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Roger E. Eichorn's Blog: Fantasy, Philosophy, and whatever else I feel like writing about
(Draft as of 02/11/2018)
Prologue: The Battle of Oldgrove Field
His destrier screams as it gives out beneath him.
Ahead, the twig-thin spire of St. Asherah’s Cathedral tumbles from view behind a line of roofs scarring the middle distance. He is falling. Wet earth careens into his right shoulder and side. His skull strikes the inside of his helm like a bell’s clapper.
Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral and Kíeland, reels as if upon ground made sea. He has outrun his remaining guard, or they are dead. Through the roar of blood in his ears, he hears the soft, augering voice of Tomas Contzen. Artur spoke alone with the Irathic priest the night ere he sailed his army across the sea to retake Angeral from the treachery of the kingmaker and the kinslayer.
“Why must it always be war?” Tomas Contzen said, as if struck by an absurdity unseen though it lay exposed to every eye. “Is there no other proving ground for men and peoples?”
His every muscle screaming, Artur levers his steel-burdened frame from the earth. He totters on hands and knees. He gropes at his helm with gauntleted fingers, pulls it free. Air and sky slam his senses. He gags, vomiting stringy bile into the mud.
Again comes the voice of the priest.
“Should every conflict not seek its own end? Should the telos of war not be peace? You bid me speak freely, Majesty! And so I ask: why do you set sail on the morrow for your island kingdom? Why, when you can end the wars this very moment? You have only to decide. You have only to say No.”
Artur searches the blurred distances: Southkessel, smudged like a lone brush stroke across dull plaster. Beyond, he knows, lies the river and the bridges and, finally, Lloudyn, the capital, dominated by St. Asherah’s on its high hill.
He will never make it back there, will never return home.
“For how long has Norloch fought Arnos, Arnos fought Norloch? Nine years? Ten? How many have fallen in your battles, how many lives destroyed in their wakes? And for what? House Norloch and House Arnos, the Black Rose and the White… Do you not see, Majesty, you are brothers! Brothers!”
A clutch of mounted knights thunder down upon him. The ground ripples beneath his gloved hands. He is surrounded by steel and horseflesh. Above, a banner sags wetly on a pole, the White Rose of Arnos.
It rained earlier, during the heaviest of the killing.
He watches as two of the mounted men swing from their saddles, armor rattling.
This has happened before, he thinks.
The pair approach, swords drawn, blood-black.
Others close in, afoot now as well. Artur’s eyes burn as he squints up at them. Impossibly, each seem to bear the visage of Tomas Contzen, the Irathic priest: lank black hair, wide-set blue eyes, a spear-point nose thrusting over thin lips.
“You are brothers,” the surrounding throng seem to chorus. “Brothers!”
One of the smeared shapes looming nearest him speaks. It has Duke Corfolk’s gruff voice. “It’s over, Art. If you’ve any words, now’s the time for them.”
“Yes,” Tomas Contzen said at night under a midspring moon, “Duke Corfolk, your oldest friend, betrayed you. Yes, the Duke of Stars, your very own brother, betrayed you. And for what? A love-match? Were you not king? Was the choice of love not yours to make? But Majesty, neither Corfolk’s nor your brother’s betrayal would have been of the least moment was there not a rival faction for them to join—and no such faction would exist in Angeral had your lord father not claimed the crown as his birthright, as your birthright, all those years ago.”
His vision begins to clear. It is Rikard and Nicolas standing over him. Odd that he can think of them in such familiar terms, even now. Rikard Black, Duke of Corfolk, his oldest friend. Nicolas Astargent, Duke of Stars, one of his brothers.
The kingmaker and the kinslayer.
No, the Irathic was right, Artur thinks, we are all kinslayers…
“You’ve any words, brother?” Nicolas says.
He does and he does not. The voice of the priest of the Twelve-Pointed Star whispers through him, words that flicker like sheet lightning in the high places of his awareness.
