The Burning of Kiz (by Frank)

To take up the sword is to be humbled. Every thrust and parry is a constant reminder to the limits of one’s reach. Beware, your eminence, he who would wield his Cants as steel.

– Cartanian, Reply to the Principle of the Oaranat

What is analogy, if not falsehoods that seduce through their resemblance to truth?

– Altheus, Book of Standards

3793 Year-of-the-Tusk, Carythusal

Grandmaster Shinurta walked between candlelit shelves, reordering the scrolls according to some private fancy. It did not matter that he rarely spent time in the teaching libraries. All knowledge residing within the fortress of Kiz also belonged to him.

“Master Safras tells me you have been studying the Refutations,” He asked the young man trailing behind him. “What have you learned so far?”

The student followed in silence. As cowed as he was by the Grandmaster’s personal scrutiny, he still flaunted some small obstinance under the rules of jnan.

“Do you suffer a malady of the tongue, young prince?”

Levininas scowled behind the old man’s back. Knives behind every word. He know I am a prince of nothing among the Scarlet Spires.

“Nomedius is a terrible philosopher,” he finally muttered, more to himself that to the Grandmaster.

Shinurta turned and stroked his well oiled beard in the way of solemn men, pondering solemn words. “I see.”

“His rhetoric resembles the classics only in their tone,” Levinias continued when no rebuke was forthcoming. “He is a provincialist hiding beneath the scholar’s cap.”

Shinurta paused in deep contemplation. “I see,” he repeated, then spoke as if struck by unexpected by insight. “But what of parody? Have you considered if the defects of his rhetoric were intentional?”

Recklessness, resentment, dangers foreseen and ignored. Levinias spoke without care.

“Intentionally bad is still bad.”

A hint of amusement flickered across the Grandmaster’s face. “The ancients are long dead, Levinias. They do not know you. Why should their words chafe you so?”

The young prince clenched his hands in frustration. He could give no answer.

“In some respects you are correct,” Shinurta lowered his voice conspiratorially. “Although I would not share this with all your tutors. Yet even terrible philosophers have their lessons. Nomedius certainly was no heir to Ajencis. He was a caste-noble trained in the tradition of scholars, and so believed that all nobles should aspire to be scholars. But as Ajencis taught us, men tend to value only what they know. The scholar prince could find no common ground with nobles entranced by power. Predictably, he went on to make a virtue of his own deficiencies.”

The Grandmaster’s appraisal caused Levinias to unclench a little. “Sincerity is the truest form of flattery. That is to say, not very true at all,” he quoted the philosopher. The words finally hinted at a deeper significance than the blandness of their trivial insight. There was a history here. A man had lived and died by his sayings.

“No medicine is as sweet as sympathy, but poisons oft delight the senses,” Sinurta added. “There are many such observations from his latter works. Nomedius was clearly a very perceptive man, but that awareness was seldom turned inwards. No one at court would tolerate his aloofness, so he came to see the very idea of camaraderie as a weakness of lesser men.” The Grandmaster searched for a candle and lit it with an ancient phrase, “Speak plainly, Levinias, do you think we have treated you unfairly?”

Jnan brooked few exceptions, and the desire to speak plain was not among them. As much as Levinias hated its rules, he knew them well enough to play along. “Fairness is the lie of tyrants and lovers,” he answered without answering.

Shinurta laughed aloud, a surprisingly hearty sound for one so bent with age. “Perhaps we have kept you in these halls for too long.”

Levinias stared at his sandals, eager to avoid the illumination that had sprung up before him. He thought back to the many seasons of watching the other students, heads shorter, much younger, and often not as talented, don their embroidered Initiates’ robes and leave the outer dormitories for the last time. His fists clenched again, so hard that he thought he might draw blood. The twin whips of anger and shame made him want to vomit.

Shinurta tactfully ignored the adolescent spectacle. “A king retains his post only with the consent of nations,” he said. “But a sorcerer remains a sorcerer so long as he can sing the Cants. We address you with courtesy because you came to us a prince, yet you flinch from word to word and think we mock you out of malice. We do not mock, Levinias. To speak ill against nothing accomplishes nothing. The courtesies are for your benefit alone.”

Unwanted tears rolled down reddened cheeks. “But I am more than nothing, Grandmaster!” Levinias cried. “I have studied so hard for so long! Why won’t anyone teach me the words?”

“Rank among Schoolmen can only come through the mastery of thought and speech. We can walk no other ground.” The Grandmaster’s voice feigned the loss of interest that colored so much of jnan. He returned his gaze to the scrolls.

