From Issue 2
My mother used to say: “No lie ever suffered from too much information.” She fancied herself a philosopher, inasmuch as any in the Floodlands could lay claim to the title. She also claimed to be able to decipher the Harthram script on the sunken ships that speckled the hard, gray waters west of Scythe Bay. It wasn’t true, of course, but none of the other captains would venture near enough to those echo-cursed wrecks to verify her dubious translations.
She was a liar, my mother, inveterate and unrepentant, never satisfied with the truth when she could fashion something better. Her tales were wild, grandiose things, so unbelievable they became imbued with a strange life, to be shared over mugs of hot venom, huddled around fires while Hate Season winds howled outside.
I’ll never understand why she took up harpoon and knife when Henom Falas and her brothers rose against the League’s salt tax, to burn or drown with the rest of the fools Interlocutor Pano’s marines slaughtered out in the Scythe. I hope it was the latter—drowning, I mean. Her soul would be longer in finding its way back to the wheel, but at least Mother could be down with her wrecks, sculling amidst the faded remnants of Harthram glory.
People do love a doomed rebellion. There are statues of Falas—her brothers, too. For her part, my mother got little more than a handful of salt scattered from a sea cliff, perhaps a bit of venom tipped from the mugs of those who remembered her fondly.
I shed tears over her, although not where Father could see. It wasn’t that he would disapprove, it just didn’t seem right. I’d never seen him cry over Mother; never seen him climb the high cliffs to scream his anger at our useless, broken gods; never slipped from his sleeping skins to meet with the other children of the slain; never cut his thumb and vowed to uproot the distant oligarchs in Chalk.
I think he thought he was being strong for me. It was a silly lie, but one that shackled us both. He must have hurt, he must have hated, but with a young child and a dead fool of a wife there could be no time for revenge.
It wasn’t that we suffered for want of Mother. The loss of so many had knit the Floodlands tighter than ever. There was always fish to go around, serpent eggs traded from villages deeper in the marsh, rice from the League, pinches of salt stolen from assessors' sacks.
My father was a liar, too, although a far more careful one. Careful enough to slap the skinning knife from my cousin Saval’s hand when he brandished it at the back of a League assessor; careful enough to take the captain of Interlocutor Pano’s personal guard for a lover; and certainly careful enough to forbid me from ever going near the sea wizard. It was this last that laid the keel of my future more surely than had he dragged me to Kathorian’s grotto and begged him to teach me the Thousand Curses.
I was foolish, you see; Mother’s lies had convinced me I could see straight to the heart of everything and everyone. By banning me from the bone-flecked beach near the north end of the Scythe, Father had as much as lit a beacon there, and like a ribbon gull feathering its nest with bits of beach glass, I was drawn to the glitter.
After Scythe, League assessors kept watch on every village and town in the Floodlands. Interlocutor Pano had culled the most rebellious of us, and moved to wring what wealth she could from the swamp. No nets were cast, no crab pots laid, and no whaling ships sailed but by her leave. The assessors were harsh, but there were ways around their oversight. Children, for instance, were below their notice. So did the guttering cinders of Falas’s revolution engage my friends and cousins to pass their secret notes. It was dangerous work, for League Charter made no distinction by age, and children were hanged as easily as grown men and women—easier, even.
“You should join us.” Saval and a half-dozen other young rebels cornered me while I was packing fish for shipment to League colonies in the west. “Avenge Scythe.”
“What makes you think I’m not?”
Saval frowned, considering. My cousin had a solid keel, but, like a river barge, his thoughts tended to progress slowly, and in straight lines. After a long moment, he shook his head. “You’re helping them collect food.”
“Not all rebellion is flashing blades.” I placed the top on the barrel, making sure to leave just enough space so moisture could creep in over the long voyage and spoil the fish.
If we had been alone, Saval probably would’ve backed down, but he had an audience. My cousin flushed, gaze flicking to his companions before settling back on me. “Your mother would be ashamed.”
It was a lie, but one that cut deep. I stood to glare up at Saval, hands clenched at my sides. Had my cousin been brash, even smirking, I would’ve driven a fist into his gut, but he looked surprised and a little scared, like the accusation had come from someone else. Perhaps it had—Saval had lost both his parents at Scythe.
Instead of picking a fight, I ran, thankful that the Mud Season damp hid the tears pricking my eyes.
I avoided Saval after that, preferring to spend my time stalking the sea wizard.
Kathorian had come to Scythe Bay in my grandmother’s time, driven from more temperate climes by jealous rivals, or perhaps simply seeking the privacy the Floodlands afforded.
No one could recall Kathorian performing any actual sorcery. Mother told me she’d seen the wizard summon an echo from the wreck of a Harthram yacht, but Mother also told me she’d captured an oracular crab when she was my age, and it had foretold she would walk among the ancients.
