A stranger claiming knowledge of realms beyond the known world attempts to stop a war.
Stories about the Scholast proliferate among the uneducated. They say she was a god, or not. She seduced the Princess Martial, or was saved by her. She has been credited with miracles. But history owes its pride of place to the truth of its tales, and since many of the war’s principles will soon pass beyond reference, your humble scholars have prepared this meticulously sourced account to endure for future generations.
The Scholast fell to earth one brilliant everspring morning, at the height of our Ceremony of Passing Through.
We of the Low Waters Kingdom gathered in Crimson Square for three days while players acted out the titans’ rise and fall, and the splitting of the sky. We wept when Sujiang, called eight-jointed, danced the Gatherer’s part. We beat dry ground with our palms until dust clouds rose to make the dancers seem gods that trod on air. We ate dates and grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts and rice. Children turned somersaults around the patterned circle of colored sand. And on the third day, as girls and boys of oracular gift or technic family stepped naked and silver-inked through the green metal arch at the center of the Square—in truth, there is some confusion about what happened next.
Angelic choirs sang, some say. Others, that a goddess belched. The chosen youths beneath the arch, who would know best, insist there was no sound. Light changed, claims Bel Mei, the girl who led them. The world reddened, then blued, and for a heartbeat down was no longer down.
Then the Scholast came.
On this, the reports converge: seven sun-baked children strode through the arch, and, in a space brief as the blindness doctors say seizes a fast-moving eye, an eighth figure stood among them.
She was not a child. Those who knew her best doubt she ever was. Her appearance, in those first breaths after she stepped onto our sand, is another subject on which we must record disagreement. We list the most outlandish claims first, if only to show the nonsense against which we contend in assembling this chronicle: that she possessed more than the common number of limbs, that a third eye burned in the center of her forehead, that horns sprouted from her skull or wings from her back. Most foolish of all, some claim she sported sex organs of unfamiliar type—most foolish, for the Scholast was clothed when she arrived.
Bel Mei stood closest, so her report may be believed: “She was black, at first—not like my skin, but deeper, like the sky on a Spikeless night, or a prayer mirror when no god is watching. Her face was cloudy. She wore a rough canvas robe, and leaned on a staff. I held out my hand to her. When she looked at me, I saw she was alone—but I saw more, too, so much more that my head hurt. I trembled and could not move. She took my wrist, and I was afraid. But her hand was a human hand, and then her skin was the color of skin, and the cloud passed from her face. All the more I saw faded away, and she became herself.”
So she was: a tall woman with a sharp chin and a broad nose, arms muscled and marked with pale scars, her hair shorn close to her scalp. She did not look like us, but the ways she did not are too slight to list. Slight, indeed, as her smile at the sight of our Square, our sky, the shocked crowds around her, and the pikemen striding forth with lowered spears as all the children but Bel Mei scuttled back.
The Scholast released Bel Mei’s hand, and raised her own—both of them. Spear-tips pressed into the fabric of her robe. The first time she spoke we did not understand her. The second, we did. “You are all in danger,” she said. “I have come to help.” And her smile widened. “Take me to your leader.”
“You may call me Jane,” the Scholast told the King and the Princess Martial and the General of the Land. “Members of my order travel in search of knowledge. An army marches toward the Low Waters Kingdom now. I came by secret ways to warn you.”
She stood surrounded by a ring of spears in court, on the path between the Ministers of Left and Right, before the diviners’ well and the high seats. She ignored spears and ministers and well, though any of them would have been more receptive than the General, who gripped his beard in thought. He had been awake late, or else early, drinking with Merchant Bergam, and had been summoned to this council in spite of his strict orders not to be roused before sunset. “Our scouts have sent no word of armies on the march. Our neighbors are busy with their own skirmishes.”
“These invaders,” the Scholast said, “are strangers from a distant land. They have found new paths, which let them cross a great distance in little time.”
The General scoffed, but the notion intrigued our Princess Martial. “Why travel so far to make war? They could not supply their troops over such distance.”
