i. move through smoke and mirrors
He couldn’t stop rubbing his wrists. He knew he couldn’t stop. He caught himself at it constantly; he tried to keep from doing it at first but eventually gave up. It just felt far too strange—the lack of the cuffs that had chafed them for hundreds and hundreds of years. He knew that it drove some of the others up the wall—Leon in particular always snarled, then got up and left when he started subconsciously.
Once he actually wore the skin between the scars down until it started to bleed. He hardly noticed the pain—it had probably seemed more normal, actually—until he’d passed by Emilia on his way to Gulcasa’s tent. She’d swerved around to stare, then pointed and yelled and run for some bandages. When she was done wrapping his wrists up, she actually hit him in the forehead.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid!” And she hit him again for good measure. “How can you be so smart and still be so dumb?! Take better care of yourself! Jeez! My brother’s gonna get mad!”
He hadn’t known what to say at all.
He caught himself overbalancing sometimes, nearly falling over. He felt like some kind of recovering invalid; the helplessness frustrated him.
“Well, what do you want? You can’t expect anything else,” Gulcasa told him pointedly. “That had to have been, what, twenty pounds you lost all at once. You’ve got to give your body some time to adjust, that’s all.”
But there wasn’t time to adjust. They had to mobilize, and soon, and not pussyfoot around it or Fantasinia and the other countries were going to get suspicious. Fantasinia had reason to be suspicious. Every reason. But Bronquia had bigger targets to tackle.
Beside the scarlet dragon rampant, a banner with the face of a timepiece now hung from the Obsidian Castle’s myriad towers.
ii. i’m a wanderer trapped in a maze
Really, he seemed to have left his wits behind him in the rain that day. Everything he’d done from then on had been tainted in idiocy—from venturing out when he was fever-ridden in the first place to panicking instead of dispatching those bandits calmly. By all rights he should have died then. He still had huge gaps in his memory of that day, vast black pits that he did not want to fill. He had enough of an idea of what had happened to him anyway—an idea and nightmares that had him rushing to retch over the nearest privy.
By all rights he should have died then; instead he’d been picked up by Bronquia’s new emperor as though he were some kind of stray.
He hadn’t thanked Gulcasa politely and been on his way. No, he’d been too bewildered—and Gulcasa too wise to strays’ tricks—to try something like that.
He hadn’t kept himself removed. That was entirely his fault. He’d dealt with friendly mortals before without getting drawn in.
He hadn’t tried to engender some kind of conflict right away. And that would have been all too easy. Leon was a psychotic loose cannon, Eudy not far from becoming one; a few whispers here or there could provoke one or the other into some political faux pas that would incense Fantasinia into action, and Gulcasa—being Gulcasa—would rally his army to retaliate. The situation had had the promise of being a lovely little war and several more sacrifices to strengthen the Gran Centurio. He hadn’t pursued it.
Instead, he’d let himself be charmed, let those little thoughtful gestures of Gulcasa’s touch at his heart. They’d ripped at it, silk woven from thorns. Just like that, millennia of defenses had been stripped away, leaving him vulnerable.
All Gulcasa had had to do was push a little. Look at him through those big patient golden eyes. Touch his face a few times, his shoulders a few more.
He’d cracked. And once you took the stopper out, the words in their stumbling exodus couldn’t be held back. He hadn’t been able to look Gulcasa in the face at all; he’d probably cried once or more than once. All his secrets, all his shames and schemes and his wild hopes and the pain of his long long years—he’d slammed them onto the table as soon as Gulcasa had given him an opportunity.
Throat dry, face burning, he’d stared at the floor for at least two or three minutes before he’d gotten it together enough to glance up. Gulcasa was staring at him levelly, arms crossed. He’d glanced away, and then Gulcasa had reached out and tilted his face back up.
He’d cast about for words; there weren’t any more.
“Now that you’ve told me the truth, what are you going to do?” Gulcasa had asked him, with concern in his voice and on his face.
His shock must have been pretty obvious, because Gulcasa had laughed at it.
