Because I don’t think I ever posted it here, or not in some time, the Temple Boy collage:
And now for the excerpt.
The world is ruled by time.
Sitting on the white rocks littering a cliff, Charles Perry Elliott looked out over the Catalian Sea and turned a small blue ball over and over in his hands. Time. There were a lot of new concepts plaguing his mind since his life-altering trip back to Rothborne Parish three months ago, but “the world is ruled by time” was a concept that kept cropping up, and since his most recent bungle illustrated that so very painfully, it was worth revisiting the idea again. Because it would probably be a good thing if he didn’t destroy the universe with a flan.
Ten minutes. The custard had been taking too long to set, and with nothing to do but think, Charles had realized how easy it would be to talk it into being done, and so he had. What harm could it do?
As it turned out, ten minutes could turn into a weird, tentacled thing and expand beyond mortal comprehension, especially if one were fool enough to shove it into the Void as if that magical dimension were some sort of cosmic garbage bin.
The world is ruled by time.
Charles stared down at his hands watching the small blue ball of light glow softly against his palms. It was unexpectedly warm. In the Void it had been a monster, and it had made his sister the mighty witch scream in terror. Charles hadn’t screamed — he’d just opened his arms and welcomed it home with a laugh. One of the few advantages, he supposed, of being a god. When you could see how the monsters were put together, they just weren’t as frightening any longer.
But now here in the world once more, as the author of this mess, it fell to Charles to correct it. Which meant he now had to find this warm little ball of time a new home.
It was even bluer than the azure waters below him, bluer than the bright blue sea muted by white peaks and foam as it crashed upon the even whiter sandy shores. The ball was a blue that seemed to hum in the back of his mind, swirling gently inside the tender membrane that kept the chaos at bay.
This ruled the world, this strange blue stuff. In the Void it had grown and multiplied, for there was no time in the Void. It was like Catalian lace in Etsey; in its native land it was a rare and beautiful flower. In Etsey it had nothing to check it and so became a weed that even now, four hundred years after its first introduction to the island, still threatened native grass — all this from one cutting’s seed drifting into a meadow. So had it been for the ten minutes, and without limits, it had expanded to unimaginable size.
A moment of it could create a parallel universe. The barest scratch of a millisecond could alter the fabric of an entire world.
As the sea breeze kissed his face and ruffled his hair, Charles poked the bright blue ball hesitantly with his finger, watching the membrane dent briefly, sending the depths swirling into a new pattern around his intrusion. He made a soft chuff at the back of his throat and shook his head. Magic, he thought for the thousandth time, was a very strange beast. He lifted the ball and held it in front of his face as the new patterns fell into place. Time, it seemed, was even stranger.
The ball warmed hotter in his hand, and it called to him softly. It was trapped, condensed. It had tasted life. It wanted it back.
“Patience,” Charles admonished it.
When he’d still been in the Void, he’d played with it. As he’d held the snarl of time, he’d had the fanciful thought that it looked like a nest of snakes. No sooner did Charles think this and the strange ropes of light grew heads, eyes, and mouths, and sharp, pointed teeth. There had been a lot of shouting then, and if Madeline hadn’t coached him into thinking of something calmer and easier to contain, it might have been the strangest death of a god, ever.
“Damn your imagination,” Madeline had said many hours later when they were both collapsed on her bed at their rented cottage. “I told you never to let your thoughts wander in the Void. It’s bad enough for any novice, but you, Charles, create things.”
Charles held his free hand in front his face and stared. The hand of a god.
He made a face and lowered them again.
The problem was that since the ten minutes had grown, now they could not simply, for example, go back into the flan. It was now so big it would create a Continent’s worth of flan or make a single flan so dense it would sink through the center of the earth and make the world implode upon itself. Madeline had advised him to study it, to learn the weight and limits of it, and when he felt he had an appropriate understanding of it, she would help him turn it into something suitable.
As she’d gone off to weapon practice with Jonathan, she’d begged him to please, please not do any more new magic without discussing it with her first. Charles had sheepishly agreed and gone off to the cliffs to think. He was still there, many hours later. But he’d stopped thinking about possibilities of the time ball a long time ago, because the first idea his mind had come up with had been so consuming he hadn’t been able to dwell on anything else, only the ways to execute the plan.
Because he couldn’t stop thinking that maybe, just maybe, he could use the time ball to bring Timothy back.
