Chapter VI:12

Yaerdwyrm, yaerdwyrm, measuring an ash root,
how long be the tap, of a guardsman’s boot,
yaerdwyrm, oh yaerdwyrm, how beautiful afar,
there count out the beats, cautious you are,
yaerdwyrm, yaerdwyrm, oh wound round the base,
twice seven ‘n six, five ‘n six, less five ‘n eight,
oh wait, oh wait, ‘n hope not to be late.

– The Spider and the Looking Glass, 425 E.R.

Upon a Clockwork Sky

Katrisha stood in an archway, and watched Mayari walk out into a city etched from stone. “Well, what do you think?”

Etore stepped up behind her. “I think, I want to think about it.”

Katrisha turned on a heel. “So, think out loud.”

“Not that it might matter, since she knew you had asked me here, but, perhaps somewhere more private?”

Katrisha looked up. “I saw stairs up to the… roof, hill top, whatever you want to call it.” She started right around the corridor, but stopped, and looked around.

“We haven’t come in this side,” Etore chided, but Katrisha continued on with a huff.

A dozen steps on they found a narrow stair, not more than a foot wide up the wall. Easy to mistake for decoration, most covered in grass, or hanging moss.

“There’s more than one,” Katrisha answered an accusing glare. “It’s a pattern. Twelve of them, it goes down the other side. That’s why I went the wrong way, I’d seen them on both sides as we entered.”

“Of course it is.” Etore rubbed her face, and followed up. Each took care along a narrow climb. It seemed more decoration by the moment, or at least intended for rare service access. An obtuse thought, given no one had built it, but someone had built what cast the shadow.

The stairs lead up out of the hillside, where grass, and trees still grew. The roof of a grand throne room, with an orrery, all etched from the rock. Holes that had cast sunbeams in the day, were peered into with caution. Katrisha checked the grass beside one, flopped down, and stared up.

Etore glared at her manner, incredulous.

“Come on, tell me what you think. You, who trusts no one, and least of all yourself. Do we trust these women? These… mirrors, who all to clearly have ulterior motives. Do nothing to refute them. A clever way to build trust, the very sort you might use. Make the angles plain, and at least people feel like they know where they stand in your company.”

Etore sat nearby, and stared out over moonlit seas far below. “You want the angles plain? Fine. Can I be trusted?”

“You don’t mean that as a vote in favor, so much as a barb, do you? I’m just not sure at whose expense.”

“Can’t it be both?” Etore sighed. “I could almost doubt this is the woman I knew, but she doesn’t deny a thing I remember. How much is on me?”

“How much of what?” Katrisha pressed with a cautious tone. “Wren asked if this was ‘her,’ as if he had reason to know. We’ve been staring at the obvious problems, not yours.”

“It’s nothing.” Etore was more flustered than Katrisha could ever recall seeing her.

“You, are not one to stew so about nothing.”

“Nothing. Nothing, untoward that’s what polite society would say. Oh, she kissed my cheek, and patted it. Hugged me, and looked at me with such… something. Stared into my eyes. She knew… the things I felt. I never told her, no, she told me they were there, and took advantage, to have me do her dirty work. Even told me she was doing it.”

“She told you?”

“How you say I earn trust, telling harsh truths, just the right way.” Etore closed her eyes. “When I met your brother, I thought he was like her. Our little bird though, he doesn’t try to make people want him, he’s just want-able. I thought for the longest while, he was trying to make me his, but he kept being so understanding. Trying to let me walk away, make the other choice. Being far too innocent, to willfully naive, to warp another to his will. He hesitates still, to use a power that can so easily solve problems. Values others, even enemies, to live their lives.”

“Maybe, he learned the hard way,” Katrisha offered. “How much of it all is shadows? These doubts that plague us.”

It had been rhetorical, but Etore answered any way. “In our lives, probably all of it. I am, the Shadow Rose, after all.” She groaned, and flopped back herself in the grass. “I can’t believe I actually spouted that grandiose garbage. Like, I wanted her to be proud of me. That horrible woman. Fates, I love her, and want to murder her. What even is that emotion?”

“Was she horrible to you?” Katrisha asked.

“No. She just… was horrible. She took a liking to me, and I saw what became of those she took a liking too… and yet… For me, it always seemed to work out. At least until it didn’t, for any of us.”

“There was something dark between Kiannae, and Estae.” Katrisha’s tone was sympathetic, but did not land well.

“Oh, really, never would have guessed.” Etore’s sneer was as snide as her words.

