The Lady sat in a near trance of concentration, perched on her temporary throne above the vast subterranean beds of luminescent Ashilm that were chief among her realm’s greatest treasures. More than a millennium of careful hybridization in deep caverns like this one had left these diaphanous fungal flowers intolerant of any slightest variation in temperature, humidity, or nutrient composition—all of which were threatened now by the torrential wrath of this ‘inexplicable’ storm.
For almost two days, she and dozens of her realm’s most gifted horticulturists and thaumaturges had been here, and at smaller groves around the margins of the city, working night and day to keep the deluge above from gaining even subtle entry to these normally changeless chambers. Just excessive seepage, never before a problem this far underground, might be sufficient to damage or destroy these groves and the many years worth of precious dayash-malla they produced, not to mention undoing decades of establishing cultivation.
To prevent this, The Lady and her gifted cohort were ‘singing’ groundwater into flowing, against gravity, around rather than into the cavern. An impressive feat, even by royal standards—and for how much longer, none now dared even guess. The task would long ago have exhausted and surpassed even her capacity, were it not for the unthinkable amounts of dayash-malla already consumed to empower and amplify their ability to sing. A boon not without costs—both physically and politically—later on.
And all for what, Anselm? she wondered yet again; though days of reflection had not left her without theories aplenty.
In relentless pursuit of her throne, Anselm had, for years now, been very publicly accusing her of betraying her own increasingly needy people by spending unconscionable amounts of the realm’s scarcer and scarcer supply of dayash-malla on behalf of an Andinol boy—though Anselm had so far been unable to produce that boy, or clear proof of his actual identity, or even of his certain existence. He had not even proven able to say what, precisely, she had wasted all this supposed power doing for the boy. Because, thank all the greater powers, he still did not know.
The truth was, she had done none of these things. Not really. The problem was, she couldn’t tell that to anyone and expect to be believed, because she had been forbidden, by the very powers who had actually worked the miracle in question, to say anything to anyone about their involvement. She still had no idea why. But one did not disobey such powers—even to save one’s throne. Not if one had attended to history’s examples of what happened to those who dared try it. She wasn’t even sure she’d be able to disobey them. Might she not just be struck as dumb as Jordan before the first word had passed her lips? If they wanted to remain unseen, they would.
So, Anselm was left free to crow his accusations far and wide without any firm proof, while she was left to deny it, without any firm explanation of what had really happened instead. Stalemate—until one of those damned letters had fallen into Anselm’s hands, seeming to confirm both the boy’s existence, and their concealed knowledge of it.
“My Lady?” one of her wonder-workers called softly from across the cavern. “Do you tire? Can we be of some greater assistance?”
“No, Sirrus. I was but distracted for a moment by undisciplined thoughts. My apology.”
The thaumaturge nodded, something just short of a bow, clearly as embarrassed by her apology as he’d been concerned about her lapse of concentration. Many of her court were uncomfortable with a queen who apologized, for anything, though she didn’t do it often, careful to do nothing that might require it. But on the rare occasion when she did slip, she had never tried to cover the fact, or to blame anyone else. If she were overthrown now, it would not be said that vanity or hauteur had brought her down. Let them think on that, who heard Anselm claim she lied to conceal some great betrayal. Not all the pieces added up in his favor. Not yet.
The Lady had hardly resumed her focus on the diversion of all that ground water when her daughter came through the cavern’s far entrance, tugging her mind from the task again. In many wonderful ways, Piper was growing into herself at last, a grace spoiled only by her tendency to look down so often. Not to assess her footing, certainly. No one of Piper’s still growing poise, power and talent need have any concern for things like footing. No. It was misguided shame that drew her gaze so often to the floor. Baseless, cutting self-blame—worn far too transparently for someone who might have to rule much sooner than anyone could have imagined not so long ago. The Lady had talked with her about that downcast gaze, more than once. But Piper could not seem to set aside her misguided sense of responsibility for all of this. The Lady’s inability to explain, even to her daughter, what had really happened on that fateful night ten years earlier imposed perhaps no more painful cost than having to let Piper go on believing that her admittedly reckless foray into Anselm’s sanctum had been the cause of everything that followed. If anything, Piper’s precipitous attempt to spy on Anselm that night might very possibly have been inspired by the same powers that had clearly set all the rest in motion. But The Lady could not say that, to Piper or anyone else. And so…
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mother,” Piper said, looking up at last, “but Rain has come.”
Ah. Now we will see, The Lady thought. Good news for once, or just more bad? “Sirrus?” she called. “Are you and the others able to do without me for a short time? There is something which may briefly require more than the edges of my attention.”
“Of course, My Lady,” he called back.
So filled with dayash-malla was she just now, that The Lady could already feel Rain waiting just out of sight beyond the cavern entrance, as if he glowed like a bonfire in plain sight. “Don’t dawdle, Chancellor,” she called out levelly. “I haven’t time to waste on propriety here.”
“My apologies,” he called back, appearing immediately and coming toward her through the blue-violet gloom as quickly as protocol permitted. “I wished only to spare you distraction if the moment proved inconvenient.”
