Science Fiction & Fantasy

CHOSEN ONES

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Fiction

The Mocking Tower

Old Au saw the thief first.

Squatting in the garden, she commanded a long view of the east road; gray flagstone straighter than nature amid the green scrub and bramble. Rich soil breathed its scent around her as she took an offending root in one hand and her garden knife in the other. Between the moment she began sawing and when she pulled the first tangle of dirt and pale vegetable flesh out of the ground, the thief appeared, a dot on the horizon. She worked as he approached. His cloak hung limp in the humid summer air. His hat, wide as his shoulders, shadowed his eyes. He wore an empty scabbard across his back. Old Au paused when he grew close. When he reached the wall of ancient stone that marked the border between the greater world and the protected lands within, he paused and looked toward the Mocking Tower.

The tower shimmered as the tales all said it would, appearing to change shape between one breath and the next. A great thrusting pillar of alabaster studded with living torches became an ancient palace of gray stone and moss became a rose-colored complication of terraces stacked one atop another toward the sky. The thief took in the illusionist’s art with an air of haughtiness and satisfaction. Old Au watched the man watch the tower, cleared her throat, and nodded to the stranger.

“What news?” she asked.

His gaze shifted to the old woman. His eyes looked as if they’d been dyed the same blue as a storm cloud. The lines around his mouth and eyes spoke of age and weather, but Old Au thought she saw a boyishness in them as well, like the image of an acorn worked in oak. Something in him reminded Old Au of a lover she’d taken years before. A man of high station who dreamed of living as a gardener. Dead now and his dreams with him except for what she carried with her. When the thief spoke, his voice carried the richness and depth of a reed instrument, softly played.

“The throne stands empty,” the thief said. “King Raan rots in his grave, and the princes vie to claim his place.”

“All seven of them?”

“Tauen, Maush, and Kinnin all fell to their brothers’ blades. Another—Aus by name—rose from the south with a foreign army at his back to lay a new claim. Five armies still cross the land and blight wherever they pass.”

“Shame, that,” Old Au said.

“Wars end. Even wars of succession. They also create certain unexpected opportunities for the bold,” he said, then shifted as by moving his shoulders, he moved the conversation. “These lands belong to the Imagi Vert?”

Old Au shrugged, pointing to the stone wall with her chin. “Everything within the border, and all the way round. Not subject to the throne, nor the one before it. Nor to whatever comes next either. The Mocking Tower stands apart from the world and the Imagi Vert sees to that, once and eternal. You’ve come on behalf of one of the princes? Plead the Imagi to take a side, maybe?”

“The tale I hear told says the Imagi Vert took King Raan’s soul when he died and fashioned it into a blade. And the blade lies somewhere in that tower. I have come to steal it.”

Old Au wiped a soil-darkened hand across her cheek, squinting first at the thief then at the Mocking Tower and back to the thief. His chin lifted as if in challenge. The empty scabbard tapped against his back as if asking for attention. Green lacquer and brass fittings, and long enough to hold even a fairly large sword. As though a king’s soul surely required a palatial blade to hold it.

“You make it a habit to announce that sort of thing, do you?” Old Au said as she brushed the soil off the length of pale, stubborn root still in the earth. “Seems an odd way to get what you want.”

The thief’s attention returned to her. A smile both bright and brief flickered on his lips. “I’m sure you know a great deal about gardening. I know a great deal about theft. This road leads to the township at the tower’s base?”

Old Au nodded. “Another hour down the road. Keep left at the crossing or you’ll find yourself heading south without much besides grain silos and the mill for company. But take the warning. Everyone you find there is loyal to the Imagi Vert. Anyone not tends to leave fair quick.”

“I don’t plan to stay.”

“You have a name, friend?” Old Au asked.

“Many of them.”

The thief slid a hand into his sleeve and drew it back out. Something small and bright between his fingers caught the sunlight. He tossed the coin to Old Au, and she caught it without thinking. A square of silver with a young man’s likeness pressed into the metal. Some prince or another. One of the dead king’s warring brood.

“This for my silence?” Old Au asked.

“For your help in directing me,” the thief said. “Anything more lies between you and your conscience.”

Old Au chuckled, nodded, and tucked the coin in her belt. The thief and his empty scabbard stepped off down the road. His stride shifted his cloak from side to side like the flourish of a street magician’s right hand distracting from the actions of the left. His hat carried shadow under its brim like a veil. The Mocking Tower changed to a soaring complex of chains hanging from a stonework tree taller than clouds to a spiral of basalt with stairways cut into the sides. Old Au shook her head and bent back down to her work. The stubborn root defied her, but she was stern and hard and well practiced with a garden knife. When it came out, long as her arm and pale as bone, she squatted in the churned black soil, wiped the sweat from her face, and looked west after the thief. The curve of the road and the trees hid him already.

The township that served the Imagi Vert pretended normalcy even in the shadow of magic. Only the central square boasted flagstone. Dust, dirt, and weeds made up all the streets. The small stables reeked like stables anywhere, and pisspots stood in the alleys waiting to be taken and their contents sold to the launderer to whiten cloth or the tanner to soften hide. The flowers of early summer drew bees and flies. The sun warmed thatched roofs until they stank a little. Birds chattered and warned each other from their nests. Dogs ran here as they did anywhere, chasing squirrels and each other. A few hundred feet to the north, the Mocking Tower loomed, a spire of bone and glass, then a pillar of plate-thin stones stacked one atop the other toward the sky, then a spiral of what looked like skinned flesh, then an ivy-clad maiden of granite with a crown of living flame.

The people of the township viewed the thief as the greater curiosity. He walked through the streets, eyes hidden but with a cheerful smile. The empty scabbard bumped against his back with every step.

