Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 66
Stories
To Tend a Garden
by Filip Wiltgren
Gods of War Part II
by Steve Pantazis
Companionship
by Rhiannon Rasmussen
Carousel
by Terra LeMay
IGMS Audio
Carousel
Read by Emily Rankin
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Tiger's Silent Roar
by Holly Heisey
Bonus Material

Occultation of the Bright Aspects
    by Stephen Case

Occultation of the Bright Aspects
Artwork by Scott Altmann

Prelude: Aton

I saw the room where the computers were burned. They were all from the village, mostly women. The chamber had not been cleaned, and there were bones among the ashes and scraps of parchment. Whatever they had been calculating, none would pass on the knowledge to others.

The sisters wanted me to see. They wanted to see my reaction, to test the effectiveness of my training. I did not care. Let them see my tears. I had known these women. My training was not written on my face anyway. It lived in my arms.

"Do you know what they computed?" I was asked.

I wiped my cheeks but kept my voice even. "Celestial positions. The dance of planets and Aspects."

"And do you know what they found?"

I turned to face them. My sisters' thick dark robes were dyed illegal shades of blue and purple and matched my own. "They found whatever it was Mother was seeking," I said. "She will tell me what I need to know."

This satisfied them, and they led me away from the stench of burning to the council chamber and left me at the doorway. I waited there in silence, turning over the names of the Bright Aspects in my mind for calm and focus, until Mother bid me enter.

There were three others with her in the circular stone chamber. I recognized the two men. The one in cobalt furs with red silk at his wrists was Leto, the guild master of the clothiers and dyers and the reason our sisters had robes of forbidden hues. The one beside him with long hair and pierced nose was Cardamom, guild master of the minstrels and instrument makers. The woman who sat opposite them I did not know.

"Daughter," Mother said, inclining her head a degree. "You are ready."

They were words for which I had been waiting half my life. I had trained among the Daughters of the Joyous Name for nine winters. Her words, and what the sisters had shown me, meant I would be given my vocation this night.

"We are also ready," the unknown woman said.

Mother gestured and another figure stepped from the shadows. It was one of the astronomers, his black face creased with age and his eyes wide. "Tell her what the computations revealed," Mother ordered. "You alone hold the knowledge now."

"An occultation," the scholar began slowly, "is when the moon moves in front of one of the Bright Aspects, hiding its light and sheltering us from its influence."

I waited. This was common knowledge.

"We have long anticipated a Grand Occultation," the astronomer went on, his voice trembling. "A series of occultations, in which one Aspect after another is blocked in sequence, month after month, as the moon passes." He swallowed. "We knew it was possible, but the path of the moon is fickle. Each year's measurements improved our forecasts."

Mother cleared her throat softly.

"This fortnight we obtained certainty," the astronomer concluded. "It is coming. It will begin in a single month's time, and then over a series of the four months following the moon will block five of the nine great Aspects in sequence."

I considered this. The Aspects bathed the world in their influence and sustained everything from the cheap glamours of street magicians to the defenses of the witch-held kingdoms to the east. Their light was the fabric of magic itself.

"Which Aspects?" I asked. "How long is each occultation?"

The astronomer laid a folded parchment on the table with trembling hand. "Only the computers knew. I have not looked upon their calculations."

"Do so now," Mother ordered. She turned to me. "Commit this to memory. After it is read in our hearing it will be destroyed."

The astronomer's hand shook even more as he picked the parchment back up and turned toward the dim light of a lantern on the wall. No order other than our sisterhood had the observational precision or mathematical prowess required to make such accurate astral forecasts. That ability had given the Joyous Name an edge in political maneuverings for decades. But this was an event of another magnitude, and Mother was sentencing the old astronomer to death with this knowledge even as she bound the rest of us in the room to whatever she had planned.

"This date is the fifth of Aton," the astronomer said, wiping sweat from his brow. "In the New Reckoning. The first occultation, of the Aspect of Binding, shall begin sixteen minutes after the twelfth hour of the seventh eve of Argon." It was, as he had said, one month from now. "Duration thirty and five minutes. The second occultation is of the Aspect of Change. It takes place on the thirteenth eve of Anselm, beginning three minutes after second hour." The middle of the night. "Duration fifty and seven minutes. The third occultation is of the Aspect of Time. It is on the seventh eve of Argot, beginning at first hour, exactly. It is a grazing occultation, of full duration only three minutes." The astronomer wiped his brow again and leaned closer to the lantern. "On the twenty-third eve of Aed there will be a dual occultation, of the twin Aspects of Luck and Death. Luck will be occulted seven minutes after ninth hour, with Death following two minutes later. Death will be occulted for five minutes, and Luck will reemerge one minute after that."

"Thank you, astronomer," Mother whispered. "Now, feed it to the flame."

He did so, tipping the parchment into the lantern so that it caught and flared, illuminating his frightened features and the watchful eyes of the listeners around the table.

"Now return to your chamber," Mother told him. "A sister will come this night to speak to you the Name."

He covered his face, bowed, and fled from the chamber.

"Binding, Time, Change, Luck, and Death," mused the other woman, whom I still did not know. Her voice was deeper than Mother's, but clear. "And no one outside these walls knows this is happening?"

"Other orders have astronomers," Mother said mildly, "but none approaching ours in skill. A few nights before each occultation, other observers may realize one approaches, but deep spells and wardings are difficult to change quickly, and most strong castings in common usage are so ancient the knowledge to alter them has been lost."

"Merchants might get warning that Binding will fail for a time on that evening, for instance." This was from Leto, who stroked a thin mustache as he spoke. "They will post extra guards to make up for failing spells. Even then, thieves will make hay."

A series of occultations, I saw, meant even complex spells that depended on various Aspects would be exposed to certain weaknesses, holes opening in their fabric and framework over the coming months. I glanced across the table again and this time noticed the insignia tattooed on the unknown woman's neck, nearly hidden by the collar of her cloak. She was a master of the king's guards.