“They can. These new paths are like the road I followed to your city: subtle and swift. The paths may not remain open long, so rather than establishing trade, the invaders will seize what they can from your lands, and retreat to theirs.” She knelt, and the ring of spear points followed her down. “All praise the Low Waters Kingdom for its justice, strength, and scholarship. I offer you my service. I am an expert in defensive warfare. I know this foe, and his weapons.”
“Many come to court spinning stories,” the Princess said. “If you had not arrived in such a dramatic fashion, you would have been given a madwoman’s meal already, and sent away. Why should we believe you?”
“It is said your diviners can answer any question. Let them descend into the well and ask.”
“Why should we trouble the gods to verify your claims?”
“What have you lost, if you ask them and find my claims false?”
Jane and the Princess regarded one another for many beats of the ko drum that keeps the rhythm of the high hall. Some call the length of their regard indecent, though all save Bel Mei who knew the Scholast claim she lacked technic marks of any sort; stare at her as long as you liked, and you saw no halo, no glyphs of interest or availability or badges of affiliation, nothing but raiment and flesh. As such, there could have been no failing in modesty on the Princess’s part. What Jane saw when she examined the Princess Martial, no one knows.
“Let me prove myself,” Jane said. “If your spear men will retreat two steps?”
The General grumbled, but the Princess raised her hand, and they did retreat.
“Does your court host merchants who have come to celebrate the festival?” We do, of course. “Where do they stand?” They were indicated. “The army in question sends out spies and advance scouts, like crows before a storm.” She pointed. “Search that man.”
Merchant Bergam turned left and right, shocked at the space his fellow tradesmen suddenly allowed him.
“Bergam is a bonded merchant of the northern straits,” the General said. “He is no spy.”
“Prod his limbs, and you will feel protrusions of metal from his bones. He will have weapons and tools about his person, made of resin and a substance that looks like glass. His clothes contain rigid wires, connected to a generator box at his belt.”
If Bergam spoke, his words are not recorded.
“Ravings,” the General said.
“But easily tested,” said the Princess, and motioned for soldiers to search the man.
The merchants closest to Bergam say he shook, and sweated, and kept his hands raised, until the soldiers were about to seize him. Then, “as if by magic” (their words), he grew still and cold, and moved quickly. There was a weapon in, or around, his hand, formed of glimmering outlines in space, and he pointed first toward the Princess Martial—then toward Jane.
That hesitation may have saved the Princess. At any rate before the hand completed its arc, Jane raised her staff and threw it like a javelin. It struck Bergam’s hand, and the airy weapon tumbled from his grip. Jane reached him before he fell. The soldiers guarding her say she moved through them like a ghost. Perhaps they are being metaphorical. Perhaps not.
She reached Bergam as he drew another weapon. She struck his wrist, and then rammed her forehead into his nose. Soldiers seized him then, and rushed him against the wall.
Bergam’s eyes caught fire. Jane ordered the soldiers to let him go, and fall back. Most did. One unfortunate moved too slowly and was caught at the edge of the ensuing blast. Blood covered the soldier, and flying pieces of metal which had been hidden within Bergam’s flesh pierced his body. Ever since, that soldier has complained of a high ringing in his left ear.
“You see,” the Princess Martial said. “There was no need to trouble the gods after all.”
“I did not wish to press the issue so early,” Jane said. She breathed hard, and her skin radiated heat like a stone courtyard after a long day’s sun. “We could have used him. Fed him wrong information. Cornered like that, he might have killed us both.”
“But he did not. Now, tell us what else you know.”
The Scholast knew many things, and used her knowledge in strange ways.
The enemy would arrive, she claimed, in eight days. She asked smiths for every scrap and sliver of metal they could sweep from the corners of their workshops, the smaller and sharper the better. The smiths grumbled and complained as they complied—if not for her they would have melted these scraps down and recast them as is our custom, save for the deepmetal, which they might have set in jewelry. But they gave over the scraps, which were stored as ammunition for the siege engines carpenters built under the Scholast’s direction, to measurements based on markings upon her staff.
