–This one breathes until she stops,– Reckoner muttered. -Damn her destroyers! WRETCHED VERMIN! ANNIHILATION OFFERS TOO MUCH KINDNESS! ONLY THE SHATTERING END FOR THEM!–
–Calm, brother.– Sonderhau said.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Malija said. Tervud felt a distinct chill, a prickling wrongness on his skin. In his mind, Malija felt like nothing so much as a sword with a cracked spine bending a little further, a little further… he reached out to do something, anything, and felt her snap like a lash unfolded inside his temples. “Hosri bids us nourish those in need,” she said, smiling placidly. “What’s a body, in any case? Only a vessel. They must have needed me terribly. If the nourishment they needed was my meager flesh, well, I am not less for being used a little roughly.”
–Heed your wretched calm’s harvest,– Reckoner growled. –This once-bright soul lived calmly. She threw aside her fighting anger, and she unraveled. Calm shelters the innocent, but never avenges them.–
“Really, it was my fault. Being so outspoken, so visible. You’d have thought I was warstock, the way I carried on!” Malija continued, opening her book. She did not reach for the glass of wine again. “It takes more strength to accept my place, anyway. After I slapped his Lordship and tried to fight his court sorceress when he ordered her to bind me, well… he could’ve forgiven words, I’m sure, but I’ve always gone too far.”
“Malija,” Tervud asked, “where does Ashir live?”
“Tervud, no,” Malija said, bolting upright. “You must forget this madness! I… that is…” She struggled with herself. “If you… wanted to fight him for warstock reasons, it’s not my place to tell you no, but you mustn’t think to kill him on my account!” Tervud saw everything he needed skimming her mind’s surface. He saw more than he needed. He saw the long road to Ashir’s fortress, a tall thing set among craggy ravines, themselves cracks from the Loar blast that made Lake Tekar.
He saw dim rooms and torn clothes and flailing hands beating uselessly at snarling faces. He felt all of it, flitting through Malija’s broken mind. All the rawness, the beatings, the awful tearing within that only ever worsened. The terrible heat and weight and sweat of one man after another, and more than a few warstock women amusing themselves with the weakling in the dungeon. And always, always unalloyed helplessness. Whenever she tried to use her magic in the slightest way, wards the court sorceress had placed on her made Malija feel she was burning alive. They barely fed her, hardly let her sleep. She survived three days and three nights, and broke on the fourth.
Anyone would have, eventually.
He pressed her gently on the temple. “Sleep, Malija,” he said, though she was already fainting. In silence, he carried her to her rooms on the third floor; he knew they were hers because they carried that same ruined essence.
–Draw me and end this vessel,– Reckoner said sadly. –True death took her already, brother. This husk carries little from Malija.-
–Malija may return to it,– Tervud said, and tucked her in.
–Perhaps. If you fight fiercer for this hope, I support it.–
Tervud hurried to his brother’s room. He felt the lock with his mind, nudged it loose, and stepped within.
Omud was not sleeping either. A thick night-robe wrinkled up his hunched back. He sat at a fine desk, shahir wood lacquered off-white trimmed in black, with a secondary lacquer of oranges and reds. He clasped one final, tiny clay sculpture in his hands: the one Tervud made in advance the year he left. It showed a Murit swordsman with his scythe-sword and shield.
“I never really wanted them to stuff your balls down your throat,” Omud said. “We’re old enough I probably don’t have to tell you I was just jealous.”
“Will Ashir hurt our family?” Tervud asked.
“Well, he’s married Felasa,” Omud said, dully. “She… changed, brother. Not for the better. Put me here to keep Sifeir’s Run happy. As for our parents? He thinks you hate us all. That keeps us safe tonight, doesn’t it? Ironies, always more ironies. He killed Malija’s parents, of course.” Omud set the sculpture down on the desk and raised a fist as if to smash it. “Damn it, Tervud, we needed you here!”
Tervud opened his mouth to speak,
“…that’s not right, is it?” Omud shook his head. “You’d have tried to protect Malija, and you’d be dead. Unbreathing dead or dead like her, but dead.” He was crying, Tervud realized. “I tried, brother. Please believe me, I tried. I had her make the tree arches, I tried to keep her busy, but… I failed.”
“As did I,” Tervud said. “Farewell, Omud. I doubt we’ll meet again.”