Levinias brushed his eyes against his sleeve. “I— I don’t understand.”

“And that is the first piece of true wisdom you have uttered today,” Shinurta answered. “Your lessons in the exoterics ended months ago, young prince, but you never once sought to advance.”

3807 Year-of-the-Tusk, the River Sayut

Ships large and small cleared a path for the galley leaving the fortress of Kiz. Curious onlookers craned their necks, their eyes darting from the galley to red enameled walls and back again. Many cursed under their breath when they spied the figures aboard, while others made the sign of Momas, fearing the vessel’s very existence might bring about the Sea God’s ire.

The galley flew no banner as it travelled the length of the Secharib Plains. There was little need. No one without a Chorae armed host at his back would be so mad as to challenge a ship full of Scarlet Magi.

As the days passed, riverbank paddies filled with bend back slaves yielded to emerald fields of sugarcane as far as the eye could see. The Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires marveled at his own elation. Had he truly toiled among the painted faces of Carythusal for so long that the feeling of a summer breeze should prove more of a surprise than a reminder?

He could hear the servants preparing his noonday meal. More fish, no doubt. The journey upriver demanded ludicrous haste. There had simply been no time to secure more tolerable provisions for the days long trip to Moserothu.

Shinurta smiled in good humour. A Grandmaster reduced to dining on caste-merchant fare. What sacrifices I’ve made for my School!

Alarmed voices snapped him from his reverie. A crowd jostled towards the galley’s tip. Several of the younger acolytes leaned overboard as far as they dared, before turning to each other in confusion.

The Grandmaster squinted hard at the source of the commotion, but his failing eyesight could make out nothing. Another gift taken for granted in youth, he thought, and not for the first time pondered his reluctance to take up the narcotic chanv. For years he had weighed the merit of spending another lifetime in passionless sterility, but now that the whole of Jekhia warred in open revolt, the choice was no longer his to make. In a strange way, news of upheaval in the tributary state had come as a welcome relief.

At last he saw the sight as well. Greasy black plumes of smoke made mockery of an unblemished sky. Thin lines of flame danced across distant fields, occasionally outlining what might have been the tiny silhouettes of upright men.

A Subdidact began chanting.

“Save your Cants,” Shinurta waved dismissively to his followers. “Slaves always burn the fields before harvest. No Jekhian army rides our way. ”

The distant fire soured his mood. Not from any intimations of doom—after all, anything could be taken as divine portent if one looked hard enough—but from the reactions it provoked. Few among the Scarlet Spires had risen to the threat of open war as well as the princely protege who now headed the school in his absence. Instead, many once reliable Schoolmen lost themselves to indecision. If something as mundane as a brush fire could unsettle so many, then how well would they fare if they were ever called upon to repulse crusading armies? How long would they stand firm if, just as at Atyersus, Carythusal itself came under siege?

Inevitably, Shinurta’s thoughts returned to the cause of his rushed expedition. At this very moment, armies of Inrithi faithful laid siege to the Mandate’s island fortress home. After its mission departed empty handed from Carythusal in the previous year, the Scarlet Spires had uncovered little more than hearsay on the Gnostic School’s fate.

That all changed four days ago. A single letter had thrown the Scarlet Spires into uproar.

The King of High Ainon bids greeting to all his esteemed subjects. Let it be known that we have received with due observance several far travelled petitioners from Attrempus. While our guests profess gratitude towards our hospitality, regarding the purpose of their arrival, they reveal only that they bring news of affairs in the Empire and the Ancient North. We are magnanimous in our patience, for while still over wearied from their travels, our guests consented to no further discourse save with the Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires. Though their ill-mannered ways are many, jnan demands we preserve in their stead some small measure of their dignity. We trust you shall receive the petitioners at Moserothu within ten days of our writing and bring this matter to fortuitous conclusion.

Under witness of the God and His Aspects, King Narumizu Horziah III

Separated from High Ainon by harsh terrain and hostile nations, the Scarlet Spires never assumed the Mandate would dispatch an overland embassy from their distant second stronghold. Now the School was forced to grovel before two factions while the King of High Ainon played host at his summer palace. The King’s insincere politeness and false piety, his inevitable demands for recompense, even the arrogance of his outrageous deadline, every last slight could be endured if what his letter implied was true. For all his jnanic posturing, the King had acted as little more than the unwitting bearer of the embassy’s true message.

They bring news of affairs in the Empire and the Ancient North.

