Letters of Fire

Issue #69
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They burned his master’s body at dawn. It was a far graver ceremony than Marten had expected: none of the howling mobs that Jana had predicted, no pointed mutilation of the body, not even a grand speech from the Bull lamenting the necessity of this death. Marten picked his way through the churned-up mud that surrounded the stone marker—another surprise; he’d expected a pauper’s grave at best. He leaned in as if to speak through the stone, then, as the bulky sack on his shoulder shifted, straightened up. “I’m glad you’re dead,” he said, louder than the whisper he’d intended. “I’m glad.”

It was worse than disloyal to say it; it was shortsighted, forgetting the good side of his master to curse the bad. “I saved the books,” he added, as if he could apologize to the good memories alone. “Couldn’t save the elixir. Jana….” He paused, hearing yet again the endless admonishments to stay away from the distillation equipment and if you can’t be careful then let Jana handle it!

Which she had, and so proved herself the better apprentice. In the end she’d escaped with the distillation equipment—saving him in the process, since the Bull’s men were so startled by her sudden disappearance that they didn’t look twice at the little cupboard where Marten had taken refuge.

Overlooked, again. Even if it was to his advantage, he couldn’t help the bitter pulse at the back of his throat. Once again, the world had ended around him, and this time there would be no one to pick him up out of the wreckage.

He tugged the sack of books into place, automatically adjusting the flap so that the light rain wouldn’t soak through as it already had his clothes. “I’m glad it’s over,” he went on, raising his voice. “You were right, I was a rotten apprentice, but you were a rotten master.”

The letters of his master’s name flickered, then darkened further as the shadow behind him rose up. He yelped and spun around, the familiar apologies leaping to his lips even though he knew his master was dead, dead and burned.

The man at the far end of the grave was as tall as his master but leaner, and—worse—he wore a dull red uniform marked with the Bull’s insignia. I should have kept my voice low, should have come after midnight, should have escaped like Jana. He took another step back and tripped over the stone marker, dragging the sack around as he fell.

The soldier caught the sack and used it to pull Marten upright. “Your master?” he rumbled, his voice like the groan of the war machines he no doubt piloted. “I didn’t know Cathacaris had an apprentice.”

“He—I—” Marten tried to yank the books away, but the soldier held them fast.

Scarred hands pried back the flap, taking the same care Marten had to keep the rain out. “These are Cathacaris’ books?”

“No,” Marten said. “They’re mine.”

That earned him a silent, thoughtful gaze from the soldier. The man was as unemotional as the great engines that now surrounded the city. “By rights,” he said, scratching at his short gray beard, “you should be executed and burned.”

Marten took a deep breath, seeing in his mind’s eye the pyre, the silently watching citizens. “Fine,” he said, letting out a long breath. “Burn me, then. But leave the books alone.”

The man blinked, gazed at him in silence a moment, then slung the bag over his shoulder. “Come on.”

“What—” Marten stumbled back, but too late; the soldier had him by the arm, nearly dragging him off his feet.

The Bull’s man marched him out of the graveyard, past the Golden Square, past the remnants of the palace, all the way to the Lilygreen Slums, where the Bull’s men had set up their camp. Mechanical towers loomed from either side of the streets, some with Lilygreen children playing on them, heedless of the power behind the great gun barrels. Marten stared as they passed—he had heard the tread of the machines, even seen them from a distance, but never up close. Here they were less the implacable monsters Jana had described; more haphazard, pieces of scrap held in place with tarnishing bands of brass; something more to marvel at than fear.

But then, he wasn’t seeing them in action. What had they looked like when they shot his master out of the sky? What were they when arrayed against a single man—a man infused with the elixir, a man capable of flight and destruction and all the things his master had accomplished, but still only one man?

More men in red bearing the insignia of a crowned bull stood at attention, saluting the soldier as they passed. A Lilygreen toddler imitated the salute gravely.

“Please,” Marten managed, “I’ll let the Bull kill me in person if that’s what it takes, just don’t burn the books, please.” Craven, Jana’s voice said in the back of his head, and he flinched.

“Quiet.” The Bull’s man turned a corner, approaching the plaza that marked the edge of Lilygreen, and the edge of the city proper, if it came to that. Two more machines flanked a still-smoking hole in the city wall, hunched over as if regretting the damage they’d done. A separate line of tents stood before them, too high and unwieldy to match the other soldiers’ barracks. Here the soldier stopped and ran one hand through his hair, smoothing it to some form of neatness. “Gerda!” he called. “Are you awake?”

