Three Roses, Bk 1: The Names of the Dead

(Draft as of 07/2021)

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Prologue:  The Battle of Oldgrove Field

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1531, Moon of Irathiel (Late Spring)

An arrow sprouted from his destrier’s neck.  The animal bayed in terror.  Its galloping stride faltered, and it gave out beneath him.

Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral, flung himself from his saddle just in time to avoid being pinned by the beast.  For a breathless instant, he seemed to hang suspended in the air.  Howling inwardly, he watched as the distant, twig-thin spire of St. Asherah’s Cathedral disappeared from view behind the outskirts of Southkessel, a jagged line of roofs scarring the middle distance.

Wet earth slammed into him, punching the breath from his lungs.  He rolled, skidded through the mud.  His skull struck the inside of his dented helm like a bell’s clapper.

… how the bells had rung over the city, how the very heavens had proclaimed him…

How long ago had that been?  He found he couldn’t recall.  Time seemed to have collapsed in on itself: the distant made proximate, the long-ago made now.

He reeled as if upon ground made sea.

Why, came a spectral voice, piercing the roar of blood in his ears, why must it always be war?  Is there no other proving ground for men and peoples?

He knew the voice.  It was that of Tomas Contzen, the Irathic priest whose repeated requests for an audience he had finally granted on the night ere he had sailed his host across the sea to retake Angeral from the treachery of Rikard Black, Duke of Corfolk, his oldest friend, and Nicolas Astargent, Duke of Stars, once the closest of his brothers.  They had spoken alone together in the manor house that the Count of Vergem had provided for him.

Why, Majesty, Contzen had asked, when you have only to say “No”?

It’s not so easy as that, priest…

His every muscle aflame, Artur levered his steel-burdened frame from the earth.  He tottered on hands and knees, quivering like a newborn calf.  With an effort, he groped at his helm, pulled it free.  Air and sky slammed his senses.  He gagged, vomiting strings of bile into the mud.

Again came the priest’s voice.

Should every conflict not seek above all its own resolution?  Should the telos of war not be peace?  You bid me speak freely, Majesty!  And so I ask: why do you set sail on the morrow for your island kingdom?  Why, when you can end the wars this very instant?  You have only to decide.  You have only to say “No.”

Artur swung his head around, searching the blurred distances.  Through lines of ragged wet hair, he found Southkessel, smudged like a brush stroke on plaster.  Beyond lay the river and the bridges and, finally, Lloudyn, the capital of his stolen kingdom, crowned by St. Asherah’s on its high hill.

It’s not so easy as that, priest…

He would never make it back there.

Is it not?

He would never return home.

But Majesty, for how long has Arnos fought Norloch, Norloch fought Arnos?  Nine years?  Ten?  How many men have fallen in your battles, how many lives destroyed in their wakes?  And for what?  House Arnos and House Norloch, the White Rose and the Black…  Do you not see, Majesty, you are brothersBrothers!

The ground bucked beneath his gauntleted hands.  A clutch of mounted knights thundered down upon him, ringing him in horseflesh and riveted steel.  Above, a banner sagged wetly on a pole: the White Rose of Arnos.

It had rained, a swift slanting curtain, during the heaviest of the killing.

Two of the riders swung from their saddles, armor rattling.  The pair approached, swords drawn, blood-black.

Others were closing in as well.  Artur squinted up at them.  Impossibly, each bore to his eyes the visage of the Irathic priest: lank black hair, eyes wide-set and blue, a spearpoint nose thrusting over thin lips.

“You are brothers,” the surrounding throng seemed to chorus.  Brothers!”

It’s not so easy as that…

One of the nearer shapes spoke.  “It’s over, Artur.  Yield.”

He knew this voice as well.  Rikard Black—traitor, kingmaker, the man upon whom he had bestowed the dukedom of Corfolk.

Yes, Tomas Contzen had said at night under a midspring moon, Duke Corfolk, your oldest friend, betrayed you.  Yes, the Duke of Stars, your very own brother, betrayed you.  And for what?  A love-match?  Were you not king?  Was the choice of love not yours to make?  But Majesty, neither Corfolk’s nor your brother’s betrayal would have been of the least moment had there not been a rival faction for them to join—and no such faction would exist in Angeral had your lord father not claimed the crown as his birthright, as your birthright, all those years ago…

What of your son, Majesty?  What shall become of him in the months and years to come?

