A Green Sun Illuminates the Void
Chapter 22: The Beginning
Seagulls cried out in the summer sky, dark silhouettes against the blue. Their screeches joined the crash and trickle of the waves as they beat against slanted layers of rock. The islet – a small outcropping of sea-worn stone – rose from the shallow sandy waters of the Great North Sea, north of the deep water of the Soluente Depths which brushed against the coast of Gallia, Tristain and Germania. Those with eyes to see could just about make out the foundations of stone buildings dug into its slopes; a legacy of its fall from Albion.
Since then, the currents of the Great North Sea had built up sandbanks around the obstacle, and so the rocky spire was a nesting place of seabirds overlooking a detritus-laden reef. And now another piece of flotsam had washed up on this little island. One quite different to anything it had ever seen before.
Tattered, burned and bruised, Louise de la Vallière groaned. A haze of pain fogged every thought and left her gasping. She could not see through one eye, and what she could see was painted in shades of grey. She was starving, her stomach gnawing at her. And it hurt to breathe.
It was a familiar feeling.
"Woo!" the sword clasped in a death-grip in her hand declared, quite ruining the moment. "That was a wild ride, partner! Let's do that again sometime! I love-love-love the way you feed me all that fire, but now I'm all tired again! Nap time! Wake me up when there's some more killing!"
Gritting her teeth, she forced the pain down, out into the hollow space in her mind which seemed like a bottomless cauldron for agony. The colour returned to her vision, and she managed to roll over, to stare up at the sky. It was very blue, she thought idly, as one hand went to feel her left eye.
It felt puffy and swollen, and the distance awareness of pain in her mind amplified when she touched it. It was still there, though, and she breathed a sigh of relief. She didn't want to lose an eye.
Oh, and the neomah in her head was shouting at her.
"You!" Marisalon shrieked inside her head. "You! You! You… you… you…"
"You said that already," Louise croaked, spitting sand from her mouth.
"Well, I would have been shouting at you earlier, but you weren't even dreaming! Did you let the other thing in your head take over? I bet you did, didn't you! What possibly possessed you to do that? That in general, I mean! Why did you throw yourself off the island? What possibly made it seem like a good idea?"
"We're… alive, aren't we?" Louise said. She briefly considered her options. No, her soul wasn't in the sun, having the weight of its accumulated sins burned from it by the grace of God. That meant that she was alive. And she certainly didn't want to become a sinful and wicked ghost. The water around her legs was soothing and peaceful, the salt pleasant against the open cuts and grazes she had.
Wait, no, Louise realised. Her flesh had scabbed over in metal and stone. Her shins, from what she could see of them, were streaked with black stone. Her left hand, where she had touched the superheated metal on the head of the dragon, was now skinned in shining brass. It was flesh-warm to the touch, and covered in ridges and whorls.
It was pretty, she thought idly, in her dreamlike half-lucid state. Maybe everything was just a dream. No, wait, it was too pleasant for a dream. If it was a dream, she wouldn't be able to force down the pain.
"Oh no! No you don't try to pretend it was part of your plan all along! I'm in your wretched head! We had a perfectly good plan! You wreck the docks, and in the chaos we could have got away, then hidden ourselves in your shadow-disguise. Then it would just have been a simple matter of hiding on a ship headed down to your continent! At no point – no point ever, I stress – did you plan to throw yourself over the edge!"
Louise curled up, prodding at her legs with a brass-covered fingertip. She couldn't feel any broken bones there. That was good. A broken leg would be really inconvenient. "It wasn't my plan originally," she said. Her throat ached, and she coughed, hacking up black phlegm. "I had to improvise."
"Improvise? Improvise? That's a terrible improvisation! You didn't even try to slow your fall!"
"Don't be silly," Louise managed. "Everyone knows that any… any mage worth anything can levitate." She swallowed. She had expected the ache of regrets that she could not fly in that manner, but it wasn't there. "So I had to hit the water. Full speed. And then hold my breath as long as I could, as deep as I could. Otherwise they'd have just followed the fact that I was all green and on fire."
"That was a terrible plan! From now on, I'm going to do the planning! You just threw yourself off the island without a single plan in your vacant little head!"
Groaning, she pulled herself up the sandy spar. "I had a plan," she said, once her legs were out of the water. Louise frowned. Her arm was sort of warning her about something. Oh yes. She'd broken it again. The same one as last time. It must have not healed properly, or been fully healed, or something like that.
It was a good thing that she was only intellectually aware of pain at the moment, because right now she'd be screaming from that. Well, that and the several broken ribs. Gosh, they were going to hurt when she paid attention to things. Her mother had always told her that a broken rib was a potentially lethal injury, but Louise felt from experience they were more of an inconvenience than anything else. It wasn't like a broken limb. Still, it couldn't be a good sign that she could feel that three of them were bending in a way that solid bone shouldn't.
Oh well. She'd had worse.
"Your plan?" Marisalon said in a dangerously calm voice.
"I was planning that the dragons would try to attack me in mid-air, so I could steal one of them," Louise said, running her mobile hand through her short-cropped hair. It was encrusted in salt and sand, and felt vile. She spat a mix of smoke-blackened phlegm and blood on the ground. "Only they didn't. But it could have worked."
That set the neomah off into incoherent rage again, so in the meantime Louise decided to do something more productive.
The sun was mid-way down its long, slow descent towards the western horizon when she straightened up, smiling to herself in quiet satisfaction as she dressed. There had been a fair amount of detritus washed up on the sandbanks around this isle, and even more things that could be salvaged by diving. Swimming with a broken arm had been a bit of an annoyance, until she had found some old gnarled driftwood and splinted the limb with seaweed and old rope.
She was no longer thirsty, either. Seawater now tasted perfectly fresh and potable to her. It wasn't that she couldn't taste the salt; she could. It was just that her body was telling her that it was something she should drink and that salt wouldn't taste bad or be bad for her. She had given in, and felt rather better for it. The stomach full of water muted the hunger pangs for a while, but she could feel them waiting to resurface.
Having to periodically get out of the water to whimper in agony with greyed vision when the pain slipped out of the depths where she had been forcing it down had only been a minor inconvenience, in retrospect. At the time, of course, it had been rather more pressing.
Louise sat under her crude shelter; waterlogged sea canvas sitting as a functional roof, and thought. Idly, she rubbed her broken arm, feeling the hard stony growths under her skin where the bone was already beginning to knot together. On one hand, she really didn't want to turn into a girl made of stone and metal. On the other, broken hand, she wished she'd developed this power earlier. It would have been so much more convenient if she had healed this fast when she'd been in the swamps.
