Chapter 1 — Winter Current
Enforcer Nemirin Ereshti, kin Dvarraket—’called Ardent’—didn’t often wake up in someone else’s bed, but in the rare times it happened, she tended to be naked. At the moment, she wasn’t, and it took a bit of muzzy contemplation before she figured out why someone was breathing against her still-clad back.
Elbowing the blanket aside, she sat up carefully to avoid waking her pallet-partner. Zhahri’s familiar face scrunched in irritation, then smoothed. Her short-cropped hair made regular lumps beneath her night-scarf, her shoulders still as black-clad as Ardent’s. Around them, the Enforcement team snoozed under the eye-shaped cut-outs of a Shadow lantern, just bright enough to rob them of any solid patch of darkness.
Detainment, for their own good.
Ardent swallowed the bile that rose at the thought. Beyond the closed door, their supposed protectors were perhaps working, perhaps sleeping, perhaps mucking up this entire situation. They were her mother’s team: Regent Ereshti Anmari, out there sticking her fingers into daylight matters as if they interested her beyond her daughter’s involvement.
If she could pitch that meddling hag straight back to the Spindle, she would. But unless the sun had miraculously come out, Ereshti and her eiyensuriel ilk could walk abroad as much as they liked—and get into everyone’s business with smug abandon.
Crosslegged at the edge of the pallet, Ardent allowed herself one long moment of internal screaming, then let it go. She wasn’t blameless. The bruises on her neck and torso from the Void’s tentacles still ached, as did the knowledge that she’d gotten people killed. Not as many as would have died to the wraiths’ light-lances and the abominations’ claws and jaws, perhaps, but people who’d trusted her. Who’d expected she wouldn’t let rage and pain overpower her.
Beside the pallet lay her gear: Enforcer armor, kukris and truncheons, boots, hairpins, earhook, miscellaneous holdout blades and necessities. On top of it all, a broken sword, lit as if on purpose by a lantern’s eye-slit.
Her hand moved toward the hilt, with its eagle-headed pommel and worn-down grip, but she stopped herself a few inches short. Stupid to keep it, as if it was some talisman that could hold Captain Sarovy near. He was dead, his pieces half-collected, half-scattered like glass shards where he’d fallen.
His killer, Field Marshal Rackmar, had escaped unpunished. He and his monsters had crushed a second Shadowland outpost, wrought mayhem on the city at large, and made off with Sarovy’s lancer-lieutenant, Linciard, before the teleport-block could be placed.
And today, like yesterday and the sunless time before it, she knew her mother would refuse to let her give chase.
They’d danced these same stupid steps before, both boiling with pride and will. In her opinion, it was the great failing of the Shadow Lord’s sprawling family. None of his daughters or grandchildren gained a drop of his easygoing ways. No, his daughters were shadow-copies of their mothers, and whether they raised their own children or sent them to a Shadow crèche, whether they lived sun-side or in the Realm, whether they kept contact with the fathers or did everything alone—it didn’t seem to matter. Mothers’ blood filled in all the shadow-gaps left by the god, delivering children far too like their mortal parent for anyone’s good.
Ardent was hardly the only second-gen to be at her mother’s throat. Still, the Scorpion traces in their lineage didn’t help.
An exhale, then she started armoring up. It was old routine, but the broken sword kept distracting her; too often she found herself staring at the eagle’s blank eye. She could have sworn there had once been an inscribed pupil. Was she going mad, or had it really vanished? Before Gwydren Greymark shattered it, it had been an heirloom blade, rich with slow-collected familial energy and linked to the Eagle Senket. Now its most notable trait was the stain of Rackmar’s blood from its last use.
She thought many things about that blood. None of them were permitted.
Boots on, kukris tucked into their harness, truncheons into loops, she rose and stuck the broken sword’s wrapped pieces through her belt. Her mother would sneer, but when had that stopped her? The earhook she left in a buttonhole for now. She didn’t want to talk.
“Where y’ goin’?” mumbled Zhahri from the pallet.
Ardent stiffened, then forced herself to relax. Right now, Zhahri technically outranked her, as Ereshti had rearranged the local Shadow hierarchy to leave Ardent in command of only Blaze Company, if that. In practice, though, Zhahri was her closest associate and the only Enforcer still speaking to her sociably. The rest all toed the new line.
“To the war,” she grumbled.
Zhahri gave a snort, pallet and blanket rustling as she sat up. “That’s your problem. You can’t stop thinking in those terms.”
“She started it.”
“She’s got authority. That doesn’t mean she’s unmovable. If you tried, I dunno, not shouting…”
“I don’t shout.”
“Well, I don’t know what else to call that tone of voice you both use, like you’re spitting knives instead of words. Ever since she died, you two—”
“I’m not talking about this,” Ardent grated, and lurched for the door.
Muffled curses rose as she clipped a few bodies in her trek across the pallets. She suppressed the spiteful urge to turn around and kick. Her mother wouldn’t be sun-side forever; it was stupid to burn bridges within Enforcement just because of Regency meddling.
She had to control herself. Her usual method of self-calming—lounging on the surface of the Dark—was now inaccessible. With how violently it had reacted to the last bite, she couldn’t deny that the barrier between it and the physical world was just too thin without the sun’s reinforcement. If she provoked the Void again, her mother would never let her hear the end of it.
She shoved straight out the exit, then winced and heeled the door shut quickly to spare the others the painful light. After a moment, her eyes adjusted and she found herself the center of attention. Her chin went up automatically, lips curled in their scar-enforced sneer.
The taproom was full of Shadow Folk, some wearing the fist-badges of Enforcement and others the eye of Oversight. Their ultrablack rank marks were hard to see in the glare of lanterns and candles—just as well, because she meant to ignore them. Not like anyone would get between her and her mother anyway.
That meddling hag was seated in the least-lit alcove, curtains half-drawn to shade her from the glare. Her spiky wings crawled and writhed along the wall behind her, not quite physical, and Ardent noted the distance between her and her seat-partners with chill amusement. Likewise the fact that one was her now-ex subordinate, Ticuo of Bahlaer.