“Sorry, just… She doesn’t talk about it much, and I think, with what you describe… how you seem as tied to all this as any of us. Imagine every path. Perhaps, even the darkest ways that could bind two people. I’ve not had the stomach to raise the thought. She’s been through enough, and I’m afraid this is all my fault.”

“If it was, you,” Etore challenged. “I’ve listened to your arguments. You missed me mocking you, for how easy the two of you are to confuse. Just have to close my eyes, and could mistake you two for a very moody woman. Arguing with herself, while going up and down a step ladder. Fates, I know what that looks like.” She muttered. “You just wear different mask over your sulking, bleeding hearts. I’ve seen that shadow, that is not quite either of you. Skunk stripe, with gold, a few inches too short.”

“When?” Katrisha rolled over, and propped herself up. “Also, you can see it’s gold?”

Etore laughed. “I would know gold in any shadow, moon girl. You think, with both my little bird, and you trying to find that fool twin of yours… That was a stupid kind of clever, trying to fight the schemes of gods, with twine. You think I didn’t go snooping? Not that I believed in gods yet. I wanted to prove, I could do something you couldn’t. I did. I got through, and ignored the ghost. Didn’t find her though, even following her thread.”

“You didn’t lose time though?”

“No… I didn’t even think of that till now. I should have, shouldn’t I? A lot of stepping through shadow, I suppose. I took one look at that madness, and never turned back. That fool boy of hers, embroiled in those frightful women. They felt like her. She’s right. That pretty hag, is right. I snooped first. I looked where I had no right. I always do, I always get curious the fool things people get up to.”

“And she pressed the advantage?” Katrisha asked.

“In a way, as I said. I see now, what back then I didn’t understand. I wanted what they had. To be as free, and powerful as her. I was… jealous, of how he turned to her. How he would do anything for her… died for her, in the end. A woman with the world pulled around her, like puppets on strings. I didn’t feel that way for him… I was still jealous. Yet can I deny the possibility, I’ve misjudged her? I don’t hate whores, or dancers, or women who do what they have to, to live. So why, do I hate her? For teaching them the skills, to live a better life than the street?”

“You’re better than her,” Katrisha offered.

“However so? I’m cold, snide, ruthless to get what I want, but not near so good at it, as her.”

“How many nights did she spend in a loft, a roof, or on the street?” Katrisha countered.

“Oh poor me, my destitution is now my saving grace? How trite, and worthless.” Etore rubbed her brow.

“Do you suppose her coin found its way into more cups?” Katrisha tried.

“Not a great many, for she was the one money was thrown to, and she had better ways than cups. Houses, with ‘trainers.’ They were all there willingly. It was better than the street, and I did see some of them find their way into courts. Servants with benefits, or some, like Ladies, courted for their attentions. More easily won, but costly. It wasn’t right, it wasn’t really a choice, even if it was an improvement, but I wonder, could she have done better? Would she have even seen a better life, in struggling on some farm, somewhere far from the city? Would I? Would she have had the power to do as she did, some other way?”

“Which of you… risked more for their coin?” Katrisha tried almost defeated in her arguments.

“The whore, or the thief?” Etore huffed. “Nice try. You tell me. Is being what she became worth whatever she gained? She could have been a proper lady, walked the courts freely, head held high, and yet… she did. A pride untarnished by any man who had her, or leered at her. I suppose, I missed the true cost. How low the world had placed her. If what she says is true, if…” Etore shook her head, and closed her eyes tight.

“It wouldn’t excuse, if she hurt innocent people.”

“That’s not what she did. I always thought she didn’t care who got hurt, and maybe she didn’t. Because, they were going to get hurt anyway. She said as much, and I found it so easy to see it her way. She taught me. All the things I… mistook, for insinuations and manipulations, were they? Did she try to twist me around her little finger, or my own? Just show me, what I could expect from the world, as best she could. Taking the place of the mothers I lost, twice. Lecturing like a wise old sage, about the filthiest things. I didn’t listen to her words, I watched her lips. I didn’t pay attention to what she said, just how she felt, but maybe, that was all she knew how to be.”

Katrisha let out a long breath of frustration, and stared up at the sky.

“I’m not sure I’m better than her. No. Even if we are to judge by our misfortunes, our skills, or who we’ve hurt. Not even our… generosity, or how hard pilfered gains. Because if she enjoyed her work… well, so did I. I’m not sure, if I’ve just been blaming her all these years, for how the capital was. Did she build that den of vipers, or learn not only to survive, but thrive, and teach others to do the same? So, I ask again. Can I be trusted? Are you sure, who best would sit upon the throne of Osyrae?”