The Traveler’s Hearth stood just down from the square and at an angle, like a servant with eyes politely averted. The thief went to it as if he stayed there often. The keeper—a fat man wearing the traditional iron chain of hospitality wrapping his left arm—greeted him in the courtyard.

“I need only a small room,” the thief said.

“No small rooms, nor any big ones either,” the fat man said. “Just rooms is all.”

“All people claim the same dignity before the Imagi?” the thief said as if joking.

“Just so. Just so. Simin can take your horse if you have one.”

Simin—a lanky, dark-haired boy with a simple, open face—nodded hopefully. The thief shook his head and handed three of the square, silver coins to the fat man. “I only take what I can carry.”

The keeper considered the coins as if they spelled out the future, then pressed his lips tight and shrugged. The iron chain clinked as if offering its own metallic thoughts. Simin broke the silence. “I can show you the way anyhow.”

“Very kind of you,” the thief said.

Simin trotted ahead, leading the thief down short halls and into a hidden courtyard of cherry trees. A stone cistern loomed in a corner where a thin-limbed girl scrubbed away moss with a black-bristled brush and tried not to stare. The thief nodded to her. She blushed and nodded back.

Simin stopped at a high door the color of fresh cream, opening the brass latch with a click. The thief stepped into his private room and the boy trotted along behind him. The air smelled of soap and lilac. Shadows clung to the pale walls, like stepping into a sudden twilight. A modest bed with a dark brown, rough-woven blanket of the sort common to the southern tribes a hundred years before. An ironwork sculpture of an iris in a frame hung on the wall opposite the only window. An earthenware jug and cup sat on a low table beside three unlit candles. Simin, smiling, closed the shutters as if the thief had asked him to. The shadows grew deeper.

The thief sank slowly to the bed. The empty scabbard clattered on the floor where he dropped it. He swept off his hat and let it sit beside him, covered in pollen and dust. Sweat-dark locks of hair stuck to his balding scalp. His cheerful smile vanished and fear took its place. He shook his head, pressed a palm to his brow, and shook his head again.

“I can’t. I can’t do this.”

“You can,” Simin—whose name was not Simin—snapped, his own affectation of boyish goodwill falling away. “And you will.”

“Did you see that tower? I’ve heard tales of the Mocking Tower, everyone has. I thought it would . . . I don’t know. Catch the sunlight oddly. Cast weird shadows. ‘Seems to shift moment by moment’ they say, ah? Too damned true. How do I put myself against a wizard who can do that?”

Simin leaned against the wall, arms folded across his chest. “You don’t. I do.”

“We’re making a mistake. We should go back.”

“Back to what? Fire and death? We keep to the plan,” the boy said. “Get the sword. End the war.”

The thief sagged forward, elbows against his knees, head in his hands. “If you say. If you say.” Then, gathering himself. “Did you find it?”

Simin poured water from the jug into the cup and handed it to the thief as he spoke. “No. But with you here, they’ll show me. Whatever changes, wherever the guard increases, whatever they keep you from. That’s how I’ll know. You strike the drum, and I listen to the echoes for answers. It works that way. And the more they watch you, the less they watch me.”

“I know, I know,” the thief said, then paused to drink the cup dry. He handed it back, wiping his lips with a sleeve. “I liked this plan better before I came here. Successions and thrones and blood and armies in the field. Now magic swords and wizards and a tower like something that’s crawled out of a bad dream. I don’t belong in something like this.”

“Go in the morning. Talk to everyone you can find. Ask about green glass.”

“Green glass? Why?”

“I found a private temple not far from the tower fashioned from it. I think the blade may be there.”

“Green glass, then. And boasting about crossing the Imagi Vert in front of the people most loyal to him. And acting mysterious and charming. When the wizard kills me over this, you can carry the guilt.”

“What news from the war?” Simin asked, and his tone said he already knew. The swamping of Loon Channel. The murder of Prince Tauen. The starvation in Cai Sao Station. A question that carries its own answer argues something more than its words. The thief understood.

“The payout justifies the risk,” the bald man said to the boy. “I never said otherwise.”

“We start tomorrow, then,” the boy said, and left, closing the door behind him.

“I already started today,” the thief muttered to an empty room.

• • • •

King Raan took the throne, and with it control of the Empire, a week before his twentieth name day. A boy still with the glow of youth in his skin, he sat in a chair of gold and gemstones and bones. He ruled for six decades through peace and strife, famine and plenty. Many people born on the day of his ascension lived out their whole lives not knowing any other ruler. The idea of governance and King Raan grew together in the minds of his subjects like two saplings planted side by side, twining around each other until neither could exist without the other. King Raan and the Empire and the right function of the world all named the same thing.

Easy enough, then, to forget the man who bore that weight. He alone of everyone from the Sea of Pearls to the knife-peaked Dai Dou mountains, the ice sheets of High Saral to the deserts of the Heliopon, understood that the man called King Raan who controlled the Empire as a normal person commanded their own hands, and the one named Raan Sauvo Serriadan born of Osh Sauvo, princess of Hei Sa and third wife to King Gaudon, did not share everything. The man and the office that demanded all his days only appeared at peace with each other. If anything, Death’s shadow oppressed him more than it did others because he could not pretend that more power and influence would bring a deeper meaning to his life. Wealth and status could not dispel the questions that haunted him. He sought his consolation in sex and philosophy and—near the end—the occult.

The sex led to a legion of children both within and outside the political labyrinths of marriage; the philosophy, to a series of melancholy letters which detailed his conception of the human soul and the nature of a well-lived life; and the occult, inevitably, to his friendship with the Imagi Vert.

