Frederico leaned close to smell the poison on his thirteenth wife’s cold, dead lips. It tickled his nose and he resisted the strong desire to kiss her that suddenly overcame him.
That you might lose yourself from sadness by my lips, my husband and Czar, her open, glassy eyes promised him. He looked away, uncomfortable with her empty, inviting stare.
Behind him, the Minister of the Interior cleared his voice and spoke. “The cabinet feels it would be more stabilizing to consider this an assassination. Jazrel was a most popular wife.”
Frederico nodded. She had quite a following among the young girls in Espira, the region she represented, and this was a dance he knew. He’d been in this very room three years ago to watch them cut his ninth wife’s body down.
When Sasha had hung herself with a rope of knotted silk, six thousand young women in Borut had done the same to declare sisterhood with their region’s wife.
“Assassination,” he agreed. For a moment, he felt a stab of guilt when he thought about the young girls who spent their childhoods emulating his wives in the hopes that one day they would be chosen. I’ve robbed them of an ending, he thought.
He turned now to his Minister of Intelligence. “I assume you concur, Pyrus?”
“Yes, Lord Czar,” he answered. Pyrus was a large man, his beard and hair close cropped. He held the Czar and his tears in quiet disdain but Frederico did not fault him for this. Pyrus had climbed the ranks from private to general during the fifty-year war with their bloated southern neighbor, a nation of leftovers from the defunct Engmark Republic. He’d retired into his intelligence role, bringing an edge to it that only a soldier could bring. He was a hard man from hard times. He ran a hand through his hair. “We implicate the Lunar Resurgence,” he said.
Frederico’s eyes wandered back to his dead wife and he sighed. “And then host a Purging?” He looked up now, forcing himself to meet Pyrus’s eyes.
Pyrus nodded. “The black-coats are already lacquering their guns. We could put the Resurgence away quickly enough and be done with their idle mysticism.”
The Czar contemplated this. He glanced back to his dead wife, Jazrel, and sighed again. “I suppose it would be timely,” he finally said.
But not even the thought of a Purging could lift his downcast spirit.
* * *
Frederico took his midmorning chai on the observation deck of his winter garden dome but could not find peace in the bright colors and warm scents that surrounded him.
Jazrel’s eyes and mouth haunted both his waking and his sleeping hours, though he knew this particular grief would pass soon enough.
Six days ago, the black-coats had begun their work under Pyrus’s watchful eye, moving out through the cities and rounding up the Resurgence. They’d sent birds throughout the districts, leveling their charges and decrying Jazrel’s assassination. And the people had responded much as they’d hoped. Outrage in the streets. Young Espiran girls attacking rumored Lunarists with hate in their eyes, curses on their lips and stones in their fists. Wagon-loads of prisoners deposited in the healing care of the Ministry of Social Behavior. Other wagon-loads winding their way to quiet forests where servants could dig quiet graves by moonlight.
Tomorrow, I eulogize, he thought as he sipped the cinnamon-bittered chai. A canary flitted past and he felt the brief wind of its wings move over his unkempt hair.
The softest chiming of a bell reached him and he lifted his own bell, ringing it twice to signal that he could be approached. A black-coat captain, his pale and nervous face starkly contrasting the deep velvet of his officer’s jacket, materialized behind one of a dozen crimson-clad house servants that waited at the garden’s edge. He carried something wrapped in burlap.
The captain bowed deeply. “I beg forgiveness and indulgence, Excellency, but Minister Pyrus is unable to attend you in person. He sent me in his place with apologies.” The officer risked looking up and Frederico let their eyes meet. There was fear there and something else.
He sees your tears without disdain, a voice whispered in the back corners of his mind. Was it compassion? Perhaps pity? Frederico raised his silk napkin to dab beneath each eye. “You have my grace, Captain.” Replacing the napkin in his lap, he raised the chai-cup and paused before it touched his lips. “What news of the Purging?”
“We’ve finished sweeping the capitol and outlying cities. The district outposts report similar progress.” He shifted, his leather boots creaking as he did. “We’ve found the local Temple and set torch to it. Their priestess is in custody.”
Frederico nodded. They’d made good progress in short order. The Lunarists had never completely resurfaced after the last Purging three years earlier. They’d remained quiet this time despite a thousand years of dying and coming back to life, a stubborn weed of mysticism that would not forego his family’s garden. “I am grateful for the news. I hope they can eventually become productive, rational citizens again.”
“Yes, Lord Czar,” the captain said. “And we’ve found something hidden in the temple. The priestess is being questioned about it now but Minister Pyrus wanted you to examine the object and bid me bring it to you immediately.” He started to step forward, then remembered himself and bowed again. “May I approach, Lord?”
Frederico lowered the cup and gestured for the man to step forward. The captain walked quickly to the small table and laid the object upon it. Then, with his white-gloved fingers he picked at the corners of the cloth until it fell away to reveal the metal horn beneath.
No, Frederico realized, not a horn. A crescent. And of such brilliant silver that it stung his watery eyes. Sunlight, already sharp and slicing through the crystal domes high above, struck the metal and burst into whiteness. He squinted at it until it took focus for him. There were markings on it—etched lines that were familiar to him. The line of a continent here, a mountain range there. He suddenly remembered summer nights spent staring up through the glass ceiling of his bedchambers. “It is the moon at first sliver,” he said.
The captain nodded. “It was hidden beneath the altar. The priestess would have given her life to protect it if we’d not overpowered her.”
Frederico stretched out a tentative finger, placing it on the surface. It was warm to the touch. “What metal is this? It’s unfamiliar to me.”
“We are uncertain, Lord Czar. Minister Pyrus has brought in scholars from the Triumvirate Universities as well as the Chief Journeymen of the Smithing and Alchemy Guilds. It’s unlike anything we have ever seen.”
It’s beautiful, Frederico thought and didn’t realize he’d whispered it aloud until the captain agreed.
“Yes, Lord Czar. But there is more, if I may?” At Frederico’s impatient gesture, he lifted the crescent and came around the table. Careful not to touch his Czar, the captain held the silver object up to Frederico’s ear.
At first, he was uncertain of what he heard and imagined it was merely the noise of his own garden, somehow bent around the sliver of moon much like the light had been. But as Frederico leaned his ear closer, he realized that the sounds he heard lay over the top of the noise surrounding him. His breath caught in his throat and something washed through him that felt akin to fear or perhaps wonder.
He leaned even closer, feeling the warm metal of the moon press against his ear before the surprised captain could pull way. His eyes darted up and he saw terror on the officer’s face. “Hold,” Frederico said in a quiet voice. “Your Czar bids you hold.”
The crescent trembled in the young man’s hands but he held it in place as Frederico brought all of his concentration to bear upon the sounds whispering out from this strange and wonderful object.
Water burbling, muffled and metallic. And above that, the distinct but muted music of summer frogs.
* * *
All that day, deep into the night, and all the following morning, he could not escape that incessant whispering. It hunted him even while servants curled and perfumed his hair and dressed him in golden robes. It pursued him through the black-laced motions and trappings of funereal statecraft as he pressed hands with the Lords and Ladies of his empire and those of the outlying lands. Even as he rode through the pomp and splendor of Jazrel’s last procession, he found his memory returning to those sounds like a tongue to an empty socket. When they reached the Garden of the Fading Rose where she was to be buried, and when he stood and gave eulogy to her life—a simple girl chosen as the bride of a god—he found the sound of that running water and those croaking frogs always nearby.
When all was finished and when she lay at her final rest, Frederico returned to his private study in the western tower that housed his quarters, stripped off his feline gloves and rang for Pyrus.
The old general, still in his black-coat and ministerial cloak from the occasion, came quickly enough. Frederico saw the lines in his face and the firm set of his jaw. He is angry at the interruption. But of course, he’d say nothing.
Frederico gestured to the chair before his wide, walnut desk and waited for Pyrus to sit. The Minister of Intelligence sat slowly, leaning forward slightly with both boots planted firmly on the carpeted floor. “What have you learned about the silver crescent?“
Surprise registered on Pyrus’s face. “Nothing of real certainty. We continue to study it.”
“What does the priestess say of it?”
Pyrus looked uncomfortable. “Mysticism and nonsense,” he said. “My men broke her early this morning—it took some doing—and I fear they took her too close to the edge.”