“Oh, I’m quite sure of that. I just didn’t say it was either of you.”

This earned Katrisha a sharp look.

“Remember, Amalia was the bastard, the sister, was born in wedlock.”

“Cheeky.” Etore sat up, and wrung her hands. “I’d fault you for that, but it’s well-earned, so… It would almost be worth it, to watch the land and woman chafe against each other. I still have the better claim, than either of them. It’ll matter, learn from the Emperor on that. The bargains he made, to hold together his ‘liberated’ homeland. Slaves to freedom, he made the lords, and vassals. It was funny, when I saw it that way.”

“Aren’t these exactly the sort of bargains he made?” Katrisha pressed. “Also, how do you always seem to know so much about history?”

Etore laughed. “I didn’t have a lot as a small child, before it all went worse, but I had books. Tattered and worn, soiled and worth so little as a book can be, but they were mine. The gifts that woman I once called mother brought home. I left them all behind, and her with them.” She wiped away a tear. “It’s one of the reasons… I think… It’s not what you wanted to know, but I think it meant so much to me, that I let the fool have his victory. Distorted as they are, all those books, are about me. Me. Stupid little girl from the lanes, that always thought she was better.”

“They were distorted, though,” Katrisha obliged.

Etore laughed again, and flopped back. “I’ve read three different books about the Emperor, and the founding of his great nation. They all told the same tale, a little different. Somethings, not so little, if you looked at them carefully. They’ll never get it exactly right. There are always secrets we take to our graves, and leave others to piece together. Their own story, of what really happened. At least Myrn’s lies, and foolish words flatter. I was flattered, however angry, and I think the bastard knew I would be. He told me, and I didn’t believe it. He told me he was going to do it, roundabout. I just thought he was buttering me up for an evening. That someone like me, would have a great deal written about them.”

“I wonder what they’ll write about me?” Katrisha mused. “Other than they did long ago. Presuming anyone lives to do the writing. Probably won’t be very flattering.”

“Oh, I don’t know. They might sing of all your conquests,” Etore teased. “Forty-nine, counting yourself, if I heard that right?”

Katrisha’s cheeks went a bit dark in the moonlight.

Etore chuckled. “They already sing of you two, and the dragon. I’d heard it once, before I met either of you. Paid it no mind. Heard it twice since, haven’t you noticed?”

“No,” Katrisha sat up, and stared down at her.

“Well, don’t look at me, I’m not much of a singer,” Etore protested.

“Spoil sport,” Katrisha said, and looked out over a moonlit sea.

“I also don’t remember all of it,” Etore protested further. “Terribly long.”

“I thought you were good and remembering things,” Katrisha cut back. “Well, except for names, you don’t seem to like those very much.”

Etore stared up at the moon, rolled her eyes, and sighed as she remembered the opening. “Fine, but I swear, you tell anyone I sang, and… I don’t know, something unpleasant, I promise.”

“On my honor,” Katrisha swore.

Etore took a breath.

O’ Laeune twas a ghostly watcher,
high ‘bove the rolling moor,
an’ two riders there were a riding,
come to the mountains’ door,

twice a bonny a lass twere these,
raven hair blown long at the back,
emerald eyes bright and shining,
a shining,
long a pale an’ winding path,

up a road but a river of moonlight,
run down from the mountains’ hall,
polished stones brightly lining,
where waters once had flowed,

an’ on in the night they pressed,
where few before dared tread,
unflinching from their fate,
when the wise should surely dread,

“Huh,” Katrisha obliged.

“I told you, I’m not a singer.”

“No, you were fine. Just, I guess… I didn’t know what I expected. Do you remember anymore?”

“Yes,” Etore grumbled. “Repetitions of the chorus aside, it goes on, and on…”

“Humor me? If everything is folly, let’s have some folly.”

Etore sighed.

lasses proud an’ fair twere these,
their mirror e’er at hand,
O’ suitors were to come a courting,
a courting,
yet not a one they’d had,

for the first to come to calling,
bore an old black book in hand,
oh Fate twas a courtly caller,
who wanted more than lands,

that to claim a twin that night,
was a story long foretold,
in a mentor’s foolish wisdom,
forgotten long before,

Katrisha looked quite bothered. “An old black book in hand?”

“Yeah, you know the one.” Etore gave a dismissive wave. “Seen your nose in it enough times, even if our copy is white.”

Katrisha grimaced to remember her first encounter with an old priest. The book Idolus had dropped, that she would come to know far too well. The looks he had given her over the years. When she had handed the book back, or he had healed her after the mountain. She’d thought it untoward, but she’d plenty of wantful looks since. As she recalled, it was something else, far less pleasant.

