The silver hairpin

The royal family had two beautiful twin daughters. One day, the family was to receive a visit from a foreign prince. For propriety’s sake it was agreed he would marry the older sister. To distinguish them without embarrassing the prince, the older sister was to wear a silver hairpin.

When the prince showed up, however, the younger sister fell in love with him and begged her sister to give her the pin to wear so he would court her instead.

But the older sister refused on the grounds that it would not be proper, and she did not want to give up on the status the marriage would grant her. The younger sister cursed her, willing the pin to prick the bride’s cold and toxic heart and poison the union with the prince.

Stung by her sister’s curse, the older twin locked herself into her room and let the tears flow freely, liberating years of regret, expectations and resentment. In the end, she looked into her mirror, washed away the hot tears and took the pin from her hair. She knew what she had to do to atone.

She walked into the salon with new composure and called her sister to her in private. The younger sister was wary until the older fixed the silver hairpin into her hair and told her to go marry the prince. Overjoyed, the younger twin arranged her hair and rushed back to the salon, leaving her sister standing.

When the hairpin was found in the prince’s household, it was stuck in his chest next to the dagger.

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Dispatches from anywhere but the front – First dispatch

Dear Councillor Loderig,

 

As you have encouraged me to keep you informed about His Majesty’s role in the war effort and possible avenues of progress for our own counsel of somewhat fading illustriousness, I am hereby sending you the first dispatch from, well, not precisely the front.

As it turns out, His Majesty King Andron is not too fond of direct action involving the enemy.

 

What he is fond of is a tiny blonde hand-maiden named Gabrila that our party picked up in a village along the way.

Before her, there was a tiny blonde baker named Matia, and before that a tiny blonde elf named something complicated; I did not catch her profession.

 

As for the reports of His Majesty’s heroic deeds on the battlefield, perhaps you will remember a young blonde bard named Ridevig, of somewhat slight physical stature.

He is an avid collector of all things war-correspondence with an admirable interest in the details of warfare and current events and a knack for chronicling and embellishment. Less favourably inclined tongues mutter that his interest in the front lines exceeds that of His Majesty, but surely any loyal subject to the crown and the kingdom will recognize the same loyalty in him and his eager wish to entertain and please his liege with tales close to His Majesty’s own valiant heart.

 

The enemy seems to have been spotted by the Lenver Mountains, and I suppose it will be useful to send your reply to Galfore, a charming and secluded settlement to the north-west of them and separated from the mountain range by a torrential stream that may unfortunately delay our party’s progress towards the likely battlegrounds.

 

Yours faithfully,

Fjorla

Sub-Councillor of the Hirdsingen Mage Council

On the philosophy of windows on rainy days

Outside, the rain was falling in heavy, noisy drops.

It was midday, and the smell of their neighbour’s heavy sausage stew crept into the apartment. Gevuyn tried to concentrate on the presentation he was trying to write – some stupid idea by the higher-ups, speeches at schools and universities, detailing their work – but not too exactly, of course – what a stupid, stupid idea – it was hard.

At first, when the smell started up, it was disgusting cause the grease had to burn off. Then it turned to where it made him hungry. Most of his unhealthy lunches were due to that smell. Then it got overpowering, and sometimes she’d add stuff that made his stomach turn, so he had to be done with lunch by then.

At last he got up from his papers and opened the window behind him.

Cold air blew in, welcome and damp, smelling like rain, winter just on the cusp of spring, but spring was still being coy or maybe just lazy, and wanted to be persuaded.

Meanwhile, its rain did the persuading on the majority of the people.

Some windows in the housing block complex were opened, some closed.

There were two types of people. Those that opened the window in this weather for the rain’s soothing qualities, and those that kept it closed for the same reason.

Yurtoril and he were the third kind. The “whatever” kind. The ones that could choose either, on frivolous whims, because they had not been given a choice in the past.

He remembered being a kid, in the Watcher’s academy dorm, or rather cell, when rainy days meant the windows had to stay rigidly closed. Withdrawal. First you had to get the stuff out of your system, even if you had some base immunity, or maybe it was all just attitude. No one seemed to know.

Wanting nothing more than to open those damned windows and hold your hand out and end the plaguing of your thoughts. End it all. Give up and be happy, or at least not miserable.

Sitting back down on your bunk bed and reading something spitefully negative or depressing as a fuck you to the rain you couldn’t have.

Gevuyn sighed. Grit his teeth. He held out his hand into the rain. Heavy, noisy drops that didn’t do a thing.