Still, there were enough cautionary tales concerning sorcerers that we felt it best to stay in Kathorian’s good graces. In return for the occasional basket of food or sealskin cloak the sea wizard kept to himself, emerging only occasionally from his grotto to arrange bones along the beach or rant at the churning waters of the bay.
It was a small price to pay—the sorcerer didn’t eat much.
Even the League assessors knew better than to meddle in the affairs of wizards. Magic was a wild, unpredictable thing at the best of times, one that did not fit neatly into logs and ledger books. Although it had been many generations since the Harthram crawled up the Vault of Heaven, one needed only to glance into the bay to see the horrors sorcery could wreak upon those with few scruples and a surfeit of ambition. Even after so long, tales of magic and root-workings burned bright enough to be repeated in Chalk.
The stories also said only fools seek a wizard in their lair. But, as I mentioned before, I was foolish.
“No, no, this isn’t right.” Those were the first words Kathorian ever said to me. Strangely enough, they would be the last, too.
I had been watching the sea wizard for weeks, crawling across rocks speckled with gull droppings to lie shivering in the icy spray just for a glimpse of him.
This day had been a rare treat. Kathorian emerged just after dawn, clad in little more than a loincloth and linen tunic, his exposed flesh the pale gray of old driftwood in the morning light.
He waded into the high tide, picking his way along the rocky beach to perch like a crane in search of frogs, arms crooked and head bobbing in a way I found ridiculous. It was all I could do not to giggle at the sight, but thoughts of curses and dire prognostications kept my hands firmly pressed to my mouth.
Dimly, I became aware of a low, rumbling mutter—neither the rich buzz of throat singing nor the heavy crash of seawater on stone, but a deeper resonance, something that seemed to thrum within my bones and set my teeth itching. It was uncomfortable to be this close to the sorcerer, but I was used to discomfort.
Kathorian stood for hours, gaze fixed on the churning waters of the bay. A swirl of ribbon gulls gathered above the sorcerer, feathery cilia spread to catch the thermals, their long bodies twisting in the breeze like Water Feast streamers.
It was as I watched the gulls that I saw the first inklings of magic. Outlines appeared amidst the shifting gyre, shapes I could see but whose form I could not quite measure. The shifting murmurations seemed almost to orbit the sorcerer, circumscribed by Kathorian’s rumbling call.
As the tide retreated I saw the sands had also changed. Kathorian’s sorcery had carved circular rings along the beach—not the ripples of a dropped stone, but an intricate mandala of interlocking waves delicate as the embroidery on an oligarch’s ceremonial robe.
Within the twining pattern there came a brightness, not so much seen as felt. It was like staring at the sun through closed eyes—I could make out nothing but the presence of light, a dull flickering that seemed to cling to the air itself. Gradually, it took the form of a person. I caught a hint of a high-collared dress; the shadow of a face, sharp nosed and imperious.
It regarded the sea wizard for a long moment, then opened its mouth and laughed.
That was when Kathorian spoke, turning toward me with a chop of his hand and a muttered curse. Like a breaking wave, the figure vanished—so too were the rocky sands wiped clean. The ribbon gulls dispersed, lashing away on the breeze with reproachful croaks.
“Come here, girl.” Kathorian took a stumbling step in my direction. He always called me girl, even after I had transcended taxonomy. It was a master’s prerogative, I suppose.
I did as I was bid, kicking through the icy surf to slip under the sorcerer’s arm and help him limp back to the cave.
Kathorian’s grotto was remarkably cozy, the stone floor scattered with fresh rushes, a crackling fire below the smoke hole, and a raised wooden platform near the rear which boasted several chairs, a table, and a long, thin cot all draped in sealskins. Although I could see high water marks upon the walls, the cave was drier than it had any right to be.
“Fucking Harthram.” Kathorian collapsed into one of the high-backed chairs with a wheezing groan, then waved at the kettle bubbling over the firepit. “Fetch me some tea.”
He didn’t bother to introduce himself, so neither did I. There were no questions, no concerns, I simply slotted into the sorcerer’s life as if I had been there all along, changing the rushes, airing out his robes and bedding, fetching what needed fetched, cooking what needed cooked, cleaning what needed cleaned.
In return, Kathorian let me remain.
This is not to say it was an amiable relationship. The sea wizard was snappish and petty, long accustomed to having his way. Learning sorcery from him was more like panning for gold than studying a trade. Most of my time was spent ruminating on flecks of insight glittering among the murky babble of recriminations and tight-lipped paranoia. Still, I learned—practicing muttered incantations, copying the sigils and trigrams that would call wayward spirits, stealing glances at parchments describing the inestimable power of the ancients.
