Requiem per il Re delle Spade
"Isn't that just like disappearing into the sum of yourself
and the person you are disappearing into
it's like one plus one equals nothing at all
one plus two equals nothing at all
one plus me equals nothing at all
one plus you equals one plus you equals
you and you and you and you and
nothing at all...."
--Counting Crows, 'High Life'
Old Lady Caravaggio had been ill for three years now, not sick with anything in particular save the disease of advanced age, a disease for which there is only one cure. That cure's advent loomed on the horizon and had given her family cause to gather around her deathbed for one last good-bye. In truth, most of them were there to make sure that there were no last-minute changes to her will, for Old Lady Caravaggio owned most of Popoli and the surrounding countryside. Everyone wants to be on a dying rich woman's good side. These were the visitors who had come and gone before, stopping by to make sure that even in her senility and dementia she still remembered their names and forgot their transgressions, and who now hovered around her bed, scavenger-like, maintaining the deathwatch.
During the years of her decline, the old woman had turned to all manner of practices in the hope of extending her tragically fragile lifespan. From the Indies, gurus and mystics had been beckoned into service, to be rewarded with more money than they could imagine for healing her body. From the Orient, small men in silks, carrying their potions and needles, had arisen for much the same purpose. From Africa, seven women the height of men, eyes fierce and dark, had performed a dance so loud that the servants, huddled in their quarters on the opposite side of the mansion, had cowered in terror. Some even spoke in hushed whispers about books brought from afar, scavenged from the bodies of those who had failed using them, the latest lifted from a body that yet was probably barely cold.
And yet, nothing.
A few of the servants and a truly devoted niece had been with the old woman for longer than her three years of decline. Though they humoured these practices as best they could, they allowed them to continue upon one condition -- that Signora Caravaggio would also allow in the finest doctor of Western medicine that they could find. Though her acquiescence in this matter had been reluctant at first, to say the least, the tall, sandy-haired doctor with the kind smile had won her over nearly instantly.
He stood now beside her bed, stroking his moustache, only the vaguest hints of grey touching at its tawny edges. Smartly, the fairweather family had given him a wide berth, allowing him the space he needed to practice his craft. After all, a doctor is not a great expense, and what more could he do than to perform the duty of a Fate and inform her that her life's thread was not fated to last long.
"How are you today, Signora?" he asked, gently lifting her wrist to examine her circulation. His Italian was perfect, flawless in grammar and intonation, yet carrying with it at the moment edges of a purposeful French accent that anyone could notice and a British lilt that only the most careful of all listeners would be able to discern. "Have you been sleeping well?" With soft fingers, he rubbed her translucent skin, feeling the tiny veins beneath.
Coughing, the old woman sighed and shook her head. "Not well, my young man, not well at all." She refused to call him by his name or title, insisting that no one younger than fifty could be a proper doctor. After three years, however, 'young man' had become more of a term of respect than 'doctor' could ever have hoped to be. Beckoning him closer to her face, she whispered in a tone meant for all the room to hear, "I have dreams at night of vultures." Her breath stank against his chin. Cackling, she leaned back against her pillow.
The young doctor laughed along with her, casting a sidelong glance to the more advantageous members of the family, for whom he cared as much as she did. "I see." He placed his hand on her forehead, then beneath her neck, then as far down her chest as propriety bid either of them to allow his venture. "Tell me more," he smiled, pulling out a stethoscope with which to listen to her heart. "I fear I am not versed in the science of dreams, though a good story is always well met with my ears."
From behind, a young woman slipped her hand around the doctor's upper arm. "How is she today, Doctor?" she asked in a whisper-thin voice.
Nodding solemnly, the Doctor listened to the old woman take another breath, then turned to her niece, Constanza. "Not well," he announced to both of them; long ago he had learned neither to mince words nor niceties. "I fear that soon your Aunt will be received as an honoured guest in the courts of the Lord Most High." Patting her hand, he took it and placed it in her aunt's hand, closing them both with his own. Compared to the hands of the women, the doctor's hands did not seem so different, so long and thin they were.
Withdrawing, the doctor continued the examination, poking and prodding at her with every method of modern medicine, and some not-so-modern. Years of experience whispered at him to try this, touch this, see what colour this is. Gently and swiftly, his hands and eyes moved over her body. With a great sigh, Signora Caravaggio settled back against her pillow.
"She hasn't been eating," Constanza told him. "And she wakes up in the middle of the night with the most horrible nightmares."
"Is this true?" the doctor asked the old woman, smiling with the look of an old friend scolding another. "You haven't been eating?"
She shook her head. "Food no longer interests me. I find its texture revolting and the taste indescribably foul. Life has become much the same to me, in my advanced age." With a smile, she shut her eyes and folded her hands politely, as if this were something she said every day and she were simply waiting for the proper response. Propriety always had its place in la Signora's household; even deathly ill as she was, she had insisted upon being dressed properly and groomed to perfection before seeing the young doctor. Her family could view her in a sorry state, but to greet guests in such a manner was rude.
Constanza continued leaning over the doctor's shoulder, chattering on about her aunt's condition, voice fraught with concern. "She won't eat anymore, only drinks a glass of sherry at suppertime, refuses to get out of bed at any time save mid-day, claiming that the house is too cold for her constitution...." It was the middle of summer. "I've been watching her fluids just like you taught me to, Doctor, and they're all manner of colours save what they should be."
"I see," he muttered solemnly, seemingly lost in thought. "Anything else?"
As if his words had reminded the old woman of just how sick she was, Signora Caravaggio began to cough violently, her shoulders shaking with the exertion. An anticipatory murmur rose from those assembled, and the doctor turned to Constanza sharply. "Get them out of here!" he ordered, commanding authority with tone, not volume. All in the room heard him, however, and even as Constanza walked over to usher out the family politely, they scurried away, heads bowed.
The old woman reached her hand to brush the doctor's face, looking at him and still beyond him. "So many," she murmured.
He reached up to grab her hand and placed it back down on her chest, searching with his other hand for his bottle of sedatives. "I beg your pardon?" Signora Caravaggio's near-instantaneous slips from completely lucidity into delirium were by no means uncommon. Still, something in the doctor, perhaps instinct, told him that this was going to be the last of those slips.
"So many," she repeated, eyes gone glassy blue with age scanning his face blindly. He hand drifted up to her face again. "How do you keep them all? How...is it possible?"
He tapped the needle, making sure that no bubbles remained inside the serum, then released a squirt of clear fluid from the tip. The analgesic would begin to take effect as soon as he could get it inside her vein. The instinct that made him such a good doctor filled the syringe with more of the liquid than was necessary. The doctor barely noticed.
"Will you...allow me? Perhaps this way I can stay. Yes, I can stay." Her voice wheezed through lungs so close to collapse that only God could have kept them going. She gestured to the needle in the doctor's hand, then back to his face, to his kaleidoscopic eyes, green flecked blue and brown and gold. "You may proceed."
Without thinking, he stuck the needle in her arm and depressed the plunger. Pale liquid flowed into her body until there was no more; he withdrew the needle and placed a cotton patch over the prick mark to ameliorate the bleeding. From the door, Constanza watched, unsure of what was happening, though more than a little frightened of the situation.
Nodding, Signora Caravaggio settled back quietly on the pillow. "Gratzi," she whispered silently, closing her eyes. In seconds, she was breathing easily. After a minute, she would not breathe anymore.
Placing the needle back into his bag, the doctor nodded softly and brought the sheet up to cover the woman's face. Over her body, gentle as though she were sleeping, he drew the clean white linens; when he reached her torso, he reached behind her and removed a pillow, lowering her into a more reclining position. Her body was still warm. When the sheet finally fell over her face, to make it clear that he was not tucking her in to sleep, but sleep eternal, the voices outside in the hallway began to chatter again. A shudder passed through the doctor's body; his lips formed the words of a prayer in an ancient language. Neither action seemed to register with the doctor.
Constanza did notice, however. With her customary delicate grace, she moved over and placed her hand on the doctor's arm again. "Are you well?"
As he turned to face her, his eyes twisted colours in the light of the candle she carried. "I'm all right," he answered honestly. "I considered your aunt a friend, and I shall miss her presence. You have my sympathies on your loss." Gathering his bag together, he started for the door.
"Wait, please," she called after him. "We haven't discussed the manner of payment...."
He waved his hand. "A gift for an old friend, may her soul rest in peace." Smiling, he reached to brush back a lock of hair that had fallen in her face. She did not grieve; her grieving had happened in the three years previous. Now her face held the resignation of things that must be done. "And worry not," he added, almost as an afterthought. "You will be well-provided for. Do not think your devotion has passed unnoticed."
Smiling, Constanza nodded at the handsome man. "Thank you, Doctor Hardin. You have been most kind."
"A pleasure." He tipped his hat in a most formal fashion, the set to make his way beyond the sickroom, past the mobs of human vultures that had inhabited Signora Caravaggio's dreams, out of the mansion, and into the waiting carriage. God willing, he would be home by daybreak.
* * *
"As I see it, Laurence," the old man wheezed, staring into the fire as he concluded his tale, "what I took was mine in the first place. A gift to you, as it were. When you discarded what I had given you, I reclaimed it and gave it to my own blood." The emphasis on the last word stung. A charred log resettled itself in the fireplace, setting off a cascade of sparks; he took a sip of wine.
From the other side of the room, away from the light of the fire, the other inhabitant of the elegant chambers bristled. "Are you truly that pathetically desperate for a heir?" It was the first thing he had said in nearly half an hour, since the old man had begun to speak.
The Duke let the words roll off. "I sacrificed much for a son. I will not let that sacrifice go to waste."
"Won't you?" Clicking his elongated digits against the wood of a finely carved desk, the blonde man set his jaw into an uncharacteristic sneer. Such an action would probably leave a scar on the lacquered surface. This thought caused him no end of bitter amusement. The darkness afforded enough protection to allow his displeasure with his companion to cross his lovely face; under most lighting conditions, he would not be so foolish as to allow his opponent the advantage of his facial expressions.
The log snapped in half, cracking with a resounding shot of noise. "No." The old man shifted inside his heavy velvet robes. "I won't."
