To Kiss the Granite Choir, Pt. I

Issue #27, First Anniversary Double-Issue

Imre Usaym Balgas stood near the dais alone, waiting to be judged. In a sling at his hip dangled a living sword grown from the bones of a dead man. This he clutched as he watched Bellico punish.

Maestro Bellico’s skin was the color of bronze, his features hawkishly angled, his movements lithe. He and the challenger, a stranger to Imre, circled each other with the patient deadliness of warships in deep water, until by some silent agreement they lunged, stone blades colliding with a thunderous report. Thrice more they crossed with rat-a-tat speed—bark and crash and clack—until a sudden red mist wreathed the challenger, and he sagged to the ground in a heap.

Bellico raised his stone arm in triumph.

The assembly cheered. They were the peers of the clan Baremescre. And each had an arm of stone, the right arm, every one. At the shoulder joint, flesh blended seamlessly with a durable substance that composed the entire limb, inside and out, down to the fingertips. It was iron-hard yet very much alive, able to move, turn, and flex. Each stone arm, or vesti ferre as it was called in Silici, differed from the next in color and shape, for it grew according to character.

The Baremescre rang out their applause in an amphitheater of sculpted marble, in galleries flanked by ancient archways of wrought stone vines and blossoms cunningly entwined with true ivy.

Imre stood in Baremescre garb—linen trousers with a bolt across his chest—upon a tight, pliant sward that made up the amphitheater floor. Even in the dawn chill his bare scalp was beaded with sweat. He struggled mightily to keep his breathing steady. But his father had taught him to at all times observe, so even while his heartbeat raged, he studied. He studied the surgeons as they carried the defeated man away, watched the lurid flow of blood stain the green grass black. He swept his gaze across the gallery, even as dozens of Baremescre gazes bent to take his measure. And most intently he studied the souls upon the dais, for that was where his fate lay.

Bellico, with blade in hand and showing no signs of fatigue, had returned to his place next to his wife, Ariosa. Together they ruled the clan, for together they were the deadliest of their people. Two of their children sat beside them: Eroico, a boy at least ten years Imre’s junior who nonetheless served as the clan ambassador, and his sister, slender and grim, Cantiléna with the copper-colored arm.

When the assembly had at last settled and Imre’s turn came to approach the platform, he saluted the family in their own fashion, a bow at the waist and a strike at the breast with a closed fist. The thump he produced was a far cry from the mighty clap the Silici folk delivered with the same gesture.

“Theca Ariosa, Maestro Bellico,” he said in Silici, “I attend your will.”

Bellico shifted his hymn, a blade as wide as Imre and longer than Imre was tall. “Be at ease, peregrin,” he said. The irony was worth scoffing, nearly. The clan chieftain’s weapon was eel-smooth and paler than cream, a platinum vein splashed down its face. It had grown to reflect the heart of its master, pure and firm, large and ferocious. Bellico’s vesti ferre was, like his hymn, an impeccable white that gave startling contrast to the swarthiness of his skin, though along the stone forearm were inch-long black spikes. The Maestro had lost an eye when he was younger than Imre. In its place grew a bleached stone horn. What, if anything, he saw with it Imre didn’t know.

“This morning finds you hale,” he said in a loud voice. The assembly saluted with a clap and answered, “It does.” Bellico flipped his hymn so the spine of it rested across his shoulders, then stepped forward to the edge of the dais to tower over Imre. This was the second time the council had been called to order. Imre glanced at the bloodstain in the grass and wondered if there would be any more interruptions.

“For matters of war,” Bellico said, gesturing with his stone hand, “matters that affect our lives and our traditions, we come together as a family, and as a family we enforce our will. This is the law of the Voce. It serves us as we serve it.” He waved toward Imre. “This peregrin came to our shores a fugitive and a meddler, and as payment for his transgression was bound by an honor debt. He has given us his song, for what it is worth, but he has also given us disrespect, disorder. And now he invites war to our doorstep, peregrin navies threatening our isle, even as he besmirches the purity of certain of our clan.”

At this last Imre felt a chill from his scalp to his nethers. So they knew. Eroico had told. The ships were waiting. And his life was soon to be worth naught but a few buckets of jackal dung. Now was the time, this moment or never.

Before Bellico said another word Imre gathered his breath and his courage and shouted, “Maestro Bellico! A moment!”

The indecency sent an angry buzz rippling the gallery until Imre had the sense of many eyes measuring his neck for the edge of a blade. Upon the dais, Ariosa appeared somewhat bemused, as did Eroico. Cantiléna’s face was a mask. The Maestro, though, fixed Imre with a look fit to darken a room. “You speak out of turn, peregrin.”

“Forgive my insolence, I—”

“Your insolence will see you spitted!”

Imre bowed, reminding himself to be careful. “That may be so, Maestro, and though your wrath is kindled, I beg an indulgence before you pass my fate to this noble assembly. I pray my service to your clan these many months affords me a measure of mercy.”

“Your service is payment, and our mercy is short. But you have fought for us. And though you sing like a mule, your talents have seen their use. Ask your favor.”

Imre kept his head bowed, blinked against the sweat in his eyes. “You mention singing, Maestro, and that is well, for I request a song.” This moment or never. “I request thalamos pugna.”

The gallery erupted with the roar of a thousand voices—laughter, questions, taunts pouring down in a torrent of Silici that would have put any market auction to shame. Hymns were shaken. The ground beneath Imre’s feet shook from the force of stone fists and sandaled feet pounding throughout the amphitheater. His head remained bowed.

Over the din, Imre heard Bellico’s voice thunder from the dais. “Stand straight, peregrin!” When Imre obeyed, he saw the Maestro glowering, that hard white hand raised for calm. Gradually the assembly quieted. And when the sea could be heard over the old stone walls, when Imre’s own heartbeat rushed in his ears, Bellico spoke the words. “Challenge who you will.”

Imre was astounded when both his voice and hand held steady as he raised his dark hymn and pointed it toward the dais. “I would sing with the Third Blade of the Baremescre clan, with your eldest child. I challenge Cantiléna.”

This time there was no buzz, no roar, only one collective intaken breath as if all sound had been swallowed in a tempest.

Cantiléna, though, never hesitated. She drew her copper-brown tortoise-shell blade then stepped next to her father. “I accept,” she said. And with her arms taut and her trousers rippling slyly in the wind, she looked just as dangerous as that day on the harbor road.

“I call on my clan to sing beside me!” she cried. “Come, all you willing! Come cross hymns with the peregrin!”

Imre’s sword point dropped to the ground as his jaw dropped to his chest. Her clan? Her entire yanking clan? Damn him to a frozen hell, he hoped he’d misheard. But there it was, plain. The rows above were aswarm, the Baremescre leaving their seats to throng the stairways, flexing their hard stone arms and freeing their hymns from their slings.

