The flower was on the last cusp of colour. Grey and black had eaten it from the outside in, but on the very edge, a faint hint of blue lingered.
Courier Jessle slid her eyes away from the flower to the rest of the field. A dim sky, over a carpet of dim blossoms. They lay on their sides, as if they had all lain down for a strange sort of nap.
Each and every one had been carefully yanked out by their roots.
One of the villages must have done this, she reflected. One of the small, grey
(the colour of her hair now; when did that happen? It had been so long since she was here)
little villages she’d walked through just an afternoon ago. The people had been quiet and industrious. They hadn’t looked up at her footstep, they hadn’t hesitated at her stare, they had drifted out of her path as smoothly as the parting fog.
She had never been so disconcerted in her life. The sight of a good, honest pick-pocketing in the street would’ve cheered her up immensely.
But the villagers would never do a thing like that. They would never do something so pointlessly outside of their remit. They did as they were told. Nothing more.
Jessle placed the flower down precisely not where she had taken it from. This gave her a tiny bit of satisfaction and sent an uncomfortable thrill down her spine, as if she were seven again and trespassing in her aunt’s bedroom. Exhilaration, coupled with a certainty of unknown, inescapable punishment yet to come.
The lake had not changed, she thought with relief, and then she saw that she had thought wrong.
The boats were still there: thick-oared, low-slung barges. The rowers were still there: downcast, over-robed young men. The dock was still there: dark wood sheathed in black iron.
But the boats were rotted – unfit to transport even a scant load of prisoners now – and the dock was bowed, and the rowers stared without blinking from pinpoint pupils, every muscle tensed for a single task and not permitted release.
She’d seen that stare before. But she would not permit herself that memory, and stifled it.
The oars had been quiet, back then. They were quieter still now. There were no ripples in the water, even as the rowers yanked and sweated furiously.
Not for the first time, Jessle reflected that this was not a job for a Courier. Couriers delivered messages. Sometimes the messages were demands. Sometimes the messages were sharp. Sometimes the messages were sharpened, and also came without any warning.
Couriers were not negotiators. And yet here she sat, on the deck of a waterlogged thing too miserable to be called a hulk, preparing herself to do just that.
The loss of the Stone had been an inconvenience that had been kept from being an emergency solely by dint of it being a wholly shared and mutual disaster for all involved. Every country, every empire, large and small and even unknown, they all had something or some person that had been incarcerated there. For any one of them, losing access would’ve been a crisis. For all of them, it was a joint frustration. A problem for diplomats to exchange gripes and commiserate on. A community-building occasion, nearly.
It would have been almost a net positive, if it hadn’t been for the silence.
Jessle counted her paces; one of many, many habits she’d diligently acquired, trained, and catalogued.
She’d entered the silence almost half a league before her maps – the most recent – had said she would. This was almost precisely where her briefing’s calculations – also the most recent – had told her she would.
Geometric growth. A terrible thing that tended to only appear so when it was already too late.
‘Too late’ came to mind for more than one thing; the lake had grown no larger, but the wallowing of the barges surely made it seem so. The piers of the Stone were finally in sight, swirling out of the mist, and on the piers stood a single man, waiting.
“Courier Jessle,” he said. His grip was cold on her arm, even through the broadcloth fabric of her coat.
Jessle did not forget faces, and that was one of her few talents that had been a gift rather than a hard-won habit. But the thing she looked at now defied her memories. “Warden?” she blurted out, not sure whether to be more shocked at yes or no.
The face did not move. “The Warden is waiting for you.”
Her mind was made up. The voice was the same; a whisper standing in for a grown man’s lungs. Every laugh-line was gone, smoothed away by years of immobility, but the broadness of the features was there. The wide mouth, the eyes, the cheeks.
The eyes were pinpricks, of course. Of course.
No, this wasn’t the warden. This was the man she remembered, but he wasn’t the warden. Not anymore.
She nodded, and followed the man through the splayed-open cragstone gates of the Stone’s walls, a defense that could’ve eaten armies left ajar, now obsoleted.