Frederico’s eyes narrowed. “What did she say?”
“She says it is the whispering of the moon. Proof of life there.”
Frederico looked up and out beyond the high glass ceiling of his office. It was too early yet, but soon it would rise, blue and green. “We know better than that. Did she say where it came from?”
“From Carnelyin,” Pyrus answered. “She claims he brought it back with him.”
Of course. Lord Felip Carnelyin’s One Hundred Tales. The hundredth being his fanciful flight to the moon under the supposed auspices of an earlier Czar in the earliest days of empire, before the weeping bred itself into the great families. Before the world lost hope and meaning. The first of the Lunarists had emerged from those early times though there was no evidence whatsoever of a Czarist Lunar Expedition in the meticulous archives Frederico’s forebears had maintained.
“We know of a certainty,” Frederico said, “that it can not be so.” Once maybe, he thought, before the plagues ravaged its blue green surface and killed the last of the Younger Gods who hid there away from a ravaged world below that hated and feared them.
“I suspect it is simply a harmless curiosity of Elder Times,” Pyrus said. “Something dug out of the Runemarch that they’ve bent into holy relic.”
A harmless curiosity. Frederico nodded. “I suspect so. What more do you think you will learn of it?”
Pyrus shrugged. “I doubt we’ll learn more. The priestess is broken—I have no doubt she believes it is lunar in origin.” Here, he smiled but it was a weak smile. “One can be sincere and still be sincerely mistaken.”
He thought for a moment. “Or misguided,” Frederico finally said.
Frederico felt a smile pulling at his own mouth and it surprised him. Judging by the look on Pyrus’s face, the slightest hint of his good humor was also surprising to the Minister of Intelligence though the old soldier tried to conceal it. “If you believe there is nothing more to learn, I would like to have it.”
Now Pyrus’s surprise could not be concealed. “I’m not certain that would be advisable, Lord Czar.”
“It is a harmless curiosity,” Frederico said, his voice taking on an intentional edge.
Pyrus’s eyes betrayed uncertainty at how best to proceed. “Aye, Lord, but it is also an invaluable artifact that—”
Frederico’s smile widened as he interrupted. “That will be kept safest with the best-guarded man in the empire. At all hours, a hundred of my Red Legion are at watch over me.” He sat back in his chair and watched his Minister of Intelligence. “And certainly,” he added, “I will not interfere with its continued study should there be anything to gain from it.”
Pyrus looked at him and Frederico saw resolve forming now in the line of his jaw. His tensed shoulders relaxed and the slightest sigh escaped his lips. “I will have it sent over tomorrow morning once the current shift of scholars have concluded their study,” he said.
Frederico inclined his head towards Pyrus—a gesture he rarely offered. “Thank you, Minister Pyrus.”
The minister returned the nod, but his eyes betrayed a buried rage. “You are most welcome, Lord Czar.” He stood and smoothed the crimson trousers of his rank. “If that will be all, I will return to my work.”
He wanted it for himself, Frederico realized. But he put that knowledge aside. “Yes, Minister,” he said. “That is all.”
And after Pyrus had gone, after the servants had brought his liquored and foaming chocolate and collected the empty mug once he’d drained it, and after the sun had set and the moon had risen, Frederico still could not purge the sound of that running water and those singing frogs from his ears.
He lay awake and alone in his silk-sheeted bed, beneath his crystal viewing dome, and watched the blue green sliver where it hung haphazard in the star speckled sky.
* * *
Frederico gazed out over the crowded room from his private balcony. The men and women, dressed in their finest, moved across the inside of his privacy screen as they moved about the ballroom twenty cubits below. They were a rainbow of colors bathed in light from the gem-lamps that spun and scintillated above, hung by fine strands of silver cable.
He sipped his chilled peach wine. “It is a good party,” he said. But even he could hear the lack of enthusiasm in his voice. It had been seven weeks since Jazrel’s suicide—six since the silver crescent had come into his possession—and the only comfort he’d taken had come from the unexplainable sounds from that artifact leftover from the Younger Gods. He’d not visited any of his wives in all that time though that was surprising to no one. He’d favored Jazrel and she was gone.
Tonight, down below, twenty of Espira’s favored young women waited in hopes that the Lord Czar Frederico XIII would ask them to dance and initiate a conversation that might result in courtship. Over two hundred others waited at the palace gates, dressed in their finest and hoping one of the twenty would fail even though they knew they had no chance of being invited in. Back in Espira, another two or three thousand sat at home and hoped for notification that they would be considered if tonight’s ball did not bear fruit. Publicizing Jazrel’s death as an assassination had created both an anger bent towards vengeance and a compassion bent towards comfort—especially in the young women who hoped to replace her as his thirteenth wife and represent their corner of his empire.
Beside him, the Espiran senator shifted in his plush armchair. “They are a lively lot. Twenty of our very best. We’ve already received proposals from a dozen houses in the event that your Lordship does not find them suited to his taste and need.”
Taste and need. A sudden memory of Jazrel took him by ambush. She was naked and upon him, her hips rocking slowly, her eyes open and fixed on his as she bit her lower lip in the midst of their passion. The bed shook from the intensity of her movement. He shivered from the sudden recollection and pushed it away.
Frederico glanced to the senator—a sprightly looking older man resplendent in a deep blue suit, a black cloak, and a gold, high-collared shirt—and forced a smile. “I’m certain they are the best and brightest of your eligible women,” he said. But no Jazrel would be found among them.
A bell rang and Frederico lifted his own to reply. Josefus, his Minister of the Interior, pushed his way through the ruby curtain and bowed. “Lord Czar,” he said, “I trust that you are well?”
Frederico nodded and lied easily. “I am well. Please sit with us.”
The Minister of the Interior sat and pulled a pair of jeweled opera glasses from the velvet case that dangled around his neck. He held the glasses up and picked out the silver tiaras below. “Ah,” he said, “are they not beautiful?”
The senator smiled at this. Frederico raised his own glasses and looked again. “They are lovely.”
And suddenly, she overtook him again and he smelled Jazrel’s perfume mingled with her sweat. The force of it was so overpowering that he spilled wine onto his lap. He leaped to his feet and the sadness, curled like a snake within him all his days, struck at him and its fangs went deep. The tears were near now; he felt them pulling at his eyes. And he felt his heart racing as his hands trembled.
They come upon me faster now. He slipped his opera glasses into their case and carefully placed his wine glass on the small table they shared. He did not have much time. “I am sorry, gentlemen, but I am overtaken by illness.”
They each stood, unable to mask the surprise and disappointment upon their faces. The Minister of the Interior found his words the fastest. “Lord Czar, I—”
Frederico cut him off. “Please give my apologies to Espira’s finest and assure them that they do not lack in any way.”
Then, before either of his guests could speak, Frederico’s guards formed up around him in the anteroom just beyond the curtain and they were moving with their emperor, escorting him to his rooms where he could face his demon alone and unashamed.
His shoulders shook as they closed the doors behind him and he let the sob out slowly. Despair and despondency washed him and rather than resisting, he fed them memories of Jazrel. Jazrel fresh from the bath. Jazrel at breakfast on the balcony. He carried himself to his bed, scooping up a bottle of his most potent liqueur. Jazrel beneath him and above him. Taste and need. The tears wracked him and he lost all sense of time. He could not tell when he stopped drinking and started clutching at the silver crescent. Drunkenness pressed him into reluctant sleep and he felt the cold metal pressed up to his wet face as he finally fell away into warm gray.
In the distance, he heard the singing of the frogs.
And then something else. Something so amazing and alarming that he suspected he was already asleep.
A voice: “Who is there,” it asked. “Why are you crying?”
Then sleep further folded Frederico inside himself and carried him into dream.
* * *
Frederico heard music, distant and metallic. It pulled him awake and he went willingly though his head hurt fiercely from tears and drink. His bed was tangled and the sheets were wet from the fever of his melancholia but he’d come through the night and had not harmed himself, nor had he poisoned anyone else with the darkness in his soul. He could not bear another Sasha. Or another Jazrel.
Relief flooded him. Music, he remembered.
A harp, he realized. He stared at the silver crescent and remembered his dreams. A voice. “Hello?”