The Harthram were more than an aspiration, they were an apex, a mountain whose pinnacle we had yet to sight let alone surmount. What we knew of the ancients was gleaned from third-hand accounts, vague descriptions of impossible feats, their details planed smooth by time and transcription. While we were confined to shaping earth and water, summoning storms, conjuring spirits of the restless dead, the Harthram had molded entire societies, seas of hearts and minds bent to the rudder of inestimable sorceries.
Kathorian was careful with his tomes, treating each like scripture, spending hours, days dissecting the smallest descriptive flourish. I wasn’t allowed to touch them let alone crack their dusty spines. At the time, I believed this was simply a facet of professional jealousy. Now, I realize it was rooted in fear.
There were many tales of apprentices usurping their masters. And, truth be told, Kathorian knew little more of the Harthram than I did. Easier to lie, to study in silence and thus pretend to inscrutability, than to speak and betray your ignorance. Such is the curse of sorcerers.
“What are you doing here?” The question came a bit more harshly than intended. I had been cleaning oysters and just accidentally nicked the pad of my thumb with the shucking knife.
The sorcerer opened one eye. “Waiting for dinner.”
“No, I mean, why come to the Floodlands?”
“Because what I want is here.” He clucked his tongue, shifting to scowl at the waves crashing just beyond the cave mouth.
“And what is that?”
“What was lost and what was taken.”
I sucked on my cut thumb. “When we first met, that conjuring on the beach: Why did it fail?”
“It did not fail.” I saw the wizard’s jaw pulse once, twice and tried not to smile. Kathorian was always more forthcoming when I pricked his pride, but it was a dangerous game.
I swallowed, trying to seem nonchalant. “You haven’t answered my question.”
“It did not fail.” The sorcerer spread fingers like windswept branches. “Magic must be cultivated, grown. Little by little, day by day. What you saw was merely one step upon the path. Soon I will have what I need.”
“And that would be?”
Kathorian turned to regard me. Eyes slitted, he thrust his chin at the oysters. “Dinner.”
— * —
Two years before Falas’s rebellion, my mother took me out beyond the Scythe to look at the Harthram wrecks. It was Mud Season, the sky a ruddy gray, the air filled with a constant drizzle of rain blown up from the south. This was before the Salt Tax, when we thought of the League as simple traders. It was easy to believe they would move on. The coast was long, the marshes endless, and the assessors paid well for local labor. We laughed as Hate Season floods tore down their docks, and watched in self-satisfied amusement as their stone walls sank into the marsh. But, come Salt Season, they rebuilt, sinking great pilings deep into the earth, putting down roots—such was always the way with the League.
But this was long before that. There were no galleys, no roundships, Scythe Bay was empty apart from a few crabbers trying to snatch a last haul or two before storm followed rain. The great whaling ships had all returned for the year and the ground was too soft for travel.
Even in the Mud Season gloom I could see the Harthram wrecks: dozens, hundreds of them, shining like pyres in the shallow water west of the bay.
“On clear days I can see all the way down.” My mother sat at the stern, one hand on our boat’s tiny rudder as she waved for me to stow the sail.
“Have you met an echo?” It was a stupid question, but I was young.
“I almost married one.” She winked at me, and together we peered over the side. I could see them down there, the echoes, moving about on the coral-spotted decks as if it were mere days since the fall. Beautiful people, tall and long-limbed, graceful in a way even the most skilled festival dancers couldn’t quite capture.
“They do not think themselves dead.” Mother’s voice was almost reverent. “If they think anything at all.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s because you’re an idiot.” She grinned in a way that took the sting from the accusation, then tickled me until I shrieked.
“Echoes are not spirits, they do not return to the sky as our dead do.” She shrugged. “In breaking the gods, the Harthram bound themselves to a broken wheel.”
I looked down at the trapped souls, feeling a strange heaviness settle in my stomach. “Is there not some way to free them?”
“If there is, the Harthram took it with them.” Mother glanced back toward the bay, her gaze crawling up the shore until it settled on the northern promontory, the beach of bone and stone where the sea wizard dwelled.
“Saval says to sail near the wrecks is to risk drawing the echoes' attention.” I drew back from the gunwale. “That they will swim up and drag you down to serve as their slave.”
“Saval is an idiot.” This time, my mother didn’t smile. She blew out a long breath, seeming to settle in on herself as she gazed down at the ancient ships. “Sometimes, I wonder if it would be better to be their slave.”
I laughed, because it seemed a silly thing for her to say. But that was before the Salt Tax, before the Floodlands became part of the League, and my world was still quite small.
