The Grace of God
IN EMPEROR GESTAHL'S throne room, illuminated faintly by early morning sunlight and tiny crystal fragments in the marble tiles, General Rurik bowed deeply. He had apparently dressed in haste, for he wore not his usual cobalt-and-silver dress uniform but a simple gray shell jacket and trousers, and his dark hair looked disheveled. He'd had, of course, enough time for a weapon: his ceremonial greatsword rested incongruously at his side.
"Not just the usual reconnaissance teams, sir," he was saying. "Thrice that number, at least—I've drawn from the Imperial Guard all the way down to district patrol. And the first squad was deployed less than fifteen minutes after General Chere's report."
"The entire Imperial Guard." Emperor Gestahl was pacing, an unhurried circle from his throne to the edge of the carpet and back again that seemed, despite its deliberate slowness, somehow agitated. "So you've left the Palace defenseless, have you, General Rurik?"
"No indeed, sir. Reinforcements arrived from Tzen and New Vector last night. Doma, an hour ago. But, as their soldiers are less experienced than our own Elite, I knew you'd prefer immediate deployment over any delay."
Gestahl didn't reply. But Rurik's words seemed to pacify him somewhat: he paused, stroking his beard as if in thought.
"And yet these so-called Elite have found nothing," Gestahl said, resuming his rounds.
"Nothing as yet, no. Though there have been reports of such a woman sighted in the Eighth District."
"From commoners, I've been told."
"Yes, sir. Merchants, passerby, that sort."
"And they did nothing."
"I believe," Rurik began carefully, "they thought they were seeing the General herself, sir. As did our own guards."
Gestahl slowed then, and inclined his head.
"Yes," he said softly, almost as though he were talking to himself. "A perfect double, they claim. Of course any number of magical techniques could achieve the effect. Muddlement, illusion… though the skill needed to create one so intricate, and on such a scale…"
Rurik said nothing, only waited.
At last Gestahl stopped pacing. His hand dropped to rest on a slightly luminous crystal scabbard, its sheen as iridescent as an oil rainbow, at his side. He ran his fingers lightly across it as he spoke.
"I'm ever more convinced, Dimitri, that some plot is at work here, one put in play against the nation at large. First an attempt on the Emperor's life—by a Returner, no less, three years after we thought we'd gotten the last of them. An attack immediately thereafter by a genuine Esper. Then the Palace itself infiltrated, the criminal freed, all by some organization with enough magical knowledge to disguise one of its members as not only one of my officers, but a Rune Knight and governor-general of the highest rank."
Gestahl lowered himself to his throne.
"This is a most inopportune time for me to be made a fool of, Dimitri," he said in a low voice. "I feel we're on the verge of some enormous discovery, a handbreadth away from our greatest victory. We must not allow the actions of a few determined saboteurs to interfere with that victory."
Rurik bowed his head in silent assent.
"Triple your men. Keep the firing squad on twenty-four-hour notice. I want every home, every building, every corner of the city searched. When you find them, bring the Returner back here, but I want the woman executed. Immediately."
"Understood, my liege."
"Then that will be all."
Terra awoke before dawn, or at least what she thought was dawn, in this silent, windowless place. The electric gaslights of the Magitek Research Facility were still dimmed, and the doctor in the yellow lab coat—who hadn't spoken a word to her after Leo's departure last night—hadn't yet returned, so Terra assumed it was either very late at night or very early in the morning.
She had spent the night in tense wakefulness, slumped against the glass, the containment liquid a constant cold tingling touch on every inch of her body, inside and out. Her sleep, what little she'd gotten, had been light and feverish—recurrent with nightmares of gasping and drowning, flash-memories of screams and blood in a burning Thamasa.
Now, she struggled upright, and stared out into the blue-tinted, watery gloom of the lab. A full day, and she still felt no hunger or thirst, nothing but the ever-present sting of the fluid that provided her not just with air but, it seemed, everything else her body needed. Even sleep—Terra suspected she'd only tried to rest out of habit, or desperation, not necessity.
They could keep her here forever, if they wanted.
