Markkun 7, 1543
Thirty-six days before the Dawngate opened
It was very cold in his chambers. It was always cold in these lands, especially after the sun settled behind the western peaks. Sharp blue night air carried the scent of pines through the room’s high window, curling around the floor. Even through layers of robes and rag-stuffed boots, I could feel it.
This was not a good land for our order. But the money had always been good.
“She’s become a risk,” the Warlord said. The light of pale candles mooned across the lacquered surface of his desk.
I kept my thoughts within. It was not difficult to keep them from my face; the people of the mainland have no talent for reading our expressions. The subtle change in an eye’s shape, the tint and stretch of scales along the neck, which set of lids flicker across the eye; all this is beyond their caring. Not their ability, surely. Some among the Shorewind tribe have learned.
The Warlord steepled his fingers, precisely. “It amused Karolina to allow Sereyn an eye into her court. She was careful. Only allowed the girl to see what suited her interests. But she’s wheedled her way between too many sheets. Noblemen don’t speak as carefully as they should when a pretty maid uses her hands judiciously.”
“So I have observed,” I offered, politely. I had long since learned that mainland species were shocking hedonists, capable of indulging virtually at will. It seemed they spent most of their time somehow engaged in the pursuit of it.
The Warlord raised a brow. Perhaps I misspoke? This language has subtleties that elude me, even after so many years abroad. “Take care of it, in the usual fashion,” he told me.
“Half now, half on completion,” I intoned. I did not need to say the conditions aloud. This was a ritual shared only by us two, in its own way as formal as any high tea on Sei Kashari.
The Warlord nodded briefly, and placed a jangling purse on his desk. He slid it across the gleaming surface with the tips of his fingers.
“When?” I said, extending a hand. The leather bag disappeared into the folds of my sleeve without a hint of sound.
“As soon as practical.”
I considered. A courtesan would be wary, as a consequence of her trade. But she was unlikely to expect someone one of my capabilities. “Two weeks on the outside.”
He nodded curtly, and returned his attention to the papers on his desk. I bowed and exited, swiftly and silently as I may. A plank groaned softly before the door. He’d moved it again; at least once a week, he loosened one of the floorboards in his chambers. Never the same one, never predictable. This simplest of his defenses had foiled better than I.
Markkun 9, 1543
Thirty-four days before the Dawngate opened
The guards in the closest bastion spared me only a glance as I spread my blanket on the chilly stones of the wall-walk. I came here frequently enough.
I settled down to stare to the east. The sun burst over the far ridge, rose light scattered by streamers of wind-blown snow trailing from the peaks. My inner lids flickered closed against the light, turning the world into shadows and red.
Only in high summer was it warm enough in these lands to enter the Sun Dream, but there were other, lesser meditations. I began the Ritual of Roots, damping down each sense one by one. Sight: the crutch that obscured all others. Taste: the mouth empty, a void of dust. Scent: illusions borne by wind. Hearing: the novice hears only the grumbling of his own flesh, the master silences even that. Sensation: no stones below, no wind before, no cold or heat, no up or down.
Nothing enters the temple of the master’s form, and nothing leaves.
I floated, an emptiness within nothingness, as some amount of time passed.
Something pressed into my shoulder, reminding me that I had one. I reopened the internal paths, and felt, heard, smelled, tasted. Lastly I peeled back my eyelids, one by one, and turned to look into deep brown eyes.
“Hello!” Elspeth said, peering at me closely. “I thought you’d fallen asleep. And I thought, ‘Spirits! What if he rolls over and falls off the wall?’ So I thought I’d come up and make sure you’re all right. You’re all right? Well, of course you are, since you didn’t fall off the wall. You’re all rescued now. Yay me! Fair morning,” she said, and finally paused for breath.
She was blooming warmth at my shoulder, a delicate scent of lilies under afternoon sun, a cascade of chatter bright as mountain streams, a spill of light glittering through strawberry waves of hair. By herself, a crowd of distractions relentlessly pressing in.
The people here are intense, but few more than Elspeth. “Fair morning,” I echoed her. “May the sun bring you enlightenment.”
Her eyes flickered over me, scrutinizing the play of light and shadow across the scales of my face. “What are your plans for the day? More study in the royal reserve? What are you reading now?”
“I am in the midst of a commentary on the worship of the Spirit of Grace.”
The corners of Elspeth’s mouth canted downwards. “I thought Grace was dead?”
“So it is said,” I inclined my head towards her. “But who can say, truly? Consider,” I told her, and gestured for her to sit beside me. She settled cross-legged in a rustle of fabric trousers, a practical design worn by both high- and low-born women in these lands. “They say the Spirits are immortal,” I continued. “They say also that Grace died in the mortal realm. So we find ourselves in a world fallen from the Age of Majesty. These cannot both be true. Which do we accept?”
I held my hands up, palms to the sky. “Life. Death. This is a duality of mortals. We exist, or we do not. Each is defined by the other. Not-dead, not-alive. The Spirits are endless. So, can they be said alive? Is it possible that they are neither, a third condition that mortals never experience? For if Grace is truly dead, how can we still, from time to time, experience moments of sublime beauty?”