“This is all inconvenient, Chancellor.” She offered him a grudging smile, lest he misunderstand her intent. “Every last bit of it. Dare I hope your report might provide some small flicker of relief?” His silence and the expression on his face dashed any such hope. “Is there no shred of encouraging news then?” she asked wearily, drawing a wall of air around herself, Rain and Piper for privacy as he arrived below her.
“We’ve retrieved all the remaining letters, My Lady,” Rain said, just managing to abort a shrug.
“And the one misdelivered? What of that?”
“The courier had vanished, and I did fear treachery at first,” Rain said unhappily. “It took considerable effort to find him, and given the chaos unfolding out there, we would not likely have done so without the help of some Riverines who discovered him in a boat cast adrift and already well down river on the flood. He’d been dumped there in a Thaniel’s Vise, and washed of the past twenty-four hours.”
“Not a traitor after all then,” The Lady said, suppressing a quick flame of anger on behalf of their abused messenger. Such things were not done by any but criminals—especially to one of their own kind.
“Not the courier, no,” Rain agreed. “But treachery elsewhere, clearly. The man recalls nothing, of course. But I know him well, and he would never have been careless enough to betray his presence or purpose accidentally. Whoever waylaid him, and that letter, had to have known ahead of time where he would be and that he would be carrying something of importance, if not exactly what. Anselm’s earlier remark to me shows they even knew the letter’s destination, though I suspect it never got there. Such knowledge can only have come from somewhere well within our confidences. I still have no idea who, or how, though we are making every effort to find out. Every effort that we can, at least, just now.” He glanced down, uncomfortably. “Which leads me to a disturbing theory about the purpose of this grotesque storm.”
“Which is?” The Lady prompted.
“We are spread so thin by this, My Lady. Usual security in so many places has been drastically reduced, if not suspended altogether, as our best people are allocated to more urgent tasks… All Anselm has wanted for some time now is evidence to prove his accusation; evidence he believes we possess and are hiding from him. What better way than this to come looking for it in all sorts of places he would never normally be able to reach?”
“An even costlier gambit for him,” said Piper, speaking up at last, to The Lady’s quiet satisfaction, “with even fewer resources than we possess to protect his own assets from this monstrosity—not to mention the crushing penalties and utter loss of credibility he faces if we find a way to prove he is the cause of it—which I still find it hard to believe we won’t.”
“But perhaps still not too costly, if it brings the queen down first,” Rain pressed, turning back to face The Lady. “Once upon your throne, he would have all of your resources by which to replenish his own. And the law in his own hands—or its finer interpretation, at least. Perhaps he is that taken with his chances. …Or that desperate. Who can know how the current austerity had already diminished his own reserves even before this reckless display?”
“Do what you can to guard us, Chancellor,” said The Lady, “and pray that he soon runs short of reserves with which to prolong this reckless display. Is there anything else?”
“Sadly, there is, My Lady,” he replied.
The Lady just managed not to roll her eyes toward the ceiling and beg the very air for mercy. “And what might that be?”
“The old flood walls west of town have failed, My Lady. The entire Rutherford Saddle is flooding as we speak.”
It took discipline not to gasp. She leaned abruptly forward, a hand inches off her knee on its way to her face before she could arrest the gesture and set it down again.
“It just happened, very suddenly,” Rain said quietly. “Detachments of river folk are riding the flood’s leading edge to protect what they can, but…” He spread his hands sadly.
Hundreds more of her people would be losing their homes and businesses now. Possibly even their lives. I will find your hand in this, Anselm, The Lady thought fiercely, and make sure every one of them sees they have you to thank for it—that this is what you have ‘wasted’ such scarce power to accomplish. “Keep me informed,” she said. “And now, if there is nothing more, Chancellor—powers forfend—I must return to the business of protecting this place. You know how little capacity we will have to repair any of this outrage without it.” Which might well be Anselm’s sickening intention, she thought bitterly, unable to put anything beneath him at the moment. If ‘the current austerity,’ as Rain had so delicately put it, rendered her government incapable of responding effectively to this great catastrophe, how many would continue to support her regard for the Andinalloi, and how many would run to Anselm and resume harvesting them again, as he had been advising so loudly for so long?
The puzzle here wasn’t too few plausible reasons for this dreadful transgression of his, but too many.
“I have nothing further to burden you with at this time, My Lady,” Rain said gravely. “If any further news should surface, I can convey it to your heir, if that is preferable.”
“No,” The Lady said. “She is to be informed as well, of course, about anything. But come straight to me.” She thought again of the flooding Saddle. “I am still their queen, after all.”
Rain gave her the appropriate half bow before taking his leave. But Piper did not follow him away as The Lady parted her curtain of air to let them go. Piper watched his retreat for a moment, then turned to gaze back up at The Lady.
“Yes, daughter?” asked The Lady, closing their curtain of privacy again. “Is there something further after all?”
“Do you think he’s right?” Piper asked. “Is all this just about trying to breach our security to find some proof of what happened?”
