Aprelle 12, 1543
The day the Dawngate opened
His feet were sore.
He retired to his chambers in the palace later than he’d expected. Jenaisse had somehow coaxed him to dance three awkward, humiliating times, and led him around her circle of banal friends and acquaintances between turns on the floor. He sat and listened to them prattle on about things and places and who was courting whom, wishing his hand had been occupied by a book instead of the young countess’ restless fingers.
He placed the book on a chest-of-drawers. He’d never gotten beyond the winter of 485. Not that it mattered. In the end, he supposed, one amount of obscure knowledge would be worth exactly as much as another.
He frowned as he loosened his cravat. She never had told him what the Queen had whispered to her.
He hung his coat over the back of a chair and considered taking his boots off. But cold night air was pouring in through the window, and the stones of the floor were likely frigid. He walked to the window pinching the bridge of his nose, the corners of his burning eyes, between thumb and forefinger. His other hand found the sill.
He opened blurry eyes to stars, glittering blue and white over the moon-frosted peaks across the valley. The mountains were breathing deep and slow down the throat of the valley, setting the trees in the lanes to roll and shiver, scattering wisps of smoke from the chimneys of the town. A few lamps swung along the major boulevards of Serath. Light from the bridge skittered across the chalky green waters of the Varre.
The interior walls of the palace bailey were still brightly, flickeringly lit by red-gold torches. Nobles, seasonal guests likewise retiring from the evening’s entertainment, could be seen passing back and forth through the ornamental gardens. Some for sleep, others to continue late games of cards or dice, and a fortunate few, he had no doubt, to discrete assignations. His eyes slid across the figures by disinterested habit, seeking a gown of blue silk.
He leaned out into the empty air and pulled the wooden shutters closed.
The servants had left a trio of candles on the writing desk. By their dim light, he chose a bottle of wine. A random selection; he’d never acquired a taste for vintages, to his mother’s eternal dismay. She employed a respected western sommelier. All things being equal, he preferred the ciders of autumn, warmed to drive away the mountain chill. With cinnamon, if any had come up from the south that year. But he found one wine as passable as another. On the rare occasions he sought inebriation, he selected purely by reputation for potency.
He smiled to himself as he pulled the bottle’s wax stopper free. If there were a way to disappoint his mother, there was little doubt he would find it eventually. Raina was her joy; strong, confident, loved by all and certain of right and wrong. A perfect heir. What was he? Weak, silent and withdrawn in a crowd, too well-read to be certain of anything. Ultimately, like most noble sons, no more than a trade concession. The Duchess had made no secret of shopping him around, seeing what she could get in exchange for his hand in marriage, for a blood tie to claim of their realm.
Jenaisse’s mother had offered rights to her caravan trade in eastern silks, a squadron of heavy horse, and a tea set the Duchess was particularly fond of. The bid was under consideration.
All he shared with Raina was copper hair and a clever tongue, and some days he wasn’t certain of the latter.
He poured the wine into a dreg-stained wooden cup, and wished his sister were there. Poking fun of her never failed to lift his spirits. It would have been nice to trade barbs one more time. But she was off at some archive along the north coast, doubtless obsessing over getting a dusty stack of battle reports in chronological order by the commanders’ house names.
He rummaged through the pockets of his coat, pulling out a glass phial of clear liquid, sealed with multiple layers of wax. It was small, no larger than his pinkie. He set about to peeling off the seals, mouth twisting to the side as the material uncomfortably jammed itself up under his well-manicured fingernails.
He sniffed at the exposed liquid; odorless. He swirled it around, but it behaved no different from water. He’d expected something more dramatic. But then, he supposed the point of it was to seem innocuous, at least for its intended purpose. He moved his hand over the cup of wine, and dashed the liquid in.
It didn’t even give him the satisfaction of a few bubbles. In the shows put on by acting troupes, one could expect a gout of smoke and discoloration.
He set his elbows on the desk, clasped his hands, and stared at the cup.
Perfectly ordinary wine.
The apothecary had assured him it would work swiftly. A slight numbing of the extremities. A growing sensation of weight and a thickness of mind. Not so different from falling asleep. So it was said, anyway. Obviously, the apothecary had not tried it himself.
The dark red liquid rippled in the cup.
He was thirsty, wasn’t he? He had little to drink with dinner, filled up on bread, thinking it would make downing the cup easier. A little trick. Raina would say he was overthinking. She always did.
Maybe he should have written her a letter, but he hadn’t the patience. And what would he say? He turned a few options over in his mind, and they all come out sounding grotesquely self-pitying. Which, if he were honest, was precisely what this was. No need to belabor the point, surely?
