M. Crane Hana © 2018
All Rights Reserved
In the distance, a series of chords eased into a lively tune: the Witch-Queen’s daughter playing with growing confidence on her new girwood harp.
On the other side of the night-shrouded garden, Eridan Sydall, Master-Singer of all Lonhra, reeled homeward dizzy from wine and compliments. He’d only made the tall harp. By the time the princess grew into it, she’d be a Master in her own right.
Seeking his and Sfassa’s guest apartment, Eridan followed tiled paths and stairs between lush teal grass plumes, tall blue trees, and golden-glowing suncrystals on bronze pillars. The garden screened most of the Witch-Queen’s low palace on three sides. To the east, where the garden sloped down, Eridan glimpsed the lights of Throng, a sprawling tropical city where no building rose more than three stories from the rich soil.
Just when he thought himself completely lost, Eridan spotted two half-familiar palm trees on the north end of a terrace. A bronze bracket on one tree supported the Master-Singer’s banner, its black and dark red fabric rippling languidly in the night breeze. A suncrystal lamp hung from a bracket on the other tree. From the banner, lamplight picked out flashes of the silver emblems of his rank—harp, waves, and seven stars.
He navigated another short path through a dimmer courtyard, then pushed open a carved wooden door. Inside, the dark suite smelled of exotic flowers, clean-scrubbed tile still faintly damp, and a whisper of Sfassa’s musky-sweet scent.
Of course, she wasn’t back from the queen’s library yet. Eridan grinned, recalling the flustered archivists when they discovered the Master-Singer’s excessively tall, brawny barbarian wife was an avid scholar in her own right. Once convinced of Eridan’s safety in the palace, Sfassa spent her free time scribbling notes and comparing old folklore texts.
Eridan’s smile faltered as he noted the darkness in the suite. There should have been two ceramic lamps caging suncrystals, one in the salon where he stood, one over the arch leading to the kitchen and the bedchamber.
Cold, sharp metal touched the right side of his neck. The front door closed quietly behind him.
Eridan tensed. He had a knife at his belt and enough skill to use it in tight quarters. Instead, he breathed acrid chemical fumes, and his scream died in his throat. His muscles stiffened, locked in taut tremors. Something was horribly wrong in his brain, even his internal voice broken by pulses of static.
“Master-Singer, the silence-drug won’t kill you.” His assailant plucked the knife from his pocket and hauled his body back against her chest. “Go too long without the antidote and you’ll never write or babble more than nonsense again. Much less sing to the wrong ears. Don’t fight it. The faster your heart beats, the faster the drug will settle in your throat and brain. My sisters and I won’t kill you, you ugly little man. You’re to watch while we butcher your mongrel whore in front of you.”
Eridan slowed his breath, but he couldn’t calm his brain. If this was the infamous silence-drug he had half an hour at most. Who directed the attack? Who would know the two things he feared most to lose? Half the world, he thought next, cravenly regretting the last several centuries of being professionally obstinate.
The assassin didn’t speak again. Through the fog settling over his thoughts, Eridan tried to place the others by the sounds of their soft breaths and minute shifts of posture. They ranged around the door. Past the single window looking out on the garden, a soft rustle told him more people waited under the arch to the bedchamber.
The fog lifted a little. Eridan used the moment to aim his memory back a scant handful of hours. Had Sfassa been wearing her spears this evening? When she wasn’t in full armor, she wore a spear harness with the long leaf-shaped steel blades of her kori-spears jutting up like deadly feathers. Sfassa lived within arm’s reach of her weapons and felt naked without them.
The silence-drug worked differently on Eridan’s body than on the people it was meant for. His thoughts cleared enough to count his attackers from their breathing patterns. Five or six other people in the room, not counting the woman who restrained him.
The knife lost, he needed a distraction. He could move his right hand just enough to slip into the hip pocket of his own cotton robe. His fingers gripped the cool rounded shape of a glazed porcelain gourd-style flute, its tiny proportions meant for a Sirrithani child but just right for him. The young heir of Throng had formally traded it to him this morning for the girwood harp he’d crafted for her.