The thought had started innocently enough. He’d been thinking what a strange dish flan was, like the custards he knew from home in Etsey and yet not like them at all. He’d realized Timothy had likely grown up with flan, and then the familiar sorrow had returned, reminding him that had things been different, had he been stronger or smarter or something Timothy could be with him now.
It wasn’t fair that Timothy was gone. It wasn’t right. They’d been lovers for a matter of days, and then there had been all that nonsense with the demons and the witches…and then they’d both found out they were gods. Shouldn’t that have meant they had power? Shouldn’t that have meant they could do whatever they wanted?
Why in the name of the Goddess had it meant Timothy had to be broken into a thousand pieces and turned into little more than an echo for Charles to chase down and try — with no idea how to do so — to restore him?
It all had made Charles feel so impotent and full of rage — and then the idea had dawned like a sunrise in his mind. He had a ball of time big enough to spawn a universe.
Could it bring back a man?
The ball twinkled at him. Go ahead and try.
Charles skimmed his thumb across the swirling surface of the ball. Could the ball of time be a man? Easily. A man, a woman, a bit of both — truthfully, it would likely need to be a large group of people. Could it bring back a man, as in, bring a man back to life from death? Yes. As with so much of his power, Charles could see what he could do without understanding exactly why, could know his potential without understanding all that potential contained. It led him constantly into trouble, as with the flan. Whenever he recovered from his bungle it all seemed obvious how he’d been ridiculous, but in the moment of action it was always so easy and clear there seemed no reason not to try out the ideas dancing in his mind. Bringing back Timothy was tricky, and so it warranted a great deal of examination. Tempting as it was to act on impulse, he wouldn’t risk it without Madeline. Not for this.
He stared hard at the ball, relaxing his mind to let the deep knowing inside him rise forth and whisper. Could this ball of time be a man? Could it?
Yes, the knowing whispered. But not that man.
It was the same answer Charles had received every time he’d tried to find a new way. The ball of time had a lot of power. But then, so did Timothy. And that must be accounted for.
He turned away from the ball, refusing to let its siren call reach his ears and set his teeth against the ache rising inside him. It was the same problem they kept running into, he and Madeline as they tried to construe magical theorems as to how Timothy could be brought back. It was why, Madeline said, they would need the shards and the veils: the magical pieces of the Goddess had strewn across the world to rescue her lover. The Goddess had rescued him three months ago. All he wanted to do now was return the favor.
But how would they find pieces of the Goddess? What did they look like? Where exactly would they hide? Jonathan had been convinced the place to look was Catal, in the country where Timothy had been born, but so far all they had found was ruin and death and dust.
Charles opened his eyes again and stared blearily down at the blue ball of time. So many uncertainties, many of them full of despair and darkness. If they did find a shard, would it give them Timothy, or just another version of the Goddess? Would he have to be reborn completely, leaving Charles to lust after a toddler?
Would Timothy remember Charles? Or would he love alone in vain?
Charles didn’t know. He didn’t know the answers to any of his questions. He didn’t know how to find Timothy or the Lady or even a decent pint of ale in the ruined coastal cities of Catal. He didn’t know anything. He couldn’t do anything. Any efforts he made to save his lost love were like this stupid ball of time: accidental, unexplained, and potentially catastrophic. They would never find so much as one piece of the Lady, not at the rate they were going. They knew nothing, they had nothing, and nothing was changing.
Perhaps it was time to face the truth: Timothy was gone. Forever.
Charles’s thumb brushed against the bright blue pulse, his vision blurring.
Timothy is gone forever. But I have ten minutes of spare time sitting in my hand.
The ball began to throb, shifting back and forth in his hand to display its eagerness. Yes, yes. Use me. Make me something. Anything.
Could he use the ball to go back in time? That took a lot of energy, he knew, and he had the feeling it would leave the ball as nothing more than what he’d pulled out: ten minutes. It was hardly any time at all, just enough to tease — but if it was the choice of that, or nothing, was there even a choice at all? He could go back. He could find Timothy and see him again.
And if he had more time — if he took ten minutes out of something else, if he withdrew more time and let it expand further, if he did this over and over again, he could keep going back forever.
Perhaps he could keep Timothy from dying, if he thought hard enough.
But what would happen to the world if he went back in time? What if he changed the wrong thing? What if he hurt people? What would happen to him if he manipulated himself out of existence?
Did he care?