“You are eager to say that yes, of course I’m right—but that I overlook the fact that your lord father would need have taken no such measures had Geoffrey of Arnos not usurped the throne from Brandon II. But Majesty, that was, what, six decades ago? How far back shall we trace the lines of legitimacy? The Greatheart himself, your most revered forebear, was a usurper…
“Either we all have a right to exist, or none of us does.”
None of us does…
It is then, death hovering before him, that a truth both revelatory and appalling assails Artur Astargent, battering him like storm-tossed surf. From the first, from the very moment of his birth, he has been fixed upon a trajectory that leads precisely, inexorably here, to this moment. The imbecile inevitability of the strung-together days he calls his life unfolds before his mind’s eye, writ into the marrow of deeds both great and small.
Every man who has ever lived, he sees now, even the mightiest, is naught but a pattern of intersections in a cloth woven millennia before, at the amaranthine moment of creation.
Laughter racks him. “The Greatheart—himself…” he gasps, cackling.
“He’s delirious,” Nicolas says, as if disappointed. A pause. Feet shuffling on wet earth. “It’s truly over, then, isn’t it?”
Does he hear sadness threaded through his brother’s exhaustion?
“Not yet,” Corfolk says.
Stillness. Sodden wind flaps the White Rose banner. Nicolas hulks forward.
Artur manages to lurch to his knees.
“It must always be war,” he said to the Irathic priest, “because evil heeds no reasons. Blood and toil alone prove the true.”
Moving with unexpected speed, with the fluid precision of a lifelong soldier, Artur produces a short-bladed knife from under his left vambrace. He slams the sharpened steel into an opening between his brother’s greave and knee cop.
Nicolas cries out as much in surprise as in pain.
It must always be war…
A force, mountainous and unassailable, crashes down upon Artur’s back, flinging him face-first to the ground. He falls, but does not land. He plunges through the skin of the earth as if through the surface of a pond. For an instant—a timeless Now—the Worldweave itself seems to cradle him as in a mother’s arms…
But then, for it seems there must always be a then, the clutching threads dissolve, parting around lances of white brilliance. He exhales, plummets down and out and away, his soul surrendered to the Nothing of the Outworld.
Artur IV Astargent, King of Angeral and Kíeland, was heard to rasp, “All of us… usurpers,” and to laugh, choking, as death took him.
Chapter 1: Duncaster
Jerome Casterdi’s resolve began to falter the moment he arrived back home.
Sitting beside Nadal Scalpada on the seat of the wine-merchant’s lead wagon, he watched as the Priory of the Immortal Prophet at Duncaster curved into view ahead, a steepled eminence limned in westering light. A kind of anticipatory repentance—not for what he had done, but for what he was going to do—lanced through him.
I shouldn’t have come, he thought. This was a mistake…
What choice did he have, though? He couldn’t stow away to the Continent without at least trying, face to face, to explain himself to his mother, and to Ethan, his older brother, and to the girls. No letter he could have written was equal to the task.
It won’t matter, a part of him chided. They’ll never understand.
But that didn’t matter either. He had to come back to Duncaster. He had to come home one last time before putting the shores of Angeral behind him, perhaps forever. It was the only way he knew to move forward.
The signor guided his merchant train into the innyard of The Five Wolves, which lay in the shadow of the walled priory vaulting the sky to the southeast. A new stableman—Jerome had never seen him before—cried their arrival. First came the lead wagon, piled with provisions, hauled by a pair of deep-chested drays. Three wains followed, each drawn by a quartet of imperturbable mules. The wains groaned beneath their burdens of Ilanavarian wine. Mounted guardsmen clad in brigandines or leather cuirasses swept in to either side of the train. Together, the company crowded the innyard as dusk leached the sky of blue.