Gripping the eggshell-thin ceramic bulb, Eridan slowly flexed his wrist out of the pocket. He guessed the assassins used some kind of spell or artifact to let them see in the dark. He didn’t want them looking too closely at him.
Breathe and think. Sfassa would walk up to their door, probably with a satchel of notebooks in hand. Would she notice the lamps out? Would she scent the drug and Eridan’s fear?
Out in the garden beyond the banner, Sfassa called a happy farewell to someone. Her footsteps slapped closer and closer to the main door.
Now. Eridan opened his fingers. The little flute plummeted straight down onto the tiles and shattered noisily. Eridan heard a faint ping and a ripping sound at the same time.
His captor bit back a curse as she dragged him into the kitchen. Steel cut a fraction deeper into his neck. “You little Dana pest,” she whispered, lifting another drugged cloth to Eridan’s face.
Sfassa hurtled through the salon window in a crash of broken wood and ripped silk mesh, bringing some of the outer light with her. She howled as she dove low into the dim salon, avoiding the blades slicing where her throat should be. Light glinted against Sfassa’s feathery short mop of white hair. More faint silver sleeked along her bare body and shone off her spears. She’d stripped outside and weighted her dress with something.
She came up like a storm-surge, swinging her dress in a long, low arc. Two assassins fell with their legs wrapped in its tangle. She decapitated another with one spear, then stepped back and stomped down hard on two throats.
Their metal gorgets crushed before Sfassa’s considerable weight broke their necks. The remaining attackers paused. The one holding Eridan gave a frustrated hiss and dropped the second drugged cloth.
“I’ve the night-sight, too, dog-bitches, and I can smell you,” Sfassa growled in her low, burring voice. With another metallic ping she pulled her second kori-spear from the scabbard on her back. During the messy, grunting chaos Eridan struggled to stay upright, keep breathing, and remember his own name.
“She’s good. No matter. They’ll wear her down and gut her where she stands,” the assassin gloated softly in his ear. “Every blade but this one is poisoned.”
“I’m harder to kill than you think,” Sfassa snarled, swinging her head side to side, then orienting on the whisper. Someone gurgled their final breath behind her.
Eridan reached for the bare hand splayed across his chest, then wrenched back the woman’s little finger until it dislocated. She yelled as her arm swung wide. He ducked. His ear stung from the knife. Sfassa’s spear hammered into the assassin’s chest inches over his head, cleaving sternum and driving straight through heart, spine, and the tiled wall behind. The assassin choked and slumped, her slack fingers letting her knife bounce off Eridan’s shoulder and clang on the floor.
Sfassa gasped out, “Eridan? Little bard? Are you hurt?”
Eridan couldn’t answer. Shouts and running footsteps came through the garden, and he prayed it wasn’t more assassins. He stopped fighting gravity and let himself slide down the dead assassin’s legs, to sit on the now-filthy floor.
How many Master-Singers had been in enough battles to know the aftermath by scent alone?
You married Snowdancer, a wry part of himself warned.
Some of the blood smelled…wrong. Too familiar, even to his stunted nose.
Sfassa set down her right-hand spear, then found the salon lamp and unshielded it. Warm golden light spilled out over blood, steel, and slumped bodies. So much blood. Sfassa stood over the lamp, her strong body naked save for her harness and the shredded blue rags between it and her shoulders. Though she still held the left-hand spear ready, she smiled in sudden relief at Eridan.
“Well, love, I was expecting something like this since you sang heart back into those landcaste serfs outside Autanqa. But in the palace itself? And against me?”
Eridan forced out a single noise of sheer horror.
The first of the queen’s guards burst in through the door just as Sfassa looked down. Blood sheeted over her dark-bronze hips like a new skirt. Pink-gray intestines and pale yellow fat bulged from the long diagonal slash across her upper belly.