The Imagi Vert: a name that conjured up a whole mythology of threats and wonders. Even more than the bodiless voice of the Stone Oracle at Kalafi or the Night Children that played in the waves off the coast of Amphos, the Imagi Vert embodied the deeper mysteries of the world. Some claimed that the Imagi began life as a human and suffered transformation by falling down a cliff and into a flaw in the universe. Others, that God could not breathe life into the clay of the world without opening a crack between heaven and earth, and the scar from that wound took a name and a tower and a circle of land for itself. Or that a great wizard cheated death itself by learning to live backward to the beginning of all things. All the different versions agreed on three things: the Imagi held the Mocking Tower and the land around it inviolate, those who sought to bend the Imagi to mere human will ended poorly, and wonders beyond the understanding of the most outlandish imagination lay hidden in the shadow of that changing and eternal tower. King Raan’s studies of the occult drew him to the low stone wall and the town and the tower as inevitably as water running down.

No one can know the nature of that first meeting, but many have guessed. Perhaps the emperor could only experience humility before the ageless, timeless thing that called the Mocking Tower home. Or perhaps two people set so far above humanity that power became isolation more resembled refugees in a vast wilderness clinging to each other. No one witnessed the time those two kept in each other’s company, and King Raan shared little with his court. His trips to the Mocking Tower became first a yearly pilgrimage, then once in the high summer and another in winter’s depth. And then, as his years thinned him and travel from the palaces became impossible, a beloved memory that outlasted all others.

Death came to King Raan as with anyone. The throne of Empire did not exempt him. Physicians came from every corner of the world bearing vials of salt and herb, charms and chants and leeches. King Raan allowed them all to minister to him like an uncle indulging his nieces and nephews in their games. If he held any real hope of prolonging his life, he didn’t express it. The princes and princesses gathered around the palaces. The eldest—Prince Kinnan—bore his diadem on hair already grown thin and pale by fifty-eight years of life. Princess Magren, the youngest present, still wore braids like a child, celebrating a youth she had not quite outgrown. The palaces grew dense with the volume of servants and wealth and ambition, like a tick ready to pop with blood.

At the moment of his death, a darkness passed over the palaces. The torches and lamps and the fires in their grates all shuddered and went out. Some claim to have heard the sound of wings, as if the blackness hid a vastness of huge birds. Others, a low, musical whistling that came from the walls themselves. Only King Raan’s nurse and Prince Tauen, who fortune placed at his bedside, heard King Raan’s last words—You remembered your promise—and at the time, they placed no great importance upon them. When the servants finished rekindling the torches and candles, fire logs and lanterns, King Raan lay dead and the Empire changed.

For a time, it seemed as if this new order might fall close to the old. The legal scholars and priests who studied the arcana of dignified bloodlines identified those of King Raan’s children with just claims to the throne. As eldest, Kinnan held the strongest claim, but Naas—younger but of a higher-born mother—ran a near second. Then Tauen and Clar, Maush, and Tynnyn. Princess Saruenne of Holt cut her hair and her name together, declaring herself Prince Saru in a gesture which the priests said had many precedents. For the weeks of mourning, the Empire held its breath. Then Prince Kinnan announced the date of his ascension and invited his siblings to come in peace to honor the memory of the father they shared.

Even now, the identity of the men who slaughtered Kinnan’s wife and children remained unclear. But they failed to kill the prince, and the War of Seven Princes began.

In the years since the first blood spilled, only chaos reigned. News traveled across mountains and plains, lakes and oceans, and it spoke of death and loss and palace intrigue. And, sometimes, to those who cared to listen for it, of the Imagi Vert. A fisherman whose cousin worked in the palace kitchens said that on the night of King Raan’s death, when the fires died, a shape—human or nearly so—had been seen flying across the face of the moon. It came from the direction of the Mocking Tower and returned the same way. A woman traveling through the lands of the Imagi Vert at that same time reported that the townsfolk had kept inside that night, leaving the mild summer evening as empty as if a wild storm had raged.

Some tales could even be verified. Yes, agents of the Imagi had sought out half a dozen of the best swordsmiths in the Empire in the months of King Raan’s decline. Yes, a forge had been built in the lee of the Mocking Tower, then—a month after the death of the king—collapsed. Yes, a stranger had arrived at the library of Ahmon Suer in the weeks after the king’s first decline and demanded an obscure treatise on the nature of the soul.

Little more than whispers in a high wind, yet the links between the Imagi Vert and the death of the king began to tell a larger tale. This new mythology began in the king’s dying words and ended in one man’s plan to end the war.

The patchwork of truth and surmise came together this way: In his age, King Raan came to fear death, or if not fear it, at least regret its necessity. He appealed to his deathless friend and companion, the Imagi Vert. Together, they plotted a way that King Raan might shed the clay of his flesh and yet remain undying. The Imagi Vert, through means unknown to the pious, collected the king’s soul when it fled his body, returned with it to the Mocking Tower, and there forged it into a sword. Steel and fire formed a blade in which Raan could escape all endings.

And then . . . what would the wizard who lived outside of time do with such a blade? What power could a true soulsword give? Mere human guesses seemed unlikely to plumb the depths of the Imagi’s schemes and plots. Perhaps the sword gave some advantage a thousand years hence. Perhaps it only offered the pleasure of accomplishing a task no other alchemist dared to hazard. But for the heirs of the Empire? For the men and women and children who faced the prospect of war, it was an object of even greater power.

And so, in the capital of a small nation where King Raan had made one of his last visits, in the home of a woman who, almost two decades before, had been charged with the raising of young Prince Aus, the heir farthest from his father’s throne built schemes of his own.

He had lived alone his whole life, knowing nothing of his father and mother beyond a direction over the sea and an assurance that his blood gave him honor and dignity, if not love. He covered the fine stone walls in charcoal and wax as he mapped out his journey, the paths of his little armies. The eighth in the War of Seven Princes, and the one with the least hope of victory in the field.