For answer, a dull boom shook the closest tent. Something inside clattered to the ground, rocking back and forth with a noise like a dropped tin plate. A gloved hand dragged back the tent flap to reveal a faceless black thing with a single bar of reflected red across its eyes. Marten gave a startled cry and tried to pull free. He’s not even going to bother with the Bull, he’s going to feed me straight to the machines—

The creature raised a hand to its face and flipped it back—a mask, he realized, a mask with a glass strip instead of eyes. The heavy-jawed, scarred woman underneath gave him a puzzled glance, then turned her gaze to the Bull’s soldier. “Fittings on the Tallstrider unit are busted. It won’t be ready to travel for another two weeks at the very least. Bright side is, that’ll be enough time to set up the communal defense here, so it’s not like we’re in a rush.”

“I’ll pass it along.” He pushed Marten forward. “I’ve got a recruit for you.”

What?” Marten stared at him, unable to believe he’d heard correctly.

Gerda ignored him. “I thought we were just training the locals. Not actively recruiting.”

“This is different. He’s Cathacaris’ apprentice.”

At that she looked up, searching the soldier’s face. “Roon, you’re treading a dangerous line.”

“Too much has been lost, Gerda.”

“No!” Marten jerked away, and this time Roon let him go. “I can’t—I’m not a soldier, and I’m certainly not one of your soldiers!” He might not have any loyalty to his home left—his master had beaten that out of him, claiming that an alchemage owed fealty only to his knowledge—but to be put on the front lines, cannon fodder for the war machines—

“It’s us or the pyre, and you’re too young for that.” Gerda paused. “I take that back. We’ve fought plenty of younger alchemages, but it still doesn’t sit well with me when they go down.”

“I’d rather not see him go the same way,” Roon said, still speaking to Gerda rather than Marten. “Too much has been lost,” he repeated, and held out the books as if they were made of spun glass.

“On that we’ll agree.” She stripped off her gloves, took the books, and offered a hand to Marten. “Welcome to the Wrights’ Division, apprentice. You’re safe with us.”

Marten hesitated. This life, ground under the heel of the Bull’s soldiery, or the pyre… but he was a coward, and the books, the books…. He sagged and took Gerda’s hand, nodding. Just till I can escape.

Roon nodded, then quickly planted a kiss on her smoke-stained cheek before turning and walking back into the rain. Marten stared after him, then flinched as Gerda clapped his shoulder. “Don’t cower, lad; you’re too tall for it. Come on; you can have the center cot.”

A blare from a trumpet woke him at dawn, and Marten scrambled to his feet, schooling his body to absolute stillness and waiting for the first words from his master, the ones that would indicate whether today would be bearable or one of the other days.

It took him a moment to remember that his master was dead and there would be no more other days. Not now, nor ever again. The thought left him strangely light, and he stared at the end of the tent, the world—the Bull’s camp—coming into focus around him.

Around him, the other cots gave up their inhabitants, Gerda among them. A short girl with her hair in stubby brown pigtails regarded him with puzzled fascination. “Have we got a new one already?”

“Looks like he’s mastered reveille,” a balding man in a far cot muttered. “Good lad, just so long as you don’t overdo it. Where’s he from? Fourteenth div?”

Marten drew breath, ready to lie, apologize, anything to avoid the blow that must be coming, but Gerda’s hand clamped down on his shoulder. “He’s a local,” she said, in the same casual tone she’d used the night before. “He’ll have time to go through basic later; for now he’s taking on Wright duties.” The balding man made a rude noise, but the look he gave Marten was friendly enough.

“You’ll love it here,” the girl said, pulling on a jacket that Marten slowly recognized as a brown version of the Bull’s red uniforms. “Wait—he’s not going to be piloting Tallstrider, is he? That’s my job!”

“If he were, Vrit, then you’d just have to deal with it.” She handed Marten a stack of brown clothes and pretended not to notice when he cringed away at the sudden movement. “Go on and change.”

Over breakfast—hard biscuit and limewater, out in the plaza with the rest of the Bull’s troops—Gerda brought him a little to one side and set the stack of books in front of him. “I looked at these last night. Alchemage stuff. Your master’s?”

“No. Mine,” he said, talking more to his biscuit than to her. Eye contact was one of the things that could set his master off—or lack of it, some days, and he never knew which day it was till the first blow fell. He’d only really been comfortable meeting Jana’s eyes, because she’d been through the same.

Your work?”

