i. the heart of a gypsy
Crowzephy likes the twilight hours. Ordinarily there’s so much bustle around the fort, and things will get much worse when the Tenth Order stops by next week. To someone who enjoys privacy as much as her, the nine knights of her own order are about as much company as she can take. Two orders is a crowd, and three will be unbearable. But the women’s barracks always empty out around this time—tonight, Diora and Johanna have organized most of the younger women on a trip to the bakery, Hildegardea has gone off with Meryl and Lyzz on some kind of errand, and Cornelia managed to persuade Rolenta and Schmitz to take their bickering somewhere Crowzephy can’t hear them.
She’s glad. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask for a few hours’ breathing space, but it’s rare enough to make her very grateful whenever she can have it—after all, it’s very difficult to write with so much noisy life intruding on her thoughts. Crowzephy prefers the quiet.
And since it’s quiet, she has a few stray leaves of paper half-covered in ink strewn across her desk. The one directly in front of her is a letter to Donatello, and this one she thinks she will finish first and most easily. There are always things to write about even during peaceful days, even if those things usually are bordering on gossip. In the last letter she got from him, Donatello had asked about Nina, and so she’s filled out several lines on the girl’s progress as a knight. After some debate, she decides not to include the meltdown Nina had suffered in front of most of their order. Just because she’s sharing gossip doesn’t mean that it has to be gossip that would deathly embarrass anyone.
He also wants to know about what she’s writing, and she’s thinking up a few more lines of poetry so that she can give him a sample. He’ll probably have a few things to say about what he likes or doesn’t about it, and that suits Crowzephy just fine. Like her trust, she doesn’t give her writing to just anyone.
She has time to think of those lines, though, and the next few paragraphs in that story she has on a low burn, and the report she might make to General Reinhardt. A few more hours, until people start filtering back in. So she’ll take her writing at her leisure.
The pile of unopened letters to the side of her desk—those she’ll leave alone until that time. She’s so practiced with writing rejections that she could do those in her sleep.
ii. potentiality knocks on the door of my heart
Pamela had always entertained the souls with the mad stories of her travels and her studies, and so it was the natural topic of conversation at the sparsely occupied banquet table that night. It was good to have something silly and outlandish to listen to after the long and frustrating day that had preceded it.
There were so very many questions to be asked and so few places to find the answers. There weren’t any more monsters or demons lurking across the land, but there were so few survivors—and the king still had a literal army of souls that refused to move on. Or perhaps Asgard had waxed irritable with the populace, not just the king, and refused to let them move on. Willimgard did not know; he couldn’t very well go ask the heavens.
He still had to find out what being the Arbitrator meant he could do other than survive without a body and breathe a few seconds of life into the dead. All the records said was that the Arbitrator could maintain the balance of power between the worlds, and the neutrality between the gods and demons. What did that actually entail, was there something specific Willimgard must now do, and did this actually mean—as he and the survivors theorized—that he could fix his world and give the wandering dead true life?
He could not expect the civilians to know, and when he had turned to his allies, this was the response he had gotten—
“Well, what are you looking at Pamela for?”
“Marietta had no idea, so neither do I. Come on, what did you expect?”
So the only real way to find out was through experimentation, and experimentation meant hoping to gods who probably weren’t altogether pleased with the king that he wouldn’t make things worse. After a day of that kind of stress, it was a relief for them—souls, survivors, servants and citizens and Tiamat and Mehse, not even a hundred living and over a hundred dead—to gather around and listen to Pamela talk.
Tonight she was telling a story of a long-ago war on a very old world, and her captive audience—even the king—were enthralled. As the eccentric young witch paused to finish off her glass of wine, Willimgard realized that Meria was nodding.
“Yeah, you come from that world, don’t you. I was wondering why you looked so familiar—Marietta must have seen you there, when you all ran into her.”
Pamela stuck her tongue out. “Heyyy, Pamela’s the one telling the story, here!”
“So I bet that means you know that guy, don’t you?” Meria leaned back in her chair and folded her arms, looking impressed. (Willimgard was mystified, and by the look of it, so were his surviving people.)
Pamela rested her elbows on the table and her face in her hands, then nodded and said that yep, she sure did. Then she rolled her eyes. “He’d like you.”
Meria actually looked flattered. Willimgard wondered if this should worry him.
“And of course he’d still be around—whether he gets around or not. After all, that’s kind of what happens when the gods get that pissed at you, isn’t it?” Meria spared a glance at the few Mehse tribesmen around the table, from whom there came irritated but sympathetic murmurs. “…I’m having an idea here.”
