Garnath

There were ballads sung of that night, and for many centuries later. Proud were the curadhmen of Edan-called-Summoner. They say that year had a winter when the Oisin did not flood, and so the spring was not washed down into the valley, but stayed jealous in the mountains, and would not warm the folk or feed the clans. They say Edan-called-Summoner had gone to war against the winter, and his curadhmen had come home triumphant, but without their captain. He had stayed, they said, to find the heart of the giant, Brac, which was washed down the Oisin when the ancient heroes slew the monster and used its bones to fertilise the vale.

In the first city, called Amber, he found the giant’s heart in possession of a fair captain, but she would not give it him until he proved himself. How he did that is a tale told in another ballad, not sung in broad company, but played quietly among bridal parties.

The songs tell of the return of Edan-called-Summoner, bearing the heart like a lamp, and how he caused the river Oisin to give back the spirits of Epona and Laoch. Epona’s spear dislodged the stars, and Laoch’s hooves trod them into the fallow soil, and Edan-called-Summoner let blood from the heart spill in the furrows and brought forth such crops that the clans would never go hungry again.

Locals call the high lookout at Eorthwick “Brac’s nose”. It’s a rocky spur that juts out to one side of the hill. Standing on it, one can look down the length of the valley and see, in the far distance, the broken tooth of Mount Kolvir. At this time of year, the valley should be green, but the ravages of war and weir have left a great stain on it. The Oisin did not flood this winter. It moves sluggishly, as though too old and tired to break its banks and deliver its bounty of rich silt and water across the plains.

Eorthwick is full of people, as it should be following the spring festival. But the crowds here are sullen and quiet. They have brought their tents in close to the hill’s shoulders, and their horses have turned what little green is left to dust. Caravans come daily to Eorthwick bringing food. More farmers come daily, too, driving thin cattle or sheep, their hollow-eyed children clinging to carts drawn by tired plough-horses.

“I can’t help thinking this is my fault,” says Seona. She’s standing beside her brother, her cloak drawn tightly around her.

Edan is shaking his head even before she finishes speaking. “You know better than that,” he says.

“Do I? Really?” She looks up at him, tired and angry. “A month ago you were telling us how we’d broken the law by making me Duchess.”

“That’s not on you, Seona. It’s—”

She cuts him off. “Epona and Laoch rode out of myth to warn our people and they came to you. Not me.”

“I…” He stops, frowning in thought. Potential responses boil up and are discarded one by one.

They’ve never really gotten on, he and his sister. She was already an adult when he was born, and as he grew, he became aware of the resentment she felt for him. No matter how much she proved herself, he would be the one to follow in their father’s footsteps as duke. She left Garnath when he was a teenager, summoned by Erica to duties in the palace of Amber. She visited regularly, but no matter how much she loved Garnath, from that point on the clans considered her an outsider.

In the years since his father was unseated, Edan’s watched the way she rules. She rules well, but the people don’t love her. They still think of her as Erica’s creature. Worse, her talent for politics, which she’s used so well to smooth over the egos ruffled by their father’s passing, looks to the commoners like she’s pacifying the magnates they came to hate so much under Monroe’s rule.

She sent Edan to the black road war so he’d be out of the way. He thought darker things of it at the time. That it would have been easier for Seona if he’d died in a cavalry charge. But his company rode back to Garnath after the war with new songs to teach the clans, and it was his name they used in their ballads.

And when the ancient gods of the Karm rose — when Epona and Laoch surged up out of the silver waters of the Oisin and rode to Eorthwick with water spilling from hoof and spear — it was him they demanded their rights of.

“You will be a good Duke, Edan,” she says. There’s no sadness in her tone.

He flinches. “You don’t need to do this.”

“They think city life has made me soft,” she says.

“You’re not soft,” he growls.

“You know that isn’t the point.”

He gestures angrily at the people camping below. “Then change their minds! You can’t just give up. They’re not as stupid as you seem to think they are!”

“This is not ‘giving up’, Edan,” she says sharply. “This is doing what’s right for the Karm.”

“You need to make this work, Seona.”

“You need to stop running away.”

An angry retort boils up in him, but he catches it before it’s too late. He takes a deep breath, rolls his shoulders to make them drop the tension building there.

They stand together in silence for a time, watching people move about on the plain below.