Charles lifted the ball of time and held it in front of his face. It didn’t have consciousness, but it had desire. It wanted to live. It wanted to be anything and everything, and it had no preference if this was a life of love or pain, if it was an existence as a rock that did nothing more but be worn away by wind and water or if it were an insect living long enough to be eaten by a bird. And he could put it anywhere. It could be anything. Anyone.
But maybe, maybe, if he kept studying it, he could find a way for it to be a version of Timothy. If only he could stop the voice in the back of his head that kept shouting at him that this was a terrible idea, he might get it done.
Charles opened his hand again, looked down at the ball, and sighed.
“I am a very bad god,” he told the ball.
It winked eagerly back at him, indifferent to his declaration. Make me. Use me. Give me life!
“No. Not yet.” Charles tucked the time ball into his pocket. “Not until I’m sure.”
Sure of what, though, he couldn’t quite say. He sighed.
The ball trembled, eagerness spilling into anger. Charles pressed against it absently, though he blinked when a small streak of light flashed out from the depths of his pocket and up into the painted sky.
Make me! Give me life!
Charles opened the pocket and glared down at the ball. “Patience.”
He felt a bit of pride as he felt what Madeline called “the God voice” creeping into his tone. He sighed in relief as the tone seemed, at last, to work. Shutting the pocket, he returned to his woeful musings.
The sun was starting to set, and Madeline and Jonathan would be back soon. He would tell Madeline what he had discovered, and he would let her advise him about the ball. He would not spin it into a life, and he would not go back to see Timothy. Not without telling her.
Maybe I should just die and put this farce to rest, he thought bitterly, and not for the first time.
“Yes,” said an unfamiliar voice from behind him. “Perhaps you should.”
A brown-skinned man dressed in a white shirt and pants standing on a high rock, staring down at Charles. He had bare feet, which should have been bloody after climbing over these razors, but in fact, not his feet nor anything else on his person was so much as mussed.
He smiled down at Charles with equally perfect dispassion.
He looked weirdly familiar.
“Do I know you?” Charles asked.
The stranger’s smile tipped crookedly. Damn and blast, but there was something about him. Something drawing Charles in.
“Who I am will take some time to explain,” the stranger replied at last.
“I have plenty of time. Plus a bit extra, in fact.” Charles gestured to the space beside him. “Come, sir. Have a seat, and we will tell each other stories.”
For a moment the stranger’s face went oddly flat and unreadable. But it must have been a trick of the light, for then the smile was back, wide and bright, white teeth against beautiful skin the color of the flan with which Charles had nearly destroyed the world.
“I’d love nothing more,” the stranger said, and continued to make his way down the rocks toward Charles.
It wasn’t until the man looked away, glancing at something over his shoulder on the other side of the hill beyond that Charles realized that the stranger’s opening piece of conversation had been in response to a private thought. Which in Charles’s world wasn’t even novel any longer. But he realized, too, what it was that he had thought: that perhaps the world would be better off if he were dead.
The stranger turned back to Charles once more, but this time there was nothing but malevolence in his smile. And with sinking dread Charles realized why the man seemed so familiar.
He was androghenie, a magical child of the Lord and Lady. Charles’s own son stood before him. Looking very much as if he’d like to murder dear old dad.
“Shit,” Charles whispered, backed up against a large rock, and reached into his pocket to clutch desperately at the pulsing, eager ball of potential time.
* * * * *
One’s lover, Madeline had long ago decided, was quite possibly the worst candidate for a fencing instructor, no matter how deep the love between student and master, no matter how skilled he might be at teaching. Which made the fact that Madeline’s lover was her only candidate for instructor that much more of a bitter draught to swallow.
“You must hold the sword in front of you, Madeline,” Jonathan scolded her.
She glared at him. “I am.”
Jonathan lowered his foil and crossed the stone courtyard to stand behind her, shifting her arm to the center of her body as he maneuvered her into an entirely uncomfortable sideways-standing position. “Any part of your body you expose becomes a liability. You want to make as narrow a target as possible. Be as thin as the sword if you can, and always keep it in front of you. Not to one side or another. Exactly in the center, in line with the middle of your body. Think of the sword as extending from your heart. You are one with it.”
Madeline pursed her lips but nodded, making the correction, wondering how in heaven one was supposed to fence without toppling over. “But how do I thrust from here?”
“You don’t. If you end up in a duel, I intend to fight it for you. This is a defensive position only, to keep you from being attacked.”
Madeline lowered the sword and put her hands on her hips. “What sort of nonsense is this? I thought you said you were going to teach me how to fight! You never mentioned I would be holding off adversaries until you could show up.”