He nodded and swallowed a dry hulk of biscuit. “It’s not like they matter,” he managed in a burst of defiance that surprised even himself. “There’s no one in five countries who can use them.”

That was all due to the Bull. Every country he conquered had been given one unchangeable ultimatum: all alchemages were to be executed. His master had railed against the purge, calling it one moment the act of a desperate man, a petty king’s last lash, and the next the scourge of true knowledge. You may be all that’s left, my apprentices, and therefore you must uphold the tradition of our magic. We are here to write our names on the world in letters of fire. Anything less is a betrayal of all we are.

“Maybe not,” Gerda said slowly. “I sure as hell can’t make sense out of the first half. Roon is right about so much being lost; without the alchemages to translate, most of their records are undecipherable. But this,” she opened the top book to the later pages, “this looks like an experiment log.”

Marten gazed at the cramped columns of numbers, the rudimentary sketches, the marginal notes, all in his own handwriting. His master had mocked him for it, pointing him instead toward the theories that filled the first half of the book, the philosophy of speiric power. Letters of grease pencil? How like you, Marten. Now recite your lesson again, or you know what will happen. And Jana had looked on, sorrowful and patient.

He really hoped she’d gotten away.

“I wrote those parts,” he said finally, crumbling the last of the biscuit into powder. “I thought if I had some idea about what the elixir did, if I knew what effect it had, I’d be able to control it when the time came.” Control, his master had said, control is the essence of the true alchemage.

“Repeatable experiments,” Gerda mused. “I can appreciate that.” She took a long sip of her limewater, making the face that all of the Bull’s soldiers did when drinking the stuff. None of them had a taste for sour food, it seemed. “Well, I wasn’t sure what good you’ll be to us in the Wrights, but at least we’re working with the same stuff.”

Marten looked up, then away, unsure what she meant.

“You didn’t know? The raw material you use to make your ‘elixir’—that’s thaumic ore. It’s what we use to power the automatons. Technically, we’re doing the same thing you do, only we’re using machines instead of minds, and so the outcome’s more predictable. And machines are less likely to go crazy on you.”

“Or turn a house inside out,” he said, thinking of the times his master lost his temper while using the elixir—the buildings reduced to ash, the people picked up and dropped from twenty feet up. And then there were the Melay Hills, and the village of Highfont….

“Exactly. We may not have all the powers the alchemages did, but we’re a lot more dependable. And that, it turns out, is what wins the war.” She hesitated, as if remembering who she was talking to, but let the point stand. “So we might have some use for you. Just have to figure out what.”

“Well,” he said, trying to gauge whether she’d cuff him, “you’re probably not going to feed me to your war machines—”

Gerda burst out laughing. “Do people really say that?”

“No.” He paused, thinking of Jana. “Mostly not.”

“Good God, lad, no wonder you’ve been pissing your boots. No, we’re not feeding you to anything. Though you could do with some feeding, as skinny as a heron you are,” she added, and snagged a second biscuit from a passing Wright. “But we’ve got no call for talk about ‘elixir,’ ‘grand speiric theory,’ or even ‘magic,’ come to that. It’s ore distillation, practical thaumics, and motile impetus, or just making the damn things move if you’re in a hurry. Got it?”

He was silent a moment. Just a new language to learn. And my master always said I was good with languages… the one thing I was better at than Jana. Not that it mattered. And they couldn’t keep the books away from him forever. All he had to do was stay hidden until he could flee.

It occurred to him that staying with the army might not be as bad as the days with his master. He quashed the thought not nearly fast enough. “I think so.”

“Right.” She unrolled a length of padded cloth. “Starting from basics, then. This is a wrench.”

The days were not bad, on the whole, not for someone as used to his master’s routine as he’d been. True to his impression, there were no more other days, now with his master gone. That didn’t make it easy. For now—and, as far as he could tell, for the foreseeable future—he was excused from the weapons drill by Roon’s order, but the rest of the Wrights’ Division had their own drills, joining the others for a hundred laps around the square (even when one of the war machines had settled in their path, providing an obstacle to be climbed, until one of the Wrights complained, and then just something to detour around) and keeping to their schedule. Roon even came to check on him several times, sometimes bringing an extra ration or a spare flask of the cold tea the Bull’s soldiers preferred to limewater.

There was no sign of the army’s leader, the king, the conqueror Bull seeking to eradicate all traces of Marten’s master. Which meant Jana might still be free. So he hoped.

As for his own freedom, there didn’t seem to be much chance to get away—for all that the Wrights treated him well, this was an army. The few times he did plan to leave, Gerda had some reason to keep the books with her for the day.

