The trip across Cecelyne is a long one. Keris, for once, packs heavy. Kuha is small enough that she can spend the trip nestled in her hair, in a prehensile sling-hammock that will support her comfortably. They’re not likely to get separated, but Keris makes damn sure she has ten days worth of food and water in a bag just in case - travelling rations; compact and long-lasting. And pretty tasteless, of course, but they’re fine to nibble on.
The trip itself... actually turns out to be fairly boring. Once the initial awe is over, Kuha ogles the landscape for an hour or so and asks a rapid volley of questions that Keris answers as best she can, but eventually she succumbs to sleep. Calling Firisutu out, Keris lets him perch on her head, and asks him to warn her of any approaching trouble - she can ignore the hazards of the Desert, but Kuha can’t. With her lookout in place; scampering up and down her hair and chittering with interest, Keris dozes off herself, aiming her consciousness towards her Devil Domain to spend some time with her souls.
She comes to awareness in a candlelit room, cold and expensive with a pale marble floor and furnishings. The window is open, and she’s in front of it. She’s not sure how she got here. But she knows where she is. She remembers this. This is the Embassy of Thorns in Matasque. This is the night that she and Sasi and Geasa went to assassinate the ambassador from that dead city of rot and foul things.
This is the night Rat died by her hand.
“I can’t leave,” Rat says softly. The deep black bruise at the centre of his forehead seems to pulse as he talks, and the vicious scar that crosses his throat from ear to ear seems to glow in the red moonlight filtering through the window. His shirt is unfastened, showing more scars on his chest - deep, raw things that should have faded by now and haven’t. Keris has seen them before - the last time she was here, when it happened for real. But she still feels shock, in a dream-like mirror of what she felt then. His scars aren’t news, but they feel like it. He feels... different to what she’d expected. To how she remembers him.
But he’s still Rat. He’s changed, just as she has. He’s tall now - properly tall, the stunting effects of malnutrition gone - his pale Northern skin is porcelain. His hair is the same; a blond so pale it’s very nearly white, and his eyes are the familiar faded grey-blue that she remembers. He stands between her and the brass-paneled door; she between him and the ice-paned open window. She can hear the buzz of the city outside - the hawking of the markets, the sloshing water in the canals, the ever-present clamour that wards off the Silent Wind and the strange hum of Firewander in the distance. There are paintings on his desk - a building of white stone in a tropical jungle, a golden tower in a shining golden city, a crumbling yard overgrown with ivy. She pays them little attention. Her eyes are on him.
“I have my orders,” he tells her, the Nexan twang emerging from cultured syllables as urgency drops his accent back down the social ladder. “If I don’t follow them, he'll hunt me down. Other people like me have tried to run away. Didn’t end well for them. I’ll offer you the same, Kit. Get out. Run. I’ll pretend I haven’t seen you - you always were so sneaky, right? Go run from whatever hold Hell has over you. You can live in the world. You’re not dead. That’s closed from me now.”
Keris closes her eyes, tasting blood and snow in the air. She hears him step forward, reaching out to her in something between a warning and a plea.
This isn’t Rat, she thinks. Rat would never let a threat like that stop him doing what he wanted. This is just some Dead thing wearing his face, and...
This isn’t all Rat. Some of him is in there, but it’s twisted and rotting. He could choose to run away, to try his luck, but instead he’s staying in a position he wants out of. He’d never...
Geasa is outside. Sasi is close. They’re probably watching. She can’t just let him go, they’d be after her too, and then she’d...
... no. No justifications. No excuses. She opens her eyes and looks around rather than meet his eye, taking in the rough shanty walls of driftwood and cord that she can see through the window, the sound of the sea beating against the beach outside.
This is Rat, she thinks. He’s just like he was; not a fake, not a copy. Just a little boy on the ground with a thief on his back and a knife at his throat. Trapped and in trouble, and the only weapon he has is his mouth.
But she can’t let him go. She can’t let him go, because he’s trapped; one of the Dead, working for them, chained by them, and this time it’s not Keris pinning him to the street of an alley. He’s still here because he can’t talk his way out, can’t get free, can’t find a way away from his master. It’s Rat. There’s no way he hasn’t tried.
And Keris can’t free him. If he can’t do it, there’s no way she can. She’s not a thinker. She’s not clever. She can’t plan.
This is Rat. And he's hurting and suffering and...
... and he’s a slave, she realises, with chains she can’t break. And as long as they’re there, he’ll suffer more.
“I’m sorry, Rat,” she whispers, opening her eyes. Tears gather, but she ignores them. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.”
