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Mai 8, 1543

He was roughly marched into a finger of sunlight. The violet carpet felt quite thick beneath his boots; he vaguely wondered if he was tracking mud on it. Brightly polished armor turned and receded back to the shadows by the doors, setting constellations of reflected light whirling across bookshelves and tapestries. In the silence, a caged songbird floated sweet, high syllables towards the vaulted ceiling.

"I have decided that I believe you, Mr. Canova."

The figure at the window was silhouetted in white light and blue sky. He stood with hands clasped behind his back. After a moment, he turned. "Have you nothing to say to that?"

Varion shrugged. He pulled a die from his pocket – a pitted cube of ivory, polished by whiskey-soaked games of chance in taverns across half the world – and absently twirled it back and forth between his fingers.

The figure stepped away from the window, stalking around a vastness of polished mahogany. Stacks of paper whispered and fidgeted as he passed. "If I did not believe your story, you would be dead within the hour." Absently, Varion noted the most powerful man in the West was dressed in an unadorned grey woolen doublet, and wore no jewelry. To a casual glance, he was indistinguishable from a commoner on the street. Duke Anzerani tilted his chin up to squint down his nose at the mercenary. "Perhaps you don't believe me?"

"I believe you'd order that. Yes." His voice creaked with disuse.

The Duke raised one finely-plucked brow. "Carefully phrased, Mr. Canova. You don't think I would be able to carry out the threat. Confident of you."

Again, Varion shrugged.

The Duke clasped his hands behind his back, and began to orbit the mercenary. "Perhaps you think that since you survived the... irruption that slew your comrades, you are indestructible. I have read of men whose perception of mortality was warped by improbable survival." The Duke paused at a bookshelf beside the gilded cage. He ran his finger over the leather spines, ignoring the pretty trilling of the bird at his elbow. "Don't mistake my willingness to entertain my daughter's arguments on your behalf. I am not a soft man. She is an intelligent young lady, and constructed her arguments logically and cogently."

Varion looked to the window, the breathtaking sky. The Duke had built his manor on Col Erast, the highest hill of Maridia. His study was in one of the towers. From the streets, the sky was never more than a wan beige through the pall of soot. From barred hole he'd been given to sleep in, it couldn't be seen at all. Pale brush-stroke clouds sailed in the blue distance.

"I am persuaded that you did not lead your unit into ambush. And Maestre Petrus' calculations corroborate the timeline you presented. That leaves us with a mystery. If your unit died in this irruption from the Heart of the World, how do you stand before me?"

The Duke's face eclipsed the sky. White hair cropped to no-fuss length, ice-chip eyes underscored by grey circles. His brow was creased from old worries, but no evidence of forgotten smiles disturbed his clean-shaven cheeks. "You don't know what lies at the center of the Heart. No reason you should. It would not concern a man of your station."

He set his teeth, clutched the die in his fist, studied the flaws in the glass that made the clouds sway and wobble as they passed overhead and beyond. The Duke sighed impatiently, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

"I dislike monologues, Mr. Canova. Bear with me. Several years ago, the Arch-Shaper Eidolus presented plans for a revolutionary Shaping, to be built in the Heart of the World. That was the location I dispatched Captain Marzin to. It was also, apparently, the source of the phenomenon you reported.

"I contributed vast sums to finance this scheme. I am not religious; I expected a return on my investment. That appears unlikely. Through design or error, the Arch-Shaper’s construct did not perform as he claimed it would. The man himself is missing. I think it safe to presume him dead. This leaves me with nothing to show for my investment."

He paused, again tilting his head back slightly to squint at Varion. "Nothing save you. The only man proved able to survive in that place. What makes you special, Mr. Canova? What allows a low-born soldier to endure the sort of Vitality burst that slew the greatest Shaper of the age? This air of indestructibility you affect when I threaten you... is it justified?"

Beyond the window, the clouds sailed on, thin and fine as a child's hair. Peripherally, he noted the Duke's frown.

"Let me be clear," he said, slowly and carefully. "The contract Captain Marzin signed provides me with exclusive rights to command the Silver Hounds – as a unit or as individuals – for one year. Eight months remain on that contract, Mr. Canova. Until the end of the year, I own you. If you disobey my orders, I can have you imprisoned for breach of contract. Or executed. You are a little man. You have no family name to shield you."