Less than ten hours ago, surrounded by smoke and bones, Cantiléna had told Imre he would lose his life today. As he watched the army of half-stone warriors descend upon him, Imre prayed to the stars she was wrong.

Verse

Aside from the clothes on his back and a sackful of trinkets, Imre Balgas had made landing at Craggerman’s Maw with scant few necessities: two pattern-welded dueling blades, as any gentleman would wear, his father’s grimwade musket, and a spool of puppet strings hand-woven by Tayuya the Harmonist. Together they represented all that remained of the beauty in his life, which was why it made him sick to the belly to bring them to shore in a place like the Maw.

Imre carried his musket and spool rolled together in a bundle of oilcloth. This he swung over his shoulder as he stepped from the gangplank into the flow of the great unwashed, old Naldo Randal following close behind. With the Jinan marauders hunting the waters for their trail, Imre and Naldo had need of passage on some new vessel heading further into the tropics, hopefully as far south as Tahan. Imre scanned the ships at berth and sighed. They would be a long time searching.

Trader cogs flying the Jinan flag were jammed into the quay, each no doubt bearing a dozen greedy hearts willing to trade for marauder coin any rumor of the last son of Balgas. But in the distance were stranger sights that brought no comfort: eight-legged floaters sitting on the water like pond striders; lanky transports with dozens of masts and a thousand woven cords in the stead of sails; gnarled floating fortresses made entirely of black iron, vomiting smoke; hulls of bone, hulls of glass, hulls of a wood bristling with stiff pearly whiskers. The docks of the Maw crawled away to the east and west with one monstrosity after the other.

“Ugliness for the ugly,” Imre said. For in the hills rising to the south, above the confused jumble of shipyards, taverns, and fish markets, rested two estates of red marble, each with tiered garden pavilions overlooking the bustling waterfront. There, haughty and bronze-skinned figures idled in the sun, each with that stone-limb deformity, each with a covey of slaves.

“Do the Silici disgust you so?” Naldo asked.

“They’re mongrels, aye, dirty blood, no doubt. But worse, they trade flesh, Naldo. They keep men at their heels like curs.” Imre eyed a craggerman swaggering through the crowd, and spat. “My father would have had them all stretched across a hot dune for the buzzards to pluck.”

“True,” said Naldo. “Any other lord of the League would do the same. But we are fleeing the League, Adalheid has been sacked, and your father, may he bathe forever in light, is gone. You are deep within the Silici Archipelago. There is no memory of the Djinn here, no history of captivity, no code of liberty. You must accept that.”

Naldo was an arbiter—scholar, tutor, and agent of the will of House Balgas. He’d begun his service with Imre’s great-uncle Gideon, for whom he’d lost two fingers and most of the use of his left arm. The limb was a cracked and withered mess wrapped under gauzes of cotton and bound to his body in a sling. Even so, he fancied himself a warrior poet, the tough old man, and with quick feet and sinewy strength in his good arm he swung a wicked knock with the saber. Brains by the bucket, oak in the spine, and a love for lecture—that was Naldo.

“As for mongrels,” he was saying, “know that your own House Balgas is noble for its history of courage, not purity. The firstblood is in your veins, true, but that is simply controlled breeding, young master. Don’t confuse it with virtue.”

Imre hefted the oilcloth and chastened himself. Naldo was right. Imre was House Balgas. It wouldn’t do to place his own prejudices above the needs of his House.

They were wandering past a battle-scarred galleon, Naldo lecturing and Imre doing his best to listen, when a commotion rang out. Imre knew crowds, knew their different voices, and this one screamed fight. He craned his neck to spy masses of folk gathering near one of the paved roads winding down from the hills. He veered off to investigate, Naldo zealously oblivious.

The crowd thickened quickly, a press of elbows and human odor sharp and cloying, but with the now unmistakable sounds of argument rising over the din, his curiosity drove him on. When at last Imre gained a vantage, the crowd, buzzing like an angry hive, was in array about two figures struggling in the road, one male and the other female. Both craggers.

The sandy-blonde man, lean but well muscled, was clutching with his hard stone fist the flesh arm of a young woman, no older than Imre and done up in linen trousers under a bolt of blue wrapped from hip to breast. The man was possessed of an ugly black limb, knobbed all over as if covered with dewberries. Hers was smooth and copper, but no less unsightly. It was a case of jilted love, Imre saw at once. Dewberry entreated the woman over and again for some favor, which she flatly refused. Imre understood the words weak and fool from her stream of Silici, but the rest was lilting gibberish. Instead of listening, he took advantage to examine the far-famed cragger blades.

There was rumor in the League that the craggers used sorcery—Djinni spells, blood sacrifices, all manner of wicked devices—to grow evil-minded swords from the flesh of their young. These babes had hideous bony spurs jabbing from the inside of the left arm, the sinister arm. As the babe grew so did the blade, until it fell from the body and became a fell weapon. There was a large dimple in the woman’s flesh arm, catching pools of shadow as she strove with her petitioner. Her sword, darkly rippled like a polished tortoise shell, was straight and double edged and hung from her right hip. It was forged of no metal. Nor was Dewberry’s, very long and slung across his back; it was thick as a steak and looked to be ungodly heavy. Imre’s own swords were slender reeds in comparison. But in the tales the blades supposedly spoke and saw the souls of men and turned piss into liquid gold. It was folk foolishness, Imre was sure.

No cragger had ever been seen outside of their archipelago domain, not in their long history with the jungle island lords, not in their years of trade with Jinan cities. They never traveled, never showed interest in expansion. But Arbiter Naldo had made landing at the Maw many times before. He likely knew more of these ugly folk than any in all the Jinan League, and it might be he had some bit of truth about their swords.

Imre began to look for an escape from the throng, muscling and jabbing where necessary, but his efforts were spoilt when the cragger man spat something harsh that sent a fresh buzz through the crowd. The collective energy shot in an instant from pleasantly entertained through to full-on bloodlust. They wanted a fight.

They would not be disappointed.

The young woman responded softly, though her words were surely barbed, for her fretted suitor cuffed her across the jaw with his stone fist. The blow snapped her head round, but she righted herself imperiously, spoke, and was struck once more, this time with an open hand that cracked like a whip. The woman spat blood, yet she faced him. She laid a hand on the hilt of her blade. “Denuo,” she said. Imre knew the word. “Again.”

All around him sailors and beggars and fishwives and urchin girls were shouting curses and praises and words of shock. But Dewberry had gone far past caring. As the woman stood unprotected, he clenched his stone fist and slammed it full in her face. The woman went tumbling backward like a batted doll, first her shoulder then her head cracking loudly against the hard road.