“This again, Piper? How many times must I beg you to believe that your misfortune that night—”
“No, Mother,” Piper cut her off. “I would not bother you with that—especially now.”
The Lady fell silent in surprise. It had been some time since she’d seen her daughter’s stubborn streak assert itself . …Maybe not a bad sign just now. “What then, my child?”
“If… If I am ever to rule…someday, I must understand so much more…of what you understand. Of why you—we—have made—are making—the choices we have. I know I am not supposed to ask this. You have made that clear too many times to count. I understand that a ruler must sometimes navigate matters too sensitive to entrust to anyone else. But, if I am to follow you, whenever that may come, I cannot help feeling that everything I must know to deal effectively with any of this, to avoid making some new, even more devastating mistake, would come suddenly clear if I just understood why you want to find him so badly. Would it not be far better if no one ever did? Were we not the very ones who told him he must hide, and taught him how?”
“My heart,” The Lady sighed. “I truly, cannot—”
“I just need to know why not!” Piper interrupted again. “It…frightens me that I don’t understand…can’t even guess at what you’re doing, or why you’re doing it. How am I supposed to pretend I could follow you, when I can’t begin to make any sense of even the largest, most obviously important choice you’ve made during my lifetime?”
The Lady found herself bereft of words. Yet another very rare occurrence—and so painful on this occasion. How was she to make Piper understand that she herself did not begin to understand the choice she was making? How could she explain that without risking violation of the clear instruction she’d been given, and all that might come of that mistake? Everything about this horrible passage had been impossible—from the very start.
How many times had she pored over that night in her mind, trying to make some better sense of the message sent her through poor Jordan’s innocent mouth?
Grant his wish. Provide him aid. Do not obstruct or steer.
Keep him close. And let him go. But do not interfere.
Tonight we forge. Tonight we plant. Tonight we mend the hole.
IF…you lie to none, but of our part, you tell no living soul.
She had done her best, and her best was not inconsiderable by any mortal standard.
She had agreed to his wish—knowing very well that she, herself, had nothing like sufficient power to grant it. And, to her amazement, it had been granted nonetheless.
Their power, surely, certainly not hers.
So, she had struggled to obey the rest. But how were such self-canceling instructions to be parsed at all, much less obeyed? How did you aid someone without interfering by that very aid? How had they expected her to keep him close and let him go?
Tonight we forge, Tonight we plant. But ten years later, she could still not see what they had forged but chaos, or planted but conflict and escalating division. Tonight we mend the hole.
What hole? The boy-shaped hole through which her rule was falling?
Well, she had kept the boy as close as she dared, for as long as she could. And when he had vanished, she had let him go, making no effort since then to interfere in his path—wherever he had gone, whatever he was doing.
And everything had simply gotten worse.
Then, one night, she had woken in the darkness to a fearful question:
What if their instruction to keep him close and let him go had not been meant sequentially? What if she had been meant both to keep him close and to let him go all at once? The idea seemed at first to make so little sense. And yet, was she not trying to do the very same thing with her daughter?
Only then had it occurred to her that the only other person on earth who truly knew what had happened that night—in his very body—and might even have some sense, buried or otherwise, of who had actually performed his impossible transformation, was the boy himself—who might not have been forbidden to tell others what he knew.
From that moment, she had gambled on the hope that, if they could find him again, the powers that had used her to midwife his dreadful wish might also use him again to clear her name. She could imagine no other way to defuse this contest with Anselm, or divert her realm from where it seemed to be dragging them all.
IF…you lie to none, but of our part, you tell no living soul.
That part was all too clear. And this costly silence was her only possible response. Anything else would be lie or violation. It was as if they had designed it all to ensure her failure.
“I hear and understand all you’ve said, beloved daughter,” she replied at last, on the edge of tears, “and wish, with all my heart, that I could answer. I have no shame to cover. Nor do you. But if I gave you what you ask now…something dreadful would come of it. Of this alone, I am quite certain. If my silence costs me the throne, that will certainly be preferable to what any answer to your question might cost us all.”
Piper gazed up at her in unblinking silence for a lengthy time, her face filled with things The Lady had hoped never to see there: fear, anger, frustration, and…were those the seedlings of distrust? Oh, please daughter, know me better than that. After all these years, you of all people, must know me better.
Piper could not reply, of course, to a request unspoken. She turned, at last, and waved her mother’s curtain aside herself.
The Lady’s normally acute perceptual senses were so amplified now by dayash-malla that as she watched Piper walk away across the dimly lit cavern, the heat of her daughter’s pain remained both visible and palpable even after her retreating form had vanished through the doorway. Somewhere in the cavern’s farther reaches, The Lady heard, and felt, with preternatural clarity, a drop of water fall and splash against the ground. In her own flesh, she felt the nearly ephemeral fronds of Ashilm that it had touched in passing, and then splashed back upon, begin to wilt and wither.
With a wrenching effort, she set down her daughter’s pain, alongside her own, and extended her attention outward once more across a garden in even more immediate need of protection.