From nearly the time of Müllenkamp herself, the Bardorba family had been connected to the Dark, bound by an oath of blood too old to remember. No book recorded the first covenant, the initial agreement that two millennia later kept the family tied tightly to powers almost entirely not of God. However, for whatever price paid initially, for almost two thousand years the Bardorba family had controlled much of Valendia, sometimes from a figurehead position, sometimes from the shadows. Though the family had never produced any manner of king or queen, it had never needed to do so to protect its interests.
Most of the time, the bond went not only unspoken but unused. With near-unimaginable wealth backing the family, deals with the Devil, metaphorically speaking, had proved largely unnecessary. Generations of patriarchs and matriarchs more than adept at using their resources to influence those in power had assured the yet-unbroken line a place of comfort and high standing.
But some things could not be bought or bribed by any mortal means. Among those things, the latest holder of the title Duke Bardorba, Aldous Byron, had found, was an obedient son.
Under most circumstances, the two men assembled by firelight managed to be at least civil in their bitterness. No conversation between the two could ever be construed as friendly, certainly, but their exchanges rarely verged on the violent. Tonight, however, any spectator would have placed either man at inches away from his other's throat.
The younger of the two let his advantage in such a hypothetical physical struggle gleam noticeably through the darkness that obscured the rest of him. "And so you have finally written me out of your life. You have even found something to cover the great stain of your failure. This must be a great day for you." Disgust seethed from his body language as he straightened himself and moved into the light.
"Why shouldn't it be a great day?" Byron asked slyly. "The Bardorba family finally has an heir worthy of its name." Smiling, he brushed his hand across his thinning pate.
"Worthy?" The younger man let out an exasperated sigh. "The only thing worthy of this family is ablution by fire." His eyes scanned the room, the bed, the table with ornate chairs, the aging family, painted to look so happy, hanging at one end of the room. Absently, he wondered why the Duke hadn't bothered to burn that particular scrap of memory.
"Strong words. You sound so utterly displeased with something that should not even concern you anymore."
Setting his jaw, Sydney raised a heavy claw to gesture, taking special care that he did not mark the Duke with his movements. As much as he would have loved to have drawn blood, the time was not right. "Do not touch him."
Perfectly innocently, the Duke raised an eyebrow. "Whatever do you mean, Laurence?"
"I will only make this warning once, for once should be enough. Twice will come too late. Feel free to lord over your petty accomplishments, your pathetic deals, for the time will come when you must pay in full the price for your vanity. Revel in your filthy bargains, stroke your ego as you will, but do not touch him."
Byron emptied his glass of wine in one gesture. "Honestly, I cannot imagine what matter this is of which you speak." Against the fickle light, his features stood in stark relief, flat planes of flesh bright and oily, deep valleys of age dark and obscured. He looked an aged characture of himself.
"I will not lower myself to retell a sin that should never have occurred, so do not play the petulant fool. Though the shoe may indeed fit, the acting is trite and melodramatic." Sydney's voice dropped to a sibilant hiss. "But if you lay one hand upon him in any manner that could not be construed as wholly paternal, I will call down upon you furies from all corners of the earth, and damned be any blood between us."
"Why would I ever wish to harm him?" Beneath his robes, the Duke's body shifted as he breathed heavily. Already the disease that would confine him to bed for the last few months of his life had begun to set in. "He has committed no error, and nor will he ever. He will be a good child, the pride of my entire existence, an inheritor worthy of his inheritance." He leaned forward, his stinking breath triggering the desired unpleasant memories. "Why would -- how could -- a perfect child ever deserve such behaviour?"
Before he could make a move he would regret, the blonde man spun to leave, his metallic shoes making angry clanking sounds across the heavy carpets. His claws swung by his sides, evidence of his own sacrifice.
"Tell me, Laurence, one thing, before you go," the Duke called after him, watching the retreating figure and smiling as a man who knows he has scored a victory. "Tell me, can you feel what's missing from you?"
Sydney forced a smile. He did not turn to face his father. "Missing? Nothing is missing. I have burned away the imperfections as one would dispose of dross."
"Careful what you term as waste," the Duke responded, eyes thinning. "You speak of my son."
* * *
"Marie, would you care to say the blessing tonight?"
Few craftsmen, few artists could have created a family portrait more idyllic than the scene around the dinner table that evening. Along one side of the table sat three charming girls, hair blonde in the way that only the hair of children can be, curly in the way that only the hair of little blonde girls can be. At one end sat their mother, a little blonde girl who had grown up into a stunningly delicate woman. At the other, having just made the request, sat their father.
The smallest of the girls nodded her head emphatically, causing the little ringlets beside her ears to bounce wildly. All of seven years old, she was willing to do anything her beloved papa asked of her. He was her hero; she practiced splinting the wounds of her stuffed animals and tending the fevers of her dolls during her playtime. One of her blue ribbons threatened to come loose and fall into her soup. Her oldest sister, Anne, tucked it away, averting disaster.
"Dear Heavenly Father," she began, diction crisp with the kind of measured recitation that so often accompanies prayer. "Thank you for all the food that we've got to eat tonight, especially for the bread, because it's my favourite, and I'm always really happy when Mama makes it for us, and--"
A sharp kick to her shins dispensed from the other side of the table caused a momentary hiccup in her prayer. Elisabeth looked up at her younger sister, blue eyes telling her to get on with things, as they were all hungry.
Nodding, Marie bent her head again. "And God bless Mama and Papa, and me and Anne and Elisabeth, even though she just kicked me -- ow!"
"Don't kick your sister," her mother chided Elisabeth. "Please continue, Marie."
"And God bless Nonna, 'cause it's her birthday soon and we get to go visit her, and God bless Uncle Adam and Aunt Joanne, and Uncle Peter and Aunt Charlotte, and God bless Pumpkin, and God bless all my friends at school, and God bless all the people in the world. These things we ask in Your name amen," she concluded in one breath, looking up for approval.
Her father smiled at her from beneath his moustache. "Amen indeed. Thank you, Marie." Careful not to spill any of the assembled glasses of liquid, he reached for the small ham on the table and began to cut away small strips of meat with unnecessarily surgical precision. "That was a lovely prayer."
Elisabeth snorted, spooning collard greens onto her plate. At twelve, she knew everything there was to know about everything, and was more willing to share this information, solicited or otherwise. "You're not supposed to pray for dogs." Looking smug, she handed the platter to her mother. "They don't go to Heaven. Heaven's just for people."
Marie's face fell, tears welling up in her huge blue eyes. "No, it's not!" Her lower lip began to tremble. "Pumpkin gets to go to Heaven too!"
At the sound of his name, the ancient Irish setter lifted his head and made a small inquisitive noise. Once upon a time, he had maintained a vigilant watch during dinner hours, ready to pounce upon any foodstuff that made its way from a careless little girl's fork onto the floor. Nowadays, though, his position beneath the table at mealtime happened more as force of habit than from any real desire for table scraps; food would have to fall on the poor old dog's nose for it even to register on his radar. If Marie's dolls were absent during one of her doctoring rampages, Pumpkin would often take the brunt -- always with great dignity -- of her care.
"Nope." The all-knowing middle child shook her head. "Don't you pay attention in church? Animals aren't special like people are."
"They are! They are!" Reaching down from her chair, Marie threw her arms around Pumpkin's neck, who looked thoroughly confused by both the loud noise and the sudden affection. "God loves Pumpkin too!"
Anne rolled her eyes. The seventeen-year-old eldest daughter was far too dignified for all of this. She looked to her father to put a halt to this discussion.
Sighing, Joshua put down the carving knife and looked sternly at Elisabeth. None of the girls had ever heard him raise his voice to a level above that of normal speech, and normal speech for him was even quiet. However, at times such as these, tone made volume completely unnecessary. "Elisabeth," he said, "don't say such things to your sister."
"That's right," Emma chimed in from the other end of the table. When she spoke, her words clipped properly with a crisp British accent, contrasting her husband's mixed dialect. One listening to him would be able to identify influences from several languages no matter which he spoke, yet could never discern which was his native language. This was intentional. "You don't know what God has planned. It never says that dogs don't go to Heaven."
Elisabeth pouted. "Never says they do." She speared a bright crimson new potato and shoved it whole into her mouth.
"And it never says they don't," Joshua retorted gently, in a manner that let her know he was in no way upset with her. Her words were simply errors to be corrected. "One cannot presume to know the Mind of God. After all, the things that are never explicitly outlined we must leave up to Him to decide. And I, for one, would like to believe that He is the final judge of who makes it to Heaven -- person, dog, or otherwise."
Anne took a sip of her water and smirked softly. "Very wise, Father. Could you save the sermon for after the meal? It gives me indigestion."
Joshua chuckled and gestured in her direction with his fork. "Watch what you say, young lady. You're going to miss my rambling diatribes when you leave."
"I doubt it," she laughed back at him. Her admission to the Sorbonne next year was guaranteed; she had already made plans to live with her mother's brother in a small city just outside of Paris. "Are you done with the ham? I'd like some before it gets too cold." She put her hand on Marie's shoulder and ruffled her hair. "And so would our future veterinarian here."
Marie beamed. "You think if I ask God enough to let Pumpkin into Heaven, He will?"
From beneath the table, Pumpkin let out a yawn that sounded oddly like a rusty door's being swung open. Lifting a glass, Joshua shrugged. "It could never hurt to hope."
* * *
Her hand across his face was soft and so very real. It had fallen there carelessly as she had drifted into sleep, impossibly comfortable against the dank stone floor. Further off, tucked safely into an alcove, the boy also dreamt. In such a place as this, sweet dreams were not possible, but they were infinitely preferable to the waking nightmare of Lea Monde. Wards, piled on three and four thick in places, would keep out anything that would disturb the rest of three people. Inside the cathedral then was the safest place in the accursed city.
But Hardin did not sleep. His deep brown eyes remained open, fixed on the intricate tile work of the ceiling. There, in flecks of brown and gold ceramic, burned the Rood. Or, from where he sat, the Rood Inverse, though he knew from the design of the room that no heretical meaning belonged to the holy symbol here.