— * —
There is a thought experiment, popular among Neo-Brutalist philosophers in Chalk: an oligarch, an interlocutor, and a sorcerer are competing for the affections of a beautiful paramour. The oligarch promises him the finest of clothes, horses, a great manor, servants to cater to his every whim. The interlocutor offers the man position and title, his own personal fiefdom. The sorcerer promises forbidden knowledge, the ability to see his enemies laid low, his friends and family protected from harm.
The debate is typical of the League. Responses vary with context, both personal and political—is the military in ascendance? Have the League’s borders recently expanded? What new monopolies have the oligarchs wrung from the grasp of irresponsible natives? It is meant to illustrate the vagaries of power, the complex interplay between influence and control, but, like many things in the League, it misses the point entirely.
I had been seven years with the sea wizard when the winnowing began. The slaughter at Scythe had been quick and brutal, smoke staining the horizon for one terrible day. The winnowing was a slow thing, a creeping dread, but no less horrible.
We thought Interlocutor Pano had turned a blind eye to our small rebellions—salt stolen from the counting house, rogue crabbers running at night, the occasional death among her more zealous assessors. But we had underestimated the interlocutor.
We bled the League, tried to make the cost of occupying the Floodlands more than the benefit. It was a sound plan, but one that suffered from a fundamental lack of understanding. We thought the League a collection of bursars and bureaucrats, interested only in wringing every scrap of value from the Floodlands, but there was a far more insidious lie threading their identity.
They believed they were helping us.
We should have known the League couldn’t abandon us—they thought the annexation of the Floodlands was a process, a conversation.
Pano’s guards came in the darkness, slipping through the night like treecats. So used were we to drum and drill we didn’t even notice. Five people disappeared that first night, eleven more the next—all conspirators, all rebels. Any who resisted were cut down on the spot. For all the pomp and bluster, the League marines were no strangers to the business of combat. Their sword hilts might be inlaid with gold and mother-of-pearl, but the blades were deadly sharp.
This was the first and only time I met Interlocutor Pano. She had come to oversee the winnowing, a flash of gold glittering among soldiers in drab grays and browns.
I should’ve run, but I was the sea wizard’s apprentice, drunk on sips of power. So I simply stood, regarding the gaggle of soldiers with a scowl I hoped was menacing.
“What are you about, girl?” The Interlocutor was a short woman, trim and narrow-shouldered with an air of thin-lipped impatience that seemed to hang about her like a shroud.
I swallowed the tremble in my voice. “You don’t belong here.”
“I don’t have time for this.” Pano gave an irritated grunt, waving to one of the soldiers. “Put her with the others.”
A soldier stepped from the darkness to whisper in Pano’s ear. She was hooded, her face concealed by indigo cloth. In her hand she carried a soot-blackened blade.
“Fine.” The Interlocutor shrugged, then thrust her chin at me. “Take care of her, then.”
Although I squared my shoulders as the woman approached, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. The ancient Harthram might have been able to shape the destinies of millions, but true sorcery was yet beyond my ability. I could summon the ghosts of cats, hypnotize snakes, even make it rain if the weather was already trending that way—none of which was much use in the face of a bared blade.
I thought the woman was going to cut me down. Instead she waved her sword at the far side of the village. “Go home. Your father misses you.”
By the time I had thought of a suitable reply, they were gone. The next morning I learned they’d taken four more people, my cousin Saval among them.
At the time, I thought my connection to the sea wizard kept me safe. Only later did I learn that Pano regarded the sorcerer as she would a marsh adder—venomous, but eminently avoidable. That might have been the Interlocutor’s only mistake.
As for me, I made many.
“Are all people in the League born cruel? Or must you learn?” I picked at my soup and salted fish, making a point to ignore the crusty loaf of black bread Father’s lover had brought from the Interlocutor’s larder. The captain of Pano’s guard, she had the run of the village, and had been visiting more often the last few months.
Father’s fingers tensed on his mug of venom, his gaze flicking to the dark-eyed woman in silver and steel across the table. I can’t recall her name—although whether it is from forgetfulness or the remnants of past spite, I cannot say.
“It’s alright.” She patted Father’s hand, a move that made me want to fling my soup in her face. “Progress can be painful.”
“Tell that to those you burned at Scythe.” I pushed up from my seat, galled that, even seated, the captain seemed to tower over me. “The ones you murdered in the night.”
“Murdered?” Her smile became something strange. “Only those who raised arms were executed, the rest were sent away.”
“You didn’t tell her?” She glanced at Father, who took a long pull from his venom. The woman’s voice was soft when she turned back to me. “They were put onboard a galley bound for the western colonies.”
I frowned, feeling as if a mooring line had become tangled about my chest. “So they’re slaves?”
