[For introductory information, go here.]
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
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. Monks passing to and from the domarchon churned the cloister grounds to mud. Within, the cold breathed through shutters, wormed into cracks chipping the mortar of ancient stone walls.
Tucked into a fold of the Krossenmark hills, Gothaas monastery had belonged to the Order of Sophiel for six centuries. Yet the monks who lived there now were not Sophieli, not in truth. They had come from across the Elaarim Empire, and beyond. From Andevas and Torun in the north, from Ilanavaras and Aterras in the south, from the Brytari Isles and Espinoras and even, in the case of Abbot Nizar, from distant Kaanía itself, home to their true order, their clandestine order—the Order of Dionare.
They had come to Gothaas to reclaim. To restore.
Beneath the teetering bulk of buildings and crumbling walls, the monks had spent decades pitting and tunneling the earth, sifting the detritus and debris of forgotten ages. The Dionari were conducting similar searches in dozens of locations across the Continent, but the monks of Gothaas were convinced that here they would find that which had been lost to them—lost to the world—for so long: the Codicil Arcanum, the sacred text of the Living Goddess, Dionare.
Should they succeed in unearthing a copy of the Codicil, the monks would require a Zochronos sorcerer to begin deciphering it. Gothaas had been home to dozens of Zochronosi over the years, but all agreed that the latest—he had arrived earlier in the year, as spring deepened into summer—was different. He was less inclined to talk or laugh. Less willing to engage in the daily life of the monastery. Less human, somehow.
Even to their fellow Dionari, Zochronosi were elusive and little understood. If any of the monks of Gothaas had met one 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 sorcerer with the kind 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.
The sorcerer’s behavior grew more erratic the longer he lived amongst them. Now, with autumn upon them, he rarely left his cell on the top floor of the dormitory. He no longer bathed. He ate little, but drank copious amounts of wine, ale, and the blacksmith’s enervating mead. He could be heard talking, shouting, debating at all hours, day and night, 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.
Abbot Nizar addressed these 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 Abbot Nizar was growing concerned about Martyn Casmer, the Zochronos in their midst. Mayhap, he was beginning to think, Gothaas’s secrets ought best to remain buried.
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. But not here, not within the webbed crosshatching of the sidereas board. Here, time keeps circling back around to the beginning.
How many times has the Constellation of Octumnel wiped the board clear of his tiles? How many times has his Opponent formed the Constellation of Elestor—a virtually unheard-of move—wiping the board of his own tiles?
How many times has time started again?
He lays his first tile. Always in a different place, initiating a different strategy. But the Opponent’s strategy never wavers. 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.
“Don’t be frustrated,” the Opponent says. “Persevere…”
He is skilled at sidereas, has played the game 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 times. Instead, he wipes the board clear and they start again.
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 are removed from the board. When he tries to copy the Opponent’s counterstrategy, still the tentacles of Octumnel fall into place and the board is cleared of his tiles. One move later, the Constellation of Elestor empties the board of all tiles—except, of course, for the unmoving King, which occupies the center of the web and belongs to neither player.
“You want me to win,” he says.
“Then why have I not lost?” the Opponent replies.
“You do not want me to lose.”
A shadowy grin, an errant wave of the hand. “Winning, losing. No. It is the game that holds my interest.”
“But why? Your strategy’s always the same.”
“‘Why?’ you ask? ‘The same,’ you say? Martyn, Martyn! All the vast cosmos is naught but mere repetition. Didn’t you know? Wheels spinning within wheels within twirling wheels…” He sighs. “I seek the same prize as all you humans.”
“And what is that?”
He lays his first tile. Again, the trap closes.
“But there is no ‘escape’—nowhere to escape to. That is your greatest lie. The Goddess shows us that the Beyond lies Within.”
“It is the game, Martyn. The game!”
He lays his first tile.
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 tilt in unaccustomed directions. The Opponent sits more erect, chews his lower lip. The Constellation of Octumnel—the great Derealization move—comes less easily. Once, he achieves the Constellation of Ferathel for himself, introducing an Aristocrat of his own onto the board.
“One level away,” the Opponent says with a hint of admiration.
Eventually he gets his Queen. But again the trap closes around him. 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 leads to the same outcome, leads back to the beginning.
He lays his first tile.
The usual way one wins a game of sidereas is by forming the Constellation of Thoriel, which captures the King. But that is not the only way. 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 adversary, and he hasn’t attempted it in years. But he has long since run out of strategies for capturing the King directly.
The Opponent’s shadowy lips peel back. “This is new!”
Again the trap closes.
He lays his first tile.
“You grow gaunt,” the Opponent says. “You must eat, keep up your strength.”
He will not be distracted.
Two days later, it happens.
One round before the Opponent would have jumped his Cavalry into place, forming the Constellation of Octumnel, he moves his Queen clear across the board, to the far left corner.
A grin stretches 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.”
“And the stakes?”
The Opponent nods, 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 dew from a petal. “As promised. Pages one-hundred-forty-three and one-hundred-forty-four of the Codex Lysis transcription of the Codicil Arcanum.”
He takes the page in shaking hands.
Upon both sides, ancient Calyeoric text crowds a confusion of graphs and mysterious glyphs. On the back side, there is 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 surviving texts.
The most important page of the Arcanum of the Goddess.
A key to the impenetrable door of the Unlived Past.
“Persist,” the Opponent says and chuckles as though he has made a joke.
But Martyn Casmer does not hear, for he is quite alone.
Part One: The Worlding
It seems to me that I have become a statue on the banks of the river of time, that I am the spectator of some mystery, and shall issue from it old, or no longer capable of age…
– Henri Frédéric Amiel, THE JOURNAL INTIME
Here, then, we have a struggle against an enemy, to vanquish whom is really to suffer defeat, where victory in one consciousness is really lost in its opposite. Consciousness of life, of its existence and activity, is only an agonizing over this existence and activity, for therein it is conscious that its essence is only its opposite, is conscious only of its own nothingness.
– G.W.F. Hegel, THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF SPIRIT
1532, Moon of Sophiel (Late Autumn), The Electorate of Moerthe
A pair of figures emerged from the eastern edge of the forest. They halted, looking down into the river valley below them. The scene was tranquil, like a painting, softened by mist and dawn. They could see two military encampments, 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.
Jerome Casterdi glanced over at his master. “We’re not too late, then,” he said, his voice heavy with exhaustion.
“I fear we are,” said Abbé Demilio de Alcaraz. He pointed. “Look.”
Jerome squinted. He could see movement between the camps. A trumpet blared, sounding the charge. He flinched.
“Come,” the abbé said and began to lead his pack-mule down the slope. Jerome tugged at the reins of his own burdened beast. Together, the two men and their animals wended their way into the river valley, toward where the day’s slaughter had begun.
Though only fourteen, Jerome was accustomed to covering long distances on foot. He had been apprenticed to Abbé Demilio for two and a half years. In that time, they had crossed and recrossed the Continent, from the black forests 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. He double-stepped more than once to keep his feet under him. Somehow, though, he managed to avoid the seeming inevitability of flopping unconscious onto the frozen ground at his mule’s hooves.
They found the pavilions of the nobility near the edge of the imperial encampment. The wind had picked up. Clouds were moving in from the east, rolling back the dawn. The smell of smoke hung thick in the air. In the spaces between tents, Jerome caught glimpses of black-cloaked tongues of flame. His mule jerked at the reins, but a few soothing words got her moving again.
Behind a pavilion flying the Ram of Moerthe, a cluster of men were watching the progress of the battle from atop a hillock. Two of them were dressed distinctively enough that Jerome could pick them out even at fifty yards. The tall man in the black breeches and bright red coat could only be Landgrave Felipe of Masadt. Beside him, a blotch of purple stitched against the clouds, was Albrecht von Cöln, Archbishop of Mayenz.
Jerome and Demilio tied their mules to a hitching post, climbed the grassy slope. Soldiers closed in around them as they approached the cluster of noblemen. Landgrave Felipe—young, thin-faced, with a forked beard and a hooked nose—waved the guards back and stepped forward, hand outstretched. “You’re late,” he said, smiling.
“Apologies, my lord,” the abbé replied, taking the landgrave’s hand. “But it seems I’ve not missed all the morning’s excitement.”
Jerome turned toward the scene playing out in the middle distance. At its center stood the wagon-fort of the peasant army, engulfed in roaring arcs of flame. Everywhere, mounted knights were cutting down unarmed peasants. Those peasants still on their feet were fleeing east, the empire’s mercenaries harrying them on all sides, toward and ultimately into the river. The scene looked less like a battle than like a raid upon an unsuspecting village.
“The rebellion is finished,” the archbishop said as though hastening at once to the final word on the matter. “Thoriel smiles upon what has been accomplished here today.”
“Mayhap,” Felipe shot back, “but not upon the means undertaken to achieve it!”
The exchange, Jerome thought, had the air of an argument long abandoned yet continually, fatalistically rehearsed.
To Felipe, the abbé said, “You disapprove of what your father-in-law has done.”
“It is a question of tactics,” the archbishop offered by way of explanation.
“Tactics!” Felipe laughed mirthlessly. “Trickery, subterfuge. There is no honor in it! It was I who arranged the truce. It was I who gave the peasant commanders 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.
“He is still young, monk,” said the archbishop. “And the world is changing. But he’ll learn.”
“Their voices ought to be heard!” Felipe insisted.
The archbishop sighed, like a man resigned to bearing a manageable but irritating burden. “I suppose you shall be their voice now, monk. 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.”
The abbé offered no reply to the Archbishop of Mayenz.
Strong easterly winds had dragged a sheet of clouds over the sky. The first 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 carpeting the earth, at the men hunting and hunted, and he thought of what the abbé had once told him, that all the cosmos is but repetition, day and night, winter and summer, life and death, 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.
His soul is more than human, and less. It watches and listens, sees and hears beyond the mortal compass, but touches and is touched by nothing in the world.
The world… An emptiness, less even than the dreams that crowd mortal sleep.
He knows what it means to sleep, though he has never slept. How could he, when there is no world into which he might awaken?
How can one dream when all is a dream?
He is one, and he is many, his soul like a shaft of light splintered in crystal, a dizzying multiplicity spoking time and worlds. There, the night is smudged with chalky forest moonlight; here, day gleams with a clarity as of alpine heights. There, he trudges down desolate roads, stretches his legs before a fire, snaps a man’s neck in a crowded street.
Whereas here, he sits at a side-table in a cavernous pavilion, breathes river air, scratches the inky tip of a quill along parchment, recording the words that are—…will be…—…have been…—spoken by Tomas Contzen.
Within him, passions fair and foul crowd the depths of his soul. 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.
For all is emptiness.
He can hear the low rumble of men’s voices beneath the sighing wind. A hundred yards to the east lies the wagon-fort of the peasant army. Though far from their peak of a few months earlier, the rebels still number over fifteen-thousand. A hundred yards in the opposite direction, the imperial army of the Hegasan League—smaller, but composed almost entirely of battle-hardened Variasan mercenaries—restlessly awaits the end of the truce, preferring attack or withdrawal to huddling over campfires whilst their employers parley with heretical farmers.
The fates of both groups hinge on the words exchanged by the men seated around the trestle table at the pavilion’s center. To a man, they are cold, far from home. All of them, with the exception of their host, the Archbishop of Mayenz, have shed men’s blood within the past day, and all of them expect further bloodshed to follow soon.
He knows this as he knows the facts of his own birth—a thousand births—as he knows the flight of the arrow that will take his life, the noose that chokes him, the grapple–scrape–fall, the myriad red deaths that will—…are….—…have …—plunged down his eyes.
How they cling, thinks the thinker within him. How they love. How they despair.
How they sleep…
That morning, dawn breaks—…broke…—will break clear and cold over the Electorate of Moerthe. Frost glistened on the brittle grasses carpeting the valley floor. If he turns back he can see the icy stain, just as he can peer ahead and discern the red lance that will arc the west at sunset. With every moment—every flicker of the Goddess’s eye—he pulls free of himself, only to plunge back into himself. He strides ahead of himself even as he lingers behind.
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.
The lines come together and separate and come together again, a tangle knotted beyond reckoning.
When they 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.
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 in this place 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.
As a Sophieli historicist, it is his task 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 quill along parchment, recording the words that are—…will be…—…have been…—spoken by Tomas Contzen.
He thinks—…has thought…—…will think…—that he has found—…finds…—…will find…—his destiny here, though he cannot be certain.
For some truths escape the ambit even of a gaze as far-reaching as his own.
The ground was covered in a layer of heavy snow when Duke Johan and his men returned from the devastation of the peasant army. Jerome and the abbé stood with the archbishop, Landgrave Felipe, and a handful of the landgrave’s liegemen in the open space between the pavilions of the nobility.
A group of knights and mercenaries trailed the duke, who gestured back at them, said, “I suddenly find myself inclined to negotiate!”
The mounted knights made way for a group of men-at-arms. They led two men forward, ropes around their necks, hands bound before them.
“What of the Kammerasan?” the archbishop said.
A man lumbered forward, a body slung over one shoulder. With a grunt, he tossed his burden to the ground.
“I split his skull with mine own sword,” the duke said, “as you can see.”
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, looked away from the mutilated corpse.
In the aftermath of battle, Duke Johan gave his mercenaries 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 wore or 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, many laughing, exulting in some precious find. 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.
The festivities’ main attraction took the form of a mock trial, with Duke Johan and three other lords presiding. Seating on a platform that had been erected before the archbishop’s pavilion, the four judges listened with frowning gravity as a soldier read the charges against Bertel Varner and Tomas Contzen. The two prisoners had been stripped to their waists, knelt shivering at the platform’s edge.
A young, half-drunk knight stood to join the cast of the mummers’ play. He was swathed in black, his hat turned inside out, in imitation of an Ilesiasan lawyer. The crowd booed the charges and cheered the recommended sentence: breaking on the wheel. A second knight, costumed similarly to the first, stood for the defense. He affected a lisping Aterrasan accent as he argued that Varner and Contzen 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?
During this speech, the crowd alternately booed and cackled.
The judges made a show of solemn conference. When they were finished, Duke Johan stood, raising his hands for silence. “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 shouted. “The Drakelander, or the heretic priest?”
At first the crowd was divided, but it shortly found a single voice: “Priest, priest, priest, priest!”
A group of soldiers raised a gibbet, hung a wagon wheel from a chain nailed to the projecting arm. Two others jerked Contzen to his feet. The noblemen stepped aside. A soldier hauled away the bench on which they’d been sitting, whilst another replaced it with a high-standing table. A man Jerome hadn’t noticed before unwound a leather satchel upon the table. He was tall, thin, dressed in black coat and trousers, with white hose and a starched white ruff under his chin. As soldiers stripped off the remainder of Contzen’s clothing, the man placed the blackened ends of a pair of pincers onto a brazier’s smoldering coals.
All around Jerome and the abbé, 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.
The soldiers lifted Contzen off his feet, pressed his back to the spokes of the wheel. Another lashed to the rim his wrists, then his ankles. Their task completed, the men jumped down from the platform, leaving Contzen hanging in the air, spread-eagled, alone with the man in black.
Men in the crowd shouted encouragement and advice to the torturer, who ignored them. “Hagen!” he called.
A giant clambered onto the platform. He was six-and-a-half-feet tall, at least, his arms as thick as most men’s legs. He carried a gnarled cudgel in one hand.
The crowd quieted.
At an offhand gesture from the torturer, Hagen swung his cudgel back and down. With a crack, it shattered Contzen’s right elbow. The crowd cheered, drowning out what Jerome, the abbé, and 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. An icy shiver ran down Jerome’s spine.
“Hit ’em again!” a man cried.
The torturer nodded. Hagen 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. The prisoner convulsed, straining 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.
Jerome tugged at the abbé’s sleeve, whispered, “What’s happening?”
Without taking his eyes off Contzen, the abbé said, “Do you not feel it?”
“What? What’s coming?”
The abbé, his attention fixed on Contzen, seemed not to have heard Jerome’s question.
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 the metal. Contzen’s teeth gritted, his eyes shone, but he did not cry out.
