Hello, readers mine! A tad earlier this week since the mood has taken me, but it’s time for another preview chapter from The Necromancer and the Reaping Spear! We’re now at five out of six, the second to last of those I’ll post in advance of finishing the book and publishing it on Smashwords.
Unlike the previous examples, this chapter contains only a few general spoilers for The Necromancer and the Revenant. Nonetheless, if you’re insistent on reading through that first novel, well, first, you may find it on Smashwords here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1022294
In this chapter, we move forward a day and join most of the main cast in the fortified heart of House Lin, the bastion. Divari appears in person for the first time since the events of The Necromancer and the Revenant. We learn about the genuinely dark art of neuromancy, including the complexities underlying arcane mind-control, and arguments are made as to exactly who should be allowed to seek out a certain familiar stone–for the second time…
(15th of Makye, 1295 V.R.)
“You will notice it’s hard to find anyone who is obviously doing something for a bad reason that will admit to you ‘I am doing this for a bad reason.’ Nothing wrong with wanting to look confident. Except, it can start hurting people.” -Arnolt Hauser, On the Reinvention of the Self
Gratai rubbed the parchment between her fingers. Black nails rasped on faded yellow. Such a wisping frailty, this, to plot a nation’s fate, she thought.
Its message ran short: “King Sidra had it on his person when he died: a gemstone, black but glass-like, bearing a golden sunburst set with a red circle. I have hid it in my enclave’s remains. You must take it. It has driven all who touch it mad. They are saying the one who masters it will be his true heir.” Gratai finished reading and scrunched her eyes shut. Imbecile calumny, she thought.
Gratai’s sight lingered on the parchment for a time before she looked to Divari.
The younger woman, paler even than her alabaster norm, chewed her lip and rubbed the finger-nubs on her left hand’s remnants. A black silk sleeve concealed it. A stark contrast to her white gown and mauve undershirt. “It is unlikely to be any other stone,” the princess-in-exile said. Gratai restrained herself from seeking a more decisive answer. Divari wore the same heart-shaped face, the same sapphire eyes and fine blonde hair. Mere semblance. It took no second sight to recognize a spirit quavering within. The spirit within quavering? Gratai thought. She’s wounded, poor creature—damnation, poor girl!
Her thoughts often housed such debates since the Redoubt. The Matriarch considered. “Your people excel at unearthing these mind-latch baubles, Divari,” she said. They stood in the Bastion’s war-room with Syla, Len, Azukai, and Uru. Enner was elsewhere today. Namely, at the Igneous Founding Academy comparing notes with their best house invokers. Gratai begrudged this not, except that it left her pining for her husband, which was to say that she begrudged it greatly. Enough. Drive your ire at real problems, not maiden’s soppery, she thought.
“I believe it would be inadvisable for you to depart the Bastion to acquire this relic, Your Strength,” Uru said. The Keeper of Affairs wore a Tonnish robe in the Lin colors, unadorned. Otherwise, Uru Yarin showed her age but little: cavern-cheeked, amber-eyed, raven-haired and lean. Her hair grayed, her skin wrinkled, but her wits never dulled.
“If the journey passed into any land but Tresamer, I would agree,” Gratai said. “True, each potent mage the house can muster helps forestall the Vigil from descending on Tuha-Lin. Yet, with Tresamer as our endpoint, I may join the expedition, for Azukai shall do so either way. With her aid we may return at a dawn-sprite’s wink.”
Syla propped an elbow on one hand’s back and knuckled her chin, considering. “I would like to join this expedition. I am aware of the worries posed for the succession should any harm befall me. It’s acceptable; my cousins will remain secure in the Bastion. In view of this, I must argue that I will need the experience when I become Matriarch.”
Gratai’s soul winced, but aloud she said, “You speak truth, heart.”
“I am not certain that she does,” Uru said, drawing a raised eyebrow from Syla and a glare from Gratai. “With respect, Your Strength, my lady Heir.” She tilted her head towards Syla. “I do not doubt your courage or your ability in subterfuge. I am gaining respect for your political intellect. It is already superior to your mother’s in many regards.”
“But?” Syla prompted.
“But there is no special reason I have heard, as yet, that this mission requires anything more than a house invoker and a detachment of our agents,” Uru said. “You propose hurling yourselves, both heads of house as well our zhumozhe, who is scarcely less valuable, into the nexus of a war. The geography of Tresamer does not make me optimistic that we could extricate you at need—not without invading the country.”