She argued that those who lived within the outer walls should be relocated into the keep, so the wide open spaces might be rebuilt into a killing field once the walls were breached. Diviners protested: allowing so many commoners near the well would pollute their omens. Jane asked if this was the gods’ opinion, or theirs, but the diviners refused to answer. The Princess Martial ordered our people to move. Jane suggested the creation of a murder channel, by erecting new walls around a weak side gate, and the Princess found the notion to her taste.
But the same diviners at which the Scholast scoffed, she later cornered to interview about number theory and the Heavenly Tongue. She returned to them day after day, armed with new questions based on the precise wording they had used the night before.
She scorned art. When the court gathered at night to hear sacred musicians play qin and bass guitar, she retreated to the tower room the Princess Martial had assigned her, and (servants testify) remained bent over maps and geometric diagrams until stars and Spike set, and dawn threatened. On the seventh night, the Princess Martial found Jane in the tower, took her arm, and guided her down to Court, to watch Sujiang dance.
“Straining your eyes and mind is no way to spend the eve of an invasion,” the Princess said. “Take joy while joy lasts, for we do not know the limits of our time.”
“Time,” Jane replied, “any time, is best spent reclaiming what’s been lost, developing universal love, and constructing new knowledge. Art is particular, and, though interesting, is not to be preferred above universal principles.”
“Just watch her.”
The Scholast did, and she was watched in turn, by the Princess Martial and by others who knew Jane’s habits and opinions well enough by this point to be shocked by her attendance at an artistic event. Jane offered no applause, but sat riveted at attention from the moment Sujiang dawned upon the stage, until her final disappearance behind the curtain.
The next night, the army came.
The Princess Martial joined Jane on the outer wall, and leaned over the parapet. The bands of her armor scraped against stone. The Princess’s guard reports the following conversation.
“They do not look like any army I have ever fought,” the Princess Martial said, “or seen, or heard tell of outside legend.”
“The white star on the black field, is that their standard? Strange to make war under a symbol of peace.”
“On Spikeless nights the sky goes black, and since there is little light, there can be no war.”
“In their homeland, there is no Spike such as you have here. Stars always look like that.”
“The Spike burns over every city in the world.” The Scholast did not answer. “This army comes from a long way off, then,” our Princess said.
“A very long way.”
“And so do you.”
Beneath, by torchlight, ground crews serviced slick machines that looked like crouching insects. Cavalrymen sharpened lances against the scales of fanged mounts.
“You cannot hide the truth,” the Princess Martial said. “Everyone in this world proclaims herself to the eye with technic marks—one glance at a woman reveals her name and the sort of companionship that interests her, and perhaps her mood, if she is quite unguarded. I look at you and see nothing. So I must guess.”
“In many places, such marks are private, shown only to those we trust.”
“Do you trust me?”
The Scholast was seldom the first to break eye contact. “Old paths, from the titan days, are open again. No one knows why, or how long they will remain. We have a brief window to recover all we’ve lost in the ages they’ve been closed. Some would use this opportunity to seize wealth, make slaves, and gather ancient weapons.” Scorn dripped from her voice.
“War is but one path of many down which a kingdom may seek advantage.”
“War,” the Scholast said, “is a crime, born of partiality.”
“Which we call loyalty.”
“Call it what you like. It is a disease which makes you forget—or convince yourself—that other human beings are less deserving of love than the ones you know.”
The soldier who reports this conversation claims the Princess Martial seemed amused by this statement. “But you are a warrior.“
“You help us make war.”
“You make war,” Jane said. “They make war. I make war difficult.”
The air raid came before dawn. We heard the bug-machines’ high drones first—the Scholast taught our lookouts how to listen, and what for. They dropped bombs. Fire fountained from abandoned houses behind the curtain wall, and spread to the edge of firebreaks the Scholast had ordered. The bugs swept past the city, leaving white trails of affronted air, and, meeting no resistance, dove lower for a second pass. At this point Jane ordered the ko drums beat in triple time, and her siege engines, hearing the drums, launched metal scraps into the air. Though arrows bounced off the bug-machines’ hulls, when they flew into the scrap cloud they faltered, swerved, and fell, excreting black smoke.
“Can those machines be fixed?” the Princess Martial asked, in the watchtower. “Or have we vanquished them forever?”
