“—and she said, well, that’s as may be, lad, but if you don’t recall what color it was, then I don’t see how I can help you!”
Roars of laughter seemed to shake the hot taproom. The mule driver slapped the table, making the glasses jump, and repeated “I don’t see how I can help you!” in a way that made the barman sure he was going to be telling the story as his own at his next stop. A pair of mountain women, swathed in heavy wool blankets, their bow-cases leaning on the wall behind them, guffawed appreciatively and signaled that they were buying the storyteller’s next drink. The teller himself, a farmhand from over by Little Bhirrit on the border, basked in the attention. Nearly everyone was grinning at him, and he didn’t notice the one person who wasn’t.
“Well, now, and did you figure it out?” the barman asked blandly, provoking a fresh round of laughter. One of the other farmers, a Cladist by her accent, started trying to tell a story about a sick rooster but was shouted down by her companion, who had plainly heard it far too often.
“No, listen, listen,” one of the mountain women said. “Strange things may happen on your farms and in your towns, but it’s nothing to what you may see in the forests, in the depth of winter, far from light and hope. They say the ghost of Zayred the Splendid—”
“Pigshit on your ghosts,” the mule driver interrupted. “Zayred the Splendid isn’t even dead.” The silent, unsmiling figure in the corner leaned forward, suddenly intent.
“Killed by Cladists in the month of rains, I heard,” said the farmhand from Little Bhirrit. “They said there was a battle out in the Salt Country and she tried to hold a bridge by herself against a whole Cladist army, and she sang for six hours and held them all spellbound, while she waited for reinforcements from Devport to come, only they never did, and eventually her voice gave out and the spell broke and they killed her.” The listener in the corner twitched, but the expression that crossed her face was gone so quickly that no-one would have marked it.
“And now her ghost roams the forests,” the mountain woman insisted.
“Why would she haunt the forests if she was killed in the Salt Country?” the mule driver asked. “Anyway, she’s not dead, I tell you.” He thumped his glass down and glared around the table, daring them to contradict him.
“If she were, there’d’ve been an announcement in the church,” the Cladist farmer pointed out. Her companion nodded. “They always announce victories.”
“Did they announce when you broke a bucket over Cambry Farr’s head, Vesset?” the barman inquired, to general merriment. “That’s about as much of a battle as we’re likely to see anywhere nearby.”
“Just as well, or they might stop us coming over the bridge to drink here,” Vesset’s companion pointed out. “Cladist beer is weak, watery stuff. It’s no wonder we’re losing the war.”
“Ah, let them fight in the lowlands if they’ve a mind to,” the Little Bhirrit farmhand said, waving his hand airily. “Doesn’t change anything up here.”
“You’re all lowlanders as far as we’re concerned,” the other mountain woman pointed out, her voice gruff as though with lack of use. “And none of you take ghosts near serious enough. Now what I heard is, there was an army, sure, but Zayred the Splendid wasn’t trying to stall for reinforcements, she was trying to get them to turn back and go home. Stop the war altogether, that’s what she wanted. You see, her lover was a Cladist, killed in an early skirmish, and even though she was the greatest of the Deviskiri war-bards, from that day on she thought only of making peace. Well, she held them in her grasp for awhile, but then she caught sight of a Cladist archer in the front rank of the army who was the very image of her dead lover, and she began to weep and couldn’t sing anymore, and that’s when they killed her.”
“And now her ghost—” began the other mountain woman again, louder.
“Wouldn’t be any archers in the front of a charge,” one of the mule driver’s guards opined. “That’s not sensible.”
“Piss on your archers, and your ghosts, and all you lot,” the mule driver said angrily. “I tell you she isn’t dead.”
The barman, sensing an ugly turn in the mood of the room, stepped out from behind the bar and started toward them, but a quiet voice cut through the babble: “Zayred the Splendid is dead, and I know it, for I was with her when she died.”
The speaker stood up from her chair in the corner and glided forward into the light. She was small and dark and unremarkable, clad in a long grey cloak, her braid tied back with a grey ribbon. Neighbors glanced sidelong at each other, as though no-one was quite sure when she’d come in.
“Zayred died of a fever, not a month past,” she said. “An ignominious death, in a peasant’s bed in an abandoned farmhouse. I watched over her for three days as she sweated and shook and wept, and I washed her face and tried to calm her, and I held her hands as she died. And when it was over I buried her, on the south face of an unnamed hill, and carved her name into an ash tree nearby as a marker. Your stories are lovely—” she offered an ironic bow to the mountain women, “—and I could wish they were true, but alas, not even war-bards always have deaths worth singing about.”
With that she swept her cloak around her and walked smoothly to the door of the inn. All eyes watched her. She opened the door, sending a skirl of sleet across the threshold, and stepped out into the blizzard. The assembled crowd waited, more than one of them expecting her to pause in the doorway to make some last dramatic pronouncement, but she only drew her hood over her face against the wind and disappeared into the dark.
But the story spread...
“Well?” Zayred inquired.
Meriri stamped the snow off her boots and bent down to pick at the laces. The heavy blanket flopped back over the doorway behind her, muting the sound of the wind. “You were right,” she said. “They’re telling tales about you already. Did you know you had a Cladist lover?”
“Well, I did,” Zayred pointed out. “Remember that boy I used to meet on the roof of the assembly hall when we were students? He was a Cladist, I think. Not that I spent much time listening to him talk.”