“I would not recommend that,” Divari said. “Tresamer is very large, and populous. A lords’ coalition would have ample time to form. And with foreign invaders to focus them, that time would not be necessary. We are a contentious people, but easily unified by rivals.”
“I am glad to hear one other woman speaking sense,” Uru said.
“We’ve already passed through Tresamer with Mei-la Sairo looking for our heads,” Len said. “Whatever happens, this won’t turn out worse than that did.”
“My kingdom is embroiled in a civil war, Lord Lin,” Divari said. Her lips twitched toward one side, but failed to form a smile. “That was supposed to be a joke… somehow…” She scrubbed fitfully at her hair for a few seconds while the room fell silent.
“The Vigil was and remains our primary threat,” Uru said. “The Matriarch herself implied as much. I am not concerned about the threat of a Tresar attack by itself. The bogs would devour their main strength before they ever reached our heartlands. But Pelari Tur has proven adept in playing to existing unrest. She and her Vigil were able to rally the combined armies of Ceslon and Anseth against Binusi in but a single year. A war between ourselves and Tresamer would provide her similar conditions to manipulate.”
“True. Though callous counsel,” Gratai said, breathing evenly, “it bears reflection that Tresamer’s civil war must churn until a ruler emerges. Fetching the stone from the fire changes naught. Perhaps wisdom counsels that we do nothing.”
“I cannot say…” Divari’s voice cracked. She tried again, “I cannot say with certainty you are wrong, Gratai. But they’re still my people. If they must kill each other, let them do it for causes of their own choice. Not for a gem they saw my father holding when he died.”
“I must advise against emotional reasoning,” Uru said. “I understand Her Highness’s principles. Yet, as she noted, an advance into Tresamer will likely unite them against us. Unless it’s Your Strength’s intention to launch a preemptive strike? This would be an opportune time. Perhaps a lightning invasion might mitigate the risks we’ve discussed.”
“Without Tur’s ravenous band lurking in Ceslon, I would gladly do so,” Gratai said. “I gauge it the surest way to place Divari upon her throne.”
The princess-in-exile opened her mouth to object. Then, gritting her teeth, she nodded her agreement. Yet when Gratai concluded, she said, “As it stands? No.”
“I would prefer to try reasoning with my people when the time comes,” Divari said.
“You paid any debts you owed them in full,” Gratai said. “But I understand; thus you shall act come the day.”
“I have considered the simplest, clearest reason why I, at least, should go,” Syla said. “This will be a house mission carried right to the capital of a foreign nation. Decisions may have to be made in the heat of the moment which will affect Tresamer as a nation, and our relations with them, for years. And since House Sairo no longer exists as a buffer between our lands and theirs, that’s a matter of undeniable concern, isn’t it?” Her brows creased. “There. Your special reason, Uru. I’d rather stay safe and happy in Tuha-Lin as well, but…”
Uru pinched her brow. “I confess to having hoped you would not think of that argument.”
“There exists the further point that if this relic does possess deeper potential, we should wish it under our control. Or if controlling it proves impossible, I shall wipe it from existence myself,” Gratai said. “The hearthwoman’s testimony suggests that the stone may wield a beguilement akin to Skybleeder’s.” She looked to Divari. “You encountered this thing. You must remember something about its pull. Do I guess well?”
The princess frowned and paced. “It is true that when I first found the stone in Mei-la’s tent, the instant that I touched it, I felt a terrible urge to uncover it from the silk. ‘To look within, and know.’ That was what I thought. I managed to fight it back, but it was as if I became another self during that touch. It was closest, I suppose, to the change of thought that comes of drinking too much. As though the stone brought out desires that had lurked within me all along, unadmitted.”
“It must have done so,” Gratai said. “I am no true neuromancer. That art perished with the Age of Splendors. Yet I did glean some little while studying under Master Yela.” She let the words ebb. She regretted speaking them. Why? Why did this knowledge shame her?
“And what did you learn?” Syla asked.