Those simple words hinted at an unprecedented opportunity, as well as great danger. Across the Three Seas, only a single other Major School retained the sanction of its host nation. Imperial Saik or Scarlet Spires, one would be offered the secrets of the Gnosis.

Plans were made, motions debated, and a not inconsiderable amount of wine was drunk. The Scarlet Spires held its collective breath as it waited for further confirmation. Word came that very evening on furtive Cants of Calling sent from the shadows the King’s own court. The Orchid Palace had shone with unnatural lights at night. All of Moserothu was abuzz with dread speculation.

Few annoyances irritated the Grandmaster as much as being forced to act in ignorance. His earlier elation dashed, Shinurta fretted over pivotal events yet to come. The Scarlet Spires had a long and brutal history of trying to wrest the Gnosis from its keepers. War against a common foe could erase a great many enmities, but so too could they be intensified. There was little telling what heartbreaking terms the Mandate might demand for the many past wrongs it had suffered.

Shinurta resolved to send for his handpicked successor by nightfall. Not bringing Levinias before his royal uncle had been a mistake. In spite of professing concerns for the King’s mercurial temperament, Shinurta realized his true motivation for leaving the prince behind was ultimately due to a selfish desire to lay sole claim to a legacy befitting a Grandmaster. But when the future of his School hung in the balance, such vanity was a luxury he could no longer afford.

The proud are humbled in their fall, better to never stand so tall.

As much as it galled him, Shinurta had to admit even The Tractate hid a few kernels of wisdom among its epics of self righteous nonsense.

Six knights under the royal banner shadowed the galley along the far riverbank. Their mounts obscured by densely packed sugarcane, the men almost appeared to float across a parallel river. It would be another half day’s ride inland to Moserothu once the galley reached the nearest docks. To Shinurta, spending so much time on horseback was only slightly more unpleasant than the prospect of exchanging pleasantries with the lead horseman. He seethed at the pinprick blot of the caste-noble’s distant Chorae. Uncouth savages. They might as well be receiving him with drawn swords in hand.

“Do the King’s Guards mean to slight us, Grandmaster?” asked the easily frightened Subdidact. “Why do they not—”

And then he was gone, erased from the deck by the setting of a second sun. A wall of flame roared past the Grandmaster’s reflexive Wards. In an instant the forward half of the ship became a bonfire of maddened screams. Men dove blindly for the river, or simply fell and never stirred again.

The other riders overtook the Trinket bearer. Unearthly light blazed from their eyes and mouth.

Shocked awareness dawned on the Grandmaster. Clever bastards, thrice damned clever bastards! The assailants had hid their sorcerous Mark under the baleful shadow of the Chorae.

“Take to the skies!” Shinurta shouted against the din. Despite the sudden chaos of battle, he appreciated the peculiar irony that his pride may have just saved his favourite student’s life.

The Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires stepped into the air and wove dire tales of wrath. Phantom rifts tore open beneath his assailants’ feet, bathing their Wards in pillars of liquid fire. Allegories of ice cracked and shattered. The earth blackened at the touch of his song.

The surviving Schoolmen sang their Wards, or tried to. A red robed figure doubled over in agony and fell head first into the water. Two others were each struck down by a single shard of glowing ice. When one dared rise again, a dozen more shards pinned his body like a bloody trophy against the upper mast.

Even as Shinurta called upon his most potent Analogies, he dissected truth from the false knights’ sorcerous Concert. The idiosyncrasies of their stance, how they leaned into their Wards and traced shapes with weaving hands, gave away their meager affiliation. These were sorcerers of the Nilitar Compact, mere dilettantes whose laughable mannerisms bespoke the crudity of their Cants. On a sane day they would have looked up to the learning of his School with as much envy as the Scarlet Spires looked to the Mandate. They spoke no Gnostic Abstractions. Far from it, most of their incantations were scarcely more impressive than the connotic utterances learned by Initiates as stepping stones to true sorcerous Analogies. Yet the world was yoked to their madness. How could senior sorcerers of rank be undone by something so trivial? How could so many be felled so quickly and by so few? Shinurta howled impossible words, rage his only answer.

Ethereal chains unfurled above flotsam to thresh prized wheat from bloodied chaff. The others swayed their limbs and made idols of their speech. Only one man contemplated the grand deception he had wrought. By the promise of power the Scarlet Spires had been undone, but were the desperate hopes of his own people any less given to delusion?

From infinite Synaxis, we will make gods of ourselves…

A false path led nowhere, regardless of how much time one had to walk it. Any salvation promised by mere words, Cartanian finally understood, could be undone just as easily.

