Ramdas and Adeeva parted at the door to the church kitchens with an amicable kiss, and a tousle of both his sons hair. Turned loose on one of the walled gardens in the little basilica, the boys set to their roughhousing with a will, whooping and shouting as they swung sticks and flailed limbs at each other in between sprints of tag. Ramdas stopped to watch for a few moments, leaning against the gate with a smile.
“Behave yourselves,” he called. “Mama will be by with lunch, kick a spell up the walls if you need her. No drawing blood, you two.”
It was probably a futile warning, but the boys pretended to heed their father just long enough for him to shut the gate and lock the outside bolt. A walled garden was no substitute for a few hectares of prairie to run through, but it would have to do until lunch time.
Ramdas made his way into the basilica, nodding acknowledgement to the salutes of passing Knights. A few hard eyes followed him in the wake of Brother Benson’s death, and the loss of a handful of good knights and squires in active service to their injuries. But there were fewer hard eyes than Ramdas had feared.
It took some effort for Ramdas to restrain his temper, and meet those hard stares with his own flat, steady eye until the offending knights looked away. He took count of how many hard looks and salutes he received, as he made his way through the barracks towards his office. It would help to know how many Knights and Squires blamed the filthy zentauro for the loss of their friends, or limbs.
More than I’d feared, but less than I expected, he thought.
Helga was waiting for him, at the door of his office. “Perry’s inside, Captain,” the dwarf said, drawing herself up straight. “Orders are you’re to see her first thing. How did the funeral for Benson go?”
“I was explicitly uninvited by the family, Stengrav. So I have respected their wishes. I will go pay my respects later today, after the funeral and Guiding is over.”
The dwarf reached up to give his arm a gentle squeeze. “People in pain lash out, dearie. There’s been some grumbling, but most of us stand with you. The rest, they just can’t see past species.”
Ramdas returned the gesture, bending down to give the dwarf’s arm a squeeze in return. “Aye. Thank you, Helga. You’re joining us for this meeting?”
“Not on your life!” Helga replied, shaking her head. “You’ll see why. Good luck, Captain.”
Ramdas watched, concerned, as Helga backed away and departed in haste. When he opened the door to his office, there was Persephone already inside, with a bundle at her feet. She shut a file she’d been reading, and rose to greet him.
Persephone seldom bothered with an official tone in the privacy of his office, and it made Ramdas tense up to hear it. He shut the door behind him, and without bothering to ask if it was necessary, drew a flow-key across the window with a flame conjured on the tip of his finger. The door locked itself, and then glimmered, lighting up with privacy and protection enchantments. They were the standard suite for an officer, plus some extras Greyson had personally ensured were installed as well.
Ramdas inclined his head towards Persephone. “Lieutenant Matthewson. How can I help you?”
Persephone set the file down on his desk. “This file is now read into Scrimshaw Spider, and is for your review, eyes-only, after this meeting. Please destroy it immediately after reading. Access key is earth-north, earth-north, fire-down, fire-clockwise. Two consecutive failures will result in countermeasures deploying. Three consecutive failures will trigger lethal countermeasures. Please repeat the flow key back.”
His jacket answered for him, the magic embroidered within it flaring to life, and seizing control of his jaw and tongue. Mechanically, his mouth moved for him, repeating back the key: “Earth-north, earth-north, fire-down, fire-clockwise. Scrimshaw Spider clearance confirmed.”
“Flow key transfer confirmed. Sorry, Captain. This is straight from the top, sir.”
Ramdas let out a grunt of helpless frustration, and worked his jaw as the runes in his jacket released control of his body. “Understood, Matthewson.” He flicked a spark of irritated flame off his fingers, into the hearth beyond. “Is this something to do with losing Benson?”
Persephone’s expression softened. “Of course not, Captain.” She picked up the bundle at her feet, and set it down carefully on his desk, then hesitated. “Greyson wants this issued to you. We’ve had it in reserve, awaiting confirmed contact with Scrimshaw Spider forces again. Well, now you’ve had it, so the reliquary is issuing it to you.”
“A relic?” Ramdas said, leaning forward in interest.
Persephone shook her head. “No, sir. A focus, for working magic through. We’ve had it here in the church for the last year, in case of Scrimshaw Spider activating again.” She drew a long, uncomfortable breath. “Captain, you’ve had basic field training. That included standard undead countermeasures and combat, right?”
