Mathis Quigley sucked the cold night air through his nostrils, then spat it from his lips. It left behind the crisp tang of the forest but also the black taste of charcoal.
The trees were burning. Uaid ran from the blaze in a clumsy panic, Quigley grasping the cockpit railings and wedging a boot between the control console and floor to keep himself from toppling. Roaring above the thundering of giant green feet, he called: “Stop! Stop, you stupid, blundering monster!”
Uaid wasn’t interested. Quigley leapt for the controls, first activating the field spreader to protect Uaid’s mechanical components from direct attack, and then slamming on the bloody brakes. The field spreader hummed to life with no complaints but each braking lever only clicked impotently backwards in its groove, incomplete and unattached to the construct’s inner workings.
Quigley swore. He could imagine Vienne shrugging one shoulder, cocking her head, and smiling apologetically up at him. You’ll see how it all comes together, Mathis. Time, I just need more time!
The eternal refrain of the white-haired folk.
A shrill whistle incised his thoughts as a burning projectile painted the night. It exploded twenty feet ahead in a geyster of brush, boughs, and birds, causing Uaid to wheel away, sweeping aside prickly treetops like an armoured knight battling back pikemen. Thinning his eyes against the smoke, Quigley swung his attention over his shoulder to the shivering horizon. Beneath the forest canopy, three of Queen Sonorie’s royal constructs were gliding through their wake.
“Oh, they want you,” he laughed at Uaid, “At least someone does, eh?”
Another explosion rocked Uaid sideways, half-cageing the creature in a rising halo of fire. The Crescians couldn’t attack directly. With the field spreader active the lines of the khert skated around Uaid like beads of water around a puddle of oil. But it wouldn’t have mattered. The Queen’s brain trust wanted the ogre intact for disassembly and study; it would be of limited use in burnt and sundered pieces, the pymary encoded in its flesh dissolved to smoke and ruin.
Booming through the dark the Crescian’s voice was reasonable. Measured. Quigley loathed it, certain he would never be reasonable nor measured again.
“Mathis Quigley! Surrender the construct and retain her Majesty’s aegis! Surrender, now, and no harm will come to you or your child!”
Another whistling fireball threatened to make the stranger a liar. Uaid threw himself through a gap in the flames before the incendiary could strike and complete the cage. Then, his courage exhausted, he cringed near the ground with a quivering whimper.
“Forward!” Quigley snarled.
“Her Majesty sheltered you!” chided the voice, “Cresce embraced you when your own hideous countrymen took all you had! Do not throw our generosity away!”
“Forward!” demanded Quigley, but Uaid only howled for mercy.
The world had made sense when his mother had explained it: she had created him, Matty was his brother, and it was Uaid’s job to protect those he loved from bad people. But now mother was gone and everything was ugly. Quigley was loud and mean, and his every command struck the ogre stupid with nerves. Trying to please, he juddered on one foot in an uncertain pirouette, then crashed into the undergrowth, sobbing wretchedly.
“There are no weapons,” its master snarled, spider-crawling his fingers across the controls. There were launchable nets (not loaded) and hands that could be fired from the wrists and reeled back with cables (utilizing pulleys that only half-worked), but Uaid itself was a deadly as a thrown rock.
Why make it into a construct? he’d asked her. But she’d only had that damned smile for him.
The Crescians were close enough now that Quigley could hear the hinges of their mechanical mounts. They were half Uaid’s size but their armaments were fierce: saw-shooters, fire-throwers, bladed forearms and shins, and controls so finely tuned that the great metal behemoths mirrored their riders’ martial motions with flawless accuracy. They were viper-fast and agile, untroubled by fear or free will, and so unlike the lumbering ogre.
He could never outrun them. There was only one way to escape, and it was the same way he’d escaped Alderode: he had to do the precise opposite of what any sane man would do.
He tore his cloak and mantle from his throat and stuffed them under the seat, then stumbled out of the cockpit and into the mess of unfinished mechanics crowding Uaid’s shoulders. Uaid shuddered with great, snotty sobs, trying to turn his face to see his master. Quigley leapt onto the ogre’s right arm, bootsoles clicking on steel.
“Get up, monster!” he snarled, “Run! RUN!”
Then he dropped from Uaid’s elbow, dumping Momentum from his form to slow his fall into the black foliage below. Abandoned, Uaid clomped about the scrub in search of him, thrashing at the flames as though he could push them out of the way the same as the tree boughs. Quigley thought he could hear a boy’s voice calling reassurances. His imagination, surely. Matty hadn’t spoken since they’d pulled him from the wreckage and put the bandage around his eyes.
It was hell-hot on the forest floor. Everything was sharp shapes; orange planes and black shadows dancing with each other, belching smoke. Ducking burning branches, Quigley raced towards the noise of the pursuing Crescians. The screeching hiss of their spellwork and the booming grind of their gears penetrated his ribs and made it hard to breathe. Would the machines break from the darkness, crush him, and never know? Would he die here, rot, and no one know?
Unable to find his master, Uaid wailed for a mother who was not going to come. Another volley of fire leapt at him, scorching his meaty legs and bullying him forward. Through the flames he tumbled creakily and then stood again, blotting the sky as he vectored for the horizon. Quigley tacked after, coughing and spitting ash, then skid to his knees. He plunged his hands into the undergrowth, digging aside dead leaves and pine needles, then had his knuckles scraped bloody by knotted roots. He obliterated them and dug deeper until he felt and smelled fresh black earth. It was delightfully cool in his fingers. He tangled them in it, curling them to fists as the Crescians clambered closer to their shambling quarry.
The khert thrived on specificity. It knew materials and numbers, but it didn’t know a man’s intentions. He might tell it to strip the State Aspect from the ground, but what was the ground? The khert didn’t know. Quigley scrutinized the mess of soil and stones in his hand with a wright’s discerning. Leedoaut Ilgan felan. Black silty-loam. Elghavhuchaell. Granite.
Here, these were the ground.
Mathis Quigley was born of the Platinum caste, and with this fact came certain unalterable handicaps. His people were of a frail constitution with poor eyesight and sun-sensitive skin. What’s more, some quirk of their biology caused their insides to rapidly age once they hit their twenties, so crippling them that no Plat had ever lasted past thirty. The Aldish deemed it the price of Yerta’s love; the gods could not bear to be parted too long from their fair-haired children, and so shortened their lives to have them all the sooner in their divine embrace again.
It was a nice story, and plenty of his brethren bought it. However, Quigley had always preferred to cleave to the one advantage his caste could boast: Pymaric excellence.
A hundred factors went into crafting a masterful wright. Many of them could be learned, like Old Tainish, the language of spells, or the qualities and aspects of materials, or the algebraic and geometric calculations required for complex casting.
But there were also unalterable biological factors.
Every material in the world was shaped by the khert-lines; built up by them, like a man by his internal skeleton. The khert-lines traced material contours, dictating their properties in physical and metaphysical terms. But as the lines skated off those contours and into naked space they changed course, sloping, bending, gyring in difficult directions to rejoin the great web of the eternal khert, carrying endless burdens of information in their tireless enforcement of natural law.
All spellwork relied on the lines for transit. Where they could not travel spells could not travel. When a typical wright loaded the lines connected to the ports in his palms with Aspects - with Heat or Solidity or a cutting Edge - the delicate lines twanged uneasily, and it took great skill to predict which would intersect a desired target. Even the finest wright could only intuit the vectors of his palm-lines so far. The currents of the khert battled against the line of his attack the same way the winds could foul a fired arrow.
But the lines that defined a Plat were uncommonly stable. Quigley could fling a spell a thousand feet or more, and if his maths were sound and his path was clear he would strike his mark every time. He could also load those lines with enough leeched Aspects to dissolve a small canyon, and the khert, as if apologetic for granting his people so little time in its world, obliged the weight of spellwork without protest or catastrophe.
“Heed me, great khert!” Quigley spat down at his palms in Old Tainish. They sizzled to life, spectral light baking his fingers gold, tracing his metacarpals red through his dirty skin. “Release to me the State of this leedoaut Ilgan felan to elghavhuchaell in contact with my right palm and all of the same in contact with that and naught other no further than the measure of nelevara traced len4000, 3300, len4000 ,4000, len4000, 4000…”
In a torrent of sweaty numerals he plotted, the earth shaking beneath him with dyspeptic swells and judders as the constructs clanked closer. He couldn’t hear his own casting anymore but as the Solidity left the earth and entered his hands and spine the lines within them grew so fat his bones ached. He reached for the shapes of the pine needles thatching the forest floor and measured Solidity against their Contours, condensing hundreds of needles to large, tapered, floppy, construct-fouling snakes. His skull roared with blue light, blue numbers, and he was blind, blind as the boy-
Reality returned in the form of the first Crescian machine breaking black against the bright pall of his powdery-white spell. Its steel foot arced from the trees and down, down, down too far, shattering the paper thin scrim of the ensorcelled forest floor. Its pilot shrieked a curse and the machine fell forward into the slithering pit.
Quigley was thrown back, his hands smoking. The construct tumbled and thrashed but only entangled itself further in the twisting stone-snakes 2,000 nelevara, or 300 feet down. Right on its comrade’s tail, the second construct couldn’t correct itself in time. It stumbled from the trees and, for one pregnant pause, teetered on the abyss’ edge. Then it tilted forward, lulled by gravity, to plummet and smash itself to scrap metal and screaming atop its struggling comrade.
Quigley didn’t wait to see what the third would do. He took off after Uaid in a dead run, mind spinning with ways to get the blubbering imbecile to halt his retreat and retrieve him.
None of his half-conceived notions were needed. Uaid tripped to a sudden stop. Hunched and miserable he turned around, scanning the trees, then dropped to one knee and laid a fat green hand on the ground. A few minutes later, Quigley caught up and fell atop his palm, wheezing for air.
“Up,” he croaked.
The boy was sitting at the controls. Quigley stumbled from Uaid’s hand and half-collapsed on the floor of the cockpit, gasping and blinking phantoms from his eyes. Somewhere in the distance men were calling for help, trying in vain to free themselves and cast around the First Material limbs of their own pymary-proof mounts.