“We done, or did you want to hear more?” Etore interrupted her fretting for the implications. “The next bit is kind of funny.”

“Sorry. I just I didn’t know people knew that was why we were fool enough to do it.” A cover, for the woman beside her had hired by that very man. She tried to convince herself it was just a song. That such details could not have entered into it. “We had willfully forgotten, though I remembered on the way up, and her, as she ran away. What’s the rest you recall?”

Etore pursed her lips. She looked suspicious, but took a breath.

down midst a midnight hollow,
shining scales glinted slow,
a dragon slumbered sweetly,
so sweetly,
heavy breaths far below,

at last two crept most quietly,
up close to the riven cleft,
there into darkness peered,
where others would have left,

an’ half or more too bold,
a girl shed her fool robe,
if a sister chided quietly,
O’ only two would know,

Katrisha bit her lip, and laughed. There were perhaps no coincidences, but it was best not to read the wrong ones. “She gave me a look alright, or two. Wasn’t fool enough to say anything, with that dragon down there, that we had just woken up. I had my reasons, I think, you’ve heard us argue about why. It’s still embarrassing, just a little, but I guess I’m proud of that.”

Etore sat back up, and stared out to sea. She huffed. “Embarrassing. I suppose it should be, but then, I’ve seen the dragon you fought.”

“You have?” Katrisha was startled from other considerations.

“I was there, the whole damn city was there, when they dragged it up to the capitol gates, and locked it in mage-iron. I’d never seen a dragon before, didn’t think they were that big. Certainly, never thought I’d feel sorry for one.”

Katrisha looked away.

“I’ve killed less dangerous, and more pitiful things, for reasons less honorable, than I gather you had. So don’t you be like that. Pride, it’s that, or eternal embarrassment, that you fought a dragon naked, and lived.”

“Barely,” Katrisha deflected.

“Oh, that’s better than a few dozen of Vharen’s fools could say. Ones he sent off to thin the herd, and capture the beast in the first place. With armor, and enchantments, and decades on you, and your sister. A lot better, than they can say, because can’t say a word.”

“She had children,” Katrisha said rejecting the premise. “Eggs, rather, it turned out. A few, were crushed in the fighting, but those that survived…”

“What?” Etore pressed.

Katrisha shook her head. “Kiannae met them. Dragonborn, all three of them. Against all the odds, that. Though not so much as to hear they thanked her most emphatically, for her role in killing their mother. Because they most likely would not be alive otherwise. After everything, that’s still the most backwards thing I ever did hear. I don’t think I could even look them in the eye. It was Laurel, who did the deed in the end, I just hurt it… her, over, and over. In the heat of it, adrenaline burning, shadows of failures pushed aside… I was elated, and I’m proud of the foolishness, but… not that. I’d rather be remembered as the fool.”

“I’ve told you,” Etore said with a thing grimace, “about the first man I killed. I got to see the blood spattered horror, of his daughter, looking at me, like I would kill her next. When I had saved her. Of course, she was already in rough shape. I can’t blame her. I killed him, because he seemed damn well intent to kill her, and if not that, his threats off worse. Just be glad the children you saved, didn’t have to see their monstrous parent die. I doubt she’d thank me, even today, if she’s still alive, and I don’t care. Because she might still be alive, and less marred.”

Katrisha put her hand on Etore’s shoulder.

“I’ve seen you, Katrisha Ahshton. I know the woman you are. You try, and try, not to be the hand of death, but you will run out of options. You will choose a fight, and I pity the enemy, that pushes you to war.”

“Maybe no one ever will.”

Etore hummed a dismissive tone. “You promised me a throne, and I think you are a woman of your word. You made it half in jest, but Osyrae, my uncle, and all his monsters, will bring war. If there is a way, for these women to help us stop that… If they are who they make themselves out to be…”

“Then… they are our best hope,” Katrisha obliged. “It’s why I am asking you what you think. The Council is feckless, even Amalia saw that, sitting atop her throne or archmage.”

“I don’t trust this Mayari, more than any of them, but she is the General’s daughter. She might even be a path to bring the fractured Flight in line. More, to stop their infighting, and deal with the feral. A woman, to placate the Queen, a daughter, to quell the General. We’ve made far more foolish choices, than cautiously trusting this, so far as it goes. After all, trust need not enter into it. They already have us.”

“So what?” Katrisha asked.

“Do you know,” Etore said, and grew very stiff. “Do you know, when I fell in love with that fool brother of yours?”

“When?” Katrisha asked, not sure of the relevance.

