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Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Clockwork Dragon #26: The Judge's Regalia


The morning air was crisp against Zefir's hide, and he glided with a speed that made him focused. Kirwen was better at not giving him instructions by ordering him through their virul connection, and instead he turned on a wing and plunged downward, slipping through an opening two wing runners had made in their line. Kirwen indicated the angle of descent through his panel—which he could feel in a way he'd never been able to describe other than an instinct, or an itch. Zefir leveled off, and angled toward two gryphons flying too close, their clamp-legs out to capture him.

Too narrow, came her thought-voice.

But Zefir knew he could teach them yet another lesson on flying, these Navs who were mere volunteers with little experience. He had never tried a move so desperate as he attempted now, so he angled toward them, as if ready to fly down their gullet. Were they in battle with real flechette rifles or pistols, such a move would've been suicidal, but—

I've seen squad members sacrifice themselves like this in the air, when all seems lost.

Close now, Kirwen hesitated before venting the heat from his systems and redirecting a greater amount of air to his wings, timing them with each upstroke. Closer. The two gryphons flew closer to one another, hoping to force him to fly around them. As he'd taught them. But they weren't close enough to their formation. And their fellow wing runners didn't move with them. They were a lone mirror of one another, cast off from the others—ripe to pick off.

Move to position, Kirwen sent through his panel.

These two must learn their mistake, or they'll die in the air when real battle comes, he thought back to her.

Zefir was almost close enough to collide with them so he tucked his wings to his side, making his profile no more than a slender flechette spearing perfectly between them; one tried to clamp on to him, but he was too fast. And he was beyond them, spreading his wings once more to arc around to look at them.

They had tried to converge on him, and he watched as the downbeat of one gryphon's brass feathered wing collided with the upstroke of the other. Zefir couldn't gasp, not in the air, but he made a sound of surprise as the left gryph's wing snapped from its body, and began to spiral downward; the right gryph tottered and began to fall in the opposite direction.

Without hesitation, Zefir plunged downward after the left gryphon, and he could hear its Navigator scream—the way I heard Denaru scream before his bomber dragon crashed. Kirwen sent him information on the status and position of the right gryphon, also falling, but its intact wings were arresting its fall slightly.

Go for the one without a broken wing, you can catch her, Kirwen said, the battle rush quivering along her body.

I can catch both, he said, determined.

He expected her to argue, to order him, but she kept giving him a stream of information on both gryphon's falling positions as Zefir speared down toward the one with a broken wing; he flapped faster, harder, feeling the deadly pull down, down, the ache of it inside of him, the gleeful need to fall.

One hundred meters, she sent.

If he wasn't careful, the spinning gryphon might clip him and he too would crash; he tucked his wings tight against him, and pulled his body into a spin to match. Close now, he reached out with a hand, stretching his muscles to the utmost; there, he caught a claw on the Navigator's flight harness and pulled upward. The screaming Nav came with him, and he held on to the harness as he broke his downward fall, every muscle screaming against the pressure.

He flapped desperately, seeing the other gryphon still trying to regain stability. Gripping on to the Nav in his hand with desperate might, he cradled the Nav against his belly as his wings carved deeper gouges out of the air, straining to meet with the other gryphon. Close now—

Two hundred meters, came Kirwen's voice.

He tried to match the awkward spin of the gryph; the beak of the thing clipped Zefir's jaw, and he grunted, glad that his mind was in his chest and not his head. The Navigator was still trying to even out, so with his free hand he flashed the Nav the Wheelteeth sign for abandon and then what he hoped was jump.

The Nav looked up at him, unhooking the harness. And then standing in the flight seat—leaped.

His claw caught at the harness, and he instantly pressed the Nav's body against his chest as he evened out his descent. His veins pumped the cooling serum through him at the perfect rate. Exhausted now, he simply hovered for a moment before he began to gently glide down toward the ground.

Kirwen's battle-rush was a tight sensation against his heart-mind, that heady mix of fear and instinct and automatic reaction. But it began to cool with the long practice of one used to dealing with such emotion over the last two hundred years.

He reached the ground, hovering until his back feet touched the soft grasses, and he set each of the Navs down first.