He sees the look in her eyes, and runs without a word. Grey and red fire springs up around him, squirming and crawling and wriggling like a nest of vermin as her hair whips forward to caress his chest. Long, new cuts open up where it touches him, like he’s been raked by the claws of some vicious beast, and bright stains smear the pale flesh. He gasps in pain and darts out through a gap in the ramshackle wall, into the snow-laden trees and towards the edge of the sky-island. Owls scream in the night, and the ice on the ground reflects sunbeams and moonlight in a mad kaleidoscope of silver, crimson, gold and green.
Keris follows him, Wyldeater in hand, her moonsilver like a second skin around her. His soul flares brighter as he dives towards the inky lake below, and the squirming rats of his anima banner fall with him. Some are black, some are red, some are grey; all of them are huge and crazed and starving. She hears screams of terror from all around her as she dives after him. Demons and hungry giants claw at their eyes in blind panic, and she sees the fashions of An Teng and Matasque mingle in the fleeing crowds. Snatches of Firetongue, Rivertongue and Old Realm blend into a cacophony of fear.
She tumbles as she falls. The patchwork sky wheels above her; merciless green and red-speckled black and frosty blue. The snow-forests and rice fields below are city streets now; houses of driftwood and ice and basalt and brick all stacked together like a broken mural. A flash of movement catches her eye as the pair of them plummet down, down, down...
They hit the canal with a crash, sending a wave of sour, fetid water out into the streets. Rat pulls himself out, bleeding and staggering. He looks like... well, like a drowned rat. She hears the arrows hiss out of the darkness from nowhere, and he cuts them aside in desperation. It leaves him open, and Keris springs at him. She crosses the distance between them in the blink of an eye, stabbing forward with her Lance. Her tears hang silhouetted in the air as the blade drifts towards his heart like two layers colliding; torturously slow but unstoppable.
And is caught, an inch before it hits.
The world fractures around the man who caught it. He’s older than her or Rat - twice their age if not more. But despite the hints of iron-grey in his black hair and the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, his breathing is steady and his hand doesn’t tremble where it grips her spear an inch behind the blade. The tip is actually touching Rat’s chest - enough that it’s denting the skin, but not quite piercing it.
His wounds from earlier are gone, though. So are the poison stains. Keris stares at him as the surroundings whirl around them like a hundred shards of glass; every one reflecting a different scene. The chatter of Nexan markets, the taste of green sunlight and Kimberian brine in the air, Ogi’s perfume, a glimpse of the Red Mountain family’s estate... they’re all mixed together. A minute ago, that hadn’t seemed odd.
... why hadn’t it seemed odd?
“That’s enough,” the newcomer says, and the pinwheeling cascade of sight- and sound- and taste-memory collapses. Keris sees someone watching her over his shoulder in the turmoil; a gold-skinned woman with violet eyes. She’s there for a heartbeat, then gone so seamlessly that Keris can’t even pinpoint how she left.
They’re left on a rooftop garden in... well, it looks like Nexus. Sort of. But at the same time, it’s nothing like Nexus. She’s sure that the area she’s looking out at; with the mainland behind her and the city off to her right, should be the... yeah, the southern bit of Nighthammer, seen from somewhere in Sentinel’s Hill. But it’s unrecognisable. There’s no Nexan soot-snow; no black clouds of smog or smoke from the forges there. When she glances behind her... the distant glow of the Wyld zone in Firewander just isn’t there, and the buildings go on far past where she thought the city wall was.
They’re all beautiful, too - the same shining metal and gleaming stone as the First Age complex Kasseni lived in. Gardens and beaches and sparkling fountains grace the roofs all around her, and even the air moving through the streets is doing so in harmonious patterns. There’s no city bustle, either - or rather there is, but it’s dulled; muffled by some property of the structure she stands on. A normal human wouldn’t be able to hear any of the everyday sounds of life up here. They’d be alone but for the pleasing whisper of the wind and the sweet scent of flowers.
She looks over at the man standing half-between her and Rat. He’s a Scavenger Lander, she thinks, with tanned skin that could point to heritage from half of Creation, an aquiline nose, a neat beard and a strong brow. She frowns. Something about him... she’s sure she’s never seen that face like this, but it seems familiar. She glances again at the fingers wrapped around her spearshaft in a vice-like grip, and something clicks.
“... Yamal?” she breathes. He dips his head in a shallow nod of acknowledgement.
“... Rat.” Barely able to meet his eye, Keris hardly notices Yamal gently pull the spear out of her hands. He steps back tactfully, descending a spiral staircase that leads down into the house. Leaving her alone on the roof with the man she murdered.
“You remember the Barge Rats, Kit?”
He asks it in an easy voice; light and airy, without rancour. Keris frowns in confusion at the non-sequitur, but anything is better than the conversation she was expecting. She wracks her memory.
“Back in... ‘59?” she hazards. “We were what, eleven? Twelve?” The memories are dim, but... yes, she can bring up dim recollections of a gang that had lurked around the edge of the Grey River, all along from Nighthammer down to the lawless front of Firewander. “They took over from the... Blackthumbs and the... Eels? Something eels, I think. And... didn’t they get wiped out by the Riverrunners a couple of... wait, no, that was after you vanished...”