If she could have psychically punched him, she’d have done it. As it was, she ignored him as she crossed the hushed taproom to stand before her mother’s table. There were more of her former agents arranged around it, as well as senior Overseers and Enforcers, but she didn’t bother to acknowledge them. They could all eat dirt.
“Nemirin,” said Ereshti. No emotion showed in her black-pit eyes. “I hope you’re well-rested. We have much work ahead to fix what you’ve wrought.”
Ardent fought not to bristle. At least her mother’s directness let her know how deep in the shit she stood. “Yes.”
“Do sit. Enforcer Ticuo has been arguing for the rebuilding of the Bahlaer Shadowland. He still thinks it to be viable despite the…recent setbacks. I would hear your outgoing report.”
She ignored the order and the implied threat, stiffening her stance instead. “They were targeted because of their connection to us. It would be irresponsible to abandon them.”
“Not abandon. Withdraw. You do recall your original mandate?”
To observe Bahlaer’s government and its occupying Imperials. To determine fault for the original Shadowland crush, and estimate the danger of further Imperial hostility. To recall all Realm-based Shadow Folk if the city was deemed unsafe for them.
“Yes,” she bit out. “But if we withdraw our support, we will indeed be abandoning them.”
Ereshti pursed her black lips. If not for Ardent’s scar, they could have been reflections in slightly different lighting, one more monochrome, one more vivid. Their thick black hair was the same, if pinned back in different scorpion-styles—Ardent’s far simpler, as befit her work. Side by side, it would be difficult to tell who was older. “It is not abandonment when we are taking them with us.”
“We’ll take the ‘blooded with us, yes. Away from their homes. Away from their unblood kin and friends. Or do you propose to remove those too? Relocate them all to safety in Hjaltar?” Her contempt stirred unease among the others at the table, but she didn’t bother trying to curb it. “You sent me to take Shan Cayer’s place. I spoke with him on the matter.” He’d been crippled by the crush and trapped in a bubble of the umbral wall, enraged and terrified. She wondered what had become of him. “Bahlaer’s Shadowland isn’t just its ‘bloods. It was a community. It’s already been devastated. We can’t just transplant it.”
“Transplant is the accepted procedure for any compromised or damaged branch,” put in an Overseer. She didn’t look at him; that would mean breaking her mother’s stare. Peripherally, she saw Ticuo’s hand curl against the tabletop like he wished he could claw up the wood.
“So what?” she said. “That rule works for outposts and supply-points, but how long has it been since a full Shadowland was assaulted? Centuries? Millennia? Bahlaer’s Shadowland was young and by all accounts thriving. With the Imperials blocked out—“
“We cannot know they won’t return,” said a senior Enforcer.
Ardent snorted and gestured forcefully upward. “We have the teleport-block. They can’t get in magically, and they won’t be sieging down the walls in this black winter.”
“The block only persists so long as the mages power it,” Ereshti noted. “And it interferes with our connection to the Realm. You’re fortunate they placed it, else the damage from your Dark bite would have been obscene, but we cannot operate a kai in this environment. And if they lift it, the threat from the Empire remains.”
“What threat? If you haven’t noticed, their false Light has piked right off. Their thralls and dupes are shaking off their blinders. If we want a safe world for our Shadowlands, we need to destroy the remaining Imperial fanatics in the southern siege camp. Do away with them and—“
“See the Dark break its bounds?” Ereshti shook her head sharply. “You know how it responds to bloodshed. We are sworn to a bare minimum of violence because to indulge in such things is to thin the barrier. Now, of all times, we cannot risk a breach.”
A hiss of exasperation escaped through Ardent’s teeth. “Then, Regent, we should use our turncoat Imperials. Or do you think that they’ll provoke the Dark the same as us?”
“We cannot know. It isn’t worth the risk. Regardless, those men are war criminals.”
“So then we’ll execute them? How does that prevent bloodshed? Or are you going to put that on the Trifolders, or the Gejaran Senivaten, or the Bahlaeran people? You think any of them has the will to butcher a nine-hundred-man garrison?”
“This is getting off-topic.”
“No, it’s not. Because if we pack up our people and leave Bahlaer, we leave it with Seething Brigade still incarcerated—on your order—and with a Blaze Company devoid of leadership or support. We can’t—“
“Disposal of the criminals may have to wait, yes,” Ereshti overrode her, “but we have been assured that their containment in Latchyard will not take up too much of Bahlaer’s resources. In fact, the Lord Governor seemed pleased to dedicate his militia to the task.”
Ardent felt a tic start under her left eye. She wouldn’t be surprised if Lord Governor Bahdran planned to starve the Seethers to death. Not that his anger was unmerited, with the mess the Imperials had made of Bahlaer, but it was the principle of the thing.
Completely piking unprofessional.
“We can use them, Regent,” she forced through clenched teeth.
“We could. But we will not. Now sit down and let us discuss the Shadowland.”
With great and bitter reluctance, Ardent pulled up a chair and sat.
Lark was halfway through her braids when the solution struck. She stared into the mirror, hands frozen in the act of twisting kinky damp locks together, and smiled slowly at her reflected self. The image smiled back, all innocent dark eyes and demure neckline in the faint wisp-light of the makeshift sleeping-chamber. So different from her self among the Kheri, but so useful.
Mako and Izelina and Regna had already stepped out for their business, leaving her the last one still practicing her ‘morning’ routine. She couldn’t complain; it was nice to have some time to herself, and with the magic tricks she’d learned, it had been easy to warm a basin of water and let down her hair. It gave her time to think, as her fingers went through the old familiar motions and the moments just dribbled away.
“Any opinion?” she asked the crystal on its cord. “Not that you can hear my thoughts.”
Bronze-violet light swirled out from the cube to cloak her in a glimmering mass. In the mirror, the shadows on her face fled, turning it mask-like. “I cannot,” said Vallindas, voice a sing-song vibration in her ears, “but I have many opinions about your circumstance. We should have pursued the haelhene that fled the teleport-block. We could have destroyed the Dark-damaged ones and thus lessened the forces arrayed against us.”
