I first met Roger Eichorn a decade or so ago back when the net was young. We were both members of what was called the Del Rey Online Writers’ Workshop, a place where we could post our work for free and perhaps have a crack at impressing some editor at Del Rey. The rule was you had to post at least three critiques for every short story or chapter you posted. We gravitated to each others’ work simply because we found each other’s criticisms invaluable, something which was humbling for me, given that Roger had just completed high school and I was on the verge of completing a philosophy PhD! As you will see, Roger can write. He was born with the gift. All he was lacking was a well-rounded education to truly take advantage of it. Now, all these years later, he stands on the verge of completing his philosophy PhD, and has decided, rather unwisely, to make the identical mistake I did: take time out from his dissertation to finally finish the novel he has been working and reworking all these years. Since there is no one, short of my wife and my brother, to whom I owe more, and since I know a fair share of you will be as gobsmacked as I am by his book, I offered Roger this page on TPB to solicit feedback on his stuff…
- R. Scott Bakker
THREE ROSES, Book 1:
The House of Yesteryear
by Roger E. Eichorn
… a possible world where time travel took place would be a most strange world, different in fundamental ways from the world we think is ours.
– David Lewis, THE PARADOXES OF TIME TRAVEL
1518, Moon of Octumnel (Early Autumn), Gothaas
He lays his first tile.
He has been playing the game for months. It was warmer when they began, the days longer. Time marches on, it seems, outside. But not here, within the webbed crosshatching of the sidereas board. Here, time keeps circling back around to the beginning.
He has lost track of how many times the Constellation of Octumnel has wiped the board clear of his tiles, of how many times his Opponent has formed the Constellation of Elestor—a virtually unheard-of move—clearing the board of his own tiles.
How many times has time started again?
He lays his first tile.
The Opponent’s strategy never alters. The same opening move, the same brutal swiftness, the same perfect balance between forming constellations and establishing wide-ranging territory across the board.
Never has he seen any player achieve the Constellation of Ferathel in so few moves, yet the Opponent does it time after time.
“It is difficult, I know,” the Opponent says. “You must persevere…”
He has played sidereas since he was a boy. He has not lost a match in years. Even now, he has not lost.
The Opponent could have defeated him a hundred-hundred times. Instead, he wipes the board clear and they start again.
He lays his first tile.
The monastery lay shrouded in fog and rain. The year’s last leaves—ash, poplar, purple beech—swirled down through the murk, some catching the wind like tiny sails. Within, the cold breathed through shutters, wormed into cracks chipping the mortar of ancient stone walls.
Beneath teetering walls and crumbling fortifications, the monks of Gothaas had pitted and tunneled the earth, sifting the detritus and debris of forgotten ages. What they sought had been lost to them—to the world—for a thousand years: the Codicil Arcanum, the sacred text of the Living Goddess, Dionare.
Only a Zochronos sorcerer could decipher the Codicil, should it be found. Gothaas had been home to dozens over the years, but all agreed that this latest was different. Less inclined to talk or joke or sing. Less willing to engage in the daily life of the monastery. Less human, somehow.
Even to the monks of Gothaas, Zochronosi were elusive and little understood. If any of them had met a sorcerer before arriving here, they did not know it. With the exception of Abbot Nizar, who carried himself with an easy, seen-it-all nonchalance, the monks comported themselves toward the new Zochronosi with the sort of reverential fear and awe usually reserved for kings or mercurial deities, powers who might on a whim lift a man up—or smite him down.
He lays his first tile.
When he tries to adopt the Opponent’s strategies, he falls prey to the Constellations of Derealization and his tiles vanish from the board. When he tries to copy the Opponent’s counterstrategy, still the tentacles of Octumnel fall into place. One move later, the Constellation of Elestor empties the board—except, of course, for the unmoving King, which occupies the center of the web and belongs to neither player until the game’s final move.
“You want me to win,” he says.
“Why then have I not lost?” the Opponent replies.
“You do not want me to lose.”
A grin, an errant wave of a shadowy hand. “I seek what you seek, Martyn—what all of you seek.”
“And what is that?”
The sorcerer’s behavior grew increasingly erratic. He left his cell on the top floor of the dormitory only rarely. He no longer bathed. He ate little, but drank copious amounts of beer and mead. He could be heard talking, shouting, debating at all hours, even though he was quite alone. Several monks reported seeing him hunched over a sidereas table he had dragged up from the refectory, intent on the game-board to the exclusion of all else, even though he was—again—quite alone.
One by one, monks vacated the surrounding cells, leaving the sorcerer alone in his corner of the dormitory. By autumn, arguments had begun to break out over who would deliver his food and drink, who fetch his dishes and chamber-pots. Some said the sorcerer was possessed. Others worried that Gothaas itself was possessed.
He lays his first tile.
Outside, day and night turn over the pine-studded crown of the Krossenmark hills. Occasionally he sleeps, but the Opponent never leaves him alone for long.
Gradually, their games begin to drift in new, unusual directions. He manages to achieve the Constellation of Ferathel, introducing an Aristocrat of his own onto the board.
“One level away,” the Opponent says with a hint of admiration.
In time he gets his Queen. But still the trap closes. The board is wiped clear.
He tires of the game, but what has been promised him is too sweet a gift.
He lays his first tile.
One possible world—another, another, another—flash between them across the sidereas board. Each gives rise to the same outcome, leads back to the beginning.
“You grow gaunt,” the Opponent says. “You must eat, keep up your strength.”
He will not be distracted.
He lays his first tile.
By far the most common way to win a game of sidereas is to form the Constellation of Thoriel, which captures the King. But the game can also be won by transforming, when the board is full, all of your opponent’s pieces into your own pieces by means of the Constellations of Vianuel and Zachariel, played simultaneously. A postern victory, it’s sometimes called. It is virtually impossible to achieve against a skilled player, and he hasn’t attempted it in years. But he has long since run out of strategies for capturing the King directly.
The Opponent sits more erect. “This is new!”
Again the trap closes. The board is cleared.
“I see,” the Opponent hisses happily.
He lays his first tile—… again and again and again and again…—until at last it happens.
Abbot Nizar addressed the monks’ concerns head-on at a meeting in the chapterhouse. “You must understand,” he said. “Where we plumb the earth in search of secrets, he plumbs his soul…”
But in truth, even the abbot was growing concerned about the Zochronos in their midst, was beginning to think that mayhap Gothaas’s secrets ought best to remain buried.
His whole body trembles. He is afraid he will knock the board over as he places his Queen in the upper left corner. A smile stretches the skin of his face tight. “Nine-space Zachariel,” he says. “The board is full, your pieces are mine.” He reaches out, turns the King onto its white side. “I win.”
The Opponent studies the board for a time. He looks up, face shrouded. His smile is warm. “So you have. So you have…”
“And the stakes?”
A moment passes. The Opponent reaches a dim, smoky arm across the board. A sheet of paper, torn and ragged at the edges, appears in his outstretched hand. Shimmers of starlight drip from it like rain. “As promised. Pages one-hundred-forty-three and one-hundred-forty-four of the Codex Lysis transcription of the Codicil Arcanum.”
He pinches the page between trembling fingers. He holds it up. Ancient Calyeoric text crowds a confusion of graphs and glyphs. On the back side, he sees a box containing a sequence of numbers connected by arrows to a corresponding sequence of letters. He recognizes the pages immediately from the descriptions he has read of them in various extant texts.
The most important page of the Arcanum of the Living Goddess.
A key to the door of the Unlived Past.
“Persist,” the Opponent says.
But Martyn Casmer does not hear, for he is quite alone.
P A R T O N E
T h e W o r l d i n g
Only seldom do we take possession of time, which possesses our very selves in a metaphysical sense; only seldom do we become master of this power which we ourselves are…
– Martin Heidegger, THE METAPHYSICAL FOUNDATIONS OF LOGIC
1532, Moon of Sophiel (Late Autumn), Electorate of Moerthe
“Gentlemen, gentlemen!” Tomas Contzen said, fulsome and expansive. “I cannot for the life of me identify the source of our disagreement.”
The air in the pavilion was cold, brittle with hostility. Tucked into a corner, unnoticed and forgotten, Jerome Casterdi warmed himself with the thought that very soon now, one way or the other, Tomas Contzen would die.
“I daresay we could scarce have set out our grievances in a plainer manner than we do here”—Contzen jabbed a forefinger onto the manuscript lying before him—“in our twelve articles.”
It had been five years—an age of the world to fourteen-year-old Jerome Casterdi—since his father and dozens of others had been betrayed to their deaths by this man.
But you will do nothing, his master, Abbé Demilio de Alcaraz, had said. Not a command—a simple statement of fact.
He would do nothing. He would wait, watch, and listen. But it was coming, he knew it: at long last Contzen would die, and he would be there to see it.
“We have published them,” Contzen went on. “We have sent copies to the elector, to Archduke Durand, and to His Majesty the emperor. Yet from these esteemed lords we receive no reply. Were the manuscripts intercepted, perchance by you and your men, Duke Johan?”
The Duke of Moerthe, commander of the imperial host, was an imposing figure. He had small dark eyes and a grey-streaked beard. He did not react, let alone respond, to this brazen accusation.
Jerome peered around the shoulder of Demilio de Alcaraz, who sat in front of him, hunched over a slanted writing desk. He watched as lines of historicist shorthand inched, right to left, across the parchment spread out beneath the abbé’s fist. He read: “Are the petitions unjust? Are they contrary to scripture?”
“Are the petitions unjust?” Contzen went on. “Are they contrary to scripture?”
He read: “We ask for correction if we are not in agreement with the teachings of the Prophet.”
“We ask for correction if we are not in agreement with the teachings of the Prophet—”
He read: “Enough! It is not our purpose to address peasant…”
The abbé paused in his writing, dipped the nub of his pen into an inkpot.