But for all that, none of the Wrights seemed to suspect that he was an alchemage’s apprentice. They treated him as they might any new recruit. They were not what he’d expected when he imagined the faceless soldiers of the Bull: there was Leith, the bald man who piloted the squat treaded automaton called Badger (even though it looked more like a toad) and who was therefore in charge of its care, and Barre, his younger brother, who kept track of the ore and monitored which machines used what. Kutla complained incessantly about the poor fittings, Tannz had been called up in front of Gerda twice in the last week for running a rigged dice game against the locals (that had been a shock, to realize he was thinking of his former countrymen as “the locals”), and the oldest, Cena, decided Marten needed socks and added some to her incessant knitting.

And there was Vrit, the youngest at barely fourteen, whose enthusiasm for piloting the Tallstrider machine was almost as disturbing as her age. It was as far from Badger’s trundling armory as it was possible to get: six long, jointed legs rose to a single turret, from which Vrit aimed a gun nearly as wide around as her waist and chattered amiably about combat capabilities on varying terrain.

They accepted him. And, to his dismay, he came close to accepting them. What comfort was here was not the comfort of shared pain that had been between him and Jana, but something else entirely.

He wasn’t sure if he liked it. But he was getting better at it, and the driving urge to escape faded a little, buried under long hours of training body and mind.

Gerda, perhaps because she was the only one who knew his secret, took on his training personally. The mechanics of it—metal and brass, leather fittings that gave out far too easily but needed the flexibility—were like the distillation equipment writ large, and Marten approached them with the same dread. But nothing shattered under his touch here, even if he couldn’t quite grasp the purpose of anything.

For the better part of two weeks, he muddled through, obediently using the tools Gerda gave him in the way she directed, not quite understanding how what he did contributed to the great machines. Until one morning, when he held the tools as Gerda finished up repairs on the fittings that held Badger’s armor plates together. She unscrewed a panel set just underneath Badger’s long gun, and the arrangement of gears and cables suddenly struck a spark off of his memory.

“Gerda,” he said, handing her a five-eighths Beaton (another part of the language he was slowly learning), “this part of the machine—this is what makes it walk, right?”

“You’re catching on.” Gerda twisted a gear into place, then squinted at it. “You couldn’t build something like this using coal for power. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t move—the weight of coal you’d need to run it would be crippling.” She scratched at her scar. “That’s why there are so few Wrights, compared to your basic Terranoctan engineer. Thaumic engineering isn’t the same as basic engineering at all. It’s confusing.”

“No,” he said, tracing the cable from the—engine—to the cannon and back, remembering his master’s drawings, the illustration of speiric theory. “No, it makes perfect sense.”

Gerda flicked a glance at him. “Really, now?”

“Yes. It’s basic theory—the speiric power is inverted from compulsion to repulsion and thus provides both combustion and motion, but instead of a conscious control you’ve got the regulator here.” The words—his master’s words, the jargon of a life lived in theory—felt both familiar and strange in his mouth. “I’m not sure how that converts, given that the directive force is inanimate rather than mentally focused, but at the very least it explains how they’re capable of altering course so smoothly. And the preservation impulse, that’s a given after a certain amount of speiric infusion….”

Abruptly he realized Gerda was watching him, the five-eighths Beaton dangling from her hand. “Maybe you are better suited for this division than I’d thought,” she said, a crooked grin rising. “Now give me a hand with this.”

After dinner—this time hesitantly joining in the conversation about “practical thaumics”—he begged one of the books from Gerda and returned to his cot. Yes, there was his master’s description of how one could use the power given by the elixir to move objects without touching them, the “ethereal force” that wasn’t so different from Gerda’s “motile impetus.” He turned the page, one world slowly layering over the other.

“What are you reading?” Vrit bounced on the cot next to him.

“My master’s books,” he said without thinking, then paused.

She leaned over his shoulder like a kitten seeking attention. “What happened here?” she asked, pointing to the torn paper where pages had been ripped out. “Someone wanted to keep secrets?”

Marten swallowed. “Not quite,” he said. Vrit glanced at him, then dropped to the ground in front of him and waited, eyes wide, like a storyteller’s audience. “I was supposed to memorize the whole book,” he went on, not quite sure why he was telling her this. “Only I didn’t. Not well enough, anyway. I couldn’t recite it on cue, so my master, he….”

If you can’t be bothered to keep them in your head, maybe you’ll keep them in your gut.