“Every time you talk, my thoughts end up all in loops,” she said, brows furrowed, chin resting on her fists, frowning into the rising sun.
“Are we going to meditate again this afternoon?” she asked.
I considered, then answered honestly. “I do not know. I have a job to prepare for.”
“All you ever do is read or work,” she said crossly. “Why don’t you ever talk to people here?”
“Most others find my appearance dreadful.” She was determinedly innocent about such things. “It is for the best. The temple is built upon solitude. The presence of others is a distraction.”
“Oh?” The fleshy edges of her mouth compressed and bent, indicating amusement. Abruptly, she began waving her hands about my head, dipping close like diving swallows, but only touching by the sweet-scented breath of their passing. “I’m distracting! I’m distracting!” she piped, waving her hands, and opened her mouth to release a trill of great amusement. Her rounded little teeth glittered like stars. The male guard in the nearby bastion gave her an amused and appreciative look. The female shook her head and muttered.
I released the dagger hilt that had filled my apparently-still hands at her motion. She’d meant no harm. This impulsive nature, considered charming among mainlanders, was precisely why she needed to study meditation.
Markkun 13, 1543
Thirty days before the Dawngate opened
Preparation was essential in my work. Knowing the target’s habits and unconscious assumptions. The ways in and out of the chosen site. The timing of watchmen and the way buildings reflect or muffle sound.
It did not take much additional work to establish the routine of Sereyn’s courtesan. After so many years in Laisau, after ingratiating herself to so many of the powerful, she had become careless. Alert, yes, unquestionably. Senses acute to tiny things out of place. Conscious of the telltale signs of imminent violence in posture and expression. But she had become… comfortable.
In the end, it was simple to catch her out. After a scheduled assignation with the eldest son of a prominent Herzgrafen, she walked home along a certain street, and passed under a certain bridge arch, and padded quietly along the bank of the Nahl River.
From the distant streets, the cats of Laisau set up a racket, howling their wild desires to the moon. The river gurgled quietly over and around the rime of ice lining its banks. The wind, for once, had slackened.
I had slowed my breath, allowed my body to cool to the temperature of the night. Cloaked in black, still and waiting, I listened to the telltale clicking of her wooden-soled shoes on the cobblestones. She passed where I stood in the shadows without notice, trailing scents of perfume and exertion, hair tangled and damp, low-cut gown rustling softly at her brisk step, clutching a fox-fur stole tight around her bare shoulders.
It was the proper time. She was in precisely the right position. If I leapt now, I would strike before she could even hear the step behind her. I had rehearsed it a hundred times while waiting. A single lunge. Wrap one hand over the mouth, yank across with the other. She would be silenced in a moment, and bleed out in under a minute.
“It is unusual to see you out so late, Elspeth,” I said, stepping away from the bridge.
She startled briefly, whirling with finely trained reflexes, a little silver dagger appearing from between her breasts. “What? Oh!” She placed a shaking hand over her pale throat, the other pointing the feeble weapon in my general vicinity. “Spirits! You frightened me nearly to death. What are you doing here?”
What was I doing? “I do not often go about by night,” I said. “It gets too cold for my comfort. It occurred to me, the last time I saw the moon reflected in water was before the snows.” All true, all deception.
“Well my goodness! What a coincidence we should cross paths,” she said, showing her little pearl teeth. But there was an odd cant to her eyes, the sharp tang of fresh sweat. While she lowered her dagger, she did not move to return it to its warm abode.
“Indeed,” I said, with as much calm as my training could afford. “What of you?”
“A late dinner with friends,” she said, artfully angling her head away while not taking her eyes off me. She moved her feet, positioned herself to kick off her shoes and run.
I watched her for a moment, then sighed. “I will speak true if you will, Elspeth.”
The little tufts of fur over her eyes lifted. “I spent the evening with an admirer. Doing those things you find so distasteful.”
“One of many admirers, I believe.”
Her hand creaked tight around the haft of the dagger. The fur-tufts above her eyes crashed down. Her bubbly voice flattened, and grated out, “It was your turn to speak true, Master Lizard.”
I inclined my head respectfully. “And so I am. Your activities have been noticed. As has your true mistress.”
“I see.” She swallowed hard. “And the Marzgraf sent you to… resolve this.”
“Yes.” I stood between her and the archway. She backed away cautiously, fluidly, eyes flickering to assess the other potential exit routes. I watched her calmly. The most obvious exit was to the right. The best would be to the left.
“You don’t have to,” she said, breathing quickly. “I can disappear. I swear.”
In the distance, the squalling cats took up their serenade again. Our order has rules, and the Warlord has eyes. After a moment of silence, the words, “I am sorry,” strangled free of my mouth.
She broke left, an arrow shot from the bow.
Her bulky court shoes spun away, splashing into the languid waters of the Nahl.
Her hands wadded up her skirts as bare feet dug into the cold earth.