His voice sounded raspy and afraid. Swallowing the foul taste in his mouth, he spoke again. “Is someone there?”
The music stopped and he suddenly realized that he no longer heard the running water or the frogs. Instead, he heard soft footfalls and then a voice. “Hello?”
It was a girl’s voice; she sounded young. Staring at the crescent, he willed his words to form, his mouth to frame them, but both betrayed him. She spoke again. “Hello? Are you there?” Then, as if by afterthought: “Do you feel better now?”
Frederico felt his eyes narrow. “Who is this?”
When she laughed, it was music much like the harp. “I am Amal Y’Zir,” she said. “Who else would I be? But surely you know that already, Spirit?”
Spirit. “I do not understand you,” he said.
She spoke slower this time. “I am Amal Y’Zir, Spirit, but you should know that.” She snorted. “If not, what manner of ghost are you?”
Frederico felt several things at once. Frustration and confusion fought for predominance. “Where are you?”
Now, she laughed. “I am in my rooms, of course. I’ve been at my music again.”
He paced, now, holding the silver crescent to the side of his head. “You play the harp,” he said.
“Father tells me that all cultured women of a certain intellect master at least one instrument.”
It sounded reasonable to Frederico and he found himself nodding before he realized he was doing so. Then, he shook his head. “Your father sounds very…wise. What is his name?”
More laughter. “You are really not much of a ghost. My father is Raj Y’Zir. Surely you’ve heard of him? He’s very powerful.”
Her laughter was contagious; he suddenly found himself smiling. “Perhaps you’re right; I’m not much of a ghost after all.” Of course, he knew there was no such thing.
Her voice took on a note of concern and lowered in tone. “You’re not going to start crying again, are you?”
“No,” he said.
“Because,” she added, “I really wasn’t sure what to do. You’re my first ghost.” She paused and when he didn’t answer immediately, she continued. “Are the other ghosts as sad as you?”
He opened his mouth to speak and the bell ringing at his door caused him to close it. He thought for a moment, then lowered his voice to just above a whisper. “I’m going to have to go away for a bit,” he told her. “But I will come back as soon as I can.”
“Off with you,” she said, “to your ghostly affairs.” She chuckled again, then added in mock imperiousness: “If I have time, perhaps I will speak to you when next you haunt me.”
Frederico hastened to his bedside and put the silver crescent deep beneath the pillows. Then, he rang for his servants and instructed them that he was taken ill and not to be disturbed until the next morning.
Still, after they’d left him alone, he sat for a long while and stared at the silver crescent. The waters and frogs had soothed him, had become a secret calm for him in distress he could not fully comprehend. The weeping took him more often, it was true, but he’d found scarce comfort in times past. The two wives he’d most delighted in had not been able to live with the knowledge of his sorrow—the sorrow that was his family’s to bear for reasons no record remained to speak of.
But last night, clutching that slice of moon to his ear as he wept, gentled by the frogs and the brook of some distant place, he’d felt better. As if it had known his need and bent towards it. And now, this new development both intoxicated and terrified him. A voice. A girl by the name of Amal Y’Zir…how young, he could not say. Some part of her voice was all the innocence of maidenhood but there was sly intellect—cunning even—beneath the skin of it. He made a note to ask after that House. House Y’Zir; it was not familiar to him.
Could it be as easy as that? And why not? Perhaps this bit of mirrored silver was truly a toy of the Younger Gods, a way to speak across great distance. Some leftover like the hills of their long-ruined cities, or the sighs and groans that leaked out from their tombing caves or those rare lights that swam the deep ocean floors. Their playthings scattered the world. It wasn’t unimaginable.
Perhaps this Y’Zir was some minor noble in the Engmark Republic. Perhaps the toy had lain untouched in some shadowed place near a stream until this Amal Y’Zir had found it, drawn to it by the sound of Frederico’s weeping.
A chain of coincidence? Frederico thought not. For those not of noble birth, coincidences like that were what life was made from. But not for a Czar. Everything ordered and purposed.
Taking a sip of water from the crystal glass on his night table, Frederico reached into the pile of pillows and drew out the silver crescent.
Amal was at her harp again and the tune was the same that had haunted him awake. He could not see her fingers move over the strings but he heard them as a dream filled with passion and woe.
They weep, he thought.
And Frederico smiled.
* * *
Frederico lay in his bed and did not feel the weight of weariness he should have felt for having gone without so much sleep.
For three days, Frederico hid in his rooms beneath the spell of the silver crescent and the girl’s voice within it. He took his meals there, barking for the servants to be quick as he hid the crescent behind his back or beneath the silk sheets of his bed. And when they left, he brought it back to his ear and resumed a conversation days in the making.
For her part, Amal had less freedom than he did and those times that she had to leave at her father’s bidding for one lesson or another, Frederico sat at his desk and wrote out from memory what details he could discern from their conversation. There had not been many, but enough to keep him busy for a few hours here or there. Books with titles he did not recognize. References to places he had never heard of. These were the barbs on a larger hook that held him fast and kept him never more than a few spans away from the bauble that had gone from offering strange comfort to defining something empty within himself that he had not noticed before. And it had done so in such a short amount of time that it frightened him but the fear could not compete with the sense of exhilaration.
He had not wept once in those three days.
Now, he lay upon his back and stared up at the moon, waiting for Amal to return. Tonight, he would have to sleep. Tomorrow, despite the strong desire not to, he would return to his work. Still, he would take a few hours with her tonight before giving himself to rest.
Her voice reached him, out of breath. “Are you there, Ghost?”
He chuckled. “I’ve told you; I’m no ghost. I am Frederico.” Then, he chided her gently. “It is more polite to call a person by their name.”
He heard the noise of her thrashing her way into bed. He’d noticed the first two nights she’d done the same and in his mind’s eye, he saw the girl crawling beneath the covers of her faraway bed, kicking and wrestling them into a more comfortable disposition. “But why should I do that,” she said, “when I know of a certainty that you are a ghost?”
There was coquettishness to her voice that played him like a harp. “And what is your certainty of my ghosthood?”
He could hear her smile now around her words. “Because, Frederico, you haunt me so very well.” And now, gone was the innocence and in its place, the voice of a woman. “You haunt me when we speak; you haunt me when I am away. I can not escape your voice, even when you are silent. Today, my father scolded me three times for my inattention to his alchemy lesson. He thinks I’ve fallen in love with one of the Machtvolk boys. He’s quite cross about it and has confined me to my rooms.” She giggled and the girl was back in her voice now.
Frederico noted the unfamiliar word but lost it when the rest of her words registered. He thinks I’ve fallen in love.
“If I am a ghost for these reasons,” he said, “then perhaps you are as well.”
“Oh,” she said, “I can assure you that I am not.”
He smiled. “Then how do you explain my own haunted state?”
“I am Amal Y’Zir, daughter of the Great Blood Wizard, Raj Y’Zir. You are not haunted; you are merely enchanted by my powerful magicks.”
They both laughed and Frederico didn’t bother to tell her this time that there was no such thing as magick.
After, they fell into another conversation that carried them until dawn touched the sky with pink fingers.
* * *
Frederico’s ministers waited around the table for him and he came in late to remind them that he did not operate on the schedules they made for him. He smiled at them and noted their surprise.
The Minister of the Interior spoke first. “Is the Lord Czar feeling better? We’ve been quite alarmed by—”
He started speaking as he sat. “I am quite well, Minister Josefus.” He offered another smile and inclined his head first—a rare honor he now granted.
Blushing, Josefus fumbled with the papers before him then realized he had not returned the nod. He blushed even more and inclined his own head. “Thank you, Lord Czar. I am delighted that you are well.”
Frederico opened the portfolio in front of him and scanned the agenda for their meeting. He glanced to Pyrus and Josefus. “I’d like to meet with you both after we’re finished here this morning.”
They nodded and then the meeting swallowed them all. There was unrest in Espira—accusations of Lunarism that led to violence in the taverns and streets as that region continued to grieve their lost wife. “We believe it will stabilize once you’ve chosen your new wife,” Pyrus said and Josefus nodded in agreement. Frederico smiled at this as well.