“Enough!” the duke growled. “It is not our purpose to address peasant grievances. None here”—he gestured with a sweep of his hand, taking in Landgrave Felipe of Masadt, and their host, the Archbishop of Mayenz—“has authority to approve, let alone institute, these…” He hesitated, as though considering and rejecting numerous more indelicate characterizations of the peasant’s demands, before concluding, “These reforms.”
“We call not for reform, Your Grace,” said Bertel Varner, leader of the Drakeland peasants, “but for the restoration of our ancient rights.”
The abbé resumed his writing. Jerome watched as he completed the transcription of the duke’s words before moving on to Varner’s interjection.
“Call it what you will!” Duke Johan shouted. “We haven’t the authority to address your grievances. It is not our purpose!”
“It may not be your purpose,” Contzen said, “but Your Grace sells himself short. You are free to address our concerns within your own domains. And you are brother to Elector Roderick, as well as one of the principal advisors of the archduke.” Contzen leaned over the table, lowered his voice. “But that is as nothing compared to the fact that Your Grace heads the council established by the archduke to negotiate on these very points.” Again he tapped the peasants’ manuscript with a stiff forefinger.
The duke sputtered. “How do you…? Where and from whom did you learn of that?”
The landgrave frowned. “It’s true, then?”
Ignoring Felipe, the duke said to Contzen, “It is immaterial! The council was disbanded the moment the peasants took up arms in rebellion against the emperor’s authority. There shall be no negotiation!”
“But our grievances are just,” Varner complained. “We are denied the right to fish in our own streams, to cut wood from our own forests. We are denied the right to graze our sheep and cattle on our own fields, for Yehru’s sake! It cannot go on!”
“They are not your streams,” the duke said. “They are not your forests and fields.”
“But according to time-sanctioned custom and the words of the Prophet, we—”
“The Prophet’s words are all too easily misunderstood by the untutored,” Archbishop Albrecht interjected ponderously. “But on one point, at least, even the most ignorant are surely incapable of misinterpretation: Rebellion against the lords of the land is sin. Justice is in Macariel’s hands, the future in Sophiel’s. You are a peasant farmer whose holy duty it is to obey—and the same is true of all those who have followed you into error.”
Speaking for the first time since the meeting began, Wilhelm Gott, leader of the Kammerasan peasants, said, “Why call a truce and arrange this meeting if not to discuss terms of settlement?”
The duke began to respond, but Landgrave Felipe raised a hand to forestall him. “We offer you an honorable means of withdrawing from the field, Master Gott. We will agree to bring your grievances before the emperor. In the meantime, you and your men—as well as those of Master Varner—may return unmolested to your villages, with our guarantee that neither the archduke nor any agent of His Highness the emperor shall pursue retribution against you for your rebellion. It is either that, or there shall be a massacre on this ground. I beg you to heed me when I say that we offer you the only means to—”
The archbishop’s shrill voice cut the landgrave off. “Why do I not hear the incessant scratch-scratch of a quill on parchment? If you must attend us, Sophieli, you may as well discharge your task.”
Jerome, who had failed to notice that the abbé had stopped writing, glanced down at the parchment. He read: “Of course, Your Holiness.”
The abbé met the archbishop’s gaze. “Of course, Your Holiness,” he said and began to write, “Forget the…”
“Forget the bloody Sophieli!” Wilhelm Gott said.
Jerome Casterdi and Abbé Demilio de Alcaraz halted at the forest’s edge. They peered down into the river valley below them. The scene was tranquil, like a painting, softened by mist and dawn. Two military encampments lay within sight, the more distant tight-packed, pressed against the broad glittering back of the River Baden, the other sprawled out in a huge crescent, like a loose-fitting belt slung from the river’s snaking hips.
“We’re not too late, then,” Jerome said, his voice thick with exhaustion.
“Mayhap.” The abbé began to lead his pack-mule down the slope. “Come. It’s not far now…”
With a sigh, Jerome tugged at the reins of his own burdened beast. Together, they wended their way down to where the day’s slaughter was soon to begin.
Though only fourteen, Jerome was accustomed to covering long distances on foot. He had been apprenticed to Abbé Demilio for nearly three years. In that time, they had crossed and recrossed the Continent, from the black forests of Leizas in the west to the glittering wonder of the Aterrasan royal court in the east. But to march through the night after having been on the road most of the previous day taxed to the limits even such a seasoned traveler as himself.
Not far now, he assured himself. Nearly there…
Indeed, ahead lay an end of sorts not just to this most recent slog, from Ratisbon to Moerthe, but to all their long peregrinations these past years. The object of their hunt was now within striking distance. At last, they were to confront Tomas Contzen, the betrayer of the Dionari of Astarim, the man responsible for the death of Jerome’s father—and so many others—five years before.
Yet even this thought failed to keep his eyelids from drooping, his feet from stutter-stepping beneath him. Still, he managed somehow to avoid the seeming inevitability of flopping unconscious to the ground, and within the hour, they reached the imperial encampment.
A wind was picking up. Heavy black clouds were moving in from the east as though to roll back the dawn. The smell of smoke hung thick in the air. In the spaces between tents, Jerome glimpsed black-cloaked tongues of flame. His mule jerked at her reins, but a few soothing words got her moving again.
Before long, they came upon a pavilion flying the Ram of Moerthe. Behind it there rose a hillock, atop which stood a pair of men surveying the progress of the battle. Half-delirious, as though dreaming—as though watching the scene unfold from a distance, even as he participated in it—Jerome tied his mule to a hitching post beside Demilio’s, then started after him up the grassy slope.
Soldiers closed in around them. One of the two men at the hillock’s crown came forward, waving the guards back. He was tall, clean-shaven, in black breeches and a red coat. He stretched out a gloved hand. “You’re late,” he said, smiling.
Jerome assumed that this must be Landgrave Felipe of Masadt, for it was the landgrave who had requested of the Sophieli at Ratisbon that they dispatch an historicist to stand witness to the imperial host’s confrontation with the rebellious peasant army.
The abbé took the proffered hand. “Apologies, my lord,” he said. “We came as quickly as we could. It seems we’ve not missed all the morning’s excitement.”
The other man, Jerome knew, could only be Albrecht von Cöln, Archbishop of Mayenz. He was lean and severe, swathed in dark purple robes. The landgrave’s missive had made clear that the archbishop, like so many in the Order of Thoriel, approved not at all of the Sophieli in general and of historicists in particular. He regarded Demilio icily and said, as though hastening at once to the final word on the matter, “The rebellion is finished. Thoriel smiles upon what has been accomplished here today.”
Does he? Jerome wondered. He still felt oddly detached from what was happening around him. He turned to take in the scene that was playing out in the middle distance. At its center stood the wagon-fort of the peasant army, engulfed in arcs of flame. Everywhere, mounted knights were cutting down unarmed peasants. Those peasants still on their feet were fleeing east, toward and ultimately into the river. The scene looked less like a battle than like a raid upon an unsuspecting village.
“Even if that’s true,” Landgrave Felipe shot back, “the Prince of the Archons most certainly does not smile upon the means undertaken to achieve it!”
The exchange, Jerome thought, had the air of an argument long abandoned yet repeatedly, fatalistically rehearsed.
“It is a mere question of tactics,” the archbishop said with a wave of his hand, as though to brush aside the younger man’s concern.
“‘Tactics’! Hah! Trickery, subterfuge! There’s no honor in it! It was I who arranged the truce. It was I who gave Contzen my word. To then attack without warning…” He shook his head. “There’s no honor in it.”
“You sympathize with the peasants,” the abbé said.
“The landgrave is young,” said the archbishop. “And the world is changing. He shall learn better in time.”
“Their voices ought at least to be heard!” Felipe insisted.
The archbishop sighed, like a man resigned to bearing an irritating but manageable burden. To the abbé, he said, “I suppose you shall be their voice now, Sophieli. Pray don’t forget, whilst you are eulogizing these heretics and fools, that they rose in armed rebellion against the authority of His Highness the emperor. They reap what they have sown—so to speak.”
“How true, Your Holiness,” Abbé Demilio replied, immediately adding, “Of us all.”
A silence fell. Wisps of snow began to fall, mixing with the ash rising from the wagon-fort. Jerome stared out at the fingers of flame, at the dead bodies dotting the ground, at the men hunting and hunted, and he thought of what the abbé had once told him, that all the cosmos is but repetition, night and day, winter and summer, death and life, turning and turning with neither beginning nor end. And in this moment it struck him—all of it, the very order of things—as profoundly, tragically pointless.
Nearly there, he thought, but now the words seemed to him to express more a query than an expectation.
“Forget the bloody Sophieli!” Wilhelm Gott says. “We’ve not come this far to be sent home with Tinker promises.” Turning his attention to Contzen, he says in a low growl, “You told us they wanted to end this peacefully. You said they’d have to negotiate!”
The being who is and is not Demilio de Alcaraz looks up from his work to regard Tomas Contzen. The many-souled soul behind his eyes knows this man well: under innumerable names, wearing innumerable faces, but always it is the same man. Always it is Tomas Contzen, somehow. He has seen him raised high, seen him fall low. (For he is a dizzying multiplicity spoking time and worlds.) He has dipped poison into his wine, has turned away the thrust of steel that would have taken his life. (For he is one and he is many, his soul like a shaft of light splintered in crystal.) He has seen him old, has seen him young and choking on his lifeblood. (Just as he sees the flight of the arrow that will take his own life, the grapple–scrape–fall, the noose that chokes him—all the myriad red deaths plunging down his eyes.)
But in no other world has he seen—…will he see…—…does he see Tomas Contzen in this place; in no other world does he hear the other man say, “And so they shall. Hundreds of thousands of peasants are abroad within the empire’s borders. Even now they are converging upon Moerthe. Tell me, what would compel us to abandon our holy mission on the eve of its consummation?”
Passions fair and foul crowd the depths of the being who sits where Demilio de Alcaraz sits. The smells of infant flesh and rot, of salt-spray and desert and perfume, of virgin earth and mortared stone—all and more fill him and leave him empty.