The way was long and winding, and there were no words from her guide. Jessle supplied her own, inside her head. She needed the practice, and the reminder of what sound was like. The mist was thicker with each step, and with it, the silence.
The towers were draped with moss now from the constant moisture. Some of it must’ve been new growth.
There were no guards posted anywhere.
Paths were visible in the flagstones; the older ones worn by centuries of heavy tread and made visible in damp puddles and pools; the modern by the crushed mess of stamped fungi and mosses. They were not heavily-used.
There were no rats.
That at least was not new. Jessle hadn’t been able to ride a horse for days. She also had not seen a rat.
The man guiding her was gone, she noticed. Except that wasn’t right, it felt as if she’d already known this and had forgotten to mention it to herself. She was alone, in the deserted, abandoned depths of the world’s most impenetrable prison, immersed in a fog that hid walls a mere armspan from her sides, and she was sure that this, like every other thing since she’d entered the silence of the Stone, was entirely under control.
Just not her own.
There was no door to the chamber – not a room, nothing so sophisticated, just a simple and sudden broadening of the passage, a gasp in the prison’s throat.
There was a grate set into the floor. Iron-barred and vast. A hundred men and women couldn’t have lifted it. The broken remains of a lever next to it suggested they once had not needed to.
And sitting next to this ancient, creaking thing was a table, brand-new and put together by violence and inexperience and too many nails.
There were three chairs. One was full, and a man sat in another.
Jessle sat in the empty chair and felt her bones cease the complaints she hadn’t even notice beginning.
“Courer Jessle,” she said. “From Gelmorre.” And as she spoke the words she felt them vanish before they even entered her larynx, eaten alive and leaving her lips to flail dumbly in empty space.
If the man opposite her was amused, he hid it well – although he had the advantage of her, with a full beard to hide behind.
Ambassador Honn, Jessle read from his lips. Of Matagan.
Something moved in the pit.
Jessle didn’t flinch, and she was proud of that as she watched the ‘Gan wince in his seat. She couldn’t move, her head was filled with memories of endless coils and winding, brutal strength and scales and a hardened, toothless beak that was nearly smiling.
The warden was there, and the third chair was full of its presence.
And she breathed again, without the comfort of the creaking of her ribs, and she began to recite the first offer she had been ordered to deliver.
More than two decades now, and she was still the only expert they had on Wyrms, or at least the only thing they had that looked like an expert, or the only one that could speak in full sentences.
Twenty-three years of Gelmorre’s scant colonies out there over the sea, in Afar, and only one book ever written. Mostly speculations and stories, short and stunted and frightened.
She had given them illustrations, with difficulty. Her pencil strokes had been unsure, self-doubting.
Mists and madness and a quiet that struck like a sledge and took your mind from your skull to play with, how you could lose that she wasn’t sure…
The memories were trying to hide from her.
But now, sitting not twenty feet from her former prisoner, she could see it again in her head as if it were brightest day.
Her words ran out, noiselessly. A moment to be certain, a working of his jaw, and Honn began to speak.
He was good, this ‘Gan. Jessle saw that. He had paid attention to her words, and to the words behind them, and to the orders and the intents behind the both of them. Read it all as surely as if Her Worshipped was sitting at Jessle’s shoulder, speaking them aloud.
And now came the counter-offer, sliding in so comfortably it was almost taken for granted, already-there. Better terms, of course. Better for both of them. Matagan’s tribute would be more fruitful, their exchange with the Stone more beneficial, their relationship more prosperous. For both of them. A better future would result. For both of them.
He was good, this ‘Gan. The very best. Jessle would’ve sent him, if she’d the choice. She knew that surely.
So why was she here instead?
That was a thought that could not be, and she had kept it out of her skull for three weeks now, for every day of her journey.
The silence of the Stone expands. A deal must be made. The ‘Gans want one too. Gelmorre must prevail. Courier Jessle will be sent…
And then chasing after it, finally sneaking inside her awareness, the final step she’d always suspected: …by the Stone’s request, as its former jailer.
