Here told is the tale of the night the Hero fell, the night that Galavar and his Guard set in motion the fate of the world.
* * *
RHYA KIMBRII, the sun, hung low in the west. Swollen red light sank through the winds of a hazy but absolutely cloudless sky, and poured steadily onto the fingers of the plumb desert. Birds took wing. Insects scurried about. Sunset always came, for all creatures, as it would till the end of the world. It was an unforgettable hour, and it was in this hour that Galavar arose.
At the limits of the world, on the lip of the Sheer, a burning city and its ravaged surroundings told of a battle fought just now to its end. Corpses and carcasses lay in the dirt and in the streets, their spoiled arms of war overturned beside them. Here a drum lay burst and trampled. There the broken remnants of a ladder perched against an aede, its other pieces scattered nearby. A little farther along the way, beneath the pommel of a stray saddle, a stained handkerchief lay wedged into the grit, safeguarding two smudged and severed fingers. The owner of those fingers was not to be found. The handkerchief was wounded too, its corner neatly cleft and gone.
Among the dead were those still dying, too stricken to stand and with nobody nearby to help them. Most of the fallen fighters wore the broken dark yellow bands and banners of Davoranj, a great kingdom far to the north with no clear purpose in this forsaken place. But these people had come, twenty-two thousand warriors of Davoranj, led by the Hero himself. What had possessed them?
The Hero of Davoranj was a legend in his own time. From the day he resolved to make this war, he would not be stopped. He unified the warriors of Davoranj under him. He honed their fighting instincts. And he prepared them for their incredible journey. He built them a fleet so that they might cross the dunes of the unforgiving Sand Ocean. He equipped them with warm coats and sturdy boots so that they might scale the mountains of the desolate Howl Riada. He taught them many ranger's skills and the facts of survival, so that they might traverse the fabled Sourran Landstorm safely, for all its broken fingers of rock.
When his people at last were ready to go to war, the Hero told them of their enemy, Galavar, and why they must fight him, so that they would not falter in their resolve. He provisioned them handsomely so that they would greet the day of battle in good health. He prepared aid and friendship for them by making alliances with the tribes of the desert. He collected precise knowledge of the enemy through spies and dwends.
And, most importantly of all, the Hero held aloft Aghnagos and graced his warriors with the blessings of the True Goddess, on the eve of their departure.
He earned their devotion rightly, and they followed him with conviction.
It was well into the spring when the Hero set forth from the green valleys of Davoranj, with his twenty-two curled fingers of war. There were feasts, and dances, speeches, tears, trysts, and cavalcades. The King of Davoranj himself appeared before his public and gave the Hero a golden ring to wear on the right forefinger, emblazoned with two opposing crescent moons, one slightly smaller than the other. With this unique treasure came the King's own authority while outside the country.
Every preparation had been made. The magnitude of the Hero's plans was unprecedented in living memory throughout all Davoranj and in all the east of the world. To cheers and song the warriors of the Hero left their homeland.
He led them across the sand, up the mountains, and over the high plateau, until, at last, the hosts of Davoranj marched along the rim of the imperishable Cliffs of Raglan, where the Fortress of Galadrim stood.
Galavar, the great desert king in his fortress, whose name few yet knew. By his piracy he had built a hidden, yet thriving nation in his own lifetime, which no outsider had seen but from afar. No outsider had seen Galavar himself, either, and his followers made little enough trouble, for pirates, and did not sorely antagonize the powers of the East. Thus Galavar was far away and hard to see, a true stranger to the world, and few took any interest in him. But the Hero of Davoranj had known better, and, fearing Galavar's designs, had mustered the honor of his country to rise up against the desert king before his arid ambitions could come to pass.
And, for all that, now the misfortunes of the Hero's wisdom littered the clifftops.
The warriors had traveled slyly and securely all the way till this very day. The assault had begun in the morning, just within sight of the fortress and its city. Davoranjans died for every step they gained thereafter, beset by martial means, metals and missiles, but they followed the Hero's courage, raised their shields, attacked, and persevered until midday, when the Hero set his bloodied boot upon the captured threshold of the enemy's capital and looked upward from that unhinged mear to behold the Fortress of Galadrim unspoiled. His cry of triumph astonished everyone, and the hosts of Davoranj shouted in reply that now, at last, they would fight.
So at once they invaded the capital, the City of Sele. The enemy, Galavar, did not wish to come forth from the excellent defense of his fortress, but he did so, for he did not wish to forfeit his city either, and in Galavar's decision the Hero met fierce opposition for every avenue and aede he took. The early afternoon skies grew dark with acrid smoke as lightning fell upon them from the battlements of the fortress afar, and grew darker still as armored machines and ferocious animals of war stormed to the slaughter of warriors.
But the Hero's attack was guided by divine virtue, and would not be turned away so easily. Against fire, against metal, against passion and dedication, against Galavar's every effort the hosts of Davoranj mustered their resolve, bridged the pits, and trudged relentlessly ahead. Their own powers were considerable, and Davoranj trusted its hero completely. So at length they took the Galan capital.
Now the Hero saw his chance come at last, and he led a unified charge against the very Gates of Galadrim, at which Galavar's armies were routed and his flanks spoiled. Victory seemed at hand, but in fact the battle was very close, and had it not been for the courage of the Hero, Davoranj would not have prevailed even this far. It was by the Hero alone that finally Galavar's adamant gates fell backward.
Then the enemy became truly fierce. Indescribable assailants from the very Depths of Sourros came forth through the fortress mouth to meet the hosts of Davoranj. Galavar loosed all that he had, and his holdings were vast, and when all of that menagerie fell to defeat then Galavar but shrugged and with sheer force of will animated the very foundations of Galadrim against the Hero's might, and joined his armored ranks to personally defend in the halls of his own citadel.
Against such an opponent the Hero's mettle was unshakeable—and what else are heroes born to achieve, if not the impossible victory? The Hero's one wayward thought, his single fleck of doubt as to the worthiness of his venture, was that, from the inside, the fortress was all too strangely beautiful. Not grandiose, though there was that, but simply beautiful. And upon this he refused to dwell, for Davoranjans were dying and Galavar still alive.
Davoranjan courage had come with the loss of many slain comrades, and exhaustion loomed for those still on their feet. The great desert king's strategies were lethal, and his troops were commanded by six elites, girt in helm and impenetrable black armor like Galavar's own—six terrifying captains, seemingly immortal, their faceless heads wreathed in flame, absorbing attack after attack but never stumbling or even stopping for breath. They were in their stronghold, confident and ruthless, and defeat was unknown to them. Even the Fortress of Galadrim, itself, denied the Hero any advantage, twisting strangely as though wrought of a dream's air, while concealing snares that to flesh proved all too real. Many warriors died by no hand at all.
At length the hours of the afternoon bled into scarlet evening, and the bloodsoaked tides of battle turned. The enemy was indefatigable to the last, but not so the hosts of Davoranj. By the evening sun, Davoranj was exhausted and Galavar had thrust the Blade Kingdom back.
The war was lost.
The war was lost, but still the Hero defied retreat. In his mind there was always a way ahead, and he was, after all, the Hero of the Kingdom of Davoranj. If not him, whom? As evening rose, he too rose, rallied the last of his warriors, and led one last charge through the halls of the enemy king.
And that was the end of it.
Which side had suffered more, it was hard to say.
Twilight had already begun to gather in the low places of the desert when the invasion fell to peace. Atop the Cliffs of Raglan, where the fortress stood, the sun was still up, and illumined the devastation war wrought. In the city, where the ugliest fighting had occurred, the fallen were not so overwhelmingly dressed in the colors of the Hero, or in any colors at all, and the sight of ruin and death combined with the fixtures of everyday life. Wreckage lay strewn throughout every curving roadway, buildings were overturned, and the dead lay in heaps to be cremated in bonfires. Children had not been spared from death either, nor animals, for the Hero had commanded that no remnant be left of this treacherous tribe. Now, in combat's wake, screaming of several kinds cut above the hushed chattering of the anxious and the afraid, while injured animals cackled and fires everywhere crackled.
And at Galadrim, the fortress of the desert king where the Hero had faced his enemy's true counterstroke and failed, smoke billowed from the bottom floors and the shouts of warriors had not yet died out completely.
Nevertheless, at the end of the day, the fortress and its city had withstood the honor of Davoranj. The matter was settled.
Settled, for all but the Hero. His fate was not yet complete.
* * *
THE HERO HAD A NAME. Rennem, as he happened to be, vomited onto the triumphal scene chiseled into the slab floor. He leaned heavily on his knees, barely able to resist crumpling in a heap, and in the fullness of his misery he nearly forgot what he was doing here. That was a frail bliss.
Finally his heaves ended, giving way to shakes. He tried to steady himself, but shuddered hard. He was exhausted.
It was him, alone, to face Galavar. All of his people were gone. Everything he had hoped to achieve, and all the strength of his kingdom, had succeeded as far a personal duel with Galavar himself, only to perish even so. Davoranj lay on its back, and Galavar's vengeance would be terrible. The final stroke was that Rennem had accomplished all of it himself. He had led his nation to ruin.
The wind of the Sheer blew very hard, and Rennem was awfully cold. His shakes became shivers. In such a state as this, the last of his high hopes blew away on the gale-din, and what remained to him was brutal. The sun was setting, and the glowing red sky stunned his eyes. He saw no beauty in it. Instead, he tightened his grip on the small, scratched knife in his left hand, and rose upright.
The two of them circled one another on this round stone court atop one of the highest of the Towers of Galadrim. The court had no railing or walls; its enclosure was the sky. It was dazzlingly high a place. The fortress itself was like a young mountain, tens of neatly stacked stories, poised atop the Cliffs of Raglan which stood as high above the Sand Ocean as the skies stood above Relance.
Rennem turned his gaze northward and looked out there, at the Sand Ocean far below. The dunes were almost completely obscured by twilight now. Somewhere, far beyond them all, was his homeland. Tomorrow the people of Davoranj would call out his name in prayer, and he would not be alive to answer them.
Galavar attacked. With his left hand he grabbed the back of Rennem's head, not the hair but the skull itself, and with his right hand he grabbed Rennem's left wrist. Then he needed merely to pull. Rennem twisted and squirmed, but was thrown to the side with ease. He landed on his left shoulder and rolled. The shoulder was wrenched but his left wrist yet serviceable, and he held fast to his dingy dagger, for what good it was doing him.
He scrambled to his feet, but needn't have rushed. Galavar was stalking him. The desert king could surely have struck the killing blow by now, but for some reason he held back. Galavar wore two great swords, twins, one at each of his hips, and yet in his entire confrontation with Rennem he had not touched them. He had fought only with his hands, and he would win with them, but he was drawing it out.
What was he waiting for?
It had to be some kind of taunt. Rennem had come to this edgeless arena as a last resort. The fortress itself could not be broken, but with Galavar personally committed to its defense there was still a chance of breaking the leader. Rennem, with all his cunning, had maneuvered the last of his number so that he himself could meet Galavar in single combat. Galavar acceded, luring him up the fortress to where Davoranj had not touched, to this very tower top overlooking nearly everything. Clearly it had been a lure, for their feud had been a debacle. Rennem never stood a chance. Yet he was still alive; why?
Forcefully Rennem strove to push the memories of this day out from his mind, strove to concentrate on the fight, but despite striving all that would come to him now were the ghosts of the day—his gasping breath, the cold wind, the acid burning in his throat, the stilled shouts of his brothers, the agonies through his body, and a sickening strenuous heartbeat pounding in his ears, which now compelled him to vomit again. Again Galavar withdrew slightly, and waited. His eyes never strayed from the Hero.
As Rennem clutched his knees to retch, his right hand itched insatiably. He ignored it, or tried. Of course it itched. There was nothing he could do. A few steps away, in a puddle of Rennem's own blood, lay Aghnagos, the Hero's Staff. Four of Rennem's right-hand fingers were still curled about it, only the right thumb remaining with him. With the Hero's Staff he had struck Galavar full in the breast, for it was a strike of destiny and could not have been escaped. But Galavar, wily and well-prepared, had not attempted to escape. He had stood there, braced, and against the most sacred power his black armor had only laughed. Then Galavar had raised his hands and with sheer force pried Rennem apart from his weapon, taking the fingers of the Hero's beloved right hand with it. Galavar was relentless.
Putting his mangled hand out of his mind, Rennem tried to focus on the artwork in the stone at his feet—anything to maintain his concentration amid the puke. The scene depicted a battle from some other time, chiseled into legend through polished slate and gold mortar. It was beautiful, but cold—like the sun.
A detail from the artwork caught his eye. As the mural's stylized battle raged in the background, one of the central characters in the foreground lay dying, partially obscured by Rennem's steaming pool of sick. A glorious, kingly man this was, surrounded by those who would mourn him. He wore three fangs above each of his eyes, had a crown of flowers instead of hair, and stared out at Rennem with love and satisfaction. His cheeks were painted with opposing crescent moons, the left one smaller than the right. His face showed the soft, happy visage of one whose children are playing nearby, even though only the ruin of battle could be seen. His left hand held a bowl. His right clutched a staff…a staff Rennem knew well, for it lay just a few strides from its depiction.
But it was the arezo this carved figure wore around his neck that was most distinctive of all.
Rennem knew this person. It could only be Allopeash…a fellow Davoranjan Hero.
Allopeash had lived centuries ago, and was deeply revered by his descendents. He had reunified the warring houses of Davoranj in their darkest hour, at the cost of his own life. In so doing, he granted Davoranj a destiny which had thrived ever since.
Was this what Galavar had brought him here to see? This artwork? Let the defeated Hero Rennem gaze upon the defeat of the Hero Allopeash of yore?
It was too much for Rennem to bear. How could it possibly be that Galavar the King of Gala, who cared nothing for Davoranj, would keep such a fine depiction of that shining day in Davoranjan history, carved into the top of his own fortress? How could it possibly be that Davoranj's death would come to pass on this very spot which celebrated its past salvation?
It was impossible. The insult went beyond slander, beyond irony. It was unforgivable. As Rennem's own bile and blood defiled this symbol of his ancestor's selfless victory—as his own flowing blood literally covered up the chiseled blood of Allopeash—Rennem cried out to Galavar the instant he recovered the scarcest breath to do so, and his voice cracked not with anger but with disbelief:
"You would lead me to fail in the sight of King Allopeash?!"
And his retching resumed.
Galavar, still nearby, said nothing, but brandished a glare of pity through furious eyes.
Galavar really was furious. He had not spoken to Rennem at all, nor otherwise uttered a sound but to grunt through his labors. Yet Rennem could feel Galavar's wrath, smell it, and see it in his every move. Why he should be so angry, Rennem could not fathom, for Galavar had won. Davoranj would be at his mercy. Perhaps the desert king was incensed that someone had dared to try and thwart him at all. Perhaps it was the steep price at which Galavar had won his reprieve from the judgment of the Goddess. Or perhaps fury was all there was to him, a black spark inside black armor. Whatever his reason, Galavar kept it to himself.
Rennem suddenly realized how lonely he felt. Not even Galavar would speak to him. A forlorn tower top, at the edge of the world, beneath the blowing wind of the Sheer. This was where he would die, alone—alone but for guilt, the guilt of having brought his kingdom to ruin. Even as his vomiting calmed, Rennem quickly doubled back over, this time in abject despair and tears. The faces of his killed warriors called out to him from the graveyard of his imagination. The vulnerability of Davoranj quaked in his chest. His noble ancestor Allopeash was swallowed from sight in Rennem's own vomit and lifeblood, and like Rennem was doomed to die the death of the forgotten. And that itch, that bicking itch, from fingers no longer there, chased its way up his right arm. It drove him almost to the edge of his mind. To lose his own strong right hand, forever…Rennem could not believe it. But there the truth lay, paces away.
He sobbed, once, almost falling into a convulsion. He yearned to feel his fingers again. Worse still, instinct drove him to rely upon those fingers, and his movements suffered for it here on the stone court, whose sheer heights dizzied him as much as the wind and thin air and loss of blood. He was worn down, making mistakes at a time when any one of them could send him tumbling over the unguarded edge of the top of the world.
At last Galavar finished waiting, and came for him.
Rennem's eyes widened.
"Goddess of Compassion!" he cried. "Remember me, Esmeul!"
Galavar threw his right fist, putting Rennem immediately onto the retreat. The broken Hero staggered backward and tightened the dagger in his inferior left hand, deflecting the worst, but Galavar's gauntlets flayed Rennem's skin, tearing off whole pieces of priceless Davoranjan diamond mail and shredding the Hero's bloodstream like a geyser.
Rennem cracked. He went insane. He growled epithets without meaning, red foam spitting from his mouth and sparkling in the red eventide, and he attacked out of fury and swung with obscene disregard for his own wellbeing. The desert king was forced to fall back, but kept calm and held Rennem's agitated offensive in check with simple moves that would not have thwarted even a child.
At last the attack faltered entirely, the madness died, and Rennem toppled onto the defensive once more.
From fires far below, the wind brushed an errant column of smoke upon them, turning the evening sky momentarily brown, and Rennem coughed. Galavar continued to strike, pushing ever closer into Rennem's tiny, shrinking domain. He forced Rennem to turn straight toward the blinding sun, in the moment of sunset, and to attack Galavar's silhouette was hopeless. Rennem's hand itched again, and his mind cracked anew, and his voice hurled a prophecy:
"If not me then someone else, Galavar! The world will call another hero!" He gasped and raised his slim dagger to strike a final blow.
Galavar halted his attack, and withdrew a step.
Rennem stopped too, out of shock.
"Speak, King of Gala!" he demanded. "You would recoil from my little knife now? Or are you chilled by prophecy? How dare you hold back on me now?! Speak!"
And at last he did speak. In a heavy accent of the tongue of Davoranj, Galavar's voice carried brightly on the evening wind:
"Even now, at the end of a day like today, you have no grasp in your righteous mind of who I am or what you have done here. You oppose me as though I were someone other than myself."
"I know you!" Rennem barked. "How dare you lie in the presence of Allopeash! I have seen your desire, and I fear you may actually achieve it!" He stomped the ground.
"No doubt, if you came all this way to destroy me, you believe that. But, Hero, if you really learned of my ambition, then in your bravery you did not understand what you saw. Your ignorance is exactly why I have concealed myself from outsiders."
"Fool. You know your 'ambition' will be rejected by everyone!"
"I wish you had asked me who I am, before going to war against me."
"One does not ask what creature it could be that has a forked tongue and slithers on its belly. Your arrogance will undo you in the end, Galavar Serpent!"
As he finished those mangled words, he began to shiver again. Then he realized the color had fled from his vision. Everything was gray.
"You are a strong enemy," Galavar said, "but you are not a worthy mate."
With that the desert king drew forward, in a breathless instant, tearing into Rennem's guts with fingers alone and knocking him backwards. The Hero's outmatched dagger went tumbling away, and with it went the last of Rennem's will.
"You stormed my city. You killed my people. And for what reason? You deserve your cruel end."
Rennem could only rasp his reply. "I am guided in my ways by the lyrical wisdom of the True Goddess. Dare deny that."
Galavar, the King of Gala, clobbered Rennem straight in the neck, and spoke:
"You have no chance of understanding me, mook, but your people will, soon. I will show them who I am. All the nations will finally see the truth, and be amazed. The ones like you will perish, and the world will join me."
"And why is it," Rennem gasped through his broken voice, "that your kind always wants to rule the world?"
Galavar barked a single laugh.
"Others I cannot speak for. As for me, that is nevermore yours to know."
The man in black armor raised his arms. Rennem's last look at the world told him that the sun had finally set.
Or had it not yet risen? He couldn't remember. Was it morning?
Ah, Esmeul, morning-haired…
Like pincers, Galavar's left hand pierced Rennem's chest at the heart while the right crushed down into his skull. Then he pushed Rennem away, from everything. The Hero of Davoranj gave only the slightest sigh as he teetered backwards and fell off the circular stone court's north edge. The desert dunes awaited him, far below.
Galavar sighed too. The day was done.
His head throbbed and he dispelled his helm for some relief. The black metal crackled as it vanished, revealing a richly toned skin and smooth, straight black hair, matted with sweat that began to chill immediately. The pure cold of it stung him out of his mindfix, awaking him to his surroundings like they were new. He had been so fixed on the battle, for so many hours, that it aggravated his headache simply to refocus his eyes onto the distance.
But there it was. The world he had saved.
Or had he saved it?
Fires burned to the south, in his capital, out of control. The same was true to the west, where Rennem had taken his early casualties. The city couldn't afford to burn. Not a single part of it could be spared. Yet there it lay, aflame. And how many people had gone with it? None of them could be spared either. As he looked upon the carnage, Galavar's mouth hung open in horror, fury, and, unusual to him, fear. Everything he had worked for, everything, a whole lifetime's dream, lay on the brink.
Farther to the west, the sun had set. The cold would rise very quickly now. And in the east, the Ribbon of Dajar rose in silence.
Galavar turned to the north, and took a few steps into the windy hush to peer down the height of the fortress, past its foundations, down the Cliffs of Raglan, and toward a twilit obscurity, where Rennem had fallen. From this side of the tower, the Hero had plummeted not merely to the base of Galadrim but all the way down the cliffs to the Sand Ocean itself. Rennem was gone, having died ignorant of the evil he had caused.
Galavar's words began as a hiss, and like a hiss faded:
"This is one of those moments…"
In the Sodaplains the people whispered of an Unknown Fortress that no one had ever seen close up, the stronghold of a pirate king. No two descriptions were exactly the same, and all of them were wrong. The realm of Meretange Gala lived a hidden existence. No outsider knew about it.
But Rennem had known, somehow. He had known enough to personally lead an entire army across the desert. And today that army may well have unhinged every Galan ambition, and Galavar was tempted to question every decision he had ever made.
Instead, he turned away from the sight of the creeping gloom.
Time was short. Rennem's failure to return from war against an unknown no one would be noticed before the spring was out.
A short, narrow bridge, naked of banisters, connected the court to another, taller spire of Galadrim. There, a mouth in the stone provided entry to the glowing yellow fortress interior. Everything Galavar wanted to know, and needed to do, lay within. He picked up the Hero's fabled weapon Aghnagos, and the red-flecked ring, and made for the bridge, as Rennem's blood and heavings, fast cooling in the evening chill, finally engulfed the last traces of the image of Aghnagos, and the victory it had won ages ago.
* * *
POOR BENZAN found himself standing in the way of the Meretange of the Aedes of Vardas Gala. He had stood mesmerized on that narrow bridge, watching the two great figures struggle to the last, and was so astonished by it that he had yet to recover from the sight.
Galavar swallowed the gap between them in deep strides, flanked by the vast Ribbon of Dajar rising in the sky behind him, but Benzan was too dumbstruck to move until it was too late, and so there he was, standing before the new master of the world…and blocking his way. Galavar stopped in front of him, appraised him for just an instant, and spoke:
"You were wise not to intervene."
Benzan simply blinked.
"He would have taken you with him. Better that you kept your distance and bore witness."
"Yes, Meretange," Benzan managed, in halting words.
Galavar laid his right hand on Benzan's left shoulder and turned him gently but firmly toward the south, toward the city, then released his grip and folded his hands at rest behind him. Benzan crossed his arms, and together in silence they beheld the City of Sele, and each vaguely smelled the foul remnants of battle on the other. Vaguely, too, they could hear the shouting and the crashing, and of course the smoke plumes were unmistakable even in the twilight. Most of the city wasn't actually on fire. Most of the aedes were still standing. But it seemed as though the ruin covered everything. Benzan was no fool, and he knew the sight that lay before him was no urban flesh wound.
"Is it as bad as it looks?" he asked.
"Indeed," replied Galavar. "Probably worse."
He didn't say anything more, at first, and the howling wind lingered in his place, but then the Meretange continued:
"I am sixty-nine years old, come summer. Half a lifetime I nurtured my ambition here. I founded this city, built this fortress. I poured all my strength into the dream of the Galance Ideal. Now my work lies in ruins, and my people are bleeding in the wreck. Perhaps everything that I am, was toppled today. Perhaps the nations will hear that the great Hero of Davoranj was slaughtered upon the Cliffs of Raglan, where no foe had been known to dwell. Perhaps they will hear of this, and send their armies to learn what truly happened. How we will stand against that, in our sorry state? How will we escape slaughter and enslavement? We won't. We will be annihilated."
"Great Galavar…why are you telling me this?"
"Did you not ask?"
"I meant to ask after the city."
"Gala is the city. And the city is me. And I am telling you about it…" Galavar rubbed the bridge of his nose "…because I have had a hard day. And because annihilation is the future that awaits all of us if we stand here and do nothing—if we give in to dismay."
Benzan looked away for a moment, then stood a little taller, because it felt like the right thing to do. And he asked, "How may I help?"
Galavar smiled, tiredly. "You saw my fight with Rennem, yes?"
"The end of it. One of the line captains said Rennem had chased you up high. She sent people to find you."
"So you have found me. Now, I wonder, what could you have that would help me? Tell me your ambition."
It was a question Galavar famously loved. That made it a common question in the eponymous realm of Galan society, and Benzan did not need time to consider, for it was a question he had answered many times.
"I came to Gala to learn to read, to do good, and to choose my own way in life."
"Where are you from?"
Galavar smiled again, without removing his gaze from the city.
"Of course," he said. "How perfect. I can see it. A short mate with red hair came to your home one day and seemed a learnéd sort of fellow. And he told you there was a place where books are free."
"Yes. Keeper Jemis was the one who brought me here—four years ago." He tilted his head. "How did you know?" For a moment Benzan thought that perhaps Galavar personally remembered him, but instead the Meretange replied:
"What is your name?"
Galavar turned away from the city. This time he put both his hands on Benzan's shoulders, tightened his grip, pivoted Benzan sharply back toward him, and bored sternly into the young mate's eyes. Benzan didn't flinch, but he could only imagine what Galavar was thinking behind that fearsome face.
"Benzan, the Galance Ideal: Do you know of it well?"
"Yes. I mean, hopefully I—"
"What do you think of it?"
Benzan turned the question around in his mind, though it was hard with the gaze of the Great Galavar upon him.
"I come from a miserable place…and how wonderful this city is by compare. I may have a good body for it, but I don't much care for war, honestly. Yet I will do my part, whatever that may be."
Galavar withdrew his grip and stepped back a pace.
"Spoken like one who has soaked up the words taught to him by his teachers. You came here to learn to read. To do good. You're not keen on war. But you'll do your part. How pure! How noble! Fine; I take your word. But now tell me your deeper thoughts; tell me the truth: What do you think of our Galance Ideal?"
Benzan shuffled around on his feet.
"I don't know what you expect me to say."
"Speak from the spark."
"Where I come from, I would have been happy to be conquered by the likes of Gala. I don't understand the Galance Ideal as well as you do, but I know that I despise the Middemesne, and, save for Celeste, I love it here."
"My…courtmate. She stayed in Ictier."
Galavar was silent, then hummed once. His face was impenetrable.
"When you came here, you took the academic evaluation?"
"What were your scores?"
"The scores from when I first came here? Before I studied?"
"What were they?"
A cold blast of air caught Benzan from the side, pushing him to fall over the side of the bridge. He braced himself—there was no danger to actually fall, not for one of such stock—but the cold of it made him shiver, and that made his battered body hurt anew. He was exhausted, and thirsty, and tired, and never in his life could he have imagined that his ruler, Galavar himself, would be standing before him at the top of Galadrim in the twilight of the Sheer, at the end of the day of battle, asking him about academic tests. But Benzan was too tired and bewildered even to be curious, so he simply answered.
"Thirty-nine and eighty-nine."
Galavar's body sprang into motion. He had made up his mind about something, though Benzan could only imagine what.
"Come. Let's get inside and away from this blasted day."
* * *
FROM THE OUTSIDE GALADRIM WAS A MEGALITH, unified of figure…but the fortress interior was like another world—like many other worlds, cobbled together in a constellation of stones hung under great celestial spars. With its ramps and meandering walls, and terraces that looked down or up onto other spaces, and its nooks and edges and curves that spanned multiple rooms at a time, the fortress revealed to the untrained eye neither discrete floors nor obvious wings. The word Benzan thought of was audacious, to build such fancy into solid stone.
It was almost a jumble. Most perplexing to him was that the hallways often simply ended, whereupon Galavar would lead them through a room, or several rooms, before emerging into another hallway. There seemed to be no proper arteries here, no clear way to move between places, which only added to the impenetrability of the place.
And there were other conventions missing. The air was comfortably warm, but absent were any fireplaces or heating vents. There were few supporting pillars to be found in the many large, open spaces, as if the ceilings minded no weight. And absent were the windows, for the fortress was vast and much of it simply had no proximity to the outside world. Thereby did Galadrim turn inward upon itself, declaring its own realities.
Taken all together, the fortress was hard to make sense of and Benzan was in no mood to try. Yet its perplexity also gave it a compelling quality that he enjoyed. Before today he had never glimpsed the inside of this place, nor had he had the time today—being in combat, after all—to appreciate its oddities. He didn't really have time now either, for Galavar was setting quite a pace, but Benzan couldn't stop himself from looking around and being intrigued.
Galadrim was richly decorated, handsomely appointed—all of it. There was nothing austere, and despite its name the fortress was really more of a palace. Most rooms had luscious carpets, some now plastered in grime or soaked in entrails. Fine furniture lay all about, all neatly arranged, except in a few spaces where the fighting had led to everything being strewn about. The fortress was a living space, and a working space, and a leisure space—all spaces together—and though they entered no private apartments Benzan could see the telltales of the people who dwelt here, or had dwelt here, before today. He could see the echoes of their lives, and he wondered where they were now.
Even more impressive than the furniture was the artwork. There were canvas paintings, tile mosaics, freestanding sculptures, and mounted prizes of every kind, from clockwork to maps, but the most constant fixtures in the castle were the murals painted almost everywhere, along with the occasional carved relief. They adorned floors, doors, ceilings, railings, walls, wainscots, furniture…everything. They were great and small, humble and flamboyant, in size and subject matter and artistic ambition. Benzan wasn't worldly enough to identify most of what he saw, but he caught a few titles and captions, and from reading them he realized that these artworks collectively showed scenes from all over the world. Presumably, then, he was beholding not fantasy but history.
Like the wild creatures of the desert these drawings had no readily apparent theme. They weren't all depictions of battles or coronations or other glories, though some were. Most were more mundane than that. In an anteroom Benzan saw a mural of a small wooden boat on a sunny lake, and a lamppost rising from the boat before curving back down again to shine upon its sole occupant, a fishermate. In a workshop Benzan saw a mural of a bustling marketplace with ancient stone arches and columns piled all around, and vines and flowers ascendant upon them. In a broad stairway he saw a painted relief of a rolling, bushy plain in the light of the Golden Hour.
Benzan was quite certain these many illustrations had been created by many different people. The styles differed widely. The subjects had little in common. Yet they existed together in helical harmony, composing some great ecosystem, each layer resting upon the one below it, until the bottommost one supported the top again; the helix without end. Perhaps this grand collection of art was deliberate, unlike the raw and unguided desert outside the fortress. Or perhaps, like so many a serendipitous desert masterpiece, it had simply come to be.
The paintings kept appearing, so much that they finally penetrated Benzan's fatigue to stir at his curiosity. At a quiet length of corridor, where Benzan hoped not to interrupt, he asked Galavar what the desert could never be asked: Why?
"These murals are called the Dedications," replied Galavar, pointing as they passed it to a scene of a ravinder being born in the late spring snow upon a thicket, "same as the ones in the city itself. You've seen those, I trust?"
"The Dedications are the firsthand accounts of the Galan people, a people of immigrants and explorers and dreamers, who came to Gala on the promise that one day Gala would come to them. These illustrations are their account of events they witnessed in their past lives, before coming here, or depict the folktales they remember from their homelands. A great many people live and work in Galadrim, and countless more have visited from the city, and it is a custom to invite them to commission a mural, if they desire.
"You fought today," he continued. "You laid it all on the line for yourself and Gala, and soon you will aid me further. If the opportunity arises, I should gladly welcome you to contribute an account of your own."
Benzan couldn't think of anything worth putting up on a wall.
"Thank you," he said.
What stood out best about the depths of Galadrim was how well-lit it all was. There were lights everywhere, not ordinary oil flames but translimenal lamps—and strong ones. They cast a steady, rich yellow-orange luster on everything…on the luscious red carpets and the finely carved walls with their murals and reliefs. Some lights bathed the whole space. Others were pointed in certain directions for a focused effect. All the lights, except those damaged, were lit. Benzan did not see a single unlit lamp, anywhere. Was it supposed to be that way, or did it have to do with the invasion?
There were many such questions that Benzan could have put to Galavar, and surely Galavar possessed all the answers. But Benzan refrained. His curiosity was not especially strong, and he was considerably more anxious about overstepping himself and upsetting the great Meretange.
And fairly, for he and Galavar were not alone in the Great Fortress. Far from it. The rich translimenal lights shone best of all on the people here. People were everywhere, in nearly every room and passage, thick, thick. In these very spaces had the invasion of the Hero of Davoranj stopped…or been stopped…and the legacies of battle were nowhere better told than in the people who still lingered about. Many of the mates he saw were dead, and in particular Benzan noticed no living Davoranjans. Were they all slaughtered? Or were there prisoners, rounded up somewhere?
Of the living, some lay fasciate and incapacitated; some sat in a daze. Benzan could relate to them the best. Others were running, or hauling things—debris, equipment, buckets of water, injured mates, or bodies. The remainder stood huddled in furious conferences with one another, their forms animated by frenzied body language. And all of them, all the people who yet endured in the halls of Galadrim, their voices mingled together like the din at the Mercade, into a clouded soup of excitement and misery. It was a strange sound, because it had an urgency to it that the market did not, and that same trepid note sounded wherever he went. But it was still a din, for Benzan could hear so many words that in fact he could hear none at all, and, so, except for the occasional shout that rose above the furor, Benzan could only make out people's actual words as he passed close by them, and then they were agarble again. He passed dozens of snippets of conversation this way, meaningless half-sentences and opaque revelations, the world whirring by him without sense. He was a traveler in the land of the fleeting hour, and if any one person could soak it all up, and embody the spirit of this place in this moment, it was not Benzan.
Benzan himself may as well have been invisible, but every mate they passed took note of Galavar. Many nodded or offered a brief greeting, or salute, or commiseration, or a question of doubt and desperation, and Galavar always nodded back, or saluted, or offered a cursory clasp of the shoulder, often with an added word of encouragement. My people, he had called them. Those two words had a different meaning for the holder of the Meretange. To Benzan it was a phrase of belonging. My people. To Galavar it was something else. Not quite words of possession, for Galavar was not a king, but not words of belonging either.
Cordialities aide, nobody seriously interrupted Galavar, and Galavar never slowed from his frenetic walk. Everyone could see in his purposeful stride that he was going somewhere—not just down the hallway but into destiny. Whatever his destination, each mate of the fortress didn't want to be the one to stand in his path. Benzan sympathized with them; he certainly wouldn't dare stand in Galavar's way either.
But of course he already had. In his stupor he had done exactly that, back on the tower bridge. That's why he was here at Galavar's side now. Were Galavar of a crueler disposition, he could have easily shoved Benzan off that bridge, sending him for a plummet and a sleep. Yet instead this, and to Benzan how strange it was that the master of Gala had taken under his wing such a minor creature as himself. Not that Benzan thought ill of himself, but he knew that he was nobody important in a place like this. Were the losses really so bad, then, that mates like him would be made retainers to no less a figure than Galavar, the Meretange? The young mate expected at any moment for Galavar to give him some simple task, some broom to sweep with, and tell him to be gone…but, floor after floor through the fortress, the moment never came.
At length Galavar began to hum, quietly and under his breath. It sounded absentminded, which seemed odd for one as purposeful as Galavar. Benzan didn't recognize the tune, but it sounded mournful, and he hoped that what Galavar had shown him on the bridge, of the city below in ruin, and the death that lay all around him now, was not the portent of the future.
Every once in a while, usually in the lounges and courts, Galavar and Benzan would pass by a freestanding room, complete with its own ceiling. These looked like small booths, fragile and crafted for comfort and social sitting. There were similar aedes in the city, but Benzan had never thought to ask anyone about their purpose. Their presence here, however, was more conspicuous, and so once again Benzan dared ask why.
"Ah, good," Galavar chuckled, interrupting his humming. "You are beginning to tease out a theme."
But he didn't say any more.
Galavar's reply sounded distracted. "Those are telling rooms. They're for telling stories. Surely you've heard of them."
"Heard of them, yes. I just didn't know this is what they look like."
"You've been here four years and didn't know? Well…now you know, and mark my words you'll notice them everywhere from here on."
"Why have separate rooms just for telling stories?"
"There's a saying I learned long ago: 'Never apologize for farting on the toilet.'"
"It's not as if stories can't be told anywhere, but it elevates them in the eyes of society to give them a room of their own. It teaches people that there is a room where no one need ever apologize for telling stories."
They passed into a long corridor with no turns, which finally emerged into an empty place that looked like some kind of office, piled high with desks and papers. There were no bodies here, no wreckage, and, for a change, very few people. The murals were still all around them, as elsewhere, but in rooms like these, devoid of living people, the art seemed haunting, and in the emptiness Benzan thought of his beloved Celeste, and wondered how she was doing.
Celeste, where are you tonight?
Would you have lived if you had come to Gala with me? Or would you have died today? Is this why you stayed behind? Did the Gods protect you through your own stubbornness?
I wish you were here.
If the Galance Ideal held fast, Benzan would see her again, someday. Someday Gala would come to Ictier. It wasn't so far away a land, not at all.
"May I ask a question?"
Galavar didn't reply at first, and Benzan began to wonder if he had misspoken—or asked too many questions. In Ictier he would never have dared address a member of the nobility unsolicited, let alone the loin himself, but in Gala it was customary for anyone to speak to anyone—even if that anyone was Galavar. Supposedly. Benzan had never tried it before. And this was an extraordinary occasion, and Galavar clearly had a lot on his mind. Just as Benzan was deciding that he should keep quiet from now on, the response came:
Benzan hesitated, then blurted "Are we going to abandon the Galance Ideal?"
Galavar grabbed him by the arm and pulled him forward a half-pace, so that Benzan was exactly abreast. Galavar didn't slow his pace, not even a hair, but turned and looked sternly at him.
"That is what I am about to decide."
Galavar released his grasp, and his head turned forward again.
"What does Sourros say?"
"It is a common misperception that Sourros guides my every thought. In fact Sourros has had little to say to me today." Galavar scowled. "Disturbingly little."
The hallway emerged into another lounge. There seemed to be a lot of lounges here on the upper floors, or maybe it was an artifact of the indecipherable route that Galavar was leading them along. This particular lounge was filled with fluffy chairs and low tables, and a number of people were present, drawn together in a conference.
These mates were different from the rest. Like most everybody else, they wore makeshift bandages and tattered armor, and were covered in grime and spatters, but there was something more regal about them, something finer. At first he puzzled at it, but in a moment the answer came to him: These people emanated the air of command. Benzan didn't know how to read Galan army rank insignia, but judging by the number of adornments these were clearly senior people, and at the sight of Galavar one of them rose to his feet and saluted while his colleagues looked on—perhaps too weary to stand for the sake of protocol, or perhaps senior enough that it wasn't necessary.
"Galavar," said the mate.
Galavar came to a sudden stop. But Benzan was ready, and stopped in tandem.
"At last. Where is my Guard?"
"I don't know. Reports are that General DeLatia is on the lower floors still."
"What about Arderesh?"