“Can and will,” Jane said, “are different beasts. Human beings made those fliers, once, and human beings with the right knowledge could fix them. But the White Stars only reap. They lack the knowledge or skill to tend, or sow, or repair.”
“Their infantry will charge the walls now.”
“Without close air support,” Jane observed, as arrows rained on the advancing troops. “A thornier proposition.”
Catapult-thrown boulders thudded into the outer wall. Some split open, vomiting flame over the ramparts. Drilled volunteers tamped out the fires with rags wet from large pots of water. A soldier, jerkin aflame, dove screaming into a pot and emerged spouting like a whale. The Princess Martial laughed, and struck Jane on the shoulder. Attending tea-pourers claim the Scholast did not acknowledge the honor done her by this display of affection.
Ladders rose. Ladders fell. More catapults launched on both sides.
“Set the fire on the eastern wall,” the Scholast ordered, “and fall back.”
So the drums ordered, and so the soldiers did, making a great show of panic and throwing down their weapons to leave the east gate vulnerable. The enemy’s troops could not summit the wall while the fire burned—and, being set with lamp oil in an iron trough, it would burn for quite some time—but they could, and did, bring up a battering ram to split the gates, which would have been a grand feat had we not replaced the east gate’s iron-shod hardwood bar with fresh pine. The gate broke to reveal a few defenders, shields linked to form a wall. The ramsmen rushed them and were repulsed, and again.
The ground shook as if some god used it for his own ko drum to marshal disaster. The enemies’ cavalry approached. Deepsteel hooves tore furrows in the earth. Caustic exhalations wilted plants and blanched soil. Steam rose from joints in their armored steeds. The ramsmen fell back.
Cavalry charged the gate, their lances lowered, diamond tips flashing in the morning light.
The defenders threw down their shields and scattered with the terrified enthusiasm that distinguishes a young actor’s first performance from her afternoon rehearsal. One, Costain Feng, in the center of the line, was too slow. A lance took him through the liver and tore sideways out his body. He tumbled to the earth nearly in two halves. Heavy hooves ground his pulp into the dust.
The rest scattered, some sprinting into doors that closed and locked behind them, others retreating down East Gate Road, shedding weapons and armor to gain speed. The cavalry charged after. Bel Ming, elder sister of Mei who first met the Scholast in Crimson Square, was the last left fleeing the charge down East Gate Road. A thrown spear took her through the back of the skull as the last of the cavalry cleared the breached gate. She died instantly, and their hooves broke her.
Ko drums syncopated. Atop the eastern wall, two kneeling soldiers cut heavy ropes, and a great stone slab swept down to close the eastern gate. Counterweighted locks slammed into place, and retreat was no longer an option for the White Star cavalry. At about this time the lead cavalryman, lance still wet with Bel Ming’s blood, must have seen the barricade that capped East Gate Road, and the soldiers crouched at its summit. Then an arrow took him in the neck.
All along the avenue rooftops our soldiers and volunteers, heretofore concealed, stood, nocked arrow to bow, drew, and, at the ko drum’s change, loosed. Arrows found chinks in the armor of those mounts that were not horses. More often they found patches of human flesh. Lances tumbled to cobblestones and were crushed by plunging hooves. Some of the cavalry wheeled to escape down side streets, but all the avenues broad enough to admit a steed were blocked with rubble. Again came the ko drum’s triple-beat, and again arrows flew and missiles fell.
In the watchtower the Princess kept her view, as the sacred song commands. The Scholast, too, watched, though our tea pourers claim she lacked the Princess’s relish in the carnage.
“They’re surrendering,” the Princess said after many deaths. “You’ve done it. You make war difficult indeed.”
“But not without cost,” Jane replied. “I will apologize to Bel Mei and Costain Zhang in person for their siblings’ deaths.”
After the loss of their cavalry, the White Stars offered a bitter day’s fight for the outer wall, with grappling hooks and ladders and siege towers, all repulsed. Meanwhile we gathered up the captive cavalry. Their mounts we corralled in Garden Square, for they were too large and carnivorous to stable with our own horses. Their lances we distributed throughout our army. Their persons we took to the dungeons, save for their commander, who, when the fighting ceased at sunset, we brought under guard to the throne room, to present his formal surrender amid cheers and japes and celebration.