“It’s all right now, Matty,” he told the boy once he’d caught his breath, “Let them spend the night disentangling themselves. We’ll make Lurick by dawn and the Black Tongues will help us.”
Matty didn’t reply. He slid off the seat and resumed his crouch beside it, a button-eyed beanbag choked in one hand. Quigley didn’t look at him. He felt himself smiling madly, muscles crackling with adrenaline even as his lungs ached with exertion. The old thrill of the hunt was on him; the hunt and the chase that had chased him from home so often. In the old days, the good days, he had been able to forget everything he was afraid of when he was on the road in pursuit of criminals for the government, purpose clenched in his teeth like the stick they gave dying men to bite on.
Suddenly he wished for the third construct to leave its companions and pursue them. He wanted more fire, more sublime fight-or-flight instinct hissing acid in his belly. Anything but the sudden return of three months of horror: Vienne dead, the boy ruined, and nowhere in the world for Mathis Quigley but forward and down, like the constructs into the pit.
The Crescians didn’t come. He smeared sweat out of his eyes and bade Uaid westward along the river Jarla, into the dark.
Two dozen men died the night Quigley raided the small municipal office in Aulanch, one of Durlyne’s more rural and unfashionable counties. The attack had neither killed him nor brought back his murdered wife, leaving the Plat alone with the blank embarrassment of a failed suicide. Mad and bleeding, like a villain in a stageplay he’d decided to take a hostage and flee south with him, hiding inside Uaid’s pymary-proof belly from wright attacks and the deadly sting of the Dammakhert, the great Aldish web that kept most citizens leashed and vulnerable.
Alderode hated him and oh, how he hated Alderode. The place to go, then, was Cresce. And if they did not care for the wild-eyed Plat and his broken son in their ridiculous construct then let them kill them both, and what would be lost then? What would be lost?
But they had not killed him.
The Crescians had welcomed him, an enemy of their enemy, and the weeks had turned to months as they tended his wounds, adored his son, marveled over his wife’s work, and asked, then begged, and finally demanded to know how it was Uaid’s field spreader worked. How had the dead woman managed to spread First Material effects to base materials? How had she pymary-proofed the ogre’s every component? Was this an art known only to the Plats? Had the Aldish government seized Vienne’s research before killing her? Had she screamed her secrets as they tortured her? Would Quigley scream secrets if his smiling hosts tortured him?
Soon Quigley decided the time had come to delicately abandon their hospitality. He had yet to speak with the storied Queen Sonorie but the idea of her fired no curiosity. She was only someone else who had all she wanted, and he had nothing. Hateful, he’d stolen everything of value in his room, wrapped Matty in a blanket, and by night crept into the repurposed arena storing the befuddled ogre.
Already, weeks earlier, under the guise of foreign curiosity, he’d begun asking his hosts about the Ilganyag, or Black Tongue brotherhood. The infamous coven of lawless researchers and wrights were as respected for their works as they were feared for their daring. Considering they were damned and hunted by every government in the world though, Quigley had thought their headquarters would have been a well-guarded secret. Instead, almost everyone in Sonorie Palace from the guards to the twittering house staff had with giddy rapture told him: “Lurick. Lurick. Lurick.”
Quigley shifted in his seat. He picked the sleep from his eyes and glared at the lightening sky. Beyond the forest, spires and chimneys prickled the horizon line below blue wisps of strangely curled smoke. Where there were smoke eels, there were men.
“I suppose that's the place,” he said. Matty stirred, a blanketed lump on the cockpit floor with just a tuft of white hair escaping his cocoon. Quigley yawned into his fist. “No one knows more of it all than the Ilganyag. Pymary. Gruftgramary. The khert. All of it.
“Crescian hospitality… but no one at the palace would offer you eyes, would they? They only allowed us to stay as long as they did so they could study Uaid, pick my brain, keep us like caged novelties. But they never intended to truly help us. The Ilganyag will. Because we’re Plats, eh? Maybe they’ll want a phial of my blood to study.”
The boy shook his head. Quigley toed him.
“It was a joke.”
Like most of Cresce’s larger cities, Lurick was situated on the western coast overlooking Riv’s Sea. The lines of the town were quaintly crooked, formed by white stone walls, tiled red rooves, and iron chimneys belching fragrant, if haunted smoke. The sun was only half-risen and Lurick still laid in the shadows of the forested cliffs. Through the darkness Quigley could see the soft golden illumination of lambence - glowing water imported from Sharteshane - and swimming marypoles inside round fishbowl streetlamps. Fishing sloops cruised the twinkling sea beyond, harangued by gulls and effervescent eels forming and reforming in the morning mist.
He kept Uaid crouched atop the cliffs as the sky shifted from pink to gold. The ogre sighed like a tired child and Quigley patted one of the sandy green brows jutting past the control console. Then he turned the field spreader off and borrowed the Specularity of the dull earth at their feet, replacing the telling sheen of Uaid’s machinery to cloak him among the dark trees.
Matty hatched from his blanket. Quigley watched his narrow shoulders rise and fall, his arms folded over and his knees drawn up close around the core of the button-eyed beanbag. Quigley hated the thing. Vienne had insisted she make Matty his toys just as the other women of the village did for their children, but she’d lacked the knack. Her mother had died in childbirth and it had been wild-eyed and eccentric forgemaster Jacque Tor that had raised his daughter into the outcast Quigley had been told to marry. Vienne never had been taught to cook or sew or knit a muffler. Quigley hadn’t known what the hells the toy was meant to be when he’d come home that day to have it waved in his face.
“It’s Chitz!” Matty had insisted crossly.
“Stitched,” Vienne had clarified.
“Orphaned,” Quigley said now. Orphaned son. Orphaned construct. Orphaned Chitz. “This wasn’t meant to happen, you know. But your mother was not one to truckle to the order of things. She was ridiculous, your mother.”
Lurick glittered in the gloom between sea and sky. They would welcome an Aldish defector, no? Welcome a magery graduate and a former Windows employee who knew his way around the Dammakhert, no? Welcome a short-lived and long-ranged Platinum wright who could tell them where the bodies were buried.
“After this we’ll go to Sharteshane, eh? We’ll be proper criminals. Are you hungry? There is pigeon left from last night.” Quigley dug beneath the seat, excavating some of the stuffed flatbread that had been common fare at the Palace. The date and pigeon mixture inside it made him long for an Aldish pork pie or a monny shank with pickled plums. “We’ll fill Uaid up. We’ll live out of its chest, out of sea chests like pirates, eh? Or it will be as if we are camping. You always wished to go on the road with me. This is your chance. We’ll find bedrolls, a hotbox, starfly lights--”
Matty swiped a small hand across his broken eyes. Quigley flinched. He looked down at the bread thing and made himself take a few bites.
And it had soot in it, or maybe sand. Quigley pressed it into the boy’s hands anyway. “You have to eat. Don’t vex me. Even a dog knows to eat.”
Matty’s fingers failed to close over the bread, and the sandwich tipped from his palms onto his blanket. Quigley picked it up and threw it out of the cockpit. He put on his cloak and mantle, ran his fingers through his hair, and scooped the boy into his arms. The Ilganyag waited.
And if they killed them both? Murdered these presumptuous interlopers? What would be lost.
Lurick’s streets were paved with mother-of-pearl shells that reflected the dawn in oily rainbows. Quigley’s boots sounded too loud as he picked his way over them, cloaked in a perceptive glamour that made him look like he belonged. He carried Matty like a toddler, the blanket snug over his foreign head.
No one at the palace had been able to tell him precisely where in Lurick the Ilganyag’s den was, only that if he entered the city in search of it, he would find it. Obnoxiously vague advice, he thought, until he rounded a corner and turned onto a street lined with stalls of people gutting the morning’s catch. Chatting amiably with the men in bloody aprons was a lanky Crescian of aristocratic mien in a broad blue hat and velvet cloak. He looked up suddenly, as if Quigley had called to him, and then beckoned his way with a splayed hand. The Plat flinched - the motion was a spellcaster’s - but no attack came. The stranger approached, smiling, and Quigley bristled.
“You caused a lot of trouble last night,” said the Crescian in low tones. He was narrow-eyed beneath the shadow of his hat, teeth flashing in merriment. “And now you seek the Black Tongues to tidy your mess? A bold move to betray one host and expect another to house you.”
Quigley paused, framing the Continental in his mind before replying. Months at the palace had refamiliarized him with the language but his nerves were raw. “I... expect nothing. I require your services. My lad needs new eyes.” A laugh came out of the stranger’s hat and he took hold of the Aldishman’s elbow, sparing the blanketed boy but a glance
“The blind leading the blind, is it? Come with me, then.”
Leaving the stink of fish they walked at a hurried pace, past rattling constables and Crescian wagewrights in their tall black hats. None acknowledged the pair. Quigley wondered if the stranger’s earlier gesture hadn’t done something else to their appearances. Quigley had been studying pymary since he was the boy’s age and was certain there were few surprises left, but it wasn’t exactly pymary that the Ilganyag were known for. They shunned the restrictions that kept the Arts safe, delving into strange and illicit practises in search of exploits, shortcuts, quirks of the khert that could be taken advantage of for entirely new and novel approaches. Most said that they’d invented plods and even perceptive glamours, sharing their discoveries without prejudice or greed. The betterment of all was their secret creed, though such disregard for the law forced Kasslyne’s rulers to demonize them. And rightly so, thought Quigley as they turned down a crooked alley. He had known lazy wrights and stupid wrights, and little but law and custom kept them from destroying themselves or someone else.
“Such a pair of ragamuffins,” said the stranger conversationally. Quigley glanced to his sooty hands run through with sweat trails. It looked like they'd dried out in the sun and cracked open. He shrugged. “Where is the ogre? The earth ogre? Did the old bitch take it afterall?”
“No. I have hidden it. How did--”
“Oh, we have been expecting you.” He slid a finger to the side of his nose. “You’ll find it precious difficult to keep a secret from the Black Tongues. Come inside now, don’t be afraid. You’ve put yourself at odds with the rulers of the world, and that makes you precious to us.”
He stopped them in front of a long wooden fence painted with a faded play advertisement, but Quigley saw no door or gate. He turned to his companion in confusion only to have a hand reach casually beyond his collar and brush his neck. Spellwords sounded. He felt Matty slip away and, reaching for him, grasped only a smothering darkness.