The pieces fell into place, and I realized the vocation that awaited me.

"This is an assassination," I said, knowing Mother would want me to make it clear to those here that I knew more than they anticipated. "You want me to kill the Weeping King."

Cardamom hissed, but a ghost of a smile played about Mother's lips.

It was the only target that made sense, the only prize worth utilizing such a complex celestial occurrence to obtain. Everyone knew the king was protected by overlapping rings of concentric spells keeping him safe and impervious within his Moonlight Gardens at the center of his palace-city. And it also explained the presence of the guild masters. Cardamon and Leto had suffered most under the king's sixteen-year period of enforced mourning after the death of his wife, the Queen Ta-nahrahsha'ba. Any of his twelve eager sons would be a preferable ruler if the king were to die.

"This is the Captain Mahga'rah," Mother said, indicating the unknown woman. "Her knowledge of the palace-city, and the celestial keys we have now received, will unlock for us this puzzle-box."

Binding, Change, Time, Luck, and Death.

Mother had been conceiving the bones of this plan for some time. She had, she explained, a suspicion that the Occultation of Luck was approaching, and Luck was the central Aspect on which killing the king would depend. The Weeping King's talisman of Luck was his most powerful defense, a charm that had preserved him from a dozen assassination attempts during his rise to power and his throughout his campaigns in the field.

As our council continued and the wicks of the lanterns burned low, the rough-hewed plan began to take shape. The first three occultations would allow me passage into the walls of the palace and through its guarded gates to the king's garden.

Yet there were two necessary pieces we lacked.

"The whisper curtain is the most subtle fabric ever woven," Leto explained in a hoarse whisper. "It was stolen from us generations ago, but if Mahga'rah is correct, your assassin will need it to breach the second ring of defenses during the occultation of Change. We know where it is, and our own thieves will recover it now during the Occultation of Binding."

"But how will you get it to her?" Cardamom asked. They did not know my name, and Mother did not share it. "She will be within the walls after the first occultation."

Leto stroked his mustache and eyed Mahga'rah. "Should any one person know every aspect of this plan? Suffice to say I guarantee it will reach your assassin before she needs it for the second event."

Mother nodded her head. "The occultation of Time will be most critical. Our theoreticians say they have no record of an occultation of this nature in the past, though it must have occurred."

"Because none would be aware of it, Mother," I ventured. "If Time was occulted, all on the world beneath would freeze."

"Including spells and wardings," Mahga'rah mused.

"Including spirit and intellect. It would pass in an apparent instant, with all of us unaware. Only those motions in the heavens, where the Aspect still shone, would be immune."

"Then we need a cadence," Cardamom said. "You need a powerful song, strong enough to maintain the rhythm of Time in the mind of a single person on a frozen world when Time itself is stilled." He stared at me with eyes that seemed too small and distant in his face. "The guild of musicians can supply this."

Leto guffawed. "And where would such a spell dwell?"

"Not a spell. A song. It was stolen from us, as your most precious cloth was stolen from you. And we will recover it as well. It will be in the palace waiting for you, when it is required. Look for my bird. He will be an azure tanager."

That was all he would say, but Mother trusted the two guild masters enough to accept them at their word. I wondered what hold she had over them. Our discussions turned then to the details of fortifications and warding spells that hemmed the king in his gardens.

It was the early hours of morning before we had a plan. When the others filed out with their instructions, Mother turned to me again. "You are ready," she said. I inclined my head at the compliment offered a second time. "But you have questions."

"Yes, Mother."

"Ask."

"I am honored to be chosen." It was true. The pride of my vocation burned, and I concentrated on crystallizing it into a calm awareness and confidence. "But what does our order stand to gain from the death of a king?"

"Besides the influence that will accrue from having provided this service to the guilds?" For the first time that night a full smile spread across her ageless, ebony features. "Our order has studied the play of the Aspects as no other. Thus this opportunity falls to us--to you. When it is done, we will be positioned for still greater influence."

She paused, and her gaze seemed to turn inward. From far away, in the direction of the astronomer's chambers, I heard a strangled cry, half pleasure and half agony. The old astronomer was being released from his burden of knowledge.

"All of the orders speak their own Names of God," Mother said, as though to herself. "If you succeed, the Sister of the Joyous Name will be positioned to speak ours loudest into the darkness."

It was not a complete answer. Mother was carrying something at the corners of her mouth, but the night was late and she would tell me only what I needed to know.

I touched the hilt of the crowblade at my waist, which fluttered in response. It was enough. Mother had her reasons, and I had my faith in her and in the Joyous Name. I would do that for which I had been trained.

I would kill a king.

First Occultation: Argon

The first step was the simplest but most crucial. When the star of the Aspect of Binding slipped behind the moon after midnight on the seventh eve of Argon, the Aspect would be blocked over half an hour. Every basic spell of confinement or protection was built on Binding. When other observers across the kingdom belatedly realized it would be occulted, the number of guards and wardens ballooned in every city and village. On the walls of the king's palace-city, an additional legion of guardsmen was recruited to prepare for in case anyone used this opportunity to attempt to breach the walls.

I was among that number.

On the seventh eve, I kept watch in the uniform of a guardsman upon the king's walls. There were rumors the king's eldest three sons would move against their father. It was only a rumor, whispered in darkness by the sisters of our order, but the guards passed it up and down the wall as the dark edge of the moon swung like a scythe toward the blue star of Binding, brightest in the constellation of the Watchtower. Throughout the kingdom, misers in hidden storerooms clutched at their hoards in terror. Somewhere far away, Leto's and Cardamom's guildsmen prepared.

It would be a busy night for thieves.