Should she get a fire going? Warmth would be nice. But she couldn't risk anyone seeing a fire from the air and coming down to investigate. Maybe she should just go and lie in one of the shallow pools of water scattered across this rocky place. She felt better in the water.
No, Louise decided, she should find a place where she could hide a fire from any Albionese searchers who might be looking for her body – or her. A hot meal would do her good, and in truth she wasn't looking towards trying to eat some of the shellfish and seafood she had caught and thrown into one of the rockpools while they were still raw. Civilised people didn't eat raw fish. You might catch… well, she probably wouldn't catch anything, but it was still nasty. But she was hungry enough that if she didn't eat soon, she would change her mind. So she should eat now. Yes.
Dragging the baby sea dragon which had tried to eat her on her last swim, she went off to see if there was a convenient cave or other shelter to cook it in.
Her search of the interior of the island – such as it was – was a brief one. There was only a single spire of rock, eroded by the waves and wind, coated in bird-droppings, so it did not take too long. There were a few narrow crevices where rock had fractured, but nothing that would do more than keep the wind off her. None of them were deep enough to really get a fire going without risking it being seen.
Louise stared at the largest shallow cave, resting the dead sea dragon on the ground. Maybe if barricaded up the entrance, she could hide the light? She almost went to ask Marisalon, but the neomah wasn't talking to her at the moment. She would have to find her own way of doing it. Tilting her head, Louise stepped closer. "The rock layers are sloping," she muttered to herself. "The ones underneath, they're… oh, what did Eleanore call them? Rocks like sandstone. But the ones on top are granite." She bit her lip, tasting metal. She squatted down by the overhang, feeling the rough chalky rocks with the flesh-sensitive metal of her mobile hand. "I'm sure this must have fallen off Albion. You're not meant to get granite over the top of… sedimentary, that was the word."
Decisively, she nodded once and dragged the dead dragon away from the overhang. Turning around, she returned to the rock, took a step back and a deep breath, and then punched the sedimentary rock with all her strength.
The fire did the rest. Rubble crashed, rock-ash rose, and stones screamed. And when the clouds had cleared, the ragged girl with the brass fists was left standing before a hovel-sized hollow.
"Good enough," Louise said. She ran her fingers over the fire-polished walls. "Yes. This will do nicely."
Outside, an unseasonably chill wind unexpected by any weather mage was blowing down from the Great North Sea. Strange lights were seen in the clouds above, and lightning flashed without thunder. Such things were not rare when Albion was in the sky, but this summer they were more frequent, and subtly different.
But in the cave, its entrance blockaded up with rubble and driftwood, all was different. The smell of cooking meat and smoke filled the little bubble of light and warmth. Sea dragon flesh sizzled against a roughly-hammered sheet of sea-greened metal resting on rocks above the fire. Firelight danced against the shining walls.
From certain angles and certain lights, the reflections cast were not of the cave in which Louise de la Vallière sat.
Louise stuck her hands in the fire, to clean off the stains of her butchery, and then sat back. "Well, isn't this nice?" she said with false cheer to the sword resting beside her.
The blade yawned. "I don't like how you didn't stab the dragon to death," it said accusingly. "You should have taken me swimming with you."
"I only have one working arm," Louise said, wincing as she ran her fingers over the splint. She was letting it hurt at the moment, because she didn't want to accidentally damage herself more without pain to tell her. And it was tiring forcing it down.
"And the best possible use for an arm is holding a sword to stab things with," it argued back.
Rather than argue back, Louise reached out, and flipped over the hunk of flesh on the hot metal plate. The sizzle changed in tenor, and she brought back her hand, working her jaw. "It doesn't smell as nice as the sea dragon I've had before," she said critically.
She was lying. She could taste the meat. It was very strong smelling, and just turning it over meant she could taste it at the back of her mouth as strongly as if she'd just taken a bite out of it and… and it was wonderful. Sea dragon was a rare delicacy – indeed, it was only permitted to the nobility. She couldn't lower her standards to eating raw meat like this, though.
"It's kind of salty. And more than a bit gamey." Looking at the small pile of shellfish piled on a concave, water-filled rock, she considered her options. "I should probably… I wonder how I could boil water? Hmm. Maybe if I got some of the fat from the dragon, I could try frying the fish things? But they'd just close." She frowned. "How do you cook shellfish beyond boiling them, anyway?"
"Try cutting them open," her sword suggested.
"Not helping." Louise tilted her head. "Maybe, when my arm is working again, I can see if I can catch some langoustines. The Albionese don't eat enough seafood. It's their fault for living up on that godforsaken island."
Louise loved langoustines.
The fire crackled, salt-encrusted wood burning with a smoky flame. Louise leaned back, resting her hands in the rock-ash which made up the floor. She slowly unfastened her buff-jacket to the waist, wincing each time she knocked one of her many scabs or jarred her broken bones. The garment was filthy, bloodied and sea-drenched. She could taste the salt and dried gore, and it only made her hungrier.
Louise flinched and shuddered. Her reactions weren't right. She shouldn't be feeling hungry from this, and she had to blame the conditions she had endured for that. She really needed to wash it soon – and the clothes underneath were barely in a better state. But at the moment, all she cared about was food. She would see if she could find any fresh water to wash things in some other time.
"I'm hungry all the time," she whispered to herself. "I… the last proper meal I had was all the way back in New Castle. That had… proper noble food. Not peasant dreck or whatever I could find." She felt her eyes burning, but no tears came. "I hate having to live like this. Filthy and hungry and… and I hate it! I hate it!"
"I know what would cheer you up!" the sword said happily,
"If you say 'stabbing', I'll… I'll leave you on this island!" Louise snapped.
The sword was silent. Outside, she heard birds calling, and the howl of the wind. Maybe she could go out and hunt down some of the gulls. They'd be an easy target for the sand, and she could cook them too. Or maybe even eat them raw. Birds weren't fish, right? The gnawing feeling in her gut pushed her, reminding her of how long ago her last meal had been. It had been that inadequate meal in the inn where she'd killed those guards, hadn't it? Well, it was natural for her to be hungry. She had no idea how her body was making metal and stone as it healed, but that couldn't be easy.
Her eyes drifted back to the half-cooked meat. Well, it couldn't be that bad to have it medium-rare, could it? She reached out with both hands, intending to just tear off a small amount as best she could with her broken arm.
As soon as Louise touched the meat, all the hunger within her welled up and burst. Fingers coated in browed gore, she tore it apart, gorging on it with a terrible frenzy. She could taste it on her fingers. She could taste the pain and fear of the dragon's dying moments as her hands closed around its neck. She could taste the burnt blood and the tinge of green brassy fire from the killing blow.
And it was wonderful.