A half-dozen or so workers shuffled from the inn. Several called out greetings. A porter cudgeled Jerome good-naturedly on the shoulder, buckling one of his knees. He was making his way through the crowd when a knot of men parted and he found himself facing his mother. She let out a cry, threw her hands into the air, and rushed forward to belt her arms around his ribs.
Before deciding to run away, Jerome had planned to remain at the Academy Sophiel in Lloudyn for the summer term. He’d not had time to send word ahead that he was making the trip back to Duncaster. His mother’s response to his sudden appearance was as heart-bruising as it was predictable.
I shouldn’t have come…
It surprised him to discover anew what he’d learned the last time he’d been home, for the spring equinox: he’d grown taller and broader than his mother during his tenure—two years, now—with the Order of Sophiel in Lloudyn. Her embrace no longer engulfed him. He wondered that this thought could sadden even as it thrilled, marveled at how growth could shrink the world.
“Do the girls know you’re coming?” she asked. “Does Ethan?” Her smile was so bright it seemed liable to singe. He struggled not to flinch away.
“No,” he mumbled.
This seemed to please her. “They’ll be so surprised! Oh, Jerome…” She let out a sigh, eased herself against his travel-worn cassock. “I’m so glad you changed your mind… so glad you’re home…”
Abruptly, as if becoming aware of a foul odor, she forced open a space between them. Her upturned eyes narrowed. “Something’s happened, hasn’t it?” she said, simultaneously concerned and suspicious. “It has! I see it written all over your face! What is it, Jerr?”
His smile felt wooden. “Nothing!” he croaked. “Nothing, mum!” He managed a weak laugh. “I just… I just thought to surprise you is all.”
An emptiness smoked through him with these words. He felt utterly transparent to his mother’s scrutiny, as if his face were a scrying glass from which she could draw out any truth.
Signor Scalpada rescued him from his mother’s frowning incredulity. The Ilanavarian merchant, an old friend of Jerome’s father, clasped him on the shoulder. In his deep, singsong accent, he said, “I fear the boy’s much given over to brooding these days. I suspect the bewitching influence of a young female Sophieli. Am I mistaken, bambino?”
Jerome groused, shrugging free of the signor’s grip. The swarthy man laughed in the wide-eyed, full-throated way of Ilanavarians—as Jerome’s father had laughed.
“See! It is always the females who bedevil us most—especially when we’re young, yes? Yes!”
The signor chuckled. With practiced ease, he took Sara Casterdi’s hand, bowed over it so that his forehead nearly pressed against the rings encircling her fingers. “As ever, I’ve saved my finest vintages for you and your establishment, mistress. But I believe it’s your ale my men thirst for now. Shall we repair to the common room?”
Jerome’s mother smiled. She folded her hands together over her stomach, where her dark red bodice gave way to gold-brocaded skirts. “Of course, signor. We’ve several casks fresh-brewed.”
The first pinprick stars were glistening overhead, spangling a swath of sky compassed by the bulk of the inn and its adjoining stables. Jerome recognized the emerging constellation: a belt of three stars, the curving back of the Leviathan of Elestor, the Fallen Archon—Elestor who had become Malchidael, the Great Enemy. Opposite the surfacing Leviathan, as if to fend off the beast, the steeple of the priory domarchon leaned into the gloaming, its silhouetted Starcross looking like a man with trefoil hands outstretched.
Malchidael, bearing down upon the Prophet’s World…
An ill omen, that, if ever there was one.
Until recently, Jerome had put little stock in omens and the like. Having undergone the final stage of the Testing earlier that month, however, he no longer knew what to believe. Sometimes it seemed to him that the world thrummed with occult significances, that it was pocked with unseen eyes behind which lay inscrutable intentions. The rest of the time, he simply thought he was going mad.
His mother looped her left arm around his right, reeling his thoughts back from the sidereal heights. Together with Signor Scalpada, they crossed the innyard, toward the linteled side door of The Five Wolves, leaving the shouts and bustle behind them.