Though she tried not to, Terra couldn't help but begin to imagine what it would be like. Living three impossible inches from freedom, year after year, till her muscles atrophied and her mind shattered. But surely they couldn't—they wouldn't. How could anyone, how could anything, survive like that?
Terra remembered then what the others had told her when they'd returned to Zozo, with Magicite in their hands. With her father.
She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her forehead against the glass, trying not to cry.
It was then that she heard the footsteps approaching.
Hastily, Terra pushed herself upright. Whoever it was still far off, but she wouldn't let them catch her looking weak, not for an instant.
But she ended up taken off-guard anyway, because it was Leo.
Even at this hour, he looked as if he were headed to some important ceremony somewhere—green greatcoat buttoned to the chin, gold ceremonial sash neatly knotted, his crystal-pommeled sword polished and shining at his side—as though Terra were some important foreign dignitary, deserving only the utmost courtesy and respect. Just as he'd always treated her.
"Good morning," he said with a smile, when he reached her.
Terra swallowed and kept her face impassive, even as her stomach tightened at those words. So it was morning—two sunsets had already passed. Half their time was gone.
"I was thinking," Leo continued, bringing one hand to rest on the control podium, "that you might prefer to speak in private. Dr. Le Vinges is a brilliant man, but I wonder if his enthusiasm might not be better suited to the role of scientist, rather than diplomat."
He bowed his head slightly, as if in apology. His dark eyes, open and unwary, stayed fixed on hers.
"Do you have a name?" he said presently. "A title—something others call you?"
She didn't reply, just kept her palm braced against the glass. Her stomach knotted tighter and tighter as the silence grew.
Leo checked every part of her for change or movement, any sign that she had understood. When he saw nothing, he tried again.
As far as Terra could tell, his accent was impeccable. He watched her closely for a moment, and when he got no answer, he switched to "E Doma, ke wanimoka o?"
Those were the only two specific foreign languages Terra could identify, but Leo tried at least six more. He even, at the end, used the hand gestures that Edgar had once told her were being developed in Jidoor at an institute for the deaf.
Through it all, Terra stayed silent and still—unnaturally still—biting the inside of her lip. She tried to focus only on breathing the cool, eerie containment fluid in and out of her lungs and trying to ignore the ache in her muscles from keeping still for so long.
Finally, after a long pause of watching her for any kind of reaction, Leo took a deep breath and a step back. His eyes traveled briefly over the thrumming machinery of Terra's prison.
"Is it this?" he asked, resting one hand very lightly on the brass frame of the control panel and gesturing toward her with the other. His voice was a little quieter. "The stasis tube?—that's what we call it. I imagine it must be distressing, to say the least, to be confined in such a way, and I apologize sincerely for it. But the few others of your kind that we've known seem to have lost all control over themselves the moment they entered our world. They went berserk."
Terra tried not to swallow. She knew. She remembered what it had been like.
"In many ways, it's to protect you more than to protect us. Some of your kind ended up destroying themselves in their frenzy. I'd very much like to avoid that if we can.
"But," he went on, stepping forward, "it's a precaution. And only that. If you can find a way to communicate with us, if we can determine that you mean no harm and you're not a danger to yourself or others, we would of course find you more spacious quarters."
At this, Terra's jaw tightened. Though she'd mostly managed to suppress it, Leo seemed to have noticed something, because he tilted his head the slightest bit.
"You have my word on that," he said.
He stayed like that, watching her closely. Terra said nothing, her fingers curled against the cold containment glass. Leo looked as he always had: so serious, so sincere. So sure that what he said was true.
After a moment he squared his shoulders slightly—the barest sign of disappointment—and Terra couldn't take it anymore.
Even when she was in Esper form, Terra's voice wasn't naturally rough, but after a silencing spell and a full day of disuse, the words came out in a deep rasp.
"It's not your word I'm worried about."
At this, Leo took a full, almost comical step back. He recovered admirably, however, clearing his throat and nodding, as though a talking Esper were an everyday phenomenon.
"Thank you," he said, voice remarkably steady. "I'm—happy to hear that. Is there a particular reason you put such trust in me?"
Something in Terra ached dully.
"I know you," was all she could say, before thinking to add: "By reputation."