“The magnates won’t like this,” Edan says finally. “You barely got them to agree to redistribution.”

Seona smiles a little. “Not really even that. They’ve been dragging their feet. Bogging me down with lawyers and property rights.” She makes a face. “I spent too much time trying to understand their point of view. Now they know I’ll compromise they’ll keep pushing for more. All because I didn’t want to offend anybody.”

“Are you honestly advocating that I be offensive?”

She chuckles. “Monroe taught you how to be Duke, Edan. I had to work it out on my own.”

“No he didn’t,” says Edan, sounding a little bitter. “He taught me about city laws. Property and landlords and taxes. He said Garnath had to change, or the other dukes would think we were backward.” He spits out the word, as though it tastes bad.

“Sounds like you do know what to do,” she says.

He shakes his head, but she can see him thinking about it.

“Edan. I need to be up at the palace. Erica’s in trouble, and I think I can do more good there than here.” She extricates a hand from her cloak, and reaches up to his shoulder. “I think you know the opposite’s true for you.”

“But this is what you wanted,” he says softly. He turns towards her, taking her hand in his.

“I think Erica wanted it more than me,” she says. “And the princes have a way of bending the world around them.”

He nods slowly. “When are you leaving?”

“Tomorrow morning,” she says firmly. “We’ll do the formalities tonight. There should be enough clan heads here to make it official.”

He continues nodding slowly, thinking things over. “There’s a message I’ll have to send to the palace,” he says.

“In person, I hope,” she replies, giving him a look verging on reproach.

He starts to frown, and then; “no, you’re right. It’ll be faster in person.”

“Then I’ll start setting things up while you trump over.” She gives his hand a squeeze, and lets go.

“We’ll start it together,” he says firmly. “If I’m going to be duke, I’m damned if I’ll be an absent one.”

Seona links her arm in his, and smiles up at him. “Then let’s go and talk to the clans, shall we?”


Blackwall

The Jachters of House Chantris are not often found in the port of Amber. They may visit from time to time, but some essential part of their nature prevents them from staying still too long. Wherever they are, they give the impression of being on the cusp of leaving. Amber, with its unchanging stillness, weighs heavily on a Jachter’s ever-hunting soul.

And yet, in the bustle and trouble following the landslide, the bay filled with Jachter ships. Coincidence, the dockmen called it. The seasoned sailors knew better. Jachters follow catastrophe like the dangerous sleek fish that trail behind a fishing boat.

There is flotsam in the water of Amber’s bay, but to the Jachters, it might as well be blood.

Blue and violet plasma lingers on the masts of every boat in the bay. The urgency of the rescue effort having passed, the sorcerous light is slowly slipping away. In the dregs of eerie light, one can make out shapes on the water; pieces of timber, sailcloth, crates. The wrecked hull of the flagship Caleuche lies against the break wall, her shattered keel illuminated by greenish flame. The dockworkers joke that the water is so full of debris you can walk from Shipwright’s Square to the Armory without getting your feet wet.

On the deck of the Palatine, two figures are leaning on the starboard rail. The first is pale, her long white hair glowing blue in the dreelight. The second seems much darker by comparison, but his hair is red and his beard neatly trimmed around a mouth that even after all that’s happened today, still looks on the cusp of a smile.

Alma sweeps a hand along the rail, catching tiny smears of light on her fingertips. “Thank you for the invitation, Jarrod,” she says. “I don’t think I could have gone back to the palace tonight.”

“No trouble at all,” he says. He lifts one hand from the rail and moves as though to catch her fingers in his, then quickly turns the motion elsewhere, reaching up to tug at his beard. “Ridha said the casualties were low, thanks to you.”

She tilts her head, smiling a little. “Not just me, Jarrod,” she chides gently. “Evgeny and Lord Coram and the soldiers from the purple legion, too. And Lara pulled the survivors out of the Caleuche.”

“Can’t I give you a damn compliment, woman?”

“Is that what you were doing?”

He pulls a face. She watches in silence as he wars with something, and then finally: “Ship doesn’t really have a guest cabin. Mine’s clean enough, though. Won’t be sleeping tonight, myself. So.” He punctuates the sentence with a nod.

“So,” she echoes. “Did you just offer that invitation because you feel sorry for me?”

“What?” He half turns, scowling. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Why, then?” She tilts her chin defiantly. “Hope?”