Duke Johan says, “You conveniently overlook the fact that every day sees the augmentation of the emperor’s forces, and the diminution of your own. You can hope to capture a town or a castle here and there, it is true. You may even manage to hold one or two for a time, as you did in Brackwede. But you simply cannot prevail against the properly armed and trained troops of the imperium.”
With every moment, the being who wears Demilio de Alcaraz’s face pulls free of himself, only to plunge back into himself. He strides ahead of himself even as he lingers behind.
“Mercenaries, you mean,” Contzen says.
And he is not alone. Hundreds, thousands of him trace disparate lines across alien worlds. He can see them, like shades strewn across a void: unreality heaped on unreality.
Duke Johan barks a laugh. “Precisely. I speak of hardened men-at-arms. You,” he says to Bertel Varner, “you fought in the armies of the King of Aterras, yes? This fool”—gesturing to Gott—“and this heretical priest”—said with a sneer at Contzen—“may fail to grasp the simple truth that farmers with shovels and pilfered swords are no match for knights and men-at-arms, but you—surely you know better!”
When the lines overlap, he speaks with two or a hundred voices. But here, he speaks with only one voice. Only one set of strings guides his hands.
Here, he walks unwalked ground, lives unlived moments.
“Our numbers are superior, and our cause is just,” Varner says.
The duke snorts.
The other men in the pavilion are aware of it in only the dimmest manner, as children understand the subtle play of smiling threats, but they are all of them one with the beating heart of worldly history: the threads of innumerable lives woven about the deeds of the few.
“We cannot be defeated,” Gott blusters, “for the Goddess stands with us. Soon all a’ Kammeras—nay, soon the entire world—will unite for justice, and liberty, and… and Restoration!”
In his role as a Sophieli historicist—in his role as Demilio de Alcaraz—the many-souled being’s task is to affix the moment to the page lest it be drowned forever in the flood of time. And thus he breathes river air, scratches the inky tip of a pen along parchment, recording the words that are—…will be…—…have been…—spoken by the men gathered here in this place, in this time.
(Letter after letter unfurls beneath Demilio de Alcaraz’s fingers: “Even Martyn Casmer has denounced you and your uprising…”)
But if he looks back, he will see morning break cold and clear upon frost-brittle grasses carpeting the valley floor. If he peers ahead, he will discern the red lance that arcs the west at dusk.
(“He would say that our grievances are just…”)
The archbishop cackles. “Pah! ‘The entire world,’ he says! Even Martyn Casmer has denounced you and your uprising! If you cannot muster support even from your fellow heretics, what hope that the entire world will join your misguided cause?” He pauses as though to savor the moment. “You’ve met the monk of Gothaas, Contzen. What do you think Casmer would say, were he here with us?”
(“Casmer’s reply is a forgery. He supports us now as he always has…”)
Contzen replies at once. “He would say that our grievances are just, that it is men such as yourself who have delivered us to these straits.”
The retort does not diminish the archbishop’s good humor. “Mmm, yes, I imagine that’s right. But then he would tell you to tear down your wagon-fort and return to your villages, no? Let the ‘Goddess’ sort out such things. Has he not said as much in his reply to your twelve articles?”
Contzen hesitates, as if weighing his words with care.
The many-souled being looks up from his work. He has already looked up and will look up again and again, eternally. But now it is unaccountably, impossibly different.
For now Contzen says: “Casmer is only a man, and no man is perfect.”
The words strike with the force of a sorcerous song. The many-souled being becomes aware of a crackling in the air, a lingering scent of sulfur.
Casmer is only a man…
It cannot be. He was supposed to say—… does say…—… has said, “Casmer’s reply is a forgery. He supports us now as he always has…”
It is written. It happened—…will happen…—…is happening.
Yet it did not happen.
The vision of the many-souled being contracts. The world shrinks to the size of the page spread out before him. He feels a trembling in his depths. It is fear, animal fear—Demilio de Alcaraz’s fear. It thunders in his ears, knocks against his ribs. It runs through his limbs and down his spine like fingers of flame.
With an effort, he lifts Demilio de Alcaraz’s gaze from the lying words.
Tomas Contzen stares back at him. Laughter gleams in the other man’s eyes. A smirk plays at one corner of his lips.
Voices echo and crash through the depths of the many-souled being, but none of the turmoil touches his face, for he has no face. None of it slows his hand, for he has no hands. Gradually, the innumerable voices that swirl within him—… without him…—resolve together, united in the tolling of a single word: Rezchairos…
A bridging of worlds.
The impossible made possible.
The never made now.
And the being who is and is not Demilio de Alcaraz thinks: He sees… Tomas Contzen sees—me…
Jerome stood with the abbé beside Landgrave Felipe and the archbishop in an open square formed by the pavilions of the nobility. Wet, heavy snow carpeted the ground. They watched as Duke Johan, commander of the imperial host, rode into the encampment, returning from the devastation of the peasant army.
A group of knights and mercenaries trailed the duke. He gestured back at them, said, “I suddenly find myself inclined to negotiate!”
Mounted knights made way for a group of men-at-arms, who led forward two men. Ropes encircled their necks and bound their hands before them. The first man Jerome had never seen before, but the other… The sight of him was like a splash of icy water on his face.
Tomas Contzen. His hair drooped around his shoulders, and he wore an unkempt beard, but there was no mistaking him. The ever-gleaming eyes, pale above a thin, hook nose. And the smirk. Even now, the smirk!
“What of Wilhelm Gott?” the archbishop asked.
The duke gestured again. A man lumbered forward, a body slung over one shoulder. “Dead,” the duke said as the other man tossed his burden to the ground. “I split his skull with my own sword.”
One dead eye stared upward from a black-red mess of a face, cloven like a goat’s hoof.
Bile splashed the back of Jerome’s throat. He gagged and looked away from the mutilated corpse—only to find himself staring again at Contzen, who stared back at him. Behind the man’s beard, the smirk opened into a smile.
“Well I’ll be,” Contzen said. “If it isn’t Jerome Casterdi!”
The soldier handling Contzen’s noose gave it a jerk. Contzen staggered back, spit flicking from his lips. Otherwise, all grew still. Men were following Contzen’s gaze to where it landed on Jerome.
“Who is Jerome Casterdi?” the archbishop said, as though affronted at the thought that anyone he did not know merited comment.
“He’s one of us, you know,” Contzen croaked. “They both are. Sophieli!” he hissed, laughing.
A strained moment passed. The duke spun away. “Bring the prisoners!” he shouted. “We must decide what we are to do with them…”
The cluster of men began to break apart. A few shot Jerome and Demilio suspicious looks, but most seemed to have forgotten them already.
Landgrave Felipe placed a hand on the abbé’s shoulder. “The words of a traitor count for naught. Now gather your things. This tale’s not ended yet.”
“Of course, my lord,” Demilio said. “At once.”
Felipe nodded. He spared a quick frown for Jerome before starting after Duke Johan and the others.
For a time, the abbé stood unmoving in the gathering snow. Jerome felt as if he had been shot like an arrow clean through exhaustion, into a kind of queasy hyper-alertness. When he couldn’t hold himself back any longer, he tugged at the sleeve of the abbé’s robes, said in a high, strained rush, “What now, Abbé? What do we do? They’re going to kill him, aren’t they? But…”
Jerome didn’t know how he felt about the prospect of Contzen facing summary execution at the Duke of Moerthe’s hands. Part of him relished the thought, of course. He had imagined Contzen’s death innumerable times. But in these imaginings, Jerome was always there. Contzen always died knowing that he’d not gone unpunished for his betrayal of the Dionari of Astarim.
And then there was the abbé’s conviction that in Contzen lay the key to understanding Jerome’s Rhapsodic vision, the Retelling of which he still carried tucked into his robes. If after all the miles trodden, all the scrolls inked, all the messages deciphered, they were simply to stand by and watch Contzen die…
Jerome pulled at the abbé’s sleeve again. “What are we going to do? What—”
“How did he know?” Demilio whispered as though to himself.
“Know what, Abbé?”
“That we are not truly Sophieli.”
He’s one of us, Contzen had said. One of the Dionari—worshippers of Dionare, the Living Goddess.
“Well, people say that sort of thing all the time, don’t they?” Jerome said. “I mean, not about us, but about the Sophieli, that they house and protect Dionari.”
“He was not guessing, nor hurling a blind accusation, hoping it might land true. He called you by name, Jerome.”
“He must—he must remember me,” Jerome offered, more and more unnerved the longer Demilio stared down at him. “He knows my family converted to Dionism before the revolution. He must have—”
Demilio bent over Jerome, who flinched. “But how did he recognize you? That was five years ago. You were only eight or nine, and he couldn’t have glimpsed you but a handful of times.”
“I look like my father. Everyone says so.”
“True,” Demilio said, then shook his head. “But that is not how he knew you. Did you not feel it, boy?”
“You think Contzen is…” Jerome lowered his voice even more. The words came out barely audible: “You think he’s like you?”
A pause. “I don’t know.”
Jerome frowned up at Demilio’s hard, swarthy face. Refusals to explain, enraging silences, hollow blandishments—these Jerome had grown accustomed to from Demilio de Alcaraz. But a simple confession of ignorance? That was new, and far more distressing.
Abbé Demilio was no mere Sophieli historicist. He was a Zochronos sorcerer, trained in the melic arts of the Organon Dionaras. That meant that his future as well as his past lay open to his soul’s eye. If Contzen was a sorcerer, Demilio had to know something of it, surely.
“What are we going to do?” Jerome asked again.
Demilio straightened. “What we came here to do: listen, watch, and record.”
“But…” Jerome was on the verge of protesting—had the time not come to shed the pretense of serving the Order of Sophiel?—when a voice hooked his ears, spinning his head around.