“All right, but did you know he was the reason you died?” Meriri kicked her boots into the corner, sending a pair of wooden skis clattering to the floor. The front room of the little cabin was full of old clutter; she couldn’t recall the last time either of them had skied. “Of a broken heart, more or less.”
Zayred raised an eyebrow. “That’s what you’re telling them? Really?”
“Of course not. It’s what they’re telling each other. I told them you died a peasant’s death, of sickness. I buried you. It was terribly sad.”
“Thank you so much.”
They smiled tightly at each other.
“Is there any tea?” Meriri asked. “I’ve been drinking that disgusting upland beer all evening. I think they make it out of nettles, and I’m quite sure they don’t wash the cups.”
“It’s in the crock. Help yourself.”
Meriri knelt beside the fireplace and used the familiar foxhead-handle tongs to lift the lid of the stone crock that sat just behind the embers. Mugs were in the straw basket beside the hearth, warm in her hand, chipped in patterns familiar to her thumb. Deftly Meriri dipped a ladleful of steaming tea from the crock, filled the mug, covered the crock again, and hung the tongs and ladle back on their hooks. How many times had she made that series of movements? How many evenings had she sat here, in this cabin, and drunk Zayred’s tea?
Zayred watched her, unspeaking. The voice of a war-bard was a weapon. Sometimes in the dark years Meriri had come back to the cabin to find Zayred unable to speak at all for fear that her voice would do unintended harm. Tonight, though, she merely seemed pensive. The light of the low fire flickered in her eyes.
Meriri sat in the other chair, wrapping the quilt around her knees. “Your turn tomorrow,” she said. Zayred nodded. There was another silence, which Meriri unaccountably felt she needed to fill. “The tea’s good,” she said, and winced at how inane she sounded. She’d never been bothered by Zayred’s silences before, but then, she’d never fought a battle where she and Zayred weren’t on the same side.
Around the fire the soldiers huddled, their backs to the pine forest and its tiny constant shivers of sound. The sparks made shapes in the rising air: a cone, a cloud, an upward spiral. It was that strange blue hour between sundown and dark that only comes in the mountains, when light still leaked around the base of the slope but all shadows were swallowed in the great shadow of the peak.
Another joined them, short, stocky, beardless, with a signalman’s cap and the bandolier of flares and flags that were the tools of that trade. “Cold out,” he volunteered, rubbing his hands together before the flames. There were one or two grunts of acknowledgment. The signalman pulled out a brass flask from his jacket and offered it around. The mood of the squadron thawed noticeably.
“You just get in?” one soldier asked, after taking a long draw from the flask.
“That’s right. Sent up from Devport with a batch of new regimental codes. Seems some clever brat on the other side’s been breaking all the old ones and they’re worried about secrets going astray.”
“Devport, is it?” One of the sergeants lifted an eyebrow. “City posting? Lucky man.”
“I’m not in the city now,” the signalman pointed out. “Got sent up here with nothing but a satchel full of papers and orders to eat them if I got intercepted. And it’s not even a there-and-back; I’m supposed to stay up here and attach myself to the Third Azure Bees, which I can’t even find.”
The sergeant raised the flask to him in an ironic toast. “Consider yourself attached. Gredder and I are all that’s left of the Threebees.”
“Oh,” said the signalman. “Then this is—?”
“Ah, the Nineteenth Argent Tortoises. They’re taking in remnants from all over. Though you’re from the farthest away, I should think. Devport, hah. Hot work down there lately, I hear.”
“That’s what I hear!” crowed one of the soldiers, a patchy-faced fellow who looked like he’d been at more than one flask that evening. He elbowed those to either side of him as though he thought there was some remote chance they might have mistaken his meaning.
“It’s not like that,” the signalman said with a rueful grin. “Not for a lowly flag-waver anyway. Besides, you’ve got women’s regiments up here, haven’t you?”
The soldier made a rude noise with his lips, eliciting laughter. “There’s three companies of lady cannoneers overlooking the Drelsik Pass, but they’re not allowed to come visiting. And a couple of tweetlebirds with their personal guards, but—” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “Not like city living, I wouldn’t guess.”
“But you’ve had a battle down there recently, I heard,” the sergeant persisted. “On the salt flats, they said. Some tweetlebird killed.”
The signalman closed his eyes briefly. “Yes.”
“You in that?”
“No, but I turned out for the funeral after. Everyone did. Well, you have to, you know. There’s always a parade, everyone in their colors, drums and black horses and everything the Voice of the City could possibly think of to show how deeply she cares about whoever her incompetence has gotten killed this time.” The flask had come all the way around the circle now; the signalman tipped the last few drops into his mouth. “Everyone’s quite used to it.”
“I think I might see why you drew an assignment to the mountains,” one of the other soldiers said dryly.
“Yes, well. I didn’t say anything the whole city wasn’t saying. There were plenty of witnesses, everyone knows what happened.” The signalman blinked owlishly at the sergeant. “Everyone in Devport, anyway. Maybe they did manage to keep the real story from getting this far. Bad for morale, you know.”
“Morale? What’s that? You seen any of that around here, lads?” the sergeant asked with exaggerated befuddlement, to general laughter. “Let’s have the story, then.”