Dewberry yanked his monster sword free. He raised it above his head.

And Imre Balgas found himself charging forward, plowing bodies, lifting the bundle from his shoulder. He found himself shouting, “Hold!” and breaking away from the safety of the mob. It was a splash into a pond of silence, and the ripples spread quickly. Mouths that a moment ago had been jetting spittle, blaring cries with vigor, now snapped closed, their voices hushed until only the gulls gliding above were free enough to caw. The people nearby all but trampled each other to make way, but aside from their grunts and scuffles none made a sound. He had just crossed a line that was likely never spit across in Craggerman’s Maw.

But he couldn’t turn back.

The jilted suitor shot Imre a poison look. “Tum podem extulli horriduloso, peregrin!

Imre had no idea what the bastard was spouting, but he knew a challenge in any tongue. The woman was standing then, scowling over a bloody mouth. When Dewberry returned his attention to her, Imre filled his own mouth with phlegm and gobbed it at the cragger’s foot. “You shouldn’t mistreat ladies, you sow-thumping ass,” he said as he wiped his lips. “Even mongrel wenches like her.” Then Imre Balgas drew his father’s musket.

The grimwade was a classic design, water-cooled and fueled by a glossy green ore contrarily named camellia. This one had a ten-blast capacity, but eight had been spent in his and Naldo’s escape from the city. Imre charged the remaining two. He set his finger lightly over the triggers. He took aim for Dewberry’s heart.

Porcus foeda!” the craggerman snarled, before tilting his sword and shifting his weight. And that was all the warning Imre had. In one instant his space was clear; in the next the bastard was bearing down on him, full tilt. Imre grit his teeth and squeezed both triggers, releasing a double blast of emerald energy into Dewberry’s gangly form. The kickback punched hard against Imre’s shoulder, steam billowing in clouds in all directions, but he hardly noticed, for in dazzled shock he watched as Dewberry swung just so and caught the musket blast square. Crackles and light and a rush of ozone, and the shot fizzled harmlessly across Dewberry’s stone arm. He never broke stride.

You can’t succeed in this world, little cub, until you’ve learned to embrace pain. It was Bapa’s favorite lesson, and even now it was stuck in Imre’s mind like a thorn.

As Dewberry slashed with his demon sword, Imre tossed his father’s musket and dove without pause into the arc of the blade. The enormous hunk of stone bit his side with a thud and a splash of hot gritty agony, but Imre took it all, jamming the swing short. Dewberry lurched off balance, giving Imre the extra seconds he needed. He wrapped his arm round the stone blade, hugged it close, grasped underhanded the worn leather grip of his own short sword, and slashed across Dewberry’s chest. A startlingly red ribbon opened from hip to nipple, but the cut stayed shallow as the cragger’s very ribs, impossibly hard, turned the slash so that it rode high and sliced cleanly across his eye.

The cragger never so much as flinched.

Stars be damned!” Imre swore, even as Dewberry, half-blind, came round with a crushing stone fist that knocked him into the dark. The world tipped. He stumbled. With all the focus he could muster he held fast to the hilt of his sword, yet still he reeled. The fight was lost. He knew it. Cursed himself for it. But where was Dewberry? He stumbled on legs that felt sutured. Dewberry should have been killing him.

He tilted about for what felt like hours until with a great effort he caught his balance, forced his legs steady. A few breaths cleared his vision, and with a queasy sense of vertigo he realized he’d been spun around. The crowd was on the wrong side. The cragger woman was now standing before him, still bloody in the mouth and staring intently to Imre’s rear. Imre blinked against the motes in his eyes and followed her gaze to where Naldo Randal was saluting with his saber the very angry Dewberry.

“Stand down!” Imre shouted. But his tongue was too thick and his tutor too eager. The old man shot forward on nimble feet. Dewberry rushed to meet him. They crossed once, twice with the clangor and clash of angry blades, shards of Dewberry’s stone sword flying from Naldo’s blows. On the third, the cragger bruised him with a shoulder charge then slashed him across the back as he spun.

Imre grit his teeth and moved to stop Naldo, to stop him and to gut that brutish cragger bastard.

The coppery woman was faster. She stepped in his path, her freakish arm raised, palm out. “Nit,” she said, before laying her flesh hand on the hilt of her sword.

Imre didn’t have time for this and opened his mouth to tell her so, but a blow with the force of a two-ton ram plowed into his stomach and squeezed nothing but hollow wind out of him. He staggered back, retching, before crashing to his knees with his insides sloshing like porridge.

The moldy wench had hit him! One inch of distance and barely any movement and she’d knocked him to the dirt. When at last his guts unclenched to allow him some air, Imre fixed her with his best evil eye. “Move,” he said between breaths.

The wench only stared.

A loud crack and grunts of pain from Naldo and Dewberry. Imre rose to his feet.

“Move,” he said again, stepping forward, the pain in his belly easing by the moment.

The woman narrowed her eyes. “Nit.”

Imre unsheathed his longblade and held it parallel to his short. He’d never used steel on a woman, but he was not beyond slapping this one senseless with the flats.

She pulled her tortoise shell blade from its sling and eased into a stance.

Still fighting dizziness, Imre shifted his balance and lunged.

It was then that a scream rent the air. The cragger woman startled from the cry, and the crowd of onlookers finally broke their silence with one collective but short-lived gasp. Imre stumbled to a halt, squeezed his eyes shut as the scream continued on, rising high in the wind, scorching his nerves with the echo of pure animal suffering, until it fell to a gurgle. And silence.

Imre’s heart felt squeezed. His city was in ruins, his family... ashes. He and Naldo were all that were left. It took time for him to build his courage, but when he did, he opened his eyes and pushed past the startled cragger woman, just in time to see Naldo, bleeding and haggard, yank his saber free of his opponent’s belly. Dewberry let slip his splintered blade before falling like a plank to the paved road, pouring the last of his life out in the dust.

Over the quiet stretched the distant shouts of men on the quays, the cries of gulls overhead, the sun pouring heat into the stench of sweat and fresh death. And there was Naldo, as he turned to Imre and smiled.

“The honorable thing,” he said flatly, before collapsing over the body of the man he’d slain.

Chorus

For every important event, the Baremescre sang. And singing, as with all things about these people, was a violent affair. Imre had no reason to expect a wedding to be any different.

The peerage continued down to the amphitheater floor, queuing now four deep, while Cantiléna and her parents conferred intently upon the dais.

Eroico, though, hopped down with his usual vigor. “What a grand gesture to start the morning,” he said, grinning.

To that Imre could only shrug. “Let us call it a gesture. If I am still breathing by dinnertime, then perhaps we can name it grand.”