Now the moon was only a hair's-breadth from the star, its curve very much like a grey blade, faintly visible against the night's curtain. Another instant, and the star winked out behind it.

The stones of the great wall upon which we stood, laced with Binding spells several centuries old, groaned. Across the kingdom, knives found homes in backs suddenly unprotected. Spirits chained for decades roared from lanterns, boxes, bone-coffins, and keys. Castings failed, allowing entry to places long warded or forbidden.

On the wall of the palace-city, it was silent apart from the groaning stones. Palace mages had taken additional precautions to hold what was bound in cellars or dungeons beneath the palace-city with supplemental spells not based on Binding. Even so, from the direction of the library quarter came the sound of something large bursting through wood and ripping parchment.

Then all was quiet again.

We scanned the horizon, but no forces approached. The captains at each portion of the perimeter paced the top of the wall, keeping listless eyes on the moon. Presently, the star reemerged. Its reappearance was more difficult to mark, lost in the glow of the moon's fat crescent, but the stones in the wall shifted and groaned again as spells reawakened and thickened between them. The danger had passed, and the guards filed back down from the walls and into the palace-city. I marched with them.

Now things would become difficult. Assuming Leto's thieves had been successful and he kept his word, I needed to recover the whisper curtain somehow before the second occultation if I hoped to make it through the next ring of fortifications.

I caught site of Mahga'rah as I marched with the company of guards down the inner ramps leading to the fields within the first line of walls. She gave me no notice, though she of course had made it possible for me to join the guards under false name and assumed identity.

Under the stars, fields stretched nearly three miles across manicured paths and ornamental, dwarf forests to the second, inner line of walls. Even from this distance, I could see the flickering light of the witch-gates that barred entrance to the king's Inner Sanctum, the center of the palace-city.

The low moon grinned over the vista like a corpse bride, daring me to enter.

Second Occultation: Anselm

Inside the immensity of the palace-city, forests of dwarf juniper stretched between the outer walls and the Inner Sanctum. The unit of guards in which I was posted still patrolled this stretch, but only a week before the next occultation palace mages realized it was coming. This especially frightened them, as Change was the primary Aspect of power for most wizards. Mages built their skill and practice around quicksilver Change transformations of form and appearance, and Change as well powered the line of defenses they manned at the gates of the Inner Sanctum.

On this day, my unit hunted an intruder who had somehow slipped the walls following the first occultation. He was tracked to the northwest quadrant, where the groves of juniper were mixed with cedar and poplar that barely reached my head.

There were six of us remaining in my unit. Guards had been transferred out of the walls for the past weeks, bringing numbers back down to what they had been before the first occultation. Only a few remained to continue culling the forest. Mahga'rah ensured I was among them, as I assumed she also had a role in allowing this intruder access.

A blue flare exploded above the low trees as spell-trap was triggered nearby. I slipped through the long avenues of trunks, my crowblade ready. Phosphorescence strung at an intersection of pathways traced the shape of a figure, indicating someone had stumbled through a spell moments before. I moved to encircle in the direction the threads of light trailed.

From here, I could see light from the nearest witch-gate cast dancing shadows on the stone of the Sanctum walls above it, visible over the low tree line. The gates, according to Mahga'ra, could only be passed by mages who had mastered the Aspect of Change and could fit their own changing forms through the flux of the gates as they rippled and shifted like flame. There was a different combination of Change each day that a mage needed to match and pass through. A single transformation out of accord with that day's key and the gate would burn the intruder to ash.

There was a whisper of motion from the trees ahead of me, and I let my crowblade fly. A moment later I heard a stifled gasp, and the blade did not return. That meant it had found a home in flesh.

The flesh was that of a young man, a boy of perhaps half a dozen seasons fewer than my own. He wore a cloak whose shifting hues matched the play of light in the trees, making him invisible other than his hands and face where the cloak had fallen away.

"The name of God is Joy," he said when I crouched beside his form. "I bring a gift from my guild."

"The whisper curtain?"

The youth nodded. He lay on his side. His fingers were wrapped around the base of the blade buried in his ribs, a black wing against the invisible fabric. When I pulled the blade out, the fabric flowed back together around the tear. Neither did the blood stain it.

I felt no remorse for having struck him. His mission was to bring me the curtain. He had been sloppy, and it was only luck that brought me to his side before any other of the guard's company. Now the curtain was here and I needed to hide it before the other guardsmen arrived.

I pulled the cloak from his shoulders. It felt weightless to the touch, as though I held a bit of breeze. I was worried it would slip from my fingers and be lost, invisible, in the grass, so I made him hold it while I removed my own tunic. He watched me mutely.

When I was naked I wrapped the cloak around myself and disappeared completely. I felt nothing, and I had to study my hands and arms to reassure myself the curtain was still there, shielding me from view. But for where the grass was bent under my weight, the dying thief might have been alone in the forest.

I pushed the curtain back from my head and pulled my own cloths on over it. Beneath them, it felt like a second skin, smooth and weightless. There was no sign from outside I wore it beneath.

"The name of God . . ." the man began again.

"Is not for you to know," I said, replacing the blade at my belt. I knelt on his chest, pushing the breath from him and forcing blood out of the wound. I would not risk the chance of him being captured and revealing under torture what he had done and why he was here. Yet neither did I want it to appear I had killed him intentionally. The wound would do that itself, but it needed helping.

When his breathing stopped, I stood and called to the other guards.

Mahga'rah came first, followed by a few others. We had fanned out in the forest, sweeping to catch him.

"Dead?" she asked me.

I nodded. "I threw my blade to take him down. I didn't mean to kill him."

"It was a damn stupid thing to do. The mages would have wanted him interrogated." She gestured angrily. "Return to your barrack. Pack your bags and head to the outer wall. You're finished here."