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.
“Daimon!” cried a man far back in the crowd. It was picked up by first one voice, then another, then dozens.
“For the life of me,” Tomas Contzen said to the men gathered around the trestle table in the Archbishop of Mayenz’s pavilion, “I cannot identify the source of our disagreement. We could not have set out our grievances in a plainer manner than we do here”—he jabbed a forefinger onto the manuscript lying before him—“in our twelve articles. We have published them. We have sent copies to the elector, to Archduke Dürand, and to His Majesty the emperor. Yet from these esteemed lords we’ve received no reply. Were the manuscripts intercepted, perchance by you and your men, Duke Johan?”
Hovering over the abbé’s shoulder, Jerome glanced back and forth from the men seated around the trestle table to the lines of historicist shorthand inching along the parchment under Demilio’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 his quill-tip into the inkpot.
“Enough!” growled Johan, Duke of Moerthe, commander of the imperial army. “It is not our purpose to address peasant grievances. No one here”—he gestured with a sweep of his hand, taking in his son-in-law, Landgrave Felipe of Masadt, and Archbishop Albrecht von Cöln—“has authority to approve, let alone to 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 transcribing. Jerome watched as he completed the account of Duke Johan’s words, then moved 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.
“How—how do you…? Where and from whom did you learn that?” the duke sputtered.
The landgrave frowned at his father-in-law, said, “This is true?”
The duke ignored Felipe. Through clenched teeth, he 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 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 may return unmolested to your villages, with our guarantee that the archduke shall pursue no 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 hadn’t noticed the abbé stop writing, glanced down at the parchment, read: If you must attend us, Sophieli, you may as well discharge your task.
The abbé met the archbishop’s gaze. “Of course, Your Grace,” he said, began to write, Forget the…
“Forget the bloody Sophieli!” Wilhelm Gott said.
The abbé spent a few coppers on a skin of malmsey and four skewers of lamb and onions. He found them firewood and, in the deserted outskirts of the camp, an unclaimed fire-pit half-buried in snow. Huddling close to the flames, 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 wet snowfall continued to collect on the shoulders of his cloak.
Sitting opposite Jerome, the abbé ate nothing, sat in brooding silence. He looked… troubled. Jerome had never before seen the abbé so much as uneasy.
As far as the world was concerned, Demilio was but one more itinerant historicist of the Order of Sophiel: a worker sent out from the great hive—the Kosmos Biblioth—to collect the events of men, to witness and record the passage of history in the scrolls that weighed down the backs of their mules. But he was more than that, far more.
Demilio de Alcaraz was a Zochronos sorcerer—a timewalker of the Order of Dionare.
Zochronosi, in Jerome’s experience, were never uneasy, never troubled. Yet now the abbé looked like a man haunted.
“Did you know?” Jerome asked, wiped grease from his chin.
The abbé’s gaze shot up, as though Jerome had startled him. Another oddity. “Did I know what?”
“That Contzen is daimon-possessed.”
“He is not daimon-possessed.”
“But…” Jerome flung his hands into the air. “We all saw it!”
“I’m not sure what we saw.”
That was not at all what Jerome had expected to hear. Frowning, he said, “When they were torturing Contzen, you said ‘it’s coming.’ What did you mean? What’s coming?”
“Ah. Yes. Well…” The abbé drew a heavy sigh, stared into the flames. “In truth, I’m not sure. But I have a strong suspicion…”
Jerome huffed in frustration. As a Zochronos, the abbé was able to induce rapture, was able to pierce the veil of the present, disclosing the temporal horizon of his life or the lives of others. How, then, could he fail to know what was going to happen?
Lowering his voice to a whisper, Jerome said, “You’re a Zochronos, abbé. You can see what’s going to happen!”
“I see nothing, Jerome. I am rapture-blind.”
Jerome had never heard of such a thing. Raptural trances, he knew, were dreamlike in a number of respects. When the trances lifted, sorcerers often found it difficult to recall the details of what they had seen. The nearer in time a rapturally glimpsed future, the sharper a sorcerer’s memory of it tended to be. Their immediate futures, then, ought to lay open to the abbé’s sorcerous gaze.
“Rapture-blind?” Jerome said. “What does that mean?”
The abbé peered hard into the flames. “I cannot be certain. Most likely, it means we’re in rezchairos.”
Jerome had never heard of that either.
“You’d have learned these things in time,” the abbé said. “I suspect, however, that you’re soon to know all about it—and not because of anything I tell you.”
“All about what?”
The abbé’s gaze rose from the flames, fixed upon Jerome—two orange pools in the gathering night. “Our world, Jerome, is but one of numberless worlds. They are strung like warp-threads along the great loom of the cosmos.” He gestured, as though running fingers along the imagined cosmic loom. “Every possible world—every possible dice-roll of the fates—exists. Within any given world, events are guided by the unwavering hand of chronos. Even the slightest deviation in its unfolding would render a world indistinguishable—identical—to some other world. This cannot be, lest the very fabric of the cosmos begin to unravel. Each world is unique such that it cannot but be as it is.”
Pleased that the abbé had hit upon something he’d already learned, Jerome said, “The future is as unalterable as the past. Yes, I know. But what is rezchairos?”
“Chronos is worldly time. Chairos is sacred time. It is the weft wound through and across the warp of worlds, knitting together the fabric of the cosmos. History—true, sacred history—moves not within worlds, but between them. It is a progression from one possibility to another, and it hangs free of chronos. Do you understand?”
“I—I think so,” Jerome said half-heartedly. In fact, he was quite sure he didn’t understand half of what the abbé had just told him.
“When chairos shifts from one world to another, it’s called rezchairos—a hinge of fate. In rezchairos, the weft of chairos strains taut along the warp of worlds, pulling the parallel threads into contact. In rezchairos, all worlds are one, all possibilities coexist, until”—the abbé clapped his hands together, and Jerome flinched—“the hinge snaps shut. World-slip, it’s called.”
A silence fell between Jerome and the abbé. Their little fire hissed and crackled.
Realizing that his mouth was hanging open, Jerome clicked it shut. He shook his head, gave a strained laugh. “You’re telling me that… that everything that could have happened but didn’t, and everything that might happen but won’t, did and will happen in some—some other world?”
Jerome barked another laugh. “You’re telling me, then, that there exists some other world with another Jerome and another Abbé Demilio sitting around another fire—exactly like us, exactly like this, having the exact conversation we’re having now?”
“There are innumerable such worlds.”
“But that’s…” Jerome realized that he didn’t have a word for it. Nonsense, mayhap. Sheer madness, certainly. But no, it was one thing above all else. “That’s unbelievable!”
The abbé nodded. “So it is. Yet it is coming nevertheless, Jerome.”
“What? What’s coming?”
“How is it, do you think,” the abbé said, “that the Dionari know of these other worlds?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.”
“They know because there are those of us who have learned to walk between them.”
Jerome frowned, shook his head as though to dislodge water from his ears. “You think one of these people—a person from another world—is coming here?”
“Yes. Two such people, in fact.”
“Really?” Jerome laughed. “And who are these intrepid souls?”
The abbé leaned forward. “They are us, Jerome—you and I.”
“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 historicist looks up from his work, regards Tomas Contzen. The soul behind his eyes knows this man, knows him well. Under many names, wearing many faces, but always it is the same man. He has seen him raised high, seen him fall low. He has dipped poison into his wine, has turned away the thrust of steel that would take his life. He has seen him old, has seen him young and choking on his lifeblood.
But in no other world has he seen—…will he see…—…does he see him here, nor hear him 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?”
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 imperial army.”
“Mercenaries, you mean,” Contzen says.
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!”
“Our numbers are superior, and our cause is just,” Varner says.
The duke snorts.
“We cannot be defeated,” Gott blusters, “for the Goddess stands with us. Soon all a’ Kammeras—nay, the entire world—will unite for justice, and freedom, and… and Restoration!”
Again, the historicist looks up from his work. He has already looked up and will look up again and again, eternally.
But now—now it is unaccountably, impossibly different.
He sees not a man sitting before him, but a corpse, its face flattened, slashed nearly in half, with one bulging eyeball rolled up toward the sky. Beside the grotesquerie, Varner’s face is black with blood, his mouth fat with a grey, bloated worm of a tongue. And Contzen…
… Clouds rib the sky, spilling heavy snow down upon them. Two men lift Contzen, naked, off his feet, press his back to the spokes of a wheel that hangs from the crossbeam of a gibbet. Another lashes to the rim his wrists, then his ankles…
A moment only, the briefest flash—but it is enough to stir the voices that teem within the historicist’s soul.
A future unglimpsed!
Thousands of futures crowd the historicist’s soul, but these visions issue from none of them. In none of them is Gott a rotting corpse, is Varner hanged, is Contzen broken on the wheel.
In this world, he knows, the peasant uprising will come to little. The young landgrave will override his father-in-law the duke and promise the peasants more than he can give. Contzen will agitate for further conflict, but Gott and Varner will go their own way, though reluctantly. The emperor and the archduke will repudiate the landgrave’s promises. More battles will come before the final armed band disperses, but Contzen will never again serve as an organizing force amongst the discontented peasants. Three years hence, he will disappear on the road between Ilesias and Styras and will never be—…has never been…—seen or heard from again.
What possibility just opened before us? What future?
Even he knows nothing of worlds undisclosed. Even he cannot glimpse the unglimpsed.
The voices tumble through his soul, but none of the turmoil touches his face, for he has no face. None of it slows his hand, for he has no hands.
The historicist continues the transcription where he left off, a minute or so ahead of the conversation.
CONTZEN: Casmer’s reply is a forgery. He supports us now as he always has. The world shall learn the truth in time.
The archbishop launches into a derisive reply to Gott. “Pah! ‘The entire world,’ he says! Even Martyn Casmer has denounced you and your uprising! If you cannot muster support 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?”
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 reply 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, yes? Let the ‘Goddess’ sort out such things. Has he not said as much in his reply to your twelve articles?”
Though he must have anticipated this line of attack, Contzen hesitates, as if weighing his words with care. And he says:
“Casmer is only a man, and no man is perfect.”
The historicist’s writing hand seizes as though with a cramp.
Casmer is only a man…
The words strike with the force of a sorcerous song. He becomes aware of a crackling in the air, a lingering scent of sulfur.
Casmer is only a man, Contzen said, and no man is perfect…
It cannot be. He was supposed to say, Casmer’s reply is a forgery. He supports us now as he always has.
It is written. It happened—…will happen…—…is happening.
And yet it did not happen.
The historicist’s vision contracts, shrinking the world to the size of the page spread out before him, the black Sophieli characters scrawled right-to-left along its face. 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 his gaze from the words—the lying words!
Tomas Contzen stares back at him. Laughter glints in his eyes. A smirk plays at one corner of his mouth.
In that moment, Demilio breaks the surface of the Manifold, and the Manifold emerges with him. The many voices that echo through the tumult of his soul unite in the tolling of a single word: Rezchairos…
A bridging of worlds.
The impossible made possible.
He knows, Contzen knows, thinks the one who had been Demilio de Alcaraz.
Tomas Contzen knows what is happening, knows that they have fallen free of the clockwork of chronos and hang now in chairological space, suspended between the warp of the worlds and the weft of sacred history. And Contzen knows that the historicist is a sorcerer in rapture and so will instantly be aware of the fact that, with Contzen’s last words, they just departed from the fixed course of worldly time, veering into the unmarked space of chairos, that they stand now astride a confluence of worlds, branching out and out and out…
That grin—Contzen knows!
Dozens of voices clamor to be heard within the historicist’s soul. Like the howling of the dead in a graveyard.
Contzen is not daimon-possessed—no shadow-form clings to him.
He must be a Dathieli sorcerer.
He gives off not the slightest hint of sorcery!
That only means he’s not currently in rapture.
How else could he know we’ve just entered rezchairos?
The cascade of overlapping voices—each his own, each unique—washes over him like the monotonous unfurling of ocean waves. The historicist sits dazed, unable to look away from Contzen’s laughing eyes.
The archbishop says, “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!”
“By all means, Abbé,” Contzen says. “Stand guard, as ever, at the gate of the present. But know that it is I—and I alone—who go ahead of you!”
“Goddess protect us,” the historicist breathes just as Jerome says in a tremulous voice, “Abbé?”
Along the great archway that leads into the Ecclesia Dionaras are carved the words, It is I alone who stand behind you, and I alone who go ahead.
Even the Dathieli know nothing of the Ecclesia Dionaras.
If Contzen is not a daimon and not a sorcerer, there remains, it would seem, only one possibility. This creature—this thing—is Malchidael himself. The Fallen One.
Staring at him…
As though in the distance, the historicist hears the archbishop say, “What heretical nonsense are you spewing now? You too are only a man, Contzen!”
Words unspoken. Deeds undone.
No, thinks the historicist. No man can murder the future…
Jerome laughed. “And who are these intrepid souls?”
The abbé leaned forward. “They are us, Jerome—you and I.”
Staring slack-jawed at the abbé, Jerome tried to decide whether he found the idea of coming across another version of himself incredible, thrilling, or horrifying.
All three, he decided.
The world outside the spill of firelight had grown so distant that Jerome gave a violent start when a voice, gruff and very near, said, “You a monk?”
He whirled toward the sound, saw a figure limned in orange, light gleaming off helmet and mail and the long, curved blade of a spear.
“I’m an historicist of the Order of Sophiel, yes,” the abbé said.
The figure stepped forward, into the firelight. An old man, tall and gaunt. He looked half-crazed, more than half-starved.
Jerome jerked to this feet. He cast his gaze about in the darkness, but he and Demilio had sought an abandoned corner of the encampment, and they had found one.
“Gimme your robe,” the soldier said, waving his spear-point at Demilio. “Quick now! I don’t want no trouble. Just gimme the robe.”
A deserter, Jerome thought. Not just that—a peasant deserter. A hunted man.
The abbé rose slowly to his feet.
“Don’t gimme no trouble,” the soldier said again. “I just need the robe.”
Normally, a threat of this sort would have held no fear for Jerome. Without uttering a single sorcerous chant, the abbé could unarm—and unman—even the most skilled fighters, for no matter how quick their strikes, no matter how subtle their movements, he would always be ahead of them.
But now Jerome wasn’t so sure.
I can see nothing, the abbé had said. I am rapture-blind.
The soldier waved the spear-point again. “Quick now!”
The abbé not only failed to respond to this command, he actually turned away from the soldier.
“I don’t want no trouble!” the soldier said, his voice rising.
“We—we are but simple monks,” Jerome said. “Please, sir—”
The soldier took a step toward Demilio, hefting his weapon. “Don’t ‘sir’ me, boy! The robe, now!” When the abbé still didn’t respond, nor even look his way, the soldier spat, “What’s wrong with ’im? Is he mad?”
“No, he’s…” Jerome trailed off, unsure what to say. “Abbé! Abbé!”
“I know what I must do,” the abbé said, as though speaking to the snow-tasseled night beyond the glow of the fire. He turned toward them, sweeping his arm around. As he did, a dagger materialized in his hand. It shone bright as day, like a fallen star.
No, thinks the historicist. No man can murder the future…
“No,” he says in a strangled voice. “Not this!”
The word carries him as though on a tide. He springs to his feet. The bench on which he has been sitting hits the ground behind him. Before him, his uncapped inkpot tips its contents across the scroll. Cold river air hums, as though with the buzzing of flies. He reaches outward with his centipedal soul, is staggered by the heave and roar of unmoored infinities.
His thousand futures overrun by a thousand-thousand more.
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. “This is no man! Do not be fooled!” To the creature known as Tomas Contzen, he hisses, “Tell them your true name, Kâthest!”
His outburst stuns the other men in the pavilion.
The archbishop recovers first. With a nervous chuckle, he says, “I don’t much care for the man either, but to denounce him as the Kâthest—that seems rather…”
He pays the archbishop no heed. “It is you, isn’t it? Malchidael…”
Wilhelm Gott and Bertel Varner back away from their erstwhile spokesman, as though from a snake. But Contzen looks at his ease. He 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.