The field did not concern him. For Aus, the path of victory wound through no battlefields. Only the gardens and grounds of the Mocking Tower. The ruins where ivy already overgrew the charred bones of a forge. A temple of green glass. The streets and stables, mills and kitchens and farmyards of the lands that no king claimed. There or nowhere lay the key to the ambitions of Aus, the Forgotten Prince.

Aus, whose name was not Simin.

• • • •

“I have always had a fondness for . . . green glass,” the thief said and smiled knowingly. The woman standing before him—dark-haired and broad-shouldered—rested her axe on her shoulder and said nothing. The thief smiled as if the two of them were sharing a joke, tipped his wide-brimmed hat, and moved on down the street. The town betrayed no trace of its eerie status apart from the Mocking Tower itself. Men and women went about the business of their days here as they would anywhere. Dogs and children chased each other over rough stone paving and through wide puddles of standing mud. Birds watched from the tree branches thick with leaves. So long as the constantly changing tower remained hidden, forgetting it seemed possible. And the thief found ways to keep the tower out of sight.

A thick-faced man hauling a cartload of fresh-cut hay made his way along the street, a creature of soft grunts and sweat. The thief stepped in front of him. “A fine morning. I wonder, friend, if you might know something interesting about green glass? I have good silver to trade for good words.”

The hauler paused, scowled, and shrugged his shoulders before he shoved on. The thief smiled after him as if his reticence told a clearer tale than all the eloquence in the world. He drew an old tin sextant from his robe, hung a plumb line with a lump of gem-bright crimson glass for a bob, and pretended to take readings of the tops of the trees. He felt like an idiot, and a frightened one at that. He expected to end the day facedown in a ditch with fish eating his eyes. But he also took his work seriously, so he made a mysterious ass of himself and hoped for the best without being too specific about what that best might be.

In the stables, Prince Aus played at Simin, nodding and helping wherever he found a chance, and above all else listening.

The keeper to his wife as they tended to the grapevines behind the main house: Of course I sent word to the tower. Went there myself as soon as I saw him off to his room. Expect the Imagi knew well before I said anything, though.

The cleaning girl to her mother as they walked toward the market with the day’s eggs: The Imagi sent instructions in the night. Little finches with hollowed eyes that carried bits of parchment in their beaks. Bir—(who Simin knew as the blacksmith’s apprentice)—got one, and so did Soylu.

One of the little girls wearing as much mud as dress as she clapped her hands in the filthy water by her house: Thieves and rats, thieves and rats, and all of us are blades and cats.

Everyone knew, as Simin hoped they would. But if any panicked, he didn’t see it. Like a man walking toward a dog on a road at twilight, the town watched, calm and steady, as it judged the threat. But at least it felt threatened or amused or at least interested. Of his greatest fears—boredom, complaisance, indifference—he saw nothing. The thief loomed in the news of the town, and that sufficed.

After lunch, when Simin traditionally slipped away to the hayloft for a long nap, Prince Aus slipped away down the track that pretended to be a deer trail. He walked carefully, his ears straining over the buzzing of summer flies and the hushing of the high grass. The midday heat drenched him with sweat and the thick air went into his lungs like steam. The Mocking Tower shifted: a spiral of smooth white stones reaching to the sky; a pair of massive yellow curves nesting one within the other like the beak of an impossible huge bird; a single uncarved block of smoky obsidian. As he neared the site of the green-glass temple, he slowed even more.

The little marks set to warn of others passing along the track remained. The long blade of grass bent at knee height still leaned across the path. The thread thin as spider’s web at waist height still caught the thick, sluggish breeze between a dead tree and a thick, sharp-leaved bush. Prince Aus felt the disappointment growing in his heart even before he made the last turn and the green-glass temple came into view.

Perhaps it had grown smaller since first he’d discovered it—anything seemed possible so close to the Mocking Tower. Or perhaps the first dissonant chords of disappointment only made it seem so. The afternoon sun shone against the undulating emerald surfaces, but he only saw the dust now. When he stepped inside and stepped to the low altar, he felt none of the sense of wonder and certainty that bore him up the night he’d found it. The dust he’d spread so carefully in hopes of showing where the footsteps of the unwary had passed remained unstirred.

The thief had come, made his threat, and no one had reacted. Not the townsfolk. Not the Imagi Vert. Prince Aus told himself to be pleased. He preferred finding the blade’s true hiding place, but knowing for certain that the temple did not hold it added to his knowledge, subtracted from the possibilities that remained. He cultivated patience. Mostly. His single frustrated shout set the birds in the treetops to flights, but only once. He didn’t repeat it.

He walked back along the trail, hurrying to get back to the hayloft before anyone expected Simin to wake. Even as he broke into a trot, he felt his false persona slipping into place. Simin the vagabond. The boy too dull to have a story of his own worth knowing. Simin the unremarkable. And perhaps it was because of this—the role he’d inhabited before fitting so well into place—that the cleaning girl walking along the road away from town and tower failed to notice him.

The market lay nowhere near. The girl’s mother no longer limped at her side. And something bounced and bobbled against her back. A little cloth bag, grease-stained. The sort that might hold a bit of food carried for not too long a journey.

Aus or Simin paused, pulled between two impulses: return to safety before anyone could penetrate his disguise or else . . . or else see what this girl meant by traveling alone so far from where her usual paths led her. And with food. And—yes—just the faintest air of furtive excitement. Aus felt his belly tighten, a knot form in the back of his throat.

He turned, following her at a distance, and with all the stealth he could.