It required an unreasoning will-surge to force the words out. They emerged as though vomiting sound. “I once asked Master Yela about influencing others’ actions. I thought that, as necromancers often face persecution for simple proximity with death, we might avert much bloodshed by altering noxious thoughts,” Gratai said. She closed her mouth for a moment and swirled her tongue. Why did it hang so heavy and dry behind her teeth? “I shall never forget how grave she became, my instructor from Naikala—”
“Naikal,” Syla said, eliciting a flinch from Gratai. “I’m sorry for interrupting, mother. You just looked as though you needed to be pulled out of your thoughts for a moment. But, er…” She shrugged as she met quizzical looks from around the room, “the country’s proper name is Naikal. ‘Naikala’ is a small Ceslonian corruption of the original. It’s a habit imported from Ulm earlier in the Age of Splendors and adopted towards some Ansethi countries—adding a needless vowel to the real name’s end to make it sound in line with Kiwoda, Naibora, and the like.”
“Ah,” Gratai said. “Master Yela never mentioned it.”
“She was likely happy enough to have a diligent student, and another necromancer to speak with, that she didn’t want to cause friction,” Syla said. “I only know because I once called Kiwoda by the Black Havener name for it and my father went on a small rant.”
“A small one? In your bloodline?” Divari asked, with a tiny smile.
“I’ll have you know that a proper Montesro rant is very concise,” Syla said. She quirked her lips. “… in comparison to everything we want to say but are holding back.”
“So, a Lin rant with efficiency,” Azukai said. When their laughter ebbed, she said, “but you were speaking to us about something vital, sister. Please finish.”
Gratai found continuing her tale easier with the air cleared. “Right. Master Yela swore me to secrecy before telling aught. Neuromancy has worthy applications such as restoring lost senses, like allowing touch’s tingle on scar-tissue, and reconnecting a spine’s severed nerves that the wounded may walk again. The anatomical lore essential for raising ghouls includes several such notions which came first from neuromancy. Necromancers merely preserved this knowledge.” She folded her hands and stared at them for a time. “Master Yela told me this much. Then she ordered that I ask nothing more. I must await her consideration while she pondered what to reveal.”
“And you lost patience?” Divari guessed.
Gratai spread her lips in a jesting smile and formed a syllable. She halted without uttering a sound. To jest about hero-tales with Divari no longer held any shine. It came too close on mocking what befell them two months and a lifetime ago. Thus she gathered herself and said simply, “No. I found enough to occupy me. A week before I left on the questing voyage that brought me to Taifen, and to Sarn, Master Yela drew me aside and told me the little that she knew. It was enough to give me pause.” The necromancer secreted her hands within her robes. Again, her recounting’s weight settled upon her. It brought chill and emptiness with it. “No spellweaver, though their mage-strength might shift a continent upon its drift, can force another into action that other does not wish. The mind, the inmost radiant soul, rebels. The spell’s target shall shatter themselves instead.”
Her black-pigment lips slid into a faint, bitter smile. “A skillful neuromancer understands this for a flaw in approach. In means, not ends. Every sapient being teems with submerged impulses, antisalient desires. When we say, ‘I want this,’ we truly mean that in this moment we want it enough that it overmatches all else that we want. Consciousness itself comprises an endless struggle to retain one’s ideal self against all the other selves that might mutate from it. We have all yearned for an escape from that struggle. Sometimes we yearn desperately enough that we would let another control our course if they would only accept the burden that comes of choosing to be.”
She paced, speaking under some dread recollection’s urging that cut loose her presence from those around her. It set her apart upon an ashen plain. There only ruin reigned, and the wailing wraiths of ages unborn. She traced idle fingers over the war-room’s center map. She traced its gleaming copper, ran her fingers over the miniscule mountains and dells that were the only map on all Canno showing House Lin’s territory as it truly was. And still she spoke, and they listened like spirits bound and bewitched:
“We have all had moments when we might act inverse to everything we called our own nature from sheer desperation. Except this, too, comes from within: from another self. The self anathema to that we embrace. The traitor self that cries, ‘I will live! Let all things burn, so long as I can live!'” Her bitter smile softened and became forlorn. “Therein dwells neuromancy. Find and sing in harmony with that little traitor soul that wails in the void beneath your victim’s chosen self. Empower it over the once-higher nature. Nudge them first towards what they yearn for, yet dare not accept. When they waver in the war against the wicked self, shift from nudge into push. Control the momentum. With enough nudges upon the right points, you make a new person entirely—one who now desires whatever you desire, though every step depended on that first: the step they thought their own.”
Nothingness and quiet held sway for a long time. Len broke their hold first by swallowing nerves and saying, “I don’t think Syla’s ever thought anything like that.”