Both tore off their flight masks. And he saw one of them—a young woman of no more than ten-and-seven—lean over to retch all over the ground. The Nav who'd screamed. The other took his skull-shaped flight mask off, and Zefir recognized him as one of the squad's silent guards, a man taller than Jarre and expression terminally stoic. Ah, the one he'd once threatened to roast for daring to touch him.

The man looked up at his Leader, and bowed to her gracefully. "Thank you, Leader, for saving my life. And that of my squadmate's."

Kirwen slid from Zefir's back and stood, one hand on Zefir's shoulder, unlatching the wolf mask. "The one you must thank, Renzu, is the dragon. Zefir saved your lives."

Zefir danced uncomfortably on his feet. Was it well to feel pride in saving the life of an enemy? An enemy that would fly again only to strike at Zefir's own Navigators? He grimaced, and snorted some of the overly warm feeling from his chest. "Don't thank me, Navigator Renzu. Save your thanks for whatever deity you pray to while flying. Just promise me that you won't attempt that maneuver again without at least four more of your wing backing you."

The man studied him, much the same way Nyru would study a new Navigator in her squad. "What you did to counter it never would've worked in battle."

"Don't underestimate the blood-fury of my Clan's Navigators," Zefir said, leaning closer to the man. "Or their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the safety of their squadron."

The man grimaced. "I will remember that, Dragon Zefir."

Renzu helped his squadmate gather herself, and they made their way toward the mountain's entrance, only for Zefir to see a small crowd—dressed in mourning white with a red piece of cloth on their forearm—come toward them in hurried steps. No, as he sniffled at the air, he could smell the stormy-cloud scent of their anger. They were in a march of fury.

Renzu paused with his squadmate, and left her to come stand by Kirwen's side, crossing his considerable arms across his equally considerable chest.

At the head of the group was Zareth. Zefir took the name from the forefront of Kirwen's mind, but he recognized the wretch who'd shot at Valin. Carefully, Zefir held back on a growl, but adjusted his stance to be at the ready.

Kirwen regarded the crowd with a cold look, though he knew she was stifling her irritation. "Go back to your dwellings, children. Unless you're volunteering for Navigator training, you're wasting my time."

"Leader Kirwen," said Zareth, his eyes flashing. "We're here to demand justice. You've let these Cog scum live in our home for far too long. They're poisoning the very air we breathe. Furthermore—" and Zefir rather thought the irritating boy was trying to sound like a Leader himself, "—the Cog scum chained to the Exile Post has escaped. How many more of their kind will you allow to live?"

Kirwen's hands curled into fists before she relaxed them. "Take your grievances to the Council of Elders. If they call for judgment of our prisoners, then so be it. But in the meantime, I've squadrons to train for the coming battle."

"The Elders do as you say, because they're old and foolish," the young man snapped, taking a step forward. "You tell them what to say. They've no volition."

Zefir let out a rumble of warning, and he could feel his lips curling away to bare his teeth. No one is going to do anything with my squad.

They won't. Kirwen kept one hand on his shoulder, and patted it in reassurance before she spoke to the Lyth boy, "The Council is wise and listens to reason. I'm not their ruler. We're equals. If they've already denied you, which it's clear they have, then I could always use more volunteers. Vent your fury on the battlefield. But not here."

Zareth pointed at her, taking another step forward. "You're one of them. You've already admitted it to us. Who's to say that you're not working with them? Show us, Leader. Show us you're with us by killing the vile scum in our midst."

Kirwen marched forward, and Zefir a took a step forward to stay at her side. Her voice lowered into a dangerous growl, "I've been fighting this war before your grandmere's grandmere was even born, you little shit. And if I'm one of them, so are you, my Lyth." Her eyes flickered over the crowd, and some of its members flinched. "So are all of you. Did you think I was lying when I said that the Cog Clan and the Wheelteeth share blood? Some of these so-called scum in our midst are direct descendants of our own people. And when this war is over, we must learn to accept them as our own Clan—"

Zareth spat in her face.

With trembling fingers, Kirwen wiped the spittle from her cheek. Zefir could feel the fury burn along his insides, a fury not purely his own.