“Well, you know.” Now that he had their attention, the signalman suddenly seemed oddly hesitant. “She wasn’t like the others, this one, that’s the first important thing. Zayred the Splendid, her name was, but she didn’t choose it for herself. They gave it to her so she’d fit with all the others—Tam the Glorious, Meriri the Undying, Nerinisu the Bright—but she didn’t share their arrogance, their need to pull the strings of power. That’s why they never liked her, why they were jealous of her.” He gazed moodily into the flames. “That’s why they killed her.”
“The other war-bards did?” someone asked, disbelieving.
“It sounds absurd, I know, but it’s what happened. We were watching from the walls, we all saw. I was in one of the beacon towers, with a spyglass, so I had a better view than most. The Cladists came over the salt flats like the tide running in, all with their blue flags waving, like all those dried-up seabeds were covered in water again. And the gates of the city opened, and she emerged, Zayred the Splendid, all alone and afoot, clad all in black, with her silver circlet shining in the sun. She looked so small.” He fell silent, lost in memory.
“I heard the tw—Zayred—died holding a bridge,” the sergeant said tentatively, when the silence had stretched for several moments. “They said she held off the Cladists for hours, and—”
“No,” the signalman said. “No, that’s not how it went. She was—you can’t imagine what she was like. She wouldn’t have just held them to a standstill; she would have swept them all away. You’ve seen war-bards in battle?” he demanded abruptly, turning to the soldier with the patchy face.
“Well—sure,” the soldier said, sounding entirely unsure. “They sing, and the ground shakes, or bridges collapse, or trees fall. Or they make you brave if you hear them, or if they’re on the other side they make you afraid. But it’s all a sort of trick, isn’t it?”
The signalman smiled. “A sort of trick, yes. Like a mesmerist in a traveling carnival, making you believe things that aren’t so. But at the same time it’s real, it’s a true thing. All war-bards can do that while they’re singing, shape the world to their desires; but what Zayred sang gained permanence and persisted. That was her talent, what set her apart from all the others and fuelled their petty jealousies. What she sang became real, not just while she was singing it, but after. She could reshape the world.”
“So what went wrong?” the sergeant asked, leaning forward.
“The only thing that could have gone wrong,” the signalman said. “The other war-bards. She trusted them too much. There were four others in the city, and all of them hated her, all for their own reasons, which amounted to envy and resentment. And when she went out alone to stop the Cladist advance, they saw a chance to destroy her, and they made a—a silence around her. You could see it, a wave of air, kicking up the salt dust as it moved. The Cladists couldn’t hear her, and so she couldn’t reach them. And so their arrows struck her, a storm of them, and she died.”
“Devport didn’t fall, though,” someone pointed out. “We’d have heard about that.”
“Oh, no, the city survived. The other four war-bards fought as they always fight, and drove the Cladists back from the walls. A glorious victory, the Voice of the City proclaimed it. And she held a state funeral for Zayred the Splendid, like I said—not that there was much left of her to bury.” He spat into the fire, a minute sizzle. “But she was betrayed, that’s all there is to it. They wanted us to forget that.”
“Bunch of bastards,” the patchy-faced soldier muttered.
“All of them,” the sergeant agreed. “It’s always people like us that get the short end of it.”
“But, I mean, there’s nothing that can be done now, is there?” someone else wanted to know. “I mean, those that killed her, how can they be tried for what they did, if it’s war-bards’ business?”
“They can’t,” the signalman said glumly. “Not so long as the Voices rule their cities and make all the laws with an eye to keeping their kind above those laws. All we can do is tell the true story, and keep telling it. That’s all anyone can do.” He stood and stretched. “I’m for bed.”
In the morning he was gone from the camp—sent with his codebook to the lady cannoneers at Drelsik, the sergeant said, though he didn’t sound entirely certain. In any case there was too much to do for anyone to worry about it much, since the Nineturtles were being sent through the pass to reinforce the forts at Karur, with a major offensive on the horizon, and there were more immediate concerns than a battle that was over and done with.
But the story spread...
“Oh, very well done,” Meriri snapped. “Now I’m involved too?”
Zayred shrugged, not stopping her careful unpicking of the crown of braids wound around her head. The uniform, the cap, the equipment had all been sung fictions, and they faded away when she was out of sight, but it was easier to maintain that kind of thing when the silhouette was kept close to what people expected to see. During the dark years she’d kept her head shaved, the better to take on whatever persona was needed. Now she gloried in her hair.
“You were involved as soon as you had me killed,” she said. “You know that.”
“I didn’t—” Meriri stopped, and glared at her. “I was loyal to the Deviskiri,” she said instead. “I didn’t have you killed. You had me killed. In fact, you killed me yourself, as near as I can tell.”
“You have to admit,” Zayred said, fingers working steadily, “calling yourself Meriri the Undying was asking for trouble.”
“I admit nothing,” Meriri said with a tight grin, “and if this is death, it’s not what I was led to expect.”
“Oh, well.” Half a dozen braids tumbled loose. Zayred tucked a fistful of pins into one of the pockets of her vest and started on the other side of her head. “I expected some sort of struggle, but not with you, so perhaps we’re even, there.”
“Even? Hardly.” Meriri kicked moodily at the leg of her chair. It was solid; her boot was solid. The whole of the cabin was solid, stolid, thick-beamed, replete with memory. “Why am I haunting your home instead of mine? I ought to be back in Devport, if anywhere.”