"I don't know about any of the others."
"What are you working on now?"
"Orders from Commander Diva. We've been moving a lot of the wounded up here, because the lower floors are in such a mess. We're also ordered to take stock of who's still alive and where we all are. Everybody's badly dispersed. Units are broken up. Civilians are everywhere. The middle levels of the command structure have collapsed. DeLatia is trying to cobble it all back together."
"How bad are your losses?"
"In my own personal staff," said the mate, gesturing to the people around him, "not bad, and I'm optimistic that some of my missing mates are still alive somewhere. Losses in my wider command however are much higher, and in general they're even—"
"Let's leave the generalities to our general."
He nodded once. "Of course."
"Who around here will know where my Guard is?"
"Try the Awn Gallery. What's her name is there."
Galavar's brow shot up. "'What's her name'?"
"One of the field commanders. I don't know her name. I'm sorry."
Another of the officers spoke up and said, "Her name is Crescens."
Galavar nodded, and without a single valedictory word resumed his journey, even faster than before, now jogging outright. Benzan took a deep breath and grudgingly hurried after him. Galavar wasn't all that much taller than Benzan, yet his gait was somehow far longer, and Benzan nearly had to run in order to keep up. He was strong, but running was not his strength, and, since he was already as tired as he could remember ever feeling, the running soured his mood instantly. He focused on his breathing and tried to take some more interest in the fortress' surroundings, but at this speed all he could do was wallow in his aches and try to keep breathing evenly. His anger began to rise.
They left the lounge through a different hallway from the one they had entered by, and after they'd moved safely beyond any possible hearing from the people back there, Benzan frowned and said, "Can we slow down?"
Once again Galavar didn't reply at first, but then,
"That's the first pluck you've shown since I nearly ran you over at the bridge. Good."
But he didn't say anything beyond that.
"Was it wrong of me to ask?" Benzan finally dared.
"No. An honest voice is always preferable to a lying silence." He shook his head and growled. "But we can't slow down at the moment. However, I shall aid you."
Though Galavar made no outward movement, Benzan immediately began to feel his heart slow and his lungs ease. Suddenly the jogging felt as effortless as walking. As the labor of it subsided, so too did his irritation, though in its place crept the exhaustion that had been there before.
"Hang together. We haven't far to go, and the sack is in your hand."
It was truth, for soon they emerged into a gallery with low-ceilings and dark wooden support beams everywhere. Wood was a rarity in Sele, and it was strange to see so much of it. Suddenly the brightly-lit fortress seemed more like a riverboat, claustrophobic and dark. Such boats traveled the waterways of Ictier. He hadn't thought of them in years.
The walkway opened up into several aisles, each extremely narrow, and the ceilings were low, so that the mood of the place to Benzan was that of being below decks on one of those boats. In between the aisles were deep and backless shelves, through which he could see into the other aisles. All the shelves were empty; there was no sign at all of what kind of storage they served. The purpose of this room eluded him completely.
Galavar maintained his jog, even though the walkway was so narrow that the walls brushed against his elbows. Benzan, being bulkier in frame, had to pull his arms in front of him to avoid outright crashing them.
Then the aisles ended, and opened up into a large, round space with a boardwalk floor and plank walls, and a conical ceiling of beams. At the vertex burned a small purple flame, upside down, taking the shape of a ball.
And there were people here. As soon as Benzan saw them, Galavar cried
Galavar came to a halt and knelt down beside a slight-statured mate who lay on the ground with his head in a doctor's lap. People attended all around him.
That was the mate who had come to Ictier years ago and offered Benzan a new life. Jemis Finick, a Guard of Galavar. Some people called him the Trickster. He was the most powerful numeneer in all of Gala, and Benzan's personal savior.
"Gally boy," Jemis said weakly. He held out his left hand toward Galavar, who clasped it instantly and held it close to his chest.
"How bad is it? You don't look injured."
One of the doctors replied, "He didn't take any wounds, but he's in numenate shock."
"Poisoned by all my hand-waving and blather," Jemis croaked.
"You did too much."
Jemis tried to speak, but coughed and then gasped. He tried again, more quietly:
"There is no such thing. I did…just barely enough."
Galavar looked at the head attending doctor.
"Will he live?"
"Oh, yes. Almost certainly."
Galavar gave an audible sigh of relief. "How bad, then?"
The doctor frowned. "This is severe numenate shock. It's life-altering, the equivalent of a non-lethal heart attack. He needs exclusive rest for…well, until the solstice at least."
"I said he's going to live, but that doesn't mean he didn't very nearly just die. To minimize permanent damage to his health and vitality, he needs to rest."
Galavar looked down at Jemis, who seemed to be drifting in and out of consciousness, and then back up at the doctor.
"Can you get him more alert and out to the Western Veranda for a conference? Do we even still have a Western Veranda, or did those bicking invaders sack it?"
The doctor flashed Galavar an exasperated look, but replied:
"A stretcher is already on its way here. If you want I can get him to the Veranda—and that's assuming it's not on fire or something, which I don't know anything about—and I can perk him up a little, but please go easy on him. No physical exertion whatsoever."
Galavar's new sigh was a frustrated one. "Agreed," he rasped. "Send all the other Guards there too, if you see them before I do. Tell others to pass word along."
"One more thing. I was told that Crescens is around somewhere. Did you see her?"
"I don't know."
"She's dead," said one of the attending nurses, with an angry look in his eyes.
"I was just told otherwise," Galavar said.
"No, I saw her myself. She's dead. They cut her head off."
Benzan expected Galavar to react to that, but the Meretange leaped right to his next question.
"What about my other Guards? Have any of you seen them?"
"I heard Zirin was badly wounded down in the Relodroade," replied the nurse. "Heavy casualties there. Doctor Trevestes and her team were en route two hours ago."
Now a look of horror did wash over Galavar's face. He tried to shake it off, but succeeded only in contorting his features. He looked back down at Jemis and released the Guard's hand.
"I have to go. The sele of the evening to you, my friend."
"…Not finished…fighting yet…"
"Your work today is done. I'll see you soon."
"Done? Then you're going to love…my victory speech," Jemis said sleepily, not really looking at anything. "I'm going to talk for nine hours. Did he say…something about Zirin?…"
As Galavar rose and departed, Benzan reflected on how small Jemis truly was. His neck-length red hair lay listlessly behind him, and below that sprawled an asthenic and exhausted body. Benzan tended to remember Jemis as being larger than life, befitting of a savior, but the Jemis lying on the floor before him now looked quite different.
Benzan turned and ran after the Meretange of Gala, down a different series of narrow aisles with empty shelves.
As they ran down another corridor together, Benzan asked, "What was he doing in that place? What even is that place?"
"The Awn Gallery is sheltered from the Power of the Gods. It is a center of healing and retreat. Beyond it you would have found a place called the Awn Lighthouse. That is where Jemis fought today. If you could have seen it, I think your gorge would have leapt."
Galavar stopped in his tracks.
Maris Diva was dripping in blood—literally it was still dripping off of her body, and pools of it had caught in the envelopes of her armor, and filled her boots. Benzan could tell that she wore a red uniform, but it was hard to say what shade of red it might have been before all that blood.
"Fet," she said coolly, cracking the thinnest of smiles at the sight of the Meretange. "We lived."
"We did at that!" said Galavar. They drew together and embraced, and as they withdrew lines of sticky entrails strung between them like melted cheese. Galavar pounded her on her thickly muscled shoulder, and laughed. "Well done!"
But her body language didn't reciprocate. She pursed her lips and clenched her cheeks.
"I'm not going to be the one to say it, Galavar," said Diva, "but let me be the one to say it. We're fucked."
Galavar's smile fled, and he fell still.
"We're going to war after this, of course," she continued, "and I'm sure we've lost more than half the army—and that's the army from this morning, not the much bigger one we were scheduled to have six years from now when the war was supposed to commence. Don't even get me started on the city out there, and the state of our military workshops and stockpiles." She looked up at him abruptly, with angry eyes. "And my soldiers. I trust you heard that Gartan Rock was completely razed?"
"Well, I just got a preliminary report on the death toll. Virtually every one of my cadets who wasn't already out of there by noon was burned to death in the siege."
She didn't curse. The fury in her face, and the stiffness of her body, said it for her.
Galavar didn't answer, and her furious silence filled the whole room. Benzan didn't dare say a word. And there was no one else; it was an empty corridor, a chance encounter between the ruler of Gala and the second-in-command of his army.
"Where's my Guard?" he finally asked. "We're headed down to the Relodroade. I heard Zi is there."
"You're too late. She's dead."
"What was she even doing there!" Galavar snapped. "Zirin's no fighter."
"Everyone took up arms today," Diva replied flatly.
Benzan tapped Galavar's arm meekly and nodded, "Everyone."
"And she did what she was supposed to do, for that," added Diva. "She rallied the ranks."
"What about the rest of them? Where's Arderesh? Where's Silence?"
"Them I don't know about. Lilit is in command on the lower levels, still trying to push the stuffing back into the bird. It's every bit as messy down there as you saw earlier, and worse."
"What are you doing here by yourself?"
"We're out of runners. I dispatch people as soon as I see them. I can't afford a retinue."
"What is your status?"
"I'm in command up here. Right now I'm trying to coordinate an emergency roll call. Lilit wants to know who's alive and what units are operational."
Galavar's voice was all iron. "Have someone get down below and tell DeLatia I want a conference of the Guard on the Western Veranda right now—herself included. Take overall command of this operation from her. Tell the other Guards to get there too, if you see them. In fact send someone to find each of them. Jemis I've already taken care of, and if Zirin's dead then so be it, but the rest I want to see now."
"I hope the lot of you can figure out a miracle," Diva said.
"This is Gala. We don't resort to miracles."
"I'm telling you this myself, as the hardest of the hardliners in the High Command, but Lilit will say the same thing when you see her: There is no military solution—not right now, not for the foreseeable future. If you march on Davoranj we'll be slaughtered by their remaining armies." Diva lowered her voice, as if embarrassed, and added, "We'll go wherever you send us, Galavar, but we'll die and won't win you anything."
"Understood," Galavar said icily. "How do we stand in dead?"
"Military fatalities are running at four out of ten; they'll rise. Debilitating injuries are also running four of ten. The reserves are almost wiped out, though my regular troops are in better shape. The civilian casualties, I don't even want to talk about. Just about everybody we activated in the emergency civil defense militias this morning is dead. All the rest are either going to die in the next couple of days, or will live on only as cripples.
"And the bicking children!" Red spit flew from her mouth. "I gave the scarves to put weapons in the hands of twenty-year-olds, eighteen-year-olds. I'll get most of my weapons back, eventually, but maybe you can ask that God of ours to resurrect some of the Galan people to wield them."
"Calm yourself, Maris."
Diva took a breath, and then let out a huge sigh. Her whole body slumped.
"I need a slug of Deshat's."
To Benzan's surprise Galavar produced a flask from his person and handed it to her. She hesitated, staring down at it in his hand as though her mind couldn't figure out what was even happening, until finally, tentatively, she took it in her own right hand.
"Don't drink it all in one place," said Galavar. "You're working tonight."
"I'm sorry about Zi."
"Relance is going to be sorry about Zi. She was our emissary…the one who would bring the nations to our side…heart, mind, spirit, and spark. Even if we had a full military, I don't know what we're going to do without her. I just hope most of her people on the Civil Council are still alive."
Diva opened the flask. The lid and flask were shiny metal, and gave a satisfying ringing sound as she unstopped it. Sweet to the ear, just like Deshat promised in his advertising slogans. Diva sniffed the contents, recoiling from the strong fumes, and had a swig.
She exhaled, twitched, and said, "Most of the Civil Council is dead too. So are most of her staff and personnel. The way Rennem got into the Fortress…we weren't expecting it so fast. Lots of civilians caught in the fray. Most of Zirin's people were civilians too. They had been working in their departments this morning and tried to fall back when the Davoranjans got in, but they only made it as far as the Relodroade—and we got wiped out there. Galavar. The people best suited to replace Zirin…the Swayfire found them."
Galavar stood there frozen, like a statue, except up close Benzan could see him trembling slightly, both fists clenched.
Then he turned to leave.
Benzan began to follow him when Galavar stopped all of a sudden. With his back to Diva he said, "Thank you for keeping us together today, Commander." He turned around again. "Let me face you when I say that. I couldn't be more proud. Whatever happens tomorrow…at least there's going to be a tomorrow."
She gave him that thin smile again. Benzan couldn't tell what she meant by it. And then, for lack of any further reply from her, Galavar turned away again and left.
Benzan followed a moment after, and as he left he heard Diva say, from under her breath and to no one in particular, "I too was at Kesk Kedeer…"
And from the corner of his eye he saw her raise the flask, tilt back her head, and drink.
* * *
ZIRIN ALORYANE, fourth of the six Guards of Galavar, had died in the narthex of a place called the Relodroade, which turned out to be an intimate auditory…a place suited for music and poetry, but now converted to a morgue. Blood and gore were absolutely everywhere, even on the ceilings. Inside the auditory itself were cushioned chairs, which had all been hastily pushed to the walls and the room since piled with bodies. The auditory floor sloped downward toward them—Benzan figured the performance stage was directly above the narthex—and the blood flowed down along the incline, toward them, past Benzan's feet, on into the lobby, and from there to places unknown.
Benzan dwelled for a moment on the sight of it. Twice in his life, his father had taken him to the deathly fields to tend to the wounded and killed of a battle. And his father had said to him, on the first of those two awful days, A viutar's blood is the most precious liquid you'll ever see. Try and remember that. Now, once again, here was a whole river of it…and frankly it was hard to think of anything so plentiful as being precious.
At the center of the narthex was a large basin of stone sitting upon the floor, filled with a pool of lightly red water not more than a hand's length deep. Next to that pool lay Zirin, or what had once been Zirin. Benzan had never seen her up close, but as with all the Guards she had made many public appearances, and he recognized her.
Parts of her body were mutilated, some hacked off. Her face was relatively intact, but only the right side of it. Benzan could imagine the killing moment. All day the Guards of Galavar had filled the enemy with fear, seemingly invincible at every step. Galavar had said Zirin wasn't a fighter, but that couldn't have been true, not with the way the Guard's presence had loomed today, and Benzan couldn't imagine that the Black Armor would ever accept a weakling to begin with. And so, when one of the vaunted Guard finally did fall, Benzan could imagine a dozen Davoranjan warriors leaping at her to make sure the deed was surely done, and to lay claim to the boast of doing it.
Now she was gone, and the fabled Black Armor torn like cloth.
The scene among the living was just as sad. At Zirin's side a young mate sat stone-faced on the cobalt-tiled floor, leaning listlessly against the black slate basin. Farther away, on each side of the pool, two young soldiers stood at stiff attention, an honor guard, their bodies pointed at each other and the fallen Zirin between them. Two, more senior soldiers stood in quiet conversation nearby. And, off in the corner upon a shattered wooden crate, there sat a slightly older, slightly paunchy mate crying quietly. Benzan recognized who it was just as Galavar said his name.
This silently bawling wreck of a mate was Arderesh Valeran, Captain Lieutenant of the Guard of Galavar, and second in authority over Gala. He was Galavar's dearest friend, friend of all the people of Sele, and Benzan had met him several times. Resh was incredibly genial, and gentle.
Galavar ran up to him and knelt beside the broken box, heedless of the sharp shrapnel its splinters threatened.
Benzan, however, stayed back. Tears were streaming from Arderesh's face; it was everything the Guard could do to keep from sobbing uncontrollably. Benzan knew that look, that feeling, and gave the mate his space.
"Resh," said Galavar, "oh, I'm so sorry. I know you were closest to Zi."
Resh shook his head, his graying black moustache drenched with tears.
"Not Zi," he said. "My wife…"
The two senior officers broke off their whispered conversation. One left on her way, while the other walked up to Galavar and said, softly, "Captain Valeran was informed just moments ago that his wife and son were killed in the city today."
Galavar looked up at the officer, then back at Resh, and without a word moved in and hugged him tightly. Resh hugged Galavar back with a single, halfhearted arm, and began to cry more loudly. The Guard was trying to compose himself—but it wasn't to be.
"I just…need a moment…" he tried to say.
Galavar didn't reply. He just embraced his friend, and waited, while Benzan studied the details of the armor on Galavar's back. It wasn't just "black armor" but the Black Armor, a supple suit of armor bestowed by God himself—one of only seven such treasures in all of Gala, a suit each for Galavar and his Guards. Up close the Black Armor looked to be made of thousands of tiny, dark gray, interlocking rings, with some kind of jet black lining underneath. But it didn't look like any other mail Benzan had ever seen. It looked, hung, and flowed like a soft fabric. There were dozens of intricate patterns incorporated into the ringwork, and Benzan tried to focus on these patterns as Arderesh spoke.
"I was in here," Resh said, in haggard breaths. "I saw Zirin and…I was okay." He stopped to suck in the snot. "Then they told me about…my wife and son…and I was okay. It hadn't hit me. Right? Then I looked at Zi again, and…and—"
Resh lost it, and three unforgettable howls of misery escaped him before he could find the discipline to quiet himself again.
Benzan's efforts to concentrate on Galavar's armor failed, and he found himself staring at Arderesh. The Captain of the Guard had taken a good beating today, just like everyone else. His own Black Armor was dinged and soiled, and his face and right hand were cut. And his tears…they were far from the first tears Benzan had seen in the hours of late. The ones that haunted him most deeply had come during the afternoon, from a soldier Benzan's own age, a fallen fighter who had been scared to die but couldn't stop it.
He couldn't shake the feeling that he was intruding on a private moment, so Benzan turned away from Resh—back to the bloodied remains of Zirin.
She had been a little bigger of frame than tiny Jemis, though nearly as thin, and quite a slight person on the whole. Benzan began to question her power after all. How could anyone that small even hold a weapon, let alone live by it? How could she have rallied the troops like Diva said?
For some reassurance, Benzan looked over at the remaining senior officer and quietly asked, "Did she fight well?"
"Fiercely," said the officer without hesitation. Then he added, with just enough quiet restraint in his voice not to interrupt Galavar and Arderesh, "Don't ask that question of the fallen again."
Being chastised just made Benzan indignant, but the officer's air daunted him, so more humbly he asked: "How did she die?"
"I wasn't here. Everyone who saw her die, also died. It was a massacre. Even the Davoranjans who won this skirmish were wiped out on the next two floors."
The officer—Benzan asked his name and he said Arripapan—had a stern face and a measured voice, as though his nature were to kill everybody and only a nobility of character held that instinct in line. He was the epitome of everything Benzan had been taught about martial honor as a boy, from the stories of the great armies of old, and not at all reminiscent of the gaudy Ictierii inhabers and their seasonal armies of hideous peasant conscripts. Gala's egalitarian military included all sorts, but the ones like this Arripapan, to Benzan, came closest to the essence of a soldier.
Benzan pointed to the stone-faced young mate sitting beside Zi, and said, "Who's that?"
"His name is Colee," said the officer.
Colee wasn't much older than Benzan. He hadn't noticed it at first, not in that catatonic face. But now, stealing a furtive glance, as though it were a crime even to look upon such ruin, Benzan realized he and Colee were probably quite close in age after all.
"Keeper Aloryane was his spark sponsor," Arripapan explained.
"He's one of her civil servants—and a friend of my daughter's—but he suffers from an incurable form of depression. Keeper Aloryane let him draw on her spark, as a source of hope and acceptance, and togetherness."
"I didn't know such a thing was possible."
"But because of that, her death was too traumatic for him, and now he'll die in the next hour or two. Such are the powers of the Golden Sway."
Benzan looked at Arripapan, then down at Colee again.
"And you're here…to be here when…"
Arripapan nodded once. "No one should die without a friend beside them."
"I…" Benzan began, and was surprised when his voice failed him. He tried again, "I could use an encouraging word."
Arripapan lifted up Benzan's chin in his hand, and looked him in the eyes. The meeting of the eyes was a common custom in Gala, one Benzan had never gotten used to. The face Benzan saw before him was middle aged, but the skin tightly drawn and nearly free of wrinkles, and the eyelids tautly open.
"If you have a spark of your own, then what you've seen today will stay with you, always, Benzan. If you have the choice, you can either let it strengthen you, or destroy you."
"If I have the choice?"
"Most people do. But the memory of war is hard to live with. Not everyone can, and there are some casualties yet to come."
Benzan withdrew and angrily, but quietly and through gritted teeth, complained, "I said an encouraging word."
"Courage," said the officer, "comes from knowing the value of things. That's what I'm telling you. Our brothers and sisters died today to protect Gala. And together we helped them succeed. So long as Gala endures, their sacrifice means something. To me, that is encouragement for a lifetime."
Benzan pondered it, but it struck him as some damn riddle and the only insight that came to him was how tired he was. So he gestured back at Zirin, and asked, "How did they pierce the Black Armor? It's supposed to be invincible."
It was Galavar who replied.
"With weapons like Aghnagos."
Benzan looked over and saw that Galavar had returned to his feet. He held up the legendary Hero's Staff that Rennem had wielded, and which Galavar had carried all this way.
"We may ask, 'How?'" Galavar walked toward Benzan and Arripapan, stepping slowly, taking his time. His ambling gait was a handsome one, pensive and sturdy.
"A tree may resist the strongest gale," said Galavar, "and people may deem it invincible, but that doesn't mean it can't be chopped down. The Black Armor gives way to those who know it for what it is."
More riddles. Worse, Galavar had a grave look in his face that unsettled Benzan.
"I don't know what that means."
"Benzan, the hour of destiny is upon you. Are you tired?"
"Then I will revive you."
Again Galavar made no apparent movement, but almost at once Benzan's mind became sharper. The aches in his muscles diminished. The fever in his blood cooled. And the brutal urge to sleep…simply vanished. He was still tired, but it was of a bearable sort now.
"Such reinforcement comes only with great exertion, taking away from me more than it adds to you," said Galavar, "or else I would grant you much fuller relief. Alack, that I am not as young as I used to be."
Galavar didn't look tired at all, to Benzan's eyes, but the young mate took him at his word.
When Galavar finally closed the distance between them, he held up the staff.
"Aghnagos, Benzan. Behold it."
It was a fat staff of lightly shaded wood—seemingly wood—with a deep crook at the end. And fairly short for a staff, no longer than Benzan's full arm.
"Its name means 'Babe's Protection.' It is imbued with the Power of Derishos, Goddess of Compassion, and for generations it was wielded by the Hero of Davoranj in war. Look at it closely. Can you see what its power is?"
Arripapan looked upon it too. Benzan furrowed his brow, putting his revived alertness to work trying to understand what Galavar meant. He stared at the staff, touched it, and finally took it from Galavar and held it, even tentatively swinging it around a couple of times. But its power eluded him.
"The Will of the Gods is mysterious. The power that they grant to us is seldom without purposes that are withheld from us. The Black Armor, which I and my Guards wear in battle, is also imbued with divine strength—the Power of Sourros.
"It troubles me," he went on, "to see Zirin's armor broken and the Hero's Staff in its enemy's grasp, even if I am that enemy. It troubles me when the Power of the Gods collides. And it troubles me that it is always we, the Kindred, who bear the cost."
Arripapan was listening too, as were the two young soldiers standing at attention. But Galavar remained focused solely on Benzan.
"In Gala," said Galavar, "the Gods are our mentors, not our deities. Respectfully," he said to Arripapan. "Some of us may worship them, but greater within each of us is the calling of Asash Rhya, the drive to become better than we are, to become wise, and fulfill our potential in the Relance—on our own merits. We are not the helpless pets of the Gods. We are their finest creation, capable in our own right.
"We are a people of noble ambitions, we Galans especially, and here in Gala we will forge our own destiny. We, and not the Gods, will go out into the world and touch the very relance itself, and shape it to our dreams. We, and not the Gods, will create the future we so desire, and deliver it to Kindred and Yondred alike, if not in this generation then the next.
"That is the Galance Ideal in abstract. We will not depend on the gifts and graces of the Gods. We will use them, but we will not depend on them. We will depend on ourselves, and each other. In your time here, would you not say that you have seen with your own eyes how we strive for that?
"No, you needn't answer," Galavar interjected, cutting off his own question. "It's not a fair question, coming from me. But Benzan, I do have a very important question that I want you to answer. The Galance Ideal: Will you die for it?"
"Yes, good. I don't want a blind response. I want you to be cognizant of what I am asking."
Benzan wracked his wits, which churned much more easily now that his mind wasn't so sluggish.
"I didn't come to Sele to die," Benzan began. "I suppose many of the people who died today would have said the same thing…and they died anyway. So…that's how it will be with me. I'll do what I have to do to uphold Gala, and if I die then I die, but I don't want to die. I'll take the risk because I don't want the world of Ictier to last any longer. I wish I could have been born here."
"So do I."
"But it wasn't to be."
"No it wasn't. But we'll make some good out of the world as it is. I tell you this, Benzan: Soon we will part, and when I see you again…you will be a Guard of Galavar."
Benzan gasped, and every living head in the room, save Colee, turned curtly toward the Meretange.
"I don't believe it," said Benzan.
"Belief is a vice. You are better off without it."
"I know what you meant. But I do not jest. You don't have to believe anything. I am telling you. You will be a Guard of Galavar, if you survive your assession."
He reached out his right arm.
"Return the staff to me."
Benzan, speechless, handed Aghnagos back to him, and Galavar pointed the crook end at him.
"May the way of the Alcaring lead to the Eternal Light."
He shook the staff ever so slightly.
In the ensuing silence, Benzan couldn't believe he wasn't dreaming. He couldn't believe the fate that Galavar had just foretold of him. So, finally, for lack of anything more reasonable to do or say, he looked back down at Aghnagos and pointed at it.
"What did you do?" he said. "It doesn't seem that anything happened."
"Don't say 'seem,' Benzan. Don't lose your mind in what seems to be or what you believe to be. Say only what you know, and presume nothing more." Galavar smiled. "That's a lesson I had a hard time learning, when I was your age."
There was something different in his tone just then. Friendlier. And Benzan wondered what it was like, to rule a nation and speak in one's own mind to God, and lift ordinary nobodies up to the pinnacles of worldly power, like it were a trip to the restaurant.
Their eyes continued to meet for a moment longer, till at length Galavar returned to Arderesh, extending his left arm toward the mate.
"I need you, Resh. If you and Lilit and Silence and Gregor are still in the fight, then we have a chance."
By now Arderesh had calmed down, and though his eyes were still red his voice was clear, if quiet, when he said,
"By the main, Galavar."
And he sniffled, and took Galavar's hand, and pulled himself up to his feet.
"By the main," said Galavar.
Galavar turned around once more.
"Benzan, may I present Arderesh Valeran, Captain Lieutenant of my Guard. Resh, this is our newest protégé, Benzan."
"We've met, haven't we?" said Resh.
"Yes, a few times," Benzan replied. "I'd daresay you've met everybody in Sele."
"Almost," he smiled, and stared at Benzan, looking him up and down. "Fascinating. The next Guard of Galavar. I wouldn't have guessed."
"We'll discuss it soon," Galavar said to him. "For now keep it between us. I've summoned a meeting of the Guard, tonight, right now, but it's going to have to be more than that. I shall convene the Vardas Council."
Arderesh nodded thickly. "Yes, that makes sense."
Galavar flicked his eyes to Benzan. "Important things get decided at such gatherings. They are a rare occurrence."
"There's a lot to talk about," said Resh. "But we don't have time to gather everyone we need for the Vardas Council."
"Just the Guard of Galavar, this time, the way it was in the beginning. Before there even was a Guard, and you were all simply my friends."
He turned sharply to Benzan, then.
"But first, Benzan, there is somewhere I must take you. Come. Resh, you're with us."
"Gentlemates," Galavar said to the soldiers, "look on me. Zirin Aloryane was one of the most cherished mates in my life. If ever there was a meaning to the word kindred, there it lies. See that she is given her final respects. And see that you inform her husband Kestrel, if he's still alive, compassionately."
In a slightly broken unison they said, "Yes sir!"
Then he looked at Arripapan, and gestured to the broken figure on the floor.
"Major, I don't know Colee. But if you do, and if Zirin did, then he lived his life in good company."
"He's a fine mate…still just a kid."
"Was he born here?"
"No. Came with his father from the Middemesne, as a toddler."
"Sir," Arripapan added. "He wouldn't have lived this long, back there."
Galavar's smile was a delicate one, and for the first time Benzan saw a look of vulnerability in the ruler's face as he addressed his officer.
"It reminds me of the night I spent on the Ocean."
Then he turned to Colee and said, softly, "To Illum, Colee."
But young Colee did not reply.
Arripapan, though, nodded. Then Galavar withdrew, stepping backwards, and turned about the narthex, casting his head every which way, taking it all in, till finally resting his eyes once more on Zirin.
"Six melodies in your name," he said quietly. Then to no one in particular, he tilted back his head and said in a strong voice, not shouting, but loud and clear:
"Her name was Zirin Aloryane! Fill your eyes with her for a long time, then look away forever."
And he did.
What he didn't see was Colee, who had also turned his head to look at Zirin. Gently the young mate reached out a wavering right arm, and rested his hand on Zi's own.
Benzan looked at her too. There was no telling what Zirin's story truly was, not for the likes of Benzan. To him she had simply been some distant figure. But it wasn't lost on him that to Galavar she had been a fine and kindred friend, and that to Colee she had been a fountain of might and main. And who knew what else she had been? Dark, short hair. A few wrinkles here and there. Slim of figure, though full in the cheeks. Just a memory, now.
And when Benzan too looked away, Galavar nodded to him and to Resh, and left the narthex of the Relodroade, never once looking behind him.
* * *
God Will See You for What You Truly Are
THERE WAS A HALLWAY of some elegant principle, deep in the Fortress of Galadrim. It was long, level, and straight, with creamy orange marble floors and a darker orange carpet with gold foil embroidery that shimmered. And while the hallway wasn't all that broad it was handsomely tall. The walls stood proudly several times Benzan's own height, adorned with murals in stained glass lit from behind, and culminated in vaulted ceilings reminiscent of a great sanctuary. Fantastic chandeliers hung from these ceilings, illuminated with gently flickering lights that cast a rich and soaring glow over everything.
The fighting had been heavy here. Benzan jogged past bodies and dismembered parts, past fallen weapons and failed armors, even past a destroyed chandelier that was apparently worth as much as a mate's life—for under it lay a mate, crushed. In its sparkling rubble Benzan could make out a right hand, a right foot in a cracked Davoranjan boot, and a right flank that had burst open and was still wet with blood. In this grand passageway there should have been room for the three of them to go abreast, but for all the corpses they went in file instead, Benzan in the middle, and at times they had to slow down from their jog simply to navigate all the ruined flesh.
No one else was alive here, and the three of them were quiet, leaving their heavy breathing and footfalls to echo a lonely cadence. With Arderesh around, Benzan felt like a third leg, and couldn't bring himself to ask any of the countless questions that came to him, let alone the biggest question: Why? What could Galavar possibly be thinking, to make Benzan a Guard? It made no sense at all.
At length the dead bodies began to thin out and became increasingly Davoranjan. The dead here had taken many wounds to their backsides, and had fallen in a way that suggested the remaining Davoranjans had been trying to flee—or perhaps desperately charging—in the same direction that Galavar was heading now.
As Benzan pondered the fate that had been handed down to him, Resh asked a question:
"What are you going to do with Aghnagos?"
Growled Galavar, from over his shoulder, "I want to burn it."
"Will it even burn?"
"I don't know, and it hardly matters. It belongs to the Davoranjan people, and if there comes an opportunity to return it to them then it would be right to do so."
"I don't see how that's possible. There'll be war with them. We can't give them such a weapon."
"I have a plan to help us with that. For now, we'll keep it for our own use—in the Apex. Its power is a boon."
Then, a moment later, Galavar added, "I wonder how he's doing, or if he's even alive now."
"Boon, Saysh, all of them. I don't get out into the city enough. There's always so much work. I'm grateful that at least one of us finds a way to make time to interact with the people we're supposed to be leading."
"It helps that I'm Number Two rather than Number One."
"It does at that.
"Benzan," Galavar said suddenly, "the Guard is a very tightly-knit group. I apologize that we're talking back and forth literally straight through you, as though you were air. You're not air. My Guard and I, we've been fingers in a glove for half your lifetime—and some of us much longer than that. You're about twenty-five, right? Thirty?"
"It's a tightly-knit group, but not an impenetrable one. We've always known the day would come that one of us retires or falls away, and I want you to know that you'll be welcome among us. Probably not immediately, but soon enough. And you'll be intimidated at first, which is healthy, because you undoubtedly feel undeserving and unsuited to the task of being a Guard, but in time you'll learn and in time you'll earn the respect and friendship that no doubt feels very distant at this moment."
"I hope so," said Benzan. It was strange to hear such words of encouragement in the midst of a jog, from a mate whose back was turned to him. But they did have a comforting quality.
"Don't let it worry you. Take it one day at a time."
"There's something you can help me with now," Benzan replied. "You're right. I don't understand what I'm doing here. I shouldn't be a Guard. Can you explain it to me?"
"Not tonight. However, I expected your reaction, which is why I'm taking you this way before we go to the Veranda."
With those words, Galavar slowed to a gentle walk.
"And, lo, we've arrived. For the moment our running is done."
Ahead the hallway terminated in three shallowly rising steps and a threshold, beyond which lay a great room.
On the wall above the doorway there loomed something that reminded Benzan of a painting, but this was part of the wall itself. Gold-shaved leaves in a shapeless frame surrounded a polished block of black marble inlaid with a golden eye bigger than Benzan's head. The eye was surrounded by straight, thick lashes of gemstone, and made a neat oval. Galavar stopped and gestured to it.
"Do you recognize one of our most treasured symbols, Benzan?"
"It's the Eye of Sourros. But it isn't the real one, if I remember correctly. The real one is below the Fortress, in the Depths of Sourros."
"Good. However, even though this one is not the true Eye of Sourros, it is an Eye of Sourros, and no mere decoration. And don't be fooled that it points away from the chamber ahead, rather than inward. We are about to pass into a hallowed place. Chance has brought you to the heart of our fortress, where Davoranj should never have reached, and I see in fact that no Davoranjan did."
For indeed none of the crumpled bodies had made it this far.
Galavar climbed the shallow steps and stopped completely at the threshold of the great room, then turned around and regarded the young lad.
"Abandon your deceits, Benzan, and do not be afraid to cross to the other side."
"God will see you for what you truly are."
Arderesh was quiet, and now Benzan too. Galavar waved them through, taking up the rear, leaving Benzan in front.
Benzan emerged into a great hexagonal chamber, filled with a sourceless, calm, black-orange light that reminded him of a sunny sunset under stormy clouds, back in Ictier. It was absolutely quiet, and the air perfectly still and neutral. His footfalls made no clack on the smooth floor, no echo. Even his breath sounded mute. The labyrinthine fortress and all its anguish bled out of him, completely. Everything was peaceful in here. Serene, that was the word.
"It's serene here," he said.
"What you are feeling is the Sourran Calm," Resh said. "I feel it too. The God of Logic and Wisdom has an untroubled mind, and in its presence we too will shed some of our troubles."
Benzan's gaze and his whole head rose upward. Many heights above them, the ceiling glimmered and shone, forming a ribbon like a promenfere on the water, that moved depending on where Benzan stood. The whole thing was a spindrift of jewels, sparkling without end, despite there being no discernible lamp. The ceiling itself rested upon arches supported by six great stone pillars, which framed each of the six walls. The words of Sourros adorned every block of every pillar, carefully engraved in huge letters and icons. Benzan recognized some of the sayings, for they had popular currency in Galan society. One exclaimed, How close together are our most distant frontiers, under the night sky. Another cautioned, We easily give our enemies the means to destroy us.
The walls had a coarse, fibrous texture, and a warm, off-white color. Benzan laid his hand upon one of them and felt that it had a slight give to it. It seemed wrong to him that such a massive structure should have the touch of softness, so without really thinking he stepped back from it.
Each wall bore a crude illustration of a person's head. These drawings were huge, and not at all like the realistic, exquisitely detailed murals elsewhere in the fortress. These faces were simplistic, stylized, and boldly stroked, drawn or maybe brushed in charcoal lines bigger than Benzan's hand. He couldn't tell who the people were supposed to be, but they wore extremely powerful, exaggerated emotions in their expressions. With six of them, his first thought was that they were the Guard of Galavar, but on cursory inspection they clearly weren't, and he had no other idea.
"What is it you would have me do in here?" he asked Galavar.
"As I said, when you are ready—but not until then—cross to the other side. When you're ready, you'll know."
Four hallways converged here: the one they'd just come from, and three more across the chamber, one on each of the far walls, beneath the giant drawings. The central threshold formed the likeness of a dragon's head; the other two formed semblances of its claws.
Benzan wanted to know the right answer, or pass whatever test lay before him. He wanted to impress Galavar, and Arderesh, and God, but all he felt was a distant disappointment, held back by the Sourran Calm.
"I don't understand what I'm supposed to do."
"Sometimes it takes a moment. Just keep looking around. Feel free to ask me specific questions if you like."
"Who are the people in these big drawings?"
"They were drawn by Eres," Galavar replied, as if that were supposed to mean something to Benzan.
"But who are they?"
"I couldn't tell you. The ones you see aren't the ones I see."
"How can that be?"
"The drawings and the walls, they are satae. Eres often illustrates in satae. In fact the walls are blank, and the black lines are purely in your own vision."
"Who do you see, then?"
"My Guard, of course."
Benzan looked at the faces again. They had been evoked from his own mind? That meant…he should recognize them, right? He didn't.
"I don't recognize any of them. Should I?"
"Not necessarily. They always take the form of faces, but they could come from anywhere in your thoughts. They may not be real people. You may be looking at concepts to which you've never put a face before."
"Are they supposed to be the things I care about most?"
"More precise would be to say these are six of your deepest passions. The bias in the medium is such that usually they're selected from people whom you feel passionately about, but there are many exceptions."
"Interesting," Benzan said, uncertainly.
And it really was interesting. Here, all around him, were six of the things Benzan cared most passionately about, all staring at him with faces he'd never seen. Interesting, and bizarre, to be surrounded by the depths of his own self and see nothing but strangers.
One of them has to be Celeste, he figured. But try though he did to see any hint of familiarity, none of the faces were hers.
Maybe one of them represented her anyway?
What are my deepest passions? he asked. Well…I like reading. I like wrestling. I like drinking. None of those seemed good enough. I like…peace?
The humbling thought came to Benzan that he didn't really know what his deepest passions were. There were the things his mind dwelt on, like home and toil and friends. There were the things he enjoyed, like sport and food. But…passions? Whatever they were, he didn't recognize them on the wall.
It troubled him, weighed on him. The Sourran Calm faltered, though it did not break. But then his distress pointed him toward a vital realization.
He looked up at those six unfamiliar faces again, one at a time, turning slowly around in the room.
If I'm going to be a Guard of Galavar, I need to start thinking about this stuff. I need to start thinking like a Guard. Acting like one. I need to be a better person.
Immediately, the calmness washed back into him, except now he felt like he understood what he was doing here. A peep of understanding escaped his throat, and the others looked at him, but did not speak.
It wasn't that Benzan was special, he realized, and the assumption otherwise was what had been troubling him. Now he thought of Celeste, and how he used to pick flowers for her. The ones he picked…they weren't special above the rest. They were just the ones that caught his fancy. And she always enjoyed them. He'd never thought to ask the flower itself if it felt up to the task of pleasing a viutar.
And a pointless question it would be. The flower was a flower.