“Still,” said Eroico, “a wedding song with my clan, and for the hand of Cantiléna of all people. You must be mad, peregrin. Or thunderstruck.”

They rambled together from the dais toward the center of the field, their breaths mingling in the crisp morning air. Thunderstruck was the Silici way of describing a fall into love; a man could be forgiven much in such a state, for the Silici considered those passions a matter of nature, not of will. But Imre was not a man to the Baremescre. He was a quasi, a near-man, a mute, stoneless and songless and weak, and Imre had no illusions as to how his choice was being received. Already the Baremescre descending from the gallery were pointing at him and, he guessed, discussing the apparent flaws in his physique. “They still come.”

It was Eroico’s turn to shrug. “Most will,” he said lightly. “Thalamos pugna is a matter of grave honor. Any who are healthy and able will face you, especially because of your...” here he paused before politely concluding, “foreign disposition. If a man or woman from another clan challenges one of ours to a wedding, my family is very careful to try that outsider thoroughly. But for a peregrin, I suspect we truly will see your dinnertime goal before the songs are done.

“My mother and father will be last to sing before Cantiléna, so there is a fair chance you will die without an opportunity to face her,” he said. “Still, you are hearty, peregrin, and not altogether hopeless. Think on it: just two kisses each and you will be a married man!”

Imre rounded on him sharply. Kisses? There was too damned much he was ignorant of here. He’d heard of thalamos pugna on the war campaign and knew it to be a duel for the hand of a Baremescre woman. If any man, even a near-man, could prove his strength, he could count himself a worthy member of the family. That alone seemed enough when he’d set out for this assembly. Now it seemed an obscenely scant bit of information.

His concern went unnoticed.

Bellico was calling the assembly to order, and Eroico inclined his gaze, gleeful and expectant, to attend his father’s words.

“Cantiléna of the Baremescre has accepted the challenge from peregrin Imre the Balgas. The law opens this right to any man who bears a hymn.” From the gallery came scoffs and grumbles of “mute.” Imre kept his peace—teeth clenched and hymn gripped tightly—even as Bellico caught his gaze with mismatched eyes and held it firm. The stare made Imre feel as though his soul had been split by that wicked white horn, the truth of his fear spread and pinned for all to see.

He caught the fear and wrestled it down. So he had miscalculated. Who in all hells cared? It was just like his first performances under Tayuya, only now it was his story he was conducting. Don’t force the tale. Accept it. Invite it. Then direct it out through the strings. But in the stead of strings, he had his blade. Imre wiped the sweat from his palms and hefted the black and copper sword.

“You are versed in our traditions for thalamos pugna,” said Bellico.

“I am,” Imre lied.

There was a long moment between them as each man tried to understand what the other was thinking. At last, Bellico nodded.

Ariosa stepped forward, Theca to the Maestro, carrying an air of both wisdom and quiet dignity that made her appearance timeless. She was a good deal older than Bellico, had wedded late in life for want of a man to suit her fancy. But Imre had never seen on her a wrinkle or spot. Her hymn curved as a sickle and, like her stone arm, was deeply indigo. The amphitheater fell quiet as she invoked the Voce for strength and sport and good songs. “Invest our hymns,” she said at the finish, “with the strength to kiss well.”

“Now we sing!” Bellico shouted.

The assembly cheered, Cantiléna glared, and unfledged Eroico bounced on his toes at Imre’s side. “Father! Father!” he shouted into the din, stone arm waving gaily. When Bellico finally paid heed, Eroico cupped his hands to his mouth and said, “Please!” The Maestro looked from his son to Imre and back again before tossing his hand in resigned permission.

Eroico’s hymn was short, broad and grown for the close thrust, its brilliantly regal sapphire hue popular among the younger peers of the Baremescre. Imre had never seen it used in earnest. Not until Eroico, still grinning from his father’s indulgence, spun it from its sling and cut Imre across the throat.

Verse

After the brawl, Imre and Naldo had been seized, stripped of everything save their clothes, and dragged off to separate cells. Imre’s was nothing more than a moist and rough-hewn hollow in a cliff side, but after his weeks aboard ship, the silence was as much a comfort as if he sat wrapped in a prince’s quilt.

He had dozed and dreamt of a puppet show where his father’s corpse danced beneath the strings, ash vomiting from its purple lips, when footsteps outside his cell startled him awake.

This time two guards, both with rock arms and pernicious blades, silently escorted him from the cell into a bright, muggy afternoon. Imre blinked against the light, shook away the last clinging miasma of his dream, then followed the guards down the cliffside path onto a road that cut deeper inland. They spent a good deal of daylight walking this road, resting twice at small manors surrounded by pruned coppices, but pressing on. Soon the sea breezes faded and the southern humidity made good on its reputation. Theirs was a beautiful country—flowers blooming a dozen hues of every color, shaded by wild fruit trees with thick, broad leaves, the air alive with honeybees and tiny hovering birds. But by the time they reached the sitting garden, Imre had a mind only for the cramp in his back, the sweat in his eyes, and the late afternoon midges dying against his sticky skin.

The guards led him to stand before a rough semicircle of seated craggermen, behind them rippled a freshwater pond skinned by water-lily.

He was instantly relieved to see Naldo reclining nearby upon a pile of cushions. The Arbiter looked drawn, but his wounds had been treated and his color was good. He smiled when he saw Imre. The anxiety, though, was glaring.

The eight craggers that lounged upon the benches each paradoxically bore a combined countenance of languor and barely suppressed action. The grim, one-eyed man sitting in the center with the white rock arm was Bellico, and he alone spoke to Imre, albeit through Naldo’s translations. Bellico had brought his wife, one son, four other important-looking craggers, and the nut-skulled wench from the harbor road who, as ill luck would have it, was the chieftain’s daughter and heir. Every one of them bore a dimple in the flesh arm.

When the courtesies were done, Bellico bent his hard gaze upon Imre and asked a question.

“Maestro Bellico has inquired after your injuries, young master,” Naldo said.

“My injuries?” Imre asked. When he’d been first dumped in his cell, stoneless surgeons had examined him and, Imre was proud to see, were utterly dumbfounded. Now as then, he lifted his shirt to show Bellico and company the flesh at his side was completely mended, showing not even a scar. He drew the farce out before raising his finger. “Ah, the sword wound,” he said in mock revelation. “A trifling nick. Tell them my clan heals quickly from such things.” A crack to the skull or spine would kill him quick as the next man, but to say as much Imre felt ill-advised.

Naldo translated.

“Tell us the name of your clan,” Bellico ordered.