“That’s them,” Rat interrupts. “The grey leg ties, yeah? And the way they didn’t like anyone else muscling in on their business. You remember when three of them caught us lifting food from the Calintown canal?”
The slow feeling of dread creeps back in. Keris does remember that little incident. And she’s starting to realise why Rat brought it up - but too late, as ever, to stop the verbal trap from closing on her.
“And what did you do, Kit? We could have talked our way out of that. We could have convinced them we were looking to join them. We could have got them helping us.” He leans in, jaw tight. “What did you do?”
Keris’s eyes flicker down. She’d attacked, that was what she’d done. Trapped in the moment, with three pairs of unfriendly eyes staring at her and Rat still holding a cut of ham that would feed them both for a week, she’d taken what looked like the only option open to her and lunged for the nearest Barge Rat’s throat. The canals had claimed a body that day, and Keris and Rat had been forced to move to the northern edge of Firewander to avoid the gang’s retribution.
He reaches out and she flinches, but for all the rage and pain and betrayal in his eyes; his hands are gentle as he takes her by the chin and forces her to look at him. Tears spill down her cheeks as she looks at his face. It’s achingly familiar - she knows it better than she does her own, even now - and though it’s angry, it’s anger stretched thin over a broken heart.
“Why’d you do it, Kit?” he asks, his voice cracking. “Why’d you kill me?”
It’s too much. The first sob forces itself up and out of her, and then she’s crying in earnest; knees buckling as she stumbles forwards and clings to him with arms and hair, babbling broken apologies.
“I c-couldn’t...” she chokes out, “I didn’t... you were h-hurting, and I couldn’t help you, a-and I couldn’t just leave and I’m sorry, Rat, I’m so... so, so so s-sorry...”
A keening wail comes out in half a dozen pitches - one mouth isn’t enough - and then she’s babbling, talking over herself with six different tongues about how she never meant to kill him and she panicked and she’s sorry and he’s dead and it’s her fault and she hurt him and she hurts everything and she’s sorry, sorry, sorry. But no apology is enough to make this right, and Rat stays stiff and cold under her hands. She can taste his blood in the air and she can’t hear his heartbeat and her hatred twists around on itself and snaps at her own heels; an ugly squirming monster in her chest and stomach that bites into her heart and coils around her throat. Keris hasn’t needed to breathe for more than a year, but she still feels like she’s choking under guilt and shame and acrid self-hatred as she begs for forgiveness she doesn’t deserve.
A strong hand takes her by the shoulder and pulls her back. She looks up with tear-blurred eyes into the lined face of Yamal. He’s a little shorter than Rat, but broader. There’s a strength to his limbs and a forthright charisma to him that Rat - slender and handsome and charming - doesn’t have.
“Why did you do it?” he asks softly. A contrast to Rat; he isn’t accusing. His deep voice is gentle, if firm. But the question still cuts deep.
“I...” she chokes. “I thought he’d... he was...”
A finger on her lips stops her as Yamal shakes his head. “No,” he says. Disapproving and expectant. Like Dulmea when she’s teaching Keris tea ceremony, waiting for her to get the right answer. “I’m not asking your reasons. I’m asking why it happened. Why did it come to that?”
Blinking, confused, Keris tries to marshal her thoughts. This is a test. The answer is there, somewhere. Not why she chose to... to have that happen. But why it happened at all.
“I...” she starts, faltering for a moment to sniff and wipe her eyes with a sweep of her arm. “My powers hurt people. Even when I don’t want them to.”
Yamal tilts his head. “Half right,” he says cryptically, and uses the hand still on her shoulder to turn around. Rat looks at her inscrutably; the betrayal gone from his eyes - or perhaps just covered over again.
“Your powers aren’t the only ones that hurt others when used carelessly,” Yamal’s deep voice points out behind her. “The dead Exalts rot and blight the world where they pass. Men and women die when the passions of the Dragonblooded flare. Even careless Sun-Chosen can cause terrible loss of life.”
Keris’s lips part slowly in understanding. “It’s... power. Any power,” she murmurs. “If you use it wrong... no. If... if you don’t use it right. It hurts people.”
Rat raises an eyebrow at her in the mocking, challenging way that used to meet her plans and wild schemes. “Is there a difference there, Kit?”
“Yes!” she shoots back. “Yes, because... because not using something right just means you’re not good at it yet. Because...” She searches for the right words, and finds them. “Because the easiest thing to do with power is destroy with it! Building things and helping people is harder. So... so if you’re lazy, or weak-willed, or inexperienced, or flawed... you take the easier route.”
She hangs her head. “Like I did. Like I do.”