“He tore out the pages and made me eat them,” Marten finished, closing the book and looking away from Vrit. “He didn’t do it to be cruel. It was just… just one of his days.” He glanced at Vrit and tried to smile. “And it might have worked, after all; I can still remember the pages.” They’d been on the theory of flight, his master’s specialty—although he’d refused to call it that, always correcting Marten. Repulsion of the earth, not flight, can’t you keep that in your empty skull?

Vrit was silent a long moment. “Couldn’t you go to your parents? Mine told me that if anything went wrong, to come back home. That was before Gerda said it was safer for me to join the Wrights than run around loose, but you know what I mean.”

“Can’t. My master was the only family I had.” He’d been chosen out of the wreckage of the Melay Hills disaster, the alchemagical battle that had turned Highfont into glass. If he tried, he could just barely remember the explosions, the sound of trees catching fire one after another… but what he mostly remembered was his master, kinder in those days, taking him into his home, where another child—this one from the Lilygreen slums—had been senior by only a few months. “But that’s over now.”

He tried to remember his master, the quiet evenings spent in study, the low voice instructing him and Jana in what it was to be an alchemage, how every person blessed enough to craft and use the elixir had a duty to write their names on the world. But instead, all that came to mind were the other days, the irrational days, the days with smashed equipment and rages that had nothing to do with the elixir (or, if they did, came from years of use rather than one dose), the taste of ink in his mouth and the need to stay still, quiet, overlooked.

“Will you come up in Tallstrider with me?” Vrit smiled hesitantly at him. “I mean, once we get it working? Tallstrider always makes me feel better.”

Marten caught his breath and stared at her, startled out of his memories. This girl has fought in two campaigns, he told himself, staring at her innocent face. She might even have fired the shot that downed my master. But she feels better at the helm of an engine of destruction.

If that was normal among the Wrights—if this casual acceptance of bloodshed was what resulted from time with them—then he had to get away.

“Thank you,” he said finally, swallowing down his first response. “I think I’d like that.”

Vrit blinked, turned pink, and nodded before running off. He closed the book, his hands not quite shaking.

The next morning orders came for the army to move out—to go back to the Bull’s home country, now that the treaties had been signed and the mutual defense agreed on and every alchemage executed. Marten packed up his kit with the rest, watching for the patterns, for a chance to leave.

Two days on the road convinced him that there would be no better time. The Wrights were too busy either piloting or monitoring the machines (except for Vrit, who romped around in Tallstrider like some huge and deadly wind-up toy), and the other soldiers had their hands full following each other. Roon, too, seemed preoccupied with something else and only stopped by to see Gerda, their liaison an open secret among the Wrights.

On the third day, as they passed the Melay Hills and the patchwork of glass from that long-ago battle, Marten snuck into the Wrights’ supply wagon. Roon had come to visit Gerda, this time looking tired and worn, and the two of them walked alongside, talking quietly together. It was easy enough to steal the books, disguising them with a small crate of tools, and bring the lot over to Vrit, who for a change was on foot. “Hey,” he said, setting down the crate and slinging the bag of books over his shoulder. “You said something about taking me up in Tallstrider?”

Vrit’s face lit up. “Sure! Come on!” She scrambled up one of the automaton’s six long legs and let down a ladder. “Leith, I’m going to test Tallstrider’s soft-terrain gait, okay?” she called, and Leith nodded from his position behind Badger’s long-barrel gun.

Marten followed her up into a tiny steering chamber, open at the top and barely large enough to hold two people, just above the rotating gunnery. Vrit settled in, pointing out the different armaments as if they were actors in a show. “Which way?” she asked finally. “That way looks interesting.”

That way was Highfont, and the Melay Hills. “No,” he said. “How about the other direction—behind that ridge?”

“Sure!” She moved a series of levers, and the great machine rocked forward, moving step by slow step off the road toward the little fingerling lakes that riddled this part of the border. Marten held on to the tiny steering chamber and watched as the column of the army receded.

“You know,” Vrit said after a while, watching her path, “I’m really glad you’re in the Wrights. I mean, I thought you’d be a washout, but you got the theory well, and Gerda says you could be great. And it’s nice to have someone closer to my age. If you could only get the practice—”

Marten glanced back. Yes, they were well out of sight of the army, hidden behind a narrow but steep ridge, and ahead of him the landscape disintegrated into the patchwork terrain of his first home. This would do. He shook out his black coat and slid one arm into it, then the other. “Vrit, can you stop here?”

“What? Sure, I—” She stopped, looking over her shoulder. “What are you doing?”