Yes, Willimgard decided, he probably should be worried.
“You’ve got a point,” Pamela replied, her eyes lighting up. “If we can’t figure out how the king is supposed to use his powers…”
“…then why not ask the really smart guy who so happens to be older than dirt? We can’t really assume, since we’re talking about someone who’s had Asgard and humans both treating him like crap, but—”
“Naaaawww, Pamela’s sure he’d just love to help out here, just to stick it to Asgard. He’s kinda predictable like that.”
“Enemy of my enemy and so on, I can get that. But can he even leave your world?”
“Dunno. We can’t move his real body, but—”
Willimgard’s frustration must have started to show on his face, because Meria and Pamela both turned to him and looked very innocent. (Tried to, in Meria’s case—he knew her better than that.)
“So here’s the plan, if you think it’s a good one,” she told him. “In the world Pamela’s been staying in, there’s this fallen angel who may or may not help us figure out your powers if we ask nicely. I really only know him by reputation, but he’s supposed to be one of the most brilliant Asgard ever had. And he absolutely hates both gods and demons, so…”
Willimgard looked from Meria to Pamela, then to the expectant and curious faces of his people. Possibility was the byword of this age, and the gods had already forsaken them. They had very little to lose, other than their lives.
And for all that she was so often out of hand—Meria had never steered him wrong.
iii. walk this way
we have been set free
Pisce brightened at the knock at her door—it had been a while since she’d had a visitor, and no matter who it was, she was happy. It was boring and lonely always being by herself, and although she knew her grandfather wanted her safe and out of the way, it was hard to live so cut off sometimes.
Her heart did a little double flip when the prince leaned into the room, but she tilted her head in puzzlement when she saw that he was dressed almost like a servant, not even wearing his crown. He was holding what seemed to be a folded stack of clothes out to her.
“Hurry up and put this on,” he said in a low and urgent voice, a somewhat mischievous smile spreading across his face.
“Prince Nordische…?” Pisce made her way across the room and accepted the clothes. They seemed to be a peasant girl’s shift and kirtle.
“I got Couger and Rosa to get us these,” Nordische explained, grinning now. “My father and your grandfather will be in court all day, so let’s sneak out. How long has it been since you’ve seen the city?”
Pisce squealed and hugged him, almost dropping the clothes he’d brought.
iv. when saints set them the example
The Wisp never slept.
It couldn’t sleep even if it wanted to; the body needed rest more than the soul did. The rest of the soul was called “solace”, and there would be none of that for the Wisp until it could safely remember who and what it was, and what it could do to save the kingdom that was beyond saving.
Maria was a different matter. She was stronger than a human—barely, as she herself had admitted. She could endure a bit more, and wield a bit more power, but she was still very limited. She needed to sleep to recover the immense amount of energy she expended in every battle they fought. And while she slept, the Wisp watched: there was nothing else it could do, not really, not without leaving her behind. And it could not leave her behind if it wanted to survive.
Dissonant with the happy burble of the souls following them—the souls exulting that they could still be of use, that their deaths were not for nothing—Maria slept restlessly. She shifted, and cried, and seemed caught in the grasp of something impossibly painful.
And the Wisp could do nothing. When in the future the Wisp became a man once more, the vague memory of Maria’s tormented nights would haunt him. But the Wisp could do nothing; it had no hands with which to stroke or soothe or grasp a blanket to cover her with. It had no comfort it could offer. If it touched her at all, it would either wake her or invade her thoughts, trespassing into her private horrors and regrets.
Little daylight deigned to fall upon the forsaken kingdom, but these scattered and uneasy nights made the Wisp anxious for it to come.
v. less remain in one place
She did not pull back her hair, but simply asked her attendants to help her remove the heavy bell-like train of her dress. She slipped the ornamental sword she carried out of her belt, stared at it, and then handed it to the same attendants—sheath and all—before going to select a plain knight’s sword from the armory wall. She didn’t look for any other armor or adornment; she simply entered the circle in her short dress with that sword in her hand and an ironic smile on her face.
She had a true swordsman’s posture, and Nordische approved of that. More than that, her body language told him that she knew what she was doing with that sword, which caught his attention.