Mouth dripping with juices, hands tasting of iron and salt, she ate until she could eat no more. She thrust her hands onto the fire to clean them, and lay back to digest her meal. Sated, she sighed. She might as well get it over and done with.
"Have you calmed down yet?" Louise asked Marisalon.
"Have I calmed down? Have I calmed down? How can you even ask that? As if in some way, it's my fault that you're crazy? I'm not the irrational one who threw herself off a floating island, thank you very much! Have I calmed down, you ask?" The neomah drew a deep breath. "A bit," she admitted. "Unspeakable colour, don't scare me like that. I really don't want to die, thank you very much."
"Neither did I," Louise said, resting her hand on her bloated stomach. She took a deep breath. "I didn't do it for no reason, you know. I wasn't going to let them take me. Even if they were willing to take me alive… you know what we heard about what happened in Londinium."
"Awesome stuff!" her sword contributed. "I don't mind only hearing one side of these conversations, just so you know! It's much better getting to make up the other side myself!"
"Shut up, you stupid sword," Louise said. She was feeling too full to really put much emotion into her words. "But do you really think they'd be at all nice to someone who blew up that wretched place which apparently killed a bunch of Albionese? Traitors like that can't be trusted to follow the proper conduct. They didn't in the first place. And that's even before I ended up back in the hands of the Sheffield thing, which," she shuddered, "never again," she whispered. "Not after what I saw down in the basement. She'd do some of those things to me. Even if I had died in the fall, it would be cleaner and faster that way."
The neomah grumbled a bit. "Fine," she eventually said. "I will concede that you were not being completely stupid about things. But you have to get a better grasp of your limits."
Louise let out an aggrieved sigh. "How am I meant to do that?" she protested. "They change all the time! My body keeps on changing on me! Everything tastes stronger than anything I've been able to taste before, and I was tasting its pain! I was tasting the colour its skin had been! I could tell it was a sea dragon from the taste and knew what it looked like! This isn't how taste works!"
She glared at her brass-palmed hands. "And they're healing in metal! I… I don't want my body changing on me like this! It's like when my monthlies started! I can't predict anything! I… I feel lost, sometimes," she managed, her voice soft. "I… I don't want my body doing things without a reason. At least when I became a woman, it happens to everyone. This? No one knows what's happening. Not even you."
"No, you are blessed beyond my comprehension, my lady," Marisalon said.
Louise set her jaw mulishly. "Well, maybe I don't want to be," she muttered.
"Fair princess, you are beautiful in the eyes of the mighty, and their nature suffuses you. Welcome these changes. They better you."
"No!" Louise's voice was harsh, whip-crack fast. "No. I will not permit it. What… what if I say 'no'? What if I don't want my flesh to turn to m-metal and stone when I g-get hurt?"
"You won't permit it? My fair princess, the power of Those Who Made the World flows through you is a blessing, a gift, not some bane," Marisalon said, sounding shocked. "You need not fight it."
"This isn't what I wanted!" To her shame, Louise felt on the edge of tears, and she knew she would have been crying a few months ago. But she couldn't cry any more. "I… I h-hate not knowing what happens with my body. I hated my monthlies and I hate the way I'm short and… and I hate it all!"
"There there," Marisalon said. "I know it must be hard for you. Why, myself I enlightened myself twice over and above those mewling newborns which make up my kindred, and each time I reached for more power, more self-hood, I felt myself become what I was not. I welcomed it, though. I do not understand why it scares you."
"Mages aren't meant to have this kind of thing happen," Louise whispered, "and that's all I ever wanted to be."
They sat there in uncomfortable silence for a while, listening to the crackle of the fire and the howl of the wind like that.
"If you are at all interested," the neomah began slowly, "my fair princess, I do believe that I have developed certain thoughts on the natures of the changes to your flesh and the powers which spring from them. Merely from observation and my knowledge of the ways of the City, of course; this is not some blessed wisdom passed to me by mightier ones than I."
Louise rubbed her eyes. "Go on," she said.
"I have, in the time I have spent watching you, come to the following conclusion; to wit, it is stress, trauma, and other such things which prompt these changes in you. It is not study, not practice which builds them up. No, my fair lady, your flesh partakes more of the power of Those Who Built the World the greater the need. Consider the latest changes to your sense of taste, the capacity to discern things you could not before about the things you devour. My princess, I do believe that is directly related to your extended hunger and irregular meals ever since you got to Albion.
"Take too the changes to your flesh. Your skin is as armour, you feel no pain when you force yourself to ignore it, even now you heal with the terrible and mighty flesh of the King of the Creators himself. Did this process not start with you cutting yourself with your nails and wanting for that to no longer happen, and then progress to you being shot, stabbed, clawed at by Dead monstrosities, and jumping off a flying island?"
"That was a rhetorical question, oh princess of poor self-preservation. Yes, I am somewhat aggrieved about it still," Marisalon said snippily. "The fire of the King comes from your need to destroy; the secrets of the waters of the Great Mother came from your time in the swamp; the sly evasiveness of the Shadow of All Things were born of your captivity and attempts to escape, and…" the neomah shuddered, "my princess, I fear for myself that you touch the ways of the Silent Wind when you take joy in killing. She above all others is terrible in her sacred might."
"So…" Louise wetted her lips, tapping her fingers against the sand as she thought. "You're saying that this happens as a response to stress and trauma. Well. Hmm. That might explain why the changes seemed to have happened faster ever since I set off for Albion." She winced. "This has not been a nurturing experience," she said wryly. "Painful, yes. Traumatic, yes. And… and it's forced me to do things I've never done before. That I never ever thought I could do before." Louise took a deep shuddering breath. "And you're saying that the more extreme the circumstance I'm put in, the faster things will change?"
"To aid you in your survival, yes, my princess. I do not doubt that the burning of Port's Mouth and the fall from the edge of the island was what has led to your flesh to turn itself to brass and stone." Marisalon hummed to herself. "Why, my princess, it seems your body agrees with me on the limits of your capacity to keep yourself intact. How reassuring!"
Her body was a traitor, Louise was forced to conclude. "So when I get back home, it should… slow down?" she said. "Stop changing like this?"
"If my ideas are right, it will certainly slow down – or at least, it might change only in ways to aid you in society," Marisalon said cautiously. "I cannot say for sure, but I do doubt that even you could put yourself in more danger at the court of your beautiful Princess Henrietta than you have managed in the past few weeks."
"All the more reason to get home, then," Louise said firmly, hugging her knees. Her stomach made a grumbling, growling, churning noise.
There was silence again.
"Something occurs to me," Marisalon said slowly. "Are your sea dragons safe to eat?"
Louise had thought they were. She had certainly eaten some before.