Sorcerous flames wreathed his calloused hands. Open or clenched, he felt none of their heat.

3808 Year-of-the-Tusk, Carythusal

Although he had less and less opportunity of late, Levinias often came to the student libraries during his brief moments of respite. The walls seemed to have shrunk in the intervening years since his own tutelage, but the rows of parchment on age worn shelves still promised timeless wisdom. Outside were horrors, desperation, betrayals, and talk, endless talk. But here among the scrolls, listening to the scratching of quills as children learned their letters, it reminded him of simpler times.

Glistening reflections of candlelight spied him from behind a shelf. The young sorcerer beckoned with an outstretched hand. Outlines of a face and sandals shrank from view.

“What is the matter? Speak.”

A child shuffled forth with downcast eyes, and made many halting apologies before posing a question regarding the court letters of the philosopher Nomedius.

Levinias raked his memories for some relevant insight. Recalling none, he resorted to the trick he had seen performed so many times by men who had nothing to say, but were forced to seem wise before their peers.

“Consider the circumstances, child. Why do you think this is so?”

The student wrung his hands as he agonized over an interpretation of his own devising. Levinias listened and nodded with sagely approval.

I have no idea of what he speaks.

Years had passed since he last had the leisure to immerse himself in philosophy. Wars upturned many things, some more intangible than others.

Levinias examined the student. Ten, perhaps eleven. Certainly far too young to have ever known him as anyone but a sorcerer of rank. The child’s minute frame conjured up an image of prepubescent legs dangling from an ornate oaken chair, while children of even younger age stood attentively at council. A chill ran through Levinias despite the warmth of his lavishly quilted robes. He tried to draw strength from the Grandmaster’s faraway words of encouragement, words that had come increasingly seldom of late.

A polite cough from the hallway rescued him from further questions. The student withdrew, eyes full of wonder at the sight of powerful men attending to impossibly weighty affairs.

“The hour is late, Master Safras,” Levinias said. “We can discuss our dwindling vellum stocks tomorrow.”

“A new matter acquires your attention. I am afraid this cannot wait.” His onetime tutor bowed by way of apology. The sight filled Levinias with a fleeting moment of juvenile glee.

The two men ascended winding stairs towards the grand audience hall. Javreh and King’s Guard alike stood at attention as they passed. The slave-soldiers had become enough of a fixture among the Spires that Levinias grew almost accustomed to the constant aura of giddy death that radiated from the Chorae bearing Captains. Master Safras was less accommodating. He shuffled every which way in his walk, dodging the periphery of sinkholes that promised certain oblivion.

The Javreh were one of the last matters the Grandmaster attended to before his departure for Moserothu. Many impassioned and petty words had been thrown about in council regarding their creation. In the end, Shinurta browbeat his detractors with a fury that was itself almost supernatural. It was agreed. The Scarlet Spires would no longer rely on mercenaries, who proved consistent only in the way they bled the treasuries while marching time and again to the edge of disaster. The pittance of royal guards sent by King Horizah would remain, but henceforth the School would arm its own slave soldiers.

There had been serious questions of expense and logistics, but what dismayed many sorcerers was the prospect of arming the slaves with Chorae. Theirs were an irony that stung, an extraordinary weapon against sorcery that could never be wielded by sorcerers. But to hand the few the School had captured over to its slaves? Surely such madness was unthinkable.

Shinurta’s arguments were elegant in their simplicity. Men were ever ready to compromise their morality for advantage. When, not if, but when the Thousand Temples acquired sorcerous accomplices, the Scarlet Spires would need to secure every advantage in order to survive. Whereas tortures mutilated flesh, sorcery could violate the very soul, or so most people believed. And that was enough to cow an army of slaves, regardless of what a few of them may hold in their hands.

Still, whether out of pride or cowardice, not everyone was convinced. Even as council conceded to the measure, whispers persisted for weeks that this was a foolhardy stratagem by an old man desperate to maintain his slipping grip on power. A few dared to insinuate the Grandmaster played at an even darker game, that he was bargaining with the enemy for his few remaining years against the future of his entire School. Shinurta demonstrated the fallacy of the first complaint by personally, and permanently, removing the man responsible. As for the second rumour, all doubts were quashed when a jumble of incredulous voices from afar began whispering in dreams that a newly formed Major School had entered into alliance with the Thousand Temples.

What once appeared madness became the essence of sanity.