The Duke leaned in, eyes flickering over Varion's face. “You have not looked at me once during this conversation. You just stare out my window. I do not believe you are taking me seriously." The Duke stepped back and snapped his fingers. Armored legs clanked up behind him, on either side.

"Let us get his attention. Shoot his foot, if you please."

"My Lord?"

"Do not make me repeat myself, zergente," the Duke said darkly.

Weapons clacked and creaked into ready position.

Varion closed his eyes, drew a slow breath. He cast the die to the carpet behind him, and... slid to it.

Air cracked into the spot he'd been. Before the guards could flinch from the noise, he'd wrenched the musket from one and rammed his elbow into the side of his head. As the first went down, Varion spun, smashing the brass-plated stock of the weapon across the face of the other. Without conscious thought, he flipped the muzzle outward and aimed at Duke Anzerani.

Who nodded with satisfaction.

"Remarkable," he said. "That, boy – that is why I want you working for me. There are others like you – mortals suddenly able to shape powers of Vitality, as Spirits do. Tales and rumors have spread since Eidolus did... whatever he did. I will have your abilities. If I do not get them, we will make each other's lives very difficult. I can have you pursued to the ends of the world. You can slip past all my defenses to strike me dead. Check and mate."

He paused, and motioned to the guards. "We're done here, zergente. Take him to have his nose reset, and tell the household staff the carpet will need to be replaced. Ah, and take that when you go. Look. Look where I'm pointing. The tooth? Yes, good. Dismissed."

He turned back to Varion, who still held the musket at ready. The Duke looked him up and down, and rubbed his jaw. "What do you require to remain in my employ? How can I make myself as valuable to you as you are to me?

"You know all I have at my disposal. What do you want, Mr. Canova?"

He stared. An unthinkable option, an impossibility, boiled up within him.

In an empty, twilit garden, he chances to see a young lady with an orchid pinned in the dark fall of her hair. He watches, breathless, as the notes of a Forgione aria take flight from her throat, spiraling aloft and swaying back down from the stars above her. The words are old and well-known.
I cannot run, but walk with mincing steps.
Her body bows with the strength of the voice soaring free of it. She spins along the garden walk, dark silk dress rustling, hands stretching to pale and trembling blooms that only reveal themselves to moonlight and starlight.
As she raises her face and voice to the far violet horizon, he sees light spilling from her eyes.
"Come on," Viazi says, grabbing his elbow. The glorious voice stammers silent. Her strange teal eyes glare across the garden at them, nostrils flaring with indignation. She swipes briskly at her coloring cheeks and thunders away down the path, skirts swirling about her like a storm cloud.
"Varion, come on. I know a place we can get ottrekin rum..."

Later, over drinks, Viazi and Kalla explained who she was.

"Introduce yourself," Kalla had urged, her hand at the small of his back, propelling him stiff-legged across a marble dance floor.

"Buy that lady an orchid," Viazi had suggested, on the last morning he drew breath.

They joked that they'd build adjoining homes. They'd sit together on a portico as the sun went down, watching one-day children run through golden fields, and lie to themselves about how quickly their carefree years had passed. Three soldiers of fortune and a lady.

Unthinkable. Impossible now.

He shakes them, calls for them to wake, to return from whatever shore they sailed to, to blink and breathe and sit up, say "what the hell was that?" and laugh it off. For Kalla and Viazi to return to their drinking, griping, and groping. To have to smile and lie about their absence as they lead each other off somewhere they imagine no one else can hear them. For Marzin to stomp around, eyelids and fingers twitching as he ignores the cries of passion from the dark, grumbling as he ensures everyone is fed, the night watch is set, and the fires banked against the wind.
He yells until hoarse. Begs the cooling flesh to move, the staring eyes to focus. When the wolves howl and circle, he drives them off with torch and musket. But with dawn come the crows, and the flies, and he can't be everywhere.
Panting at the rising stench and the exertions of the night, he collapses beside the tangle of cold flesh that had been warm, urgent lovers the previous dusk. A black fly perches on Viazi's unseeing eye, and rubs its legs in anticipation of laying eggs.
He went away then.
When he came back to himself, his feet had taken him back to the most powerful man in the West, who scowled and spilled over with accusations.

The Duke stared at him expectantly, fingertips poised on the edge of his massive desk. Varion lowered the musket.

"I want my friends buried."