“The Wisdoms of Reltak,” the Mahlessa said. “His only philosophical work. He’s usually more concerned with astronomy. The first Lonakhim scholar to calculate the circumference of the moon. Though Arkiol argues he was out by about twenty feet.”
Lyrna raised her gaze from the book, frowning at the word “scholar” being used in conjunction with “Lonakhim.”
“Oh yes,” the Mahlessa said. “We were not all warriors once. Before your people came, whilst the Seordah wandered their forests, losing themselves in communion with the earth, my people studied, we observed, we crafted great works, we wrote great verse. What you see here is only a fragment, the salvaged remains of our achievement. If we had been left alone, another century perhaps, even the mysteries of this mountain would have been within our grasp. Sadly, for all our wisdom, we never discovered how to smelt iron. A small thing, you might think, but wars are often decided by small things.”
“Did you know him?” Lyrna asked, holding up the book.
The Mahlessa laughed and shook her head. “Even I am not that old. Though I did make the acquaintance of one of his descendants, a many-times-great-grandson. I watched him starve to death during the travail.”
Lyrna returned the book to the stacks. “Who were you, before?”
“Just a girl who had too many nightmares. I still do. I’m looking at one of them right now.” There was no humour now, just serious scrutiny and keen intellect. It had been many years since Lyrna had met an equal, a soul as attuned to nuance and deceit as she was. She was shamed by it, the deaths of so many still weighed on her, but this moment made her grateful for the journey that had brought her here. To look into a face that saw all of her, no need or opportunity for concealment, no charm or tears to deflect unwelcome insight, no prospect of manipulation, just cold reason and the weight of history packed into these books. The novelty of it was a guilty delight.
“Ilvarek,” she said. “A vision. That’s what it means.”
“The closest translation in your language is ‘scrying.’ You know this word?”
“A Dark ability to peer into the future.”
“I do not peer. The future stares at me and I stare back, and when I do I see you.”
“And what am I doing?”
The Mahlessa’s expression clouded. “One of two things.” She moved to a scroll perched atop a stack of books, lifting it and holding it out to Lyrna. “This is for you.”
“A treaty. The war between our peoples is over. Please accept my congratulations on successfully negotiating this peace.”
Lyrna went to her and took the scroll, unfurling it to find two blocks of finely scribed text, the one above in Realm Tongue, the other in the same alien script as the book. “There are no terms,” she said. “Just a statement that the conflict between us is ended.”
“What more would you want?”
“It’s customary for us to squabble over borders, tributes and such.”
“Borders are always changing, and I’ll take your role in bringing down the false Mahlessa as more than sufficient tribute, one I’ll reward with a gift. You wear a knife do you not?”
Lyrna’s hand went to the chain about her neck. “A trinket only. It poses no threat. I can’t even throw it properly.”
“Not yet.” The Mahlessa held out her hand, Lyrna noticed she still held the small bottle in her other hand. “Give it to me.”
Kiral’s scream and the stench of the bottle’s contents were still vivid, so Lyrna hesitated before lifting the chain over her head and placing the knife in the Mahlessa’s open palm.
“You wonder what this is,” she said, taking hold of the knife by the handle and lifting the bottle until it was poised over the blade. “The Lonak scholars were not just poets and mathematicians, they were also chemists. Centuries ago they concocted a substance that would produce the most pure and absolute pain a human can endure and still live, though only if a tiny amount is used.” She tipped the bottle and a single drop of dark viscous liquid fell onto the blade, the foul vapour rising again, making Lyrna step back and cover her nose. The liquid spread across the steel, the vapour fading, then seemed to disappear, like water seeping into cloth.
“Here.” The Mahlessa held the knife out to Lyrna. “It wont hurt you. When mixed with steel it only comes to life if it touches blood.”
“Why would I need such a thing?” Lyrna asked, making no move to take the knife.
“To do one of the two things I see you do.”