In considerably smaller portion sizes.
And prepared by trained chefs.
And properly cooked.
"I appreciate you trying to change the topic," Louise said uneasily, "but I would rather not have to worry about what I have just eaten."
Maybe she shouldn't have eaten the organs. Now that she thought about it – albeit somewhat fuzzily – she remembered that there was some reason that wind dragons were safe to eat, as long as you didn't eat certain bits of the body. Something about them having tiny windstones which formed in their organs from the magic they used to fly or something like that.
What happened if you ate waterstones, she wondered.
"… well! I see we may well find out! Honestly, I leave you alone for a few hours and you manage to do something like this." The neomah sighed. "You might as well try to sleep it off. Or you might want to see if you can throw it up right now."
Louise tried her best to empty her stomach out in the cold and dark, and then returned to the cave feeling rotten. Perhaps it was not enough, because she was feeling decidedly queasy. In the end, she lay down in her little hidey-hole, head swimming.
Later, she was not sure if she slept, or if she was merely hallucinating. Nightmares or sickness visions; perhaps it made no difference. Either way, as the fire died down and the walls of the cavern darkened, she became increasingly convinced that the stone ash she slept on was silver sand. Sitting up, Louise picked up a handful and let the flakes drift down between her fingers. The top layer was painfully hot, but underneath it was freezing.
She looked around. Above her, a black, starless sky. To her left, barren desolation. To her right, barren desolation. Before and behind her, nothing but silvery sand. All around her, unseen yet all too clear, colourless green ideas slept furiously beneath the parched earth.
Louise rose. "Marisalon," she called out. There was no response, even when she tried again.
That usually meant only one thing. These was not her memories. The other, strange woman was bleeding through, recollections from someone long dead or from some far-away place forcing themselves into her mind. Yet for all that, Louise did not feel different. She felt like herself.
Louise laughed bitterly, staring down at her brass-palms. Like herself. Yes. To avoid sinking onto depression again, she gazed around and noticed a figure standing alone amidst the sand. The horizon seemed lighter in that direction, so she headed that way.
Before too long, she could recognise her own face cast in brass, with eyes that burned the green of her fire. Louise stared at the brazen maiden, and the brazen maiden stared back. Even compared to last time, she was more real, more solid, Louise thought – though that may have just been compared to the unreality of everything else around her.
"What do we want?" the brazen maiden demanded, hands on her hips.
Louise glared back. She almost went to make the same gesture, but a flare of pain from her arm reminded her that it was still broken. "So, what kind of crazy madness babbling rubbish am I going to have to put up with from you this time?" she asked the not-her. "And… and put some clothes on!"
The brazen maiden snorted. "Why should we care what irrelevancies our lessers think of us, or for the petty dictates of inferior beings? We are beautiful, and we know it. We should be proud of our appearance, not ashamed. Others should love us and fear us."
"That wasn't an answer! That was a demonstration! We're… I mean I'm not going to stand here and be lectured by you!" Louise retorted.
"We are becoming more," the brazen maiden said. "We can see it. Our flesh is no longer weak. Our fire burns cities and weapons of war alike. We made those stupid Albionese traitors pay for daring to treat us this way. We will not listen to the blandishments of the others. They are stupid and weak. We know that, don't we? That is why we have nearly claimed more power. Power enough to get off this wretched, stupid, useless little island."
"Y-you can do that?" Louise asked, the wind taken from her sails.
"We can do that," the not-her agreed, in a breath which smelt of hot metal. "We have already begun it. But we must choose to accept it."
Louise drew a deep breath. The memories of her conversation with Marisalon were still fresh in her memory. The neomah had said that her magic changed her the more trauma she was under, the worse the stress and suffering. It was almost like how skin toughened to form callouses. And, Louise suddenly remembered, her mother had said much the same thing about how her magic always came through stronger when she was angry or stressed.
She put that thought from her mind. No normal mage turned into a moving statue unless they wanted to. When her mother tore people apart as a hurricane of razor wind, it was her choice. They didn't have it happen just when they healed. Who knew what would happen to her if she stayed on this island much longer? Maybe she'd deform until she was some sea creature, able to swim home. Maybe the hunger would get to her and she'd start budding mouths all over her body, to eat the rocks and strain wriggling things from the water. Maybe… maybe she would just stop having to breathe when she turned to crystal, and would walk home across the bottom of the Soulente Depths. Or a thousand other things, all writ in the forms of the not-hers.
She didn't much like the idea of that.
"What do you want?" she asked bluntly. "What'll this do to me? And… and what are you even talking about? What you say will work to get us out of here?"
"It will cost us weakness," said the brass maiden. "It will give us strength. Weakness into strength; the great work of the souls. It's our choice. It's always our choice."
Louse went to bite her nails, and stopped herself. She wouldn't show weakness in front of this not-her. She suspected that there was something hidden, something she was missing. Some cost that would come later, perhaps, or simply the not-her might not be telling her everything.
But she would pay a price anyway, if she stayed here – and a higher one if the Albionese started searching the islets which scattered this shallow sea to find her body. "What do you want me to learn?" she asked.
The brazen maiden snorted. "We already learned it," she said with withering contempt. "What are we, stupid? Don't we remember?"
Louise's eyes widened in shock as the walls closed around her, sealing her in. She screamed and whirled, slamming her fists into the deathly white stone. This was the jail which had held her for so long, trapping her in uselessness, in weakness. She yelled, and pounded on the stone. It cracked, breaking away to reveal an inner core of brass. No further blows could even dent it.
"Let me out, you… you stupid evil twin thing!" she screamed. "Let me out! L-l-let me out!"
The walls began to heat up. At first it was subtle. Quickly, however, she could feel the heat radiating from them, the air scorching her lungs. The lights in the ceiling bled to green, and brightened. She could see them through her closed eyelids, even when she tried to turn her head away.
Louise felt her clothes ignite, and she screamed in raw agony. "Let me out! Damn you! You st-stupid void-damned dog," she managed through scalded lungs. Each breath tasted of metal and with each heartbeat she could feel the stone creeping in to shield her oesophagus.
The fires went out, and naked and seared, each breath pain, she was left in the darkness. Water dripped down from the ceiling and fell upon her, each drop announced by a sizzle. She didn't feel it. She didn't feel anything.
"What are you doing?" she rasped.
There was no response.
She screamed and screamed, more from rage than from the agony which was her existence. She could keep the sandpaper being rasped across her nerves away from her awareness. She couldn't shut down her fury.
There was no response.
Forcing down the pain, she pulled herself to her feet. Reaching out, she could feel the walls around her. Three paces were the space given to her; no more. No door; no windows. Nothing but walls around her.