Behind them, Alessandro Casterdi elbowed his way through a cluster of lingering soldiers. Meeting Jerome’s gaze, he shouted, “Holy Yehru’s balls, I can’t believe it!”
In a moment, Jerome’s older brother had rushed forward and was crushing him against his chest.
Jerome gawped up at Alessandro. They hadn’t seen each other in years. He was much bigger and stronger than Jerome remembered, and no wonder.
“You’re a Lancerman,” Jerome said, taking in Alessandro’s flat-topped hat, ribbed doublet, and leather jerkin, which bore the Crossed-Lances badge of the famous mercenary company. The distinctive Lancerman shortsword, with its elaborate S-shaped handguard, hung from his left hip.
“For a year now,” Alessandro said, still beaming.
Before he could think better of it, Jerome said in a whispered rush, “He’s here, Alessan.”
The light went out of Alessandro’s face. “I know… I tried to get to him during the battle, but I…” Only then did Alessandro notice Demilio standing to the side. “Abbé! What—?” He shot his gaze back and forth between Demilio and Jerome. His voice darkening, he said, “What are you doing here?”
“The same as you, it would seem,” the abbé replied. He put a hand on Alessandro’s shoulder. “It’s good to see you safe and sound, my boy. When did you last write to your mother?”
“Why? Is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Jerome said. “But so much has happened! We’ve so much to tell you!”
“But not now, I’m afraid,” Demilio said. “A proper reunion must wait. Jerome and I are to attend Landgrave Felipe. We’re late as it is. Come, Jerome, we must—”
“You said you’re here for the same reason I am,” Alessandro broke in. “So you’re here to kill him, then? To kill Tomas Contzen?”
Demilio stared levelly at Alessandro. “No. Nor should you attempt any such thing. I’d not get any nearer Contzen than I had to, were I you.”
“But Abbé!” Jerome shouted, just as Alessandro said, “Then we do not share a common purpose after all.” To Jerome, he said, “What of you, little brother? Hasn’t Father gone unavenged long enough?”
“Tomas Contzen will not leave this camp alive,” Demilio said, “whatever you do or don’t do.”
Jerome was desperate to bridge the unexpected gulf he felt rapidly widening between his brother and the abbé. “Can you be sure?” he asked Demilio. “You said that… They think Contzen is just a man.”
“Just a man?” Alessandro said. “What do you mean?”
“Not another word!” Demilio warned. “We must go, now.” When Jerome did not acknowledge the order, Demilio repeated, “Now, Jerome.”
“He has to know, Abbé,” Jerome said desperately. “Contzen has to know he’s not gotten away with it!”
More gently, Demilio replied, “No good will come of confronting him. You must trust me.”
Tears were snaking down Jerome’s cheeks. He wiped at them with the backs of his sleeves. “How can we not confront him? How can we have come this far, and not?”
Demilio frowned down at Jerome. “I could stop you.”
“Not here, you couldn’t,” Alessandro said, reaching for the hilt of his shortsword.
Jerome lunged for Alessandro’s arm. “Don’t, Alessan!” To Demilio, he said, “I know. But will you?”
Demilio de Alcaraz regarded the two brothers in silence for a time. “No,” he said and turned, disappearing into the laneways of the imperial encampment.
“You’ve met the monk of Gothaas, Contzen,” said the Archbishop of Mayenz. “What do you think Casmer would say, were he here with us?”
Jerome Casterdi read along as the speakers in the pavilion unknowingly but unerringly followed the abbé’s script. He read, “He would say that our grievances are just…”
“He would say that our grievances are just,” said Contzen, “that it is men such as yourself who have delivered us to these straits.”
He read, “Yes, I imagine that’s right…”
The archbishop’s face twitched into a sort of half-smile. “Mmm, yes, I imagine that’s right. But then he would tell you to tear down your wagon-fort and return to your villages, no? Let the ‘Goddess’ sort out such things. Has he not said as much in his reply to your twelve articles?”
Contzen hesitated. Jerome read, “Casmer’s reply is a forgery. He supports us now as he always has…”
“Casmer,” said Tomas Contzen, “is only a man, and no man is perfect.”
At first Jerome utterly failed to register the deviation between reality and its record, so unthinkable was it. The abbé’s pen, which was already several lines ahead, abruptly halted. An inky smudge spread out from its tip.
Jerome read the passage again and again. “Casmer’s reply is a forgery…” Had he somehow misheard?
The archbishop cackled. “Why do you hesitate, Sophieli? Let us inscribe that into the great book of the world! ‘Casmer is only a man, and no man is perfect.’ Indeed! Let that line take its place in the labyrinthine halls of the Kosmos Biblioth, that it may never be forgotten!”
It was true, then. Deviation. An utter impossibility, unless…
Unless they were within the horizon of rezchairos, a bridging of worlds.
The thought overmatched him: he could not wrestle it to submission.
“By all means, Abbé,” Contzen said. “Stand guard, as ever, at the gate of the present. But know that it is I, and I alone, who go ahead of you.”
Jerome was stunned. Though he had never been there, he knew that along the archway leading into the Ecclesia Dionaras were carved the words, It is I alone who stand behind you, and I alone who go ahead.
Even the great enemies of the Dionari, the Order of Dathiel, knew nothing of the Ecclesia Dionaras…
“What heretical nonsense are you spewing now?” the archbishop said. “You too are only a man, Contzen.”
But Contzen wasn’t looking at the archbishop; he was looking at Demilio and Jerome in their corner. The abbé continued to stare down at his false record. The future had swerved impossibly away from them, hurling the pavilion into the unmarked space of chaironic time—and somehow Tomas Contzen knew it was so.
“No,” the abbé said in a strangled voice. He sprang to his feet, shouting, “No!” The bench on which he’d been sitting toppled to the carpets. Jerome jumped out of the way. On the writing desk, the inkpot tipped its contents across the scroll.
“You must listen to me!” Demilio said, and all around Jerome the air warped and twisted, bending at unseen joints. Unheard waves of sound washed from the sorcerer like an incoming tide. Jerome felt his soul quiver like a tuning fork. There came a burning below his left palm, where Demilio had marked him with the sign of Dionari worldwalkers: three red rose blossoms, arranged like an arrowhead. Gritting his teeth, he clutched at his wrist. Sweat was stinging his eyes.
What is going on? he thought.
“What is the meaning of this?” Duke Johan bellowed, standing as though readying to leap at Demilio across the trestle table.
“Do not be fooled!” Demilio said. He pointed at Contzen. “This is no man!”
In the aftermath of battle, Duke Johan gave his men the run of the surrounding countryside. Some fell to plundering the remains of the wagon-fort and the bodies of dead peasants, many of whom themselves carried items plundered from captured towns. Others stalked the western forest in packs like wolves, hunting down those who had managed to escape the field. Soldiers came and went in all directions. The army’s supply train caught up to them, along with its accretion of hangers-on, mainly peddlers of goods and flesh. Bonfires were lit against the cold. Casks of wine and ale were tapped. By midday, the imperial encampment had assumed the air of a carnival.
Alessandro led Jerome to where they could find food and drink. He pushed into Jerome’s hands a skin of malmsey and a skewer of lamb and onions. Suddenly aware of a ravenous hunger, Jerome ate as quickly as he could chew, washing the food down with thirsty pulls from the wineskin. A warmth spread through him even as snow collected on the shoulders of his cloak.
When he’d finished, Jerome ran his greasy hands down the front of his robes and watched as his brother gnawed half-heartedly at a piece of charred lamb. The sense of dreamlike unreality he’d felt earlier had dissipated, but only to be replaced by an acute sense of disorientation. He could scarcely believe where he was, and with whom, and what had just happened. Had he truly abandoned Abbé Demilio? It was unthinkable. Yet it was equally unthinkable that he should have turned his back on his brother. Everything had happened so quickly. He’d had no time to think, to decide.
I’ll find the abbé, he told himself. Once this is over, I’ll find him, and everything will be all right.
He remembered his father saying as much the night before the imperial troops had come for him. Everything will be all right…
“Gah, I can’t eat,” Alessandro said. He held out the half-naked skewer. “You want this?” When Jerome shook his head, Alessandro tossed it over his shoulder into a fire. “So,” he said, “how’s Mum? How long have you been away?”
“About three years,” Jerome replied.
“Three years! That’s almost as long as I’ve been gone. Yehru’s balls, kid, what have you been doing all this time?”
“Traveling, mostly. I’ve been with the abbé.” Realizing that he neither knew precisely how to explain what he’d been doing nor how his brother would take it, Jerome hastily added, “What about Contzen, Alessan? What are we going to do?”
“We’re going to kill him,” Alessandro said matter-of-factly.
“I know. But… what if he’s executed first?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll have tonight, at least. The duke has to be on his best behavior now that history is peering over his shoulder. It was quite shrewd of the landgrave to send for an historicist. Felipe is sympathetic to our cause, you know. He’s a great man, I think—which is no mean feat for a bloody Kammerasan Elaarist!”
“You don’t think they’ll have Contzen killed right away, then?” Jerome asked doubtfully.
Alessandro took a swallow from his wineskin. “I don’t think they’ll have him killed at all, not here, at least. They’ll drag him off to Ratisbon or Donaustädt or maybe even the Dhraschin itself, where they can give him a proper trial.” Alessandro scoffed. “Ludicrous, I know.”
“But the abbé said that Contzen won’t leave the encampment alive.”
Alessandro gave Jerome a disapproving look. “I know we owe him a lot, but let’s not fool ourselves. Demilio doesn’t know everything. I’m telling you: with an historicist here, the duke won’t order Contzen’s execution unless he’s been tried and sentenced. Demilio ought to know this better than anyone, given that he’s the historicist in question!”
Jerome squirmed. Not another word, the abbé had said. “You don’t understand, Alessan… The abbé, he’s…”
“What? Spit it out!”
Jerome drew a breath, plunged onward. “He’s not an historicist, Alessan. I mean, he is, but that’s not all he is, not by a long shot.” Jerome leaned in toward his brother, whispered, “He’s a Zochronos, Alessan. A Zochronos!”
