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Neb

The Entrolusian camp was as at second alarm when Neb slipped back into his tent. Hed run when the woman attacked the scouts, but hed seen enough to know she was not the typical noble. The magicks had concealed most of her movement, but it was as if a violent wind had rolle [winow d across the clearing. Over his shoulder, he heard men shouting and falling, and a part of him wanted to go back and make sure the woman truly was okay. But she seemed the sort to take care of herself and that meant he needed to get as far away from her as he could. Now that he knew what must be done, he couldnt afford to let her take him away from Sethbert, no matter how good her intentions might be.


The genocide of the Androfrancine Order hung upon the Overseers head and Neb meant to hold him to justice for it. He hid the pouch of stolen magicks. Hed seen the lady use them-the casting seemed easy enough.


He pretended to wake up when the serving woman entered with fresh clothing and a platter of breakfast. She placed the clothing at the foot of his cot and the food on the table, then curtsied at the door. She looked like she wanted to say something, and Neb watched her. Finally, she spoke. Ive just come from the officers mess. Word is that Rudolfos war-raven arrived this morning. There was a raid last night. An Androfrancine was taken right from his tent as he slept. The Overseers Lady, Jin Li Tam, was taken as well. And a half-squad of our scouts were butchered west of camp. These are dangerous days, boy. Id stay close to the tent if I were you.


He nodded. After she left, he wondered about the Androfrancine. Hed seen glimpses of him-he wore the robes of an apprentice, colored in the drab brown of the Office for Mechanical Study. He wondered if hed been taken or if hed left. And the thought of the dead scouts made his stomach sink. At least he was confident shed gotten away from them. When hed run, hed not looked back but hed also not had any doubt in her ability to protect herself.


Not only was she one of the most beautiful woman hed ever seen-tall, with copper hair that threw

back the sunlight and piercing blue eyes and alabaster skin, lightly freckled in the waning second summer. But now it seemed she was also the most lethal.


Neb moved to the table and ate a breakfast of eggs and rice, chased with a crisp apple cider and a wedge of cheddar cheese. While he ate, he plotted the assassination of the man who killed his father.


Hed never really thought about killing anyone before. Well, that wasnt exactly true. He had thought about it once about two years ago, but it was a brief thought. Hed been thirteen then and the Gray Guard had come to the school to make their annual round for recruits.


He was a big man, a captain named Grymlis, standing tall and broad in his dress gray cap, cloak, trousers and jacket-offset starkly by the black shirt. The blue thread of inquiry woven together with the white thread of kin-clave formed the jacket and trouser piping. The long, slender sword flashed silver as he whipped it in the air.


The orphans fell back, gasping, and the tip of the sword hung in the air, pointed at one of the larger boys.


What about you?


It hadnt been a hard decision, really. Petronus sent in the Gray Guard scouts, magicked and armed with arrows that burned upon impact with a white heat that not even water could put out. Another ancient bit of science kept back from the world so that the Order could keep its edge and limit just how far humanity could go along its headlong path to self destruction.


Petronus sent them in, led by a captain who was already old for the job. Grymlis was the only Gray Guard that Petronus knew could do what needed doing to push the Marsh King back into minding his own and still be able to sleep at night, he thought. So they burned the village on Petronuss orders, killing every man, woman and child.


Afterward, hed insisted that they ride him out there. It had taken him a day and half. Grymlis had gone with him, though it was obvious that he did not want to, and did not think the Pope should go either.


Petronus had done the same thing then that he did now. It wasnt a large village, but it was larger than he had imagined. And hed approached it on foot, though an assistant led his horse. Ash crunching beneath his feet, hed approached the ruined village until he could see it through the haze of smoke that still rose from it. He could make out the charred lumber. The tumbled, steaming stones. The smoldering, black

piles that had been what? The larger ones were livestock. The smaller ones children, or maybe dogs. And everything else in between.


Petronus had gasped then, and covered his mouth with his hand, and even though hed known exactly what he was doing when he gave the order nearly three days earlier, the realization of it shifted like the load of a wagon and it rocked him.


Gods, what have I done? he asked no one in particular.


You did what you must to keep the light alive, Excellency, the captain said. Youve seen it now. You know what it looks like. We need to leave.


He turned around and walked back to his horse. He knew full well that the Marshers would not bury these dead. The Marsher way was simple: You ate or buried what you killed. You did not burn the living or dead-unless it was food.


The Androfrancines had come using fire and they had left those they killed unburied. The message to the Marsh King was clear. And Petronus was smart enough to know that Grymlis had only agreed to escort him back to the village because it added to the message: Behold, I stand at the edge of your field of dead and turn my back. The spies they had pointed out to him in the tree line would bear the last of the message back to their Marsh King, and Petronuss neighbors and caravans would be safe for another three or four years.