So for the first time since the two of them had met face to face, the prince found himself truly looking at his fiancée the dragon princess, his mind shaken away from thoughts of Pisce and planted in the moment. The lady Arlier was as different from Pisce as different could be—she was stern and decisive and outspoken, stood tall and walked in brisk steps and stared even the king straight in the eye. The only possible comparison that could be drawn was that they were both beautiful. And even then, they were so far apart in the range of beauty that such comparisons were still useless.
But the princess seemed to know the way of the sword, and as Nordische chose an unadorned sword of his own and stepped to face her, he saw his own expression of sudden interest cross her face. She looked intrigued, he thought, and pleasantly surprised—and was eyeing him with approval. This made Nordische realize that just as he’d been filled with thoughts of Pisce, she’d been too distracted to really take notice of him all day.
It occurred to him that even though this was really only being done for the sake of the alliance that both their peoples needed (and how rare it was for him to actually agree with any idea of his father’s, damn Capehornus for trying to silence him in court)… he might actually come to like Arlier once he knew her as something more than a bride.
She smiled at him across the challenge circle and assumed an artful stance, her motions graceful with no wasted gestures. “So—show me what you know of swordsmanship, heir of Gleivnir.”
vi. the strong and ephemeral
The king rose slowly, stiffly, not wanting to cause any undue damage to joints and muscles and bones that he was out of the habit of using. He’d almost forgotten how bodies creaked and strained and protested at the slightest provocation, and how it felt to focus one’s vision. He practiced doing so as he slowly clenched and unclenched his cold hands in front of him, testing the movements.
It felt unreal—the sudden aches of his much-abused flesh, the scent and taste of the air in his slime-streaked and dingy throne room. Neglect did that to a place, especially when its former occupant was a giant, three-headed demon lord that probably didn’t care much for cleanliness. The king had forgotten how the senses added to distaste, and he was still dazed from the horribly narrow victory he and his army of souls had won. The contrast between the bright, cold golden pathways of Heaven’s Gate and this dank ugly room alone made his head spin; the fact that what remained of Zolgonark was quickly dissolving into fading vapor and sand did not help make what had happened seem any more solid.
He wondered, briefly, if anyone in Asgard would care to recover the archangel’s body. She had been cruel and a terrible foe to the last, but the king was tired of seeing corpses left abandoned. The dead deserved their due honors, ally or enemy.
Belatedly, he began to recognize his hearing again, and placed the rasping sound to his left and behind him as shallow, sickly gasping. He flexed his hands once, twice, and then managed a slow rolling turn.
The armored girl had been mounting the steps towards Zolgonark’s remains when he had arrived here and moved to reclaim his body. She was perhaps three feet away from those steps now, slumped on her knees, supporting herself on her sword. She seemed to have jammed its tip into the crack between two of the tiles, and was resting both arms on the crosspiece. The king could see that her eyes were mostly closed and that her body heaved with each breath, trembling between them.
It took a bit of effort to persuade his legs to work, but he coaxed steps from them and drew closer to her. She did not look up at him. She was, the king realized, in terrible shape—he had relied heavily on her, perhaps too heavily, to survive the battles with Zolgonark and her other self. What the king could see of her bare skin was ashen beneath the sweat and bruises and blood, and stray strands of her hair clung to her cheeks.
When the king stood beside her, he spent a few moments looking down at her. It took him another few moments to remember how his vocal cords worked, and he cleared his throat slowly—and softly, he hoped.
“Meria,” he said.
She did not turn her head—she simply glanced up at him through unfocused, hazy blue eyes. Those eyes half-closed again as she swayed; the king was both relieved and pleased to discover that it was still reflex to reach out and support her.
She had told him that she would be his sword, and had become his strength. She had rescued him and shielded him, risked her life for him, encouraged him with more kindness than her brash veneer suggested she was capable of. When he had been no more than a Wisp, she had seemed an unshakable tower that would never fail him.
The king wondered how he had ever missed the fact that she’d been pushing herself far too hard. He could only wish he knew all the reasons why. He thought momentarily that he might never know now, and silenced that thought as soon as it formed.
“Meria,” he said again, his voice much less of a croak this time. Still there was no reply. The king moved his free hand to loosen her grip on her sword, refused to worry about how easily she relinquished it, and lifted her into his arms. She seemed to weigh nothing, and the king wondered how this could be so. He wondered, too, how she could look so incredibly frail.