Back at the barracks I found a satchel waiting for me with food and a flask of water. Mahga'rah had made ready. I thought furiously. It was still days until the second occultation. From this point on, the plan became more haphazard. If I tarried, there was the chance a mage would arrive to ask me about the intruder. I did not want to attract that attention. Yet if I shed my uniform and disappeared now, I would need to hide until the next occultation. Mahga'rah's final words had given me cover, so no guards would wonder where I had gone. They would simply assume I had been transferred out of the walls.

Footsteps in the corridor decided me. I slipped out of my tunic, kicked it under my bunk, and rolled into a corner to wait, pulling the hood of the curtain over my head.

A white-robed mage entered the room. Her hair was short and black, like those of our sisters in the convent. She scanned the room with narrowed eyes. Then she shifted form to that of a white dog, thin as a deer, and sniffed my bunk. She slipped into the form of a snake and tasted the air with a blood-red tongue. Then she blinked back into a human shape and walked out.

I waited until the count of thirty to release my breath. The corridor beyond was empty, but now I would live within the curtain.

I left the barracks and headed back into the forest. For days I lingered there, dodging seeking spells and the occasional convoy of mages and guardsmen. But there was no reason for them to suspect my presence, and I was never hunted. On the thirteenth eve, I waited within sight of one of the witch-gates. There were seven along the perimeter of the Sanctum, the only ways in or out unless I was a bird. The stones of the outer walls were immense and weathered and offered the occasional handhold, but the bricks of the Inner Sanctum were sheer and impossible to scale.

I chose a specific gate after two days of scouting. The mages who guarded it seemed younger and more nervous than those at any of the others. There were three at each, and the ones here flashed between forms as quickly as thought, never holding shape more than a few moments at a time, going from beast to bear to ghoul to armored leviathan and back again.

Mahga'ra's knowledge of what went on within the Sanctum was limited, but so far it had proven sound. The mages were jealous of their influence in the palace-city, and they were too proud to admit their watch on the inner walls would be compromised with the coming occultation. They had allowed no guardsmen to join them, nor had they woven any complementing spells to cover the fact that their witch-gates would be rendered ineffective this very night. They would rely only on whatever forms they found themselves in at the moment of occultation.

I watched the sky. A month ago, the moon had been a slender crescent in the evening sky. Now it had returned to its place and passed it, a quarter moon riding high in the west. The star of Change was brilliant and orange, marking in the constellations the eye of the Witch-Queen.

When the dark of the moon was nearly against the star, I rose and began moving toward the gate. It still flickered brightly, the flux of Change licking the stones like flame. The three mages seemed to have each chosen their desired form. The first took the shape of a hulking mountain-beast, its fleshy bulk nearly filling the space before the gate. The second was something I had never seen before, a nightmare with huge eyes that stood on spindle legs with long blades for arms.

The third mage though. Where was the third?

I froze. The orange star winked out behind the moon as the second occultation began. The glow of the witch-gate died, and the path to the Inner Sanctum was open. The mountain-beast bellowed a challenge into the night.

The third mage was gone.

I moved closer, forcing myself to take a direct course, believing the watchers would be looking for intruders attempting to sneak around them rather than pass straight through the gate. They could not see me, and I would have to trust that would be enough. I focused on moving forward as silently as possible.

I could fight my way past if need be, though doing so would alert the Inner Sanctum that the second ring of defenses had been breached. Better to make it through completely undetected.

I was nearly beneath the mountain-beast now. Its legs rose up on either side like the trunks of trees. I could feel it sniffing the air above me. The other creature was pacing back and forth, whipping its blades as it went.

Where was the third mage?

I froze again. There, behind them both, a black fog stretched across the expanse of the gate. The third mage had taken the form of an animate mist and filled the entire entrance. There would be no way to pass undetected.

There was still time to backtrack and try another gate, but chances were good that at least one mage at each gate had taken such a form.

I could back down. There was always the option of scaling the outer wall, returning to the order, and telling Mother I had done my best. I would not be punished. A vocation was not a command. She would have soft words for me, and I would still have a place within the sisterhood. I would have only my shame to live with, that and the memory of the burned computers and the knowledge their calculations had been for nothing.

I preferred to die.

There was no help for it. I could not pass through the mist without being detected, but the mage who had taken that form had likely only done so as a means of detection. I doubted she had the power to stop me alone. If I could incapacitate the other two, then I had a chance.

I also had the benefit of a life trapped in a single form. The mages would even now be growing listless. They would be itching to change, fighting the feeling of captivity. The occultation was long, nearly an hour. I would wait and let their unease mount.

Then I would move.

I crouched at the edge of the gate and watched them. The beast shifted its weight from one foot to the other, over and over again. The monster paced back and forth. The mist broiled.

When there were only moments left of the occultation, I sprinted forward. Coming up behind the spindly form of the second mage, I drove my crowblade into its neck and twisted. Then, before it had fallen, I spun away and threw the blade upward. I was by this time under the beast, and the blade took it in the groin. It would not kill it, but by its bellow I knew it would be blind for a moment with pain and rage.

As soon as the blade returned to my hand I ran for the mist. It was broiling like a storm, but it had no substance. It fought like a breeze, setting the whisper curtain flapping around me, but I pushed through. It gathered like a cloud, outlining my form for the mountain-beast, which was now pursuing me down the wide throat of the gate. I slowed my flight, stumbling in the black cloud, feeling the footstep of the beast get closer. Another moment, and I would be within the Sanctum and beyond the witch-gate.

I could no longer see the moon, but I saw an orange gleam return to the stones as the occultation ended. I pushed forward and beyond just as the flux of Change blazed back across the gate. The first mage, caught in the midst of it in the wrong form, screamed and burned. But the third mage was still around me and able to change again. I felt myself bound in coils as the mist congealed into a huge serpent. My blade was out though, and I pressed it into the mage's side. She hissed and shifted into something else, something with long grasping arms, yet I was still invisible and only a cutting blade in the darkness. I severed a few arms and then danced away.