Beyond the walls, the sun began to sink in the sky. He saw it, though his eyes remained fixed on the Rood on the ceiling. And morning passed, and evening passed -- the third day. Three days in the fetid city. Three days without a bath. Were the waterways through the town not as polluted as the city itself, he would have considered immersing himself, no matter how cold the water, just for the momentary sense of being clean.
From the corner, the boy coughed once, stirred, and settled down again. The sleep spell Hardin had Worked over him hadn't been necessary to lull the child to sleep, but Hardin had wanted him to stay that way.
Bursting into the room full of hostages, brandishing his sword, Hardin supposed he had looked quite the terrifying apparition. Dark and tall, he was used to being physically intimidating. All the women and children, most of the men having not sacrificed themselves foolishly in an attempt to protect the ducal manor, huddled together. He tried not to think about them, for he knew that they were all most assuredly dead.
Unlike so many of his comrades in either the Peaceguard or Müllenkamp, Hardin found killing unpleasant. He had killed; many people of all ages, sexes, classes had found their ends at the tip of his sword. But he never found any enjoyment in taking the life of a fellow man.
This was the only thing, to his mind, that kept him from being a murderer.
From the mass of terrified women, from beneath their skirts, he had seen the blue-grey eyes of a small boy staring at him without fear at all. Even when he had pointed his massive sword at the boy and called for him to come forward from the crowd, even as the women had clung to the child, weeping, the boy himself had never shown any hesitation. Hardin remembered the boy's mother, her bright blonde hair falling around her face, screaming as she reached for her Joshua. The other women held her back, concerned for her safety, but the Duchess fought them, screaming, reaching, wailing the name of her son and swearing to give them anything they wanted if they would just return her baby.
The only thing harder than listening to the woman scream was seeing the look in the boy's eyes as he gazed upon Hardin. He could see nothing but determination and -- what looked like but couldn't be -- trust. His dark hand, the size of a giant's to such a small child, reached out as a silent invitation. Turning once to his mother to wave a solemn bye-bye, Joshua exited the room, his hand wrapped around one of Hardin's fingers.
Oh, the boy was not a stoic by any stretch of the imagination. All through the manor, he had shied away from the other cultists, so much so that Hardin eventually picked him up and carried him just to save time. The rats and snakes and other horrible creatures made him cry out in fear; for most of the trio's journey through Lea Monde, Joshua had traveled on Hardin's hip or shoulders, ostensibly so that his short legs would not slow them down, but more accurately because the boy whimpered every time his feet touched the stone floor. But he had never hesitated once to follow Hardin unquestioningly.
Even Callo, in the beginning, had terrified Joshua with her unfamiliar presence and occasionally harsh demeanour. True, few could blame her for this attitude -- in Hardin's experience, abduction and coerced travel made most people cranky. However, not until earlier that day, the third day, had Joshua begun to warm up to Callo.
As if thinking about her had been enough to catch her attention, and perhaps it had, Callo stirred against him and yawned. "How long did I sleep?" she asked, waking up with more than her usual dose of clarity. Lea Monde did that to people.
"Six hours," he rumbled, not taking his eyes off the ceiling.
"Then that will be long enough, I suppose," she murmured. Sitting up slightly, she looked around the room until her eyes caught Joshua's sleeping form. "He slumbers still?"
Hardin nodded, shutting his eyes. "And he will until I choose to wake him. Lea Monde is a place where one must be held to sleep when one cannot hold one's self there."
Callo's eyes studied his face, eyes deeply concerned. "And did you sleep?"
He shrugged. "For a time." Taking a deep breath, he let his Sight slip beyond the room. "Guildenstern's men are close. Or, more accurately, Guildenstern himself, with those closest to him. All others have fallen to blade or beast."
"And Agent Riot?"
Groaning softly, Hardin sat up, opening his deep brown eyes again. He gathered his shirt around his shoulders, wincing slightly as the fabric brushed a wound on his shoulder. Wincing, he wondered how long he would have until it got infected. One of his healing spells could fix it with little effort, but his energies right now were needed elsewhere. Damn, sometimes the price a man wouldn't pay for a simply, earthly, non-magical bar of soap and a basin of warm water. "He moves still, though I daresay he is deeply in need of sleep himself."
Joshua coughed again, and Callo rose, bare feet making careful quiet smacking sounds as they hit against the bare stone floor. "Is he all right?"
"He has caught a chill," he informed her. He strapped on his sword, which had never been more than an hand's breadth from his body since the time they descend into the rank horrors of the city. "When he awakens, when the time comes for us to move again, I know a spell that will help him heal more quickly."
Leaning against a wall, Callo surveyed the man sitting on the floor. "Certainly you cannot continue with your magicks at this rate. You will wear yourself down."
"I am fine."
"You are exhausted. Your strength cannot last, not like this. And what will happen to us if you forget yourself?"
With a terrific grunt, Hardin stood, feeling every dirty inch of his skin stretch around his tired muscles. "I shall not need my strength much longer." He raked his hand through his hair, shaking loose a harmless black spider. "Guildenstern and Sydney both approach, each at his own speed. Soon this will come to an end."
She brushed her delicate hand across Joshua's forehead, removing a few locks of hair from his eyes. "Those hands should have been used for healing," she mused quietly. "Strong though they are, they are too gentle for a warrior."
"A warrior must be gentle," Hardin countered. From his bag he pulled a small flask of water and took a small drink. Perversely, he prayed he was right about the imminent conclusion of their hellish time in the city; the water had nearly run dry. "No sword should be swung without a purpose greater than itself; no man should fall to a blade that does not know the weight of the fallen man's life." He checked the contents of the bag: half a loaf of bread, a ration of dried meat, a few herbs. More than time was running out.
He had not packed for days, but for a day; not for three, but for himself and a child. No arts he knew could conjure food or purify water. At best, he had taken what he could find off the bodies of the fallen, but few of them had expected such a lengthy battle. Things should have been over by sundown the first day. Things should have been over in the Duke's manor.
Of course, Sydney had made no promises to this effect. Hardin had simply made the terrible mistake of assumption. And now his leader, his superior was nowhere to be found. Try though he might, Hardin could not find Sydney anywhere in Lea Monde. The cult leader had to be there, for he had nowhere else to go, but he had obviously cloaked himself from even the pryingest eyes. Including the eyes of his right hand.
Shaking himself from his reverie, he looked over to Callo, who was tucking the boy as well as she could into his clothing to ward off the chill of the cathedral. "Promise me," he said suddenly, his deep voice reverberating against the high ceiling.
"Of course." Long ago had she given up trying to analyse his every word. Somehow, she had come to understand that analysis was not going to save her.
Hardin buckled a pair of straps around his waist. "I will not leave this place alive." The sound of the stretching leather creaked in the silence between his words. "At least, I do not believe that such a thing is likely anymore."
Callo did not protest; she nodded, asking him silently to continue. Three days would also make anyone a pragmatist about survival.
Gesturing to Joshua, Hardin lowered his dark eyes. "He has no family to return to, or at least no family to which I would return him in good conscience. If I do not live to see the outside of these walls, I place into your hands the burden of his care." Taking a deep breath, he strode over to the sleeping child; unknowingly, he repeated Callo's previous comforting gesture. "Will you watch for his safety when I am no longer able?"
She nodded. "Aye, John, I will."
Before he could respond to her, his head jerked to one side, hearing a sound that seemed not to exist. For a moment, he listened, his eyes slipping half-shut, then opening wide again. "They approach," he told her plainly. "Do you swear it?"
"By my honour, I swear to protect him until my death." Her soft voice was deadly serious.
Curtly, almost sadly, Hardin nodded. "Then I can do nothing more."
* * *
With a soft scrape, a match lit in the room. Seconds later, it touched the wick of a lantern, illuminating the small bedroom. "And where do you think you're going?" Emma asked her husband. She clutched the heavy blankets around her chest; her thin shift did little to ward away the chill of the early morning.
"For a walk," Joshua answered. Standing nearly fully dressed in the centre of the room, he shrugged on his coat. "I'm sorry; I didn't mean to wake you."
"No," she yawned, "it's all right." With a sleepy hand she drew her long blonde hair away from her face, tying it back in the manner she had that took no pins, no ornaments, but still kept her tresses out of her eyes. "Could you not sleep again?" She drew her hand across her eyes, giving them a second to adjust to the light, giving herself time to adjust to being awake. Her movements bothered Pumpkin, who had up until then been sleeping soundly at the foot of their bed. He awoke long enough to express his displeasure audibly, then fell asleep again.
Fixing the last button of his jacket, he returned to sit on the edge of the large feather bed. In the soft light of the lantern, she looked no older than the young woman he had first met nearly twenty years before. "It's nothing, my love," he assured her, reaching over to kiss her forehead.
Emma laughed. "If I were any other man's wife, I'd tell you to go and visit a doctor."
Smiling, Joshua joined in her laughter. "If you were any other man's wife, I wouldn't be nearly as happy as I am." He stroked his thumb gently down the line of her jaw, cupping her face in his hand.
"Flatterer." She reached up and covered his hand with her smaller one. "Don't stay out in the cold too long. The calendar says that winter's another month off, but like my father used to say, just you try making the seasons fit the designs of man." Her father had been a farmer, a man cut from the strongest part of the earth, and had always been prepared with a saying for any situation.
"Of course." He kissed her on the lips, then leaned over her to extinguish the lantern with his breath. Pumpkin received a good ruffle as he stood again, walking as quietly as he could manage to the door of the bedroom. As he got there, he turned back, catching the sleeping figure of his wife in the moonlight. "I love you, Emma," he whispered.
The sound she made in response might have been words, a shared expression of the same sentiment, but it was muffled by the pillow in which she had buried her face. Smiling still, he slipped out the door of the bedroom and into the hallway that would lead to the front door.
As befits any normal household at four in the morning, everything was silent. Joshua was used to this hour of the morning, for he often went on walks when he could not sleep. During his college years, he had spent half of most nights awake, pacing the halls of the school during the winter months and the green during the warmer seasons. For reasons he had never understood, he had never needed much sleep. This had served him well during his final medical examinations, but had occasionally been something of a confusing burden. After all, a man who sleeps only four hours a night finds himself with a lot of free time on his hands.