“I saw it was a trap, and I didn’t care. He offered me a choice, in or out, and I didn’t want to choose, so he walked away. It’s still a trap, when one walks into something with their eyes so tightly shut, because you’ve already seen. He let me go. He left it on me, and made me choose, to give my word, and mean it. Such as it’s worth. To be near him, when I could see myself losing everything, in him.”

“So,” Katrisha said, unnerved by the intensity, and how it mirrored her own troubles. She moved on to the implication behind it. “If they have us, we ask them to let us go? Prove their intentions.”

“It would not make the top ten of fool plans I’ve seen you try, playing this noble hero. We either get out, or we start fighting, until they press their luck. Hope this godhood nonsense is worth what he says. I glimpsed it, when skunk girl and the arch-assassin went at it. Her staff in hand, even though she left it at the edge of the forest. We either leave here with allies, that we will desperately need, or we burn these enemies, to the ground.”

Katrisha looked out towards the horizon herself. “So you really do love him?”

“Fates, that’s where you go in all this?”

“The rest was obvious,” Katrisha teased, and glanced towards her.

Etore shook her head. “I’d hope it’s love. That I’m not putting myself through all this… for a good lay. Which, I couldn’t deny, he might be worth, even so.”

Katrisha snorted, and then covered her mouth a bit embarrassed.

“I’m not sure a good number of people would be alive, if I wasn’t with him.” Etore challenged the humor. “I don’t feel bad about that exactly, not even to think such might be the real, me. I’m ok with that. I think, it’s something better in him. Because I saw, at a young age, there are some that are not worth the risk, but maybe, I’m wrong. Maybe Laset, is right. Maybe, just maybe, there is a chance for a lot more, but not all. I’ve seen you wrestle with that, I recognize it, because I’m coming back the other way. There might be more worthwhile fools, than it seems. I think, I hate that cursed woman, because I’m not sure about her, or me. Because I know how dangerous she would be, if she turns to the wrong path, and I’m not so sure she hasn’t, but I’m biased.”

“The bias of knowing someone, is… not the worst,” Katrisha obliged.

“There is knowing, and there is thinking you know. I thought I knew your brother, but he always surprises. Offered me an out again, after Corinthia. That he wouldn’t hold me to my word. Might as well have been the ground, suggesting flying, after you’ve already jumped off the ledge.”

“Well, he did fly.”

Etore pursed her lips. “I heard you say it’s all a shell game, back somewhere on the road. Chiding your sister, like you’re the smart one. You mages are always so gullible to the simplest sleight of hand. It’s not magic, and you underestimate, everything, that’s not magic.”

“Are you trying to tell me the obvious?” Katrisha asked. “Because he seemed most intent, to hide it from you.”

“Oh, do you mean when I opened a door, twice? After that staff of his made a hole in a wagon. That I could damn well hear everything, but only… just remember… something. That wasn’t him. I’m sure of it, because I’ve seen him. I’m not sure it even happened, not in this world. Look at the memory.”

Katrisha looked confused.

“Do it, really look at it it, not just try to remember, or do you not have it stored in that staff of yours?”

Katrisha glanced to the crystal of her staff, lain in the grass beside her. She reached over, and rand her fingers along it. She closed her eyes, and looked perplexed. “It’s just a gap. Yeah, it was fight or flight, tripped it on instinct. I saw all the possibilities. All the potentials, all the pasts, or rather, one, that outshone them all, until I shook it off.”

“They look different,” Etore said. “Maybe it’s because I’ve stepped through shadow so much, but memories that don’t belong to this life, they are grayer, vaguer. Like stories you’ve read. The actual loops have a certain… color to them, texture, meaning. You remember what you feel about it, not how you feel remembering it. It can be hard to tell apart, but does it… actually have a feeling?”

“Not about him,” Katrisha admited. “No. It was… more about me. Pieces, of a me that still had a plan. I think, it was a cheat, this whole time, I thought it was a warning, about him, but maybe that was, only a side effect. I was telling myself about me. Not about him. The little bits, that I still remember.”

“What do you remember?” Etore pressed.

“Another world,” Katrisha answered. “Pieces. I didn’t have a sister, but I had… a Sister, though she was probably a cousin, or aunt. A woman I looked up to, at any rate. Half-sylvan, daughter of a fugitive from Osyrae. A woman of the Red, so hardly her, in any sense. I’ve been remembering more, and more, but it all seems meaningless. Like a story, I read once. I should know, I read a lot. I always read a lot. I was a bookworm. Perhaps… I’m a ‘book-wyrm.’” She laughed. “Have you ever looked closely at me in shadow? It worries me, that I can get there so easy, but so do you, without the training. Maybe there are other ways. Maybe, it’s just what I am.”