With a sigh, Lark resumed her braiding. “What, just you and me, when I had a hole in my hand and the Dark was still nibbling at the city? You overestimate my abilities.”
“No. You have potential, but I would match myself and the essences I command against any single haelhene without hesitation. I simply require your assistance as transport.”
“Well, thanks. I’m glad you’re worried about my well-being.”
“Without you, I would yet be lost in the Grey. I owe you a debt. But it does not supersede my debt to this world, nor my grudge against my killers.”
“I know, I know. And you’ve advised and empowered me more than I could imagine. I’m not complaining, just…I need to watch out for my safety and that of my group. Flying after haelhene is something I will never do. But if you can figure out some sort of trick or trap that will make them easy to beat, I’m interested.”
“I will consider it.”
“Anyway, I was thinking—“ She broke off, catching movement in the mirror, and watched as the reflection of the black bracer scuttled across a pallet bed. It seemed to be…straightening the blankets? “Maevor, what are you doing?”
The bracer bent upward like a spider rearing, its small leg-hooks pinching in as if fiddling together. It had nothing she could consider a face, or head, or eyes, but it seemed to have a front and back, and she could tell on some level that it was looking at her. Abashed? She shook her head. “You don’t have to do chores, if that’s what you’re about. Or are you that bored? Come here, you can at least nod or shake your…carapace at me.”
As the bodythief-bracer skittered over to the cluttered desk where she sat, she marvelled at how adapted she’d become to weirdness. Not that working with the Shadow Folk hadn’t inured her to certain things—the eiyets, the Spindle, the umbral wall and the Dark—but Maevor and his ilk had so recently been enemies. Monstrosities that she’d shot at and sometimes hit.
Her heart twinged, remembering Darilan. Dasira. Her first bodythief friend. She’d given Maevor the benefit of the doubt because despite her nasty violent exterior, Dasira had turned out to be just another wounded person exploited by the Empire. A deadly-dangerous one, but not toward her, and not without reason.
Maevor had been just as exploited, and with even less control over his own memory or will. And still he’d empathized with Lark enough that he’d tried to help her, both in the Palace and afterward. It wasn’t his fault what he’d become, nor that the loss of the Light had cut his heart out. His old body had drowned in the Dark beneath Chisel Ridge. This was all that was left.
If she’d been trapped down there alone, she’d have succumbed as well. But she’d had him, and Vallindas, and Ripple—currently coiled in the washbasin, soaking up the leftover water. She hadn’t been allowed to give up.
She owed them all.
“I figured out what to do,” she told the bracer as it scuttled up to settle beside Ripple’s basin. “About the Regent wanting to destroy us. —Us, ha, like I’m with the soldiers now.” She favored her reflection with a wry look. “Maybe Ardent’s started thinking like that too. It’d be a valid reason to dissolve this alliance. Get everyone back in their proper place. But no, it’s wrong. It’s not fair to you and the rest of your kind.”
“Fairness is rarely a consideration in war,” Vallindas murmured.
“But we’re not enemies. We all need the Light back. Our grudge against the normal Imperials is pointless right now; who would it help? So. We leverage that. The Regency cares about our image, and the Kheri as a whole care about our ethics. One Regent may be able to scuttle a local deal, but only behind the others’ backs.”
“So you inform them? Will they listen?”
“To just me? No, never. Even if I’m kai lieutenant and designated successor, Bahlaer’s just not a big market. But we have ties to some massive ones now. So we use those.” She smiled at herself, cloaked in Vallindas’ unearthly light. Somehow she’d changed without moving at all, like a harbor-post in the tide. Her bright mage’s robe was still a disguise, but at the same time it was real—two truths existing in one space. Shadow and spell-fire. It felt perfectly right.
“And…preserve your ally’s forces?”
“Ardent asked for my help, so that’s what she gets. Whether she likes it or not.”
A tart irony and a little revenge. Enforcer Ardent didn’t like leading, but she owed Lark some proper leadership for making her work alongside the Imperials who’d once held her captive.
“So hear me out,” she told the dubious wraith and the attentive bracer, “and if it sounds sensible, I’ll go to Regna first. Nail down the biggest corner of the advocacy tent. And then…”
The plan unfurled.
As the next White Flame hobbled in, stripped of all his armor but the patch on his chest that served as his heart, Izelina sat forward and said, “Can we stop?”
Mako registered the girl’s wild eyes and compressed lips, then sensed through their one-way scry to the Blaze soldiers conducting the interview. The two guards, spines straight and expressions stiff, still felt steady, but the pair of escorts and the officer, Houndmaster-Lieutenant Vrallek, were getting queasy. Masking it under anger or contempt or pity, but not deeply enough.
“He’s not in serious distress,” she hedged, brushing over the White Flame’s emotions for confirmation. Fear, anger, disquiet, abandonment, grief… The same basic panorama as the prisoners who had come before him.
Zeli’s mouth pinched further. “I am.”
“You need to—“ She bit herself off before she could say: get used to this sort of thing. Izelina Cray wasn’t a military mentalist. She was a stray Illanite child who happened to exhibit useful skills, and whom Mako was already shamelessly exploiting.
“Fine,” she said, and sent, Let’s take a break, to the Houndmaster.
‘We should talk,’ he thought back.
Rising made vertebrae in her lower back pop. Wincing, she planted hands on her hips and stretched side to side, wondering how long they’d been at this. Wisp-lights kept the viewing room cheery-bright, but they lacked the time-keeping aspect of marked candles. The pot of tea on the refreshment table had long gone cold, the buns and jam just crumbs and splotches now.
And the notebook she’d started this ‘morning’ to record what she skimmed from the prisoners’ heads was already getting full. Her fingers felt like crab claws, nails stained ink-blue.