“Ah, no, Lieutenant. I was too large to fit within the training catacombs. That is how I was able to talk my way into Duellist training, instead. My first combat with the undead, was with you, in Frostmoor.”
“Well, you know how the training works, right?”
“I confess I do not, Lieutenant, though I’ve heard some stories.”
“They’re live steel exercises. Real skeletons and corpses on chains, so they can be hauled back if they injure a squire. Controlled circumstances, of course. There’s doctors and healers immediately on hand, and veteran knights in case anything ever broke loose.”
“Sensible. This has something to do with that, then?” Ramdas asked, gesturing at the bundle.
Persephone grimaced. “Of a sort, sir. This is one of a few devices they use to ensure control over undead.”
She drew out a violin case from the bundle, and laid it down gently atop Ramdas’s desk. Ramdas’s eyes grew wide in delight, but as he reached for it, Persephone held up a hand to forestall him.
“The case is heavily warded, Captain, and before I open it, you need to know what you’re facing in here. This isn’t a focus like you’ve used before. To be honest, nobody in the Holy Engineers knows exactly what it is. There’s facts, and then there’s the fact of what’s inside, and…” she shivered. “Captain, what I’m trying to tell you is that I’m not doing you any favors, issuing you this thing. Greyson definitely isn’t.”
Ramdas gave her a solemn nod, though mild incredulity lingered in his tone.”It’s a violin, then. And it helps to control undead, yes?”
“That’s it’s function and form, Captain, but that isn’t what it is. Two centuries ago, a man named Luceo Bucepo went mad. He murdered all five of his children and a Circle minder in his fit of madness, and then employed necromancy on them all. There’d been a divorce, very acrimonious, and he’d had a history of erratic behavior before.”
Persephone drew a long breath, and then touched the runes on the case, unbinding locks and spells with care. “This is the violin he made of his infant son, Giomatti Bucepo.” She opened the case, and Ramdas recoiled.
The infant’s skull formed the head of the violin, the half-formed adult teeth still present behind the infant teeth in the skull. Many of the teeth had been used to form the tuning pegs and keys for the strings. The scoop of a shoulder blade formed the cheek-rests, and the body had been formed of the pelvis and ribs, carefully cut and laminated together. Gutstring ran from teeth to the base of the pelvis.
“What have you brought here?!” Ramdas choked, an entire cinder falling from his lips, spreading sparks and ash across the floor before it vanished. He recoiled backwards until his back legs hit the wall with a rattling thud.
“Something we think only you can use, sir. Something that could save lives, when we go up against Scrimshaw Spider again. We know that, at least at medium ranges, you can rip control of the undead from whoever’s raised them, using this.”
“And for that they haven’t destroyed it, and put the remains to decent rest?!” Ramdas shouted.
Persephone fixed Ramdas with a long look, one he’d never seen from her before. Pained, sympathetic, her disfigurement and scars unable to hide the misery of her admission: “It gets worse, sir.”
Ramdas looked between her and the violin. Something about her look reminded him of the cave they’d hid in while exiled from Frostmoor, when Persephone’s damage at the hands necromantic horror had been so complete, even her healing talents had seemed to fail her.
She’d had little more faculties than an infant, then. They’d all had to take turns changing her, turning her, feeding her. Hoping she’d recover. Things, back then, had always seemed to be getting worse.
Now they were again.
He straightened up, and stepped back towards the desk, and the violin. “Tell me, Persephone,” he said, his voice firm.
“He did something, when he created the violin. Nobody’s sure how, or what, exactly. That’s not unheard of when you’re dealing with madmen and magic; they end up working things together that only make sense to them. The holy engineers can’t figure it out and they won’t destroy it. Something’s inside it, Ramdas. A ghast, maybe, or an echo, or maybe his son’s soul, and we’re not sure. But if it gets damaged, it feels pain. It’s aware, in a way.”
Ramdas took stock of that. “And that’s why they won’t destroy it?”
Persephone nodded. “Yes. The outside experts who’ve had a look at it can’t figure it out either. Apparently it’s a totally unique form of necromancy, so far as they’ve ever seen.”
“The Church retains some necromancers on contract, sir, good people, usually recruited from mothers of of stillborn infants. They’re people who find they have the talent but only want to be on the right side of the law and decency. They maintain the undead used for training, and they consult in fighting things like Scrimshaw Spider, always from arm’s length. They’re tightly monitored, and most of them are so runebound against using that sort of magic that they couldn’t twitch a skeleton’s finger without the Church’s explicit permission. Most importantly, they’re volunteers. They come to us to help.”