The meeting continued beyond the unrest, covering plans to evade increased trade tariffs with Engmark and their other neighbors, intelligence reports of muster fires in the northern tundra region of the Hanh, and an executive session regarding the last action items of the Lunarist Purge and the earliest reports of re-socialization potential among some of the captured cultists.
As the meeting flowed on around him, Frederico found himself engaging as if it were a fencing match. He darted in with a thrust of a sentence here, a parrying question there, steering the meeting to a crisp and quick conclusion.
As the others left, he stood and waited with Pyrus and Josefus. When all but the guards had vanished, he bid them sit.
Frederico sat last. “I have need of your assistance,” he said.
“We are sworn to it, Lord Czar,” Josefus said. Federico glanced to Pyrus. The Minister of Intelligence said nothing but inclined his head ever so slightly.
“I need information on a House Y’Zir and its master, Raj Y’Zir.”
Pyrus cleared his voice. “If I knew more, I could serve better, Lord Czar.”
“I don’t know more. I believe it is in a tropical clime either near or on a sea. Inquire of the Shippers Guild; put the word out to our agencies at home and abroad.” He looked up and locked eyes with each of them for but a moment, giving them his most sober stare. “Spare no expense.”
Josefus opened his mouth to speak but Frederico rang the bell of dismissal and stood. They turned their eyes down and he paused out of respect.
He resisted the sudden urge to thank them and left the room quickly.
I am changing. He felt more confident; found himself doubting less in his own decisions. The fog of the sadness was lifting from him now.
And it came from the slip of a girl who believed he was a ghost.
Until her, he thought, perhaps I was.
* * *
Frederico lay in his bed and stared up at the blue green moon. Over the last month, he’d grown to love these nights and, he thought, perhaps even to love the young woman Amal Y’Zir. .
“It can’t have been much of an empire,” Amal said. “There’s no record of it whatsoever, back to the time of the Younger Gods. And it’s a small world. I’d have known of it.”
Frederico laughed. “It is the greatest empire in the known world—a vast world. My people consider me a god.”
“Considered,” she said, laughing. .
“Considered?“ Frederico asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Considered…past tense. You’re a ghost, remember?” She giggled now. “Obviously a mad one.”
“Perhaps,” he said with as much sarcasm as he could muster, “you could cure me with your so-called magick.”
He heard the mock incredulity in her voice. “I’ll have you know, Lord Czar Frederico, that I will indeed cure you once I’ve earned my Alchemy Rankings. And perhaps I’ll even restore you back to life so you can serve me better.”
Frederico chuckled. “I would indeed serve.”
“Aye, you would.”
He rolled onto his side, feeling the warm metal against his cheek. “You know I’m looking for you?”
He heard the sound of her skin moving over cloth. “Silly ghost. You’ll not find me.”
He smiled. “I started some time ago. I’ve got ships to the nine seas now, asking after you at every port.”
Now she laughed. “Nine seas? Don’t be absurd. That would be an impossible amount of water.”
Frederico joined her in laughing. “Said the girl who believes in magick.” Then, he lowered his voice and he heard resolve in it. “I will find you, Amal Y’Zir.”
Her voice took on playful taunting. “And what then would you do with me?”
Frederico pondered this. What would he do? Sail the world to make an offer to her father for her hand? Have Pyrus forge papers and establish her in Espira or—bolder still, extend citizenship to her and provide her an estate openly, risk disappointing the populace? He let playfulness enter his own voice. “I can describe several of the things I would do with you, Lady Y’Zir, if you wish it.”
But the softness of her moans told him she’d already started imagining those things herself.
Smiling, he joined her.
* * *
Frederico pointed to the corner of his bed chamber and watched the servants as they put the harp in place beside its ornate stool. It had been his grandmother’s though she’d never played it. He remembered that it decorated her rooms and towered above him; it seemed much smaller now.
The Palace Steward waited by the door. “Is everything satisfactory, Lord Czar?”
Frederico smiled. “It is, Felip. Thank you.”
A momentary cloud crossed the steward’s face and he looked away. “I am pleased to serve, Lord Czar.”
Frederico studied the man. He withholds something but does not wish to. He waited until the servants left, then as the steward turned, he called to him. “Hold, Felip. Come in and close the door.”
Paling, the steward did so and when Frederico pointed towards an armchair near the unlit fireplace, he smoothed his saffron robes and sat carefully. Frederico joined him.
“Something disturbs you, Felip. I’d know what it is.”
Dots of sweat appeared above the man’s upper lip and upon his brow. “It would not be proper, Lord Czar, for me to—”
Frederico chuckled and leaned forward. “It is proper if your Czar asks it of you.”
Felip took a deep breath. “There are whisperings, Lord Czar, that you are profoundly unwell.”
Frederico smiled. “Do I seem unwell to you?”
The steward shook his head. “You seem…happy. The servants comment that they’ve not seen or heard the weeping in a goodly while.”
Frederico sat back in the chair. “I am happy, Felip. What else have you heard?”
The old man shifted in his seat, his eyes darting to the left and right. “That Jazrel wasn’t truly assassinated by Lunarists but a suicide. That she spent a night with you during your weeping not long before. That you can be heard speaking in your rooms when no one is present, sometimes late into the night.” Now, with his tongue suddenly loosened, his words came faster, almost jumbled together. “Some say you’ve driven yourself mad with grief and guilt over Jazrel, falling into some kind of grinning mania. Some say you speak into a silver mirror. Some say you are speaking with the moon.”
Frederico felt the teeth of Felip’s first words as they chewed their truth into him, then the last caught his attention. and he looked up. How I respond is important here, he thought.
“The staff will always talk,” Frederico said as casually as he could. Then, he chuckled. “You can certainly assure them that I am not speaking with the moon, nor am I mad. I know their words trouble you, but don’t let them—it means nothing. Still, I would have you keep your ears open and bring any other tidbits of gossip my way that you hear.” He leaned even further forward. “And do discourage the staff from that Lunarist nonsense.”
Felip nodded. “I certainly will, Lord Czar.”
“Thank you,” Frederico said. I have become grateful for what was once my due. He stood, bowed his head slightly, and when the steward did the same, Frederico did not ring the dismissal bell. Instead, he walked the steward to the door. “Also,” he said, “I want you to extend a private dining invitation to Senator Tannen. Pay his house steward handsomely for knowledge of the senator’s favorite dishes and spirits. Be certain our chefs can accommodate before the invitation is offered.”
Felip nodded. “Yes, Lord Czar.”
He locked the door behind the steward and went into the bed chambers. He pulled the lockbox from beneath his bed and spun the cipher into it. He drew out the silver crescent and held it to his ear. “Amal?”
He heard the harp and then the voice. “I am here, Ghost.”
“You can teach me now,” he said, seating himself upon the stool.
He heard the delight in her laugh. “You have it there now?”
“I do, Lady Y’Zir.”
For an hour, she talked slowly and quietly to him as he picked notes out upon the strings. It was only later, after she’d left for afternoon lessons—and while he was checking intelligence reports for any news of House Y’Zir—that he realized what the tune was she had carefully walked him through.
It was the song she played upon the night they first met.
He smiled and signed papers authorizing three months of expenses and a redoubled effort to find this woman who brought music to him.
* * *
They took their dinner in the private dining room and Frederico waited until they were well into their second bottle of kallaberry wine before he asked his favor. The meal had been perfect—broiled salmon drizzled with a white lemon sauce and decorated with asparagus spears across a bed of peppered rice. Crabbed cucumber salad and garlic steamed mushrooms preceded it and Frederico knew that a pear tart followed, once the kallaberry wine ticked their appetites back to life.
He smiled at the senator. “I have a favor to ask of you. It relates to the matter of my need for an Espiran bride.”
Frederico saw the hope come alive in Tannen’s eyes. Certainly, the senator had to wonder why he’d been granted this rare dining experience. “Certainly, Lord Czar. Name it. It is no favor—it is my honor.” Smiling, Tannen bowed his head.
Frederico returned the bow. “I wish to purchase an estate in Espira. On the coast.”
“I am certain we can find a place suitable for you, Lord Czar. Have you met someone of interest there?”
Frederico shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not there. It is on behalf of someone else. A Lady Amal Y’Zir. But it would be more proper for the deed to reflect her father’s name—Lord Raj Y’Zir.”