Instead of running, I spun and waited.

The mage shifted again, this time into a fox with wide, reaching ears. It was as a fox that my blade found her eye and dropped her.

Third Occultation: Argot

For the next month, I lived like a spider in the halls of the Inner Sanctum, exhausted, invisible, hiding in opulent meeting chambers and sleeping under furniture in snatches, taking whatever food I could find. The Sanctum was a fortress within a fortress, a labyrinth of rooms that Mahga'rah, like all guards stationed outside its walls, had never entered. Within the Sanctum, guards were raised from birth and passed their entire lives inside its halls. Only the mages and the king or his officials went in and out of the witch-gates. Yet even this was only an inner torus around the king's personal chambers, at the center of the fabled Moonlight Gardens.

I was hunted by the mages. They had found their murdered sisters at the gate and knew something had slipped their watch at the second occultation. They hunted silently, not wanting to reveal they had failed in their defense. Any creature in any chamber or corridor, a mouse that licked its whiskers in the shadows at midnight or a spider suspended in an archway, might be one of my hunters. I lived within the whisper curtain, conscious that an ill-timed cough or a breath out of place could give me away.

Yet there was one chamber though full I found myself returning to again and again: the Chamber of Birds. Apart from the birds, the chamber was filled with shells. They covered every surface, though the sea is a hard ride of several days from the outer walls of the palace-city. Small blue shells, wide and shallow as plates, rested on tables, sideboards, cabinets, and cupboards of black wood. Nautilus shells, glittering like spiraling eyes, were embedded in the walls themselves. At the edges of the room small trees grew out of immense conch shells.

Suspended among the shells were hundreds of cages. Servants opened their silver doors in the morning and shut them again by night. Throughout the day, hundreds of birds came and went through high windows. Their droppings were caught in shallow shells, which servants replaced several times throughout the day.

I did not know the purpose of the room, for I never saw the king or any of his officials pass through it, but I knew this was where the key from Cardamon would come. I waited for an azure tanager to bring me a song.

Daily I crept to the Chamber of Birds. Of the hundreds of different species, there were three tanagers that came and went from a large cage each morning. One was an orange as brilliant as fire, one a deep viridian with scarlet head, and one as blue as the sky beyond the windows. They were only three among the rainbow-hued panoply, but I came to recognize them and know their comings and goings though the azure tanager seemed to bear nothing. I watched it each day to see if it flew back in at night bearing a message tied to its talons, ready to move swiftly to reach it before any of the servants that frequented the chamber noticed.

Weeks passed with nothing but my ragged perambulations through the Inner Sanctum. I stole the smallest scraps of food, worried that anything more would be detected. At times I even ate the seed scattered on the floor of the Chamber of Birds. But the azure tanager brought nothing.

The first eve of Argot dawned, and I had no idea how I would pass the third occultation. Then that evening, when the birds returned, I watched the tanager. It seemed agitated, and when the rest of the birds settled in for the night to roost, it instead raised its head and sang out. The song was haunting, piercing, immensely sad. One of the servants paused from lighting lanterns to listen.

I moved closer. It was not the same bird. The beak of the first had been curved, but the beak of this was straight, with a notch halfway along it. Otherwise it looked identical.

The servant did not seem to notice and resumed lighting the lanterns that ringed the chamber. I listened, but the bird did not repeat its song.

The next morning it sang again when it was released, the same song. This time it was sung in the cacophony of the other birds rousing for the morning, but I recognized it and peeled it away in my mind to remember.

It was not a spell. It was a song. Cardamon's guild had stolen it back and taught it to the bird, and each day as the occultation approached I heard it, the rising, falling, eerie, lilting harmony that I tried to hold in my mind as surely as I held the Name of God.

I sang it silently to myself in my daily passages through the Sanctum, until I felt it moving through me like blood. I sang it over and over in my mind until it drove out every thought and I became not only invisible but also transparent, a vial of spirit that held only the song.

But the walls of the Inner Sanctum still bore eyes. Arching blades danced at every intersection of corridors. The halls themselves grew teeth.

The inner reaches of the Sanctum were an overlapping maze, twisted with warding spells. There was no clearly defined border to cross at this next occultation, as there had been at the wall and at the witch-gate. Rather, spells waited curled in the corners of chambers to snare those who did not bear the correct tokens or passwords. Other spells kept corridors in shadow or bent passageways back upon themselves. The inner portions of the Sanctum were like a thicket, and those who passed down its hidden trails into the interior had spent a lifetime learning their contours. I might follow them, given years to untangle the passages, but when the occultation occurred all of those safeguards would be frozen.

As the seventh eve approached, I began to hallucinate, or perhaps there were now additional wardings at work on my mind. I saw the face of the astronomer reading the dates of the occultations. I stumbled into a room and saw the charred corpses of the calculators. In the nights along the corridors, I heard Mother calling. The world had become nothing more than the winding, hostile passageways I wandered like a ghost.

And then finally it was the night of the third occultation.

This was a strong and uncertain magic. If I failed, I would not know it. I would freeze, along with my awareness and that of everyone else within the Sanctum and the world beyond, until the occultation passed and time resumed to leave me going slowly mad in these chambers of stalking magic. Only if the song held, if I held the cadence in my mind, would I continue, aware, while everything stopped around me.

I could not see the sky for this occultation. I walked in a deep passageway, as close to the tangled wardings as I could safely penetrate. A huge clock of bone with revolving glass hands dominated a corridor, patrolled by spinning blades. I watched the minute hand move, as slowly as the moon I knew was arching in the sky beyond.

Time paced closer. I licked my lips. I would have only minutes to find my way through the Inner Sanctum to what waited beyond.