Likewise, Benzan didn't need to be anything but Benzan.
When he looked back at Galavar and Arderesh again, he felt as though he was seeing them anew. And then it occurred to him,
"I'm ready to cross now."
The words came out curiously. The other two smiled at him, and exchanged a brief but knowing glance between themselves.
"It's an odd experience, isn't it, Benzan?" said Resh. "It feels completely like your own epiphany."
"And it is, but made possible by Sourros—who can shine light upon a life's lesson in a few moments of perfect clarity."
"Why wouldn't a person spend all their time here?" Benzan asked. "Spend a whole year here, enough to become truly wise?"
"We are students for a lifetime," said Galavar. "But we do not spend a lifetime studying how to live. We must go out and actually live. And, for whatever it may be worth, many mates wouldn't benefit from a room like this. That you did, encourages me."
Benzan turned and began to walk toward the dragon's mouth; he didn't even need to ask if it was the right way. They would correct him if he was wrong. But they didn't. They followed him.
"It's amazing," Benzan said. "You know…when I was a kid—not that I'm so much older now, but, back in the early days—I used to think that the Power of the Gods meant floating in the air and shooting fire from my hands, like the tricksters at carnivals."
"Entrées," quipped Galavar, "at a banquet of fools. Though, perhaps I've been known to dine there myself, from time to time."
And as he walked he stepped upon the air, rising a head higher for a few paces, before returning to tread the solid ground.
"There's something enthralling about the power of flight," Galavar concluded, "that no mate can deny."
"Will I learn how to do that?"
"Anyone can learn how to show off, Benzan. A Guard of Galavar has to be able to work real wonders. You'll learn how to teach a discouraged child, inspire a distant genius, rally a flagging organization, govern a wayward nation—"
Arderesh picked up from Galavar and continued, "And the simpler things. Grow a flower, shear a puff, ride a horse, manage a ranch—"
"Plan a city—"
"Defend a thesis—"
"Persuade an enemy—"
"Or compromise with them—"
"Build a house—"
"Diagnose an illness—"
"Recite the constellations—"
"And their stories—"
Galavar finished, "Anticipate the weather, learn a language, understand the law, run for an hour, walk for a poreia, make a hard decision, rest easy, accept mortality, reject fate, stand firm against a prevailing opinion, admit to a mistake, rebuff worshippers, rebuke naysayers, and persevere to the very end when the enemy has their hands around your neck."
"But, yes, you'll learn to walk in the air, too."
Benzan laughed along, but looked at Arderesh as he did so, who hadn't joined in the laughter. He seemed distant…no doubt still privately mourning his loss. The Sourran Calm may have blunted the Captain's pain, but it did not replace it with happiness. By tomorrow night, when everything had been made clear, Benzan doubted there would be a single person in all of Gala who wasn't mourning. No doubt some of his own friends were dead too. Not for the first time this harsh day, he thought about that, and them.
They passed through the threshold, leaving the great chamber behind them, and Galavar resumed the lead. Awaiting them was another long and elegant corridor, just like the one prior, but here there were no bodies; the battle had never come this far; and so the other two walked astride Galavar on either side, half a pace behind.
"The Eye of Sourros," said Benzan. "Was that really Sourros, back in that room?"
"Sourros noticed you," said Galavar, "helped clear your thoughts."
"Did he judge me worthy of the Guard?"
"The judgment…that has yet to come."
* * *
HE WAS SO IMMERSED IN HIS OWN THOUGHTS that it took a while until Benzan realized they were gradually headed upward again.
"Why are we going back up?"
"The Western Veranda. It's quite high."
Benzan said, "I think I've given up on trying to understand where I am in this fortress and how it connects to anywhere else."
"We call that getting 'boggled,'" Resh said. "Galadrim has a confusing lay, for many reasons. We often take new workers and residents on a grand tour, and, when they're good and turned around, we see if they can extract themselves. It's something of a rite of initiation." He laughed, but it didn't last as it should have, and instead Benzan heard him sigh softly.
"Is there a Northern Veranda too, and an Eastern one?"
"The name would hardly be satisfying otherwise, now would it?" replied Galavar. "Most people only know about the Southern Veranda, since it's so big and faces the city, and of course we host celebrations and assemblies there all the time, but we have another one on each cardinal of the castle, and together they serve as focal points for the workings and life pulse of Galadrim. The Northern Veranda is a tiny café, a place with the unspoken rule that if you go there you have to talk to someone you've never talked to before, if such a person is around. The Eastern Veranda is a sculpture garden and has become a popular place for impromptu performances of music and song. It's in the lee, so the air is frequently steady and still.
"And the Western Veranda…that one is like a regal office, in the grand Imperial style of the cosmopolis. There's a main, open-air room with a great table and high-backed chairs. The western wall is a colonnade, beyond which is a grand balcony. It's a more intimate sort of place, more private than the other verandas. There's a big table, sofas. It's my favorite place for meeting."
"Many meetings of the full Guard take place there," affirmed Arderesh, "including our most important meetings, like the Vardas Council."
"What is the Vardas Council? You've mentioned it several times now, and I often hear people speak of Gala as Vardas Gala."
"It means 'high,' with a connotation of the powerful sunlight that illumines the world. The decisions made at the Vardas Council guide the course of our realm, and influence the unwritten history of the entire world. Tonight's convention will be only the ninth of its kind."
By the time he finished speaking, they had emerged into what looked like a vast indoor market. Benzan looked up and realized that the walls terminated overhead in a large, glassen ceiling, beyond which the twilight sky shone dimly overhead. The light in here was more yellow, more blue, than the warmer lighting typical elsewhere in Galadrim—the better to mimic the day. The light came from everywhere, emanating from long, slim rectangular bars lining the tops of the walls, and cast no shadows.
"Aren't we high up in the fortress?" he asked.
"Yes. This is Floor 26."
"What's a market doing here?"
"Many people on the upper floors would spend their whole mealtime walking to the Mercade if they meant to eat in the city," said Galavar. "We had the choice of building a sky gondola—as you will find several of elsewhere in Sele—or a satellite market, and we chose the market. So we have restaurants and grocers and other shops here, all the basic needs of the day—and the night—twenty-four enterprises in total, which is why we call this place the Nineteen."
Galavar chuckled, "Originally, there were nineteen shops."
"It was a bit of a crisis when the twentieth one opened," joked Arderesh. "People were split on whether to change the market's name. In the end we kept it."
"Consistency," said Galavar, just as Resh said "Aesthetics."
"And why are we here?" asked Benzan. "Is the Veranda here?"
"No, we're merely passing through. But I admit I've taken us slightly out of our way. That's because I think we're going to find a certain president here."
The Nineteen was a pandemonium. In the aftermath of the battle it had been summarily repurposed into a command center and staging ground. The central plaza was packed with tables that had wet numbers painted in large on tall placards, and at these tables sat various people in chairs, with clusters of mates standing around them. The shops themselves were also packed full of bustle, many turned over to emergency storage and others being used for everything from medical triage to conferences.
Most of the grocers and several of the other shops were actually open, dispensing food and essential supplies to long lines of people. These lines were routinely made even longer by the intercession of frantic mates wearing electric green scarves of authority, who would go right to the front of the lines for supplies. Benzan recognized those scarves out in the city sometimes; they signified emergency priority and usually signified a member of the Halers.
He found the market a sprawling place, and there was too much going on for Benzan to take it all in. He could only absorb small fragments along the way:
Here, his eye fell upon two workers, wearing a different kind of uniform from the others around them as they handed out boxes from a large stack to a queue of assortedly dressed people. They saluted Galavar as he passed by, but for such a crowd Galavar didn't notice them.
There, Benzan's eye caught a small, cream-tinted countertop, where a number of people with stripes on their sleeves were huddled over a small square map—or, as Benzan saw when he drew nearer—a bunch of architectural blueprints. The countertop was actually a desk, dragged in from somewhere else, and one of its little drawers was open, and there were no less than three different people rummaging through the drawer's contents for who knew what.
Every few moments the sound of horns pierced the air, playing in deliberate patterns, cutting through the mayhem, giving unknown orders to unknown people.
It was quite the spectacle, no one bit of it especially remarkable, but in the aggregate Benzan was in awe of such an extraordinary operation.
Galavar seemed to share the sentiment. "This is Gregor's work, all right," he observed, mostly to himself.
"And there he is," said Resh, pointing ahead of them.
Near the center of the conflux there stood a heatho-dwarf, taller by a head than the next tallest mate in the room, and almost twice as heavy even as a tall and athletic mate like Galavar. Benzan recognized the giant straightaway: Gregor, the Fifth Guard of Galavar as well as the President of Gala, in charge of administration both in the City of Sele and the Fortress of Galadrim. Gregor was the one who oversaw the logistics that made it possible on a day-to-day basis for a barren land with no farms and thin air to thrive in the middle of nowhere at the top of the cliffs on the edge of the world.
Benzan couldn't hear Gregor speaking for all the din around them—there must have been half a thousand people in here—but he could see Gregor's mouth and body moving with great animation. Galavar made his way through the crowd, Resh and Benzan in tow, till his Guard sighted him.
"Galavar!" said Gregor, breaking into a smile that, for one as reserved as him, was quite indulgent. "We did it!"
Sweat ran down Gregor's neat, bare face, and glistened in his closely shaved brown hair. He'd removed his black armor and wore civilian clothes of yellow and blue, which he had sweated through, and Benzan suddenly became aware of how warm it was in here.
"That we did," said Galavar, more somberly.
"You look like you've been swimming," remarked Arderesh.
"I've been running around this place all evening."
"Did you get my message? Conference in the Western Veranda, right now."
"No, I didn't. I apologize." He looked immediately around him. "Bier! Take over." He looked at Galavar and said, "I presume DeLatia is coming too?"
Gregor turned to Bier and said, "Report to Commander Diva. She's in charge of this operation now." He looked at Galavar, who nodded.
"Yes, Keeper!" said the mate Benzan presumed was Bier.
Gregor stepped deftly around the nexus of urgent flesh and joined Galavar's trio to make a quartet, and without delay Galavar began leading them away, out toward the periphery of the market.
"Can we get something to eat?" Benzan asked, spotting a pile of roasted meat nearby.
"No," Galavar replied, "but—" he briefly clasped Gregor's upper arm "—have someone send a plate up to the Western Veranda."
Gregor didn't even have to speak. Benzan saw him swivel on his hips, without breaking his stride, and perform some bizarre hand signal to a member of the throng whom Benzan couldn't even make out. It was done.
"Probably lean pickings," Gregor said. "Most of the meat and sweet are spoken for. There's a shortage of everything, and we've got a lot of injured people who'll need nourishment direly."
"Do you have current reports from the city?" Resh asked.
"Save it for the Council," said Galavar, waving an arm. "I don't want to rehash things later and risk omitting something. Unless there's anything absolutely critical." He looked over at Gregor, expectantly.
"We're worried about the integrity of the eastern superstructure of Galadrim," Gregor replied. "There's a remote possibility of catastrophic collapse. Engineers are surveying now."
"Impossible to say yet. I'd guess one in fifty."
"Did you order an evacuation?"
"No. It's still too chaotic for that. But I gave the director authority to make the decision herself as soon as the surveys come in."
"Very well. Gregor," said Galavar, "this burly young mate at my side is Benzan. Benzan, Keeper Gregor."
"Good evening, sir," said Gregor.
"At your honor."
"Benzan will be accompanying us. I'll have more to say about him at the Council."
They cleared the Nineteen, entering into a long stair. The din fell away as they climbed, and soon they were alone again.
"Zirin is dead," Gregor said.
"Aye. We just came from there. And Jemis is sick from numenate shock, but I'm assured he'll be fit to attend. I'm convening the Vardas Council, Gregor. Just us. Just the Guard of Galavar."
"Appropriate," Gregor replied. "We have a lot to decide, and no time to convene a larger assembly. I just hope DeLatia makes it upstairs to join us."
"She'll be along," Galavar said. "I spoke with Diva, and that one never fails to deliver on my orders. I don't suppose you know where Silence is?"
"Sweating harder than me, whatever she's doing. Combat only ended on the lower floors within the hour. There were at least two dozen pockets of residual fighting. Last I heard, Silence was leading the sweep down there."
Then Gregor chuckled, which sounded oddly ordinary coming from such a deep body.
"But if I know her, she'll be at the Veranda by the time we arrive."
* * *
FOR THE FIRST TIME in Benzan's travels throughout Galadrim, they entered into a dark place. The only light came from the gloaming sky beyond a colonnade of arches, with a few ekes of purple on a black and distant horizon, and stars twinkling calmly above. This was the Western Veranda.
A still figure stood ahead of them. Benzan couldn't discern if she was facing toward or away, but he imagined she was looking out into the evening, whose faerie light surrounded her form. She was tall and substantial, strong in the shoulders and full-fleshed, but slender in waist and jaw, and so even heavier than she looked. Galavar took in the sight of her, and from his lips came a tiny noise of relief. And for Benzan's benefit, he said, "This is Silence."
Silence Terlais. Benzan hadn't met her until now, one of the more elusive Guards, but he had known of her for longer than he had known of any of the others. Silence was infamous in the East for her piracy on the Sodaplains, and regarded within Gala itself as an innovator, but where Benzan had come from there was a still-earlier story that the left-handed swordsmate Silence Terlais had once lived in the City of Peers, at the center of the world, and had been banished from that incredible place for working a forbidden power. Benzan remembered his surprise when he first came to Gala, at learning she was real—assuming this one hadn't usurped the reputation of the other.
Either way, this Silence was only forty-four years old, so if the story were true then at the time Silence was banished she would have been about Benzan's age now…which was a strange thought to him.
But her mere shape and repute didn't linger in his mind. The first thing he truly noticed about her, the detail he would remember, was how she moved. Silence was indeed facing away from them, for now she stirred at the sound of her name. At first, her head dipped slowly to the left, until he could make out the profile of her face and the twilit glint of her left eye above the cheek. Then her shoulders began to follow. They built up energy, pivoting slowly leftward, coiling her spine, picking up speed, until at once her whole body swung around as she pulled herself a pace toward them on her left leg. Her right side snapped into place beside her left, and she faced them outright, and was still again. It was Silence who had moved, but to Benzan it was he who had been drawn closer.
Nor could he mistake such a motion. Silence was a predator.
"Jadmar," he whispered, not meaning to speak.
Then he felt her gaze upon him. Not that he could see it for all the dark, but where her head had been tilted downward before, now it was slightly raised. She was looking down, at all of them. Benzan lifted his eyes to meet hers, but with her face now turned away from the twilight he couldn't see them anymore. Instead he reached for those lofty Galan ideals he'd been taught, and before anyone else could speak asked her what was on his mind:
"Were you really banished from the City of Peers?"
Silence cocked her head slightly, to the right, and nobody else acted as if Benzan had even spoken. For her part Silence mused, in a calm voice,
"I wonder what it means, that Rennem succeeded all the way here and still failed."
Benzan, who had expected a reply to his question, tried at first to understand how those words pertained, while Resh said, "Derishos, no doubt."
"And Galan mettle," quipped Jemis. "Derishos can hang."
"Jemis?" said Galavar. "You're in here?"
Jemis' voice came from somewhere off to the left.
"Silence and I were just enjoying a bit of fresh evening air. Good you could join us."
"Good you could join us," said Galavar. "You're sounding much better."
"That's my finest sham all day."
"What you did today was no sham."
Then a pause hung amid them, until Gregor spoke, "I wonder too."
They were all familiar together. Of course they would be, but it was new for Benzan to think about the luminaries of Gala being so at ease in each other's company. He himself was quite nervous. Not naturally so; Benzan was a fairly gregarious mate; but power intimidated him and he forgave himself his uncustomary anxiety in the presence of such elites.
"Let's get these lamps relit," said Arderesh.
At once the various lamps kindled, first a cool blue, then gentle orange flames—real flames, flickering behind glass. There was no telling who had done it, till Benzan saw that Resh himself was turning a knob on the wall. Even after several years in Gala, Benzan still found such spectacles of technology amazing, and he thought it a fitting wonder for such people as these to command.
Looking around in the new light he saw Jemis lying on a sofa against the inside wall, and back before the colonnade he saw Silence's face fully lit, milk-pale and green-eyed, under long red hair drawn into her famous battle ponytail. Her own suit of the Black Armor, embellished in green, was as sullied as anyone's. And in the firelight, the gloaming sky beyond her had washed away to black.
"Jemis, you've already met him, but Silence, I present to you the young mate Benzan, who witnessed the demise of Rennem at my hands."
"Good riddance to him," said Silence quietly, quickly, before regarding Benzan, "and good evening to you."
She tipped her head in the slightest nod.
"Good evening," Benzan replied.
"Now we're all here but DeLatia," Galavar said. "And Zi."
He lifted his left arm toward the great table that he had mentioned to Benzan, which was built of solid, dark wood, polished to a shine, and sat upon six vast and ornately carved wooden legs. At Galavar's gesture the tension in the room changed, and he moved to take his seat at the table's head, first depositing the Hero's Staff Aghnagos neatly at the table's center.
"Come, Benzan," he said. "Sit at the Willful Table with us and observe." He guided Benzan to the seat at the foot.
The face of the table was fascinating. Though shiny and smooth to the touch, underneath the polish there looked to be thousands of tiny words. Benzan tried to read a few, but while he could make out individual words, there seemed to be no larger structure. Just words in a jumble.
As Benzan sat, he heard Jemis say, "Unhand me." Looking over he saw that Gregor was trying to help Jemis up from the sofa, but Jemis was not having it. "I'm not sitting at that table," he said. "I claim this couch in the name of Finick. Be gone!"
Silence didn't join them at the table either. Instead she stepped toward one of the archways, several of which had broad, flat banisters supported by triplets of spade-shaped balusters, so as to form ornate, open-air windows rather than passageways. She seated herself upon one of these, lifting her legs onto the banister and resting her back against a column's edge.
"Are we not doing the table?" asked Galavar, sitting there alone but for Benzan, far across the long end of the thing.
Arderesh, pacing in a small circle nearby, said, "If I get off my feet I'm going to fall asleep."
"Gregor, sit down," Galavar said, pointing the Guard to a chair.
"I'll go along with you, Boss," Gregor answered.
As Gregor seated himself, Silence said "DeLatia is gathering a condition report for us now. She'll join us shortly."
"DeLatia was on top of absolutely everything today," Silence continued. "I want you to hear me say that. I'm in awe. I always expected her strategic genius would prove itself…but it was another thing entirely to see it alive for the first time."
"Yes," Gregor agreed, in that peaceful, almost meek voice of his that Benzan was quickly coming to recognize as the mate's natural tone—quite different from his affected public speaking voice. "I think we owe our survival to her."
Galavar made a strange noise, the sound of failed words, and was visibly astonished. The smell of astonishment spread out from him.
"Did we really come that close?" he finally managed. It came out choked, half-whispered. "For want of our Lilit, would all this have ended?"
"Yes," said Gregor.
Jemis nodded from his sofa, though Benzan didn't think anyone else saw him.
Resh tapped his fingers together where he stood and said, "I expect so."
Galavar dropped his jaw, mute. For one who rejected the import of victory by luck, it was a devastating revelation.
"We're supposed to be better than that," he finally said, feebly. "We're supposed to be better than any one person."
"So true," quipped Jemis, "but I still think it's great to have heroes among us. You can sing about the excellence of institutional preparation, but it's not as fun as singing about one damn savior, who carried the day."
"This land is young, Galavar," Resh said. "We're not prepared for war yet. Given the circumstances, I think we did well. That we have great individuals to rise above the Aedes in dark times, is a fine fortune."
"But Galavar's point is a good one," countered Gregor.
Silence continued Gregor's thought. "We founded this nation to save the world."
And Gregor finished, "What does it say when Gala cannot even save itself?"
"I'm not arguing that," said Resh.
"You would be dead right now but for Lilit DeLatia," Gregor replied, "and all the dreams of the Galan people would be prizes for Davoranj. That's chilling."
"This is an old debate," said Galavar. "I didn't mean to revive it. Nor have we time for it now. Take note, friends, for here in this room we shall convene a Vardas Council this very hour."
"Just like the old times," said Jemis. "Buckets, the First Council was before I even came here. What's this one, the Ninth?"
"It seems smaller now, doesn't it?" said Gregor. "Just the seven—well, now just the six of us. Plus yourself, Master Benzan." He shook his head sadly. "I'm going to miss Zirin. Now there was someone who understood what civilization is."
The double doors from the hallway opened, both together, and in strode General Lilit DeLatia.
She was broad and fat and wore a black and red cape half torn away and gone, and a red velvet tunic and general's scarf over her filthy black armor. She was boisterous and proud, still wound up from battle, and her voice lifted the Western Veranda from any nostalgic melancholy and into the red foundries of zeal.
"Hie!" she shouted, stressing the word like a royal proclamation. On her face lay a swollen smile punctuated by a large bruise on the left side, and she looked ecstatic.
"We beat them! Every bit of luck that could have gone against us, did, and we beat them—" she pounded her right fist into her open palm "—trounced their Hero, turned them back, ripped out their bowels! Now they're with the curks and the husts."
She broadened her grin triumphantly, but as she did so she looked upon the faces of everyone in the room, saw the gloom creeping there, and her smile turned to a sneer.
"Don't," she said, waving a finger at the lot of them. "I've seen that look before. Don't think like that. Rennem can still win, if we let him."
"He may have won anyway," Arderesh replied.
DeLatia fumed, walked up to him and jammed her finger in his chest.
"That!…is the attitude of a loser."
"How many prisoners did we take?" asked Galavar.
She withdrew her finger from Resh, spun around to face the Meretange.
"About one hundred twenty alive, probably a few more in the city. But no one with any rank. We had a commander at one point; he killed himself. With a rock, Galavar. Bludgeoned himself because it was all he could do. All the other flumadiddles committed suicide too, if we didn't kill them first."
"The faith was strong in that bunch," said Jemis. "They chose to die rather than be taken prisoner. Usually the—flumadiddles—are the first to surrender when things go sour. But these ones…these ones had religion."
"That's how Davoranjans are," said Benzan, hoping his contribution would lift him into the conversation.
"Not completely untrue," Galavar answered, "but take care not to generalize too far."
Gregor mused, "It couldn't have helped their sense of proportion that the Goddess of Compassion really was on their side."
"Was she ever!" DeLatia griped. "Every plan, every deployment, every tactic…at every turn they had unbelievable good luck."
She spied Aghnagos sitting on the middle of the table, went and picked it up.
"This little splinter cost us a lot."
And she carelessly tossed it back on the table.
"But even without it, that was a damn well-prepared army for Davoranjan standards. Without the defenses we'd built, without the training we'd taught, without the courage I saw today, we would not have lasted the morning. And for all that—we still won!"
"We were just discussing that," Galavar replied. "We all fought, but you outwitted them. You outwitted the favor of the Goddess. You won us the day." He leaned back, shook his head in astonishment. "Outstanding."
"But that's what's sobered us," Galavar continued. "If you hadn't been here, the consensus is that we would have lost."
Her smile grew into the widest grin.
"Well, it's a good thing I was here."
"How does it feel?" he asked her. "To finally test your mind in battle?"
DeLatia didn't reply at first. Instead she made her way to a seat at the Willful Table, on Galavar's left hand, the seat of the Second Guard of Galavar.
Until today her army had never fought a true battle, nor had she commanded one. Yet Galavar spoke of her publicly and often as the best military strategist alive in the world, give or take the legendary Imperial generals Ith and Nth. Benzan had never second-guessed that praise, and apparently neither did DeLatia herself.
"You ask a question that I can't answer without being arrogant," she said, "and you know how I detest arrogance."
"In the Western Veranda," said Galavar, "arrogance is permitted. The people I see before me are seldom wrong. My elites!"
Galavar produced a ring, then. He handed it to her and said, "A gift…from the severed fingers of our foe."
She grinned and said "You always did have the best taste."
Then she leaned back in her seat, slipped the bloodstained ring onto her finger, and admired it for a moment. "I didn't doubt my ability," she said simply. Then she guffawed and shouted, "But they did! And they died!" And she laughed again.
When she finished laughing, she pointed her left hand down the long table toward Benzan and asked:
"Who's this thing?"
Gregor laughed, quietly. "DeLatia, manners."
"Well, I hear a lot of talk about elites. I want to make sure it's warranted."
"Quite right," Galavar said. "Benzan, this is Lilit DeLatia, General of the Army and Keeper Guard, Second in the Guard of Galavar. DeLatia, Benzan."
"I trust you fought well today?" she asked him.
"I hope so," Benzan said. "I tried my best."
"And we did survive," croaked Jemis.
"So you saved us all, then," DeLatia concluded. "Good work."
"I'll have more to say about him later," said Galavar. "First, let us answer this extraordinary day with the reply it deserves. My Guard Assembled, let us convene the Vardas Council!"
* * *
What Price Paid We to Do It?
"THE TACTICAL OUTCOME of our encounter is clear," said Galavar, stroking his straight, black beard thoughtfully. "We destroyed the enemy. Now tell me, what price paid we to do it? Gregor. Our city?"
"I can give you a situation report, but the infrastructure report won't be ready for at least a day."
"Preliminary is look out a window. The city's on fire."
"So I noticed. The situation, then."
"Every civil emergency service is fully deployed. Safety and Works, the Halers, the Runners, the Citizens' Band, the Deauwells, all of them. All commands are unified under the Disaster Emergency Protocol—although in practice logistical problems are disrupting the command structure. On the whole, nonetheless, I would call our efforts effective."
"It's changing—upward—by the hour. I would guess eighty percent of optimal for this point in time."
"That's a strange measure," said Arderesh. "Wouldn't it always be one hundred percent by definition?"
"Never mind that," said Galavar. "Are you getting the cooperation you need from the public?"
"Individuals are being very cooperative, almost docile. There's no bravado at the moment; there's no room for it. Enterprise is cooperating too. Most businesses have excused most of their employees to join our public operations, and are loaning or giving resources as they're able. I know we'd argued in the past about some kind of emergency seizure policy. It turns out we never needed it. The people have a sense of duty. There's been some isolated grousing—people do have their own interests to worry about—but overall it's clear the sense of Selish community is prevailing. Everyone is working together."
"I agree," said DeLatia. "Some of that is a credit to the character of our nation, but it's also because we have an urban population, and most of the city was encompassed by fighting at some point."
"The disaster is personal for everybody," Resh said, "and extremely intimidating."
"Exactly," she said. "When you share a battlefield with someone, it forges a bond. And by such bonds, such belonging, people feel stronger and more secure—rightly so." She intertwined the fingers of her two hands. "The people are feeling this now, in all they do."
Gregor added, "Overall, about thirty percent of the civilian population are engaged in the emergency operations in some capacity."
"Good," said Galavar. "Very good. What about our losses?"
Gregor's face turned upside-down and he replied, "About twenty percent of civilians are dead."
"The civilian population?" Arderesh gasped.
"Probably closer to twenty-five percent," said DeLatia.
"Aye," said Gregor. "If DeLatia's number is right, every fourth civilian in Gala is dead tonight."
As soon as it had begun, the Vardas Council lurched to a halt. For the longest time, no one said anything. No one knew what to say.
Benzan sat with his mouth slightly agape and eyes wide, momentarily forgetting his desire for belonging, feeling excited and scared in the same moment.
Arderesh sat down at the table after all, the strength stolen from his legs. He looked up at the ornate, painted relief on the ceiling, depicting horses cantering across a river, and didn't say anything at all.
Silence stared out the window, at the stars.
And Jemis captured it best, gasping once, then murmuring incoherently, and softly, again and again.
Galavar waited quietly, allowing his people their moment of comprehension.
DeLatia, eventually, punctuated the silence: "An old friend of mine used to have a saying: 'It can't be helped.'"
To Benzan that sounded callous, but as if she knew his thoughts DeLatia looked at him straight on and explained "In the face of such pain, there is still dignity."
Arderesh, quietly, lowered his eyes onto the table.
Finally, Galavar said, "Gregor, you have accounted for half our people. What of the other half?"
"Of the remainder, about half are resting or in the process of receiving medical attention, or are otherwise unaccounted for."
"How is the Academy?" Galavar asked suddenly; his worry lay bare as he hung on Gregor's reply.
"I put an entire division around there," said DeLatia, "and that's not counting the civil defense militias and the thousands of mates who showed up to volunteer on the spot. It's one reason the damage is so heavy elsewhere in Sele. But we held them off completely at the Academy—and not because the enemy didn't try. They did try. And we wiped the walls with them. We lost children in the broader city, but not at the Academy. The next generation of imperialist spawn is healthy and hale."
"Well worth the military losses," said Gregor.
"Let there be no question otherwise," said Galavar.
"However," DeLatia added, "the psychological trauma has yet to truly surface. Children don't take well to invasions. We'll have to deal with that."
"Indeed we will," said Arderesh.
"I say it as an expert in military history," she explained. "Mark me, it's a guarantee that every person in Sele has lost a friend or loved one today. Some will have lost everyone. The city itself is a visible wreck. And the kids, the younger ones especially…who do they learn from? Who do they take their cues from? This day is going to imprint itself onto their sparks, dominate their childhoods, shape them for the rest of their lives. We can't underestimate that, or we're going to have big problems down the road."
"How is that a subject of the martial arts?" Gregor asked.
"Troubled children grow up to make the wrong kind of soldier," answered DeLatia. "The Empire knows that, and Tanzibay has an intuitive understanding of it, but most of the rest of Relance never figured it out. It's one of the reasons most armies are so…vulgar."
"Gregor," said Galavar, "the health services fall under your jurisdiction. See that our children get the attention they deserve."
"Aye." He hesitated, and said, "but I don't know how I'll do it."
"Figure it out. Now, what of the rest of our civilians?"
"Most of the rest are working. They feel it's their duty to keep working, and they're not wrong. For instance, back at the Nineteen I was just speaking with an equestrian who told me that virtually all the blacksmiths in the city are working at their forges right now, because we're running desperately low on things like nails."
"It's that tricky issue," said DeLatia, "of how much turns out to be 'critical' after a sacking. With combat ending, we're assigning every available soldier to civil operations, but most of them are too exhausted to do any good tonight. Yet many are refusing to rest—they know the cold night is going to kill a lot of people. Thing is, they're past all usefulness, so I've been empowering Gregor's crew chiefs and unit directors to order them to rest."
"It'll get better in the morning," said Gregor, "notwithstanding those who die tonight, but at the moment the greater part of my workers are children, the elderly, the infirm, and those who were too weak or timid to fight."
"What a blow," said Galavar, his voice filled with disappointment. "A quarter of the Galan people gone. The rest exhausted. Doom everywhere."
"More than a quarter," said DeLatia, "since military losses were much higher."
"We'll get to that. First, Gregor, tell me of our emergency operations."
Gregor produced a small booklet of notes and began reviewing. "Fire control and rescue are our top priorities. As of an hour ago, my fire captain had acknowledged three hundred forty-seven individual actionable fires, of which seventy were still burning. At least thirty fires were major and four were catastrophic. In particular we've lost maybe half of the studios down at the Workshops. The good news is that all but a handful of the fires were already under control when I received the report.
"Second to that, we're conducting rescues at collapsed buildings. Most of our buildings resist fire as you know, but they weigh a lot and when they collapse the death tolls are very high. The Davoranjans came in with powerful siege engines and tried to lay a path of waste ahead of them to soften our resistance. They also went out of their way to be destructive in general."
"That troubles me," said Galavar. "That isn't what I would expect from the Hero of Davoranj under the banner of Derishos Goddess. There is neither honor nor compassion in it."
DeLatia replied, "It makes sense if you consider their behavior in light of the assumption that the entire Galan population was their enemy. Rennem probably indoctrinated his army—probably believed it for himself—that we're all a bunch of mercenaries or witches or something."
Galavar nodded slowly. "That would fit with his tone when we dueled."
"What did he say to you?" Jemis asked.
"Little of worth. He said we'd be rejected by the world, and that someone else would take his place…the ageless rant of the defeated zealot."
"What I wouldn't give to know how he learned about us," said Resh.
"Our remaining major operations," Gregor continued, "are medical and infrastructural. On medical, I talked to a runner from Clarion a little while ago—thankfully it was also spared damage—and she said our surgeons and doctors are completely overwhelmed, to the point where we're having more preventable deaths than non-preventable ones. They're treating people in the streets because we've no empty sickbeds left. Also, it's looking like the Mass Casualties Policy isn't effective. I granted Rudis a Purple and Green scarf—"
"Purple and Green?!" clapped Jemis.
"So she's God until we relieve her," DeLatia concluded.
"God of the physicians, anyway," said Arderesh.
"As for the infrastructure operations," Gregor continued, "the big one is water. My Waterworks chief is concerned that the water supply itself is contaminated, and either way the Waterworks are completely inoperable south of Swan Ridge."
"I'm sorry to say we saw that coming," said Galavar. "How bad?"
"Too early to know." He looked thoroughly chagrined. Gregor had always taken a personal interest in the Waterworks, and had personally helped design and build much of it. In the desert, at such an extreme altitude, delivering water was a spectacular challenge. The public considered the Waterworks to be a true marvel, and it was, but obvious and intractable shortcomings in its design had emerged as young Sele grew into a true city. It was never easy to admit to the flaws in one's own creation, but tonight it was unavoidable. "We're probably going to have to rebuild most of the Waterworks," Gregor finished, humbly.
"Indeed. When can we restore core water service?"
"Personnel losses are especially bad. My chief lost all three of her superintendents in the attack and she herself got a concussion when a pipe ruptured. It must be one of those random flukes, because the losses are comparably bad all the way down the organizational chart. It's going to slow the repair work significantly."
"Do we have enough reserve water for six days?"
"We only need it for two days. We can have the pumps working again by then, and people can boil it until we recertify that the water is safe to drink fresh."
"Will the reserves last for even two days? Especially with the firefighting efforts?"
"We'll have more than enough."
"A rare piece of good news," said Resh.
"How are the Cityworks?" asked Galavar.
"It's as bad as you can imagine. Foot traffic is improving, but most of the roads are blocked to vehicles in at least one location. That's causing gridlock problems, in turn causing communication and supply breakdowns. All the gondolas are currently inoperative, of course, and all except for Southtown are physically damaged. We're short on runners, wagons, carts, ice, you name it. Mechanical components and fuel are running very short." He wrung his hands, and for the first time looked outright annoyed. "We have perfectly good fuel sitting on one side of the city, and darkness and cold creeping in on the other, because there's no clear path for freight and no available haulers anyway."
Galavar remained impassive. "What is your forecast for the overall city outlook?"
"Everything is either under control or being contained. Logistically, things are going to improve considerably over the next day. My major concern now is the outbreak of diseases, and of course the exposure to cold."
"DeLatia? Is there anything you would add?"
"Gregor said everything that needs to be said. I'll reiterate that the underlying shortages of materials, fuel, and labor that we were suffering prior to the invasion are only going to be worse now."
"And food," Silence reminded them, from her perch on the window banister.
"Of course." Gregor shook his head, and thumbed to a different page in his notes. "How could I forget? There's so much to keep track of. Food is an emergency in itself. I've already instituted food rationing."
Benzan held his stomach, and wondered if that promised "plate" Galavar had mentioned back down in the market would ever show up.
"There'll be a brief glut of meat because so many livestock animals died today," Gregor explained. "We're butchering them now and are going to preserve as much of it as possible, but our freezers have a limited capacity and it's just late enough in the spring that we can't freeze surplus meat outdoors. So some of it has to be eaten immediately.
"Additionally, due to a collapse in the population of dairy animals, all dairy products are about to disappear from the city virtually completely, and won't return in full for a year. We'll also be short on eggs through summer."
They all exchanged glances across the giant table.
"This city is about to get a lot less fun, isn't it?" said Arderesh flatly.
"Jemis," said Galavar, "you take an active hand in the civil administration. What say you?"
"They've said it all," came his tired reply. "But I'll be damned if I don't have one last omelet. I'll lay the egg myself if I have to."
"Gregor, what of the Fortress?"
"There's heavy structural damage on the ground levels where the Davoranjans broke through. In general, the design redundancies are doing their job, but I mentioned back at the Nineteen that we're worried about a catastrophic collapse of the eastern superstructure—roughly a fifth of the whole fortress. The damage there from siege engines is extensive. As I said, we're surveying now, and I've given permission for my director of engineering to order an evacuation at her discretion. We'll also be evacuating those sections anyway in another few hours, after we've accounted them in an orderly fashion."
"I had a chance to see the damage myself," said Silence, from her window perch. "It'll hold together. There's no problem."
Gregor turned around in his chair, leaning to the side to see her from behind his chair's high back.
"You think so?"
"We'll need those repairs, but I'm certain there's no real danger."
"I'm serious," Gregor insisted. "This isn't the time for pride."
She gave him a piercing look and said, "The Davoranjan attack pattern suggests they interpreted the false support architecture as intended in this contingency."
"Oh, you've done it now, big mate," said Jemis. "That's her 'Everyone around me is idiots' voice."
"Hush, you," said Gregor. "I don't care if I'm an idiot. I only care about protecting the interests of Sele." To Silence he said, "Go on."
So she continued, "As a result of the attack we took serious structural damage in Sections East-4 and East-7, which as the numbers suggest are not coterminous. That's a good thing. Even though the naked eye shows a continuous breach along Outer-112 through Outer-117, and another one on Outer-119 through Outer-122, all structural support failures are isolated from each other and within tolerances. This is according to design intent, and, contrary to intuition, Outer-118 is not holding up the whole south side of the superstructure. It's holding up the one thing it was designed to support: the illusion of vulnerability. The fortress superstructure is perfectly safe. As one of the chief artificers, I could take you through the design schematics and the mathematics in any degree of detail. Shall I do that?"
"Fair enough," said Gregor. "No."
"I am proud," Silence pressed. "And pride from accomplishment is no impediment to the truth."
"Agreed," he said.
"Nor to your public safety."
Galavar said, "Thank you, Gregor, Silence."
She nodded and Gregor said, "I don't understand why my engineers reported a collapse risk."
"Most of Galadrim's engineers are on my Chiaroscuro construction teams these days, or have since retired," Silence explained. "And despite our best efforts not every professional can be fully aware of everything. There aren't that many people topside who fully understand the architecture of the Fortress. The ones reporting to you were relying on their intuition, just as the Davoranjans did. Intuition will get you killed, Gregor…particularly against an opponent who thinks to make a weapon of it."
"You should have sent someone to inform my engineering command," he said. "I've got them all out there surveying."
"Let them. It's a worthy task to verify something so important. But in the meantime, I already told you about this. Sixteen years ago, I told you all about these design intentions. There was a conference. You attended."
His eyes widened.
"I'd forgotten." Gregor lowered his head. "Yes. Yes there was. Over all the years, I guess…I guess the topic just never came up again… and I forgot."
"Even so," Silence replied, "Artificer Iri would know. Why didn't she tell your engineers?"
"I sent her to lead the Waterworks inspection team instead." Then Gregor laughed, self-effacingly, and said to Galavar, "Eighty percent of optimal. I apologize."
"Don't worry about it, my friend," said Galavar.
"And to you, I apologize as well," Gregor said to Silence.
She was still irritated, he could tell, but she nodded in acceptance anyway.
"General DeLatia," demanded Galavar, "what of our military?"
"I'll let Silence speak for her part first."
Silence said, "The fleet is untouched. By going along the Howl Riada, Rennem completely avoided any chance we would have had of intercepting him on the Sand Ocean at the base of Raglan. Reports are that he did have sandships, and if we'd known of his plans in advance we could have intercepted him north of Soda Fountain, but there was never any such information."