The senator’s brow wrinkled with thought. “I’m not familiar with those names.”
“They are from abroad,” Frederico said. “I’m not sure of Lady Y’Zir’s arrival but I will tell you when I know. It will need a good steward—someone reliable and discreet.”
He watched the governor’s eyes and when the understanding bloomed in them, it was bright. “I understand, Lord Czar.”
“There will be generous remuneration for Espira,” Frederico said quietly, “and for you of course. I have a hunting manor for you in the Gaming Wood.” He paused. “And once her residency is unquestionable, I will make proposal and settle this matter of an Espiran bride.” He raised his glass and his eyebrows. “What say you, Senator?”
There was the briefest hesitation before Tannen smiled and raised his own glass. “Espira is ever yours, Lord Czar.”
“Thank you, Tannen. Because of the sensitive nature of this matter I will arrange my gratuity with care.”
“I understand completely, Lord Czar.”
And with that, Frederico clapped and a servant appeared with the steaming pear tart.
* * *
Frederico lay in his bed feeling the sweat dry on his skin. “I bought you a house today in Espira,” he told her.
She giggled. “A ghost house?”
He smiled. It had become a game between them. “Yes,” he said. “On the coast of my ghostly empire.” Images of palm trees and white sands flashed behind his eyes. “It’s always warm there.”
“Like home,” she said, “but not an island.”
“Not an island,” he agreed.
She sighed and the sound of it was like soft hands upon his skin. “I suppose you think you’ll carry me away from my father’s tower in a large white ship after paying him some enormous dowry?”
“I suppose,” he said.
“And what if he refuses my hand?”
Frederico stretched and stifled a yawn. “I do not think he will. But if he did, I would persuade him otherwise.”
Amal laughed. “You do not know my father.”
“And he does not know me.”
She was silent for a moment and when she spoke, the play was gone from her voice. “Who are you truly, Frederico? I call you ‘ghost’ and make light of your empire but I’ve been through the library and I’ve found nothing. Where do you live? Where are these nine seas you sail in search of me? And are you truly as wonderful as you seem or are you just some whispering memory of a Younger God long dead and captured within this bauble I’ve found?”
He closed his eyes. “If I am wonderful, I think you’ve had a part in making me so. And I could ask the same of you. I’ve spent enough gold searching you out to finance a regional government for two years. I’ve found no island paradise. No silver tower. No record or recollection of the name Y’Zir in any of a thousand places I have searched. Sometimes,” he said, “I wonder if you’re not the ghost.”
“Maybe we both are,” she offered.
“Perhaps. If so, then you’ll not mind my ghost house in Espira.”
She laughed. “And why would I live in Espira rather than with you in your ghost palace?”
He’d told her little of his wives; truth be told, he’d not thought of them since meeting the girl. And he’d not spoken of Jazrel at all. That loss seemed a private thing to him or at the very least, something to share when their eyes could meet and their hands could touch. “Eventually,” he told her, “you would live here with me. But these matters are…complicated.”
Amal sighed. “I would imagine so. Being an emperor would be frightfully complex, I should think.”
“It has its moments.”
“So does being the daughter of a wizard.”
Frederico laughed. “I’m certain that it does.”
“You know I’ve asked my father’s mechoservitor about your empire and your nine seas.”
“His metal man,” she said. “Surely you have mechanicals in your empire?”
A metal man? Frederico thought about the handful of mechanicals he’d seen. Just last week, he’d seen a bird made of metal that could fly and recite verse. “A few,” he said. “Mostly small things. Nothing so elaborate as a man.”
“He is a wealth of knowledge beyond even our library. I see him infrequently as he’s often in the basements about my father’s work.”
“What did he say?”
She chuckled. “He made inquiries of where I’d heard such nonsense. I told him I’d read it in a book somewhere but could not remember which.”
She also hides me from her world, he thought, and he wondered why that impulse was strong within them. Initially, they might think it madness but it would only take a moment to draw out the crescent and prove the truth of it to any who wished to know. Perhaps we know it changes when it becomes more than the two of us.
When she yawned and stretched, he heard the sound of sheets moving across her skin and heard the pull of sleep in her voice. “Talk me to sleep, Frederico my Czar, and tell me about my house in Espira.”
Yawning himself, Frederico rolled to his side and began describing the estate with its gardens and butterflies, green pools and white sands.
When her breathing became slow and steady, he smiled. “Dream sweetly, Amal my love,” he said quietly into the crescent. Then, carefully, he lowered it into its velvet-lined box, closed the lid and pushed it back beneath his bed.
* * *
Frederico did not announce his visit to the Ministry of Social Behavior but somehow they expected him and ushered him into the Minister’s office immediately.
Pyrus was there was well, his anger barely concealed. “This is most irregular, Lord Czar,” he said. Still, he stood and bowed his head.
“Quite out of the ordinary,” the Minister of Social Behavior agreed, following Pyrus’s lead. He looked more nervous than angry and Frederico noted that.
“It may have been once,” Frederico replied, “but perhaps you’ve noticed some recent changes in what was once deemed regular and ordinary.” He smiled and went straight to the topic of his visit. “I want to see the Lunar Priestess. I’ve had a month of excuses and I’ll have no more. Broken or not, ill or not, raving or not, I will see her and I will interview her privately.”
Though it was not his ministry, Pyrus spoke first. Frederico noted this as well. “But—”
The Czar raised his hand, cutting him off. “Minister Pyrus, is what I ask beyond my right as your Czar?”
There was fire in his eye but the old man bit his tongue. “Anything you ask, Lord Czar, is within your right.”
“Very well.” He turned to the Minister of Social Behavior. “Take me to her then.”
The Minister glanced to Pyrus, then back to Frederico. “Yes, Lord Czar.”
They climbed wide and sweeping marble stairs and strode down paneled halls decorated with black and red roses of Empire, past portraits of the royal family. In the eastern ward, they climbed the corner tower to the midpoint and paused at a walnut door.
The Minister inserted a key and turned the lock while Pyrus tried and failed to disguise the anger on his face. Frederico looked to each of them, then looked to the captain of his Crimson Guard. “I will leave when I’m finished. I will ring if I have urgent need of you.”
The captain saluted. The ministers inclined their heads.
Frederico opened the door and slipped into the brightly lit room, pulling it closed behind him.
It was a wide open space with a comfortable bed and a small table, a wardrobe and glass-paned doors that opened onto a caged balcony garden. In the garden, a middle-aged woman with graying red hair sat upon a simple wood chair and hummed at the butterflies that lifted and landed from her naked skin.
Frederico found himself blushing at her nudity and he turned away from her. “Forgive my intrusion, Lady, he said. “I did not know you were indecent.”
She laughed. “I am never indecent.” The laughter melted into a smile as she stood. He glanced towards her as she turned to face him and saw continental lines of strength and islands of softness in the curving of her body. He looked away again, a blush rising once more to his cheeks. “You are the Weeping Czar Frederico,” she said.
He tried not to notice her breasts. “I no longer weep,” he said in a quiet voice.
“Then it’s begun.” She stopped then took another tentative step closer to him. “They’ve given it to you and you’ve spoken into it.” Her eyes were bright with tears. “It spoke back to you and now you are the Last Weeping Czar.” She smiled sweetly at him.
There was something compelling and confident in the priestess’s words. Frederico felt something like curiosity rising within. Or perhaps it was fear. He heard traces of it in his voice. “What has begun?”
She took another step forward. “The Year of the Falling Moon,” she said. “Just as Saint Carnelyin told us.”
She started humming again, swaying now to the music. Outside, the butterflies danced with her and Frederico blinked at it all and waited for her words to register. Carnelyin. The storyteller with his fanciful journey to the moon. He opened his mouth to protest, to tell her that the moon was the poisoned garden of gods long fled or extinct, but he was suddenly caught by the song she hummed. He knew it. “Where have you heard that song?”
Her body rippled like a river bathed in light. “He brought it back with him along with the crescent. But you should know this. Your family financed his expedition.”
Frederico bristled at the nonsense of her words. “There has never been a Czarist Lunar Expedition.”
She smiled. “There has, Frederico. It’s the best kept secret of your family and the source of its weeping.” Her voice lowered now. “Soon the time for secrets will be past. The Moon Wizard is awake and the end of an age is upon us.”