The girl led him to the north, away from the green-glass temple, and around to the uncanny, shifting tower. The sun caught the crimson of her scarf and the sway of her hair as brightly as a banner on the field. The sun’s heat stood on the edge between pleasant and oppressive. The thickness of the air felt like a coming storm. He kept to the shadows under boughs and edges of the tall grass where the path’s curve took her nearly out of sight. His fear of being seen grew in him, changing as it did into a vibrating excitement. At any moment, the keeper of the Traveler’s Hearth would come looking for him. The urge to break off tugged at him, but the sense of teetering on the edge of something critical pulled him forward. The girl, unaware that his world now centered on her, walked and skipped, paused and looked back, walked on. A patch of sweat darkened the back of her dress.

And in a stretch of dappled shade where two trees overhung the path, she vanished.

A cold rush of panic filled the prince’s chest. The girl had been an illusion, the bait in a trap. Or she had escaped him and even as he stood there, she hurried to raise the alarm. He waited, his body stiff as wood, and only when nothing happened for ten long, shuddering breaths together did he move forward. The path between the trees stood empty. The leaves shuddered in a barely felt breeze. The rough-worn earth went before and behind. Nothing seemed odd or out of place apart from his memory of the girl and her present absence. The prince turned slowly, blinking in confusion and wonder.

The complication of air nearly escaped him. Made from nothing, it looked like nothing. Only a flaw in the light like the smallest ripple in a glass. Even when he saw it, he doubted. But he stepped forward, one foot before the other, and the landscape unfolded around him as if by walking straight ahead, he rounded a bend in the path and exposed new and unseen vistas. A hillside rose green-grassed and dandelion-spattered to the very foot of the Mocking Tower. A lintel of stone stood at the mouth of a cave, and in the place of twilight between the darkness underground and the shining daylight, the cleaning girl sat with Bir, the blacksmith’s apprentice, beside her. A lunch of chicken and bread spread out by their side and the little cloth bag collapsed behind them. The two saw nothing but each other, but Prince Aus saw everything. The girl’s awkward smile. The apprentice blacksmith’s ill-fitting armor and leather-handled axe. The shuddering shape after shape after shape of the tower. He walked backward, the world refolding itself around him until he stood alone on the path again, in the same place but no longer entirely the same man.

A pathway hidden by magic. A man set to guard it even at the cost of his usual duties. The abandoned temple no longer pained him. What he’d sought, he’d found. The Imagi Vert, alarmed by the thief, drew up his defenses, and in doing so, showed what wanted defending. Simin or Aus retreated to the town, walking often forward and often backward, hurrying to avoid suspicion in his absence but also committing the path to memory for the time when he returned.

The rest of the day Prince Aus committed himself to being Simin. He mucked out the stalls and repaired the place in the chicken run where something from the woods failed to force its way in. He hauled water from the well to the hearth’s kitchen and carried pies from the kitchen to the miller as exchange for the uncooked flour. When the keeper made a joke, he laughed. When the cleaning girl trotted by near sundown with her cheeks bright and her sleeve stained green with grass, he pretended not to notice. The Mocking Tower changed: a moon-pocked shaft of white and gray; a block of iron like a great anvil with glowing windows around the top; a ramshackle construction like all the buildings of a rough village stacked one atop the other and swaying in the slight breeze.

The thief came to the common room for dinner, ate and drank and laughed without appearing to have a care in the world or any interest in Simin. His merry blue eyes danced and glittered in the candlelight, and he drank wine and sang songs as if everything that happened fit in with some unimaginably complex plan. Near midnight, when Prince Aus snuck across the grounds to the thief’s room, the door stood ajar, and the man hunched on the bed seemed like someone else entirely. The thief’s eyes watered and deep grooves of concern bordering on fear carved themselves into his forehead and the corners of his mouth.

“I can’t keep doing this,” he said, as the prince stepped into the room. “They smile and talk when I face them, but as soon as I turn my back, they plot murder. A day more, two at most, and a knife’s going to sprout right between my shoulder blades. I can feel it already.”

“Can you, now?” the prince said, shutting the door.

“I can. It itches.” The thief ran a hand over his scalp, disarranging his hair.

The prince sat beside him. “Good that we leave tonight, then.”

The thief started then went still. His wide eyes flickered over the Prince’s face. “Seriously?”

“I found a place. A hidden cave at the base of the tower. Guarded by a man who isn’t a guard by trade and shrouded by magic.”

“Well,” the thief said, then laughed like a brook in flood. “The plan worked? The plan actually worked? I’m damned. I figured us both for dead.”

“Working,” the prince said. “Not worked. Not yet. You stay here. Rouse no more suspicions. But when I come back, we ride.”

“Understood,” the thief said. And as the prince rose to go, he leaped to his feet, scrabbled under the bed, and stood again. He held out the green-and-brass scabbard. “Take this. To carry the blade when you find it.”

Gently but firmly, the prince pushed the scabbard back. The thief blinked his confusion.

“I don’t want to claim my father’s soul,” the prince said. “I came here to destroy it.”

• • • •

The prince moved through the darkness, a shadow among shadows. The night held no terror for him. His tightly cut black cloak and the sheathed knife at his hip, soft boots and dirtied face, left him feeling like a dockside cutthroat. He told himself that the tightness in his throat and the tripping of his heart only meant excitement, not fear, and the telling made it true.

The scrub and grass along the path had lost its green. Moonlight remade the world in black and gray. Animals shuffled in the darkness of the scrub. The trees rubbed their leaves together with a sound like soft rain. The Mocking Tower shifted and changed like a sleeper made uneasy by spoiled dreams, but in the darkness he could not make out the details. Without so much as a candle, the prince retraced the way the cleaning girl had brought him.

Where the two trees spanned the path, he paused. Gloom made the fissure of light and air invisible, but he remembered it. Crouching low, he crept forward. His eyes strained. The glamours and spells of the Imagi Vert might not hold to the laws of human experience. What worked in daylight could fail in the night. But no, the world shifted as it had before. The mere wild unfurled a path, a hill, a cave. And the shifting tower where his father’s soul lay, fashioned now in steel. A flicker of light from the mouth of the cave. A lantern imperfectly shuttered. He slipped forward, cultivating silence.

