Night in the Hinterlands

To me, our prisoner was not an object of fascination. When not walking or riding at the end of a lead, he did little. He screamed now and then. Sometimes he laughed. He ate and drank when reminded. His name was Galen Mark, and he had killed a king and gone mad, among other things.

We were a week’s ride into the Hinterlands when he slumped in the saddle, slid, and toppled. He lay in the dirt, limp, one leg bent at an odd angle.

Lyric turned her horse and reached him first. When she cut away his trousers, white bone showed.

“Broken femur,” she said. “Dislocated hip. He can’t ride.” She prodded the bone with her fingertips. He twitched but made no sound. “Not much bleeding....”

I realized I hadn’t compelled him to drink in two days. Apparently, neither had Lyric. “He’s dehydrated.”

“I can see that.”

I rubbed at the club-like ruin of my left hand. Sometimes I imagined I could feel life in it, which was more than I could have said a week before. When Lyric had found me the night we left the city, it had been a bloodied wreck flopping from a broken wrist. She wasn’t what she had once been, back when she was Wordsmith to king and court alike, but she still had her strengths. “Can you fix him?”

“Not quickly. If the bone shifts, it could score the artery. He’ll bleed to death.”

The sun stood a hand’s breadth from the western horizon, and we were still too far south for comfort. The prisoner was pale and sweating. His mind had arrived somewhere beyond pain, but his body remembered. The knife he’d used to murder our king was still sheathed at my belt. I drew it and slit his throat. The cut was so fine that I had to lift his chin before he began bleeding.

Lyric hissed.

“He can die now or later,” I said, hooking my good arm under him and trying to ignore the twinge in my back. “And we can’t stop here. Help me tie him across the saddle.”

We kept riding, heading north, the dead man strapped sideways across his horse. The Hinterlands were thousands of square miles of ruined moor where the grass grew sickly or not at all. The old stories described instruments of unimaginable power, loosed in a war between kingdoms whose very names were lost. All that remained was a swath of blighted countryside, strange and barren and all but uninhabited.

We made camp on the highest nearby tor, and through the cold and moonless night we watched the ground quiver into life with a subtle phosphorescence. Points of darkness drifted here and there: the ragged people of that wilderness harvesting nightblooming plants. None nourished, but a few would make you dream. The harvesters didn’t approach our camp, not after what Lyric did to the first few who tried. She wore her green cat’s eyes every night, and she did not sleep. I remain unconvinced that she ever had.

Just before midnight, the dead man sat up and began mumbling nonsense words and rhymes. His throat was unmarked, and his color had improved. When I checked his leg, I found it whole.

“We need a feeding schedule for him,” I said. “We can take turns. And we need to make him drink at least a skin of water every day.”

“We need to move faster,” Lyric replied. “We’re not ten miles from where you killed him. You could have at least waited until morning.”

“I couldn’t have slept with him like that.”

“You aren’t sleeping now.”

“Fine.” I wrapped myself in another blanket and tried to clear my mind. “Give me six hours.”

But I couldn’t forget the burning city far behind us or the uncertainty of the Forge waiting ahead.

Lyric woke me before dawn, and we set out again, north and deeper into winter. All three of us: the bodyguard of a murdered king, the mad assassin, and the mage with her slim metal case of eyes.

 

The Death of Alec VI

Nine years after my promotion to Guard Commander, I found myself studying a tableau of perfect professional failure: the corpses of a dead king, five of the six men who had been arrayed in armor before the throne, and both the women I had stationed in the audience in ordinary clothes. There were a few dead gentry besides, but they seemed insubstantial, like props in a play, their bloodsoaked finery an affectation.

I had not been present. All my knowledge was secondhand, gleaned from the testimony of the surviving guardsman and the shards of spent runestones scattered across the floor.

It was simple but impossible. One man, a scion of some minor bloodline named Galen Mark, had entered with the day’s audience, cut down seven trained fighters with a handful of borrowed magic and a simple knife, then passed that same knife through King Alec VI’s wards and armor and ribcage, cutting clean to the descending aorta. Alec was dead in less than a minute.

A sword’s blade lay at the foot of the dais, severed an inch above the hilt. Two wheel-lock muskets had been similarly dismembered, one still charged. I found those signs easier to accept than the penetration of the king’s armor and wards. In public, he wore strikeplates backed with leather and mail under his tunic, the armor a combination of laminates and alloys I had seen stop a bodkin from arm’s length. His wards were Lyric’s work, strong enough that the recoil of their unmaking should have cratered the floor. And only the gods knew what other defenses the king had layered between the ones we had arranged. His family, the House of Fen, had sole access to the Archive, which by reputation held secrets that could raze cities. Even Lyric, with her enthusiasm for dangerous knowledge, had never set foot in it. With those resources, he should have been untouchable.

But his body lay there in proof of the contrary fact, and the knife lay beside it.

Lyric drew herself from a fold of shadow. She wore her brown eyes that day, the ones with the goat’s pupils. “Packed your bags yet, Hodge?” she asked.

“No. You?”

She knelt by one of the bodies, studying its expression. “Always and already.”

Silence and the dead lay between us. From one standpoint, Lyric was the only viable suspect. She had the skill and innate talent to craft runestones and loan magic to the likes of Galen Mark. And Archive access or no, she was the strongest Wordsmith anyone could remember. No one even knew what she was, or how long she had appeared young.

But I had known her for more than a decade. She was honest, in her way, and had never shown a trace of political ambition. Her world was in her laboratories under the High Keep, and she had as much invested in regime stability as anyone.

Aside from that, were she to kill the king, no one would ever have realized it was murder. He’d have been found without a mark on him, and the autopsy would have found a burst blood vessel in his brain. Strokes ran in the Fen family, and I had no doubt Lyric knew how to induce one.

This killer had not troubled with subtlety.

“One of us should have been here,” I said. “Guard Commander or Wordsmith at every audience, without exception. One of us needed to be here.”

“Yes. You.”

“No. It was your rotation. I checked.”

“It changed.”

“Or a copy of the schedule changed.”

“Yes.” She tilted her head as though listening to something far away. “They’re asking a scribe about that now.”

There were special engines deep under the High Keep. Persuasive engines. I tried not to think about them or the cranksmen who served them. Instead, I considered whose coin the cranksmen might be serving as well. The scribe would give whatever confession that coin required. And the most plausible story would incriminate the two protectors who should have been present.

I asked Lyric where she had been when the King died.

“With the princess.”

Endra. Who was now queen. “Shit,” I muttered.

“Yes. Pack, Hodge. Run.”

“They’ll blame either you or me. Probably both of us. If I leave now, I’m guilty. I won’t make it fifty miles. We have to solve this, Lyric.”

She brushed imaginary dust from one of her eyes. “The truth might be worse. It usually is.”

“Then why haven’t you left yet?”

A slight smile. “They’re still afraid of me. Were they ever afraid of you?”