He was a deathly pale man of broad shoulders and jutting jaw, patches of silver in his dark hair, a cavalryman’s rolling gait. We remarked on his eyes, which lacked epicanthic folds. He knelt before the high seats.
“I am Colonel Rathland,” he said. “I offer my surrender, and that of my men.”
So remarkable was his appearance, and so strange his accent, that most of us did not notice the sudden tension in the Scholast’s shoulders when she saw Rathland, or the sharp drawn line her lips became, or the glance she and the cavalryman shared: accusation in her eyes, apology in his.
The General noticed. He said nothing, though, at first.
The next day’s attack was desultory, confined to conventional siege weapons and attempted scaling of the walls. From the watchtower, the White Star forces seemed much depleted.
“They will not attack,” the General said, lowering his spyglass. “Not with so few troops. They wish to starve us out. But we can outlast them.”
Jane took the spyglass from his hand without asking, raised it, and scanned the line. “Long sieges are not in the White Stars’ nature. They cannot trust the paths through which they traveled to reach your city—they may close at any moment. They seize advantage quickly.”
“Then perhaps this is a rear-guard action, then, to cover their retreat. Their main assault has failed. We should mount a sortie to strike the stragglers from behind, and capture more of their weapons. If we follow them into their own lands, we could seize their territory for our own.” The cavalry lances had done good service against siege towers in the morning’s fighting. “Perhaps even one of those bugs that whine through the air. What weapons! Without you to advise them, our enemies will be defenseless.”
The Princess watched Jane watch the opposing army.
“You would go to them, wouldn’t you,” the Princess said. “You would help our enemies against us, if we struck them.”
“The teacher calls us to love all equally.” Jane handed the spyglass to the Princess Martial. “They are tunneling.”
“Impossible,” said the high diviner when Jane raised the issue in counsel chambers later. “Beneath the soil there is a sheet of rock, and beneath that rock lies deepsteel. Who could tunnel through that?”
“There are spaces beneath the deepsteel. Your own diviners’ well descends into that darkness.”
“Do not speak of secrets you do not understand.”
“I speak of no sacred paths. The White Stars have sensors and probes. They have found other doors to the space beneath the deepsteel.”
“The prayer mirrors would warn us.”
“Not if these men can hide from the prayer mirrors.”
“You suggest blasphemy.”
“No. I suggest that there are deeper mysteries in the minds of your gods than you have yet touched upon. If I might examine these mirrors—or descend into the pit myself—”
“You would bring curses and disfavor on us all.”
“Do not speak to her in that tone of voice,” the Princess Martial said, and rose from her chair.
The high diviner fell silent, but there was much scorn in the look he directed against the Scholast.
This, too, the General noted.
“You have made no friends today,” the Princess Martial said that night, when she paid the Scholast the courtesy of a visit to her chamber. Jane, who had spent the rest of the day in the sub-basements of the castle with her ear pressed to deepsteel, was annotating a diagram of the castle walls. Outside, in the night, White Star fires burned. There were fewer of fires than there had been before. “The General believes you fear we will raid their camp and seize their weapons for ourselves. The high diviner believes you made up this tunneling story to scare us into allowing you down the well. I tried to calm them, but they are angry.”
“I am not here to make friends,” she said. “And I do not lie.”
“No,” the Princess said, and her voice was soft. “Lies are particular, suited to the situation. Like art.” Jane made a line on the diagram. The Princess Martial placed a hand on her shoulder, and she stopped drawing. “You follow a harsh teaching. You say you practice universal love—but love is not by nature universal. It lives in particular things. In the curve of a neck. In a scar behind the ear. In the high clear voice with which a woman commands ko drums. In her refusal to bend to fools’ demands.”
“That depends on the fool,” the Scholast said, and she turned from her work.
At this point the Princess ordered her attendants into the hall, and closed the door behind them.