“Balgas, First of the Firstblood Houses, Lords of Adalheid and Conquerors of the Nefarious Djinn.” Imre went on to explain that nobles of the firstblood enjoyed stouter constitutions and sharper acumen than average men. When Bellico asked for a demonstration, Imre repeated every syllable of conversation the group had exchanged thus far, even the sounds of foreign Silici.

“Your memory is perfect,” Bellico said with a raised brow.

“Nearly. We forget nothing important.”

This led to a long back and forth between the cragger chief and the Arbiter that left Imre to his perspiration and his thoughts. He locked his fingers together in the puppeteer’s ‘ankabut limbering drill and wondered how far his family’s reputation would carry with a cragger audience. If the stars shined any grace upon him, these folk would not be at all as merciless as this damned sodden climate.

He glanced around the group, whispering a bawdy sea ditty to steady his nerves while relishing the pleasant ache in his hands, and caught another pair of eyes staring back. It was Bellico’s son, and the boy started, flushed, and turned away sharply at Imre’s gaze. Now what was that? Imre wondered.

But when next their hard hosts addressed him, it was the idiot wench who spoke, and all other thoughts vanished.

“Cantiléna wishes to know what you do with transgressors of the law in your land.”

“Prison or death,” Imre said with intentional disdain. “Depending.”

“We also have two penalties,” the cragger woman said. “You have fouled our laws, so make your choice: payment or song.”

Imre had learned from Naldo what singing meant to the craggers, and wouldn’t mind a chance at trouncing this reedy trollop. But to Naldo’s palpable relief he asked, “Is this to say we can pay coin for the man we killed?”

The woman’s anger flashed hot. “Coin is a toy for slaves and fat foreign merchants. Never presume to trade this for the life of our kin!”

“You said payment,” Imre began impatiently, but the wench wasn’t finished.

“Your Sage slew our man while singing. Singing is always an honor in Silici Tarraneh. Your transgression....”

Naldo stopped and stared at Imre. “You are charged with insulting and humiliating the lady Cantiléna.”

Imre nearly choked. “What?!”

The woman was running fast at the mouth now. “The song... the song was hers and you stole it... humiliated her. For that you have a debt to the clan Baremescre.”

She sat there with her hand on the hilt of her blade, speaking as if to a pair of dogs. It was too much.

“So all this pageantry and gruff because I stepped in to save that poxy shrew, and she’s too thick to know it? Stars fall! I’m sick to rot of these wooden-brained fools, and to a hell of boiling piss with that mangy mongrel bitch. And tell her I said it. Tell her I wish I’d left her to have her hole ruined to mush by that doghearted, dung-filled, horse-fouling pustule.”

Imre cursed onward with a skill to blush a slum whore, vomiting the weeks of pent-up vehemence in one long luscious stream. He damned. He hexed. He described blisters in unseemly places.

And too late, he noticed the cragger boy. The one who’d been staring as Imre sang his bawdy song. The one whose eyes and mouth now grew steadily with Imre’s every unhallowed word until they sat upon the boy’s face like a trio of saucers. And then, at the height of Imre’s crusted poetry, the little mucker leaned to whisper fiercely into his father’s ear. And Imre knew suddenly that there was another translator in their midst.

Audes!” Bellico growled.

Imre switched hastily from curses to apologies. But Bellico was unhearing. He leapt to his feet. He started forward.

Naldo grasped clumsily at Imre’s sleeve as Imre darted in front of him with naked fists raised.

Bellico leveled his sword.

Imre’s heart hove within his chest.

But even as he braced for the blow, a warm silence clapped down suddenly over his ears, and the dark and handsome woman at Bellico’s side snatched his gaze. She was the Theca Ariosa, Imre remembered, and she alone remained cool in the storm of hot ire, her noble-boned face placid as a moonlit dune. But it was the eyes that were fathomless, and as she stared Imre felt suddenly naked. “Salvio, mi sentisti,” she said, and the words were in her mouth and her gaze and under Imre’s skin, quivering like the throb before a storm.

When at last she turned away, Bellico was calm, the garden was quiet, and Imre nearly collapsed from the weakness in his knees, the old folk stories of demon sorcery lurching up from the dark wells in his mind.

Ariosa spoke to Naldo softly, kindly, and the tension continued to melt until Bellico had lowered his sword, reclaimed his seat, and folded his arms as though his outburst had never been.

But her words worked a different sort of change in Naldo. His lip quivered when he answered her in a voice that wavered high like a boy’s, and for the first time in Imre’s memory the old man stuttered.

Ariosa next addressed Bellico, then her daughter, and when they finished, the one-eyed chief was nodding, eased, but his daughter, the half-coppery bitch, only curled her lip and paid unbroken attention to her sword hilt.

Bellico rumbled a series of orders, and at once four of the craggers rose to leave. Only the Maestro’s family remained.

“What’s happened?” Imre whispered.

“Theca Ariosa has offered us... an opportunity,” Naldo said. “I’ve told them you will not sing; you will pay the debt.” He raised his hand before Imre could protest. “Don’t argue, Gideon. There are matters at play here that you’re not yet ready to understand. Much about these people is promising for us, and for the House. I am at all times a servant, but in this, please trust my judgment.”

The Arbiter had had no right to make a decision about the welfare of the House without consulting the damned head of the House. But Imre’s anger was for the moment trivial.

“Imre,” he said.

“What?” Naldo asked.

“You called me Gideon.”

Naldo frowned, mouth slightly ajar. Then, “Of course, young master. Forgive me.” He clapped Imre on the shoulder with his good hand.

When the four craggermen had left the garden, Ariosa produced two shards of jet black stone. They were wickedly jagged things, each as long as her forearm. Imre recognized them at once.

As did Naldo. “Theca Ariosa wishes for us to have these gifts,” he said in a strained voice.

One of these shards had only two days ago jutted from the bloody slash in Naldo’s back. But the look on the Arbiter’s face when he accepted the sliver of Dewberry’s blade did more than fill Imre with compassion; it worried him.

“The Theca promises that if we allow it, this hymn will sing for you,” Naldo told him in a faraway voice, “and will enlighten me.”

Imre hefted his shard and was surprised at how heavy the accursed thing was. Dewberry had flipped and swung several feet of this with the ease of a man painting. What if I refuse? Imre wanted to ask. But if they were giving gifts, it meant they weren’t going to kill them, and for that he could thank Naldo. He shot a glance at the harbor-road wench before reminding himself that if he died here today, House Balgas died with him.

“What was his name?” Imre found himself asking. “The man we fought.”

Ariosa spoke solemnly, and when Naldo translated, Imre felt a chill despite the heat. “The Theca will say this and no more: the dead have no names.”

Bellico gestured to his son, the linguist, and the boy leapt to his feet. He saluted Imre by bowing at the waist and clapping his stone fist at his breast. “My name is Eroico,” he said in accented Adala, the Jinan tongue.