“What the hell do you want me to say? Half a lifetime’s gone by, Alma.”

“Not for me, it hasn’t.”

He looks down at her, considering. Once upon a time, this woman was the only reason he stayed in port. When they told him she’d died, he refused to believe them. He rode the storms for decades searching for her. One day he stood on a beach amongst the wreckage of yet another lost ship and he decided it was time to stop burying his crew. And he came back to port, and he left flowers on her grave, and he found a different reason to stay – her son, Luce.

“D’you think I could stop with you a while, then?” he says finally.

“I’d like that very much.”


Caoranach

A priest-king arose amongst the Carth. The return of Uzuldaroum heralded a new age of glory. The phoenix was waiting to guide her chosen people to the dreaming city. But he also preached caution; for all know the Oyez to be jealous and acquisitive, and they would seek to claim Uzuldaroum for themselves.

There were scuffles between the more hot-headed youths of the Oyez and the Carth. Magical duels turned swathes of jungle to ash. Then the mountain convulsed anew, and the dreaming city vanished beneath the red lake as suddenly as it had risen.

And the people of Caoranach shrugged their shoulders, and turned away from the priest, and returned to delving in the Labyrinth with renewed vigor.

“Are. You. Serious?” Alberich is speaking carefully, clipping each word in an effort to prevent himself from yelling.

Bran pulls his brows into a worried frown, unsure if the duke is making a joke, or is actually on the verge of losing his cool. He then quickly makes a mental note to never use that term in respect of Feldane sorcerers. ‘Cool’ is not something many of them possess in great quantity.

“Well,” says Bran carefully, “it’s theoretically possible, as I said. It behaves much like water, and if provided a downhill route it… It would just require a great deal of sorcerous energy.” At Alberich’s darkening mien, he quickly adds: “Probably far more energy than you’d normally find in… er… standard population… Of course I’m thinking of standard Rebman population and we don’t really specialise in sorcery the way the Feldane do and… Ah.”

“Indeed.” Alberich pinches the bridge of his nose. “Ariana.”

She flinches slightly. “Yes sir?” She had hoped he’d forgotten she was standing there, and in fact she’d started sidling away when the Rebman started sharing his theories about draining the red lake. He’s a nice guy, but he’s nuts.

The duke is barely looking at her, but it’s plain he’s addressing her. “Have any new entrances to the Labyrinth been found?”

“No sir.” She narrows her eyes, a little confused. “Aren’t we talking about Uzuldaroum, though?”

Alberich inhales slowly. “Go and find some,” he says, sounding annoyed, or tired, or possibly both. “Invent some. Start selling treasure maps and dropping hints in pubs and insinuations about mysterious new entryways that lead direct to the city.”

“But.” She makes a face. “But, why?”

He favours her with a withering glance. “Because if they think there’s a tunnel that will get them there, they will stop trying to work out how to drain the lake.”

“Oh come on,” she drawls. “There’s no way they’d actually… They wouldn’t… Would they?”

“I do not. Want to see. A stream of lava. Flowing down. The Vale of Garnath.”

“Ah,” says Ariana.

“Oh, but the flow dynamics would mean…” Bran’s train of thought is wholly derailed by the expression on Alberich’s face. He looks at the floor.

The duke makes a shooshing motion with one hand. “Go. Spread rumours. And if you hear anybody talking about shifting lava, slap them.”


Tir na nog’th

In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.

“We go wandering at night and are consumed by fire.”

Sometimes, one of them leaves. They give up their freedom, and learn to bind themselves with a past. To burden themselves with a future.

The Aisling expect the lost to resist the destruction of their chronological constructs. But they reason that presence indicates willingness. And they understand that sometimes, what is needful can be painful.

Now is the only tense that means anything to the Aisling. They have little understanding of past or future. To them, such concepts are merely expressions of loss or hope.

The lost have come unstuck. Their souls have been stretched out across time in an incomprehensible line. They have grown accustomed to moving from one second to the next.

Imagine the confusion when one of these lost souls comes back. The Aisling simply are. They exist in a single perfect moment of understanding. To them, the lost are hopelessly flawed. How could they be Aisling, if they remember a past or yearn for a future?

But there is a way back. Like a moth circling inwards to a flame, there is a means to burn away the encumbrances of a life lived in contiguous time.

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