"You lie!" Zareth barked. "And we're sick of your lies. You're a godsdamned traitor—"

Kirwen backhanded the Lyth boy across his face. Blood spilled out of Zareth's mouth and he spat it out on the ground.

"You, boy, don't get to judge me. You have no fucking idea what I've sacrificed for this Clan. For you. For centuries." She straightened, and placed her hand on Zefir's shoulder, more for physical support. "Get out of my sight before I lose my temper and am tempted strike you again, you idiotic child. If you dare call me a traitor again, I'll lock you in the deepest cell until your Elders decide to let you out."  

Zareth spat out more blood, his face creased in hatred. "I see how our great Wolf Leader chooses to protect. Now, so does everyone else."

Kirwen's hand quivered on Zefir's shoulder, and their virul-connection strengthened—her fury making Zefir's hands clench in time with her own. Zefir growled, "Go home."

Perhaps those were her words as much as his.

"As for the rest of you," Kirwen said, "if you're not joining in the fight to lend your strength here, then go and assist where you can. Take your anger and put it to good use."

Slowly, the crowd turned and headed back toward the mountain, Zareth holding his jaw, before turning to follow.

Kirwen was shaking, but from anger or surprise at her own actions, Zefir couldn't tell. She peered at her gloved hand, and curled it in and out of a fist, closing her eyes.

"Are you well?" Zefir ventured.

"I..." She grimaced. "I struck one of my own. I hurt that damned fool boy. Suffice to say if I've unleashed my temper enough to hurt one of mine, then I'm closer to the end than I thought."

"That Zareth boy deserved that." Zefir looked down an saw that he'd left furrows in the soft earth with his claws. "They're dangerous, Kirwen. You should lock them all up."

She shook her head. "They're afraid. And young. The combination makes them angry and stupid."

Zefir watched them marching away, purpose in every step. "Being angry, stupid, and afraid is a combination for people to do dangerous things. I should know, I've done it enough times myself."

She grunted in agreement. "Renzu, I'd like it if you'd guard the enemy squadron."

"Of course, Leader Kirwen," the Nav said mildly. And with that the guard left to attend to his duty.

Zefir sensed a flash of memory from her, but she quickly wrestled it away from his grasp before he saw more than Mother's face.

"Now I know what Mirena must've felt." Kirwen gathered herself enough to launch in a graceful bound into the Navigator's seat; she promptly directed the rate of ascent on his panel and said, "Back to the air, Zefir. We must prepare to launch out sooner than I expected."

I don't have four days, came her thought-voice. Not even the three I gave your Valin.

He'd agreed to this bargain to give Innari more time to break the code-locks. To save Jarre and Ferrei. Now, he may have to choose a more dangerous option.

Then so be it.

And he launched himself skyward.

#

True to his word, the coghorse hadn't dropped Valin on the way down; but often it seemed a very near thing, as Daimo capered down, clipping the faintest outcropping with one hoof, only to bound downward again with a grace and speed even a mountain goat couldn't match. It seemed like the horse was dancing down the rockface. At first the lack of seat had made Valin clench his teeth, the fear resting under his sternum. But as they bounded downward, his inner Navigator reveled in the reckless downward plunge, and once he whooped out loud it spurred the amused horse to greater speed.

Daimo reached the bottom, skidding in a controlled slide with another pleased whinny. "I like you, Rider. Let me know if you want to do that again."

He was breathing hard from the exhilaration, and unknotted his knuckles from the coghorse's pseudo-metallic mane. "Another time perhaps, Daimo. For now, I need you to take me to the Inventrix's tent."

"Oh, right. Sorry, Rider." He began to canter in his smooth gait, so with a fistful of silver mane Valin managed to stay atop the coghorse.  

He noticed that no one, even the Rider scouts, moved to stop him. He wondered if those at work knew about the silver coghorse. In the deep canyon, he could see that the bomber dragon looked even more massive, dwarfing those working around it into mere ants. Closer, he could better calculate the size of the firebomb, and how much of each chemical must be within—

He had to force his mind away from the task, bile rising in his throat from simply contemplating such a thing. When the coghorse approached the largest tent at the very back of the canyon, farthest away from the bomber dragon, Navigators materialized from the shadows, pointing their aerorifles at him.