“Do you have unfinished business with anyone in Devport?” Zayred asked. Meriri looked sharply at her, but her tone was entirely innocent. Too innocent, Meriri thought sourly. They’d all been trained to control their voices in every smallest degree, lest some work they were shaping go catastrophically astray. Zayred didn’t express anything she didn’t mean to. None of them did.
“Meriri,” Zayred said. “I’ll give this up if you will.”
Meriri turned her face away. “What would that mean?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Zayred admitted. “Maybe we’d both lose. Maybe we’d both be set free to go on. Maybe—”
Maybe you’re trying to trick me into conceding. Maybe you’re desperate. Meriri kept any sign of her thoughts from her expression. “You shouldn’t start something you’re not prepared to finish,” she said calmly. “I’ll play this out to the end.”
“So be it,” Zayred said sadly.
“There are stories spreading,” said Tam the Glorious. “Rumblings of discontent. Perhaps even of rebellion. It seems we have a martyr on our hands.”
“Zayred the Splendid.” Perad the Mighty spat the words. “Will she plague us forever?” He stalked to the tall, narrow window and leaned on the stone sill, looking out over the city through the curtain of the lowlands’ first snow. Devport was an unlovely city most of the year, dusty and lacking in fountains, but winter always softened its edges and turned it more fair. Bells clanked in the harnesses of shaggy ponies and jangled for the shift-changes of the watchers in the towers on the wall; the rattle and bang of a squad of soldiers drilling in the square was a transitory drum-fill punctuating the steadier beat of watermills and forges. All around was the tuneless music of a city long at war.
“She is dead,” Nerinisu the Bright pointed out dryly.
“As I said, a martyr.” Tam, seated at the table, hands folded before her, sounded unconcerned at the prospect, but then, she seldom showed any feeling at all. Oldest of the Deviskiri war-bards and first-ranked of their number, she had held her position through three wars and the reigns of eleven Voices, and there was little that could sway her. “To the army, mostly. Strange. They generally view us with suspicion at best, superstitious as they are.”
“They may have just seized on her as a convenience,” Lallarat the Farsighted offered. She in turn was the youngest in the room, but as Tam’s great-niece she had a certain status and generally spoke more freely than her rank might have made strictly appropriate. “If they’ve been looking for an excuse to rebel, any martyr might do as well as any other.”
“She was always something of an icon to the common people,” Nerinisu said. “Their raised-up champion. The barefoot mountain girl ascended to the second-highest position in the land.” Even in private, she never referred to the Voices of the Cities with anything other than perfect respect. That all those present knew where the real power among the Deviskiri lay made no difference. “If this really is about Zayred herself, rather than, as you say, a convenience, I’m surprised we aren’t hearing more from that quarter.”
“Which suggests there’s more at work here than merely the whims of the mob,” Tam said. “I agree. In that case, we should begin looking at the local commanders of the regions from which these stories seem to be emerging. They may not be personally responsible, or involved, necessarily, but if they’re at all competent they can’t help but be aware. A certain amount of discreet investigation focused on those quarters should furnish useful results. Agreed?”
“It isn’t that simple.”
All heads turned at the interruption, and Perad’s hand dropped to his dagger and Lallarat’s to her sling. The tower room had been not only locked with iron but also sealed by song, and no-one not of their number should even have been able to remember its existence for the duration of their gathering.
Tam’s surprise showed only in a slight widening of her eyes. “Meriri.”
“An imposter,” Perad said. “Meriri is dead.”
“Just because I’m dead is no reason to exclude me from your meetings,” Meriri said. The stairwell door behind her was closed. Had she opened it without anyone noticing, or slid through it like smoke? Neither prospect made anyone especially comfortable. “I’m still a member of this council.”
“Indeed you are not,” Tam said promptly. “However, in courtesy to your years among us, and your death in our service, the council will hear what you wish to say. What business do you bring us this morning, Meriri the Dead?”
A visible shudder passed through her at the new epithet. She rallied quickly, though, and stepped forward to stand at the end of the table. “You were talking about Zayred,” she said. “About the stories. I can tell you—”
“We don’t need more spies,” Perad said brusquely. “Particularly undead ones. If you intend to offer some trade of information for blood or souls, we’re not interested.”
“You’re being rude, Perad,” Lallarat admonished him. “We don’t know for certain that she’s evil.” She eyed Meriri with interest. “And you can’t speak for all of us, in any event. Some of us have dealt with the dead before.”
“And were warned not to do so again,” Tam murmured. “I agree with Perad. We can find out all we need to know by the usual means, without involving spirits of dubious moral standing.”
“No, listen to me, listen,” Meriri pleaded. “It’s more complicated than you think. Zayred cursed us, dying. I’m trapped in this—this competition with her, this battle, for her legacy, for the hearts of the people. We take turns appearing to people, to whomever we choose, and tell stories—about her life, her death. About mine too, now, I suppose. I can tell them anything. But the stories spread through the world, through the farms and the regiments and the cities, and our strength waxes and wanes according to what they believe of us.” She raised a hand to one of the torches on the wall. The light was visible—dim, but visible—through her flesh. “I am losing.” She kept her voice even, with great effort. She had faded further in even the few minutes since she’d entered the room. It was grotesquely unfair that one’s terror of dying should not end when one was dead.
“Well, and forgive me for asking,” Tam said, “but what does this have to do with us?”