“A story that unbelievable can’t not be true. You know? So what are you going to do now?”
“I… don’t know,” he’d been able to admit. “Nothing… is going according to plan anymore.”
iii. ride the wind and rise to the moon
Many of the soldiers still strutted about nervously, peering over the edges of the island and skittering off to look at the bright, bright stars. The commanders and the other generals were inside the Great Temple; he sat on its steps, breathing deeply and evenly. He couldn’t understand his own emotions. He wasn’t as jittery as the men, but he knew he was at least nervous. The day was finally here, after all—
There was a sweep of fabric and a light clink of metal, and Gulcasa was suddenly lowering himself to sit on the steps next to him.
“It’s almost time,” the young emperor remarked, his gaze leveled out across the stratocumulus.
“So it seems.”
“No,” he said, surprising himself; “no, I’ve chosen this world. Your world. It’s all I want. All I’ll ever want. I’ve existed there, yes; I want to live there.” With you he appended silently; Gulcasa would hear it. The man who heard volumes of subtext from his people, his soldiers, his generals, his sisters couldn’t overlook the words he might as well be writing in light in the night air.
“When the fighting ends, there may be hope for a continental alliance,” Gulcasa mused, still not looking directly at him. “We can concentrate on developing magic, healing, the sciences and arts. It may not be comfortable at first. But by then we’ll likely all be tired of war.”
He could see himself there, watching from behind Gulcasa; establishing some kind of tentative runic research group with Verlaine and possibly the Vanir. Drafting treaties. Working wonders. Trying his hand at peace instead of chaos.
Be with me, Gulcasa was saying. So he reached out, laid a small pale hand on the burnished gauntlet, and smiled.
“It’s just nerves,” he replied aloud. “I’ll be fine.”
I’ll be with you.
iv. bitter to taste, sweet in imagining
Nessiah, Gulcasa murmured into the dark, against his skin, and it sounded like a prayer. He’d never heard his name spoken in quite the variety of ways Gulcasa pronounced it—with exasperation, tolerance, amusement, goading—and no one else, no one in the long long history of his life, had ever spoken it quite so reverently. He quivered, and callused but gentle hands made their way down his sides.
He had never truly known of this, understood this until Gulcasa had showed it to him.
One night he asked in a shaking voice—pleaded of Gulcasa to use his middle name. There had been a long silence, and then the most heartbreaking whisper of Aries. He couldn’t take it; he’d just broken down. And he’d actually been held, comforted.
Gulcasa never spoke his full name in daylight. Only here.
He said it softly, roughly, Nessiah Aries Artwaltz, slowly as if he were tasting the syllables. And every time he heard the words, it ripped his heart open and healed it all at once.
v. the scent of a soul
The look on Ordene’s face that day said that it was taking him a while to process what Gulcasa had just said. His wife and those members of his court and his army who he’d brought along had similar expressions. His daughter, half-hidden behind one of the knights, just looked confused.
Half-hidden behind Gulcasa himself, he probably could have sympathized but didn’t.
“What did you ask of us?” Ordene said slowly—his tone somewhere between aghast and affronted.
“I’m not going to repeat all of that—I know you understood,” Gulcasa replied levelly. “The Gran Centurio—you’ve passed it down through your family for years, but it was never yours to begin with. Its real owner needs it back.”
When there was no reply, Gulcasa shook his head. “And if you want to go there—we can claim right of passage for that sword, anyway. The one that, by your laws, the Gran Centurio is meant to pass to is—”
“Must we quibble over the Holy Sword, Emperor?” Ordene cut him off, probably to avoid having his dirty laundry aired for the room. (Behind him, he sensed Luciana and Aegina holding each other’s hands tightly, clinging together for strength.)
“Must we?” Gulcasa repeated ironically. “Why does Fantasinia need a weapon like that anyway? Any country that isn’t your ally is either at peace with you and not seeking to change that, or doesn’t believe in war. Even with the Gran Centurio, if we wanted to fight you, the loss of life would be too great on both sides. Nessiah here needs the sword for himself. And it belongs to him.”