As he rode back to Windwir from that village so long ago, Petronus had realized suddenly that his life was close to becoming such a lie that he could no longer live it. When he retu [. WPetrned, he started plotting against himself with the help of his named successor.


Now it was no longer a village before him. It was the largest, greatest city of the Named Lands. It had been his first lover, this city, and Petronus approached it.


Of course he saw the connection immediately. Im identifying with past grief and seeking redemption for perceived wrong. Hed wondered if the Market Path would eventually show up along the Fivefold way, and here he was, getting ready to bargain.


And certainly that was something he could anchor to within himself-a great sin that he had committed, that he could experience shame over and avoid the larger shame that threatened to swallow him whole.


If Id been here. If Id kept the throne and ring, this would have never happened. It would all still be here.


Yet he knew it wasnt true, that evaluating the present based on imagined and different pasts was an unsolvable cipher. Yet he felt it, and it didnt matter that it was a lie. It squeezed his heart and caught in his throat.


If Id been here.


He ran the Whymer Maze inside himself as he shuffled forward on wooden legs. And then stopped.


He saw it now. What he had been looking for. Hed thought they were sticks, but how could there be so many sticks? And he thought they were stones but they were all nearly the same size, though certainly some where smaller. Bones scattered across the charred and cratered city. Seeing them, Petronus knew what he had to do.


He would bury Windwirs dead.


Jin Li Tam


Jin Li Tam wasnt sure what she expected. The scouts had been waiting for her, and though her own magicks were fading fast, theirs held true. Surrounded by ghosts, she ran with them across the hills beneath a morning sky until they reached the safety of Rudolfos camp.


The camp of the Wandering Army was ablaze with unbridled color. There was no rhyme or reason to it, no theme that interconnected the rainbow hues of the Ninefold Forest Houses. Unless maybe, she thought, the theme was chaos.


One of Rudolfos captains had greeted her upon her arrival, explaining that the general himself was busy. Theyd even had a bird ready so that she could get word to her father of her recent change of situation. She composed her note over breakfast, using three different codes for the message, and flung the white bird at the sky.


The c [w R


He appraised her with his dark eyes. We will be riding to the seventh manor, Lady Tam. She calculated the leagues. Four days?

Three, he said. Well be moving fast.


Jin looked at the hill where the officers sat on their horses and the soldiers gathered. When do you think the fighting will start?


He looked at the sky as if the sparse clouds could predict pending violence. Soon, Lady. And General

Rudolfo wants us far away when that happens. She nodded. Im ready to ride.

They brought a roan for her, and she climbed easily into the saddle. A half-squad of scouts pressed in, their stallions magicked to muffle their hooves and increase their stamina and speed. When she looked to


the captain, he shifted uncomfortably. We have another rider coming.

It was the biggest horse shed ever seen, its hooves still flecked with the powder that would muffle their sound to a whisper. It was black as midnight, and upon the stallions back was a robed figure that sat too high in the saddle. The robed figure hissed and clanked as it shifted. A small gout of steam released from high in its back, and Jin realized that the back of the robe had been cut away to expose a small square grate made of metal. From a distance, it would look like an Androfrancine on the ride. But up close, Jin could clearly see the shining hands, the metal feet, the dim specks of golden light from beneath the hood.


Lady Jin Li Tam, the metal man said, I bear a message from Lord Rudolfo of the Ninefold Forest

Houses, General of the Wandering Army.


As he turned, light fell on his face. This newer mechoservitor was far sleeker, far more refined than

Sethberts older model. She felt her eyes narrow as she examined him.


I am to tell you, he continued, that you have chosen well and that Lord Rudolfo will come to you when he can.


Thank you, she said. Then she paused. What am I to call you?


The metal man nodded slightly. You may refer to me as Mechoservitor [Mec"juNumber Three. Lord

Rudolfo calls me Isaak.


Jin Li Tam smiled. I will call you Isaak, too.


The soldiers were double-checking their gear, tightening the straps on their saddlebags and testing their bow-strings.


The captain took the lead. We leave fast-west, then north, then east-and we dont slow for the first twenty leagues. He pointed to Jin Li Tam and then to Isaak. I want you two just behind me. The rest will hem us in. He nodded to a young scout with blond hair peeking out beneath his turban. Daedrek, youll take first scout. Brown bird for danger, white bird for stop.


Daedrek reached over to take the small partitioned bird basket. He looped it over the pommel of his saddle and laced the pull strings through the fingers of his left hand.


Jin Li Tam watched, fascinated. Shed heard stories about the Gypsy Scouts legends, really, going back to the first Rudolfo, that desert thief whod led his tribe of Gypsy Bandits into the far off forests of

the New World to avoid the desolation of the old one. Shed heard the legends, but shed never seen them in action.