His eyes and wits were beginning to clear.  He saw that it was Rikard and Nicolas looming over him like grim specters, soiled swords at the ready.

Even now, he thought with vague satisfaction: even unhorsed, on hands and knees, armed only with the dagger at his belt, still they feared him.

“It didn’t have to come to this,” Nicolas said, his voice slurred with exhaustion.  “We’ve got no choice now, though, do we?  You’ll live in irons, Art.  Irons, like your boy!  You!”

They shall call him kinslayer, Artur thought, saddened.

The kingmaker and the kinslayer.

No, the Irathic was right, we are all kinslayers…

“Well?  What do you say?” Nicolas barked.  “Or have you at last run out of words?”

He had and he had not.  The voice of the priest of Irathiel, priest of the Twelve-Pointed Star, whispered through him, words that flickered like sheet lightning in the high, receding places of his awareness.

You are eager to say that yes, of course I’m rightbut that I overlook the fact that your lord father would need have taken no such measures had Geoffrey of Arnos not usurped the throne from Brandon II.  But Majesty, that was, what, five, six decades ago?  How far back shall we trace the lines of legitimacy?  The Greatheart himself, your most revered forebear, was but one more usurper…

Only now, kneeling in the mud, did Artur understand what, in his winding way, the Irathic had been trying to tell him on that final night of his exile: that in truth he had no choice but to do as he was going to do.  There was no stopping it, no more than one could stop an avalanche by trying to reason with it.

And the priest was right.  Artur could see that now.  The appalling truth of it struck him with the force of celestial revelation.  From the very moment of his birth, he had been fixed upon a trajectory that led precisely here, to this spot of earth.  The imbecile inevitability of his every action and reaction disclosed itself to him.  With a mystic’s clarity, he saw that all men, even the mightiest, were naught but patterns of intersections in a cloth woven millennia before, at the amaranthine moment of the Creation.

Laughter racked him.  “The Greatheart—himself,” he gasped, cackling.

“He’s delirious,” Nicolas said with incongruous concern.

“We’re done here,” Rikard snapped.  “Take him, now.”

A moment’s stillness.  A gust of sodden wind billowed the White Rose banner.  Nicolas hulked forward, boots squelching in the mud.

Artur drew a scorching breath, lurched to his knees.

Why, Majesty?

He did not know how he could be so certain, but he was: they would call him kinslayer.

we are all kinslayers…

It must always be war, he had told the Irathic priest, because evil heeds no reasons.  Blood and toil alone prove the true.

Doing only what he was always going to have done, what he could not but do, Artur freed the dagger at his belt.  Moving with unexpected speed, with the fluid precision of a lifelong soldier, he slammed the sharpened steel into an opening between his brother’s greave and knee cop.

Nicolas cried out as much in surprise as in pain.

Blood and toil alone

A force mountainous and unassailable crashed down upon Artur’s back, flinging him face-first to the ground.  He fell, but did not land.  He plunged through the skin of the earth as if through the surface of a pond.  For a timeless time, the Worldweave itself seemed to cradle him as in a mother’s arms…

… and then—for it seems there must always be a then—the clutching threads dissolve, parting around lances of white, acrid brilliance, and he exhales, plummeting down and away, his soul surrendered to the Nothing that lies beyond even the Outworld.

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Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral, was heard to rasp, “All of us, usurpers,” and to cackle, choking, as death took him.

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PART 1

The Unworlding

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Spring–Summer,

The Year of Our Deliverer 1532

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Chapter 1:  Duncaster

What is kairos?   —Kairos is the movement of Existence across Subsistent Worlds. 

What moves kairos?  —The Will of Man moves kairos.

Is the will of man pure?  —The Will of Man is impure.

The Vejala Catechism, X–XII

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Jerome Casterdi’s resolve faltered just as he was about to arrive back home.

He’d been traveling for nine days.  Ahead, limned in westering light, the spire of the Priory of the Immortal Prophet at Duncaster emerged from behind the cover of trees in full summer bloom.  The familiar sight struck him like a douse of icy water.  Gooseflesh prickled along his arms.  A kind of anticipatory repentance—not for anything he had already done, but for what he was going to do—clutched at his heart.

I shouldn’t have come

All the doubts he had banished before departing Lloudyn rushed back upon him, redoubled, as if they had been merely lying in wait, preserving their strength.