She rolled her eyes as if at a trifling setback. Said something filthy in a barbarian dialect, dropped her spear, and held her insides within the cut. Sfassa looked back up at Eridan, her next quip and fierce grin fading as her gaze tracked along his shaking body and frozen face. Her tall, whisker-fringed ears went flat against her skull.
She screamed, “Guards! Healers! Quickly, bring earthwitches! The Master-Singer’s been silenced!”
I can’t lose Sfassa. I can’t lose my voice. Please don’t make me choose between them!
Ayundami didn’t need to practice invisibility anymore.
The Chief Adept of Illarhun tucked her long black staff into the crook of her left elbow, leaned on a retaining wall, and listened. Two female gardeners planted night blooming vines ten feet above her in a raised indoor garden. Several thousand sorcerers gathered beyond Ayundami, out in the vast throne room. Their massed chatter sounded like sea-birds squabbling on a cliff.
“For the love of Thaea, these people are making idiots of themselves, camping out here day after day. They keep trampling the ground cover!” groused the younger gardener.
Ayundami listened to the cadres of more-vocal sorcerers coalescing again around their Tower affiliations: bankers from Goldfang, teleporters from Gatefang, Great House historians from Housefang. They’d soon have to choose between divided loyalties.
The gigantic chamber was only a quarter section of Eastfang Tower’s ground floor. Sixteen black columns rose in the shapes of trees, their upper branches and canopies soaring two hundred feet into a vault starred with thousands of inlaid white suncrystals. At the distant western end of the hall, an open door admitted a long bar of sunset light, glowing ruddy gold on the glittering black tiles. Waist-high walls surrounded square pits glowing orange and scarlet from the magma far below.
“Ah, leave off, Neri. They’re sorcerers used to getting their own way, and their Lady just lit up Eastfang again. They’re all waiting to see what it means,” said the older gardener to her younger colleague.
Four immense suncrystal chandeliers, carved as knots of white-glowing flowers, hung a hundred feet over the floor. Directly under each lamp, four raised gardens were enclosed in twelve-foot-high retaining walls. Rustic stone staircases climbed the walls and ran under stone archways to islands of moist earth planted with lush trees and grassy banks.
Great House nobles had set up tents and tables on the three other islands and were entertaining delegations of sorcerers. The next island sported the red and white banners and shell insignia of Omiesh, all the way from the Southlands. They shared it with a delegation from Hosardu in the Northlands, their banners red wheatsheaves on a golden ground.
An alliance to watch, Ayundami thought sourly.
“What do you think it means?” asked the younger gardener.
“Two hundred seventy years ago, my crew was first in here with the Chief Adept, trying to make something of the gardens after the seals broke on Eastfang. Back then, the garden islands were all dead, dust everywhere, the lamps and firepits dark, with Herself asleep down below for the last four thousand years. Since her last Consorts died.” Ayundami glimpsed the dull silver flash overhead as the woman gestured proudly with her hand trowel. Some loose bits of clipped hedge fluttered down around Ayundami; the Adept shook her head to knock them loose before someone noticed them apparently floating in midair.
“I heard Eastfang glowed bright green then, all two thousand feet of it. The whole city shook,” said the younger gardener.
“It did. I saw a green light bloom in the firepit closest to the throne and rise until it was a green star hovering over the floor. Then the Northwarden stepped out.”
Between the gardens and their flanking pillars, the smooth black floor turned to inlaid blue lapis tiles bordering a mosaic map of three continents and hundreds of island chains. The map of Lonhra was nearly hidden at the moment, by a sea of sorcerers wearing every green shade from apprentices’ pale frost-green to the deeper emerald of Masters and lower Adepts.
Ayundami remembered the day the Northwarden woke, oh, yes.
“What did she look like? I’ve heard she can appear as anyone or anything she chooses.”