Alec VI’s funeral was a succession of speeches and senseless rituals, all worn hollow by centuries of insincere repetition. The flagship to which they bore his body, the one meant to drift gracefully from the harbor and carry him and his complement of priests to the burial grounds on the Western Isles, wallowed unseaworthy, kept afloat by an internal raft of repurposed wine barrels. I hoped the crew would have the sense to turn back toward shore when out of sight of the city. Alive, the king had not been worth the lives spent in his defense. Dead, he was worth far less.

Theories of treachery were breeding in the bloodstream of the court and the city at large. The late scribe had either known nothing about the forged schedule or possessed heroic reserves of courage—or the cranksmen had not been able to decide what story they wanted from him before he expired. In the absence of suggestive details to steer it otherwise, speculation cleaved close to the obvious.

Thus, more than a few faces took on expressions of detached contemplation as young Queen Endra, the oil of her anointing still shining slick in her hair, presided over the execution of one Galen Mark, who had not been put to the question. When the axe fell, and the assassin’s head fell after, she made herself an object of even deeper suspicion. Galen had known something, those expressions said. Something our new queen chose to suppress.

My own suspicions were nothing but hunches. I noted Lord Cassel, who was too calm, and Lord Morton, who was too conciliatory. Morton chewed cloves, and upon Galen’s death he exhaled a long sighing plume that clung to his silks. For the foreseeable future, I’d be able to find him by smell. Both men were ambitious enough. The trouble was that neither was a fool.

Lyric stayed by Endra’s side until the crowds and gentry had dispersed. She kept her own counsel, retreating even further than usual into her quiet.

The knife, though, was enough to draw her out. We spent the hours after the execution in one of her laboratories, the knife clamped to a table and subjected to every test she could devise.

“Nothing,” she said at last, setting aside one of her instruments, a baroque arrangement of slim metallic reeds. “No magic, old or new. It hasn’t been Named. No runes. If it interacted with Alec’s wards at all, it wasn’t by any principle I know.”

“What does that leave?”

“I don’t know. Give me time. I haven’t even found a way to collect a sample of the steel. Go ask people invasive questions. Start with Morton.”

I shook my head. “We don’t have time. And there are too many motives to let us shorten our list of suspects. Alec was incompetent. We all knew it. Half the gentry could gain from his death, never mind the middle classes. We need the how—the means. If we can find the how, we can narrow down the who.”

“Maybe it’s just a very sharp knife, Hodge.” She opened a drawer and dug out a handful of iron nails. When she dropped one over the blade, it landed on the table in two pieces.

That gave me pause. “Do that again.”

She did. We tried heavy bolts, a block of granite, a rune-inscribed plate from a mechanical press. All parted the moment they touched the blade. None dulled it. Lyric took a file to the edge with no effect.

“The longer I look at that knife,” I said, “the less I think it started as a weapon. It’s a straight blade, single-edged, there isn’t much of a stabbing point, and the hilt is just new leather wrapped around the tang. Improvised, I’d say. And that kind of sharpness is, well, excessive. Do you have the scabbard they found on Galen?”

Figuring out the scabbard took less than a minute. A set of crude retaining clamps held the knife in place, keeping its cutting edge clear of the leather sheath.

“See?” I said. “Clever, but improvised. Can you think of a piece of equipment that could use a cutter like this?”

“It would take longer to find one that couldn’t. The knife isn’t the answer, Hodge. Move on.”

“It looks like regular steel, but that doesn’t mean anything. You could ask Endra for Archive access, or ask her to look for—”

“Hodge. Move on.”

I left, sure that the key to the knife’s workings lay in the Archive. Where else could someone have found a way to overcome all of Alec’s defenses?

And I was sure that Lyric didn’t want me to look. I could even guess why: if the knife had been made with knowledge from the Archive, that would reduce our suspect pool to members of the House of Fen. And Endra would be the first name on the list.

I could imagine Endra killing her own father. I could not imagine her being this careless about it.

Then again, she had prevented Galen from being questioned, leaving nothing but physical evidence to work from. I let my mind drift, waiting for the right possibility, trying not to think about the time slipping away. Eventually, if Lyric and I couldn’t produce a mastermind, method, and proof, the accusations would begin. We had a few days. Maybe less.

Then Galen became his own mystery.

The queen summoned me to her study in the small hours of the following morning. Lyric was already there. She waited in a chair by the fire, staring into nothing and sipping a dark wine. To Endra, she had long been a kind of favored aunt. Lyric did not believe in the concept of children, treating them instead as adults suffering a disadvantage of height. Endra, whose intelligence had outstripped that of her tutors by age ten, had regarded her these last fifteen years as a teacher and confidant. Except when Endra left on affairs of state, or on her own more inscrutable ventures, the two seldom spent a day apart.

There were other rumors about their relationship, the product of displaced lust or that brand of speculative voyeurism that unites stable boys and high lords in one slavering mass, but I never credited them. Endra was too shrewd, and Lyric was categorically uninterested in human beings as anything but friends, enemies, or test subjects. Either extreme age or some fundamental distinction of species defined Lyric’s relation to the human race, and I had long ago given up trying to understand why she saw the world as she did.

But it was Endra who eyed me like a test subject now. “You do understand, I hope, that you’ve been relieved of your duties.”

I nodded.

“Were my mother still alive, she might write you a recommendation all the same, Hodge.”

I held my silence. It seemed safer.

“We have a problem, you and Lyric and I,” she continued. “It concerns political perception. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

She made a hurry-up gesture, so I continued:

“It’s why you had the assassin executed. And why you’ve made sure only Lyric and I have access to his knife. As long as someone else’s hired experts or torturers don’t have a basis to work from, the accusations stay general. They can blame Lyric or me, say you put us up to it, but they can’t prove it, and they can’t even tell a good story.” Not that that will matter forever, I didn’t add. Sooner or later, mere plausibility would be enough.

“Accurate, if reductive,” Endra said. “If people had more sense, they’d be afraid...but that’s neither here nor there. Our problem is an irregularity regarding Galen’s execution. If you would?”

She waved to a bookshelf set against the far wall. I slid it aside, opening the mouth of the passage. “A caution,” she said. “It’s warm down there, Hodge. He insisted, and I was feeling indulgent.”

The passage ended in a chamber that, once upon a time, had housed some prince or other’s politically untenable mistress. Now, it was stripped to the walls and held a chamber pot and a low bed. A smokeless fire glowed pale blue in the grate. Galen Mark, his head unaccountably fixed to his neck, was bent into a fetal spiral on the mattress, eyes wide and staring and very much alive.

Behind me, Lyric spoke, “The turnkey found him back in his cell this morning. No sign he was ever decapitated. No outward injuries at all.”

“Is word out yet?”

No answer, which was her way of telling me what she thought of the question. By now, every informant in the High Keep knew that Galen was alive, and the whole city would know by morning. I crouched by the bed. “How did you do it, Galen?”

“It was cold and starry,” he muttered. “Too close.” A little shudder ran through him, and he subsided.