“Don’t you see, she’s cursed you too!” Meriri cried. “All of you. I’m sure of it. I was the first to die, I’m the first locked in this struggle—but the same will happen to all of you, whenever you should happen to fall. You killed her, we killed her, and she hates us for it.”
The four living war-bards exchanged guarded looks. “Do you have any proof of this?” Nerinisu asked finally.
“I’m here,” Meriri said. “What more do you need? What proof would you accept?”
“There are ways to compel spirits,” Lallarat pointed out, bright-eyed, not quite looking at anyone.
“About which, again, you were warned,” Tam said firmly. She turned back to Meriri. “But let us say for the moment that we accept your premise. What do you seek from us?”
“Your help,” Meriri said. “Your self-interest, if you want to put it that way. It’s yourselves you’ll be helping as much as me. You won’t be able to stamp out these stories just by interrogating district commanders. We have to fight her on the ground she’s chosen.”
“Rumor,” said Nerinisu, hands folded.
“Stories, tales, these legends she’s spreading about herself. They can only be stopped by more stories. Better ones, more compelling ones. Or slander, or confusion—I don’t know. I don’t think it matters, really, so long as people stop remembering Zayred as she wants to be remembered.”
“Her stories are largely true,” Tam commented. “That will make it harder, I should think. But not much.” She smiled. “Very well. We’ll make no bargain with you, Meriri the Dead; we owe you nothing, and we agree to nothing. But we may, of our own free will, choose to tell such stories as will help you. Now leave us.”
“You told them everything,” Zayred said.
Meriri took a deep breath, relaxing her shoulders and her chest, before turning to face her friend. “I did.” She spoke off-handedly, as though it had been a small matter, barely worth mentioning. She wasn’t about to tell Zayred what it had cost her, to humble herself before her former colleagues and see them reject her. Everyone whose respect had mattered to her now saw her as a mere spirit, an afterthought, at best a useful warning or a useful sacrifice. Meriri the Dead. She wouldn’t give Zayred the satisfaction of knowing how much this was already a victory.
“Clever.” Zayred turned away, pacing the room restlessly, picking things up and putting them down again. “You were always clever, Meriri.”
“You said I could speak to anyone I wanted,” Meriri said. She felt a little defensive, and a little angry that she did. “Those were your rules: speak to anyone, tell them any story. Well, I told them.”
“I suppose you’ve enlisted them to help you? Spread tales on your behalf?”
“It’s their own lives at stake, too,” Meriri pointed out. “Their own souls,” she amended.
Zayred paused at that, as though struck by an unexpected thought. “I never told you that,” she said. “I never said the curse included anyone but you.”
“Well, of course it would! It was obvious.”
“Was it?” Zayred picked up a half-finished basket and started braiding a new lath into it, then set it down abruptly. “You didn’t even ask me. Didn’t you consider that this might have just been between you and me?”
“Why would it have been?” Meriri asked, genuinely puzzled. “All of us were involved in—in what happened.”
“But for them it wasn’t personal.” Zayred sighed. “It wasn’t personal for you either, was it? You really don’t see it as any different. I expected that kind of ruthlessness from Tam, or Yinniver, or Perad, but not from you. I thought we cared for each other. I thought—I thought you cared for me.”
“I did,” Meriri said. “Zayred, I did. You know that.” How many evenings had they spent in this cabin? Drinking tea, watching the fire, shutting out the world that had turned so bleak and terrible in the years since they were students together. Somehow it had all gone wrong, and she couldn’t think where. She looked at her hands in the firelight: solid, real, true. Zayred’s were blurring a little at the edges.
The ground was dark and sodden with centuries of rain. Water ran in rivulets over mud too saturated to take it in, and collected in little pools and depressions where footprints marked the ground, and overflowed again, always moving. Ledges and outcroppings of stone protruded here and there from the muck, the bones of the mountain exposed and visible. There was no life; anything trying to take root was washed away downslope, leaving only barren slips of mud. The sky wept.
Zayred trudged upward, feet sinking into the dark hillside, muddy water pushing at her ankles. She’d never been in this place before, and the landscape was particularly unpleasant to her, a parody of a living mountain. She’d been raised in the highlands, before coming to the city and the College, and had returned there to build her cabin as soon as she was high enough in status to be permitted to choose her own work. She could have stayed there forever. Literally, she supposed, since she’d ended up there upon dying. Maybe that was her reward, if she’d earned one.
Instead you chose this fight, Zayred reminded herself. You’ve gone too far along that track to turn back now. And even if you did, Meriri wouldn’t. It was her own fault, she knew. She’d known when she set the curse, putting her dying breath into its music and her last heartbeats into its rhythm, that Meriri was as stubborn as she was and wouldn’t concede the contest. But she had been so angry then, at the betrayal, at the loss of all the years she’d thought she had, at the stupid grinding war and the way the College kept it going. So she’d dragged Meriri down with her, and cursed them both, and now that pride was liable to destroy her.
She didn’t even know, entirely, what destruction entailed for the dead. Others among the Deviskiri bards dealt more deeply with shades and spirits, but it had never been something she’d focused on; she preferred people and the light. She knew scraps of mystery only. Enough to set a death curse. Enough, in the end, barely, to find her way here.