He recognized the night guard but didn’t know his name. Simin had perhaps nodded to him at the market or waved to him at the mill; the simple exchange of fellow citizens. But circumstances transformed them now to a prince of the Empire and the servant of his enemy. Aus attacked from the dark, killing the man before he could cry out. The prince watched the life fade from the man’s eyes. The war claimed other people all across the Empire. Children and women died in the streets of Low Shaoen. Soldiers irrigated the fields of Mattawan Commons with their blood. The guard choking on surprise and his own blood deserved no more or less than the other thousands of dead. Prince Aus stood over him as man became corpse. The murder didn’t belong to him. King Raan put all of it in motion, and so the responsibility lay with him and his still-unjudged soul. If the prince’s hands trembled after the violence, it only proved that death still moved him. That his humanity still stood higher than that of the man who sired him.

He took the keys from the dead man’s hip and the lantern from beside the guard stool that now stood empty, and moved deeper into the cave. The walls of rough stone, simple and uncarved, curved and dipped and rose without offering any corners or doorways. Cool air carried the smell of soil. The profound silence made even his stealthy footsteps seem like shouts. And in one stretch of hallway, unremarkable from all that came before, the prince’s ears ached suddenly and the air pressed in on him like a storm front, and he knew the Mocking Tower stood above him.

A glimmer came from the deeper darkness before him, something catching the lantern’s fragile beam. Part of the prince’s soul warned him to turn back, but the stronger command of his purpose drove him on. The glimmer grew and brightened until it resolved into a wide brass doorway with three panels and carvings of glyphs and designs that teased him from the edge of legibility. Had he seen it anywhere else, Prince Aus would still have recognized it as the entrance to the Imagi Vert’s sanctuary and seat of power. It took long, anxious minutes to find the keyhole hidden among the carvings—a tiny plate of brass that shifted to reveal a darkness just the right shape—but the dead guard’s key fit and it turned and the door opened.

Prince Aus stepped into the chamber beyond.

Candles burned along the walls but without any scent of tallow or wax, and their light settled softer than snow. In all, the chamber reached no deeper or wider than the common room of the Traveler’s Hearth, but rather than stools and tables and the long, low fire grate, plinths stood scattered about the space as if the stone had grown up from the bones of the earth. On each, an object stood. A cut gem the red of blood and the size of two clenched fists together. A rough doll fashioned from a twist of rope and a handful of dried grass. The skull of a child so young a staggered row of teeth still haunted the jawbone, waiting for a chance to displace tiny, sharp milk teeth. Aus walked slowly. No sounds troubled him. The stillness of the room felt profound. Even his breath seemed close to sacrilege in the space. A cup formed to resemble a cupped, thick-knuckled hand. A simple clay pot painted over with black lines as fine as a feather. Treasures, the prince thought, of a life prolonged centuries beyond its due. A sheet of vellum with a handprint in green. A bird’s nest made of long, thin bones.

A sword.

The prince’s throat went tight, his mouth suddenly dry. The blade lay on its side. Gems and worked silver formed a hilt like the writhing body of a man. Knotwork etching ran the length of the blade, twisted as a labyrinth. He reached out to it, hesitated, then, almost against his will, took it in his hand. It felt cooler than the room, as if eating the warmth of his flesh. It balanced perfectly. The finest sword ever forged. A sword of empires. A sword forged from steel and dark magic and his father’s willing soul. He swung it gently, half expecting its edge to cut the air itself.

“You admire it?”

The voice, harsh and low as stone dragged over earth, came from behind him. The man stood in the candlelight where the prince would swear no one had been only a moment before. The man’s dark robe moved stiffly, like the bark of a tree remade as cloth. Dark veins welled up under flesh as pale as bone. His mild eyes considered the prince.

“I admire it too,” the pale man said. “Good workmanship deserves respect, I think. However much you may disapprove of the project.” He tried a smile, then sighed.

“You are the Imagi?” the prince said, his voice high and tight. Fear vibrated in his blood and his grip on the sword tightened.

“Am I?” the pale man said, and tilted his head. “Before, I was part of something greater than myself, and darkness was my home. But now? I play the role of the Imagi now, I suppose. Yes. For this I might as well be the Imagi Vert.”

“I am Aus, son of Raan. You have stolen something from me and from my people. I have come to restore the balance of the world.”

The pale man seemed to settle into himself. Not a movement of peace or acceptance, but a grounding like a bull setting himself in place and refusing to be moved. A vast stillness radiated from him like cold from ice. The prince felt the sword pulsing in his hand, but it might only have been the beating of his own half-panicked heart.

“What balance is that?” the Imagi Vert asked, as if the matter held some trivial interest but no more than that.

“My father sinned against the gods,” the prince said, his voice wavering. “He used your powers to cheat death. To live forever. All the evil that the world has seen flows from that sin. The war raging through the Empire now? It’s because no one can take the power of the Empire while the former emperor still lives.”

“Is that the case?” the Imagi Vert said, lifting pale, hairless brows. “Ah.”

“My brothers die at each other’s hands. The wonders of the Empire burn. The right order of the world lies scattered like bones on the plain. Because of this.” The prince raised the sword between them. “Because one cowardly old man feared too much to die as he should have. And because his pet wizard chose to break the world. Do you deny it?”

“Would you like me to?” The Imagi’s smile could have meant anything. “If you wish. Let me think on it. Yes. Yes, all right. The war first, yes? You say it comes because the rightful heir cannot claim while the emperor still lives. But there have been usurpers before now. If the rightful king cannot rise, an unrighteous one could but hasn’t. The history of the world is studded with kings who have abdicated out of weariness or love or religious zealotry. Consider that the war came not because King Raan was a greedy man or an evil one but because he was unhappy.”