She was amazingly fast. A leaping doe.
I waited until she’d toppled over one of the wires I’d placed hours before.
She cried out as she smashed face-first into the frost-coated ground.
But so quick! She had rolled on to her back and unmasked her dagger before I could reach her.
She drove the blade into my torso, twisted, pulled.
The blow was deadly accurate. But my insides were not arranged as hers. My hand engulfed her wrist, pressed hard, and the weapon fell to the grass with her gasp of pain.
“No!” she wailed, wrenching and arching to throw me off. “Don’t!”
My own dagger appeared in my hand. Once, twice, I slashed across her forearms.
I leapt back. The pain in my chest was astounding, but I closed the paths of sensation within my body.
“What – why did you..?” she panted, propping herself up on her elbows, groping in the grass for her lost weapon.
“My blade is poisoned,” I said, clutching at the wound she’d inflicted.
She gathered her feet beneath her, pushed up…
…and slid sideways, slumping back to the ground.
“I can’t feel my legs,” she whimpered.
“No. It paralyzes. It is… I am sorry,” I said. “This is the most painless death that is in my power to offer.” I turned back to the bridge.
“Don’t go,” she sobbed, her arm struggling to rise off the earth, flopping bonelessly. “Please.”
I paused, unfamiliar ice lodged in my heart. “You… wish me to stay with you?” I observed the flicker of guttering lamplights on the mist-slicked cobblestone. “After – after what I have done?”
“I don’t want to die alone,” Elspeth whispered. “Please. That would be – that’s the greatest cruelty.”
I was seized by the urge to run, to hide my head like a foolish child in the reeds. A foolish adult, I turned back, gathered her up, and sat against the stones of the bridge with her. She slumped warm against my side, head lolling onto my shoulder. I arranged her limbs, heavy and limp, as comfortably as I could.
“How long do I – how long will it take?” she asked me, as the water rolled by, shards of ice borne along on the idle current.
“Just a few minutes. It will feel like falling asleep.”
She shuddered against my side at the words, trembled and shook as her breaths came short and shallow. Her cheeks glittered in the dark. “Tell me a story,” she said at last, high and broken and soft. “While we wait.”
All I could think of was a tale my mother had told me, in the years a spring morning still lasted an eternity.
“Long ago,” I said, “when the moon still hid her face, the philosopher Yusoth left his village, telling his master he would return when he had learned all that was learnable. When he departed the gate, the master warned, ‘Knowledge is water. It will do you no good without a bowl.’
“Among the farmers, Yusoth came to know that a bloom attracts bees so the plant may reproduce. Among the monks, he learned the proper ingredients and steps to brew a sublime cup of tea. Among the scholars, he learned elegant words and cadences to construct the ideal poem. Among the laborers, he learned how to build a study house, proof against all weather.
“Yet for all the knowledge he brought to his lips, Yusoth remained thirsty. The blooms held no beauty to his eye. Perfect tea pleased not his tongue. His poems remained arrangements of words, dead on the page. His house was a shelter, not a home. He grew frustrated, certain he had missed something in his long search.
“While walking alone in the mountains, cursing his own inattention, Yusoth met a young woman camped on the slope, under fir trees. It was near to dark, and he had carried little with him, so he grudgingly accepted when she offered to share her fire. She poured him tea, but in his mind he thought, ‘it is bitter.’ She shared her own meager repast, but to himself he thought, ‘it is flavorless.’
“They sat in silence for a time, and Yusoth’s disapproval lay heavy over the glen. At last, the woman gasped as the setting sun set the sky aflame. ‘How lovely,’ she said, clutching his arm. ‘Look at the colors.’
“’It is the same as any other sunset,’ Yusoth said, and pried her fingers off his arm.
“At this, the woman’s mortal visage blurred. The fire and the meal faded like smoke, and she stood revealed in radiance as the Spirit of Grace. Yusoth fell to his knees and bent his neck. He beseeched her to reveal what he had missed in his years of search. But Grace said nothing, as he had refused her gifts three times already. And so she hurled him from the mountainside, into the empty air.
“As he fell, Yusoth’s eyes were opened. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘How beautiful the sky is.’”
“That’s a terrible story,” Elspeth wheezed. The poison has reached her lungs. She would be asleep very soon.
“I am sorry.”
“Salous?” she said faintly, as her breathing slowed. “I always thought… your scales look hard. Pointy. I was afraid… to touch you. But you’re soft.”
She didn’t breathe again. In the distance, the cats of Laisau continued to wail.
I eased her off my shoulder and carried her to the water’s edge. I left her there, hands clasped over her belly, eyes closed, strawberry waves fanned across the young grass. Before, I had only seen the fish-pale, doughy flesh, the bizarre mane trailing from her head, the too-large, close-set eyes. “Ah,” I said softly as I looked on her.
“Life. Death. The duality of mortals,” I told the empty sky. “Is there not a third way to exist?”
The question smoked away in night air, dissipating as if it had never been asked. Cold stars glinted blankly down at me.