Now Zayred climbed, endlessly, through rain that beat down on her and drove into her face and blurred her sight. She was grateful it didn’t pass through her; she felt more solid here than she had in the cabin for the past few days. Meriri was winning, she knew. The other war-bards had turned the tide. No-one she could think of had their reach, their ability to spread their words to thousands; nor, indeed, their inventiveness. The stories spread throughout the Deviskiri host, and though they differed radically in content, their thrust was the same: Zayred the Splendid was a coward, or a traitor, or a figment, or a monster; Zayred the Splendid deserved to be reviled and ultimately forgotten. Despite herself, she admired Meriri’s cleverness. This was the only countermove Zayred could think of, her final throw; it was another escalation, and possibly a very bad idea, but the alternative was to fail and fade into nothing.
The guardian of the place, when she came upon him at last, had the shape of a red cardinal, perched on an outcropping of stone above her head, the only pure color in that landscape of a thousand mucky browns and duns and greys.
“So,” he said, in a voice at once soft and immensely powerful, like thunder heard far away across a range of hills.
“I’ve come looking for you,” Zayred said, not because she thought he didn’t know that, but because one of her few scraps of knowledge of this mystery said that there were formalities to be observed when entering another’s domain.
“This is hardly a place for you,” he said.
“Don’t I have the right to be here?” Zayred asked, meeting his gaze steadily.
“Frankly,” he said, “no.”
“But I am dead,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean you belong here. There are a hundred thousand places for the dead to go; this is one only, and not yours.”
“Soon I’ll belong nowhere,” Zayred said. She let a note of pleading enter her voice—deliberate but not false.
“And so you come to me,” he said. “You hold very loosely to the terms of your conjuration, Zayred the Faded.”
“That is not my name,” Zayred protested, to no avail; now it was, now that he had said it. “And I keep my terms. Speak to anyone, tell them any story—those were my rules. You may not be human, but you are someone that can be spoken to. And any story—that does include the truth.”
“And a plea for help.” He cocked his head to the side. “What makes you think I can help you?”
“You are a power here,” she said.
“But not in the living world.”
“My adversary has all but won there already,” Zayred admitted. “My only chance is to shift the ground of battle. The dead outnumber the living many times over, and as yet they have taken no side. I don’t know, truly, whether being remembered among the dead will be enough to help me; I’m no longer certain what the conditions of my curse are. But I have no other hope.”
“That is not so,” he said. She stared at him, realizing this was the first real answer he’d given her—if he was speaking the truth, which she had no way to know. “But your choices do grow more constrained.”
“Will you help me?” she asked him directly.
He spread his wings, fluffing out his feathers, unmindful of the rain, which didn’t seem to touch him. “Go home, Zayred the Faded. Go back to your own mountain. Go back to your own fate.”
“Will you help me?” she asked again.
“How many slain has your war sent to my home?” he asked, stepping to the edge of his outcropping. “How many to each of the hundred thousand domains of the dead? How many were your doing? How many your adversary’s? When you stood together, how terrible a force were you then?”
“I don’t know,” Zayred cried. “I don’t know.”
“Do you think you deserve my help?” he asked. “Do you think you deserve to be saved?”
“I don’t know,” Zayred whispered. “I don’t know anything anymore.” The third time: “Will you help me? Please?”
He was silent a long time, staring down at her, his black eyes fathomless. She met his gaze. She couldn’t say anything more; she was empty of words. It sometimes happened that way, though not for a long time now: that the words simply went from her, and she was left trapped, mouthless, deserted by the only power she’d ever had. Maybe this is my destruction now, she thought dizzily. Maybe she’s just now won. But it was a familiar silence; surely her final defeat would feel more new, and strange. This was the old anguish, that she knew so well.
But always before, it had been Meriri who brought her back from it.
The cardinal hopped from one foot to the other. “I will tell my peers your story,” he said at last. “I cannot say what they will do with it, or whether it will help you.”
She tried to thank him, but nothing came.
“Well, then,” he said, and spread his wings again and flew off in widening circles, red against the rain, a bright scrap in the windy sky until he was lost from sight.
The cabin was as she’d left it that morning, or whatever morning it had been, a comforting squat shape of heavy beams and warm red roof tiles, nestled amid evergreens and the white glaze of the first snow of the season. Smoke curled from the chimney. It was always the first snow here, the edge of the season just tipping over into winter, when the garden was put to bed for the year and the shed was full of firewood and the rafters crowded with braids of garlic and hams and baskets of apples. It was always the very beginning of the season of rest. She was seized by a pang of sorrow: she could have rested. She’d chosen to keep fighting instead.
Meriri was there, of course, when she opened the door and pushed aside the blanket that hung there to keep the drafts out. She sat huddled in one of the main room’s two chairs, knees drawn up against her chest, with one of Zayred’s quilts around her shoulders. There was a spill of liquid and broken pottery on the planks of the floor. “I broke one of your mugs,” Meriri said dully, not looking up. “I’m sorry.”
“Your hair,” Zayred said, startled.
“I know. It just—just happened.” Meriri ran her fingers distractedly through her hair, what was left of it, and more clumps came out in her hands. The skin on the back of her hands was cracked and dry, little flakes drifting off as she moved, settling on her lap like snow.
Zayred kicked her boots off and dropped into the other chair. “Did I do this?”
“How should I know?” Meriri grumbled. “Ask Lallarat. She’s the one who knows about the dead.”