“Unhappy,” the prince said. Neither a question nor an agreement. A distance had come into his eyes and the feeling of hearing everything said before him as if he were eavesdropping from another room.

“His life was never his own. Duty and necessity kept him in the most glorious prison humanity could devise, and the envy of others made that confinement solitary as a monk’s. Even when among the throngs who worshipped him, your father lived his life alone. Others dream of power and kingship. Of more money and more sex and more respect. Just as you do. You say you’ve come here to . . . what? Save the world from your father? By taking your revenge upon the man who left you behind? And the confluence of those motives gave no pause, eh?”

The prince took a step back. The floor felt as if it had shifted beneath him, but the candle flames stood straight. None of the treasures in their places shook.

The Imagi shrugged, a slow, powerful gesture. “All right. All right. Let’s imagine you get what you claim you want. You kill the undying king and take his throne. What will you want then? When the loneliness and melancholy come upon you and you already have everything you aspired to and there is no higher reach, what will you wish for as a balm?”

“I would not need one.”

“You’re mistaken,” the Imagi said, and the words struck his chest like a blow. “Your father wished for a life he had not lived. A simple one with the freedoms invisible to you and the others. A baker, perhaps, spending his early hours kneading dough and smelling yeast and salt. Sweating before the oven. Or a fisherman mending nets with his brothers and sisters, daughters and sons. A brewer or a gardener or the manager of a dye yard. These were as sweet and exotic to him as he was to the lowborn. And he longed for the things denied to him. Badly.

“He lost sight of the challenge his children faced. Bearing his misery in silence cost him the strength to be a good father. Kept him from preparing his sons for the prison cell. Perhaps he thought of it as a kindness, yes? In some subterranean way, he hoped that by cutting you and your brothers away, he could protect you from all that he bore. Love’s cruel that way, and men are fools. But wouldn’t that be enough to explain why so many of you—yes, and yourself not the least—are so desperate to slaughter each other for what your father didn’t want?”

“The sword,” the prince said. “My father’s soul.”

The pale man shook his head, but whether his expression meant sorrow or disgust, the prince didn’t know. “You have misunderstood everything. There is no soul in that blade. It’s well made, but it means nothing. Take it if you think it will help you. Melt it if you’d rather. I’m beyond caring.”

Aus looked down at the sword in his hand. The complications along the blade felt like writing in a language he almost knew. His breath came hard, like he’d run a race. Or fled for his life. He tried to put names to the emotions that spat and wrestled in him: humiliation, anger, despair, grief. The coldness of the hilt grew intense, as if he held a shard of ice. He gripped it harder, inviting the chill into his flesh. Into his mind. Something to stand against the raging armies in his heart.

He shouted before he knew he meant to shout. Swung the blade hard, the movement starting in his legs, his hip, reaching out with a single flowing gesture, extending the sword as if it were part of him. The Imagi’s eyes went wider, and the tip of the blade split his jaw. It made a sound like an axe splitting wood. No blood fell from the wound, only a thin runnel of clear fluid.

The prince wrenched the blade free and struck again, screaming as he did. The Imagi lifted a hand to block the attack, and the bloodless fingers scattered on the floor. Great gashes opened in the pale flesh, the body splintering and falling apart under the assault. If he called out, the prince’s war cries drowned out his words. Prince Aus found himself standing with feet on either side of the pale corpse, swinging down and down and down, his wrist and shoulder aching from his effort. The Imagi lay still and dead, his head a pale pulp with neither muscle nor bone nor brain. Prince Aus lifted the sword again, in both hands this time, and drove it deep into the pale man’s torso, then put his weight upon it. He drove it deeper and twisted, his strength and his weight and his mad will pressing at the metal, bending it past its tolerance. All the power he possessed, he threw into this one terrible moment.

And the sword broke.

Prince Aus fell to his knees. The stump of the blade stood a few inches from the twisted hilt. The labyrinthine pattern was open now, its puzzles solved by violence. A shard of metal fallen at his knee glittered in the soft candlelight. The motionless body of the Imagi Vert looked like a hillside, the greater half of the sword standing proudly from it like a tower. Aus gasped for air and dropped the freezing hilt. His whole body ached, but the physical pain claimed the least of his attention.

The blade broken, his hopes fulfilled, he waited for something. A sense of release. Of victory. The soundless scream of his father’s soul at last set free from the world. A rush of the mystic energy that had forged the deathless vessel. Anything.

The candles shed their light. The plinths held their treasures. The silence folded around him until his own chuffing sobs broke it.

He rose unsteady as a drunk, stumbled against a plinth. The hilt of the broken sword slipped from his numb fingers and clattered on the floor. A sweet, earthy smell rose from the dead man, and the nausea it called forth drove the prince back toward the brass door. He’d dropped the lantern somewhere. He couldn’t recall. The passage back to the world stood dark as a tomb, but he made his lightless way. One foot before the other, hands out before him to warn him before he walked into the stone. His mouth tasted foul. His arms trembled. He wept empty tears with no sense of grief or catharsis. For a time, he felt certain that the cave would go on forever, that the death of the Imagi Vert had sealed him also in the immortal’s tomb. When he stumbled out into the starlit mouth of the cave, he more than half thought it a dream. The visions of a man with a broken mind. The dead guard, lying in his pool of blood, brought the prince back to himself. It was a war. It was the war. Terrible things happened here.