A young wing runner of Jarre's Third Wing widened her eyes. "Seven?"

Another gasped. "The techie?"

Before Valin could respond, the coghorse stamped his large hoof against the rock of the canyon and the sound seemed to echo like a pistol shot. "This is my Rider, Seven Valin, to see the Inventrix. Time is short, Riders of the Sky. Do not delay."

The wing runner grimaced. "Our Inventrix is indisposed—"

"Daimo," said Valin. "Take me into that blood-ridden tent."

The coghorse pranced, snorting at the wing runners until they moved away from his considerable bulk. But the wing runner lifted her rifle a fraction, eyes wide.

"Shoot me, wing runner, and you'll have killed one of your own Clan," he snapped coldly. "The Inventrix will want to hear what I say even if she is damned well indisposed. Stand aside, or I'll tear the tent down around her ears."

"B-But you can't..." the young girl's eyes grew wider.

Daimo, either bored or irritated—Valin wasn't certain which—released a sound more like a dragon roar than any sound a horse might make. The coghorse trotted forward, ducking down into the tent. Within the inner flaps, Daimo knelt, and Valin slid from his back rather ungracefully.

The Inventrix was sitting in a camp chair dressed in a black-on-black uniform he only recognized from his histories: the judge's regalia, worn only when called to judge the worst of the Clan's offenses—murder of their own...and treason. Her eyes focused on him, taking his measure in a half-a-breath, those same dark eyes burrowing into him. She didn't rise, nor did she move; truly, she seemed made of ice, her face carved from the side of a forbidding mountain.

He counted his breaths, forcing them to remain even, for his heartbeat to stop hammering against his insides. He didn't bow, or show obeisance, and he stilled his tongue. The eternity of her stare caused the sweat to begin pouring down his back. But he wouldn't yield. She would speak first.

"You left them there," she said without inflection.

Cut to the heart of his weakness. "I had no choice, Inventrix. If I had failed to follow Kirwen's directions—"

"Never say her name in my presence." Her long fingers tapped at the chair's arm.

Fire started in his belly, and made its way up through his mouth. "Then this conversation will be overly long and complicated if I can't say her godsdamn name."

He expected an arched brow, like Kirwen would, but his Inventrix wasn't one to show such wry displeasure so causally. "That fire. I should've put it out long ago. For clearly, it hasn't done your blood any good."

He took a step forward, and noticed the judge's dagger on her hip. If she had weakened enough, perhaps he could have a chance of using it on her...

The treasonous thought made cold sweat break out over his lip. "It's there, and I know who it comes from, Mirena. I know why you didn't stamp it from my line long ago."

She placed her chin on her fist. If his use of her heart-name surprised her, she gave no sign of it. "Why have you returned then?"  

"To learn the truth," he said, and clasped his hands behind his back. "And to give you truth. Because no one else will."

Now her mouth became a thin slash. "And this truth you bring, did it happen to have been obtained at the cost of your squadron and my little one?"

Did he hear a quiver in her voice when she asked about Zefir?

"They will be the cost if I don't return to Kirwen," he said, forcing his voice to be just as emotionless as hers. "I'm here as her messenger, and if you decide to judge me for treason here, then when I fail to come back with an answer—"

"Her terms then," she said, mouth tight. "Surrender no doubt. But know this, boy, there can be no surrender. Not even for my Zefir, my creation and...and my..."

"Child," he finished. "Or did you forget he calls you Mother?"

She rose from her chair with the eerie inhuman grace of an Inventrix. Such was the blaze in her eye that his muscles tightened as he expected her to strike him. He flinched when she waved away the coghorse, still standing behind him. Daimo hesitated, before Valin nodded to him; with a snort, the coghorse backstepped through the tent flap, and in three strides was gone.

"I haven't forgotten, Valin," she said, voice almost a whisper. "Tell me how he fares."

The anger still boiled inside, but it cooled slightly at hearing her as a mother begging him for news of her child. For Zef. "She hasn't harmed him. Though she is enemy, she has honored her vow to—"

"You broke your parole," she said, narrowing her gaze. "If there's one thing to be said for my mirror it's that she holds to her vows, and she wouldn't threaten their lives if your parole remained intact. But Valin, that's not what I asked. There are a thousand ways to kill a person, and nearly all of them can start with a small cut. So I ask you again: how fares my little one?"