The king’s feet were moving before he decided what he was going to do with her; his mind caught up once he was through the broken doors and into the back corridor leading to his old chambers. He could not judge how bad her injuries truly were or how long she would take to recover from them, let alone what kind of care she might need. If she were human, he would safely say that she was going to be very ill for some time, but she was not. The king did not even know how badly she would be affected by the fact that part of her had very literally just died—an external part, but a part nonetheless, and the part that had been left with most of the power, as far as the king could tell.
He was relieved to see that his chambers were still fairly ordered—even the canopy bed had been made by someone, and recently. He bore the armored girl over to it, then hesitated for a while. He was not sure if he could work his fingers well enough to get her all the way out of her armor, and was doubly unsure as to whether or not she would be happy about it if he tried. After a brief internal debate, he carefully laid her upon the soft mattress, then worked her winged helmet off and placed it on the bedside table. Sheets could always be washed or at the least changed.
The king touched her face softly—just a slight brush of his fingers across her cheekbone—and stepped back. She reacted to nothing—if she were conscious, all her focus was consumed by the effort it took to breathe. He would have to leave her here for a short while—retrieving her sword and some water for her could be done at the same time as a cursory search for survivors. People were going to ask who she was and why the king was sheltering her—especially in his own chambers, of all places. He knew what he was going to say to them—that she was a precious ally, which was all that truly mattered. Any other explanation could wait.
“Meria,” he said for the third time, and then “I shall return to you soon.” He took a few steps towards the door, then turned back to where she lay. “I am grateful,” he added before he left the room.
vii. with us your hocus-pocus play
The word never reached the adults. Children were trustworthy that way, she knew—she remembered from the childhood that wasn’t wholly hers. When presented with something magical, something they recognized as sacred and special, children under a certain age knew better than to even mention it to the parents who would never understand or even believe.
She had to smile and wonder why she’d never thought of it before—perhaps because she was past that age, or because Ancardia had all of her attention and she had trouble thinking past it. She’d also never figured that the human children who noticed her and realized she was looking for something would offer innocently to help.
They looked in strange places, but so did she, and she had no idea where her staff could possibly be anyway except that it still existed in the world. And it calmed her down to see the children standing on tiptoe to look inside barrels and peering into the shadows, rustling through bushes. If left on her own, she’d be breaking those barrels and flattening the bushes to get to what might be hidden in them.
The other girl, Maria, had likely gotten the lion’s share of Melissa’s patience in the split. Melissa didn’t particularly care. She just wanted her Ancardia back; there wasn’t much she could do without it.
Besides. You didn’t need patience to be happy to have help.
When the sun started to set—the herald of that age-old and seemingly universal curfew—the children always gathered back to her, nonplussed but not the least bit discouraged.
“We couldn’t find it today either,” one small girl announced.
“Then we’ll just have to try again tomorrow,” Melissa said to them all (and to herself), and smiled.
viii. sleight of hand and twist of fate
The girl is a songbird in a gilded, flowery cage. A far more comfortable cage than many of the other songbirds that have passed through the master’s hands, those who serve him know—and know well. She has a circular room all her own, locked with thin keys instead of passcards out of the master’s whimsy. She has her bed, and several stuffed animals, and curtains, and the walls are painted a cheerful pink. She is of the opinion that this pink is too childish now, and chatters to anyone that will listen—during and between her tests, even before and after the surgeries—that she wants to run over it with wallpaper, which will look much more grown-up. She asks everyone what kind of flower pattern she should choose; she can’t decide.
She sings (slightly off-key, but no less charmingly) and skips, and when the master asks her—he cloaks his orders to her with honey—to perform, she does. If she is told that she has done well, she glows; if she is told she was unsatisfactory, it does not faze her for long.
The Servants and the researchers do not know what to make of her; they have never known. So much that should be confidential is discussed in front of her—at her age, it should not pass between her ears and leave her blithe and cheerful, but impossibly it does. She is a test subject, and this is something that everyone knows. Her name and identity were stripped away when she passed into their master’s hands.
So many before her—their master treated them as objects, ignored them, and crushed them as suited his mood. It seems to amuse him to keep her as his pet. She earns her keep; despite her naïveté and the hunch in her wing, she is the closest they have ever gotten to their master’s first experiment. They do not have the blood of the gods any longer, and cannot facilitate the changes in her body with that all-transforming catalyst. She is a good girl, an empty-headed songbird, a performing animal that never objects to having her body warped and twisted into something much more than ordinary to be able to do the tricks her master demands.