“Fuck you, rain,” he whispered under his breath.

He left the window open and sat back down to his notes as the rain drenched the windowsill.

Reversal

Gevuyn’s uniform was constricting when worn properly, and his tightly bound ponytail strained his scalp. And they had to sit through the higher-ups’ questions. It was like being back in training. He longed to loosen it all up.

Meanwhile, the prettiest man in the world was being obnoxiously straight-laced with the head knight. He’d even taken implicit credit for Gevuyn’s ‘unusually professional attire’. Well, he could let that go today. Just barely.

Pay-off would be later today.

 

“Well,” Sir Suradin said from behind his oversized desk, “you did good work overall. We’ve got most of the Department of Development back in line. There are some left-over factors, but if you’re looking for a new challenge, I can hand those to someone else.”

Yes, do it. Though the man’s eyes were too piercing during that offer. Still, anything but more of that department’s mess.

“Thank you,” Yurtoril said. “We appreciate it. But we like to tie up loose ends. It’s no good to leave things to the next ones in disorder.”

Oh for fuck’s sake, why? Of course, of course. Standing in the order. Promotions. But this case out of all?

Gevuyn bit down on the inside of his lip and straightened his shoulders. “I agree.” He gave Yurtoril a curt nod.

They both looked pleased. Fuck this all.

“Good,” Suradin said. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.” He flipped open a folder in front of him and turned it around for them to read. A photo of a grey-haired woman, Reinelle, 62 years old, etc.

“The murdered director’s widow,” their superior explained. “Normally this wouldn’t be the department’s issue anymore, but she’s been acting erratically by some accounts, and seeking contact within the department, spouting conspiracies. Everyone says they didn’t talk to her, but you know how it is. Something’s up there, and we’ve got to get this cleaned up before we set up the new director.” He looked at each of them in turn. “This is a minor issue, and I don’t care how you clear it up, as long as you do it. And do it today. Things are set in motion for tomorrow; a delay would be awkward.”

Yurtoril met the head knight’s gaze with that too sensible expression of his. “When you say you don’t care how, just to clarify…”

“I mean I don’t care. Use your imagination or be unoriginal. I want the rumour-mongering gone by tomorrow. How the source stops spreading them is your business.”

Yurtoril nodded smoothly. “Understood.”

 

“Why?”

The wind was biting into his skin outside the order’s southern headquarters. At least his hair was safely confined. As confined as he felt.

“You know why,” Yurtoril said.

“That’s the worst part,” Gevuyn muttered.

“It was a test,” his partner elaborated. “We can go up or down, hanging on today. We’ve both been displaced from other districts. If we want to achieve anything in the future, it has to be up.”

“I know all that, I know.”

“You did follow.”

He sighed. “That’s the other worst part.” He allowed himself a smile after all. “Fine. So, a widow. Not the most honourable job.”

“Depends on how we handle it.” Yurtoril gave a tiny frown. “Well, maybe not. So. How do we do this? If you want to try the role reversal another time and go for the safe route today…”

“Oh, hell no. That’s all I’ve been looking forward to.” He raised his hand to brush hair out of his face that wasn’t there. “Highlight of my workday,” he amended. “And the only reason I’m wearing this…” He looked down on himself unhappily. “I really hate this.”

Yurtoril grinned. It was endearing, fuck him. “So potential chaos then? Alright. We did get free rein; it’s a good test case.”

He hadn’t planned this on some level, had he?

 

All the windows in Reinelle’s house were hung with air filter cloth. All of them. They’d checked.

Rusty air driers from across the border with illegible labels hummed and clattered for the most long-term-grating sound carpet you could achieve on short notice. Once in a while, one would sputter and die and turn itself back on. Once in a while, one from another room would do the same, and you’d hear it.

All the water ran through filters.

The humidifiers were, of course, emptied out.

“Have fun,” Yurtoril had whispered to him before they’d returned to the salon.

Reinelle herself sat rigidly in her armoire, her grey hair done up with obvious effort, but there were stray hairs escaping, her face was pale and lined, and she was clearly trying to keep it together.

Well. His turn. “You’re aware of how this looks, aren’t you?”

“I’m aware you’re not here to show me any sympathy. But let it be known you’re in the wrong.”

How did this proceed? Yurtoril cast him a glance. His turn still? Alright. “Like you’ve let the whole Department of Development know? Why don’t you share that with us, too? What’s your insight?” Sneer at ‘insight’. The distanced role was so much less taxing.