"Our spies failed completely," DeLatia agreed. "At this point, I suspect most of our deployed spies in both the Sodaplains and Davoranj divisions are actually dead."
"Gregor didn't mention it," Silence went on, "but the entire Perse Hollows is also untouched. The Davoranjans never got down there. Some of our most important workshops and yards, are safe, not to mention the entire Sand Fleet Physical Plant. The navy is fully operational."
"I haven't had time to ascertain."
"Probably about thirty percent," said DeLatia.
"If so, and if that's evenly distributed, we can sustain full operations on seventy percent matepower."
"It's going to be less than that," reminded DeLatia, "due to injuries and whatnot."
"Right." She turned back to Galavar and said "As long as I have half of my people, we can fully populate all essential duty stations on all sandships thirty-six hours a day."
"What about combat operations?"
"I'll assign personnel however I have to in order to meet combat conditions and objectives. I can guarantee full combat capacity for at least…thirty days."
"You'll be pushing your people pretty hard, if it comes to that," said DeLatia.
"I don't think it will, but, even if it does, I anticipate that my grits will want to give everything they have. I don't have to tell you that, DeLatia."
"Very good." Galavar nodded in deference. "Now what about the Pingers, your budding company of wark riders."
Gregor said, "The report I got said that the Moon Ranch was completely destroyed."
"Then our warks?"
"I don't know yet," said Silence. "Most of the battle warks weren't being kept at the Moon Ranch, though. I don't know about my Pingers either, but I'd like to think that some of them lived. My grits certainly distinguished themselves against all odds. Most of them were down at the bottom when the attack came in—so was I—but by noon we were up topside and in the fray."
"The only trained reinforcements we got all day," said DeLatia. "It was a welcome sight, seeing them pour out of the Hollows and take Davoranj from behind."
Galavar said, "But the bottom line is that you don't know."
"Correct. The status of my wark air force is completely unknown at this time. I do know that three of our four dragons lived, though they've since departed to rest."
Galavar looked at DeLatia and said, "Now, the army."
"Forget about the civil militias and the reserves," DeLatia said. "They're a total loss. As for my regular army, imagine that it were divided into thirds. Between fatalities, injuries, and the sicknesses that are bound to come, two of those thirds are no more. To go with it, we've probably lost every major army building and warehouse, and virtually all our cadets, not to mention the entire Gartan Rock campus. And with the deaths of vital personnel, a great deal of living knowledge and tradition has also been lost. The army's back is broken, Galavar. I can't be certain yet, but I suspect we'll have to rebuild the institution from scratch."
"At least we can retrace our past steps more quickly this second time through," said Galavar.
"No," she chided. "All these years and I never could teach you that an army is situational. It's not a matter of putting up a few barracks or cobbling new boots. Think of…think of a sourdough starter. Remember the bread we had back on the Promenade, at Riamo's? And I told you, the starter was three hundred years old. That's what made it taste so special. You can ferment new yeast in two hours, but it won't be the same thing, not at all. An army is that particular. The spark of it is more important than the components, and spark can only be instilled from person to person, through experience."
"Do we no longer have an army, then?"
DeLatia pursed her lips, leaned back in her chair, and exhaled.
"No. We still have an army. But it's a vestige of what it was yesterday." She laid her hands on the table and leaned forward again. "And before you get the idea of turning gloomy, I'll add that if we proceed with the plan we laid out this winter, to broaden our expeditions and grow Gala's population more quickly, and if you maintain the army's budget, then I can have our numbers—if not our strength—back to where they were yesterday, in one year."
"We don't have a year, DeLatia," Resh said calmly, without even looking at her, as he focused on his sheaves of paper. He was serving as scrivener for the convention. From his right hand flowed large and loopy characters to record the important details of the Ninth Council.
"I don't doubt you could do it, DeLatia," said Jemis, "but he's right. We don't have a year."
"I can do it faster, with more resources."
Gregor did look at her when he said "Which we also don't have."
"I am simply providing a baseline."
The doors opened again, this time admitting two caterers. One carried a dish of ceramic cups and a startlingly large pot of tea. The other carried a dish of prison cakes and biscuits. Pleasant steam rose up from both food and drink.
"On the table here," said Arderesh.
"With our thanks and mine," Galavar added. The servants delivered the refreshment and took their leave, and Galavar said "Now maybe I can get the rest of you to come join me at this table."
Silence answered the allure of food and drink, hoisting herself off the banister and coming around the table to sit by Resh. But Jemis continued lying on the sofa.
"I don't think I'm up for it," he said. "Besides, it smells like prison cakes."
"It is prison cakes," said DeLatia.
"Be grateful," Galavar chided. "They're hot and fresh, and nutritionally complete. Somebody just made these, down in our kitchens, somebody who undoubtedly lost dear friends today, somebody who may have had to kill a member of the Kindred for the first time in their lives, only a few hours ago."
"I'm not ungrateful," Jemis said. "I just can't fucking stand up."
Galavar himself rose and began to pour a cup of tea, which he presented to Arderesh.
"Come on, Jemis," said Resh, taking the teacup in hand. "You need to eat." He stood up from his notes and walked over to the sofa, carrying the tea, and with his free hand helped the scowling Jemis sit upright.
"I genuinely cannot stand."
So Resh sat down next to him on the sofa. He took the blue-painted cup of tea to Jemis' mouth, and helped him drink.
Galavar served Gregor next, moving from junior to senior before serving Benzan and then finally himself.
"It is an honor in Gala," he explained, as he proffered the cup to Benzan, "to serve them who serve you."
"Thank you," Benzan replied.
The prison cakes weren't bad at all—probably the best any of them had ever eaten, given the circumstances. Everybody was famished, even Jemis, who ate his from the sofa as Arderesh held them to the trickster's mouth, and few words were exchanged until the cakes were gone. Galavar and Resh both ceded a share of their own portions to Silence, who ate with such naked greed that it abashed Benzan, who himself nonetheless wolfed down his food nearly in a craze, then looked upon the empty dishes ruefully.
As the main course concluded and they all shared the unspoken gripe that their hunger remained unappeased, Gregor said, "Subsequent meals will not be so generous, I'm afraid. After the battle, people need to eat to regain their strength, but tomorrow we're all going to be making do with a lot less."
"Agreed," said Galavar.
He rose to serve the dessert biscuits and tea, then, and added,
"Let's continue. We've heard the situation in the city, and the state of our military. Now I want to know, aside from Jemis, is anyone else seriously hurt? DeLatia?"
"I'm alive and kicking. There's no point wasting your time complaining."
"I want to know."
The ragged general sighed, then swished her tongue across her teeth as she pulled it all to mind. "I popped something in my back, broke the two little toes on my right foot, got a concussion, and took a pretty bad gash on my right underarm that I'm worried might infect. Nothing big by itself, but together they add up to a lot of misery."
"You were done through the Armor?"
"I don't know how it happened either. I didn't even notice it at the time, so I didn't see the weapon."
"I wish you had. I want to know how many weapons the Davoranjans wielded today that can penetrate the Black Armor."
"We'll eventually be doing a full inventory of the captured weapons. But it'll be a long time before we know the answer to that particular question."
"Yes, yes. How is everyone else?"
"Lots of bruises and abrasions, and I pulled my hamstring midday," said Gregor simply. "They patched me up, and I limped my way back into the fray. I expect I'll be limping for a while."
"You weren't limping before."
"You weren't noticing before."
Resh spoke next.
"I might have a broken wrist," he said, holding out his right hand, "though I'm not sure it isn't just a bad sprain. And the cut on my hand is pretty bad too."
"You've been writing with that hand."
"One doesn't complain in times like these, if one can help it."
"Gregor, take over the scrivening."
"Anything more, Resh?"
"I haven't had time to speak with a doctor. I think I hurt a kidney when a wall collapsed on me. It's pretty painful right now, actually."
"Get that checked out tonight."
"Aye. Wasn't going to leave it. I've also got a ringing in my head, but it's coming down. Whatever it is, it's not a concussion."
"I may have torn a nail…but I can't bear to look to make sure."
"Not funny," fumed DeLatia.
Silence raised her head to DeLatia. She looked genuinely startled.
"Sorry. Sorry. You're right." She addressed Galavar. "I'm fine."
"No injuries, then?" The look on his face dared her to agree with him.
"I hurt my right wrist and elbow in an evasive fall. They'll be fine. I also strained my heart, a little, so I'll take it easy the next day or two."
Galavar kept his gaze upon her for a moment longer, then turned and said "What about you, Benzan?"
"I think I'm okay. Lots of bruises and cuts. My chest hurts. The nurse this afternoon said I had some bruised ribs, maybe a broken one. And…I don't know what a broken toe feels like, but I may have one of those too. Also, I took a hit in the cheek, and two of my teeth are loose."
"We'll have a dentist look at you tomorrow," Galavar remarked, "unless the pain will stop you from sleeping tonight."
"I should be able to sleep."
"Then as for myself," Galavar said, "I aggravated an old hip injury, took a new injury to the knee, and broke my collarbone."
"How bad?" asked DeLatia.
"Not bad enough. Are there any other injuries?"
No one offered any.
"Well! Here we are," Galavar finally said. "We know the situation. We know what is being done to resolve the crisis. We know where we each stand in health and strength. Now let us come to the real purpose of this Vardas Council. Let us decide the fate of things to come."
He set aside the empty plate that had held his biscuits, and poured himself a fresh cup of tea, which had not run out quite yet.
"What do you anticipate?" he asked DeLatia, holding the teacup close to his lips and sipping between moments. "Looking at the future, that is."
DeLatia shook her head. "You all suspect correctly."
Silence said, "Then we have to begin tonight."
Jemis harrumphed. "Of course we do."
"It might be impossible," said Arderesh.
"That's not a word I like to hear," Galavar warned.
"That's not a word I like to say."
"But warranted here," said Gregor. "Law and order have broken down. The city is burning. We lost who knows how many people. We're in no position to begin the war."
"Bick the impossible," argued Jemis. "There are some pretty faces in the Blade Kingdom tonight expecting their kin to return victorious on summer. What happens when those soldiers don't show up? What happens when Davoranj learns Rennem is napping in the dirt? The word will spread, that's what! 'Galavar is loose upon the world.' That's what they'll say. And they'll send armies, and poisonous things, and we'll be sitting here with hammers in our hands trying to rebuild our little fort so that we can be glorious when we finally go to war."
"As opposed to going to war tonight, with a gaggle of bleeding soldiers who don't have any food or equipment?"
"Gregor! You make it sound as if we're incapable."
"Our preparations are what make us capable," Gregor chided. "Tonight we are in disarray, even on our knees."
"You know what I learned, growing up in the Middemesne? We make do with what we've got."
"That's rhetorical," Gregor said dismissively.
"No, it bloody isn't," said Jemis.
"There is a quantifiable argument to be made," said Gregor. "I could talk about the loss of matepower in the army. I could talk about the resource shortages. We can't fill those gaps with…with gumption."
"Zirin is dead too, let's not forget that," Resh added.
"So is her entire Civil Council," said Silence.
"Aye, we know," Resh said. "And without Zirin and her Council, we're missing a whole pillar of the Galan Conquest. The pillar. The centerpiece of the whole thing. How are we going to win people's sparks now? Even if DeLatia does manage to regroup the army, the army alone can't bring the Galance Ideal. Without Zirin how will we do justice?"
"A fine question," said Galavar.
"There you go, then," Gregor said to him. "We shouldn't go to war without some kind of workable line."
"Wrong," countered DeLatia. "We have to preserve the element of surprise. That means attacking immediately and figuring out the questions as we go."
"Aye," said Jemis. "We have to do this now."
Silence said, "I can prepare the fleet tonight. All ships can be underway by dawn, to Soda Fountain or any other part of the Sand Ocean."
It was an impressive boast, and it turned heads. But no one questioned her this time.
Instead Resh asked, "You think we should begin the Galan Conquest, then?"
"I only said that, if called upon, the fleet will be ready. Though personally I think we have no alternative."
"I can regroup our serviceable troops tonight," said DeLatia, who was not about to let herself become the bottleneck. "Like I said, most of them are either resting, helping the emergency services, or receiving treatment. Lines of communication as well as the command structure should be restored by midnight." Then she turned to Galavar and added "We can depart for war before the sun comes up tomorrow morning. Even if a few of Rennem's scouts did manage to escape despite my best efforts—and I doubt it—we can beat them to the north country."
"Let's step back for a moment," said Galavar. "Let's look at the big picture."
He reclined in his great-backed, feather-cushioned chair, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, while the others waited on him, until he resumed sipping his tea, and again stroked his beard.
"Half a lifetime ago, I founded this city at the command of Sourros, and from here I have built the means to realize my own dream: the Galance Ideal. Our dream. Here I have raised a free nation of self-determining people, and assembled the means to bring that self-determination to the entire world, through diplomacy where possible and force where necessary. We often overlook the dire state of the wider world, for it is little changed from when last we did look, so it needs to be reminded to us that the people of Relance still need us, regardless of what has come to pass in Sele.
"Were it not for the Hero of Davoranj and his invasion, we would have commenced with our conquest six years from now, fully armed and ready. Instead, the Hero has accomplished two things." Galavar numbered them with his fingers: "For one he has set us back by an unknown number of years, by killing many of my people and ruining that which we built together. For another he has spoiled the secret of Gala. We should have remained hidden, but he learned of our presence, somehow, and the destruction of his army here will arouse the attention of all the great powers in the world. Davoranj itself is wounded but hardly undone by its defeat today, and they will surely prepare further hostilities against us if left to their own rein. I expect other countries will follow.
"If we attract war, rather than bringing it on our own terms," he concluded, "then our enemies will eventually destroy us. That is our fate if we do nothing. Do any of you disagree?"
They considered it, and eventually Gregor replied, "I don't think we would be destroyed. We're in a land of nowhere, and entirely self-sufficient. We would have the advantage against any invader…unless the Goddess were to intervene again."
"And about that," said Jemis, "what's her purpose? Why did she help Rennem get this far? And why didn't our God warn us?"
"It feels like a betrayal, to me," DeLatia confessed.
"You should have known better than to ever trust the Gods in the first place," said Silence.
"Galavar," DeLatia asked, "what does Sourros say for himself?"
"He has not spoken to me today."
"Then ask him," Silence said. "His living mind dwells among your own. Ask him. Demand an explanation."
"Not right now."
"You don't get to refuse me on this. Jemis?"
"Silence is right," he said, supine on the sofa.
"I have to say, she's right—"
"Look, I know you're right, Silence. It's a perfectly reasonable request."
"It's a demand, not a request."
"It's a perfectly reasonable demand, but I'm not going to speak with Sourros now. For right now, all I want to do is gauge consensus on the premise that, if we do nothing, we will be wiped out by future invaders."
But Silence pressed, "If you won't ask Sourros to explain himself then we have to assume the worst—that the Gods are against us, Sourros included. Under those circumstances we're in a much worse position and our plans will need to account for that."
Her words bit at Galavar, in whose place Arderesh replied:
"It seems unlikely. Sourros wouldn't have helped us along for all these years only to abandon us now, without explanation."
The disdain in Silence's voice flowed freely. "Sourros never had any intention that we should succeed."
Galavar's head snapped toward her. "Silence!"
"How would you possibly know that?" Gregor asked.
Silence stopped short, realizing what she had gotten herself into. But there was no turning back.
"He told me himself."
Everyone else in the room looked at her.
"When?!" DeLatia demanded.
"On the day of my assession."
"Eleven years ago? And you never said anything to us?!"
She countered, "Don't you mean 'Eleven years ago and Sourros never said anything to you?' Don't put this on me. The experiences of our assessions are private, and difficult. I spent years trying to grasp his meaning—and from a delicate place."
"What, exactly, did Sourros say to you?" Galavar asked, with a willful calm.
"It was personal."
"What did he say?!"
Silence hesitated, thinking about it, then replied,
"I'm not willing to answer that. Ask him yourself."
"What do you mean you're not willing to answer?!" yelled DeLatia. "At a Vardas Council?! Before no one but us—" she shook a furious finger toward the foot of the table "—and some kid?!"
"I sympathize," Silence said. "I don't like personal secrets. Nonetheless there are a few things in my life that I'm not willing to share. So don't waste your energy."
She sat back down, having half-risen from her seat. Then she thought twice of it, rose, and strode toward her former spot on the window perch, while DeLatia gaped.
"I will say this," Silence said, her back facing them, and the wind from outside just slightly garbling her words. "I never trusted him after that day." Then, as she seated herself, she looked at Galavar, pointed straight at him, and said, "And I think this day proves me right."
"Perhaps not," Arderesh speculated. "Perhaps Derishos somehow concealed the invasion even from Sourros. Perhaps Sourros didn't warn us because he didn't know."
"That sounds implausible," Jemis said, disdainfully.
"But it could be true."
Galavar said, "Let's assume that Sourros has not intended to betray us, that either he wasn't aware of the invasion or else had some greater purpose in mind for not telling us of it."
"That's not a sound assumption," DeLatia replied bluntly. "Is he our benefactor or our betrayer? The evidence suggests the latter. Galavar…he puts the water in the ground. What if that dries up tomorrow?"
Resh gave Galavar one of his most somber expressions.
"This is becoming a squabble," the Captain said. "I think, if possible, we need to hear from Sourros. We need an explanation from the source."
Galavar looked around him. He could see they all agreed with Arderesh, and well they should. It was right for Sourros to answer for his absence today. But it was best that the demand came from the Guards, and not from Galavar himself.
He nodded to them once.
"So be it."
Slowly, then, he put his teacup down on its plate, and pressed his hands onto the table, sitting up perfectly straight.
Sourros, what shall I tell them? Where were you today?
A cold and powerful presence took shape in the realm of Galavar's awareness, as real and discrete as the Willful Table beneath his hands, yet not a part of the relance before him…a reality from another place. Its substance formed words that boomed in Galavar's head like a summer sky of thunder…not grandiose, but simply immense.
It was Our Will that you be challenged.
They want an explanation, Galavar insisted. They deserve one.
It is not within the orbit of the Kindred to understand why on this day.
Is this hypocrisy, O God of Understanding? You commanded that Sele be built. You helped it flourish. You lauded the Galance Ideal and endorsed the Galan Conquest. To this day you bring forth water from beneath the ground and provide many of our other needs. Why now does our work lie in ruin? Why now are so many of my friends and people dead? Why is our city on fire? How is this not abandonment or worse, and for what purpose are these many years gone by?
Sourros replied, I have thereby opened your mind to the great possibility that now lies before you. Before the Hero, you would never have considered it. After the Hero, it awaits you—brilliant and bare.
Galavar knew exactly what possibility Sourros meant. All evening, as the futility of his predicament had become clearer and clearer, a brazen choice had introduced itself into his thoughts and grown fat there. And he had let it in. He had let his mind dwell upon it, obsessively, as the God had clearly meant for him to do. For not only was it a valid possibility in itself, but it also served a hidden purpose: There was yet something else that had begun to take form in Galavar's mind on this night, a much more dangerous idea, one he dare not let Sourros perceive, and from which a powerful distraction was most welcome.
Sourros…you would have me wrestle with the whole people of Davoranj, myself?
I will be with you.
Then it is possible. Is it ethical?
Was it not ethical when you wrestled so with individuals? Is it different to wrestle with an entire nation? You will have to discover that for yourself.
Yet you have admitted that you conceived this to become an ultimatum before me, whose alternative is the doom of Gala. You have conceived to compel my acceptance of this possibility regardless of any concerns that may arise about it.
What shall I tell the Guard, whose trust in you is badly diminished as a consequence?
Present the possibility to them, and they too will decide for themselves. But do not be guiled by the freedom of choice, Mate of Relance. In the possession of wisdom such as yours, all decisions are clear.
And with that the presence of Sourros dissipated, floating away like a cloud onto the periphery of Galavar's awareness. He couldn't help but admire the God's shameless confidence. Sourros cared nothing for approval or consent, nor feared he any discovery of his designs, nor did he brandish any kind of ego at all. No airs, no pretenses, no posturing. Just logic-tempered conviction. Galavar admired that.
And Galavar opened his eyes, onto a Western Veranda that seemed quite smaller. He looked around, at the luscious walls and the tired faces of his people, and down, where his richly hued hands had turned white from pressing on the table so hard. He dismissed their grip, and rubbed them together tenderly.
"Well?" said DeLatia.
They were all watching him, waiting in various degrees of patience.
"Sourros has spoken," Galavar said. "However, to set his words, let us turn first to the decision that lies before us tonight."
He looked at Silence, to see if she would argue. But she didn't. Neither did DeLatia, nor Jemis.
Galavar said, "These are our choices:
"We could disband the realm of Vardas Gala, and retreat to the corners of the world to nurture the Galance Ideal in secret, in the hope that a future generation may be able to begin again."
"That's for dweebs," scoffed DeLatia.
"We could do it," he continued, ignoring her, "but it would amount to the supreme waste of the talents that each of you possesses, and the waste of everything and everyone we have elevated here. For Gala not to seek Galance in our lifetimes would be the most deplorable act of waste I can imagine in the history of the known world!, for in Gala we have gathered such wisdom and such power as has not been seen since the Age of the Gods, now of such a rarity anymore that if we squander it it may never come to exist again. And—"
"Galavar," said DeLatia, "what did I just say? Why are you still giving this air? You have some inconceivable fetish about listing every possible scenario. Enough. We're not disbanding Gala. Get on with it."
"Regardless of the waste it is a valid choice, for there is the possibility that, in secret, our ideals would take hold in other climes, and that, perhaps in some distant era to come, Galance would gradually be made real. If anyone wants to make the argument for this choice, I will sincerely listen."
"Next," DeLatia said.
Galavar frowned at her.
"Or…" he continued, "we could take our chance here. We could keep our gaze inward, spend many years healing from the losses of this day, rebuild Sele, and strengthen our defenses in anticipation of the subsequent invasions that we have every reason to suspect our enemies will visit upon us. Assuming Gregor is right and we could avoid destruction—which I doubt—it would still take decades, I think, for such a restoration to culminate, because each invasion would deal us another setback, and when we did at last set forth to war the great powers would be fully prepared for our arrival, and we would need to be that much stronger to overcome them. I don't think I would see the beginning of the Galan Conquest in my lifetime, let alone the conclusion of it. But some of you probably would still be alive to see it, and Gala would be with you, so let it stand as one of the choices before us."
He eyed DeLatia with an arched brow, but she just smiled at him, and waved with a blink of her eyes.
"I say that's the conservative choice," said Arderesh, "the cautious choice. I feel inclined that way myself tonight."
"I do too," said Gregor. "It's a workable plan. The other nations, maybe they will learn about Gala. So let them. That's not so catastrophic for us. It would only force us to alter our strategy. We could rebuild our strength right under their noses, and if we did it carefully they wouldn't intervene."
Said Galavar, "Save the discussion a trice, for there is still one more choice. Last of all, and in my appraisal best—though I grant it is debatable—we could abandon our old, well-laid plans, and strike out at once. We still have the element of surprise, if we seize it immediately. We could—and I say we should—begin the Galan Conquest tonight. Now, let us discuss."
"What about Sourros? What did Sourros say?" DeLatia asked.
"We'll get to that—by way of this discussion."
"I think," said Arderesh, "the first two choices—well, one of them is rubbish as DeLatia says, but the other—I think the case for being cautious and taking the time to regroup, even if it consumes a whole generation, is reasonably clear. Less so the case for striking out tonight. Yes, a door will close if we don't act quickly, but an open door is not a path to victory by itself. We need to know what's really on the other side of it."
As Resh talked Galavar found himself studying Benzan, who sat across the Willful Table, alone, at the foot. Benzan's isolation was not by design; the empty seats beside him were a fluke of Jemis lying on the sofa and Zirin having been killed, causing Gregor to advance to the second row; but it was still clear to everyone that Benzan was apart from the rest. Galavar wanted to include him in the discussion, as a way of softening the blow that was soon to come, yet could think of no way to do so constructively. It would only overwhelm the lad and annoy the Guards. And so he let Benzan sit there, observing.
But he did say, "I trust you are observing all of this closely."
"I'm trying," said Benzan.
Galavar smiled gently.
"Try, and succeed. As long as you can follow our meaning, that is good enough."
Benzan bowed his head in assent.
"It's a fair point, Arderesh," said Galavar. "Allow me to articulate the outline of the case for war. In both scenarios—going to war and entrenching ourselves—the line to victory begins by not perishing here. Either way, we must put our city back in order without delay. Gregor, naturally this task will fall primarily to you."
"Of course," he nodded.
"Can you succeed, if two-thirds of all our remaining resources are diverted to the war effort?"
Gregor sighed. He wasn't one for expressive body language, but his distant stare and lack of prompt affirmation said enough.
"With or without the war, I think we're going to starve here," he finally said. "I think rampant sickness is inevitable. And those two elements together may destroy us."
"What do you need?"
"It isn't that our miseries can't be prevented. It's that we don't have enough people to do what needs to be done in time. People, and materials. Even if we diverted nothing to the war effort, we wouldn't have enough food, goods, and labor to stabilize the situation at home. With apologies," he said to Jemis, "but we cannot make do with what we have got. Not this time. Not without enduring devastating hardship that may well destroy us."
"Like I said," said Jemis tiredly, "we make do with what we have. And if we die, we die. That's the tragedy of the Middemesne, and it has taken finer people than us."
Galavar said, "So you're in favor of regrouping here, Gregor, yet you foresee our potential collapse purely from sickness and need?"
"Yes, so clearly we can't go to war on top of that."
"You're looking at it backward, I think," came Galavar's retort. "I say we can supply Sele with the resources it needs by importing them."
Gregor cocked his head. "By which you mean plundering them."
"Or asking for them."
"Either way," said Galavar, "the commencement of the Galan Conquest creates the possibility of acquiring foreign resources. Staying home does not."
"That's not a line to victory," said Arderesh. "You're counting the spoils of hypothetical victory, not describing the line to actually get there. I grant that if we were to enjoy victory in war, then we would potentially 'acquire' relief for ourselves—putting aside for the moment the flagrant violation of the Galance Ideal that such a war objective would constitute."
"Not necessarily so," said Galavar. "Silence's example on the Sodaplains has set the precedent that we can help nations by first plundering from them. And in a subtler sense, our recruitment of the finest people among the nations to become the citizens of Gala amounts to plunder of another sort—but who would argue that it isn't for the good of everyone?"
"Regardless of that point," the Captain pressed, "what I want to know is how we're going to achieve a sufficient victory."
"So be it. DeLatia," asked Galavar, "can we subjugate Davoranj with our current strength?"
"No," she replied. "No chance at all. It's not even a question of luck."
"Yet if we do proceed tonight, Davoranj must fall, no?"
"Without delay," she said.
"Indeed," Galavar reasoned, "for the King of Davoranj will go inquiring after his Hero and his lost army, and word of what has transpired here today will reach the Polestars of Relance, and if it does then the nations will prepare a devastating alliance against us. But here is where an advantage appears: Rennem's insights into us, his awareness of our secrets, I think it is a fair assumption that these knowings have been held close to the beating heart of the Royal Court and the Davoranjan Aigas. If we do go to war, then if we also strike quickly and decisively against Davoranj I think we could yet preserve a large degree of our secrecy from the rest of the world—while securing the resources we so desperately need here in Sele.
"Thus," Galavar concluded, "if we can take Davoranj, we'll get the resources we need and we'll preserve the secrecy so integral to our long-term success."
"To say it simpler," said Jemis, "we have an unwinnable war that must be won immediately, to resolve an untenable crisis at home. Fancy."
"Certainly, Resh, Gregor, the case for staying put is not as clear as you may have thought," said Galavar. "Even if we don't spare anything for the war effort at all, we'll face extreme hardship here."
DeLatia leaned back in her seat and patted her belly. "That means we have to begin the Conquest. It doesn't matter that we don't have a line, because the only line that comes from staying home is death."
"So let's figure out how to venture forth successfully," declared Galavar. "The question is not to stay or to go, but how best to go. You ask for a line to victory, and I agree we need one. So give me one. What are our options? All of you."
What he had asked for, most mates would have dismissed as impossible. But not the Guard of Galavar. They all set to the question, and each came up with a response true to themselves.
"The Galan Conquest isn't strictly a military prerogative," said Arderesh. "We could sue for peace…accede to as many of King Leopus' terms as we can, and forge an alliance. We could return Aghnagos, maybe even track down Rennem's body and send it home for burial rites. Little gestures like that would help us negotiate a treaty, and a treaty would give us time to rebuild. Better yet, with a treaty perhaps Davoranj would share food and goods with us. The concessions we would have to make, I grant, would be steep. For one we would have to convert to their religion, at least nominally, but perhaps we could make such sacrifices for the sake of Galance."
"There's some wisdom to that," DeLatia said. "Rennem probably took his biggest stalwarts to war with him, and thus to death, so those who remain in Davoranj should be more amenable to negotiation. However I don't agree with a submissive tack. We need to erect a façade of great dread—scare them—but we can do that. We did slaughter their Hero, after all, and their best army, so if we threatened the Davoranjans in just the right manner they might get the idea that peace is preferable to another conflict with us. And as for specific concessions, like the religion thing, there's a lot we can concede that won't truly cost us anything. I'll put a bowl on my head and sing the Alcaring's praises from now till I throw up if it'll spare my soldiers and preserve the interests of Gala."
"Noble," said Galavar, half-seriously, and adding "but I don't think yours would be a very convincing act. We might want to present a more…tactful choir."
"Oh, one way or another, I'll be singing from the ramparts of the Castle of Arrogileomer at Davoranjium before this is over. They only get to pick which song."
"I don't see a peace accord happening," said Jemis. "I sure as bick don't think it's realistic to imagine crates of food crossing the Sodaplains to fill Galan bellies. They're a bunch of brutes. If they see us showing weakness they'll infer our poor position, while on the other hand if we come across as strong they'll have an excuse and a temptation to recommence hostilities."
"Not necessarily," said DeLatia. "They're a war-loving people, but they're not sociopathically fearless the way Silence is." Galavar flashed DeLatia a stern look, but she went right on. "That means they're predictable, hence manipulable. If we presented the proper threat to them, they'd roll over. Inside every tyrant is the knowledge of obedience. So when it comes to getting the supplies we need, if we phrased our needs as a demand for war reparations, I think we'd have better success than trying to negotiate from a more deferential position."
"Dangerous," said Jemis. "You're saying there's some middle ground, but I don't see it. If we push them they'll fight because that's what warriors do when they're up against the wall, and if we don't push them they'll fight because that's what warriors do when they smell blood."
"Jemis?" Galavar asked. "Do you have a different idea?"
"We could mesmerize them. They're a superstitious bunch of simpletons. Give me a bit of time to recover, and rally the remaining numeneers in Gala, and, by the Power of the Gods—I hope—through sheer trickery we may well be able to cheat and peck our way into Davoranj. Conquer them in secrecy."
"That wouldn't be enough by itself," said DeLatia. "The Davoranjan warrior tradition runs deep. Even if we killed the leaders, we'd still end up fighting the general populace."
"Mesmerizing them doesn't have to mean killing them, DeLatia," Jemis said. "That's my point. We could deceive their leaders, or plant new ideas in their minds, but keep their own power structure intact."
Gregor chipped in, saying, "It could be possible to combine Arderesh's peace negotiations and Jemis' trickery. Though, it does seem unsavory to lie on such a scale."
"No political lie is as unsavory as frontal army engagements," replied DeLatia. "I think the phrase we want here is 'The ends justify the means.' Anything we can do to stabilize our position peacefully, must be done. I'm more than willing to consider Jemis' methods."
"DeLatia," said Galavar, "if I'm not mistaken you nonetheless do have some kind of military solution in mind, yes?"
"Of course. That's my job. We can't take the Kingdom of Davoranj, but we do have the strength to take Soda Fountain—which we had always intended would be our first target anyway. The confessions we recorded today from some of the Davoranjan captives clearly established that Soda Fountain quartered the Davoranjans prior to their march here, and that King Clavarius gave his personal endorsement to Rennem's campaign, complete with provisions, animals, and counsel. The Sodish have earned a reprisal, I think."
She became more animated as she continued, gesturing as though she were building the scene with her own hands:
"We could take the city, and from there we could pacify and conscript much of their population, annex their possessions, and revive ourselves from their bounty—all while preparing for an invasion of Davoranj to the north. It's ethically dubious with respect to the Galance Ideal if we look at it out of context, but we could make amends in the future and repair the bad blood with the Sodish over time. I think it's our only viable military option that has a reasonable chance of success—which makes it, in context, completely ethical."
"Conscriptions may not be necessary," said Arderesh. "Soda Fountain has one overriding mantra: 'Commerce is the basis for peace and prosperity.' I think they'll agree to an alliance, if they can be persuaded that such a thing will profit them."
"All of these proposals so far are compatible," Galavar said. "Outstanding."
"Speaking of alliances and compatible ideas," said Gregor, "I have a somewhat different tack to suggest. We could forget about Davoranj and look to the Middemesne instead. We've always intended that the Galan Conquest would go north, over the Sodaplains and up into Davoranj, then southwest down the Keferst River Valley. That's the best route, but it isn't the only one. We could go west over the Howl Riada and begin the Galan Conquest in the Middemesne. Alliances are easy to build there; they're always at each other's throats. We could make a few loins, amass favors, build the foothold we need to progress in the war—and win the resources we need to recover at home."
"No," DeLatia said flatly. "We've been over this before. The day we begin conquering the Middemesne is the day the Empire of Panathar begins to prepare for war against us. The Middemesne is their puppet show, their turf. When we go there, we open the gates to the endgame of the Galan Conquest…not the beginning of it. That day is going to be a long time from this day."
At the foot of the table, Benzan's gaze turned absolutely crestfallen, for Ictier was in the Middemesne.
DeLatia continued, "And that's to say nothing of what Davoranj will do. If we leave them alone then Davoranj will be at liberty to recover and hit us from the north—and they will do so—even while the Empire readies more of the same from the south.
"Our only option is to stay with the original war plan, go north to Davoranj, and then, later on, south down the Keferst River. That way we'll gain control of the entire northeast of the world and we'll have defensible fallback boundaries in the Howl Riada and the Keferst River Valley, while keeping the Empire docile for as long as possible. I know the Empire. They have too much inertia for their own good. We can genuinely delay war with them, but only if we sweep north."
"It's a good suggestion, Gregor," said Galavar, "but DeLatia is right."
"Aye," he said. "I trust her judgment in this over mine."
"Do you have a proposal, Silence?" Galavar asked.
From her window perch she said, "No, because you already have one, and it's going to be the one we carry out. This conversation is all for our benefit, to soften us by our own admissions that no attractive alternatives exist."
DeLatia turned around in her seat and gave Silence a funny look, then turned back to Galavar and said "She's right, isn't she?"
"She is indeed," chuckled Galavar. "I have a plan of my own, though it incorporates many of the same good ideas as we have already heard here."
"Why all this discussion, then?" asked Jemis.
"As Silence said, it's better for each of you to have your say, in order to illustrate why we have to commence the Conquest immediately, and why my plan is the one we're going to take up to do it."
"So what is this plan?" DeLatia asked.
"Much of it, you've already described. War, peace, diplomacy, deception. All the usual means. But there is one, exceptional addition: I propose, and Sourros has agreed to help, that I mindwash the entire population of Davoranj."
The very suggestion changed the mood in the room. Someone whistled softly.
"It's really possible?" Gregor asked.
"I think it is," said Galavar.
Jemis said, "So we're that bad off, then?"
"I think you have said it yourselves that we are."
"Bick, Galavar! Mindwash a whole people? Are you sure?"
"I have every confidence in the mindwashing of individuals, be they the wayward sort or the intractable. Will it turn out as well on a grand scale? I think it can. I'm not certain, of course, but I'm willing to try. I've heard some clever proposals here, yet even the best of them is wishful and I think you will all admit to that. And we don't rely on wishes."
"What did Sourros say to you?" Gregor asked.
"Aye," Galavar said. "It's time for me to answer that question. Gird yourselves."
Galavar sipped his tea, slowly, then cleared his throat, and finally he declared:
"Sourros said it was the Will of the Gods that we be challenged."
"So we were betrayed," said DeLatia instantly. The contempt in her voice was sudden and terrible, and her face soured into a nasty convolution of wrath.
"A challenge is not the same thing as a betrayal," Galavar replied.
"I know we admire logical dispassion here and everything," Jemis said, "but take a look outside and tell me what you see."
Benzan raised a hesitant hand and said, "Um…excuse me?"
Everyone turned to look at him, who winced under the scrutiny, but recovered and held himself high.
"What is it, Benzan?"
"Keeper Finick is right. Earlier, when you were telling me about Aghnagos—" he pointed to the Hero's Staff on the table "—you said it troubled you that the power of the Gods would collide like it has, and that we're the ones who bear the cost of it. If what happened today was the doing of the Gods, then what I see outside is not a challenge to us. I only see slaughter."
"From the mouth of a babe, Galavar," DeLatia said, holding her hand up at Benzan but looking into the eyes of the Meretange.
"It almost seems that Sourros wanted to push us into this," said Gregor.
"Don't say that it 'seems' to be," Galavar chided, "for that is exactly what Sourros told me. He wants the mindwashing to go ahead. From the way he phrased it, I think he allowed Rennem's invasion against us—perhaps even had a hand in preparing it—in concert with Derishos, for the purpose of putting us into this position."
"What?" gasped Jemis.
Silence, from the window, hissed.
"Did we piss him off or something?" DeLatia asked. "Or are we just that worthless to him?"
"Let's not assume our own preeminence in Sourros' thinking," mused Arderesh. "The plans of Sourros clearly transcend our own political endeavors. Injustice abounds on Relance. It is neither the responsibility nor the station of the Gods to stop it. It is our responsibility, our station, as mates of power and conscience. I think Davoranj determined on its own to set itself against us, and Sourros decided that the best outcome would be to allow Rennem's invasion to proceed, setting up the mindwashing as a counterstroke."
"Yes, but to allow it to happen to us? We're not the pawns." DeLatia looked at Galavar and repeated, "We're not the pawns, Galavar! You're the heir to the heritage of the Village of Ieik, the chosen people of Sourros, protected by him since—forever! And we're sitting here discussing our conquest of the whole fucking world on behalf of the wisdom that Sourros is said to epitomize. And outside this room are some of the finest people on Relance, who we brought here one by one as immigrants of opportunity, and to whom we owe a fair chance. What interest does Sourros serve by alienating us like this, and by killing us—or explicitly allowing others to do it? Unless he always meant to betray us?"
"It's a good question," Resh agreed.
"It's no question at all," said Jemis. "He's dumped us. We're on our own."
"Except we're not," Gregor countered. "We're going to rely more heavily on him than ever before if we—if you, Galavar—use his power to mindwash the people of Davoranj, and…and what? Gather an army from them?"
"That's the idea," said Galavar. "A large one. Davoranj would become completely loyal to us in one fell stroke. No…not loyalty. They would become Galan. Mindwashing combines two people and washes the best of both onto both. The Davoranjan people would become like unto ourselves here in Sele. We'd easily gather an army from among them, to set forth against the rest of the world, and they would gladly share with us every morsel of food, every hammer and nail they could spare."
"For what purpose?!" insisted DeLatia. "That's what I want to know. Why let Rennem's invasion through? Why the mindwashing instead of our own plan to use a Galan army in six years' time? And if it's some vast eternal plan that our little minds would never fathom, why didn't Sourros just ask us to go and mindwash Davoranj from the beginning? Why let us be brought to our knees instead? Our city is flowing in gore. He could have just asked us."