Leo stepped closer, and what a sight they must have made, she thought: the long-dead soldier, head tipped back and hands clasped behind his back, talking casually with the long-lost Esper girl through a barrier of prison glass.
Terra didn't realize Leo was speaking again until he'd already finished his question.
"Do you have a name?"
She stared down at him, swallowed, before shaking her head.
"I see," he said. "Do any of your people have names?"
"No." She would no sooner betray them in this world than her own.
"Is there a reason you were in Vector?"
That made her hesitate. There was nothing she could say, she realized, whether truth or lie, that might not make her situation worse. In the end she didn't answer at all, just watched him through the glass.
Leo seemed to understand, or at least realize he had to try a different tack.
"That man—the one who tried to assassinate the Emperor. Do you know him?"
Locke. Terra swallowed, her heart pounding.
"Another of our generals—Celes Chere, she saw the incident personally—seemed to think you wished him dead."
"Is he?" she blurted, before she could stop herself.
"Is he dead, do you mean?" Leo hesitated. "No. No, he's alive."
Terra let out a deep, slow breath. She concentrated on blinking steadily to keep from crying, kept herself still even though she wanted to slump against the glass and laugh with relief.
"Does that upset you?" said Leo. He was watching her curiously, trying to interpret this reaction. "Did he injure you? Insult you, in some way?"
Biting the inside of her lip, Terra stared at a point on the floor for fear he might read the expression in her eyes.
"If I've done anything to make you mistrust me, I apologize," said Leo, after a few minutes of silence.
Terra had to laugh at that, a short, harsh sound that crackled through her speaker.
"No, General." She felt very tired all of a sudden. "Like I said, it's not you I mistrust."
"Who, then? And please, call me Leo."
"Who? The rest of your Empire," she said at last, bitterly. "Especially your Emperor himself—General Leo."
"May I ask why? Emperor Gestahl has given his word that he comes to you in good faith—"
"His word means nothing to me."
But there was no point to it. Terra closed her eyes, let her head rest against the glass. She stayed like that, listening to Leo's puzzled inquiries, feeling too weary to move. She focused on the sound of Leo's voice, not the words, which were the same ones that had taken him to his grave in another world. And he still believed it all, believed it completely. He would die here too, still believing.
Just then, the speakers around her crackled with pounding footsteps, and Leo's voice died away. Terra opened her eyes.
An out-of-breath page, her hair in disarray, was rushing across the lab. She skidded to a stop on reaching Leo, and it seemed she must have been sent in haste indeed, with nothing but an oral message; there was no Imperial-sealed letter in her hand, as was customary.
"General," she said, gulping. "The Emperor wishes to see you immediately. There's a prisoner been escaped, and talk of treachery."
Leo's hand went to the sword at his hip, as if out of reflex. "Does he need anything?"
"Just you and your weapon, sir. Oh, and any news about the, um..."
The page inclined her head in Terra's direction, either unwilling or unable to meet her eyes.
Leo looked up one last time. Terra met his gaze directly, nothing left in her anymore for deception. She could tell he was searching intently for something, coming to some decision.
"Yes," he said at last. "Well, I'm afraid I'll be disappointing him in that regard. But lead the way."
The Royal Archives, contrary to their name, were kept not in the city's Palace but in Vector's beautiful, world-renowned flagship library at the corner of Empire Avenue. The building was one of Vector's oldest, built only a few centuries after the War of the Magi, and one of its best-preserved. Generations since had reinforced the original foundations and added their own touches—new wings and higher stories, special collections in sunlight-bathed reading rooms—and as the Empire expanded, so had the library, with books on every subject from all corners of the earth.
It was unlikely, however, that many of Vector's citizens were even aware of the existence of the Royal Archives. They were kept in the library's vast multifloor steel vault, hundreds of feet underground, behind three bulletproof doors and dozens of magical safeguards.
Only Imperials of the highest rank could gain clearance to the Royal Archives, and so usually it was a very lonely place, in spite of its beauty—even here, as per the Emperor's orders, crystal-and-gold chandeliers shone brilliantly on the waxed wood floor and the glass accents of the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. But there was only one reading table in the entire vault, a lustrous cherry antique that was kept unusually well-polished, and it was usually empty. But not this evening.