He had a plan.  Was it drastic?  Yes—but so was his predicament.  Would his family approve?  Unlikely—but he hadn’t come to court their approval, only to explain to them what he was going to do and why.  No letter he could have written was equal to the task, especially given the very real possibility that he might never see any of them again.

Jerome was a novitiate of the Order of Sophiel, had trained at the Order’s Academy in Lloudyn for two years, but he had reached the conclusion that he had to desert the Sophieli in violation of his probationary vows.  As soon as he returned to Lloudyn, he meant to book passage to the canal city of Astarim, which lay across the sea, in the Low Countries.  Once there, he hoped to join the newly founded Collegium of the Order of Dionare.

The risks were manifold.  He might not survive the journey: plenty of ships fell victim to the treachous waters of the Lascionan Sea.  Assuming he made it safely to the Continent, he might discover that the Dionari of Astarim were not as welcoming as he had been led to believe.  Any number of things might happen to him if he found himself on his own in a foreign city, most of them bad.  Finally, even if all went according to plan, he would forever be branded a recreant and apostate by the Sophieli of Angeral.  He would never be able to come home without risking seizure, imprisonment, and ultimately arraignment on charges he would be hard-pressed to dispute.

There was simply no way he could quit the shores of Angeral, perhaps never to return, without first going back to Duncaster and trying, face-to-face, to explain himself to his mother, Ethan, and the girls.

At the same time, he was keenly aware that the trip back to Duncaster was also a way to put off committing himself to his chosen course.  A part of him had warned that any delay in carrying out his plan would end with him abandoning it.  That nagging, contrary voice had insisted that the real reason he had decided to go back to Duncaster was that he wanted to be dissuaded.

And now, with the city walls coming into view, it was as if he could feel the foretold hook embedding itself in his flesh.  All the reasons for coming back to Duncaster were equally if not more so reasons not to leave Angeral at all.  How could he so much as contemplate a course of action that would almost certainly separate him from his family, from everything he knew and everyone he loved, forever?  It was madness!

I shouldn’t have come, he thought.  This was a mistake…

For he had only to recall the Testing he had undergone over the spring term—a shewstone pulsing with sulfurous light, Rhapsode Josine chanting in a gutteral tongue, the soul-flaying regard of a daimon of the Outworld—to recall why he needed to leave the Academy and seek out the Dionari of Astarim despite all it was likely to cost him.

Perhaps he could make them understand.  Perhaps they would forgive him for what he had to do.  But he doubted it very much.

His resolve renewed, but shot through now more with sadness than fear, Jerome Casterdi passed through Southgate into Duncaster.

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He had made the trip from Lloudyn to Duncaster and back after each of his six terms at the Academy.  Such regular visits home would have been impossible if not for Nadal Scalpada, a wine merchant from Ilanavaras who was an old friend of Jerome’s father.  Four times a year—weather and war permitting—Scalpada barged his wares upriver from Lloudyn to Witney Castle.  There, he loaded them onto carts for delivery to the towns and villages along the Ayersbury Road.

Normally Scalpada would adjust his schedule to fit Jerome’s, but he hadn’t done so this season because he hadn’t expected Jerome to come along.  During his last visit home, in the spring, Jerome had butted heads with his sister Loren and had argued with his brother.  The squabbles were enough to convince him that he would rather stay in Lloudyn for the summer.  When he changed his mind, having decided that he would go back to Duncaster before setting off for Astarim, he hadn’t spared much thought for the attendant practicalities.  He hadn’t bothered sending a letter to inform his mother of his plans, nor had he thought to contact Scalpada until it was almost too late.  He caught the man only hours before his laden-down barge pushed off from the Llouydn docks.

He had made it in time, though, and now, nine days later, he was sitting on a jostling wagon seat beside the plump, loquacious Ilanavarian as Scalpada guided his merchant train through the streets of Duncaster, to the innyard of The Five Wolves.

“Home again, home again!” Scalpada intoned, as he always did, and clapped Jerome on the shoulder, as he always did.

A new stableman—Jerome had never seen him before—cried their arrival.  First came the lead wagon, piled with provisions, hauled by a pair of deep-chested drays.  Three wains followed, each drawn by a quartet of imperturbable mules.  The wains groaned beneath their burdens of wine from Ilanavaras and Provenas.  Mounted guardsmen clad in brigandines or leather cuirasses swept in to either side of the train.  Together, the company crowded the innyard as dusk leached the sky of blue.