And so he had developed the habit of pacing. It allowed him time to think, and gave his body something to do that wasn't lying in bed, counting the cracks in the plaster on the walls. Sometimes, in lieu of walking, he would take long showers or baths in the middle of the night. But running a bath in a household with four sleeping women caused more noise than he should make. So he walked.
On the way out, he passed the doors of his three girls, Marie's first, then Elisabeth's, and finally Anne's. He paused to run his fingers over the wood of Anne's door, the place where he had carved her name in a tiny plaque of wood and painted little flowers around it when she was born as a christening gift, except that it hadn't been perfect, there had been a little chip in the edge of the A that he had always meant to fix, but the Christening had arrived and he had to give the gift without correcting the error....
Joshua shook his head. He hadn't made the carving; Emma's uncle had. And Uncle William had died several years ago, just after Marie's birth.
Another false memory. He shook his head and sighed. After nearly forty years, he supposed he should be used to his curse of an overactive imagination. Every now and then, he would look at an object or person or situation and concoct a story around it as if he were watching from another person's point of view.
Were this particular talent controllable, he supposed he could have been a writer instead of a doctor, a famous author and storyteller. More money in words, he mused to himself, than in pharmaceuticals, even though he hadn't done badly, in retrospect. His girls had never wanted for anything, which was what mattered to him. And he wouldn't have traded the sense of worth he gained from healing those in pain.
Looking back at Anne's door, he let his eyes scan over the nameplate. There, indeed, was the chip, an easily fixable mistake for someone willing to sit down and sand it out. Perhaps he would do it himself. Not that he knew how to work tools, per se, but he had the impression that if he sat down and tried woodworking, he would be a fairly adept craftsman. Instinct was a commodity of which he was in no short supply.
Still, the memory haunted him. He could recall details of sanding the wood, painting in the tiny flowers, drilling out the letters A-N-N-E-Y-V-O-N-N-E-H-A-R-D-I-N with delicate care. Vivid detail. Lately, these imaginary memories were getting stronger and stronger.
As was his headache. Maybe a walk tonight wasn't such a good idea, especially since his knees didn't feel very strong anymore. Had he been shaking like this for long? He lifted his hand to his face to remove glasses that he had never worn, then to his chin to scratch the beard he had never had. False memories from an overactive imagination, a violently overactive imagination. Some people with them were lucky enough to end up nothing more than afraid of the dark.
Trembling, he leaned against the wall to his back, then slipped down quietly to the floor, drawing his knees to his chest and shutting his eyes. Sometimes if he sat very quietly and took several deep breaths, he could remember the difference between who he was and what he remembered.
Lately, it had just been so difficult.
* * *
"'Sleep, baby, sleep, your father tends the sheep, your mother shakes the dreamland tree and from it falls sweet dreams for thee, sleep, baby, sleep....'"
The Duchess Bardorba did not have a particularly lovely voice. In fact, Byron had found the sound, over the three-year period of their marriage, thoroughly irritating. Consequentially, he spent more time away from his wife than he spent with her. Yet in her arms now rested the proof that their time spent together had been enough. He hoped.
All the doctors had assured Byron that the wrinkled, red appearance of his son was nothing to be worried about, that all newborns looked this way. Even so, at a week old, Joshua still bore more of a resemblance to a raisin than to either of his parents.
Leaning against the wall, watching the Duchess enfold Joshua in acres of blankets and velvet sleeves, Byron tried to keep a pleasant smile fixed on his face. After all, visitors and servants had been in and out all day, and it wouldn't do for any of them to see the proud papa with anything less than the kind of expression appropriate for the recipient of an angelic gift from God. He had been smiling now for nearly a week without stopping. His face had begun to ache.
"'Sleep, baby, sleep, our cottage vale is deep, the little lamb is on the green with snowy fleece so soft and clean, sleep, baby, sleep....'"
Never before had he been around a newborn child for any notable period of time. If someone high in office or power had a child born to him, Byron would send tokens of his congratulations, then wait at least a month before making a personal visit. Children after a month, though still fairly lost and helpless, had begun to resemble humans. He pondered what difference it would make to the human species if ifs offspring, like zebras, could walk an hour after birth.
Since all babies looked alike to begin with, there could be no way to determine parentage until the time at which features start developing. This being true, he would have to wait at least another month, though perhaps until a later time, to truly know whether or not his bargain had worked for the second time.
"Byron?" His wife's voice grated through his internal monologue. "Byron, would you care to hold our child?"
A few of the attendants in the room cooed and made approving sounds, as if Emilie had suggested populating the stables with the most adorable puppies and kittens Valendia could produce. Byron's fake smile inched a few notches wider. "Are you sure, beloved?"
Her face was clear and bright, her eyes empty. She had not been chosen to be his bride for her grand intellect. "Of course. He is your son; you are his father." She lifted her arms, lifted the child, and was pleased when the youngest of the girls loitering against the wall skittered over to transfer Joshua from parent to parent.
He had taken no chances; every minute of the Duchess' life, waking and sleeping, had been monitored by men he trusted. Her days were filled with hours in gardens and sewing rooms, burning time with her maidservants and the members of her family who had accompanied her to the manor. The nights he was away on business she slept tightly guarded, or with her two younger sisters; the nights he was there she slept by his side, her tiny frame resting a polite and sterile distance from his larger one. Such treachery was not only unthinkable, it was impossible.
Raising his arms, Byron prepared to receive the child. Emilie, settling back in her chair, smiled at the scene. "And you will be careful with him, Byron," she laughed. She meant it as a joke. The Duchess had never been particularly funny.
"I will, my dear." The servant curtsied, deposited her burden, and scurried away as quickly as she had arrived when first summoned. And the Duke was left holding Joshua.
Perhaps because he had never held such a young child before, he was surprised by how light the child was. Not asleep, despite the Duchess' oh-so-lovely lullaby, not crying, Joshua blinked his heavy blue eyes. This, thought Byron, was the way children should behave. This was how a true son of his was supposed to behave. Quiet; obedient.
His entire family, everyone saved that deformed sister of his, had perished to create this child. Without warning, the entire Bardorba family had fallen victim to a mysterious plague, one that swept through the halls of the manor, killing those infected with it in days. By the Grace of God, the people said, Byron had survived.
The first lesson of dealing with the Dark is that the Dark gives nothing freely.
The young Duke, mourning the loss of not only his entire family, but his wife, had behaved admirably in the eyes of the country. Shortly after burying them, he had stepped aggressively into the position finally completely his own, managing the family's accounts and marrying again. To the public, his benevolence knew no bounds; when a young cousin, several times removed, orphaned at the age of three months, had appeared in his courts, he had taken the young child in to raise as his own.
Six years later, sadly, all the manor had mourned the sudden death of that child, lost to a terrible bout of scarlet fever, the body infected so much that it could not even be spared for a viewing before it was buried very quietly in the family cemetery. Once more, the family found itself without an heir.
But the child had not died. The child had simply been punished in the manner that all disobedient children must be punished. If the child had died, perhaps Byron's sacrifice would not have spent so long being in vain. Byron had known from the beginning that the child was strong, too strong, too free-spirited; he had done his best to correct this way of thinking, for this had not been the bargain. A disobedient child is useless to a man who needs control.
Cooing happily, Joshua reached up and grabbed for the rood necklace around his father's neck. His chubby hand closed over the lowest point of the symbol, carved in silver rounded and soft enough as not to damage an infant's skin. Byron reached a wrinkled finger to the boy's face. Joshua abandoned the necklace and grasped his father's hand.
From her chair, the Duchess laughed at this. "He's a precious child, just precious. The most beautiful baby in the world." Her milk-heavy breasts shifted beneath her alabaster gown; acres of blonde hair cascaded around her shoulders.
The Dark had tricked him, though perhaps he had deserved it for not being specific enough with his request. The compliant nature had been in place, yes, but it had been tempered by the fierce spirit for which Byron had no use in anyone save himself. He could feel the Dark running strong in his family. Not to harness it would be foolish.
Fifteen more years and the acquisition of a third wife had passed before the bounty of his bargain had once more landed in his hands. When that first child had re-appeared an adult in his chambers, delicate and deadly with his new arms, Byron had known exactly what had taken place. The Dark had given Laurence his own soul, his own identity. The old was Byron's again to do with as he pleased.
"Yes," Byron agreed, staring at his son. His son. He must be. "The most beautiful in the world."
* * *
The black pawn sallied forth across the chess board, held delicately in the long, thin fingers of the woman's hand. Though she was approaching the end of her sixth decade, her age had done nothing save make her features more beautiful, more refined. The grey that had woven its way through her dark hair framed her gentle face. Even her hands did not show the leathery wear of age, but remained smooth, if a touch wrinkled. Her students called her 'la Elegante,' the elegant one. Joshua himself could not have created a more appropriate nickname for his adoptive mother.
"Perhaps we should not stay up so late, Maman," Joshua suggested, answering her move with his knight. "After all, the girls will be up early tomorrow morning, and you know the first thing they plan on doing is seeing their Nonna."
Callo smiled, causing soft lines to appear at the corners of her eyes. "I took a nap today, so you shouldn't be worried. When did you get permission to be the mother?"
Sighing, he reached across the table to take her hand in his. "Maman, we both know that I've always been the responsible one in this relationship."
His observation was nothing of a criticism to her parenting style; quite the opposite, he had nothing but the highest respect and admiration for the way she had raised him, respect that only doubled after he had children of his own. The actual mechanics of educating him, a terribly bright and occasionally difficult child, had been trouble enough. After hearing far too many reports from his teachers of his refusal to do work he already knew how to do, Callo had simply stopped sending Joshua to schools, opting to educate him herself as much as she could.
The true difficulty had not been bringing him up, but keeping him safe. He could remember wrapping himself around her knees as the sun rose over Lea Monde, weeping for the death of the abductor who had become, for reasons he still could not explain, his closest friend. From there, he could remember her reaching down and taking his hand, explaining very softly that she was going to make sure that he was all right.
That certainty had required, for the first several years, her working as a waitress and their moving nearly once every six months. The waitressing had been simply the easiest way to make money, demeaning though it was for a woman with two PhD's, but the constant moving had been nothing short of a matter of survival. Inquisitors and police would have been all over themselves to find the last surviving member of the Bardorba family, and Callo was bound and determined to make sure they never got their hands on him.