Arching her back, she reached for the rather close ceiling. Latchyard’s offices weren’t built spacious, nor very defensible, which was awkward since the debtor’s prison didn’t have proper cells. According to the staff, debtors submitted themselves to live and work here, and in return had their debts cancelled; if they chose to leave, they were considered in default and risked the revenge of their creditors. The bunkhouses and living spaces in the inner facility were now brim-full of Seething Brigade, who acted like conscientious debtors mainly out of fear. On Bahlaer’s dark streets, they would be fair game for angry locals and toothy shadows.
These upper offices, meanwhile, held both the Blaze crew assigned to watch the Seethers, and the captured White Flames that needed to be…processed.
“Do you want to go back to the safehouse?” she tossed at Zeli as she turned to prod the teapot. Cold tea was better than no tea, especially when getting more meant bothering the beleaguered Latchyard service staff. At least they were having their debts wiped out for this.
“I just want it to stop.”
“We can’t, Zeli. If they know anything useful about the camp, or Rackmar, or the Light…”
“They’re scared and hurting. I can feel it. I don’t like it.”
Mako exhaled and sipped cold tea to give herself time to think. It was true that the captive White Flames were suffering. Two had died after having their wraith-crystals extracted—not the intent at all. After that, the process of stripping them had been handed from Vrallek’s men to Talyard and Harbett, accidental White Flames themselves and survivors of the last Palace batch. Their batch comrade, Sallos Mendras, was technically a Bahlaeran militiaman, and while he’d offered to help, there had been too much angry eagerness in him for Mako to allow it.
The White Flames post-extraction were damaged men, dazed or disturbed or amnesiac. The wraith-crystals had done something awful to them, and though she’d seen worse cases during her time as a Crimson conditioner and rehabilitator, she could count them on one hand.
She had to remember that Izelina had no such experience.
But she also had no empathy, so why she would suddenly acquire—
Realization dawned. “Anything you want to talk about, Zeli?” she asked as she turned to face the girl. Zeli’s expression was set in its usual pugnacity, but the flashes of white around her dark eyes spoke eloquently of her fear. Her thick walls had kept it bottled, and the oppressive terrors of the White Flames had served to mask it. Still, Mako cursed herself for missing it. She knew Zeli was too young for this, even if Mako herself had been a Sapphire mage trainee at that age. Riddish children were raised differently from Illanites. The clan’s needs came first.
Zeli had no clan, just a family ruined by the soldiers who now sheltered her. A breakdown was inevitable.
“I just…” She trailed off, shaking her head, and hugged her arms tighter around herself. “I can feel them through you, and it makes my eyes water. And when I try to think about other things, better things…” Her throat hitched. “I remember Edar trying to teach me stuff.”
Mako sucked in a breath, feeling gut-punched. Edarwyn Tanvolthene. Mercenary Imperial, skilled Warder, pseudo-hostage. They hadn’t trusted him but he’d put in good work for them anyway, before getting stabbed in the chest with an acidtongue akarriden blade. They’d both felt him die—the great peril of a mentalist gestalt.
“You…were close with him, weren’t you,” she managed. “Closer than I was.”
“Yeah, since you were too busy being ‘close’ with Presh and Voorkei.”
That stung less, but just barely. She’d sent her lovers to safe posts and let Tanvolthene take risks for her. It didn’t matter that those ‘safe’ assignments turned out to be not so; the point was that she’d put Tanvolthene in the position where he’d died. Because she didn’t care for him.
“Now he’s buried down there with the others we couldn’t rescue,” Zeli went on tightly, “and I keep hearing his dumb voice droning on about calm and concentration. I hated those lessons! They didn’t work for me. And I swear he thought it was funny when I complained, because he’d just say to try it again with this stupid bland look on his stupid bland face and I…” Her voice cracked and she clammed up, cheeks flaming, eyes dark pits.
“You held up well after…that,” Mako said through nerveless lips. “It’s all right to break down afterward.”
“Like you?” Zeli’s sneer flashed and died. “No, you had a reason to collapse. You were the linchpin, and you got everyone out. Me, all I did was let people talk through my mind’s courtyard. I don’t have any other skills.”
“You’re still in training—“
“Until when? Until you die? Or the Shadows break us up? Or we all freeze to death? Our odds of survival are looking pretty slim!” She swallowed down her hysteria with an effort Mako respected, then went on, lower, “Blaze Company’s as shook-up as any of those White Flames. I can feel it, and I know you do too, because it’s through you. How am I supposed to feel anything on my own when everyone around me is drowning in gloom?”
“If you want permission to put your mind-shields up…”
“I don’t need permission! I need you all to stop hurting each other and just…fix this!”
Wet-eyed or not, right or not, Mako still wanted to smack the girl across the mouth. As if it was that easy, and everyone could just blink away their anger and agree to be nice. As if she could just shake off her own ghosts and failures.
Deep breaths. She’s a child, and also an echo chamber. The more you clash, the more pressurized her emotions get. You’re supposed to help her, not provoke her.
Heavy knuckles rapped on their door. “Enter,” Mako called, relieved. Zeli whirled away as the Houndmaster-Lieutenant ducked in, the lintel scraping across his spiky scalp. When he straightened, he nearly brushed the ceiling. Clearly ogre-bloods were not common as debtors.
“Zeli, could you freshen up the tea?” Mako asked as she measured the look in those starburst eyes.
A snort, but no backtalk—that was a relief too. Uncomfortable silence reigned as the girl stacked empty platters and collected utensils; Vrallek held the door for her, careful to keep an entire arm’s length away. She deigned to ignore him, and then she was gone, and tension choked the room.
“So,” Mako managed at last.
“So,” said Vrallek.
The world had changed since they’d first met. He’d been a bully then, looming over her at the card-table while she saucily insulted him. Proud, and angry, and constrained by the need to maintain discipline among his abomination subordinates while carrying out the harsh whims of his abominable superiors. The captain had called his bluff and pulled him from his fanatic’s shell. Brought him into their alliance.
And now the captain was gone.
“What is it you want to talk about?”
Vrallek looked aside, thumbs stuck in his thick swordbelt. It was strange to see him in his shirtsleeves and patched surcoat instead of full armor; she wasn’t sure if it made him seem bigger or smaller. Maybe just more real. His jaw worked for a moment, razor teeth showing in flashes. Her sense of his mood wasn’t quite grim, wasn’t angry, just resolved. “Have you heard anything from the commander?”