“I’ve seen no dragons lurking in your shadow, no,” Etore answered. “I thought there were other ways. Maybe there are, maybe you get close enough, and other things can bring you there. I thought I learned, it some other way, but I think, I got it the usual after all. Looking back on it, knowing what I know now.”

“You did?” Katrisha demanded. “I don’t understand, you always implied…”

“It’s not what you think,” Etore shook her head. “Mine was an accident.”

“How do you do that, by accident?” Katrisha demanded, aghast.

“Have you not been listening, you silly cat? No, it’s not what you think, at all. There is one way, but perhaps many paths to it.”

Katrisha pursed her lips, not sure what to make of the good humor in such dark subjects.

“I was trained, by wanting,” Etore stressed. “Skipped right to the end. The years of denial, and self-sacrifice they instill in them. To sublimate what they want, in part, that they want more of the wanting. A cheat of sorts, but perhaps, what the assassins do, is the cheat.” The good humor faded. “I’ve watched the usual way. I’ve seen what they do, what they made of a woman, barely more than a girl, and I thought it so… humiliating, but she didn’t seem to. Not really. They warp the mind, to not see it so. I’ve looked in their eyes, as that cursed book describes, and seen a light made of hunger. I understand why I hate her, because I can’t trust her intentions. I can’t trust, that she didn’t make me want her. Because she did, even if just by existing, and I think, that look, is what I see in her. Hunger.”

“So, we’re both Saou, in our roundabout way?” Katrisha offered with thin humor, distracting from the dire tone.

“No, I’m an Assassin, you’er the Courtesan.” Etore huffed.

“Self taught, probably the best way.” Katrisha bit her lip. “Not that there are no passages, in that vile thing to turn a girl’s loins, a bit. It does explain the great weakness of all flesh. We want desire, more than we want relief. Even the Red Book is plain in this, but did not show the work. That’s what you imply, right?”

“Self taught indeed.” Etore shook her head.

Katrisha closed her eyes. “I think I did, as it were.”

“Eww, now you’re just getting mean, don’t make me picture that.”

“Oh Fates, that’s your problem, of everything? Me, by myself? You know it was hot.”

“I doubt it very much. I’ve stumbled upon such… makes me self-conscious about myself, how stupid I must look. Then again, you’ve probably got practice putting on a show, unlike most ladies.”

“That’s really not the point,” Katrisha warned, “and now, you are just trying to get me back.”

“It’s a bit different… given I’m sure you like the thought. I just feel a bit uncomfortable.”

“In which way?” Katrisha teased, and shook her head. “No. No. My point — sorry — my point. Mayari said I miscounted. Implied I needed to count myself, as you heard. She was telling me more than the obvious, not just the number. There were moments… I wanted Celia there. Someone there, so much. I clung to wanting her, to wanting only her, and I could have her. I felt bad, without her, but I wanted more, and she cursed asked me, to be looking for opportunities. To not be alone. There were times, the world seemed more gray, the only color a moment in memory. With her. Fates. No wonder.”

“What?” Etore asked, weary it seemed in many ways.

“I remember so little, outside of this world, because I’ve been committing this, world, to memory, as well as I can. I only remember books from others, or moments with those I love. I’ve been cheating, all along. Clinging to every memory of every world with them. In those moments, we are together, we know each other. I wrote me, in the world, and the world in me. That’s what all the messages mean. The best place to hide a god, is right where everyone wants to dismiss. A place too obvious.”

“So, you, or him?” Etore pressed.

“Maybe. Ki still does bleed gold. You didn’t have to tell them that, by the way. We have no idea how much they might want something like that. It’s probably more potent than mage blood, after all.”

“Hey, my loyalty is still with you. You, have agreed to pay me.” Etore smirked. “So, if there was a chance they’d go for you, miss bleeds something, worth more-than-gold.”

“It’s not actually gold, or silver though. It also has become that saturated.” Katrisha shook her head. “I’m afraid if I actually get a cut, it will just poor out silver. It was never this bad at the depths of my illness. I don’t know how I am staying coherent. I shouldn’t be. They say mageblood alone can’t kill you. They say this, but I’m not sure it makes sense. There is a health decline, but it slows. Multiple projections imply it levels out, but past that… Well, there are split opinions. One, is that it actually becomes healthful. Above a certain concentration, that could never be tested… Not even if someone were fool enough to try. There’s never been enough. Not to reach a plateau, let alone hypothetical gains.”