The silence that meets that statement is solemn, but approving. The air lightens a little, and she knows somehow that she gave the right answer.
“That’s why things keep falling apart,” she realises, looking around the rooftop garden. A shadow falls over it; a cloud crossing the sun, and the leaves and petals seem to wilt a little. “The way the Exalted cast down the All-Makers instead of convincing them to change. The way the Deliberative fell, ‘cause the Dragonblooded took the easy route and just killed everyone.” She bites her lip. “When the elders get jaded and stop caring about little people, too. Hurting is easy. Caring is hard. They take the easier route, so they... they turn into monsters.”
Rat smiles and tips his head to her. Yamal moves his hand down to her back, gently nudging her towards the stairwell. “I think we should go inside,” he suggests. “Come on.”
Inside, the faint sounds of the city fade away entirely. The walls are cream and mahogany panels, each decorated with an exquisitely detailed full-body portrait. There are men and women there - labourers, noblemen, merchants, soldiers - but there Dead things as well, and even faerie things.
... in fact, she recognises some of the raksha. That one there is one of the bone-men that had been outside the mountain in the northeast. And... and come to think of it, those nobles look like they’re wearing Matasque clothing, and more than a few of the labourers look Tengese...
A click draws Keris’s increasingly horrified attention away from the walls as Yamal flicks a lever on a little golden mechanism. Tiny balls of metal start moving around within it, and a chiming melody emerges, rising and falling to fill the room with a soft ambience. Movement catches her eye in the mirrored surface as he turns away from it - a flash of purple and gold-in-gold - but when she checks again it’s gone.
It’s not a large space that they’ve entered; perhaps three metres by four, and it’s largely dominated by three fur-lined sofas set in a triangle around a curving gold-and-glass table. Three cups sit in front of the seats; one green and steaming, one blood-red and sweet-smelling, and one indigo with condensation forming on the outside from the chill of its contents.
“You never did answer my question, Kit,” says Rat, settling in front of the cold cup. “Dulmea ain’t your Mask of Winters. But who is?” He lifts the glass in a toast to her, ignoring the frost that creeps across his fingers. Yamal takes a seat of his own in front of the green cup, stirring it meditatively and raising a patient eyebrow at her.
“... the Unquestionable,” Keris replies, sitting in front of the last cup. “But they’re not... I’m not their slave, like you were. I work for them, that’s all.”
“Yeah? So you can tell them ‘no’?”
“I can!” Keris juts her chin out stubbornly, her hair bristling out behind her. “I have! Ligier let me choose!”
“And did that choice matter?” Yamal says mildly. He gestures at Rat smoothly, and tilts his head. “Would either choice have hindered him? Or did he just give you an illusion of choice, like letting a pet decide which bed to sleep at the end of?”
Keris opens her mouth.
Keris closes her mouth.
“Do they give you any respect, Kit?” Rat says, leaning forward. “You and me, we were always partners. And these things, these demons you ain’t meant to question; they’re your peers. The Shashalme’s barely any stronger than you are. Jacinct, either. You could take either in a fight, but what is it they call you? ‘Little Keris’?”
She looks away, frowning. The red cup is still sitting in front of her, but the sickly-sweet aroma of it is nauseating. She barely manages to force down a single sip before the rotten aftertaste makes her gag. She slides it away from her across the table and scowls at the men, unable to find an answer.
“Are you going to drink those?” she snaps, trying to change the subject. She’s hungry all of a sudden - hungry and thirsty and desperate to be out in the fresh air again; amongst the flowers.
“Are you?” Yamal replies. He offers the green mug quickly enough that Keris takes it automatically, and she hisses as it singes her fingers. Steaming liquid spills onto the thick carpet as she flinches away, and the acrid taste of burning metal fills the air.
“Well?” he continues calmly as she cradles her hand. “You seemed to like the taste well enough when it was hurting other people. Is it only when it’s hurting you that you find it hard to swallow?”
“... you’re still talking about the Unquestionable,” Keris says. “That’s not... that’s not the point. Look, I don’t want to talk about this. They’ve helped me. They’re good.”
“Are they, though?” Yamal presses mercilessly. “Have you seen enough to say that? I’ve dealt with the cults of the Shashalme - the things it does to the little people, instead of the strong ones it can’t just dominate. It chews mortals up and turns them into slaves. How are its gifts any different to the drugs they fed you in Nexus? They kept you pliant, and they cost enough that you’d always owe them more than you could make by the work they put you to. Ligier may seem paternal to you, but he turns entire cities to scorched glass at the smallest of offences. Even Jacinct found pleasure in the riots of Nexus. Did you ever give thought to how many died there to amuse him? Or do you prefer not to think about that, for what it says about you?”