"Could this all be, perhaps, some kind of divine politics?" mused Arderesh.
"Enough of your 'perhapses,'" griped Jemis.
But Arderesh went on, "Davoranj is the chosen land of Derishos. Her divine realm of Nuajj hangs high in the sky above it. And Derishos has long been the most widely worshipped of the Gods by far. The mindwashing of her chosen people into the Galan fold could be a way for Sourros to reassert his power in Relance."
"That's contrary to everything we know about the nature of Sourros," DeLatia objected. "He's the God of Logic and Wisdom. He doesn't covet power."
"No he doesn't," Silence agreed, quietly. "He wants the mass mindwashing to proceed, and permitted the invasion against us, all for some other reason." She gave Galavar a hard look. "Did he tell you what it is?"
"In fact Sourros explicitly told me it isn't our place to know," Galavar answered. "At least not yet."
"Then we mustn't carry out his will," Silence resolved. "I made the choice to accept Sourros as a patron in our ambition. Not to worship him. If he would allow all this without a word of revelation, then he has declared himself our enemy and we have the obligation not to carry out his will."
"We don't have the luxury of defying Sourros for the sake of defying him," Gregor said.
"You sound like you're changing your mind," said Arderesh.
"Perhaps," said Gregor. "Perhaps I am. I think this mass mindwashing could really work. We need relief, badly, and our other options are very poor." He hissed, an indulgent display for him. "Sourros is clever."
"Don't tell me you're willing to go on serving him after this," Silence said. "You just want more nails, don't you? Mindwash Davoranj and the crisis in Sele will end. You're thinking only of civil administration, and ignoring what's just."
Gregor countered, "Would you rather die in failure than accept that the Gods are above the Kindred?"
"Of course she would," said DeLatia. "And she'd let everyone else die too."
"I don't intend that we fail," Silence persisted. "We'll find another way, if there is a way to be found, and we'll make a way if there isn't." She flashed her left hand at Gregor. "And that's not rhetoric." To DeLatia again she said, "But if we join Sourros in his scheme now, we'll be betraying the Galance Ideal."
"Is that really true?" Gregor asked. "You're not above manipulating people for the sake of a greater cause, and for that matter it's not an illegitimate tactic. Rennem and his warriors, not Sourros, killed our people. There is a difference."
"They would never have had the chance had Sourros not willfully given it to them," Silence said coldly. "Manipulating people is fine as a general tool, but not every instance of it is fine."
"I forget sometimes that only you get to be the arbiter of that," Gregor said.
A strange sound came from Silence, cut off very suddenly. Perhaps the beginning of a word. Whatever it was she let it go, and said nothing.
"I think the point here is that Sourros succeeded in manipulating us," spoke Arderesh. "Whether we like it or not, this is where we live now, and looking ahead from here I think I agree with Gregor. If we're really going to proceed with the Galan Conquest tonight—and if Galavar wants it then I haven't heard anything here to suggest that that's not what we're going to do—then I think the mass mindwashing is our best way forward."
"Bick that," Jemis said.
Resh asked, "Why 'bick'? You're in favor of commencing the Conquest. Why are you against the mindwashing?"
"I have my doubts about mass mindwashing," said Jemis. "I think we all do, and we're glossing over our concerns for the sake of accepting Galavar at his word that it'll turn out proper." He looked at Galavar, crooking his head from the sofa. "But even if it does turn out, Gally, what if there's someone in that sea of people who'll change you more than you change them?"
"Then I'll be better off for it," Galavar replied.
"So you say, but are you totally sure of it?"
"No, but that's how the mindwashing works. Without the conceit of ego, the best ideas win."
"Maybe so," Jemis sighed. "But what of the other end of the rope? If you mindwash so many people, will there be anything left of you? You've always changed a little bit after mindwashing somebody. Now imagine the whole people of Davoranj each changing you by a drop."
DeLatia agreed, "I think it's a fair question to ask. Who are you going to be when the mindwashing is over?"
"I assume that this is part of where Sourros' assistance is going to come in," Galavar replied. "He has the means to preserve my identity in matters that are less important to the act of persuasion…things like opinions and tastes."
"You're trusting Sourros, then?" DeLatia asked.
Jemis sighed again. "And to answer your question, Arderesh, it's mainly the idea of rewarding Sourros for this bloodbath that lights me on fire."
"But, other than that," said Resh, "it's a pretty good idea, right?"
"What do you mean 'other than that'? That's the whole point!"
"Maybe it's not. Think about it. Really, think about it. A good idea that comes from a difficult place is still a good idea, isn't it?"
"We don't know enough for me to say yes," the Trickster replied. "So out of caution—which has helped me live to see this day—I say no. I'm against it."
Galavar looked at DeLatia.
"DeLatia? We know where the others stand. What do you think?"
"It's as tempting as it's meant to be," she said, musing. "I feel betrayed. But I'm older than you, Galavar. I'm the oldest person in this room. I want to live to see this war. I want to live to see the end of it. I might not have it in me to be general twenty years from now. I've wanted this for as long as you have. We hatched this plan together. If we don't commence it now, when will we? The Galan Conquest isn't an inheritance for the generations. It's our life's work!
"Hearing Jemis' blind contempt and Silence's blind defiance makes me realize that, as Resh says, this is where we live now. Fucking fucker Sourros fucked us over, that's clear. And that's painful, considering how much I've liked him, and how well-disposed toward him I've been over the course of my long and prudent and profitable and enviable and fashionable lifetime. What he did to us today, changes everything. But for the purpose of the Vardas Council, and the question of where to go from here, here we are. There is exactly one superior choice and we all know what it is. Sourros wants something, and he's rigged the events of the world so that we get what we want by giving him what he wants."
She said it bitterly, but then the scathing note dropped from her voice, and she became more thoughtful.
"As I think on it, I find it hard to imagine that Sourros would orchestrate some kind of treason. Why would he? That's not his riff. There's another way to look at it, one that makes lots more sense. I think Sourros' regard for our lives and welfare befits that of an aloof and timeless deity, a being for whom the Kindred are just specks. I don't think he can see all this carnage at the level of visceral detail we can—literally visceral detail. Boot-smuckingly visceral detail. I don't think he understands as we do what he's cost us.
"And in the meantime there's no other way ahead that doesn't involve luck and wishes, and as you say we don't rely on those. We're going to die even more if we don't do something incredible. That's where the mindwashing comes in. That's the incredible choice. The way to win our own desires now is to accept that Sourros played us, and follow the course he wants us to take."
She looked at Silence.
"We may be pawns after all, Silence, but we're not powerless. We'll be more vigilant in the future. Divine succor or not, there'll never be another surprise attack on Sele again. We'll make sure of that."
"Yes we will," said Silence.
Galavar looked at Silence, resting on her perch on the banister of the window, hands folded in her lap, staring idly ahead of herself, her left side to the Willful Table and her right to the black sky.
"Silence? You've been somewhere else tonight. Too distant, even for you. Especially now."
"I don't like what we're deciding," she protested. "This is the wrong way to go. But…what can I do? I'll abide by the majority. I see the arguments. I see the allure. And we may yet preserve some of our integrity in this. We can certainly try."
"That's not what I mean," Galavar told her.
She gave him a queer look.
"What do you want me to say?"
"Say what's wrong," he told her. "I want to know what you're holding back."
"I'm not going to discuss what Sourros said at my assession."
"That's not what I mean—and you know it."
He snapped, "You can excuse yourself if you're not able to contribute to this conversation with your full faculties and fervor. But without all of my living Guards at my side unwaveringly, the Vardas Council has no hope of succeeding."
"That came out of nowhere," said Jemis, ostensibly to himself.
"No it didn't," said Galavar, still staring straight at Silence. "Everyone else here is giving their all. But you…you're not. You're not even here. So out with it now, or be gone and take our hopes with you."
Silence glared at Galavar. For a moment she seemed about to speak, but then it passed and her lips tightened together to match the anger in her eyes. On her face anger was all that he could discern, and maybe resentment. Whatever thoughts lay concealed beneath that visage were completely obscured. But he was right that there was something there, for a moment later Silence swung her legs outward—out the night side of the window—and stepped off the banister. From the warm glow of the lamplight she vanished instantly into the windy black night.
Benzan cried, "Did she just—"
"There's a balcony there," said Galavar, curtly. "Don't worry."
"Did you really need to push on her like that?" asked Arderesh. "We were having a perfectly good conversation."
"We were," Galavar said. "That's the problem. I have things yet to say that greatly affect her. I need her here, with us. When she won't admit what's on her mind, usually it's no immediate matter, but not tonight. Tonight I have to know."
DeLatia said, "I get worried when she gets into one of her funks. Is she going to be okay?"
The spirubus didn't ask out of concern, and indeed the flavor of her tone was annoyance, but out of a stark professionalism, and continued, "I'm not sure she belongs here, Galavar. Especially now that we have the screws on us. She's not…" DeLatia twiddled the fingers of her right hand beside her head "…all there."
"You've always thought that way," Galavar replied, "and I've always shut you down. She belongs in here as much as you do. She's just more finicky than you are. No less precious to the success of Galance."
Then, rising from his seat at the head of the Willful Table, Galavar said to all of them, "I'm going outside to talk to her, draw out whatever's eating at her. Before I go, let me say this: I don't care what Sourros' true purpose is. Rather, I do care, but we can ponder it another time. We can have our reckoning with him later. For now—for right now—we are where we are, in the midst of the most desperate night in the history of Gala, and there's very little time for introspection. Nor can we afford to let resentment keep us from making good choices. I want to draw a line from here to the best possible Galan future. So this is your last chance to conceive a superior alternative. When I return, have something better waiting for me on the table, or the mindwashing is what we're going to decide. Remember the Galan anthem."
And with that he departed from the lights, and onto the balcony of the Western Veranda.
After he left, Gregor excused himself to visit the toilet, and DeLatia stretched back in her seat and shut her eyes. The discussion was over; there would be no superior alternative.
Benzan looked to Arderesh and asked, "Why did he do that to her?"
"Lad," began the Captain Lieutenant, "when you know someone that well, and when you need them that much, their problems are your problems. And when that happens, sometimes good friends need to be sour with each other if they want to get to the bottom of things."
"What's her problem?"
"I can only imagine," Resh answered, smiling at Benzan and suppressing a yawn. "Silence is not an easy one to figure out."
"Yes she is," DeLatia said, her eyes still shut. "She's not enigmatic. She's moody, and no more deep than a dishpan that reflects the sky. And just as greasy."
"So says our Lilit," Resh said, still looking at Benzan. "But take my word over hers, lad. Right now, Galavar…"
He trailed off, not finding his words.
Finally he said, "I suppose the best way to put it is that, when they come back, everything will be fine."
* * *
Greatest of the Evening Stars
HOW VAST THE NIGHT SKY; how wavy the stars in the wind…
With the moons down the world was completely dark, and in that dark Galavar could see the shine from his city reflecting off the smoke plumes. Most of Sele itself was masked by Galadrim's own shape, but the western reaches were in sight as ever. Yet the normal lights in that part of the city were largely absent; in their place was a pottage of fires, spotlights, and torches.
Galavar couldn't see Silence, not at first, in the dark, but he could feel her pulse of irritation. He could hear it in the nothings she spoke. He could see it in the absence of the light. And he could smell it on her scent.
So he looked into the wind, where she would be, and asked, "Tore a nail?"
"Why are you singling me out?"
"You know the answer to that question. It's unlike you to feign ignorance, and unnerving when you flirt with the passive-aggression I know you hate. What's wrong?"
Silence didn't answer, not willfully. Only the wind blew at him, carrying the unintended reply of her scent. Hers was a strong one anyway, and after a day of battle and sweat, with a dressing of entrails from the vanquished, it was absolutely foul. Everybody else smelled just as bad, each in their own brand, but underneath hers was the clear stench of a more immediate exasperation, and those rancid hints disquieted him. If it were any other person, Galavar would have guessed she were on the verge of yelling, maybe tears—or both. But not this one. Silence was different. So he kept his distance.
The stars twinkled violently; the sky was perturbed tonight. Rightly so. He looked up on it. The Veil of Te Illaruívnior shone high overhead this time of year, flanking the sky from the crests of the Howl Riada in the northwest to the walls of Galadrim. Beneath the Veil hung the pinwheels of Nimbus and Tae, homes of hope and goodwill. As a child of Ieik Galavar knew the truth of the night sky. The stars were other suns, like Relance's own but vastly farther away. And the ribbons and pinwheels were just more stars, even farther away still.
Compared to all that, how vividly close was the person standing before him, in the sidereal daylight of the Cosmos, no matter what his emotions might say in this moment. That was one of the truths inscribed in the pillars of the Lesser Eye of Sourros: How close together are our most distant frontiers, under the night sky.
And yet, here they were.
"I'm tempting the kurajits, aren't I?" he asked, from across the tiny gulf between them.
But still she wouldn't speak.
Galavar frowned, grateful that no one could see the unease about him, and grateful that he was downwind of Silence so that his own scent wouldn't tell her anything. He felt foolish for wanting to protect himself from her scrutiny, especially since they were out here at all because he wanted to scrutinize her, but Silence knew him very well, and had a way of making him uneasy, sometimes, and he didn't like to expose himself to her in such times.
So he waited. He told the voice of impatience wailing inside of him to be at ease, for even in a disaster some things were unwise to rush. It was hard for him to imagine what it might be that weighed on her now, but, whatever it was, it hearkened to older times. Her withdrawnness reminded him of the Silence who had come to Gala many years ago…melancholy half the day and furious the other half, as abrasive to her Kindred peers as a mate could be, and never more than a step away from violence. He took a moment to reflect on how much she had matured. Not changed; she was still Silence Terlais. Grown. These last few years in particular had been especially gratifying for Galavar, to see her grow and settle into the person he had known she could be. Gala had been kind to her—as it was with all mates who came here from harder lives.
Was it the existential threat to Gala, then, that troubled her now?
Suddenly Galavar thought of Benzan. That one was just about the age Silence had been, when she came here. But how different of a presence those two cut. Silence had never in her whole life seemed young—at least not that kind of young—whereas Benzan seemed almost like a babe on the bosom.
When Galavar spoke again, his tone was one of warmth—neither pressing nor pleading. He said, gently:
"Silence, please talk to me."
"I know, I know."
And at last she began:
"I'm better than this. I hoped I could keep it all in."
He knew that tone, that uncannily reserved voice, her artifice of composure in the midst of some intricate turmoil. She would have been even quieter still, but her mind was oblivious to nothing, and she gave her words enough volume—only just—that they wouldn't drown in the fierce wind.
"I hoped I would get away with nothing more embarrassing than a bad joke. But I didn't answer your stupid question, and now I'm the joke. The special student again, out here alone on the balcony with Teacher while everyone else sits back in there and scoffs at me. I bet Gregor's shaking his head like I were a disappointing pet. I bet DeLatia's giving me the stink eye behind my back."
"She is. She doesn't think much of your mental constitution. And good for her. I need different viewpoints, and she's not completely wrong. But don't worry about that, and don't worry about her. Don't resent yourself."
"I don't. I never did. I resent being dismissed…and I know that I am."
"You belong here. Even she knows that. DeLatia's just frustrated tonight, and who can blame her?"
Silence reached out with her left arm, to stroke the distant stars, before drawing her hand slowly back down to the banister, close before her belly. There she snapped her fingers, making a tiny flash of red light.
"Bloodlust," she finally said.
"I'm still ready to kill."
"Not the Davoranjans."
"I don't care who."
Galavar's eyes had begun to adjust to the dark, and he could make out her form more clearly now. The few loose bits of her hair and clothing flapped fiercely in the night wind. Yet she herself stood totally still. In a breeze like this an ordinary stance would cause a mate to sway a bit, but Silence deliberately held her body steady against the wind. She was very good at it.
"Shall I keep my distance?" he asked.
"No. Come here."
He stepped toward her, joining her at the outer balustrade. Silence didn't like it when people stood on her left side, so Galavar stood beside her on the right. He folded his hands at his rear and said,
"Tell me about bloodlust."
"I haven't felt like this…since I left Junction City. That horrible day. I've gotten worse all evening. When Benzan asked me his question out of nowhere, about being banished, I almost killed him. It was like he could see what I'm struggling with, and insulted me for it. Of course I know better, but…part of me doesn't. Part of me doesn't. All I could see, in that moment, was…"
She shook her said, changed her mind, and said, "I don't think you want to know how close I came to killing him."
"You've been in battle many times since we met. Up to your neck in blood. It never fazes you. What was different today?"
"I kill when killing is the right thing to do. It brings me pleasure, then. Or, if nothing else, it brings me relief."
"That's always been a hallmark of yours. Most people find it very hard to kill, ever. Ours is usually a social species."
"I know it's not couth to admit to, but I wouldn't pretend I feel any other way, and I'm happy to say it from here."
"Do you know how our social nature makes it so hard for most people to kill, Galavar?"
"There are many reasons."
"There's only one that matters. You're thinking of compassion, and ethics. But no. People thinking about those things usually wouldn't kill in the first place. I'm talking about the times when people would kill, but don't. Then, there's just one thing that holds them back."
"We've had this conversation before."
"Sometimes it's meaningful to repeat the words."
"Order," he said.
"Exactly. That's what 'society' means. Order. People resist their disruptive compulsions because it's in their nature to behave socially, and killing without social sanction is the ultimate disruption to society. So people refrain, as a matter of instinct, and they invent grandiose religions to rationalize it. And the few who don't refrain, they become society's murderers and are looked on with all the fear and contempt that cultural gravity can muster.
"But it's a flawed regime," she lamented. "Some murders aren't murders after all; they're justified killings. In those times, our dependency on social order hurts the cause of justice. And on the other hand, there are a lot of people out there who deserve to die but remain alive by the sanctity of the social order—and in the demesnes of our societal blind spots these mates often flourish.
"I don't have that social quality. I don't possess, anywhere in my being, that social connection to the Kindred. And that means it has no power over me. If I make the decision to kill, I'm going to do it. What was DeLatia saying back there about me, me being 'sociopathically fearless,' or something? I'm not fearless." She chuckled. "Just a sociopath."
"What are you saying?"
"I kill when killing is the right thing to do. To me that is as just as eating when I'm hungry. Society would look harshly upon me for it, but they're the ones who are in the wrong, and the reason they're in the wrong is because they need to maintain their fetid and unwieldy social order, because they're so dependent on it. If the pursuit of justice upsets their order, then justice is abandoned. Justice means nothing to them."
"That's a bit of a generalization."
"A little bit. Don't get me wrong. Order serves its purpose. If everybody could kill with impunity, we'd fall back into the Dissonance. But that's only because most people are so untrustworthy, so ignorant. The ugliness of dependency. They need their order. But…ah…those ludicrous contortions…that people impose upon themselves and each other. It's all such a silly mimicry…the desperate pretense of society as though it were truly civilization. In the end, they're more animal than I am."
"I'm not entirely sure I follow, but those sound like Empire words. You should be holding a glass of wine and wearing a cravat."
She chuckled—wanly, but sincerely.
"Not quite my forte."
And she looked out at the stars, and watched them. Galavar looked at them too. The Landstorm was so dark under the moonless sky that he could only tell where it ended because the stars themselves took its place. He had the strange thought, then, that if Relance were to vanish there would simply be more sky behind it.
And what of the sky itself? Was there anything behind that? Or did it continue forever? He'd asked Sourros once, and Sourros had told him to find out.
Was Silence seeing the constellations, he wondered? Perhaps Ember, the Swordsmate? Holding the Dissonance at bay by force? Serigunos, the Engineer? Whose works banished the Dissonance by artifice? There was a lot for a Silence to look at in the sky and feel akin to.
But no. No, if he had to guess, she was looking at the stars…but she wasn't seeing them.
"How many times," Galavar mused, "how many nights, did I stare into the west and dream of the future? When I was a lad, I looked into this sky more nights than not. I forget sometimes that I loved the sunset and the evening even before you came along. But I did. I didn't even have my dream yet, back then. But I had the dreamstuff, and that was good enough. So I looked out at the world and imagined going there. In time I did go there. And you and I agree on many things, and from what I discovered in the world I resolved to create Gala, and Galance, and bring into being the future as I saw it in my ambitions.
"Now," he continued, "the future is finally arriving…on wings of misery and smoke. Golly. Sixty-nine years old, Silence. Half a lifetime, at best. More likely two-thirds done. But at last the future begins, on this very evening."
"Today…" she said, taking a long time to find her words, "…today the killing wasn't right. Today a lot of people died who shouldn't have. By design. A lot of murder, on both sides. But I participated in it anyway, to defend my life and my way of life." She looked at him, briefly. "I'm an animist, Galavar. It tortures me to see murder."
"I know what you mean."
"The sight of death, by itself, is something I can accept. Likewise the act of bringing it. The injustice of today, that's where my acceptance ends. I killed when killing was the wrong thing to do. So did you. So did everyone. And I think it means that our golden future was a lie told to us by the Gods."
"It doesn't have to be. The Galance Ideal is my own conception, and ours together. It wasn't presented to me by the Gods. It is a Kindred ambition."
"I'm not talking about the worthiness of the ambition. I'm talking about the viability of it. I didn't have time to think about all this until I came up to the Veranda, but it's been boiling in me all afternoon, furiouser every hour, and it's like I said before: Rennem should never have made it all the way to the Fortress of Galadrim, only to fail at the last moment, and I wonder what it means that he did. He should have succeeded completely, or been stopped at the city gates. That it turned out the way it did, the bloodiest possible outcome for no gain to anyone, was all by design of the Gods. I had already begun to suspect that, earlier today, and then you came along and said that Sourros outright admitted it."
For one breath her calm veneer convulsed and she grunted, nearly screamed, in clenched teeth,
"Outright admitted it!"
"Yes. He admitted it."
"We've been used. Thus has my bloodlust awakened. That's where it comes from. It's not the injustice we've been wrung through, today—not by itself. It's that we were forced into injustice. We were used. I can't stand that. I can't stand that! And what am I to do when the Gods betray me?"
He regretted it as soon as he said it. Silence hated it when people were flippant about the things that mattered to her.
"I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean to be flippant. I only mean that we have no reason not to proceed as planned."
"That's another thing. If you go along with the mindwashing, we'll be used again. We'll be continuing to fulfill the Will of the Gods, and for good measure we'll be rewarding Sourros for torturing us. It's the worst kind of powerlessness."
"Not the mindwashing. The being used."
"I was saying, the mindwashing is a wonderful experience. You know that."
She exhaled once, a small laugh.
"As the first person you ever tried it on."
"You changed very little that day," Galavar said. "You changed me more than I changed you. But even I didn't change all that much. I was still myself. The Davoranjan people…they'll retain their identity, their culture, their songs and stories, their hopes, fears. It'll all still be there. The only thing to really change about them is that they'll come to see the merit of Gala, and the outline of justice, as I see it for myself—as we see it. That'll be a good thing."
"Do we still see it the same way?"
"Do we not? I haven't changed. You haven't."
"Then why do we disagree on this?"
"Try and separate the mindwashing from the plans of Sourros. The mindwashing is going to be a great boon. It'll raise up a lot of mediocre people into a realm of awareness that they may never have dreamed about. It'll open them to new ideas and possibilities. And let's not forget that it will also prevent the bloodshed of war. That Sourros wants the mindwashing too, well…lucky for him. We're doing it for us, for the Kindred."
"It's interesting, isn't it," said Silence, ignoring him, "that being thrust into a slaughterhouse evokes my bloodlust? It's interesting that my animal reaction to being forced to kill senselessly is to become a senseless killer."
"It's probably just a way of coping with the trauma."
"I don't think so. I think it says something about me."
And she meant it.
"As far as the mindwashing itself goes," she continued, "I have mixed feelings about it. I like the thought of preventing war, but to get there by mindwashing is a costlier road than you realize. A point of view is still a point of view, and the world is better off with many of them. Mindwashing a person will make them Galavar-oriented. Doing that to a whole country, especially one as large as Davoranj, will narrow the breadth of the world."
"I disagree. The Davoranjans won't become a mass of Galavars. They'll still be themselves—only as though I had won a great philosophical argument with each of them.
"And, anyhow," he continued, "this talk of narrowing diversity is spurious. Davoranjan society is already narrow. The mindwashing will create tolerance for a great many new lifestyles and subcultures…all without resorting to the force of lance or law."
"We're having two different arguments," she said. "How about this: What if I were the one to perform the mindwashing?"
"What of it?"
"Do you think the Davoranjan people would not come to bear a distinctly Silencelike sheen? Can you not see how that might cause problems?"
"It's true that most people are not fit to mindwash a whole nation. But I think you would qualify."
"Do you really?"
"I suppose I'd have to ponder it. But I do know that I'm fit for it."
"I agree that you're the best choice of anyone I can envision, including myself, but I don't agree that the resulting homogenization of people's character won't come at a steep price. I keep imagining myself carrying out the mindwashing and then going to Davoranj and meeting person after person who reminds me of myself. I think that would make the world excruciatingly smaller. No one is going to be a better Silence than I already am, and seeing a whole nation of lesser Silences—"
"But that's not how it's going to be. You're not a lesser Galavar. I'm not a lesser Silence. We're two different people."
"I think it worked well in our case, and I think there are other individual cases where it would also work well. But I don't think it scales up well, not to an entire population.
"Also," she said, "all of this assumes that the mindwashing goes as you intend. Who's to say that further betrayals don't lie in store for us?"
"I think that's unlikely."
"But do you know? That's the problem with losing trust in someone unpredictable. What does Sourros want with a mindwashed nation of Davoranjans, anyway? Don't do it."
"Is there an alternative?"
"Not a good one."
"So, we should abandon our hopes, then? Or pursue wild hopes?"
"No…" her voice carried off in the wind. "We've got more than just hope. We've got our wits. We've got our strength. We should take the harder road. We can create a better alternative. And Galavar?"
"If we do succeed in laying roots in another land, I think we should reestablish the Galan capital there and leave Sourros behind, to bide the ages away, in the dust under the Sheer."
"What did he say to you, at your assession? What did he say about Gala?"
She didn't answer. Instead she said, "Bloodlust…have you ever felt it? It's not anger. It's something primal. It's not poetic. It's not romantic. It is the impulse of destruction. I want to kill. All I can do is behave like a civilized creature until it calms down."
"It's a fair question," Galavar conceded. "What do you suppose his reason is? And not just the mindwashing, but putting us through this invasion? He could have gotten the one without the other. He had to have known how badly we would react."
"He also deduced we would go along with it anyway, apparently."
"But what do you suppose he wants?"
"I can't think of anything. All I see when I think about it is my own blind fury. I hope Sourros wants me to disavow him, because that's what he's got. It's just too bad I can't take out my bloodlust on him tonight."
"Threatening God is not a smart ambition, Silence. Would you dare argue with that? You might."
She turned and looked at him queerly, hanging him in her gaze for a long moment. But she didn't talk. Instead she turned slowly back out to face the stars of the west.
"Did I misspeak?"
"It's strange to hear from you. One of the things I've always liked about you is that you don't bow down to the Gods."
"I'm not about to start, either. But there's a difference between not bowing down to somebody and actively threatening them."
"You sound sure of yourself."
He thought of arguing with her, but her sureness dissuaded him.
"So you disavow Sourros," he said. "So what? To what end?"
"He can have his machinations. I'm going to live freely from them."
"Become stronger. That's what I've always done. No one stands above me, because when they do, this inevitably happens. Not again. Not again. Not again…"
She kept saying it, beginning to rock forward and back as she gripped the banister in front of her, each phrase turning angrier and quieter than the last, until her voice was lost to the night wind.
It took Galavar by surprise. Their conversation had felt and sounded so normal. He had all but forgotten why they were out here having it in the first place. Silence's self-discipline was so strong that she could sound perfectly fine despite being moments away from losing her mind.
He took an extraordinary risk. With his outspread left hand he touched her back, between the shoulder blades, pressing his palm gently into her flesh, feeling the bones beneath. The rest of his body he steeled for whatever reaction came. If she struck, she could probably kill him in spite of any defense he offered. But he gambled that she wouldn't.
And he was right.
Her whole body stopped instantly, turning completely still. Even her breath stopped. Galavar waited, unmoving, focusing carefully on the twinkling stars.
Finally her breath hissed out of her, in a terrible sigh, and she relaxed ever so slightly.
"Give your heart a rest," he said.
She laughed, a wet laugh, and sniffled, and in the darkness he saw her look down at her own chest.
"I strained it pretty good today. And I'm sure feeling it now, you're right."
"Stress will do that. You can't hold this in."
"I have to. Or I'm going to kill everyone I see, starting with you. The bloodlust is still here. My talking about it…it doesn't change anything."
"Yes it does. It tells me the answer to my question. Now I know what you're holding back."
He raised his palm from her back, then patted her again twice and laughed softly.
"Not a bad thing to hold back, Phannamer. I appreciate you not killing us."
"It was worth it," she affirmed. "The heart strain, that is. (Though not killing the lot of you also has its perks.) You've attended my swordfighting courses. What's the Second Rule of Engagement?"
"One opponent at a time."
"Aye. One if at all possible, or else as few as possible. There was a point this afternoon when I was against the wall and seven knights came bearing down on me. Seven. Seven, Galavar. Seven warrior knights, with crests and everything, and the fervor of the Goddess in them. I came out of that fight, and they didn't. A little heart strain is the price I paid. Not bad. I'll be better in a few days, but they're dead forever.
"You could say they were too slow. You could say they couldn't handle the altitude or the cold. You could say their training was too narrow; their contempt for my sex conceited them; their numerical advantage made them cocky; their fighting forms were too ritualistic; their coordination between themselves was poor. And it's all true. They were far from the worthiest warriors I fought today. But that's not why the fight came out in my favor. You see, against even a deficient trained and armored warrior, seven is still a lethal number. Almost anybody else but me would have died. It took all my strength and all my skill, and I'm the best. But I wasn't born that way. I resolved to make it so. And that resolve, is why I lived today. The Black Armor helped, and their weaknesses helped, but even so they'd still have killed me a dozen times through. They didn't lose that fight. I won it.
"You're past your prime, Bodybuilder. And the rest of the Guard…as figures in the fray they're redoubtable, but as actual fighters they're merely okay. And Zirin died for being merely okay. I'll miss her. Me, though…I was in the thick of it, and not only did I live: I made the Davoranjans lick their own blood off my sword."
"I don't know if you're being poetic or if you actually made them do that, and either way I think you're rambling."
"My point is that my power saved my life today, many times. Likewise, the tragedy that befell us today did so because we didn't collectively possess enough power to thwart the Will of the Gods. Betrayal is not sufficiently strong a word for what Sourros has done here. The future we want to build feels a lot farther away because of his part in this. And me…I feel…demeaned."
"Maybe tomorrow you won't."
"I know I'm not the only one in Sele tonight who's got a troubled mind. And I know sleep would help, if I could afford to take it. I know we have a lot to do. I'm sorry to delay the Vardas Council." Exasperation climbed into her voice. "If I could just bring it to heel, I would. I'm trying." Her voice cracked.
"I know you are."
"You have no idea how strongly I just want to crumble everything. I know the sky in front of me is black, but I see only red. You have no idea how close to the edge I am."
"Yes I do—you reminded me just a moment ago."
"You're so calm about it."
"I don't think yelling at you would be more productive."
She laughed. "No it wouldn't!"
"Besides, you're being just as calm, Silence. You're to be commended. Your hill is a lot steeper than mine right now. You're making the decision every moment not to give in to something almost irresistible. And you're making that decision without the benefit of the social pressure that most people would be able to push upon for purchase. I'll never in my life bet against your sheer willpower."
"Willpower…" she said. "Power is the third greatest ambition in all the Cosmos. And as a practical matter it's the most important possession in life. But…every time I think I've finally cultivated enough power to serve me…well…here we are again. And my arkend isn't going to avail me from the Will of Sourros." She gestured erratically at the city. "Nor these Aedes. Until today I thought that freedom from the Gods would come from cooperating with them, like we've done with Sourros all these years. Tonight I know better. I really do need the power to defy him altogether. I'm going to create it."
Her last words certainly sounded defiant, and triumphant.
"You've reminded me of the Ocean," said Galavar.
"There was a mate I saw tonight, really just a boy. His name is Colee. You know Zi was a spark sponsor to a number of mates?"
"Colee is one of them. He was there in the Relodroade, cradled against her body, dumbstruck. Zi's death was too much for him; he's going to die. Maybe he already has."
She said distantly, "Welaway."
"The point was raised that, without Zirin, or some other spark sponsor, Colee would never even have lived this long in the first place. Without Gala for his home, he would have died years ago. As would you have, if for different reasons."
"So his life was still cut short, but not as short, and in Gala he had some good years. There's a term for that…for a gift of time that one wouldn't otherwise have had…but…" he stroked his beard, "…I don't remember it tonight. Regardless, what we're doing here—it's noble. There will be plenty of people who say otherwise, but let them have their say. It's noble. It's just. And it's immensely powerful.
"And that power, the power of Gala, vast and dare I say impossible to fully perceive, yet clear as a titan…it hearkens to the night I spent on the Ocean."
"I remember that night," she said joyously, "from your own memory of it."
"We were off the Great Coast, well beyond the sight of land, on a stout ship under an overcast and starless sky. The deck was rolling beneath my feet. The crew and the other passengers were asleep, all but the helmsmate, and she was off in her own world.
"Despite the clouds it wasn't a stormy night, and the sea was almost calm. The waves slapped the ship. I can still hear the sound of the water hitting the wood, rhythm after rhythm, almost quietly, almost gentle. And with the sky all blotted out, and no lights anywhere on the water, it was darker than doom.
"Imagine it. You're on the Ocean, the edge of the world. You can't see anything. No light. It's as if there never even was light. Just the soft breeze, and the sound of the waves slapping on the hull, and my whole world rolling beneath me.
"It was on that night that I glimpsed for the first time what Relance is truly capable of. I knew what the water could do. I could glimpse, just barely, and for the first time in my life, the power of the natural world. And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop it.
"That was the night I learned humility, at the knee of the Ocean. Proud, ambitious Galavar…but I found a place in my life for being humble. And that's what the Gods are, to me. They are the Ocean.
"Silence…I say this as Galavar, and you know what that means: The kind of power you're talking about, defying the Gods, having perfect control over your destiny…it's an illusion. There'll always be something…a slippery brick in the rain, a fragment of a stone in a cherry…there'll always be something you overlook or can't account for. Relance is the work of the Gods, and you are Relancii. To defy the Gods, you may as well resolve to defy all of fate and chance, and that's foolhardy."
As she raised her breath to argue with him, he reiterated quickly, "And I say this as Galavar. "
When she replied a moment later, she said, "I remember that night. I remember how you felt. I admire how deeply it moved you. It's one of your favorite memories, and so vividly recalled that I can almost imagine I was there myself."
In the windy air, the twinkling of the stars changed their color, like sparkling jewels. He smiled at them, amused at the futility of doing so, for they could never possibly return his goodwill.
Silence said, "The Gods are the Ocean. So be it. But do you remember what I think?"
"We're the ship. We light our lamps and we go.
"You're asking me to submit to the Gods," she continued. "I can't do that. The person who could is not Silence Terlais. Whether or not we get where we're going, fine. If I fall down on that slippery brick and break my neck, so be it. If I choke on that cherry pit, fair play. And if the Gods drag me down under the wave, then that's how it will be.
"When it comes to the sovereignty of my will, I'm not going to betray myself. Ever. You, and all the rest of you, can bow down to the Ocean and go where it tells you. You can look at the horizon and declare that independence is illusory. I won't stop you, if that's what you want. But I know it's not. You were talking about the power of Gala. Well, Gala didn't exist when I was born. And look at it now."
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. The power we're building here is in the image of the Power of the Gods. That's how I know we're on the right course. But it also tells me that we are inextricably bound to it. Don't set yourself against Sourros by trying to supersede Sourros. Don't—"
Galavar stopped. In his way stood a troubling thought, wide as the whole corridor of his psyche. He trailed off completely, lost for the moment in his own preoccupation.
In his stead Silence declared: "Maybe the Ocean is bigger than me, and maybe it's heavier, and let it be. I can accept that the Gods created the world and me in it. For their sake I hope they wanted me to be who I am, because either way that's who they've got. I'm going to set my own course. I respect the power of the Ocean. I respect all power. When the situation requires it of me, I can comply. I can refrain. I can accede. I can abide by storm and gale. I can change course for the sake of making my port. The one thing I can never do is submit."
She looked at him and gave a frustrated sort of smile.
"Why are we talking about the Ocean, again?"
He didn't answer right away, but when he became aware that she was waiting for him, he looked back at her in the darkness and said, "Colee."
"Right." She shook her head. "I'm tired."
"We all are."
"This mass mindwashing is going to happen, isn't it?"
"I can accept that, as an ally to you in a greater cause—the Galance Ideal. But know that when you proceed you will do so with my entire disapproval. I disapprove of the mindwashing itself—not because I think it's bad to meddle but because I think it narrows the breadth of Relancii potential. And a hundred thousand times more I disapprove that the reason we're doing it is because Sourros was willing to slaughter us to force us into it. Nevertheless! I'll accept your decision for the sake of the Galance. Because you're right. We can't give up on the future just because the Gods don't want us to have it."
Galavar wanted to disagree with her assessment of the Gods' intentions, but he knew when not to pick a fight.
"That's reasonable," he said. "That's all I can ask, really. I think the others on the Guard feel the same way. They're just…they're not creatures of the air. They come to their answers without thinking things through quite as thoroughly."
As he spoke, down in the city, from around the fortress and out of sight, they heard a huge roar, an avalanche of rocks. Being so far away, it was deep and booming, and they felt it in the stone beneath them and in their bones. A few horrified screams followed, tiny and nearly mute for all the distance.
"That would be another one of my glorious aedes, coming down," said Galavar.
"We don't have time for my nonsense, do we?"
"I'm afraid we don't."
"Hm," she said softly.
"Silence. You're not a special student, not that kind of student—and not that kind of special. You never were, not here. Everyone has their weaknesses. Sometimes yours are a little bit more pronounced. That's okay. You're a chiaroscuro, to me. You always have been. You belong here. And on your brighter days I would swear we could dispense with the sun itself. I'll always swear to that.
"For now I need you to pull yourself together, if at all you can. And I think you can, because there is nowhere else in all of existence that you'd rather be than at the Willful Table of the Vardas Council, with a hand in the shaping of the future.
"You know what it means to command others. You know how essential strong leadership is. The Guard of Galavar is Assembled! All of Gala depends on us—all of Relance! You can't afford to be fickle, no matter the reason. You can't afford to be detached and moody. We're all coping with a lot of hard feelings tonight, but we're in this together. And I need you for a great task. So come inside, and lay your frustrations on the table if that's what you have to do, but do so in the assurance that you are in the best of company. Go in there, and be there, be fully there. Be my Guard."
His hands came to the banister, and he sought out her right hand with his own left. When he found it, she put her left hand on top of his, clasping it in.
"I appreciate you, Boss."
"And I you."
"Bloodlust doesn't just go away—"
"—but you're right. It can't rule me. I can be there for you, and the Guard, and Gala. And I will."
"You'll be on the other side of this talk someday, with some rare bird of your own, and you'll think back on this night and you'll know just how dearly I mean every word."
He took a deep breath. "I really do need you in there, Silence. I have a task for you that will astonish everyone."