“The League doesn’t take slaves.” She spread her hands as if to offer the words to me. “Those malcontents should have been hanged for sedition, but I convinced Pano to show mercy. Now, they will be fed and housed on the general ledger, even be recompensed for their labor.”
I swallowed, the line around my chest drawing tight. I imagined Saval in a place with no cliffs, dusty and bone white with not a pine to be seen, the ocean a flat yellow like on the old maps in Mother’s sea chest. I wondered if he’d eat any of the fish I packed, if they would make him sick.
“Most of the rebels received light sentences.” She spoke lightly, as if discussing the price of clams." A few years and they’ll be free to settle lands of their own."
When I made no response, she sighed, her smile sympathetic. “I understand how hard this must be, but you must look forward, not back. The League has much to offer—we are not beholden to tyrants or petty chieftains, only our fellow citizens. In time, even the Floodlands will have representation in the Great Council of Chalk.”
“Get out.” In my memories of that night I am terrifying, a sorcerer just coming into her powers. I’ve fantasized about it so many times that it has almost become reality—my father’s lover fleeing the house like a startled crow, her cloak flapping behind as I laugh, distant thunder echoing my merriment—but I know a lie when I see it.
In truth, I stood trembling and impotent.
“I can see you two have much to discuss.” The captain bent to give my father a kiss on the head, then stepped out into the wind. “Enjoy the bread. I’ll bring more tomorrow.”
“How could you?” I turned on Father, hands clenched at my sides.
“How could I not?” He set down his mug. “You would rather see me at the bottom of the bay? Shipped off to Chalk with Saval and the other fools?”
I could only stare, breathless, lips buzzing, as Father reached out as if to touch my shoulder, then seemed to think better of it.
“You cannot defeat a storm.” He gave a nod, as if agreeing with the truth of his words. “You can only weather it.”
“And what of her?” I thrust my chin at the darkened doorway. “You seem to be enjoying that particular maelstrom.”
Father walked over to shut the door. “You don’t know her like I do. She hates Pano, all the guards do. You should be kinder to her.”
“Your lover was there, at Scythe.” Like a storm-driven wave, the anger I had been unable to express earlier came flooding out. I swept the bread from the table. “She killed Mother.”
I’d thought Father would bend beneath the gale of my fury, but instead he rounded on me, his face flushed with anger and drink. “And what choice did she have? She tried to reason with Falas, with Pano. All she needed was more time.”
“Your lover is the head of the interlocutor’s personal guard!” I shouted back. “I saw her in the village. She took Saval and the others.”
“But not you.”
I had known, or at least suspected, that Father had a hand in keeping the soldiers from our door, but to see the extent of his collaboration made my stomach clench. It burned that he justified it all for my sake. I was wrong, of course, but such cruelties are the stock and trade of youth.
That was the last night I spent under my father’s roof. I regret it now, but we cannot change what was.
At the time, I felt a slave to deception—my parents', Kathorian’s, the League’s. This last burned like an ember in my chest, hot and bright. There, in the cold dark of my room, I stoked the flame. How dare the League lie about owning our land, our ships, our salt. How dare they lie about owning us.
How dare we believe them.
I would not be the object of some Brutalist fable, something to be wooed and won, something to be acted upon. If it took the rest of my life I would dredge the muck of the League’s lies, drag up every wicked justification, every hypocrisy, every arrogant justification until the truth stood bare for all to see.
The next morning I took Mother’s sea chest and made for Kathorian’s grotto.
“I want to destroy them.” I must have looked a ridiculous thing, scrawny and long-limbed, arms shaking from the weight of Mother’s chest, my hair plastered to my skull. “Interlocutor Pano, the Oligarchs, the League, I want to burn them like they burned us.”
Kathorian turned from his writing desk, eyes like silver flecks in the firelight. “It seems you’ve mistaken me for a god.”
“Interlocutor Pano, then.” I tried not to shiver as windswept spray stippled my back. “Surely her death lies within your power?”
The sorcerer set down his quill. “And why would I help you do that?”
“Because I know what you are searching for.” I was beyond fear at that point, the sheer audacity of my plan like a wind at my back, driving me ever onward. “And I know how to get it for you.”
— * —
“Steady.” Kathorian shot out a hand to catch himself as our rowboat rocked in the choppy sea. I did my best to ignore the sorcerer, focusing on keeping the oars straight. It was futile, the clouds had taken on an angry cast, roiling and dark, as if the sky were a clenched fist ready to smash down upon us. In Mother’s tales, sorcery was best performed during a storm, rain and lightning slashing down. But what made for an entertaining story was, in truth, a nightmare.