A narrow corridor connected the innyard to the common room. Lamplight spilled from the kitchens on the left, opposite the aboveground storerooms. As he passed, Jerome saw Ciarán Dargas, the hulking head cook, engulfed in a haze of steam and smoke. Hands planted on his hips, he was frowning down at a pair of underlings like a judge before peevish and over-familiar litigants.
Grinning, Jerome slowed, letting his mother and the signor go on ahead.
“But you see, lads, I don’t care,” Ciarán brayed. “Work it out amongst yourselves!”
They ran into Ethan at the threshold of the common room. Jerome’s older brother looked more and more like their father each time Jerome returned home. Maurizio Casterdi, an Ilanavarian merchant from Nevegas, had left them all—excepting Loren, who alone took after their mother: small, slender, and fair—with a foreign look as well as a foreign name, but none more so than Ethan, the oldest.
“There you are,” Ethan said to Mother. He greeted Signor Scalpada distractedly, ducking his head in the merchant’s direction. He didn’t so much as glance at Jerome, apparently taking him for one of the signor’s men despite his cassock. “Where are the girls?”
“The girls?” Mother echoed. “They’re not at the laundry?”
Ethan glowered in exaggerated disapproval. “They are not.”
Jerome stifled a grin at seeing the all-too-familiar expression on his brother’s face. Two years his senior, Ethan had always struck him as prematurely donnish, an adult trapped in a child’s body. Only now, at eighteen, was his frame beginning to catch up to his demeanor.
Mother huffed. “Well, never mind them for the moment. What about your brother?”
Ethan’s brow knitted. He was, Jerome knew, scouring his memory for neglected responsibilities. “Jerome? What about him?”
Mother stepped aside with a flourish. “Are you going to welcome him home?”
At first Ethan’s eyes narrowed in confusion, then they widened as he recognized Jerome. It took him a moment to recover himself. “Jerome!” he said. They embraced. Ethan clapped him on the back. “I thought you were staying in Lloudyn for the summer.”
Jerome shrugged. “I changed my mind.”
“Good… That’s good! How long are you here for?”
“I’ll be back for him in nine days,” Signor Scalpada said. To their mother, he added, “He’s a good boy, a good son, to make the journey so often. But the trip’s not so bad, is it, Jerr?”
A good son… Heat climbed Jerome’s neck. He could feel it staining his cheeks.
They’ll never understand…
“No,” he mumbled, trying to ignore his mother’s knowing frown.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Ethan said. “You can help us find the girls.”
“Lyra should have been back ages ago,” said Mother. “And I saw Loren in the kitchens not twenty minutes gone.”
“Yes, well,” Ethan puffed, “I believe I have a lead on her, at least…”
When he did not elaborate, their mother prompted, “And what might that be?”
Ethan cocked his head to the side, rolling his eyes toward the interior of the common room. “Gregory’s back,” he said significantly, indicating a large, round man with dark hair and goatee, a flagon of wine resting on the table before him.
Over half the benches in the common room were filled. Flaxen-haired Will, the lutenist, was drinking from a cup to one side of the small stage. Any moment now he would take up his instrument, which leaned against the wall behind him. It was like this most evenings in The Five Wolves, when the merchant trains began to arrive and the townsfolk put aside their work for the day. Within the hour, the room would be cramped, hot and loud.
“I see,” Mother said tartly. “Well then, I suppose I’ll have to speak with Master Knolls.”
She leaned up to kiss Jerome’s cheek. Her right hand trailed along his forearm as she said to Scalpada, “You’ve brought my son back to me again, signor. You have my very deepest thanks.”
The wine merchant beamed, as though he wished nothing more in this world than to serve Jerome’s mother. “It is my honor, mistress,” he said with uncharacteristic gravity.