Callo Merlose did not list stupidity among her very short list of failings.
"Hush, now," she chided him, moving another pawn out onto the board, making way for her bishop. "If you let your girls hear you talk like that, there will be no end to the trouble they give you."
Joshua smiled and made an answering move. With a cunning grin, Callo inched another pawn forward. And so the game continued, mother and son each trying to outwit the other, neither saying much as they fell into the eight hundred and sixty-fifth chess game they had every played. Joshua knew; he kept count.
Neither of them spoke much about the past, about Lea Monde. The closest they came to discussion of the events was when the Riskbreaker showed up every year or so, somehow managing to find them no matter where they hid, though he was never the one from whom they hid. He would show up, always with a bag of things, books, fabrics, food, the rare freshly killed boar, and stay for a few days. Though he has never anything less than perfectly kind to either of them, for some reason, these visits always made Joshua uneasy.
He had never been a talkative boy in the first place, and when Callo had told him, at four years old, to keep quiet about his past, he hadn't questioned this instruction. He had understood as well as she the danger they were in. When she had told him their new names, he had nodded understandingly and never spoken their old ones again, save in the presence of the former Riskbreaker. Even then, they spoke as if his name had always been Joshua Hardin. Sometimes, he imagined that his mother hoped he had forgotten who he was.
Though he had never said anything to contradict her, Joshua could remember quite clearly his days as a Bardorba, the time spent in Lea Monde. As painful and dangerous as these memories were, they were part of who he was, and who he was had lately become so important to him.
"Maman," he said softly, breaking the silence, "if anything should happen to me, you will take care of Emma and the girls, right?" He spoke English, the language he used when he wanted to express without saying so that this conversation was not for prying ears.
Callo's dark eyes evidenced no surprise; she was too good to let such a thing show. "Of course," she answered. "Is there a reason you ask this?"
Joshua contemplated a move for a few moments, then captured one of her rooks with a rook of his. "Sometimes I feel as if I'm not myself," he confessed, keeping his eyes on the board. "Do you ever get that feeling?"
She reached and covered his hands with hers. "Joshua, love, listen to me. Look at me." She tipped up his face so their eyes met, then ruffled his moustache, smiling. "You're a very special boy, and you've always been very special. But sometimes special means different. You're going to be okay. I'm going to make sure that nothing happens to you. All right?"
Forcing a small smile, he nodded. "I believe you, Maman." His eyes darted down to the board, then back to her face. "Checkmate, by the way."
Her eyebrows flew up, her gaze darting back down to the pieces. "Where did that pawn come from?" she cried in Italian.
"He was there all along, Maman."
* * *
"I wanted to help Father. This city was his only hope...."
The voice was not the Riskbreaker's; it was the voice of a child that made Sydney bristle and would have made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, had he really been possessed of the back of a neck anymore. Just thinking about it made him hurt. Turning his head as best he could, shifting in the Riskbreaker's arms, he stared at the centre of the circle room. To his great displeasure, he found himself staring back at him. Forgive me, Little Mother, his mind called out, forgive me, for I am delirious....
Delirium could not explain the Riskbreaker's expression, however. Ashley stared at the boy as if he could see the apparition. The dark hollows beneath his eyes had deepened sincerely; his unshaven jaw hung open cautiously. From his position, Sydney could feel the muscles in the larger man's body tense to the point of readiness, ready to run if what appeared benevolent became dangerous. "You can see," the cultist murmured, less of a question and more a revelation. Ah, a revelation. He hadn't had one of his own in quite some time.
Inside his head, he could hear Müllenkamp's screaming, and he knew that she had taken for him the brunt of his injuries. Even so, the pain was incredible. She screamed at him to hold on to consciousness, but to a man who hadn't slept more than a few hours in the past two months, the darkness of death appeared uniquely appealing.
The ghostly boy shimmered, then appeared again, more solid than before. "I wanted to help Father." Though obviously in a child's register, the sibilant, nasal voice could belong to none other than Sydney. "As he helped me when I was born."
Helped. As opposed to throwing me to the dogs as a bastard infant, yes, I suppose he helped me. Sydney coughed, the reforged fire in his back helping him focus. My subconscious amuses me. Must keep conscious. Talk to the Riskbreaker.
Looking up, he found Ashley a most captive audience. "He wanted the city destroyed," he breathed heavily, "even if it meant his own death. Then he implored me ... do not let them use it ... the power."
An image flashed across his mind of Müllenkamp, her beautiful garments reduced to rags, huddled over herself, rocking and screaming. Except the pain would not kill her in the same way it would kill him now that he was mortal. Mortality was so hideously inconvenient. No Bearer of the Rood Inverse had ever been afraid of death before. Sydney could feel the Grey, his promise of immortality, slipping away from him; he was afraid.
Was the Riskbreaker paying attention to him anymore? He reached out and touched his knee to make sure; he could feel Ashley shrink away from the touch of cold metal on his skin. One could hardly blame him for disliking such a sensation. Perhaps now they were both afraid. "Stop him," Sydney hissed earnestly. He did not believe the Riskbreaker capable of sitting back and letting the maddened church knight destroy God-only-knew-what, but he felt that Ashley should at least know what he was going up against. "Stop Guildenstern. Those who crave the Dark cannot control the Dark." The hardest lesson for anyone in power to learn. His hardest lesson.
His scattered eyes, the irises a thousand different colours and never the same beneath any two lights, darted back to the ghost in the middle of the room. Apparently, the apparition had nothing more to say. How convenient.
"You must stop him, kill him," Sydney coughed. He could feel the blood rise to the corners of his mouth, the telltale sign of an internal injury that was probably at the bottom of his list of concerns right now. "Before the Dark sucks his living soul dry." What Riskbreaker could resist the chance to save someone's living soul? Sydney's head hurt.
Ashley's shoulders set back heroically, though perhaps less heroically for the exhaustion powering them. "Where is he?"
He's not chirping like a broken parrot for the Inspector anymore; I suppose this is something of an improvement. Instead of speaking, Sydney lifted his hand from Ashley's thigh and raised it towards the ceiling. The roof of the Cathedral; the highest point in Lea Monde. The apex of its power and the place from whence its destruction would come the quickest. How utterly convenient.
His strength gave way and he slumped back against Ashley, his metal hand making a resounding clank as it hit the ground. The room's acoustics were excellent in that respect. "Ashley, I...I'm...." Mad? Sorry? Dying? Once he started the sentence he realised he had no good way to end it.
Perhaps he was all three. "I know," Ashley rumbled softly. He shut his eyes for a few moments, then opened them again. With greatest care he lifted Sydney's body and tried to turn the cultist over, so at least the injured man wasn't resting on his wounded back, but Sydney struggled and shook his head. Pain could be dealt with, but he would not consent to leaving his back exposed when he was as helpless as he was. Nodding his understanding, Ashley stretched Sydney out as comfortably as possible, then stood and walked over to the largest of the open windows in the room. On his way there, he passed directly through the spectre; apparently the haunt was now meant for Sydney alone. The ghost shimmered at the intrusion, then reformed. Its eyes never left the fallen cultist.
The creaking of Ashley's hands and feet grasping at the cobbles of the dome gradually faded in volume until the sound had disappeared completely. A crack of lightning echoed through the cathedral, through the city itself. Whatever battle had begun, Sydney was now powerless to influence it.
My soul cries out to itself, he thought, eyeing the shadow of the boy he once was, back when he had still loved his father, still believed that everything the Duke did was out of his own love for his son. And perhaps the Duke had loved him, though not in a manner his black and twisted heart could ever express. My soul cries out to itself, and in response it hears its weakness reincarnated.
Chuckling bitterly, Sydney leaned his head back and shut his eyes. The image of the boy remained focused on the back of his eyelids. Some spectres were so persistent. "Even now," he addressed the ghost, "as death approaches does the past I left behind play the revenant?"
"You cannot leave the past behind," the boy answered. His mouth did not move; for some reason this made Sydney's flesh crawl. "Just as a man cannot touch a glass without leaving the stain of his hands, so can you never escape those things which have touched you."
He waved a hand dismissively. "You are nothing but a memory. The little of you once entombed in my spirit now belongs to the boy. Was that not the bargain? The greedy Duke has received nothing less than that for which he asked." His smile turned bitter as he coughed again, spitting more blood onto the stones that had already seen so much of his that day. "An obedient son who believes everything he is told and sacrifices himself for his father's wishes. He was willing to set you as the sacrificial lamb, you know, and still you babble on about how you wish to help him, to help the rotting, polluted carcass that even now may be breathing its last."
"Perhaps, perhaps not." The apparition shrugged. "But have you considered that perhaps the child's voice was not the one you and the Riskbreaker heard?"
"I will deal with my own ghosts in my own time. Be gone!" The blonde man no longer knew whether he was speaking aloud or arguing in his mind. The fact that Müllenkamp's screams of agony had become perfectly audible led him to believe the latter option.
The ghost boy giggled. "How much time is that?"
Sydney's eyes snapped open as the cathedral rocked from the force of the duel taking place just above. He dared not gauge the Riskbreaker's chances against such powerful magic. Another powerful bolt of energy surged, knocking pieces of the architecture loose. Every candle that Samantha had set so perfectly fell over in unison, casting the room into darkness.
* * *
Once more he could not sleep; Joshua padded the halls of his mother's house, the house she had finally settled in mere months before his departure to medical school at the tender age of sixteen. She had fretted and fussed over him even as he calmly reminded her that she herself had been three months younger than he when she had entered her undergraduate studies. This had made her feel only a little better about sending her baby into the world.
As he passed his old room, he peeked inside, careful to lift the door over the one spot that caused the hinges to creak. Curled against one another slept his girls, little Marie snuggled protectively between her older sisters, snoring loudly enough to drown out both of their night noises. One of Elisabeth's feet stuck out from beneath the covers. He tiptoed over and lifted the blanket back over her toes; she stirred lightly, but went back to sleep almost instantly.