It was early in Hate Season and the worst storms were yet to come, but even the League assessors knew enough to tie their ships tight and seek the comfort of fires and shuttered windows. I’d played to Kathorian’s paranoia, telling the sea wizard this was the best time to perform his great working unobserved. It was a risk, but the beach wasn’t close enough, not for what I had planned.
The sorcerer’s obsession did the rest.
A few ribbon gulls had gathered overhead, their flight jagged and erratic, bits of chaff swept up in the gathering storm.
Seawater sloshed in the bottom of our boat. An errant wave tore the oars from my grip, and one shot up to catch me in the chin. I tasted blood a moment before the pain hit, but I only clenched my jaw against the groan and wrestled the oars back into their locks.
Slowly, the mutter of Kathorian’s sorcery rose above the wind. I could feel our boat vibrate as ripples spread through the angry surf. It became easier to steady the boat, and I added my voice to the sea wizard’s, my own meagre incantations threading his basso rumble. Kathorian shifted on his bench, and for a moment I thought he had noticed my spell, but he slipped back into the chant without opening an eye. Steadying myself, I moved to open the sea chest on which I sat, rummaging inside until I found what I was looking for—the claw of an oracular crab, pale as sea foam, its surface scrimshawed with faux-Harthram nonsense.
Spirits are not the people they were in life. It is surprising how much of who we are is rooted in our bodies—meat, bone, organs, desires, pleasures, pains. And yet, like footprints upon sand, the soul remembers what was dear to it, what was important.
Clutching the claw, I whispered a name, over and over, hoping that I’d guessed correctly, that my spell was strong enough to shift the calling. Even so, I almost tipped the boat when she appeared.
Kathorian had spent lifetimes trying to plumb the secrets trapped in the old Harthram wrecks, snatching at scraps of ancient knowledge as he pulled echo after echo from the depths. It was a doomed endeavor, not because the sea wizard’s sorceries were flawed, but because echoes were not spirits. They could no more be interrogated than could a reflection in a still pond.
Still, the sea wizard’s fiction was something I could recognize, something I could use. Tell a lie long enough, with enough conviction, and you may come to believe it, but it will never be the truth.
The spirit’s glow was different, gray rather than ruddy gold. A form coalesced amidst the brilliant haze, like an afterimage burned upon the back of my eyelids. In it, I saw a face, different from the one I remembered, less lined and careworn, cheeks fresh with the blush of youth, but familiar nonetheless. She was dressed as the echo I had seen earlier, or close enough to make no difference. If the runes on her robes were the same as the drivel etched on the claw, Kathorian did not deign to notice. The only difference was, unlike the echoes the sea wizard had coaxed from the sea, this spirit remained.
“How did you—?” Kathorian grabbed my arm, his fingers digging painfully into my bicep. I noticed the sea wizard was weeping, great silver tracks that caught the light like signal mirrors.
“What does it matter?” With a start, I realized I was crying, too. Swallowing against the tightness in my throat, I thrust my chin at the spirit. “Go on. Ask your questions. Just remember your promise.”
The sorcerer released me, turning away with a sound that was half-snarl, half-sob. “Spirit, reveal to me the secrets of the ancients!”
And, grin widening, my mother was happy to oblige.
— * —
Interlocutor Pano died horribly. There was no one to watch her go, we made sure of that, performing the working on a moonless night, storm clouds blotting out even the brightest stars. Her tongue went first, followed quickly by her throat and vocal chords as the sea wizard’s curse desiccated her. I didn’t see it happen, but the reports of those who found her painted a clear enough picture—she had become a pillar of salt, just like the ancient tales warned happened to those who offended the gods.
It seemed a fitting punishment for her hubris.
The curse was a small enough thing. Pano was below the sea wizard’s notice, a marsh adder, venomous, but easily avoided. It was not the sorcerer’s only mistake, but it certainly was his greatest.
The sea wizard was entranced by my mother, listening with the rapt focus of a child as she spun tales of Harthram glory, answering Kathorian’s excited questions with fabricated translations and doubtful exegeses. I wanted desperately to speak with her, but needed to remain silent and hooded lest the spirit recognize me and give away the deception.
There would be time enough for talk, later.
It seemed to me the sorcerer would see through my ruse at any moment, but he was blind. The Harthram had been mythologized for so long, there was no lie large enough to encompass the enormity of their legend. With time, I’m sure Kathorian would have realized his error, but I was counting on the League not to give him the chance.
The Interlocutor’s guard did not disappoint. Barely a week after Pano’s death they boiled from the garrison, faces marked with ash, their lacquered armor painted with trigrams and wards against the evil eye. How could they not? Honor, duty, loyalty—those were the lies they had been taught, the lies they told themselves, repeated over and over until they came to define them. But, strong as it was, belief could not shield them from the truth.