I had passed weeks without making a noise louder than my breath, but now, with the moment nearly upon the clock's face, I could not risk holding the tanager's song in my mind alone. The corridor for the moment was empty. I let the cowl of the whisper curtain fall away, and I began to sing.

The words did not matter. It was the cadence that held the song's power, and so I sang the Name of God. Like the song, it had never before passed my lips, but if my vocation was unsuccessful I might never otherwise have a chance to speak it.

At my voice, blades along the corridor wavered and then arched toward me. I was a stranger revealed, wearing no token of passage. I felt grasping spells reach out of the corners of the passageway, groping toward me like vines.

I kept singing, my eye on the curving hand of the clock. And then suddenly it stopped, and the song continued. The blades hung unmoving in the air. The spells reaching toward me were still. I could see their phosphorescent edges clearly, like oily fog.

I ran. Time was frozen down here, below the moon, as the moon cast its shadow across the kingdom and shielded the earth from the Aspect of Time. But up there, I knew, the moon and the heavens were still bathed in its influence, and so they would continue their motions. In a few short minutes the star would reappear from behind moon's edge and the flow of time would resume.

I headed inward, through the unknown inner corridors of the Sanctum. Now that their warding spells were halted, the passageways ran straight inward. I followed them into chambers where soldiers and courtiers were frozen like statues, down hallways where I weaved around solidified spells hanging from ceilings or walls or past motionless blades like the ones beside the clock. Timeless magic was beautiful, a shimmering solidity like fractured glass or the patterns seen within ice, each spell a different hue, but I had no time to study them. Finally, at the end of a corridor I saw an arched opening with silver light beyond, but here a spell stretched across the entire entrance, glimmering like a web.

Normally it would doubtless have been invisible, its aspects twisting upon themselves too rapidly for the eye to follow. But now I could make out every fiber and thread, luminous in the silver light coming from the gardens beyond. I could not tell what kind it was, but there was no way around it.

And there was no time to stop, for by now I had sung through the melody five or seven times, and the occultation would be drawing to close.

I did not know what harm a frozen spell could work. I pushed through. The threads gave way before me as I moved, though they burned like ice across my skin. Behind me, portions of the warding dissolved into smoke. But I was not halted or harmed. I had arrived, into the king's Moonlight Gardens. At my feet was a pathway of crushed chalk.

For the first time, I began to believe this murder might be possible.

Fourth and Fifth Occultations: Aed

Now came the longest wait, for even as I entered the garden I felt the scented breeze stir against my skin and the spell snap back into writhing tightness behind me.

Time flowed around me again.

The garden was the very center of the palace-city, buried at the heart of the Inner Sanctum. If there were other gates into it beside the one through which I had passed I could not see them. The inner walls of the Sanctum were draped in ivy. The entire landscape before me, sloping upward like an inverted bowl and holding fountains, hedges, and drooping beds of flowers, was bathed in moonlight. There was no color here but rather a thousand shades of silver amongst deep black shadows.

I was still wrapped in the whisper curtain, and I pulled it back over my head as I slipped off the path. There would be no additional traps or protections here, I was certain, beyond those the king himself carried. This place was what the king wished to protect. These were his gardens of mourning, beyond the reach of even his court, cut off from the outside world by the concentric rings of wardings through which I had penetrated.

I felt for the crowblade at my waist. I could take him now, perhaps, and Mother would be vindicated and the kingdom released from the oppression of perpetual mourning.

But there was yet Luck and Death. His amulet of Luck was said to bend all fate toward his desired outcome. But when Luck was occulted, we would stand on equal footing and I could face him with my skill alone. Such certainty, when I had come so far, was worth waiting for.

By now it was high summer, though in the king's gardens open to the sky it was always twilight. I hid in flowered lawns where the scent hung so heavy it was as though I walked through an aromatic fog. There were a thousand butterflies that by day may have been any colors but in the eternal moonlit evening were a million shades of silver. They came and went among the fountains to disappear over the Sanctum's walls. At the center of the gardens stood the king's villa, where he lay and wept each day and from where he gave the commands that held his kingdom.

The first time I saw him he was flanked by were-soldiers and hooded mages, passing down a pathway and over a slender stone bridge. The flowers masked my scent from the were-soldiers, but the white hoods of the mages turned back and forth, unsettled since the occultation had compromised their gates. They did not linger in the gardens though, and I suspected even they were banned from shifting shape here and haunting the grounds.

There were no guard stationed this far in, save for those soldiers who escorted the king when he left or returned, which was seldom. For the most part, I was alone with the king and his ghosts in the garden. I was a ghost as well, sleeping under arching fronds of ferns, catching what food I could from frogs and turtles that splashed on the carefully arranged rocks lining the garden's streams.

I found myself, despite my training and my long, slow, lonely assault on the palace, beginning to relax. The garden held an empty peace. I no longer felt hunted, though I remained within my whisper curtain and kept my distance from the king when he emerged from his villa to walk the paths.

I studied him from hiding. His face was lined with his legendary sadness, his thick hair and beard peppered with gray. Often he passed through the garden gathering silver and black flowers and arranging them about the tomb of his queen, the Lady Ta-nahrahsha'ba.

Despite his amulet, many times as I waited near him I almost struck. The temptation to simply end the waiting, to complete my vocation one way or another, was nearly overpowering. But I could feel the twisting of the talisman he wore. If I tried to strike him while Luck held, my blade would go awry. I would turn my ankle on some hidden root, something.

I watched, and I waited for the final occultations.

A spell hung over the garden. Though it was open to the sky, ringed by the Sanctum walls, daylight never found its way within. A silver twilight suffused the grounds, unvarying by day or night. Though the sun and moon passed together through the sky, the moon alone was visible. Sunlight and the sun's face itself were somehow blocked. It meant the final occultations, which would occur during the day and should have been invisible, could be witnessed from here.