The gaunt figure of Master Safras fussed with his sleeves as he walked. “A man by the name of Xorias Cartanian presented himself at the gates. He claims he has come from Cironj.”

The fortress home of the Scarlet Spires was constantly beset by sycophants, starving beggars, and the occasional Inrithi fanatic. Such rabble were all turned away with swiftness and precise brutality. The stranger’s name meant nothing to Levinias, but the very fact that he merited a report showed this was no common arrival. Levinias thought back to the child in the library and marveled at the uncanny resemblance of the elderly Safras wringing his ink stained hands. The man was clearly distressed.

“What does our traveller want?”

The old man breathed deeply. For a moment he resembled nothing so much as a propped up sack of twigs, ready to fall apart at the slightest touch. The endless threat of war had not been kind to him.

“He asked for a private meeting with the First Principle of the Scarlet Spires,” Safras spoke at length.

Levinias frowned. “First Principle?”

“A title among certain Minor Schools of the West.”

The Scarlet Spires knew from their few remaining spies in the field that there were no more Minor Schools in the West. Those who did not defect to the Major Schools or flee for distant Zeüm had either been ground into dust by the holy war, or joined to form a new Major School.

A new School. “So he is Mysunsai.”

And there it was. The betrayer School, lapdogs of the Thousand Temples. A sorcerer from the enemy camp had walked to the very gates of the Scarlet Spires.

What does this mean?

3808 Year-of-the-Tusk, Sumna

Gleaming Tusks raised in procession. Echoes of a hundred horns. An ocean of faces straining to hear words of ancient Laws.

“Cut from them their tongues, for their blasphemy is an abomination like no other!”

A palanquin lain down with mock solemnity. Mailed fists searching for their prize. A grandmaster’s finery draped over mangled skin.

“Seal their lips with flax, for the sins of their voice are without measure!”

From above comes a man, but more than a man, bearing a Tear of God.

“Burn them, for they are Unclean!”

Ancient pillars thrown in relief. Judgment, cold and unyielding. A light that would cleanse the world.

3808 Year-of-the-Tusk, Carythusal

From the height of the grand audience hall, two sorcerers watched as guards escorted their guest inside the fortress of Kiz. The flickering torchlight gave little indication of the foreign sorcerer’s bearing, save that he was of impressive stature.

Pacing the length of the resplendent hall, Levinias reluctantly admitted to himself he had little hope of overawing a reckless Schoolman with mundane opulence. The severe tapestries and rows of gilded chairs appeared ridiculously excessive for the purpose of receiving a single man.

“I will arrange for additional patrols,” said Master Safras, oblivious to any considerations of artistic propriety. “This may be the prelude to an ambush.”

Levinias examined the lavish mural above his intended seat. The last belligerent general of Cenei was forever caught breaking his sword before the legendary founder of High Ainon. Had the scene always looked so garish?

“Assuming there is no ambush. What then?”

“Then we set one of our own,” Safras cleared his throat, betraying a hint of unease. “The Mysunsai are dogs. We can uncover all his secrets without ever striking a bargain with his kind.”

Levinias stroked his beard. He kept it unbraided for convenience and, truth be told, flair, but now its simplicity made him feel self conscious. He resisted the urge to re-oil it before the meeting. “I would not risk a battle here without first finding out what he wants,” he said. “Please have someone prepare the Grandmaster’s private audience chamber. I will receive him there.”

Master Safras left without bowing. Polite entreaties aside, he still resented being order about like a chamberlain.

Ever since the Grandmaster departed on his embassy, Levinias had dreaded the prospect of being called to appear before the King. All his years of tutelage and being groomed for leadership, he understood, was part of a long reaching plan to form closer ties between the Scarlet Spires and the throne. One day soon, he would be expected to return to his uncle’s court, to serve a man he once loved but now could scarcely remember. Vizier, they would call him, and look to him to transform the Scarlet Spires from blasphemous pariahs into another Imperial Saik of the East—at least in public.

But now an enemy sorcerer had come, and all of a sudden he was faced with an equally imposing challenge. There was good reason for the different Schools to approach each other with stifling formality. As a rule, sorcerers saw themselves to be men of unsurpassed merit, unjustly denounced by an ignorant world. When facing others who suffered similar extremes of pride, the results were often dangerously unpredictable. Just as his conduct before the King would mark his place at court, how he handled this encounter could determine his future standing among his peers.

Rather than wait for an attendant to summon the stranger, Levinias decided to greet him in person.