Jerome was reminded that Nadal Scalpada had known his father years before Maurizio Casterdi had so much as set foot on Angerish soil. Theirs was a mysterious bond, one that, for Jerome, stretched into the blackness of unlived time and untraveled distances.
His father had been dead for three years. Three years ago, it seemed to him now, Jerome had been a mere child. He would never meet his father, man to man. Tertian fever had seen to that.
At least now he could never turn his back on his father either. The dead always lingered; it was the living who came and went.
They’ll never understand…
The signor’s men were beginning to trudge through the broad front doorway. Will was tuning his bulbous lute. Mother leaned over the shoulder of Master Knolls, nodded as the man spoke.
“Who’s Gregory?” Jerome asked Ethan.
Before his brother could respond, the signor clapped them both on the shoulder, said with avuncular familiarity, “It’s good to see you boys—if I can even call you such any longer. Look at you! Yehru’s blood! You’re grown men!” He shook his head, humphed. “The young are ever the truest measure of time…” He let out a contemplative sigh. “Now I must drink.”
He clapped their shoulders again before leaving them alone beneath the corbelled archway.
“That man, Master Knolls,” Jerome went on. “What’s his connection to Loren?”
“Not Master Knolls,” Ethan replied. “Gregory.”
“All right. Who’s Gregory, then?”
“Master Knolls’ son—and a little bumbling fool.” Ethan grunted, shook his head. “Alas, he’s also Loren’s latest infatuation.”
“Her latest? When did this start?”
“In the spring, naturally. That’s when the roosters get restless… She’s fourteen now, nearly a woman. Can you believe it?”
“No,” Jerome murmured, thinking, Of an age to be recruited by the Sophieli. “I didn’t notice anything when I was back for the equinox.”
“Yes, well… A season might as well be a lifetime to a fourteen-year-old girl. She’s gone through two of these little whirlwinds already. This Gregory makes a third.”
Jerome let the implications of this development sink in. “Who is he, then?” The words came out with a bite he hadn’t intended. He was thinking, he realized, of the most loathsome of his classmates at the Academy, of them strutting and posturing for Loren the way they did for the pretty girls.
Catching Jerome’s tone, Ethan said, “Loren can look out for herself. There’s nothing to worry about with this Gregory in any case. He’s from Corfolk, or Eastmouth, or… I don’t know, somewhere thereabouts.”
“What’s he doing here, then?”
Ethan looked confused. “He came with his father… You don’t recognize Master Knolls? He’s been coming here for years. He stays at Guild Hall, but he’s helpless for our wines. As for the boy”—Ethan freighted the word with high-handed scorn—“it seems he’s taken up the family business. The two of them passed through last month, stopping both ways. Then they show up again about a week ago. I suppose they’re southbound now.” Ethan smirked. “I’ll grant the boy this much: he does work quickly. Nothing can possibly come of it, of course.”
“Of course,” Jerome muttered, unconvinced.
Their mother rejoined them. Her annoyance—a wrinkled tightness, obscured by cosmetics, around eyes and mouth—was plain to see for her sons. “That man…” She trailed. “He says Gregory went looking for Loren soon after they arrived. He hasn’t the slightest idea where they are, naturally.”
“What about Lyra?” Ethan asked.
Mother turned, scanning the common room. “I let Lyra go to the river with Damian for the afternoon. Jerome, go fetch her. You know the spot. I’m sure she’s still there. Ethan, you find Loren. She can’t have gone far. Bring her to me directly.”
“Yes, mum,” the boys said in concert.
They set off, Jerome back down the corridor to the innyard, Ethan toward the stairs leading to the inn’s upper stories.
Jerome stepped out onto Cooks Row. The evensong bells sounded from the priory, echoing through the streets and alleyways that crescented out from the base of the complex’s vine-choked walls. A warm wind, thick with the scents of wood-smoke and roasting meat, set his cassock flapping about his legs. His stomach clutched at its own emptiness. He’d hardly eaten a proper meal for weeks, not since the last stage of the Testing.