Only fools sought a wizard in his lair.
A dozen marines disappeared before they even reached the shore of bones, simply sinking into the beach as if they trod upon water rather than sand. The others forged on, although a bit more slowly as they tested each step with the butts of their pikes. Still, crossbows and blades were little use against the skeletal things that lashed up from the ground. Amalgamations of bone and driftwood held together by bits of spirit-stuff cobbled from hungry ghosts, they scooped up marines by the handful to cram into jagged leviathan maws, bloody hunks of flesh rebounding from skinless ribs to fall steaming upon the sand.
The wind kicked up into a maelstrom, cold and hard as if the League soldiers waded through the depths of Hate Season. Helmets were torn from heads, blades sent skittering from frost-numbed fingers. Some marines were torn from their feet and dashed against the rocks, others were swept out to sea, eyes wide, arms flailing, their screams lost to the howling wind.
And still they came.
It was fascinating to watch, men and women hurling themselves into the maelstrom to avenge the death of a woman they despised. In that moment, I understood why my mother had sailed with Falas.
They were not fighting for the League, but what they believed the League to be. It echoed through their minds, a thousand, thousand different understandings shaped by time and experience, by need, by ignorance and willful deception—all real enough to die for.
Barely a dozen marines stumbled into Kathorian’s grotto, their Captain at the head. Although spared the winds, any sense of safety vanished as dozens of marsh vipers slithered through the sand to strike at exposed legs and torn boots.
I crouched in the shadows, watching as Kathorian chanted upon the raised platform at the rear of the cave. His gnarled hands held scraps of oilcloth, inked with the Harthram curses my mother’s spirit had helpfully translated for him.
The surviving marines struggled through sand gone soft as silt, slashing at the writhing carpet of snakes. A woman raised a crossbow, but the bolt went wide as she fell back, overcome by the serpents' venom.
My father’s lover dove for the crossbow, desperately trying to fit bolt to string as the sea wizard’s chant reached a fever pitch, the slippery syllables of ancient Harthram blending one with the other until the whole became an unintelligible roar.
I knew what was to come, but I still flinched as the sea wizard raised his arms, fingers hooked as if to tear the captain apart and incanted the final words of the curse with a spiteful flourish.
The captain raised her crossbow.
Kathorian blinked, his gaze flicking around the cave. “No, no, this isn’t right.”
The bolt caught him just below the chin, blood blossoming like red spider lilies.
I have to confess I didn’t see the sorcerer fall. My face was buried in my hands. The necessity of what needed to be done did not eclipse the shame of having done it.
The captain fell back against the wall, broken and bloody, her breath the rasp of a quickly closing airway. It was strange, but I was happy she had survived.
It took a moment for me to compose myself, but when I stepped from behind the platform I truly must have been a sight—red-eyed and trembling, my clothes little more than rags.
“You.” Her voice was pained, although from recognition or poison I didn’t know.
It was clearly a struggle for her to speak, so I knelt to tip a vial to her lips. “Here, drink.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Anti-venom. There is no need to fear. The sea wizard is dead.” I tried for a tentative smile, sinking into the lie. “We are free.”
Slowly, gratefully, she drank.
— * —
There is a danger in subjugation—the trick to ruling by force is that you must maintain enough force to rule. The role of interlocutor was buttressed by the belief that the League’s resources were inexhaustible, that it couldn’t be defeated. They believed it. We believed it. But belief was all it was.
I came to the village as a specter of power—hypnotized serpents coiled about my arms and throat, the soft glow of feline ghosts lighting my path. I had availed myself of my former master’s collection of arcane ephemera, clothed myself in robes sewn with Harthram script, a driftwood staff in one hand, a golden kriss in the other. My boots were of crocodile hide, imbued with runes of wind and sea so that I tread not upon the ground but the air above it. Storm clouds gathered at my passing, dark with the promise of impending violence.
My father came out to meet me, flanked by a dozen men and women, hard-eyed, hooks and harpoons clenched in callused fists.
“What are you?” The steel in Father’s voice was belied by the slight tremble of his lips.
“Interlocutor Pano is dead, along with her marines.” I saw my father’s eyes widen ever so slightly and raised my voice. “The captain is my prisoner.”
His mouth worked for a moment. “How?”
“Kathorian destroyed them.” There was no need to lie when a truth would suffice.
“And the sorcerer?”
“I am the sea wizard, now.” I raised my arms, sending my tiny ghosts swirling up into the air like ribbon gulls. Father and the others took a quick step back. There were enough tales of apprentices usurping their masters that I didn’t need to elaborate.
There was a shift in the crowd, a straightening of spines, a tensing of jaws. The League had burned us on the Scythe, stolen our salt, our kin. My people hid our scars well, but we never forgot a wound.