“I will teach you offensive fighting later,” he assured her, though the promise rang a bit empty to Madeline. “But that is too complicated for now. I want you to be able to hold your ground until I am able to come to you.”
“You are being ridiculous. You can’t always protect me. I must learn to defend myself.”
“Later. Soon,” he added when Madeline gave him a harsh glare. “Again. Show me again.”
She took up her position once more, and he made several thrusts, which she blocked, though she also nearly tripped over her hem. He pointed his foil at her skirts. “You should switch to harem pants. They are much like skirts.” His lips quirked in a smile. “And you will look very fetching in them.”
Madeline shook her head. “I like my skirts.”
Oh, she knew he was right. There weren’t many women left alive in Catal, but those who were all wore the pants he described, and yes, the garments did look terribly comfortable. She had three different styles and colors back at the cottage, pants Jonathan had bought for her to try. She would admit to giving in and stroking the material, which was softer and suppler than anything she had ever felt. Sturdy too — the harem pants would be highly serviceable, Madeline was quite sure of it. And yet she couldn’t bring herself to wear them, stubbornly insisting on her long, heavy skirts, no matter how much they made her sweat or how often they got in her way.
The truth was that the skirts remained the last bit of Etsey she had.
For three months Madeline, Jonathan, and Charles had been searching for Timothy. To Jonathan, who sought his wartime friend, and Charles, who sought a lover, it was personal. To Madeline it was something different, something she hadn’t quite been able to name yet.
Madeline and Jonathan ran from the witch’s Council and murder charges respectively, and Madeline and Charles had both left the only world they’d ever known to sail far south to the balmy shores of Catal. Madeline had wept for the loss of her sister’s companionship. She had mourned her position as village witch. And then she had tucked her sorrows at the bottom of her heart, ready to move on and face her new world.
It had not proved as easy as that, she found, both to banish her homesickness and to find her place in Catal.
Most of the time Jonathan wouldn’t even let her speak her native tongue, too focused on making her learn Catalian. Even the Etsian soldiers they encountered didn’t feel like the men she knew from home. Most of them were from the Seven Cities or Boone and thought the northern parishes of Etsey were full of bumbling, superstitious fools. They also, in grand Etsian tradition, felt women belonged back at home in front of a hearth, not wandering around a heathen land. What little respect she could glean by declaring herself a witch was eroded by the fact that witches didn’t travel, and they certainly didn’t have lush heads of curling hair piled into knots at the base of their necks. In fact, witches didn’t have any hair at all.
None but Madeline, but that of course was too complicated to explain without reliving their whole adventure, most of which even the most superstitious Etsian would have difficulty believing.
With each day Madeline felt further and further from the country she had always assumed she would never leave, lost deeper and deeper into the strange, increasingly fruitless quest she shared with Charles and Jonathan. She missed the routine and habit of her duties in the village. She missed helping people with simple, everyday tasks. She missed her sister with an ache that often made her weep long into the night, silently so Jonathan and Charles could not hear.
Jerking herself out of her melancholic reverie, Madeline swished her foil back and forth in front of her, as if the motion might chase her demons away. “I’ve had enough fencing lessons for now.” She nodded at the dusty road leading to the east. “Did you still want to go explore that old temple?”
“Fane,” Jonathan corrected her, though he did so with an amused smile. “Call it a temple in front of a Catalian and you’ll get a pointed lecture on the uselessness of deity worship.”
Madeline frowned at the gold-domed structure in the distance outlined by the setting sun. “But you said they kept shrines inside and lit incense and that all their important ceremonies were held there. That sounds like a temple to me.”
“Exactly. Which in my opinion is why they argue so angrily.” He held out his hand for her foil. “I’ll run these back to the cottage while you fetch Charles.”
“Charles will not be coming,” Madeline said, trying to keep the tightness out of her voice. “I sent him off to think of a way to deal with his apocalyptic custard.”
Jonathan looked confused a moment, then shook his head. “Something tells me this is one of those stories I’d rather not hear.”
“Yes.” Madeline shoved her sleeves higher on her arms, telling herself there was no point in being shy about baring her elbows since Catalian women revealed their entire arms, but she still blushed. Thankfully, the color was hard to detect as her face was already red with exertion. She wiped a sweaty lock of hair away and moved into the sliver of shade near a white stone wall. “I’ll wait here for you. But will you bring my bonnet back down with you please?”