A handful of workers shuffled from the inn’s side door.  Several called out greetings.  A porter as big as a bear cudgeled Jerome good-naturedly on the shoulder as he passed.  The unexpected blow nearly sent him sprawling.

“Yehru’s blood, Sam!” Jerome protested.  “I’ve made it all this way without falling in the muck!”

“Above gettin’ a mite dirty now, are you?” the huge man shot back.

Scattered laughter met this remark.

Wincing, Jerome swung toward the inn—and came up short, having nearly collided with his mother.

“I thought that was you!” she cried, belting her arms around his ribs.  “Do the girls know you’re coming?  Does Ethan?”

“No–no,” he stammered.

Her smile was so bright it seemed liable to singe him.  “They’ll be so surprised!  Oh, Jerome…”  She eased herself against his travel-worn cassock.  “I’m so glad you changed your mind, so glad you’re home.”

As if becoming aware of a foul odor, she abruptly thrust him out at arm’s length.  Her upturned eyes narrowed.  “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” she said, simultaneously concerned and suspicious.  “It has!  I see it written all over your face.  What is it, Jerr?”

His smile felt wooden.  “Nothing,” he croaked.  “Nothing, mum!”  He managed a laugh.  “I just… I just thought to surprise you is all.”

An emptiness smoked through him with these words.  He felt transparent to his mother’s scrutiny, as if his face were a scrying glass from which she could draw out any truth, no matter how arcane.

Scalpada rescued him from his mother’s frowning incredulity.  The wine merchant clasped a meaty hand on his shoulder.  In a thick, singsong accent, he said, “I fear the boy’s much given over to brooding these days.  I suspect the bewitching influence of a female Sophieli.  Am I mistaken, bambino?”

Jerome groused, shrugging free of the signor’s grip.  The swarthy man laughed in the full-throated way of Ilanavarians, as Jerome’s father had laughed.

“See!  It is always the females who bedevil us most—especially when we’re young and our blood runs hottest, yes?  Yes!”

Scalpada chuckled.  With practiced ease, he took Sara Casterdi’s hand, bowed over it, his forehead nearly pressing against the rings encircling her fingers.  “As ever, I’ve saved my finest vintages for you and your establishment, mistress.  I believe it’s your Kíeishman’s ale my men thirst for now, though.  Shall we repair to the common room?”

Smiling, Jerome’s mother folded her hands together over her midriff, where her bodice gave way to gold-brocaded skirts.  “Of course, signor.  Your men should be pleased—we’ve several casks fresh-brewed.”

The first pinprick stars had begun to appear overhead, dotting a swath of sky compassed by the bulk of the inn and its adjoining stables.  Jerome recognized an emerging constellation: a belt of three stars, the curving back of the Leviathan of Elestor, the Fallen Archon—Elestor who had become Malchidael, the Great Adversary.  Opposite the surfacing Leviathan, as if to fend off the beast, the spire of the priory domarchon leaned into the gloaming, its silhouetted Starcross like a man with trefoil hands outstretched.

Malchidael, bearing down upon the Prophet’s world…

An ill omen, that, if ever there was one.

Until recently, Jerome had put little stock in omens and the like.  Now, having undergone the Testing, he no longer knew what to believe.  Sometimes it seemed to him that the world thrummed with occult significances, that it was pocked with unseen eyes behind which lay inscrutable intentions.  The rest of the time, he simply thought he was going mad.

His mother looped an arm through his, reeling his thoughts back from the sidereal heights.  Together with Scalpada, they crossed the innyard, toward the side door of The Five Wolves, leaving the shouts and bustle behind them.

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A narrow corridor connected the innyard to the common room.  Lamplight spilled from the kitchens on the left.  As he passed, Jerome saw Ciarán Dargas, the hulking head cook, engulfed in a haze of steam and smoke.

Hands planted on hips, Ciarán was frowning down at a pair of underlings like a judge before peevish and over-familiar litigants.  “But you see, lads, I don’t care,” he was saying.  “Work it out amongst yourselves.  Is that too much to ask?”

Jerome caught up to his mother in the common room.  Ethan was with her.  His older brother greeted Scalpada distractedly, but took no notice of Jerome.  “Where are the girls?” he asked.