A warm hand settled on his shoulder, encouraging. Ordene might have spoken, but instead he stepped forward and began.
“The Gran Centurio is a sword capable of enacting miracles,” he said slowly. “It ties itself to its wielder in a ceremony on the land of Welheim, which I have sealed to the Artwaltz blood and those who have undergone the strictest of rites in the holy sorcery practiced in the Meria religion. The sword is also—and has always been—tied to me. The crystal in the pommel is my ‘eye’; whatever the sword has seen, I have seen.”
He waited for a moment, watched the incredulity spreading on the Fantasinians’ faces, and went on.
“The first man you ever killed was a Bronquian foot soldier. He was fatally wounded—you’d cut his legs away at the knees—but it took you over a minute to bring the sword down in a mercy kill. Now you no longer pause at all in striking enemies down, whether or not they cry or plead. You let new soldiers take a look at the sword, but you hold it so that its weight won’t crush them. Sometimes they think you’re looking down on them, but if they try anyway they come to understand you better as a man. You considered naming Yggdra ‘Hildegarde’ before she was born. Your wife wanted ‘Freja’. Calling her Yggdra was what you consider one of your better compromises…”
When they left the council, Gulcasa leaned down to murmur congratulations. Luciana and Aegina were hovering after them, both watching him avidly.
“It’s too big for you to carry, so—”
“—if you’d just let us—”
Gulcasa gave them a baleful, tired glare, but he laughed and hefted the sword towards them. Let them hold it for a while, if only for now; this was their first time seeing it up close, and they had at least that right.
vi. our star is fading
His magical sight warped and swayed as he gasped for breath; callused hands squeezed his tightly as the needle worked its way through his skin. The blood was hot down his side. His shoulder ached sharply still from the wrenching agony of relocating the joint.
He wasn’t the worst off. He knew that. So many soldiers were dead. Leon had lost an arm. Eudy was cauterizing it now. He’d yelled a bit and then gone silent; either they’d gagged him or he was biting his tongue.
“Hold steady, be still now,” Gulcasa murmured, and he let little whimpers escape but tried hard to do as he was told. The Gran Centurio was next to him, its smooth metal calming. He swallowed and cast his mind from the stitches winding their way up his thigh and over his belly.
The wound was bad. Yet he’d had worse; he would survive it.
vii. strange as a dreamer’s mad imaginings
He was in the library, stretching up on tiptoe to reach the highest shelf—there weren’t any stools he could use, so he bit his lip and strained. His fingertips just brushed the top of the book he wanted, and he was able to get it down in one sharp yank—that sent him stumbling backwards. Once he had his balance back, he tucked the book under his left arm and shook out his aching right—and turned to see Gulcasa standing at a distance, frowning at him.
Before he could ask, Gulcasa spoke. “You didn’t use to be able to reach that shelf, Nessiah.”
“I don’t… understand what you mean,” was all he could say.
“Follow me,” Gulcasa told him, and took him by the wrist. He was led through the castle halls to the kitchens—to the wall where Emilia had measured her height every few months, often using him as her yardstick. To the ire of the cooks and the amusement of everyone else, Gulcasa had scratched lines in the side of the wall to track her progress.
He avoided this place when he could; he didn’t need the constant reminders of his frozen time.
Gulcasa pointed at that wall now. “Stand there.”
“I don’t underst—”
“Just humor me,” Gulcasa grated, and shoved him against the space where he’d always stood, pulling out his belt knife and scratching a mark next to him, apparently lining up with the top of his head.
He stood fidgeting for a few moments while Gulcasa stared at the wall behind him with a pensive expression, until the emperor pulled him forward again.
“Thought so. Seems like… about an inch, maybe a little over. Take a look.”
Glancing back, he first thought that his sight spells must be lying to him; it was impossible that there was that kind of gap between the earlier scratch and the one Gulcasa had just made. And then it sank in, and his knees felt weak, and he covered his mouth with both trembling hands; Gulcasa put both arms around him and held him close.