“Imre Usaym Balgas.”

The boy whistled. “All three are yours? Do all in your clan have this many names?”

“Very nearly.”

The cragger boy found this immensely funny and said so before explaining the price Imre was judged to pay. “Work when you are told, speak when you are told, and walk humbly until your debt is paid.”

“In other words, be a slave.”

The boy nodded, ingenuous. “Do you pledge?”

Imre watched Naldo as the surgeons, at Bellico’s command, appeared with a litter and began arranging Naldo upon it. The old man clutched his blade shard like a relic, but showed not the slightest interest in this boy speaking their home tongue. Naldo was prone to flights of whimsy, could spend hours studying the petals of a single blossom, the whole time deaf and blind to the world. And this was piece of a cragger’s sword, after all.

Then what is this dread I’m feeling? Imre wondered. He wiped the sweat from his brow then held up his own shard with one hand and knelt in the grass. “If your father will spare the life of Arbiter Naldo Randal and treat him well, I will pledge my wit, my sword, and my strength to Bellico and his clan until he deems the debt paid.”

Eroico frowned. “There is no bargain. There is a choice: pay or sing.”

Quet, Eroico,” Bellico said. The cragger boy answered his father, and while they spoke, the late day sun slapped heat down upon their heads. Imre’s stomach growled.

“We accept your pledge,” Eroico said finally. “The Sage has made Father curious, and will be his guest. You are to serve as debtor and work among the slaves daily. And...”—the boy frowned, thinking, before—”oh, yes, and you are to speak our tongue within three months.”

“Understood,” Imre said. Three months. Three months ago he’d been planning his breakout show in Adalheid, an eighty-puppet comedy with the Dry Well Sands Choir. The thought of chatteling about for these people even that long made Imre sick to his stomach. How long before Bellico was satisfied? How long before one of the craggers broke his skull or cleaved his spine or dealt some other wound that wouldn’t heal? How long before the traitorous cities of the League sent their dogs sniffing around this place? A dozen worries swarmed his thoughts, but he swallowed them all down and kept his countenance.

“You will report to me daily for your duties, starting now,” the boy told him. “Follow me. We first find you living quarters.”

“And what about her?” Imre asked with a nod toward the sullen wench rising from her seat. She caught his stare, and matched it with her own.

“My sister?” Eroico cocked a sly smile as he led Imre from the garden. “Be on your guard, peregrin. I think she is in love.”

Chorus

Imre felt his throat wound stretch and mend even as Eroico stabbed at him, driving forward like a bronze and sapphire arrow. With a cross-step Imre caught Eroico’s thrust along the curved edge of his hymn. The two blades scraped and shrieked—Imre fighting to keep his balance—but in less than a blink Eroico had sprung away, bounced to the left, and was speeding in again. Imre had time only to replant his feet before Eroico feinted then leapt into Imre’s blind. Cloth and flesh tore as a line of fire opened across the back of Imre’s leg. But against the pain he pivoted hard and managed to bump Eroico, sending him stumbling to the turf. From there it was a simple step and slash and he’d opened a red welt across Eroico’s shoulder.

“A song and two kisses!” boomed across the yard. Imre startled and spun to see Bellico standing upon the dais, stone arm raised to the cheering assembly. “Continue?” the Maestro asked him.

Imre’s heart was pounding as Eroico righted himself with a sportive grin and trotted back to stand near his father. A song and two kisses? Would it only be two cuts? If this was true, the firstblood power of his House would more than suffice: he’d have moments to rest between duels, moments to heal. As Eroico told it, Imre was facing a long, long day. But just two cuts each....

“Continue,” Imre said, his breast swelling with hope.

A raven-haired Silici stepped from the front of the assembly, and in an instant the cheers doubled in volume. “Rado! Rado! Rado!” called the Baremescre peers.

Imre’s hope faltered.

His name was Glissando, and Imre knew his prowess from the campaign in the lesser isles. A distant cousin of Ariosa’s, he was tall, even for a Baremescre, and thickly muscled. His most obvious feature was his vesti ferre—its color a riot of burnt oranges and golds and eye-searing reds, as iron glowing fresh from the forge; its stone surface smooth and unblemished; and from shoulder to wrist flared a serrated crest standing out like an oasis bird’s plume. Glissando was the only Silici Imre had encountered to have named his hymn. Rado, he called the toothed crimson blade. “Scrape.”

Glissando came ready, his hymn gripped firm in his left hand, his right clenched into a fist with that terrible crest turned outward. He saluted.

Imre returned.

And in a flash Glissando was upon him.

Verse

As long as Imre lived among the Baremescre, he would fight sinister like a Baremescre, and he’d always been more comfortable with a curved blade in his left. Somehow the shard of Dewberry’s sword knew this and grew fitly. The edge of a Silici child’s hymn took many years to develop: Imre’s had grown within a week. Battle scars on most blades required a season or more to smooth: Imre’s would often disappear within hours. His hymn, black as a midnight sea, had leapt from a foot-long shard to a sleek killing weapon in less time than it took him to learn all the Silici names for stone.

In the four-hundred-fifty-two days since his pledge to the Baremescre, he’d fought on average three songs per day. One-thousand-three-hundred-fifty-seven songs total. Two-hundred-six of them had been lessons, thrashings to curb his wanton staring or his spitting or his mangling of the Silici tongue. One-hundred-thirteen were chance encounters with surly, half-stone strangers venting wraths that had naught to do with him. Three times he’d raised his blade against other slaves, and of those duels he felt ashamed. But the remaining one-thousand-thirty-five, in those Imre spilt his blood for the honor of his House. He remembered every detail from every slash and parry. He was a better swordsman now than his great-uncle Gideon had ever been. And still, against the Baremescre, Imre had never won a single match.

One-thousand-thirty-six, Imre thought from on his back.

The Silici man standing over him held a three-pronged hymn in a closed fist. The prongs jutted from between his fingers, razor-sharp, like claws.

These Baremescre—they wielded their blades preternaturally, responding to Imre’s slashes and parries before his muscles twitched. He couldn’t understand such skill, and for that he was labeled a deaf-mute. To the Baremescre, this made him about the measure of a halfwit, a mockery he would not tolerate.

“Be warned!” spat Three-Prong, the latest to mutter that slur. “And harass me no more!”

Imre said nothing as he stood, wiped the dirt and blood from his chest, recovered his hymn, and rejoined the queue of slaves that meandered across the front of the Hall of Elders. They greeted him with nods weighed slow by hollow-eyed fatigue, the mark of men who spent their days hauling sea salt and pots of night soil, clearing roads, and plowing the fields with only the strength of their backs. One handed Imre his water pan, another his rag.