When he awoke, the pink morning light had been replaced by candleglow. He was lying on a terribly soft sofa in a terribly small room and, for a moment, had little desire to move. He smelled cloves and mint; pipe smoke. Somewhere there was a lovely melody, like the drums that beat and the flute that shrieked every eighth day in the Plat village for Gefendur service.
Vee. The baby slept late. Damnit, Vee, they’ll miss us at worship!
Quigley sat up sharply. Aches raked his bones and his skin was tight with burns. He grimaced, but found his feet. Before he could panic he saw the boy, washed and in a change of clothes, sitting on a plush recliner picking nubs of burlap from his beanbag.
No answer. No surprise.
“Tirna’s tits,” he sighed to himself, “I do hate dealing with men who’ve overdeveloped their sense of the dramatic.”
Quigley found himself bathed and newly attired as well; some loose, Crescian dressing gown of red silk. It felt strange - too light - not like the heavy wool he was accustomed to. He frowned at the boy.
“Are you all right?”
Matty shrugged and Quigley scowled, hating that he couldn’t track the boy's gaze beneath the bandage. “You have to speak to me eventually. Are you going to be like one of the madmen of the village? Rambling revelation and pissing yourself until the khert takes you?” Matty turned his face into the chair and Quigley looked away.
The room was alien but sumptuous in its architecture, every inch carved in an intricate relief of vines and harts and hares. He’d never seen such perfectly smooth, perfectly uniform stone. It was not cement - the texture was too silky, the colour too richly chocolate. An adobe perhaps? Clay? He was troubled not to recognise it; like the forest floor, if he could not identify a material he could not cast upon it.
Besides his sofa and Matty’s chair the room was empty. Quigley tested the door in the wall and found it unlocked. He pushed it open, and nearly fell down.
He'd expected a dark hallway but outside roared glowing heavens of rapturous colours; a watercolour dawn in scarab belly greens, carbuncle reds, and frosty, daybreak violets that reached away to a misted horizon. Below stretched a landscape he had only seen theorized in black and white etchings in esoteric pymary books.
It was a manmade world. His eyes slid away from it, cowed by the impossible. He rested them at his feet for a merciful minute, then tried again.
No grass or earth carpeted this landscape, but tiles and pavement. There were no hills, there were marble halls. Marble columns took the place of trees and, in the distance, lurked a small mountain range of many-storied workshop complexes, living quarters, and amphitheatres. There were no celestial bodies wheeling above it all, only light of a clear, pure brilliance pouring in abundance from the phosphorescent sky. It created pleasantly soft shadows among the harsh right angles of the chiseled garden, shadows that produced music when he dipped his hand into them.
Quigley stepped from the doorway. His hard-soled boots made the pavement chime, as though he was walking on glass globes instead of stone. He danced in a delighted circle, creating his own music and laughing with a sudden joy that was almost madness. He looked backwards. The small room was just a single isolated building sitting on the stone plane like a lonely sugarcube. It was bizarre and wonderful.
“Matty, come. Look at this!”
The boy shuffled from the doorway. Quigley almost snapped at him for his obstinence, for failing to comment on this wonder, before remembering he couldn’t see it.
“Listen!” He stamped his boot a few times on the stone. It sounded like fairy bells. This was what Vienne had so loved about pymary; this fancy, this art, this guileless celebration. Quigley smeared stupid tears from his eyes. “This… this is a manufactured world! We must be completely cocooned in First Materials, creating a... three-dimensional space that the khert cannot penetrate. Vienne said it might be possible to craft unique objects inside such a space, talked about doing something similar inside the construct, but an entire landscape? The cost involved… in Materials, in time… and for it to look this... complete!”
“Thank you, Mr. Quigley!”
The stranger from Lurick’s streets stepped out from behind the sugar cube building. Here in the omnidirectional light Quigley could see the face beneath his hat: a long one with deeply set dark eyes and bushy brows. He had a spreadeagled raven tattooed across his forehead and, when he talked, Quigley could see more tattoos on his tongue and the insides of his cheeks. ‘Black Tongue’ indeed.
“We control everything here,” he boasted, sweeping a long-fingered hand indicatively towards the pretty whitestone workshops in the distance and the soft pulse of the glowing sky. “Centuries of work; the input of a thousand men, and growing more intricate all the time. The ultimate marriage of pymary and art; the ultimate conquest of Man over his environment. When we keep out the custodial khert, we can make whatever laws we please, creating whatever environment best suits the current research and experimentation of our studious brothers. There is no finer place in all the world for a wright to pursue his dreams.”
Quigley shook his head, flabberghasted. “But how do you program spellwork and Aspects into First Material of the dimensions that this must require? How do you plot your structures with no khert lines here? For that matter, how is it I am not ill? Even hiding inside the pymary-nulling field of the construct makes us queasy-”
“Easy, easy,” chuckled the old man, extending a palm, “I thought you were here for eyes.”
Quigley scoffed. “Do not pretend you are not pleased to have a reaction out of me. This isn’t a thing anyone builds without wishing for it to be remarked upon.”
“And yet here, hidden away, we and our forebears have kept it for centuries. You are very fortunate to see it. Ah, the brave little Aldishman.”
The old wright smiled down at Matty, who seemed to sense the attention and press his cheek shyly to his father’s leg. The Black Tongue wright stooped to have a better look. “I read of your exploits, child, and I am sorry you lost your mother.” He straightened, offering a hand to his father, which was reluctantly accepted. “You can call me Berdy. Welcome to Juste, the home of the Brotherhood. You’ll forgive us our precautions, I hope.”
Quigley sniffed. “A blindfold would have sufficed.”
“I find unconscious guests most agreeably docile,” said Berdy, “And docility is an expedient in most matters. Now, if you’re both recovered, I will take you to meet our Lord Ballanstern.”
Berdy had not been exaggerating the influence of the generations on Juste’s interior. Crossing the long stone plane towards the buildings reaching so ambitiously skywards, Quigley couldn’t keep his eyes focused on one detail for too long, so assaulted were they by the array of imagery cut into the pavement and inscribed across the pedestals and necking of the sweeping columns. He saw portraits of scholars dead for centuries, murals of senet beasts long extinct, odes and dedications in dialects no one had spoken since before the Sonories came to power over four-hundred years ago.
Statues grew out of the ground in long lines, like hedgerows: clinical tributes to fractals, icosahedrons, dodecahedrons, nested pentapyramids exploding into violent blossoms like the flying, fiery incendiaries last night. Elsewhere balanced great monoliths on precarious fulcrums that begged to be upset. Around them were carousels of opalescent spheres in perpetual motion, caught in dances they could never escape. Quigley was not certain if the displays were celebrations of the laws of their world, or if this great sterile plane was a trophy room.
The obsession over and love of the mathematical bled onto the pavement which became aperiodic prototiles nearer the workshops. From one angle the nested forms were deer and from another they were hounds, the one chasing the other in an endless hunt for pattern and meaning. Perhaps some of this was an attempt to understand the khert, thought Quigley. Since man first learned to sound the khert he had been trying to unlock the seemingly random way it stored the broken memories of the dead, to learn from them or even call them back. Here at his feet were the minds of men driven mad by the search, or in love with it, or was there not a difference?
Passing through a low arch, Berdy led the white-haired pair into more conventional environs. The marble architecture gave way to wood paneled corridors hung with a fine array of artwork from all over Kasslyne: Crescian oils, Aldish tapestries, Ulestrian weaving, Sharteshanian seascapes in pastel and inkwash. They passed doorways leading into strange rooms where strange men worked at strange crafts. Quigley could hardly trust himself to interpret much of it. Some were hunched over seer stones, geodes of rare, crystalised farcyte that were what allowed living men to peer into the khert and extract the ghost-fragments used in pymaric artificial intelligence. Others were dissecting animals or corpses (he hoped they were corpses), gazing at materials beneath ground lenses, boiling liquids in decanters, starting fires, bleeding themselves, smoking rare intoxicants, having sex, or poring over scrolls. Quigley felt a little uneasy for the first time. Not everyone in this place was entirely sane.
And there was something else.
No faces peered inquisitively from the workshop doorways as the Plats passed, and Berdy trusted them to stay in his shadow, but still Quigley felt watched. Perhaps it was the birds.
Here and there, some on picture frames or sculptures but most of them on perches jutting from the walls, were ebon birds. Ravens, crows, starlings, black grackles. They chirped and coughed and barked and shifted and preened. Matty flinched at their noise and Quigley held his arm.
The birds were elsewhere, too. Carved into the lintels, tufted into the carpets, tiled reverently in mosaics and vases. The Black Tongues claimed they were beyond the religions of Kasslyne but Quigley wondered if they hadn’t found something else.
There was no more time to consider it. Berdy opened a heavy bronze door and ushered them into a small lecture hall lined in black banners. A dozen old wrights were seated towards the front. They turned about curiously at the Plats’ arrival while an old man at the lectern raised a hand in greeting. Perched beside him was the largest raven Quigley had ever seen - an eagle-sized monster that could have carried off Matty in its cruelly curved talons.
“The Quigleys!” called the man, “Delightful. You are in the papers today, you know. The construct pilots all survived, which I am certain clears your conscience.”
Quigley shrugged. “It was not particularly murky.”
“This is Lord Ballanstern,” introduced Berdy, nodding his head towards their leader with respect, if not reverence. “Sir, he says he’s hidden the ogre on the cliffs.”
“I did not say on the cliffs!” Quigley protested. Berdy waved a dismissive hand.
“Where else would you have hidden it, boy?”
“Go away, Berdy,” sighed Ballanstern. Berdy laughed, unoffended, and breezed back out of the room. Quigley turned to the man at the lectern, feeling himself back in school.
There was nothing spectacular about the Black Tongues’ leader. Quigley could not place the man’s nationality. Not any Aldish caste, the accent wasn’t Sharteshanian nor Crescian. The cut of his robes and the dusk of his cheek suggested Madishanian, perhaps. He had long brown hair and watery brown eyes above loose jowls in a sunken skull. His clothing was plain, fully cut robes in reserved jewel-toned hues, the seams traced in braided silver. The nails on his hands were polished like the raven’s talons; too shiny, too lacquered, too obsessively kept. Quigley decided not to bow. Matty’s hand snaked into his own.