Once he was gone, she shut her eyes and sagged, fingers fumbling with the top buttons of her dress.
The stones behind her were hot and dry, which was essentially the state of the entire country as far as she could tell. Hot and dry with occasional patches of bleak green. Jonathan assured her that before the war it had looked much better, that the desert had been verdant fields when the aqueducts still stood, when the engineers’ centuries of construction and transformation had served as a lifeline to the region. Madeline didn’t doubt that the cities looked better without all the rubble and better access to water, but she had a suspicion they had still been beastly hot.
Even before its being mercilessly destroyed, she was quite sure she would still have found everything about Catal to be completely, hopelessly wrong. Yes, the people were open-minded, except for their penchant to sneer at religion. But that didn’t mean the country wasn’t wrong to an Etsian’s eyes. The food was strange. The customs were strange. She still forgot to bow to the host when she entered a common room, and she didn’t like doing it much when she did remember. For one, she still had a hard time finding the host. It could be a man or a woman. He or she wore nothing special outside of an extra earring.
And then there was the problem of eating. Outside of spoons for soup — which was always served cold and made sickeningly sweet — bread was the only allowed utensil, and “bread” was not the fluffy brown-speckled loaves of home. This stuff was flat and slightly stiff and tasted as if it had been baked with herbs she used in spells. Butter wasn’t even a consideration. They didn’t even have a word for it in Catalian. To top it all off, she could only eat with her right hand, because her left was “unclean.” It had taken her weeks to work that one out. Apparently she was meant to wipe herself after using the necessary using her left hand and only her left hand, which while being disgusting to contemplate had explained why she’d been forced to take bits of rag along with her when she went to the latrines. She’d thought she’d just had a bad run of toilets without paper. But no, this was what the spigot of water and soap cake were for.
Madeline had seriously considered stowing the bread at her meals to use as paper instead of a food shovel.
But the food and the heat weren’t even the worst of it. That honor was reserved for the women who could not seem to stop themselves from flirting with Jonathan.
She tried not to notice, tried to focus on the fact that Jonathan never went out without his silver ear clip with the green bead that indicated he was happily partnered. He never encouraged any of the flirtations, which happened everywhere from the docks to the market to the common tables at the inns where they stayed.
He didn’t exactly brush them aside, either. When she’d mentioned this — casually of course — Jonathan had only pursed his lips and told her they’d never get anywhere in their search if he was rude, and he’d sworn to her he had not cheated on her and would not, ever.
But the unspoken phrase that had lingered then and lingered always was “would not ever again.”
Footsteps on the courtyard stones made her glance up sharply, but it was only Jonathan coming back. She gave him the bravest smile she could manage as she hurried to button up her dress.
Jonathan gave her a weary look. “Madeline. As I’ve told you before, you could walk bare-chested in Catal and people would only think you were from the south. They’d wonder at your skin color at first, but as soon as you tanned they’d just assume you were the issue of an Etsian soldier.”
Madeline did not stop buttoning. “It isn’t seemly,” she said, knowing it would start an argument, but she didn’t care. She was too hot. She rather wanted a fight.
Jonathan didn’t disappoint her, flattening his lips and glaring. “If it’s me you’re worrying about being seemly for, I might point out to you that I have seen your neck and your breasts as well. In point of fact I believe I was rather intimate with them this morning after breakfast.”
“It’s not for you,” Madeline said.
“Then it’s a waste of suffering, because no one else here will care.”
“I care.” Madeline snatched her bonnet from him and slammed it on her head, tying the ribbons beneath her chin.
Jonathan opened his mouth to argue, paused, then stalked across the courtyard toward the gate with an angry grunt.
Madeline followed, wishing she could take more comfort from her martyrdom to her country’s sense of fashion. The truth was that if she didn’t think she’d pass out inside of ten minutes, her preference would be to wear the full black habit of an Etsian witch: headdress, veil, and all. For years and years it had been the only clothing she had worn, and it was difficult to leave it behind. Even in this heavy, full-sleeved, full-skirted charcoal-colored linen and wide-brimmed black bonnet she felt naked and foreign. Her own ear clip was more jewelry than she had ever worn as a witch, and it was a far cry from the rough leather-and-bead necklace which had been her childhood protective charm.
But the day was hot even by Catalian standards, and as she and Jonathan stumbled deeper into the ruins of Rashek’s city center, her principles began to weigh quite literally upon her. She gave in and undid three buttons, and when Jonathan stopped at a haphazardly bubbling broken fountain to wet his handkerchief, she took it from him gratefully and applied it directly to her sweating neck.