She beat and beat on the walls, leaving them coated in sizzling blood. She ranted and she raved and she screamed. And then she stopped.
No. She was being ridiculous, Louise realised, getting control of herself. She had been in this situation before, and last time it had taken her far too long to realise it. She would not make the mistake this time. She would save her strength and bide her time, knowing that for the moment, she was not mastery of her own destiny. Others controlled what she could and could not do, so – for now – she would accept that, and keep her own council.
She would wait now, just as she had waited then. She would ignore the pain now just as she had ignored the hunger then. She would be serene, calm, and save her strength, so that she might exact her revenge.
There was a sensation in her mind, like a lock turning, and the walls folded into nothingness. Alone, she floated in uttermost darkness. The burning green-brass corona of her magic – her soul, she knew now and could not deny – was her sun in this outer blackness. There was the sensation of movement, a rushing as if she was falling, and no sooner had she thought that than she hit the water.
Her world inverted, and Louise now stood in her bedroom, back at the estate, water spilling off her to drench the rugs. She had grown. Her head brushed the ceiling, and her bed seemed fit for a doll. All the angles were subtly wrong. What she cared more about at this point was finding some clothes, to cover her brass-splotched and stone-marred skin.
Grimacing, Louise dried herself on her bedsheets and picked up her old school mantle from where it lay on the ground. A moment's thought revealed that no, it had never been her school mantle. Her school mantle had been woven cloth. This was metal and crystal and stone and sand and blood-hued wind and a thousand other shades of monstrosity. Head bowed, she fastened the transformed mantle around her neck, and covered herself. There. That was better. And hopefully this strange mantle would not catch on fire.
She whimpered into her fist. That had hurt. That had really hurt. Even when she forced the pain down, she still felt it. She could still feel it now, a nagging sensation and… no! She couldn't let herself be overwhelmed by it. If she did, it would drag her down.
Louise had to keep moving. Something in her was all too clear about it. It didn't sound like the brazen maiden, but there was a certain arrogant certainty about it which was familiar. Maybe it was just her fear of being confined again. Either way, she opened the distorted crystal reflection of her bedroom door, and stepped out into her father's study. Flames rolled from her mouth and eyes, burning green wherever she walked. Warily, she approached the figure seated in the chair.
"Louise," her mother said to her, hands folded on her lap. "Louise, sit down, be quiet, and listen to me."
"But Mother," Louise protested, flames dripping from her fingers to dance in green upon the fine wooden floors, "is now really the time?"
"Of course it is. Now is always the time, especially when – stand up straight! – when I am the one talking to you. Do not try to slack off from your duties and your task." Her mother – whose features were so similar to hers – took her chin in one hand. "Listen to me, Louise. You are a de la Vallière. Duty and honour comes first. And part of that duty consists of mastery of the magical arts."
Behind her mother danced the crimson lady of the storm. With fingers that sublimated into wind with each motion, she stroked their mother's jawline. So close, she said without speaking. As far as Louise could tell, it was the first time this strange not-her had addressed her. So close and yet so far. She is a chained storm. What lies beneath her steel scales, she asked. What secrets does she hide? What keeps clipped her wings? We know she could so easily blow from place to place. Maybe it's her armour. Or maybe we're the weight which keeps her down.
Louise blinked. Her mother was now in full armour, the black steel – which she was beginning to suspect wasn't steel at all – scaled and coiling around her. Her slitted eyes stared down at her daughter. "Nobility, honour, righteousness. This is what I have taught you and that is what I expect from you. Hold to your honour like you grasp a blade, knowing that to let it fall is death. Certainty, moral and deliberate certainty, is all."
And with that, she ate Louise whole. Down her mother's brazen gullet Louise fell, coming to rest face first in a soft yellow rug.
"Ow," Louise said, her voice muffled. She felt almost like screaming, but that would be a rather ridiculous thing to do. Her mother did not usually turn into a dragon and eat her. Why, she couldn't recall a single occurrence when she had done it before.
So why had her mother turned into a dragon and eaten her?
Louise decided to scream for a bit. It was cathartic.
"Oh, my sweet lady," a mellifluous voice declared, "whatsoever are you doing here?" Warm arms wrapped around her, and pulled her to her feet.
Marisalon's soft shoulder was a welcome thing to lean on, and the neomah half-carried Louise over to a seat which was almost a throne. She knelt before her. "Oh, my poor princess," she said. "This is hard on you, I know. I can feel the budding of your souls as they weft and weave, your radiance burning ever brighter. What are you doing to yourself?"
Louise blinked, trying to bring her thoughts into a semblance of order. "Is that you, Marisalon," she managed, "or is this just a dream?"
The neomah's dark eyes widened momentarily, as she considered this. "I do not know," she said honestly, tapping one lavender finger against her full lips. "I think I'm me, but maybe the me I think I am is just something which exists in service to you. Maybe I ceased to be me when I became but the fourth light among the greater being that is you."
Louise was feeling altogether too woozy to make sense of that. Except Marisalon was calling her a greater being. Which was correct, but probably meant she wanted something from her.
Blearily she looked around the room, and realised that, beneath the strange and lavish coverings, it appeared to be her bedroom at the Academy. Though she was fairly sure that her bedroom in the Academy had not looked down over an indigo sea smeared with bright stains, and likewise it had not had a large fuelless fire burning in the centre of the room. She inhaled, and noticed that the familiar smell of her bedroom was overlain with a metallic scent a little bit like blood. A mewling thing which looked a little bit like a cat and a little bit like a dog, but was neither, rubbed up against her leg and then curled up on the rug. It was joined by other beasts which seemed to partake of many natures, their flesh woven into a seamless whole by God-knew-what.
"I made myself at home," Marisalon said shamelessly. "Oh dear. It was very hard for you, the last step. It took so very long for you to accept it." There was a wry note in her voice as she added, "I was there for it."
Louise flinched away from the touch against her bare forearm, only to find it soft and warm. Carefully, delicately, Marisalon wiped away the soot and the burnt skin and the blood with a sponge, leaving her flesh clean and already closing up. She was using some kind of scented oil for this, but Louise could not recognise
"Ow," Louise said, more out of habit than necessity when the neomah's hand slipped. "Not that this isn't nice," she hastened to add, as Marisalon cleaned off her face. "This… having someone pay attention to me feels nice. In civilised surroundings. And… and no one is trying to kill me." She tried not to shiver. The last bath she had taken – in a proper bath with warm water – had been in that first night in the Pale Tower. The best she had managed since was lakewater. She would kill for one right now.