Endra spoke from the doorway. “That was the wrong question, Hodge. It’s troubling enough that he knows how to defeat Lyric’s wards and has the skill or mad luck to kill seven of your best, but now it seems that a side effect of killing royalty is immortality... albeit with some loss of mental function. I’d rather his methods die with him. Perhaps you should try a different question.”

“How do we kill him?”

“Even so.”

I took a risk. “The one question might be hard to answer without the other. The knife could be the key. If Lyric and I had access to the Archive, we just might be able to solve this.”

A thin smile. “Try to do without. You have seven days. After that, I cannot protect you.”

She left.

“All right,” I said, trying to pull my thoughts together. Seven days. A lot could happen in seven days. “All right. What do we know?”

“The usual tests,” Lyric said. “No reactions to iron or silver.” She pointed to the unnatural crook of a few fingers. “New injuries do not heal immediately. The sun has set since his reappearance. No charms are hidden under his skin.”

“Wasn’t there a man who came back from three hangings because his mother had made a charm of his own caul?”

“Yes. Then they drowned him. Ironic, if you know enough.”

“So...?”

She shook her head. “I’d know. Charms leave signs behind. Always.”

“So whatever it is, it’s internal magic, something proper to him.”

“If it’s magic.”

“So we burn the body. Fire destroys almost everything, magical or not.”

“Concur.” She was already back in the passage.

“But you already knew that,” I said, following.

She shut the chamber door behind us. Locked it. “Endra wanted a second opinion.”

No, I thought. She wanted us both complicit in the destruction of evidence.

If things fell apart, she’d sacrifice both of us to save herself. It wouldn’t even count as selfishness or cowardice; she was the legitimate ruler by blood, and she’d be a better monarch than her father ever was.

Seven days.

I could still run. I should have taken Lyric’s advice and run the moment I’d found Alec’s body, and the hell with pursuit. It was possible that my pursuers would be loath to find me for the same reason Endra wanted Galen dead: why risk asking questions whose answers you don’t know?

But Lyric hadn’t run, and she never would, not while the nobles were watching Endra and measuring the crown for size. Even if fleeing confirmed my guilt, no one would ever believe I’d acted alone. I lacked magic and could no more fashion a runestone or a preternaturally sharp knife than I could raise a man from the dead.

“It’s cold there,” Galen said again, voice muffled by the door. “The stars are burning cold.”

By the time the sun rose, the court was demanding in its stuffy way that justice be done, and done properly this time. The crowds outside the palace grounds were more direct, shouting contradictory slogans and bits of propaganda fed them by the lower ranks of the gentry. So Endra followed our recommendation, with one small change.

She burned Galen Mark alive in a public square. For the first time in my memory, the crowds found their appetite for the suffering of others overmatched by the spectacle before them, and in their silence the condemned’s screams went on all through the hour of his death. Their silence persisted even as the tenders built the fire higher around the stake and fed it pine and oil, and even when it was done, as fine gray ash drifted on the breeze to blur their faces and gather in the folds of their clothes.

But the knife remained locked in a hidden compartment in Lyric’s laboratory, and when night fell, Galen Mark was back in his cell, skin unmarked, unable to stop screaming.

 

Adaptations

The nights grew longer as we rode on through the Hinterlands. Whenever Galen could not sleep, I took watch, sitting with my back to the fire. Lyric would hold him close to her like a child, rubbing his back and whispering in his ear until he went still and his breathing grew slow and even.

A week after I had killed Galen to heal his leg, I woke from a nightmare of rushing cold and darkness to find Lyric pressed against me, holding my dead left hand. Neither of us moved. Cold sweat soaked my shirt. She pretended to doze. In time, assured of my place in the world of the living, I slept.

By morning she was back at watch. In thanks, I took care not to mention it. My great and constant fear was that she had grown as brittle as any of us; that her seeming adjustment to our new circumstances was no more than a slow, joint-by-joint collapse.

“It’s all still coming undone,” she said as she saddled the horses. “I can feel it. I don’t know whether it’s following Galen or just spreading. You shouldn’t have killed him again.”

I thought of the rifts opening over the city the night of our departure, of the darkness spilling out, of the mad shapes coiling and uncoiling on the other side. “I hope it’s following us,” I said. “At least there’s nothing else out here.”

“In other words, we’re alone.”

“If that’s how you want to put it.”

“It’s the truth.” She glanced at the southern horizon. “Mount up. We’ll ride through the night.”

“We already can’t give the horses enough water. If we push harder, we’re going to kill them.”

“I know.”

“What do we do if they give out before we get Galen to the Forge?”

“Then we walk.” She forced Galen’s boots onto his feet and laced them. “We walk fast.”

 

Puppeteers

“I would be most interested,” Lord Morton said, “in the progress of your investigation.”

We were walking in the rose garden. Nothing good ever happened in the rose garden, especially not at the outset of winter when the bushes were brown and sere. I cursed myself for agreeing to meet Morton here, but it was the nearest venue I could find to neutral ground that wasn’t also an eavesdropper’s paradise.

And with only four days left, I had to take my answers where I could find them. “Which investigation?” I asked. “Whether someone hired Galen? Why he won’t stay dead? Or where that bloody knife came from?”

He spat a clove into a rosebush. “The latter two are trivialities. If it would pacify the mobs, I would simply have our assassin locked out of sight and out of mind. Tombs are not only for the dead. The knife itself is a curiosity, and curiosities have no place in statecraft.”

“Statecraft,” I echoed. “That’s what this is to you?”

“What else? I cannot but note your failure to learn anything of value regarding the assassin himself.”

“There’s not much to know. He’s all that’s left of a minor house. As far as I’ve been able to tell, he hadn’t set foot in the city for almost a decade until he turned up in the audience hall.”

“Mmhm, yes, well. According to my friends in far places, young Galen has been almost everywhere else. Five years ago, he was in the Eastern Isles arguing with their philosophers about democracy. Two years later, he was north of the Hinterlands, presumably holding the same discourse with so much barren tundra. More recently, he seems to have cultivated friends among certain desert tribes along a major trade route—”

“Lord Morton, is there a point? We already know that if someone from the city hired him, it was done indirectly.”

Morton stopped and donned his sympathetic face. “If? If? Our queen is making strange suggestions about the powers one might acquire in exotic locales. To me, it remains odd that a young man so allegedly gifted as to escape death itself had to resort to borrowed magic to defeat eight—forgive me—rather ordinary guards.”

“The runestones.” I shook my head. “A dead end. Even if I put them back together, their magic is spent. Unless someone recognized the chisel-work, even Lyric couldn’t trace them back to a specific mage.”

“Now, now, let us not lose the thread. Galen was a cat’s paw, one that had to be identified, motivated, and armed by another. Mm, well, not motivated—the man was an idealist. Some fashionable political nonsense, the sort easily aimed by those possessed of actual vision.”