“I thank you for your... hospitality,” said the Plat, including the other men in the room with an incline of his head, ”I am come to contract your services. My son was blinded - his eyes ruined by a spellflash. I wish them replaced with simulacrums.”
“I’m certain you do,” said Ballanstern, leaning creakily forward. His long fingers looked like glistening twigs as he wove them together and hung them over the back of the lectern. “But this is not a pymaric shop, Mr. Quigley. We are not wage-wrights to take your order and write you an invoice.”
“I cannot afford the wage-wrights,” Quigley said bluntly, “Even the unlicensed ones laughed me from their shops. Nor did the Crescian authorities offer any aid.”
“Not surprising,” said Ballanstern,” There are thousands of Crescians - civilians and soldiers alike - waiting on the lists for eyes of their own. Imagine the uproar if such precious resources were squandered on an Aldish mayfly.”
“Squandered?” asked Quigley, colour staining his cheeks.
Ballanstern shrugged. “You know it is how they think. Cresce against Alderode, the eternal, tedious struggle. To be frank, Mr. Quigley, First Materials of most finer types are an increasingly scarce commodity. We have certain varieties in stock but none of a quality fine enough to hold the complex spellwork required for ocular simulacrums. Short of breaking into a military vault and stealing them for yourself, there are few courses of action I can recommend to you.”
“I will work for you,” Quigley pressed, “I can tell you of the Dammakhert, of the Window organisation that maintains it. I worked with them-”
“You played fetch for them,” said Ballanstern, “Not to insult you, sir, but I assure you there is nothing you can tell us that we do not already know. We already have numerous Aldishmen among our membership-”
“But do you have Plats-?”
“Not for very long at a time.” Ballanstern’s smile was ugly, but he flicked an interested eye at Matty. “You are welcome to stay of course, but we do require seekers of our sanctuary to have come in pursuit of scholarship. We are not a charitable organisation, but we do hold learning in the highest esteem, and seek to provide opportunities for it to every supplicant. Is the young boy rited?”
“No,” said his father, “I don’t wish him to pursue pymary.”
Ballanstern’s dark brows raised and the other old men twittered scandalously. “That is foolish.” said their leader.
Quigley tossed his head in dismissal. “Perhaps if Plats weren’t seen by Alderode as easy vessels for powerful Arts there would be more of a push to discover why it is we die so young.”
“You don’t die young, sir. Plats have their biologically allotted time in the same way hounds have theirs, two-toes have theirs, humans have theirs. I did not realise this was misunderstood among your people.”
His face hot, Quigley sneered down at his boots. “Prok muol. I did not come for this. If you cannot help us… Well, the reputation of the Ilganyag is bollocks and hot air then, is it?”
The old wrights murmured, displeased, and the Plat’s heart thrilled madly. Matty squeezed his hand harder but it wasn’t felt. Ballanstern remained unperturbed, though the giant raven cocked its head as though listening to a distant sound.
“We are not men troubled by what others think of us,” he said, perhaps rebuking his peers. They fell silent. “We are men resolved to better our world and free the minds of our brethren from superstition, tyranny, and ignorance.”
“Or you are bird-worshipping crackpots,” Quigley offered, “And fiends who will not aid a child.”
Ballanstern laughed, a poisonous sound. “Oh, heaven protect me from the scorn of Mathis Quigley of Alderode! Mathis Quigley formerly of the Window; a government bird dog who eagerly spent three-quarters of every year away from wife and child. Outcast Mathis Quigley, paired with a woman no one else would have, damned by all his people when the Aldish papers scoured his fire-blackened village looking for someone - anyone - to claim the man as friend and explain why he’d murdered twenty innocent Aldish enforcers-”
“Innocent?!” choked the Plat, throwing Matty’s hand off and stalking two threatening steps forward. Innocent the evil bastards who had cooked his wife’s feet while she lived, watching the flesh fall smoking from her bones and then throwing it to their dogs? Innocent the murderers who had executed every man in her employ, who had only spared the boy because they’d thought he was already dead?!
He began to cast, shooting fingers at the pompous bastard’s brow for a punitive blow! It did not come. And then all sense of purpose was lost when someone in the crowd spoke a word and sent an agony unlike anything Quigley’d ever known coursing through his spine. It exploded out of his lungs in a gargled scream and knocked him to his knees, thoughts blanked by pain. He shook his head in negation of it, twisting violently to claw at his back, gnashing his teeth and unable to breathe!
Through the torment he heard Ballanstern’s voice. That was worst of all.
“Mathis Quigley,” he said, openly mocking now, “Whose poor son is a burden to him; a burden to be tossed selfishly away the moment his temper ignites, and he feels he’s been wronged. Yes, you were wronged, but fate has a way of bringing to us what we deserve. Why did you take him with you that night when you sought your vengeance? Why did you strap him to your back hoping you’d both be killed when you raided the municipal office?” The old man drew close, hissing in Quigley’s ear as he writhed. “Don’t speak to me of crackpots and fiends. And do not raise your hand to any Brother in Juste again, mayfly, or I will gift you to Brother Hugh who has long wished for a pale Aldishman to vivisect.”
Then the pain was withdrawn, smoothly, like a sword blade. Quigley fought not to sob as he panted into the floor, phlegmy breaths tearing through him. He leaned on Matty who had put himself at his elbow and helped him stumble to his feet.
“Leave us the boy and the construct, and go,” said Ballanstern, sounding bored now as he returned to his podium, “You don’t want either of them and the boy has a value you choose not to see. Go and find a hole to die in.”
Quigley spat on the carpet. He lurched forward and hooked a hand on the old man’s lectern, snarling, “Fuck. You.”
“Your Continental is quite good,” laughed Ballanstern. His watery old eyes widened with dark purpose but before he could part his lips a new voice sounded.
“I will help them,” it said.
It was a gentler voice, perhaps a frightened voice. Petulant, Ballanstern flicked his gaze over Quigley’s head and towards the speaker, but his anger already seemed defused.
“We do not have the resources for it, Maur,” he said.
“We do,” interrupted the other, “I’ll use Contour Scanning functions; provide him an alternative until proper eyes are feasible.”
“Will you then.”
Considering, Ballanstern drummed his fingers on the wooden lectern, his rings clacking together. Finally he raised and dropped his shoulders, said, “No Brother shall stand in the way of another’s will,” and ambled from the lecture hall, shrugging off the conversation like a soiled garment. Quigley breathed hard, battling the desire to take a shot at his back as the rest of the old men looked on. Some of them, mostly Crescians happy to growl imprecations beneath their breaths at the Plat, followed their leader. They left behind a rainbow of half a dozen old wrights who regarded their pale-haired guests with more curiosity than disdain.
Feeling like a cornered animal, Quigley pushed the hair out of his face with a trembling hand. “It’s all right,” one of the Black Tongues reassured him, smiling with rusty friendliness, “Ballanstern is an ornery bastard.”
“I will kill him,” Quigley said. The old men laughed.
“No, you won’t,” said Maur, the one who had interrupted earlier. He was a portly old gentleman shorter than even the modestly proportioned Plat, dressed in a blue robe with a soft felt hat over a cleanly shorn head. “All Ballanstern wants is for you to leave and reassure the world we’re fierce old bastards not to be trifled with. When he said we don’t care about what people think? That’s malarkey. We rely very much on what people think. We butter our bread with it! Speaking of, would the young man like a proper breakfast?”
Maur rested a hand on Matty’s head. Quigley didn’t fail to notice the way he rubbed a few strands of white hair between his fingers like a kennel-keeper evaluating the coat of a new acquisition. Matty shrugged, hands bunched in his father’s robe. Quigley tried not to growl. “You said you could craft him something? An alternative?”
“Oh, yes,” said Maur, “But it will be the effort of a few weeks. Measurements must be taken, spells optimized and customized.”
“Optimized and customized,” his friends echoed. More hands reached to touch Matty - to stroke his cheek or squeeze his arm or feel his hair. The boy’s face remained tilted towards the floor, miserable at the attention. Maur had mercy at last, clapping his hands with some finality and turning for the door.
“Come with me, sirs, to the dining hall. Theneon, will you have a room made up for them? Preferably one as far away from Lord Ballanstern’s quarters as can be managed!”
Breakfast was fine and hearty though Quigley didn’t taste it. He sat across from the boy and watched him eat, stewing over Ballanstern’s words. Maur and the rest of the kinder old men dined with them, relating all they’d read in the papers of the Plats these last few months, asking for verification and further details, wishing to know more of Vienne in particular. They did not cloak their disbelief that an unschooled young woman from rural Alderode had built something like Uaid in her father’s foundry. Quigley’s terse insistence sparked all manner of tangential conversational threads from the pymaric potential of Alderode’s untapped female moiety to the innovation-stifling effects of modern education, then back to Uaid, and how ridiculous the creature was and how misguided and naive its creator.
Here Quigley spilled his wine. Maur led him and the boy from the dining hall before blows were dealt.
“Most of us are not well-versed in the ah, social arts,” apologised the old man later, “That is why we stay here in Juste, away from an outside world we find acutely confusing.”
Quigley sat on a table edge watching Maur measure a very reluctant Matty. The results were recorded in a careful hand upon a few sheaves of parchment - height, weight, the length of his eyelashes, the distance between his toes, the diametre of his nostrils, and so on.
“Your younger members must not be so afraid,” his father deduced sleepily, “I have seen no one here without one foot in the grave. Do the youths return after they’ve had their fill of reality?” Maur shook his head, steadying his measuring tape between his subject’s narrow shoulders.
“There are no young ones,” he sighed, “The price of Black Tongue fraternity is steep, and the younger generations seem to have increasingly less interest in paying it. Even the young and brilliant men we do woo oft betray us, or prove themselves hotheaded liabilities that must later be… disciplined. Perhaps if we could bring our own children into the Brotherhood but... even that is impossible.”
Quigley quirked his lips. “Why?”
Maur looked up at the Plat, eyebrows emphatically raised. “The price of Black Tongue fraternity is steep.”