The night sky glittered with stars. The trees shifted in the open air. All the world seemed terrible and beautiful and empty. Prince Aus turned toward the path, the town. Behind him, the Mocking Tower whose roots he had dug changed and changed and changed again: a threefold tower with bridges lacing between the spires like a web, a vast tooth pointing toward the sky with a signal fire blaring at its tip, a glasswork column that rose toward the stars and funneled their dim light into its heart. The prince didn’t watch it. The night before him carried terrors and wonders enough.

He made his way to the path between the trees, toward the town where he’d lived—it seemed now—in some previous lifetime. To the Traveler’s Hearth, where the keep once sheltered and offered fair work to a boy named Simin, who in fact had been a being of skin and lies.

The thief’s door was barred from within, but candlelight flickered at the edges. The prince pounded until he heard the hiss of the bar lifting and the door swung open. The thief blinked at him, uncertain as a mouse.

“You look terrible.”

“We have to go,” the prince said, and his voice seemed to belong to some other man.

“You did it? It’s done?”

“We have to go now. Before the changing of guards, first light I’d guess. But it could be earlier. Could be now.”

“But—”

“We have to go!”

Together, the two men ran to the stable, chose which horses to steal, and galloped out to the road. They turned east, toward the first threads of rose and indigo where the light would rise to meet them. A dawn that would rise elsewhere on army camps and burned cities, fields left uncultivated for want of hands to farm them and river locks broken open for fear that an enemy would make use of them. The ruins of empire, and a war still raging.

And in the depths of the Mocking Tower, something stirred.

At first, the body moved only slightly, reknitting the worst of its wounds with a vegetable slowness. Then, when it could, the body levered itself up to unsteady feet. Pale eyes looked all around the chamber of treasures without suffering or joy. The rough cloak creaked and crackled as the body—neither alive nor dead but something of both—stepped out of the light and into the darkness. It felt a vague comfort in the darkness underground, to the degree that it felt anything.

The mouth of the cave came all too soon. A human body lay there, a cast-off forgotten thing. The pale man, jaw still hanging from his skull by woody threads, turned away from town and tower, walking into the trees where no path existed. He moved with the same deliberation and speed as he would have on the road and left no trail behind him. The Mocking Tower at his back shifted, fluttering from shape to shape, miracle to miracle, as compelling as a street performer’s scarf fluttering to draw attention away from what the other hand was doing.

Birds woke, singing their cacophony at the coming dawn. The light grew, and the wild gave way to a simple garden. Wide beds of dark, rich soil, well weeded so that no unwelcome plant competed with the onion, the beets, the carrots. A short, ragged-looking apple tree bent under the combined weight of its own fruit and a thin netting that kept the sparrows from feasting on it. In the rear near a well, a rough shack leaned, small but solid with a little yard paved in unfinished stone outside it. A little fire muttered and smoked as it warmed a pot of water for tea.

The pale man folded his legs under him, rested his palms on his knees, and waited with a patience that suggested he could wait forever. A yellow finch flew by, its wings fluttering. A doe tramped through the trees at the garden’s edge but didn’t approach.

Old Au came from the shack and nodded to him. She wore long trousers with mud-crusted leather at the knees, a loose canvas shirt, and boots cracked and mended and cracked again. A thin spade and gardener’s knife hung from her belt, and she carried an empty cloth sack over her shoulder. Heaving a sigh, she sat across from the pale man.

“Went poorly, then, did it?”

The pale man tried to say something with his ruined mouth, then made do with simply nodding. Old Au looked into the gently boiling water in the pan as if there might be some answers in it, then lifted it off and set it on the stone at her side. The pale man waited. She pulled a little sack from her pocket, plucked a few dried leaves from it, and dropped them in the still-but-steaming water. A few moments later, the scent of fresh tea joined the smells of turned earth and dew-soaked leaves.

“Did you explain that the war was only a war? That humanity falls into violence every few generations, and that his father, if anything, was too good at keeping the peace?”

The pale man nodded again.

“And could the boy hear it?”

The pale man hesitated, then shook his head. No, he could not.

Old Au chuckled. “Well, we try. Every generation is the same. They think their parents were never young, never subject to the confusions and lust they suffer. Born before the invention of sex and loss and passion, us. They all have to learn in their own way, however much we might wish we could counsel them out of it.” She swirled the tea. “Did you warn him what it will be like once he takes the throne?”

The pale man nodded.

“He didn’t hear that either, did he? Ah well. I imagine he’ll look back on it when he’s old and understand too late.” Old Au reached out her well-worn hand and took the pale man’s fingerless palm in hers. She shook him once, and he became a length of pale root again. Scarred now and ripped, paler where the bark peeled back. She hefted the root back close to the shed. She might break it down for mulch later, or else use it to carve something from. A whistle, maybe. Return it to the cycle or transform it to something Nature never dreamed for it. They were simple magics, and profound because of it.

She poured the tea into an old cup and sipped it as she squinted into the sky. It looked like a good day. Warm in the morning, but a bit of rain in the afternoon, she guessed. Enough for a few hours of good work. She took the spade from her hip and broke a little crust of mud from just below the handle with the nail of her thumb, humming to herself as she did. And then the gardener’s knife with its serrated edge for sawing through roots and the name Raan Sauvo Serriadan scratched into the blade in a language no one had spoken in centuries.

“There are some bulbs in the west field that want thinning,” she said. “What do you think, love?”

For a moment there, the breeze and the chirping of the birds seemed to harmonize, making some deeper music between them. Something like the murmur of a voice. Whatever it said made Old Au laugh.

She finished her tea, poured what remained out of the pot, and started walking toward the gardens and the day’s work still ahead.

Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham has published sixteen novels and almost three dozen short stories. He is also adapting George RR Martin’s A Game of Thrones into graphic novels.  His work has been nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, and has won the International Horror Guild award.  He also writes as MLN Hanover and (with Ty Franck) as James SA Corey.  He lives in New Mexico.