“Actual vision.” Briefly, I imagined Morton kneeling at the block, eyes wide, watching the shadow of the falling axe. That was where politicians with vision tended to end up. “Whoever did this was worse than a regicide—he was a careless regicide. Do you want to know why I’ve made slow progress? Because I can’t think of anything with the power to do this who would be fool enough to muck it up this badly. Actual vision? No. I can’t believe this was Endra or anyone at court—even you, for that matter. If you’d had a secondary plan to take power smoothly, maybe, but all you’ve done is wait at the fringes and raise doubt. That’s all anyone’s done.”

Morton tried on a few expressions, eventually settling on puzzlement. “I am given to understand your birth and blood are... less than remarkable. Your origins and cynicism are, ah, difficult to reconcile with your faith in the gentry.”

Something inside me ground out a final warning creak and gave way. “I have faith that you are all a collection of self-interested heartless bastards. You think you know where I came from? You don’t. I was a scavenger. I’d go out before dawn every morning. That was when the night’s riots were done but the cleaners hadn’t come yet. I was eight or nine, and I was picking through whatever district the latest mob had torn apart. I remember when they attacked the tanneries. The smell... there was lye everywhere, and ground-up animal brains. They use those in tanning, did you know that? I didn’t have shoes. The lye damn near ate through my feet. And why were there dead tanners and broken glass everywhere? Because they’d finally caught, or said they’d caught, some madman who was killing prostitutes, and he turned out to be a tanner, and, well, it just stood to reason that the rest of them had to have known about it.

“But you know what I learned when I was drafted into the Guard years later? I learned that Cassel was having a dispute that year with Blackridge about some fine point of taxes on untreated hides. And Cassel happened to have half the constables in his pocket....”

I counted on my fingers. “The tanneries. The greengrocers’ district the next year. The fires south of High Street. All those tenements that found themselves paying protection money to the wrong faction. Every time, it was some nobleman pulling strings, guiding the mob, trying to win the game. So you want to know why I can’t pick a suspect from here at court? Because this time, the mess is yours. Someone played you. Someone outside the system. Just like you play us lowly commoners against each other.” I jabbed Morton in the chest. “But this time, you’re the ones out on the streets the morning after, picking up the pieces and trying to understand how it all went wrong.”

Morton stood silent, mouth flexing through uncertain shapes. I wondered when someone had last offered him even mild offense. I half-expected him to call for guards.

But he just settled his robes and tucked another wad of cloves into his cheek. “That’s a dim view of the world,” he said. “A dim view indeed. Mine might be dimmer still.” A small, twitching smile. “Has it occurred to you that your imagined puppeteer has simply lost control? What if, speaking hypothetically, she were a relative political novice who put her faith in the wrong person? Or even a woman of uncommon wisdom and experience who loved a protégé just enough to cloud her judgment?”

Endra, or Lyric. “No.”

“For a while, I was puzzled that you chose to stay. It was for Lyric, I should think. She isn’t staying for you, you realize.”

“I’m staying for the truth.” Or self-preservation, though my chances at that were declining with every passing day.

“I don’t believe you are.” Morton sighed, breath flashing into fog. “Usually, people bind themselves to other people. Friends, lovers, patrons. Children. I might suggest you place your faith in institutions instead. We could use a man like you, Hodge.”

“I’m sure you could.”

“I misspoke. We will use a man like you. For now, you have your choice of roles.” He raised a hand in dismissal. “I wish you luck. I hope, for all our sakes, that your inquiries bear fruit soon.”

 

Ruins

In the first days of our flight from the city, Lyric did what she could about my ruined left hand. The pain subsided, and I was left with a useless flipper of flesh. She said my fingers would grow back in time, but that I would likely die of old age before they felt like my own. My burns she healed, more or less. They scarred, but I had no objection to scars.

I had no recollection of what the cranksmen had asked or what I had said. That stretch of memory was a wire-thin line of pain and fear and shame. I remembered the stench of my own bowels releasing, remembered a moment of clarity in which I knew they were reducing me to an animal so that I would find no island of reason from which I might see an end to the pain.

Two days after we killed the horses for what water remained in their blood, we came to a village set on a long stone ridge above a swath of arable land at the northern edge of the Hinterlands. I was as healed as I could hope to be, save for the missing fingers and my general wasting with short rations and dehydration. I kept my ruined hand wrapped in my cloak. I was ashamed of that hand, and so was Lyric. It was sloppy work, for she had been diminished as well.

She refused to tell me what had been done to her or what countermeasures the conspirators had used to deliver her alive to the cranksmen. Nor would she say how she had freed herself to extract us both from beneath the High Keep. She showed no external change other than a curious patterning of skin, as though she had been healed with grafts from several donors. More notably, she moved with less grace, and if her magic had all its old force, she seemed less sure of its finesse.

For the village, she selected eyes that looked nearly human. I minded Galen while she asked the locals if anyone knew the way to the Forge. There was a language barrier, but she showed them the knife, and they knew it at once. Maps were scratched in the dirt, paces counted out. They fed us, let us warm by their fires. A few of the elders touched Lyric in gestures plainly meant as blessings. Some touched me as well. None would approach Galen.

“Heartbeats,” he said now and then. It was fast becoming his favorite word. “Heartbeats, heartbeats, one-two-three.”

The Hinterlands had fallen within the borders of the empire that had come before ours, or perhaps the one before that. We were shown the remains of a statue that looked out over the wastes. Its face had worn smooth, leaving a blank oval. Lyric studied the face for nearly an hour, her haste forgotten. Her lips moved without sound, as though she were trying to remember a name just past the edge of memory.

That night I slept, or tried to sleep, curled around the scabbard we had fashioned for the knife, half-hoping some latch would slip and the blade slide painlessly into my chest. I could almost believe the Forge would set Galen right. The question was one of price, and of who would pay it.

Lyric kept watch, sitting close beside me. Sometimes I thought I heard her breathing catch, and I wondered how many friends she had lost over her long life, and how many more she would lose.

 

The Archive

The key clue was not the knife at all. It was the runestones, the bits of borrowed magic that had gotten Galen past my guards.

Unable to dismiss Morton’s argument for Endra or Lyric’s complicity, I locked myself in my quarters and tried to reassemble the stones while, in the courtyard below, day after day, Galen Mark died his various deaths.

On the last day before our deadline, I finished a stone.

It was Lyric’s work. Her script was unmistakable.

Officially, I was still an emeritus consultant to the active Guard Commander, cool heads having prevailed for the moment. I had no allies among the Lords; I had foiled too many of their plots over the years and refused to stay bought. I distrusted Morton for his intrigues and veiled threats. The men and women I had once led would be of no help. I had been effective in my role, but I lacked charisma. It was one reason Alec had given me command.

So when I confronted Lyric, we were alone.

“Yes,” she said. “They’re my work. I killed Alec. The stones should have crumbled completely. They shouldn’t have been recoverable. He was a fool, Hodge. Leading us all on a danse macabre into oblivion. I did what was necessary.”

“Bullshit,” I said.

She raised an eyebrow. She looked almost as ragged as I felt, having poured herself into the problem of killing Galen with the same obsessive energy I had brought to the knife and the runestones.