Images of the ordeal, like the remains of a dream fractured upon waking, seemed plastered to the back of his eyelids, haunting the recesses of his awareness.
… His right hand rests upon a moonstone quilled in unnatural light. Censors perfume the air of the lunarium with chicory and marjoram. Opposite him, Rhapsode Cora, draped in a gown of sunset red, chants in some primitive Kammeric tongue. He knows something is wrong. He tries to pull his hand free of the shewstone, but it is as if the stone grips him, not he the stone…
With an effort, Jerome shunted these memories aside. Clenching his teeth, he set off to find his younger sister, whom he loved above all others.
Duncaster lay astride a two-mile stretch of the royal road that angled between Carlyle in the south and Ayersbury Castle in the north. To the northwest, beyond the city wall, stretched the forested plains of Murcen. To the southeast, beyond the swift-moving River Darren, the land sloped gently down and away, under the horizon, where it tumbled eventually into Bridgewater Bay.
Six-thousand souls dwelt within Duncaster’s walls. The town was a center of pilgrimage and trade, what with its priory, its permanent market, and its two annual fairs. It no doubt ranked among the dozen or so largest settlements in Angeral. Even so, it was nothing compared to Lloudyn, home to at least fifty-thousand and boasting a port as busy as any on the Continent.
Living in Duncaster, Jerome had taken a certain pride in his imagined urbanity. The sons of peasants and villeins from the countryside thronged the market each day. He’d befriended many of them over the years, but his interactions with them, even the older boys, were perpetually skewed by unspoken imbalances of social and intellectual standing. He would have had nothing to do with them otherwise. It had shocked him, upon his arrival in Lloudyn, to find this relation utterly upended.
He realized quickly that he’d had no real conception of a city. He’d imagined a patchwork of Duncasters. But the differences between Lloudyn and even large towns was more than a matter of scale. Entering Lloudyn was like stepping into a different world, one carved free of the wilderness surrounding it—a human world, where men and their constructs held sway to such an extent that it became possible to forget, for long stretches at a time, the pitiless vicissitudes of nature. In Lloudyn, men had yoked the very earth to their will.
If Duncaster was a fenced lot, Lloudyn was a stronghold.
Still, as he curved around the northwest corner of the priory, Jerome knew he would miss this place, his home, when he was gone.
Struck by the thought, he slowed, stopped. He looked up and down the street, taking in his surroundings as if for the first—or the last—time. It was near full dark now. Lamplight showed in many of the upper windows that faced the priory. To his left, Pottery Row was a long line of mostly closed-up storefronts. To his right, he could just make out the torch-dotted bulk of Eastgate, about a quarter-mile distant. People straggled, in small knots or alone, this way and that along the street.
At his back loomed the priory. Ahead, beyond several blocks of residences, beyond old Master Albert’s meadow, the River Temark, lined in birch and goat willow, curved down toward Eastgate. It was along the Temark, at a cove tucked into the river bend, that he expected to find Lyra.
Jerome had played at the cove most summer days as a child. They all had, once, before peeling off one by one as the years passed, until only Lyra remained.
He would miss her most of all.
It was then, standing on Eastgate Street, the waning sliver of Thoriel’s Moon setting over darkening roofs to his left and behind him, that Jerome felt the first tingling intimations of rapture, like a breath of winter cold pinching his face, needling his arms and legs. He lifted a hand to his forehead. He was sweating.
Something’s wrong… The thought rattled through him, like a stone tossed about in a tin cup. Panic clutched his chest.
I’m slipping into rapture.
That was impossible, though. Wasn’t it? He’d entered the rapture-state three times before, once at each stage of the Testing he’d undergone over the spring term. But in those cases the seiyadiric power had been mediated by the Academy’s shewstone, the scrying tool of Sophieli rhapsodes. Only sorcerers could induce rapture without either the aid of occultics or the intercession of Sukalli, daimons of the Outworld.
