enough.
Daniel opened his eyes and willed his hand to flex in front of his face. The body responded, but there was the slightest of delays. It felt like being drunk, all the time.
That bitch detective cut me down when I took over Friar Tomlin. I swear to the Divine I raised my hand to block. Dead flesh must have been too slow. Just a little too slow.
He looked towards his cabin door. Messages from skeletons and corpses, sentries, messengers, clamored for attention in his mind. Another body of his was dead, somewhere in the Thousand Kingdoms, cut down from behind. Knights were triggering sentries in one of their paper mills.
Delegate, trust, verify, he reminded himself. Like Dad did, with the help. Before they hung him.
Daniel reached out with his mind, engulfing the swarm of scattered thoughts and alarms that ran to him from every corpse in his control.
To the bodies like him, the ones with the scars on the backs of their necks, he sorted and shunted the various crises. His silent command set them into motion: Do your best to ensure our plan’s success, until you hear from me again. Obey the roles I assigned you.
He let his subconscious mind filter the replies to the appropriate parties. You have to think of it like digestion, he reminded himself. If you try to hurry it, you spoil it. Don’t think about it or second-guess it.
The noise in the back of his mind began to diminish, as tasks and priorities sorted themselves out. Daniel closed his eyes, and whispered to his current body: “Pause.”
Then he leapt.
Inside another fishing ship, halfway around the world from Hanshu, another blonde man with a rune-marked face woke. Daniel sat up and leaned his body against the porthole. A kilometer off the starboard bow, Ouestin’s walls rose high overhead, barely lit by the same rising sun that had been setting on him a moment before.
Here, this close to his grave in Ouestin, the latency of his motions was gone. He flexed his hand, and this time it moved instantly, without any noticeable delay. I’ll have to fight here, he thought, staring hatefully at the walls. I’ll have to fight, and die, probably many times.
He tried not to flinch at the thought. The pain of Heather Blackthorne’s mace still echoed in his mind. Tomlin had been a redhead, more sensitive to heat and cold, and her mace had been very hot indeed when she’d smashed in his face.
Daniel could feel his gathering hordes under the water, and their massed numbers in the tunnel. It felt like a tendril of himself, as real as his hands. Parts of him moving, tirelessly cutting stone, tunneling upwards towards the fortress. Hollowing out a chamber, packing it with wax-sealed boxes filled with runed paper. Box after box, and there was more of them packed into the little fishing ship’s hold under his feet, awaiting their turn.
“Go back to bed, and wait,” he murmured to his body, and leapt again. Back to that distant body on that distant ship off the coast of Hanshu, halfway around the world.
Daniel rose from his bed, swaying on uncertain feet, and dressed. The servant just outside his door bowed her head as he emerged staggering, and took his proffered arm without comment.
It was a relief to make his way up on deck with her assistance, his steps clumsy with latency as he joined the new Governor Yilo. The young Hanshu man in the teak throne had the sharpness of gaze of his father and grandfather, but without the tempered wisdom either of his predecessors had been famous for.
Yilo rose from his seat at Daniel’s approach, and offered him a very slight bow. Daniel steeled himself against the vertigo of the act, and bowed deeply in return. He made sure to position his hands correctly, both in front of him, left hand palm down, right hand palm up.
“Governor Yilo, thank you for seeing me.” The language came easily to Daniel, and so long as he focused on the words, the delay didn’t cause him to stutter. “On the advice of the House of Coin, I’ve decided to hear out your offer.”
Yilo inclined his head and sat. “Bad manners, Mister DuCroix, to speak to the heart of something so quickly.”
Daniel allowed himself a knowing smile. “We’re neither of us patient men, Governor. It’s how we find ourselves here today.”
Yilo didn’t flinch, but over his smile his eyes grew cold. Daniel didn’t flinch either.
A favor for a favor, Daniel thought. With your dead father’s own helpless decree, I got you your throne. Now you’ll get me mine.
“So it seems,” Yilo said. “The offer is five hundred thousand hectares and all the vassals within. Three towns, one city. And so long as you pay your taxes to the Jade throne, the land is yours. Marry someone acceptable, and you’ll be titled Gungong. As high as you may rise as a foreign-born man. Very prestigious. Very perilous.”
Daniel inclined his head. “Then I am in good fortune to count such a mighty ally as the grandson of the Jade Lion.”
Yilo narrowed his eyes, but smiled nevertheless. “You are. But first, you must deliver on your bargain, Mister DuCroix. When?”
“Soon.” He cast a pointed glance at the nearby servant. Yilo frowned and waved the woman off. She scurried away, leaving only the Governor and Daniel alone.
Sweat beaded down Daniel’s back, as he searched Yilo’s eyes. Is he testing me? Does he think my ambition is that blind, that I’d take him?