Fools, he thinks. They cannot comprehend the danger they’re in. They do not understand.
“But that,” Contzen continues, “is not true either, is it? No, you are not Demilio de Alcaraz, you are no mere Zochronos. You are Prôstistoria, three of the Twelve. Isn’t that right—Talemai?”
Landgrave Felipe is beside him now, gripping his arm in a tight fist. “I don’t know what’s going on here,” he says, “but please, Abbé, you must—”
No, there is no ‘must,’ he thinks. Not here. 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 historicist.
A choice once made carries its own necessity within it.
Yes, he knows what he must do.
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, and he crashes to the carpeted ground.
“I will show you all what he is!” he says, sweeps forward. Something like fear flashes in the depths of Contzen’s eyes, some vestige of embodied terror.
With the labored passage of each 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.
The historicist’s dagger slips between the creature’s ribs, piercing its human heart.
“I know what I must do,” the abbé said, as though speaking to the snow-tasseled night beyond the glow of the fire. He turned toward them, sweeping his arm around. As he did, a dagger materialized in his hand. It shone bright as day, like a fallen star.
That was when Jerome first noticed the tendrils of light all around them, spilling from cracks sheeting the night. It was as though they stood beneath a dome invisible and crumbling.
“W-w-what’s all a’ this?” said the soldier.
“I will show you all what he is!” the abbé said, stepped toward the other man in long, ground-eating strides.
The peasant soldier yelped. His spear slipped from his fingers, clattered to the dirt.
The historicist’s dagger slips between the creature’s ribs, piercing its human heart.
The deed done, he staggers back, wide-eyed. The hilt of the dagger protrudes from Contzen’s chest. Swaying on his feet, the creature does not bleed, does not scream. He holds his arms out at his sides, lifts his gaze. His eyes are pale now, ringed in glittering yellow, like two gold bands pressed into fresh-fallen snow. His lips peel back, revealing twisted black teeth, and the creature begins to howl with laughter, crying, “Yes! Yes! Yesss!”
A coldness steals through the historicist—…Demilio…—…the watcher. His choice, his necessity imposed upon the world. One path plucked from an infinity.
The wrong path.
“Daimon!” Wilhelm Gott cries.
“Archons protect us!” says the landgrave.
The creature is still cackling when the first flashes of light—the light of eternity—begin to break upon the pavilion, as if through cracks in the mortar of the world.
The whiteness, sharp as a sword, floods the pavilion. It seems to carry Malchidael’s laughter with it.
We cannot allow this to happen.
We must do something! Now!
He lunges at Contzen, a twelve-voiced polyechoic trope issuing from his lips. He grapples the light-sheathed figure. But it is too late. The glow sweeps over them both, like a river spilling its banks, swallowing his melic organum as though it were naught but a child’s thin cry.
For a moment beyond moments there is nothing, he is nothing—weightless, bodiless, suspended in the empty infinity between now and now. Then the light recedes, and it is as though he opens a second set of eyes. As one awakens from a dream he is come again, again into a new world.
The peasant soldier yelped. His spear slipped from his fingers, clattered to the dirt.
In a single smooth motion, the abbé closed the space between them, planted the blade of his glowing dagger—where had it come from?—into the man’s chest.
The sunlit cracks in the air spider-webbed outward, like a dry delta inundated with water. They grew fatter and more numerous, running together, blotting out the darkness, and Jerome found himself standing in a pavilion crowded with men on their feet. Before him, the abbé let go the hilt of his dagger and backed away from—…the peasant soldier…—no, from Tomas Contzen—from…
When the blinding light knifed through the pavilion, Jerome knew that he had seen its like before: two and a half years earlier, in the garden sanctuary at the Academy Sophiel in Astarim. The night he first manifested his raptural sensitivity.
The night he became a worldwalker’s apprentice.
In the next instant, Jerome heard the abbé unfurl his sorcerous song. The impossible sound of the melic chant punched the air like a thunderbolt. Multiple voices—too many to discern—all of which were somehow the abbé’s, wove together like Kíeish plaitwork.
A blaze of Zochronos sorcery flooded over Jerome. It felt as though his soul were being stretched on the rack. Yet at the same time, a kind of giddy thrill swept through him.
He had seen the deviation in the abbé’s record, knew what it meant.
Rezchairos, he thought.
A bridging of worlds.
The thought overmatched him: he could not wrestle it to submission.
The abbé, his figure ablaze with the same light that fell around Contzen, leaped at the blurry figure that stood outlined in the heart of the burning white sun. Without thinking, Jerome jumped after him. 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…
The first thing Jerome became aware of was a pain, unlike anything he’d felt before. It cut diagonally across his forehead, a pulsating throb to put to shame the aftermath of even the fiercest night of overindulgence. It was as though his skull had been cracked open. Blindly, he brought a hand to his face, was surprised when it came back dry. He did not open his eyes, fearing to worsen his agony. He lay motionless on the uneven ground, trying to remember what had happened.
We were talking at a campfire and—
No. We were in the Archbishop of Mayenz’s pavilion, and…
No! The abbé was telling me about rezchairos, and…
Rezchairos, yes, of course! I’ve—I’ve World-slipped…
A shuddering pause. By the Goddess… Who are you?
Dread fell upon him, like stones piled on his chest. That voice… it was his own, yet he knew it not, nor did it know him.
They are us, Jerome, the abbé had said. You and I.
Yes, yes, said the voice in his head, you mustn’t be afraid. We—we are One…
It seemed as though the voice drew nearer to him, somehow. He felt the alien presence reach out for him, embrace him.
Don’t be afraid. We are One. I will show you…
A kind of light bloomed within Jerome’s soul, as though a door had been opened within him. Through the newfound doorway came laughter and sorrow, contentment and longing. The many-threaded stuff of existence. The unfolding of a second life—a second self—overlaying and extending his first. His eyes remained closed, yet he saw…
Yes, yes—we are One.
The thought drifted through him, and he could no longer tell whether it was his own or the other’s, could no longer draw a line between them.
Embrace had become union.
The pain in his head began to recede. Cringing, he opened his eyes to a world both familiar and unfamiliar, known and unknown. He squinted at the snow falling on his face.
Instinctively, he lifted his left arm up before him. With his right hand, he pulled down the cuff of his sleeve. There, visible in flickering orange light, were three marks he—…had had for two and a half years…—had never seen before. Tattoos strung across his wrist, below his palm, like one quarter of a bracelet.
Three red roses.
The marks of a worldwalker’s apprentice.
Groaning, Jerome lifted himself up from the snow. The abbé, he saw, was helping the peasant soldier to his feet.
“You are Kammerasan?” Demilio said to the peasant, who nodded. “Good. You must flee this place. Leave the helmet and mail. Leave the spear as well—it’s more likely to bring you grief than protect you.”
The peasant did as he was told without question, without hesitation. He threw the helmet to the ground, pulled off the chain mail. “Th-th-thank you, A-A-Abbé,” he said, ducking his head. “I’m—”
Demilio held up a hand. “Go.”
The man’s footsteps faded away into the night.
The abbé turned to face Jerome. At first, he seemed no different from before, but then—no, no, he is older, ten years at least.
But then—no, no, he was the same as he had ever been.
No, he is not! His skin was tighter, creased with hair-thin wrinkles.
He has always looked like that…
Two different abbés strode his memory, Jerome realized. Two Demilio de Alcarazes.
And this one made a third—a composite.
The older man’s face, the younger man’s eyes. Eyes that looked not so much at as through.
“You are here, I see,” said the abbé. He had produced his Dionari Starcross from a pocket of his robe, was absently running earth-darkened fingers along its lines.
“I—” Jerome swallowed with difficulty, as though he had suddenly sprouted an extra tongue. “I followed you… Through rezchairos.”
“Good, good,” the abbé said. He clapped Jerome’s arm. “I’m sorry it had to happen that way, your first World-slip. But you are acclimating well?”
“Yes, I… think so. What of you? I mean… Abbé Demilio… Is he…?”
The abbé—…This is not him, this is a stranger…—frowned, looked away. “I need your help, Jerome. As does your abbé. Will you help us?”
“Of course,” Jerome said reflexively.
“Good. Tell us where we can find Tomas Contzen.”
The abbé—…your abbé…—had warned Jerome that, following World-slip, integration could prove difficult. The host soul sometimes resisted, held itself back; it might even overcome the dominance of the invading worldwalker for short periods of time.
“He’s resisting you, isn’t he?” Jerome said.
The abbé’s expression was composed, yet Jerome thought he saw a subtle shift, like a gauzy cloud drawn over the face of the sun. Panic flashed in the deeps of those eyes, as though the abbé, his abbé—…Your abbé…—peered out at him from behind a mask of his own face. A mask of flesh and bone.
They are us, Jerome, Demilio de Alcaraz had said, you and I…
Demilio watches himself seek out the landgrave, listens as his own voice requests permission to speak with the daimon. “The creature cannot harm me,” says the Stranger within him, “and it may prove to be of help.”
The landgrave acquiesces, though reluctantly. And then he is trudging through wet snow. His body is tired, famished—he senses these things dimly—but the hunger and fatigue seem to belong to another man, a man he knows inside and out, yet whose actions he can neither predict nor control.
Torches burn atop stakes at either side of the entrance to the landgrave’s pavilion. With Demilio’s hand, the Stranger passes a slip of parchment to one of the men standing guard. After a quick glance, the soldier stuffs the note into his surcoat, pulls the flap aside.
It takes his eyes a few moments to adjust to the darkness after having stood in the torchlight. Above, snow accumulates on the canvas roof, slides wetly to the ground. Gradually, he makes out the post in the center of the pavilion, the man chained to it. Contzen is still naked. He leans awkwardly against his restraints, his broken arms hanging off his shoulders as though he were a poorly constructed puppet.
As he stands there, unsure what to say, the Stranger—…Demilio…—…the worldwalker…—sees that Contzen’s eyes glow a dull gold, like twilight through stained glass. Like wolf’s eyes.
No, you are not Demilio de Alcaraz, Contzen had said in the Archbishop of Mayenz’s pavilion in another world, you are no mere Zochronos. You are Prôstistoria, three of the Twelve. Isn’t that right—Talemai?
Talemai. One of the Twelve Dionari, the first followers of the Living Goddess. The Twelve had gone into hiding with Dionare, had raised Her child—the Prophet Yehru Bar-el—after Her death, had transcribed as many of Yehru’s Prophetic words as they could, transcriptions that became the core of the Kosmostoria, the founding text of Elaarism. Talemai was said to have recorded the Book that bore his name, the Book that told of Elestor’s Fall, the destruction of the primordial world, the creation of the historical world—Elestor who became Malchidael.
The great enemy.
A broken man, huddling on the ground, glowing eyes intent upon him.
Who are you? Demilio calls to the void within him. Are you—Talemai?
At this question, the Manifold inexplicably grows quiet, draws away its thousand hands, its thousand-thousand eyes.
With a stirring like wind in his face, Demilio slides back into his body. He gasps. The sensation is almost sexual. It is very nearly, he thinks, like being whole again. But not quite, for even now he can sense, like the pounding of distant surf, the presence of lifetimes not his own.
Where have you gone? His voice echoes through the darkness of his soul. The Manifold offers no response. Even so, Demilio senses the being’s presence. Malchidael before him, the Stranger behind, and he trapped in the middle. Was there no place for him here? No home for him even within the sheltering frame of his own body?
“Is it—” Demilio coughs, clears his throat. “It is truly you?”
A bark of laughter. “How would you have me answer such a question? Are you you?”
“I am what I am. You are not what you are.”
“Oh? And what are you, pray tell? Not Abbé Demilio of the Ordo Sophielas, humble historicist. No, certainly not. Nor are you Zochronos Demilio of the Ordo Dionaras—not any longer, at any rate.”
“I am a man. You are no such thing.”
Contzen shifts, his breathing labored. The chains binding his wrists and ankles clatter dully. “Do I not bruise? Do I not bleed? Strike me with a cudgel, do my bones not break?”
“That body is naught to you. It is a garment, to wear and discard. It pains you no more than my torn robe pains me.”
“You are wrong, and you know it.” The voice in the dark softens. “We are not so different, you and I. And now I speak not to Demilio de Alcaraz, of course. We have both seen many times, many worlds, and so we cling to none of them. We see too far for that, too deep.”
A shudder runs through Demilio. It is as though the Manifold draws a breath, expanding within him like a distended organ, then releases that breath, trailing back into unseen depths.
His thoughts scrabble for purchase upon the elusive swerve of circumstance.
“You know the path I’ll follow,” he says. “You know what’s going to happen.”
“Then we’re very different, you and I. My path is closed to me.”
“Your path, is it? Hmm. Yes. Well. You are rezchairos still. It is… interesting.”
“You can foresee the course of chairos?”
We see far, murmurs a voice buried within his soul, we see deep…
Dizziness sweeps over him. Demilio grips his head, squeezes his eyes shut.
I am not real, he thinks—or is it another’s thought?
When he opens his eyes, it is as though a black film slicks the face of the world. The most disfigured of all is the shape chained to the stake. He is a sink of nothingness. But the same black oblivion runs through aught else, seeps through hidden cracks marring the surface of even the most solid objects. The ground itself radiates unreality.
And I myself too.
Yes, the nothing is within him as well—his body, his thoughts, his very soul, all tearing at the seams.
“The skin of the world grows thin, yes?” says the creature who wears Tomas Contzen’s face. “What do you see with your new eyes?”
… From One to Many, from Many back to One…
“They intend to kill you,” Demilio says.
“They will do it.”
“Yes—well, this body, at any rate.”
“What then? What follows?”
Contzen shifts again, groaning. “Then,” he says wistfully, “I am free.”
“Where will you go?”
Contzen laughs. “I know where you will go.”
Yes, Demilio thinks—that is what he wants to know. That, and…
“What am I? Who am I?”
“Do you not see? You are no one, you are nothing.”
“Three of the Twelve,” he says. “Am I not Talemai reborn?”
“There is no Talemai. There is no you.”
“But who, then? Who is it that speaks to me?”
Demilio hears men’s voices coming from outside the pavilion. The flap parts. Three soldiers file in. Torchlight spills across the frozen ground.
“You must tell me!” Demilio hisses.
“I cannot. There is no answer to your question.”
Panic grips him. “Then… then where? Where will I go? You said you know where I’ll go!”
The soldiers pay Demilio no heed. The giant, Hagen, holds a torch aloft whilst the other two begin to unchain Contzen from the post.
“East,” Contzen says over the clatter of chains. “To Lascione. A castle called Morekeep.”
Lascione. The island kingdom, on the edge of the world.
“Why will I go there?” Demilio asks. “What will happen?”
The soldiers lift Contzen to his feet. His naked body, caked in blood and dirt and excrement, stands broken but upright in the flickering light.
“A moment, please!” Demilio shouts.
The soldiers give him an uneasy look, but hesitate for only a moment before beginning to drag Contzen away.
“Stop,” Hagen booms.
Evidently, the giant intimidates the soldiers far more than a Sophieli historicist does, for they jerk to a halt, dangling Contzen’s broken body between them.
“The abbé’ll have his moment,” Hagen declares, immutable as an oracle of the ancients.
Torchlight plays across one side of Contzen’s face, leaving the other in darkness.
“What will happen in Lascione?” Demilio asks. “Tell me!”
“Why,” Contzen says, “you shall be killed, of course.”
“Killed? By whom?”
“By a king…”
The abbé had told Jerome to wait for him by the archbishop’s pavilion, and he was there, dazed, hardly able to stand, when word spread that the daimon was to be executed.
A crowd gathered. Atop the platform, torches hissed and spit. The great wheel creaked, turning slowly in the wind. Behind it, hanging from a second gibbet, hung the corpse of Bertel Varner.
Jerome watched as two soldiers lowered Contzen’s neck to the block. The headsman drew a broadsword from over his shoulder. An ugly weapon, notched and seamed in firelight. Hefting the sword in both hands, the headsman raised it into the air, brought it down.