“I don’t think she’d speak to me.” Zayred’s hat and mittens followed her boots into the pile of clutter by the wall. “Well, not unless she had me bound in a circle, I suppose. And perhaps not then. Do you remember when she tried to sing up a thunderstorm and managed to get it entirely inside her protective symbol instead of outside?”
Despite herself, Meriri giggled. The sound was hoarse, and it turned into a cough. Zayred stood swiftly and crossed to the fire, drew out another mug of tea, and handed it silently to Meriri when the coughing fit subsided. Meriri nodded thanks.
Zayred didn’t speak, only poured another for herself; the fire was low, but the tea crock still radiated warmth to her hands. As always, the tea was a dark green color in the mug, just a shade more steeped than most people would like; she’d gotten used to it, carrying it around in a waterskin under her coat on campaigns, and now preferred it that way. She took a sip and froze, startled.
“What’s wrong?” Meriri asked; of course she’d noticed.
“It doesn’t—” Zayred frowned, took another tentative sip. “I can’t taste anything. It’s hot, but I can’t taste it.”
“Well,” Meriri said dryly, “you are a ghost.”
Zayred gave a brief, humorless laugh. “Zayred the Faded.”
“And Meriri the Dead. Ah, Zayred, what have we come to?” Meriri set her cup on the floor beside her, her hands falling into her lap, open, empty. Her wristbones protruded against her papery skin.
“I didn’t want this, you know.” Zayred shook her head. “I was angry. I’m still angry. But I didn’t want this.”
“I don’t understand what you did want,” Meriri said with a sigh. “We were friends. We could have stayed friends. But you betrayed us, betrayed everyone.”
“Is that what you think?” Zayred asked sadly.
“Didn’t you? When you went out to treat with the Cladists—”
“I wasn’t treating with them.”
“You certainly weren’t fighting them!”
“And you thought I was—what? Surrendering? Selling out Devport?” Zayred stared at her. “Meriri, couldn’t you hear me sing?”
“You were far away,” Meriri said, which wasn’t an answer.
They looked at each other as though across a widening chasm: Zayred pale and wavering, the firelight through the edges of her flesh giving her an illusionary glow of vitality; Meriri bone-thin and weak, her strength being sapped away by the new attention and focus of whoever among the dead cared enough to reach out toward her.
“Zayred, I didn’t kill you,” Meriri whispered. She reached out her hands, tentatively enclosing one of Zayred’s, carefully exerting no pressure lest she slide right through Zayred’s substance or break her own fingerbones. “Zayred—tell me what happened. What you really did. I’ll believe you.”
“What’s the point?” Zayred asked bitterly.
“The terms of your curse,” Meriri said. “To tell any story to anyone. Even the truth. Even to me. Zayred—tell me. Please.”
“Zayred the Splendid, the bringer of peace, on the walls of the city, in the month of the rains.” She sang the words experimentally, running them up and down a five-tone scale. She was going to be a legend, if this day went as planned; there would be songs written about her forever.
The army was coming. From where she stood at the summit of one of the wall’s great stone towers, she could see the haze on the horizon, men and women and horses, cannons and siege engines, a massive push to take Devport and its control of the coast. This far away, she couldn’t see any single person, only their dust. That was important, that they not be individuals to her; that was a key part of the work. If she saw who killed her, the curse would misfire and attach to that one person only.
At least, that was what she understood, from snatched moments of reading in the College library, from the tangle of tales that were part of every war-bard’s instruction, from carefully phrased questions to Tioun the Wise and Lallarat the Farsighted and others who had made death magic their study. She hadn’t, and it would seem odd to everyone that she was doing so now, after so many years. She couldn’t afford to arouse their suspicions. No-one must know what she was doing, or they would stop her.
It seemed incredible, when she thought about it, that anyone would want to stop her—didn’t they see what the war was doing to the world? Already two generations had grown up in its shadow; it had been grinding on for years before she ever came down the mountain to the College, and now there were students there young enough to be her daughters. It was no longer the desperate struggle of the dark years, when they had seemed constantly about to be overwhelmed, and every battle a fight for the survival of all Deviskiri. But in a way it had become something worse now; it had become normal. And the structure that had grown up around its continuance had put the war-bards, whose abilities were the major counterbalance to the Cladists’ superior numbers, at the center of power, and most of them seemed inclined to stay there.
“Zayred the Splendid, breaker of tyrants, fearlessly watched as her death came to claim her—” That wasn’t quite right, either in sentiment or in meter, and anyway she couldn’t help laughing at herself, a little. There was no need to write her own songs; others would write songs of her in plenty, if she succeeded today. And if she failed, well, it wouldn’t matter, and she thought she might be just as glad not to hear what they wrote. More and more, the songs of the Deviskiri were ugly things.
Ugliness had somehow become normal too, creeping in everywhere. The war had stood in place for years, while the war-bards took control of more and more of the government, and the government itself controlled less and less of the country. In the mountain villages and on the foggy coast and in the islands, weary locals made their own peace, slipping back and forth across the border to graze and hunt, buy and sell, court and marry. Meanwhile those same villages gave up their youths and their harvests to the war, grudgingly, sometimes at swordpoint, hiding what they could. So the center pushed harder, and the edges frayed, and if there was still to be a Deviskiri nation at all in another generation it would depend on things changing, changing massively, and soon.