“Yes I have,” Syla said. Her words clove to the core for the very reason that she said them neither bluntly nor sadly. She simply said them. “I have. It was faint. So faint I could deny it if I liked, and call it a whim. I’d never have acted on it, but it was there.” She set her jaw for a moment. “I will not say it could never become something I’d act on. From what mother says, that’s just the way to hand it to that wicked self—for another to wield.”
Divari’s pallor came close to matching Azukai’s, or Gratai’s. “Ancestors’ Breath…” she sighed. She shuddered. After hugging herself she continued, “regardless, it cannot be denied that what you describe is much the same as what I felt, in its earliest courses. And Skybleeder, too… is there a history of such relics on Canno? Is this, too, something of the wider world’s lore that Tresamer alone has forgotten, or ignores?”
“As far as I am aware,” Uru said, “Skybleeder is the sole other case.”
Gratai felt thankful that between these six, Azukai alone could sense emotion. For if ever two souls’ simultaneous agreement to refrain from looking at each other could become a felt thing, she and Azukai must now have made it so.
“Then that’s reason enough in itself for Gratai to lead the mission,” Len said. “She’s the only one who was ever totally immune to Skybleeder—well, herself and Ten-zai. If this stone can dominate a mind like Skybleeder did, it might be she’s the only one on Canno who can withstand it.”
Uru rubbed her brow. “Enlai’s grace, I’d thought my predecessors exaggerated when they said that a mageborn Matriarch was a boon to the house and a curse to her servants. Very well. I will not attempt to argue against this mission further.”
“There exist precautions we may take,” Gratai said. “Uru, I request your perspective on Sarn.”
“It’s utterly unstable and has never been a meaningful threat. The mid-west does have its share of good farmland, and the borderlands north of the Crimson Trim are excellent territory. Its few allies learned to despise it after Euser took the throne, and are unlikely to march to its aid. With House Sairo’s subjugation, there is no risk save from Tresamer itself… and they would create a buffer for us…” Uru nodded. “Yes, I see your thinking. I will begin preparations at once. I recommend General Kaminari for this campaign.”
“I agree,” Gratai said.
“Would it not be appropriate for General Shung to have the honor?” Divari asked.
“This would confer political advantage within a Ceslonian court, perhaps,” Gratai said. “The Ton-Ga’s people accept Matriarchal authority, but not from blind reverence.”
“No one with the grit to spend their life pulling up tubers while dodging barbs from rumon trees and ponds full of silverblood larvae is going to listen to some rich woman a thousand kilometers away—unless she makes their life better,” Len added.
“They embrace us only so long as we prove competent, and pageantry impresses them little outside a festival,” Gratai said. “Selecting General Shung for this task would embody both pageantry and incompetence.” She looked to Syla. “Should I explain further?”
“Please do,” Syla said. “I don’t expect to make it through my reign without fighting a war or five, however much I might hope for it.”
Gratai nodded. “Daosing Shung excels at maneuver warfare, misdirection, and siege tactics from both within a fortress and outside it. She remains the best choice to hold and pacify Sairo province, while ranking among the worst for seizing Euser’s Castoffs. Sarn has no large fortresses. It requires no misdirection.” Purely for theatrical effect and their collective amusement, Gratai stepped to the war-room’s map and drove her finger northward from Tuha-Lin to the Crimson Trim.
“What it does require is a swift-advancing force led by a commander adept in locating, entrapping, and destroying many roving bands of marauders. Kaminari comes from our coastal Ton vassals. He embodies their aggression, adaptability, and talent for dealing with many smaller forces; he reached my mother’s attention by wiping out a pirate fleet that plagued Mou-heilai for her entire reign. Thus, the best choice.”
“Otherwise,” Gratai concluded. “I shall speak with Enner and see which house invoker he believes best suited for this mission.”
“I had been meaning to speak with you on that count, Your Strength,” Uru said. Gratai braced herself for the worst. “Head Invoker Jinhua has told me that the First Husband’s insights into Ceslonian enchantment and arcane theory are proving invaluable. She has asked me to pass on a request that some of the new students move into the bastion so that they may study from him on a regular basis without interrupting his other duties.”
Gratai immediately grew muzzy-headed with daydreams about those other duties. She therefore spoke with a particular blush and coquettish lilt as she said, “I shall grant this.”
“I cannot help but think you play up your affection for him because you know the impropriety nettles me,” Uru observed.
“That provides half the fun,” Gratai agreed, shameless. Still, she exerted a little willpower and said, “in this case, I shall be delighted for Enner and Head Invoker Jinhua to deliberate together and pass their recommendation on to us.”