Marisalon spun her around, revealing that apparently her room connected onto the noble baths at the Academy. "Please don't protest about the inconsistency," she said. "This is your mind, not mine." Taking Louise's hand, she led her into the water, and began to wash her roughly cut hair for her.
"I made a mess of my hair," Louise said weakly. "I had to. I needed to hide."
"Yes, you did, my princess."
"But I didn't want to," Louise said, sinking down into the water. She could see her reflection. "I'm… I'm ugly now. It was always my best feature and it had taken me years to get it that long and… and I cut it off and burned it."
"My fair princess," Marisalon said, "I have always told you that you are beautiful. You are but young, and this pains you. You feel that you are inadequate. Your heart shakes within your chest. But when you rage, when you command, when you danced with your husband-to-be and when you left burned corpses behind you, you also left your feelings of inadequacy behind you. Why should you not do that about this?"
Louise chose not to answer. She didn't want to think about that. She had liked her hair. "Tell me more about the inhabitants of the City and how to summon them," she demanded, trying to change the topic.
She could feel Marisalon's amused chuckle against her skin. "Ah. Any particular reason for that, my fair princess?"
"You've already taught me how to summon the sesselja and the agatae," Louise said, shifting in the water. She was still wearing her mantle, and she played with the not-fabric, noticing how it felt the same as it had been when dry. "But you've mentioned so many other species. And maybe one of them might be something I can use to get off this island. Something which means I don't have to rely on what the brazen… never mind."
When she twisted, she caught what she was fairly sure was a contemplative look in her head-familiar's eyes. It was somewhat hard to tell, because she wasn't the best at reading the expression of eyes which were solid black, with no sclera or iris. "Very well; as you wish," Marisalon said. "We shall begin, then, with the marottes and the summoning thereof."
They did not stop there. Their path took them through the metody, the gilmyne, the anglyaka, and many more even as Marisalon lavished attention on her mistress. It was peaceful and it was quiet and it was warm, and Louise had missed all those things recently. It reminded her that she wanted to be back at the Academy. It had never been the learning which she had hated. It had only been her own incapacity, and the other students. But this reminded her of when she had found a quiet bit in the library and a history book, and had been able to sink into a world where it didn't matter that she couldn't do proper magic.
Only now she could.
"It's almost time for you to go," Marisalon said eventually, drying her off.
Louise smiled back at her head-familiar. "I know," she said, and she did know. It just felt right. She felt clean. She felt prepared. She felt beautiful again. She could face Princess Henrietta looking like this. "Marisalon," she said, hesitantly. She wasn't sure how to put this. "I just… I…" she bit her lip, and took a deep breath, feeling herself blushing. "I'm not sure how… that is, I'm not sure if I've said this properly, but. But." She screwed her eyes shut. "Thank you," she blurted out. "Not just for this and now. For everything. You've certainly been an… um. An education. In more ways than one."
The neomah beamed at that, and Louise's heart rose. "Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to let you get away with being a perverted head-familiar any more than normal!" she said hotly, to cover her feelings. She took another breath. "I'll be off."
"Not quite yet, my princess," Marisalon said, squeezing her hand. "I know how much this matters to you, and I do not know what you will face next. I have something for you." Carefully, she knelt, and fastened a belly-wrap made of soft green cloth under the mantle. "You should be more comfortable in yourself like this, at least. And… and well, it'll help if you end up in a snowstorm or something."
"Do you know what's coming next?" Louise asked. She took a breath. "Please tell me."
"I can feel the echoes in your greater self," the neomah said simply. "Remember what happened in the chrysalis? Echoes of that still whisper in you, and now those echoes have become screams. I know enough to know that you-I-we are coming to a tipping point."
"That's not very useful," Louise said, with more grumpiness than she felt.
"I know," Marisalon said gravely. "It really isn't that helpful, but it's the best I can do. You dance a dance which would have burned me alive had I reached for it when I was not a part of you, and I don't know the steps." She leant in, and gave Louise a lingering, clinging hug. "Please, my fair princess," she said, with just a hint of mischief in her dark eyes, "don't get yourself killed. I'd take that as a personal favour. And maybe see if you can find a way to give me back my body more often. I'm very fond of it." A grin emerged. "It's a lot of fun." She spun Louise around, and gave her a pat on the back. "Off you go," she said. "We both know you have a long way to go, don't we?"
And indeed, Louise did know that, as she stared out of the gates of the Academy of Magic, to the green countryside before her. Holding her mantle tight around her, she set off on her journey beside the Griffin Knights. The landscape moved quickly, each step flickering and flashing, but she ignored it. She had done this before.
Vaulting a wall and stepping over an old piece of driftwood, she dropped down into the nave of the ruined church where first fire had burned green when she prayed. She could smell the reek of the earth wyrm's blood and the ruined and rot, but when she turned, she was face to face with the musketeers who – God, she couldn't remember their names. Anne-Sophie, hadn't one of them been? Or was it Anne-Maria?
Then the Dragonblooded burst in through the door. Helplessly, she watched as the corporal died, and felt the warm blood against her face.
Her panicked flight was filled with nightmares and violence. Blood sprayed in arcs as she punched and kicked at sinister figures which cracked and crumpled like china dolls. Exhausted, she managed to leap onto the ship which sailed through the streets, and gazed down as the ground fell away.
A dark room was her next destination, but in place of a bed there was a door to New Castle. With some reluctance, Louise stepped through, to cheers from the waiting Albionese nobles. She could see the brave expressions on their faces, and she knew that within hours, most of them would be dead.
"Oh, you're here again," said Princess Sophia, taking her hand and pulling her away from the crowd. "Where are you? What are you doing?"
Louise blinked. "I don't know," she managed. "I think…"
"Did the birds find you?" the little girl said, tugging harder. "Come on, you need to escape."
The thud of the bombardment picked up, shaking dust from the walls and making the furniture dance.
"There hasn't been any word of me," the princess said. "Nothing in the journals of the Republicans and no talks that you've heard. Where do you think they took me? I think I'm in the hands of Sheffield, don't you?"
Louise nodded. That sounded like something that thing would do, she thought, as Sophia pulled her off the road, and they began to wade through the swamps, trying to escape from Londinium. There was something wrong here, and it took Louise precious moments to realise what it was.
"No, wait," Louise protested. "This isn't what happened."
The little girl stopped. "I know," she whispered. "But I want to be free. I don't want to be in her hands."
"I don't understand," Louise said. She blinked. "Is this… are you you? Or is this some kind of," she searched for words, "guilt-thing for failing to save you?"
Princess Sophia sniffled. "I don't know," she breathed. She squirmed out of Louise's grip, and ran off, disappearing into a sudden fog.
"Sophia!" Louise called out. "Where did you go? Where are you?"