The Moon Wizard. He’d read Carnelyin’s story as a boy—most boys had—but it had been many years. He did not remember reading anything about a Moon Wizard. But he did remember something else. It came to him accompanied with laughter and a playful assertion. “I am Amal Y’Zir,” she had told him one night long ago, “daughter of the Great Blood Wizard, Raj Y’Zir.”
He looked at the priestess. She still hummed the song—the one he’d slowly learned upon the harp under Amal’s tutelage—and she danced in quiet supplication. “Did Carnelyin name this Moon Wizard?”
She shook her head. “He did not. And that first, smaller edition of his tale was gathered and burned.” She stopped dancing and their eyes met. “He himself was gathered and burned eventually,” she told him in a sober voice, “when he refused to recast his perilous tale at the behest of his Czar.”
Frederico shook his head. “He died in retirement in Espira, a man of great honor.”
“He died in a fire in some basement furnace beneath your palace,” she said. “Branded a traitor for telling the truth.”
Frederico swallowed. Something in her words held him and demanded that he ask the next question. “What truth did he tell?”
“Sit with me,” she told him, “and I will share his gospel with you.”
Frederico looked to the door then back to the woman. They are words, he told himself. Hearing could not hurt him. But already, this woman struck a chord within him that resonated as true as any upon his grandmother’s harp. He’d studied enough of the Lunarists to know they believed a tragic end awaited a faithless world but he’d never cared to know exactly why and what kind of end. It was enough to know that it hung upon mysticism and bordered on madness.
But now, a hunger for the words rode him and he walked slowly to the chair she pointed to.
Folding his hands into his lap, he sat. “Teach me about the moon,” he said.
She smiled and in her smile, Frederico saw damnation and salvation dancing together to the strains of a familiar tune.
* * *
The servants began delivering the manuscripts and documents even before he’d returned to his rooms. He saw them filing past out of the corner of his eye as he silently took his lunch in the small dining room near his suite.
He’d waved Pyrus and the others away when he’d left the priestess’s quarters. And the black clouds that gathered within him must have migrated to his face for they did not ask. The Minister of Social Behavior looked concerned. Pyrus looked bemused.
That bemusement had become something else when Frederico started listing off the books and records he wished brought to his rooms. He couldn’t tell if it was the tone of voice with which he issued the commands or if it was the documentation itself that he wished to see but Pyrus had looked almost eager to accommodate him.
And now a stream of men and women flowed into his rooms with arms stacked high, then left for yet more.
He chewed his orange-soaked pheasant slowly and thought about the Gospel of Felip Carnelyin. He could not find the good news in it but he knew it was because the finality of her words was still sinking in.
If her words were true then the world sat at the edge of a great change and there was nothing that could be done for it. And he had played a part in it. He’d sought to cover his shame by blaming the Lunarists for Jazrel and in so doing, he’d uncovered an older shame—the root of his family’s tears.
He’d spoken into the silver crescent and it had answered him. He had wept into it and something like joy had found him.
He’d gone in search of truth and found sorrow waiting in its place.
Suddenly angry, Frederico swept the platters and goblets from his table. They clattered against the walls and floor, causing the servants to jump and yelp at his sudden violence. It surprised everyone, including him.
He stood, mumbled an apology, and fled to his rooms and the mountains of paper that awaited him there.
He did not bring out the silver crescent that night. Instead, he kept the lamps up and launched his research. The priestess had given him a long list of places to start and he went to those first, finding her words confirmed with each scrap he read.
The Ministry of Intelligence had been careful, certainly. There were no blatant confessions, no straightforward accounts. But he found what he sought—verification of the priestess’s words—in the nooks and crannies of it all. In budget lines and meeting notes, in veiled references and coincidental dates from a thousand years before.
Initially, there was wonder to be found but beneath it, shame. And as the clues fell into place, the shame gave way to dread.
That dread grew within him until finally, as the sun grayed the eastern sky, it spilled over again into anger and he went at last to the silver crescent.
“Are you there?” he asked it, rubbing his eyes as if somehow that effort might erase what he’d learned. He heard stirring and then a sleepy voice.
He didn’t answer at first. Amal’s voice had an edge of panic to it. “Frederico? Are you there? Where have you been? I fell asleep waiting for you.”
“How old are you?” he finally asked. He could hear the flatness in his voice. “How old are you really?”
“Nineteen,” she said. “But I’ve told you that before.”
She couldn’t be nineteen and he knew it now. “And your older sister?” His voice was sharper now than he intended it.
“I have no older sister.”
No, he realized. She was correct in that assertion.
“But you had one,” he said. “There were two daughters.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Frederico. I am my father’s only daughter.”
“Perhaps,” he said, “you should ask him about Ameera.” But even as he said it, he knew he should not have. And with the same realization, he knew that the girl he’d spent so many nights with, talking from moonrise to moonfall, had no more understanding of what it all meant than he had just a day earlier.
I should not punish her for knowledge she does not have. Yet he had wanted to and now, just as suddenly, his desire to hurt her melted away at the fear he heard in her voice.
“What’s wrong?” He could hear tears just beyond her panic. “What’s happened? Have your ships found something?”
He would send word to call the ships back in a few hours. “No,” he said. “They’ve found nothing.” There had been nothing those ships could possibly find. Only one Czarist ship could ever have found evidence of Raj Y’Zir and his two daughters and that ship had been dismantled bolt by bolt, broken bit by bit, and buried at sea long, long ago. Its very existence had been hidden so well that the only reference left to it was the gaps in the supply records and the fanciful tale of a man discredited and later murdered by those who sent him to document the journey. Still, he fared better than the rest of the crew.
And far better than the girl he brought back with him.
Amal’s voice shook him out of memory. “If not the ships, then what is it, Frederico?”
He looked up at the crystalline ceiling of his chambers. Already, the sky moved toward mauve and the moon had vanished. He remembered the priestess’s words to him after he’d finished hearing her tale, after he’d raged and then sobbed there at her feet in her prison. “What do you see in your night sky, Amal?”
“Stars,” she said. “Stars and more stars.” He deceives even his own children, he realized.
“No moon then,” he asked. But it would be so much larger than a moon. It would fill the sky and light up the night, brown and green and blue and massive.
“No,” she answered.
Frederico sighed. “And nothing else?”
“Nothing else,” she said. And as if somehow it added credibility, she added, “I swear it.”
Frederico’s mouth went suddenly dry and his hand shook. I should not say more, he told himself. But at the end of everything he’d learned this night, he could not bear being the only one ambushed and overwhelmed by unexpected truth. “What if I told you,” he said slowly, “that your father kept an entire world out of your view?” He waited for the words to settle in. “Could he do that? With his magicks?”
There was silence. He heard the rustle of cloth, then heard the faintest trace of wind, the lingering song of frogs upon it. “Why would my father keep something like that from me?”
“I do not know,” he answered. “But couldn’t he?”
He could hear the tension rising in her voice. “And why wouldn’t he tell me about an older sister?”
“I do not know that, either,” Frederico said. But he wondered if he did know and if perhaps Raj Y’Zir had hidden both the world he watched and the daughter he lost in order to spare his youngest a grief she was too innocent to bear. But how could Frederico tell her that?
“And why would my father keep anything from me?“ Amal Y’Zir asked again.
“I do not know,” he said once more.
“If you don’t know those things,” she said now, her voice clearly angry, “perhaps you’ll know why I would believe a lying ghost rather than my own eyes and my own father?”
But she did not wait for a reply this time. Frederico heard the softest of cries and knew it was the sound of her sudden, angry exertion. For a moment, his ear filled with the hollow sound of air rushing past and he felt the vertigo as if he himself fell. Then there was a crash.
After the crash, the sound of running water and frogs.
Somewhere above and beyond that, a girl sobbing.
* * *
Pyrus swept into the room before the bell of his arrival sounded, his face red and his jaw firm. His black-coat escort fell back before Frederico’s Red Brigade guard but not before menacing glances were exchanged.
Trouble brews there.
“Minister Pyrus,” Frederico said, putting down his glass of kallaberry wine. He smiled. “You’ve no doubt seen my release orders for the Lunarists.”