“You know why my husband is dead.”

This was where the sympathy came in normally. “Some guy went crazy and killed him. Yeah. And now you’re trying to turn yourself into the same kind of crazy. Why? You’re gonna kill somebody, too?”

She clenched her teeth, and her fingers twitched, probably in annoyance.

Yurtoril stepped closer and laid his left hand on Gevuyn’s arm. His turn now, alright. “Madam, I’m sorry your husband is dead. You can be assured none of us wanted that to happen. He was an important member of the government, and an ally to the order.”

Smooth, maybe a bit focused on the professional. Though who knew, maybe with the dignified widow type that wasn’t so bad.

She balled her small hands into fists, then slowly extended her fingers again and laid them on the arm rests. “I appreciate it.” Her voice was small and forced.

“We have to know – We wish you no harm. But we have to know…” He’d stumbled across that one. Out of his element, clearly. This was rare entertainment.

“You can ask,” the director’s widow said. “I will decide if I answer.”

Yurtoril nodded. “Of course. So – You mentioned something about the rain, to the other members of the department, didn’t you? Perhaps out of anger, out of the moment. Out of grief.” He was copying him! With the generous ‘guesses’ that left the other a way out.

“So what if I did?” Defiant. Gevuyn was itching to jump in again. But Yurtoril was still trying his own role.

“We need to deal with this somehow; surely you understand”, his partner said, the way you’d talk to an unruly dog or a 2-year-old. This was too good.

Reinelle folded her hands. “And surely you understand that my husband is dead, and it’s the fault of your rain.”

Enough now. She was too right, but that didn’t matter here. “Understand?” Gevuyn’s thin grin came easily. “There’s nothing to understand about your nonsense. What killed him was an absence of the rain, for a guy who went crazy.” He shifted his stance. “The associate’s taken on sense again. Maybe it’s time for you, too.”

Her composure was flickering. This was easy!

“Indeed… I must correct myself. You don’t understand a thing. How could you?”

Understand, don’t understand… whose keyword was this? He looked over to Yurtoril.

His partner returned the look, then sat down in a chair and leaned forward towards the widow. “I may understand… and not.”

Reinelle raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.

“Not from experience,” Yurtoril conceded.

Her jaw moved, and she was dragged into it. “You’re married?”

He faltered.

Come on, don’t falter now. Bullshit something.

“No. Not yet.”

Good enough.

Reinelle nodded, with expectation in her posture.

“But…” Yurtoril tucked a stray hair strand behind his ear. Good, that looked sincere. “You must think we don’t understand because we don’t get affected by the rain. That’s no secret, and certainly not to someone in your position.”

She gave a non-committal nod, but she was leaning forward and hanging onto his words now.

“Well.” Yurtoril tapped his lips as if in thought, then rested his hand on his thigh. “There are losses where… if they happened, I’d wish I could drink a whole humidifier of the stuff. Or be like those wretches in the city underside. Anything to stop it. But I can’t anymore.” He leaned back. “So in that way, I don’t understand. You have the chance.”

Damn.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Or … too real. Or at least a lot more real than this normally got.

Or was it? What was this?

Gevuyn noticed his pulse racing, apparently just in case, and he kept his position very still, so as not to spoil whatever this moment was.

The widow was sitting still, too.

Her brow furrowed slightly.

She sat up straight. “Your girlfriend is a lucky woman.” She reached into the pocket of her dress. “My husband should be as lucky. You’ll understand that much.” She pulled out a tiny handgun, held it to her temple and pulled the trigger.

 

They remained still for a moment, then Yurtoril broke the silence. “Well.”

“That…”

“That could have gone better. On the other hand…”

“She’s not going to talk anymore, is she?”

Yurtoril got up. “Not likely.”

Gevuyn walked over to the widow and examined her. Dead. “No. Not likely.”

“Before evening, too. What do you say, do we leave it like this? It’s a clear suicide. Plausible enough.”

And she’d had the right idea, too, about everything. Pity. But couldn’t be helped. She’d come in too early for them. “Yeah. Sooner we get this over with. Report, then dinner?”

“Let’s.”

 

De-briefing

It was night time, and Yurtoril had a headache. He usually did after these outings.

Peace and quiet would fix it.

It would, but it seemed today his partner was more displeased than usual with their work. That look he’d given him when the last light in their target’s eyes had faded in the rain and been replaced by contentment. It was getting critical.

Yurtoril would have to fix that.

It would take contemplation. He didn’t want contemplation. He wanted to end the day and all thought and this damned headache.