“Pass word to the other villages.” It was time to replace one lie with another. “We must stand together.”
“The League will send a dozen more galleys come Salt Season,” my father said. “It will be Scythe all over again.”
“It will not,” I replied. “Because the Floodlands are not rebelling.”
If it had been just the two of us, my father would have called me a fool, magic be damned. But he had an audience, one that had witnessed the fury of a sorcerer provoked. So, instead, he merely shook his head. “I don’t understand.”
So I told them.
— * —
There’s a trap to knowledge. Once you understand something, there’s no course back to ignorance—not one, at least, that won’t founder on shoals of self-deception. To know what I knew, to plan what I planned was to risk not only my own life, but the lives of all who believed me.
The mood was very different from the last time we had eaten together. My father, the captain, and I sat around Pano’s table, a broad-beamed expanse of marsh oak set with such League delicacies as I could rescue from the former Interlocutor’s larder.
“A civilized meal for civilized discussion.” I smiled, tearing a hunk from the loaf of bread at my elbow.
The captain did not touch the food, only glared at me through eyes still puffy from venom. “Enjoy your victory.”
“Not only mine.” I took a bite of bread, chewing thoughtfully. I did not know this woman as well as I knew my father, but I did know the lies that bound her. “This is our victory.”
Although her expression didn’t change, her chin came up just a bit, shoulders high like someone expecting a slap.
“You were right,” I continued. “Progress is painful. I understand that, now. The Floodlands are part of the League, but Pano was not the League.”
She frowned. “She was provincial interlocutor.”
“She was a tyrant.” My father said sadly. “A murderer.”
I met his gaze, nodded. We had agreed it was better she hear it from him.
“You tried to negotiate with Falas, to blunt Pano’s worst excesses.” He touched her shoulder.
It made my hands shake to hear him speak so kindly of her—this woman who had witnessed the League’s cruelties firsthand and still drawn her blade in its defense. I calmed myself by vowing history would not remember her name.
“When your ships come again, how many more of my kin will die?” I asked softly, as if it pained me. “How many more of your comrades?”
She drew in a breath to respond, then let it out, closing her eyes tight. It didn’t matter if the woman believed me, I knew she believed herself to be honorable, kind.
The slope of her shoulders was slight, almost imperceptible, but it was more than enough.
“There is another way, I think. One that will spare both our peoples.”
She glanced up, jaw tight and gaze wary. I noticed, though, she hadn’t let go of Father’s hand.
“Pano was a poor interlocutor.” I passed her the bread. “You will be a far better one.”
— * —
Every lie is a snare, but the quarry is not always whom we expect. I am a liar, inveterate and unrepentant. Why should I be satisfied with the truth when I could fashion something better? If even a smudge of the gods' justice remained I would have long ago become a pillar of salt.
And yet, I remain.
It was some time before I returned to Kathorian’s grotto, and even longer before I mustered the courage to summon my mother’s ghost. I did it at night, careful to wait until my father had assumed his councillorship in Chalk. There had been no winnowings, no slaughters, but the Floodlands still charted a difficult course between rebellion and subjugation. For my part, I told myself a very different lie—that I was powerful enough to destroy the League, to raise something in its place that would rectify word and deed. I believed it, too. But this was before the Exegesis, before the siege of Chalk, before people raised statues to Henom Falas and her brothers. My world was still quite small.
I had long considered what I would ask my Mother’s spirit, what I would say. But when the time finally arrived, the words would not come. In my memory, Mother was always smiling, always laughing, her eyes glittering with some secret joke. I wanted, more than anything, to hear her tales, to lose myself in silly, harmless lies.
But there was no path back to the girl I had been.
Instead, we walked to the shore, watched the crab boats sail out as dawn bled along the horizon. They bobbed on the waves, trimming sails to steer wide around the glowing wrecks west of the Scythe. Their gleam was nothing to me, now. I was not so foolish as my master, to believe that echoes held the secrets of the ancients, if such knowledge ever truly existed. I had nothing but words to bind my people to me.
They would have to suffice.
It started to rain, big, heavy drops that bled through my robes to trace cold fingers between down my back. I glanced at my mother, but her gaze was fixed on the glitter of ancient echoes.
At last, the words came.
“Is it better?” I nodded at the Harthram wrecks. “Being their slave?”
Mother opened her mouth, but I held up a hand to forestall the answer.
No lie ever suffered from having too much information, but some truths did.
© 2020 Evan Dicken
About the Author
By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of fascinating medical research at The Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His fiction has most recently appeared in: Analog, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Strange Horizons, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Black Library. Please feel free to visit him at http://www.evandicken.com/.