“Stop it!” Keris shakes her head violently, but her voice is uncertain. “Nexus... Nexus was an accident; it was that starry one who wrecked it. If it had just been Sasi and me, things would’ve been fine! And... it was the Emissary that Jacinct hates, and I haven’t seen Ligier... his layer’s all pretty and the demons there have good lives. And... and anyway, you’re one to to talk!” Leaning forward, she relaxes as she goes on the attack; glad to be away from morally shaky ground. “Your Deliberative was just as bad! What did your Solars do when they were offended, huh? You never even got a voice back then, so the Unquestionable are better than your masters were! If they give me choices to keep me sweet, they’re still giving me choices! I’m not a slave!”
“Fair,” Rat nods. “So you can choose to throw ‘em all over and do what you want, yeah? Like me and Yamal never could. You’re right and we’re wrong, and you’re the only really free one in this room, yeah?” He leans forward, smiling nastily. “And what are you doin’ with that freedom? Oh look, you’re choosin’ to follow their every whim like a good little housegirl. Tell me, any of ‘em ask you to sweep the floor ye-”
“Shut your mouth! I’m getting paid for it!” Keris snaps, her hair bristling out and piercing the sofa with a hundred razor wires as she shoots to her feet. “I got a family out of it, a ship, power and money and servants! Don’t act like I’m back at Kasseni’s following orders from-”
“Orders are still orders, no matter why you’re following them!” Rat roars back, his voice rising as he stands himself. The blue glass slips out of his hand as he waves it, flying across the room and dumping its contents over the music box. With an awful shriek, the metal freezes and shatters, littering the floor with icy chunks.
“You’re one to talk!” Their voices are rapidly rising into the pitch of a screaming match, and Keris automatically plugs her ears against the volume as she glares. “You were doing exactly that with your Mask bastard, so don’t you dare...”
“I’m trying to stop you making the same mistakes...”
“... like you care about what I’m doing when you never stayed to...”
“... pig-headed, stubborn, short-sighted idiot who just latches onto...”
“... spout off about the one good thing to happen to me since...”
“Calm down!” Yamal thunders. Even through her earplugs, Keris winces and falls silent, but Rat keeps going mutinously.
“... anything that offers you what you want, especially if it’s a fake family for you to-”
With a shriek of rage, Keris draws a pair of stilettos from thin air and lunges across the table, her hair lunging forward to strangle him. Two coils make it around his throat and she’s halfway to planting one or both knives in his chest when Yamal moves in a blur. One hand grabs the hair trailing behind her and yanks, arresting her momentum. His foot kicks the table up on its side as a shield between her and Rat, and a shift in stance lets him grab her by the back of the head and smash her through it face-first. Glass sprays out, lacerating Rat’s outfit and scoring open a thin red line on his cheek.
Keris, by contrast, looks like she’s taken a ball of razors to the face. She drops to the floor and lies stunned for a moment. Then she explodes in a whirlwind of scarlet light, and springs screaming to her feet.
“You-” she starts, but Yamal is up inside her guard already, hammering her backwards and away from Rat with elbow strikes and full-body impacts. She can’t get a handle on whatever style he’s using. It’s incredibly close-range, whatever it is; too close even to use punches or kicks. His full body weight is behind every blow; knees and shoulders and hips all slamming into her as he twists and drops his centre of balance. Not only does it make it impossible for her to use her weapons; he’s so much heavier that each hit nearly knocks her off her feet and she’s left staggering backwards and scrambling for space.
“So you’re following them because they pay you, Keris?” he demands. He’s completely in control; not raging, not angry. He seems calm and collected, even as he beats her back towards the corner. There’s no passion in his style; it’s a brutal, functional, clinical thing. It’s not effortless, though - a golden ring flares to life on his forehead that contrasts to the burning green circle on Keris’s brow.
“But pay you to do what?” he continues. “Are you happy with what they’ve had you do? With what they want for Creation?”
The cuts on her face are healing, but blood still obscures her sight. That doesn’t matter, though. Almost simultaneously, Keris feels her hair hit the solid wall behind her, and hears her anima banner begin to tear into it. Her eyes narrow.
“Nobody’s gonna cry over dead faeries...” she growls, and instead of stumbling backwards she leaps away from his next stomp. Her hair splits into two bundles going left and right, which latch onto the seams of the wooden panels. Her toes touch the wall, legs bent, and with a grunt of effort she somersaults clean over him and comes down into a forward roll towards Rat.
“... or clearing out the Dead!” she finishes in a shout. Grabbing the sofa she was sitting on, she falls back the way she came in a reverse roll. As soon as the fur-lined seat rolls over her, she kicks out as hard as she can. The entire thing goes flying towards Yamal, who breaks it in half with a double-fisted hammer blow. Keris comes hurtling after it, but he slaps her knife-thrust aside and sends her hurtling back with a knee to the gut. Strong arms put her in a merciless headlock from behind, pinning most of her hair beneath her.