“I’ll go,” Divari said suddenly. “I am the one asking you to take charge of the stone, am I not? If another invoker is needed, let it be me.”
“Divari, you don’t need to do that,” Syla said. Gratai shared her instinct, and so refrained from immediate answer. Her young wards entered a heated discussion about whether Divari should join the mission. Gratai, meanwhile, debated herself. A mother should shield her foster daughters. Yet carried too far this would leave them untried, untrained, vulnerable to the Vigil and many others. In seeking to protect them, Gratai might poison their potential.
“I think it a fine solution,” Azukai said, with such conviction that Gratai could almost believe her soul-sister free from doubt. “Divari remains an exceptional talent with great power. More than this, she knows much about the Tresar’s incantations.”
Syla’s eyes snapped to the devil-matron, clearly worried. “Azu,” Syla said, measuring each word, “she’s… you understand, Divari is, well…” The more Syla stumbled, regretful that she’d spoken, the more gutted Divari looked.
“Syla,” Azukai prompted, “did we not discuss this mission’s political concerns earlier?”
“Hm.” Syla adopted a thinker’s pose and drew steadying breaths. “We did. Right. That’s an excellent point. We cannot ask for better sanction than the rightful queen’s presence. And it’s not as though she’ll need to bear too much burden with both you and mother present.”
“It’s a good chance for you to get back in the field and show your mettle,” Len said. “Room to excel, but it won’t cause any trouble if you don’t. Again, certainty enough.”
“‘In peace and war, no option is inviolate, no strategy infallible; fools sometimes profit while the wisest fall to ruin. The only certainty is that inaction breeds disaster,'” Gratai said. “I confess my uncertainty that we rightly apply this advice during the same breath that I speak it.”
“Count Albrecht Durer’s teachings. Wise words from a man who trained our staunchest enemies,” Uru said. “War with the Vigil and its secular allies is inevitable. When that war comes, all of us must play a role. This and the other points are fair enough reasons for her highness to join the expedition.”
“I can do this, Syla,” Divari said. “Am I not the one who gathered the stone last time?”
Syla tried a final pleading look at Gratai. And last time it destroyed her life, Gratai thought. A compromise, perhaps, and a cowardice on my part. Let us try it.
“Very well,” Gratai said, “I shall allow this,” and Divari’s eyes brightened, “but you must meet one condition. Go to the Igneous Founding Academy bearing my enthusiastic agreement with the Head Invoker’s suggestion. Once she receives this, tell her that under my instructions you shall submit yourself for the Trial of Ten-zai. If she likes the spellcraft you demonstrate, you shall journey with us into Tresamer. If she says that you stand unready, you may ask her for aid in becoming ready. What you may not do is argue with her, sneak along on the mission, or otherwise deviate from our pact. Understood?”
Divari now bore a determined stare. “Understood. How long will I have? If, that is, I should fail her conditions, for I do not intend to.”
“Uru?” Gratai asked.
“I believe two weeks will suffice to prepare all contingencies, gather supplies, and select fifteen agents with skills appropriate to your needs,” Uru said. “Where shall I focus?”
“Stealth and discretion. Martial skill seems desirable only where they mesh it with these,” Gratai said. “Place little emphasis on social infiltration. Unless you believe our agents can memorize enough about Tresamer’s culture within two weeks, Divari?”
“Tresamer’s culture where?” Divari asked. “Do you mean the culture of the outer gouges or the inner gouges? The culture of Sornbind, perhaps, or of the foothills around Therres? Alansera’s customs are not at all like…” She cleared her throat. “In a word, no.”
Gratai nodded. “I thought as much. Select accordingly, Uru.” She stretched and looked around the room. “Let us all attend what we must. I would appreciate the favor if someone led Divari to the Igneous Founding, but a Banner-Guard shall serve at need.”
“I would brim with delight,” Azukai said, a heartbeat before Len said,
“It’d be my pleasure.” They exchanged a glance. “We’ll both go,” Len added.
Gratai enjoyed a little giggle at this. “Wondrous. Syla, dear, do you feel recovered somewhat from your exertions yesterday?”
“Recovered enough,” Syla said. “I meant to ask if we could start training anyway. I would rather have at least a hint of spear-skill before facing danger again.”
“Two weeks shall suffice for learning the utmost basics,” Gratai said. “Come.”
Three and then two they filed out, leaving a most bemused Uru to her own labors.