“The girls?” Mother echoed.  “They’re not at the laundry?”

Ethan glowered in exaggerated disapproval.  “They are not.”

Mother huffed.  “Well, never mind them for the moment.  What about your brother?”

“Jerome?” Ethan said, frowning.  “What about him?”

Mother stepped aside with a flourish.  “Aren’t you going to welcome him home?”

It took Ethan a moment to recover himself.  “Jerome!” he said, his voice strained.  They embraced, though hesitantly.  “I thought you were staying in Lloudyn for the summer.”

Jerome shrugged.  “I changed my mind.”

“Good…  Good!  How long will you be staying?”

“I’ll be back for him on the sixth,” Scalpada announced.  To Mother, he said, “He’s a good boy, a good son, to make the journey so often.  But the trip’s not so bad, is it, lad?”

A good son

Heat climbed Jerome’s neck.  He could feel it staining his cheeks.

They’ll never understand

“No,” he mumbled, trying to ignore his mother’s knowing frown.  “It’s not so bad.”

“You can help track down the girls,” Ethan said.  He was always one to look for ways to put others to work.

“Lyra should have been back by now,” Mother said. “And Loren was in the kitchens not twenty minutes ago.”

“Yes, well,” Ethan puffed, “I have a lead on her, at least.”  He cocked his head toward the interior of the common room, indicating a large, round man with dark hair and goatee, a flagon of wine resting on the table before him.  “Gerard’s back.”

“I see,” Mother said tartly.  “Well then, I suppose I’ll have to speak with Master Knolls, won’t I?”

She leaned up to kiss Jerome’s cheek.  To Scalpada, she said, “You’ve brought my son back to me again, signor.  You have my very deepest thanks.”

The wine merchant beamed, as if nothing in this world pleased him more than to be of service to Jerome’s mother.  “It is my honor, mistress,” he said with uncharacteristic gravity.

A look passed between them.  It was brief, but significant, fraught with history.  Nadal Scalpada had known Jerome’s father for years before Maurizio Casterdi had so much as set foot on Angerish soil, let alone married his Angerish bride.

Three years had passed since Jerome’s father had died.  He’d been a mere child then.  He would never meet his father man-to-man—the ague had seen to that.

On the other hand, he would never turn his back on his father either.  The dead always lingered; it was the living who came and went.

The signor’s men were beginning to trudge through the front doorway.  Flaxen-haired Will had appeared, propped on a stool, tuning his bulbous lute.  His mother was leaning over the shoulder of Master Knolls, nodding as the man spoke.

“Who’s Gerard?” Jerome asked Ethan.

Before his brother could respond, Scalpada gripped them both by a shoulder.  “It’s good to see you boys—if I can even call you such any longer.  Look at you!  By Yehru’s hairy ball-sack, you’re grown men!”  He shook his head, humphed.  “The young are ever the truest measure of time…”  He let out a contemplative sigh.  “Now I must drink.”

He clapped their arms before leaving them alone beneath the corbelled archway.

“That man, Master Knolls,” Jerome went on.  “What’s his connection to Loren?”

“Not Master Knolls,” Ethan replied, “Gerard.”

“All right.  Who’s Gerard?”

“Master Knolls’s son—and a little bumbling fool.”  Ethan shook his head.  “Alas, he’s also Loren’s latest infatuation.”

“Her latest?  When did this start?”

“In the spring, naturally.  That’s when the roosters get restless.  She’s fourteen now, nearly a woman.  Can you believe it?”

“No,” Jerome muttered, thinking, Of an age to be recruited by the Sophieli.  “I didn’t notice anything when I was back for springtide.”

“Yes, well…  A season might as well be a lifetime to a fourteen-year-old girl.  She’s gone through two of these little whirlwinds already.  This Gerard makes a third.”

Jerome let the implications of this development sink in.  “Who is he?”  The words came out with a bite he hadn’t intended.  He was thinking of the most loathsome of his classmates at the Academy, of them strutting and posturing for Loren the way they did for the pretty girls on campus.

Catching his tone, Ethan said, “Loren can look out for herself.  There’s nothing to worry about with this Gerard in any case.  He’s from Corfolk, or Eastmouth, or…  I don’t know, somewhere thereabouts.”

“What’s he doing here then?”