He turned off the light in his room and lay down askew on the crisp blanket.

He frowned and adjusted his position to be parallel with the bed.

Better.

But not much.

He didn’t always want to be the human element, Gevuyn had said. And that Yurtoril didn’t understand the toll it took on him.

He sighed. Then quieted himself. Couldn’t have that heard across the wall.

Gevuyn thought Yurtoril was making it easy on himself with his distance.

Obviously, he didn’t understand a thing.

Unwelcome consideration: Then why did he keep giving him that part of the job? The understanding part.

Yurtoril pressed his fingertips against his forehead, slowly rubbed up and down, and across, to no avail. This one wanted to stay. Damned headaches.

So perhaps he’d have to shift the balance somewhat. The biggest pain would be admitting to his mistake. He didn’t make mistakes.

Wrong. He hated making mistakes. Yes. Better. Less welcome, more accurate.

So.

“Sarvino!” a shrill woman’s voice rang from the living room, startling him out of his thoughts. “You can’t! Our baby!”

What the hell was this now?

“Our baby?” a man’s voice yelled. “Our baby? You mean Aranno’s baby! Don’t you, Lurria? Ah, to think I loved you!”

Yurtoril laid one hand across his face, then another, inhaled, then let them both drift down to his chest.

Fine. There wasn’t going to be sleep now anyway.

He felt woefully underprepared.

Might be an idea. Might be some of that human element that his partner claimed to see an imbalance in.

Going out now was a dreadful idea.

He got up, put on a fresh pair of socks, and his slippers, and went out into the living room.

 

Gevuyn was sprawled on the couch watching television with a half-empty bottle of red wine on the stack of books next to him, and a half-filled glass cradled against his chest.

He looked up to him. Yurtoril’s chest clenched. The venom was still there.

He grit his teeth. “Did…” Wrong beginning. And too quiet.

Gevuyn reached for the remote control and silenced the television. Expectant look.

Fine, deliver. But what? “Is it Aranno’s baby?”

His partner was taken aback. Then a probing look. Not the kind he normally got. More like the kind the targets got. The one before he turned on the fake warmth. Was that what they felt like? Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be, because…

“Sit with me.” Gevuyn’s voice was slurred as he sat up, careful not to spill his wine. “Bring a glass. And I’ll explain you all about Lurria.”

This was still a bad time to smile. Nothing was sorted, nothing was fixed. It would be counter-productive. But his lips betrayed him. He walked over to the cabinet and got out a glass. He looked at the couch and faltered.

Gevuyn scooted to the left corner and patted the space to his right. “Sit.”

So he sat. The cabinet’s door was still open.

“So.” Gevuyn filled his glass, more than was usual, and added more to his own glass for good measure. The bottle made it safely back to the book stack.

Yurtoril raised his glass, then cursed himself inwardly. He wouldn’t want that yet, and getting blown off would be…

Gevuyn gave him another one of his probing looks, then clanked his glass against his. “To Lurria.”

He failed at getting rid of the smile, again. “Lurria seems like an unfaithful kind. Maybe someone else. Is anyone there better at this?”

“No. Well, you’d think Sarvino would, for all he’s yelling, but… oh.” Gevuyn grabbed the remote control and turned the volume up again, filling the room with crying voices. “He actually had a thing with Natrija when Lurria had her brain tumour. Aranno was there, but then he caved to the family obligations. And Ninna had the fortune from the tax fraud. So…” The look turned probing again, but this time like the ones Yurtoril normally got. “You don’t normally smile that long.”

Did he? He felt caught. “I… I wanted… You said, I…” Damn this all.

It did get him a smile in return, at last. Not a target smile, either. A real one. For all he knew.

He swallowed. “To the baby. May it grow up to be a better person.”

Gevuyn clanked their glasses together again. “If it survives.”

They drank in silence while a new couple provided the backdrop argument.

“Can I ask what this is?” Yurtoril asked at last.

“This…” Gevuyn looked almost embarrassed. But he caught himself and brushed his hair off his shoulder. “This is our reward.”

He knew he looked confused, and there was no helping it.

Gevuyn poured them both more wine, and they drank in silence again.

“This is approved television,” the explanation went on at last. “This, and the rain, killer combination. Not like the serious stuff we get at the order, with all the actual information and background. Well, that’s a cliché. Our stuff is just as filtered for what they want us to see. But this.” He pointed at the screen with his barely filled glass. “This without the rain. We can do this. They can’t.”