“The other possibility?” Etore asked.

“Organ failure, cellular break down. The problem is, it has both an entropic, and anti-entropic field. An oscillation, long, and short. One of the places that makes people theorize that such a famous fractum, has deeper meaning. Some say past a point, you die, but no one is sure. I’m past that point. I’m miles past that point. I’d spend all day, every day, trying to keep up with it. It does seem to reach a stable level, but I’d need to start using jars, and not vials to hold it. I think it is actually most of my blood volume, and I think it actually is blood, or was. I think it’s fully degenerate matter. Pretends to still be blood, to do the job. A logical extension of trait theory that implies gift is carried by filaments playing the role. It becomes nothing outside. A nothing, waiting to be something. Valuable, and potent to enchanters, because it is liquid gift.”

“You don’t look all that much brighter,” Etore countered.

“Are you sure?” Katrisha asked. “Have you considered my aura might be so big, you miss it. Wren’s is. I’ve seen when he pulls it close enough. You can see it, when he is trying to reserve himself. It feels stronger, because it’s like being tossed out in the cold. You were right, he is a trap, and I think, so am I.”

Etore laughed. A funny look crossed her lips, like understanding that turned more shrewd. “Well, that explains why I like skunk stripe better, I prefer gold to silver.”

Katrisha laughed, and gestured with a comical twirl of the hand. “Maybe that’s why Liora likes her better, too. The sun, not the moon.”

“Oh, no, she doesn’t,” Etore said thin lipped. “I don’t think that girl likes anyone, but if she does, it’s you, and she hates it. Because if she says that look, you give her, is wanting, to not want someone, it’s the one she gives you. I think doesn’t even know it, but maybe its why she can stand… Kiannae, more.”

Katrisha rubbed her face. “Why does everything have to be about that woman? She’s a pretty sort, I’ll admit. An interesting, and frankly horrible story. There’s something noble in her, but why, must you all persist that there should be something between us?”

“Not being blind,” Etore chided. “You want to save her, and the only thing stopping you, is she doesn’t want to be saved. There are things so wonderful in this world, that she is denied, by faith, nature, or both. Circumstances. Fates, I could see the advantage of not wanting anyone, the safety of it. I wouldn’t want, to not want anyone though. I’m not sure what I’d live for then. Not even gold, any jokes aside. Gold, is just what gets you to the things you want. Thing is, I think she feels the same in reverse. She doesn’t want these things we value, not gold, not men, not women. She wants ascension. I think that really does, let one know where they stand with her.”

“So you don’t think she wants me then? Make up your mind, are you saying I should chase after a bloody paladin, or not? Let me stress bloody, she’s got some unnecessary blood on her hands… well… maybe necessary, some of them. Not all.”

“Some of us prefer not to take chances,” Etore snapped. “Where you draw that line, that is the question, mine is shifting. You’ve moved that line, I think, for her as well. She’s already chosen you, over her faith. I’m sure of it, because, I think some times, her real faith is in honor, and she’s made a pact, with you. She’s the sort who needs someone to look up to. I figure it’s either going to be you, or Dahlia.”

“Dahlia?” Katrisha balked at the very notion.

“I’ve almost gotten over the jealousy, but only by thinking of the cursed creature as his daughter, not his pet. She’s something born of powers, we do not understand, not even you, I’ve gathered.”

“She’s already with someone,” Katrisha deflected.

“I really don’t think they work that way. All things considered. I also, don’t expect these would be warriors, you are trying to train, to give up having children. Just because they can believe they are worth more… It won’t mean they will believe, having children is worth less. Some damn fools, we know of, have chosen death, for the sake of their children. Maybe living, is harder, but I think, I’ll always choose living. So I don’t want children, because I don’t want to be that fool. Even if, I already am.”

“You don’t mean?”

Etore huffed. “No, I mean you lot. I’ve turned back, more times than you all know. Every time I slip away, to try and rescue you fools, I think about… not. I think about running until I hit the sea, but now, now… I’m afraid of the abyss bound seas. So, I think I’ll choose you, and your family, because the world is a frightening place, and I’ll have your back, if you’ll have mine. Family, whatever the legalities, I trust you to pay me — not just in money — but I do expect what I’m owed.”

“I could see having fallen in love with you,” Katrisha offered. “Not just the ghosts, of worlds that probably were. I think I get it. You make bad look good. Wear your willingness to look out for yourself, as a badge of honor.”

“It’s what my kind do,” Etore stressed. “So, I say again — Can I be trusted?”