The blade landed awkwardly. No doubt the mercenary had never attempted to chop off a man’s head in this manner. He succeeded only in mangling the back of Contzen’s neck. Even so, the blow should have been more than sufficient to crush the condemned man’s larynx. Yet as everyone gathered before the platform heard, Tomas Contzen began to cackle, like the laughter of wild dogs.
Flustered, the mercenary raised his sword again, again made an awkward stroke. Another crunch, 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. The river rumbled through the darkness. Again the mercenary brought his sword down, grunting. This time, it bit into the headsman’s block with a thunk.
All at once, the inhuman cackling cut off. Contzen’s head tumbled down. For a moment, nothing moved within the spill of torchlight except falling snow.
Then, with a sound like parchment curling in a fire, Contzen’s body hardened, turned grey-white, and collapsed under the weight of his clothes. Only his severed head remained.
The mercenary bent down, pinched the substance between his fingers. “Salt,” he said.
Whispered oaths and prayers swept the gathered crowd.
It was then that Jerome saw the abbé. He was standing with Landgrave Felipe at the opposite edge of the platform. As though sensing eyes upon him, he turned to meet Jerome’s gaze. For a brief moment, it was as though a kind of oily film smeared the air around him.
Emptiness—that was what Jerome saw, or what his eyes struggled to see. Living death.
A hole in the world.
1533, Moon of Anephel (Early Spring), Castle Arnos
Winter should have ended weeks ago, but stubborn as ever, the ancient borderlands of Arnos remained damp and dreary, contemptuous of such niceties as seasonal markers. Heavy black clouds rolled down from the Rhaddyn Mountains in the east, continually threatening, when not actually delivering, cold pelts of rain. The sun had scarce shown its face for days, and the wind seemed to have forgotten the very notion of spring.
Lady Alianore Gainsford, wrapped against the damp chill in a marmot-lined cloak, crossed the deserted inner ward of Castle Arnos. Once inside, she shook water from her cloak. A servant girl, in the process of setting a log on the hearth, paused long enough to glance at Alianore over her shoulder. Without registering an expression, the girl turned back to her work. The log tipped crackling to the embers. A cloud of sparks shot up the flue.
There was a time when Alianore would have relished the quiet, the empty spaces, the disinterest of the castlefolk. When she had first come to Arnos to join her younger sister’s household, she had felt like nothing so much as a foreign hostage paraded through a sea of whispers, sneers, and cupped laughter. Her sense of smoldering humiliation had always burned hottest here, at Castle Arnos, the seat of Earl March and his Arnosi court. But that was seven years ago. Since then, the whispers had fallen silent, the sneers replaced by blank-eyed stares, the laughter snuffed out like so many devotional candles. Of those faces that had so tormented her, most were gone now—dead, broken, or simply scattered like rats from a conflagration. Castle Arnos had become a tomb, and the dead cared not a whit with whom they shared their crypt.
Shifting the parcel she carried from her left to her right arm, Alianore started up the stairs. She reached the door to the lodgings reserved for her sister’s husband, Hamilton Strange, Baron of Kingsfell. Her hand was outstretched, nearly poised upon the latch, when she heard her sister’s raised voice, high and brittle, coming from within. That could mean only one thing: the baron had returned whilst Alianore had been in town fetching sweetmeats.
“You needn’t serve the boy,” said Jacquetta Gainsford, Baroness of Kingsfell. “The father, yes, I could understand that—but Henri Surrey’s six years dead, for Macariel’s sake! You owe March nothing!”
Hamilton Strange was rarely moved by his wife’s mercurial tempers. In fact, he was rarely moved by anything, in Alianore’s experience. When he responded now, though, it was with a hint of steel in his voice. “House Strange has served the lords of the Marches for five generations.”
“That may be, but why prolong your folly?”
“We are Marchermen, woman! As a spoiled Kentrali whelp, mayhap this lies beyond your stunted powers of comprehension. Please, allow me to explain to you the way of things.” His voice lowered, exuding now a menace sufficient to unnerve most men, let alone most wives. “Here in the Marches, our souls are steel, our blades are true, our honor is unbending.”
Jacquetta, far from cowering before her husband’s wroth, barked a laugh. “The selfsame honor that did not scruple to wed and bed a girl of thirteen, to promise her peace only to hand her over to war and betrayal?”
“The very same.”
A tightness closed around Alianore’s chest. His wife’s recriminations bothered Hamilton Strange not at all, but they cut Alianore to the quick. Though she knew better, in her heart of hearts she did not blame the baron, nor any of the numerous dead—those who were actually responsible—for the fate suffered by her little sister. She blamed herself.
It should have been me…
That much, at least, was simple truth. It was she, Alianore, not Jacquetta, who was supposed to have wed Hamilton Strange and become Baroness of Kingsfell.
Jacquetta cackled. “And does this much-vaunted honor of yours not apply to what you owe your family?”
“You’re more than capable of looking after yourself. Since when do you crave my company—or care whether I live or die, for that matter?”
There came a long pause. Even listening through the door, Alianore felt the tension simmering between husband and wife.
“I’m with-child, you fool.”
She heard the words clearly, but comprehension dawned on Alianore only in stages. She looked down at the parcel of sweetmeats cradled in her arm. Her sister had been having all sorts of odd cravings lately, demanding trips into Arnoston despite the castle’s full larder.
She is with-child…
The insistent inner voice crowed, It should have been me…
A complicated mix of emotions rushed through her. Joy pinned to regret pinned to fear. She was still standing transfixed, astonished, waiting to hear how the baron would respond, when the door before her flung inward. Alianore stumbled forward, as though she’d been lying atop the door, and fell against Hamilton Strange’s broad chest.
“Gainsford wenches everywhere I bloody turn!” the baron spat, more flustered than she’d ever seen him. He took Alianore by the arms, bodily moved her aside.
When her husband was gone, Jacquetta met Alianore’s gaze. “Tell no one,” she said.
Alianore reached out a hand, but the other woman took no notice of the gesture.
“Fetch Chadric to stoke the hearth,” Jacquetta snapped. “It’s freezing in here!”
And the bedchamber door swung shut in Alianore’s stricken face.
A small, frail woman—one who remained, in Alianore’s eyes, little more than a small, frail girl—Jacquetta had always hated the cold and yearned for the heat. Combined with her dark hair and complexion—so unlike the other Gainsford children, all of whom were fair—Jacquetta’s oft-voiced climatic preferences had doomed her to years of teasing insinuation on the part of her siblings that she was in fact a Kalic orphan brought back in one of their lord father’s merchant ships. More than once that Alianore could remember, a suggestion to this effect had sent Jacquetta into a fit of weeping so intense that any attempt at consolation met with the lashing of tiny balled fists.
Upon joining Jacquetta’s household, Alianore had vowed to herself never to make an issue either of her sister’s grumbling about the least cold or of her penchant for overheating the rooms in which they dwelled. In the seven years that had passed since then, she had learned that the vigor with which Jacquetta sought to impose her will on the elements served as a barometer of her spirits. The greater her unhappiness, the more obstinately she insisted that the world—whatever small part of it she could control, at least—bend to her will. Today she was very unhappy, and her apartments were very warm.
After remaining with her sister for several nearly wordless hours—hours in which Alianore got Jacquetta to say nothing more than that the Arnosi were to back a new claimant to the throne, that they were once again to rise in rebellion against the crown—she had little choice but to flee or risk suffocation. Desperate for air, she climbed Chapel Tower’s winding staircase. At the top, she paused to catch her breath. The wind was like a wet slap on her cheeks.
Of the castle’s eight towers, the four that looked down upon the inner ward were surmounted by turrets thirty feet high. Alianore pulled herself up the rickety wooden ladder, onto the crown of the northeast turret.
She could see for leagues in every direction, despite the low, gloomy clouds. To the west, the castle lay spread out below her, thrusting skyward from a massive outcrop of rock, its white-walled towers and curtain walls seeming to have grown from the land it commanded. The castle grounds were split in two by a wall separating the inner and outer wards. If not for the smoke rising from several chimneys, Castle Arnos might have been deserted. Large portions of it had been closed off, she knew. The court of the latest Earl March—nineteen-year-old Aedwar Surrey—simply wasn’t large enough to fill the border fortress of his mighty forebears.
Beyond the castle, Arnoston lay nestled within a stone wall that were three-quarters of a mile long and studded with twenty-two stout towers. Outside the wall, empty farmland diminished into a misty horizon. In the opposite direction, Lake Caladris pressed up against the castle’s foundations. A barbican opened onto a long quay that swayed atop the water, providing the only direct access to the inner ward.
A few miles beyond the lake’s far shore lay wild, half-barbaric Llehayes, from which Castle Arnos and its brothers of the Iron Ring—Castle Llanley in the north, Pontystow Castle in the south—had been raised to defend Lascione in the days of Llehaysh independence from the crown. On the lake’s southern shore, along the bank of the Caern River, was the city of Caladris, a smudge against the horizon.
Caladris, where soon the Arnosi would proclaim a new King of Lascione and Kíeland.
Jacquetta had denied knowing who the Arnosi intended to put forward as a claimant to the throne. Alianore was certain she was lying, though she couldn’t fathom why. Jacquetta seemed to take pleasure in petty refusals, at least where her older sister was concerned. Normally, Alianore took such ill-tempered childishness in stride, but today it rankled. The prospect of another Arnosi uprising was a matter of gravest concern to all of them, and given what Alianore had heard of her sister’s reaction to the news, Jacquetta clearly understood as much. Why, then, would she not speak of it?
Or of the child growing within her?
Alianore had lost count of how many kings and would-be kings Lascione had seen over the past eleven years of war. But of this she required no reminding: each of them, save of course for the latest, was now a rotting corpse, either in one or in several pieces. And still the wheels of war ground on, crushing men and crops alike to dust in Lascionan fields.
The current king, Brandon III Astargent, had sat the throne for a scant six months. Even so, he had managed to squander the goodwill he had enjoyed as a result of defeating Rikard Black, Earl of Corfolk, whom even the Arnosi had despised. The Lascionan people had withdrawn their love from Brandon; they had even taken to calling him “the Blackheart” on account of the numerous acts of bloody retribution he and his liegemen had committed in the name of the king’s justice. Many amongst the peerage who had stood by Brandon Astargent six months ago were retreating, seeking harbors from which to gauge the strength and direction of the storm all knew was soon to make landfall. Even so, it was up to the Arnosi to take action, and they were young and diminished, whereas Brandon yet enjoyed the support of numerous battle-hardened commanders, men who together fielded many times the number of troops the Arnosi could hope to muster.
For good or ill, the people’s hatred of their king did not entail his downfall. Even now, the crown was no low-hanging fruit. Brandon Astargent had been fighting the wars since Earl March was eight years old. Barring the intervention of holy Thoriel, the men who would take the field against Brandon and the Norlochi would almost certainly face defeat and death.
Above her, the seething bowl of the sky was darkening. More rain on its way. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to burrow deeper into her cloak. She ought to descend from the turret, she knew, down the ladder and stairs, back to her sister’s rooms. But the thought of that sweltering silence fixed her in place against the parapet even as she shook with the cold.
The ancient Nikean philosopher Sales had written that war is like a trick snake, as like to bite its master as earn him coin, and it seemed to Alianore that he was right about that, as about so much else. Across the realm—from Astoral to Moorland, from Norloch to Oldshire—manor houses once filled with life now stood empty. Entire villages lay abandoned, awaiting reclamation by the primeval forests. Tomblike castles attested to eleven years of death, bloodshed, and betrayal. The crown tumbled from one branch of the royal family to the other—from Arnos to Norloch and back again—and all the while men died, starvation stalked the land, and the realm grew ever more a home to ghosts and memory. Even the living seemed only to reenact the doom of their forebears, as though caught in an eddy of history. Was there no escape? No end to the senseless bloodletting?
And now Jacquetta was pregnant. Another Baron Kingsfell in the making. Would he too stand beside another Earl March, rise against another Norlochi king?
It was all so damnably futile, she thought. Arnos, Norloch—what did it matter, in the end? They were but two sides of the same coin, a coin, moreover, that ought to be melted down and cast anew, for the clipping of rapacious treasurers had left it virtually worthless to the realm and her people.
At the same time, though, she understood. She understood the mad passions that drove Brandon III. And she understood why the ragged and depleted Arnosi, amongst whom she had lived for seven years, were even now making plans to take the field against him.
Who was there to blame?
Movement below her caught Alianore’s eye. A group of a half-dozen or so men were crossing the inner ward toward where a second group stood waiting for them. She squinted, but couldn’t recognize the newcomers.
No doubt Lascione’s next king and his entourage, she thought, come to be proclaimed, lead the Arnosi into battle, and die.
The two clusters of men met. Hands were clasped, arms thrown over shoulders. Masculine laughter rode the wind to where she stood high above on the northeast turret.
Grave-digging, Alianore thought. That was what all the plotting, scheming, and warring came down to. Digging your own grave.
It was the rain that finally drove her from the turret and back into Chapel Tower. Her skirts whisked softly as she started down the torchlit stairwell. Her slim shoes made almost no noise upon the time-smoothed steps. She felt wrung out, limp and weary. Thought of facing her sister left her sad and more than a little angry. Even so, she had intended to return to Jacquetta’s rooms. Halfway down the turnpike stair, however, she came upon the double archways leading into the oratory that gave the tower its name, and before she knew it, she had slipped into the scented shadows.
She breathed a contented sigh, knelt upon the hassock in the room’s center. The oratory was octagonal, windowless, lit only by the trays of candles that burned in the three Archonical shrines, each set into a wall: Thoriel’s shrine to the north, opposite the inner archway; Macariel’s on the right; and on the left, Sophiel’s. All three of the statues stared at her: Thoriel’s gaze bright and clear, Macariel’s face obscured within a hood, and Sophiel, with his three overlapping faces, pinning six eyes upon her.
Of the three shrines, Macariel’s was by far the most neglected. No surprise there. Lascionans had precious little in recent years for which to thank him. Seated, as always, in the east, Macariel represented the past, just as Thoriel stood for the present and Sophiel, the future. That Macariel was also the Archon of earthly justice, as one might surmise from the broadsword resting across his knees, only compounded the betrayal, the sense that he had abandoned them, leaving the realm with hardly a past to speak of, save in terms of suffering, and even less justice. The fewest candles burned in his shrine, and there the shadows were deepest.
Alianore didn’t know how long she’d spent in the oratory when she heard men’s voices echoing up the turnpike stair. She recognized Aedwar Surrey’s voice, as well as that of Hamilton Strange. Panic ghosted through her. The last thing she wanted was to see her sister’s husband. She offered a quick-winged prayer to the Archon of earthly justice that Strange and the rest of them not barge into the oratory and shatter her solitude.
A moment later there came the heavy tread of booted footsteps upon the stairs below. She remained where she was, kneeling, eyes closed, hands clasped before her. Keep going, she urged the sound. Keep going, damn you…
Instead—inevitably, it seemed—the steps slowed before the archway, came echoing into the oratory behind her. She braced herself, but in place of Hamilton Strange’s growl, a young, soft voice said, “May I join you?”
Startled, Alianore looked over her shoulder. “Lockard…” She rose from the hassock, smoothed her skirts, turned toward him. “My lord,” she said with greater decorum, even dipping a little curtsy.
A grin hooked his mouth. He bowed extravagantly. “My lady.”
Alianore laughed, instantly more relaxed than she had been for… well, she couldn’t recall. A long time.
Lockard Keldor was young, mayhap a year younger than she was. He had thick, dark hair. His sapphire-blue eyes danced with candlelight. The Keldors were Arnosi loyalists, had been throughout the wars. After his lord father succumbed to the plague whilst languishing in a Norlochi dungeon, Lockard had inherited the earldom of Llandeth, in eastern Llehayes. As a senior Arnosi peer, he was often in the company of Earl March, who was himself almost always attended by Hamilton Strange. Lockard and Alianore, then, had crossed paths countless times over the years. Unlike so many of the other Arnosi, he had never been cruel to her or her sister, had never treated them as though they were chattel or hapless prisoners.