There was no answer. There was only the sound of artillery blasts, coming nearer and nearer. And now that Louise paid attention, it was not fog. It was sand and the dust of ruined buildings, thick and choking. When it cleared, she stood at the gates of the Pale Tower. She turned to leave, and found that she was now inside its pale depths. Running, heart pounding, she tried to flee. She didn't want to end up in that cell again. She couldn't!
And she didn't. Her path led her down into the depths of the building, steps spiralling down. All around her was death and destruction. Blood stained the walls and bodies lay like childish toys, discarded by a little lordling.
In the end, her path led her down – as she suspected it would –to Sheffield's basement. And in the centre of the floor, handle proffering itself to her, was her husband's blade.
"Take me," it told her happily. "You've earned it."
Louise closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. Her hand closed around its handle.
And then all the lights went out.
Fire crackled in front of her, and she flinched, her arm going to cover her eyes. She felt the heat wash across her, and stepped back, sand wet under her toes. It was joined by the roar of a waterfall, the thunder of a landslide, the howl of the wind and the creaking of the deep dark woods.
Five inhuman figures stood before her on the damp ground, illuminated in a pool of light. Their faceless helms and sleek coloured lines were alien to the Halkeginian eye, and showed that they were from another place. They caught sight of Louise, raised their weapons, and then faded away.
"They're waiting for us," the brazen maiden whispered from beside her, part of the whispering crowd of not-hers who each waited for their turn. Louise could feel the heat radiating from her first, strongest warped duplicate. "Traitors. Murderers. They want to kill us. Who knows what plans they have for Tristain? They should not be here… and yet they are. They were stronger than us. They'll try to kill us again if we go back. If they know we're alive. Things like them killed the golden tyrant who had this power before, and she was mightier than us."
"I can fight them!" Louise protested.
"We will probably die," the maiden countered.
"And then what of our child?" the gravid mother asked, her hand chill against Louise's. "What of the child who grows within us? Either they will die, or they will be left without a mother. We are oh so very scared of this, and take little joy in the prospect."
Louise squared her jaw. "I'm not pregnant! You're just… it was only once! We didn't even do it again on our wedding night!"
"We don't know that we're not," the gravid mother said, the layers of ice encrusting her crackling as she gently gestured. "After all, do we not love him? Does that not make it more likely?"
"I don't want to have a child! Not yet!"
"Ah," the not-her said, smiling kindly, "but we also do not want to not be pregnant. If he is dead, then this will be the last bit of him that remains."
"I still shouldn't have done it," Louise whispered. "It was a moral-"
"Weakness. Failure. That's what we are." The blue-robed goddess fell to her knees, her hair pouring down over her face and merging with the wet sand on the ground. Behind her, the darkness flickered, images lightning-flashing in the night. "We couldn't save Wardes. We couldn't save Prince Cearl. We couldn't save Princess Sophia. Everything we valued on this trip has turned to ash and dust."
"We… I mean, I destroyed their fleet!" Louise protested, heart sinking. How could this cursed not-her so well express the thing that had been nagging at her, which she hadn't even been willing to talk to Marisalon about?
"Did we? What if they have more? And for all that we may have destroyed the ships," the blue-robed goddess said, tears of sand leaking from her eyes, "we did nothing to solve the root problem. Cromwell is still alive. What if he merely uses this as another excuse for war? What if he blames us and attacks Tristain because of this? All our aims, all our principles, have been blown away in the wind. Force has made them meaningless."
"They're… no! They're not meaningless," Louise said, her breath catching in her throat.
Everything is meaningless. Our world is changing, the crimson lady of the storm said with just an elegant tilt of her head as she stepped out of the shadows. She moved like a dancer, albeit a dancer carrying a blade dripping with blood. We cannot say what tomorrow will bring. We cannot even say what today will bring. We live on the edge of a blade, and to make a mistake is to fall. It's exhilarating, isn't it?
"No, it's not," Louise whispered. Lied. Because it was exhilarating. Not the nervous tension, not the moments of waiting – no, they were a little hell in their own way. But what did bring her heart to beating, what did leave her feeling more alive than she could remember were the moments of danger. The moments when she drew a blade and lashed out, or when the whole world seemed to freeze when someone she hadn't noticed took a shot at her.
The crimson lady of the storm giggled, the motion sending her pink hair flicking through the air. We're so cute when we don't tell the truth, she said in her un-voice. And so funny too! We're just a little bit scared because of our old childish attachments, that's all. But really, we do need to grow up a bit and realise that we're acting like we're five again by not liking the uncertainty. We're not some little baby who needs Mother to tell us where to go and what to do. Not anymore.
"We cannot trust our own mind," sang the woman of the symmetries, taking Louise by the chin and forcing her to stare into eyes that burned. "What will we do then, when others call us crazy? What will we do if they know we went mad not once, but twice? How did we survive in the swamp, when the golden tyrant seized our mind? Why can we not stop thinking about this?"
Merely saying these words seemed to distress the not-her, the crystalline shapes that orbited her buzzing around in swift trajectories. "Madness! What will we do if we cannot trust ourselves? What can we do? Without control, without our minds, without our duty and our honour; we are nothing. Mother and father have taught us that much."
"ah," said her shadow, embracing her from behind, "but look ahead of you."
There was a pale face in the darkness, lit by purple light. The woman before Louise was dressed all in black, and so her head appeared to float in place.
"the sheffield-thing," hissed her shadow. "she won't forget or forgive. she has our staff of destruction. and she'll want to take us back. back into imprisonment. she'll try even harder to stop us escaping. no escape! no freedom!"
A final not-her joined the six others, and it was one Louise had not seen before. Grey was her hair and her skin, and she rippled slightly when seen out of the corner of the eye. She wore simple clothes, dribs and drags akin to those which Louise had salvaged from those Albionese soldiers she had killed. Those garments too were colourless. She smiled too-broadly, revealing finger-length rows of needle teeth and a pale tongue which licked around her mouth, far longer and more prehensile than any natural organ. But it was her eyes which drew an onlooker, for amidst her monstrosity and her monotone beauty the irises were splashes of mad brilliant technicolour, made all the more gorgeous for the contrast they brought to her appearance.
Her long fingers stroked the jaw of Viscount Wardes who sat before her like a cut-string puppet, colourless plants growing all over him. She played with his grey hair just as she did her own.
"And what of Jean-Jacques?" the bright-eyed girl said. "We're scared of him. We're scared for him. If he's dead, we're a widow so soon, before we could enjoy him and his company. We can't be a widow at sixteen. We can't. But if he's alive, then our life is going to change and we don't know what will happen. We won't be able to just stay where we are. He'll have his own aims, his own wants, and we won't just be a school girl. He'll want to do things we don't want to, or he won't tell us things," she said, glowering. "Why did he have to show up? Why did he have to disrupt our lives? Why did… why did he not even had the decency to give us the certainty whether he's dead!"