“Until you can’t. I seem to be in need of allies, the way things go. We can’t keep making enemies, we don’t have to. So, we’ll take a risk. After all, they have us, and my brother is in love with you, and Taloe… is as much part of Kiannae, as whatever is left of Estae. Whatever she left as a ‘gift,’ to one she loved. To one, she would die for.”

Etore suddenly looked far more shrewd. “There’s another contender.”

“For what?” Katrisha asked.

“Blondie,” Etore grumbled. “Laset, promises ascension, but her path is at once of, and without the flesh. She may intend, to seduce Liora, whether or not she wants it. A price, she might pay. Someone to worship, who can give her what she desires. If fleeing pleasure, is a price worth ascension, wouldn’t accept it, be at least so tolerable?”

“So we don’t trust her?” Katrisha pressed.

“No, we trust her to do exactly as reason implies. What you do about it, depends, which do you choose. To leave Liora to her own ends, under such influence, or do you want her for yourself?”

Katrisha didn’t look happy, but did not answer the barb.

⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃

A rooster’s crow it was not. Like the sound of moaning wind through the trees, if the trees were dryads, in spring. Like voices touched with meaning, but without words. A melody that fell too low for the human, and yet remained somehow feminine. A company of prisoners woke to stare at the almost transparent figure amidst them. Her chest was out, her head high, her lips parted. This miraculous sound came upon the inhale, in rhythm with the out.

The sound did not just come from the middle of a room, but in every window, carried on the wind. It sent shivers up the spine, and her breaths, could draw one closer. Though all present pulled back, a few, found themselves leaning forward a moment first.

“What is the meaning of this?” Ambrush demanded.

“A daughter is to be born this day, and you will see,” the figure sung, “what our Lady offers.” She turned, and walked out, a delicate sway in hips that were not quite there.

Sund looked anything but pleased. “They’re going to turn him. Make a big show of it, turn… Orwell into one of those… creatures.” He gritted his teeth.

“Are they doing it against his will?” Katrisha asked.

Sund looked away. “No. Not his will, but his wishes. He’s willing to pay the price.”

“Of being a woman?” Kiannae challenged.

“Amongst whatever else, yes,” Sund answered. “So, it seems.”

Taloe appeared, and looked uncertain to the spiteful glare he got from the man.

“You aren’t. You can be a man, but I kind of like him, the way he is. Why, can you be a man?”

“I don’t know,” Taloe answered. “I’m not part of her I suppose. Maybe, Estae was, the part of me that was. Maybe, that’s the real reason she had to die. To cut the cord. To be, what… Kiannae wants, not Laset’s desires, or even my own.”

Kiannae gave him a worried look.

“No god is perfect,” Mara interrupted.

“What?” Sund demanded. “Imperfect, you want to call this, imperfect?”

“No, you misunderstand. It is a truth my Lady gave me. The first time we met in shadow, and I told her she was perfect. That I was hers. For I saw her, in the eyes of my teacher, my mentor… to this path. No god, is perfect. No power absolute.”

“I still do not understand, how you think that will help me,” Sund protested.

“It is not…” Mara swallowed. “I do not mean to say to give up hope, I mean to say to hang onto it. She can’t be perfect, she can’t be unbeatable. There has to be a flaw in her designs, in her victory. A weakness, so watch for it, but it may not be of arms.”

“What?” Taloe demanded. “What do you mean?”

“You were of her,” Dahlia offered instead. “You are one of her daughters, turned a son. You, as much as said so. Even if, you did not understand your own words. You gave up the part, that was her. You imply, to become something new.”

Most gave her a worried look, but Sund seemed to struggle with the notion itself, and not the source of such wisdom. “So… Even once he turns… he might still be possible to take away from her?”

“If he gives himself,” Kiannae said. She looked to Taloe. “I do not think it can be taken, but one can stand before a god, and ask them to worship you, and perhaps… a part might. Rihonae, I think is her anchor, no matter how independent. She will do things for her, against her better judgement.”

“The question is,” Etore interrupted, “did she mean to show us that? No one is perfect, her less so than most. Rihonae may well have been ingratiating herself, but in such…”

Sund got up, and marched between them.

“Where are you going?” Liora called after him.

Sund stopped at the door. “To watch a man I care for die, or be reborn, a woman… a ghost… all of the above? I don’t know. I’ve never had the best of luck making one of those work, and I don’t quite expect the rest to be better. Try as I might.” He stormed the rest of the way out.

“Probably bares following,” Katrisha said with a heavy shake of her head. “This show is being put on, in part, in our honor. Proving their intentions, in a very backwards sort of way.”

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