How could he tell her what Zefir had been through? "He's known fear. A great deal of it, but you wouldn't create a battle dragon without the ability to deal with fear, now would you?"

"He reacts to it as would any human, Valin, and you know it." She shuddered, and clenched her fingers into fists. "What fears has he known?"

"The same kind as any human, Inventrix. The fear of losing us. His squadron. Me. Those he loves. And isn't that what we all fear? Isn't that why I'm here now?" He swallowed before he pushed, "Weren't those your fears that were realized after the Trial?"

Her dark eyes flashed. "She can't have decayed that far that she'd tell you such things."

"There were many things my grandmere allowed me to realize on my own. She didn't need to tell me of the many truths that have been hidden from us. By you, Mirena." His eye flickered over the dagger at her hip, and he made himself take a single step away from her to keep the lure of it out of his mind. Strike and kill her. This will all be over. "You've lied to your Clan for so long that your edited lies seem like truth now. We no longer know why we fight them, and we fight now only because the war continues, and the war continues because you say it does, and our hurts increase and increase until it's all we know. The losses. And the hatred grows, and the war continues."

"That's your great truth, boy?" She turned her back on him—if I move fast enough I can grab the dagger—and reseated herself in the chair.

He spied the real reason that she sat, and not the nonchalant, uncaring air that she put forth. The muscles of her foot were twitching.

"She hasn't lied to me," he said slowly. Thinking. Another lesson, another test. And he must unlock her the way he'd decoded the locks on her laboratory door. "Generations ago, you started this war. You sent ground forces and burned the Wheelteeth's crops. You caused their famine during a drought, and then you demanded their children—"

"All the first born of that year, yes." Again her eyes were searching him. Calculating. "And in exchange I gave them enough food to survive that winter. But you're wrong about one thing, sootfoot."

He stiffened. So she still insults my origins. "I fail to see what part of that is untrue. Or should I simply recite the histories from memory? The histories you wrote?"

She grimaced. "Time has a way of altering the truth. After a time, I simply wrote the simple version of events for the school's histories, a version that all could understand and find pride in. For we need pride, Valin, when we've nothing else."

My pride is gone.

"But what you fail to realize is that the famine didn't begin this war. It started with—" she clenched her teeth and said the name as if it were drawn from her by force, "—Kirwen."

He clenched his hands behind him, and his wounded hand throbbed. He squeezed it tighter so the pain would solidify and increase. "Their retaliation is understandable. Justified even. You stole their children. How can you not see the immorality of your actions?"

"Because...the war started far before that." Her face creased in anger the likes of which Valin had never seen her reveal before, contorting her expression into something truly terrifying. "It started when my mirror took half of my Clan away from me. She stole my people. And I swore I would return at least some of them before they warped into the wildlings they are now. So feral. And none of them truly mine any longer."

Valin gasped. "How?"

She dropped her gaze to her own fingertips, which made small jerking movements. "Your very distant grandmere incited the dissolution of our Clan by starting protests. She turned them against me, my people, my children. She stirred violent anger and criminal thoughts in their heads, leading them like the blind and trusting children they were. They demanded that I step down, that the Elders be called to rule in a council at my side. When I rightfully denied them, they tried to kill me." Her breath stilled, eyes distant. "They wanted me to stop Leading them, their Inventrix. Me who was born to rule them, mold them, and keep them safe. I had no choice but to put the protesters to the Exile Posts and...I wouldn’t allow anyone of their blood to go to them with water." She closed her eyes, hands trembling. "I can still perfectly recall their cries for mercy as they wasted away. I still can scent the decaying stench of their bodies left to rot in the sun. For even the sun held no mercy for them, as I could not."

Valin's stomach churned, and he tamped down on the awful feel of bile in his throat. "Gods o' the Forge...you killed your own people."

Those eyes raised from her hands. Cold. Like two pools of liquid obsidian. Her mouth curved in a grimace that matched Kirwen so much that Valin's mind faltered. "The instant they turned from me, I had to. Or I would lose them all. She poisoned them with treasonous thoughts. Because she said that the way we were created—to mold and rule was wrong. As if she knew. She's no Inventrix. She lacks the need to alter and change things for the better. Couldn't she see that she was destroying the future? Our future?"