"You see a way out of this, don't you? Even with the mindwashing, even if it goes perfectly well, we're still facing odds that, tonight, I don't know how to overcome."
"As long as I have the Guard of Galavar, we cannot fail. Join me?"
Silence raised her left arm and extended it ahead of herself fully, toward a twinkling point of sky-reddened light near the western horizon.
"The Planet Jadmar," said she, "soon at calar. Who is this Benzan, anyway? I wonder why he called me that."
"The greatest of the Evening Stars. That's easy." Galavar smiled—she heard it in his exhalation as much as saw it on his mien, for all the dim.
He then said, "As for Benzan himself, I won't be able to explain everything tonight, but what I do plan on saying shall put quite a shock to everyone. When that announcement comes, I'd appreciate your support…if you're willing to lend it."
* * *
The Vardas Council
THEY RETURNED to a lively debate.
"A parade, are you serious?!"
"Yes, as a matter of fact I am completely serious!"
"And I suppose you want big puffy floats and a caramel popcorn kettle and—"
"I want reckless sparklers and subversive music and public carnality!"
"There's debris everywhere. Half the roads are blocked."
"We'll hold it at the Vedere. We don't have to parade through the whole city."
"Who's going to attend?"
"Lots of people. Not everyone has to! It just has to be there at all, and anyone nearby who wants, can come."
"A quarter of the Galan people are dead!"
"And the remaining three-quarters need to be reminded that they're not!"
The argument was between DeLatia and Gregor. The others were waiting it out. Arderesh, sitting at the table, had bleary red eyes, his head propped up in his left hand. Benzan sat sleepily in his chair, fast growing too weary to be intimidated by the bickering. And Jemis lay on the sofa with a pillow over his face, but was most assuredly awake.
Galavar took it all in, while Silence, standing at his left, went over to DeLatia and sat on the edge of the table next to her.
"Nice to see you back," DeLatia said, dismissively, before returning her attention to Gregor. "Look! It's not right for everybody. But gloom is our mortal enemy tonight. The people out there are discouraged! You might not like the sound of it, and I'm sure there are plenty of others who'll feel the same way, but if we put on a parade it'll light a fire under people and—"
"Oh, good," scoffed Gregor. "There weren't enough fires yet."
"We have to show them that hope isn't lost, that Gala will survive! If we lose the people, then it doesn't matter what we decide in here. Morale is everything."
"It's not appropriate to present festivities while people are so freshly bereaved. It's not honorable to the living or the dead. The corpses aren't even out of the streets yet, DeLatia! To say that a public celebration would be premature is an understatement."
"But this is the hour of our victory. Not some other hour. This one. There's something in the Kindred spark that knows this, and it needs to be fed."
"I hear you want a parade!" Silence said.
DeLatia looked at her again, visibly annoyed. "Silence, I—"
Silence's left hand shot out and took DeLatia by the neck, cutting off the general's words mid-sentence.
"Looks like we'll be working together for a while, yet," Silence told her. "Let me help you make your point."
She slammed DeLatia's forehead onto the table, and as Galavar put his hand over his face Silence pivoted over to Gregor and said, "I think a parade sounds like a good idea. Not that I'm not hearing your protestation. But those corpses aren't going to get any more dead; they're not the problem. The problem is that there's a certain kind of person out there who loves to be indignant whenever something happens that doesn't fit their own narrow sense of propriety. Even in Gala we have a few of those, and they take such pleasure in getting upset, don't they?"
"And you're speaking against the parade in fear of them. I understand. But you are not one of those people, Gregor, nor am I, nor are most of our citizens. Let the ones who don't feel like celebrating stay back, fairly. Let the complainers raise their stink. And let the rest of Sele come out if they can, and take a couple of hours to exult in the fact that we won today, that Gala will persevere and we didn't shed all of this blood for nothing."
She looked back at DeLatia. "Did I do all right?"
Still rubbing her forehead, DeLatia said, "You're crazy!"
"We've talked about this before. Don't undermine my place on the Guard. I respect you; I get the same courtesy in return." She spun back around and fingered Gregor right on the tip of the nose. "You too."
"Silence!" Galavar said.
"No, no," said DeLatia, waving Galavar off, "it's fine. I forget sometimes that whenever she gets all unwound and dreary it'll never be long before she coils herself back up into a clusterfuck again." She grinned at Silence viciously, and, still holding her forehead, said "Welcome back."
"Good mate," Silence replied, patting DeLatia on the head before jumping back to her feet and circling around the table to her own seat, next to the Captain. "Resh, what's wrong?"
He didn't reply, but Jemis removed the pillow from his face and said, "DeLatia said we need a parade, and Gregor said that it'd be insensitive, and Resh started telling us that his wife died, and his son, and, well, I don't think he's one of those who's in the mood for a parade tonight."
Galavar resumed his place at the head of the table, though he didn't sit.
"What's the matter with all of you?" he said, softly. "This is a Vardas Council."
"Fatigue, maybe," said Arderesh blankly.
"I think dismay," said Silence.
DeLatia said, "It is imperative that we commence some kind of celebration, tonight, right now, while most people are still awake. Gregor was legitimately disagreeing with me on grounds of inflaming people's sensibilities in the face of tragedy. We got a bit animated about it." She looked at Gregor and grinned, adding, "But I love it when you use exclamation points at me. It's such a rare pleasure. You're usually so stolid. I think you need to eat more fiber."
"I think a celebration is a good idea," Galavar said.
"Good," said DeLatia, "because I ordered preparations and announcements while you were on the balcony."
Galavar both sighed and laughed at once.
"Never let it be said that I'm not a willing delegator."
"It was going to happen anyway," DeLatia said. "There are already people out there celebrating on their own. We're just going to light a big fuse under them. Galavar—it's also imperative that you and all of us on the Guard make a public appearance immediately."
"How soon is 'immediately'?"
"Less than an hour."
"Then let's get to our next pressing matter of discussion for the Vardas Council. Come on, everybody back to it."
As Silence took her seat at the table she said to Gregor, "I'm not used to seeing you across from me. I'm sorry your promotion isn't under happier circumstances."
"Me too," said Gregor. "I feel like a usurper, to sit in this chair."
"It's Zirin and the Guard of Galavar I wish to talk about now," said Galavar.
"Before we do," said DeLatia, "I know how you think, and I want to reiterate the part about all of us making a public appearance. That needs to happen."
"We don't all need to go," Galavar objected. "There's too much else going on. We'll send Gregor out, in his role as the President."
"Gregor is the Fifth—Fourth—Guard of Galavar, and he doesn't lead Vardas Gala," DeLatia insisted. "He presides over the administration of it. We lead Gala, together. The people don't want reassurance from the foot of the Guard. They want it from the head, and they want to see the whole body of us intact."
"Does that make me the hand?" Silence quipped.
"I think DeLatia is right," Resh said. "Let's commit to spending a little time outside tonight. The people need to see their leaders. I'd want that, if I were an ordinary citizen."
"And Galavar?" said Gregor. "There's going to be anger. Why did we let this happen to them? Why didn't we protect them? I don't know if that anger will find its voice tonight, but we will have to reckon with it soon."
"All right," Galavar conceded. "We'll all go. Jemis, we'll bear you on a sedan." To DeLatia he added, "But we're not staying out there for the whole festivity."
"Of course we're not," DeLatia said. "We have other things to do. We only need to be out there long enough to say a few words and make a show of solidarity with the people. Most of us don't have to speak at all. Maybe even just you." She jabbed him in the hip with her boot. "Speak from the flask."
"I gave the flask to Commander Diva."
"Be confident," Gregor said. "That will be enough."
"He's right," said Silence. "Don't be apologetic. Don't make concessions. If you give the ruck power over you they'll take their anger out on you. Give them a vision to march toward. Something constructive."
"That's not quite what I meant," said Gregor, "but I suppose fair."
"Agreed," said Galavar. "Now, the Guard—specifically the matter of who the next Guard will be."
Arderesh rose his head finally, and stretched out as he said, "If Zirin's yeomates were still alive then we would have an uncontroversial candidate to replenish the Guard. But since all those people are dead we'll have potentially a lot of work ahead of us to find a suitable replacement. I don't think this is a good conversation to have tonight. There's too much else to do."
Galavar raised his hand to appease his Captain.
"I have a new Guard in mind already."
Benzan's nerves twinged inside him. The moment had come. He looked at the others and saw the surprise on their faces. None of them were looking at him; they hadn't made the connection yet. How much greater would their surprise be when Galavar said whom.
"Apparently this isn't how you normally choose new Guards?" he asked.
"Your remark is timely, Benzan," Galavar said. "In fact there has never been such a day of choosing, except at the very beginning.
"I chose my first six Guards alone. Well…in collaboration of course, but the actual mark of appointment was mine. Those six choices were exceedingly obvious, for they were you." He gestured with both arms at his Guards. "The six finest people in Gala, now made five. I'd yearned all my life to find people like you. Without you, there would be no Gala. There would be no point even to try. Thank you, so much, for seeing me this far."
"Ain't nothing to it, Boss," said Jemis.
"I didn't decree that there would be exactly six Guards, and then fill those seats. Rather, I saw six extraordinary people—no more, and no less—and I knew I wanted my Guard to include all of them: Arderesh Valeran, who convenes the many into the one; Lilit DeLatia, who unravels the designs of our enemies; Silence Terlais, who beckons the horizons into our midst; Zirin Aloryane, who showed us what lies above mere subsistence; Gregor, who ensures that our society serves its people; and Jemis Finick, who holds us fast against the Gales of the Gods. The people I see before me now are the ones I saw before me then, the ones who would give my dreams their power: the Meretange Elite!
"We knew those heady days wouldn't last forever, and we eventually confronted the question of succession—the hardest and most dangerous political puzzle known to history. Presumably, one of the people in this room will lead in the Meretange after me, someday. But it's not just me who will need to be succeeded. It's each of you as well.
"The Guard of Galavar is conceived in part to neutralize the temptations of a contested succession. Though I chose the first six of you on my own, we agreed long ago that future appointments would have a more formal framework, with a greater distribution of decision-making power, and we laid out that framework. I gave each of you a voice in the selection of your successors. Each Guard has one, or two, or in Resh's case three protégés from among the Yeomate Guard who the rest of us have agreed would be suitable replacements for a Guard who should quit, die, or be removed.
"Zirin had two such successors, yet both of whom died today.
"We anticipated a problem like this. With Zirin dead, the position of the Fourth Guard was made vacant, and so Gregor and Jemis now each move up a rank. Silence, as Third Guard, is the lowest one who will not be promoted, and we decided that in such a circumstance the line of succession should favor, if not necessarily be bound by, that Guard's yeomate designate.
"There are other points we must also consider," he continued. "I would prefer a female to replace Zirin, so that the Guard resists becoming pernandrated. I would also prefer someone from the Civil League, or at least a social engineer or a social worker, and I'd prefer somebody with a strong academic base to stand for those more refined qualities of society on the Guard. But this is not to say that we must seek out Zirin's nearest likeness. For instance, Zi was one of an older generation and I think this is a good opportunity for a younger spark to come in. Nor need we necessarily choose an academic, an engineer, a civil servant, or a female."
He looked at Silence gravely. "Silence, do you have a nomination for the Guard whom you feel strongly about? Assuming that person is still alive?"
"Honestly, no," she said. "I'm grooming a few people, but I didn't think it would fall to me so soon. I can make a recommendation if you like, if you understand that I would have no strong conviction in it."
"Good, because it's not going to fall to you tonight, for as I said I already have my own candidate in mind, and your lack of a strong preference makes what I'm about to say a lot easier. When we laid out these rules for succession, I reserved the right to make a unilateral appointment if I deemed it necessary. That's what I'm going to do, right now."
Galavar extended his dextral arm fully ahead of him, and pointed with his entire hand across the table.
"Benzan is going to be the next Guard of Galavar."
The room hushed. The Guards exchanged glances. Benzan was mortified, and when he looked away from Galavar he wasn't sure where to look instead, so he rapidly shifted his gaze from person to person.
Finally DeLatia turned to Galavar and said, cocksure,
She looked down at the table before her. No one was in a hurry to speak, so at length she began to reminisce:
"The first night we ever met, you got your nose broken by a bunch of college students because you were so damn sure of yourself." She smiled at him. "You started that fight, too."
"And I won," said Galavar.
"If by 'won' you mean I had to rush you out of there before the police showed up, then yes. You won overwhelmingly."
DeLatia stared off into space, and grinned wider.
"That was a good night."
Suddenly her nose crinkled. "What a long time ago."
But the cloud passed as quickly as it had come.
"I trust you, Galavar."
She turned to look at Benzan.
"I don't see that fire in your belly, that special audacity that warrants a place on the Guard. But I'll make sure you have the opportunity to prove yourself to me." She leaned in and pointed at him across the table, and wagged her finger like she were stroking a dog's chin. "And be clear, boy-thing, this is one of those times when you do indeed have to prove yourself. The Guard of Galavar isn't Fekyeldure's salad."
"I don't think so, but that'll change."
"There's no need to interview him," Galavar said. "What you'll find is a young and green mate, who is even more surprised at my decision than you are. You are not going to look at him and see the polished stuff of a ready Guard. Yet I see in Benzan a great potential to serve the Galance."
Galavar pivoted in his chair. "Resh? Tell me what you think."
"I'm with you, Galavar," he said tiredly. "If Benzan is your pick, then I'm all for it. Honestly, I'm more worried about other matters right now."
"We'll get to that shortly. Silence?"
Silence looked at Galavar and frowned, then turned her gaze onto Benzan and remained fixed on him as she spoke with the Meretange.
"My intuition says no."
"But you don't like intuition."
"No, I don't. But my logical mind also suggests no reason that he belongs here, and you as much just said the same."
She leaned back in her seat at the table, trying in vain to recapture the erstwhile comforts of the window ledge, and finally sighed, laying her arms on the armrests in resignation. She looked back at Galavar, moving only her eyes, and said:
"This appointment isn't about Benzan. There's something else."
Gregor said to Galavar, "I'm inclined to agree. One of the greatest benefits of sitting on the Guard is the complete honesty between us. Is there more you will tell us?"
"Who says there's some great plan?" asked Jemis. "Maybe Boss just took a whack today?"
"Not on the head," said Galavar, "if that's what you're getting at. I'm in full control of my faculties, nor is this in any way an arbitrary choice on my part."
He looked at Gregor, then at everyone else, and spoke much more decisively…almost with anger:
"There is something more, but it isn't for here. There's so much else going on tonight, and I don't want to get into this. I seldom ask for your blind trust. But tonight…I ask.
"Everywhere I look," Galavar continued thoughtfully, "I see around me discouragement and doubt. Rennem in a single day has nearly destroyed us. People—people with weapons and the will to use them—have asked me for a miracle." He waved his arm around. "This all ends tonight. This fortress, this city, this ambition of ours…unless we can somehow hold it together. Sourros can help us with Davoranj, but the Galan Conquest is much bigger than that, and our crisis in Sele is much more urgent, and no plan to save our golden future will be offered to us by Sourros or anyone else. We have to create it ourselves. As it has always been!
"On my own I wouldn't stand a chance. I need all of you. I need Zirin too, but maybe without her we can still, just barely, grasp our drifting future firmly again. But only just. There is absolutely no room for any further loss, and your total union with me is required.
"I'll put it to you bluntly: If I don't have the full support of everyone in this room, I'll go out there and tell our people to flee for their lives, that Gala is disbanded and our enemies will slaughter us when they come here. Because that's what is going to happen anyway, regardless of what I say, unless we, together, by our wits and works and sheer will, can repulse the fate that has been prepared for us."
"You're bluffing," said Gregor. "You said just a little while ago that disbanding is rubbish."
"DeLatia said that. I said it would be a waste of epic proportions. I'm not bluffing. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but in substance I mean what I say. Everything is on the knife's edge tonight. I was hard on Silence for the same reason. I need you each to be here fully, and fully with me. So I'm telling you, I need your support for Benzan on the Guard, and without that support I think we have no way forward."
He fell quiet then, and looked at Silence, while Gregor began to speak.
"I see a disconnect here," he said. "You imply that Gala's fate hangs on Benzan joining the Guard, yet there's no obvious reason for that to be true, and you're not willing to discuss the issue."
As he spoke, Galavar remained fixed on Silence. She understood; this was what he had requested of her. So she laughed, inwardly. Her inclination was to argue, to join Gregor in the voice of dissent, for she saw no merit in Benzan to be a Guard, and if anything Galavar's dire prediction for the future should Benzan's appointment fail hurt his case for passing this over without discussion. And of course Galavar had anticipated that. Of course he had, clever Galavar. What was he trying to do? And would she give him the trust he had asked for?
"I'm with Resh," Silence said. "I can't bring myself to say that I trust your decision. I certainly don't understand it. I don't see the merit in Benzan that you presumably do. However, I've been on the receiving end of that kind of doubt, and I know that doubt doesn't justify itself. And, even if I didn't know that, I would still want to support you. Let Benzan join the Guard, and in the meantime we should move on to more important matters."
Galavar smiled, and nodded in humble triumph, but his victory was not without a hitch, for Gregor lingered on it:
"It's not about opposing you," Gregor said. "I think we're just wondering, why Benzan? And surely it should be noted that if this were happening on any other night there would be a great debate. The exigency of this night, this Pandemonium's Night, denies us the scrutiny that his appointment deserves."
The fight was offered. Galavar was prepared for that, but before he could reply Jemis spoke, saying, "None of us understands what Benzan is doing here, Galavar, but it's not as if we're going to reject your ultimatum. You're more than entitled to our trust. You've earned it. Aye, it's a finite resource, but no time soon will it be depleted."
Gregor looked around the table. He was on his own.
"Benzan?" Gregor asked. "Where are you from?"
"He scored outstandingly on his evaluations," added Galavar.
"And you saw Galavar strike Rennem the death blow?"
"By chance. I was ordered to look for Galavar in that area of the fortress."
"You'd never met him before then?"
Gregor leaned back in his seat, and sighed deeply. "Hear hear, Jemis," he finally conceded. "It's a fair point. Our trust has been earned. I've raised my concern. Now I'll go along with the consensus."
"We're all with you," said DeLatia.
"Benzan," said Galavar, "it is decided. You shall stay the night as a guest in Arderesh's apartments. On the morrow, as early as you both are ready, after you've eaten and seen a dentist and all of that, you will go with him to the Depths of Sourros and attempt your assession."
"Tomorrow?" said Gregor.
"That's a bit fast," said Arderesh. "An assession must be prepared for intensively. We spent years preparing for ours. Besides, I have to stay here in the city. Gregor is going to need all the help he can get."
"I agree we're overstretched," said Galavar, "but nevertheless you will go in the morning to the Depths with Benzan, and you will remain there until he is ready to return. You will be personally responsible for preparing and advising him, and after he succeeds in his efforts you will take on the responsibility of his orientation into the Guard."
Resh hesitated. His disagreement was clear on his face and in his tense muscles, but, perhaps for the hour, he couldn't bring himself to express it.
Instead, Gregor objected for him. "I desperately need Captain Valeran's help. Jemis is in no state to take on a workload. DeLatia and Silence will be going off to war. And you'll be indisposed with the mindwashing. I'll be alone at the top."
"No you won't," said Galavar. "We'll come to that shortly. Gentlemates, this particular decision is not open to debate. It will be done."
A few sidelong glances crossed the table, and a rogue sigh filled the air.
Arderesh said, "Very well."
And that was the end of it.
Galavar looked at Silence and said "Even though you don't feel strongly about it, I'm still sorry about co-opting your prerogative for nomination. Six Guards has always served me well, but, given how shorthanded I am tonight, I wouldn't be opposed to the possibility of going up to seven. However, such a discussion must be for some other day, when we've the time. Perhaps you'll have your chance then."
Silence said, "I don't care about losing the chance to pick who the next Guard will be. Not on a night like this, without a ready nominee. I'll do all I can to help Benzan succeed."
"However, I want the following Guard, after Benzan, to be somebody we all knowingly applaud."
"Well said," said Gregor, "though praise where due: Galavar's choice of Benzan is an interesting one, and quite different from whomever we would have chosen together. Diversity is important, and sometimes the will of one mate is more egalitarian than the will of all."
"That's my line," Silence said, grinning.
"Aye," he said, smiling back, "but it's also the best description of the Guard I've ever heard."
"Benzan," said Galavar, "you will also accompany us at our public appearance shortly, as a Guard Initiate. We will announce to the people your candidacy to join us. I think it will give folks something to look forward to, something positive. Something to soften the blow of our losses today—not least that of the beloved mate you shall soon replace."
"Yes, Galavar," Benzan said, trying not to stumble on the name.
"Resh," Galavar said, "there's something quite urgent on your mind, isn't there? I can smell it on you. And I think I know what it is."
"I suspect you do," said Arderesh. "We may have settled the question of Zirin's successor on the Guard, but what of the successor to her work? The persuasion of the nations is our most important priority."
"Yes it is."
"I'm going to be humiliatingly honest," said Resh. "I'm feeling my age tonight. I'm exhausted. My wife is dead. I can barely hold my head up. Sleep will only help somewhat. My will is almost broken. I need time. Time to rest, time to think. Even if we ignore the time I'm going to have to spend grooming young Benzan, it is going to take everything I have to rehabilitate Zirin's institution and carry out her plans in her absence…and even then I don't think I have the stuff to succeed. Not after today. I don't think I have it in me." He sounded terrified.
"No, friend," Galavar said, gently. "No. Your assumption is reasonable, but I would not ask such a labor of you tonight. You aren't going to be the one to succeed Zirin's work. Other than healing yourself, your sole responsibility for the time being is Benzan. Then, once you return from the Depths, you will share Gregor's burden in restoring order and health to our city."
Resh look puzzled, as did the others.
"But…who, then? I don't mean to sound pretentious, but—"
"But you're the best diplomat and peacemaker here, yes. No one exceeds you in those qualities. But that's not what Zirin's work truly was. I often call it diplomacy, yet that's not correct. We're not going out there to make peace treaties. Oh, there will be peace treaties, as a byproduct, but what Zirin was trying to accomplish was to persuade the nations."
"What do you have in mind?" Arderesh asked. "I'm genuinely curious."
"Silence will replace Zirin in that work."
Silence's eyes widened, while at the same moment Lilit DeLatia burst out laughing, loud guffaws that filled the veranda.
Jemis said, "You really were whacked on the head today, weren't you, Gally?"
"Jemis!" Silence snapped.
"Sorry, Silence," he said. "It's just that…"
"That you're a lunatic!" said DeLatia, pointing at Silence. "Galavar, you can not be serious."
"Look at my face, Lilit."
She did. Her laughter stopped; her smile faded.
"Silence has one power the rest of you do not. She's a creator. What Zirin was doing was a creator's work, and that's what we need in her successor."
Silence asked, "Is there any of that tea left?"
With a glance she gestured at her teacup, so Galavar filled it for her, and continued:
"Now, Silence isn't as knowledgeable in social engineering as Zi was. And she's not as charismatic with the public as I am, or as good with people one-on-one as Arderesh. Those strengths will be missed, and if there were somebody before me who possessed the best qualities of each of us then I would choose them instead. But there is no such mate."
DeLatia mumbled, "But she's…she's…"
"Some of the time she's a destroyer instead of a creator…but perhaps we need that too. Out there in the world is a host of evils, the Malaedes, that needs to be burnt away before Galance can be built in its place. Some of these are evils that the army can't defeat."
"I was going to say she's unhinged."
"I think for us to be here at all," Galavar said, "every one of us is unhinged. Who before us ever set out to rule the world for the sake of actually making it a better place? Real life is about to tell us whether that notion is insanity incarnate."
"You're evading my point."
"I am humbling it."
No one else spoke. People fell about to their considerations. Not least did Silence herself, who said nothing and drank her tea. She held the cup with both hands, tightly, so that neither hand would shake.
Benzan, at the table foot, enjoyed a moment of relief. Everyone else in the room was greatly troubled, for many differing reasons, but no longer because of him. Their gaze had passed.
"I think you're right," said Arderesh finally, to Galavar. "It's a strange choice, but I think you're right." He looked at Silence and declared, "I had never considered it in my life before now, but I think you could do it."
After another moment of quiet had passed, Gregor said, gently, but firmly, and straight to Silence's face, "I don't see it, with my apologies. I think this is a particularly bad idea."
"Gregor, your gift for understatement and self-restraint is a titan in the land," DeLatia said. "It's a preposterous idea!"
"DeLatia," said Galavar, "you're the best general we'll ever have. But look at you. You've lived a lifetime of privilege and repose. Your knowledge of war, before today, was purely the result of reading history and surveying historic battlefields. You're getting older, you weigh twice what you could, and you're hot-tempered and mercurial. You wouldn't make it very far in your own infantry. Yet I've known for most of my life that you're the best military strategist in the world, and one of the best tacticians. My confidence in you was proven on this very day."
"I see what you're getting at," DeLatia replied. "I don't look the part of a great general. But I don't think that's necessarily a logical comparison here. Just because Silence doesn't look the part for Zirin's role either, doesn't mean she'll fit."
"No it doesn't, but what I'm saying is more than that. You're both extraordinary people—you all are—and you all work around your personal weaknesses to excel at your professional strengths. I think Silence is the only one who can find a way to take Zirin's ruined institution and bring it back to life soundly in this turbulent year. I don't think you, or Resh, or anyone outside this room could do it."
"I don't have an answer to that," said DeLatia. "I'm not the master of Zirin's domain. I can't say who her successor ought to be. All I can say, is," and she pointed at Silence again, "not that one."
Galavar looked at Silence.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Your ships, your sword, the foxes, almost everything you do. You've dedicated your whole life to acts of creation, wild creation. We customarily speak of the Galance as something to bring, but it isn't, is it? It isn't baskets of grain or sparkling treasures in gilded chests. The Galance is something that must be created, in the sparks and minds of the peoples of the nations, one society at a time. Can you do that? And can you name anyone who would do it better than you?"
Silence took her time thinking, and the others waited for her.
"I always assumed that when the Conquest began," she said, at last, "I'd go out into Relance, run the war beside DeLatia. I make a good warrior."
"Yes you do," Galavar agreed, "but good warriors we have several of."
"Aye," she said, "so I've noticed."
She paused again, cocked her head, and mused:
"I did follow Zirin's work, loosely—partly out of curiosity, partly because I knew I might be called to assist her someday. So I know enough to know where to look for the information I need to get started. I could avail myself of the Civil Council's theses and statistics."
She stood up suddenly and said, "I'm going to excuse myself briefly."
"The balcony again?" asked Jemis.
"Ah, yes," said Gregor, with an unkind glint. "Now that the hard question is upon you, you leave."
"Galavar," asked Silence, "is taking on the mantle of Zirin's work one of those opportunities that I have the realistic choice of declining?"
"Yes. Such a thing cannot be commanded. It can only be asked."
"Are you going to tell the Galan people to disband if I say no?"
Galavar frowned, and said, "No."
"Good," she said. "I'm glad you're giving me a real decision. And if I'm going to make one of the most important decisions of my life," she said to Gregor, "I'd like to have more of my attention focused on it. Excuse me."
She left the Western Veranda.
"Is she really going to the toilet?" asked Benzan, of Gregor.
DeLatia replied first, annoyedly: "Who even knows with her?" She laughed and said to Galavar, "Maybe you scared the shit out of her!"
"Regardless, I think she's cowarding out," Gregor answered Benzan, then turned to Galavar to add, "and so much the better if she is, because the alternative is that she's deluded enough to actually think—"
"Gregor," said Arderesh, "that's uncalled for. Such disparagements reflect badly on you, not on Silence."
"Does anyone else in this room seriously think she can succeed at this, other than you two?"
"Are Arderesh and I not worthy of our opinions?" Galavar asked.
"It's the other way around," said Gregor. "Your opinions are unworthy of you. You're both too close to her. Too forgiving. She's a firebrand—no, that's not it. Silence is…"
"A lunatic," DeLatia finished. "I can draw it out in calligraphy and hang it on your wall."
Gregor said, "Let's say she has the opposite of a healthy social temperament."
"I'm not actually endorsing her appointment," Resh clarified. "I only mean to rebuke slander. Calling her deluded, calling her a lunatic—"
"You mean you're not for it?" Galavar asked, surprised. "Am I fighting for her appointment alone?"
"I don't know," said Resh. "I agree that she's probably the only one of us who could succeed. And I think if that were the whole story she could do it—that is, if anyone could do it. But…her other problems…may well disqualify her. Gregor's right. To put it mildly, she has a poor social temperament."
"You see?" said DeLatia. "Resh is her biggest supporter, and even he knows better."
"Yes, Silence is poor at being social," Galavar acknowledged. "But persuading the nations is not a matter of…of being social with them."
"I disagree," said Resh.
Gregor asked Galavar, "Can you offer anything to prove that she would succeed?"
"Have you not seen her sandship crews?" Galavar countered. "Her workshop teams? Didn't you and she work closely together with our warks? Haven't you met her Pingers?"
Gregor halted, considering it.
"I admit she's built some robust organizations within our society," Gregor said, "but this is rather different from persuading entire societies. You know that. She works well with people who work well with her. Not so much with people in general."
"She doesn't have to win every single spark personally. Indeed, it's a mistake to think of persuasion like that. It's very rare that one person independently persuades another. How it really works is that we allow ourselves to be persuaded. The task facing Silence is to create something persuasive to offer to the nations. If she does, they'll do the rest of the work themselves."
"I disagree," Gregor said flatly.
"And I've been holding my tongue this whole time so that Gregor could say it better," said DeLatia, "but I extra super disagree."
"Jemis?" asked Galavar. "What about you?"
"Bick it. I don't think we should be having this conversation behind her back. She's our peer. I've heard a lot of disrespect directed at her in this room tonight. Gregor, DeLatia, I think the two of you should take your personal issues with her and deal with them, and stop mistreating her."
"What a perfectly horrid suggestion," said DeLatia. "If not for our criticism, Galavar would probably have made her the Emperor of Gala by now."
"That's hardly fair," Galavar said.
"But harshly accurate, in spark if not specifics. She's like a daughter to you. Or a mate. I don't really know. But whatever it is you see her as, I don't think you see her objectively."
"I have seen her more clearly than you would ever imagine," Galavar said. "That is the power of the mindwashing, to say nothing of all the times we've talked and worked together."
"Aye, so you've told us," said DeLatia, "but I don't buy it."
"And there's something more," Galavar pressed. "Jemis is right. All of this disparagement, it's not in proportion with the more healthy conflicts among the Guard. And it affects her. It isolates her."
"That's just more evidence that she doesn't belong here. And for my saying earlier that she doesn't belong here—even when she didn't personally hear it—she bashed my head on the table. You saw it."
"DeLatia," asked Jemis, "were you ever a child?"
"Don't let it be twice."
"Ooh, rhetoric!" She puffed up, exhilarated. "You must be feeling better."
"No, I'm not. But I don't like your attitude, and someone should say something. You're being cruel, not critical."
"All right," Galavar said, raising his arms. "This argument isn't healthy or productive. If Silence accepts the burden I've asked of her, we'll let her carry it. If she doesn't, everyone's concerns will be moot.
"I'm disappointed," he continued. "I expected some aversion to my choice of Benzan for the Guard, but this resistance to Silence is petty. You've all worked with her for years. She's proven herself. I'm disappointed that she hasn't earned your unqualified respect."
"Respect is not what it's about," said Gregor. "To give her this task, we'd be putting someone unstable in the position of representing Gala and winning the agreement of the peoples of Relance. We'd be putting the whole weight of the Galance on her shoulders. It isn't disrespect for me to say that I don't think she can do it."
"Persuasion is one of her competencies, and the very nature of the Guard of Galavar is to expand our personal frontiers."
"But challenging a mentally ill person's limits is not sound foreign policy."
Gregor's choice of words caught Galavar by surprise. And the others saw him stunned. Suddenly, though Jemis' words about not talking behind her back rang true, Galavar was glad that Silence wasn't here after all.
He mulled it over for a while, and finally he said, "I think, in this case, it is sound policy. Not because it's a flawless plan, but because it's our best one. We have to carry on Zirin's work. Is there a better alternative that I've missed?"
DeLatia said, "You're avoiding the problem."
"Is there a better alternative that I've missed?"
"What about the Civil League?" Benzan asked.
"Zirin's organization depends on scale and resources," said Arderesh. "It's bad enough that the Civil Council lost almost its entire membership today, but it's absolutely devastating that the Galan economy and industrial base and population have all suffered as badly as they have. Even with leadership intact, the Civil League can't function in these circumstances."
"In other words, lad," said Jemis, "kele no."
"The challenge facing us," elaborated Galavar, "is to find a substitute for a vast institution. And, whatever that substitute is, we have to sift it out from the ashes of the invasion. The pickings are lean. Did you ever meet Silence before tonight?"
"No—" said Benzan "—but I heard about her story in Ictier."
"Being banished from the City of Peers."
"Ah, so. Did the story say why she was banished?"
"What I heard is that she usurped the Power of the Gods, tried to create life in her own image." Benzan peered across the table at his new master. "Did she really do that?"
"She really did, lad," said Arderesh. "More than tried. She succeeded."
"As someone who has never known her personally," Galavar said gingerly, "you may wonder why I'm proposing to replace an entire institution with just one person. It's not because there is a specific solution in sight and only Silence is powerful enough to achieve it. It's because I have no bicking idea what the solution is. I don't see a way out of the Hero's doom upon us. And I've only met one person in my life who might. Her."
A funny look took shape on Galavar's visage. His eyes squinted, and his jaw dropped slightly, leaving his mouth thinly agape.
"First Lilit," he said, "now Silence."
"What do you mean?" asked Arderesh.
"Gala is supposed to be better than any one person…but we'd have lost today without Lilit…and I fear we'll lose tomorrow without Silence."
The room was quiet for a moment, till at last Resh echoed, "That's the power of the Guard of Galavar. We're all one of a kind, and, together, we give you choices befitting of the Galance."
"Perhaps so," said Galavar. "Perhaps so."
"I still think this is an incredibly bad idea," said Gregor.
"But we have no alternatives, do we?" Galavar countered. "This conversation is going in circles."
"What about the mindwashing?" Benzan asked. "If you do it at all, why not just do it to the whole world?"
It wasn't until then that Silence's objection on the balcony made sense to Galavar, and he replied, "Because mindwashing preempts persuasion, and persuasion itself is a part of the Galance Ideal. We could pluck the needles from the cactus, and spare ourselves being pricked. Or we could ask the cactus not to prick us, and leave it the choice."
"I don't understand."
"Mindwashing transforms the landscape of the world into something easier to work with. Persuasion works within the landscape of the world as it currently is. If you value the diversity of peoples and nature more than you value the convenience of safety and simplicity, then persuasion is far more significant an accomplishment. Mindwashing is a solution for Davoranj, not for Relance."
The room was silent for a moment, then Jemis said "I have my doubts about this mindwashing too, even just for Davoranj."
"That's fair," said Galavar.
"But I suppose there's no alternative to that either, is there?" Jemis touched his hand to his head. "That's a shame."
"And likewise," said Arderesh, thoughtfully, "I really don't see how Gala has any hope of succeeding, anymore. Rennem took too big a bite out of us. But if anyone could find a way to carry on Zirin's work…if anyone could make a way…I guess we all know who that is."
Gregor arched a brow and leaned back in his seat. "I hope DeLatia and I are the ones who're wrong."
"She's very capable in some tasks," agreed DeLatia. "I guess we'll see about this particular task."
"You'll give her your full support," Galavar said.
"Of course I will!" DeLatia snapped. "Despite your choice of words, I'm not petty, you know."
"Benzan," said Galavar, "witness now that the Guard of Galavar, and I myself, are mortal mates just like you. We're fallible, and capable of petty squabbles." He nodded at DeLatia as he said it. "We have our disagreements, and the concern among my Guards at what I'm asking Silence to do is appropriate. And we're all tired, and shocked at the things we've seen today, and so perhaps we're not being as thoughtful and articulate as we should, but nevertheless the dissension you see here is healthy."
"You just called it unhealthy," said DeLatia.
"The personal attacks are unhealthy. The skepticism itself isn't." He looked back at Benzan. "Dissension to my proposals is a feature of the Guard, not a flaw. The Guard exists to protect me—not so much from physical assailants, though they have served as my bodyguards from time to time…not least today…but more broadly from my limitations of mind and character. Our disagreements, even when they're petty, bring important issues to light. My Guard brings me perspective. Let that guide your conduct from now on, as a fellow Guard-to-be."
"Certainly," said Benzan.
"I haven't much more time with you before I go to the tall tower. I'm sure you've found this day to be one of the most overwhelming in your life, so let me impress upon you one crucial lesson—one dear thing for you to remember and take to spark, even as the other memories of today blend and begin to fade away:
"In my Guard, you will always strive to be yourself. You will be honest and true, and you will be forthright in your honesty with your peers. Maybe it will draw criticism upon you. Certainly there will be scrutiny. It is your responsibility to rise and accept that criticism, that scrutiny, with dispassion and appreciation befitting a Guard. And, ultimately, your responsibility is to uphold the decisions we make here. But do not be fooled into thinking that you shouldn't defend yourself and your viewpoints along the way. You are your own best advocate. No one will be for you as you are. And so you must also become resilient. You will learn to accept the criticism and even the disparagement of others with a healthy curiosity, and with appreciation for their intentions. And, if you do learn that, then not only will you help me to lead in the Meretange, but you will become truly great.
"In all likelihood, as Zirin has shown us, by joining the Guard your lifespan has suddenly become a lot shorter. The dangers that lie ahead of you are real. But with them come treasures to be found nowhere else in existence. You spoke to me earlier of flying. In greatness—in true greatness—you will rise into the skies of your potential…and I think you will find that to be more rewarding, and more thrilling, than any flight through mere Relancii air."
"I'll do it. Provisionally."
Galavar cocked his eyebrow and frowned at Silence, as she stood in front of her seat at the Willful Table, gripping its edges and leaning forward slightly.
"The Council will hear your provision," said Arderesh.
"I want insuperable say. A Purple and Green scarf."
Arderesh looked genuinely surprised—confused surprised.
"I'll be making a lot of hard, fast decisions out there, and I need to trust that they'll be final. To that end, you'll grant me a Purple and Green scarf and take your chances on me." She nodded deferentially and said, "Of course, I promise to take all commentary and critique into my careful consideration."
DeLatia, with a revolted look, shook her head and objected, "You're demanding near-supreme authority over the entire process of integrating foreign peoples into the Galance. I wouldn't trust Galavar with that kind of power, let alone you."
"That's the obvious objection," Silence said, impatiently, "but a fallacious one, and I'm surprised to hear it from you. What if, in the course of being the general of our army, you continually had to seek out consent from all the rest of us?"
"I already have to do that."
"I'm talking about execution, not making policy."
"You can't compare battle engagements to—"
"I can, I did, and I was right to do it. Treating with the nations is going to be as swift and as situational as any battle encounter. You're sending me out there, alone, to do the most important work in all of Gala. I'll accept that task, maybe even relish it, but I'll always have a healthy measure of dread at the enormity of it. And so my work will be on my terms, because I have little expectation of success otherwise."
She looked around and found the chilly reception in her colleagues' faces, so dug in and added, "We've made a lot of concessions tonight. This is the one I'm asking for."
"It includes law-making and treaty-making power, I presume?" Galavar asked.
"It absolutely does. In the case of large, organized countries, I'll be able to send for any of you to join me in those processes, but most of the time I'll be working with lone tribes and valley-states, and in those cases it won't be reasonable to bring you along, so you'll have to trust me to do well by Galan principles on my own."