It was clear she would say no more on the subject. Tentatively, Lyrna reached out and touched a finger to the knife, feeling only cool metal.
“Never be without it,” the Mahlessa said as Lyrna took the knife and pulled the chain over her head.
“I will always keep it, in any case,” Lyrna replied. “It’s the only gift I’ve ever cherished.”
The Mahlessa’s gaze remained serious but there was surprise there too. “You are not what I was expecting. The ilvarek painted a very different picture.”
“Was I taller?” Lyrna asked with a small laugh.
“No, you were ambitious. You cared nothing for the lives lost reaching this place, just more pieces on your Keschet board. This meeting was to have made you furious, the truth of the ilvarek provoking hatred, making you swear vile retribution and tear up the treaty you hold in your hands. Something has changed in you, Lyrna Al Nieren. Was it guilt I wonder, some crime committed out of the ilvarek’s sight? So terrible the guilt forged a new facet to your soul.”
Father I beg you . . . “I’d hazard,” Lyrna said, “there are more crimes in your ledger than mine.”
“Ensuring the survival of my people compelled me to terrible acts, it is true. I have lied, I have corrupted, I have tortured and I have killed. And every crime I would commit again a thousand times to secure the same end. Remember this, Queen, when you watch the flames rise high, remember this and ask yourself: would I do this again?”
She moved closer, lifting the book Lyrna had examined and holding it out to her. “Removing even the smallest scrap from this place is punishable by death, but for you I think I can make an allowance. The meditations on divinity are particularly interesting. Reltak has much to say on the folly of dogma.”
“I can’t read it.”
“I think we both know a translation is well within your abilities. The Lonakhim text in the treaty will provide sufficient clues, I’m sure. And my bright spear will be there to help. She reads very well.”
“It is customary for nations at peace to exchange ambassadors, is it not? She will be mine.”
“Her . . . diplomacy will be very welcome. I shall of course arrange for a suitably qualified Realm official to present himself here as soon as possible.”
“As you wish, there’s no hurry. Just make sure you send a woman, unless you want your ambassador to gift me your Realm in its entirety.”
“Men are so easily captured by your beauty?”
“No, by the gift of a woman who died three centuries ago. Oddly, it only works on men.”
Lyrna took the book. “I regret I have nothing to offer in return.”
The Mahlessa’s scrutiny faded to an aspect of sombre reflection. “You are the gift,” she said. “Confirmation that it has all been for something.” She held out her hand and Lyrna took it. “They come, Queen, they come to tear it all down. Your world and mine. Look to the beast charmer when chains bind you.”
But she was gone again, replaced once more by the fearful girl, her hand trembling in Lyrna’s grasp, head cocked, eyes looking into hers with desperate fear. “How does it feel?” she asked and Lyrna realised she was repeating her question from before, unaware of time having passed since.
“I have killed no-one,” Lyrna told her.
“Oh . . .” Her eyes roamed Lyrna’s face. “No . . . Not there yet . . . But they will be.”
The girl smiled, teeth bright in the green glow. “The marks of your greatness.”
? ? ?
She made her way back to the steam chamber then up the spiral steps to the surface. She had lingered for more than an hour, asking question after question. “Who is the master the Mahlessa spoke of? What is his scheme? Who is coming to bring it all down?”
The fearful girl’s answers were no more than a jumble of confusion and riddle. “He waits in the void . . . He hungers . . . Oh how he hungers . . . My mother said I was the kindliest soul ever to grace the Lonakhim, I cut her throat with my father’s knife . . .”
After a while her rambling faded to silence and she slumped to the floor, listless, eyes vacant. Lyrna waited a while longer for the Mahlessa to return, but knew instinctively it wouldn’t happen. We will never meet again.
She sighed and touched the girl on the shoulder. “Did you earn a name?”
“Helsa,” the girl replied in a whisper. Healer, or saviour in the archaic form, depending on the inflection.
“I’m glad to have met you, Helsa.”
“Will you come to see me again?”