She began to mutter to herself, her eyes staring at things not present. He could see now that she was locked in the distant past, far away from him. Her mind lost in the centuries of memories she held. Her mutters became louder, her eyes rolling back, flashing white at him.

The bile seared his throat raw, but even as he trembled, he strode forward. Intent. Uncaring about his own future. Close, he could see her eyes vibrating, her muscles tense. With her in the throes of her distant memories, he could strike.

But when Valin moved but a breath closer, she focused blearily on him once more. Her gaze sharpened, and she frowned at him, truly seeing him again.

"You don't deserve to wear the judge's regalia, Mirena." He needed to get closer, so he placed his hands on the arms of her chair, face close. "Someone needs to stand in judgment of you for the greatest crime—you harmed your own. You killed those of your own Clan."

"I did it, boy," she said, voice hoarse, "to save my Clan from being destroyed from the inside. The other dissenters—"

"Left with her," he growled. "Didn't they? They fled from your so-called justice, and they left to find shelter. To become a new Clan. The Cog Clan and the Wheelteeth are of the same people. We are the same." His fingers tightened over the metal of the chair. "And now, you want to murder them all. Gods-be-damned, you're going to kill all the innocents. Your own people. The Wheelteeth will burn."

"They're not the same. Not any longer, Seven." She reached slowly for the dagger at her side, and he clenched his teeth, waiting for the blow. But she held it out to him, hilt first. "If you think yourself such a judge as an Inventrix, then take it. Take it and betray me."

He took the blade from her jittering fingertips. One movement and this is all over. "Stop the firebomb, Mirena."

"I made the device so that their death will be quick," she whispered. "It's the best mercy I can give them to save my own. It's the only way."

He held the dagger, the point hovering just over her heart.

"Please, Mirena." This close he could smell the faint scent of illness about her, musty and acrid. "You don't have to kill them. Not like that."

She closed her eyes. "I do, Valin. And I will."

His grip tightened until the wound on his palm opened.

"I should've known," she said quietly, half to herself. "I should've known you'd turn against me. I'd grown too fond of you, because you were like her...so strong. I wanted some part of her at my side once more. I wanted you at my side. With my little one. But what folly such a need was. More proof of my decay. Such weakness, the need for...for love like I knew before the breaking. And now, like her, here you stand with the same bedamned righteous ire in your breast, telling me I've failed in my purpose."

Use it. End this all. His muscles quivered as his mind soared over the best way to end her life. His Inventrix. "This is another damned test."

"No, my boy," she said softly. "This is your trial."

This won't save Zef. Or Jarre, Nyru, or Ferrei. This wouldn't stop the war. This wouldn't end the barrage of the Wheelteeth's hurts and losses from streaming through his mind. This might not even stop the firebomb. But he couldn't live with himself if he didn't attempt it...even the slightest possibility...He knew it would mean his death. And the death of his dragon friend. His squadron. At the cost of saving many others...the young ones readying for battle, the innocents like Mayra...

He had to act.

His hand ached, and the blood from his wound poured over the grip of the dagger, making it slick.

I'm so sorry, Zef. Forgive me. 

Flowing without hesitation, his muscles moved with reflexes he'd never before possessed. Fast. Perhaps a match for a decaying Inventrix. Valin thrust the dagger toward her heart.

And her hand caught at his wrist, halting the blade a mere breath away from her flesh. Her grip was harder than iron. He could feel the bones of his wrist grinding together, threatening to snap in twain; he writhed, and his free hand balled into a fist, flying toward her icy façade. But she caught his fist, moving as no more than a blur in his sight. Her grip tightened, and she twisted, pushing him from his stance with a strength inborn and a surety learned from centuries. He could feel the dagger loosen in his grip, even as he fell to the ground. Those cold, dead eyes were searching him as she plucked the dagger from him. He wanted to close his eyes against the pain he knew would come, but he stared into those dark orbs—the eyes of his Inventrix.

With her weight on top of him, she released his wrist and caught at his throat. His lungs seized; stars danced at the edges of his sight.