“They don’t take your children, do they? I thought the baby-eating was a rumour.”
“Rumours,” said Maur, “Are often grown from seeds of truth. It is our custom, you see, to demand castration of our initiates.”
Quigley blinked. What manner of madmen were these? “You are serious?”
The old wright recorded another set of numbers, then laid two gnarled fingers to the silver torc he wore like a yoke around the back of his neck. All of the sorcerers had them, Quigley had noticed, just like the tongue tattoos. “It is an equitable trade,” said Maur, “And the price of the manner of knowledge that dreamt Juste from the aether, that raised the plods, that devised an unbreakable glamour; that has, over the centuries, helped us guide Kasslyne from tribes to empires.”
“Tirna blast the lot of you for fools,” spat the Plat, crossing his arms in distaste, “It’s a fine chapel you’ve built yourselves here - quite the gilded altar you place yourselves upon - but I see you’re no less fanatical than any Gefendur or Ssaelit I’ve met. And I am done with countries and creeds.”
“That is unfortunate,” said Maur, “But as Lord Ballanstern so rudely pointed out, you’ve precious little time left to trouble yourself with them anyway. No man here will bully you to stay.” He smiled down at Matty’s left ear, measuring the outer canal with a spidery caliper. The boy looked ready to crawl from his skin. “But I wonder if it’s not a possibility you should consider at length. You’re a wright, Mr. Quigley, and one of some skill, if I’ve heard it told correctly. It should be in you to evaluate a situation rationally, with detachment, and come to the proper conclusion.”
Quigley thinned his eyes behind his glasses. “What mean you?”
“I mean that the outside world - the world of Cresce and Alderode and blunt war and malicious stupidity - has no use for you now. You saw behind the curtain and can’t return to the role you were playing. The Black Tongues would provide a place for you to spend the remainder of your days in study and peace, and would grant safe harbour to young Matty here.”
“You’d have some young blood out of it, wouldn’t you?” Quigley could feel his temper rising again. Everyone wanted to take everything he and Vienne had. They’d not be satisfied until they had it all! “Thieves and deviants in scholars’ robes… And you’d all have your hands on the construct at last. Would you like to know where I buried her? Would you like to exhume her and have her skull to study?!”
Sad, Maur shook his chubby head and dropped his gaze. “Not everyone you meet has it out for you, sir. But if friendlessness is your wish, it’s one this world will always quite willingly grant.”
One more meal later and it was well past dusk by the time Maur had finished his measurements, promising to start work on the boy’s temporary pymaric first thing in the morning. He seemed quite tickled to have a task that forced him to tackle a problem economically, balancing the length of his spellwork with the lower quality of the First Materials available. He refused the small amount of coin and stolen property Quigley offered, leaving the Plat in a funk of embarrassment and frustration, the sour taste of his hate still in his mouth.
The room they were given was beautifully furnished, if bizarre. Spiced candles burned inside gilded alcoves and the floor was layered with jute rugs dyed in jewel-toned, gridded patterns. One window looked out onto Lurick’s nighttime sky, the other onto Juste’s perpetual dawn. Quigley was certain one or both were illusions, but was too tired to examine the fittings to determine which, and too tired to spend overlong peering out at the dark cliffs for some sign Uaid still was waiting. He told Matty to go to bed, rotated the lambence globe backwards into its fitting, and laid watching the candles paint shadow monsters on the walls.
Mathis Quigley, a government bird dog who eagerly spent three-quarters of every year away from wife and child. Outcast Mathis Quigley, paired with a woman no one else would have, damned by all his people when the Aldish papers scoured his fire-blackened village looking for someone to claim the man as friend and explain why he’d murdered twenty innocents.
The moon was high when he awoke hours later, gasping like a drowning man and shivering with sweat. He couldn’t remember the nightmare, only the fear like a block of sharp ice in his stomach.
He had seen the forge fire from the highway, seen the smoke. He’d heard the mournful flute as the dead forge workers were watched over in the village square. But no one had moved Vienne from the wreckage. The Plats had all been too afraid of the enforcers’ wrath. Even a day and a night after they had finished their grim work and departed, nailing the damning decree of heresy and treachery to what remained of the forge’s outer wall, the Lady Quigley lay alone in her smoking workshop. Running inside, Mathis hadn’t seen the decree. He’d only seen her, frozen twisted in her dying throes, mutilated and soot-skinned, waiting for him to come home.
It was hard to remember the hours after. He’d been afraid to leave her yet afraid to move her. He’d sat at her side imagining she was asleep until something like sleep had taken him as well. He’d awoken under the dawn, his hot brow against her cold one, and stayed that way until their neighbours peeked inside.
“Your lad,” they’d insisted. Quigley hadn’t known what they’d meant. Why hadn’t they helped her? Why hadn’t they healed her? Where was Millard, the village doctor and overseer? Quigley had thought they were friends!
He’d raved and cursed all of them until someone appeared carrying the boy. They’d thrust him in Quigley’s arms and told him he had the day to settle his affairs, and then he and Matty must leave. He’d leapt at someone then, tossed the ground up and thrown men off their feet, vectored the wall into someone else’s face- but a Plat village had Plat wrights, and Quigley couldn’t combat them all.
In the end, they’d helped him bury her just to get him out of town. He’d taken the boy and left his people behind, but could think of nothing but laying beside her.
“My fault,” he told the darkness now, “But… she never thought ahead. She never planned! It was enough to have the idea and shut herself up with it and never think about the consequences. What would she say? I have to reach for the thing; stopping to think about it gives the thing time to run away.” He tried to claw her smile from his brain, raking his nails across his brow. “But it was still… my... fault.” He needed the world to know that he hadn’t forgotten. He’d never forget, not until the khert took it from him.
Not until the khert took it.
Quigley dropped a hand from the bed and fingered the blade sheathed on the side of his shed boot. Like a key from a lock, it slid free. He turned the blade over, resting the cold steel against his palm. He remembered his father giving him the knife when he was ten and the old man was twenty-seven. His fingertips, ears, and hair had become brittle, cracked, and colourless. He’d be dead within the year but it wasn’t a thing to be discussed.
“This life is our last,” his father had always said whenever he or his wife or anyone around him was dejected, “One last hurt, and then a gasp, and we’ll awaken to a new world at last in the embrace of the gods. How dare we complain when we have that special knowledge? Better to fall on this blade than lose that clarity, Mathis - and promise me you will, if it comes to it.”
The old priest had said something similar when he and Vienne were wed. They’d each been topless, a little drunk, sitting next to each other in the Gefendur chapel with its roof of woven poplar boughs strung with ribbons and bells, laughing as their marriage brands were inked over the hearts. It hadn’t hurt at all which the priest had said was an excellent omen. Vienne had chosen Yerta’s fawn for her brand, and a line about self-sacrifice from the old story about Mother Yerta cutting her hair for Father Riv’s bowstring.
Quigley had chosen a mayfly. The priest had thought it scandalous, for Plats were derisively called insects by the longer-lived castes, but Vienne had thought it brilliant, and then wanted one too, but the priest had silenced her, and she’d sulked until he was through.
A tug of his collar pulled the silk robe from his chest. He regarded the inverted insect there for a long moment, buzzing around the scar from his Rites. Vienne had kissed it that night, then laid her cool cheek against its irritated flush. He’d caressed her fevered breast in turn, each trying so diligently, but unsuccessfully to tend to wounds on the other that had festered too long.
Now she was dead. Why wasn’t he?
The end of his dagger was dipped into one of the candles, the flame greeting the steel with a gentle caress. He stripped his vocal cords so he couldn’t scream. Then, when the blade began to glow, he pressed it hard across his marriage brand.
Hot like her lips, like her forge in creation and in death, hot like the municipal office burning, like the woods burning in the night. So many fires, was it fair they always stopped just short of him? He swirled the dagger as his flesh split, vivisecting the insect (would Brother Hugh like to see?), pushing the blade deep until he smelled his own grease hissing.
Press a little harder. Cut a little hole and let himself pour out of it, tipped like spoiled wine into the thirsty khert’s mouth. Wasn’t his heart hammering for it? Here it beat just below the steel, trying to excavate outward, stifled in the darkness by a cave-in. Let it out, let it out, let the khert fucking have it!
Matty’s hands curled around his wrist and pulled the knife away.
“Go to bed, papa,” he whispered.
The knife fell to the coverlet. Quigley’s voice returned too, swarming back to his throat like more unwanted flies. “I keep trying,” he said.
Matty was gone in the morning. Quigley didn’t seek him out until almost noon, finding him in Maur’s workshop listening to a young woman read from the paper. She squeaked when Quigley appeared, dropping the morning edition to flee out the rear door in a blur of red jacket and black hair.
“Don’t be such a mouse, Nana!” clucked Maur, hunched over his work table. He was weighing fragments of First Copper in a delicate silver scale, adding the precious pieces scrap by scrap with a tiny set of tweezers . “My niece. No fear of her Black Tongue uncle, the evil sorcerer, but put a handsome young man in front of her and she falls to bits.” He gestured to the paper on the floor without looking up. “They are writing a play about you, you know.”
“A play,” repeated Quigley, muzzy.
“Dweha balilimunt lefhen,” said Matty.
Maur laughed. “He talks now, though I’ll be damned if I know what he’s saying.”
Quigley retrieved the paper. HIRZ PICKED TO PEN PLAT PLAY screamed the front page.
“Let no good tragedy go to waste,” said Maur, “Isn’t that the artist’s oath?” The Plat shook his head. “Yes, well, it is her Majesty’s oath anyway. If it makes Alderode look bad she’ll get the story of it into every play house in Cresce. Could be good for your reputation, eh?”
“I must put the ogre somewhere safe until you’re through.”
Maur nodded, taking the topic shift in stride. “Yes. That ogre. Lord Ballanstern had us awake until the early hours of the morning arguing over that ogre. He thinks it should be seized from you.”
“Try it!” spat Quigley, quite suddenly awake, “I would never have sought your people out if I thought you were no more honourable than the godsdamned monarchy-”
“The problem,” interrupted Maur smoothly, “Is we have no reason to be honourable towards you. We treat the independence and free enterprise of our initiated Brothers with unswerving fealty, but you are only an outcast, Mr. Quigley. And it seems you are too prepared to squander what your brilliant wife died for.”