“Maybe not,” Rat hisses in her ear. “But that ain’t all you’ve done for them, is it?” He twists her head sideways, forcing her to look at the wooden panels. “Ranamiin kids. Tengese peasants. Me, Kit; you were right there when the Althing ordered me dead. Helped make that decision, even.” She struggles, the hair that isn’t pinned under her coming round to snatch at him, but Yamal overturns one of the other sofas to pin it down.
“How many families left like ours, Kit?” Rat pushes. “Kids without parents; parents without kids? And that’s just those they’ve had you kill. What other things have they done; what goals are they working towards?”
“Do you really trust An Teng in the hands of the Shashalme, any more than Iasestus?” Yamal asks. “Are you happy serving anything capable of so much callous cruelty? Would you obey them even if they...”
He’s cut off abruptly. A jagged maw opens in Keris’s neck and her fangs sink deep into the crook of Rat’s arm. He yells in pain, his grip slackening - and that’s enough for Keris to buck her hips up, freeing her hair from under her. Another bite to the sofa sends it up in flames, forcing Yamal to flinch back and freeing the rest. His distraction costs him, and he barely gets his hand in front of a whip-like strike to his eyes that raises a painful welt across his cheek and palm. Keris’s own hands go backwards, grabbing Rat’s hair and yanking him forwards, over her head and into Yamal. The pair of them collide head-first and go down with a crash.
Keris is already on her feet by the time they get back up - on her feet, and armed with Ascending Air. She doesn’t give them time to regroup, spinning in and bringing both blades down on the sofa Yamal had her hair trapped under.
“Shut up!” she screams. Her hair spreads out behind her as if it’s underwater; sinuous coils and rippling veils shifting over and through one another in her agitation. “You keep talking like it’s easy! Like I can just flick the Unquestionable the eye and dance off into the sunset!” Her anima howls, and a bleeding circular bruise appears on Rat’s forehead as he brings his own essence to a boil.
“Sasi follows them still!” Keris yells, and flings a brace of knives at them. Yamal ducks; Rathan parries, and the blades bury themselves up to the hilts in the panelled walls. “Testolagh works for them! Haneyl idolises them, Dulmea can’t even imagine telling them no! Who else am I meant to trust? Who do I join up with, if I leave the Reclamation? The Realm?” She scoffs. “Heaven, when the starry ones killed you in the first place? Dead things?” She gestures at Rat, then Yamal. “Or other Anathema? Your successors, or Rosseah’s?”
“Good! You’re thinking about it; planning! Find the answers to your questions!” Yamal tries to close the distance and disarm her, but she’s got distance now, and more limbs and reach than both of them combined. Hair lashes out to hinder him, jabbing at his eyes and snarling his footing. Rat tries to lunge through to her, but she flips up and over him with insulting ease and scores a long and vicious gash along his back as she goes. Darting across the ceiling, she comes down by the stairwell in a coiled crouch, one blade levelled at them, one at her hip.
Rat picks himself up, hissing in pain from the wound along his back. He gives Keris a long look; crouched at the bottom of the stairs with her hair floating in a blood-red whirlwind of razors and pollen. Then, with a snarl, he flares his own soul; grey-red fire wriggling around him like vermin. The polished panels and the rich carpet under his feet begin to rot, turning foul and slimy where the light touches them. Beside him, the last sofa collapses into decomposing scraps of wood, fur and felt.
Yamal shifts his stance and the air around him shimmers, tinted dark blue with abstract golden flames running through it. It’s subtle compared to the other two; but somehow more powerful for its understated simplicity. He doesn’t move to attack again, and a warning hand keeps Rat from lunging. “Need you join anyone?” he asks. “You’re growing in power; growing closer and closer to the point where you can challenge them. The point they will consider you a rival – or a threat. Whether you seek it or not; a time will come when you will have to make a choice. A choice on whether to cast aside what morals you have left to serve your masters, or to finally reject them. Their nature makes it inevitable. And if you make it properly, Keris, if you make it well... you’ll never need make it again. Because nobody else will need to ask to know your answer.”
He takes a cautious step forward, wary in the knowledge that she can explode forward at any time. “So when you choose... choose right.”
“I don’t know what’s right!” Keris snaps. Her eyes flicker green, and the sinuous motion of her hair turns into a sudden violent lashing for a moment. But she remains still, crouched and wary but listening. “That’s the problem! That’s what I keep saying! What part of this don’t you understand; I don’t know what to do on my own! I’m not good at planning stuff!”
“So learn,” shrugs Rat. “You think I could always hobnob with Bags an’ took over cities? I learned, Kit. So can you.”
“Learn from who? From what?” Keris retorts. “Who’s gonna teach me how to plan not to break stuff? The ones who taught you how to make cities fall to the Dead?” She glares at Yamal. “Or are you gonna give me pointers on how to get murdered by my followers? If the Unquestionable and the All-Makers have fallen too far to rule wisely, who else can?”