Jerome was no sorcerer—not yet, at least. But impossible or not, there was no denying the queasy push-pull of rapture as it wrenched through him, an uncanny sensation, as if he stood both inside and outside of his own body.
“You are who you are not,” the daimon had whispered through Rhapsode Cora’s mouth, the lunarium spoked with the light of eternity that radiated from the moonstone atop its plinth. The sulfur fire of the daimon’s vision blazed white through the rhapsode’s eyes. “False!” the creature of the Outworld had hissed. “Interloper! Usurper!”
He tried to wrench his hand free of the shewstone, but it held him as in a steel grip.
“False!” the daimon screeched. “False! False! False!”
Three weeks later, standing on Eastgate Street in Duncaster beneath a plate of sky salted with stars, Jerome’s soul seemed to plummet outward, drawn along otherworldly tangents, branching from the plane of terrestrial time toward the encircling horizon that lay enfolded within the present of each lived moment.
His vision fails. He seems to be falling and falling in place. A cascade of voices pummels him. A father’s admonishment. A woman singing. The collective babble of children. These familiar sounds give way to others, as wave succeeds wave upon the shoreline: the shouts and screams of fleeing townsfolk, the pleading cries of the dying, the bloody laughter of soldiers set to pillaging.
“I’ve got her, lad,” the cook, Ciarán Dargas, says, “I’ve guh—”
“You are not who you are,” whispers the daimon.
The dizzying sense of movement dissipates. As if opening already-open eyes, Jerome stares out upon a world transformed. Gouts of flame spew from the row of buildings before him. Townsfolk flee toward Eastgate, men, women, and children. Smoke strangles twilight air. A phalanx of soldiers approach from the direction of Westgate and the market. They fly the Twin Arrowheads banner of Henri Mowbray, Duke of Murcen.
They’re sacking Duncaster, Jerome realizes, horror pouring through him like molten steel. The Norlochi are attacking…
This has already happened.
Ignoring the voice, Jerome tries to move, to rush back to The Five Wolves. Where are the girls? Where is Mother? He must help them escape the town. He must…
It’s too late, the voice says. His own voice, yet somehow not. They are dead. All of them are dead, Jerome…
Madness! He glimpses the future. There is no other explanation. He can stop it, then, or at least try. He can see his family safe.
No, the voice says. Look at me, Jerome. Look!
He turns toward Eastgate, as if hearkening to the call of an old friend. A feminine figure stands cowled in the middle of the street, perhaps thirty paces off, facing him. The thronging crowd flows around her with as much inevitability and as little apparent awareness of doing so as water parting for a boulder. Firelight plays across the unmoving furls of her robes.
Szard, Jerome thinks. Wyrd Woman…
It is said that Szardir appear to those who stand on the threshold of great change. The nearer in time the change, the nearer a Szard approaches.
Stifling a sudden, maniacal urge to laugh, Jerome steps toward the figure. She withdraws the same distance. The seam she creates in the crowd moves with her.
You are kairosar, the voice says to him—his voice, yet speaking the Szard’s words. Remember, Jerome! Remember, kairosar!
“Remember what?” he cries, stumbling forward.
The Szard glides back an equal distance. As she does, her form wavers, smearing the air like wet paint. His eyes strain as if wrenched on hooks. The cowled figure disperses in smoky waves through which strides a young girl who calls out his name. She is running toward him, arms spread wide.
“Jerome!” Lyra screeches, flinging herself against his chest…
… and all at once, the blooming flower of rapture twirled shut, as if his sister’s embrace had pinned him irrevocably to the present.
“What are you doing here?” she panted. Then, incredulous: “Are you—crying?”
He was on his knees, sobbing against her tiny frame. She began to stroke his hair, the way Mother would have. “There-there,” she said and he clutched her tight, knowing that she was already dead.
For he had watched her die, months ago.