An inch. An entire inch, after over a thousand years at the same height, after he’d long since given up the idea that he might ever grow again.
“Does it feel any different at five-three?” Gulcasa murmured into his shoulder. He flushed, turned in the emperor’s arms to hide his face, and hit his chest.
“Idiot…” he managed weakly.
Gulcasa’s embrace just tightened.
viii. of the four elements that frame the heart
The block held rows and rows of nothing but cells. Cages, really. Beside him, Gulcasa was white-faced; he’d seen some of the others, and their reactions weren’t too different. Luciana looked actively trying not to be sick, Zilva was biting her lip, and even Leon—who’d been louder and viler than ever since losing his left arm—was silent.
He clenched his fists and opened cells.
There were so many of them. All small and thin, many emaciated, even the healthiest cowering away from the human intruders they could dispatch with hardly a flick of a finger. None of them had names—only serial numbers. Most were too weak or too afraid to even get up and try to leave. There had to be nearly a hundred of them. None were older than Gulcasa.
“Nessiah, you were…” Gulcasa murmured.
“I don’t want to talk about this place.” He wanted the words to come out clipped and decisive. They sounded desperate instead. It hurt his stomach to be here—and his back where his wings had been. And his ruined eyes.
Gulcasa’s warm hand closed over his, and squeezed it tightly.
ix. by the enchantment of thy strain
His first thought when he ventured into the banquet hall to find it suffocated in gold and violet decorations was that Luciana or Leon had probably snuck mushrooms into his food for laughs. His second was that this was too outlandish to be some kind of hallucination, and he really did not know what was going on here.
Gulcasa was standing at the front of the crowd, and his expression shifted quickly from joviality to a kind of tolerant annoyance as he broke from his people’s ranks and walked up the hall.
Not to be deterred, he squared his shoulders and scowled. “Just what is the meaning of—”
Gulcasa sighed and shrugged in an overexaggerated gesture. “Man. You really did forget, didn’t you? At least tell me you know what the date is.”
Bristling, he replied: “It’s September the sixteenth, of—” Of course. He blanched, then blushed violently. “Don’t tell me this—for something like—insignificant—”
“It’s not insignificant. Not one bit, you idiot. You’ve been waiting for how many hundreds of years without knowing if you’d ever reach this day?”
“I—” His head was spinning. It was hard to think at all, let alone rationally.
Gulcasa shook his head and took both of his hands, bending over to kiss his forehead in full view of the citizenry watching, without the slightest apparent thought to whether or not they might approve.
“…happy twentieth birthday, Nessa.”
After that, there was nothing he could say.
x. the moonbeams kiss the sea
Gulcasa’s scythe traced a flaming arc through the air a short distance away; blood flew in a larger arc after it. The roar of soldiers’ voices was nearly deafening, but the clash of steel and the sizzle of lightning still reached his ears. He wove through the battlefield, smacking Servants away with the blunt sides of the Gran Centurio, searching.
There. A flash of deep blue within the crowd. He gritted his teeth, lifted his sword to signal Gulcasa, and pushed through the battle.
Their forces were about evenly matched; the Imperial Army had been doing much better after those test subjects who were willing and able to lend their lances and axes joined their cause. The injured were still fighting and well, even Leon; by now they had numbers. Their largest threat was—
Well, he would deal with it.
He caught sight of that flash of blue again, and chased it further towards the upslope of the rocky path. And then the figure that sent sick hate clutching through his entire body was on top of an outcropping. He hissed and climbed to the flat top of a large boulder, putting him above the clashing masses. Gulcasa wasn’t far away.
“You’ve come a long way to get here, haven’t you? Fallen One.” The voice dripped scorn, and sent chills crawling up his back. “Your pitiful attack on our peace ends here.”
He planted and spread his feet, gripping the hilt of his sword tightly.
“This—is for everything you did to ruin me, Hector!”
As Gulcasa surged past him, scythe aflame, Nessiah raised the Gran Centurio.