No, it would be better to leave quietly, unobtrusively. He’d left no footprints behind him before. Why start now? Give Raina nothing to dwell on, no reason to think she could have prevented it, no excuse to blame herself. Of course, she might regardless. She cared too much.
He supposed he would miss her.
He raised the cup, swirled the wine around. He tapped the surface, and watched the liquid tremble on the tip of his finger, red on white.
Blood on snow. Wolves.
He flicked the wine back into the cup, wiping his finger dry on the rim. Kindra had terrified him that night under the moon, soaked with blood that steamed and cracked in the bitter air, savage as a wolf herself. His fear of her had never entirely abated. Even when they were both older, and he noticed his eyes were constantly sliding over her. Especially when she noticed him looking.
No need to consider a letter for Kindra. She wouldn’t care.
The cup was still in his hand, waiting. He was wasting time now, making excuses.
He brought it to his lips, and drank slowly and carefully.
The wind keened through the shutters, carrying a faint hiss, white noise. The room filled with silver light, like noontime sun reflecting off snow.
The light slid between the shutters, coiled around the floor, and flowed upwards to loom over the desk.
Pitch eyes opened. Speckles of luminance coalesced in their depths, focusing on him.
“Ah,” he said, struggling to keep his breathing slow and steady, trying not to drop the cup. “Good evening.”
The black alien eyes blinked slowly, sizzling like a star fallen to earth.
“You’re… here to collect me, I suppose?” He put the cup down with a shaking hand. “I’m afraid you’re a bit early.” He felt dizzy. The light coursing off the creature’s form made his eyes water.
The Spirit’s neck moved in a way that seemed impossible, dangling its head over the tainted cup. The Spirit didn’t move, but its night-sky eyes rotated, slid up on to its limp neck, stared at him. It didn’t say anything. It didn’t even blink again. The air trembled, as it did before thunder.
“’Why did I drink it?’” he guessed.
A faint susurration, a stirring of papers, a change of the prevailing wind across the room.
“Do you know how this,” he waved his hand around the room, “will end?” He swallowed hysterical laughter as the creature stared. “Of course you do. It ends,” he said, “in fire. It always has.”
His hands were still shaking. He laced his fingers together and thrust them into his lap. “If you read enough history, the cycles are plain. A culture rises. Reaches a peak of progress and peace. And then the moon sets on it.” He looked as directly into the Spirit’s eyes as he dared.
“The people lose whatever qualities led them to that peak. There is decadence. Smugness and superiority. Selfishness, callousness. Decay and indolence. The wealthy and powerful become more so. The poor become more so. And it falls. Sometimes to another culture on the rise. Sometimes to itself, when the people notice the change and begin to blame one another for…” his hand described loops in the air, searching for the words he needed. “For their collective fall from grace.”
He looked away from the creature’s radiance and rubbed his eyes. “You see it again and again,” he said, blinking away wobbling, swarming green orbs of afterimage. “Great Balakhan. The Overlords of Henj. Taraysk. Erusala of the Wastes. The Seaborne Empire of Khenaan. A chain of dead civilizations ending with Collima, not a hundred years ago. Burned and salted by their Genalfi neighbors. The great culture collapses, and the world observes what follows on.
“So,” he laughed shortly, “the only question is, ‘when?’ How long until all this crumbles?” He waved at the shutters. “The bell towers of Serath. The great libraries. The courts of the queen. A year? A hundred years? I don’t know. But it will happen.”
He fell silent. The Spirit did nothing, hissing to itself like a boiling pot as it watched him. He wasn’t sure it had understood a word. “I don’t have the strength to watch my world pass, and there’s nothing I can do to avert it. We prefer to think otherwise, but one person can’t change the world.
“There are no ‘great people.’” He made cynical air quotes at the creature, though he doubted it understood the gesture. “There are only great roles. Circumstances demand someone step forward and do something. Lead an army. Invent a technology. Create an art style. Start a movement. Anyone with talent could fill that role. Often enough, many with talent fill that role, one after another, until someone gets it right.”
His hands were tingling. He flexed his fingers, but the numbness only spread.
“There was a woman from the ancient east,” he said. “From a town called Tarue. She moved to the Heart of the World, and helped build shrines.” He set his elbows on the edge of his desk and steepled his fingers. “She lived among the Spir- among your kind for decades. Then she returned east, and began to preach. From town to city, she attracted crowds. She told them they had strayed too far. That life in the cities had cut them off from nature, cut them off from your kind.”