At this, Alessandro’s expression registered in rapid succession puzzlement, understanding, doubt, and finally alarm.
Jerome continued, “If he says that Contzen won’t leave the camp alive, then he won’t.”
“A Zochronos,” Alessandro breathed. “You’re sure?”
“Yes. So what are we—?”
“How do you know?”
Jerome sighed. His stomach was starting to knot up. The abbé’s voice sounded in his ear again: Not another word. What should he say? That he’d seen the abbé overcome three armed knights bare-handed? That whatever the abbé said would happen, did happen? Or should he simply tell Alessandro that he was himself capable of feeling the world-folding, soul-contorting raptural power of the abbé’s sorcerous song?
No. Better to start at the beginning, Jerome thought. He pulled from within his robes a battered piece of paper folded into a square.
“What’s that?” Alessandro asked.
“Not long after you left,” Jerome said, “the Sophieli at the Academy began to train me as a Rhapsode.”
Jerome was gratified by his brother’s startled reaction to this news. It was easy to forget, when apprenticed to a Zochronos, that for most people such a simple thing as the Rhapsody still counted as an art to be approached with awe and trepidation. Of the four main Archonical Orders—those of Macariel, Thoriel, Sophiel, and Dathiel—all but the Thorieli had a sorcerous wing, a raptural art they alone possessed and promulgated. For the Sophieli, that art was the Rhapsody, which allowed its practitioners to record the future much as Sophieli historicists recorded the present, if rather less precisely.
“Did they send you to the Ecclesia?” Alessandro asked.
Jerome shook his head. Though all Rhapsodes were trained at the Ecclesia Sophielas in Farnesse, the home of the Order of Sophiel, Jerome hadn’t advanced that far, as he explained to Alessandro. “The abbé made sure of it. Once he read this”—Jerome held up the folded paper—”everything changed…”
As though unaware of doing so, Alessandro drew off his flat-topped hat. Fat wet snowflakes collected on his black curls. “You’re saying… Abbé Demilio is a Zochronos, and you’re—what?—his apprentice? You’re… a sorcerer?”
“Yes, I’m the abbé’s apprentice, but I’m no sorcerer. Not yet, anyway. I do have the gift, though, and one day he’ll teach me the Organon Dionaras.”
A stunned moment passed. Alessandro burst out, “By the blesséd Goddess’s tits, Jerome! I mean bloody fucking hells! Is this why Demilio helped us after Father died? Did he know all along that you’d be his apprentice one day? I suppose he must have… Hah!”
“I don’t think so, Alessan. It’s more complicated than that.”
Alessandro snorted. “I’ve no doubt! Well,” he said, starting to pull himself together. “And here I thought I’d be the one shocking and astounding you with tales of my martial exploits! Bloody hells…” He took a long swallow of wine. “My little brother, a sorcerer… Fuck me if that doesn’t take the lot…”
If he’d had a moment to think about it, Jerome realized, then he’d have expected precisely this reaction from Alessandro. His brother was rattled and astonished, of course; but he was also proud of Jerome, scared for him, and beneath it all, more than a little jealous.
“What’s in the letter, then?” Alessandro said.
“My one and only Rhapsodic Telling.”
“Yeah, I thought as much. What’s it about?”
“Well, according to the abbé, it’s about us, me and him.”
Wind gusted off the river. Snow slanted through the space between them. The fire behind Alessandro sizzled and coughed puffs of smoke. Before Alessandro could ask anything more about the paper in his hand, Jerome said, “We came too late, Alessan. We walked all day and night, but we were too late.”
Uncharacteristically solemn, Alessandro waited for him to go on.
“Contzen’s done it again. Even if we find him, even if we get vengeance for Father, he’s won again…”
Five years ago in Astarim, the northern port city where Jerome and Alessandro were born, Tomas Contzen had led a Dionari revolution that managed to throw off the yoke of the city’s imperial overlords. Astarim became the first open bastion of Casmeranism, the Restored faith. But six months later, a huge imperial host retook the city. Despite promises of clemency, the emperor’s general hanged their father, Maurizio Casterdi, along with every other member of the city council—except for Tomas Contzen.
Contzen had somehow slipped the siege lines and escaped, abandoning to their fate all the men and women he had tirelessly coaxed into rising up against the emperor and the corrupt Elaarist faith despite the near-certainty of their eventual failure and death.
“He’s won again,” Jerome repeated, turning the square of paper over in his hands.
A year later, Abbé Demilio had shared with Jerome, Alessandro, and their mother his conviction that Tomas Contzen was in fact the gravest enemy of the Goddess, that his purpose was to destroy Dionism from within. He’d done it in Astarim, and now he’d done it again, here in the valley beside the River Baden. And there was no changing it, any of it. Indeed, there never had been, for as Jerome had learned as an apprentice to a Zochronos, the future was as fixed in stone as the past was. No vengeance could undo the effects of Contzen’s deeds. All that was left for them, now as before, was to stop him.
Alessandro said nothing. The brothers sat in silence for a time, remembering. Then Jerome unfolded the paper and held it out. Hesitantly, Alessandro took it. Jerome, who knew the lines by heart, followed as his brother’s eyes scanned the page.
Rose the First—The sorcerer pierces the enemy’s heart, yet it is the sorcerer who dies.
Rose the Second—Though the king fells the sorcerer, it is the sorcerer who lives whilst the king loses all.
Rose the Third—Only when the sorcerer pierces the king’s heart shall the apprentice know him.
A puzzled expression settled over Alessandro’s face. “You wrote this? It’s not your handwriting.”
“I know. Some say that in the trance the Rhapsode becomes a kind of vessel, that it’s Sukalli who actually do the writing.”
“Yeah? Is that what happened?”
“I’ve no idea,” Jerome said. “I don’t remember any of it.”
“Huh. And the abbé thinks this sorcerer is him? And that you’re the apprentice?”
“But then who’s the ‘enemy’?” Alessandro asked.
“Well, Demilio thinks it’s—”
Before he could finish, Alessandro blurted out, “Contzen! Of course… So the abbé is going to kill him!” He frowned. “But it says it’s the sorcerer who dies…”
“I know,” Jerome said miserably.
“And who’s the ‘king’?”
Jerome could only shake his head. He looked down at his muddy boots.
“Bloody hells, kid!” Alessandro said. “What have you gotten yourself caught up in?”
I’ve done nothing, Jerome wanted to say. You’re as caught up in it as I am—everyone is. We’re all naught but peasants appearing and disappearing on a sidereas board…
But he did not say that. It did not bear saying. Instead he spoke a lesser truth, an easier truth: “I don’t know…”
The landgrave’s men provided Demilio de Alcaraz with a slanted writing desk, which they tucked into a corner of the archbishop’s pavilion. Without Jerome there to assist him, Demilio produced his own implements from a satchel, sharpened his own pen, and set to work recording the conversation, already in progress, of the three men seated around the trestle table in the pavilion’s center.
“My dear brother the elector,” Duke Johan was saying, “has already signed the orders of execution. Need I remind you that we stand now in the elector’s domains? His word is law. Contzen and Varner die tonight.”
“On what charges?” Landgrave Felipe shot back. “The rebels only passed into the electorate five days ago. Whatever crimes they’ve committed here are hardly deserving of execution.”
The duke’s face reddened. “The overly clever do but dress up their stupidity, boy. It ill suits one of your breeding.”
“I beg Your Grace’s pardon,” Felipe said. “If I’m mistaken in my judgment, I welcome correction.”
The Archbishop of Mayenz interjected, “The rebel peasants have terrorized imperial lands for the better part of nine months. They have been declared outlaws and heretics. Whether in the domains of the elector, or in those of the duke, or yourself, or any vassal of His Imperial Highness, their lives are forfeit.”
“Precisely,” Felipe said. “It is the emperor against whom the peasants have rebelled. Therefore, it must be His Highness—not us, not the elector—who adjudicates their guilt or innocence and who sentences them accordingly.”
“Nonsense!” the duke bellowed.
The shorthand of historicists—a code known only to Sophieli—allowed Demilio to keep up with the conversation easily. The angular characters appeared virtually the moment the words they recorded had been spoken.
“My lord would have us parade the heretical traitors through the imperial court,” the archbishop said with an oily sneer. “You would allow them to voice their execrable impieties before His Highness, spreading still further their cancerous nonsense. You would, in other words, have us make a spectacle of them. And for what? They are already condemned in the eyes of men and the blesséd Archons.”
Felipe began to say, “Does the law mean nothing to—?”
The duke cut him off. “Yes, a spectacle! Is that what you want, boy? A trial? So be it!” Raising his voice to address Demilio, he added, “Dutifully mark that down, Sophieli: the rebels shall get their trial!”
And so they did, in a manner of speaking.
Snow continued to fall as a platform was erected before the duke’s pavilion. Demilio watched from the front edge of an ever-growing crowd. Eventually the duke, the archbishop, and an unhappy-looking Landgrave Felipe filed onto the platform and took their places upon a bench. Next came Contzen and Bertel Varner, each led by a pair of soldiers. They had been stripped to the waist, their hands bound behind them. The soldiers pushed them to the front of the platform and forced them down onto their knees, facing the crowd.
Behind Demilio, more and more men were crowding into the square. He searched the sea of faces for Jerome and Alessandro, but of course he didn’t see them. A deep unease was settling over him, a stirring in the soul telling him that he had stood here, precisely here, before, and that it was not a place to which he wished to return.
Duke Johan came forward, gestured for quiet, and read out the charges against Contzen and Varner. Demilio’s unease deepened as Contzen pinned a laughing gaze on him. The man’s expression seemed to say, as clearly as any words could: At long last we come to it, you and I.
And: You are afraid? Good. You ought to be…
As for Contzen himself—half-naked and defeated, at the mercy of his enemies—he was utterly unafraid.