DeLatia shook her head again, and this time addressed Galavar with her objection.
"This is a coup. She's the most imperious and controlling person I've ever met, and she's used to having unfettered authority to do anything. That's fine when she's playing around with her ships on the Sand Ocean, but not when there's something real at stake. She doesn't need a Purple and Green, and you shouldn't give it to her. It's not like we're going to go out of our way to make her task harder. We would only step in when she makes a bad decision or can't attain the objective by herself."
"Lilit," said Galavar, "leave it to the others for a bit. You've been heard."
Silence sighed, and faced Arderesh. "DeLatia's objection that none of you intends to hinder me is meaningless. I can just as easily say that I don't intend to abuse the powers of the scarf.
"What's more, I won't be alone for long. I'll gather people to help me. You've all met my commanders in the navy, the directors at my workshops, and my leaders elsewhere. They're good mates. And I'll do even better for the task that lies ahead. I'll have outstanding people around me."
"But subordinate to you," said Jemis. "That's different from having the Guard, and Galavar, to answer to. You know that."
"I'm a power elemental. I thrive when I'm in command. When I'm not, I become withered and pathetic. That's how I've felt tonight, being dismissed by my peers here on the Guard. And for what good? I don't see the health in having anybody above me in this."
Gregor spoke thoughtfully, and quietly, to Galavar:
"This is as much about the scarf as it is Silence," he said. "I don't know if I can win the argument against her appointment as Zirin's successor, but I want to make a stand to stop her from getting the scarf. The Purple and Green is inherently extralegal. In authority it is second only to your own Yellow and Blue Scarf of the Meretange Individual. We created it for emergencies, hence its name, the Purple and Green Scarf of the Imperative. Whether or not Silence's request for it is logically coherent, DeLatia is right that it's a coup. We would be replacing all of our voices with hers alone. Inside the domain of gathering the nations into Galance, which is a fairly broad province I think, no single person—not even you—would be able to overrule her. It would take both you and a heavy majority of the Guard. It's the sort of short-term emergency authority best suited to an occasion like tonight." He turned to Silence and said, "But if I am correct, you'd be asking for your Purple and Green scarf indefinitely. For years to come."
"Correct," she said. "I can't be second-guessed. Everything I'm going to build will depend on the immobility of my decisions. Pull one of them out from under me, and I won't be able to trust anything I do. Zirin was building a whole bureau, a masterwork of civil machinery, to meet the challenge of swaying the nations. I don't have any of that. I don't have anything, except energy and guile. Call it a coup if you want. But Gregor, you said yourself that sometimes a lone voice is more egalitarian than many voices."
"But only sometimes. Usually not."
"And as for the part of your objection that bears on me directly, I'm not going to stand here and defend my integrity. I proved myself. If you don't accept that then you have the opportunity right now to prevent this 'coup' from happening. If you do, I'll continue in my current assignments and take on any additional ones, or you can dismiss me from the Guard for impudence, or put in me in prison for undermining the glory of the separation of powers, or whatever. But if I'm going to take on Zirin's task successfully, I need the proper legal tools."
"You know we're not going to put you in prison," Gregor said. "The rhetoric isn't helpful."
"Having this argument isn't helpful," said Silence. "It just feels like you're trying to extract my dignity from me. If you're disagreeing with my demand for the scarf on principle, then justify your objection to my satisfaction and I'll withdraw it. And if you're disagreeing on some practical concern, name it and we'll figure something out right now."
Arderesh said, "I'm concerned about the treaty-making power."
"And more so your power to make laws," said Gregor.
"I'll develop a set of core principles and permit them for ratification by the Guard Assembled. When I make treaties or laws, I'll either remain within those principles or seek further ratification as needed."
"But the specifics are critical," said Jemis.
"What's more," continued Arderesh, "the Guard won't be Assembled. Eventually most of us are going to be spread out into the world."
"That's my point," Silence countered. "We're all going to be burdened with more than our share of work for a long time to come, and the flipside of having you all meddle in my decisions is having to contend with your unavailability when I need your approval. Am I supposed to stop time and cross half the world—or make you cross it—whenever I need to make an important decision on the spot?"
"That's fair," conceded Gregor. He stroked his chin, cocked his head, and said, "As a democrat I oppose the power of the Purple and Green scarf, but maybe it's not truly the scarf that bothers me here. We could, after all, pass a specific law to provide Silence with a Purple and Gold scarf instead, and hence give her the authority she needs while addressing our own concerns about the potential for abuse. Yet for just one person, in the context of the oversight of the Guard, such a law would be functionally redundant." He frowned and cast down his gaze. "Maybe I've fooled myself. Maybe what truly bothers me really is just the person who would be wearing the scarf."
The conversation paused, until finally, gingerly, Resh said:
"Please don't see this as dismissive, Silence. Please see it as a genuine concern. I think at the bottom of our reluctance to grant you so much power is that you're a bit unstable. And that's part of what makes you you, part of your genius, so it's not an insult. But it is something that can't be ignored. You do best when you're surrounded by the proper moderating influences. You've flourished here in Sele, on the health of your friendships and with collaboration from your peers. The Guard has been healthy for you. It gives you the power to grow but also the structure to grow wisely.
"What lies ahead is going to be very different and much more difficult. If you take up this challenge, we'll already be sending you away by yourself, because no one else is available to accompany you and because I think Galavar is right that you're the only one at this table anyway who could possibly find a means to succeed at a task that should otherwise rightly be called impossible. What you're demanding now, the Purple and Green, would remove nearly all that would remain of our stabilizing influence upon you. It would be very dangerous, to Gala's purposes and to you."
As he spoke he met her gaze, and was keenly aware of the furious sense of betrayal that formed there, so he added, "I say it only because you would explode at anyone else if they dared, and yet it needs to be said in full. I know you understand, even if you don't like it."
Silence said bitterly, "'Let's quench Silence before she explodes.' I don't explode, you know. I've done a very good job tonight of not exploding."
"You don't pop off the way, say, DeLatia does, or Jemis does, but you do become unpredictable and dangerous. You stormed out of this Council when Galavar asked you a question. You hit DeLatia for criticizing you—and it wasn't the first time."
DeLatia waved at Silence and smiled.
Galavar said, grimly, "DeLatia. Don't."
"You've said it yourself, Silence," said Gregor, "that being aware of one's own weaknesses is one of the most important—"
Silence waved her arm to dismiss him with an annoyed "Enough." Then, from her tense standing poise, she plummeted down into her chair, leaned back, and brought her hands up to her chest, where she began rubbing her right wrist in her left hand and staring up at the beautiful ceiling. She sighed, a moaning, sad sigh, and fidgeted about with her legs and feet.
"You would have the portfolio," said Galavar. "No one would interfere unduly. You don't need the Purple and Green. You're better off without it."
"Do you not hear me?" Silence asked. "Do you honestly think I'm nakedly vying for power so that I can—so that I can what, exactly? What is this coup? What do you think I'm planning to do?"
"It would allow you," Gregor said matter-of-factly, "to decide almost exclusively what 'Galance' means to the rest of the world. It would empower you to use your methods and your judgment in lieu of what consensus would dictate."
"Yes," she agreed. "It would. I would work within the vision that we have collaboratively laid out, but the flavor would be mine. It has to be that way. That's the consequence of saying 'Silence, go sway the world.' Somebody has to have final authority to treat with the nations, and the rest of you aren't going to be out there with me—and you wouldn't do as good of a job as me anyway. That's why I'm the one being asked to go.
"What do you think is going to happen when I'm dealing with some overgrown tribal chieftain who already thinks he's got me wrapped around his finger since I'm a female, and I tell him that I can't speak for myself and have to send word back home to get permission from my minders to make a treaty with him?
"What do you think is going to happen when I'm drinking kajj with some prim edet and I outwit him in debate and have him at my mercy, and he's ready to cut a deal because I impressed him so much, and then suddenly I tell him, 'Well and good, but now for me to send our agreement back to Sele to get permission'?
"Most of the powerful people I'll be contending with out there don't respect the civil process of consensual governance. That's a big part of why we need to bring Gala to the world in the first place.
"And dealing with powerful people, that's only the beginning of what I have to do. People in general, they're the real challenge. Ordinary people, with no great power of their own, but who collectively will decide the success of my ventures, need to see that I have the power to speak for myself. I'll need to show my strength out there, to all of them, and I'll be hobbled in that requirement if my word is continually subject to somebody else's approval. I need unitary authority.
"It's a stirring good speech," Jemis said, "but the point remains that you're asking for unfettered power. Is that now how enlightened countries work?"
"Yes. We've always disagreed on that," Silence replied.
DeLatia looked at Galavar and said, "Explain it to her."
Galavar sighed and said, "As Arderesh has so tactfully put it, there is the possibility that you'll be out there, and someone or something will rub you the wrong way, and you'll…react poorly."
"Everyone thinks I'm going to go crazy. You know what? Maybe I will. Maybe that's the price you have to pay for outsourcing your 'This is Gala and we don't rely on wishes—but really we need a wish' to me. If I go berserk out there, then I'll go berserk. With any luck, it won't be the end of me or of the Galance, and the work will continue. But if I go completely insane then whatever scarf I'm wearing is going to be the least of your problems. Having the Purple and Green, or not having it, won't make any difference to my psyche. In fact the lack of necessary power will probably make me more volatile to begin with. Why would you plead with me to go out and sway the nations if you're not willing to trust me? I should refuse the task on that ground alone."
"But you won't," said DeLatia, "because you love power and you want to do this."
"And because you know there's no one else," Galavar added hastily.
Silence said, "There's a quirk of social etiquette that makes it hard for me to say this without looking like the dramatic that I'm not, but I'm going to try:
"What I'm hearing tonight is distrust from my peers, and if I complain about it I risk looking every bit as unfit as you apparently think I am, because after all I'm just one person against the judgment of the rest of you, and in society the loner is always in the wrong. I'll complain anyway, though, because I know better. I know I'm right. I am being condescended to by everyone in this room—save Benzan" she added as an afterthought "simply because he's too timid yet. Condescended to like a child.
"Why do I need a Purple and Green scarf? Because of this. Because you all know that I'm the only one to meet this challenge, but none of you is willing to let me actually go and meet it. You have this delusion that you're going to participate in the process from afar, that you're somehow going to reach your arm across the world and keep a steady hand on me, and make your own mark on Relance along the way, even though that can't possibly work.
"It's true that I'm imperious and I like to do things my way. That's how I work best, and in my years here I've demonstrated my ability to cooperate nevertheless, and I've shown my durability in wielding power responsibly. Your disparagement is insulting. It hurts. You want me to save Gala and at the same time you're trying to convince me that I'm a liability. You're trying to convince me that I'm insane. I'm not.
"Over the years I've thought I'd begun to earn my acceptance at this table. Now—maybe it's just that we're all so tired and twisted up tonight—but, whatever the reason, the hard truth comes out that I'm still a pariah here. And that makes me sadder than I know how to say, and sadder than you're likely to understand, and I think something poisonous has been born here."
"Silence—" Galavar began.
"But I don't need your acceptance to succeed." She laid her hands both on the table's edge, gripping it again, then leaned in and said to Galavar, with a hardness in her voice, "Give me the Purple and Green scarf. Give it to me because I've asked for it.
"Or don't, and I'll try my best without it. But if you don't give me what I'm asking for, you will lose something irreplaceable."
"What would that be?" asked Benzan, of all people.
Silence turned toward him, then looked back at the others to speak, yet before she could, Galavar raised his arms, sighed, and said:
"You don't need to answer that, Silence. We'll give you the scarf."
Uncertainly, he shot his glances about the room.
"Aye," said Jemis, after a moment.
Galavar looked at Arderesh, who nodded his assent.
"And that's a majority."
It was done.
Far from looking triumphant, though, Silence just released her grip on the table and slumped where she sat.
"What a bitter victory."
"You're right," Galavar said. "We've treated you poorly. You don't sit on the Guard as a favor. You're here because of your merits. They come in the body of a curious and strange individual. Forgive us for that which we strive so dearly to learn, but have not learned yet."
Silence didn't reply, nor did Galavar blame her. She'd been humiliated. Getting the scarf she wanted was meaningless in the face of that, at least in the realm of emotion.
"What about our concerns about laws and treaties?" asked Resh finally.
"Some of it is already stipulated in the Essential Articles," Galavar said finally. "Look, if something specifically problematic comes up, we'll deal with it. In the meantime, I think what we need to do here is accept the ramifications of what I've asked Silence to undertake.
"Upon each of us hangs a single point of failure. Any of us fails and we all fail. DeLatia, if the hosts of the nations overrun our forces, we'll be annihilated or enslaved. Gregor, if you can't bring the emergency in this city under control, we'll have a massive population collapse and our government will fall. Arderesh, if you can't bring Benzan into the Guard successfully, I foresee great trouble for us in the future. And Jemis, though it's farther down the road, we'll need your numeneering to go up against the mightier nations. If I fail in my mindwashing it may well kill me, and it will certainly deprive us of the Davoranjan population base we need to reconstitute our army in a timely fashion. As for Silence, she'll be the voice of Gala to the world, and if she fails in that, so be it.
"I want all of you," Galavar said, "to focus on your own vital work, and have confidence in your peers to do the same in theirs. I want you to help each other out wherever you can. This is the Guard of Galavar. Have confidence in one another. Support each other."
He looked at Silence again, and was about to continue, but something in her posture stopped him. No one else would have noticed it. Maybe Jemis, but, on the sofa as he was, most of her body was hidden from him by the back of her chair.
Silence was fighting back tears. It was a troubling sight; Silence was not a crier. Her eyes were dry but he could see it in the muscles of her throat, and in her blank stare at the colonnade. And she was still fighting her bloodlust too, as told by the tension that seized her entire body. She wasn't going to get up and leave this time. She couldn't bear the humiliation.
He ached to see her like this. But he also, in his most private thoughts, was frightened by the sight of it, and for a moment Galavar had a second thought about asking her to take on such a task.
Yet he knew, he knew, there was none who could do it but she.
Is this also some part of your plan? he asked, not expecting a reply.
And of course none came.
So he would have to trust her self-control. And if she could control herself in this moment, exhausted and having been scathed by her friends, perhaps that was proof enough that she could bear the responsibility.
He watched her for a bit, her eyes dry and her body still, until suddenly she turned her head and reflected his gaze back upon him. He tried to read the look on her face, but, whatever it said, the meaning eluded him.
And there was no way to go but forward.
Slowly, the forces of civilization reasserted themselves. Secretaries, runners, and scriveners arrived at the Western Veranda, to attend on the Vardas Council. The caterers returned too, with more tea and a leg of roasted dilark, donated collectively from mates throughout Galadrim who had heard that even Galavar and his Guard had chosen to deprive themselves for the common weal.
It felt strange to Galavar, to accept charity from people beneath him. As DeLatia might put it, it felt like laying one's own burdens on a junior officer—and that was always wrong.
On the other hand, as Gregor might put it, the people of Gala wanted to show their support, and do what they could to help their leaders, for their leaders were the ones who would save them…and because it was the responsible, civil thing to do. And Galavar and his Guard certainly needed the nourishment.
Regardless of his hesitations, the meat was deeply appreciated, and the goodwill pouring out upon him from below brightened Galavar's mood. The people of Gala may not have been present in body, but he could feel their warmth here in the room with him. They wanted him to succeed, and so he wanted it himself that much the more.
But his enthusiasm shared a crowded stage, for a great many anxieties crackled in his mind. His wrath at the Davoranjans seethed. His anguish over the deaths of his people had only just barely begun to creep into this thoughts. The devilry of Sourros troubled him greatly, and triggered doubts that clouded Galavar's expectations for the future. His worry over the ability of his Guards to carry out the deluge of tasks thrust upon them flared within him. Gregor wasn't up to the task of restoring Sele. Resh looked half-dead tonight. Jemis literally was half-dead. DeLatia was a general with barely an army to lead. And within himself, his fatigue battled for the powers of his concentration. And his excitement and fear about the upcoming mass mindwashing turned his stomach in loops.
Then there was Benzan. The lad ate hungrily from his seat at the foot of the Willful Table, and Galavar wondered what kind of a Guard he would become, and for how long—assuming he even survived his assession. With a sardonic tone, Galavar told Sourros in the privacy of his thoughts that the boy had damn well better.
And of course there was Silence. As the rest of them tore at their meat, Silence didn't eat at all—and that was an impossibility. Silence loved food, almost more than life itself, and her body burned through it like nobody he had ever known. She typically ate as much as Gregor, despite weighing less than half as much as the stocky, towering heatho-dwarf, and over the years she had fleshed out handsomely. Earlier tonight he had seen the look of ravenous desperation on her face after the prison cakes were gone, and in that moment he could have imagined that she would resort to eating the dead; such was the indomitability of her appetite. For her to eschew roasted meat now told Galavar just how deeply disturbed she was. The antagonism of her fellow Guards had hurt her, just as she had said. How badly, he couldn't guess.
Nor did she say anything about it, nor join the others in their moment of mealtime banter. Instead she had returned to her perch on the banister in the window, where she had fallen to a nap, and none accosted her there.
Casually he set aside her portion of meat and half of his own onto the buffet, that she might eat later. Everyone else was kind enough not to notice.
* * *
The Will of the Meretange
"MOMENTARILY WE SHALL VENTURE FORTH to the Golden Gliss and appear before our people," Galavar proclaimed. "Now the time has come to culminate the Ninth Vardas Council of Gala. Heed my commandments in the name of the Meretange, and let the Meretange be inscribed in the Willful Table!"
He slammed his fists onto the table, and a soft, electric blue glow enveloped them.
The Western Veranda was filled, now, with attendants and witnesses, and many gasped in astonishment—or sheer excitement.
Silence and Resh rose from their seats and lifted Jemis from his sickbed on the sofa. While Resh held the injured Guard steady, Silence took his weight onto her, and together they lumbered him toward his new seat at the end of the right-hand side of the table.
"Monpateallhuje," he said weakly. "This is the part I love."
Benzan asked, "What's happening now?"
"Now we consecrate the Vardas Council," said Gregor. "A Vardas Council always ends with commandments to action, actions that shape the world to come."
"Our journey begins with Soda Fountain. The great Desert Metropolis is the gateway to the Galan Conquest. Take it, and no serious threat will arise against us in the entire Sodaplains.
"On this night you will gather our remaining troops as are fit for the expedition, and embark them upon the Sand Fleet under Silence's command. There you will set forth before dawn, and tomorrow night you will capture the City of Soda Fountain by any means, either by the plans we have discussed in times past or by any more pertinent design that your brilliant mind conceives. Take scant provisions with you, and let that be a further incentive to victory.
"As soon as the city is secure, proceed with as many of our troops as possible for Davoranj. There you will find the mindwashed Davoranjan people. They will not need to be tended to, but their animals and crops will. Of course you haven't the numbers to replace the hands of an entire people, but to the best of your ability see that losses to Davoranjan produce and livestock are stanched. Hire labor from Soda Fountain as you are able. And above all see that lines of relief and aid are established with Sele immediately, as war reparations for the Hero's ignorance.
"I cannot say how long the mindwashing will last. With one person, usually far less than an hour. With a whole nation, I don't know, but I expect much longer. Perhaps all the way to Solstice. Perhaps longer still! When at last the Davoranjans begin to awaken, prepare to embrace them into the Galance Ideal. They will be friendly to you.
"Your overarching command is to secure the country, destroy any who have not converted to our way, and prepare for my arrival. The war is upon us at last, DeLatia, and we fight for nothing less than the world."
She grinned proudly. "Yes, Meretange! I look forward to it."
"War?" said Gregor.
Galavar continued, "Captain-Lieutenant Valeran:
"As I have said before, so now I affirm: See to it that your body is made hale, and your mind, for your power is diminished until you can accept what has come to pass.
"In the midst of your recuperation, you will prepare and advise Benzan, and take him into the Depths of Sourros for his assession, remaining there until he succeeds. See that this proceeds with all deliberate speed. Thereafter you will gather Benzan with you and return to Sele, where you will join Gregor in administering the needs of our city.
"But Benzan will remain your key responsibility. See that he is oriented into the Guard. See that he learns what it means to be a Guard. See that he is given the opportunities and responsibilities befitting of a Guard. See that he becomes a Guard."
"Yes, Meretange," said Arderesh.
"My command to you is simple: Stand upon Arderesh as you would your own legs. His counsel is your vision. His wisdom is your daylit sky. Let his mentorship be your anchor in all the doubts and frustrations that lie ahead of you, and your guide in all the decisions and labors that await you. Look to him always, present him with your interrogatives, and obey his commands without exception—for he rarely issues a commandment, and when he does you must infer its dire importance.
"If you do these things, then it will be as I said to you earlier tonight: You will begin your ascent into greatness, and, when I see you again, you will be a Guard of Galavar."
"Your work is clear. You shall have Jemis and Arderesh at your disposal as they able. Restore our city."
As Gregor replied, Benzan realized suddenly that the tiny words on the Willful Table were moving, like foam on a stock of bones, and from Galavar's glowing fists new words were spurting out. His eyes widened, and he touched the table again, but felt nothing other than the cold, smooth polish. He set his whole hand upon that surface, and watched the words flow beneath it.
"You will prepare the fleet and make for Soda Fountain, where you will assist DeLatia in her assault under her authority. When she succeeds you will resign operational command of the fleet to your admiral, Kyufa, and leave that chapter of your life behind you. Then you will become the interim governor of that grand city of commerce.
"As with DeLatia in Davoranj, see that lines of relief and supply are established with Sele immediately—likewise under the auspice of war reparations, for Soda Fountain's collusion with the Hero. Install an effective provisional authority as quickly as you can, and design a permanent institution of state to succeed it, respecting the traditions of the Sodish people. Let this be your first task as the persuader of the nations, but let it also be an ordinary military occupation to the extent circumstances require, for time is of the essence.
"You have twenty days to accomplish these things, for by the twentieth day you must return to Sele to oversee and aid Gregor and Jemis in their restoration of the capital. Till now your portfolio has included the administration of significant aspects of Galan industry and infrastructure, and if Arderesh has not returned from the Depths you will be greatly needed in our glorious city, and so here you will remain until you see fit to proceed. The stabilization of Sele takes precedence over all else. You will serve Gregor in his role as President, but in your role as a Guard you will speak for me in my absence.
"If Arderesh has returned—or if I have completed the mindwashing—then he or I will relieve you of your administrative obligations here, and you will set at once upon on your primary mission: to persuade the nations of Relance.
"You will succeed in this, despite all the doubts and disparagements raised against you. Let no one shake you from your historic ordeal. You will be the voice of Gala to the world. Wield that power in the fullness of your wisdom."
"Galavar," said Arderesh.
"It is not appropriate to interrupt me now."
"I ask you one last time: Is seeing to Benzan's assession truly so important? It seems absolutely crucial that I be up here, with Gregor, seeing to the needs of our entire people and not just this one lad. We can't task Silence with Zirin's work and then recall her to manage the crisis in Sele, with an added burden of overseeing Soda Fountain for good measure."
"Benzan's assession is absolutely essential. Take my word for that."
"I don't know if I can," Resh said.
"Find a way. Are my commandments clear to one and all?"
"I can't help but remark," said Silence, "you're asking me to be in three places virtually at once."
"Silence," he said, smiling, "you have a vast energy. Put it to good use. I task you because I need you. I can think of no one better suited to be in three places at once."
He looked around.
"Are there any other words to be said while we're interrupting the Will of the Meretange?"
DeLatia rose her hand and rejoined, "What of the endangered element of Galan secrecy?"
"Ah, yes. You and Silence will collaborate to protect this at all costs. It is too late to stop the world from knowing that Gala exists. Let the mystery endure, however, as to what Gala is."
"What of our reckoning with Sourros?" Jemis asked.
"Leave it to another season. Vengeance is the luxury of the idle. We have better things to do."
And Benzan pointed to the flowing words in the Willful Table and asked, "Is my name in here now?"
"Yes it is. Forever."
Galavar picked up Aghnagos, the Hero's Staff, from its resting place at the center of the Willful Table.
"What the Hero of Davoranj has set in motion this day, we shall bend into the service of the Almighty Swayfire.
"So concludes the Vardas Council. The Will of the Meretange is inscribed. The fate of the world is cast.
"To Illar! To Illum!"
* * *
Sword and Harp
THAT NIGHT, THE GREAT ORCHESTRA OF GALAKERR LIFTED ITSELF TOWARD MUSIC. A joyous baroque, bright and triumphant, flowed like melting starlight into the whole northern part of the anguished city. From block to block, people could not help but stop what they were doing to listen. So many of them were in a stupor, drowning in grief or exhausted beyond all nature, but the deep drums shook them all, and the great horns sounded agog.
Well knew the Galans what this meant: Galavar and his Guard would soon appear! As the leaders of the land had done in lighter days, now too would they present themselves to the nation they dared to groom for greatness. The orchestra, and its promise, could not bring happiness to everyone on such a night as this one, that would come to be called Pandemonium's Night, but cheers erupted all the same from those who were stirred. The music filled an emptiness. Resilience bloomed in tired bodies. The Fortress of Galadrim stood tall, and so did the strongest and proudest and most defiantly hopeful of the surviving Galan people.
Torchlights lit up on the Vedere, the great plaza, joined quickly by large sodium lamps that bathed the grounds in orange. People hurried to gather there. Some were blocked by impassable roads and wreckage, others by their own injuries, others still by a commitment to their urgent work. And of course, as Gregor had foretold, there were those who saw no taste or appeal in festivity on a night such as this. But at the music of Galakerr, a great part of the surviving citizenry in the north of Sele proceeded toward the Vedere with anxious anticipation. And word spread to the south of Sele, and they tried to come too, in the thousands, and many succeeded.
As they gathered on the boulevards leading to the Vedere, and on the Vedere itself, the people of Gala recounted to one another the stories of what had befallen them, sad stories and war stories, moments of grace, moments of wonder, heroic deeds lost in the din, and reminiscences. And they wondered what would happen tomorrow. Their stomachs rumbled. Their limbs ached. Many were baffled and terrified that Davoranj had attacked like this, and wanted to know why. Some were angry. Some wanted a simple reassurance; what would Galavar say? Some wanted much, much more…answers that could scarcely be delivered from the ashes of the Hero.
The orchestra Galakerr was out of sight. Its custom for performances at the Vedere was to play from Mousai, an elevated tower covered by a rounded roof that projected music and song out to the assembly in crisp, clear tones. Tonight the musicians were not to be found there, for Mousai had been destroyed and its shabby remains littered a portion of the plaza that was cordoned off with telltale red rope and patrolled by a smattering of tired-looking deauwells. Even so, the music was as clear and loud as ever—and it pervaded the whole north of the city, which was unusual. Then, soon after, it pervaded the entire city, which was unprecedented. But Gala was a land of wonders, and few were surprised that someone would have found a way to accomplish this, to carry not only the blast of the brass horn but the delicate warble of the wood flute across the whole length of the City of the Shosen. Yet it was deeply heartening nevertheless, and, if not surprise, there was delight.
The Vedere itself was no mere gathering ground. This place was the apex of Galan aspirations for public life. Though the City of Sele was younger than most of its inhabitants, the Vedere had already become the centerpiece of many a life's story. People met here. Citizens conversed with their leaders. Strangers became friends—or rivals. Romances were kindled; enterprises inspired. Frequent festivals brought disparate peoples together in song and food. Children glimpsed the world that lay ahead. Ancient mates in the winter of their lives sat on the benches and fed the birds, watching the younger generations bask in their day. And people of all stripes and colors gathered in the telling rooms to tell the stories of life and death. This place, this Vedere, was a common ground.
It was also the crossroads of the whole north of the city:
To the west lay the Mercade of the Sky, an homage to the Imperial Mercade far away in Panathar, and a testament to the fantastic altitude of this place—for, excluding the much smaller Nineteen inside Galadrim, no other public market in the world existed so high up. Though there were many storehouses of convenience throughout the city, none came close to the fair of goods sold at the Mercade.
South, the Vedere sloped upward into the brae of Swan Ridge, where stately white windmills drew up water from the Springs of Sourros far below the rocky ground and provided, in better times, a great deal of mechanical service to the city—piping water, pulling streetcars and gondolas, lifting elevators, milling grain, grinding stone.
To the northeast splayed the Dragon's Runway, a massive pavement of talontite painted and sealed in satae, where Gala's handful of dragons would light from the Sheer to convene with Galadrim, and then take flight again.
And north, of course, lay the Southern Veranda of the Fortress of Galadrim, an immense and ornate grounds meant to accommodate all who dwelled in Galadrim, just as the much larger Vedere was built to accommodate everyone who lived in Sele. Architecturally, the veranda was an extension of Galadrim itself, the largest of many terraces and balconies on the fortress' exterior, and Galadrim continued beneath it while the veranda itself fanned outward from the fortress megalith, culminating in a long, curving promenade called the Golden Gliss, so named for how it glistened in the sunlight. The Golden Gliss looked out over the Vedere from two stories up, appearing like a terrace, and its wall brandished all the great symbols of the realm.
This was where the Guards of Galavar would appear when they made public speeches. Galavar himself would sometimes speak from here too, although only in conjunction with his Guard. When he spoke alone, he would stand at the Principal Podium where ordinary citizens gave their speeches.
Not tonight, though. Tonight, he would stand at the Golden Gliss.
Tonight the great sodium lamps of the Vedere were lit all in full, at least those lamps that had survived, and, as the people gathered, they danced, and sang, and they cried under the lamplight. And some sat. Some sat on the benches and the walls, some on the ground itself—comprised of grainy bricks of pale red clay, interspersed by smooth red obsidian bricks, flecked with black. Maybe they sat to rest, or maybe to be alone with their thoughts in the reassuring din of a warmly lit and festive crowd.
A great crowd indeed had gathered in the Vedere, and when at last Galavar appeared at the apex of the Golden Gliss, flanked by all five of his surviving Guards, by Benzan, by Commander Diva, and by many of the other dignitaries and luminaries of Gala who had been able to appear on such short notice, a tremendous cheer arose from the ruck, enduring for longer than any cheer in the history of that young city. It was a display of unparalleled esteem, not for Galavar or any other one person but for Gala writ large, for their shared community and hopes. And it was a show of defiance. In that moment, and only that moment, many a Galan truly felt within themselves, for the first time, that Gala had won today, and that the Hero had lost.
And Galavar, together with his peers, were lifted up on that wave.
When the cheers at last faded, Galavar raised his voice in song and, with the Orchestra of the Galakerr behind him, led the people of his realm in their anthem,
Road to where I want to be;
Ride till there's no light to see;
Freedom hides no choice for me,
Left behind my own country;
Left to find community;
Will the wide world welcome me?
Hie along on hoof and knee,
Horse so strong who carries me;
Every stride a loyalty,
Jagged hill and rugged scree,
Ancient till, and aiker tree
Far outside the mountain's lee:
Summer children, wild and wee;
Stubborn willed, and fancy free;
Who could guide them on their spree?
Glassy stars on midnight's sea;
Mates of Kindred harmony;
If we tried, what might we be?
And when the singing ended, thus spoke Galavar:
"Mates of the Galance! On this night, I and my Guard come before you to be with you! We come here for you! The sele of the night to you!"
"Sele!" resounded a great, uneven chorus.
"On a night like this there are few distinctions between us. The knowledge of battle and ruin casts us all onto the same plane. We have all lost property. We have all been stripped of our feelings of safety and assuredness. We are all injured. Here upon the Golden Gliss, Keeper Jemis Finick is injured grievously. And, most of all, we have all seen friends and loved ones die today. My Fourth Guard, Keeper Zirin Aloryane, is not here at all, for she died. A quarter of us died. One of every four of us.
"I don't know what that means, tonight. I can say it, but I can't understand it. Understanding will take a long time. All that comes into my mind now is that the world will never know what these fallen mates had to offer. And we…we may never know either.
"The invasion of the Hero of Davoranj was sudden and terrible. I did not foresee it, nor did any of us, nor even did the God of Logic and Wisdom give counsel of its impendence. Thus were we struck hardest as the Hero could have struck, and his hideous brand is found in the despair and anger and fear we feel tonight. Though I killed him with my own hands, atop the Fortress of Galadrim behind me, for us to truly defeat him we must come to terms with what he has done to us.
"For most of you, this morning you awoke as a peaceful civilian. You had never defended your life before today, never defended your neighbors before today—not like this. Tonight you go to sleep as a veteran of war. Your life is changed forever. May it be the last time you ever join the ranks of death.
"But, even if it isn't—and for many of you it isn't—there is still something to be said for today being your first time in war—something good.
"For each and every one of the sights you have seen in your life, there came the day when you saw it for the first time. Now, of course I'm talking about the big stuff! If you have a lover, a mate, there was the day you saw that person's face for the first time. You probably didn't know, then, that you were looking at your beloved…but I bet you still remember that day, even so. And what about the day you saw this city for the first time? Did you know, then, how much your life would change? Do you know yet?
"But I'm not talking just about the big sights! I'm talking about the little sights too, like learning what a stream of water looks like when you pour it from a pail, and how that water makes the plants grow. Little sights, like finding that you have a favorite spoon, or the proud and powerful feeling of riding a horse under your own control, or using arithmetic to solve problems and guide your life for the better, or hearing what will someday become your favorite song, or eating snow ice cream on a sunny winter morning. For every one of those sights upon the landscape of your life, there came the day when you saw it for the first time.
"Some of these days, you no doubt remember, and they are as precious to you as life itself. And some of these days are forgotten, seasoning for the soup of your personality, forgotten but never truly departed. And regardless be they remembered or forgotten, how many are the sights in your life! How many the days! And how many the firsts. I think that's why children are so wonderstruck, for childhood is an era of wonders, day after day bringing something never before seen, and the mind itself winding and growing to make sense of it all.
"We have a name, Relance, that we give to describe the sum of everything. Larger than a city, larger than a mountain, larger than a whole nation. There is nothing vaster and more permanent than Relance, except of course the Cosmos in which Relance is set like an ornament, and the Plains of the Gods. Yet Relance includes the smallest and the most fleeting sights in life as well: the smell of the rocks after a rain, the fullness of a good meal, the goodbye we whisper to a dying tree, the excitement of learning our child's name.
"When I was young, there came the day when I saw, for the first time, Relance. The day when I realized that we are all connected, all people and all things. The ancient philosophers said that Relance is the Land of Song, and on that day I understood why, because all I could do was sing. There was nothing else within me fit to express my happiness. Relance! What an incredible sight! And those of us privileged enough to reach that day, to see Relance for the first time, we never forget it. Many people who see it, they think—they know!—that they have beheld the very Swayfire itself. Others name it the Song of the Spark. Some say it to be the Glimpse of the Gods.
"I call it Relance. It needs no further magic pretended upon it, for it is the setting of all magic. Nor have I ever seen a more beautiful thing…than Relance.
"Of course, to see 'Relance,' surely a mate must first come to see a great many smaller sights within it—far more than can be seen in a day. And, sure enough, my grasp of Relance consumed my whole childhood, and even a little more than that. Yet I have taken care to speak thus far of exact days, and, indeed, the day I recognized Relance…the day I saw it for the first time…that was actually a single, particular day. A windy, brilliant evening in Ieik, in the summer, just five days after my birthday.
"It was the day I created Galance. It was the day I created my purpose in life. It was the day I chose who I wanted to stand with, and who I wanted to stand against.
"Not all of the sights we see in our lives are uplifting. Our first sight of a loss, or a suffering, or an evil, tarnishes our sparks as surely as the sight of beautiful things brightens them. When we see the ants swarming upon the caterpillar who will never fly, when we see the degradation of enemies who could have been powerful friends, when we meet the old and deafened bard whose greatest love was music, when we see the opilion whose feelers are gone forever, when we learn what slavery is, what rape is, what trafficking is, when we see true malevolence for the first time, when we witness starvation in the midst of plenty, and the brutal quashing of a child's curiosity and drive, and when we see the ignorance that achieves what even malevolence cannot…those are the Days of Affliction. When we see these things for the first time, our minds grow to understand how fragile and fleeting beauty is, and how easily injustice seeps into our midst.
"When I was young, the answer came to me like a dragon: War! I couldn't do anything about the harshness of nature, but I could stand against people who would use their powerful minds for evil. Wherever our enemies hold power, I resolved, let us take it from them! Let us destroy evil! Let us stamp out suffering where we can!
"That is the logic of youth.
"Nor is it a faulty logic, for tomorrow that war shall begin.
"But it is an incomplete logic, as I have learned in the years since.
"For one thing, the inevitability of nature, the harshness of it, tells us that suffering is an inevitable part of life. We can't wipe out all suffering. Instead, we can become hardened by it—tempered—and in that wisdom we can become kinder, more conscientious, and more appreciative. That, I think, is the lesson I wish most sincerely for you to ponder tonight. Now that you know what war is, may you never idly wish for it again. And may you enter into the future days of your life with the knowledge that life is too easily diminished, and often for so little good. If only the Gods had asked the Hero, Rennem, why. If only the Hero had asked us who we really are, rather than assuming that we were his enemy. But instead the Gods remained silent and the Hero acted out of ignorance, and he died for it, and his warriors died, and he blackened the hopes of Gala—forcing our Conquest to become a more desperate and dangerous endeavor than it would otherwise have been.
"Do not demean yourselves by indulging in your anger, your desires for revenge. It is altogether too easy, and too tempting, to diminish the Davoranjans in our eyes and wish ill upon them. It is too easy to wail at the God of Logic and Wisdom for not having warned us of the Hero's attack. It is too easy to cast aspersions on me, and my Guard, and my generals and commanders, for having failed to penetrate the secrecy by which the Goddess of Compassion concealed the Hero's hosts, thereby allowing the attack to take us by surprise—and too easy to blame the Goddess of Compassion for violating her own epithet. But most of all it is too easy to blame yourself, for not fighting harder, for not being stronger, as your friends and mates died around you.
"You cannot help but be tempted by these thoughts of blame and spite, so accept them for what they are—your mind's efforts to cope with the evil that has befallen our land and each of us in it. But do not indulge those temptations. Do not let them into your spark…for, if you do, all of Relance will be diminished along with you. Defy those temptations, and some good will come of this awful day.
"I said to you that my logic of youth was an incomplete logic, one of the reasons being that nature itself teaches that some suffering is inevitable, and yet not always completely bad. Here is the other reason: Even when it comes to the agents of evil, we can't simply fight a war and be done with evil forever. As the Galan Conquest begins, let this night be a thinking time for all of us, to remember that we go to war because we hate war. We go to war to bring opportunity and dignity to all peoples. We go to war to bring the peoples of the nations their right to self-determination. And with our successes in war, and the sway that we gain over the nations, we must also guard against the reemergence of evil under our own power. We must be not only liberators but stewards, vigilant and kind.
"But what does that mean? What does that actually mean, in the space of our own thoughts, from day to day?
"It means we must be honest, and forthright with our honesty. We must ask questions rather than make assumptions. We must resist the fear to squish or stifle what we don't understand.
"It means we must seek to help others, to press ourselves to come to their aid even when it is inconvenient or laborious for us. We must be mindful of other people's journeys for the same fulfillment, purpose, and happiness that we want for ourselves. We must be responsible members of our community, doing our part to keep gutters and conversations alike as beautiful as Relance deserves.