“Ardent? No. She’s still off-network.” Mako tapped the silver bars of her earhook-nexus necklace, marveling that the ruengriin lieutenant would call their Shadow Folk ally ‘commander’. Certainly the captain had designated her his successor, but Mako had expected conflict over it.
Yet even after the disastrous assault and the second crush, with Ardent yanked into semi-detention by her domineering mother, Mako had barely heard a mutter about picking a new leader or defying Shadow orders. Part of it was need; the Shadow Folk still supplied Blaze Company, still fed and sheltered them. But more than that, the fire in the men was gone. No one clamoured for the empty officers’ positions, and the officers kept their mouths shut as if afraid that any gripes could lose them what little they had.
Or reveal their exhaustion, their despair. Trapped as they were again, such negativity would spread like plague.
Mako had an out. The Gejaran Senivaten hated to waste arcane resources, and their agent Drakisa Snowfoot had already approached Mako’s gestalt with an offer. Two of Snowfoot’s subordinates, Regna and Lahngi, were still providing assistance here in Bahlaer and would whisk them away if the Shadow Folk chose to bring the sword down on Blaze Company.
But the Senivaten had no use for armies.
Vrallek’s mane of black spikes clacked together as he shook his head. “I’m not sure how long we can hold this all together.” Like the rest of the specialists, he’d gone illusion-less for a while now, and Mako was more comfortable with the chitin that bunched at his knuckles and flexed along his jaw than she was with the tension that accompanied them. “Was hoping the White Flames would be helpful, but pike me, they’re just depressing. I don’t even think the Field Marshal has a plan. He was always a knee-jerk reaction kind of leader.”
“You served under him?”
“For a little while, on the north border against the— Against my people.” He grimaced, a ghastly expression, then pinched the bridge of his broad ogrish nose. “Among the ahergriin and all. Learned to manage hounds there. Big nasty mess, and Rackmar was a good general for that, but for anything with subtlety?” He sneered.
“So you don’t think those crystals mean anything?”
“I’m sure they do. Just nothing we can squeeze out of these poor idiots. White Flames—I’m not gonna badmouth ‘em, most were brave volunteers, but their armor is Palace material. The Palace gets into your head, even when the contact’s superficial. Our three guys, they’re probably only sane because they were the last batch. It didn’t have much time with them. These others, they’re like babies cut too soon from their mother’s womb. They don’t understand, and they won’t recover.”
“Light, that’s a nice comparison.” Mako bit her lip before she could spit more sarcasm. “So what do you propose? We can’t release them. And we’re not putting the crystals back in.”
Vrallek sighed, then shrugged. “Give ‘em to the Gejarans. They do research on this kind of thing, yeah? They can get more out of these guys than we can, and in better circumstances. And if the Shadow Folk decide to drop us into the Void, well…”
“That’s why I like you, Scryer. You’re confident. Sure you’re not looking for a third boyfriend?”
Mako rolled her eyes. “Go dog after the Shadow agents. Maybe one will take you on as a mascot. —But seriously, that’s your advice? Pass them off?”
“Beating them won’t help. Mindwashing them—what do you think?”
“So what’s the point of keeping them? Unless we’re gonna pike their skulls as trophies, but I don’t think that’ll do the usual for morale. Nobody’s in the mood.”
A wave of frustration choked her. She’d been trained and employed to help these men, not to part them out for others’ experiments. But Blaze Company was at the dregs of its will. Only a few determined stalwarts like Vrallek kept it from complete disintegration.
“We should send them all away,” she mumbled. “Back to their families like they wanted, after the Darkfall.”
Vrallek’s mood twinged, pulling her gaze up in surprise. His face was a stiff mask. “We could,” he grated, slow and controlled, “for those with family. Those whose family would accept them. The rest of us, I suppose, the Gejarans would find interesting too.”
She blanched. “I didn’t mean— I wouldn’t send you off as a specimen.“
“Better than being torn apart by eiyets. Or swallowed by the Void. Probably.” The black stars of his pupils bloomed unnervingly wide as his attention turned inward. “Or maybe not. I’ve been thinking. The captain… Did you know he was suicidal?”
She opened her mouth on a great absence of words. After a moment, she managed, “I don’t think he was. He didn’t seem the sort of man to throw away any life, even his own. But…he was such a closed book.”
“I’ve never seen a sarisigi hold it together like he did. But even his strength had its end. Ours does too. Lights go out, Scryer. It’s part of their nature.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“The longer this lasts, the more we— Well, you heard about Lark’s bodythief, yeah?”
Mako nodded slowly. His name had been Maevor, and he’d returned from the Palace along with Lark and the three lucid White Flames. But he’d succumbed to Void possession during the crushing of Chisel Ridge, losing control of his body and nearly killing Lark in the process. Now all that remained of him was his soul in its animate bracer.
“Without the Light, we’re empty. Just like him. Anything could get in.”
“I don’t…” Want to have this conversation. It was her purpose—to listen, to adjust, to help her soldiers survive their war. But this was too big, and when she let herself think about it, she could see it in all their crew, their hollow stares reflecting the pyres of their comrades.
“I’ll speak with Snowfoot,” she said at last. Vrallek nodded grimly.
Silence stretched. She thought to ask, What about you? Any dreams? Anything I can do? But a part of her quailed from the offer. She’d never managed to get into a specialist‘s head more than superficially, and she wasn’t sure she could handle it.
The door thumped, making her twitch. “You can’t just kick it open,” came a muffled voice from outside.
“Well then get it!” she heard Izelina snap.
“Sorry, Lieutenant, is that all?” she said quickly as the door-handle twisted. “You can take the White Flames back to detention. I’d say it will clear our schedules, but…”
“Torture’s no good pastime,” he gruffed, then moved to hold the door as Izelina pushed through with her tray. Behind her came Lark, scrying-mirror tucked through her sash and hands busy braiding her little braids into a bigger braid. Following as a surprise third was the Gejaran Regna, in a fluffy blue lounging-robe with an armload of nested baskets. Izelina brushed past the big ruengriin with her usual contempt; the others were more circumspect, politely wary. He didn’t comment, just stepped out once they were clear and pulled the door shut after him.