“This wasn’t you. I’ve known you too long. You’d never leave me or Endra in this position—or yourself, for that matter. You’d have framed Cassel or Morton, or some anonymous sap from the kitchens who’s been grabbing the maids. Or Alec would have suffered a fatal stroke—that’s a Fen tradition.”

Silence.

“I’ve been thinking about who you’d give runestones to, and who you’ve been training and mentoring for fifteen years. There’s only one name on that list. Endra never much liked her father, and she’s committed to the interests of the Empire, enough to remove a weak leader before he dragged us deeper into decline.”

“I did it,” Lyric said, flatly. “Endra is no match for her father’s wards, let alone mine.”

“I’ve noticed she refuses to touch the knife. Everyone else wants to play with it, now that we can’t keep it locked away. I wonder if she’s the only one who knows what it really is.”

Her lip curled. “You could ask Galen again.”

Nothing frightened or interested Galen anymore. When people asked him questions, he just spouted nonsense or broke down in tears. His executions were growing more elaborate but no more permanent. If anything, the time between each death and resurrection was dwindling.

I forced him from my mind. “She was always the best suspect. She benefits. So does the Empire. She’s already looking at a marriage alliance that will secure the southern border. She’s even shrinking the ranks of the priests.”

“Endra,” Lyric breathed, “is not foolish enough to be this reckless.”

“No. But Galen might have been. And three years ago, Endra took one of her... personal vacations. She packed warm clothes. At the same time Galen was somewhere in the far north, out past the Hinterlands.” I fought down a suicidal impulse to touch her shoulder. “Lyric, she has Archive access.”

“So do I.”

I stared. That was supposed to be impossible. If Alec had known, he’d have had her killed. Endra still might. “How?”

“It’s primitive security. Powerful but unimaginative. It was never meant to be sealed off, just... assigned.” A pause, a moment of decision. “But I haven’t used it, not beyond a single test.”

“So Endra did do it.”

“The truth is irrelevant here.”

“Oh? Then why are you bent on keeping Galen dead? That has taken some light research.”

“Because his continued survival might have... side effects. Whatever’s wrong with him isn’t magic, Hodge. Not as I understand it. But I’ve... heard of things like this before. Imbalances between fundamentals—life, death, time. The creation of things not entirely real. There are always consequences. Always. The world retaliates, or it starts to break down.”

“Then why haven’t you confronted her?”

“It would accomplish nothing.”

I tried to think. Within the political domain, Lyric’s argument was perfectly rational. Endra might be a murderer, but she was the right person for the throne. She had even found a way to make Galen’s survival work in her favor. Now the gossips were talking about how the thing calling itself Galen Mark was a demon or some shaman from a distant land. He was a threat, a lone representative of some faraway people, and the resulting air of paranoia was only solidifying Endra’s power.

But from the anxiety in Lyric’s tone and her ambivalence, there was a wider range of possibilities in play. I could see the outline of it. Endra decided to kill her father. She found some secret in the Archive, and then she met Galen and found in him someone with the ability and will to make use of it. But he had lingered after the act, a reminder, a shard of the crime itself, the price persisting in the thing bought. A bit of unreality had crept in, and it was that unreality which so troubled Lyric and perhaps Endra herself. The subtle tilt to the world that accompanied a man who would not die unbalanced all of Lyric’s logic, and Endra’s along with it.

Another piece slotted into place. “Endra wanted to kill the king. But Galen was a radical. He wanted to kill the monarchy. So he double-crossed her—killed Alec in a way that left the throne open to contest. No complete explanation, no closure. Just a standoff between Endra and half the gentry.”

Lyric turned away. “For a while,” she said.

“This could mean civil war. If Endra falls but leaves the Houses divided, she’ll take the empire with her. Lyric, why are you still protecting her?”

“She’s a friend.”

Something in her voice gave me pause, a bit of guilt that rang true. “Yes,” I said. “And this was your idea after all, wasn’t it? Not yet, and not this way, but you saw Alec losing his grip on the gentry, and you put the idea in Endra’s head that she should control the terms of her ascension.”

Silence. Through the open window, clear in the cold air, floated another of Galen’s screams.

“We might need to protect her from herself.”

She considered this for a while. Then: “I know little of what’s in the Archive. I do know what categories of knowledge it contains. They are not conducive to sound sleep.”

“I thought you didn’t sleep anyway.”

“I used to.” She met my eyes again. “There’s a cost to knowing, Hodge. Look at Galen. Why do you suppose he went mad?”

Lyric kept her biological curiosities in a chilled room beneath the morgue, some in chests, some in steel flasks marked with frosted runes. “Don’t touch anything,” she said. “Some of those are cold enough to take off a layer of skin.”

I tucked my hands inside my coat. “I’m not going to like this, am I?”

She donned gloves and retrieved a vial of red liquid from one of the flasks. “I’ll like it less. I actually understand what we’re about to do. Sit down and roll up your sleeve.”

“Is that—”

“Alec’s blood, yes.” She freed the stopper. “People have spent their lives trying to find the Archive. Always looking for the wrong thing. Hidden doors. Secrets encoded in ordinary books. Gemstones imbued with memory.”

A scalpel appeared in her hand. She drew a shallow cut on my arm, another on hers.

“It’s in the blood,” she said. “The blood of the House of Fen. There are other factors, but if you’re patient, and if you know the old bindings....”

A drop of Alec’s blood on each cut. I flinched, expecting it to burn or spark or come alive. But the drop just ran cold over my skin. “Now what?”

“Now you’ll see why I didn’t want to do this.”

She clapped a hand over my forehead and spoke a Word, and the world fell away, spinning down into—

—into a warm and well-furnished reading room. I lay sprawled on thick carpeting, staring up past bookcases and leather furniture at a wood-paneled ceiling. “Lyric?”

“Here.”

I rose to one knee. She was seated in an oversized armchair, dressed in a scholar’s robes and perfectly composed. I inspected my own clothes—a new uniform, freshly pressed but covered in carpet lint. “How did you land in the chair?”

She stood and shook out her sleeves. “I have a very organized mind.” She took my hand and pulled me to my feet. “Come. We can’t stay here long.”

“Where’s ‘here?’”

“Physically? Nowhere.”

The reading room opened into a vast, airy hall lined with towering shelves. Snow fell outside the windows. Outside a few of them, at least; though others I could see high green hills and sunshine. Others showed nothing but blackness, or suggestions of motion like trees swaying in the wind. “Lyric....”

“Don’t think about it. I don’t know whether the Fens found this place or built it, but the Archive itself is a construct, a collection of thoughts and memories. An amalgamation of the minds of Fen going back at least a thousand years.” She hesitated.

“What?”

“I’ve been here once before, so it might contain some of my memories too. But I have a limited understanding of how it all works. It’s possible that the order of visitors is irrelevant, that the Archive contains knowledge or memories from future contributors as well, or people who might have visited but didn’t, or the gods know what else. This place... it doesn’t sit well with our world. It can’t.”