"I would cover the entire kingdom with moonlight it if I had the power," the king said one day as he knelt beside a stream and I waited in the shadows beyond. "I would cover the entire world with the moon-shroud that hangs over my garden. Only the moon is kind, because only the moon of all wanderers in the sky is dead."

It had been so long since someone had spoken directly to me, since anyone had been aware of my presence, that for a moment I was too stunned to do anything. I moved my hand minutely to confirm the whisper curtain was still in place.

"I know you are there, ghost," the king continued. His voice had the softness of one who has used all his tears but will find more to shed before long. "Do not think you could haunt my garden unnoticed." He stood, and I wondered if I would be forced to strike now despite the talisman. "I will not hurt you, or pursue you."

He began leaving food for me then, first along the pathways of the garden and then outside the stone villa, beside the tomb of his wife. I had been trained to detect all poisons known to my order, and I could find none in his offerings. Neither did he appear to have any magic of his own apart from the talisman he wore. I could sense no traps. I took the food, like an animal, and ate in the deep shadows of the garden.

Time passed waiting for the moon to reappear in the evening sky, waiting for the final move of this long game. The king passed through the garden alone, though occasionally he met a courtier, servant or mage at the garden's edge. They no longer came into the garden. He spoke whenever he passed near me though, never asking me to reveal myself but rather simply speaking of himself, of his life, of the time before the garden and his wife's death, of the moon, which he saw as his only friend, his only companion in grief and solitude.

"My mages believed they were building me a garden for mourning," he told me, "and they were right. But they also had built me an observatory, a place to watch the motion of the moon unobstructed by daylight. I see its path across the sky more clearly than any. I know its passages." He stopped. He was standing at a bend in a crushed chalk trail, near a climbing hyacinth-vine, and he scanned the stand of cypress where I waited. "I know the series of locks that have been slipped, and I know what is coming." He reached up and unclasped the spiraling Luck amulet from his neck, laying it on the soft grass beside the trail. "Make your move. You need wait no longer."

I tensed. It was a trap. The talisman was still near him. My fingers curled around the hilt of my crowblade, but otherwise I did not move.

The king's smile was sad as he picked it back up. "Very well. I can wait."

I almost killed him then, but I could wait as well.

It was raining on the day of the final occultations. Rain padded on the trees like teardrops and wet the stones of the pavement around the king's villa, making them slick. I waited on the grass beside the queen's tomb, a low tablet of marble surrounded by the flowers the king gathered each day.

He waited as well, sitting on a simple wooden throne under the villa's overhanging eaves, shielded from the rain and flanked by charcoal fires in two small braziers. The talisman sat at the ground before his feet. He gripped a slender silver blade in one hand.

The moon was hidden by the clouds, but there was a timepiece on the wall beside the king, perhaps to show me he knew as much as I did of what approached. He claimed to know the occultations, but he was no astronomer. I thought of the old man now, of the cry from the astronomer's chambers when he had heard the Name.

The Name of God.

The order. The sisters.

They seemed something from a hundred years ago, but tonight I would end my vocation and bring Mother and the order to the summit of the new political landscape. I would kill the Weeping King. The kingdom would fracture, and the order would be there to pick up the pieces.

Another moment now. I focused on calming my breathing and directed my awareness to arms and legs. I would drop the curtain for freedom of motion. Then, after a burst of speed across the stones, I would drive my blade into his heart. I could throw it, but here, and alone, I wanted to take no chances.

It was time. The rain stopped, and the dull light that played about the king's talisman faded. Above the clouds, Luck was occulted by the moon.

I moved, dropping my cloak at the edge of the stones. The king's eyes widened for a moment, but he was ready. His own blade knocked mine aside, clattering one of the braziers to the ground. I spun, readying another blow, but the stones, wetted by the rain, were still slick, and I stumbled. He stood and followed the block with his own thrust. I parried and danced away. It was no matter. There was time to land the killing blow, and we were alone. He was unprotected, and I was among the best blade-dancers of the sisters.

"Mother said you were skilled," he said. "And lovely."

My blow faltered. He smiled, and then he spoke the Joyous Name of God.

It was not the shallow cipher the dying thief had spoken in the dwarf forest. It was the true, secret, hidden Name of God, known only to our sisterhood. From his lips, it should have been blaspheme, but he spoke it with authority. It was as though Mother had stepped into the garden and spoken through him in her own clear voice.

Mine quavered when I found it. "How do you speak that Name? It is sacred to my order. There is no way you could . . ."

"Mother," he whispered. "Do you not see? You were sent here. You were sent to speak the Joyous Name back to me." He still held the slender blade before him, but his face was open and his eyes soft. "Mahga'rah is my servant. She wants a king stirred back to command. Cardamon's guild of singers wants songs of celebration. Leto's guild of clothiers wants garments for a wedding of ten thousand. Mother desires influence for her sisters. And the king desires a new bride." He paused. "Your true vocation."

I thought of the burned calculators, of the astronomer's cry. I thought of Mother's voice in the chamber as we planned the death of a king. "This was a . . ."

"Test?" The king arched a silver eyebrow. "No. A courtship." He lowered the blade and extended an arm. "You were sent to kill a kingdom's sadness. You are here. You can put mine to death."

Luck was suspended behind the moon, but that no longer mattered. All this had been . . . an offering? I did not want to believe it, but there was no other way he could have known the Name. Mother had offered me up to play a game of burglary, to penetrate the palace-city and garden, and all to stand now before the king as potential bride? I thought again of the charred room of the calculators. She was capable, for the influence of the order and the propagation of the Name.

Was I?

The king's face brightened as clouds cleared from the face of the moon. He lifted his eyes to it as to an old friend.

"I would be queen?" I heard myself asking.

There was a stirring behind me, a rasp of stone on stone.