The eyes that stared back at him were impassive. Too impassive, for a man a year younger even than Daniel had been, the year his parents had hung.
Yes, it’s a trap, Daniel thought. Or it would be if I tried to kill him. They won’t trust me with power if I reach beyond my grasp.
Daniel broke into a wide smile, and sat back in his chair.
“When,” repeated Yilo.
“No more than a fortnight. I need four thousand more dead. Even the western tombs are too far now to reach Ouestin in time.”
Yilo spread his hands. “You have already emptied the western tombs. The only tombs left are those with too many eyes, and too many tongues.”
“I know of four tombs teeming with talent, that I could be using,” Daniel replied, arching an eyebrow.
Yilo went very still. “If you ever speak of them on the mainland, someone will come to kill you.”
Daniel nodded. “I know. But if the dead bound to the royal line’s tombs are the finest, then some should be sent to guard me, as a token of your Emperor’s faith. And, I’m sure, to safeguard his investment in my loyalty.”
The grandson of the Jade Lion sat back, and wicked amusement danced in his eyes. “How refreshing, cozying up to the assassin’s blade like that. That might amuse the Jade throne. I will pass on your request to the palace, Mister DuCroix.”
“Thank you. In the meanwhile, I still require more dead.”
“Well, that is a pity, for we have no more to offer.”
“A little bird told me of an uprising some months ago. Guanlu province? Something about vassals unhappy with their tax burden. It occurs to me that there must be some refugees eager to take free passage, without caring where, if it takes them away from the fighting.”
“And where would those ships go, Mister DuCroix?”
“Down, I imagine. Without much trouble or fuss. At night. The sea swallows the dead, after all.”
“Is it not your sages that teach us that serendipity is found in adversity, Governor Yilo?”
Yilo looked out over the water for a long time, before answering. “The ships cannot be of the House of Coin, or the Crown.”
“I’ve already prepared. They can arrive in four days, with one of mine at each helm. The living ones. Six ships. If there’s any who know the old bindings, they’ll think mine belong to the Jade throne, and be twice as grateful.”
Yilo shook his head. “Nobody knows those workings anymore. Four dynasties stamped it out. And if they knew exactly what you were doing, a fifth would finish the job.”
Daniel tapped his nose. “But they haven’t, yet. Someone who knew the art taught me, once upon a time,” he pointed out. “And if we’re successful together, perhaps I will teach a few others. The servants of an ally, for example.”
Yilo laced his fingers underneath his chin. “It will be a pleasure to watch your ascent to Gungong, DuCroix. And your descent, should you fail. Give us Ouestin.”
Daniel bowed low. “Tell your ships to set sail, and I will pass word along to the Thousand Kingdoms. By the time they arrive, the fortress will be yours.”
Heather stared at her toes through the bubbles in her tub, the aromas of roses and sandalwood rising from her bath. She’d opened the door to the suite’s bathroom fifteen minutes ago, to find an Ice-runed bucket holding a bottle of white wine. The label read ‘Muscovette Blanche’, and it just so happened that the wine tasted like sunlight and honey had kissed some ripe pears. Squares of good chocolate, now gone, had been found resting on a silver tray alongside, fragrant with bits of orange zest.
They found out my favorite chocolate, she thought, stretching out in a tub large enough she could have bathed a horse. They’ve been busy, and industrious, these Inner Circle folks.
She felt a small twinge of guilt, at the thought of the conditions she’d left behind in Frostmoor. That guilt, however, didn’t hold a candle to her satisfaction. My first real bath in four years, she thought. Like they said, I’m worth this, right?
The thought had a pleasant glow to it, and she sipped her wine before lifting it in imaginary salute to an elf far away. “Ooluk, if you knew how good a proper bath was, you’d move the whole earth to be here,” she said to herself.
Indulgently, her toe flicked against the lever of the tap, and more hot water spilled into the tub. Heather let out a satisfied sigh. Civilization.
She soaked until the wine was mostly gone, and then eased herself out of the tub. She drew a fluffy robe off the hook and towelled dry her short-cropped black hair. The afternoon light was beginning to turn golden, the west-facing windows letting in the sunlight, painting her and her room in gold. The scent of the fireweed in the vase perfumed the air, and Heather ran her fingers over the brightly hued flowers.
They used magic on me, she thought, the observation floating above her emotions. The thought didn’t disturb her calm. They used magic on my mind. The smells around Neela change, that makes her a Miasmer. Roland’s eyes flash, when he’s making an impression or a point. So he’s a Gorgon. Circle members aren’t supposed to use magic soliciting clients. But… I suppose they’re not soliciting me, not in that way.