Yurtoril frowned, trying to grasp it. He looked down on his wine glass and downed the rest, then held it out to his partner. Then halted when he realised what he was doing.

Gevuyn looked at him, and reached for the bottle. “It’s funny,” he explained as if to a child.

Yurtoril snorted, looked at the screen, at the glass, briefly at his partner, at the screen.

His glass was being filled.

The other, too.

The empty bottle went down on the floor, and another full one surfaced and took the place on the book stack.

“So you like the faithful kind, huh?”

“What?”

“Lurria.”

Yurtoril blinked. “Oh. That. I…” There was no uncompromising answer here. “I suppose.”

“Don’t worry.”

He blinked again.

Gevuyn looked down on his glass, looking almost vulnerable for a moment, then clanked it against Yurtoril’s, spilling some wine onto their hands. “Sorry. Anyway. You want to be good? Then we’re good.”

Yurtoril tried to still the clenching in his chest, or in his jaw, or just his hand. It had wine on it. “I. Yes. I… may have…”

“We’re good.” Gevuyn drank from his glass, and Yurtoril watched him before following suit. There was still wine on his hand. He should get rid of it, but it would break the spell.

Gevuyn sat closer to him.

Yurtoril swallowed. “I… suppose… I could try to be that more. The… human.”

His partner was shaken with a raspy laugh, then gave him a side glance into his eyes. “So I see.”

A Jupiter Blood Feud

Runan’s brother lay dead in the dust, and droning music rang in his ear. He wanted to cast the comm device down to the corpses, but he didn’t.

This call was necessary.

“Please hold the line. The next available registrar will be with you shortly. Please hold the line.”

His brother’s eyes looked up at him; demanding or accusing?

No, just dead.

His servant scrambled past, sad eyes on his brother’s corpse. “Are you coming, lord? The attackers are still out there!”

Runan shook his head, still hooked to his device. Holding the line. “Deal with them.”

“Lord –“

Laser fire erupted in the distance; lingering was a luxury for a grieving lord. The servant left.

“Please hold the –“

A crack in the hopelessly outdated line.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for doing your duty to keep our planet safe. In order to ensure you the most efficient service, we kindly ask you to state your request. If you would like to register a blood feud, please choose option number one. If you would like to withdraw a blood feud, please choose option number two. If you would like to mark a blood feud as satisfied, please choose option number three. If you have any further questions regarding the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry, please choose option number four.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Runan grumbled and pressed number one for feud registry.

“Please hold the line.” The music returned.

There were shots in the distance, and the dusty air was darkening.

“You know,” said the man in the temporary laser cage. “It’d be quicker to just kill me.”

The cage holding his brother’s killer was buzzing. “And turn into a barbarian like you and like our ancestors.”

The man shrugged one of his bony shoulders. “Not saying you should.”

“Good evening, this is the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. My name is Sinvan. How can I help you?”

At last. “I’m Lord Runan of New Marienburgh. I want to register a blood feud. It’s my brother’s killer–“

“I see you’re calling from Santa Maria Desert. Please be advised that due to the high volume of warlike activities, blood feuds in this area cannot be–“

“The bastard broke into our fortress and killed my brother! This is not a war, this is–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

“Fuck!” Runan took the device from his ear and glared at it.

“You could just let it go. Not worth it, is it?” Dark eyes under dark brows tried to look sly, but the dread in them would not be disguised.

“Oh no,” Runan said, finally feeling the anger that his brother’s death had failed to bring about. “Oh no. You will die. You will die here by my hand.”

The man pursed his thin lips.

Runan waited.

Nothing.

Music.

“Thank you for waiting. Did the attacker arrive on his own, or as part of a group or a concentrated attack?”

Runan sighed. “There was an attack. But that’s not the point. He breached the defences and–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

That slow, droning music.

Then, “He’s lucky.” His prisoner pointed at the corpse.

Runan strained to contain himself, pressure rising within him. “Pardon me?”

“My brother wouldn’t call a blood feud over me.”

“Are you fucking serious?” The fury wanted a vent, be hissed out into the world.

The prisoner shrugged again. “Last minute epiphanies.”

“And you think now’s the time?”

“Well, it’s not like there’s much time left, is there?”

The music droned on, suggesting there was all the time in the world.

Runan groaned and rubbed his forehead.

The music stopped. At last, an end to this –

“Thank you again for waiting. As it turns out, we cannot process this kind of request. Would you like me to forward you to the department specialised in wartime blood feuds?”