Frederico cut him off. “Well within my right as Czar, Pyrus. I’ve sent word personally to the Minister of Social Behavior.” He leaned forward. “We’ve more emergent matters to address than that harmless cult. War is coming, Pyrus, and we must be ready.”
Pyrus looked perplexed. “War? With whom?”
Frederico stood and went to the table. It stood stacked high with volume upon volume—some from his first frantic night of research, more from the last two nights. He’d kept the crescent nearby in case she called out to him while he pored over the records but she hadn’t and that was not surprising.
He gestured to the papers there, then swept the broader room with its similar piles of parchment and book. “What if I told you, Pyrus, that there was a threat at least a thousand years brewing?”
The old man snorted. “What do you play at, Frederico?”
One of the crimson clad guards started forward but Frederico waved him off. “I play at nothing but the truth. A thousand years ago we went to the moon and we’ve wept ever since.”
Pyrus had gone from perplexed and angry to starkly surprised. “You believe there is threat of war to us upon the moon?”
Frederico nodded. “I do. We took the Moon Wizard’s daughter. We tortured her to death. When Carnelyin got out of hand, we quieted him quickly enough, too.” His words came out faster than he intended.
Pyrus began to smile.
“You think I’m mad,” Frederico said. “I assure you, I’m not. Mark me: We’ve preparations to make and still they may not be enough. I’ve called the War Cabinet together for a meeting tomorrow morning. The Year of the Falling Moon is upon us.”
Pyrus laughed and this time, the guard made no move.
Without another word, the Minister of Intelligence spun about on his heels and left quickly, his black-coats falling in behind him as he went.
* * *
That fourth night, Frederico fell asleep with his head cradled in the silver crescent. He wasn’t sure why; even knowing the threat, he could not stay away. As much as he hoped to never hear her voice again, he longed for it, even prayed for it though he had no god to pray to.
Overhead, the sky was shrouded in clouds that promised coming rain. He heard her voice from far away, calling his name, and he stirred awake slowly.
Her voice drew closer and was suddenly there, filling the crescent. “Frederico?” She sounded small and far away. Something wounded and broken.
Do not answer her, some part of him warned. “I’m here,” he said.
“You were right. I’ve seen it now.”
“Seen what?” he asked, but he knew what. It filled her sky and boggled her.
“I know where you come from now,” Amal said. “I know all of it now.”
Frederico wanted to speak but didn’t know what to say. Instead, he waited and let her continue.
“I tricked my father’s mechoservitor into showing me. That was yesterday. Then I spent last night in father’s hidden library.” He could tell from the rawness of her voice that she’d been crying. “I don’t know how he’s kept it from me. Or why. But somehow he has.” She sniffed. “And now I’m sure he knows I know something. I’ve stayed away as much as I can but he’s been asking the servants a lot of uncomfortable questions about how I’ve been spending my time.”
Frederico sat up. “Do your servants know about me?”
She was quiet for a moment, then answered in a quiet voice. “I think they do. They’ve caught me with you before.”
He sighed at the powerlessness that washed over him suddenly. “I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s nothing you can do,” she told him. She cried for a bit then, and he heard her quiet sobbing as if it were a canticle played out in a minor key, like the song she’d taught him. He felt his own sadness welling up though he resisted it, bending his focus towards her instead. She sniffed again. “I think I will have to face him soon.”
“What will he do?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Make me forget again. Like he made me forget Ameera or the world that fills our sky.” She laughed and it was bitter in his ear. “A daily glamour with my breakfast.”
Frederico closed his eyes to her words and imagined losing himself in forgetfulness. No memory of Sasha or Jazrel to stir his guilt and remind him of loss he brought about by sharing his mad sorrow with them. No recollection of the last months spent with Amal Y’Zir in her imaginary arms, held fast by her voice and her laughter, paralyzed by her tears. “Would that be so very bad?“ he asked in a small voice.
“So very bad?” There was an edge to her voice. “To forget you and to forget these times?” She paused. “Even with what I know now, I’d rather remember.”
But did she know everything? Did she know what had happened in those bright-lit basements of his forefather? The priestess had whispered that part of the story to him, relaying the only unwritten chapter of Felip Carnelyin’s gospel. Eventually, their same questions, repeated again and again, had worn trails into the moon princess’s mind and eventually, she had cried out one last breath in despair and hopelessness and every hand in the room shook at the sound of it and dropped what it held, every breath in the room caught and became a sob. A thousand years of weeping.
“I’d rather remember,” she said again. Then, after a moment: “Oh, Frederico, I wish your ships could find me here and bring me to you.”
“I wish it, too,” he said.
They were quiet now and Frederico could hear the sounds of the brook running and the frogs singing against the backdrop of her gentle breathing. He heard something, far and distant, deep and ominous.
“I have to go,” she whispered suddenly. “Father calls for me.”
Frederico heard her quickened footfalls fade quietly into the other sounds of that lunar night. After she’d gone, he lay there with the crescent and tried to find comfort in the frogs.
But there was no comfort to be found.
* * *
It happened sometime in the night and Frederico did not know it. He awakened in the morning, put the silver crescent back into its lockbox, and rang for servants that did not come.
Finally, he went to the door and opened it. The Red Brigade guard was gone; black-coats stood watch in their place.
“What is the meaning of this?” he asked, but he knew without asking. He’d seen Pyrus’s face, had heard his laughter, and he’d known even then that this storm had brewed for some time now. Until his interview with the priestess, he might have even welcomed this change though it angered him that it came through Pyrus. But with war coming, it placed his people and the empire his family had built at tremendous risk.
The black-coat guard did not answer. He stared straight ahead at attention, his freshly-lacquered rifle held tightly to his side. He’s ordered them not to speak. “Send the servants in with my breakfast,” he said. “And congratulate Minister Pyrus on his coups thus far.”
He didn’t wait for any kind of acknowledgement. Instead, he closed the door and went to his closets to dress for the day.
Pyrus came in with the servants two hours later. He looked haggard and sleepless but a satisfied smile played at his mouth. “Well, Frederico,” he said, “how go your preparations for war?”
Frederico smiled and looked to the water clock that hissed upon his wall. “I’m afraid we’ve already missed that meeting, Pyrus. But there is time yet.” Nearly a year if the priestess spoke true.
These were new servants, Frederico realized, men and women he’d not seen before. They laid out his breakfast table silently, their careful glances taking in their former Czar and the rooms he occupied. Pyrus sat to the table without invitation and Frederico joined him.
“I’ve spoken with the new Minister of Social Behavior,” Pyrus said. “For now, you’ll remain here in your quarters but they will send their physicians later this week to determine just how mad you are and what treatments may help you find your way again.” He reached out and broke off a piece of honeyed pastry. “They are doing interesting things with electrostatic pulses and kallaberries these days.”
Frederico smiled. “You and I both know I am not mad.”
Pyrus laughed. “I know no such thing. The evidence speaks too loudly for me to know it.” He started listing his evidence on his fingers. “Your own servants speak of strange goings-on, hidden away in your rooms with that bauble. You’ve spent the operating budget of a small nation scouring the land and sea for some mysterious family no one has heard of. You spent three hours with the Lunarist priestess and released that dangerous woman and her mad followers without so much as a consultation with your cabinet. And now,” he said, leaning forward, “you are ready to declare war upon the moon.”
“No,” he said, correcting him, “I do not declare it; it has been declared upon us.” And we’ve earned every last part of it, he did not say. “And the Lunarists are harmless; we have a much larger threat to concern us.”
Pyrus shrugged. “I suppose you’ve heard about this threat in your little bauble?”
“No,” Frederico said, feeling suddenly angry first at Pyrus and his smugness but then, after a moment, with himself for letting any of this come to pass. He’d seen the signs and he’d not cared. He’d played his harp and stayed up nights imagining the touch of a woman whose sister his family had killed, whose father, according to the priestess, would someday avenge himself upon them all. Yet he could not be without her any more than he could be with her and that built his rage even further. Taste and need. The anger in him was hot and white and fierce but he forced his shaking hand to put down his cup of chai. He looked up and his eyes met Pyrus’s. “I’ve not heard it in the bauble.”