Ethan gave him a flummoxed look.  “He’s with his father.  You don’t recognize Master Knolls?  He deals in wool.  He’s been coming here for years.”

Jerome shrugged.  The family business had never occupied his thoughts the way it did Ethan’s.

“He stays at Guild Hall,” Ethan explained, “but he’s helpless for our wines.  As for the boy”—he freighted the word with high-handed scorn—“it seems he’s taken up the family trade.  The two of them passed through last month.  They showed up again about a week ago.  I suppose they’re southbound now.”  Ethan smirked.  “I’ll grant the boy this much: he works quickly.  Nothing can come of it, of course.”

“Of course,” Jerome said, unconvinced.

Mother rejoined them.  Her annoyance—a wrinkled tightness, obscured by cosmetics, around eyes and mouth—was plain to see for her sons.  “That man…  He says Gerard went looking for Loren as soon as they arrived.  He hasn’t the least notion where they are, of course.”

“What about Lyra?” Ethan asked.

Mother scanned the common room.  “I let Lyra go to the river with the Maltby boy for the afternoon.  Jerome, go fetch her.  You know the spot.  Ethan, find Loren.  She can’t have gone far.  Bring her to me directly.”

“Yes, mum,” the boys chorused.

They set off, Jerome back down the corridor to the innyard, Ethan toward the stairs leading to the inn’s upper stories.

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Jerome stepped out onto Cooks Row.  The evensong bells sounded from the priory, echoing through the streets and alleyways that crescented out from the complex’s vine-choked walls.  A warm wind, redolent of wood-smoke and roasting meat, set his cassock flapping about his legs.  His stomach clutched at its own emptiness.  He’d hardly eaten a proper meal for weeks, not since the Testing.

It was as if images of the ordeal were plastered to the backs of his eyelids, haunting the corners of his awareness, like the remains of a dream fractured upon waking.  Now that he was alone again, they struck him with renewed vigor.

… His right hand rests atop a moonstone quilled in unnatural light.  Censors perfume the air of the lunarium with chicory and marjoram.  Opposite him, Rhapsode Josine, draped in robes of sunset red, chants in a primitive Kammeric tongue.  Something is wrong—he knows it.  He tries to pull his hand free of the shewstone, but it is as if the stone grips him, not he the stone…

Clenching his teeth, he shunted the memories aside, set off to find his younger sister, whom he loved above all others.

Growing up in Duncaster, Jerome had always taken a certain pride in his imagined urbanity.  The sons of peasants and villeins from the countryside thronged the market each day.  He’d befriended several of them over the years, but their interactions were perpetually skewed by unspoken imbalances of social and intellectual standing.  It had shocked him, upon his arrival in Lloudyn, to find this relation thoroughly upended.

It hadn’t taken him long to realize that he’d had no real conception of a city.  He’d imagined a patchwork of Duncasters.  But the differences between Lloudyn and even large towns was more than a matter of scale.  Entering Lloudyn was like stepping into a different world, one carved free of the wilderness surrounding it, a place where it was possible to forget, for long stretches at a time, the pitiless vicissitudes of nature.

He preferred the city.  Even so, he could admit to himself, curving around the northwest corner of the priory, that he missed this place, his home, when he was away.

Struck by the thought, he slowed, stopped.  He looked up and down the street, taking in his surroundings as if for the first—or the last—time.  It was nearing full dark now.  Lamplight showed in many of the upper windows that faced the priory.  To his left, Pottery Row was a long line of mostly closed-up storefronts.  To his right, he could just make out the torch-dotted bulk of Eastgate, about a quarter-mile distant.  People straggled this way and that along the street.

At his back loomed the priory.  Ahead, beyond several blocks of residences, beyond old Master Albert’s meadow, the River Temark, lined in birch and goat willow, curved down toward Eastgate.  It was along the Temark, at a cove tucked into the river bend, that he expected to find Lyra.

Jerome had played at the cove most summer days as a child.  They all had, once, before peeling off one by one as the years passed, leaving only Lyra.

He missed her most of all, when he was away.

It was then, standing on Eastgate Street, the waning sliver of the Lion Moon setting over darkening roofs to his left and behind him, that Jerome felt the first tingling intimations of the rapture-state, like a breath of winter cold pinching his face, needling his arms and legs.  He lifted a hand to his forehead.  He was sweating.