The foreign sorcerer was tall, with stone grey eyes and the well tanned, muscular build of a seasoned warrior, or perhaps a particularly well fed laborer. His weather beaten tunic and unkempt beard bespoke of a far travelled man who did not have the luxury of oils or braids, while his dirt covered nails simply spoke of bad manners. Were it not for his Mark, Levinias would have scarcely believed such a brute could also number among the Few.

“Greetings,” the prince bowed curtly to his guest. “You must be Xorias Cartanian, of the Mysunsai. Shall I address you as First Principle?”

The sorcerer tucked under his arm the mangled ball of wolf fur that passed for his hat. “Former First Principle of the Nilitar Compact,” he corrected. “I have no titles now. And you must be Prince Narumizu Levinias, esteemed leader of the Scarlet Spires.” He bowed much lower than required between sorcerers of equal rank.

A bow towards a Grandmaster. The thought thrilled and terrified Levinias in equal measure.

“Only until Grandmaster Shinurta’s return,” the prince hastily answered. He tucked his arms into his sleeves. “Please, follow me.”

Xorias Cartanian filled his short walk to the audience chamber with idle chatter. His boots left muddy prints on the immaculate tiles with his every step. Levinias listened with outward politeness but increasing apprehension. The man skirted jnanic transgression with flamboyant ease.

A pair of the King’s Guard opened nondescript doors to a pitch black room. Levinias favoured Master Safras with a rare thought of approval. The old man had likely handpicked the two guards in order to reflect solidarity between King and School. Perhaps when it came to appearances he was not so hopeless after all.

The prince lit the first candle in complete darkness. Three others he also set alight with a single phrase. He knew the layout of the room intimately. “Men do not fear the unknown,” Grandmaster Shinurta once told him, “so much as the moment of glimpsing it.”

A servant stepped from a side chamber carrying bowls of wine. From his own experience, Levinias knew the servant would appear as a ghost emerging from nowhere, or perhaps as someone who had stood motionless in the darkness the entire time.

The rudely dressed foreigner was utterly unfazed. “May I trouble you for something to eat as well? Cironji traveller’s fare is…” he made a face.

Levinias instantly regretted the theatrics. They seemed childish now that he was the one sitting in the Grandmaster’s seat. He recalled the servant to bring additional refreshments.

The foreign sorcerer attacked his plate of fruits and sweetbreads. He licked his fingers with relish between lengthy gulps of wine. More pointless gossip followed as he ate.

Levinias cringed when it dawned on him that the stranger had been waiting for him to speak the ‘fortuitous turn’ of words that would lead talk to weightier matters. A smarter man would have realized this much sooner, he thought. No matter, time to fake some wit.

But something about the sorcerer’s boorish mannerism struck all the wit from his thoughts. Dispensing with jnan, which was of course another move in jnan, Levinias opted for the direct approach.

“So tell me, First Principle, why would a Mysunsai Schoolman arrive unannounced at our door?”

Cartanian followed with all the subtlety of a hammer. “Because, Prince, that Mysunsai Schoolman led the attack that captured your Grandmaster. He thinks the news important.”

“Grandmaster Shinurta bested by the Mysunsai?” Levinias let derision slip into his voice. “Impossible. The Mandate would never have yielded their secrets to the likes of you.”

“What?” Cartanian frowned, for a moment genuinely confused. “The Gnosis had nothing to do with you Grandmaster’s defeat. No, our hashish eating brothers in Nilnamesh believe they have mastered an entirely new metaphysics.” He returned his gaze to his morsels as one already losing interest in the conversation at hand. “While the truth is far less impressive than their claims, you School will be fatally unprepared.”

Levinias sought reassurance in the tingling aura of the chamber’s many defensive Wards. He tilted his head ever so slightly, affecting a look of bemusement rather than the terror that gripped his chest. “You would threaten my School? Here, of all places?”

“Would I?” Cartanian matched the pose with infuriating exactness. He hefted aloft a grapefruit, then thought better of it.

Knowing when to break with jnan was central to its mastery, but Levinias felt his anger rise at the man’s singular focus on how he chose to do so. He wondered if Cartanian’s stone grey eyes truly were animated by deadly cunning, and no some genuine crazed obsession with fruit. Making perilous wagers against wily foes was to be expected when dealing with other sorcerers, but could his adversary in fact be insane? The thought of that melted his anger into fear. Sane men simply did not arrive alone and unannounced at the stronghold of the Scarlet Spires to claim they had captured the Grandmaster. Insane sorcerers, on the other hand, tended to be dangerously free with their Cants.