"This," she said flatly. "Was it within you all along, Valin?"

His fingers dug at her implacable grip, his fingernails gouging at her flesh. She brought the dagger against his face, and slowly the edge of the blade made deep furrows in the flesh of his cheek. A perfect X.

She released him. The coughs that wracked his body seemed like they would never cease, but breath met his lungs in a glorious rush. His bones felt as if they'd fly apart as he began shuddering, gasping.

The Inventrix knelt next to him, the judge's dagger held so casually. He brought his hand up to his face, and the blood poured over his chin. His fingers found the edges of the cut, knowing what his act had gained him.

X.

The traitor's mark.

"One thing I learned, Valin." She held the bloody dagger point down between them. "I was young and untried when my own people rose against me. If you kill a man, then he can't rise against you, but many more will in retaliation. That's why I lost them, all of them. But I should've known: if you take away what defines a person, if you take away their pride...no one will help him. And he'll live. You won't have to end his life." She nodded to him. "And you'll live, Seven Valin. I won't take your life, even though you've proved that you're no longer one of mine. And I've given you the brand so everyone else will know it as well."   

The mark burned, and he cradled his cheek, blood hot between his fingers.

"Go." She made a dismissive gesture as she uncoiled and rose to her feet, staring down at him with those depthless eyes. "And if you ever see my Zefir again, tell him that I...I love him. Now, get out of my sight."

He gritted his teeth, and the mark of his flesh burned deeper. "I'm not through with giving you Kirwen's offer."

"Oh? Trying to kill me wasn't enough?"  

"That was my idea and my idea alone. For the crimes you'll commit with that firebomb. I'd never thought to see you as a monster, my Inventrix, but a demon-spawned monster you are." He spat in the dirt between them. "No, this is Kirwen's offer: she challenges you to a duel. One-on-one. To the winner goes the fate of their Clan. The loser must surrender their people to the other. Accept now, and you may gain everything without losing your people, even those feral wildling children you're so eager to murder."

Her body went completely still; her breath ceased. She appeared as no more than a dark statue standing with her weighing eyes.

He waited, not bothering to cover the lurching sound of his heart. Blood poured into his collar, seeping down over his flesh. Slowly, he got to his feet, stumbling as his head whirled. Prick her pride, for it's all she has left. With a growl, he spat, "I'll give her your regards and your refusal. It's obvious you're too weak to match her."

He turned on heel and touched the tent flap when her voice traveled down his spine. "No, not that, Seven Valin."

He forced himself to turn around, to face his Inventrix once more.

"I accept her challenge. Tell her we meet at the Burned Stone plateau tomorrow afternoon, just as the Innari moon makes her first appearance this year." She held out the dagger to him as she'd done before—hilt first. "Give this to her as a promise of my victory. And leave the blood intact."

He took little Mayra's handkerchief from his inner jacket pocket. Balling it up, he tossed it at her feet. "And I give this to you as a gift from one little Wheelteeth girl who didn't know it was wrong to help a Cog man crying. Her name is Lyth Mayra. Remember that you want to burn her."

Something stirred behind those obsidian eyes, and he thought perhaps she was lost in the past again. "I remember the names of all the fallen. Such is the curse of an Inventrix's memory."

She picked up the handkerchief, balled it in her fist, and tossed it back to him. He caught it in his bloody hands.

She began to mutter again; this time he heard a flood of names, her voice louder, "Densu Kartesh, Kerlan Wenzi, Arresten Verr..." And they continued, almost jumbling together as they tumbled from her lips, this list of the dead.

The flood of white-hot fury soared into him, giving him momentary strength, but he spun about and walked from the tent, holding his hatred tight in his mind. When he emerged, the sun was beginning light up the edges of the canyon. Bright. Too bright. The hatred was transforming into something else, something dark. Heavy. And it twisted. It should still be night to reflect the darkness that grew inside of him, worming its way through his gut, his chest, his damned heart.

He stood blinking at the rays of the sundisk, blood dripping from the dagger tip. The Navigators half raised their rifles, staring at the X marked on his face.

Valin stumbled away, carrying the bloody dagger with him.

Read Part 27: To the End of the March

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