This is all wrong

The thought rattled through him like a stone tossed about in a tin cup.  Panic clutched his chest.  There could be no doubting it: he was indeed slipping into rapture.  But that was impossible—wasn’t it?

He’d entered the rapture-state only three times before, once at each stage of the Testing.  In those cases the raptural power had been mediated by the Academy’s shewstone, the scrying tool of Sophieli rhapsodes.  Only sorcerers or advanced magi could induce rapture without the aid of occultics or the intercession of Sukalli, daimons of the Outworld.

Impossible or not, there was no denying the queasy push-pull of rapture as it wrenched through him.  It was an uncanny sensation, as if he stood both inside and outside of his own body.

You are who you are not,” the daimon had said through Rhapsode Josine’s mouth, the lunarium spoked with the light of eternity that radiated from the moonstone atop its plinth.  The sulfur fire of the daimon’s vision blazed like a halo about the rhapsode’s head.

False!” the creature of the Outworld had hissed.  “Interloper!  Usurper!

He tried to wrench his hand free of the shewstone, but it held him as in a steel grip.

This is all wrong…

False!” the daimon screeched.  “False!  False!  False!

And now, three weeks later, standing on Eastgate Street in Duncaster beneath a plate of sky salted with stars, Jerome Casterdi’s soul once again plummeted outward, drawn along otherworldly tangents, branching from the plane of terrestrial time toward the encircling horizon that lay enfolded within the present of each lived moment…

… and it is as if he is falling in place.  A cascade of voices pummels him: his father’s admonishing growl, his mother singing, the collective babble of children.  These familiar sounds give way to others, as wave succeeds wave upon the shoreline: the shouts and screams of fleeing townsfolk, the pleading cries of the dying, the bloody laughter of soldiers set to pillaging.

“I’ve got her, lad,” Ciarán Dargas says, “I’ve guh—”

You are not who you are,” grates the daimon.

As these words echo through him, the dizzying sense of movement begins to dissipate.  As if opening already-open eyes, Jerome finds himself staring out upon a world transformed.  Gouts of flame spew from the row of buildings before him.  Townsfolk flee toward Eastgate—men, women, children.  Smoke strangles twilit air.  A phalanx of soldiers approach from the direction of Westgate and the market.  They fly the Twin Arrowheads banner of Henri Mowbray, Duke of Murcen.

They’re sacking Duncaster, Jerome realizes, horror pouring through him like molten steel.  The Norlochi are attacking…

But why?

This has already happened.

Ignoring the voice, Jerome tries and fails to move, to rush back to The Five Wolves.  Where are the girls?  Where is Mother?  He must help them escape the town.  He must—

It is too late, the voice says.  They are all of them already dead, Jerome.

No, it cannot be.  He glimpses the future, surely, not the past, for what he is seeing never happened.

You are mistaken, the voice says.  Look at me, Jerome.  Look!

He swings his head toward Eastgate.  A feminine figure stands cowled in the middle of the street, perhaps thirty paces off, facing him.  The thronging crowd parts, flowing around her with as much inevitability and as little awareness of doing so as water parting around a boulder.  The high, slanting light of fires blazing from upper stories plays across the unmoving furls of her robes.

The apparition, he thinks, is the very image of a Szard.

It is said that one or more of the Szardir, the three fate-spinners of pagan legend, appear to those who stand on the threshold of great change.  The nearer in time the change, the nearer a Szard approaches.

Stifling a sudden, maniacal urge to laugh, Jerome steps toward the figure, as if to test his theory.  She withdraws an equal distance.  The seam she creates in the crowd moves with her.

You are kairosar, the voice says.  Remember, Jerome!  Remember, kairosar!

“Remember what?” he cries, stumbling forward.

The Szard glides back as if repelled.  Her form wavers, smearing the air like wet paint.  His eyes strain as if wrenched on hooks.  The cowled figure disperses in smoky waves through which strides a young girl who calls out his name.  She is running toward him, arms outspread.

“Jerome!” Lyra screeches, flinging herself against his chest…

… and all at once, the blooming flower of rapture twirled shut, as if his sister’s embrace were a nail pinning him to the present.

“What are you doing here?” she panted.  Then, incredulous: “Are you—crying?”

He was on his knees, sobbing against her tiny frame.  She stroked his hair the way their mother would have done.  “There-there,” she said and he clutched her tight, knowing that she was already dead.

For he had watched her die, months ago.