Behind the vault's insular reference desk, the two librarians on duty talked softly to each other.
"How long has she been out there?" whispered one, a young woman with bobbed brown hair and spectacles, into the shield of her palm.
"Since the morning shift at least," replied the other, a middle-aged woman wearing a cream-colored ascot scarf.
"What's she looking for?"
"Nobody knows. She has me opening up collections I never knew existed." The librarian craned her head to see over the stacks where, far away at the reading table, a blonde woman dressed in white could be seen with her head bowed deeply over a book.
"It might be just to test us, you know," whispered the girl in spectacles as they watched her. "I hear she does things like that."
"Mm," murmured the senior librarian.
"It's true. My husband was in her unit. She has nothing better to do than come here and torture us, I mean it."
"Oh, now, Esther." The senior librarian gave the girl a frown before glancing over the stacks again.
After a pause, the younger woman spoke up.
"Could it be something for the Emperor, do you think?"
"Absolutely not, as far as I know. His Majesty's always sent notice beforehand."
"Hmph," chuffed the younger woman under her breath. "Typical of her."
The senior librarian turned back and spoke sharply. "Esther."
"But it's true, Miss Bay. If you'd heard the stories I've heard, it would chill you to the bone."
The senior librarian sighed.
"She doesn't bleed," said the younger woman, very softly. "She'll prick her fingers with silver pins, to do the magic, but no blood comes."
"You know as well as I do that's a myth from every Esper tale."
"No, my husband knows someone who's seen it." The younger woman stared over the stacks. "She doesn't have to eat or sleep. She's never laughed or smiled. She never even talks to anyone, and for her to keep us here half the night like she owns the place and everyone in it—"
"I'm not excusing her, Esther. But she's an heir to the throne, whether we like it or not."
"Listen," said the senior librarian firmly. She dropped her voice to a whisper. "Of course there's something wrong there. Something sick. And it would break Professor Cid's heart to see it, rest his soul. He tried his best, but you can't make a human heart beat where there's no heart at all."
The younger woman didn't reply. Her eyes were still lowered sullenly, but the hard line of her mouth had softened a little.
"If you feel anything for her, Esther, it should be pity. Or gratitude. Seeing someone like her—well, it should make you thankful for your own lot in life. There but for the grace of God go we."
The younger woman looked reluctant to accept this. "I still think—"
She froze midsentence, however, when she glanced up.
General Chere stood before them with military poise, one hand resting lightly on the black pommel of her sword. At her side, on the marble surface of the reference desk, was a thick, ancient-looking book bound in blue leather, its pages yellowed with age.
"Your Excellency!" said the senior librarian, stammering. She rushed forward to give the General her full attention. "Have you found everything you needed?"
"I have, thank you."
The General's voice was cool, measured. She gave no sign of having heard any of the conversation she'd unwittingly interrupted, yet her gaze on the two librarians was so intense and unblinking that, after a few uncomfortable moments, the younger woman excused herself to the back shelves with a mumbled excuse.
"Splendid," said the senior librarian with a nervous smile. She gestured to the book. "Shall I return this to the Vault, then? Or do you plan to take further notes on it later—tomorrow, perhaps?"
"No," said the General. "I'll be taking it with me. Make a note if necessary."
The librarian blinked. "With you?"
"Ah…" The librarian fidgeted, fingering her scarf. "I beg your pardon, your Excellency, but—that is, policy regarding magical volumes, especially one in such delicate condition, ah… specifically forbids—"
But the General had already taken the book and turned on her heel, her white cape swishing behind her. As she walked briskly off, the senior librarian could only stand there openmouthed, hand still at her throat.
When the last echoing footstep had faded away, the librarian put a hand over her eyes. She sighed once, shakily, before taking a fountain pen and heaving open the heavy gold ledger chained to the base of the desk.
It was hard enough to write clearly with trembling fingers, harder still to write a title so long and unwieldy, and despite her best professional efforts the dotted i's of Polygeotic Particularity stained right through the paper.