More than once, Alianore had wondered how events might have unfolded had her dead brother-in-law, the then-king, Artur IV, proposed a marriage match between her and Lockard Keldor rather than between her and Hamilton Strange. She might not have run away to a nunnery, and Jacquetta might have been spared.
Another grievance to lay at Macariel’s feet.
“I hear the Arnosi are going to war again,” she said.
Lockard’s smile dissolved. He looked over her shoulder, to Thoriel, by whose authority all terrestrial kings ruled. “Brandon Astargent stands condemned in the eyes of the world, the Archons, and the God.” He met her gaze. “We must take action, Alianore.”
He sounded as though he was trying to convince himself, not explain established fact to her.
She let out an exasperated sigh, dropped her gaze. “You’re wiser than the others, then.”
“Because,” she said, “the Arnosi will need all the celestial favor they can muster if they’re to prevail against Brandon. To a man, they ought to be upon their knees, praying that blesséd Sophiel turn his smiling face upon their foolishness.”
Lockard winced. “I know how you feel about the wars, Alianore. And I understand. I relish the idea no more than you do. But what Brandon and his people have done… It cannot stand.”
She raised her hands in surrender. “I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. I gave up on that years ago. Go fight your battles, make your widows and orphans. Nothing I say will change anything.”
Lockard stepped toward Macariel’s shrine, used a taper to light a candle for the past. “What if it did? What if you were to decide our course?”
“Me?” Alianore laughed. “It scarce bears thinking about!”
“I’m serious, Alianore.”
She watched him cross to Thoriel’s shrine, light another candle, this one for the present. “Well,” she said, “I don’t know. I agree, of course, that Brandon has proven a… less than ideal monarch.”
Lockard cackled. “Indeed! Rape, torture, the murder of women and children—not what I’d call ideal!”
Indignation reared through her at this self-satisfied display of moral superiority. An old, familiar emotion, she clung to it. “As though the Arnosi have not overseen their fair share of all three! By ‘rape,’ I presume you mean to allude to Brandon’s marriage to Anne Black. I too found it appalling that he would wed a girl of twelve out of nothing but spite for her father, but has it conveniently slipped your mind that my sister was only a year older when Hamilton Strange took her to wife?”
Her and Lockard’s eyes locked for several thudding heartbeats before he dropped his gaze. “You knew him… before,” he said softly. “What was he like?”
“Brandon? He was…” She tried to think back, to imagine the Norlochi court she had known in the early years of Artur IV’s reign. “He was loyal, and good. But then they killed his brother.”
“Hmm. And now he’s killed children.”
“And now the Arnosi shall kill him—is that your solution?”
A defiant posture came naturally to her, so much so that she adopted it without thinking. When Lockard met her gaze, though, all she saw in him was uncertainty, mayhap even fear. He was not to blame for the Arnosi–Norlochi conflict, she told herself. He wasn’t even to blame for the fact that the Arnosi were once again to go to war. He deserved better from her.
She was about to apologize when he said, “I’ve upset you,” and started to go. She opened her mouth—to bid him stop, she suspected—but no sound came out. Instead, she grasped his forearm as he tried to walk past her. For a time, they stood in that unexpected pose, as though frozen, she holding him in place, he staring down at the hand restraining him; he bewildered, she aghast.
She jerked her hand back as though from a hot stove’s surface. “I’m—I’m sorry, Lockard,” she said. “I didn’t mean to…”
He placed his hand over the spot where she’d touched him. He seemed unaware of doing so. “Didn’t mean to what?”
He was very near, only half an arm’s-length away. His blue gaze rested upon her, intent and unreadable. Her heart knocked within her like a fist against a barred door. She heard herself say, “It’s no one’s fault,” and wondered where that had come from.
“Choices must be made, Alianore,” he said without moving away from her. “And those who make them must accept responsibility for the consequences.”
“Yes, but… What choice do the Arnosi have? Brandon has done horrible things. I don’t deny it. Are you to blame for bending the knee to a new king and making war against Brandon, or is Brandon to blame for making it all but impossible for you not to take up arms against him? It’s as difficult to find a first cause of this madness as it is to imagine how it all might end…”
A silence. Neither of them moved. Alianore felt a flush creeping up her neck, was glad of the soft candlelight.
“I’ll not be bending the knee to anyone,” Lockard said.
A strange, complicated feeling came over her at this. Like relief, but also like hope, and… something else. It was as though Lockard had somehow, over the course of the last few minutes, become part of her family, that he now occupied an immovable place within her.
As though her fate was bound to his, and his to hers.
Don’t be foolish, she told herself. Yet she moved subtly nearer to him, said with unmistakable brightness, “You’ll not march with the Arnosi?”
“You misunderstand,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “I shall be marching at the head of the Arnosi.”
For the second time that day, Alianore was faced with a pronouncement she was able to grasp only gradually. The words churned through her, pounded into mist by the stubborn rocks of her incomprehension.
“As you can see,” he said with a wry smile, “you were even more right than you knew.”
The meaning of these words escaped her as well. “About what?”
“About my need to court celestial favor. I’ll need as much of it as the blesséd Archons can spare!”
His smile, his light tone, infuriated her. She spun away from him, strode toward Macariel. When she turned back to face him, a more proper—a safer—distance lay between them. “No, no. This isn’t right. You cannot put forward a claim to the throne, Lockard. You’re not even the senior member of your family! If any Keldor is to declare himself king, it ought to be Siasbar.”
Not that she relished that thought, either, she realized. She liked both Keldor men. Of all the Arnosi, they had always been kindest to her and her sister. But at least Siasbar Keldor was older, a veteran battle commander, a seasoned leader of men.
“My claim is by far the stronger,” Lockard said. “I’m descended from Artur III twice over, Alianore.”
That was true. She’d forgotten, if she’d ever had occasion to think of it. Lockard’s grandfather had wed into the Norlochi branch of the royal family, whilst his father had wed into the Arnosi branch. Now that it was pointed out to her, the power of Lockard’s claim to the throne was striking. She could think of no one else who represented the union of Arnos and Norloch, certainly not by way of direct descent from the mighty Artur III.
No doubt the Arnosi had held Lockard in reserve all these years, waiting for him to grow into a man, waiting for the right time to thrust him forward, into the vanguard of their cause.
The thought, she discovered, filled her with rage.
Sophiel, his three overlapped faces shimmering in candlelight, peered at her over Lockard’s shoulder, one face smiling, one equanimous, one creased in a frown. The future. But not for Lockard. No, he had no future. Not any longer. She was sure of that. If he allowed the Arnosi to put a crown on his head, to bend the knee to him—if he marched west to face Brandon’s Norlochi host—he would die. And for what?
“Don’t do it,” she said.
He looked startled. “What do you mean?”
“You mustn’t do it, Lockard! They’re all dead, all of them! Even if you manage to best Brandon, you’ll only be queuing yourself up for inevitable slaughter! Don’t you see? The crown is poison. The throne is a cage. If you let them do this…”
Her voice broke upon the words. She slapped a palm over her mouth. Tears were filling her eyes, she realized with horror.
“Alianore,” he said, voice rising with concern, and stepped toward her.
She backed away from him, inching deeper into the east, into Macariel’s shrine, into the past.
Swallowing down the emotions that were pressing against her throat, clamoring to be given voice, she said, “If you let them do this, you will die, Lockard. Just like the rest of them. Is that what you want?”
She was surprised at how coldly the words came out. They had a like effect on Lockard, who seemed to freeze, gaze intent upon her.
“As you said, Alianore, what choice do I have? I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask the Blackheart to the murder the princes in the Tower. I didn’t bid him raze Andershall to the ground, or hang the Kerrs, or put his own brother to the knife. Tell me, what choice do I have?”
There was nothing for her to say except what she did say, what she had already said: “But you’ll die, Lockard.”
He nodded. “Then I die.”
A silence stretched between them. She was shaking, Alianore realized—quivering with seven years of regret and eleven years of fury and…
How long? she wondered. How long have I loved this man?
Love, intimacy, even friendship were foreign concepts to her. She had no experience with such things. She knew nothing of matters of the heart, had never been taught.
“I don’t want you to die,” she said.
Again he smiled, which somehow both soothed her and fanned the flames of her rage. “I don’t particularly wish to either.”
She was stepping toward him now. “I’m serious, Lockard.”
He laughed. “As am I!”
“You cannot go,” she said.
He dropped his gaze. “I must. There’s no one else. I am…” He drew a breath, looked up. “I’m the realm’s best hope for peace. Isn’t that what you want, Alianore? Peace?”
She was still inching forward, had nearly closed the space between them. What am I doing? she thought as she came to stand within the circle of his reach. At her right, wingéd Thoriel watched over them, his bare chest gleaming in candlelight. She wet her lips, said with a slight quaver, “What if—what if there were no future, Lockard? What if there were only now? This moment? What do we do then?”
His eyes were very wide. He stood half-a-head taller than she did. She wondered suddenly if he had ever been with a woman before. Silly thought. Of course he had. But had he loved any of them?
She knew nothing of matters of the heart.
“My lady, I…” he whispered.
“I don’t want you to go,” she said, her voice firm. Fixing him with her gaze, she reached up, undid the tie of her cloak, let the damp wool pool at their feet. Underneath, she wore a plain red bodice, laced in the front, over a white satin chemise. Crimson skirts fell to the tops of her shoes.
“What now, Lockard?”
He drew a breath, collected himself. Smiling, he reached for her hand. “Come,” he said, drawing her forward. “I’ve not completed my devotions.”
Puzzled, she let him guide her. Standing before Sophiel’s shrine, he slipped a taper into her hand, cupped his own hand around hers. Together, they lit the taper, together touched the flame to the wick of a devotional candle.
“To the future,” he said, candlelight sparking in his eyes.
Her voice was thick as she said, “To the future…”
Alianore Gainsford knew nothing of matters of the heart. But mayhap she was at last beginning to learn.
As the Moon of Anephel waned, the Arnosi lords of Lascione gathered at the ancient keep in the heart of Caladris, on the border of Llehayes, to swear fealty to the man they proclaimed their rightful king—Lockard Keldor, Earl of Llandeth, son of Edmund Keldor and Margaret Surrey. On his father’s side, Lockard was descended—by way of Artur Astargent, Earl of Eastmouth—from the Black Prince, eldest son of the mighty Artur III and first Duke of Norloch. On his mother’s side, he was descended—by way of Jahn Surrey, the Baron March—from Jahn of Harrowkeep, third son of Artur III and first Duke of Arnos. Lockard Keldor, then, united the Norlochi and the Arnosi claims to the throne.
The White Rose of Norloch and the Black Rose of Arnos, superseded by the Red Rose of Keldor.
Those who paid homage to Lockard Keldor at Caladris included Lockard’s uncle, Siasbar Keldor, Earl of Caedwyn; Aedwar Surrey, the Earl March, and his brother, Henri, Baron of Bridgewater; Hamilton Strange, Baron of Kingsfell; Jaime Visle, Earl of Briggford, whom the Blackheart had recently reinvested with his family’s lands and titles; Cuthbert, Baron Stanley, of Southport; Sir Janis Talbot of the South Riding in Westershire; eighteen-year-old Malcolm Black, Earl of Moorland, and his cousin and liegeman, Walter Kerr, Lord of Castle Risling, son and heir to the Earl of Cathair, in whose stead he had made the journey south to the Marches.
The Arnosi made no attempt to keep the event from reaching the ears of Brandon the Blackheart’s court in Lloudyn. On the contrary, they wanted the Norlochi to hear of it, wanted the entire realm to know that a challenger to the reviled usurper had finally emerged.
Throughout the night, the bells rang in Caladris and, across the water, Castle Arnos. A general celebration was declared. Fountains flowed with wine. The new claimant to the throne went out amongst the people, reveled with them, and they cheered for him as though forgetting how they had so recently cheered for Corfolk, for Lockard II, for the many Marcher lords who had ridden off to war and never returned, who had launched rebellions only to be crushed beneath the Norlochi heel.
Immediately following the ceremony in the ancient keep, messenger ravens winged the air in all directions. Each of the missives featured two pieces of information, both sure to infuriate the Blackheart. First, that Lockard Keldor styled himself Lockard IV, not Lockard III, on the grounds that Lockard II’s son and heir had been anointed in the brief interval between his lord father’s death and his own mysterious disappearance—and presumed murder—in the Tower in Lloudyn. Second, that the Arnosi would not march under the Keldor Red Rose. A new standard had been unveiled for the first time before the men who swore their swords to House Keldor: a rose, black at its heart, surrounded by white, enclosed in red.
The Triple Rose. A new emblem for a new age.
1533, Moon of Anephel (Early Spring), Farnesse
From time to time he slumbers, but above him, beyond him, the Stranger’s eyes never close save to blink. Ever wakeful, ever watching.
It is as though he hangs suspended in still water, with earth and stone piled high on every side. The rounds that govern all else leave him untouched. The passage of day and night, of seasons, the cycling of moon and stars—he is tethered to none of them. His eyes are blind, his ears deaf, his tongue struck dumb.
Asleep, he swoons. Awake, he dreams.
In the dreams, he sees, hears, smells, tastes, touches. The world revealed in the dreams is real, he knows. But it is compressed, afflicted with a curious flatness. A world of height and width only. A thin world, stretched taut across the arched back of the Oneness beyond.
A world as real as any other, as empty as any other.
In the dreams, he is the Stranger, and the Stranger is him. The entirety of what he was before—the entirety of Demilio de Alcaraz: the fisherman’s son from Argoza, the runaway, the apprentice, the Zochronos, the historicist—lies dwarfed before the immensity of what he has become through unbecoming.
Countless lifetimes pour through the bottleneck that is the Stranger, some running deep and dark and silent, others churned to glittering mist. As Demilio, he is naught but a wisp of current amid the cataract; but when he dreams, he is the embankment. He encompasses All.
The Ilanavarian peninsula was like a long arm reaching down into the Hataengale from the shoulder of the Altez Mountains, dividing the Tyriadic and Aeschylan Seas. The mighty Altez shielded the peninsula from the arctic winds that harried the Elaarim Empire to the north. In Ilanavaras, the west winds from the desert met the cooler, damper air sweeping in from Aterras, and they mixed into clear, temperate skies that washed the land in winter and bathed it in sun the rest of the year, making it a veritable paradise on earth—at least in Jerome Casterdi’s estimation.
But then Ilanavaras was in his blood, the city-state of Farnesse in particular. As Abbé Demilio’s apprentice, Jerome had visited Farnesse on numerous occasions, for it was home to the Order of Sophiel. Whenever he caught sight of the city’s creneled walls and its hundred towers fingering the sky above—whether from the crest of the inland hills or, as now, from the deck of a ship plying the River Norel—he would wonder anew how his parents, who had emigrated from Farnesse to the northern port-city of Astarim before he’d been born, could have brought themselves to turn their backs on such a place as this.
Standing beside the abbé at the port rail of the Kalic merchantman Frus Albhr, Jerome watched with mounting excitement as the city drew nearer. Before long, the ship had docked. They disembarked at the custom house, collected their mules, and made their way through the pressing crowds, into the city.
It had taken them over three months—the entirety of winter—to reach Farnesse from Moerthe. Jerome had been dismayed when, standing on the snow-covered field beside the River Baden, the smell of smoke still lingering in the air, the abbé had informed him that they were to abandon the Kammerasan peasant wars and venture south, to deposit their cache of scrolls with the Order. The new year—and with it, winter—had been bearing down on them. It was too late in the season to cross the mountain passes. Jerome had been of the opinion that the journey would have to await spring, but unwilling to wait—though thankfully also unwilling to risk crossing the Altez—Demilio led them west, farther west than Jerome had ever gone before, into Szarvas, a dark, contested kingdom pinched between the might of the Elaarim and Kalian Empires.
The journey had proven by turns tedious and torturous. Having trudged long, cold miles down snow-choked roads and through desolate forests, it came as a relief when a massive storm drove them into a Sophieli monastery in Lower Ilesias. But several weeks spent snowed-in with the monks banished from Jerome’s mind all thought of the discomforts of the road, and he soon wanted nothing so much as to be on his way again. Two days out from the monastery, however, boredom, the monks’ pedantry, and the suffocating air of Elaarist piety came to seem a small price to pay for warmth, shelter, and a full stomach.