Mako stared at the door for a long moment, feeling his fuzz of emotion head away, then raised a brow at the already-settling women. “Intruding on a military interrogation? I thought you were posted to Rakut, Regna.”
The big woman grinned and shrugged. “We made a portal.”
Lark slumped into a chair and stretched her legs. “Would’ve bothered you earlier but it takes a while to manage my hair. I’m just glad the water pumps work.”
“I do not mean to intrude on your Imperial matters,” Regna added as she separated her baskets on the table, “but Cousin Lahngi required sleep. Friend Lark recommended we visit.”
“Because you’ve felt tense, in the gestalt,” said Lark. “Can you take a break?”
Mako sighed and gestured at the scrying mirror, its spell already lapsed. “We’re done for now. Just beating our heads against the wall, really. Oh, Regna, I need to talk to your superior.”
“Anakvykhagi Rhiniharsla?” Regna dropped a handful of metal scraps back into their basket and reached for the scrying mirror. “Certainly, if you wish…”
“Not right this instant.” She still wasn’t sure how she felt about turning damaged men, White Flame or not, over to a foreign power. Or what the rest of the company would think of it. “Just…soon, probably. Zeli, tea in the large cup please, with ink sugar.” A frosty silence greeted that, but she heard the clink of pot and cup. “So, then, you’ve come to cheer me up?”
“Just seeing how you are,” said Lark, and tied off the end of her massed braid. The sleeve of her orange robe had fallen back during the work, exposing the black bracer seated between it and her undershirt-sleeve; now the robe slumped back into place over it. She settled further, toying with the chunk of crystal she wore as a necklace. “You’re our core, after all.”
Mako smiled thinly. She didn’t feel like it. She’d betrayed the company before, in calling Ardent down upon them—even if it had been done to save them. But it was true that she’d kept their disparate allied groups linked during their time in the Shadow depths. “I’m fine. You two? You’ve had a rough time too.”
“Very fine and busy,” said Regna, lifting a metal scrap and a nasty-looking set of snips. “I am crafting replacements for my damaged scale-blades! They will be low quality, but good enough for now. You see?” She turned to show the half-cloak of leaf-shaped scales clinging to her robe like great metal insects, with a few more hitched to her headdress to hold back her dark mass of hair. “Best materials make best outcomes, but scrap is better than nothing.”
“And I’m recovered,” said Lark, still fiddling with the crystal. The back of her hand showed a starburst scar where it had pierced her. “Concerned for Enforcer Ardent, though.”
“Who isn’t?” Mako leaned away as Izelina moved in with her tea; she knew from experience that if she gave the girl an opening, she’d be wearing it. Thwarted, Zeli plunked it down with enough force to slop, then stalked off to slump into her own chair. Wisp-light twinkled off her hairpins like false cheer. Mako forced a smile for her, accepted a glare in return, then looked back to Lark. “If any of us could check on her, it would be you.”
“Wouldn’t it be you, Scryer?”
“She’s not on the network.”
“You’re telling me you can’t stick a finger in her ear unless she lets you?”
Mako made a face and sipped her tea. Salty. A brief adjustment to her perception of flavor and she drank deeper, envisioning hanging Izelina off the Latchyard roof by her toes. “I can,” she said after a moment, “but she’s got more on her plate than a mob of ex-Imperials.”
“Is eiyensuriel. One of the Shadow Realm’s dead rulers.” Between Lark’s fingers, the crystal brightened then faded: the trapped wraith’s sentience settling back to sleep. “They’re always trying to force their will on sun-side business, but it’s just that: a habit. Whatever’s going on with those two right now, it’s bloody personal. Which means it’s about your people.”
Not us. The captain. But she wouldn’t say that. The intensity she’d felt between those two would be misinterpreted the moment she put it into words. “And so?”
“And so you’re just gonna sit around doing useless army things while she crumples in the Regency’s fist? She asked us for help.”
“She asked you. Because you’re Shadow Folk.”
Lark snorted and waved that off. “I’m unblood. The Regency doesn’t care what we think. External opinions, though… You see, we pride ourselves on being a business.”
“Businesses live or die by their clientele. The Shadow Folk are no different. Where our methods don’t suit an area, we adapt—and when we come into conflict with a government or organization that might potentially pay for our services, we attempt mediation. Ardent’s defending her actions as a point of morality, or pragmatism, or military readiness, because that’s how she is. But it’s not what the Shadow Folk are. And it’s not what happened here. We made a transaction. The Shadow Folk are trying to default on it.”
Mako blinked and sat up straighter. “Wait, what?”
“I’m told you sold Blaze Company to Ardent.”
“Sold them out, yes, but—“
“No. Sold them. I’ve been thinking about this. You paid her in information so she would come fight your mutual enemies and stop the company from collapsing, right? There was a misunderstanding about the transaction that turned messy, but later it was ratified by the other company lead, your captain—and after the captain’s death, his position was transferred to Enforcer Ardent. All of that makes Blaze Company a proper subsidiary of the Shadow Folk. Not mercenaries. Not prisoners. Employees, with a right to protest bad treatment.”
Mako stared at Lark. “It’s…certainly an interpretation.”
“It’s not an interpretation. It’s our law. Or it would be, if any of you had signed a piking contract.” The young woman exhaled and shook her head. “Handshake agreements—I don’t know what’s wrong with you. But Ardent supplied you with official Shadow Folk gear, and you fought in defense of a Shadow Folk outpost. Captain Sarovy handed down his rank to her, and she accepted it. Those points should be enough to prove a tacit contract before the Regency. Now we just need a hearing.”
“Well, how does that happen?”
“An external outcry, and an internal request.”
Looking between sharply intent Lark and mild, smiling, hooded-eyed Regna, Mako ventured, “You have some ideas for those?”