"You would be, should you wish it. If you will have me." His eyes were still on the moon and on my blade no longer. Yet he had spoken the Name. I lowered the crowblade to my side.

"He lies, little sister." The voice behind me was new, soft and low like the rain, and somehow sylvan. "Or he tells half-truths. Like the half-light of this garden. Like the half-life to which he has called me."

The occultation of Death.

I spun to face the tomb.

Queen Ta-nahrahsha'ba was tall. Her skin was ebony like Mother's, though silvered either by moonlight or by the death that had for the moment fled. Her features seemed untouched by corruption, but her eyes were cloudy.

I rotated to keep them both in view. My grip on the crowblade did not waver, but now there were two of them, neither of whom for the duration of this final occultation could taste death. The king was still before his throne, and the queen approached from the tomb. But the king was fastest. His slender blade found my ribs, a shallow cut as I danced away, but I felt it along my entire side like fire.

Poison. A poisoned blade. So simple and stupid.

My knees buckled.

"My queen!" The king dropped the blade and turned to Ta-nahrasha'ba with wide arms. She watched impassively from her empty eyes. "We do not have much time. The occultation will pass."

She took a slow step toward us while I struggled to move. "What is this you have done?" she asked.

"I have found you a new body." The king's face was fevered, his movements frantic. He seemed torn between embracing his undead queen and taking the time to explain what must be done. "The poison will not kill, but I can pass your awareness, your soul, into her form. Only now, in these moments when Death is at bay. It must be done swiftly!"

She stared down at me, the clouded eyes in her dark face like twin moons. "You brought her here for this?"

"A trap, yes!" The king was giddy. He scrambled across the stones. "A host for you, a worthy host, someone strong enough to slip the encircling rings and deliver herself. A vessel fit for a queen!"

He had lied to Mother. He had called it a courtship. It had indeed been a test, a trial of strength.

"How?" she asked, still looking down at me.

"Her blood." The king moved about the paving stones, gathering materials like a frenzied apprentice. "Charcoal from the brazier. A lock of your hair, clipped the day you died. And words. Words studied by moonlight."

How long he had labored alone in this garden to find such a potent spell? By now I was prone on my side, the paralyzing poison an agony. I worked to force my mouth and throat into words or a scream, but all that emerged was a weak moan.

The queen lowered herself beside me with a sound like the snapping of matchsticks. Beyond her I could see the king across the wet pavement, bringing a short braid of hair and a coal from the brazier in trembling hand. Then he was beside me and I felt a sharpness at my ear followed by warmth. He put a bowl beside my head to catch the blood and was gone again.

"What is your name?" the queen asked me.

My throat was stone, but I forced it out, rasping into silence after the third syllable.

The king returned. "Quickly, quickly," he muttered. I watched him dip the hair in the blood, then touch it to the coal. The smell was sharp and pungent against the scent of rain.

"You will walk with me in the gardens again, my queen," he whispered, his lips at her ear. "We will bring sunlight once more to this land."

"She is lovely," the queen said softly, "as was I." She turned to her husband, who was mouthing words in a jagged language. I began to feel something clawing at the edges of my awareness. "After beauty cometh death."

She gazed at him for another moment. Her face filled my vision like the crescent moon, as dead and as lovely. Then her arm shot out, sharp and stiff, like the handle of a swung ax. Her hand held my crowblade, suddenly buried to its fluttering hilt in the king's chest.

His eyes widened. "Why?"

"There is another way for you to be with me, husband," the queen said. "The gardens you called me from are more verdant than these. And neither are they a prison."

Anger began to transform his features, and he rose with the blade still in his chest. "Ungrateful!" he bellowed. "I gave you everything. I raised you from nothing, brought you here to my palace-city, and now I bring you from death itself!"

"I had no wish to return," she said, staring up at him. Her hand was on my shoulder. "But I did miss you, in my way." She smiled.

He took a single step toward her, but in that moment the baleful Aspect, red as blood, reappeared from behind the curve of the moon. The occultation of Death was passed. King and queen fell on either side of me, reunited under its influence. In another few moments the brilliant green star that is the Aspect of Luck reappeared as well. I felt the power surge back into the king's talisman lying on the stones.

The three us lay together in the garden. I remained powerless to move. After a time, it clouded again and the rain returned, soft and warm. It brought feeling back to my limbs, and I finally rose, shaky and unsteady.

The occultations were over. The king was dead, though not by my hand. I tried to remember how long the astronomer said it would be until such a combination of occulted Aspects again occurred. Either one or five thousand years, I could not recall. Either way, it might as well have been forever.

All the wardings I had slipped to reach this place were again whole and active, though they were meant as defenses to keep assassins out, not to keep me in. And now, I reflected as I bent to take the king's amulet and fasten it about my neck, I carried the Luck of the king.

I pulled the whisper curtain again around my shoulders and drew my crowblade from the king's chest. I looked down at the queen, trying to read an answer to my questions on her dead features. But there was nothing, all motive and memories buried again under the Aspect of Death that fell now uninterrupted on the world.

I left the gardens. Daylight was shining through the tattering edges of the moon-shroud, which must have been linked to the king's life. His mages would know he was dead. I wondered if they would realize the dark magic he had attempted here.

I paused at the inner wall of the Sanctum. By luck, a single creeping vine offered a ladder upward toward an un-warded window into the Sanctum's interior. By luck, the room beyond held no spell-craft. By luck, the guard-mage at the corridor junction beyond had fallen asleep.

The moon was setting by the time I passed out of the Inner Sanctum into the forests beyond. The outer wall of the palace-city loomed in the distance.

A dead king and a talisman of power. Even if they were not what Mother anticipated, she would certainly be pleased.

But first, she would have some things to answer for.

The Aspect of Luck winked on the horizon as I set my foot on the path homeward.


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