He refilled their leather flask and handed it to her. The water here was wrong too, full of clay and tang instead of the loamy pull of earth, but Madeline was so parched and overheated she would have accepted whole bits of pottery, so long as it was wet.
“The fane is just ahead.” Jonathan gestured with the flask before using the edge of his shirt to wipe his brow.
The shirt was open all the way to his waist. It was very distracting.
Madeline allowed herself only a glance, though, before moving her eyes to the golden dome. “I’m surprised the Cloister armies didn’t pry the metal from the roof.”
Jonathan’s countenance grew dark, but he said nothing further on that point, only reached out to her, offering his hand. “The rest of the path looks to be very rocky.”
It was indeed, making the short distance between them and the fane take twice as long as it should have. Madeline was almost glad, because focusing on her footing kept her mind from taking in the ruins around her. She only wished she could turn off her senses as well.
There were no ghosts here, but there was no shortage of the echo of pain. She could feel the shock, the fear, and the deep, hollow sorrow that still lived in the fallen stones. Sometimes she could sense specifics: by a short wall two boys had been raped and then slain before their mothers, who had been carried off. The shell of a burned-out library glowed with despair of scholars who had burned with their books, not caring at all for the loss of their flesh but aching at the death of their beloved texts. Worst of all was a wide open square, for though it was empty and clean now, Madeline could still smell the echo of the stench of the dead bodies piled as high as the gold dome of the fane. Out of habit, she extended her powers, grounded to earth, and whispered silent prayers to the Goddess.
Then she remembered that technically that was her sister just now, or her idiot brother and his flan. She laughed, pressing a hand over her mouth and nose as she blinked against tears.
Jonathan drew her other hand to his lips and kissed it. “Do you want to stop and rest?”
Madeline shook her head, tugging at her skirt as she let out a ragged sigh. “No. I want to get inside the fane.” She paused. “Unless there was raping and killing inside there too?”
Jonathan shook his head. “That was why I wanted to inspect this one. All the other fanes were destroyed, but this one is completely untouched. No one knows why. It might be nothing, but I was hoping it might be meaningful to us in some way. Timothy was born here, after all. In Rashek, I mean.”
It was a reach, Madeline acknowledged, but after three months of touring nothing but rubble that had once been bustling cities of a thriving, happy country, she was ready to reach with him. It wasn’t as if they’d had any luck anywhere else.
They were before the building itself now. It stood at what had once been the apex of a circular street, raised up on a marble dais, accessible by now-crumbling stairs of the traditional Catalian white stone. The fane itself was completely round, flanked by pillars of white, constructed of a terra cotta brick until it reached the roof, which gleamed in the setting sun. There was no door, only an open portal, and within Madeline could see shafts of sunlight coming through the slitted horizontal windows near the roof in the brick sections between the pillars. She could also see torches burning inside.
“Is someone here?” she asked Jonathan.
He shook his head. “The inner cities are still abandoned, and despite this fane, Rashek is no exception. But fanes are an important part of Catalian culture, and as the only survivor, this place has become quite sacred. People make pilgrimages here. That’s why there’s a path.”
Madeline glanced back at the heap of rubble they had just crossed, marveling that this could be considered a path. “What do they do here, if they don’t worship?”
“They leave things. Symbolic things. For example, as a rite of adolescence, a toy or mark of childhood is brought.”
“Wouldn’t the fane become very full after a while?”
Jonathan shook his head. “They burn what they bring. Sometimes they burn messages, when they have nothing to give. If it is an item that cannot be burned, they sell it, change it into something combustible, and they burn that.”
Burning an offering. And yet they insisted they weren’t religious. “But who are they giving these things to? Where do they believe the burning matter goes?”
Jonathan smiled. “Ah. For the answer to this I must defer you to the centuries-old debates of Catalian philosophy.” He shrugged. “Timothy always said the greatest purpose was for the giver. Sacrifice is a great teacher, he said. Loss is forced upon the sufferer, but sacrifice is a deliberate giving of oneself.”
Madeline studied the dark portal of the doorway. “There is such a great deal of freedom in Catalian culture. Freedom to dress. Freedom to think. Freedom to choose how one sacrifices.” She shook her head. “Should this be given to Etsians, we would all be drunken gluttons inside of a week. But not here. Quite the opposite happened, it seems.”