“I will request a statement from Anakvykhagi Rhiniharsla when I make contact,” said Regna, absently snipping rough edges from her scrap metal, “regarding the character and deeds of Blaze Company and of Enforcer Ardent. Anakvykhagi is a much-respected woman back home, if only of low rank in the Senivaten. And I will write one myself, indeed, and for Cousin Lahngi if he does not feel capable of handling the quill.”
“I’ll canvas the local government officials and the Trifolders, and any citizens who want to make statements,” Lark added, “and write up my own as a Bah-kai representative. What I’ll need from you is a statement detailing your part of the deal—as much as you can remember—and what was offered or accepted in return. And then from your officers and men, as many as can write one, or at least sign one of our standard combattants’ employment contracts. Nothing from before the deal, please. We’re going to stamp that with a blanket amnesty.”
“You can do that?”
“It’s what Enforcer Ardent offered, isn’t it?”
Mako wasn’t sure. She’d offered it to Captain Sarovy, certainly, because from the start those two lunatics had only had eyes for each other. But Sarovy wouldn’t have accepted a deal that meant suffering for his men. So indeed, there must have been amnesty.
“But isn’t Ardent’s mother a Regent?” she pressed. “Won’t she block this? All of Ardent’s people are in lockdown; how can we even get our complaints through?”
A thin smile curled Lark’s lips. “No one stops the eiyets, and I can call them without ‘blooded help. I’ll send some letters to every Regent. Goblin letters too, if they’ll write. That will get their attention.”
There was something nasty in the way Lark said that. Mako couldn’t help but approve. And if, as an experienced Shadow agent, she thought this silly-sounding plot could work…
“Well then, let us start our complaint warfare,” she said, and rose.
The last thing Ardent needed was Oversight agents dogging her, but turning to confront them would do no one any good. They had their orders, and she’d been temporarily released from detention to make the rounds of Rakut and view the damage yet again.
The damage she’d caused.
Standing at the edge of the great gouge in the street, staring down at the remains of the funeral pyres, she told herself that her punishment was merited. After all, it was her fault; she’d called up the Dark bite that undermined the buildings here, causing their brickwork walls to crumple outward and expose what had once been private homes and work-spaces. She’d caused the massive gaps in the road, ceramic pipes and crawlways exposed amid packed dirt and old rubble; she’d fallen through that hole by the fountain which was causing the basin to subside. All because she’d felt hurt and angry enough to open the way for destruction.
They’d taken away the table where the captain’s remains had been displayed, though whether it had been the soldiers cleaning up, or the Trifolders, or the locals, she didn’t know. Nor did she know what had happened to the remains themselves, the glassy fused shards of him. Down below, the pyres were mounds of char and ash, full of the bones of men and women and hounds. With the soldiers confined to Latchyard, she suspected they’d be left there, to be incorporated into the roadwork when the time came to make repairs.
It wasn’t that no one cared. Great pains had been taken to build the pyres themselves, and to identify the lost, and make sure what they carried would be sent to their families if they could be found. But it would take necromancers to sort out the tangle of bones left behind, and time and space and resources to send them home. Their souls had moved on, like the city.
That left just her here, staring out at her mistake, wondering if it would have been worse not to act. They’d been under assault via portal, by wraiths and conglomerate monsters—ahergriin. The Dark bite had dealt with those. Arguing that logic wouldn’t budge her mother, so she hadn’t tried. Trifolders had died on Void-cored tendrils, and that was her fault. Soldiers too, but they weren’t clients, so they didn’t count.
A gust of wind kicked cold ashes and ice-grains up the gouge at her, and she turned away, wincing. In the plaza behind her, life still bustled: bundled-up citizens waited in line before the Trifolders’ makeshift kitchens, while Shadow Folk pushed through blanket-shrouded doorways with pallet trucks full of supplies or rattled along plank bridges set between upstairs windows. By dint of necessity, this had become a Shadow hub—the normal storage at the Shadowland and Chisel Ridge all wrecked—along with posts at Lakeshore, Riverwatch, West Ridge and other district centers. With normal city services suspended, the areas around such posts were being flooded with refugees, and Ardent wasn’t sorry to leave that logistic mess to her mother’s cronies.
Her escorts awaited her by the undamaged side of the fountain: a man and a woman with the bland expressions of professional evaluators. All her Enforcement team would be haunted by Oversight, but at least they had tasks to go about meanwhile. Ardent had no illusions that she was only still sun-side because her mother wanted to pick her brains about the operation.
Or rub her nose in it.
She had no other duties, no motivation. Somewhere in the darkness northeast was Latchyard, beyond the rough-edged rise of Old Crown, but her escorts wouldn’t let her go there—and what would she do, anyway? She’d failed Sarovy’s men as soon as they’d fallen into her hands, and with this mother-daughter grudge match, her touch was poison.
She could have laughed at herself. Two months ago, she would have burnt Latchyard down with them in it and been vastly unbothered. Two months ago she would have said that being responsible for even a handful of lives was not only expecting too much but also a dull and irritating constraint. She’d been a soloist, a troubleshooter brought in to join a team but certainly not to head it.
Now she stared at her two black-eyed escorts and saw a hundred-plus Light-damaged fools and monsters left to watch over a thousand more of their own, all knowing the headsman’s axe hung above them. If she were them, she’d have grand plans of escape and retaliation, but they were used to being led. They might end up marching to the scaffold.
It didn’t seem fair, but she couldn’t put words to why she felt that.
Instead, she turned a cold shoulder to her escorts and started walking, paralleling the edge of the gouge to where it bit away the first of the ruined buildings. An alley cut north nearby, lightly studded with rubble, and she took it, avoiding fallen bricks with precision despite the near-total darkness. The undamaged building on her left was being used for storage; she could feel more than hear the rumble of wheels, the thud of crates, the scuff of feet beyond.
Behind her, an escort stumbled and cursed. Her scarred lips twitched.