Hours later, night watchmen say they saw Jane descend winding stairs from her tower room, clad in a simple night robe, staff in one hand, lantern in the other. The dungeon keeper conducted her to a damp stone cell, admitted her, and locked the door behind. She, the keeper, retreated out of sight, but not out of hearing, so we have a record of the conversation, though we must supply some visual details from our own imaginations.
“I thought you might come.” From this we know Colonel Rathland was not sleeping when Jane entered. Perhaps he was nervous, or patient. “My rooms are a bit bare for receiving guests.”
“What happened, John?”
He sighed, and sat up on his slat-board bed. “After you left, the White Stars sent their own ambassador. Simple offer. If we joined them, sent a division or two, they’d give us a share of the spoils. In return, no more raids. So here I am.”
“We could have given you—”
“What? The secrets you promised, but always kept back for yourselves?”
“We held nothing back. There’s so much we don’t know yet—we don’t even know why everything broke, why the titans fell. That’s why we have to learn—not run around breaking every window we can find.”
“They don’t even have windows on this rock. So much sand, and no glass.”
“We saved your kingdom. We gave you peace. I gave you peace.”
“And then you left, taking our knowledge with you, and we knew you’d be always out there, ready to aid our enemies. All for your universal love, which drives you to betray your friends.”
“If my friends try to kill people, then yes.”
“War isn’t just murder. It’s how cities grow into states, how order comes from chaos. I read the histories your people sent. I drew my own conclusions.”
“War is not just murder,” she said, “but it is murder.”
“Well, I don’t guess you came to talk ethics.”
“I’m here to give you a chance. Tell me about the tunnels.”
“Or what? Thumbscrews? The rack? Do they remember waterboarding here?”
“I’m sure they can figure out the details.”
“What a way to treat your friends.”
She said a short word in an unfamiliar tongue, then, “Goodbye,” and left the cell.
She was halfway up the winding stair when she met the General coming down.
The General did not move to let her pass. He held the Merchant Bergam’s translucent weapon, pointed at Jane’s stomach. She turned, but behind her and the jail-keeper there were soldiers, one of whom bore a captured cavalry lance.
“Set down the staff,” the General said. Jane did.
“I know about your conversation with that bastard in the cell,” he continued. “You are an idealist and a serial traitor. You want to keep us from growing strong, and steal our secrets, and leave.”
“You’re making a mistake,” Jane said.
“I ride out tomorrow to smash their rear guard, seize their stockpiles, and make our army the fiercest in the world. And once I’m done, I’ll wring from you every answer you’ve held back, until you have no more to teach us.” He motioned with the weapon. “I have tested this device. I assure you I know how it works. So, let us return downstairs.”
Remembering the weapons and tools concealed about Merchant Bergam’s person, they removed the Scholast’s clothing before they threw her into the oubliette.
She paced the small circumference of her cell. The stone was too smooth to climb. Those who watched her through the slit in the trapdoor noticed her listening to the walls. If her ears were sharp, she may have heard the forces massing in the palace square above: cavalry and infantry, bowmen and pikemen. Dawn had revealed a smaller besieging force than had been camped on the surrounding plane at nightfall. Proof, the General told us, of their withdrawal. We must strike while we still can.
A girl came to bring the Scholast lunch. As she lowered bread and water by a rope into the cell, Jane shouted up: “Find the Princess Martial! An attack is coming! They’re waiting for you to ride out—then they’ll spring the trap!”
When the girl did not answer, Jane leapt to grab the rope, but the girl let go of the other end. Jane fell to the stone, spilling water on the dirty ground.
“Tell her. You’re all in danger. They’ll come out of the walls.”
“The General has marched already,” the girl said, then closed the trapdoor.
A long dark silence passed. Seated in the black, nibbling on a crust of bread, with no clock save the beating of her heart and the slowing rhythm of her breath, with no occupation for her eyes save the invention of form in hollow darkness, Jane must have listened.
She would have heard the alarm, even that far down, and the screams, the running feet. Certainly she heard the clash of steel, at the last, and a dying gurgle overhead.