Clambering up onto the platform, a knight passed between them, allowing Demilio to tear his gaze away.
The knight, half-drunk, was swathed in a black blanket. He wore his hat turned inside out, imitating, Demilio realized, an Ilesiasan court lawyer. He cleared his throat and began to enumerate the crimes of the defendants of their followers. The crowd alternately booed and hissed. They cheered at the sentence recommended for such heinous offenses: breaking on the wheel.
Following this performance, a second knight stood to join the mummers’ circus. He affected a lisping Aterrasan accent as he argued that Contzen and Varner had been loyal to His Highness the emperor all along. How else to explain their utter incompetence other than to attribute to them the goal of undermining the peasant revolt from within? Were these two men not to thank, the knight proclaimed with a theatrical flourish, for the ease with which the peasants had been routed and crushed that morning?
Demilio marveled that claims so near the truth could be offered, and received, as high farce.
The duke stood swiftly, raising his hands for silence. “There is no need of further deliberations,” he shouted. “We find the defendants guilty of all charges.” A cheer went up. “We sentence them to breaking on the wheel!”
The cheers gave way to roaring waves of approval.
“Who shall go first, then?” the duke bellowed. “The Drakelander, or the heretic priest?”
At first the crowd was divided, but it shortly found a single voice: “Priest, priest, priest, priest!”
With this, Demilio found himself slipping, as though by reflex, into the outer circles of rapture. The chant—”… priest, priest, priest…”—seemed to lift him out of himself, wheeling him back many years and far to the south. Back to his home…
He’d been only seven years old when he first manifested raptural power. Growing up in Espinoras, he was taught to fear sorcery. Raptural arts were a cancer in the body Elaarim, an unholy pollution for which excision was the only effective treatment. In a state of near-constant terror, he managed for years to keep his raptural sensitivity secret, from his family as well as from his Macarieli schoolmasters. He was certain that they would send him away if they knew, or that the dreaded sorcerers of the Order of Dathiel would snatch him from his bed at night, as they were rumored to do with children known to possess the gift. But the force of his asomniac episodes was such that he could not forever hide what was happening to him. The visions could strike at any moment. Usually it was as though he walked in two separate worlds at once, as though he saw the present with one eye and some other place, some other time, with the other. Occasionally he would fall away from himself entirely, only to jolt back to mundane awareness, stunned and heartsick. It had been difficult, as a boy…
A group of soldiers raised a gibbet upon the platform. They hung a wagon wheel from a chain nailed to its projecting arm. Two others jerked Contzen to his feet. A man unwound a leather satchel upon a high-standing table. He was tall, thin, dressed in black coat and trousers, with white hose and a starched ruff under his chin. Soldiers stripped off the remainder of Contzen’s clothing. The black-clad man placed the end of a pair of pincers onto the coals of a brazier. Contzen grinned…
The content of Demilio’s asomniac visions varied, though he somehow knew that they all pointed to a period of less than a year. The visions were of the future, when he was much older—as old as he was now. They were generally uneventful, snippets of himself walking in disparate landscapes, standing at the rail of a ship, or seated at a writing desk, poring over scrolls covered in the writing of a multitude of hands, all somehow his own. Despite their variety, all the visions agreed in this much: even as he moved through the world, even as he read through his own scrolls by flickering candlelight, he was dead. The person in the visions was not him. In fact, the person in the visions was not even real, not even a person…
The crowd hummed in anticipation. Men crossed to and fro along the platform. In the midst of it, Contzen stood unmoving: naked, unabashed, steady on his feet, the tip of his penis just visible within a thatch of dark pubic hair. He seemed troubled neither by the cold nor by his impending torture and death…
In the visions, Demilio would sometimes come across his own name whilst reading through scrolls. He would pause curiously over the letters, as though testing them for an occult property he knew they should but did not possess: the property of mineness.
He began thinking of this future non-self as “the Stranger.”
Soldiers lifted Contzen off his feet. They pressed his back to the spokes of the wheel. Another lashed to the rim his wrists, then his ankles. Their task completed, the men stepped off the platform, leaving Contzen hanging in the air, spread-eagled, alone with the man in black. The crowd shouted encouragement and advice to the torturer, who ignored them. “Hagen!” he called.
A giant clambered into view. He was six-and-a-half-feet tall, at least, his arms as thick as most men’s legs. He carried a gnarled cudgel…
One night, shaken by a particularly violent episode, Demilio confided the truth to his mother. A pious woman, she made the sign of the Starcross over him. Her face paled, she began to weep, and he knew instantly, with a force that brooked no doubt or rebuttal, that he had crossed a bridge he could never recross. Her love would not save him. He ran from his parents’ hut, from the village in which he’d been born, out into the arms of the wider world, his secret trailing after him like a shadow…
At an offhand gesture from the torturer, the giant swung his cudgel back and down. With a crack, it shattered Contzen’s right elbow. The crowd cheered, drowning out what everyone on or near the platform heard clearly—Contzen’s hacking laughter.
The cheers faded, but the laughter remained.
The crowd fell to stunned silence. “Hit ’im again!” a man cried.
The torturer nodded. The giant swung. Contzen’s left elbow splintered under the blow. Still, the condemned man laughed. The giant swung a third time, cracking his cudgel against Contzen’s chest. Contzen strained against the leather straps at his wrists. Blood gushed from his mouth, spilled down his chest. He seemed scarce able to draw a breath. Even so, he managed to sputter in evident amusement.
An eerie quiet swept the crowd…
Two years later, in the slums of Cadrom, an old woman found Demilio amid the squalor, recognized his gift, and took him in. She claimed to belong to an ancient and secret order, the Order of Dionare. Demilio had heard of the Dionari, but only as figures from a distant and dubious past. He was brought south, across the Tyreeni Mountains into Araezo, to the Ecclesia Dionaras, a great network of chambers and passageways carved into sandstone hills overlooking the Tunias Sea. There, the Dionari cultivated his power, honed it to a fine edge. When next he emerged into the world, it was as a Zochronos, a timewalker…
The torturer’s face had gone as white as his starched ruff. He wrenched his pincers from the brazier. The knife-blade tips glowed a dull black-red. He pressed them to Contzen’s stomach. Flesh boiled against metal. Contzen’s teeth gritted, his eyes shone, but he did not cry out…
The Dionari trained Demilio to master his power. He was soon freed from the hammer blows of the asomniac visions. But nothing he learned helped him to understand the bleak future they had revealed to him, the mystery of the Stranger…
Fury twisted the torturer’s face. He wrenched the pincers free from the charred skin, swung them open. He brought the hot, sharp steel down upon Contzen’s breast in a savage bite. A chunk of flesh fell to the planks, leaving a red gash the size of a pomegranate where Contzen’s right breast had been. The wound steamed in the cold.
Contzen opened his mouth—and howled laughter…
With each passing year, Demilio drew nearer the time he had glimpsed as a child. Now, under the Moon of Sophiel on the eastern edge of Kammeras, tucked deep in the heart of the Elaarim Empire, he knew that he was approaching the uttermost edge of whatever abyss separated himself from the man—the thing—he would become…
“Daimon!” cried a man far back in the crowd. It was picked up by first one voice, then another, then dozens. “Daimon, daimon, daimon!”
Still Contzen howled in laughter. His eyes, calm behind a face twisted in anguished amusement, found Demilio again, and again they seemed to speak to him.
At long last we come to it, you and I…
In the plunging whirl of Demilio’s soul, twin chants overlapped, exhilaration and terror bleeding together: “Priest, priest—daimon, daimon—priest–daimon–priest–daimon–priest…”
Yes, Demilio thought. Yes, I am afraid…
“You too are only a man, Contzen,” says the Archbishop of Mayenz.
“No,” croaks the many-souled being. The word carries him as though on a tide. He is on his feet. “No!” he shouts. He reaches outward with his centipedal soul, is staggered by the heave and roll of unmoored infinities.
Limitless and unfathomable, the welter of possible paths weaves dizzyingly before his soul’s eye: every word, every gesture, every breath of wind—all unforeseen and unforeseeable, their temporal thread severed.
“You must listen to me!” he says—… says…—…. says…—through the howling of the Manifold within him.
Faintly, he hears an echo of the duke’s voice: “What is the meaning of this?”
“Do not be fooled!” he cries. He points at the creature who wears Tomas Contzen’s smirking face. “This is no man!”
His outburst stuns the others in the pavilion—all except Contzen.
That grin—Contzen knows!
He knows what is happening, knows they have fallen free of the clockwork of chronos and hang now in chairological space, suspended between the warp of the world and the weft of history.
Dozens of voices clamor to be heard within the many-souled being.
Contzen is not daimon-possessed—no shadow clings to him.
He must be a Dathieli sorcerer, then.
But he gives off not the slightest hint of raptural power!
If he’s not a sorcerer, then how can he know we’ve entered chairos?
It is impossible!
There remains only one explanation. This creature, no sorcerer, no daimon, is Malchidael himself. The Fallen One.
Staring at him…
The many-souled being plunges onward, falling headlong through each passing moment as though through empty air. “This is no man!” he says again. To Contzen: “Tell them your true name, Kâthest!”
With a strained, unconvincing chuckle, the archbishop says, “Well! I don’t much care for the man either, but the Kâthest? That seems rather to give him too much—”
The many-souled being pays no heed to the archbishop. “It is you, isn’t it? Malchidael…”
Contzen grins as one might in trying to charm a woman. “And is it not you I see before me? Demilio de Alcaraz, Zochronos of the Ordo Dionaras?”
“Sorcerer!” Duke Johan breathes, sketching the sign of the Starcross in the air.
“But that,” Contzen continues, “is not true either, is it? No, you are not Demilio de Alcaraz, you are no mere Zochronos. You are a Prôstistoria, Third of the Twelve. Isn’t that right—Talemai?”