Her expression didn’t change, she thought. It was hard to tell, numb as the world was. But something must have shown in her body, because the ‘Gan did not continue overlong, and his face as his lips stilled was – through the drawn-out fear – curving into a slight smile.
Jessle tried to shove her thoughts out of her head and spoke her own counter-offer. It went poorly.
Her words were done and her hands felt as if they must be shaking even though they weren’t and Honn was smiling openly now as he took his place, dismantling her arguments without ever once referring to them, mocking her miserliness with his generosities, painting a future so bright that Jessle could almost – with real effort – imagine colour again as something real.
He was finished. Jessle said something, she was sure, but even she wasn’t really listening anymore. The ‘Gan wasn’t watching her lips, his eyes were on hers, and he wouldn’t stop smiling, it was going to drive her out of her
There was a face at the grate.
It was larger than a warhorse, it was larger than a carriage, it was almost the size of a house. Bigger than before.
The beak was just shy of the bars, reluctant of the iron’s touch, but almost toyingly so.
She couldn’t imagine it being unable to lift it. She couldn’t imagine it being unable to do anything.
She couldn’t do anything at all but watch those eyes, those swollen-pupilled eyes, eyes bigger than she was, as they settled upon her.
Pressure was there, invisible but immense. She must have felt something like this before, something almost like this but infinitely slighter, when she knelt before the seat of Her Worshipped but thinking of her was impossible right now, thinking at all was impossible now and
Jessle breathed again. Something was missing. Maybe it was her. Maybe she’d never know. But the world was moving again (had it stopped?) and she knew some things that were carved inside her and would never come out again.
She had failed the terms of her mission. The Stone would be open again – to Matagant and aligned interests.
She had failed other missions, long, long ago. Her prisoner never was. Her victories had never been.
She would not speak of this. She would not think of this.
All those things were deeply, unfathomably true, and so she ignored them entirely and instead looked straight ahead, blindly following the one sense that was open to her, and came eye-to-tooth with Ambassador Honn, grinning as if he were a tiger with a whole birdcage wedged in his mouth.
She was done. She was dismissed. He had won. Wasn’t he going to say anything?
A muscle twitched.
Jessle looked closer and saw that wasn’t a smile, it had never been a smile. The man’s mouth was all teeth now, ridged and fixed and tensed to a screaming tauntness against his lips that sent blood trickling down his chin through the wrinkles, dripping in tiny specks from the fine hairs of his beard.
“Go,” it said from his mouth, in words, in real words that cut through Jessle’s thoughts like blades. “Now.”
After what had taken place in words, even the bone-seeping silence of the Stone was a relief. Jessle ran, without dignity, without care, up from the depths to the dock and only felt her breath return to her when the water began to move again under the lurch and tug of the boat’s oars.
She had never been so happy to fail in her duty – to Gelmorre, to Her Worshipped, to her family’s very reputation – in her life. Her report to the throne would be a devastation to speak aloud, a litany of failure and humble apology, and she would have to fight to keep from singing it.
She suddenly felt her smile to be too wide in her head, and it vanished in a shiver.
He was gone now, that ‘Gan. Gone for being too good at his job? Or for other reasons, or because of her? The Couriers delivered the words of Her Worshipped, but this would not be the first time they were used, unwanted, to deliver another’s message.
I am here, where you thought to keep me. I am strong, stronger than you knew, and stronger each day. I do not fear you. I do not respect you.
I do as I please, and my whims are what please me. You will not understand them, and I do not expect you to.
She realized her hand was trembling on the rail, her right hand, and she could not stop it.
No. Speculation was not the duty of a Courier unless ordered. If the monster appeared opaque, that was what she would take it for. She would not place herself inside its skull immediately after being spared that particular insult.
Courier Jessle stepped off the boat, away from the Stone, away from the silence, and away from her imaginings.
And as she did, she thought of a field of dead flowers.