Lantern-light lanced into her eyes through the opened trapdoor. She stared up at a human silhouette, blinked stupidly. A thick rope ladder thudded to the dust beside her.
“Climb,” the Princess Martial said. “We don’t have long.”
She had brought the Scholast’s robe and staff. Her own armor was splattered with blood, and there was more blood upon her sword.
“They came from the walls,” the Princess explained as she and the Scholast ran down a subterranean corridor. “I held the throne room, but they’re all through the castle now. A girl, a servant, came to me weeping. She said the prisoner told her to warn me, but she hadn’t, because she didn’t believe. That’s how I learned what had happened.” They ran past White Star bodies in the hall, wearing helmets, desert camouflage, and chitinous armor. All bore the tracks of the Princess Martial’s blade.
“Did you think I had left you?”
“The guards claimed you did, in the dead of night,” the Princess said as they ran. “The General said he argued with you while I slept, that you called us bloodthirsty savages.”
“And you believed him.”
“I had no proof otherwise. When I woke up, you were gone.”
They were attacked, then, and fought a bloody retreat into the throne room, where they barred the doors. Flurries of ministers of Left and Right swirled through the chamber, robes tumbling as they waved their arms in futile circles. House Guards piled furniture in front of doors that splintered beneath battering ram blows. As Jane and the Princess Martial forced their way past panicked bureaucrats, the main doors gave, and White Star soldiers stormed up the furniture barricades to meet defenders steel to steel.
The Princess Martial ran three steps to help before she realized Jane had not followed her. The Scholast paced around the edge of the diviners’ well, staring down into the black.
“Your sword won’t help. There are too many of them. We need what’s down here.” She scribed strange symbols with her finger on the well’s inner rim. Light trailed her fingertip.
“The diviners use a pulley to go down that well. Takes them a day to reach the bottom.”
Jane finished her circle, and stepped up onto the well’s rim. “We can do it faster. Come on. I need you.”
The defenders fell back, and now the west doors broke open too.
“Now, dammit! What good’s this friendship of yours if you don’t trust me? Take my hand.”
They jumped together.
Now our chronicle touches on the sacred. We would not dare transcribe mysteries of faith in these scant pages, but our mandate requires we record the tale complete. Caught between faith and duty, we offer this caution: a single witness testifies to these events. The diviners claim each petitioner finds her own meaning in the well, each dreamer his own dream. As such, the Princess Martial’s description of her descent and what she found there cannot be taken as a betrayal of the secrets of faith—she saw but one piece of the entire.
They fell fast, much faster than a stone would have fallen, and smoothly too. They did not tumble. Wind did not whip their hair or robes.
Just when the Princess thought they might fall forever, her boots settled against a slick, dry surface, softly, as if a great gentle hand had placed her there, for all the immense speed of their descent.
The Princess turned in circles with her blade drawn. Vague outlines of chairs and platforms and vertical surfaces suggested that she stood in a room much larger than the circumference of the well, a room of thrones and prayer mirrors. She could see, though there were no lanterns here, and the shadows were strange, like those a bonfire casts on trees.
She realized then that the chamber was lit from below.
She looked down through the transparent floor, and down, and deeper down again.
“I don’t understand,” she said. Her voice sounded small to her.
“Those are the first words of the wise,” the Scholast said.
“I see stars, beneath us.”
“Yes.” The Scholast scraped at the floor with her staff.
“But the stars are—not normal.”
“There is a darkness at their heart, ringed with light. I do not understand.”
“This is what my order knows: beneath your world lies a hungry shadow. The shadow eats dust, of which there is a great deal here. But the shadow spins, too, so it can only eat dust at its top and bottom, for reasons that would take too long to explain. As dust approaches the shadow, it gets closer together, and speeds up. Speed and nearness create heat, so a fountain of fire rises from each of that void’s poles.”
“That is the Spike. That—fountain of fire.”
“The Spike is what you call it, yes, the part of it that shines in your sky some nights. The whole is longer, brighter, more dangerous than the tip you see. It boils matter into possibility. Your world was built to harvest that fire, and put it to use.”
“The lattice you see there, the thin silver lines in the dark. Most of it is too far away to see.”