Leaning against the tall bedpost, he smiled at his children. One of Marie's braids had fallen across her eyes; he lifted it from her face and tucked it securely behind her ear. He loved watching his girls sleep.
A noise from down the hallway startled him. Before it could wake his daughters, he slipped out of the room and shut the door tightly behind him. He knew what the noise was.
Always the Riskbreaker had shown up in the dead of night, more often than not on a night so stormy and awful that no one would have been on the streets to meet and question him. At least, this was what Joshua had figured out at the logical age of eight, after convincing himself that the Riskbreaker appeared because of the storm and not the other way around. The sound a door makes opening onto a storm during the dead of night is a very distinctive sound, especially when it rests in memory as old as a child's.
In the living room burned a solitary light, one that his mother must have lit hastily. This visit seemed somehow more unexpected than the others, more unexpected, more desperate. He slipped down the hallway as quietly as he could manage, pressed tightly to the wall, out of the light. He hadn't done this since he was a teenager; the extra mass on his body gained after more than twenty years made the action feel strange.
He hadn't done this often during his childhood, sneaking out to spy on Callo and Ashley. Certainly, every time the Riskbreaker entered the house Joshua's eyes had snapped awake, the sound and something else in the back of his mind telling him that particular ghost had reappeared. But most of the time he had contented himself with remaining in bed, covers pulled up to his chin, listening to the mostly unintelligible sounds of speech. A deep voice, then silence, then a higher voice, then a longer silence, then the deep voice interrupted by the higher voice. And so the conversation would continue for hours.
But once in a great while, he crept down the hallway of whatever house they happened to be in a the time, tiptoed his way down to where the muffled sounds became words. He overheard from these conversations news of the death of the former Cardinal, the search for the heir to the Bardorba fortune and subsequent acquisition of said fortune by the State of Valendia, even the dissolution of the Riskbreakers under suspicion that their training tactics were "immoral."
But other than this information brought from afar, they never discussed anything Joshua did not already know. Neither spoke of the events of Lea Monde, for living them once was enough. It was in this manner that Joshua learned of Ashley's continued connection to Sydney, though whether his elder brother was actually alive or connected to the living world through some darker force, Joshua never ascertained.
Tonight, however, Ashley was speaking of himself in the third person, and his normally deep and rugged voice had become a clipped tenor. As he heard his mother speak, he registered her voice as being angrier than he had ever heard it before. This perplexed him, and he furrowed his brow as he tried to hear her words.
He found, though, he could not concentrate on her words. Ashley's voice fascinated him in a way that made him want to draw blood, and he could not figure out why. Some part of him refused to believe that it was the Riskbreaker speaking, though the words obviously originated from Ashley's mouth. Didn't they?
Again, Callo spoke, angrily, trying to keep her voice down for the sake of the sleeping children and failing miserably. Surely she was not going to turn him out, not after all these years....
Though he had never heard his mother yell at him before, Joshua had heard her raise her voice at other people, those who had done injury to her family, what little of it she could keep together. He had never, though, had the experience of hearing the Riskbreaker's voice at anything above the volume level of an intimate conversation. Joshua had simply come to categorise Ashley as soft-spoken, much like himself. This alone led him to doubt seriously the identity of the man speaking to his mother.
Curiosity got the better of him, and he leaned far enough to see into the lighted room. The figure was Ashley and could be no other, especially taking into consideration the fact that the Riskbreaker hadn't changed at all in the past thirty-five or so yeas.
And yet, he wasn't Ashley at all. He carried his arms strangely, his shoulders at once much too far back and much too far forward. Instead of sitting or standing in one place as he talked, he paced, gesturing wildly. And his voice, though soft enough as not to arouse the sleepers of the household, was no longer a confident growl but an incensed hiss. The stranger wearing Ashley's skin addressed Callo in a way that no one, in Joshua's opinion, had a right to speak.
"Sydney!" he cried out before he even realised he had opened his mouth. Both heads snapped over in time to see Joshua, wondering even as everything went dark why he had called his dead brother's name, collapse in the doorway.
* * *
"What the /hell/ did you do to him?" She was trying to keep her voice down, but the attempt was failing miserably.
Sydney extended his hands, the Riskbreaker's large hands, innocently. "I put him to sleep."
Callo's dark eyes flashed. "Not then, you bastard. Before that."
With as much calm as he could manage, Sydney gestured to one of the larger chairs in the room, indicating that Callo should sit in it. "Please."
As much as she hated the man behind Ashley's eyes, Callo had to concede the fact that he probably knew what was going on, and she was going to have to trust whatever version of the truth he decided to give her. Well, she corrected as she sat, she was going to have to listen to it. Trust would come later.
"Comfortable?" he asked, the words sounding strange from Ashley's mouth.
"Just get on with it."
He nodded, folding his hands in front of him; he did not sit, preferring to pace slightly as he talked. "To answer your original question, I personally did nothing to push him into this state of overfill, if you will. His condition is my fault, but it is my fault in a way I could never have helped. Will you allow me to explain?"
Callo crossed her arms. "If this is your fault, so help me...." Her voice faded away before she could state a threat. She had nothing with which she could threaten him, truly, and they both knew it.
"Indeed." Sydney took a deep breath, causing the Riskbreaker's chest to heave as if it expected more weight across its shoulders, then let it out slowly. "I, Sydney Losstarot, was created as an end of a bargain between my father, the Duke Bardorba, and the Dark. This is going to sound madness, but I request your attention to this matter. My father, you see, had no son, and desperately wanted one. His wife had borne him no children in the years of their marriage, and he was not a patient man."
Dark eyes watched him move across the floor of the drawing room. He carried none of the lumbering grace Ashley exhibited so freely; all his movements looked largely unnatural. She had seen Sydney in Ashley's body before, once, briefly, and the shock had been quite unpleasant. Gritting her teeth, she suppressed her urge to throttle the cultist, reminding herself that the damage would be Ashley's to bear.
"He was not a patient man, and would not simply be content with an ordinary son," Sydney continued, seemingly oblivious to Callo's discomfort. "The Dark runs strong through the Bardorba family, but it had bypassed my father, visiting instead his halfwitted sister. He made it his challenge to capture its incarnation in the next generation, making sure that he who would have the most sway over the powers of the Dark would be the Duke's own toy for use.
"So the Duke asked for an obedient son, sacrificing his family in return for a child in the Dark's favour who would be nothing but perfectly beholden to his will. But his wife was also inadvertently taken in the sacrifice." A small smile quirked at Ashley's lips. "And so, my mother."
Slightly calmer now, though not by much, Callo cocked her head to one side. "Who was your mother?"
"My mother was my mother," the cultist answered enigmatically, lowering his eyes. "Needless to say, I could not be acknowledge as his child, though I could be 'adopted' from a long-lost branch of the family, a poor orphan to be raised as the Duke and Duchess' own. I was pampered, portraits were painted, preparations were made, and all the while he tried to make me his puppet."
Sydney laughed bitterly. "I am no puppet, nor was I ever, and when he realised this, he knew I was not what he had bargained for, for though I had within my the obedient nature, yes, I also had my own will. The Dark has little use for brainless servants; when he asked for the Dark's favour to rest upon me, the Dark gave me a spirit upon which it could rest its favour.
"The rest is useless history; he could not kill me, for I was his blood, but he could banish me. When many years later I took upon myself the position of Bearer of the Rood Inverse, I relinquished this obedient nature won for me by a bargain that was not my own. By rights of bargain, it was my father's again."
Callo's face paled, her eyes widening. "You used to be Joshua," she murmured, things suddenly making too much sense. Her hand reached up to touch her lips thoughtfully.
Nodding, Sydney shrugged Ashley's shoulders. "Or, more accurately, what now is Joshua once belonged to me." He paused and gestured with his hand to let her know that he was thinking of what to say next. "This is all well and good, but largely irrelevant to the current situation."
"Irrelevant?" she cried. "Then why did you tell me?"
"Necessary background. Are you going to pay attention or aren't you?"
With a rather angry growl, as menacing as she could make it, she settled back in the chair, recrossing her arms in front of her chest. "Carry on with your fantastic tales."
"I will, thank you." Sydney began his pacing again. "To create his second son, the Duke had no family left to sacrifice, so he gave himself. But he began to rot too quickly, too quickly, and made the hasty moves that led us to that rather unfortunate incident with the church knights. Surely you remember it." A glare from the woman in the chair told him that she, in fact, did. "Very good. That came later, though.
"When Joshua's soul was created, it was forged, in a word, to be a home for that which I had sloughed off. It was made a hollow, with room inside itself." He gestured with his hands, forming a hollow globe with his fingertips. "But my father was incompetent with the Dark and could not seal it well enough."
Sydney fell silent for several moments, allowing Callo to piece everything together. He had great respect for her as an intellectual, and understood that this was a lot to accept at once. Something about being in Ashley's body made the cultist particularly benevolent. Leaning against a chair, he watched her chew one of her fingernails absently as she thought it through.
After what seemed nearly a minute, she looked back up at him. "How many?" she whispered.
Pleased, he nodded. "Very good. You catch on quickly. Unfortunately, I could not gather an exact count, and with a Well of Souls, as he has become, one can hardly say. Some descend into madness with only two or three other souls trapped inside of them, hanging as a cloud inside their minds, unreachable, undetectable, indistinct; others can manage ten, twenty--"
"How many?" she interrupted with a hiss.
His voice was quiet. "Nearly five hundred."
Callo turned white as snow as Sydney leaned in closer to speak, as if he dared not say anything above a certain volume for fear that saying the things would make them true. "His soul is strong and voluminous; I knew he could handle much." His eyes grew distant.
"You knew?" The fear in Callo's voice was replaced instantly by rage. "Could you have stopped this?"
Taking a deep breath, Sydney shut his eyes. "Yes and no. I could have, many years ago when I first noticed it, but I doubted it would be necessary." As she tried to speak again, he lifted a hand to silence her. "Shutting him off would have been like blinding him because he might one day see unpleasant things. But he is a doctor, and few professions that do not bring death see it so frequently. I misjudged his capacity, and I am sorry. I did not want to close off his mind if it was not necessary. And now it has become necessary."