“And there you have the reason the Cloister despises Catal so much. The laws of the Cloister are so rigid they make Etsian customs seem loose and casual by comparison. Can you imagine suffering the indignity of such a contradiction to your philosophy living a mortar’s throw across the great chasm?”
Madeline pursed her lips. “I was thinking more that I should try to discover whether it was the Catalians or their philosophy which led to their success, and that if possible one could find ways Etsians could emulate it safely.”
“And that is why I love you.” He rested a hand on her shoulder and kissed her cheek. “Come. Let’s go inside and have a look around.”
Madeline took his offered arm, lifted her skirts, and ascended the steps with him. She let out a breath of relief as she felt the painful echoes of the inner city die away, and she embraced the cool, blank cleanness of the fane’s aura. She quickened her steps, eager to cross the threshold of the open doorway.
But at the top of the stairs she stopped walking, stumbled to the side, and pressed a hand to her chest.
“Something is wrong,” she whispered. But no sound left her mouth.
She tried to turn to Jonathan, but she could not see him. She had not let go of him, but she could not feel his hand. She could feel nothing, see nothing. It was dark, so very dark, pressing against her and around her, making her heavy.
“Help me,” she cried, but once again, she didn’t hear her own voice.
And yet she could hear something heavy sliding across a stone floor.
There was a flash of light: cold, faint, hollow light, sickly-green tinged with yellow. The light looked and felt wrong. And yet Madeline could not help but move toward it, compelled to touch it. To give herself to it. In the light’s flare, she could see the dark, grinning, supernatural face of a man. He did not look kind.
“Come,” he whispered. She stepped toward him.
There was a snap and a growl behind her. The darkness overtook her again, heavy and wet. She smelled blood. Heart’s blood. It coated her mouth and filled her throat and ran into her veins.
Not that one. Come with me, the blood whispered. You are my light. I will not let you go.
Madeline screamed. She spat out the blood and pushed away. She blew out the yellow-green flame. She felt both forces reach for her, and she pushed harder, pushed with every ounce of her power.
She saw a small flare of light, remarkable only for its ordinariness, and in its glow she saw a man. Not the strange green-glowing face, but just a man, a leering, swarthy, nefarious-looking man holding a match.
* * * * *
And as she fell, Charles stood reeling on the cliff top, staring up at the man in white before him.
“You are androghenie,” Charles whispered. He drew an unsteady breath, a strange bouquet of emotions catching in his chest. “You are my son. How — how did you find me?”
The man in white made a mocking bow. “I am Bassam. As for how I found you?” He gestured vaguely to the sky. “I followed the wake of your destruction. It was not very difficult to see where you were.”
The muck he’d made in the Void. Charles winced and rubbed at the back of his head. “Yes. I’m working on that.”
The man made a derisive sound through his nose and lowered his hands.
Charles could not stop staring at him. An androghenie. He tried to remember this one, tried to find that moment when he had cast this one in particular back into the world, but like so much else he needed to know, this information belonged to his god-self, not his man-self. This man was just another of the souls he’d saved. The souls he’d given new life.
The souls who, the time they’d met before that had killed him, stolen his power, and sealed him in four different prisons.
This one looked ready to give Charles more of the same. And he was powerful too. He looked like he wouldn’t have any trouble hacking Charles in half, though Charles got the feeling this one wasn’t interested in giving him a quick, easy death.
Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.
Charles held up a hand. “Now, let’s hold on just a moment. I understand that you’re angry with me. And I can’t remember the details, but I know when I gave you rebirth I might have sent you to a painful place. For that I am sorry. Very sorry. But you can’t kill me. You know this.” The hand still in his pocket closed over the ball of time. “The entire universe would fall into itself.”
If anything, Bassam looked even more smug. “It would have, yes. But then you made that interesting hole just a few hours ago. A hole full of power. I have put it to good use.”
The hole had power too? “Fucking hell,” Charles whispered. He took a step backward.
He bumped into someone.
Charles whirled around, relaxing a little when he saw it was a woman, not a big demon with an axe. He was also relieved to find she wasn’t an androghenie. She didn’t look friendly, however. In fact, he thought, taking in the long, curved sword in her hand, she looked rather dangerous.
She also looked disturbingly entranced.
“Wait,” Charles said, stepping back in the other direction. He stumbled into the white stones, noticing they now formed a circle. Not good. “Wait!” He looked more carefully at the woman advancing on him: she was tall and astonishingly beautiful, with long dark hair and dark eyes, with skin the color of Timothy’s.