“Are you fucking serious?” Runan yelled into the comm device.

The prisoner grinned at him. “You going to ask that of everyone you talk to?”

“You shut the fuck up!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the registrar said. “I cannot help you with this. I will transfer you to the specialised department.”

“Not you, dimwit –“

A crack in the line.

Music.

“Fuck!”

The prisoner bit his lip, bit by bit chewing back his grin until he looked almost serious. “Sorry.”

Runan exhaled slowly.

More shots in the distance. Screams. Belonging to anyone and no one. Life was as cheap as it had always been. And here he was, trying to keep order alive. Trying to keep the value of even one life intact.

His brother’s eyes were still staring. Always wanting something.

Or just dead.

“I’d have liked someone who’d call a blood feud over me,” said the prisoner. “Guess I blew that.”

Runan sighed.

The music was playing on.

“What did you even want? Is this war? Feud of your own?”

The prisoner smiled, silently. Then, “No, just to steal something. We figured, in that chaos, nobody would care. Wasn’t smart.”

Runan swallowed. “And why,” his eyes fell on his brother’s again. Accusing. “Why did he have to die?”

“It was an accident! I was trying to stun him, but the switch jammed, and then he screamed, and I wanted to silence him –“

Runan sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

Runan stood still, then sighed again.

“Would he have called a blood feud over you, do you think?”

A question to behead someone over. But a valid one. “He knew his duty,” Runan said at last.

“Duty, huh.”

He shrugged. “Life can’t be cheap again. That’s how we ended up here.”

“It can’t but it is, huh?”

“What the fuck do you know–” He broke off. Then he just shook his head. “A blood feud doesn’t mean you’re not lonely. No need to envy anyone.”

Silence.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Wartime Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for helping to ensure life has value even in wartime. My name is Andria. How can I help you?”

Laser shots in the distance. Some nobody screamed.

Somebody here was sorry.

He turned off the laser cage.

Dark brows shot up.

Runan grit his teeth. “I’m running out of men.”

“Excuse me? Sir, if you are under attack, I must advise you that it is not permitted to register multiple blood feuds at once for singular incidences, as those are covered under –”

“Nevermind.”

He turned off the comm device.

He knelt down next to his brother’s corpse and closed those eyes.

No more of that.

 

Just dead.

Restoration

A broken sword lay waiting at a sun-dappled crossroads.

The shards called out to a young woman passing by, dressed in tattered rags that had been made of fine materials once.

She looked down at the elegant cut of the remains and saw her own reflection.

One by one, she laid out the pieces until the image of the sword was complete once more. “This is as good as we’ll get, you and I,” she said and turned to leave.

The specks of sunlight merged into a single beam running up the sword’s length and mending the gaps until the weapon shone as new.

The young woman clenched her jaw and then her fist and then bent down to pick it up. “Let this be it then. I, the former Lady Scinna, claim this weapon for my own. And I will right the wrongs –“

The sword glinted in her hand. “Be under no illusion,” it said. “What you saw is still as good as we get, you and I.”


The first to go was her uncle. The sound of his bones splintering was satisfying in its own way, but not enough.

Next was her aunt. Onlookers were just as guilty. As blood soaked the usual pompous up-do on her severed head, serenity hung over the room for a moment, but just a moment.

Some palace staff had to go due to circumstance. The sword made guards easy to deal with. Others were easy anyway.

She’d never liked that one servant.

The new wet nurse, who’d schemed against her, and with some hesitation, the new heir.

Her late father’s and then her uncle’s minister of war pleaded for his life and made a strong point, but was altogether too suspicious.

Ellia, her best friend, who’d simply continued living there as if nothing had happened. Some friend.


Enemies fell.

Advisors fell or fell in line.

Opposition fell silent.

All the while, the restored Lady Scinna sat on her throne, watching, her restored sword laid across her lap, ringing in her head: “Don’t forget what we are.”

She had liked the ambassador.

But he had asked for too much. Now his head stained her throne room.

Don’t forget what we are.

The palace was empty.

The few spoken words echoed in the hollow halls.

No one to fell.

No one to stain anything.

The occasional cleaning lady. A mute cook.

Until his lamb dish made her queasy. You never knew.


The restored Lady Scinna got up, took her restored sword, and walked out to the crossroads she had found it at.

She laid it down under a cloudy sky and picked up a sturdy rock instead.

“I’ve remembered what you are,” she said as she smashed the rock down into the blade.