"It has become more than necessary," she growled at him. "I can hardly believe your insolence! You ignore a potentially hazardous problem that has now put Joshua's life in danger, you force Ashley become a murderer and feel so much grief that he has locked himself away inside his own mind, and you show up on my doorstep as if you imagine that I can make everything better! How dare you?"
"How dare I?" Sydney's voice was suddenly calm and deep, deeper than the cultist's voice could ever have ventured. "I have made the best jugements I could. Feel fortunate that I was around when Joshua finally collapsed under the weight of his own psyche, for I can help him."
Callo's lip curled. "You will help him. Perhaps I cannot threaten you physically, but if anything happens to him, Sydney, damn you, I will come back from the grave and haunt you."
The threat was not a joke, and Sydney did not take it as such. Less than this fierce determination had caused more powerful ghosts before. "I will help him indeed," he agreed, setting his jaw sharply as if to keep from shouting. "For do not forget, Inquisitor, he may be your son, but he is my blood."
* * *
They lifted him from where he fell and carried him to Callo's bed, on the other side of the house, so as not to rouse any of the sleepers. Though Joshua made no noise beyond a soft whimpering, both those who carried him looked ready to kill one another at any moment. Beneath his mother's eyes he could see now the anger that had slipped through her voice, and he tried to speak, to tell her that everything was all right, that he was sorry for whatever he had done to make her angry, but his mouth refused to cooperate.
His force of his head against the pillow was enough to trigger a fairly impressive headache, one complete with pretty colours. Though he wanted to look at them, he found himself unable to focus. He shut his eyes.
Callo rushed to a nearby basin and doused a washcloth, placing it over his face. The cool water felt good, reminding him of his sixtieth birthday, when he and his wife of forty years had stood outside in the middle of a sunshower, laughing like children as their sons and daughters tried to convince them to come inside again. Cold, like the time all the other neighbourhood girls had decided to go swimming after dark, and even though her mother had specifically prohibited it, she had gone with all her friends. So many things associated with cold and wet, too many things to keep track of anymore.
Analytically, his doctor's mind went at the situation. Possible causes, probable cures, reasonable diseases flashed their names past his mind. Self-diagnosis was always a risky business for anything more complex than an obviously broken bone, but that did not keep him from trying.
His teachers at medical school had given very little time to the problem of mental illness; the cure for a madman was a sanitarium in most cases, possibly some invasive surgical procedure if the family was wealthy enough and willing to take a chance. He had seen the survival rate statistics from those procedures and knew the odds of coming out from under the knife as anything resembling a whole person were at best slim.
Then, was he mad? He managed to recall the words of an old professor: Madness renders a person incapable of synthesising the factors of his environment and rationally deriving from those factors an analytic, just course of action. It is, quite frankly, the state of being where the reality a person experiences is significantly different from that experienced by those around him.
Of course, the old professor had never added to his lectures, if this is madness defined, then perhaps we are all mad in our own way. Joshua had attended to the professor at the hour of his death.
The sound of Callo's voice snapped Joshua back to awareness. His blue eyes flew open. She spoke to him, he could tell, but he could not make out much of what she was saying. Concerned, her face was so concerned, he thought, and all he wanted to tell her was that he was grateful she had kept her oath. Joshua didn't even know what oath he was talking about.
Ashley started speaking as well, first to Callo, and then still to Callo but with his eyes fixated on Joshua's form. Never before had Joshua heard the Riskbreaker raise his voice; never had he seen the Riskbreaker's face so unquestionably afraid. His eyes were wide, surprised, as if he were seeing something he could not believe. For a man who had survived the horrors of those days in Lea Monde, the list of unbelievable things left in the world was a stunningly short one.
"Joshua," Ashley said directly, punctuating his words with something more than voice, "I need you to sleep now. I need you to sleep." As he said this, he reached out his hand for Joshua's forehead.
Callo caught him halfway there. "What are you doing?" she yelled at him. An aging woman of her size had no chance of physically forcing a man of Ashley's size and stature to do anything he didn't want to do, but still she tried. She spoke in English again. "Don't touch him!"
Wearily, Joshua lifted his hand, blessed with a fresh bout of clarity. Everything became quiet for a sudden. "It's all right, Maman. I'll be all right."
She let go of the Riskbreaker and clasped Joshua's hand; her own hand was cold, as cold as it had been the morning after Lea Monde when she had led him away, with their backs to the city and to the dawn. Obviously, she was trying to say something comforting to him, but nothing was coming to mind. She had always been a pragmatist about survival, her own and anyone else's.
Placing one hand on her shoulder, Ashley leaned over and rested two fingers on Joshua's brow. "You'll awaken soon enough," he promised, shutting his eyes.
Joshua could not remember ever having heard his brother speak, but even as he drifted into sleep, he was certain that was the person who had spoken to him. He was also certain, finally, that he was indeed mad.
* * *
Callo's eyes as she shut the door of the house had been fraught with a concern meant only for the current tenant of Ashley's brain. Emma and the girls had been taken away under the guise of a shopping trip, though Emma had obviously known something was amiss. Still, she had gone, all five women together into town for the day with instructions not to return for several hours. Sydney hoped that hours would not be necessary.
Carefully, he led the dazed and shaking Joshua to a chair, then sat Ashley's body in the chair on the other side of the table. Only as he sat did he notice the chess board set between them. White had won. "Very well," he began, staring his brother in the eye. Without saying a word, his mind worked the simple spell necessary to lull Joshua into enough of a sleep to allow what needed to happen, to happen. "I know you can hear me; I know you know it is to you I speak. I can see you there beyond the boy's eyes. Wake up."
"I would kill you if it were possible," Joshua growled almost instantly. The voice, an uncharacteristically deep rumble, was no more Joshua's than Sydney's voice belonged to Ashley. "But I am dead, and you are dead, and yet none of what anyone ever promised or threatened would happen after death has come to pass."
With what seemed a great deal of effort, Joshua lifted his head. His soft hair fell back behind his ears, revealing the kind doctor's face with a very unkind expression. For a moment in the silence, he studied the man at the other end of the chess board curiously, as though he did not believe his eyes. And right well he should not. "Is this your doing, Sydney? Am I trapped and torturing this innocent boy because of another one of your deceptions?" If he could have spat venom from his borrowed body's mouth he would have with those words.
Sydney shook his head. "This is none of my doing. The boy is a Well of Souls. By being near you at the moment of your death, he drew your soul to him. Surely you can feel the others in there with you." He reached to gesture along with his words, but his hand caught one of the chess pieces, the black queen. The fall to the ground snapped its neck.
The body across the table from Sydney laughed, the sound sick and raw. "They crowd me, Sydney. They surround and smother. If this is not your doing, than at least I hope that you can fix this, before he is lost." His words faded into a grunt, as if he were making a concerted effort to keep control. "What do you want of me, Sydney?"
Sydney's expression shone bitter and pale on the Riskbreaker's face. "I want to set you free, Hardin."
The invocation of this name brought another bout of silence, this one longer than the previous ones. "For the boy's sake?" The dead man's grim grin on Joshua's face appeared almost manic. "Or should I dare to even think that you would act in any way to atone for all the sins you committed against me?"
"For the boy, it is the least I can do as his own blood." Blood among Bardorbas ran very strong; so strong, in fact, that it had kept Sydney alive when nothing else would have. "For you I cannot begin to atone."
Hardin laughed once more, but the sound quickly shifted low into a near-feral growl. "No, you cannot. Do you even realize what you did to me, Sydney? Can you, even you, begin to comprehend? You took a man who would have been better off in the comfort of death, promised him power and strength, and turned him into a toy. But you know that. I know, I know, because I still remember the way you smiled when you drew my blood or made me kneel before you." He took a few breaths, then continued, voice grown soft again. "And now I am dead but not dead instead of being where I should be, where all your words and promises led me to believe I would end up. Years, Sydney...years I believed that I would be your successor, I would bear that sin upon my back, and finally, Sydney, I could have my strength, my power, my life...." He trailed away; his hands clenched sternly on the edge of the table. "And yet even in death you steal my dignity. And a man's final refuges are his dignity and honour; without them, he is not a man. Can you see either of mine any longer?"
Sydney bit his lower lip, or Ashley bit his lower lip, the gesture was now essentially the same. "This is not my doing," he answered softly. "I did not know, I swear to you, Hardin, I did not know you were here." He ran his fingers angrily through his too-short hair, trying to calm himself, to keep his voice from rising to an unnecessarily fevered pitch. "And the choice of the man who would bear the Rood Inverse after me was not mine to make; that choice belonged to the Dark alone."
Blindly, however, Hardin did not seem to register Sydney's words. "And even though I should hate you for what you've done to me, for what you turned me into and how you destroyed me, still...still...even now, trapped within this poor child, I see you behind the Riskbreaker's eyes and without thought I can only scream your name.
"I forget the boy, I forget all my promises to keep him safe and sane, and I call out for you like a lost child, as though you could actually hear...." From the inside of a mind that is not one's own, crying out for anything proves painfully difficult, yet Hardin had managed to make his presence known amidst hundreds of other spectres. "Because," he hissed, "you destroyed me and yet I still love you, Sydney."
Any words, any but those. Sydney knew how to take hate, how to weather abuse and guilt, even when he did in fact deserve the sentiments; anyone in a position such as his learned to hear poisonous insults as white noise. "Hardin..." he began, but trailed off, realising he had nothing to say, no way to react to the mercy and pain contained in Hardin's voice.
"I came to this realisation too, too long ago, when I looked upon the pain of being without that is greater than the pain of being with, and had no name for it save 'love'." Another laugh, still without humor, rumbled unnaturally from Joshua's throat. "And now you are here and you can hear me...what can I expect you do to? Say, 'I'm sorry, John?' That somehow you will apologize and tell me that you intended it all to happen differently." He pushed away from the table heavily, rattling the pieces, and stood, pacing like a large man in a body far too small for him. "Or, miracle of miracles, you will say that you loved me, too? Even I am not that foolish. But you'll set me free, you say." He nodded thoughtfully. "Perhaps there will be a heaven or a hell where I am not yours...but I cannot be too hopeful, now, can I, Sydney?"