Ramdas absorbed that. “So even they’ve had a look at this thing, and advised the holy engineers not to destroy it,” he concluded.
“Yes, sir. Most aren’t willing to even work with it, sir. After an incident, mothers of stillborn are now explicitly forbidden from contact with it. Touch it, sir. You need to know why.”
The centaur hesitantly raised a finger, and then laid it down atop the violin’s skull. It was merely lacquered bone under his fingertips, until he channeled a thread of his curiosity into it. The magic echoed, and then flows of enchantment not his own wrapped around that little thread.
Sensation flooded him, a primal, emotional hunger, a loneliness and longing too deep for humanity. The sound of a wailing infant filled his mind, wailing as the emotions within reached out for him, a flood of magic sympathetically weaving around his own.
Ramdas had held three newborn sons. He’d heard such wails from them, seeking their mother one at a time in the years between now and Frostmoor. The wails of a lonely infant, one that sought warmth, and safety, the touch of skin on skin.
He wasn’t even aware he’d touched the violin to his cheek, and raised the bow, until the first notes sung out. He opened his eyes in surprise, Persephone’s stark shock writ large across her face.
Ramdas met her stare, his eyes growing wet above a grim-set mouth. “I understand,” he whispered to her.
There is a child within these bones, he thought. Something that remembers being that infant. I know this cry. I know this need. I felt it every day as a child, this absence of mother or father.
The wailing in his mind quieted, a simple, animal discontentment fading and turning to comfort as he reached out in turn. He funneled more of his magic in, willing calm, willing the same compassion and kindness he tried every day to show his sons. His fingers began to glide along the strings, the bow in his hand sliding as thoughtless as breathing.
Be at peace, child, he thought, and magic moved within him, the echo of his own longing leaking out in sparks and flickers of flame on the back of his fingernails as he played.
He could feel the music reaching out, the magic it carried questing, trying to find something. Small tugs echoed from the graveyard, but the magic slid off of warded bones like water, leaving them untouched.
Trying to find others like it, he realized. But there’s no undead here.
He stopped playing, and then slowly set the violin back in the case. He kept his hand on it, maintaining the connection, raising his free hand to brush his cheeks dry.
“You did right to bring this to me, Persephone. Thank you,” he said.
Persephone shuddered. “I can’t bear it,” she admitted. “Take it. I hope I never ever see it again. I have to touch it, to maintain it, and…” she trailed off helplessly.
The centaur inclined his head. “You are not a mother,” he says. “And I’ve never heard or seen you give the slightest interest in becoming one. This is an infant, inside. To give this to a mother who has lost her own would be cruel beyond measure.”
“The only time, there was an incident,” Persephone said quietly. “Not a good one.”
“No, I don’t imagine it was. Instinct without discipline rules reason,” he said, with a wry, sad smile. “I know that lesson well.”
Persephone gestured to the violin case. “This is a very, very sensitive item, sir. It’s to remain locked and warded in your office at all times, or on your person. Not to be used except in cases of confirmed contact with undead, and even so, the expectation is you won’t reveal it to others or use it except in extreme circumstance.”
“Of course, Persephone, I would never do that.”
“Orders are orders, sir. And along with those orders: You are never, ever, to let Blackthorne know it exists. That’s a direct order from Greyson. Flow key authorization: time west, light north, water east, water north, fire counterclockwise,” Persephone said, motes of magic forming to obey as she spoke the key.
Ramdas made to protest that of course he would never be so cruel as to tell Heather. The runes embroidered around his jacket flared bright, acknowledging and imprinting the direct order, made his protest redundant. He wouldn’t tell her, and he had never had any say in the matter.
“Order acknowledged,” Ramdas said softly. “I won’t let Blackthorne know.”
“You should practice with it,” Persephone said, as she slid the file across his desk. “It helps to establish the bond.”
“Very well. I will. Thank you, Persephone.”
“Please don’t thank me, sir,” she said. “I’m just glad it’s out of my hands.”
He nodded, and raised the violin again, back to his cheek. As Persephone left the room, the sound of a sweet, sad funeral march cut off as she shut the warded door behind her.
The picnic basket in Heather’s hands felt like an anchor as she stepped into the graveyard.
As soon as Heather had told them where she was going, Roland and Neela had had one prepared.