“Which means....”

“Remember the Fen family tradition of dying from strokes? As I said, we can’t stay long.”

I turned in place, taking in the endless ranks of books. It was the largest library I’d ever seen. Then I realized the books were only the beginning; here were racks of scrolls, clay tablets under glass, dark mirrors that glowed with unfamiliar letters and slow-changing images.

A flicker of motion vanished around a far shelf. I grabbed for a sword that wasn’t there. “Lyric, there’s something here.”

“There’s almost everything here. I told you not to think about it. Find the catalogues. Start with history.”

“Why?”

“Because Endra would have started with history.”

We set to work, piling books and scrolls on a table by one of the sunlit windows. By the end of the day, if there were days in that place, we had four possible explanations for the knife and eleven for Galen’s resurrection. If we assumed a relationship between the two, only one possibility remained. And the handwritten volume that described it was among the few free of dust.

A long time ago—the manuscript was vague on how long—a few thoughtful individuals began a project of unknown purpose at the extreme northern edge of what would later become the Hinterlands, and there they founded a community. Between that uncertain year and the penning of the manuscript, people took to calling it the Forge. It sold metalwork of exceptional quality, though the prices were unusual and tended toward unforeseen consequences. The Forge might demand a sensation, or a memory, or an affection. The price was always more complex than it first appeared.

“A cautionary tale,” I said. “It reads like a fable. You can’t think Galen actually went there and made one of these trades.”

Lyric’s fingertip darted across the paper, tapping sentences. “Preternatural sharpness. Properties beyond magic and capable of bypassing it. Inexplicable consequences, usually distressing to the client. Including temporary resurrection and physical changes.”

“All right.” I watched a shadow slide behind a gimbal-mounted globe and disappear. “It’s a close fit. But why haven’t we heard of it?”

“No historian from the city has crossed the Hinterlands for generations. Galen was one of the first educated people in centuries to make the trip and return.”

I thought of traders and mad hermits and the occasional ill-advised seeker of old magic. “Still.”

“There are stories of magic swords and other weapons acquired from northern smiths.”

“The knife isn’t magic, though. It’s just really bloody sharp.”

She shrugged. “Legend is no respecter of distinctions. This is the best we have.”

“So what do we do? If we can keep Endra on the throne, and if we explain and eliminate Galen without implicating her, the problem is solved, isn’t it? Back to the status quo.”

“If and if.”

“So...?”

Lyric sighed. Then she laid a hand across my eyes. When she withdrew it, I was sitting against the wall in the coldroom, shivering. The cut on my arm hadn’t scabbed over yet, but the blood was drying.

“We ask Endra,” she said. “She tells us whether we’re right. If we are, we take Galen back to the Forge. We make them fix whatever they did to him. Then you cut his head off.”

“Me?”

“I’m tired of killing him.”

 

The Hospitality of the Forge

The Forge, taken as a human dwelling place, was beautiful beyond all expectation, resting as it did in a green valley whose slopes were checkered with farmland and dotted with grazing livestock. The air was warm, a pocket of spring in the midst of winter. I wondered, as I unwrapped the windrags from my face and hands, how long it had been spring in the valley. Years? Decades?

Children chased each other through the copses, laughing and shouting. The curls of vapor rising from clustered buildings carried a faint tang of woodsmoke, nothing like the heavy stench that pooled in the city whenever the weather was just so. Only the hole in the heart of the village seemed discordant. The pit was not wide, but it was deep enough to hide its bottom.

Our host was a smith named Crue. He spoke one of the trade languages well enough, and some obscure ancient dialect that delighted Lyric and briefly brought a bit of curiosity back into her manner. He lamented the usual lack of visitors, promised clean beds and a hot meal, assured us that our every question would be answered with perfect transparency.

I still spent the night watching the door. Most of the trade languages, not coincidentally, are well-adapted to lies. After a while, Lyric joined me and we sat together, unspeaking. Moved by something, perhaps the sense of nearness to the edge of the world, I finally asked Lyric whether she was blind.

“No,” she said. “I was for a long, long time.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Sometimes.”

“Do you ever close your eyes and pretend?”

“It isn’t the same.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t be.”

She found my ruined hand, held it. It seemed to represent something to her. Endra, maybe, or her own failures in a broader sense. “They won’t fix him for free,” she said. “They might not be willing at all.”

“I expect not.”

She spoke slowly, picking her words with care. “We should decide what price is lawful.”

“I wouldn’t know how to begin.”

Neither did she.

So we didn’t.

Morning came, and Crue conducted all three of us to the spiral stair that wound down into the pit. Aboveground, the people in their dozens watched us, fascinated. Below, we were ignored. Men and women tended enormous, complex engines, adding coke and stranger things to the furnaces, checking the function of valves and bellows. Racks of crystal retorts gleamed in the half-light. A translucent form like an aerial jellyfish swirled beneath a glass dome in an alcove. The motion rising around us had the feel of some vast and ancient giant waking.

“We have made a study of sharpness for generations,” Crue said. “We have catalogued the properties of every natural metal and several that nature lacked the courage to make. With Galen Mark, we saw an opportunity for a masterwork, perhaps the finest instrument ever produced by our effort. With so few visitors, we had been so long without a store of proper... material.”

“The prices,” I murmured. The air was growing warm and close around us.

“Mm, yes.”

“Tell me what others have paid you.”

“Oh, this and that. Infant memories. The sense of smell. Proprioception, in one instance, which was most unfortunate.” Crue mimed complete uncoordination and giggled, the noise obscene. “That one cut her own leg off.”

Part of me wondered how far he would fall if I pushed him over the side. All the way down, another part of me answered.

“Why?” Lyric asked.

Crue smiled. “We’re forging the sharpest instrument ever made. No—we’re forging sharpness, a perfect sharpness. Keen enough to open the universe itself.”

“Why?” she asked again.

“To find out what’s inside.”

She met my eyes, gave a fractional nod.

“We know that the real blades aren’t the steel people carry out of here,” I said.

Crue looked elated. “Oh, a clever one. Yes, well, I suppose the clues are there. The real art of sharpening, after all, is in selective removal of material. Otherwise, you merely hone.” He reached out and stroked Galen’s face. “He’s our sharpest yet, isn’t he? We removed his death.”

“Heartbeats, heartbeats, one-two-three,” Galen said. Then: “Long time coming.”

“Yes,” Lyric said, watching Galen from pale green eyes so like Endra’s they might have been her twin’s. “Sharp.”

I remembered the screams rising from the streets, the city burning and worse than burning. I thought of all those dead in their thousands as we descended deeper into the Forge, their faces blurring together.

Perhaps Lyric had been right to wear Endra’s eyes. I struggled to choose a single death to fix on, but I found nothing.

 

Side Effects

Our intended conversation with Endra over her use of the Archive in the murder of her own father never occurred. We found Lord Morton in her study instead, accompanied by four of his household mages, the reek of cloves, and my replacement as Guard Commander, whom Endra had evidently erred in choosing.