Sydney licked his dry lips. "One cannot presume to know the Mind of God," he whispered. An expanse of silence fell over the pair. Sydney had been content once upon a time to let his dearest friend slip into the oblivion he himself feared; he had never expected to have the chance to say his goodbyes, to tell Hardin many things he had never said. Now he found himself here, he could not say them anyway. "I am not here to sing you to sleep, Hardin. I broke no promises that were in my power to keep."
Hardin's eyes closed in an expression of pain. "Just...let me go, Sydney. Why did you call me forth? Because you knew I would do this, you knew I would lay myself bare in front of you to gain that bastard smile again?" His voice rose as the corner of his lip curled. "What else am I to do? A dead man's last chance to speak, to make peace, to say all the things never said, and yet you leave me to wait for some validation from you that I should know will never come. Please, Sydney," he dropped his head, "this ghost has said that which has haunted him. Do what you will." He extended his hands, palms facing to the sky, a supplicative gesture. A request for freedom from a man who had never been able to free himself.
Shakily, for he was still unaccustomed to the sheer mass of the Riskbreaker's body, Sydney rose from his chair, pausing to marvel at the height difference. While Joshua had grown tall for a Bardorba, he had stopped on the underside of six feet, giving Ashley the advantage not only in girth, but in height. For once, he was taller than Hardin. It seemed wrong.
"You misunderstand," he spoke gently. "I did not call you forth; I simply heard your soul crying out to me and allowed it to have a voice. Nothing more than what you wished." Drawing close, he raised a hand to Hardin's forehead, Joshua's forehead, placing his thumb between two blue eyes. "From here on I cannot guarantee your fate; my influence is spent, my promises lain bare."
Hardin leaned into the faint touch, brow knit. The sadness weighted unnaturally on Joshua's gentle face. "Of course. You simply gave me what I wanted, even if what I want only brings more pain." He laughed once more, the sound dry and bitter, the sound of a man who desperately wanted to hate and found himself incapable of the emotion. "Some things do not change, then." He let out a bone-deep sigh. "I am finished, then, Sydney. If you can give me a true death, please...." His eyes fell shut heavily.
Sydney's mouth moved to work the spell, but he fell silent before he even truly began. His hand slipped from the centre of Hardin's face, Joshua's face, to cup his tortured servant's chin in his too-large hand. With a gesture he could never recall having made before, Sydney pulled Hardin closer to him, kissing him, wrapping his real arms around his companion's borrowed body.
The sound that came forth from Hardin's throat was choked, something near to a sob. Too-slender, too-weak arms curled around a body that is too broad, and, for a long while, they simply kissed. To anyone looking in on the scene, they would have appeared more than strange, the former Riskbreaker, clad ominously in his soft black leather garments, embracing the smaller doctor who appeared twenty years his senior. None could have seen the tiny blonde cultist and the tall, dark swordsman, none but the cultist and swordsman themselves.
When it had gone on long enough, Hardin drew back, his eyes still downcast. "Thank you, Sydney," he whispered.
Swiftly, Sydney replaced his hand in the centre of Joshua's brow. "Sleep sweetly, dear Hardin." A few words from an ancient spell slipped past his lips. No bolts of lightning flashed, no lights began to glow, no runic words appeared written on the air. Joshua simply gasped slightly and crumpled into the Riskbreaker's waiting arms.
Carefully, Sydney lifted his younger brother's body and carried him to his bed. Though unconscious, Joshua appeared to be sleeping peacefully. Or perhaps the peace was only a contrast to the pain that had not left Hardin's face from the first moment Sydney had met him.
But Hardin's pain now was done.
Carefully, he placed Joshua against the pillows, marveling at how strong the Bardorba lineage was written in the doctor's face, and yet not at all. Only someone who knew for what he was looking could ever see the resemblance. Joshua's beautiful daughters looked no more like the once-powerful family than did any other blonde, light-eyed child in Valendia. Sydney had always been told that he resembled his father, his mother, the blood doubly strong in him.
But on a large enough scale of time, blood no longer means what it once did; the introduction of wives and husbands from other families introduced new traits by which the family could be defined. And yet, in two thousand years, their family had not changed. Perhaps, Sydney wondered, lifting the covers over Joshua's sleeping frame, this great visible heritage had less to do with blood and more to do with pain and terror, the drunkenness of power and the madness of knowing from whence that power came. If so, then the last Bardorba was truly no longer Bardorba. The cursed family could finally be laid to rest.
Ashley's body dozed in the chair beside Joshua's bedside until Callo and the others returned later that evening, but when he woke again, the Riskbreaker did not say much, for his voice had gained the soft lilt of a long-dead priestess. Ashley himself slept on inside his pain, healing slowly, and Sydney had fallen silent.
* * *
The morning sun shone in through the gaps in the curtains, creeping up across Joshua's body until it fell into his eyes. Joshua woke up about the time it passed across his chest, but did not move until he could see the brightness of the day even through his closed eyelids. It was time, he knew, to get up.
Emma turned as he opened his eyes and smiled sweetly. "Are you feeling better, love?" she asked softly. Sitting on the side of his bed, she brushed her hand across his forehead.
"Yes," he answered honestly, stretching. "How long did I sleep?"
She smiled, handing him a glass of water, which he drank eagerly. "You were asleep when we left yesterday morning and when we returned last night. The tall man who was here, before he left, told Callista that you had been complaining of a headache after lunch yesterday. He said you went to lie down then."
Joshua raised his eyes over the glass of water. "He left?"
Folding newly washed bedsheets, Emma nodded. "Early this morning. Cal apparently stayed up all the night talking with him; she's sleeping now and the girls are playing in the backyard, so I thought I'd come in and check on you."
Sitting up a little straighter, he examined his state of being. He felt rested, better than he had felt in weeks, perhaps months. This was the first morning in recent memory he had felt clear-headed immediately after waking up, instead of fuzzy and disoriented. Smiling, he reached over and twined his fingers with Emma's. "I have been working too hard lately, haven't I?"
She nodded emphatically and kissed him lightly on the corner of his mouth. "I'm glad you got some rest. After all, that's what vacations are for." Standing, she placed the linens on the dresser and headed for the door. "Just don't be too long before you come join the waking world. Word has it that Anne wants a rematch. Something about beating her on a technicality last time?"
Joshua laughed. "She called my en passant illegal. I suppose it goes to show her what a bad chess teacher I am."
"Or that her ancient father still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Anyway, there'll be lunch soon enough. Come on out." Blowing him a kiss, Emma disappeared behind the door, letting it click shut behind her.
Leaning back against the headboard of the bed, Joshua stared at the window. From outside, he could hear the girls' laughter, his favourite sound. The morning sun caught tiny particles of dust in its beam, swirling upwards in the air currents; he found himself thinking of Hardin, and couldn't quite place why.
Always, he had been too trusting, too willing to take people at face value, and more than once had this trust gotten him into a spot of trouble, most often financially. But standing as he did and taking Hardin's hand without thinking twice about his actions could easily have been a fatal mistake. And yet, it wasn't; his trust had never been betrayed.
Thinking on it, he realised perhaps for the first time that he had never really known anything about Hardin, barely even his first name. He had only known the man for the three most traumatic days of his life. And yet, had anyone ever asked him why he became a doctor, he would have named the gentle warrior, the man who showed unnecessary compassion, even to the point of giving his life caring for those he was sworn only to mind, not to protect. Even as a four-year-old, Joshua had seen the massive sword strapped to Hardin's waist as an unnecessarily frightening accessory for a man who was terrifying in no other respect, save perhaps his sheer size. But the only time Joshua had ever felt any danger from Hardin was when Sydney was nearby.
Only twice had Joshua ever seen his brother, once late that first afternoon just before they all parted ways in the city, and again as he rescued the three of them from the church knight's blade, only to fall to it himself, Joshua was certain. He lived now at the expense of two men, one too kind for his lifestyle and the other his own blood.
For when his eyes had met Sydney, he had known the cultist as his brother. Joshua could not remember his father enough to pity the man for his fate, though he prayed nightly for the dead man's soul. But he had always remembered Sydney as being far too familiar.
Shaking his head, he threw away these dark thoughts. The past was important, he told himself as he pushed back the covers and climbed out of his bed, but the past was also past, and outside played three young girls who would appreciate his attention more than his memories would. He had slept in his clothes, but they were not overly wrinkled, so he pulled on a fresh shirt and buttoned it.
Neither man had a grave; both bodies had been lost to the dark forces of Lea Monde. But perhaps he would go place flowers on the water someday for the pair. As far as memorials went, he could do little better, for all water eventually flows back onto itself.
Yes, he resolved, he would go down to the sea the next day and cast petals upon the water, and say a prayer for each man's soul. Perhaps they had not been the most righteous of men by the standards of the church, but each had been good in his own way. And if God might let a blind old Irish Setter into Heaven....Perhaps his mother would like to go with him.
Emma peeked her head back in the room. "Lunch is ready," she smiled. "I wanted to make sure you hadn't gone back to sleep."
Joshua smiled, still working at his shirt. "I'll be there in a moment."
She rolled her eyes, laughing. "Promises, promises." Singing quietly to herself, she disappeared again. The silence she left behind her felt good, not that he was glad to have her gone, but for the novelty of the experience. It seemed a long time since anything in his life had been quiet.
"He would have made a good doctor," Joshua murmured reflectively to the sunlight. The dancing dust trapped in its beam was the sunlight's only answer.
* * *
If it weren't obvious from the many oblique references to unspecified events not covered by the game, this piece is not meant to stand alone. It belongs to the Vagrant Story universe concocted by the other members of my writing circle and I. The other stories (very good stories, and I'm not just saying this because an undue percentage of them are mine) can be found at www.mancer.net/vs.
Speaking of my writing circle, this story could not have been put together without their collective assistance. Gratitude, in no particular order, goes as follows: to Whit, for lending me her Hardin and making him so wonderful; to Arielle, for lending me her Ashley and letting me play around inside his head; to D, for both Callo and Mully, the wonderful women of the game; to Ashlea, for being my mental model for Emma and for encouragement; to Technomancy as a whole, for C&C, encouragement, tempered insanity, and love.
Now if Sydney would just shut the hell up and Arielle would finish The God That Climbs, life would be wonderful....