“Would you indeed,” the prince decided to test his opponent’s madness. “I once had a tutor who assured me that there were no foolish questions. He was one of the most foolish people I have ever met in my life.”

Cartanian helped himself to another orange. “Don’t you think that’s being rather unfair to Master Safras?” he asked. “As much as we might both find him tiresome, he’s not an imbecile. I look forward to testing my skills against his.”

Levinias struggled to keep his terror in check. Just how far had his enemies penetrated the Scarlet Spires? “Have care,” he warned. “Utter one word of sorcery here, and all of my School will descend upon you in an instant.”

“Not all of your School, I suspect.” Cartanian held the half peeled orange in his mouth and rummaged for a sheaf of parchment under his tunic. He casually tossed it into the prince’s lap. “The Shirah’s record keepers are very thorough.”

Levinias inspected the ornate columns of High Sheyic script. It proclaimed divine forgiveness in recognition for services rendered onto the Thousand Temples. He read and reread the name scrawled on the far edge in red ink.

It is you, isn’t it? It has to be you.

“Well this is ridiculous,” he retorted with a tone of doubt he did not feel. “You would have me believe that Master Safras betrayed our School over promises of a shortcut into Heaven?”

“And a lifetime of being fed by Inrithi coffers,” Cartanian added. “What better rumour to spread against your superior that the familiar guilt you would hide in your heart?”

Levinias felt short of breath. He was grasping at straws and still drowning.

“Ridiculous,” he insisted a second time. “If Safras works with you towards some common mischief, then why did he ask for you to be seized when you first arrived? And if you arrival is an unexpected betrayal of his plots, then why did he relent on your capture?”

“I don’t know, doubt?” Cartanian threw up his hands in exasperation. “Your logic has confounded me! I assumed most of my efforts would be spent convincing you the Shiral Remission is real, or perhaps answering questions of your Grandmaster’s fate. Instead—” he spat a pip into the darkness. “If our discussion comes to nothing, I will be very displeased with myself for several days.”

The prince felt shamed by the words of his enemy. He took a deep breath to collect his thoughts. “You claim to have captured the Grandmaster. How?”

“Patience, skill, and so forth,” Cartanian replied between mouthfuls, “Most sorcerers find utterals difficult when they’re underwater. But truly, ‘how’ is not so important as…”

Levinias knew he was being baited, though his anger felt real nonetheless. If the question was not how, then, why? Or—

“When?”

Cartanian tipped his wine bowl. “Four days after his departure. We ambushed the galley right before landfall. An agent of the Luthymae concealed our approach.”

Levinias gripped the edge of his seat. Anger once again turned to horror. Words of arcane devastation coiled around his tongue.

This is ridiculous!

“There never was a Mandate delegation,” the Mysunsai Schoolman continued, headless of how closely he tempted death. “We misled both your King and your School from the very beginning. The King has since forgiven us, as he must. As for how Grandmaster Shinurta continued to send his reassuring missives, well, I trust you can already guess.”

Ridiculous…

“But the soul can be Compelled only for so long, before it no longer resembles itself.”

A Grandmaster possessed by traitorous words for months! All of the Scarlet Spires deceived, by a man who chewed with his mouth open!

“The Mysunsai gather as we speak. We have demonstrated our power, and your King feels he has no choice. Soon they will be joined by armies from Conryia and march together under the banner of the Tusk.”

Levinias knew what would follow. The streets of Carythusal in flames. The spires of Kiz felled like severed fingers. Men dashed against stone, their vaunted sorceries impotent before timeless hatred and cold calculation. Thousand year histories trampled into dust, while a name, his name, became the lingering curse of the dying.

His eyes brimmed with the tears of a child who once raged at the injustices of an indifferent world. The absurdities of Fate are… absurd.

“Master Levinias, are you unwell?”

Memories surfaced of a lesson learned years ago, when the world was still simple and no one spoke of war. Grandmaster Shinurta had taught him that cursing against circumstance was futile. Fate cared nothing for his passions. Only through action could the future be seized.

The prince rubbed the moisture from his eyes. He repeated a question that he realized was never truly answered. “Speak plainly, Cartanian, why have you come?”

“For the food?” the sorcerer laughed half heartedly at his own jest. He was suddenly overcome with a look of weariness that aged him beyond his years. “I need your help to save both our Schools from this war. I came because I know you.”

Levinias offered his own bowl of wine. “Then tell me what you know.”

