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Year 60 AR
An expectant silence hung in the air, following the duchess’ revelation of her purpose in the region. Every eye in the room was on Iri, pinning him to the bed as surely as his injuries did, and he was horrified to find that he was entirely unprepared for whatever it was they wanted him to say. Had the duchess thought that he had some punchline in mind that would wrap this all up? He had barely woken, and now he felt as if somehow he had contributed to the setup of what he liked to call one of those moments. Ones that started something big, like a small stone rippling a large pond, where he could feel the world momentarily brace itself in the warning of something huge to come.
Ten years ago, one of his professors had invited him to the showing of the world’s first printing press, and from it had flowed manuscripts that by now informed almost every tutor across the entire Kingdom. He remembered his own mentor Andrus Mab, who had proudly declared its unveiling as the dawn of the age of the proliferation engine. Now wisdom, too, will have an army, Andrus had said. That man had known exactly what he had as soon as the idea had rooted in his head, and he had been right, Iri had felt the sharp intake of fate holding its breath as soon as he saw the machine. Tossing one tiny stone off the peak of a mountain, he had triggered an avalanche of knowledge that still swept across the realms today, and he had known it.
In a way, it had inspired what would eventually become Iri’s own breakthrough. Not the machine itself, of course, but the idea. That the secret to mankind’s success was not some lost arcane power, nor some terrible secret weapon, but another proliferation engine. A wall was made up of individual stones, after all, and an army of individual soldiers. Even with the power of magic being what it was, the key to strength was not concentration, but distribution. Now, here was his own unveiling, and all he could think of was the pulsing pain in his head, and the terrible ache of his shattered bones.
“Then the lesser truths will be our stepping stone to a greater victory,” Iri said and felt extremely pleased with himself. “I think we see the same thing. A wall is made of stones, an army of soldiers, the sea is made of… fish? Fuck, nevermind, bad analogy.” The self-contentment quickly gave way to panic as he remembered why he generally avoided speeches. He took a small pause to center himself. “This isn’t a single weapon. I am going to arm your soldiers, and make each of them a legitimate force. You’ll help me do the same across the Kingdom. The enemy is fat from sheep. I’ll make us all into wolves, and you will be first.”
His hopes that he had managed to get through his speech with his dignity intact was maintained by the Duchess grinning as he wrapped it up.
“Then it seems, my friend, that despite your injuries it was I who was lucky in the finding.” She stepped up to get closer to him, and extended her hand, as if she were making a deal with an equal.
“You humble me, your highness,” Iri replied, feeling very conscious of the fact that the arm he should have been accepting her shake with was broken. He hesitatingly moved to reciprocate the gesture with his other hand, and the result was an awkward handshake that made him wonder, for a moment, how detailed the history books would be about this moment. Watching the duchess pointedly ignore the fumble, he pondered if despite her station they might be thinking the same thoughts.
“I am not entirely convinced that is possible, my sir,” she gave him a wry smile. “And a good thing it is, as our venture is not for the sake of your humility.”
She was a powerful woman, there was no doubt of that. At the same time, here was his sister and himself, Salanar and even Zarie, all of whom were accomplished people in their own rights. Were all of them just putting up brave fronts in a joint conceit of confidence, or was there a true juggernaut among them?
“Iri,” Auri’s voice cut his thoughts short, “I think we should continue this later. You just woke up, you may not be completely lucid.”
“Nonsense,” Iri began to shake his head and then froze in apprehension at a wrench of pain that never came. “It seems madame Zarie’s tea is doing its job as well.”
“That isn’t what lucid means, Iri,” Auri sighed. “I think we should wait. I’m not allowed to get involved in politics, my job is to protect you. Right now, I think that means making sure you get enough rest. There will be plenty of time in Sinan to plan, since we can’t move on until you’re healed.”
“You’re worried about me.”
Iri smiled, and then turned his attention toward the other people in the room. Auri had become such an unreadable stone that he had been afraid that behind her impassive exterior there was nothing left of his sister. The concern, possibly mixed with the effects of the tea which was even now making his skin tingle in a way that radiated down through the muscle, made him feel as if though his project may succeed after all. These people, after all, and their affairs were important, and their cause mattered to him, but his goal had always been to reconnect with her. This was the first time it felt like a shared goal.
“Is that alright with your highness?”
The duchess looked at Salanar, who had taken on a slight scowl. He was an officer, and wanted to get done with business.
“Whatever your highness wishes,” he said curtly, his mouth forming a thin line.
“We will reach Sinan in two days. I think it is not such an unreasonable request, considering, and perhaps the city is a more appropriate forum for these talks. We are agreed upon our partnership, yes?”
“Yes, your highness,” Iri nodded. “What remains is only to ascertain what I can do to help.”
“Zarie will stay with you until you are healed, and assist you with what you may need.”