The stone stairs down through the tower were worn into a curve in the middle, part of the original city’s building, Zayred thought, as most of the north quarter was. There were old gates here that no-one now knew, long bricked over and buried; but the walls remembered their original shape. She sang, her voice echoing up the hollow structure, and reminded them, singing of the days when Devport was called Kehoin Andevirar and was the center of the salt trade across half the continent, and was full of bustle and energy and song—wasn’t that time glorious, she sang, when you were young, o city, and wouldn’t you like to remember it again, just for a little while—
The walls trembled, and the gate appeared, shivering into existence in a wall marked with layers of modern repair. Zayred touched the stones in wordless thanks and slid the gate open on silent hinges—freshly oiled, by some servant centuries dead—and slipped out onto the salt plain.
(Meriri on the wall above watched disbelievingly as the white-wrapped figure appeared. It was Zayred, just as Tam had said. Going out secretly, as the Cladists approached. Traitor, Tam had called her, and told Meriri to watch. It was absurd, it was unbelievable, and yet there she was.)
The sun was high, the plain hot, the rains days late, and Zayred was grateful for the dust-veil bound across her face. This song, her last, would take everything she was; to have it spoiled by a coughing fit would be the height of ridiculousness. Zayred the Splendid, thwarted by frailty—no! She couldn’t let herself be distracted. She was going to die a hero, and her name would live forever.
The army was closer now; she was starting to be able to make out shapes. Enough. Zayred planted her feet in the dust, and raised her arms, and began to sing.
(Meriri saw Zayred take her battle stance. At her back, she could feel the others watching. They’d told her she should be the one to lead the song, knowing Zayred as well as she did. Meriri didn’t consider herself naive; she knew her friendship with Zayred put her under suspicion also, knew that this was a test of her own loyalty. So be it. Tam was right; Zayred had chosen her side. Meriri braced herself on the wall, and began to sing.)
It wasn’t working. Zayred could feel the magic slicing out toward the army, and being diverted, and sliding harmlessly away. The notes rippled from her throat, the music of power, the beginning of her legend, and were met with a wall of silence, and vanished. She could see the dust roiling before her, shapes detaching from the main body of the army, cavalry thundering forward; the Cladists knew what a war-bard looked like, and were racing to stop her before she could attack, not knowing that she was somehow, inexplicably, already being stopped.
It wasn’t the army; the Cladists had never had any access to Deviskiri magic. Without taking her gaze from the dust-cloud, Zayred turned her attention rearward, toward the city, and there it was. The Council had spotted her after all, seen what she was doing. But that was all right, she’d known they might. She just had to try harder.
The thunder of hooves; cries in a foreign tongue. No time. Zayred could feel the Council’s magic faltering, about to break. She was the stronger, she always had been. She was going to win. She turned her head and looked back over her shoulder, triumphant.
The foremost figure on the wall looked down at her, and it was the one person she’d never expected, the one friend she’d had through all the terrible years of the war, the one she’d let into her home, the one she’d trusted—and her song faltered, for a moment, just as the charge bore down.
Spears pierced her, and she died. Meriri, she thought, at the end, this is your fault, and the wall of silence that had been set between her and the army, an impenetrable rampart before her, was open at her back, and her last breath flew to the walls of the city, and carried magic.
“You’re telling me it was a mistake,” Meriri said. “You—all of this—you didn’t mean this?”
Zayred looked away. “I was angry,” she said quietly. “I lost control. It wasn’t you I meant the curse for, not originally; it was a moment’s lapse, no more. And then you were here, and the curse had settled into this shape, and I thought, if it’s too late for anything else, if I’ve lost everything I meant to do, I can have revenge at least.” She bit her lip. “I’m sorry, Meriri. I truly am.”
“You were trying to curse the war?”
“I’d have settled for that,” Zayred said, with a shrug.
“You’d—” Meriri ran her fingers through her thinning hair. Little flakes of skin rose from her scalp in a cloud, like snow. “I don’t understand.”
“Not just the war,” Zayred said. “I thought, if it worked, if I bound my death to that—Meriri, I was the strongest of us. You know they always told me I could be the key to winning the war—I thought, if that was true, maybe I could be the key to stopping it. Not just for us, but for always.”
“Not just the war,” Meriri echoed. “All war. That’s what you were doing? Trying to put a death curse on war itself?”
Zayred smiled sadly. “It was a bit presumptuous, maybe.”
“And I stopped you.” Meriri shook her head. “I wish I’d known. It would have been—even if you’d failed, it would have been a glorious failure.”
“And an inevitable one, I think.” Zayred lifted her hand, studying her translucent fingers in the firelight. “I can see a little farther now, Meriri. Not much, but enough. It was always a doomed effort. You can’t just magic people into doing things differently. If I’d tried—” She laughed suddenly, sadly. “If I’d tried exactly what we’ve been doing, these past few—days—however long it’s been—and put all my efforts to convincing people instead, to changing their minds—”
“If I’d helped you,” Meriri said.
“If I’d asked you.”
“If I’d thought of it.”
“If either of us had.”
“We might have been heroes, after all.”
They looked at each other, the one skeletal, the other ethereal. Neither could be mistaken now for anything but a ghost.
“How will they remember us now?” Meriri asked.
“I don’t know,” Zayred said.
There seemed nothing more to say. The room had darkened, while Zayred spoke; outside, snow was beginning to fall, quietly, flake on flake. They sat in their chairs, mugs of tea in hand, and watched the fire burn down.