She thought back to the way Roland’s hand had brushed hers, earlier, and revised the thought. Magic or not, it’s no different than the days Steven would cook for me. He was an Alchemist, and he never made any secret of putting a little extra into his cooking for me. Roland and Neela aren’t hiding what they’re doing, or their nudges of influence. They’re letting me see it. Actually, they’re making sure I see it.
The thought gave her some comfort. Heather walked a slow circle of the room, digesting her thoughts. Her fingertips reaching out to brush the handle of her father’s mace as she passed it. Dad would have liked them, she realized. That’s what my gut says. Dad would have trusted them.
Okay. I’ll try, then. The thought brought an unexpected itch behind her eyes, and she looked away from her father’s mace. I should put my things away.
She gathered up her mace and armor and opened the wardrobe door to put them away. Inside was the next shock: Clothing. Her clothing.
Heather reached out and took a blouse off the hangers, and pursed her lips. On the bottom hem, there lay a small brown stain. Her hand closed around the fabric, eyes softening. That’s where Anthony always grabbed my shirt when he wanted my attention.
An identical but new blouse hung on the hanger behind it. Heather arched an eyebrow.
I tithed my house, and all its contents, she reminded herself. I guess they kept some of it for me. The nicer things, anyway. Her fingers brushed along clothes new and old, every garment that had been kept, now accompanied by a new copy.
Her hand stopped at the feel of light, soft wool, and she took the dress off the rack to examine it, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
It was a dark green dress, hemmed in yellow, with a modest, square neckline and hanging sleeves. A triple loop of brass links cinched the waist. The overskirt was split along the sides, showing off the white of the underskirt and made to handle a horseback ride as well as a garden fête.
I remember when we got this dress, she thought. Shopping for something to wear on our second anniversary. It was halfway out of fashion when we bought it. Neighbors were already wearing linen for the summer, but damned if it wasn’t the most comfortable dress I’d ever worn. And I liked the way Stephen smiled when he saw me in it.
Heather allowed herself a moment of pleased vanity as she pulled on the dress, and smoothed it out in front of the mirror. The new clothes are all the same size as the old ones, and they still fit. Not bad for four years of always eating for the winter!
All these nice things, a prickle in the back of her mind whispered. It all feels a little like slipping my boy medicine in a spoonful of honey. If they’re using this much honey, it must be one awful dose.
She turned her eyes out towards the windows and the gardens below. A hundred yards to the southwest, and four stories down, a couple walked arm in arm through one of the private gardens belonging to the Inner Circle. They walked with their heads lowered, their body language subdued in grief so obvious that Heather could read it from her window.
How hard is all this going to be? And what is it going to take to feel like I really deserve any of this?
Troubled again, she fished out Saint Aysha’s prayer-book from her bag and sat reading it by the light of the sinking sun. Her fingers brushed gently along the marks where Jordina Aysha’s pencil had once marked the pages. Cryptic lines here and there, or references to names lost to history, or events she’d been asked to speak at. One dog-eared page, marked ‘Nicole’, had a passage carefully underlined, which Heather murmured aloud.
“Make of my grief a seed. May I bear all the weight of life upon me.”
Jordina, Heather thought. You knew what that weight was like. You watched so many die in that stinking attic. How did you bear it, afterward? You made it better. You did your job. So did I. But it doesn’t erase what happened. Life keeps attaching these weights on my heart and I still just keep marching forward.
Drowsy with the sun and wine, Heather slipped into a comfortable drowse on the chair. She awoke to the church bells ringing six o’clock. On the sixth toll of the bells, Roland’s polite knock came at the door.
Heather stood up, and then tucked Saint Aysha’s book back into her travel bag before opening the door.
“Right on time, Brother Rolente,” she said, lips curling in an amused accusation: “It’s almost like you planned all this!”
“Well of course we did,” he replied, his smile mirroring her amusement. “That’s our job, Heather. We’ve made plenty of preparations. Saints know we can’t make everything in life easy, but we like to smooth the edges down a little. Make it a softer world, one day at a time.” He gave her a sympathetic smile, free of pity. “We have a lot to talk about. May I come in?”
“Yeah, alright,” Heather said, drawing a breath around a sudden, anxious clench of her heart.
Roland took a seat on the couch and patted the spot beside him. Then he smiled reassuringly, and slipped an envelope out of his breast pocket, offering it to her. “If you’d like to sit down, I’d like to talk to you about the next few days and weeks, and help you with any other questions you might have. And give you some important reassurances, as well.”
Heather blinked in mild surprise, and took the envelope as she sat. It was heavy, and oddly weighted, bulging out at one end. Her name was written in flowing, artful script across the front. She cracked the wax seal open with her thumb.