"And it means we must respect our Kindred heritage that says people will live differently from us and sometimes outside our sense of what is proper or proportionate. We must understand and accept that some people want to sing in places where we would be quiet. We must accept that people have different customs from our own, and that some people want to indulge in life's pleasures, taking many lovers, or growing fat on the delights of good food, or expending great sums of money and passion on clothing fashions or collections of things. We must accept that some people want to miss a little bit of work some days because they stayed up late to watch the stars—or because they stayed up late to get drunk and make noise. We must respect differences, and accept that we are distinctive individuals. We must come to possess the sparkling wisdom that tells us the integrity of our worldview and even our own worth as Kindred mates does not depend on others being shadows upon us. We must look out for one another, even for those who hate us—even for those whom we hate. Anyone not destined for the sword must be welcomed by the harp.
"If we can fulfill those obligations, there will be many wonderful firsts yet to come. The discovery that we can live with each other, and with ourselves. The forging of friendships across cultures and societies. The collaboration of disparate peoples in common endeavors. The sights that lie ahead of us, the joys and happinesses that someday we will see for the first time, they are the stuff of the air, the stuff of dreams, and they await us to bring them into the Relance. Those will be the days, Sele! Not at all like today. Days of Awe!
"I didn't know it, that day when I first saw Relance, what exactly 'Galance' meant. I didn't even have the word, yet. Those trivial details would be years in coming. What I did have, and what mattered, was a declaration: I would change the world…for the better.
"I founded this city in the name of all my desires for it. Every one of you—every single one of you—is here because of my declaration. You have all agreed to support me in my ambition to change the world, and to make it, each in your own way, your ambition. Whenever you feel anger or depression in the days and seasons ahead, remember why you are here, and remember that Relance awaits your contributions.
"Not everyone in the world will join us in this, and with them we must take care. Some we will rule only by force, or fear. Some we will even have to kill, because their power and willingness to destroy our work is too great to contain.
"There is a philosophy which says never to master the unwilling. There is a philosophy which says never to kill, except, possibly, in the moment of defense. I find these to be beautiful sentiments and almost always true, sentiments that come from a good place…and though I have never embraced them myself—for I dismiss isolation and pacifism as a denial of life's realities—there are those in our midst, and even in my greatest echelons, who have felt that way in the past. There are even some who feel that way now. For them, the Galan Conquest is a bitter harvest.
"For them, I would like to talk to you, if I may, about war.
"I want you to remember this day—how it looked, how it sounded, how it felt, how it smelled. This is what war is: a waste of blood and a boon of miseries, a lot of sweating and yelling, and the destruction of beautiful and innocent things. Most of you had never participated in combat before. Never, never, never forget the sight of this day, for this measure of misery is what we are soon to bring to all those in Relance who will not be persuaded or compelled to our purpose by peaceful means.
"It is easy to talk of war, and from the comforts of the imagination to glorify it. That too is the logic of youth, or shall we call it jejunity, and I would not have been fit to lead my own war in those days, for I had no idea of war.
"But on this occasion, I know what I am doing. And tonight I choose to command that the Galan Conquest proceed tomorrow morning, with an attack upon the Kingdoms of Soda Fountain and Davoranj, and, then, an advance upon everywhere. Before the very light of dawn our ships will set forth on the Sand Ocean of the Sodaplains, and I myself will go this night to the top of Galadrim where I shall wrestle with the whole nation of Davoranj in a great mindwashing of that entire people together, with Sourros as my champion, who has willed to make it so.
"But consider now the ranks we go to join:
"Every spring on Relance brings new wars of opportunity, waged by rich egotists who want to expand their dominions, and by hate-ravaged fanatics who want to drive their enemies before them and seize all that is dear and valuable. There are very few wars in history, both modern and ancient, that can be said to have had the blessings of justice.
"And why is this war different?
"Though I have explained it so many times, I feel my responsibility to explain it will never come to an end. But the explanation itself is simple:
"Someday, there will be a child born into the Galance. A girl, as it will happen. She'll be born into a nation that once hated all the members of her sex. Before the Galance, she would have become…nothing. She would have worked a hard and thankless life, and become tired, and weak, and old, and her spark would have died within her long before her breath. She would certainly never have had the chance to stand in my shoes, and lead the charge that would free her, or her children. Never.
"We who do are the wild few. Because of our power, we are tasked with a responsibility to the nations that is as precious as the dignity of our own lives. There are many excuses, many rationalizations, that evil or misguided people devise to justify their refusal to intervene on behalf of others. But we make no excuses. We are going to intervene.
"And we must succeed, so that, under the Galance, that little child will be born into a nation who cherishes her ambitions, and her. That nation will encourage her, love her, and dare her to fulfill her potential in the sight of the Golden Sway.
"And there will be a million more people like her, sisters and brothers and children…
"And they shall become the generations.
"For the pain of one war, in this generation…for the price of bringing suffering unto millions of people and death to countless thousands in our time, we shall have the opportunity for Relance never to know war or slavery or stupration again. We are accustomed to making sacrifices for our children. Let this sacrifice be the one to endure for all children, for all time. And even if our actions are imperfect and we fail to prevent every conceivable future crime and conflict, let us at least bring to the world in our age a quality of life, a richness of possibilities, and an armor of liberties, that our descendents will otherwise never inherit. The injustices of our own world, the world of the present day, may be intractable without resorting to the devastating force of war, but the injustices of the future…they can be dissolved before ever coming to pass.
"I was asked, once, why not just take what we can by peace, and leave the rest, out of respect to life in this generation? And I replied, it is actually a great disrespect to those in this generation that we should pass our own lives away into senescence and death without having availed ourselves of this incredible opportunity. Ours is a powerful generation, and power obliges us to do what is just. And I replied further, that to those who are not powerful, to those in the lands who would refuse us, and whose many peoples will continuing suffering in lieu of our Conquest, it is also a great disrespect not to act in our time, for our timidity is their prison, and they, being of our generation, will die with us, one way or the other, forever.
"But, finally and most of all, I replied—perceptively it would seem—that we cannot truly take anything by peace alone. Our opponents will not simply bow down before us. There are warmongers in the world who will employ any power at their disposal, and there is no way that we could widen the Galance without evoking violence from them. Indeed! The Hero of Davoranj brought us a war before we even launched a single sortie! There are plenty like him who yet live.
"So let me be clear: We will ask the nations for their consent. We will bring to them the Galance Ideal through our stories and shared passions and our respect for the peoples we go to meet. That task belonged to Zirin Aloryane. Now it will fall to Silence Terlais, whom tonight it is fitting we call Phannamer, and we send with her all our hopes and every act of tangible support she asks of us. And she will win the consent of many nations and peoples.
"But not all of them. And for those who refuse—and of course their numbers will be great, for pride and tradition and fear and greed and ignorance demand a great and powerful resistance to the Galance—then upon them we shall descend our Kindred general, Lilit DeLatia, who will break their backs as swiftly and as mercifully as may be possible, and with her too we send our hopes and our aid and our meaningful concessions to the war effort."
He held up Aghnagos.
"This is Aghnagos, the Hero's Staff, wielded today by Rennem himself, and seized by me in our decisive interview. Its name means 'Babe's Protection' in the tongue of the Blade Kingdom, and it bears this name for a good reason. What we experienced today as incredible bad luck was actually the extraordinary divine favor of the Goddess of Compassion upon her chosen people, Davoranj. This weapon, so gentle of figure, carries the Power of Derishos into the world. You should think of it as though it were one of her very hands. For its wielder to be defeated and the Staff pass into my keeping is of historic importance, the ramifications of which will unfold for years to come. Something incredible has come to pass today.
"But let the implications of that be discussions for another time. For now I would only like to say to you that it is not by the grace of Sourros that I bring Aghnagos before you tonight. It is not by chance that I came to possess this fantastic weapon. It is by our strength, our wisdom, and our carefulness and lengthy preparations. Though the specific invasion visited upon us was a surprise, we had prepared for the possibility of an invasion, and that is why we lived today. Our Kindred diligence prevailed over their divine privilege. Truly, we are stronger than the nations, and worthy of debating the Will of the Gods.
"As we must be!, for today our task was revealed to us in its redoubtable entirety: Today we were told that our ambitions will not simply fall into being, that we must fight for them. So let today be known as known as the day we stood to fight for our dreams. Let us not say to our children, many years from now, that on this day we lowered our eyes in memoriam of the victims of a slaughter. Let us say to them that on this day we arose, bloodied and weeping, and that with the tears still in our eyes and our wounds still open we declared our resolve."
He pumped Aghnagos into the air above him, one hardy shake, and shouted, as much to the Gods and all the world as to the people before him:
"Now hear the prophecy of Galavar!:
"I too will go to war, not merely as your leader but as your greatest champion. I will share in your deprivations and I will share in the fighting. I will throw down the Polestars. I will duel with the Emperor of Panathar. I will curtail the Sorcerers. I will even stand before the Gods, if I must. And I will win, or I will die, for our worthy cause—for the Galance Ideal and the Galan Way that brings it."
With a deep and rich fwoomp Aghnagos convulsed and the air above Galavar twisted and turned black. Great bars of white light that pealed like thunder shot out from that dark gap, curving sublimely at first but turning jagged and erratic the farther they went, before fading into nothingness. Then it all vanished, nearly as soon as it had begun.
And he lowered the staff, and said:
"To show our sincerity, I have bitten the divine hand."
Several heads off to his left, Silence smiled.
Galavar said, "I and my Guard have much to do, so now we shall depart. But your President, Gregor, will be with you. That is his highest purpose tonight. Look to him in these mad hours, and be strengthened.
"Finally, I offer you a streak of hope. Beside me stands this young mate, whose name is Benzan, and whom I have appointed to join the Guard. Soon he shall go down to the Depths of Sourros for his assession, and if he succeeds the Guard of Galavar will be whole again. Let him hear your encouragement now."
The crowd cheered for him. Benzan gaped back at them. It was one of the strangest things he had ever experienced.
"Enjoy this festivity," Galavar concluded. "Tonight, perhaps we can sing and dance. I know we're tired. I know we're hurting. I know there isn't much food or drink. But perhaps we can still awaken something festive within ourselves during this dark hour. We can remember those who have gone, and those who are yet to die in the actions that we ourselves are tomorrow to bring, and, in so doing, we can celebrate our own lives, and the lives we go to save. We can celebrate the beauty of Relance, and, in so doing, we can add to that beauty. We can answer death with a monument to joy, and that too will be a sight few of you have ever seen before.
"On a night such as tonight, let us celebrate, for tonight we are reminded that all life is fleeting, and arduous, and often miserable—and yet, even so, it is beautiful, and too soon gone."
* * *
After The Hero
AFTERWARD, his Guard were set to their tasks, and Galavar climbed the tall tower alone. There were many towers among the Towers of Galadrim, but this was the tallest. This particular tower, named the Tower of Conflux, held within it one of the fortress' most incredible treasures: a door leading outside Relance. What Galavar needed to do next, could not be done from the material realm.
The stairs made a steady helix, surrounded by drab walls, with translimenal lamps on the inside wall and tiny round windows on the outside one. The stair was drafty and cold, and bereft of the comforts and encouragements that typically signified Galadrim. Few people ever came up here. From the moment it was built, this had been a lonely place.
The ghosts of the day accompanied him. He let them nibble at his thoughts; it was healthy to acknowledge them. Most of all he thought of Rennem, who had retained just enough wits to realize the punishment that Galavar had devised for him, and had died believing he had unwittingly destroyed everything King Allopeash of yore had achieved. Of course, that wasn't the truth. At the top of these stairs awaited the survival and unity of the Davoranjan people. At the top of these stairs was an alternative to war.
But there was an element of truth to it. The Davoranj that Rennem had believed in…the Davoranj of ignorant violence and malevolence…that land was soon to perish.
The climb passed uneventfully, until near the top of the tower Galavar's challenge began. Ahead of him lay the final sequence of stairs, and beyond it a seemingly humble, metal-banded, wooden door. Such was the folly of relying on what seemed to be.
But first, the steps.
Each of these final, spiraling steps was a bulwark, a dire defense, to protect vast power from unreason. They had been carved as such from the very beginning, then later inscribed the more, with the unbearable, focused cries of the Twelfth Power. Only someone who wore the Black Armor, or otherwise one with the most exceptional dispensation, could climb them; to the unworthy they would of necessity bring nothing other than madness, in waves of insatiable guilt.
For so it was that these steps led to the Pinnacle of Galadrim, the highest matemade aede in the world. That room, now immediately above Galavar, hosted a Great Confluence, a union of all the Powers of Junction, a divine place wrought of mortal means, by the ablest hands in Galavar's dominion, not least his own. There were other spires affixed to Galadrim to serve as watchtowers. There were other balconies to go to find a good view. This place was the absolute top, the utter end, of whatever journey a mate might choose to undertake.
At the preantepenultimate step, Galavar stopped. The final three steps could not simply be walked upon. They had to be contended with, individually. It was a provision of his own design, a reminder not to hurry through life in its most important moments, and a protective seal guarding the power that lay beyond. And if, for all that, there remained any impulse for a mate to take these final steps in haste, they were physically large too, of such dimension to disrupt any viutari gait.
Galavar set his left foot and then the right upon the Thirdmost Step, which was given the name Brandelais.
At once the air around him bended and faded darker, already dim from his flickering torchlight in the drafty way and the sole translimenal lamp still in sight.
Sourros, always present in Galavar's mind, stirred; in fact his whole awareness roused now.
Flashes of gray light, each gone in an instant, cascaded through and around Galavar like flowing water. He was fighting a current—the departure of all the powers of the Confluence: a Great Effluence.
The Thirdmost Step. As it bore his full weight, it pulsed beneath him, quivering the very stone, forcing Galavar to fight to keep his balance for the whole time he stood upon it. Then Brandelais spoke, not to Galavar but in a distant voice made for no one. It said,
They fancied themselves wise but were sentimentalists in their sparks. Were it otherwise they would never have gone to rule in the first place, and never before has the world become rich from the dreams of the philosopher kings.
A blast of heat erupted in Galavar's veins, warming his whole body. In moments he began to sweat inside his armor, damping his underclothes and reviving the stenches of the day.
The Thirdmost Step had no design for him, nor any interest. Galavar was little more than a passing observer here. The real contest was invisible. A mate with a weaker mind would begin having delusions at this point, and all their apprehensions would descend upon them at once. Such a terror could stop the heart, but to Galavar it was only an uncomfortable heat. Lilit DeLatia had the hardest time on this step; her emotional nature and troubled history ensnared her here. Yet she had been the principal architect; for DeLatia it was a challenge to herself. For others, like Arderesh, whose mind was the most serene among the Guard, there was hardly even the sensation of warmth. Though, tonight, it would not have been so.
Galavar counted thirty-nine breaths before the feeling of heat subsided, leaving him soaked and doomed to suffer the frigid night in the worst of ways, but he was otherwise untroubled, and at last he prevailed, and set foot upon the Secondmost Step, first his right foot and then the other.
The flashes of light become stronger, and now they didn't vanish at once, but faded, streaking at mad speeds, like meteors. And where before it had given only light, now also the current gave force, pushing against Galavar corporeally, as would the waters of the river. This current had a name, but an ineffable name, knowable only to the Elite, and only in extraordinary times.
The Secondmost Step was given the name Lucubrae. As it took Galavar's full weight it pulsed, then convulsed, quivering the very stone, demanding that Galavar fight again for his balance. As its name declared, a mate could only climb Lucubrae at night, and only after a day of great feats. Even having participated in its creation, Galavar did not fully understand how the Secondmost Step could peer into a person's spark like that, and discern the truth. But it did, without fail. Once, Galavar had tried to climb this tower, only to arrive here and be told by Lucubrae that his day's feats had been insufficient. The step had thrown him into the air, backwards, to flail around and land upon his back, almost breaking it.
Lucubrae spoke, not to Galavar, nor to any apparent being,
I always felt that, with the Gods, if they bothered to meddle with you it meant they respected you. Only their silence is a damnation. But I have heard others say that the Gods possess the power to admire, and that in their admiration they are also silent.
Darkness enveloped Galavar, snuffing out the stream of light and reducing the glare of his own torch to murky ashes. This was a tenebrus cloud, he knew—the maw of oblivion. Only a mate's inner light could repulse it. Those who failed upon this step were rebuked to their very spark. The truly unworthy were rendered to coma, and died soon thereafter, their sparks gone.
Galavar contested the darkness, holding out the abstract symbols of his purpose here tonight and his greater life's ambitions. He held out the riches he had bestowed upon others, the happinesses and the opportunity. He faced his own mind, like a mirror. It was particularly relevant now, for one who could not look upon that mirror in satisfaction had no hope of succeeding in the mindwashing that Galavar was about to attempt.
Today had been a blood day, not at all happy, a day of death and destruction. Lucubrae knew it, and considered Galavar's feats carefully. Its darkness seeped into every crevice, took every opening—every imperfection in the battered Meretange's person. But though it weakened him, it did not defeat him, and at last came release.
Galavar counted fifty-nine breaths before the tenebrus murk dissipated back to the nothingness whence it came, and his legs—already weary from a day of battle—had begun to tire from the trembling rock. Still struggling to balance, he nevertheless took a moment to compose himself, gathering all of his might and main.
Now only one step remained, the Foremost Step, whose name had never been given, but declared from the stone itself, who had said I am Mearulay on the day of its creation.
Mearulay, the Foremost Step, a Yondred cast in stone whose name meant, simply, "Of the Boundary."
Now the current was roiling and fierce, hard as stone and swift as winter's gale. With the tenebrus cloud gone, in its place was a vast column of gray and blue streamers of vicious light. The rays that struck Galavar pushed against him as angry juggernauts; he focused his will upon them, bending them just enough so that none would strike him in the eye.
As a true double-sider—equal in both the left and right sides of his body—it didn't matter which limb Galavar set out first. So, for symmetry, he raised the left one, and set it tentatively upon Mearulay.
In all the world there were only two other thresholds such as this, and both were beyond ancient. This one, Mearulay, had been one of Gala's many incomparable achievements, eclipsing the nations of the present day in their genius and audacity.
Mearulay said, to Galavar personally it said,
You who approach!
Galavar set his other foot upon the Foremost Step, bringing his full weight to bear. It pulsed, the very stone quivered, more violently than the others, and he fought twice as hard now to remain upright, against the current and against the trembling rock, which to Galavar, in that moment, was a relancequake enveloping all the world.
Behold the Ineffable Stream of Light, whose name is Arshoa.
Arshoa, the forbidden name, the departure of the Powers of the World from their perfect union in the chamber beyond—the chamber that was his destination. The Powers came forth from beyond the material world, beyond Relance, and joined together in the chamber Galavar had created, the Great Confluence. But they could not remain there, and so, again like the river, they entered, they mingled for a while, and then they departed. It was this departure, the Great Effluence, Arshoa, appearing as flashes and then streamers of light, the mighty force pushing him away from his destination, which Galavar now struggled against. Truly only the very worthiest of beings could hope to succeed here. And the Powers of Junction transcended time. They knew what lay ahead, and when a mate's ambition was the stronger, so too was the might of Arshoa.
Thus spoke Mearulay:
Beyond this Boundary is the origin of Arshoa, and the terminus of the Twelven Power. Among it dwells the Power of Sourros. Together you will glimpse the Spark of the World. You who come with the Awareness of the God of Logic and Wisdom, to work wonders upon the Relance, do not wishfully assume what the consequences of your undertakings will be, for I possess the visions of what is to come and you do not.
A ghostly, luminous form coalesced before him, irresident and irresinndent upon the Plain of Relance. This was the dwend Mearulay, such as its forms could ever be perceived. The Arshoa emanated from Mearulay itself—from its eyes, its hands, its hair, its feet, and every orifice. The current of Arshoa, now its strongest, purest form, at last took on the quality of sound, and a deafening roar exploded into Galavar's ears as the ribbons of light streaked by him. Their force was now so strong that every ray stung, and their light was so vivid and bright that he squinted his eyes.
And it was not Mearulay but not the Arshoa either, yet both together as one self, that spoke:
I am the Boundary Between Worlds. I am the End of the Divine. Pass through me only at the peril of all Life. What transpires beyond cannot be revoked from the Column of History.
Now Galavar spoke, for the first and only time, shouting to be heard,
"The Meretange seeks admittance."
Then come now, my Beloved, and let us welcome the light of the Golden Sway.
It was not subtle. Anyone unworthy of its judgment, it would strike to death.
Galavar stepped off the Foremost Step, and passed through the Arshoa, through Mearulay, and onto a new step his feet settled.
The Arshoa was gone. Everything was perfectly still, and quiet. Only Galavar's torch and its soft crackle, and his own breathing, gave any trace of life. The spiraling stairway behind him was no more—still present in reality, but banished from his thoughts. Galavar had only one purpose in mind now, and that was to set right what the Hero Rennem had thrown to ruin.
Galavar's head stood just above the floor of a clean, round chamber, the Pinnacle of Galadrim. In one very real sense, this was the spire of the tallest tower of the fortress. In another, equally real sense, he was no longer in Relance but divided among several worlds at once. The Great Confluence…though there were other names. It was a harnessed, carefully balanced sliver of Point Cone, the end of existence, the gate to oblivion. And so Galavar stood above the monument of his nation's creation, but had also traveled somewhere else altogether. This was a garden for the Gods. One could not simply walk into such a room as this, and only a fool or a demigod should ever dare.
Sourros was no longer within him, for in this place Sourros had no need of the residence of a mate's mind and spark. The God dwelt freely here, invisible to the eye but easily perceived nonetheless, and his outermost thoughts filled the room. Galavar was used to them. To him they appeared as patterns of lights, most of them indecipherable, but always beautiful.
There were nine steps yet, to lift him from the boundary into the room fully. There was nothing special about these steps individually, apart from the fact that they were wrought of cerulean celestial stone, yet each one bore the engraving of a number, in the fine script of the Illiririi. He climbed these last steps alone, and ascended into the room proper.
It was a circular chamber, fitted atop the spire and slightly wider, three ravenslengths across. The floor was mostly gray, arranged circularly. Solid and sturdy, the stone was not unlike granite, and perhaps it was granite, though it had not come from Relance. Among it there were various patterns of the cerulean stone, forming the words of the Master Seal.
At knee's height was a continuous outward bulge in the wall, running the full length about the room, in which were nestled twelve unlit orbs equidistant from one another. He couldn't see them yet in such murk, but he knew they were there. Above the bulge was a ring of thirty-six oblong windows, offering views in all directions. The windows held no glass or other barrier, but even so they admitted little more than light. The winds of the Shos Plateau could scarcely penetrate into such a beyond as this.
Relance was out there. Galavar set his torch in the sconce and walked to one of the southern windows to look down upon his city. Still it burned. Still it billowed smoke. He frowned and turned away. Crossing the room now, to the north side, he strode. It was there that his purpose lay.
The Chamber of the Pinnacle was bare, almost completely unadorned, but for two artifacts. Above him the wall curved into a domed ceiling, and in that ceiling hung the sculpture of the Raven of Panathar, the Highest Familiar. This chamber, the Pinnacle, was also named the Story House, for the very reason that a bright and kindred mind in the presence of God would inevitably evoke stories. This was a room of storytelling—far different in nature from the ones Benzan had inquired about earlier in the evening, yet not so different at all in purpose—and the stories told here would be fashioned in some way to deeds. In the presence of the Power of the Gods, even to speak or think was also to act.
The other conceit, the other artifice in the room, and the only deep color in the whole place—for under the dim light even Galavar himself, in his black armor and redless skin, was gray—took the form of a large cerise velvet pillow with gold trim, sitting on the dark stone floor in the exact center of the room. A sitting pillow.
Silently, Galavar's armor absconded from his body, rising of divine accord and passing through his body insubstantially, before coming to rest in a neatly folded pile on the floor, clean and pristine again. So too passed his undergarments, until Galavar was fully nude, whereupon a pale and silent light wrapped itself around him like a towel, wiping away the grime and the blood, leaving his skin supple and pure.
The stench, the stench of battle…was gone.
All was stillness and peace. Galavar looked out for a long time through the window, into the dark north, mesmerized by the future that waited there. Vaguely was the glow of Soda Fountain on the horizon, only vaguely. One could easily miss it. And far, far beyond even that, lay Davoranj.
What did the future hold? What would come of this? Was the dream of Gala dead, or would he and his Guard and his people succeed? And what consequences would it bring to undertake the unthinkable: the mindwashing of an entire nation? For that, and nothing less, was his ambition. He would wash clean the minds of the corrupted people of Davoranj, poisoned by the lies of the Hero. He would take them to his side, turn them one by one. He would show them the Galance Ideal personally, from within themselves.
Finally he turned away from the window, and advanced into the center of the room, standing just beside the cushion.
"Good Evening, Sourros."
"Good Evening, Galavar."
"You will aid me in this?"
"Let us reckon with the minds of Davoranj. Are you ready?"
"You will be here for a long time."
"A long time."
Galavar frowned. One mindwashing could take a quarter of an hour, or several hours. With Silence it had taken a whole morning. He assumed that the mass mindwashing tonight would be far longer, but not tremendously so…perhaps lasting until the Solstice. He had never considered the possibility that now so frantically burst into his mind—that it might be a linear process. In his mind Galavar turned a few numbers and figured that if he had to mindwash each mate in series it would take almost one hundred twenty years.
"Not one hundred twenty years?" he asked.
"No. But a long time."
The Power of Sourros would go beyond anything he could achieve on his own. He would reckon with all Davoranj, at once. Even if it took him ten years, it would be worth it to keep the Galance Ideal alive. But perhaps he could do it in a single day, even if it would take a lesser mate ten years. Such was not outside the realm of possibility, for the mate named Galavar.
"I am ready."
"I am anxious," he admitted, mostly to himself.
Then he heard a distant explosion. It was unusual for sounds from the outside world to penetrate in here. Somewhere in the city, he figured, an entire building had gone up all at once. His thoughts ran through the possibilities. Perhaps people had died, or were burned, and who knew what treasures were lost?
He did not resent Rennem for bringing destruction. He resented the ignorance of it. What Rennem had done, he had done most of all out of ignorance. And now, even before the first day of the new future had revealed itself, Galavar was quite certain that the course of history had been changed. That divergence would begin here, tonight, in this chamber.
Galavar, the Meretange Individual, stretched out on his legs, jutting his arms straight above him. He was tired and sore, and would have liked nothing better than to sleep for a whole day. But that was not to be. He sighed, pouring out the last of his enmity. What he was about to do required a clean mind.
"It must be done."
He turned his head and raised his voice, speaking to Sourros with all determination.
"Can you tell me anything more that I should know?"
Sourros offered no reply.
"What of my corporeal needs?"
"Your blood will feed upon ambrosia, and your excrements will be exiled from within you. The fresh air of Relance will flow through your lungs, and your dreams will come to you as they should. Your body will pass into a great stasis, untouched, until the task is complete."
"Then we begin."
He sat down on the velvet pillow, cross-legged, enjoying the pleasure of its softness against his seat, and folded his hands in his lap.
Last of all he closed his eyes.
As he closed them, everything remained in view. The walls, the windows, the warbling torchlight, his own weary limbs; they were all still there. And more. He could see behind himself, and to either side, every direction. He let the awareness of it flow into him gradually. It wasn't hard, any more than it was hard to look at the sky outdoors after previously seeing it only through a small window, but it was unusual, and it felt big.
Sourros coalesced around him, joining with his own consciousness once again, and Galavar felt the God's familiar power suffuse him and everything else. Or, not suffuse, since it was always there, but offer itself. For this one purpose, the Power of the Gods was offering itself to Galavar, and to intermingle with that power felt like taking a drink of mineral water; its strange taste made him shudder, so alien it was.
The walls of the room melted away. Galavar saw them from the outside as well as the inside. They were irrelevant, their sole purpose outmoded, and he passed beyond them.
He saw the rest of the fortress, inside and out, every room and corridor, every person. He saw his beloved city, Sele, the city he had built from vision and toil. He saw it from above, and from below; from every point of vantage he saw it. He saw rooms he had never visited, from angles he had never glimpsed, all together at once. He saw his friends, his soldiers, his Guard, all of them.
He heard the fires that still blazed in the city, heard the crackling. He heard the cries of the afflicted, and the brave orders of the incidence commanders, and the gasping breaths of those who ran against time. He heard the curses and quails of the few surviving Davoranjan prisoners. He heard lovers in embrace. He heard the music of the big parade. He heard idle conversations, dire prognostications, lonely tunes, hopeful chatter. He heard the questions of children and adults alike. And he heard so many voices saying his own name, over and over. They trusted Galavar to deliver them from this calamity.
He felt the desperation of his people, and their sadness and their anger. He felt their resolve. His was an ambitious nation; he had taught them to rely on their own power, and to build up the power of others. For all their fear, and all their confusion and doubt, most of all he felt his people's resolve, and that made him proud. A rash few were even excited, having faced death and defeated it, and he could almost envy them. Perhaps if he were a bit younger…
He smelled the smoke from the fires, the stables of the animals, the miasma of the sewers, the bread baking in ovens, the flowers blooming in aprices. He touched the cold night air, and the freezing relance. He touched cold bodies, and warm ones, beating hearts and hearts now at rest forever. He tasted meat and soup and grains as others tasted it. He tasted the bounty of the land.
Now it was becoming difficult. A Kindred mind had no frame of reference to possess such vast awareness, and if he lost his own self-awareness amid such a glorious vista, that would be the end of him: He would dissipate into the Power of Sourros. But he was not unprepared. Galavar had practiced and trained with this power for many years, for its applications were endless. To close his eyes and see through Sourros' point of view was achievable now, though, years ago, it had once been monumentally hard. To pass outside the room where his body resided took an effort, but only trivially, yet in the past he had once become so frustrated with his failure to achieve it that he had punched through a wall. To perceive people's sensations, and feel their emotions, that had taken many years to reap even the earliest, sourest fruit.
And to encompass the whole city, that was still hard.
Nevertheless, it was only the beginning tonight.
Next he saw the City of Sele as it had been an hour ago. Then he saw it as it had been at noon. After that, he saw it as it had been yesterday, gorgeous and oblivious.
If he wanted, he could have seen it all the way back to its foundation. Such was that unforgettable temptation. Whenever he spread himself out like this, he was painstakingly tempted to go even farther. And he could do it. He knew the process. He could perceive the City of Sele back to its very founding if he wanted, along with every moment since. Or he could cast his gaze outward onto Relance, any part of it, or every part.
Or he could combine the two, and see all the world that had ever been.
Far less than that would destroy him utterly, and he knew it, so he accepted the humility of his own limitation. It was not something he liked to do, accepting that there were some possibilities he would never reach, but a wise mate had no alternative. A wise mate had to accept that the Ocean was bigger.
Even that which he was about to attempt was incredibly dangerous, and he had never before tried anything like it. Perceiving a nation of millions, spanning such a breadth of plains and mountains, even if only in the current time, was a raging beast compared to the tame pet of a city of thousands, spanning only a morning's brisk walk. Surely it was beyond any single person, even Galavar himself, which was one reason why he would need the aid of Sourros.
It troubled him to lean upon the God this way. Galavar usually celebrated the help of others. On the merits of such collaboration had Gala come into being, and he knew that he could not be a nation by himself. This particular exertion, however, this perceiving, it was deeply personal. Yet here was Sourros, not only sharing in the experience but facilitating it…and that felt wrong. Never mind the apparent betrayal by Sourros on this dreadful day. Even without that, the God's presence felt like a deep intrusion. To Galavar, when it came to thinking for himself, and being himself—and the act of awareness definitely qualified—Sourros' presence amounted to an admission of inadequacy. It took something away from Galavar in any ensuing achievement, as though he were a spectacle lens, through which passed all manner of wondrous sights, yet the spectacle itself forever comprehending none of them. If Galavar were merely a piece in some divine machine, then what meaning could he claim in his accomplishments? What ownership? It was not enough merely to be there to bear witness. So he would accept the help, but as little of it as possible.
Your logic is dubious, Sourros spoke, inside the chambers of Galavar's mind. If your comprehension comes from the matter in your brain, or from my illuminating hand, what is the difference? It is still your comprehension, and either way the means are created by me.
I don't accept that, argued Galavar. You may have created the world that gave rise to me, but what I do in it is beyond you.
The words of your peer echo in you now. Her premise is foolish, and foolish for you to dwell upon.
O God of Logic, as surely as I am myself, I know it to be true that my accomplishments are my own. That means something to me.
There is no credit to be had in this.
Not for the credit. For the experience.
So you have said before.
And we may never settle this old argument. Let us set it aside for now.
The God made no objection.
Galavar entrenched himself, focusing his concentration. He was about to step outside anything he had ever done. He had washed minds before, always one at a time. And he had held all of Sele in his awareness before. Now he would combine the two, and multiply it. He would hold an entire nation in his mind's eye, while grappling with all of its people. The Power of Sourros would avail him on both fronts, granting him this vast awareness and a booming, multifarious inner voice to reach out to the sparks of the multitudes.
But dangerous though his power was, Sourros was ultimately Galavar's ally. If Galavar extruded from himself the power that he knew lay within him, and if Sourros supported him all the while, then Galavar had confidence that his mind would not evaporate in a desert of uncountable identities. Nor did he especially fear being outmatched by the minds of any mate in Davoranj. Galavar had honed his ideas all his life. He was always ready to put them to the test.
No, the greatest danger, the power that was the source of his anxiety, was Junction. Sourros—God—did not possess the inner strength to touch two minds together. Only through Junction could one do that, and only through the Twelfth Power. The Power of Sourros could do nothing more than prepare Galavar for his task.
So many powers…he thought idly, and his thought took form, and floated away from the tower as a small cloud of fog. The sight of it troubled him. He had to be careful about that.
He drew upon Sourros' vitality. The whole city around him began to ring, and a blue ghostly sheen of light enveloped everything. From his experiments, he knew that few in the city were actually aware of what was happening. What he was seeing was not of Relance itself, but the worlds beyond. Only here, in a shard of oblivion, could they all converge.
The power roared around him like a waterfall, like a hundred waterfalls, with the ringing of a hundred tower bells beyond them.
Then, as he positioned himself into the stream, it all faded, as though he had dipped his ears into the sea. The blue light also faded, and he was left with the absolute silence and stillness that had greeted him when he had entered the chamber. But now it was different. Now those powers were inside of him, instead of all around him. Or, to put it better, he stood upon them like a rider on the wave.
But there was something more, that he could not describe. If a painting could be made of a sheen of water, that would be what the world looked like to him now. And if he touched it, it would ripple all the same. Reality itself was only a suggestion here; such was the nature of the Power of the Gods. Other possibilities, doomed forever to never be, felt tantalizingly within reach.
It was time to go.
To the north his attention turned. It flung like flying at an incredible speed. In the span of a heartbeat his awareness left Sele, crossed the entire Sodaplains, and passed over the Blade Kingdom of Davoranj.
There, its people went about their business, most of them living destitutely in a world they knew little about. Few of them had any apprehension of the wholesale slaughter visited upon their warriors this day. None had any hint at all of what was about to happen to them.
The hour was growing late. Many in the north country were falling asleep, and the stars ruled the sky.
And, then, the people of Davoranj were asleep. The night crept along. Eshos, the smaller moon, rose. Later came Ishos, icy-tinted as the falling snow, while Eshos moved on toward the west, creamy-tinted on the horizon as fresh milk from the farm. The stars alone held sway over the heavens above and the world of the Relance beneath.
And came the twilight of morning.
Slowly the night world and day world vanished from Galavar's sight, meaningless to him. In their place there was only a great void of peace, dotted by brilliant orange stars upon the land. To him it was an anteroom unto the heavens, a waiting place for eternity. The stars were almost uncountable. There were thousands of them; millions; and each one was the spark of a Davoranjan mate, giving off thin swirls of pale orange light, fading into the darkness of an untouchable past. The fading wisps were still there, but not to be seen by him.
Gather them before us, said Sourros.
It would have been impossible on his own, but with Sourros' strength Galavar reached out and drew them all toward him, in their millions. They gave no resistance, no acknowledgement; they simply came; for as yet he was an outsider among them, and there were so many of them that they blotted out the void. It was exhausting to apprehend so many, and the God's strength was peculiar, an untiring impulse, ineluctable, like falling from a great height—like Rennem had done.
Then he turned toward the source and the way, the Great Engine, at the heart of everything. He plucked the filament that bound him to it, and again, and its music was his own belonging upon the world. It was familiar to him; everyone knows who they are; but to see it like this—to feel it—was sublime.
It resonated among the stars, and their filaments also sang. Not all of them. Some passed away, unnoticed, their light fading from view. But far more of them sang, and their starlight became daylight.
This was his chance. Galavar cast out his will from his fleshly body, and into the Great Engine, with the consciousness of God suffusing him, so that he might not lose his way.
When he emerged back into the roiling orange sea amid the void, he was everywhere within it. His mind dwelt among the minds of nearly all the mates in Davoranj. It was incomparable.
Within each shining spark was a tower, a figure, abstract at first, a picture in the clouds, but gradually coalescing into something so absolutely real, and marvelously coherent, that it deserved almighty song. Yet it was incorporeal, fleshless, possessing no physical form at all. This was what it was to dwell within the sentient, sapient will of another person. Galavar knew he could not be seeing it with his own eyes; only the Power of Junction could possibly have availed him of such a wonder. And when he spoke, it was not the language of tongues, but something altogether innate, known to every mate who had ever lived in the world.
I am Galavar, he said to the People of Davoranj. I have come to know you.
The gates opened wide. He could see them. He could really see them! Not their bodies per se, not their conscious thoughts, but the sum of who they were…their purpose and their convictions. Hungers, fancies, contemplations, memories of whole lifetimes he had never lived, all showed themselves to him, entire universes of thinking, sprawling Towers of Selves, each one enveloping the identity of an individual person—a Kindred Mate of Relance.
By the millions they greeted him. They knew him. He knew them. He and the daylit sea of stars faced each other without defenses or pretense, without ego or pride. They beheld each other for who they really were.
This, Galavar wept to himself, this is the truth.
And, in perceiving one another, both would change. There was no fear in it, nor anger, nor gladness or jubilation, for here, on the far side of the Great Engine of Junction, Galavar existed outside his emotions, in the realm of the towers of stars. It was all so simple here.
He went to the partisans, those who feared and hated Gala, and showed them his nation as he saw it himself, its ambition and compassion, in all its delightful spectacle, and there was not one mate in Davoranj who prevailed over him, not one single person who made of Galavar an enemy against his own land; but, rather, the Davoranjan people turned to his cause instead.
And that was not the end of it. To know a person was to touch all things. He went to the lonely and showed them their common bonds. He went to the discouraged and showed them his own resilience, his grasp of what was possible. He went to the nihilists and showed them what it meant to have franchise. He went to the egotists and showed them devotion. He went to the studious and showed them caprice, and to the indolent and showed them the love of work. He went to the criminals and showed even the worst of them what it meant to empathize and respect. He went to the traditionalists and showed them the need for change. He went to the progressives and showed them the weight of history. He went to the mooks and showed them what it meant to aspire.
And along the way he changed too, always for the better. That was how it worked. The superior point of view always prevailed, and there were few better arguments for the benevolence of Sourros. When Galavar differed with another person, there was no argument; there was only reconciliation, immediate and absolute. From the Davoranjan people Galavar took in the trove of their culture and society. He took upon himself the ancient Davoranjan heritage, freely shared with him, Kindred. They were a proud people, and wise in their own way, and he learned many things from them.
Yet it could never be said afterward that Galavar changed for Davoranj more than Davoranj changed for Galavar.
He achieved a great understanding with them, and, when he finally awoke, the spring had long since passed.
So begins After The Hero…
O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!