Gone was Cartanian’s mask of rustic insincerity. The Mysunsai sorcerer spoke as one possessed. He unravelled the hidden principles of Nilnameshi esoterica that gave such deadly advantage against the ignorant. He recounted the desperation of his fellow sorcerers, searching for salvation in the depths of their meager secrets. He piled scorn on his own past delusions born from those efforts, and cursed himself for convincing the rest of his School into seeking apotheosis on the borrowed time of Inrithi conquests. He painted a grim end to all mannish sorcery, where the betrayers, too, would be stamped out at the end of the holy war. Finally he came to his own desperate hope, that a catastrophic early defeat on the battlefield would force the Mysunsai to withdraw from their self destructive alliance. Ranks, dates, supply trails, strategies. Cartanian gave him everything he would need to rout an army. And through it all, Levinias choked on the bitter certainty that this was the man who had tormented his beloved mentor into madness.

If there was any justice in this world, I would kill him.

“You would consign your friends to death for believing in your own false teachings?” Levinias asked instead.

“All men are greater than dead men,” Cartanian replied without hesitation. “The rest of the Mysunsai may survive, and the dead will go to their graves ignorant of my betrayal. That has to be enough.” He drained his bowl of wine in a single gulp. “But you, prince, you must also pay a price.”

“The King.”

Cartanian nodded. “King Horizah believes he can keep the throne only if he follows his first betrayal with another.”

Levinias was forced to admit that any guilt the King might feel for his unwitting part in the embassy deception, or any lingering fondness for his once beloved nephew, would mean little against proof of the Mysunsai’s power. The Grandmaster’s humiliating capture would have forced his hand. There would be no parley with King Horizah III, and there could be no mercy for his guards.

“I loved my uncle once,” the prince whispered to himself. His earlier unbearable dread at the prospect of returning to court seemed from a lifetime ago.

Cartanian ran a hand through his disheveled hair. “That’s not all,” he spoke hesitantly. “I must claim your Initiates as well. Several have been seduced by the promises of wealth and absolution. Unlike Safras, I don’t know who they are, but you cannot afford any treachery among your ranks.”

Levinias crossed his arms in the gloom. “We have ways of uncovering spies.”

“Perhaps,” Cartanian admitted. “We both know your School’s only chance for survival is to rout the King’s army before it can gather at full strength. Say you do purge the ranks, what happens to the rest of your loyal followers? You’ll sow doubt if you keep the interrogations secret, or panic if you expose the long reach of your enemies. How likely will your School still take to the field in either case?”

“Then what are you proposing?” Levinias said, not wishing to hear the answer.

“Mysunsai assassins ambushed your Grandmaster on his way back to the city,” Cartanian pointed to himself. “Tonight one tries to kill you as well, but fail. Master Safras falls in your defense and the Initiates are killed when the assassin makes his escape. Safras dies a hero, while the others will be a blood debt that must be repaid. The Scarlet Spires will howl for vengeance.” The unkempt sorcerer’s eyes reflected madness, yet why did his words sound so sane?

“You go too far, Cartanian,” the prince stood firm. “The Initiates are the future of my School. Too many innocents will lose their lives.”

“Some for all. That is the price we pay,” Cartanian said. “We can walk no other ground.”

Levinias thought of his lifelong love for philosophy. He had spent countless evenings immersed in ancient works, fencing with the ignorance of others, as well as uncovering his own. For all his adult life, he had prized truth like a treasure. And now he was about to deceive his School in order to save them from themselves. Should he throw away the lives of his students like so many number-sticks, based solely on the words of the enemy? Could Cartanian’s confession be merely another mask? Could his conclusions be an even more horrific lie, built on a graveyard of truths? He simply did not know.

“We are running out of time, Master Levinias!” Cartanian leapt from his seat. “The only explanation for my presence here is to cause havoc among your School. The Mysunsai knows I’ve come. They are watching this fortress even now. The longer we wait, the longer they’ll suspect something is amiss. If they send word to the King’s camp then everything could be lost.”

A three headed serpent perched atop the entrance surveyed Levinias with quiet indifference. Above, the golden threaded pictogram for Truth gleamed in the candlelight.

“Please render me one last service, First Principle. Tell me what happened to my Grandmaster.”

Cartanian looked down at his calloused hands. He was at a loss for words. “I don’t know,” he finally said. “We plied him with the Compulsions until he could no longer Call to you in your dreams. Once the Luthymae knew he had gone mad, they moved him to the coast to await their ships. He is long gone by now. I truly am sorry.”

The Grandmaster of the Scarlet Spires summoned his onetime tutor to his audience chamber. The first casualty of the night would die pure.