“I’m glad you’ve come,” Morton said. For all his outward calm, he was sweating. “A serious matter has come to my attention. A serious, serious matter.”

Endra’s trial, held in the same public square where she’d twice had Galen executed, took less than two hours. Morton called on me to testify, to admit my role in helping Endra kill her father and framing some poor innocent caught in the backlash of whatever unimaginable magics she had used against her own blood. I was promised exile for my cooperation. I held my peace, watching Endra, who stood statue-still and composed despite the thin trickle of blood wandering down her face.

Morton made the same offer to Lyric, who declined even to look at him. She watched his mages instead, waiting. With a bit of luck and the right choice of moment, she could kill them all, and they knew it. Her first Word, at once a claim of initiative and a confession, would be decisive. Once she spoke it, she would either win or die.

I prayed to whatever god might listen that she would keep waiting. Endra was no fool. She had surely arranged contingencies that were even now being set in motion.

The show went on. Witnesses doled out their bits and pieces of the case. A few shared logics that paralleled my own. A few told blatant lies. They spoke of the erosion of such sacred bonds as family and the role of the gentry in caring for the people.

It was thin, very thin, but it was enough. Morton would win the crowd. He had already won or bought the relevant lords and magistrates. What I could not see was how he expected to survive Lyric. Or me, for that matter. While she engaged his mages, I would take the man himself, and unarmed as I was, deep into middle age as I was, Morton had to know I stood an even chance of killing him before his guards brought me down. I could see the angles and key lines of force, could feel the calm gathering in my chest.

I was of two minds about the woman on trial, but Lyric had been my friend for over a decade, and I would not see her die alone at the hand of an avaricious, opportunistic lord like Morton. If the moment broke just so, and if I backed her, we might both live.

Then the verdict was announced, and the curtains fell from the high platform, and I saw that I had underestimated Morton. The stage held not a chopping block nor a gallows but a heavy stake surrounded by bundles of pine. Two more of Morton’s mages waited by the unlit pyre, along with the new Wordsmith, and I realized that there was more to this than empty conspiracy. Morton had never lied to me. He and the others believed in Endra’s guilt. The hell of it was that they were almost certainly right.

Endra saw the stake, and she broke.

Lyric moved with a shout and a sudden violent gesture, and an incandescent sparrow sped from her hand with all the force of a musket ball. Endra never knew what happened. One moment she was thrashing against the men dragging her toward the stake, the next she was sprawled on the platform, a hole through her chest. Snapdragons bloomed there, curling up in sprays of red and orange, and then they fell away in a handful of dust.

Lyric had spent her opening Word, and all six mages stood untouched.

Something struck the base of my skull. When I regained consciousness, I was in the care of the cranksmen.

At some point in the eternity that followed, Lyric came for me. She painted the white-tiled walls with my torturers, screaming in a language I did not know. She freed me from the machine and pressed a sword hilt into my right hand, which remembered itself at once. “We’re leaving, Hodge.”

I spat blood and followed her up the sweep of the stairs, aware that I looked like something new-crawled from the slopes of hell and flooded with strange delight at that fact, as though the marks of suffering I bore were more terrifying than anything I might meet in our flight.

“Where’s Morton?”

She wiped something from her cheek. “Several places.”

“Where are we going?”

“I have the knife. We need Galen.”

I dropped the sword, too heavy for a single hand and awkward for close quarters. “Give me the knife.”

She did, and in that moment I was alive like a raw nerve. We met little resistance as we fought our way up through the Keep. Distant alarm bells tolled above chaotic musket fire. Beyond the slit windows, fires burned in the nightscape of the city.

I paused to stare. “What’s happening?”

“They kept trying to kill Galen,” she said. “In case he was guilty.”

I stepped to the opposite window and peered down into the courtyard where Galen had died dozens of times. Where there had been trees and hedges and stone benches there was now a dark and jagged rent, as though the fabric of the world itself had torn. The rift shuddered and spread, edges squirming outward, reaching. Bits of stone crumbled and tumbled into the blackness like a cliff breaking under waves, receding with impossible speed. Motion heaved inside, writhing, far away but growing nearer.

“Side effects,” I said.

“Move,” Lyric snapped, prodding one of my burns.

I moved. We found Galen in an upstairs room. He was rocking back and forth and whimpering. Whoever had last locked him in had beaten him. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition.

“Best way out?” Lyric asked.

“Secret passage three floors down. Comes up in the grocers’ district, south edge of Hal’s Borough.”

We descended unopposed. Then came a long journey in the dark. The passage narrowed and scraped at the burned flesh of my chest. What remained of my left hand kept bumping the walls as the arm flopped uselessly. I realized I was naked, some distant part of my mind remarking on both the absurdity of worrying about it and of taking so long to notice. Once, the air rushed around us in a sudden gale. In my mind’s eye, the High Keep rained down on the rest of the palace, the fall of broken masonry crushing whatever the shockwave had left standing.

We emerged into a city in chaos. Fires bloomed. Smoke poured through the streets like congealed night. People ran, mobs forming and breaking in elaborate patterns of violence and flight. I saw a woman stove a man’s head in with a cobblestone and walk away, the surrounding mayhem her opportunity to avenge some old slight or injustice. A dozen looters rushed by, their arms piled with fine cloth and tools. A few rushed back along their course a moment later, empty-handed. Screams and the smells of death filled the air, and the bells began to fall silent.

Lyric stole a few changes of clothes and two pairs of boots while I plotted a route to the pack she had hidden years in advance. Our path led through the square where Galen had died twice. We dared not detour; madness and fire were spreading, and so we crept like rats around the greater insanity tearing itself into being just above the square, its edges near enough touch. We crawled, the edges of my burns an agony, Lyric kicking and cursing at Galen to keep him moving.

The rift overhead was growing. Stars burned within, strewn in unfamiliar constellations. Heavy in our ears there beat a steady, throbbing pulse, a monstrous bass thrumming to a count of three. I thought of the darkness beyond the Archive’s windows, of things unfit for memory or the light of day. Unrealities subsisting just beneath the order of the world.

We fled. When we had stolen horses from an outlying farm, when the city was a glowing smear of smoke on the horizon, I said, “What do we do now?”

Lyric stared at me for a while, half her face strangely pale. “Has anything that matters changed?”

“I have to believe it has.”

A slight smile. “I suppose so.” She pointed at Galen. “That has not. He’s the broken piece, the imbalance. As long as he’s alive, the rifts will keep growing.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course not. Do you have a better theory?”

“All right. So we have to fix him. Undo whatever they did at the Forge.”

“Yes. Then we kill him.”

I shook Galen. “You have something to say?”

“Suns we cannot see.” A shiver. “Starry, starry night.”

I bent over my ruined arm, suddenly exhausted. “I have no idea what’s happening.”

Lyric handed me a jar of salve. “We know who we can ask. It’s a long ride to the Forge. Are you ready?”

I nodded, and we rode, bearing north toward the Hinterlands. We did not stop until horses could go no farther.