“Neri, get your gossip straight. The Northwarden can only shapeshift after she’s met and bound herself to one of her newest mortal Consorts. Back then, just awakened? She just looked like a barefoot girl of nineteen, trying on a queen’s black robes. Too young to be the Demon of the North, even with her white skin and glowing green-fire eyes. I wanted to put a blanket over her shoulders. Shivering and crying, she was. Our poor Lady.”
“Well, to her mind, she woke up the day after her wife died.”
“Not just died, Neri. Rumors said the last Lady Consort died from a slow poison, incurable.” The older gardener’s voice dropped lower in outrage. “And everyone knows the last Lord Consort was murdered in the door to this hall, twelve years before that.”
“Atlani aristos. Swordcaste,” hissed the younger gardener, and Ayundami didn’t need to watch to know the woman looked at the island claimed by Omiesh and Hosardu.
She really needed to break up that little party. It looked like incipient civil war. Didn’t those swordcaste nobles understand? Their four-thousand-year spree of flaunting Settlement Law was over. Push a few hundred sorcerers, and some of those would make deals with the nobles. Push the Northwarden? Cities became craters.
Ayundami’s skin crawled at a new presence coiling invisibly through the vast hall. Still invisible, she canted her head out of the shadow cast by the retaining wall, and glared over the crowd toward the empty throne on its dais at the eastern wall.
Three identical black stone seats, carved in plain shapes, shared wide armrests and tall backs each rising to equal points. Across the center armrests and chair, a long black sword had gathered dust for the centuries since the Northwarden’s last appearance.
The older gardener muttered, “She looked around at the ruined hall and burst into fresh tears. They turned the tiles white with frost where they fell. She carried a long black chain with a black pendant on its end, the black set with glowing white gems.”
“Darksplinter. The Citykiller.” The younger gardener sounded half-worshipful, half-worried.
“Like her, it can be anything it chooses, but it’s always deepest black and opal white. She walked up the hall to the throne. She spoke to the Chief Adept, but I didn’t hear what they said.”
Ayundami reined in a snort of laughter. She remembered a hissed argument best left out of the history books.
“Darksplinter turned into a long black sword, and the Northwarden put it across the throne. Then she vanished in a flash of green light. No one’s seen her since. It’s not right. The Lady of Illarhun should be here governing this rabble.”
Yes, she should be, Ayundami thought. Not gallivanting around who knows where, and certainly not without her damn sword.
The sword became somehow blacker, the non-color of an abyss. Darkness gathered around the central throne, thickened, then brightened into a slender person sitting there. White hands turned palm up to support the black sword lying across them. In a white face under a long cloud of black hair, two eyes opened like green stars.
A cold, precise, and timbreless voice answered in Ayundami’s mind, That statue is no more or less Darksplinter than my avatars are of me. Nevertheless, we had a disagreement, it and I. I honestly thought an icon of Darksplinter would make a better deterrent for you lot.
The strongest of the Adepts sensed the Northwarden’s return first. Ayundami watched them shiver, drop conversations, look around nervously, then focus with dawning fear on the throne. After centuries of trying to herd them herself Ayundami enjoyed their reaction.
“The reason I begin to like you, Ayundami born to House Coralcrest of the Tame Seas,” said the Northwarden.
Ayundami dropped her invisibility, stepped away from the garden wall, flipped her hood back from her head, and rapped her black wooden staff thrice on the tiles. She altered the structure of the surrounding air to amplify the sharp sounds into louder bursts, like a rifle’s discharge. By the third rap, half the audience looked torn between watching the Chief Adept and the Northwarden.
The Chief Adept said into the growing silence, “Well, how long are you back for now? A week? Another century? You could write us, you know. I’ve made sure the post still runs.”
Ayundami knew she looked out of place in the glittering crowd—an elderly woman standing at a prim parade rest. Her body was age thickened but strong, her short curly hair shocking silver against her brown-black skin. She wore an Adept’s long coat dyed greenish black, and yellow dragonhide boots still caked with dried red mud. She gripped her unadorned black staff with both hands, standing upright with unshaking military precision. Her own gaze never wavered from the figure on the central throne.