Yamal shoots her a look like she’s a fool. “We can.”
“The Exalted are the problem! You lot murdered your way into power and then got murdered. The Sidereals just let the Realm do what they want! Us Infernals are the only kind that haven’t shown we go crazy with power! Well, the Dead ones ain’t ruled yet, but they’re wrong. Every time before us that Exalted have been in charge, it’s all come tumbling down, so who am I meant to take as an example? If Sasi stays with them and I can’t trust anyone else, who do I look to?”
She slams a lock of hair into the wall, taking a chunk out of the hip of a Ranamiin noble’s portrait. Rat and Yamal consider her; still crouched and tense like an angry cat ready to spit and claw at anyone who approaches her.
“When you first got free of Kasseni,” Rat says quietly, into the silence. “When you broke out an’ burned that brand off your arm; before you met me, before you were part of a gang.”
He sheathes the knives he drew at some point, tucking them back into his belt. “You were what, seven?” he asks rhetorically. “And you had a job bigger than you could imagine. Scratch a living out of the gutter, find your way and make a life and keep from dying of plague or a gang fight or whatever.” He crouches down to her level, the squirming grey and red fires rippling out towards her a little. “You wanted to do it without sacrificing your pride, too, you stubborn little idiot. And you did. You did it then, Kit. How?”
Keris’s lips part in confusion as she searches her memory. “That... no, but that wasn’t the same,” she objects. “I didn’t have any... any grand plan, back then. I just took...” Enlightenment dawns on her face, and she finishes in a whisper to herself. “Took things... one day at a time.”
She looks up. “You’re saying... I shouldn’t plan that far ahead. I should just let the future take care of itself, and... and plan for now.” The twinned krises slip from her hands, and she stares into space. “I can help people now,” she says, mostly to herself. “It might come crumbling down eventually, but I can help people now. Get the misbegotten off that beach, reform the Lintha into something better.” She gulps. “I still don’t know how to...”
“Pick a goal,” Yamal suggests, stepping cautiously closer and offering her a hand up. “The misbegotten. Where do you want to see them? Not the end of the journey. Just the next step. Like your owlriders; the next step for them is being healthy.”
Keris lets him pull her to her feet. “The misbegotten... stable,” she decides. “Not dependent on work in the Shore Lands anymore. I want them living in good places and finding their own food, somewhere away from the people who think they’re bad just because they lost their families.”
“Then aim for that,” Yamal says warmly. “Pick a date you think you can do that by, and get there. Then choose what to do next.”
She nods slowly. “Five years?” she says speculatively. “No... one year. Just to get them set up and stable. Five seasons. And by the end of five years... I want them to be a proper place. A little kingdom or something. Dunno how yet, but I’ll get them stable first and go from there.”
She looks around the room as their animas face to glowing caste marks again. Broken glass litters the floor along with scraps of wood and fur. The panels and carpet around her are worn down as if by sandpaper, while Rat’s anima has spread rot and decay around him, and Yamal’s seems to have just bleached everything it touches. There isn’t a single intact piece of furniture left, though the wounds she left on her opponents seem to have faded.
“Sorry,” she says awkwardly. “I guess I sort of wrecked the place.”
“We helped,” Rat points out. “But yeah, let’s ditch this room. C’mon, I know a better place.” He touches one of the few intact panels - the woman on it blue-lipped and dressed provocatively; collateral damage in one of Keris’s massacres. The wood gives way, opening without a sound to another room beyond. Shuffling footsteps recede hastily; a servant hurrying out as they enter.
Inside, blue-glass oil lamps are set into the walls just above head height, filling the room with a dim light and a subtle fragrance. The floor is polished wood, and the rugs that decorate it are embroidered with risque depictions of women and men - most of whom seem to be enjoying themselves. There are several tasteful tables set between the lamps, and Keris can only guess at what the drawers contain.
Oh, and then there’s the bed. It is a very, very big bed; a four-poster thing which is, Keris realises in shock, made of the same wood as her Lance. An entire king-sized bedframe of elinvar! And the sheets aren’t mundane craft either; she can tell. They’re not Berengiere’s silks, but she can tell the feel of cloth that’s as much essence as artifice.
“Um,” she says, blushing. She tastes gold, and realises her lips are painted. Rat winks at her, and claps sharply. Music starts echoing from some unseen source - which Keris quickly pinpoints as five points behind the mirrored ceiling. It’s soft but lively, with a cheerful beat that soon gets her tapping her foot along with it. Her fingers itch to join in.