Marten straightened the apprentice’s coat. It didn’t quite fit over the uniform, but it hid enough, and it felt like… well, like putting on a costume. “I’m leaving,” he said, speaking quickly to keep from thinking too hard about that. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t my place.”

She turned to face him, disbelieving, very much the child she’d once been. “You’re deserting?”

“It’s not deserting if you didn’t have a choice about joining!”

“Says you.” But she didn’t turn the helm back toward the main army. “I thought you liked it here with us,” she muttered, obviously trying very hard to keep it from being a whine. “You could have been good with the Wrights.”

I’m not a Wright, he wanted to say, but that drew the next question: he wasn’t an apprentice, he wasn’t an Wright, so what was he?

Overlooked. Or at least he could hope for it.

“I mean, I know we’re all kind of strange—Barre talks more to Badger than to real people, and Cena gets panicked if she does things out of order, and Gerda’s okay only because she’s been here from the start, and I’m, I’m a little funny about Tallstrider—but that shouldn’t matter! You could have been good, Marten!”

“I’m sorry,” he said again, and Vrit just shook her head. He climbed out of the steering chamber and slid down Tallstrider’s leg to the ground, then turned his back on the automaton and started walking.

When the first blast came, he ducked and flung himself to the ground, expecting a second shell to burst over him. But it hadn’t been directed at him—Vrit hadn’t fired, only walked the other way. He stared after the retreating automaton, then at the ridge as a gout of smoke rose up beyond it, riddled with gold sparks. An accident? But no, that hadn’t sounded like munitions. It had sounded… familiar.

He squinted at the smoke, and sure enough, it had the telltale flare of blue at its edges. Repeat the lesson, Marten: combustion created through speiric usage, without fuel, results in the indigo spectrum, repeat it damn you!

To his right, Tallstrider was moving as quickly as possible over the soft ground, which wasn’t very fast. He scrambled up the ridge instead, half believing he was imagining it.

The army was no longer the orderly procession he’d left. A wall of flame barred the way of the troops at the head of the column, keeping them from the Wrights’ Division in the rear. Soldiers ran for cover or for the war machines, but new fire blossomed where they paused, chasing them away from safety.

And in the center of it, Jana stood, black coat flapping in a breeze that surrounded her alone.

At the far end of the column, the Bull’s royal carriage remained untouched, surrounded by its guards. The explosions had gone up from the automata instead. Two of the machines lay broken in a jagged pit as wide as the road, and a third—Badger—spun uselessly in the mud, but her attention wasn’t there. It was on the Wrights’ wagon, instead, and the cluster of soldiers around it.

Marten began to run, stumbling down the side of the hill, passing Tallstrider as it floundered on the marshy ground, its jointed legs clawing for purchase in the mud. “Get under cover,” he called as he passed, and Vrit peered over the edge. “Trust me, just stay out of her way and you’ll be fine!”

Vrit stared at him in mixed anger and disbelief, but he turned before she could speak. “Jana!” he called, running across the wrecked road. “Jana!”

She didn’t hear him, not right away. Instead, she changed her stance, took second position (for the focusing of your mind, his master’s voice whispered in his ears, not like you’d know anything about that, boy), and the Wrights’ wagon exploded. Burning scrap rained down around her, and two figures—Gerda and Roon—scrambled out of the wreckage, only to collapse a few steps away. Roon’s left arm was a mass of blood and the forge hammer in his right too heavy to swing one-handed, but he rose to stand in front of Gerda, facing Jana like a child facing an avalanche. Jana advanced on him, her eyes brilliant and furious.

Without quite thinking, Marten ran between them. “Jana, wait! Here I am!”

The air around her stank of the peeled-willow scent of elixir, just different enough from the thaumic distillation that he wanted to sneeze. Too late, he realized he was still wearing the Bull’s uniform, under the black coat of his apprenticeship. But she blinked, focusing on him. “Marten?”

“Yes!” He laughed, giddy with relief. “Jana, I knew you’d make it—I didn’t ever think—Jana, you came back for me!”

Jana hesitated, and for a moment he saw a very familiar expression—the same long-suffering look she would give him when the equipment broke again or when he’d botch the lesson again. Sympathy for him, for the boy who could never quite intuitively grasp what she and their master knew, for the charity case left over from Highfont. The reminder of what she could have been, had their master not taken her in.

“You didn’t, did you,” he said, the relief transmuting to bitterness. “You didn’t come back for me.” But she was alive, and they were both here. That had to be enough, right?