Three-Prong, consternation knotting the flesh about his eyes, jammed his hymn into its sling and stalked away.

Imre smiled. Then he settled against the Hall’s cool marble front and waited for his turn to wash feet.

The Baremescre peers crisscrossed the Piazza in ones and twos, rolling their lean shoulders and oiling the dust from their vesti with good-natured weariness. On occasion a song victim was carried past the heroically poised sculptures that fronted the surgeon’s station, though at this hour these were few and far between. Far more bore the tools and callused hands of builders or the dirty fingernails of gardeners, or the clay-stained linens of the myriad sculptors that seemed to Imre an infestation amidst this stone-obsessed clan. The Baremescre held combat above all, but labor was a near second. And this was a time for work. Not even the elders were exempt.

As one of them, dusty from the day’s labor, climbed the foot-worn stairs to enter the hall, the next two slaves in queue entered at his heels armed with water pan and washing rag. The routine ran on as the Hall filled and the queue shrank, until at last Imre followed a gray-haired woman through the yawning entryway that was shaded by the fragrant leaves of enormous potted gum trees.

“This afternoon finds you hale, peregrin,” declared a low silken voice.

Imre stopped in his tracks, water sloshing over the lip of his pan, for Ariosa stood in the entryway waiting for him.

Imre bowed, thumped, answered, “It does.”

“I am relieving you of your duty for the moment,” she said. “We have something to discuss.” She exchanged words with the gray-haired woman then replaced Imre with another slave from the queue outside. When that was settled, she led Imre across the Piazza to a shaded corner beside a fountain.

Ariosa stretched herself across one of the Baremescre’s ubiquitous hard stone benches. “My clansmen say you harass them daily, peregrin. Challenges at every turn. Explain.”

Imre forced himself to meet her stare. “Though I am a near-man and the property of your honored husband, the right to sing is mine as a hymn-bearer.” It was Ariosa who had given Imre his hymn, so it was Ariosa who gave him the privilege to challenge whom he would.

Her laugh was throaty. “Indeed, peregrin. You know your rights.”

Imre bowed at the compliment. “Your clansmen have been fine teachers of Silici custom.” You brutal bastards.

“Good,” Ariosa said. “Those lessons will serve you well when you sail in the morning to war.”

Her dark eyes weighed him, steady as deep pools. Imre met their gaze, though it was with a dry mouth that he replied, “I was not aware—”

“The Maestro decided only within the hour. You will join the near-man compliment that supports our clan on the warpath. Be at the family villa at dawn. You are excused from your duties until then.”

She propped her chin against her indigo fist. Her flesh hand settled on the hilt of her hymn. Imre was dismissed.

He saluted her then started across the Piazza, his mood bleak. He knew the Baremescre only warred within their archipelago. They would sail from isle to isle, raiding the neighboring populations for slaves and wealth. But never did they invade other lands. Never did their eyes turn to expansion of any sort. It all seemed profitless.

“Peregrin!” Ariosa called, startling him. She’d not moved from her bench, but even from a distance Imre could see her smile.

“Yes, Theca....” he called back.

“The Voce will one day teach you this lesson, but I offer it to you now, as a gift. We are born to sing, peregrin. And we do not sail where we cannot sing.”

Imre felt no more enlightened, but he nodded like a boy learning his letters, then left the Piazza with the firm conviction to never again think a thought in Ariosa’s presence.

He followed the Falcis road along the crescent cliff side overlooking the sea. At its northernmost point rested a plateau known as the Verzi na Spina, or “great garden of bones.” At her crown was the resting place of the Baremescre clan chieftains. Their stone remains were laid in rows, faces to the sky, feet to the east, their hymns planted deep in the earth through the hard cages that once protected their hearts.

It was here that Naldo spent his days going mad. Daily, down the paths between the dead, the old man trod a tireless rhythm, bent and stooped under the sun, his eyes ever downward. He searched the bones for riddles he’d learned. Always the riddles, always the bones, always the black shard Ariosa had given him for enlightenment. He tucked it against his withered arm in its sling, close to his breast, and spoke to it from time to time.

The Baremescre had no music that wasn’t battle, but they claimed to hear the dead sing. A boneyard such as that upon the Verzi na Spina was the closest they had to theater. So this evening when Imre found Naldo among the bones, he and the Arbiter were not at all alone. Silici visitors strolled the open graves as other men might amble among street musicians, inclining an ear, swaying now and again, and wandering on.

Naldo’s cobbled babbling rattled sharply over the quiet. “Kirei desu, ne... Warum? A mineral, young master, from the beginning. Il contenu la peau, the bones, the stone, the blood, the beginning... begyndelse... kezdem sejteni... alku, no!”

Naldo’s muttering rose and fell with the wind as Imre sat cross-legged upon a worn alley between two ancient Baremescre corpses. He laid his stone sword at his side and set to work carving his new puppet’s face, “uncovering a mystery” as Tayuya called the process, for no two were ever the same. This mystery was a brutish, ugly, and awkward buffoonery, with all the elegance of a child’s clay sculpture. There was a soul inside this hunk of wood, but he was becoming frustrated as all hells trying to find it. Baremescre shadows stretched around him, occasionally falling across his hands and ruining his light. But the shadows passed and Imre worked on, carving at the wood, looking for its true gaze.

He of course noticed Cantiléna. She’d long ago set aside her stealth when approaching him in what Eroico claimed was an effort at truce. She came and crouched near him, the slanted sun rays making copper fire of her hair, arm, and blade.

“The evening finds you hale,” he said to her in Silici.

“It does.”

For a time they sat quietly while the dull scrape-nick of his work beat a tattered rhythm, until, “You have not been here in some time.”

Imre halted.

“It has been nearly a month,” Cantiléna said. “The Sage asks for you often.”

“The life of a slave is demanding,” Imre replied. He blew the shavings from the puppet’s face before refastening the wooden head to his trousers. It was wasteful to work with distractions.

“The first-duty slaves have their evenings, the second-duty their mornings. Your wooden trinket work must then be what keeps you.”

Imre shifted uncomfortably, watching Cantiléna watch Naldo as he ambled amidst the generations of hymns that bristled like a naked forest. The Baremescre held a special reverence for the mad. There was respect to be had for someone living in both this world and the next, or so they felt. Imre’s regard of the insane differed somewhat, and for that Cantiléna was all but accusing him of cowardice.

“I am sailing to war tomorrow,” Imre told her in a tone of conscious courage.

“So is the talk.” Cantiléna yawned and stretched broadly, her fingers, stone and flesh, spreading into a pair of shuddering fans before curling back into her lap.

“Tell me of your way of warring,” she said, accepting his change of subject, “in the peregrin cities of your League.”