“So you’ll have something to do while you’re there, besides mourn,” Roland had said, with a weighted look that told her to trust him on this. “So you can stay as long as you need to, and you don’t have to leave if you get hungry.”
“Think of it as having a picnic with their memories. It’s important that you have good memories of times at their grave too, Heather,” Neela had added, her green eyes searching Heather’s. “If you don’t, you won’t want to go back.”
I don’t want to have good memories of their grave, she’d thought to protest. I want to kick it over and erase it, so it isn’t real, so it never happened, and maybe I can wake up tomorrow and it will all have been the worst dream.
But the thought of saying that out loud in front of Roland, Neela, and her own mother, had been too much to bear. Neela had hugged her, and they’d sent Heather off before she could go to pieces or lose her nerve.
And now the gates of the graveyard were behind her, and her mother was walking a few steps ahead, lost in her own private world of grief and worry. Heather followed.
I don’t even know where their graves are, she thought, her shame falling as conjured ash from her fingers. I couldn’t come. I just couldn’t. If I see it now, it’s real. It’s real and it’s never going to be not real ever again.
As they neared the gravesite, Heather slowed, then stopped altogether. Her mother didn’t notice.
It’s already happened, Heather thought. It’s already real. I can’t put this off any longer. So why can’t I move? Mom’s right here, and Roland’s right, I don’t have to face this alone, and I’m not alone. Just a few more steps, Heather.
In desperation, she reached out and caught her mother’s hand, and squeezed hard.
“Help me,” she pleaded, her voice breaking. “Mama, help me.”
Marceline turned in surprise, and then her surprise softened into grief, and she enfolded her daughter in a brief, tight hug. “Come on, honey-clover. It’s alright. You take your time. Let me take the basket.”
Heather fumbled the picnic basket over, and then wiped at her face. Flickers of flame and soot started to jump from her in fits and starts, as the feelings welling up inside refused to quell. “Which way is it, mama?”
“Just down that row, west side of the yew tree,” Marceline said, as she gave her daughter’s hand a very gentle pull. “The double stone.”
It was her mother’s tug that moved her, that gave her the inertia to stumble forward, tears blinding her as she approached the stone.
I missed one. They’re dead because of me. Because I forgot one. One necromancer, one bone-robbing bastard who took my husband and son from me. Heather clenched her free hand, clenched it until flame licked at her palm, until sparks and fire both belched from her fingertips. She dripped ash and tears as she followed in her mother’s path.
If her daughter’s magic burned her palm, Marceline gave no indication, her face as fraught with grief as Heather’s. “There now,” she said gently, setting down the picnic basket behind the gravestone. “Come sit down with me, honey.”
Heather collapsed onto the ground, unable to tear her eyes away from the grave.
Their names. Dates. An epitaph in polished, gleaming marble: Loving Husband — Beloved Son.
That’s it? she thought bitterly. What about how Anthony used to climb all over everything he could get a grip on, no matter how many times he fell? Or how Stephen liked to hum while he stirred supper, when he made it? What about–
The last time she’d seen them alive, Stephen had kissed her goodbye, and Anthony had bounced until she’d crouched to enfold him in her arms, and kissed him too. They were going to see the conjurers dance that evening, her son all too eager to show someone, anyone, the little starry glass toys his father had taught him to conjure.
— everything that made them special.
Something broke inside of her, something new. She pressed her cheek to the soft, fragrant grass above the grave, flattened beneath the weight of grief she couldn’t hold up under. That fragment of her, trained to float above her emotions, roiled and tumbled like a duckling caught in the surf. There was no hope of staying upright, against the force of her ocean of grief.
An animal, keening sound wrenched itself from her throat, high-pitched and without dignity. The next breath carried a choked and broken sob.
I touched my son’s hair that morning. I kissed the stubble on my husband’s cheek. That was real. That was true. How could this ever be real?
Her fingers reached out, shaking and immolated, as her grief wrenched through her arm and skin, trailing ash and embers through the grass. Her fingertips left three dark, scorched smears on the pristine white stone.
I was screaming and burning iron when they made those stones. And they’re gone now. They’re gone and he murdered them, that son of a bitch murdered them, and I tell myself I want revenge or I want justice but I just want them back, and I would burn the world just to hold them one more time, please, Saints, Alektos, Divine. Please.
She curled around the knot of grief in her belly as if punched, only dimly aware of her mother’s hand rubbing circles on her back, or scattering the embers that threatened to choke her eyes and mouth.