Maybe she’d walk a while. Maybe Oversight would get bored and stop tailing her. Maybe she’d give them the slip somewhere, around some sharp corner or through some other area of rubble. And then—
What? Go visiting the soldiers? They weren’t hers, not really. Leave Bahlaer, go somewhere else? It wasn’t like her mother couldn’t find her.
‘Hsst. Enforcer. Put your piking earhook on.’
She fought down a curse. The last thing she wanted to do was explain her mother’s behavior to Blaze Company’s scryer, or make excuses for her own lack of progress. But it was either comply or be needled in the brain by that obnoxious woman, so she pulled the earhook from her buttonhole and slid it over her right ear.
Immediately the itch of connection unfurled along the nape of her neck, sending a shudder down her back. She’d gotten used to that, having worn the object for a few weeks now. What she wasn’t used to was the strange sideways motion that followed, like a door had opened beside her and sucked her in.
‘Oh, I can feel her,’ came another voice—the Shadow agent-slash-mage, Lark.
‘Interesting.’ That sounded like Regna, the Gejaran.
“What is this?” she mumbled, more comfortable with talking to the earhook than thinking at it. At least the clack of bootheels on broken bricks would mask her voice from her escorts.
‘Sorry about just yanking you in here,’ said Scryer Mako, ‘but we don’t have enough earhooks for everyone. This is a sub-gestalt—sort of a private room in my mind-house. The rest of the network can’t hear.’
“All right. Great. But what I meant was—“
‘We’ve found a solution for you,’ Lark cut in. ‘Or a potential one, anyway. I don’t want to get your hopes too high, but I thought you should know that we’ve set things in motion.’
The vagueness itched Ardent’s nerves. “What things?”
‘I think you’ll like the surprise.’
“No I won’t.”
‘Trust me. It’ll be great—if it works.’
“Are you just contacting me to taunt me?”
‘No, no,’ said Scryer Mako, though there was an amused flavor to her mind-voice that made Ardent want to reach over and shake her. ‘Lark’s just feeling very clever, yet insecure.’
‘But we’ve promised not to spoil it, so sorry about that. However, we wanted you to know that we’re supporting you—Blaze Company, Lark’s kai and Regna’s organization alike.’
‘Actually, I haven’t been able to contact most of the kai, so I’m acting unilaterally…’
“Have you talked with Ticuo?” Ardent inserted grudgingly. “He’s lower on the Regent’s shit-list than I am. If the Bah-kai folk are scattered, he can find them better than I.”
‘I’ll do that. Thanks. But this plan doesn’t need the kai’s backing, just so you know.’
“If you’re not going to tell me, don’t dangle it in front of me.”
‘Back to my point,’ Scryer Mako cut in, ‘is there anything you need?’
Ardent turned a new corner, chewing her lip. The darkness and destruction all around her matched her mood, the sky just a dim corridor above, stitched through with empty clothes-lines. Still, there were stars in that dark expanse, like sparks of hope. “I’m not sure,” she murmured. “I’m in a weak position here. Personally, I have no needs; I’ve always been a free agent and they won’t curb that. They know it would be unpleasant for everyone. But I can’t do anything for anyone else. I have no authority.”
‘Knew it,’ sent Lark.
Her tone made Ardent hackle. “What does that mean?”
‘Look, no offense, but you’re kind of a meat-head.’
‘I think it’s the Enforcement mindset. You know—solve all problems by hitting them? And now you’re stuck at the head of an army, thinking truncheon-and-sword thoughts, with what look like impossible problems. Fight and die, or surrender and die, right?’
“Do you have a point?”
‘Just that it’s not a truncheon-and-sword problem. We’re not enemies, and we know that, even if we’re being stubborn about it. So no, I don’t think you can help, but you don’t have to worry about it either. We’ll handle it.’
“You’re lucky you’re not in grabbing range.”
She could sense the young woman’s smugness from afar.
‘Anything else?’ Mako prompted. ‘Even personal needs. We know you have some.’
Ardent glanced back, irritated, to see her escorts still trailing. Everyone seemed to think she was up to something, even when she was just pacing circles in her own mind. “I don’t need anything,” she growled, and turned a new corner sharply.
The broken sword shifted on her belt, and her hand fell automatically to adjust it. She halted. Heirloom, spirit-connection, blood in the grooves…
“Hoi,” she hazarded, “it’s a weird question, but do any of you know a good necromancer?”
A pause. ‘Beside the piker Archmagus?’
She didn’t think Sarovy would appreciate Enkhaelen’s help. “Yes.”
‘Necromancy is strictly regulated in Gejara,’ came the artificer’s careful answer. ‘Only beneficial fleshcraft and dispersal of lost souls is permitted. What do you need?’
“Something less benign. I have a trace of Field Marshal Rackmar’s blood.”
Another silence. Then Regna sent, ‘Perhaps the Haarakash? They deal very much in blood. The Senivaten have been in contact with them for some time, trying to rouse them against the Empire; I can ask Drakisa Rhiniharsla if we might request such aid. Or else the Pajhrasthani, or others of the Yezadran schools… But we are on uneasy terms with them, diplomatically.’
‘Presh can’t help,’ Mako added. ‘He’s in exile.’
‘It’s not something Vallindas can do, either,’ sent Lark.
“So then, contact the Haarakash?” Ardent shook her head. The Shadow Folk had never found a foothold there. Never even found an opening. “If you can manage it, that’s fantastic, but what will they want for their help?”
‘Wraith souls, generally. They are self-assigned jailors of wraith-kind.’
‘If it requires that, there are a few extra wraiths in my crystal,’ Lark offered. ‘Vallindas says they can be separated out—it just wouldn’t be comfortable. But to kill the Field Marshal… That’s a worthy cause.’
Ardent smiled tightly. “The worthiest.”
‘I will see what I can do,’ said Regna.
The earhook connection resolved back into a faint murmur. Despite the situation and her nagging annoyance at both stalkers and smart-ass mages, Ardent couldn’t help but feel a smirk tug up the corner of her lips.
Buoyed, she turned back toward Rakut Center. She might have nothing yet to do, but she could still listen, and watch.