She hoped they were better fighters than Sethberts Delta Scouts. From the looks of them, she was pretty sure they were. There were only five plus their captain, but she could see the danger in their narrow eyes, their tight smiles and the way they cocked their heads at the slightest noise.


Daedrek surged forward, and the others waited now until he made the league.


She looked over to the metal man. It explained the larger horse. Obviously the mechanicals werent nearly as heavy as they looked, but still easily twice that of a large man. Yet he rode well enough. She wondered if hed ridden before now.


The captain whistled and they took off, riding low and pushing their horses hard. They rode with bows


tied to their saddles and swords tucked beneath their arms.


As they moved over the first hill, Jin saw the Desolation of Windwir to her right, an expanse of scorched, pockmarked earth. She thought she saw a horse moving out there along the edge of the wasteland, but she couldnt be sure because the sun came out from behind a cloud and blocked out her view.


They rode for three hours before the white bird flashed back into the captains short bird net. They stopped then to change out first scouts, then pressed on.


The day flashed by, and when the sun set, they could see the next rivers low line of hills in the distance-the beginnings of the prairie ocean that hid Rudolfos nine forests and their houses. The [ir hily made a fireless camp, pitching their tents in a ring around the tent she shared with Isaak.


He sat in the corner and she lay in her bedroll. He clicked and clacked faintly, even when he wasnt moving, and she found it both disturbing and comforting.


She tried to sleep, but she couldnt. The events of the past few days would not release her. From the moment she saw the pillar of smoke until now-how much had transpired? How much had the world changed? How much had she changed?


She hadnt killed a man since her first kill when she was still a girl. Shed maimed her share, but at heart she still held on to some of the Whymer beliefs, no matter how impractical they were for her way of life. But today alone, shed killed five. And shed sworn off the possibility of children, and saw a magick woman three times a year to keep it that way. And this morning shed been risking her life to help a boy she did not share blood with.


Shed known Sethbert was slowly going mad. Her father had told her it would be so because every sixth male child in Sethberts family died in madness, a pattern that generations of kin had still not recognized and rectified. She had expected his gradual deterioration.


But she had never expected that she would be consort to the man who destroyed the Androfrancine Order, or that in the span of a night she would suddenly be kin-clave to the Gypsy King through his announcement as a suitor.


And now she shared a tent with a metal man made from yesterdays magick and science. She looked over at him. He sat still, his eyes glowing faintly. Do you sleep?

A bit of steam escaped his back and he whirred. I do not sleep, Lady. What do you do, then?

He looked up, and limned in the light of his eyes, she could see the tears. I grieve, Lady.


She was taken aback. Sethberts mechoservitor had never shown any sign of emotion. This was new and frightening to her.


You grieve?


I do. Surely you know of the Desolation of Windwir?


She had not expected this. I do know of it. I grieve it as well. It was a terrible thing.


She swallowed. It was. A thought struck her. You know, she said, youre not alone. Sethbert has others-he has all of the others, if I remember right.


Isaak nodded. He does. Lord Rudolfo assured me of it. He intends for them to help me with the library.


Library? She sat up. What library?


Isaak clicked and clacked as he shifted on his stool. Between us, we contain perhaps a third of the library in our memory scrolls from our work in catalogs and translations. Lord Rudolfo has asked me to oversee the reconstruction of the library and the restoration of what knowledge remains.


She leaned forward. Rudolfo is going to rebuild the library in the far north? He is.

It was an unpredictable move. She wondered if her father knew of this. It wouldnt surprise her if he did. But the more she learned about this Rudolfo, the more she thought that perhaps this one could even outthink her father, and play the board three moves beyond his five.


That made him a strong suitor.


And his decisiveness. To rebuild the library, three days after the fires of the first had finally died, in the far north, away from the squabbles and politics of the Named Lands. The descendant and namesake of Xhum Yzirs desert thief, suddenly host and patron to the greatest repository of human knowledge.


A strong suitor indeed, she thought.


He is a good man, Isaak said, as if he were reading her mind. Hes told me that Im not responsible for the Desolation of Windwir. He paused. He tells me Sethbert is.


She nodded. Rudolfo speaks the truth. Im not sure how, but Sethbert destroyed Windwir. He was working with an Androfrancine apprentice.


More steam shot from Isaaks exhaust grate. His mouth opened and closed as his eyes shifted. More water leaked out from around the jewels. I know how Sethbert destroyed Windwir, Isaak said, his voice low.


And in that moment, because of the tone in his voice or perhaps the way his shoulders chugged beneath the tattered Androfrancine robe, Jin Li Tam realized that she knew, too. Somehow Sethbert had used this mechanical to bring down the city.


She looked for something to say to the metal man, something by way of comfort, but could not find the words.


loight="0em"


Instead, she lay awake for a long time after that and wondered at the world theyd made.


Rudolfo | Psalms of Isaak 01 Lamentation | Rudolfo