I was so afraid of this, and I was right. It’s real and it can’t ever be unreal and I can’t live with this. This is worse than watching them get butchered. That meat can’t be my boy, it can’t be my husband.
They’re dead. And I’m never going to wake up and find out this was all some terrible dream.
Heather cried until her throat was hoarse and her eyes caked with the gummy mix of ash and tears. She cried until she’d scorched a long swath in the pristine grass, when hurt flashed through her hands, or flew from her lips once in a short, pained scream. She crawled up against the stone, pressed her cheek to it, curled into it hoping for one moment’s warmth and comfort to be found in cold marble.
The sun moved across the sky, and she cried. She came back to herself, in time, her back pressed against the back of the stone. She stared up at a sky that remained insensitively blue, laced with fine white clouds, and the promise of a kindly spring day. It was cool in the shade of the stone and the yew tree. Her mother passed her a bottle of wine from the basket, and a sandwich, and without a word Heather ate, and then drank half the bottle of light white wine in desperate swallows. Then she turned back against the stone to weep again.
The second time Heather came back to herself, she was in the shade of the yew tree, it’s rough bark a comfort against her back. It was her mother’s turn to weep, though she did so in dignified silence, standing over the stone. Staring at the grave of the only child of her only daughter.
How many times has she been here? Probably every time she could get away. With a daughter who wouldn’t see her, all she had for family was this stone. That’s all the comfort she had.
The thought made her sick with shame, and she searched the basket for the bottle of wine, only to find at some point in her weeping, she’d drained the rest. Cold tea was all that was left, and with shaking hands she poured two cups, and a touch of her finger and a rush of her shame sent the tea boiling in the cups.
Her mother sat down a few minutes later, cross-legged in the grass, facing Heather.
“What were you thinking, honey? You looked so angry.”
Heather stared down at the teacup in her hand. “Nothing, mama. Just the words on the stone. That it’s all anyone who sees it will know about them, and it’s barely anything at all. Not even the important things. And it’s so unfair, mama.”
Her mother accepted the cup of tea Heather passed her, and then rested her free hand gently on Heather’s knee. “Heather, do you remember after your father passed. Do you remember his wake, and how many people came?”
Heather nodded. “Yes. I don’t think I’d ever met half of them before. There was a lot.”
“Most of them were from your father’s circuits, people he’d helped get a second chance. People he’d arrested, or otherwise given them the shove they needed into a decent and proper life. Some of them still begrudged him that. But they came, because he mattered to them.”
Her mother’s hand tightened gently on Heather’s knee. “All that’s on his gravestone is a few words, Heather. But his grave isn’t where the memories are. I remember the man I loved, and you remember your father. Everyone who knew your husband and my grandson, they don’t need words on a stone to remember. They remember.”
Heather looked away, and the next words barely bled past her lips, so softly did she speak: “I’m sorry, mama, that you had to come here alone, before.”
Her mother’s pain and anger glinted hard in her eye, but she nodded in return, and patted Heather’s knee. “I’m going to be sore about that for a while yet, Heather. But it’s okay, honey. You made it here. You’re still alive.”
Barely, sometimes, Heather thought, burying her face in her hands.
“I can’t count how many days I’d wished I wasn’t, mama,” she sobbed. “I can’t count them. There were so many days. There still are. And I–” she fought to suck in another breath, and then scrubbed at her face furiously with her sleeves. “– I’m so sick of feeling that way, mama. But I promised them I wouldn’t…”
Heather’s eyes snapped up at her mother’s hard tone, a prickling, incandescent anger that shook the air around her despite the deceptively quiet volume her mother had chosen to use.
“Mama, I can’t–“
Her mother grabbed her forearm with the strength of a ranching woman’s grip, and Heather stifled a cry.
“You can promise your dead husband and son? Then you can promise me. Your living mother, who has to face this world with nothing left in her life and family but distant relations and exactly one child in this world, one child I got to carry and hold and nurse in all the Saint’s mercy and kindness. So you promise me, Heather Yvonne Blackthorne. That you will put those thoughts out of your head and never, ever, give them one more moment’s thought.”
Heather recoiled, feeling every inch a scolded child, knee-high, in the face of her mother’s angry eyes. “I promise!” she blurted, and then, after another breath, she lifted her chin, and recentered herself.
“I promise, mama.”
And then it was her mother’s turn to cry.
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