The Princess Martial judged the lattice, and compared it to what she knew of geography. “How big?”
“Very.” The Scholast scraped faster. “The whole’s much larger than your habitat. Now, your orbit’s shifted since the Crash, so you’re not harvesting much power, but there should be enough for what I have in mind.”
Jane struck the ground with her staff, and spoke in a tongue the Princess Martial did not recognize.
Screams filtered a long way down from the throne room above.
Jane spoke again, different words.
The answer, when it came, deafened. Prayer mirrors, larger than any the Princess had ever seen, flared with cold blue light all around.
A red box took shape in the air before the Princess, as if made of fireflies.
“The gods want to meet you,” Jane said. “I am not part of this place, and they must know I have your approval for what I wish to do.”
The Princess placed her hand within the box. She felt a gentle flutter against her skin, and the box turned green.
The prayer mirrors showed many pictures of the world: enemy soldiers battering the King’s door, the General pierced through the stomach by a lance, hordes of White Star troops boiling over the castle ramparts, and the cavalry colonel, free, cutting a House Guard’s throat with his saber. These were not images of the future, such as diviners see—but true impressions of the present moment.
“Your world,” Jane said, “was built by paranoids. They built eyes everywhere, and in each eye, they placed a tiny spear.”
She spoke a word, and the White Stars began to die.
The troops within the castle fell first, holes burned through their helmets. The colonel’s heart cooked in his chest. House Guards found their enemies dead in mid-stroke. Battering rams fell, and bodies followed.
The deaths moved out from the castle to the camps. We all saw the horror: a swarm of long, sharp insects rising from the earth, shaking off the dust of centuries to train themselves upon their victims. The White Stars tried to run.
“Stop,” the Princess Martial said. “It’s done. Let the others go.”
“They are your enemies. Isn’t that the way you all think, you and your General and Rathland? Save the ones on your side, and to hell with the rest?” Jane’s voice cracked. Her eyes were red with god-light. “With this power, I could make you all obey. I could impose peace.”
“Will you kill them just to prove a point?”
Jane caught her breath, and lowered her staff.
The eyes closed, and the prayer mirrors dimmed.
Jane knelt for a while, beneath the earth, in silence, until the Princess Martial lifted her up, and together they left that place of impossible emptiness, and impossible fires.
We suffered casualties. We mended and wept. We loaded wagons high with corpses and burnt them downwind and downriver, but even so the smell of seared meat reached us. In the diviners’ well, Jane and the Princess Martial had done brutal and effective work, or caused it to be done, but someone always cleans up after.
The day came when the Scholast was to leave us. “Someone will follow after me, to teach.”
“I am not a gifted teacher, and we are rarely sent to the same place twice.”
“Partiality,” the Princess Martial said, with bitter humor.
“Yes. And besides, as you’ve seen, I still have much to learn.”
“The teacher they send will teach your doctrine of universal love. Perhaps I’ll learn, and join you out among the stars.”
“You care for this ground too much. At any moment the paths might close, and leave you stranded on a distant star.”
“I would leave, and learn to love the universe in general, because I care for you in particular.”
“A fine paradox.” Jane smiled a secret smile. “Don’t tell the teacher. She may not understand.” The drums began, and Bel Mei waited by the arch. She had asked the honor of ushering the Scholast out. She wore mourning white.
“One question before you go,” the Princess asked.
“I’ll answer, if I can.”
“The world was built, you said. There was awe in your voice, and you never spoke with awe of the diviners’ gods. Who, then, built it? The titans?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” the Scholast said. “We did. One day we’ll remember how.”
She kissed the Princess Martial’s hand, then took Bel Mei’s and walked with her toward the arch, and under, but not through. In her last moment, as in her first, we who watched her saw many things, and fruitlessly compared them after. The Princess never told us what she saw. That one truth she would not yield us during composition, though she herself ordered us to write this true and exact chronicle of the Scholast’s stay in the Low Waters Kingdom. What the Princess Martial saw, she will take with her to the stars.
“The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom” copyright © 2017 by Max Gladstone
Art copyright © 2017 by Micah Epstein