That meant babysitting, Iri knew. Making sure he did not get involved in anything that could risk his utility to the duchess, which was fine, considering he had no intention to do such a thing in the first place. Zarie actually perked up at the order, smiling radiantly at Iri as if she were genuinely pleased to become his assistant.
“Gladly, your highness,” she said, catching Iri’s eyes for a second with a glimmer that he did not quite recognize. He smiled back, awkwardly.
“Very good,” the duchess finished. “Once you are back on your feet, I hope you will join me for supper, Iri.”
“It would be an honor, your highness,” Iri tore himself free from Zarie’s stare to acknowledge the duchess. “If I may, sir Salanar, I have a request.”
“What is it?” Salanar stood perfectly still, but he was obviously tense and waiting to get out of the tent.
“I seem to have some time on my hands. If you have any manuals about witchcraft, witch hunting, as well as your current equipment I should like to have a look at them. Could you have whatever materials at your disposal brought to my quarters? ”
Salanar blinked slowly at him, his tight lips quirking ever so slightly in approval as he nodded. “Yes sir, we have comprehensive documentation of our processes. I will have an introductory volume brought to you. Hopefully you may peruse it before our meeting.”
Iri shook his head once. “That isn’t what I asked. I’ll need whatever you have on the subject, as quickly as possible please.”
“We don’t have everything with us, but even the field library is over thirty volumes, and we need to consult them ourselves. How long will you be needing them for?”
“Until the meeting.”
“That’s only three days,” Salanar raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“I’m just going to read them,” Iri pointed out. “Not copy them.” The response did not dampen Salanar’s disbelief at all, if anything pushing it toward exasperation.
“Iri…” Auri interjected with a warning tone, and the duchess nodded at her as if they had reached some unspoken agreement.
“It was a pleasure speaking with you Iri,” the duchess said, waving at the others in the room as she straightened herself to walk away, “but it appears your sister wants a word. Zarie, Salanar, leave with me. I have business to discuss with the two of you, as well.”
As they walked out, Iri looked up at Auri who was still clamping down on his shoulder, a grip that had gotten steadily tighter as the meeting had progressed. She did not meet his eyes until they were alone, but as soon as they were, it became clear that she was not altogether pleased. Iri found this a bit strange, since he considered the meeting a great success considering the state he was in. He was about to ask her what was wrong when she began to speak in a fierce whisper.
“What is wrong with you, Iri? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“You almost died, and now you want to paint a great big target on your back for everyone to see. Even the front is safer than politics! What were you thinking?”
“I can’t get involved in politics Iri, you know that. Kozan are not allowed to interfere with the ducal thrones unless specifically ordered to do so. I can’t help you solve these situations, and the way things are going, I don’t even know how I’m going to keep you safe.”
“I don’t think-”
“That’s what I mean! You don’t think! Or you think too much!,” her whisper had been gradually changing volume until it turned into a growl. Iri could feel his own Ire rising in response, especially with the constant interruptions. “The King wants to humor your attempt at a weapon because he wants to realize the benefits of the academy, but this is the real world, it’s not something you can learn about in books!”
“That’s-” Iri raised his voice as she tried to stop him from speaking again, “Stop! Stop posing questions you don’t want me to answer. I’m not the one who doesn’t understand what’s going on, Auri. You are-ow!”
Her hand clamped down hard on his shoulder, and if it hadn’t been for the soothing effects of Zarie’s tea, he would have had a fit as he twisted away from her even as he found that her hand was unyielding, like a shackle. She held it for a moment longer than necessary before she released.
“I’m the one who doesn’t know!?” Any pretense of whispering was out the window, and Iri couldn’t decide whether he was angry with her condescending lecture, or grateful to witness the first real emotion his sister had shown since they had met, but the effect of her fury was strangely calming. His little sister was afraid, and so he could not be. “I’ve seen things you can’t begin to understand, Iri. I’ve seen what lies beyond the front, what we’re up against. I’ve seen what people do to each other to survive out here in the world, past your marble walls, where there’s not enough shelter or food, not enough water, not enough future for everyone. You think I don’t know what’s going on?”
“I don’t,” Iri said. “Because I do know. Maybe I’m the only one who truly does.”
Auri shook her head, turning away from him with an exasperated breath. “You’ve been twenty years in that place, and just like every other scholar, you think you’ve figured everything out.”
“No, that’s just it,” he said. “It’s not that people can’t supply answers. It’s that nobody is asking the right question.”
Auri paced a few steps away from him, fidgeting uncharacteristically with her fingers, and stopped near the stove at the center of the room and bowing down to sort through one of the boxes there.
“What do you mean, not the right questions? How to defeat the enemy, isn’t that what you’ve been talking about?”
“That isn’t it. Well, not the heart of it.”
“Then what is?” She did not look at him as she kept rummaging around, and he recognized some of the things she was putting aside as supplies from their carriage. So, she had actually manage to salvage some of his things. He put the thought aside.