When he and the abbé finally reached the sea, it was at an exotic port along the Nikean border, where most of the women went about veiled and the people were more apt to speak Kalic than any of the Ilanavarian dialects, let alone Aterrasan or Kammerasan. When the abbé approached a desert-dark ship captain and negotiated fare to Farnesse, Jerome wasn’t surprised so much as amazed that the abbé knew the infidel tongue. Kalic was a notoriously difficult language—some even said it was impossible for eykôm, as the Kales called outsiders, to learn—yet the abbé appeared to be fluent.
Of course he’s fluent, Jerome told himself. He is the Manifold. His soul encompasses thousands!
The reminder still jarred.
Within days of the World-slip event, Jerome’s overlapping memories had hardened into a sort of articulated whole. He could pick the memories apart, could identify unique incidents as belonging to one or another of his two pasts, yet—for the most part—his memory seemed united, as though he had simply been in two places simultaneously for most of his life. It no longer even struck him as odd—for the most part. The only consistent loose thread—one which, if pulled, threatened to split Jerome down the middle—was Abbé Demilio.
As an apprentice to one of the twelve Prôstistoriae—who were not just timewalkers but Kosmokinoi, worldwalkers, the most obscure of all Dionari sorcerers—Jerome understood that “Demilio de Alcaraz” was merely a convenient handle for a being as psychically unlike ordinary humans as ordinary humans were unlike brutes. The abbé had walked between hundreds—thousands—of worlds, along the way accumulating selves the way a ship accumulates barnacles. Whoever the person had been who first discovered the extent of his raptural power—who first walked between worlds and collected a second self, as Jerome had done back in Moerthe—he was long since gone, not the way a severed arm is gone, but the way the caterpillar is gone upon the emergence of the butterfly.
A like fate awaited any version of the abbé from any world into which he walked. The abbé—…your abbé…—had died beside the River Baden as surely as if the deserting soldier had opened his gut with the blade of his spear. The Jerome who had been apprenticed not to a mere Zochronos but to a worldwalker for the past two and a half years had never known Demilio de Alcaraz, not truly; he had only ever known this many-worlded creature, who looked, moved, and spoke like a man but was not a man. The other Jerome, though, remembered…
He could speak with the abbé just as he always had. He could be as sure as he’d ever been that it was Demilio whom he spoke to, Demilio who regarded him, Demilio who responded to his questions—but it was not, and he knew it.
Demilio de Alcaraz was gone forever, killed by this… this stranger.
When it came to the abbé, there could be no reconciliation between Jerome’s two lives, between the disparate claims they placed on him.
Your abbé is not dead, he would tell himself, he is surmounted!
And though he knew this to be true—though he believed it—his response was always the same, always unanswered and unanswerable: “surmounted,” as far as he could tell, was but another word for “dead.”
He had loved the caterpillar.
Whenever possible, Jerome did his best to ignore the disjoint, to live whilst holding both the unpleasant (but true) belief that “Demilio” no longer existed and the unavoidable (but false) belief that he did—indeed must—still exist. It had surprised him to discover how easy this was: he needed only to act toward the abbé as though he were Demilio when he seemed to be Demilio, and as though he were the Stranger when he seemed to be the Stranger.
Now, as he led his mule through Farnesse—down wide cobbled streets, across bustling market squares, and between the towering palazzi of the city’s nobles and bankers—the abbé seemed no different from Demilio de Alcaraz, Zochronos of the Order of Dionare, and Jerome was perfectly content to view him as such, to believe that it was Demilio he followed.
The afternoon was mild—cool in the shade, pleasantly warm in the sun. They could not have come to Farnesse at a better time of year, as far as Jerome was concerned. The winter rains had recently passed. Spring was young, bright-eyed and refreshed. The hills piling the northern horizon shone green under crystalline skies, and flowers bloomed along the city’s ancient boulevards.
Visible from nearly every point within the walls, the Ecclesia Sophielas loomed over a carpet of red-tiled roofs. The complex’s three concentric walls climbed Phebe’s Hill, a huge, lone mound rising above the flatlands, crowned by the glittering jumble of domes and towers that was the Kosmos Biblioth, the beating heart of the Order of Sophiel.
Jerome had never been inside the massive library. On their previous visits to the city, the abbé had always gone alone to deposit their latest cache of scrolls with the Librarians. This time, though, he was determined not to be left behind. He had even prepared a lengthy speech on the subject. He was still warming to his topic when the abbé cut him off: “Of course you’ll be accompanying me. I shall require your assistance.”
And so it was that, a half-hour later, Jerome found himself crossing through the gateway in the innermost wall of the Ecclesia Sophielas, high above the rest of the city. The guards let him pass, of course, for he followed Abbé Demilio. Even so, he felt a thrill of fear, as though the armed men might at any moment spring forward, seize him for a trespasser.
Noticing the two of them, a trio of novitiates in black robes sprang up from a bench set in the shadow of the gatehouse. The abbé directed the boys as they took the reins of the mules and uncinched the packs containing the abbé’s scrolls. Jerome handed his reins over absently, paying the novitiate no mind. His neck was craned back, eyes straining to take in the immensity of the structure before him. He had seen the Kosmos Biblioth before, of course. Anyone who had ever set foot in Farnesse had. But glimpsing it from afar was one thing. Beholding it up close, he discovered, was quite another.
Like a mountain—no, like a mountain range—the library rose up and up in multiple stages. Tall arched windows, stepped buttresses, arcading stacked upon arcading, and—of course—domes: a ring of smaller domes; half domes projecting outward, studded with glittering windows; small domed towers; all of it surmounted by the largest freestanding dome in the world, capped by a Starcross that must have stood thirty feet tall, at least.
Three towers rose from the outskirts of the complex, like the points of a triangle. They looked spindly beside the bulk of the main structure, though Jerome knew they were anything but. Atop the eastern tower gleamed a golden crescent moon; atop the tower in the west, a full moon; and atop the north tower, rising opposite the gatehouse, only its very top visible from the courtyard, a half moon.
Everywhere Jerome looked, crisp spring sunlight gleamed off spires, windows, multicolored tiles. He thought of the Rhapsodic prophecies filling the towers to bursting, of the labyrinthine Catacombs that plumbed the depths of Phebe’s Hill beneath his feet, housing the innumerable volumes of the historicists—the eyewitness record of the world’s history—and he thought: Here lay unfathomable riches waiting to be discovered.
History was not merely, as the Elaarim believed, the elaborated instantiation of the vision bequeathed to the world in the Kosmostoria of the Prophet Yehru Bar-el. No, history—chronological as well as chairological—was the movement of the mind of the Living Goddess, Dionare. It was for this reason that Dionari esteemed the Kosmos Biblioth as one of the three Holy Sites, as the staggering attempt to provide a repository within which one could seek to unravel the thread of the Goddess’s thought, following it from moment to moment, word to word, deed to deed. And it was for this reason also that the great library, like the Order of Sophiel itself, was secretly home to numerous Dionari, and had been for centuries, long before Martyn Casmer had written The Life of the Prophet and proclaimed the Dionari Restoration.
The abbé’s voice snapped Jerome back from his wide-eyed, slack-jawed reverie. His gaze fell from the glittering heights, down, down to the shaded courtyard.
“It’s only a building, Jerome,” the abbé said, “raised one stone at a time, like any other. Come.”
The abbé swung away. Jerome hurried to catch up to him. Two of the three novitiates followed, lurching under the weight of the scrolls.
In the center of the forecourt stood a fountain boasting a ten-foot-tall statue of Sophiel. The Archon’s head was elongated to accommodate his three overlapping faces. He held a quill in one hand, a scroll in the other. Clear water lapped at the stone hem of his robe, and coins winked on the fountain bed.
The huge outer doors of the library stood open. Following Demilio, Jerome and the novitiates crossed a series of antechambers. Then, like stepping from the mouth of a cave, they emerged into the echoing hush of the Basilica. Monks robed in various shades of grey crossed the huge domed space on slippered feet. Red, gold, and green light spilled from stained-glass windows. Suspended on cords of varied length, hundreds of lamps dangled from the mosaiced dome. Jerome knew that, when one stood at the center of the Basilica, the lamps replicated the position of the Archonical constellations as they appeared over Farnesse on the winter solstice. He was disappointed to see that several of the lamps had burned out and had not been replenished with oil.
Jerome wanted nothing so much as to linger over the mosaics, the lustrous marble columns, the carved pediments, the dome and the frescoes and the scrollwork. But he could only glimpse these wonders as he hurried after the abbé, who crossed the Basilica without looking left or right, up or down. They passed through an archway that opened onto a huge curving staircase. At the top of the staircase, they emerged onto the first level of arcading.
A broad, squat man in the yellow robes of a Librarian intercepted them. He had a confrontational air, as though his purpose here was to turn away intruders. “May I help you?” he said, squinting at them.
The abbé gestured to the pair of novitiates huffing up the stairs after them. “My apprentice and I bear records from Kammeras.”
“I see,” said the Librarian. With an offhand gesture, as though shooing away a fly, the unpleasant man waved the novitiates on. They lumbered past, straining under their burdens.
“The Order thanks you for your service,” the Librarian said, hardly even looking at the abbé. His attention was already latched upon a new arrival to the top of his stairs. “May I help you?”
Jerome frowned after the Librarian. All around him, the Basilica hummed, steady and low, like a swift-flowing brook. He stared out between pillars, across the huge space, to the forest of cords suspending over the floor, some stretching below the rail of the arcade, others ending above, lamps glowing at their tips.
“What now?” he said.
“Now,” the abbé replied, “we seek out the Rhapsodic Scholarchs. One in particular.”
Though it was not a monastery, life in the Kosmos Biblioth followed a strict, orderly pattern. The running of the gigantic facility was divided amongst numerous sub-organizations whose activities were meticulously coordinated. At any given time, day or night—for the Kosmos Biblioth never slept—one sufficiently familiar with the daily, weekly, and yearly rounds of the library would know where to find anyone employed there, from the Inventory Librarians down to the men and women who scrubbed the floors each week and beat the dust from the arrases each spring equinox. The abbé explained that, on account of the mechanical predictability of life in the library, they needed only to stand at the foot of the east tower’s turnpike stair in full confidence that, if he wasn’t ill, the man they sought would shortly emerge from above.
They hadn’t long to wait. A line of Scholarchs filed from the archway at the foot of the stairs. Several of them noted the abbé in passing, dismissed him. Apparently, an itinerant historicist held little interest for them.
“Alois,” the abbé called.
A number of the Scholarchs turned back toward them. One, Jerome saw, simply stopped, growing visibly stiff, as though he had come upon a wild animal he feared to startle.
“Alois,” the abbé said again.
The Scholarch turned toward them. His face was white, eyes wide.
“By the—by the God,” the man stammered.
“Who’s this, then, Alois?” asked another of the Scholarchs.
“He’s—an old friend. Come, Abbé Demilio,” Alois said with forced joviality, “we’ll speak alone, yes?”
Alois’s colleagues frowned, exchanged glances, shrugged, and continued on. When they were out of earshot, Alois said, “If I’d known you were coming, my lord, I—”
“This is most unusual, I know. But I’m in urgent need of your help.”
Alois began to collect himself. “Of course, of course. Anything! What can I do?”
“We’ll need to reference the Rhapsodic Compendiums.”
Alois nodded. “Yes, yes, of course. Follow me!”
And they started up the stairs the Scholarch had just come down.
The Kosmos Biblioth’s three towers housed the innumerable volumes that had been produced by Sophieli Rhapsodes over the past thirteen centuries. The east tower contained the texts pertaining to events between the founding of the Order of Sophiel and the End Days. Based on a close study of the Book of Petyr—the first of the final three Books of the Kosmostoria—the Sophieli had originally calculated that the period in question would last five-hundred and sixty-seven years. Perforce, they had since revised their calculations—numerous times, in fact.
Passageways lined in packed shelves radiated outward from the turnpike stair. The ceilings were low, the aisles narrow. It was often said that the Kosmos Biblioth was sinking eastward under the weight of Petyr’s Tower. Eventually, it was joked, the upheaval would topple the west tower, the Apocali Tower, which would signal the coming of the End Days—suggesting that the accumulation of Rhapsodic texts was so much dead weight upon the scales of history.
Jerome was perfectly aware of why so many dismissed Rhapsodic texts as idle nonsense. Everyone knew that the majority of the predictions contained in the texts again and again proved themselves wrong, flatly contradicted by the world—indeed, contradicted by the work of historicists, the Rhapsodes’ own fellow Sophieli. What only the Dionari, and mayhap the Dathieli, understood—what even the Rhapsodes themselves did not understand—was that raptural experiences were capable of revealing the future of any number of worlds. When genuine, Rhapsodic trances invariably produced truths about the future—but not always about the future of the world in which the Rhapsode himself lived.
When they had climbed mayhap a quarter of the way up the tower, the staircase opened onto a huge vaulted chamber, its long curving wall lined with windows. The chamber was empty now save for a handful of novice scribes hunched over writing desks in one corner. The Scholarch, Alois, led Demilio and Jerome to a long table on which a row of over a dozen massive volumes stood open. The Rhapsodic Compendiums, Jerome assumed.
Whereas Historic Scholarchs compiled the Annals, which contained their synthesis of all the many reports that flooded the library from across the known world, the Rhapsodic Scholarchs produced the Compendiums, the fruit of their attempt to track patterns and anomalies in the Rhapsodic texts as those texts pertained to the near future. Given the sheer number of Rhapsodic texts, the undertaking was immense, contentious, and perpetually incomplete. Further complicating matters, the Compendiums were constantly running just ahead of the latest Annals, which meant that the Annals were in turn constantly overtaking the older Compendiums. This had given rise to a distinct branch of Scholarchs who spent their days attempting to correlate the two. Jerome alternated between finding the whole process fascinating, even exciting, and finding it to be the dullest, most pointless undertaking imaginable.
Gesturing at the long row of books, Alois announced, grandly and unnecessarily, “Our latest work.” With a sideways glance at the novice scribes seated on the opposite side of the chamber, he lowered his voice, said, “My lord has come on account of the chairos moment, yes?”
Jerome was startled, but the abbé evinced not the least surprise, merely said, “What do you know of it?”
A look of triumph, quickly suppressed, flashed across Alois’s face. “I knew it! I’ve been arguing for months that all signs point to a confluence—that is, what we would call rezchairos.”
“I know what a confluence is.”
“Yes, yes, of course you do.” Alois looked abashed, but he was too excited to hold his peace. “You’re going to Lascione, then? Or—or you’ve sent another?”
Lascione? Jerome thought. Why in the Goddess’s name would anyone go there?
As though reading Jerome’s mind, the abbé said, “Why would I go to Lascione, Alois?”
For a moment, the Scholarch was at a loss for words. “I just assumed…” He walked down the line of compendiums, stopped at one, began turning back the huge pages with a sound like flapping sails. “Here,” he said, pointing.
“A red rose,” the abbé said. “What does it mean?”
A look of confusion crossed the Scholarch’s face, as though Demilio had confessed ignorance of the color of the sky. “Lascione has been gripped by a series of bloody civil wars these past eleven years—”
“Yes,” the abbé interjected. “But what is the significance of the rose?”
The red rose, Jerome knew, was the symbol of the Goddess. Only half aware of doing so, he began to rub his left wrist, where three red roses marked him as apprenticed to a worldwalker.
“We believe,” Alois said, “that the red rose signifies the end of the Anarchy—that is, the Lascionan civil wars. We have speculated that it is an emblem of some kind—mayhap representing the supersession of House Norloch and House Arnos, that is, the black and white roses, respectively.” He lowered his voice. “I do not believe it’s a coincidence, my lord. This red rose—it’s a hinge.”
Demilio stared down at the illuminated image.
“You must tell me everything,” he said.