Quigley’s chest ached. His clenched teeth creaked. “She died for naught. There was no… noble sacrifice. She begged for her life, they tortured her, they killed her.”
“They tortured her for naught,” said Maur, “Because she, in the end, did not give them what they wanted. In so doing - or in not doing so - she did indeed die for something, Mr. Quigley, and it is a pity you don’t see it. She kept her discoveries out of the hands of the Aldish and you did the same in stealing Uaid back from them. Now, we Black Tongues can do wonders with that field spreader. We can make Vienne Quigley’s name known the world over-”
“I’m keeping the ogre,” said Quigley. The old man sighed.
“Well, you do have that option. Lord Ballanstern could not win the support he needed to wrest it from you. He forgot himself and our laws. We grant sanctuary without conditions provided the supplicant has come in the pursuit of scholarship. And this new pymaric for Matty is a scholarly exercise indeed!” Maur laughed, trying to lighten the mood. “In any event, Berdy’s arranged one of our warehouses for you. It should do to hide the construct in, though I don’t know that the blasted thing will be very comfortable. Such an impractical scale! Berdy’ll be having his lunch now if you want him. He’ll show you the way.”
Quigley nodded stiffly. “Thank you.”
Maur’s workshop was cluttered with parchments and abstruse paraphernalia but Quigley turned his attention abruptly to a certain overstuffed bookshelf, running the backs of his fingers over a line of flaking old tomes. “Do you have anything on gruftgramary?” he asked.
“Ghegil paemari,” whispered Matty.
“You know Continental!” barked Quigley, “Use it!”
Matty slid off his stool without looking at him, feeling out the walls and then picking his way carefully from the room after the old man’s niece. “Gruftgramary books,” he pressed Maur, “I’ve taken pymary as far as it will go.”
“Spoken like a true Black Tongue,” said his host, “Have you reconsidered joining us, then?”
“I need a distraction until you are through with his pymaric… and the old taboos seem less important now.”
“Whom do you have it out for, I wonder?” Maur scanned the shelves, then pulled free a selection of hand-written folios. “We’ve a policy of sharing our discoveries, but I don’t want the deaths of innocents on my conscience, Mr. Quigley, and gruftgramary is almost always used for an edge up in combat.”
“I’m not sure anyone is innocent-”
The old man struck the Plat a sudden blow to the back of his head hard enough to knock him into the shelves. Then he rolled the folios up into a tube and struck him again when he tried to turn, then once more for good measure as though disciplining a dog.
“You’re quick to damn us for wanting your son,” he rebuked, scoring another good blow across the Aldishman’s cheek, “But slow to show him you want him for yourself!”
Quigley fended off the barrage, trying not to set the folios he needed on fire but his eyes were already alight. “I did not ask for this!” he roared, finally catching them in one hand. He tore them from the feebler wright’s grasp. “And you’ve no bloody notion what it is you are babbling. Would I be here if not for whatever you are crafting? Crafting for him? You fragile foreigners and your fragile hearts. It profits him precious little to love me when I’m soon gone!”
Maur shook his head with a pity that nearly was the end of Quigley’s self-restraint. “That philosophy may suit your poor frozen countrymen, but you don’t have the luxury of it anymore. Learn to live with that boy or he won’t survive your parting. Apathy is a terrible motivator, and hatred more destructive than any pymary I’ve ever seen.”
“Not half so destructive as love,” rasped Quigley, “But what would an old man who cut the love out of himself know of it?” He turned for the door, rifling miserly through the crinkled notes.
“If you think that is the source of love,” called Maur, “It is not gruftgramary you should be studying!”
There was a saying among those of the Platinum caste. Your child is your replacement, not your responsibility. That was the way of caste life, where children were sent to the village keepers so no one was foolishly tempted to lose one’s head over them. Quigley had seldom seen his parents more than once a week when he was a boy, at Gefendur worship, and then they would eat together in the square with the others and each would go back to their lives. Quigley had wept when his older brothers died and his two sisters when they were married to men of neighbouring villages, but he’d not even come home from school for his mother’s burial. When his father died the next year all it had meant was a new wardrobe and a bit of extra money in his pocket.
Every row he’d ever had with Vienne had been about one of her creations - either the construct or the boy. The couple had each been critical of Aldish society and the ways of their world but Quigley had never shared her distaste for how children were raised. They’d sworn never to have children themselves, even if they had to run away from the village and live as outcasts. When she’d told him one day she was with child, Quigley had frowned sympathetically, as if she’d told him she had the flu, and asked if she needed help dealing with it.
And she had, nine months later, for six years.
Quigley found the boy in the corridor outside the dining hall. That girl, Nana, caught sight of him and shrank through the nearest doorway. Matty turned with a jar in his hands, his brow furrowing beneath the bandage over his eyes.
“It’s me,” said his father, “Go back to the old wright. Can you find your way?”
“Nim efhim-” He shook his head apologetically. “No. Dark. Nana… help.”
“You need to work on your Continental. If your mother had sent you away to the keepers as she should have you’d have a better grasp.”
Matty nodded. He held the little jar out, and Quigley took it.
“The hot,” struggled the boy, touching his own chest indicatively, “Nana… tell Matty... helps.” He gave it up and reverted to Tainish, pressing his back to the wall. “It’s medicine. It will help your burns so you can sleep better. You won’t be so cross if you sleep better.”
Quigley’s stomach twisted strangely. “You... chose a strange time to start talking again. I’m glad you came to your senses.”
Matty touched his face, tracing the covering there meanderingly. “They told me if I made noise they would hurt mama.”
“They hurt her anyway.” Matty’s hand moved to his ear. He tugged at it nervously, scratching at his temple and nodding to himself. “But Maur and Nana said they can’t come into this place. Maur and Nana said they will protect us.”
“Simple as that you’ll trust them?” Quigley dropped the jar in his pocket and pounded on the wall. With another half-stifled squeak Nana popped from the doorway like a groundhog. “Take him back to your uncle,” he bade her, and left in search of Berdy.
Juste was of impossible dimensions. Over the next month Quigley did not find it difficult to stay away from portly old Maur, exploring instead the manufactured world in which he found himself a guest. He put his night with the knife away and shut the door on it. Against it he leaned new obsessions, digging his way through whatever books his hosts would lend him and diving into the syntax of gruftgramary.
There wasn’t a country in Kasslyne where it was legal for common wrights to compose their own spells. In each country there existed instead an extensive list of allowed spellwork to which every licensed wright was expected to adhere. Only State-employed Composers could expand that list with new pymary. Indeed, few wrights knew or understood the long-form spellwork behind most spells, instead using triggers to activate what they wished to use and replacing variables according to their needs. These shortcut triggers dramatically reduced the length of many otherwise unwieldy spells, making them both more practical and far safer from error.
Even if a more ambitious wright wanted to illegally add to this list of triggered spells, there was no way to burn new spellwork into the khert without a Composer’s access to each country’s khert-hubs.
It had been the Black Tongues who’d devised a way around this. Delving into the khert-hubs from their seerstones they had reverse engineered the defensive spellwork that kept the spell lists sound, drilling holes in which to insert new triggered enchantments. Each country was perpetually obliterating these illegal hacks and erecting new barriers in an effort to keep the Black Tongues out, but no matter how they struggled the obsessive old men were always writing their ways back in.
And this art was called Gruftgramary.
Access to customized triggered spellwork - complex spells that a wright could conjure in a fraction of the time it would take to recite them longform - gave one a deadly edge in combat.
Quigley found the art far more flexible and wider of purpose than he’d always imagined, and studying it lit a torch to combat the darkness that fell whenever he was left alone. From gruftgramary he reached towards other forbidden arts like the pathfinding attack that had been used on him when he arrived, and weather manipulation, which all the books said no one could accomplish due to limited range but which, to a Plat, seemed well within the realm of possibilities.
He found wandering the architectural plane outside the workshops strangely comforting. The unending dawn there began to make sense: unending promise. The man-made environs were more than sterile; they were a defiance of the natural. Quigley enjoyed that idea very much - so much, that he almost began to reconsider his refusal to stay and join these madmen. Perhaps there was something to this eccentric way of life.
Save at bedtime, he saw very little of the boy. After supper he would come into their room with stories of the wonders of Juste’s old wrights, or tales of where Nana had taken him that day or what she’d given him to eat. He told his father that Maur planned to install his sight aid into his beanbag toy and, though Quigley damned the old man’s moon-eyed impracticality, he couldn’t deny the boy seemed less nervous at the prospect of the new pymaric afterwards, and more excited by its looming completion.
Then one night Matty told him it was done. Maur planned to begin testing it the next day. “It won’t be dark anymore, papa,” he said before pulling the blanket up over his face, “I want to see Uaid and you and Nana and Maur and all the birds.”
“Go to sleep, Matty.”
“Can we stay here always, papa? No bad men can hurt us here.”
“Go to sleep.”
He buzzed as restlessly as a vliegeng flea the next morning, vexing Maur as he adjusted a few measurements - both on the boy and on the scroll which held his final spell revision. “Your hair’s grown half an eni-evara,” chided the old man, tweaking Matty’s locks and then reaching for a pair of shears. “The spell cannot be easily changed once it’s burned into the First Copper we’re using. This is the length you wish your hair for the foreseeable future, brave Aldishman?”
“Matty do not care!” said the boy.
“I,” corrected his father, ”I do not care. That is fine, Maur, I will keep it clipped, but there is little I can do about the rest of him growing.”
Maur rolled the scroll tightly and then loaded it into his spell burner, a complex contraption that allowed for spells to be permanently burned into First Materials, creating pymarics. Poor Chitz had been split in two and all its dried beans emptied into a tidy pile. Matty had made the adults promise to cook and serve them for supper later, alarmed by the idea of throwing out anything that had touched his mother’s hands. Now Chitz’s two burlap halves awaited the weight of the First Copper beads sitting on the receiving tray of the burner.
Maur fiddled with a few knobs. “Of course... He grows more than eight inches though and clarity will begin to degrade. However the spell can be reworked then, it is a simple matter.”