Imre tugged at his lip for a time, the sea-misted wind dancing coolly across his bare scalp, until he decided that there was no harm in telling her a bit of truth. “Jinan men will still settle affairs with the blade,” he said. “But my home lies within the Zuben al’Akrab. This desert has many ores, stars that fell long ago, and these ores give off powers that can be harnessed into... into many things.

“So when the League turned against my city, it was a war of ships clashing while levitated over leichstone canals, of flame belched from machine-wrought jewels, of emerald energy spat by muskets in the hands of men clad from head to toe in suits of ironsilk.”

Muskets,” she said, trying the word out. “Like your weapon of iron and wood.”

Imre nodded. “There’s no blood, only ash feathering across the grease of burnt flesh. My... a man I knew lived for an hour with a hole in his skull the size of a fig. He couldn’t speak, but he wept. He wept and he grinned and he wept still more, shivering, until he died.” Something on the wind was tickling Imre’s throat. He coughed and turned away to look out over the sea before continuing.

“The Djinn taught our people industry, if you can believe that. They came with dark arts and the strength of lions. They cut down the desert tribes—man, woman, and babe—and put the survivors to work, and worse, made them food. Living meals, damn their twisted souls. For the demons liked their meat hot. Until Fahd the Balgas King and his firstblood rebellion. Fahd ground their hell-spawned hides into—”

Peregrin,” Cantiléna said harshly.

Imre started. He’d let his language slip, drifted from Silici to Adala and back again. He reached for his sword. She was Third Blade of her clan; her lesson would be hard.

But when he noticed Cantiléna’s gaze, he froze. Imre had been too deep in his own thoughts to notice Naldo shuffling near.

With the sun beating red gold from the half-purple sky and the breezes dying softly with the light, Naldo sidled close, as he’d done so many times. “The honorable thing,” he whispered with sour breath. His clothes stank. The whiskers clinging to his jaw made his expression wild. But ruined and dirty, he was still the Arbiter. He was still Naldo.

Imre leapt to his feet, overwhelmed with his shame, and for the first time since their landing he embraced his old tutor. “I’m sorry,” he said into the old man’s neck. “I should have come.” He’d been afraid, disgusted, angry. How dare Naldo become this horrible babbling thing, now when Imre needed him most? But Imre was sailing to war. And like a coward he’d only now come to see his friend.

“I’m sorry,” Imre said, meaning it in every sense. He wiped his face on the old man’s dirty shirt and let him go.

Naldo stabbed him.

He had always been quick. Imre caught only a small movement in the dusk, a coral flash of reflected light before Naldo plunged the shard of the dead man’s hymn deep into his chest.

Imre staggered clutching himself, the sudden pain raging across his nerves. Cantiléna was there in a blur with a deft crack across Naldo’s jaw that sent him sprawling.

“No!” Imre said. Tried to say. His fingers had all on their own found the shard, grasped and yanked, and availed nothing. The wave of agony twisted his “no” into a growl. Again he yanked, and again nothing. The disciplined corner of his mind was working furiously to make sense of this—the wound should have been healing already, his body pushing out the offending shard—even as noises of struggle in the grass told him Cantiléna was having trouble subduing Naldo. Imre lifted his sticky hand, but as he did a twisting jerk ripped his chest and flooded him with another surge of pain. Then another twist and Imre fell to his knees, moaning aloud. His wound had grown cold, hard fingers spreading now, stretching for his shoulder, his throat. He’d lost too much blood, he thought. Too much firstblood. The idea seemed absurdly silly to him—too much firstblood—and he had the greatest urge to laugh at his own inanity. Instead he let out a shuddering breath and fainted.

They would tell him later how Cantiléna had managed to stun Naldo without braining him, how she found Imre lying facedown and with her stone fist had ripped the hymn shard free. The surgeons were summoned to minister to Naldo while Cantiléna hefted Imre and carried him down the gentle face of the Verzi na Spina. But when Imre came to, his only thoughts were of the scar.

He awoke in the gray of predawn, alone in his runty one-room cottage that almost made the Baremescre cliffside cell seem grand.

The flesh of his breast had mostly knit, but as he ran his fingers across the stretch of skin they brushed a scabrous pucker, like a knot in a tree. He sat up, stared at the black spot. He scraped at it with his fingernails. He rubbed it with his palm. He tried to wash it away in his basin of tepid water. The spot remained. He shut his eyes and forced himself calm, and when he opened them he knew he would see he’d made a mistake. But, no. There it was. A black chitinous thing beside his heart.

Imre collapsed back onto his pallet, shoulders propped against the cool stone wall, and tried to make sense of things. Beside him on the floor lay his hymn, his puppet, and Naldo’s ebon splinter. Imre grasped the shard and examined it. He’d been cut thousands of times, even by this very substance when Dewberry’s blade bit his side on the harbor road, and he’d always healed with no ill effect. So why now? Why a scar from this little stab? What was different? He spun the shard round and round in his hand, watching it flash dully in the half-light. It danced through his fingers with barely any effort.

The dawn broke and forced orange light through his half-rotted shutters before he at last admitted that there was only one person who could help him. Imre yanked on fresh trousers and a cotton drape, gathered up sword and puppet and shard, and sprinted from the tiny cottage. He arrived at the main villa just as Bellico and the war party were forming up.

The Baremescre who would be left behind waved colored streamers from windows and doorways, many calling with words of envy. Cantiléna was there upon a balcony next to Eroico and their mother. Her gaze followed Imre as he passed through the festive gathering, but he went immediately to the chieftain. He requested a reprieve from his duties. He needed more time with Naldo.

But Bellico would have none of it. “The surgeons say you are healed, peregrin. Your oath still stands, so take your place.” When Imre protested Bellico cut him short with a raised hand. “The Sage will be confined to his quarters under guard at all times. He will be treated gently. Now, take your place, or suffer.”

Imre cursed quietly and obeyed.

And so it was that he marched that morning amidst a company of near-men following four-hundred Baremescre armed only with their hymns and stone limbs. Bellico himself led the column the five miles to the clan dock, where they boarded ship and headed to the lesser isles.

Imre was away for six months, warring.

By the time he returned, Naldo was dead.

Concluded in Pt. II, in Issue #28


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Michael Anthony Ashley writes in Georgia, USA.  You can find him at michaelanthonyashley.com.

If you liked this story, you may also like:
“The Sword of Loving Kindness, Pt. I” by Chris Willrich
“The Mansion of Bones” by Richard Parks

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1 Comment on “To Kiss the Granite Choir, Pt. I”

One Response to “To Kiss the Granite Choir, Pt. I”

  1. Guest says:

    11-06-2009, 09:21 AM
    Guest

    Pretty badass! It dragged a bit in places but by the end I definitely wanted more.

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