A month after having arrived in Farnesse, the sense of awe Jerome had felt upon first entering the Kosmos Biblioth had yet to wear off. He was often away from the library—Demilio had pressed him into attending lessons with the schoolmasters at the Academy, which was as far from the Kosmos Biblioth as it was possible to be whilst remaining within the Ecclesia Sophielas—but Jerome spent as much time as he could with the abbé, who as far as Jerome knew had yet to leave the library once since their arrival.
Having been convinced by Scholarch Alois that the fate of chairos now lay in Lascione—of all places!—the abbé had, or so it seemed to Jerome, set about hunting down and studying every last word written about the island kingdom in the entirety of the Kosmos Biblioth, whether in the towers of the Rhapsodes or in the musty Catacombs of the Historicists. It certainly helped that worldwalkers, as Jerome knew—…as he’d been shocked to learn…—did not require sleep. More than that, he was fairly certain they were incapable of it.
Worldwalkers did not age, either—at least not outwardly. They quite literally stood outside of—even whilst moving within—the temporal axis to which all mortals were bound. Where Zochronosi could induce rapture in order to pierce the veil of the present, worldwalkers simply existed rapturally. Rapture was their natural state.
This led to all sorts of mind-numbing paradoxes. For instance, the abbé was holed up in the Kosmos Biblioth because he was searching for information. Yet, as a worldwalker, he must already know everything he would ever know about Lascione. So why bother researching? Because if he did not do the work, then he would never have learned about Lascione, in which case he could not rapturally access that knowledge prior to acquiring it.
If he did not learn what he already knew, he would never have known it.
Looked at this way, rapture-sight could seem decidedly unhelpful, like knowing beforehand all the moves one would make in a losing game of sidereas—yet without the ability to change a single one. But it was more complicated than that. The fact of rapture-sight meant that one’s future actions, whilst unchangeable, were still those of a person who had already glimpsed what was to come. On the few occasions in which Jerome had challenged the worldwalker in sidereas—the other Jerome, the apprentice to a mere Zochronos, had never taken to the game—he hadn’t stood a chance, even though he was quite a skilled player. Why? Because from the start the abbé knew every move Jerome would make—and he acted on that knowledge.
At the same time, the abbé had claimed that it was possible to best him. If defeat lay in his future, he had insisted, then he could not avoid it, for it had already happened.
Attempting to think through such paradoxes only succeeded in making Jerome’s head throb.
Fortunately, he was spared hours of logical tail-chasing when he learned, about a week into their stay in Farnesse, that in this particular case the puzzle of the abbé’s motives and actions was less difficult to comprehend than it would ordinarily have been.
The Librarians had installed the abbé in one of the numerous cloisters that ran the length of one of the levels of arcading high above the floor of the Basilica. A round window let light in, and a long table with built-in benches served as a workspace. Jerome had brought the abbé a tray of food, managed to coax his attention away from the scrolls and bound volumes littering the table. Worldwalkers may not sleep, but they did require nourishment.
As he sat watching the abbé nibble from the plates of cheese, bread, and meat—rather, he thought, like a cat testing the freshness of a bowl of cream—Jerome asked him what he was looking for.
“Guidance,” Demilio replied.
“But you already know what’s going to happen. What help could all these words be to you?”
Demilio—…this is not him!…—turned an impassive gaze on Jerome. “You understand what happened in Moerthe, yes?”
“Of course. Rezchairos. World-slip.”
The abbé nodded. “We remain in rezchairos.”
“But…” Jerome drew back. “How can that be? We’ve already World-slipped.”
“Chairos stands still no more than chronos does. Sacred history has shifted, yes, but it shall do so again before this hinge swings shut.”
Jerome thought back to the Archbishop of Mayenz’s pavilion in another world, to words spoken and unspoken, futures glimpsed and unglimpsed.
I can see nothing, the abbé had said, seated around a fire in the imperial encampment. I am rapture-blind…
“You cannot see the path ahead,” Jerome said.
The abbé gestured, taking in the chaotic jumble of books and scrolls lying before him. “It is here, somewhere…” Then, loudly, he asked, “What are hinges of fate, Jerome?”
Startled, Jerome sputtered, “They’re—they’re what allow chairos to move from world to world.”
“That is what they do, yes. But what are they?”
“They’re…” Jerome brightened. “They’re bridges. Crossings of worlds.”
“Again, yes. But what are they made of? What accomplishes the bridging? They are not made of stone and mortar.”
Jerome thought for a time, but soon gave up. “I don’t know. What?”
“People, Jerome. We say a person is ‘in’ rezchairos, but it is better to say that a person is rezchairos. History is the movement of the mind of the Goddess, and a spark of that eternal fire is lodged in the breast of every man.”
Jerome pondered that for a time. “But if a spark of the Goddess is in everyone, shouldn’t everyone be rezchairos?”
“Good. Yes, we all participate in chairos. It’s like a vast web, of which each person is a node. But the web is constantly shifting, constantly reorganizing itself. As it shifts, nodes come to possess more or less influence over the web. When the mind of the Goddess alights upon a world, those nodes—those individuals—who possess the greatest influence over the web are rezchairos. You understand?”
“I think so… It’s like sidereas. Constellations of Peasants form Freemen, constellations of Freemen form Infantry…”
“Yes, yes, good.”
Jerome frowned. “So… who’s rezchairos, then?”
“Rezchairosi come in groups,” the abbé said. “The fates of those caught in rezchairos are bound together, and as their fate goes, so goes the fate of chairological history. They determine which way the hinge swings.”
“So who are they?”
“I’m sure of only one.”
Impatient, Jerome threw up his hands. “Who?”
The abbé tapped his chest. “Me.”
It was understood that apprentices to itinerant historicists would spend most of their time traveling from place to place, receiving from their masters the wide-ranging education that was the hallmark of Sophieli training at all levels. When they stayed put for any length of time, however, they were expected to attend classes at a local Academy Sophiel, if there was one nearby.
Despite that Jerome was in fact apprenticed to a worldwalking Dionari sorcerer, the abbé insisted that he play the part of an aspiring historicist, that he respect the Sophieli and what they had to teach him.
He had attended, always for short periods of time, a wide range of Sophieli Academies over the years. Some were decidedly crude affairs, such as the one in western Bütowas, perched upon the edge of the vast emptiness of Torun. Others were amongst the most celebrated in the world, such as the Academy in Fontaine. None, though, compared to the Academy at the Ecclesia Sophielas.
Unlike other Sophieli Academies, the Ecclesiac Academy did not serve any particular region. Farnesse had its own Academy, south of the river. To the Ecclesia Sophielas came only the most gifted and promising students from other Sophieli Academies, just as the regional Academies admitted only the most gifted and promising students from amongst the Academies of the Macarieli and the Thorieli. Only the best of the best made it to the Ecclesia. The smartest of the smart.
The most arrogant of the arrogant.
When forced to attend courses, Jerome tended to keep his distance from his fellow students. For one thing, he was a perpetual outsider. There was also the pesky fact that he was not a Sophieli, nor even an Elaarim. He had no genuine interest in being an historicist. Moreover, he rejected the cult of the Archons, the authority of the paulis, the false doctrine of Dionare’s mortality. The Sophieli were not as hostile to Dionism as the other Orders were. For them, the reemergence of the Dionite heresy was a cause for study and debate, not for burning people at the stake. Even so, Jerome was obliged to conform himself, in both word and deed, to Elaarism whenever he stepped foot into an Academy Sophiel.
Worst of all, his need to maintain the pretense that he was apprenticed to a mere historicist prevented him from putting in their place the arrogant little snots who invariably dominated the classes, whose prestige amongst their cohort seemed tied to the extent of their success in publically shaming the other students. He outright despised this all-too-common breed of Sophieli, and when one day after classes were out he overheard a group of them discussing an upcoming sidereas tournament—“It’ll be like robbing the blind!” one laughed—he could not resist butting into the conversation.
“Sidereas, eh?” he said. “A great game. My father taught me to play.”
Sure enough, the simpering idiots took his bait, just as he knew they would.
And that was how, two days later, he found himself in the common room of a dormitory reserved for Adepti, handing over a gold Farnessian coin whilst a girl mayhap a year younger than himself scratched his name in chalk upon a long slate board built into one wall.
Jerome looked at the name above his own. It seemed he would be facing one Tel Olgash in the first round.
The tournament progressed quickly, for the common room was large enough to hold a dozen sidereas tables, arranged in a circle, with plenty of space left over for the press of spectators. A pair of older boys wearing the full-moon badge that marked them as Adepti—those studying to become Rhapsodes—walked the perimeter of the gaming area, keeping an eye on the players, as though to ensure that no one cheated. This was perfectly unnecessary, of course, for if both players understood the rules of the game, it was impossible to cheat at sidereas.
Unless, that is, one could enter a rapture state.
It became apparent quickly enough that the two Adepti were in fact the organizers of the tournament. They announced odds, took bets, collected coins. Their interest in the outcome of the games was, in the first instance, financial. And on that front there was plenty to be interested in, for in addition to the staggering entrance fees owed by each player—a gold farnesi would constitute a small fortune to most children, not to mention many adults—the sums produced by the audience were equally staggering. Jerome guessed, however, that profit was not the sole concern of the two Adepti running the tournament. Of the twenty-four players in the tournament’s first round, seven—all boys—also wore the full-moon badge, and Jerome felt sure that at least one of these was expected to carry the day.
Those with a gift for inducing Rhapsodic trances were found so rarely that they were promptly packed away to the Ecclesia Sophielas. Even here, though, they were far outnumbered by the other classes: the so-called Black Novitiates, who were historicists in training, and especially the Red Novitiates, who were Scholarchs in training. Despite the paucity of their number—or mayhap because of it—the Adepti considered themselves superior to everyone else. In other Sophieli Academies Jerome had visited, the Red Novitiates might look down upon the Black, or the Black upon the Red. Here, it was the Adepti who lorded it over the rest.
He looked forward to humbling them. He, a mere Black Novitiate, one—moreover—who had not even been admitted to the Ecclesiac Academy.
It was all Jerome could do to keep from smirking in their self-satisfied faces as he took his place at one of the sidereas tables, across from Tel Olgash, who wore the crescent-moon badge that marked him as one of ten Red Novitiates competing in the first round.
As the match started, however, panic surged through Jerome. Staring down at the board covered in webbed crosshatching, the double-sided King standing upright in the center, he was suddenly unable to recall a single thing about the game of sidereas. Olgash drew a Peasant from the trough of tiles on one side of the board, placed it down, white-face showing, and Jerome simply stared at it, without the slightest idea what to do.
“Your play,” Olgash said in a thick northern accent.
Jerome had learned the rules of sidereas, of course, but that was years ago. He’d always found the game tedious. He hardly knew how to play.
That’s not true, he told himself. I’ve won countless matches!
A disembodied hand suddenly moved across the board. Jerome gave a start. It was his own hand, he realized. For a dizzying moment, it was though he hovered outside of his body, as though he merely watched, another member of the audience, as he placed a Peasant onto the board, black-face showing.
Thankfully, the moment passed, and Jerome was whole again, knew how to play sidereas, knew he would make short work of Tel Olgash. He smiled across the board at the other boy.
An unlikely figure, Olgash was huge, brooding, with sloping shoulders and cheeks bristling with stubble. He looked more like a laborer than like a Scholarch. Jerome expected him to ponder his next play, but apparently Olgash knew what he was about, for he promptly reached for another Peasant, set it down on a point that both helped him to develop, and blocked one route for Jerome to develop, the Constellation of Macariel.
Jerome frowned, bent all his attention to the board.
Olgash’s strategy was stubbornly defensive. He made only half-hearted attempts at forming Introductory Constellations. Instead, he did his best to block Jerome from doing so, whilst striving to form one of the two Transformative Constellations, which would allow him to capture any of Jerome’s tiles that fell within the Constellation’s sphere of influence.
If Olgash had his way, Jerome realized, the game would never progress beyond Peasants, would never see the introduction of Freemen, Infantry, Cavalry, or any higher tiles. Such a game would culminate not in a victory proper, but in a so-called counting victory, in which the player whose pieces added up to the higher value was declared the winner.
Unfortunately for Olgash, he proved utterly unable to thwart Jerome’s creation of Introductory Constellations. Within five moves, a black Freeman came onto the board, followed swiftly by black Infantry and Cavalry. Olgash tried to alter his strategy, but to no avail.
The murmuring of the crowd around their table began to ebb away. Others wandered over. When Jerome formed the Rod of Dathiel, introducing an Archbishop onto the board, he heard someone say, “We may have a captured King here!”
Most sidereas matches ended in a counting victory. A direct victory was rare, whether it was accomplished by capturing the King or, even rarer, by ending with one’s pieces occupying every available point on the board, a so-called postern victory. It was this—the staggering difficulty of a genuine victory—that had simultaneously, in different worlds, intrigued Jerome about sidereas and caused him to lose interest in it.
Sweat began to break out on Olgash’s huge forehead as Jerome formed the Constellation of Morael, introducing a Queen, the final piece needed to capture the King. If Olgash had harbored any hope of somehow salvaging the match, they were shattered, for the Queen was the most powerful tile in the game. Sure enough, three moves later, Jerome introduced his fifth Freeman by jumping the Queen diagonally across the board, and the Constellation of Thoriel fell into place around the King.
The crowd watched in rapt silence as Jerome reached out, turned the King onto its black side. “The King is mine,” he said, the traditional pronouncement of victory.
Olgash’s mouth sagged open. He gasped, drew his sleeve across his forehead.
“He’s done it!” someone called. “He’s captured the King!”
The eleven other games were still underway, but at this, each player paused long enough to turn his way, some with a hint of awe in their eyes, some looking puzzled, others suspicious. The two Adepti running the tournament strode quickly over, pushing through the crowd of onlookers. They surveyed the board for a long time, as though trying to work out in reverse how Jerome had managed such a feat in so few moves.
“So he has,” one of the two boys said. “Tel Olgash is eliminated. Jerome Casterdi moves on to the second round!”
Between matches, the other students crowded around him, asking him questions too quickly for him to answer. They wanted to know who he was, why he was here, where he had studied. Other Black Novitiates, half-moon badges on their sleeves, clapped him on the back. One said, “We’ve not had a champion in years!”
None of the Adepti, Jerome happily noted, seemed eager to congratulate him.
When all the first-round matches were completed, students dragged away half of the sidereas tables, leaving a smaller circle of six. Jerome soon found himself seated across the board from an older boy, seventeen or eighteen, sporting a full-moon badge. He suppressed a grin. He very much It doubted it was a coincidence that he should face an older Adepti in the second round.
They wanted Jerome eliminated, and sooner rather than later.
Not long into the match, Jerome realized that, if the Adepti were in fact colluding against him, they had made a wise choice in his opponent. Dravos Malink proved himself to be an exceptionally good player, far superior to Tel Olgash. Superior, indeed, to Jerome himself.
Malink, he quickly realized, was out not only to defeat him, but to crush him. His strategy was superficially similar to Olgash’s, but whereas the Red Novitiate had clearly been attempting a counting victory, Malink was just as clearly attempting the virtuosic feat of a postern victory.
The crowd around their table groaned as Malink formed one Transformative Constellation after another. It seemed to Jerome as though half the game-time was taken up with the other boy turning over captured tiles, shifting them from black to white.
He’s going to win, Jerome thought. Then: No, he’s not.
With only the slightest pang—less out of any moral scruples than because Olgash had made him think that mayhap he could win the tournament unaided—Jerome set about inducing rapture. He drew his thoughts inward. He closed his eyes, breathed evenly, let the notes of the Aeolian Nome bloom within his soul. As though in the distance, he heard a voice addressing him, paid it no heed.
The nome took shape within him. He conjured a second melodic line, twining around the first like two strands of smoke—a rudimentary Trope, the only one he had yet to master. The song seemed to glow brighter and brighter, spilling outward from his chest. Ribbons of fire snaked down his arms. His heart hammered, his head spun, and…
Eyes shoot open. The world sways before him, like a tree in the wind. Branches kicking, leaves twirling—long smudges across the canvas of a two-dimensional world. He feels as though he is falling in place—falling and falling and falling in place. Everywhere he looks, figures move, jerk back, move again, jerk back. Voices fly at him, only to be reeled in, only to fly at him again.