Pyrus waved a dismissive hand. “It doesn’t matter where you’ve heard it. You’re unfit, Frederico, and the empire needs leadership.” He stood and smoothed the black robes of his dark office. “You’ll remain here until sufficient quarters can be arranged for you elsewhere. You’ll want to make a list of the few things permitted for you to take when the time comes.” He walked to the door and looked over his shoulder as he opened it. “The silver bauble stays here.”
Frederico sat, unmoving, for a long time after Pyrus left him there. He bent his mind to his present circumstances and tried to find something beyond the anger that licked at him, chewed on him. Try as he might, he could find nothing past that primal emotion.
He could not even find his tears.
* * *
Two days slipped past and Frederico bided time. He gathered up the documents he’d searched, ordered his findings into a logical flow, and stacked everything in a way that the new servants could easily return them to their proper place if the new Czar—or would he go by some other title?—chose not to look at them, chose not to see what Frederico had seen.
He went to the silver crescent less and less, though now he left it out in the open. He’d heard nothing from it but frogs and water since Amal had left to see her father and he wasn’t sure he’d ever hear her voice again. Some part of him even wondered if perhaps she hadn’t been a ruse, some part in Raj Y’Zir’s intricate game of vendetta.
When her voice came through, late in the afternoon of his third day under house arrest, it was muffled but excited.
“Frederico, are you there?”
He stood slowly, eyeing the silver crescent where it lay across the room.
“Frederico, my love, are you there?”
He moved towards it. My love.
“Oh, come quickly,” she said and her voice was nearly frantic. He could tell she was out of breath.
He paused, then closed the gap. “I’m here,” he said.
“I’ve found a way to you,” she said. “I’m leaving my father. I’m coming to Espira.”
He blinked back surprise. He’d not expected these words and he found himself not knowing what to say.
She continued. “I’m packing now. I’m taking you with me but I don’t know if it will be safe to talk.”
Finally, he found words. “How are you doing this?”
“There’s a pool in a cave deep beneath my father’s tower,” she said, the words tumbling out. “It’s where he goes to draw up his magicks from the blood of your world.” She paused. “It’s connected somehow.”
A childhood superstition about magicks crept into his mind. “The Beneath Places,” he said. The so-called hell of the Younger Gods, where they plundered devils of their souls and slept restless in their sins. Or bargained for power. Stories, like the ghosts in the water, to keep children obedient.
“Yes,” she said. “We call it that, too. I will swim the pool and come to you.” She hesitated. “If you will have me?”
Frederico found her words discomfiting but did not understand why initially. Then, he realized his silence would not be taken the way he intended and he blurted out the first question that came to mind. “But why?” It didn’t sound the way he intended and he reframed it. “Why would you have me, Amal, knowing what my family did to your sister?”
“You’ve wept those tears already, Frederico, and they were never truly yours to weep.” There was something in her voice that he could not place and wondered if grace were an emotive quality. “Tears enough are on the way for all of us,” she continued, “without borrowing yesterday’s.”
And in that moment, he forgot about the black-coats outside his door, forgot about the rooms that waited for him at the Ministry of Social Behavior, and forgot even about the wives his grief had slain. All he could hear was the Moon Wizard’s daughter as she asked again: “Will you have me?”
“I will,” he said.
“Then I will find you in Espira if I can.”
And somehow he knew in that moment, without doubt, that he would never hear her voice again.
But before he could reply she was gone. He waited all day hoping to hear her again but knowing he would not. He took the silver crescent with him into his private dining room and kept it near his tub as he bathed at the end of the day. He cradled it beside him on his pillow.
That night, the weeping came upon him again but it was different this time because the loss was his own and he understood it. Gone was Ameera’s final spell upon his family, replaced now by Amal’s first and the force of his bereavement wracked his body in great sobs.
Twice, the black-coats inquired of his well-being and consulted quietly with cloaked couriers. Then, sometime in the early morning hours, they came for him and carried the last Weeping Czar out of his palace and loaded him into a carriage bound for his new home.
* * *
A sense of time returned to Frederico but he had no way to know how many days he’d lost. How long had he been in this new place?
His new rooms were loftier than his former, overlooking the forests beyond the city. The bars across his balcony cast the sunlight in straight lines across the carpeted floor and though the rooms were much smaller, they were also more comfortable.
He’d fallen quickly into a routine. He read over his morning chai—mostly novels and plays, but sometimes he read poetry as well. He met with his physicians after breakfast and then exercised outdoors under the supervision of disinterested guards. In the afternoons, he practiced his harp.
When Pyrus came to him, his face white and his hands shaking, Frederico had just sat down and raised his fingers to the strings. He looked up. “Minister Pyrus,” he said, inclining his head. “Or is it Chancellor now?”
The old man said nothing. He stretched out his hand towards Frederico and in it, wrapped in black velvet, was the silver crescent.
Frederico stood. The sight of it stopped his breath and he saw the look of stunned surprise on his own face, reflected back in its mirrored surface. He reached out and took it, held it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Two daughters have you taken from me out of my own house,” a voice like silk said, “and I will have blood for them each.” Raj Y’Zir continued, quietly and with confidence. “When I fall upon you it will shake the foundations of the world. My physicians will cut you for my pleasure.”
Frederico looked up and saw the wideness of Pyrus’s eyes. “I’ve not taken your daughter, Lord Y’Zir. She’s left you of her own free will.”
“You’ve taken her, whether you know it or not. She’s swum the Bargaining Pool but she was too young to know that her body could not make the journey. Her spirit is yours for now.”
Frederico closed his eyes. These were tears he’d already wept but he felt them again at the back of his eyelids.
“You will not hear my voice again until it is in the sky above you,” Raj Y’Zir said. “Until then, know that a wrathful father builds his army and his bridge.”
After that, silence.
Frederico smiled grimly and looked to Pyrus, returning the crescent to him. “I believe this changes your position considerably.”
The old general said nothing as Frederico sat back down and let his fingers find their way over the harp strings. The canticle was upbeat but in a minor key, haunting and yet triumphant.
It is a love song, Frederico realized.
* * *
The war production was in full swing when Frederico took to his new estate near Belle-Sur-La-Mer. He left the affairs of state in the hands of his capable Chancellor Tannen and left the gun-fields and navies in the hands of his new Minister of War. Pyrus had taken to the role with gratitude appropriate for a spared life and a treason forgiven.
He found the same routines he’d discovered during his brief stay in the Ministry; they comforted him. And he added new ones. He took to walking the markets by day and the beaches by night, his bare feet shuffling over sand still warm from the sun and bathed blue-green in the light of the moon.
Sometimes, late at night, he even sat on the pier with his harp and played. His servants thought him mad but he was the Lord Czar and could do as he pleased. One night, as the lamps guttered low and his fingers ached from the strings, Frederico stood up and stretched.
He walked to the end of the dock and looked up into the night sky. It had been just past a year now, he realized, and he knew now that the Year of the Falling Moon was not literal after all. He’d wondered. But the anniversary of Jazrel’s passing had come and gone more than two months ago and there’d been no shaking ground or raining fire, no booming voice crying out vengeance.
Hanging there, full and bright, the moon waited.
And in that moment, deep in the waters at the end of the pier, something moved.
At first, Frederico thought it was a reflection, blue and green light upon the warm night sea. But then it moved again and he started. He looked over his shoulder to the crimson guard that waited by the front doors of his estate, to the servants stationed near their bell. Crouching, he leaned forward and looked into the water.
It was slender and beautiful and it coiled around the pillar of the dock before sliding off and out—a line of blue-green light moving deeper and away, as if part of the moon had fallen and now sank.
Amal. He couldn’t tell if he said it aloud or silently. But a sudden fancy took him. Soft and low, he whistled the tune he’d been playing just minutes ago and watched the light flicker as it turned about and drifted slowly back to him.
What had her father said? Her body could not make the journey.
And he realized then that the Year of the Falling Moon was not about conquest and war, vendetta and violence. They’d only had part of Carnelyin’s gospel. The angry, broken potshards of loss. Those would still come but they were not the message of promise.
No, Frederico realized, this gospel was really about love. A love so strong that it would swim, relentless, at any price. And so piercing that it could be heard in the deepest of dark places.
“You found me,” he said quietly.
And with that Frederico stood, returned to his harp, and gave himself to song.
Copyright © 2009 Kenneth G. Scholes