“It may be that Kazlav met her. I’ve imagined that many times,” he smiled. “A young evangelist, standing wide-eyed on the edge of crowd, listening to an old woman speak of simplicity and redemption.” He absently traced a finger around the rim of the cup. “She died somehow. I’ve never found a clear reason. Perhaps she passed in her sleep.”
He looked back at the Spirit. It was still watching, listening. Uncomprehending, for all he knew. “For all she accomplished in her life, I can’t even tell you her name. No one bothered to record it. She’s ‘the woman from Tarue.’ Sometimes they describe her as ‘a woman with stars in her heart.’ A metaphor of the day,” he added, for the dubious benefit of the Spirit. “To describe someone possessed by a dream or vision.”
“Today ‘everyone knows’ that Kazlav was responsible for the Great Awakening of the east,” Zalgus concluded. “He wasn’t. It began with this unnamed woman, a decade earlier. Or perhaps with someone before her. Someone even more lost to time.”
He sat back in the chair, eyeing the cup. The Spirit hissed softly, its star-cluster eyes focused on him.
“In the end, we only remember one. We give them credit for something that was in the air. We claim one mortal life changed the world, but they were just one of many in the right place at the right time. They only rode the crest of history’s tides. If they hadn’t been there, someone else would have stepped in and done the same thing.”
He looked directly at the Spirit again, his eyes stinging from its brilliance. “I know that I will not be among those. My sister has a chance, I suppose. I think. In a hundred years, no one will even remember that I existed, unless as ‘Raina’s brother.’ A man of Risenne with stars in his heart, traded for horses and a tea set.”
He stood, and lifted his spectacles to rub his tired eyes. It was late, and the light radiating from the Spirit hurt his eyes. The air felt oddly heavy. He began to pace, boots clicking softly on the rough-cut stone of the floor. His feet were cold and thick, as if his boots were too tight. “Oh, true apothecary,” he murmured. It might become difficult to walk soon.
He wondered if those outside could see light flooding from between his shutters, or if the Spirit was visible only to him.
“Sereyn-“ He tripped on the word, and licked his lips nervously, glancing at the door. He’d never said her name aloud, only whispered it in the silence of his mind, where the lady was always warm and sympathetic, happy to take his hand under a spring moon. “The Queen has been my lantern this last year. I place myself in halls where she will pass. I endure tedious functions so I may watch her from across the room.
“I… suppose it qualifies me as a creep. Or at least pathetic,” he said, with a self-effacing smile. “Still, I am realistic. A queen does not condescend to court a man fifteen years her junior. I watch, but say nothing. And I would cut off my hand before I touched her unasked.”
The Spirit sizzled, pulling itself upright. It seemed to fill half the room now. Perhaps it could change its size at will? A stubby arm swelled out from its side, hovering over the cup of wine. The black eyes narrowed, the stars in their depths spitting sparks. His hair stood on end, for no reason he could fathom.
“I am a coward, Spirit,” he said. “Weary of an endless now. Afraid how much worse tomorrow may be, and unable to avert it. But afraid of pain, too. A leap from the window would be quicker, more decisive.”
He sat on the edge of the guest chamber’s sumptuous bed, the swan down comforter sighing under his weight. He clasped his cold hands and set them on his knees. “I have seen our possible futures. I know them as well as any mortal is capable. I eat and sleep, and the only joys allowed to me are books. But it is pointless. Something to fill the hours. When I die, what use will the knowledge be? All is fleeting.”
He looked at the shutters, imagining all that carried on beyond them. The shining palace, the lanterns swinging in the wind, the jade river, the immortal mountains crowned with snow, the queen in silk and the sister in the north. “The great dreams are futile,” he said, “and I haven’t any small ones. There is nothing for me to do here. Great things will happen to other people. My role will be to marry a woman I won’t love, and father her children. I will lie back and do my duty. And I will wither a little more every day.”
He unfastened the buckles on his boots, and hauled the deadweights of his feet on to the bed. They sprawled across the comforter awkwardly. Were he able to feel them, he expected they would be uncomfortable. With some effort, he pushed himself back against the pile of embroidered pillows before the headboard, and settled in to wait.
He disinterestedly observed his forearms as the chill crawled up from his hands. Curious. They looked no different from the outside.
“What are you waiting for?” he asked, at last.
The Spirit moved too fast for him to flinch. One blink it was on the other side of the room, the next it loomed over him, one star-flecked eye peering into his face. Before he could draw breath, the room collapsed into darkness.