The Northwarden stood in the guise of a tall young Sirrithani woman, gripping the sword hilt in her right hand. As she paced down the five steps of the dais, her bare feet left fading trails of white frost on the mosaics. As she passed over them, pinpoints of green light flickered from inlaid black gems set amid the tiles.
She wore a black velvet robe four thousand years out of fashion, its thick fabric clinging to her slim frame from fingertip to throat. The sword shifted into a glowing white opal sphere on a black chain, swinging just above the map. The opal flared and faded, pushing shadows across the mosaic map. The ornate chain links were the same matte black as the woman’s straight, knee-length hair. Her hands, feet, and oval face gleamed like the pendulum at its dimmest. Sometimes her face was smooth and young. Sometimes ancient. Sometimes the flesh was translucent, stretched over brighter-glowing bones and snarling teeth. Her eye sockets were always pits of seething green radiance, waxing and waning along with the opal. The pendulum circled and oscillated, never settling. Sorcerers and aristocrats pulled back from her, none daring to be within twenty feet of her.
She paused several times at different spots on the map. At the last pause, her feet resting somewhere on the western Southlands, her eyes darkened to a duller green light, and her skull disappeared under youthful skin. She turned to face her Chief Adept, who had walked fearlessly to meet her. The Northwarden’s husky voice echoed with unsettling minor chords. “Ayundami. My sorcerers. Atlani of the Great Houses.” Her glowing eyes brightened to a sunny green gold, as she looked at the silent, kneeling gardeners. “Honored Landcaste. Thank you for restoring the Hall of Stars.”
Ayundami’s higher, harsher words cut over hers, “Have you come back to rule, Mistress, or are you just dallying here for a few days? Where were you?”
The Northwarden of Lonhra cocked her head, smiling at Ayundami. “Off east in the Blackgrass. They’re not afraid of me there. I have a place by every fire, and they ask nothing of me but stories and songs.”
“In other words, they enable your sulking.”
“I am not sulking.” The Northwarden hefted the opal pendant in explanation. “Darksplinter and I are having an argument.”
“The same one as two hundred and seventy years ago? About whether to trust us, your loyal servants, with finding your next two Consorts?”
The Northwarden’s eyes narrowed. “Oh, I already know exactly who they are and where each of them lives. And I’ve known for over half a century.”
The crowd hissed, almost like one giant greedy beast. Ayundami felt the end of a long, tense peace, her life’s work unraveling because of one paranoid immortal.
The Northwarden gestured at the crowd with her free hand. “I am not paranoid. Darksplinter agrees with you. It thinks the Consorts should be here, and I should trust to their strengths and wisdom. But I’ve watched too many of my dear ones harassed, exploited, and yes, murdered by people who tried to use them to control me. I’m not playing that game anymore. The Triple Throne remains empty. I will not bring the Lady and Lord Consorts here, and our children shall be reared far from Illarhun and the swordcaste Great Houses.”
“But the new bloodlines!” blurted a Housefang sorcerer in bright emerald green. “We rely on your children to re-stoke sorcery in our lines and in the Great Houses.”
“Daunestil of Housefang, I leave those decisions to my children, or possibly their children. Without Ayundami barring your flight, how many of you would have sold yourselves to the Great Houses long ago?”
Well. Nothing to do but have it out in the open, Ayundami thought. The only thing worse than being Chief Adept while the Northwarden slept, apparently, was being so when the demon woke and declared feud against a third of the settled world.
“Are we at war against the Great Houses?” she asked into the deeper, horrified silence.
“Not yet. As long as mortals remember I wrote the Settlement Laws sixty five thousand years ago, and I will enforce them,” said the Northwarden. Darksplinter’s delicate chain became a supple black cable looping over her wrist. The opal glowed brighter. When the blaze faded, the pendant had changed itself into a skull-sized black weight studded with vicious spikes, each one tipped with pinpoints of searing green light.