“I didn’t,” she agreed, and the momentary shame on her face burned away as she looked past him, her mood shifting as quickly as their master’s ever had. “I came for him. For the Bull.”

Marten glanced over his shoulder at Roon, and the little details finally fell into place. No wonder Gerda hadn’t disagreed with Roon’s orders; no wonder Marten’s presence had gone unquestioned, and the troops hadn’t looked further for an apprentice. Roon—the Bull—didn’t take his eyes off Jana, but he acknowledged Marten with a nod.

Marten stared at him, trying to reconcile this weary, silent man with the ruthless conqueror who had subjugated five countries, who had given each ruler one chance at the treaties and if that was refused had executed them and moved on to the next in line, who had ordered every alchemage slaughtered….

No. Not every one.

The last alchemage smiled at him, from murderous to friendly in a blink. “But you are here, Marten, and oh, it’s good to see you. You and I are all that’s left. We can take it all back—you’ll finally write your name on the world!”

Gerda still hadn’t moved, and in memory he tasted limewater and heard reveille. “They’re leaving,” he said quietly, then turned back to Jana. “Jana, they’re leaving. We can just let them go—”

“Let them go?” She shifted position—second to first—and he ducked away from the ripple of flame that surrounded her. “Let the Bull go? He killed our master!”

“And our master killed my family,” Marten said. “And many others. Yours, maybe—you never said.” She looked away, perhaps back toward the city and Lilygreen. “We have to let it end, Jana.”

The wind around her flattened, throwing up dust, and around them Marten heard the clatter of soldiers readying their rifles. But she was still too strong—maybe not as strong as their master had been, but strong enough to shatter a circle of firearms.

She raised her chin. “Don’t you have any pride? You can’t leave our master unspoken for. You can’t just ignore all we learned, you can’t go back to being a useless, powerless lump—”

“You remember our master!” Marten cried. “He was just as bad to you. You remember, please say you remember.” She hesitated, and Marten took a step forward. “And you—you took the elixir yourself—”

Jana jerked back, the air around her going cold and salty. “I have it under control, Marten.”

He gazed at the shattered road, the burning wagons, Gerda lying in Roon’s shadow and the broken automatons fumbling at the edges of the crater. Even Tallstrider seemed crippled as it lurched past the ridge, mud gumming its legs up to the second joint, Vrit’s swearing a piccolo note above the grinding of its gears. Control is the essence of the true alchemage, his master had said. Everything I have done, I have done on purpose. “If that’s true,” he said slowly, “then that’s another reason not to go with you.”

Jana’s eyes narrowed, and she shifted, taking a stance he didn’t recognize. Marten ducked, but too late, and a spiral of fire washed over him. He fell back, rolling onto the books, beating out the flames with both hands.

With a cry like a hunting bird, Jana leaped into the air—and paused there, skimming easily away from the shots fired in her direction. She paused, hovering twenty feet above the broken Badger, surveying the ground like their master surveying an inadequately prepared distillation coil.

Flight, Marten thought, remembering the pages he’d memorized so poorly, the taste of parchment in his mouth. The theory behind our flight is entirely different from the flight of birds, which is a mere skimming on the air. The true master uses speiric elixir to perceive the pull of the earth and repel from it, as if one were a magnet wrong-point-down, pushing away….

Jana drew one hand back, a brilliant glow gathering around it, and Roon backed up another step. Gerda finally stirred, her brows drawing together as if someone had just presented her with another problem for the converter engine.

Repulsion from the earth is simple enough in theory—you hear that, Marten, simple enough even for you!—but practice is different. Simply maintaining a direct distance is dependent on the terrain remaining the same, and a sudden change in terrain composition can throw off even the most seasoned alchemage.

Without quite thinking, Marten dropped the books and ran for Badger—not for its controls, but for its long gun. As Jana raised both hands from first to second stance, he flung himself at the cannon. The automaton creaked and shuddered, but the gun still swung on its mount, and his weight dragged it around. Around, and below Jana’s path of flight, sweeping below her feet like a jumprope.

Jana yelled as the terrain below her shifted, jolting her carefully-maintained repulsion and throwing her flight off kilter. The fire in her hands sparked and flared—another loss of control—and her yell turned to a shriek. Marten let go of the cannon and turned with some half-formed thought of maybe catching her, but just then the grinding noise of gears behind him finally sparked into a roar of thaumic engines. Tallstrider reared, taking aim.

The first shot winged Jana; the second, a concussive shell, missed but not by far enough. She staggered in the air, her path dipping as her concentration broke. Furious, she spat first at the Bull, then at Marten, and turned in mid-air, retreating faster than a swallow.