Landgrave Felipe is beside him now, gripping his arm. “I don’t know what this is all about, but please, Abbé, you must—”
No, there is no ‘must,’ thinks the thinker within him. Here there is only choice…
And the choice is his, for he is rezchairos, a hinge of fate.
“I know what I must do,” says the being who is and is not Demilio de Alcaraz.
Quick as a striking snake, he reaches for the dagger hanging from the landgrave’s belt. He pinions one of Felipe’s arms. He draws the dagger from its sheath. He pivots, wrenching the other man’s shoulder up and back. Felipe’s feet go out from under him; he crashes to the ground.
“I’ll show you all what he is!” he says, sweeping forward. Something like fear—some vestige of embodied terror—flashes in Contzen’s eyes.
With the labored passing of each new moment, futures tumble into shadow behind him, shed like false skins. They lay strewn at his feet, impossible possibilities in their thousands. Falling and falling and falling away. In a heartbeat, thousands become hundreds become—one.
A dagger slips between ribs, pierces a human heart.
The word ricocheted through the crowd gathered before the Duke of Moerthe’s pavilion. Even dozens of yards from the platform, Jerome could hear the mad howling of Tomas Contzen as he rocked back and forth upon the wheel, naked, filthy, caked in blood.
It seemed as though half the crowd was pushing forward whilst the other half was struggling to get away. Huge bodies buffeted Jerome on all sides. He clung to Alessandro. “Daimon! Daimon!” rang in his ears, and he thought: The enemy…
Alessandro shouldered his way through the press. Jerome could no longer tell what direction they were headed in. All he could make out clearly was the slate-grey sky above them, with veils of low white clouds scudding across its face. It seemed a long time before the crush subsided. When it did, Jerome saw that they were about halfway to the platform. Contzen was nowhere to be seen. Hanging from its gibbet, the wheel creaked in the wind, its long leather straps fluttering.
A restless quiet settled over the crowd as those who remained tried to hear what was being said by the men thronging the platform. The duke, the landgrave, and the archbishop had all reappeared, along with a dozen or so knights, joining the giant and the white-faced torturer. They were evidently arguing about what to do with Contzen.
“Oughtn’t we to send him to the Dathieli?” said one of the knights. “Exorcism and such is their business.”
“Nonsense!” the archbishop spat. “There’s not a Dathieli within a hundred leagues of here. They are a broken and useless Order. We cannot look to them for assistance, nor ought we to.”
“We all know what must be done,” Duke Johan said impatiently. “There is only one way to kill the daimon-possessed. Is there none here to do it?” He shot a look at the torturer and his giant. “Are you truly so craven?”
The black-clad man’s voice was surprisingly high and prim. “I beg Your Grace’s pardon, but I’ll not be risking my immortal soul for any man.”
“Your Grace ought not to chide this fool for cowardice or insubordination,” said the archbishop, “but for impiety. It is superstition to believe that daimons possess the nearest warm body upon fleeing their human hosts.”
“Your Holiness may be right,” the torturer said. “But then why does His Grace not wield the blade himself?”
“Outrageous!” the duke cried. “I am lord of the dukedom of Moerthe, not an executioner!”
“Indeed,” the archbishop said. “It would not be proper.” He raked the gathered knights with his gaze. “Who will do this deed? Hmm? Who will take the daimon’s head? Come, who amongst you will see his lord’s will carried out?”
Jerome felt Alessandro stirring beside him. Here was exactly what they had sought all these years: an opportunity to kill Tomas Contzen. They could scarce have imagined that they might simply be asked to do it. But now it seemed wrong, freighted as it was with dread and uncertainty. The abbé had said that he felt sorcery around Contzen, but had denied that the man was a sorcerer. Mayhap he was indeed daimon-possessed, as everyone believed. But in that case, wasn’t it the daimon, and not Tomas Contzen, who was responsible for Father’s death? Short of successful exorcism, Contzen must be killed, certainly; but doing so would not kill the daimon within him. All it would accomplish for certes was to put Alessandro at risk. Jerome couldn’t bear the thought of losing his brother. But the thought of losing him to the very being that had betrayed Father…
None gave in to the archbishop’s cajolery. The prelate’s face darkened. “Does the cancer of supersition run so deep?”
From the front of the crowd, a man called out, “Why not bind ’im in chains, fasten stones to ’im, an’ toss ’im in the river? That ought to do for ’im well enough!”
The suggestion was met with a spattering of approval.
“Absolutely not!” the archbishop hollered. “He must be killed. Who will do it? Anyone?”
“I’ll do it for ten gold pieces,” said a second man in the crowd.
“I’ll do it for five!” shouted another.
“Bloody mercenaries,” the duke grated. “I shan’t pay as much as a copper penny!”
Jerome had only a split-second’s warning. He grabbed at Alessandro, said, “Alessan, no!” But his brother paid him no mind. His arm shot up. He called out, “I’ll do it for nothing.”
With dizzying suddenness, the matter was settled. The duke set Contzen’s execution for sunset. The crowd dispersed. In a daze, Jerome followed Alessandro into the archbishop’s well-lit, arras-draped pavilion. The two brothers stood facing the table at which sat the duke, the archbishop, and Landgrave Felipe, who looked as flustered as Jerome felt.
Jerome didn’t realize that Demilio was there with them until the duke said to him, “Boy, what are you standing around for? Attend your master.”
The abbé was sitting behind a writing desk in a back corner of the pavilion. The dutiful historicist, even now.
“This is my brother,” Alessandro declared.
“Yes, yes, of course,” said the archbishop. “I see the resemblance now. How curious! A Lancerman and an apprentice Sophieli—one who is eager to put an end to Tomas Contzen, whilst the other Contzen knew by name. Very curious indeed!” Pitching his voice, the archbishop said, “What part do you play in this strange happenstance, historicist?”
The abbé replied without pausing in his work. “I have known both boys since the subduing of the Astarimi revolt, Your Holiness.”
“And the coincidences multiply! Unless I am terribly mistaken, it was our very own Tomas Contzen who stood at the center of that abomination. Did you know aught of these unlikely connections, Lord Felipe?”
The landgrave turned stunned eyes on the archbishop. “Me? I hadn’t the slightest idea. How could I have?”
“Mmm, yes, how true,” the archbishop said unctuously. “My lord is most certainly an innocent in this. But what of you, Alessandro and Jerome Casterdi? And you too, of course, my dear Sophieli. What did the daimon say? Oh yes. ‘He is one of us’ were his words, I believe. Cease your inane scribbling and attend to me!”
Jerome watched Demilio place his pen in the inkpot and come forward. It felt as though his chest were being squeezed between two boulders. The situation was rapidly spiralling out of control. What would the abbé do?
“What are you suggesting?” Felipe asked the archbishop.
“His Holiness feigns to believe that I too may be daimon-possessed,” Demilio replied, standing beside Jerome now.
Visibly gathering his wits, Felipe said disbelievingly, “Because of what Contzen said? That’s madness!”
“Don’t play the fool, boy,” said the duke. “The dread Nephaoth may possess anyone.”
“Yes,” Felipe agreed. “Perhaps Your Grace is currently in their thrall, or me myself!”
“Now you truly are playing the fool, Felipe,” the archbishop cut in. “We have every reason to suspect these three. The execution cannot proceed until this matter is settled.”
Calmly, Demilio asked, “And what precisely does Your Holiness imagine himself capable of doing, were we all to be revealed as agents of the Kâthest?”
The archbishop fingered the ornate Starcross that hung against the breast of his purple robes. “Do not underestimate the might of holy Thoriel. Evil cannot touch us whilst I am here.”
The abbé pulled his own Starcross from a pocket of his robes. “I have one of those as well, Your Holiness.” He held it out. The Starcross’s lack of ostentation was not the only way in which it differed from the archbishop’s: it had crossbars at east, north, and west; its bottom tip tapered to a point; and most tellingly, it bore at its axis a diamond enclosing a square enclosing a diamond enclosing a square.
An ancient design, it was now common enough to be recognized by many.
“That’s a Dionari Starcross,” Felipe said.
“It is as I suspected,” the archbishop mused. “They are all heretics. But is that the extent of their perfidy? This is the question we must now confront. Why would they wish to be the ones to execute Contzen? I suggest we bring in our mutiliated friend, to see what light—so to speak—he can shed upon this particular darkness.”
“You want to bring Contzen here?” Felipe sputtered.
Looking unhappy with this latest turn of events, the duke pulled on his beard, then shouted a command. Two knights ducked into the pavilion, received barking orders. A few minutes later, Tomas Contzen, still naked, was dragged through the flap. A stench of vomit and excrement wafted ahead of him. The knights poured him onto a bench. One of them had to hold him up from behind. His arms and legs flopped at odd angles, as though he were a limp marionette.
A half-dozen more knights filed in, swords drawn. Together they formed a ring of steel around Contzen, who smiled at them. “A drop or two of wine, mayhap?” he asked the room in a hoarse whisper, swiveling his neck this way and that. “No? Too much to hope for? Ah well. So be it…”
Jerome felt blood thudding in his head. He’d not been this close to Contzen since before the fall of Astarim. It seemed an age of the world ago, yet somehow ever present as well.
Alessandro shaking him awake. Thin midnight chill. The sound of heavy footfalls downstairs. Men’s shouts.
They’re coming for Father…
Alessandro saying, “Hide under the bed. Don’t make a sound…”
The memories cataracted through him. His insides thrummed as though his spine were a plucked lute string. He quivered, but not with sorrow or fear or even hatred. In the corner of his eyes, he glimpsed what seemed to be tendrils of light spilling down and down. He’d felt this before, knew it for what it was.
He was slipping into rapture.
“It is fortunate for all of you,” Demilio said, “that this man is not daimon-possessed. Were he, your swords would not avail you.”
Contzen nodded as though at a surprising display of good sense. “That’s true.”
“We shan’t be distracted by your feeble attempts at obfustication, heretic,” the archbishop retorted. To Contzen, he said, “You know these three, yes?”