Ayundami stood her ground. “I know you’re angry and afraid, Mistress. But sorcerers didn’t kill your last Consorts.”
The Northwarden set the weapon swinging in lazy arcs as she paced closer to Ayundami. “They didn’t protect them either. My King Ranul was assassinated on the threshold of this hall. My Queen Safahie took years to die from a poison I could neither name nor counter. My sorcerers never unearthed the insurrection. Or they were in league with it.”
The weapon passed six inches from the Chief Adept’s knees. She didn’t look down. “It was a dangerous time, Mistress.”
The Northwarden snarled, showing her fangs with a lifted lip. “Our daughter was barely nineteen. Safahie died, I fell asleep, and we left Gani alone amid a pit of Great House vipers!”
“Ganika se’tha Illarhun wasn’t alone. Her older half brothers stood by her. She grew up to rule as Chief Adept of her era.”
The Northwarden swayed indecisively, pulling the weapon back to her in closer arcs. “I can’t trust anyone now.”
“You have great-great-grandchildren still alive, powerful sorcerers all. Enlist them.”
The Northwarden’s black weapon folded upon itself, shifting back into the white pendulum. “Traitor,” she muttered at it.
“Darksplinter might say as much to you. Four millennia asleep, then the moment you wake, you hide for two centuries? Irresponsible and foolish. The world won’t go away because you wish it.”
The Northwarden’s eyes turned black, with only glints of emerald light at their centers. “When I found my new Consorts, I wanted to give them normal lives. Not this madness.”
With another resounding clang, the Chief Adept slammed the end of her staff down onto the floor, heedless of the ancient mosaics. “No one harnessed to you is ever going to be normal! You know what would have really helped? Staying here when you woke up, instead of running away. You are one of the great Powers of the world. You could act like it.”
“A Power? You don’t know what I am. I’m beginning to remember, and I don’t like it,” the Northwarden whispered.
The Adept groaned and rubbed her forehead. “I don’t care who you were. You need to focus on who you are now. Do your Consorts know you? Love you?”
The Northwarden stumbled back one step. She hunched her shoulders as if to avoid a blow. “One does. You need know nothing more. None of you.”
“I am not a rebel! My predecessors and I held this world together while you slept. How much more loyalty do I need to prove? Or anyone in this hall? As greedy as they are, the Atlani and tradecaste folk here are loyal to you.” Ayundami gave the Hosardu and Omiesh delegations a withering side-glance. Judging by the nervous flutter of silken sleeves and robes, they’d seen the look.
The Northwarden’s hand shook. The opal and its chain fell, striking the floor with a clang rattling the entire chamber. “Every day of your lives and every breath would still not be enough to prove it,” she whispered into the trembling aftershocks, her eyes fading to pale green once more.
The Chief Adept merely rocked on her muddy heels, and leaned a little heavier on the staff. “Very well, don’t trust me. Keep moping like a lovelorn girl. Even Darksplinter is irked at you. You might at least put on another face and go terrify some deserving mortals. I’ve heard enough rumors one queen or another poisoned her way to a throne, and mistreats her people. The queen of Danessa is still rehashing the same bloody little civil war her ancestress fought when you were last awake. The queen of Demuaira is desperate for a proper heir, since her only child has run off to play Master-Singer and marry some barbarian girl. I’m sure Jade Coast still has its outlaw problem.”
The Northwarden extended her left hand, and the black chain leapt off the floor to twine through her fingers. “I’ve followed the Great Houses’ antics while I lingered in the Blackgrass. You know how traders gossip, no secret ever uttered near them is safe. Neither Hosardu nor Danessa have stepped outside their declared borders, or committed obvious land-crimes. As long as House Sydall doesn’t play with its nastier toys, Demuaira can quietly rot away. The Dana race is dying. Their Academy and their Master-Singer are two of the last ways they feel important. I have learned to