“I’m sorry about Endra,” I said.

Lyric laid down on the bare ground and took out her eyes, leaving sockets open to the night sky. “Yes,” she said. “I thought I had done better.”

“She was always ruthless. It was a virtue, mostly.”

“Yes. But I was the one who taught her to be curious, and told her she had a choice of destinies. The desire to shape her world, to protect what matters... she learned that from me. Ruthlessness, too, I suppose.” Lids closed over emptiness. “The value of cruelty—that, I don’t know.”

 

The Death of Galen Mark

“Here’s a fine price,” Crue said, rubbing his hands together and plucking a flask from a shelf. “A year of memories. You see? You see it? Naturally, I cannot show you your associate’s preserved death—we have certain safeguards to observe—but this is a fair instance of the idea.”

There was a dark, gelatinous fluid in the bottom of the flask. When disturbed, it rippled and began to climb the sides as though struggling to escape.

Crue had led us to an underground cathedral of impossibilities in the Forge’s lowest levels, a museum of immaterial things bound nonetheless within vessels of wood or metal or glass and shelved with neatly written classification numbers. The Archive had felt like a library—an unnatural, disturbing library, but a library all the same. This place felt like a prison for qualities I had thought beyond confinement; less a disproof of everything I had believed than a violation. It was a warehouse of amputations, fragments that had once been human and still burned with the memory of it, alive with abortive motions and sounds evoking everything from ecstasy to despair.

Lyric was quivering beside me, her breathing rough, whether with rage or fascination I could not tell.

Crue continued: “We remove material. What remains is a pair of sharp objects. The steel to cut through anything, the person to cut through everything—through the universe itself.” He raised the flask, swirled the living fluid in its base, and shelved it beside its more luminous fellows. Then he fixed on me with sudden intensity. “It worked, didn’t it, yes? Our Galen opened the world itself. You were near the experiment. What did you see? What is it like inside?”

Curiosity, I thought. And the mad, misdirected violence of people trying to do the right thing. The terror of annihilation working itself out through the destruction of others. Empty streets littered with salvage so broken and begrimed that the baker who threw me a crust of bread must have thought his scraps worth nothing, and yet that crust was worth a boy’s life not two minutes later.

“Why the hell,” I asked, “do you want to know what’s inside?”

Crue frowned. “When we know how the world works, we can improve it. We will have the mythical point beyond the universe upon which to set our lever. The possibilities are boundless.”

“Then why weren’t you there to see it open?” I asked.

“Well, in the meantime, we anticipate certain missteps. Certain risks, certain local consequences. Yes? So—we have refined our process. We have improved it. Revolutionized it. It is clear, I think, from the example of Galen Mark that we are on the right path. And I am given to understand you want him returned to his original condition? Yes? Well, of course, we do still have his death available. It is quite safe. There is just the matter of a trade.”

His hands made a hissing noise as callus rubbed over callus. His face glowed in the light of the flasks. “So tell me: which of you would like to live forever?” A little showman’s flourish. “And, naturally, possess a tool of truly extraordinary sharpness?”

I stepped past him, a smooth, gliding step I had practiced a thousand times. He looked puzzled for a moment. Then he crumpled. I lowered the knife and did not deign to look down.

“I’ll see to the rest of them,” Lyric said. “Find Galen’s death.”

So while screams sounded above me, intermingled with the stranger sounds of Lyric at work, I set out with Galen in tow to find the vessel keeping his death from him. Shelves of odd shapes loomed. Crue had mentioned safeguards. I began to turn toward the back of the warehouse, meaning to search the deepest shelves for something that seemed right, but Galen pulled free. For the first time since his execution, he looked at me lucidly. “I’m back here?”

“Yes.” The shock of hearing a sentence from him stopped me cold.

He touched his ear as though trying to brush away a buzzing insect. “It went wrong.”

“You could say that.”

“There’s no room in the world for kings.”

I managed not to laugh. “There’s less room for men who won’t stay dead. You cracked open some mad god’s hell, or near enough. Did you even know what they were taking from you?”

He ignored the question. “It’s here. I can feel it.” He licked his lips, turning in a half-circle. “I want it back. Oh gods, I want it back.” He fixed on something and ran, weaving through the shelves.

I followed.

In the end, his death turned out to be a small bright shape hanging in a bell jar, diaphanous, a suggestion of slender wings and flowing motion. Galen knelt before the jar, his fingers beating out a one-two-three, one-two-three on the shelf to either side. With slow care, he reached for the jar.

It would not move. He struck it, cried out, took up a metal box and tried to smash it. The glass, if it was glass, rang with a high clear note but did not break.

I touched his shoulder and held out the knife. “Here.”

With a quick, fluid motion, he ran the blade around the edge of the jar. The glass parted, and Galen lifted it away. The shape stirred, curling in on itself like smoke. He breathed on it, gently, and its wings opened.

When his death landed on his offered fingertip, Galen Mark smiled. Then it was gone, and he with it, his face slack and his eyes a perfect blankness.

The knife landed beside his body with a flat metallic clank. I tested the edge on a shelf, then on the hair of my forearm.

“Needs honing,” I told no one.

I closed Galen’s eyes, wrapped his hands around the knife’s hilt, and went to join Lyric.

We left the children unharmed, which is to say Lyric did not intentionally injure any beyond the killing of their parents. Lyric did not speak a word of the future trouble this mercy might cause. We gave them directions to the nearest village, and we rode west on stolen horses, trying not to listen. Snow was already general over the valley, the artificial spring ended.

Behind us, smoke rose from the pit at the center of the Forge, shot through now and then with strange lights or shapes as something escaped the museum of amputations in its deepest levels. The engines themselves were so much scrap. Lyric had torn them apart, and I had packed what remained with inflammables before setting a half-dozen fires. By the time we stopped for the night, the pit would be a glowing mouth of embers and twisted steel and so much broken glass.

“Do you think it closed the rifts?” I asked. “Galen dying for real—could it undo something like that?”

“It’s possible. I doubt it, but it’s possible.”

“We did the right thing.”

“Are you asking me?”

“They thought they were right. Galen, Endra, Morton. All of them. And they all might have been, or mostly right.”

“Yes.”

“Not so much the Forge. Lunatics, those people.”

“Most likely.”

“The city’s in ruins. Empire along with it. The far provinces will be at each other’s throats.”

She said nothing.

I thought of the city cleaners who would come out in the early morning, just as dawn drew a gray bar across the eastern sky, and set to gathering up the broken glass and cracked brick and loose cobbles. The same things would happen again, the same things always happened again, but for all that, it was a new day.

“The hell with it,” I said, and I turned my horse south, back toward the city on the far side of the wastes.

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Andrew Dykstal lives in Arlington, Virginia, where he writes across all manner of speculative genres. In 2003, long before the associated meme, he took an arrow to the knee, which was about as much fun as it sounds. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, and his novelette "Thanatos Drive" won the 35th Writers of the Future contest. This is his first publication in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Find him online at andrewdykstal.com.

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