“What is the enemy?”
She stopped, stood and turned toward him with a look of bewildered shock, as if he had just asked the single dumbest question in the entire history of human interaction. “There is a swarm of monsters just past the front. Of all the world, all that remains is one little kingdom in the eastern flank, and even we remain only for a fluke of geography and the sacrifice of millions of soldiers. This is what I mean,” she sounded close to tears, “You don’t know. You haven’t seen. You couldn’t possibly know.”
“It’s not the Adversary,” Iri tentatively pointed out, bracing himself for the torrent of protests he thought he was going to get. Instead, his sister folder her arms over her chest, and looked at him blankly. The disappointment he felt from her threatened to break his heart, and would have if he hadn’t been so certain he was right. “The Adversary is gone. What remains is the mess, and it’s not contained to one side of the front. This isn’t some war where there is some great evil waiting for the right hero to come along, Auri. We had that war, sixty years ago. How many sorcerers like you, how many wizards, died at the final battle at Dannatth?”
“At least ten thousand,” Auri murmured bitterly. “That we know of. Anyone who could fight. And over a million common soldiers besides. The Gallant reports say the corpses were piled into hills near the end, before he burned it all.”
“Right, the only gifted who made it through were those too injured to fight, and the Dordoron. You sorcerers and wizards faced down the Adversary with an army that unleashed magical powers unlike anything before it, that may have shattered the whole continent if Osa hadn’t been there to buffer the effects, and you won. In sixty years, there has been no sign, no indication that the Adversary lived. Osa has retaken Gallath, its trees cover that whole nation now, and have swallowed up whole hives in the doing. But that victory was not as final as they had hoped, was it? A last stand to stop their advance, and it did, but that was all. With the Adversary gone, the swarms of his creatures stopped moving, but they didn’t go away. What was lost then is lost now, and there aren’t enough of your kind left to reclaim it. Meanwhile mankind rots away in this place; too many to live, too few to fight. Spectators to our own demise.”
Auri had been tending a growing frown as he spoke, and when she answered, her voice came out in a flat, hateful tone. “What’s your point?”
“My point is, the storybook war is over. The great retreats, the last stands, the final battle, the endless sacrifice, it’s all over. The gifted heroes rose up, and fought, and died, and won their war. What we have now is not that, what we have now is what the storybooks always skip.”
“And what’s that?”
“The real world, Auri. The crowding, the helpless masses, famine and disease and desperate human nature. Crime and poverty and the selfish stupidity of the well-to-do. Those behemoths past the front took our claws out, and for half a century all anyone’s been able to do is wait for demigods to fight and die and fail for them, thinking the problem was out there. The great fight for mankind’s survival is here, and it is a vicarious battle. The real fight is not out there. It’s in here, with us. We need new claws, ones that fit everyone, and we need…” Iri’s speech faltered as he searched for the right term.
“A savior? You think that’s you? Someone to grant us deliverance? To restore faith in the future?”
“No,” Iri shook his head. “We need to build aqueducts to water fields and open new lands for farming. We need cures for disease, and techniques for healing. New ways to farm, to fish, to breed livestock that can feed everyone. Even after sixty years of constant famine, there are still over twice as many people in the Kingdom now as before the cataclysm. For industry to return, and work to occupy the masses. We need to build weapons that even the battlefield and make the fight personal again. I’ve done the math, Auri.” He put his thumb and forefinger on the bridge of his nose, taking a moment to blink the dryness out of his eyes. “It takes a hundred men to bring down a single monster, if there is no sorcerer there to help them, no gifts they can take advantage of. Even then, people are used as fodder to get the killing shot, and if the monster escapes with prey it multiplies. We need to make our soldiers useful. We don’t need a hero, we have millions waiting for their chance to fight but lacking the ability.”
“Ok, how do we get all that?” Auri’s tone had quieted down considerably, and he knew she was beginning to sway, even if her voice was still stubbornly skeptical. “You want to teach them witchcraft, let them create monsters in turn? You know witchcraft always ends up going badly. That art has a will of its own, it wants to destroy, and it always succeeds. That’s why the King bans it.”
“No,” Iri shook his head, pausing for a moment to meet her eyes. “We don’t need magic, Auri. We need engineers. Probably a lot of them. But someone has to be first.”
“So your cannon…?”
“It’s not just a weapon, it’s hope, Auri. It is not beholden to you gods and demigods, it belongs to us. The little people. And there’s more, a lot more. I know it works. I’ve known for a long time, what I need is a place to show it to the world. I thought that would be the front, but-”
“But it might as well be here,” she sighed, her voice turning to resignation. “Oh, Iri. You’re going to get yourself killed. You almost have already.”
“Not a chance. That’s what makes me special. I have something no one else does, and that’s why I have to be first.”
Auri raised a brow at him. “What’s that?”
“I have you.”