“Certainly.” He inclined his head in their direction. “Abbé, boys.”
Jerome felt as though he were back within the teeming crush of bodies before the platform. The world seemed to be warped at the edges. Voices near and far, present and absent, whirled around him. He clung to his brother’s arm for support.
“And you know them,” the archbishop was saying, “to be adherents of the Dionite heresy?”
“Oh, most assuredly, Your High Holiness,” Contzen said happily.
“And are not they—indeed, are not all true Dionari—agents of the Kâthest, as you are?”
Jerome watched as the sunlit cracks in the air spiderwebbed outward. It was as though they stood now under a dome invisible and crumbling. A smell like sulfur suffused the pavilion. A soundless voice—the abbé’s voice—pierced the din: “This is no man! Tell them your true name, Kâthest…”
None of the others, not even Demilio, seemed aware of what was happening.
Rose the First, thought a voice within Jerome’s soul.
There came a burning on his wrist. He turned his hand over. Vaguely, he could see what appeared to be three tiny rose blossoms etched upon his skin, arranged like an arrowhead pointing toward his palm.
What’s happening? he thought frantically, and a voice—his own voice—sounded within him as though in answer: Rezchairos…
He’d never heard the word before, hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant, or even if it meant anything at all.
“That is a question,” Tomas Contzen was saying, “far more difficult to answer than Your Worship realizes.”
“It seems straightforward enough to me,” the archbishop shot back. “Are they or are they not agents of the Kâthest? Is or is not the Dionite heresy itself a tool of Malchidael the Fallen?”
“Why should we believe anything this creature says?” the landgrave interjected. “This whole exercise is pointless!”
“I fear,” Demilio said, “that in this moment we may all be acting as tools of the great enemy.”
Rose the First, Jerome thought. The sorcerer pierces the enemy’s heart, yet it is the sorcerer who dies…
The enemy. It was not Contzen after all, not in truth…
Again the abbé’s voice—a voice only Jerome could hear—echoed through the pavilion as though from a great distance: “It is you, isn’t it? Malchidael…”
“What do you mean?” the duke demanded of Demilio.
To Contzen, the abbé said, “Tell them.”
“Tell us what?” the archbishop spat.
“His true name.” To Contzen: “Tell them.”
“You first, Abbé,” Contzen replied. “Tell them who you truly are.”
A sudden blaze of light caused Jerome to stagger back against his brother. He flinched, raised his hands before his face.
“What is going on?” the duke shouted.
Behind Contzen, a section of the pavilion wall—like a great gash in the skin of the world—glowed with piercing daylight. It was as though there were another pavilion wall underneath the first, like a painted-over image. It fluttered in the air like a wind-whipped banner.
“Demilio de Alcaraz,” Contzen said, his voice somehow doubled in Jerome’s ears, “Zochronos of the Ordo Dionaras…”
“Sorcerer!” the duke shouted.
As Jerome watched, hairline fractures radiated outward from the sunlit gash, like the buckling of river ice. They grew fatter, like a dry delta inundated with water, and began to run together. More lighted shapes pooled through the cracks all around him, closing him in, swallowing the world, bit by bit, replacing it with another.
Felipe was on his feet behind the trestle table. “Please, we must—”
Then the white light overtook him, and he vanished.
“I know what I must do,” the abbé said. Somehow Felipe was beside him now, bathed in the otherworldly white light.
Jerome pulled at Alessandro’s arm. “We must get out of here!” he cried.
Alessando turned startled eyes on him. “Jerome?” he said, puzzled.
“Hurry, Alessan!” Jerome pulled at his brother’s arm again. But the whiteness overtook them, and Alessandro turned to mist under his fingers.
The abbé knocked Felipe to the ground. He was clutching a dagger, sun-bright, in his hand. “I’ll show you all what he is!” he cried and strode forward, through the vanishing haze that had been the circle of knights, straight for Tomas Contzen, who was standing now, dressed, unbroken.
Demilio plunged the blade of the dagger into Contzen’s chest.
Jerome watched, transfixed, as Abbé Demilio staggered back.
The hilt of the landgrave’s dagger protruded from Contzen’s chest. The creature swayed on his feet, holding his arms out at either side. He lifted his gaze. His eyes were pale now, ringed in glittering yellow, like golden bands pressed into fresh-fallen snow. His lips peeled back, revealing twisted black teeth. He began to howl with laughter. “Yes! Yessssss!”
“Daimon!” Wilhelm Gott cried. “Daimon!”
The creature was still cackling when fissures of pure white light began to streak through the pavilion, as if through cracks in the mortar of the world. In the next instant, Jerome heard the abbé unfurl his sorcerous song. The impossible sound of the melic chant punched the air like a thunderclap. A dozen voices at least, all of them the abbé’s, wove together like plaitwork. It was the most elaborate polyechoic trope Jerome had ever heard. Zochronos sorcery flooded the pavilion. It felt as though his soul were being stretched on the rack, as though the three roses upon his wrist were multiplying, spreading across his skin like a burning pox. At the same time, a sort of giddy thrill rushed through him.
The abbé, his figure ablaze with the same light that was falling all around them, leaped at Contzen.
Rezchairos, Jerome thought. A bridging of worlds…
“Abbé, no!” he cried. Without thinking, he jumped after Demilio. He wasn’t sure if he intended to pull the abbé back or fall upon Contzen himself.
Neither would have been possible.
He took two steps—and fell face-forward into an ivory abyss.
The World slips…
He came to, blind, a pain unlike anything he’d felt before cutting diagonally across his forehead. He lay supine upon a soft, uneven surface. He did not open his eyes, fearing to worsen his agony, and tried to remember what had happened.
“Who is this boy?” shouted a voice. “And what is wrong with him?”
Yes, thought a thinker within him, who am I? What is wrong with me?
“I apologize, my lords,” said a familiar voice. “He is my apprentice.”
Another voice, this one oily and aggressive, said, “I don’t recall any apprentice accompanying you, Sophieli.”
Hands gripped him by the shoulders, tried to lift him up.
“Apologies, my lords,” the familiar voice said. It came again, softly now, close to his ear. “You are Jerome Casterdi. You must stand. Jerome, stand up! You are Jerome Casterdi…”
The hands were strong. He could not resist them. He opened his eyes. The world smeared across his vision like fresh paint across a canvas.
“What’s the matter with him?” asked yet another voice. “Is he ill?”
“No, my lord. These fits come upon him from time to time. He shall recover.”
“Until he does,” said the oily voice, “you’d best see to him—somewhere else.”
“Yes, of course, Your Holiness, of course.”
The blurred figure pulled him to his feet, held him up.
I am Jerome Casterdi, came a thought-among-thoughts.
No, I am Jerome Casterdi, came another.
“Come, Jerome,” the familiar voice said. “You must try to walk.”
Gradually, he began to make out shapes in the lamplit whirl. He was in a huge pavilion. In front of him, three men sat behind a trestle table. A fourth man stood before them. He regarded Jerome with concern.
Alessandro! The thought blazed through him, drowning out all else. He tried to pull away from the hands grasping him. “Alessan,” he croaked. “W-w-what—?”
“You know this boy?” asked one of the seated men.
Alessandro frowned. “No, Your Grace. I’ve not seen him before in my life.”
With that, the bottom seemed to fall out of the world. He staggered. Tears wetted his face. “No,” he croaked—“No-no-no-no…”—as strong hands carried him from the pavilion, out into cold, snow-tasseled twilight.
“Look,” the man said, grasping his wrist, and he looked.
In the gloaming, he could just make out three red rose blossoms tattooed beneath his palm.
“When did you receive the three roses?”
“I don’t—I… I…”
“Search your memories. You are Jerome Casterdi…”
He searched his memories. But within him he found naught by chaos and contradiction. Fragments of lives not his own.
“You are Jerome Casterdi.”
Men were crowding into the wide, open space between pavilions. Atop a platform, torches hissed and spit to either side of a headsman’s block. A great wheel hung from a gibbet.
I’ve been here before…
“Alessan,” he said. “Why does he not know me?”
“Search your memories. You bear the three roses. What does that mean?”
Faces flashed before his soul’s eye. I exist for them no longer. It was the price I paid…
“The Lifting has followed you into this world, Jerome. Alessandro has no memory of you. Nor does your mother, nor anyone else from your previous life. Search your memories!”
He slumped against the man, against Demilio de Alcaraz. Through a blur of tears, he looked up into the abbé’s face. This is not him, a voice within him insisted. This man is a stranger to me…
“Who are we?” he said.
Men began to file onto the platform. One—naked, beaten, and mutiliated—was dragged to the block, forced down upon it.
Tomas Contzen, he thought. The enemy…
Then there appeared the man who was and was not his brother. Alessandro carried a two-handed broadsword. An ugly weapon, notched and seamed in torchlight.
“Why are we here?” Jerome asked.
The man who was and was not Demilio de Alcaraz did not answer.
Jerome watched as Alessandro raised the broadsword into the air, brought it down. A gasp went up from the crowd. The blade had landed awkwardly; it succeeded only in mangling the back of Contzen’s neck. The condemned man’s cackle rose into the darkling sky.
Flustered, Alessandro raised the sword again, again made an awkward stroke. Another gasp, and still there came the mad howling of impossible laughter. Snow drifted down like cinders in the firelit night. In the distance, an owl hooted. A river rumbled through the darkness. Again Alessandro brought the sword down. This time it landed true, biting deep into the headsman’s block.
All at once, the inhuman sound of Contzen’s howling cut off. His head tumbled down. For a moment, nothing moved within the spill of torchlight save for falling snow. Then, with a sound like parchment curling in a fire, Contzen’s body hardened, turned grey-white, and collapsed. Only his severed head remained.
Alessandro bent down, pinched the substance between his fingers. “Salt,” he said.
Jerome looked up at Demilio—… This is not him, this is a stranger…—and he thought, Yet it is the sorcerer who dies…