Perhaps, they wonder every now and then—
Perhaps she is wiser than they give her credit for. After all, to be the lord Hector’s pet is surely better than to be his plaything or his tool or so far beneath his notice as the previous subjects. The ones that lived and died in cages, never glimpsing the outside world until their spent corpses were discarded. Or to be like Aries, who is never spoken of but whose presence is always felt here nonetheless, a disgrace and a gruesome cautionary fable, all their research paved in and bought with his blood.
To ignore the bars of her own prison, or never to notice them at all—she at least will live innocently and happily, never truly comprehending her glory nor her pain and misfortune.
ix. the kind of April morning no other month can touch
She could feel that the sun was rising—even with her eyes closed and the curtains drawn, she knew that it was lighter. But even though she was excited for today, for Mama and Daddy finally finally finally letting her summon a familiar, her response was just to curl up tighter, so that the comforter came up to her eyes.
She could hear Mama’s breathing on her right side, and felt Daddy shifting on her left. She knew that for this month none of them were going to have to work; the kingdom and its knights were at least kind enough to shift the villages they taxed, after all. She’d heard the people speak of rebuilding the tower and something about help from the Tiamat princess, and even if she didn’t understand all of it, she did know what it meant.
It was going to be a perfect day. She didn’t need her magic to know that. Mama and Daddy were right here, and she was going to put on her favorite dress by herself and Daddy would braid her hair, and then she’d get to call her familiar (a cute one, she hoped, it had to be cute) and learn new magic and her people had hope, and—
There was a lot of talk about how everybody was cursed, but—she didn’t know how she could be under a curse and still have days this happy.
x. touched by a thousand invasions
and still forever an island
The years have ceased to mean anything to her.
As she stands in the unfamiliar golden temple, looking impassively out over its overbearing grandeur, her thoughts are more with her scattered self than in the present. She has her orders, but she’s not particularly interested in them, after all. She knew from the start that she was just being used again.
—That’s right. Gods, demons, or men… it makes no difference who’s pulling the strings if I know this time I’m being used from the start—
It would have surprised her if she hadn’t killed her emotions long ago—being summoned into this strange world by an angel, that is. She recognized the girl’s uniform, and her weapon, from long ago; it had been years and years of shiftlessness where only her power had kept her alive, years of living like dreaming, but she had not forgotten Hector, or her suspicion of him.
Something must have gone wrong back then in the fusion process, because rather than conjoining her two halves, it seemed her mind had only splintered further. Instead of the shadow of an other self, the darkness she feared and hated, her central “self” is always being pulled in at least four directions.
The oldest, weariest voice other than her own always seems off in a corner, crying I’m sorry over and over again, struggling under the weight of ancient sins it just cannot lay to rest. Another is not even a voice, just a sense of childlike confusion and loss, the part of her that keeps her hands tightly clasping her holy staff at all times. She has confused memories of being both of these voices, of raising an army of souls to compensate for her lack of strength and of ignoring everything in the search for Ancardia, in chasing the power that had slipped out of her grasp. She does not revisit them if she can help it; it strains at her sanity and draws her into the turbulent emotions that she had to abandon to survive.
And then there is the shadow that haunted her back when she had the capacity to haunt herself, the part of her always boiling in impotent rage at never being freed, at always being used, at the fact that she—they—whatever she is now—has never fought back when the world deserves to fall.
In the end, it’s another angel that comes for her, a young boy blissfully ignorant of the fact that he is yet another pawn in schemes larger than himself. But she is, at last, surprised that this one cog has slipped its wheels; he is not acting for Asgard but for those who have been downtrodden, the very lowliest forms of life—
His power, too, is an astonishment. He claims to be a Grim Angel, but even the Grim Angels she has known—fighting alongside, fighting against—in her lifetime have not possessed this level of strength, untrained though it may be.
She wonders if this child and his companions—will be the death she has been denied for so very, very many years.
She thinks that it may be so.
—Will I be forgiven? The sad whisper of Maria’s voice in the back of her mind, trembling exhausted on the edge of hope.
—Will it be painful? The half-forgotten sound of Melissa’s voice frames this question.
She does not know what to think, so she fights by instinct and in silence, until finally—
——Well, anything is better than living like this forever, the angry voice concludes with a wave of irritation at the rest of them.
Marietta listens, but she is more preoccupied with the wonder of knowing that she is going to lose this battle—this of all battles.
And for the first time in so very long… she prays to the dead gods, prays that for once things will change and this child will realize that he is being used before it is too late.
It is too much to ask for him to assume the hopes of all the betrayed, but if only he is able to escape their fate—it will be enough for her.