Torchbearer

The cave walls are damp. Under the light of my torch they have a slippery shine. I have lost track of how far underground we are. But we should be at our destination soon.

Selrik stands and waves me over. “Isla.”

I join him, and he points at something in the wall. Glistening, not like the water, but a green shine. He removes the small pickaxe from his belt, and I light the area for him as he removes bits of precious stone from the wall. In between hacking away at the wall, he stops to drop the green rocks into the satchel I’m carrying.

At last he returns the pickaxe to his belt and claps the dust off his hands. “When we get out, we’ll pick the prettiest one of these and have it worked into your ring.”

 

Further down, there are more of the green rocks, and the satchel fills.

“Fantastic,” Selrik says. “At this rate we won’t even need the main attraction. We can just sell these!” Despite the bad lighting, his eyes are green and sparkling like the gems.

 

“Hah!” He drops a particularly large gem into the heavy satchel. “Forget old Jarrik’s crypt, we can buy us a house!”

My smile must rival the gems at the thought. “Then should we return? There’s still his curse, why bother with it?”

Selrik frowns and bites his lower lip in thought. “Let me think about it.” He points at another area in the wall. “Light?”

 

He studies the map again, and I stand next to him, the torch lighting up the parchment. I don’t have eyes for the map as much as for him. I see a small frown on his face, then a glint in his eyes.

“Did you find something?”

His eyes stay fixed on the map for a while longer. Then he looks up and folds up the map.

He sets out to walk, but hesitates, looks back at me.

His face breaks into a smile, his posture relaxes. He steps over to me, opens the satchel and drops the map inside. My heart skips a beat. He reaches up to my shoulder and removes the strap, and immediately I feel light. He slings the heavy bag over his own shoulder. “You shouldn’t have to carry that. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

I smile at him.

He opens the satchel again, takes his small bag with lock picking supplies from his belt and dumps them all into the larger one. “Better.” He grins.

 

There is a steep descent in the path, and the walls narrow around us. “Shall I go ahead?” I ask, raising the torch over my head.

So we’re going to King Jarrik’s crypt after all.

Did he ever answer before? I’m not sure now.

“Sure, go ahead,” Selrik says. So we descend down the steps. I’m glad my burden has been lightened earlier.

 

There is a small hole where the door to the crypt was locked in mysterious ways generations prior.

Selrik walks around it and studies it from all sides, crouches down, looks through, shakes his head, gets back up again.

He musters the wall again. “I want to figure something out. Can you light the hole for me from this side? I’ll try to crawl through and see if I can figure the lock out from inside.”

Of course I oblige. “Shall I take the bag?” I ask.

He reaches inside the satchel, rummages around, then shakes his head. “All my stuff is mixed up in there. I was stupid earlier. But thanks.” He crouches down and wedges the bag and himself through the hole slowly.

I light his path, then crouch down myself and hold the torch at the height of the hole he disappeared through. “Like this?”

“Just like that. Yeah. Just a moment. I’ll have this…” I hear rustling and clanking. “Figured out in a moment. Hang on.” More clanking. Then silence. I wait and light into the hole.

 

Occasionally, I hear him fumble around with the door and curse under his breath.

When the position gets too uncomfortable, I crouch with my back to the door, holding the torch for him, waiting. I don’t want to sit down; the floor is as damp as the walls here.

 

Something large slams into the floor behind me. Clanking, clicking.

“Did you manage something?”

Silence.

“Selrik?”

Nothing.

I remove the torch, change positions, light into the hole again and try to peer through, but there’s nothing I can see. It’s blocked.

“Selrik?”

No answer.

 

There has been no answer for a while now. No more noises either. Just silence.

I get up, my back and legs aching. My heart just cold for now. I stand there with my torch lighting the glistening walls.

It’s time to leave.

A Professional

It is said Grandmaster Sahnadu was called upon when the sludge arrived in Mistarra.

He frowned deeply underneath his bald pate as the dark substance oozed through riverbeds and covered up tinkling streams formerly lined with the delicate greenery of spring.

He stood still as a rock when life was sundered senselessly, and only turned away from the spectacle when a robed man beside him cleared his throat and bowed in a ducking manner, and said, “We called you because you are a professional. And this…”

Sahnadu raised his hand. “Say no more.”

And the man said no more.

 

It is said that in his quest to understand the sludge and its underlying principles, Grandmaster Sahnadu stood knee-deep in the rising swamp, dark splatters all over his skin and his robe which would be forever ruined. He did not mind.