Louise had had enough. She filled her lungs, and roared, "Shut up!"
The gaggle of monstrous girls before her fell silent.
The brazen maiden reached out, and touched Louise on the brow with one burning finger. The smell of hot metal and scorched flesh filled the air, and for a moment Louise's vision turned grey with pain. She forced it down.
"You can burn me if you want," she told the twisted reflection of her own face. "I stood against the Dead when I could have fled. I burned Londinium and Port's Mouth. I faced the Dragonblooded in La Rochelle. And you're just a dream. I've faced all of them. None of them have beaten me. None of them are going to beat me."
She swallowed. "If Wardes is dead. I'll cry and life will go on. If I'm pregnant, I'll bring up my child as best I can. I am changing and it scares me, but womenhood was scary too and I got through it. I haven't failed Princess Henrietta or my mother, and I can take pride in that. I don't know who that ancient tyrant in my head is and I don't care. This is my body. I'm not going to let her use it.
"And the Sheffield-thing or those Dragon-blooded? If they get in my way again, I'll kill them. You're just a dream. Get out of my way."
"No, I'm not a dream," the maiden said, the corners of her lips curling up. "I'm you. We're scared of that, aren't we?" She began to reach out again.
Louise grabbed her hand, knuckles whitening as she squeezed the burning hand and felt her flesh char. "Don't touch me," she grated, grabbing the other hand, eyes blurring from the agony. She forced any trace of pain from her voice. "I did not give you permission to do so. If you're part of me, you're only a little bit. The others are part of me too. Which means I'm more than any of you." She gritted her jaw and leaned forwards. "I'm more than all of you."
Her own metallic face leaned in, and kissed her chastely on the brow. "Well done," the maiden exhaled in breath that reeked of hot metal even as Louise felt her skin char from that kiss. "We will not let the base terror of the peasantry overcome us. We are more than that. We are mightier than that." And with that said, the brazen maiden melted away.
With one hand, Louise reached up, and felt the burn-scar which marked her brow between her eyes. She could feel the power within, beating. It was the beat of her own heart.
Burning light, the rosy hue of the sunrise dawned before her. There was a figure standing there, cast in silhouette. Louise stumbled towards her, across sand.
"Stop!" the other woman commanded. "Not a step more, demon-slave."
Louise blinked. Everything was going blurry and the world was all… all bright and fuzzy and hurty. Her head was pounding.
"And there's one thing you're scared of that you were too scared to address. Too weak," the silhouetted woman said to her, contempt in her voice. "You're right to be scared of it. You think you're becoming less human. You think you're changing, and you're scared of what you're giving up for power.
"You're right to be scared," the woman hissed. "Weak. That's what you are. You're weak just like Gorol and the other pathetic traitors who sold their mind, body and souls to the crippled maimed titans who we defeated. Your master might let you have the illusion that you're not his good little doll, but the Yozis own you. You've sold out the glory of the sun for a pittance. You betrayed him. You betrayed me. You betrayed humanity. You betrayed yourself."
Louise gasped for air. Each word was hitting her like a slap. She… what… she hadn't done any of that, had she? She… she felt sick and dizzy and a bit of her was just sure that whoever this was, this had been whoever had stolen her body in Londinium. She could remember dribs and drabs of what had happened, seeping into her mind as if a half-remembered dream. And she had no idea what the other woman was talking about. Something – someone? – was shouting at the back of her head, and her skull felt like it was spinning in place under her skin while also remaining still.
Louise blinked heavily, rubbing her eyes. She felt exhausted. She felt sick and tired and headachy. She wasn't dressed in a wondrous mantle and a girdle of soft green cloth; no, her filthy bloodstained buff jacket was tied around her neck with the arms and she had wrapped her tunic around her waist. She felt ugly and smelly, covered in blood and dried salt and the remains of what she had eaten.
And the silhouetted woman she thought she had been talking to was just a pillar of wind-eroded rock, a shadow against the pre-dawn light.
She looked around in confusion, head throbbing. She was nearly at the water's edge. She wasn't even sure how she had got here. Last thing she remembered, she had fallen asleep in the cave. Which she had barricaded up. A glance behind her, and she found she was on the other side of the island entirely.
Her head swam. She could feel, at the back of her mind, the surge of thoughts and emotions and recollections which hovered at the edge of comprehension. They wanted her to… no, they didn't want her to do anything. They were just memories, nothing more. She was the one who wanted to dive into them, to accept those recollections of God-knew-how-long-ago into herself and thus be lost.
"I know you," she whispered to the dead woman in her head. "You're wrong." She could feel her nails digging into her palms. "I'm nobody's slave. I choose to follow Princess Henrietta, to act in the correct manner for my country, because my honour demands it of me. I am not a monster! I'm… I'm a mage of the de la Vallière family and-"
No. She couldn't live that lie anymore. It was time to wake up. She couldn't say that. Not anymore. Not after everything she'd done. Not after everything she'd seen. She'd faced the powerlessness of captivity, learned things she never thought she would, travelled across the land and faced so many fears, old and new. By her hands, Londinium and Port's Mouth had burned.
She sagged down to her knees. "I'm not a monster," she whispered. "But I don't know what I am."
The wind picked up, a chill breeze coming in from the north smelling of salt and cold mornings.
Louise let the tears come – but they didn't, did they? "I can't cry," she whispered. "My fingernails are metal. I scab in stone and bronze. My skin can take a knife blow. I don't sweat or… or need the toilet. I don't need to sleep. I don't feel pain if I don't want to. I feel more at home in the w-water than the land. I have a perverted head familiar and some ancient terrible tyrant ghost in my head." She took a deep, shuddering sigh. "I don't… I don't know what I am," she whispered. "I just wanted to be a normal mage."
She swallowed. "But I know what I'm not," she said, steel in her voice. "And everyone else will know it too. There was a little girl who cried and fretted because she was afraid she was going to fail at her last chance to summon the familiar she'd always dreamed of. A little girl whose spells never worked no matter how hard she tried. A little girl who was a failure. A Zero."
Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, the Zero, closed her eyes for the last time.
On a wave-worn sandbank off the coast of Tristain, a woman sat with closed eyes and slumped shoulders, beaten and battered but resolutely unbroken. A long sigh escaped her, and her jaw firmed.
"I'm not that girl," she whispered.
Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière opened her eyes, staring out at the world with the gaze of the newborn. And to the east, just for a moment, the rising sun burned green.