“Or we keep a brick on his head,” Quigley suggested, and Matty gasped with disapproval.
“Maur will fix Chitz, papa! Maur is a very, very, very good wright!”
Chuckling, Maur turned a crank and the scroll began unrolling into the burner. Its farcyte geode swelled with golden light, boring into the isolated khert fields of the precious Copper, first mapping their lines and then encoding the spell.
Quigley was impressed. First Copper was still in moderate supply but even it was expensive. By purchasing scraps and reshaping them into beads, then compartmentalizing his spellwork into chunks that could be independently installed within each component while referencing each other, Maur had managed to design a high-functioning pymaric at a fraction of the cost Quigley would pay at any artificer’s workshop.
“You are good at this,” he admitted as the burner did its work. Maur beamed and clapped the Plat on the back.
“I should be after fifty years. My wife wanted me to design cookery. Stoveboxes and coldboxes, you know. I thought I could do something more meaningful in this life than keep the sausages fresh.”
Quigley pursed his lips, considering. “She left you when you joined the Black Tongues?”
Maur nodded soberly. “She really liked sausages.”
“Don’t we all.”
Once the Copper was burnt it was a simple task to pour the beads into the burlap and close Chitz up with a few tight stitches. Maur pressed a dimple into its butt and then balanced it on Matty’s shoulder, looping its yarn tail behind his neck.
“Heavy,” complained the boy, squirming.
“Have a care with it,” Quigley chided, a strange catch in his voice. Now that the moment had come, his insides thrilled with anxiety he didn’t understand. Maur fiddled with Chitz’s placement and the older Plat reached around him for Matty’s bandage. He hadn’t seen his eyes since before they were ruined, and was terrified of them now. His fingers shrank from the wrapping. What if Vienne’s eyes were there? What if they were blood-glistening holes? Maur batted Quigley out of the way and removed the bandage himself.
No. They were still Matty’s eyes; beautiful eyes, pink and purple and pale like the dawn. Shoulders hunched, uncertain, the boy blinked them sightlessly at some middle nothingness. There was no accusing in them, no hatred. Quigley moved out of view of them anyway, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides. Maur regarded him with disapproval, but said nothing. “I’m going to activate it now, Matty,” he warned, “Brace yourself, you may feel a little dizzy.” The boy blanched but nodded bravely, staring ahead. The Black Tongue held his arm to steady him and said: “Inet bianaeri!”
Chitz pulsed gold for one brief breath, a powerful pymaric glorious in its ridiculousness, like Uaid. Matty’s dawn-coloured eyes widened and he stumbled, shaking his head back and forth like a dog with a flea in its ear. The motion dislodged the pymaric and the boy shook out of Maur’s grasp, knocking backwards into the burner as Chitz’s perspective gyred wildly, then flumped into the floor. Matty tried to close his eyes to the dizzily spinning world but it had no effect on the spell. Maur had to pick up the pymaric and press his hand atop it to blind it again.
“Is it not working?” Quigley reached for Matty but Maur grabbed him first.
“It’s working fine, but it’s a different way of seeing than he was accustomed to.” He dropped creakily to one knee, grabbing the boy’s chin. “Chitz will show you the contours of the world, Matty. It is how a bat sees, hmm? Or a porpoise in the water.”
Matty shook his head in tearful negation. “Matty wants to see how a boy sees,” he sobbed, disappointed, “Matty wants eyes!”
“You’ll have them!” assured Quigley, “I’ll make it so. But this has to do for now!”
Maur covered the tiny Plat’s shaking shoulders with his heavy arm. “Are you not a brave little Aldishman, my darling? You have to learn how to use Chitz. Chitz will never leave you in the dark, even when others cannot see. Chitz will keep you from bumping into walls, from hitting your elbows on tables and chairs. Chitz will help you be your own big man. Here-” Matty tried to squirm away but Maur put the pymaric firmly back on his shoulder. “Be still! Get your bearings! Look! See your father?”
Quigley froze beneath the sudden scrutiny of Chitz’ purple button eyes. To the left of them, Matty’s own broken eyes thinned, squinting through tears to pick through the monotone planes the pymaric’s sophisticated sonar was feeding his brain. The high white shapes were the walls of the room. The rectangle in the middle was the table he had been sitting upon. The snowman beside it… was not a snowman… but an indistinct figure on two legs frozen in fear.
“Raise your arm,” Maur bade Quigley.
The figure grew a limb, raised it from the blob of itself. The limb grew more distinct the further Matty concentrated on it, separating into fingers at its far end. When his eyes tracked up to where its face should be he could almost make out lips, a nose, the shape of the spectacles he remembered. The lips weren’t smiling, but papa never smiled.
He remembered that shape sometimes framed in the doorway of his bedroom, the light of mama’s workshop streaming behind it. Papa always brought Matty treats back from the far away places he went, and he and mama would drink and dance for hours to the pipes that warbled from their neighbour’s windows. The next day they might yell at each other or him, but homecoming nights were always perfect.
Matty nodded to himself and touched the beanbag lightly. “Aye. Chitz is good.”
Delighted by his own success, Maur serenaded them both with a barking laugh and mussed the boy’s hair into a bird’s nest. “It is! And like I said, Matty, you’ll adapt! You know, there are some blind men who choose to forego proper simulacrae entirely and live their entire lives with these contour-sensing pymarics. They won’t let you read or detect colour or texture but you’ll be able to ‘see’ even in perfect darkness-!”
Matty turned suddenly and threw his arms around the Black Tongue’s legs. “Matty is sorry,” he sniffled, “Socha akdem.”
“Ahh,” sighed Maur, returning the embrace, “That one I know. You’re very welcome.”
The rest of the morning passed with the elder Plat watching impotently from the corner as the Black Tongue familiarized the boy with his new set of eyes. As long as Chitz was on his left shoulder its point of view would snap to Matty’s natural gaze; once removed, however, the perspective dizzily defaulted to Chitz’s buttons, a trick that Matty was quite fascinated by once he understood it. And though there was no way to deactivate Chitz, Maur showed Matty all he had to do was cover its buttons to block the questing signals it was perpetually emitting.
“Best of all,” boasted Maur, “You need not fret over your construct’s pymary nullification. If it’s in effect, I’ve programmed a line into Chitz’s tail here. Keep it in contact and you’ll have at least limited functionality no matter the khert conditions you’re in.”
“Make Chitz talk!” Matty challenged, “Make Chitz make music!”
“Heel your hounds there, chalktop. Let’s see if you can walk across the room again without it slipping. You’ll have a prince’s posture by the time we’re through!”
By lunch it was nearly true, and Matty was catching rubber balls on the first try. Berty arrived to admire his Brother’s handiwork and the rest of Maur’s friends were soon behind him, patting Matty on the head and congratulating their comrade on his success. Stepping into the workshop with sandwiches and a treat of strawberry fish, Nana was encouraged enough by the mood of the room to dare a shy twiddling of fingers Quigley’s way, but Quigley didn’t notice. While Matty greeted the girl with an excited demonstration of his new abilities, his father slipped out the door. There was no place for him there.
Hours later, Juste throbbed with its old pink optimism as Quigley walked its chiming paths, bloody-eyed from reading and picking at his half-healed marriage brand.
Overhead, the black birds circled like vultures. Perched on the spire of a mausoleum not far from the workshops was the monstrous raven Quigley had seen at Ballanstern’s side a month ago. He caught sight of it and turned in the opposite direction, but with a rustling like a shaking shroud it leapt into the sky and landed on a pillar in front of him. He thought he saw red eyes nestled in its wings before they folded again; a hundred red eyes all watching him, all telling him he was no longer welcome.
“I know,” he answered.
And then Juste’s dawn was done.
At last the flushed empyrean emptied. All its unspoken promise dribbled down its convexity and vanished beyond the horizon. Its blush deepened to crimson. Quigley cried out as the intricate paving stones buckled beneath his boots, hinging vertical like tombstones and throwing him to his knees in a darkening world. Had it never been dawn, then? Had it been a mistaken dusk all along? Aye, for the blood was on fire now as the sun died, and the east was as black as the raven’s wings glistening with red-eyed stars.
Quigley stood, shaking. He rounded the perimeter of the workshops, thinking to see Vienne’s blackened legs around each new corner.
“Leave me be,” he begged.
“All we want is to love you,” she had scolded him more than once, “If that is so distasteful I do not altogether understand why you ever come home at all.”
“Because I love you!” he’d answered, hurt that she could doubt it.
“Your son’s the inconvenience then, is he? You’re sick, Mathis; you’re sick and I’m sick for thinking I could mend you. If you can’t be a proper father to him then stay away. Better no father at all than you!”
The raven nodded from its perch. Why squander the resources on a mayfly?
Matty was already sleeping when Quigley returned to their room. Chitz was on the pillow beside him beneath a handkerchief and a toffee wrapper, the contents of which its owner had helpfully eaten for him. Quigley regarded them each a moment, then, as quietly as he could, he began packing his few things into his satchel. He left the remainder of his money on the nightstand along with his sheathed knife and the silver clasp of his mantle that once had been Vienne’s favourite hair clip.
Relinquishing all of it, he finally felt hollow, which was a comfort. He took it as a good omen, as a sign that at last he was behaving properly. He didn’t look back at Matty before hefting his satchel and putting his hand on the door.
Maur’s sudden entrance almost chinned him.
“What are you doing?” hissed the old man, bright-eyed with excitement, “Did you hear?”
Quigley scraped sweat and grease from his eyes. “Hear what?”
“Lord Ballanstern has negotiated a trade with Queen Sonorie: you and the construct in exchange for two of our Brothers who were abducted last week in Ulestry.” Maur looked over his shoulder, neurotic, then leaned furtively closer. “You both must go. Now. Berdy, Theneon, and the others are arguing the matter at council with him as we speak. Ballanstern has gone against us in this, and he may not last the night. But he has supporters. I’ve unwarded the front gate and the warehouse holding your construct, but you must be quick-”
“Is it safe for Matty to stay here with you?” Quigley interrupted tonelessly. Maur froze, searching the other’s face.
“...yes. No one here would harm the boy.”