A silver heart-shaped locket spilled into her hand, along with a fine silver chain.
Roland waited until she had the locket in hand, before continuing. He spoke softly, but with a heartfelt urgency that held Heather’s attention. “You’ve lost the two people who are most important to your heart. Sometimes, our patients worry that we want to replace them, or help them be forgotten. To put their pain behind them without caring why that pain is there in the first place.
“My work is to help you with that pain, Heather. But not to replace them. Not to lessen their memory, or make them any less special to your heart.”
The locket sprang open at the touch of her thumb, and Heather’s eyes flew open. Her hand flew to her mouth, and her eyes flooded with tears.
Inside the locket lay careful, deft graphite sketches on paper. Two faces she hadn’t seen in years. Two faces she saw every night in her dreams.
My husband! My son!
Heather’s hand began to shake.
The likenesses were marvelous. Some artist’s hand had worked the graphite with care, capturing fine details she hadn’t seen in four years. The lines in the pictures were delicate, carefully shaded, worked with love and care by an unseen hand and filled with detail. Details she was heartsick to discover she’d forgotten.
Those crow’s feet at the corners of Stephen’s eyes. Anthony’s chubby cheeks, his father’s eyes. These are my boys!
Heather’s eyes shot up to search Roland’s. Her mouth worked soundlessly, trying to form the words to match her thoughts: These… these are too good. There’s no way they sketched this so well just from reports. How?
Roland read the question in her eyes. “It took us a while to find the people who remembered them,” he said softly. “Your son’s childhood friends. Your husband’s old comrades, like Renny Simons. They were kind enough to spend some time with me and the artist, making sure the likeness was right. I hope you like it.”
The envelope tumbled from her nerveless fingers, and Heather clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle the first sob. Tears swam in her eyes as she held the pendant, staring down at faces seen only in dream and memory for years.
Heather ducked her head, and her fingers dug furrows into her cheeks. She tried and utterly failed to steady her breathing, as motes and sparks began to gather and roil around her. Thick as a swarm of fireflies, bits and pieces of her magic went darting out from under her eyelids with every blinked-away tear. Roland sat in respectful silence, offering no distraction or disturbance to the moment.
He watched her with gentle eyes unwavering in their sincerity, sharing in the burden of her joy and pain. Now and then his gaze swept over her magic, gently banishing it, dispelled by his concern.
Heather’s eyes fell back to the locket, drawn irresistibly back to the faces within, her hands helplessly clenching around it. My boys. My boys. My husband. My son. Oh Saints I miss you, I miss you every day and I never stop missing you, I can’t take a breath without missing you. All I can dream about every night is both of you, and it is the most awful thing.
A dam within her gave way, and for long, torturous minutes, her tears were impossible to restrain. Occasionally, she pushed a shaking finger around the rim of the locket, carefully brushing away the sparks of fire that clung to it. Suddenly, mortally afraid the paper inside would catch fire and flash to fine ash at a wrong breath, she snapped it shut.
“We–” Heather swallowed, her throat clicking audibly as she tried to push down the lump that rose in her throat. She tried again, and began to speak, her voice hitching with irrepressible sobs: “We never had it easy, Roland. Church knight and a city guard? Always a chance something could go wrong. B-but Steven started cutting back his hours once Anthony came along. He said– he said a kid needs a dad. And being a Knight is too important to let go. So he took the c-cut to his hours, so I could keep working for the faith.”
Heather closed her eyes, and slowly lifted the locket up to her lips, and brushed a kiss across the polished silver.
“It’s kind of funny, I guess? He- he was right. The work was important. B-but it got them both killed, in the end.” Her face broke once more into a grimace of grief, and she doubled over the locket, sobs ripping through her chest once more. Embers and sparks sprung from her anew, flaring around her in a diffuse cloud of hot anguish. Tears and soot ran down her cheeks, curlicues of smoke rising from her hair where careless sparks had singed. “A-and it was my fault, Roland!“
His arms wrapped around her, and he ignored the sting of the bits of careless magic leaking from her as she wept and burned. He closed his eyes, and accepted the pain, and she buried her face against his shoulder as tears took her again.
“He was a good man,” Roland said firmly, when Heather found her breath some minutes later. His hands settled on her shoulders. “And your son was a good boy. And that’s why we’re not going to replace them, Heather, or lose them to the past. And we’re never going to forget about them.”
Very gently, his hands encircled hers and opened them. From her hands, he took the locket, opened the chain, and fastened it around her neck.
“We’re going to make sure they’re always close to your heart, from now on. No matter where you go, or what you do.”
“Thank you…” Heather barely pulled the words from her constricting throat, hands coming up to cup the pendant to her heart. “Thank you.”
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