 

When all attempted sorceries proved to be of no avail, and the sludge reached the Temple of Light, it is said that Gandmaster Sahnadu stood stoically, watching the sacred grounds be devoured, and with them, another hope of deliverance from this evil. The others gathered around him like to a rock in a stormy sea. But this sea was dark and creeping, unstoppable in its lethargy.

 

When a young monk who had studied under him flung himself into the floods to save something, anything, perhaps a statue or an artefact that might help us, and was instead torn asunder and blackened, it is said that Grandmaster Sahnadu betrayed emotion for the first time. He flinched, as if to stop the brightly robed young man, but then resigned to the inevitable and let him go, grief lining his face. Then he got back to the work that they all must have known by now was pointless.

 

In the end, it is said that Mistarra went under completely, a beautiful land destroyed and besmirched by a substance of foul origin.

It is said that the substance did not pass the borders.

I stood at the Southern border. I saw him and his followers still flocking around him in desperate hope. I saw him raise his hand to the sky as the sludge stopped its advance, and I saw him smile.

Initiation

The last day of being sheltered in the convent’s cold stone and red glass, and the last day the world is sheltered from me.

The elders are standing around me, the highest ranking of all the elven orders, though we only got to learn about a few. If I mess it up and they can’t withstand me, nobody can. I wonder if they make such a fuss for the other orders as well, but I doubt it. None have quite the reputation of poisoning their listeners, after all.

I straighten my shoulders, knowing I’ll slump them forward again the moment I get distracted.

“Initiate of Cirrunan, step forward.”

I take a pointless but ceremonially relevant step forward. Nevermind I’m the only initiate of anything in the room.

Cirrunan, I pray, since it seems the time for that, I know you like to mess things up, but can we work this out? I really want to succeed here.

“Initiate. Before you speak, let us know. Have you ever broken your vow of silence in the ten years you have been learning in this order?”

Here we go. I nod.

They don’t look surprised.

“How many times?”

I shrug. No idea.

“At what opportunities?”

This would be a lot easier if they let me speak already. But protocol is protocol. I make a gesture of cutting into my hand, then raise my arms and simulate something falling on top of my head, then, how do I do the others…

Another elder smiles and speaks up. “Let us leave out the cases of injuries and mishaps and other accidental raising of the voice. We expect those. Were there any others?”

I nod.

“If I may,” Birnan, our own elder, says. “It was near the beginning of his training. Another boy talked to his plant, and it died. Nandred tried to complain to me. I tried to discourage it because we regard the telling on others as part of what makes our words venomous. Something we have to guard ourselves against. But he was young and didn’t understand. He thought he wasn’t making himself clear, so he spoke up.” Birnan’s smile is fond when he continues, “I had the flu for some weeks. He didn’t talk again after that.”

Some of the others join in the smiles. It’s not quite correct, but what a charming anecdote it is.

“Is this correct?” another elder asks.

They just had to ask, didn’t they? But now’s the time to be honest. Lies are poison, et cetera. Cirrunan, if you want me, you’d better make this work. I make a vague, weighing gesture.

The elder raises his massive eyebrows. So does Birnan.

“Which part is untrue? Is it true that you did not speak up after that? Again, injuries and such exempt.”

I nod.

“Then is it the circumstance of your speaking?”

The circumstance… No, that was quite as Birnan had said. Vague weighing gesture again. Headshake.

“The motivation, then?”

I nod.

Birnan is looking puzzled.

Another elder smiles. I recognise her robes. Giskri’s order. “You’re raising little vipers and think them innocent? Come now. I say all’s as it should be. Ordain the lad already.”

Cirrunan’s sister’s order would be the one to accept, and to know how things are.

They murmur amongst each other, and then Birnan steps forward. “Come forth, then, Nandred, and be anointed a priest of Cirrunan. You will go out into the world and counsel the mighty. But always remember that your words are poison if you do not guard them. Do you vow to speak on behalf of Cirrunan in all things or not at all?”

Here is the time, then. Constrain the poison, and speak. “Yes.” Simple, scratchy, and not sounding like me at all. I cough.

They’re still standing. That’s good.

Birnan smiles. “Then we welcome you into our ranks. But before you leave this room, tell us: Why did you break your vow back then?”

Of course, until we leave the room, they’re entitled to the truth. I shrug. “You didn’t help me. He killed my plant.”

Birnan blinks.

“Why,” Giskri’s priest drawls. “You’re just like our little brother.”

And I’m saved. By tradition, they have to accept that assessment from her, even if to many of them it is not a good thing at all.