“Then here he shall remain.” Quigley bowed awkwardly. “Thank you for all you’ve done for him. Your master was right. I don’t want the boy. What’s more, his mother was right. I don’t deserve him. Keep him, raise him as you see fit. I will send any money I manage to earn.”
Quigley moved past the man and into the hall but Maur clasped his wrist. “You must stop hating yourself, Mathis,” he whispered, “Hate won’t see you through out there. It won’t.”
“I hope that is true.”
He heard Maur swear but there could be no retort, as a sudden commotion of voices robbed the older man’s attention. Quigley vanished down the hall and Maur turned to assuage the anger and perplexion of his companions roused from their sleep by news of the coup.
All around Juste the Black Tongues were turning from their beds or tumbling from their workshops to pick a side. Would they agree with Ballanstern, capitulating to the Crescian government and betraying a man seeking sanctuary in order to win the freedom of two of their own? Or would the Ilganyag refuse to negotiate with a monarchy they abhorred, and hold sacred their ancient law of scholarship and hospitality?
Quigley did not want to find himself in the path of anyone who chose the former. Slowly he crept through the nighttime halls, measuring out his Opacity in drips and drabbles to blend with the shadows as dark figures whispered past. He heard oaths from other parts of the complex, angry words - spell words - and the khert flaring to light and life as men threatened and quarreled. In the eaves the black birds shifted with restless unease, scenting change on the wind or even the looming promise of a carrion feast. At the end of one dark hall Quigley spied Ballanstern’s raven, its bill dripping.
Nearly half an hour passed before he reached Juste’s front gate. As he and Matty had a dozen times in the past month when visiting Uaid, he slipped past its wards and onto Lurick’s dark streets, throwing a hasty glamour over himself. He heard frantic steps from the alleyways he passed and then strange steps behind him, hesitant. No rattling of chain or plate. No guards. It had to be a wright. Quigley walked through spellable walls at random, ghosting through dark Crescian parlours, past the beds of sleeping fishermen, through washrooms and kitchens, disturbing not even the mice. Finally, panting outside of a shuttered bakery, all he heard was the ocean waves and the hammering of his own heart, and he hurried on alone.
He reached the warehouse, an unassuming box of planks between two municipal buildings and a shipyard. The wards were indeed dissipated and he stepped inside to be greeted by a strangely alert green construct. Uaid dropped his hand to his master immediately and Quigley was lofted up to the cockpit.
“We’re leaving,” he hissed in Tainish, “Go through the south wall at my word, and follow the paved street southwest and to the highway. Then we’re going to scale the cliffs. Are you up for it?”
Uaid nodded guardedly, and rose to his feet..
The night air outside tore through Quigley’s sweaty hair and clothing, blowing the subterfuge of Juste from his bones, cleansing him of a month of hiding with eunuchs and birds. But it did nothing to blast his mind free of the boy in the bed who would wake up to an empty room.
“I don’t want him,” he told the salt air, “I’d be able to look at him if I wanted him.”
With one final push of a powerful green foot, Uaid eased himself over the cliff’s edge and straightened on the forested precipice. The woods were unnaturally quiet as he waded into them. The construct cowered beneath the starglow. No owls hooted. No grebbers prowled.
Quigley raked his sleeve across his eyes and glared at the horizon. A line of Crescian constructs waited there, black on black against the sky. The sight was strangely elating.
An amplified voice called out an order to halt. It was hard to make out the words, though it was a female pilot this time. Quigley raised an arm in greeting, then let it drop to the console. Uaid shivered, waiting for a command. Its master waited too, tasting each soft breath. Then he stroked one of Uaid’s sandy green brows and turned off the field spreader.
“We are Aldish gentlemen,” he murmured, “We should relinquish our advantage.”
Uaid hesitated for a moment but nervous energy finally propelled him forward, shaking the cliffs with every booming step. The windowpanes of Lurick rattled below and the smoke eels looked up from their chimneys, hissing excitedly. More of them bloomed in an ecstatic frenzy when the first Crescian launched a fire charge, staining the trees with blood-coloured light and smashing Uaid shoulder-first into a mossy boulder. Quigley fell backwards in the carriage, cracking his head on the seat corner. Staggering to his feet, he saw another charge soar overhead, and then two more on a direct line for the ogre’s chest. The first was a direct hit, smashing Uaid hard to the dirt and denting his ribs. He rolled clear of the second but it blew the boulder into a spray of razor-winged insects that singed his green skin and drew his master’s blood. Quigley steadied himself on the control console and stroked Uaid’s brow again as he protested and apologised with a voice he didn’t have.
The Crescians gingerly advanced. Nigh obscured by fireglow Quigley saw a telltale cooling of the light as pymaric commands sank into the earth. Great ropes of Solidity snaked free, lashing Uaid’s legs and pulling him to the ground. Quigley waited until the lead construct crept closer, then balled the nearest source of Heat in his fist, stole the snakes’ Momentum, and hurled it into the Crescian’s screaming face.
The range of the attack was impossible. The pilot recoiled in terror as it engulfed the grass supporting her mount, blackening its chassis and forcing her from the car. As her comrades moved to assist, Quigley commanded Uaid free of the restraints and then onto his feet. “Charge through them!” he roared, tearing his cloak free. It fluttered to the wind.
Uaid vaulted forward. A blast of pressure slammed into his side, twisting one of its metal arms backwards with a sickening screech. A barrage of shots followed as the Crescians abandoned their attempt to subdue the menace, embracing instead their secondary command to destroy it. Quigley bade Uaid through their ranks, scattering two of the smaller machines and smashing its windows with a pressure blast of his own. An attack from behind connected with his casting arm in a hot splash of blood, snapping the bone and throwing him bodily into the command console.
“Crescian dogs!” he screamed, laughing, standing, “You can’t swat a mayfly?!”
Panicked, Uaid grabbed one of the machines by the legs, whirling it around his head before loosing it into the base of a tree. Another fire charge rammed his back, pushing him and a wave of earth and brush forward. The Plat shoved his broken arm through his belt and extended his left. He took up the broken glass, condensed its Edges, sent it screaming into the delicate hinges of the nearest machine. They were some repellant First Material however and the blade wheeled away into the aether. Uaid spun from a similar attack, and an attempted Core Leech bounced back along its line to connect with its caster in a messy burst of misted blood and a sickeningly truncated scream.
Employing less sophisticated tactics, Uaid smashed a fist into the offending contraption. But a malevolent hissing preceded half a dozen sickening thuds as foot-wide saw-discs breached his mouth, piercing his tongue and palate. Enraged he shook and spat, flattening the surrounding trees, and the Crescians closed in.
Quigley saw a glimmer of red at the corner of his eye. He wheeled clumsily to intercept and Uaid presciently tilted sideways. The decapitating blast hissed past, but not cleanly. Quigley’s shirt blackened, then split. Blood dribbled down his chest and into the hem of his trousers. Clutching his slippery ribs, he sank to the cockpit floor. Red ran in a rivulet through the grate of the hatch leading to Uaid’s insides. There in the gloom he thought he saw it stain a head of white hair.
“Always nagging, Vienne,” he mumbled, “I’m coming, I’m coming.”
“Papa!” called Matty, “Uaid! Uaid, run!”
Quigley tried to roll over as the hatch creaked open but the stars were spinning drunkenly above him, spinning too fast to be tolerated. Matty patted his shoulder in passing, then moved Chitz over the control panel as Uaid scaled back his assault, kicking constructs aside and ducking below the trees. There came a tinny snap as the field spreader clicked on, and Matty shrilled, “Uaid! Into the river, Uaid! Don’t hurt anyone else - mama wouldn’t like it!”
“You little idiot,” slurred Quigley, “Why didn’t you stay with... the old man? You are safe there. They can protect you!”
“Who will protect papa?” Matty choked.
Men and women hollered in the night as tree limbs snapped and crashed to the fiery forest floor. Uaid kicked free a final struggling construct, then wrapped his broken arm around his dented middle and pounded south, towards the night-black snake of the river Jarla. Matty soothed his green brow with fluttery warm fingers, whispering brotherly secrets and old conspiracies that meant everything and nothing at all.
After a few minutes the screaming voices faded, and they were alone in the dark. Uaid slid into the river with his lips closed tight so the water wouldn’t wash his bulk away through the wounds in his mouth. They would heal in time but he was the remains of a senet beast, not a god.
“Go to Sharteshane, Uaid,” said Matty, hugging the monster’s sandy cold brow. “You fought so brave. You’re a brave little Aldishman.”
“I don’t w-want you here,” snarled Quigley, rocking in his blood on the carriage floor, “Don’t you understand it’s a waste, boy? It’s such a waste!” Matty knelt at his side. He stroked his father’s brow now, and picked pieces of leaves and flecks of dirt from his hair. Quigley flinched away from him. “Stop it! Stop! I’m never going to give you what you want! I don't... I don't know how... and I haven't the will to learn. I’m never going to apologise enough for it to matter- I can’t even fix your eyes. I can’t- I can’t-”
Matty’s lips flattened. Tears made dark stains on the thighs of his trousers. “Matty- I will… learn Continental good,” he promised, “I… no will bump things or… move in papa’s way..”
Quigley grabbed the boy’s shirt and rattled him. “It was my fault,” he spat, “Don’t you understand?”
Matty shook his head. Pale and peaked, his face tilted towards the starglow. “You tried, papa. I know you tried. Maur said there are bad men in the world but if we’re like mama, they can never really win.”
Quigley squeezed his eyes shut. Then he wept for a long time, the hate escaping with the blood from his chest and turning cold. The boy petted his hair, and the river Jarla tickled Uaid’s cheeks, burbling a charitable hymn beneath the stars. Eventually Quigley’s bloody hand, twisted in some paroxysm only half-understood, extended to Matty’s cheek. Just out of reach something wafted and danced like a teasing smoke eel. Even if he could grasp it he knew it would slip away.
His fingers lingered at the dawn in the boy’s broken eyes, then dropped in defeat. “I’ll teach you the construct’s controls,” he said.
Matty nodded, steadying Chitz on his shoulder. He grabbed papa’s good arm, helping him back into the chair, and together they bade Uaid east.
©2014 Ashley Cope
Commissioned by jardindelanuit - Thank you!