The sidereas board fills with tiles, empties, fills again. He speaks, has not spoken, speaks again. He reaches for a tile, places it down, retracts it. He bends forward and leans back at the same time as he sits up straighter. His heart beats, beats, beats three-times over. Three hearts, three mouths, three sets of eyes.
“The board is full,” he says—…has said…—…will say.
He draws a tile from the trough, lays it on the board, retracts it, draws it from the trough.
“The board is full, and your pieces are mine,” he says—…says…—…said.
Jerome jerked, as though startling awake. Students were crowded all around him, hushed in stunned silence. The two Adepti running the tournament were wide-eyed, and Dravos Malink looked as though he had just seen the sun rise in the west.
“Go on,” a girl in the crowd said. “The King is yours!”
“Go on!” others echoed. “Go on! Go on!”
Jerome looked down at the board. Every available point was filled with black tiles.
A postern victory.
He reached out, turned the King onto its black side, said, “The King is mine.”
By the third round, only six players remained: Jerome, along with two Red Novitiates—both girls—and three Adepti. All the sidereas tables except one were dragged away. Each game, it seemed, was to be played in turn rather than simultaneously.
As the first game began, Jerome turned to a Black Novitiate who had introduced himself as Marco, asked, “Three players will be left after this round. How’s the victor decided?”
Marco gawked at him. “You don’t know?”
Jerome shrugged. “I’m only visiting.”
“That’s right, I’d forgotten. The final match is a three-way.”
“Oh!” Jerome said. “That should be… interesting.”
Though it was almost always played by two people, there was in principle no limit to the number of players who could join a sidereas match. The only practical restrictions were time and space, for more players invariably meant a longer game, whilst the board had to expand to accommodate a greater number of tiles.
Jerome wasn’t surprised in the least to discover that none of the three remaining Adepti were to face each other in the third round. The first match was quick and ruthless, with the Red Novitiate girl managing only to avoid a direct defeat. The match ended in a counting victory, but one in which the Adept scored four times as many points as his opponent.
The second match pitted another Adept against another Red Novitiate. But this girl was older than the other one, mayhap sixteen or seventeen. She was introduced as Lianna de Bernays. An Aterrasan, then. She was tall, with long fair hair braided and pinned at the back of her head. She did not strike Jerome as a young woman to be taken lightly, and her play proved it.
The audience clearly favored her, and Jerome found himself actively rooting for her as well. The Adept cornered her several times, but she managed to slip free, and ended up forcing a counting victory in which she came out ahead by seven points.
“A miracle!” Marco said, pulling at Jerome’s side. “If you defeat Hans, they’ll be only one Adept in the final round!”
“It’s a day for miracles,” Jerome said, winked at the other boy.
Adept Hans proved to be nowhere near a player of Dravos Malink’s caliber. Jerome managed to defeat him without inducing rapture. The match ended in a counting victory, which seemed to disappoint the audience after Jerome’s two consecutive direct victories. Still, they seemed to share Marco’s astonishment that six of the seven Adepti had been eliminated before the final round.
It had been a long morning, and the gathering broke for an hour before the tournament’s final match. In the refectory, Jerome ate bread, beef, and fresh fruit, washed down with thin beer, all the while fending off a pack of Black Novitiates that hung on his every word. It seemed he had become a sort of folk hero amongst them, at least for today.
He found the attention overwhelming, so much so that he was relieved when one of the two Adepti running the tournament—Chrys, his name was—asked to speak with him. Leaving the adulation behind, Jerome followed the older boy into a trellised courtyard behind the refectory. A half-dozen other Adepti awaited him there, including Dravos Malink and the other organizer of the tournament. It crossed Jerome’s mind that they might mean him harm, but dismissed the worry. After all, he was expected back at the sidereas table in less than an hour. What could they do?
“How can I help you, my friends?” Jerome said to the knot of frowning boys.
Malink stepped forward, snapped, “How’d you do it, eh? Was it a pagan trick? Something picked up in some benighted nowhere? Eh? How?”
Jerome twisted his face into a look of astonishment. “Pagan trick? I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“What Malink wants to know,” Chrys said, “is how you defeated him. We all saw it. It was… impossible.”
Jerome shrugged. “Apparently not.”
Malink snarled, showing his teeth, spun away.
“We can find out the truth, you know,” Chrys said.
“Can you now?” Jerome chuckled, as though at the foolishness of children. “With the Rhapsody, you mean?”
“You doubt our power?”
“Me? No, certainly not. I’m sure it’s very impressive. Truly.”
Chrys regarded him with shrewd, appraising eyes. “Why do you dislike us so much, Casterdi? I don’t recall us ever meeting before a few days ago.”
“Yes, well,” Jerome mused, “sometimes it takes but a moment, don’t you think?”
Malink swung back toward Jerome. “You’ll not win the tournament! We’ll not let that happen!”
“What’s this now? You’d interfere? You’d cheat? I’m shocked!”
“Why not cheat?” Malink spat. “You obviously do!”
“There will be no cheating,” Chrys said, “not by anyone. And if there is, we’ll learn the truth of it. Fair warning, Casterdi!”
Jerome gave a little dip of his head. “I’m an open book, my friends! An open book!”
The Adepti filed back into the refectory. Jerome watched them go. When they were gone, a figure slipped out behind them. It was Lianna de Bernays, Jerome saw. As she approached, he was dismayed to discover that she stood several inches above him.
She smiled coyly. “You’ve certainly got the Adepti’s hackles up, haven’t you?”
Jerome couldn’t entirely mask a smile of his own. “It seems that way.”
“You’re amazing,” she said without further preamble. “I’ve been playing sidereas my whole life, but I’ve never seen anything like you.”
Heat spread up from Jerome’s neck, blooming out across his cheeks. He swallowed hard. “Ahh…”
“I don’t stand a chance,” Lianna said. “No one in that room would, not against you.”
Jerome cleared his throat. “Yes, ah, well…”
She reached out, placed a slender hand on his arm. “I just wanted to say, I hope you destroy Trevor. He’s a real bastard, worse than Dravos even, if you can believe it.”
Through a dry, tight throat, Jerome said, “I’ll—do my best.”
She laughed. Her skirts twirled in the sunlight as she spun away, made for the refectory.
When he returned to the common room, Jerome saw that a new, triangular sidereas table had been set up. He took his place along one side. Lianna sat on his left, the Adept—Trevor—on his right.
A three-way match, he knew, was about nine times as complicated as a two-way match. Lianna was very good, at least as good as he was. And Trevor, well, the way he had manhandled the Red Novitiate in the third round had been a daunting sight to behold. Jerome knew going in that he would need to induce rapture if he was to secure the victory. But he wasn’t sure that even his rapture-sight, limited and precarious as it was, would allow him to succeed at the task he had set himself.
Before the first tile was laid, Jerome was already drawing his thoughts in, was already letting the two-voiced song unfold within his soul. He dropped away, as he always did, into a kind of nightmare—a disjointed, broken world; a disjointed, broken soul—and when he came to, the memories of it immediately began to fall away, like sand slipping through his fingers.
Lianna, he saw, was reaching out across the board, her arm shaking. “The King is—is mine,” she said, and turned the three-sided King onto its grey side.
A heartbeat passed. Then the common room erupted in hoots and cheers. Trevor glared red-faced at Lianna, then at Jerome. “You did this,” he hissed, rising from his stool.
Jerome raised his hands out, palms up, as though at a loss for words.
The crowd closed in around the table, all eyes focused on Lianna, her face flushed, her blue eyes sparkling. She was on her feet. Someone handed her the King. She clutched it to her breast. The Adepti, meanwhile, gathered in a corner, glowering at the triumphant Novitiates, Red and Black alike.
Jerome laughed softly to himself. A successful day’s work, he reckoned. He’d made some enemies, sure, but also some friends, mayhap. He’d never had friends, not truly.
At this thought, a strand of melancholy wove through his contentment. Still smiling, he left the Adepti to their brooding, the Novitiates to their celebrating. He wandered out alone into long afternoon shadows.
He was a hundred yards or so from the dormitory when he heard footsteps pattering up behind him. Worried that it was one of the Adepti, he swung around. It was only Lianna. She was breathing heavily, her breasts rising and falling under the laces of her bodice. Thick strands of blonde hair fell across her shoulders.
“Where are you going?” she panted.
“I—” Jerome swallowed whatever he might have said next.
She held the three-sided King out for him. “This is yours. I know you let me win.”
He held up his hands. “It was your victory.”
She shook the King insistently. “That’s a lie.”
“Mayhap,” he allowed, smiling a little, “but I’ll never admit it. Keep the trophy, Lianna.”
“I insist,” she said, her mouth set in a firm line, still holding the King out between them.
“There’s no use resisting, is there?” he said.
He took the tile from her, said, “Do you always get your way?”
She frowned. “Usually. Come back with me. We’re celebrating.”
He dropped his gaze. “I—I don’t think so.”
“I’m sure,” he said, though in truth he wasn’t. Far from it. Why not go back with her?
He was still puzzling over what he ought to do when Lianna suddenly leaned down, kissed him on the mouth. He jerked back, startled. She opened her eyes, laughed, smiled, kissed him again.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” she said. “In class?”
“Y-y-yes,” Jerome stammered. “Tomorrow.”
Lianna took his hand. Her fingers trailed through his as she pulled away. Still smiling, she turned, began to jog back toward the dormitory.
Jerome didn’t remember the rest of the walk back to his room. He couldn’t stop thinking about that kiss—the smell of her, the taste of her, the nearness of her. Her hair, her eyes, her lips… Why hadn’t he stayed? Why wasn’t he with her right now?
Why was he such a damnable coward?
Stumbling into the room he shared with three other Black Novitiates, Jerome gave a start, nearly dropped the sidereas tile. For a heartbeat, all thought of Lianna was erased from his mind. But it was only the abbé, seated on his cot.
“What are you doing here?” Jerome gasped.
The abbé rose to his feet. “Waiting for you.”
“Gather your things. We leave at first light.”
The words struck Jerome like a blow to the gut. “Leaving? But… Where?”
“Lascione, of course.”
“Lascione?” Jerome’s voice sounded far away in his own ears. “But—but…”
He thought of Lianna, of their fingers twined together, then sliding apart, and he was afraid he would weep right there under the impassive gaze of a worldwalker.
Tomorrow, she had said.
The Moraeli Rapide, a three-masted Aterrasan merchantman bound for the Lascionan capital of Lloudyn, dropped anchor in a barren cove overhung with cliffs. Night had fallen. Stars gleamed along wine-black waters. They had crossed the South Channel safely, though not comfortably, and were now floating alongside the western shore of the island kingdom of Lascione.
Crewmen climbed the rigging lines to perch, like rows of seagulls, from footropes hanging suspended high above the deck. There, outlined against the dusk sky, they raised the sails. Almost as soon as the anchor hit the water, the abbé instructed Jerome to fetch their belongings. Jerome sputtered, “But—is our destination not Lloudyn?”
His grasp of Lascionan geography extended no further than knowledge that the city of Lloudyn sat astride the River Tamasa, whose tides were washed by the White Sea. The idea of disembarking in this desolate place seemed to Jerome like striding off the edge of the map of the world, into the savage darkness beyond. What reason could the abbé possibly have for bringing them here, wherever “here” happened to be?
As was his wont of late, the abbé offered no explanation.
When Demilio asked that they be rowed ashore, the captain regarded them curiously. But after being paid the second half of the agreed-upon fare, he shrugged, ordered a four-oared pinnace lowered. Within the hour, Jerome found himself scrambling up a notch in the cliff-side. They spent the night in a sea-lashed Sophieli monastery, whose abbot provided them with no better fare than black bread and salted cod. In the morning, they struck out south and east on foot across the barren expanse of the Westmere. A day and a half later, they reached Castle Worthing, where a dour but solicitous Macarieli priest gifted them with a pair of ancient mules. They were then forced to hand over nearly half of their remaining coin—an extortionist sum—to secure passage on a ferry across the massive back of the Maidstone River.
Summer had set in by then. Over the two days that followed, Jerome accumulated more gnat bites than he had endured in all his previous fourteen and a half years on the Goddess’s green earth. The next day, he rejoiced when the land rose ahead of them, twisting up through breaks choked with beech and grey-willow shrubs. By nightfall, they emerged onto broad, contoured uplands that stretched eastward to a star-flecked horizon. The air that lay so stagnant over the Westmere was replaced by brisk clean breezes that rustled the grasses at their feet.
The path they followed across the uplands joined an east–west causeway. Flat and straight and raised, the road seemed utterly foreign to this huge, empty land. “A Nevegasan road,” the abbé explained. “The hand of the ancient emperors reached even here.”
They made better time after that. Villages began to sprout up alongside the causeway, many with inns willing to put up an itinerant Sophieli historicist and his apprentice for a night, at least in the stables. As they made their way eastward, hills rose up on their left. “The Greenfells,” said the abbé, “beyond which lay Lloudyn and the Midlands.”
“So we are bound for Lloudyn,” Jerome said. “Why the cross-country excursion, then?”
“Not Lloudyn. Our destination is far nearer.”
The abbé pointed. Jerome squinted. He could make out only a smudge against distant hills.
“Morekeep,” the abbé explained. “The fortress was raised by House Montacute, but passed a generation ago to Edmund Black, and thence to his eldest son, Rikard.”
“Rikard Black,” Jerome murmured. “You mean… the Earl of Corfolk? The one they called the Kingmaker?”
The abbé nodded. “The Kingmaker, yes.”
“But he’s dead.”
“So he is. The fortress is held now by Giles Fernivale, grandson of Tomas Montacute, the last Montacute lord of Morekeep. King Brandon would have the world pretend that Giles Fernivale inherited the title from his grandfather, that the Kingmaker never existed. Though where that leaves Alice Montacute, I don’t know. I suppose we must also forget that she existed. How unfortunate for her!”
At times like this, it was easy for Jerome to believe that he was speaking not with a worldwalker, but with Abbé Demilio. Hoping to draw out the moment, he asked, “Who’s Alice Montacute?”
“Tomas Montacute’s eldest daughter,” the abbé replied. “She married Edmund Black. She was the Kingmaker’s mother.”
“But if Rikard Black was lord of Morekeep—”
“The lords of Morekeep are earls of Angeral.”
Jerome suppressed a smile. Yes, this was very much like speaking with Demilio de Alcaraz. “Earl of Angeral, then. How did Rikard become Earl of Corfolk?”
“An interesting story. Rikard’s elder sister wed the first Earl Corfolk, Henri de Bourchier. Both husband and wife fell ill and died. Their lands and titles passed forthwith to their infant daughter, Anne. But she too sickened and died. A controversy ensued, and the Kingmaker prevailed—though he was yet to be a maker of kings, of course. Rikard Black managed to convince Lockard II that his niece’s rightful heir was none other than himself.”
“But you don’t believe the Kingmaker had the better claim,” Jerome said, and the abbé launched into an elaborate account of the sixteen-year-old succession controversy, an account that kept him occupied until they reached the huge, rusted portcullis that gave access to Morekeep castle.
Despite the wealth of information imparted to him regarding their obscure destination, Jerome still didn’t know why they had come all this way to stand in the outer bailey of the Earl of Angeral’s border fortress, didn’t know what sort of guidance the abbé had found within the thousand-thousand volumes of the Kosmos Biblioth.
He reached for the three-sided King that hung from a cord around his neck. He and the abbé, he knew, stood now at the very heart of sacred history. The eye of the Living Goddess was fixed upon them. There could be no higher calling, no more important task.
Why, then, could he not stop thinking of Lianna de Bernays?
Tomorrow, she had said.
How could it be that he would trade it all for a kiss, a smile, for a trailing of fingertips?
He looked over at the abbé—…the Stranger…—deathless and unaging under this foreign sky, and thought: For some of us, tomorrow never comes…