Too slow.

“No,” Marten breathed, but too soft, too overlooked, as Vrit fired again. The black dot that Jana had become jerked in the air, then descended, a slow arc into the Melay Hills, too fast for any kind of soft landing. He watched that spot even as the first soldiers began to raise their heads, as Vrit scrambled out of Tallstrider and ran to Gerda, as the remnants of the Wrights began to realize that they were alive after all.

Abruptly, he realized he was sitting on the ground, Badger’s cannon behind him, the first stings from his burns finally starting to make themselves known. But if he was wounded, Jana was wounded worse, and this time they wouldn’t be able to take care of each other. She was alone out there—and in the Melay Hills, there were few sources of clean water and fewer places to find food. And no elixir, or ore, or whatever you wanted to call it, anywhere.

As if guessing his thoughts, Roon—the Bull—knelt next to him. “She’ll die there,” Roon said, and if there was regret in his voice Marten could not hear it.

Marten shook his head. “No, she won’t. Her name won’t.” He glanced at him, seeing for the first time the king, the conqueror, as well as the soldier who’d spared him. “You may have some trouble from those hills for some time to come.” Rebels, anyone wanting to fight against the Bull, they’ll remember her. She’ll be called the last of the alchemages.

Roon gazed at the hills, looking with the same eyes that had perceived treaties contingent on the extermination of alchemages, that had seen the potential in elixir if it could be made dependable, that had noticed an apprentice and made of him a soldier. “Yes.”

The army, as armies were wont to do, moved on. Marten spent half of the day in the medic’s wagon, stifling a curse every time they went over a bump, and finally got out and walked alongside. None of the other Wrights had come to talk to him, nor had Roon (who had retreated to the decoy wagon out of necessity), but he did notice that the jacket the medics returned to him was the brown Bull’s uniform, not the black coat he’d worn to run away in.

Instead of joining the Wrights in the mess tent, he settled by the fire and, after a moment, pulled out Cathacaris’ books. For a long time he sat with his hands over the torn signatures, the pages ripped out, then took a grease pencil from his kit and turned to the end of the book.

After a little while, he became aware of someone standing over him. “Hey,” Vrit said, twisting her hands. Then before he could answer, she darted in to press a clumsy kiss against his cheek. “Bye!” she called over her shoulder, running off to Tallstrider. Marten stared after her, then shook his head and turned the page.

Across the camp, Gerda emerged from the Bull’s tent, followed by Roon. She said something to him, touching two fingers to his arm, then in full view of the army kissed him, the King, the conqueror Bull. The two parted, and Gerda made her way over to the Wrights’ tent, changing her course when she saw Marten. “Well done,” she said. “You may not think so now, but—well done.”

He didn’t look up immediately. “Is his name really Roon?” he asked finally.

“Maybe. I never bothered with any other.” She gazed at him a moment, and he wondered whether she had heard what Jana said to him, or—more likely—if Roon had told her. “It’s not the names that matter. Just the work.”

“My master taught otherwise,” he said, not looking up. “But now he’s a name on a stone, and this—” he tapped the book, touched the others in the sack, “— these are what will remain of him.”

She was silent a moment. “And what of you?”

“And of me,” he agreed, knowing he was answering a different question than she’d asked. And of Jana, no matter how long the rebellion in the hills holds her name. Letters of fire… but he’d always written other letters, and they were the ones that mattered. “I was thinking,” he added, turning to the pages at the end, the ones he’d marked up, “Cathacaris made us learn the theory of flight… some of it looks like it could be adapted to your motile impetus practice.”

She examined his sketches, singed brows drawn together. “Flying machines?”

“Tell me it’ll never work.”

Gerda smiled. “Prove that it will.”


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Margaret Ronald's short fiction has appeared in such venues as Fantasy Magazine, Strange Horizons, Realms of Fantasy, and Clarkesworld Magazine. She is the author of “Dragon's-Eyes” in BCS #9 and BCS Audio Fiction Podcast 007, and the series of stand-alone stories set in the same steampunk world that began with “A Serpent in the Gears” in BCS #34 and includes “Salvage” (BCS #77), “The Governess and the Lobster” (BCS #95), and four other stories. Soul Hunt, the third novel in her urban fantasy series and the sequel to Spiral Hunt and Wild Hunt, was released by Eos Books in 2011. Originally from rural Indiana, she now lives outside Boston.  Visit her website at mronald.wordpress.com.

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