“Oh no you don’t,” Rat says, grabbing her by the hands. “You’re dancing, come on.” He leads her through the beginnings of some formal dance that she doesn’t recognise, but her natural - and unnatural - grace makes it easy for her to keep up. Keep up and outstrip him, in fact. It isn’t long before she’s laughing merrily as he hands her off to Yamal with a disgruntled look. She can definitely see why Piu enjoys this. It’s like flying - and almost as fun as fighting. With a partner just as skilled as she is, and some knowledge of what she was doing, it might be more so.
“You’re smarter than you think you are, you know,” Yamal murmurs. There’s something in his voice - pride? Affection? Maybe both. “And your heart knows right from wrong, no matter the source of your powers. Remember that we exist to safeguard the people, not to rule them, and you will do better than most.”
Rat grins suddenly, reaching out to catch Keris out of a long, slow glide and spin her into his arms. “Five years, five seasons,” he says with a low laugh. “Tell you what. Where do you want to see yourself in five minutes?”
Keris looks up at him, cradled close. Her pupils are blown wide, and she can feel Yamal behind her; his reassuring hands on her shoulders.
“I guess I have a few ideas,” she admits with a smile.
The following content is Classified
By the Will of the Maiden of Secrets
Despite her exertions, it’s Keris who stirs first. Not far, though. Just enough to roll over, still cradled between the two men. The mirrored ceiling has been replaced by clear glass, and she can see the sky stretched out above her from horizon to horizon. The moon is setting on Rat’s side, while Yamal lies between her and the brightening sliver of the rising sun. Between them, the stars glimmer mysteriously in the lightening dawn.
… was that a figure crouched on the edge of the roof above them?
No, just a shadow on the glass.
She purrs happily and snuggles deeper into the sheets. Yamal is if anything a little too hot to cuddle on his own, but Rat is a lovely cool contrast to him. He always did run a little colder than Keris. Nestled in the middle like this, she feels…safe; protected and guarded in a way that not even Sasi can really provide. Sasi can’t fight her to a draw, if it should come to it. Oh, she can safeguard Keris, but only in more ephemeral ways. Her instincts don’t register that sort of danger in the same way.
“Quit thinkin’ so damn much, Kit,” Rat mumbled. “Can hear your brain whirrin’. S’loud.”
“Mmm. Least I’m using mine,” she retorts automatically. But she does as he says and lets herself luxuriate in the warmth and gentle pressure without trying to analyse it. Yamal’s thumb starts to rub a fond little pattern across the back of her hand, and she nudges her head into his shoulder happily.
It strikes Keris suddenly, as she lies there, that this comfort and security shouldn't even be possible. The men she’s lying with are dead – one killed at her head; the other slain to free the keter-soul that empowers her. This would not – and should not – be possible outside a dream.
“Rat, Yamal?” she asks in a quiet voice, “am I ever going to see you again?”
They trade glances over her head. Yamal is the first to answer.
“Not like this,” he says. “And I won’t be as I am now; the me that emerges when you’re overwhelmed by memory.”
“You’re not you right now, are you?” Keris asks softly. Things don’t quite fit together properly. “You’re… you’re both my dreams of you. Not you-you.”
“No. I died long ago. You are my legacy, Keris, not my companion. I can hope and trust that you’ll do well, but I can’t be there to help you do it.”
She considers that for a while, then shifts to look at Rat pleadingly. He groans; torn as always by the vulnerability in her eyes. “Ah, hell, Kit. You know I wish I could be. I already forgave you; it ain’t that. But… the dead shouldn’t bother the living. And I ain’t even dead and still walking around no more.”
He leans down to kiss her on the lips, soft and chaste. “Don’t worry,” he says gently as Yamal repeats the gesture. “You won’t be alone. We won’t be there in person, but you’ll always have something to remember us by.”
They answer as one. “We promise.”
And then she’s rising, floating upwards as the bed falls away and the warmth disappears. She can feel her body again – not the dream-body but her real one; clad in armour and running across the sands of the Endless Desert.
Keris Dulmeadoht opens her eyes to the emerald light of the Demon City, and is reborn.
Another pair of eyes open, accompanied by a gasp. Their owner is not in Hell, though. Her window looks out onto the slope of a celestial mountain, covered in buildings so beautiful as to draw tears from the eyes of the most callous cynic, and for which the greatest artists of Creation would sell their very lives to capture in a masterpiece.
She’s seen the view so many times that it no longer registers. Once it was full of wonder, but now her gaze finds only the walls around the mountain’s base, and the sprawling slums outside it. Today, she sees nothing at all as she stares blindly up at the ceiling.
The door slides softly open, and the familiar face of a many-times-great descendent peers in at her. “Milady?” the servant inquires. “Is something wrong?”
The dream is already fading, and what little she remembers was vague and confused. Something… something about her husband. Her husband, and some fell new blasphemy, echoing through the ebb and flow of samsara.
“Yes,” murmurs Arumoh; Chosen of Endings and veteran of the Vision of Bronze, as the lurking unease settles into her bones. “Something is very, very wrong.”