“This is Alys,” Bassam said. “She is the most senior member of the p’dka, and she is here to kill you.”
“P’dka?” Charles’s mind was racing. “But that’s the ruling body of Catal! It’s made of men!” He took another panicked step backward. “And they were all killed in the first days of the war, years ago!”
“Yes, she was killed. But the p’dka was never composed of men. What you simple Etsians viewed as the leaders were but messengers, the servants of the p’dka. The women who ruled were never seen, living their lives in seclusion, consorting only with their advisors and the Cariff, the head of the senate, to produce more noble rulers. The only exceptions to this were for executions.” He laughed. “Don’t worry. Their blades are very sharp.”
“But — if you brought her back from the dead — ” Charles looked in horror at the woman in front of him. “That will change everything. You will change reality. You will change time!”
“The world is ruled by time,” Bassam said. “And if I rule time, I rule the world.”
“The Lord rules time,” Charles whispered, still eyeing the woman’s sword.
“Yes, you do,” Bassam agreed. “But if you are dead, a new Lord can arise. And as it happens, you are standing in a circle of sacred stones, and they are of the correct color and shape to make you vulnerable.” He nodded to the woman. “That knife is no ordinary knife. You will find all the symbols of the elements inscribed upon it.”
There was a discomforting light in Bassam’s eyes, and with a sick heart Charles realized this androghenie was mad. Driven that way because of the circumstances Charles had delivered him to, most likely. My fault. He wanted to reach out to the man, to help him. To fix him. But just as with everything else, he didn’t know how.
“You cannot rule without a Lady,” Charles said, “and only the Lady can truly kill me.”
“Look upon her again,” Bassam suggested.
Charles looked. At first, he saw nothing. Then, in the same way he had been able to see how to move time, he realized he had another way of looking at her, and as easily as lifting a veil, he shifted his view. He cried out as he saw her, truly saw her, his shout full of joy and sorrow and terror.
He had found one. He had found a shard of the Lady at long last.
Except it was wrong. The shard was true, but it was…warped. Abused. Trapped. It had been raped to give this man his power. It had been forced to reveal Charles’s presence. It had been forced to bring this woman back to life.
And now this woman would kill him.
“Do not try to stop this.” Bassam’s voice was like velvet. “She is under my thrall and cannot be swayed. And if you try to shift away, I will find you. You left a hole in the Void, and you left it unguarded, unmastered. A shard rose to cleanse it, and I captured the shard. It was nothing to take it. Now her power is mine. And soon yours will be too. If you leave, I will find you. I will hunt you and kill you. You are too stupid to rule, Lord. The world will be better without you in it. Kill him, Alys.”
The woman in front of Charles lifted her arm above her head, and then, still staring sightlessly at him, swung the blade down to Charles’s neck.
In his pocket, Charles’s thumb brushed the edge of the ball of time, and the world stopped.
The knife was a hairsbreadth from his neck, and when he moved, he cut himself on it. With the blood flowing from the slice, Charles stepped to the side, reached up to his bleeding neck, and sighed.
He pulled the ball of time out of his hand and stroked it sadly.
Goddess bless, but this was the cock-up of cock-ups. Worthless! He was so worthless! He’d spent his last three months moping and moaning, and now, just like this, he was done. The first shard he’d found, and it was coming to kill him. Meanwhile Bassam had found it without any trouble at all. Had just swooped in and picked it up and hurt it and confused it, and now this. Timothy would be trapped forever, and all because of his failure. If there were anyone else who could take his place, Charles would gladly let this woman kill him and just get out of the real hero’s way.
As the thought echoed in his mind, Charles went still. And then slowly, sadly, he began to smile.
He was still smiling as he drew the ball up to his bloody neck, coating it with the sticky-sweet substance. The ball was almost hot now, pulsing in regular rhythm, and as the blood seeped inside of it, it turned a deep, passionate purple.
Charles bent to the frozen, warped shard of the Lady and brushed a tender kiss against her lips. Tears ran silently down his cheeks.
“I’m sorry, Timothy,” he whispered, and pressed the bloody ball into the woman’s mouth. “May he serve you where I have so miserably failed.”
He stepped back against the knife and pulled his hand from the ball.
The world whirled back into motion, and the knife cut through his neck in one smooth, clean swipe, severing his head from his body.
The woman spit the ball of time full of a god’s blood out of her mouth. Charles caught it as it flew by and rode it out across the heavens, distracted by the thought that it tasted faintly of custard.