“Do you think they’ll write books about me?” asked Mazzia, as he clambered over the rock face. The summit was still a long ways away yet, but Mazzia did not mind. It gave him more time to talk. “Will the scribes of Hak Mat Do write my story for ages to come?”
“No,” said the Lady Fall. “The scribes of Hak Mat Do will not last for much longer. Look to your home instead.”
Mazzia made a face. “The plains? All the electors do is collect the books. There are no writers in Shira Hay.”
“There will be, for as long as it lasts.” The Lady Fall flapped her great bat-like wings, hovering over Mazzia’s head. “The time of emperors is ending. The time of kings shall soon begin.”
Mazzia bowed his sun-browned face, adjusting his scarf, as he walked along the mountain pass. There had been news, of course, that the men of the Mokesh Valley had been reconquered by the Stronghold, but they were weak and their grudges old. And this talk of a king, and a city at the center of the world… “They really are going to do it, then? Conquer all of Albumere?”
“Albumere cannot be conquered. Not by men.” The Lady Fall landed, her wings folding behind her back. Mazzia supposed she had seen all she had to see. “But, yes, the great cities will fall. Like clockwork, one after the other. Even the Stronghold.”
Even from the Lady, whose cryptic words Mazzia had grown used to, that sounded too strange to be true. “The Stronghold will fall to the Stronghold?” asked Mazzia.
“Yes. Even they shall bow, to the king they raised.”
Mazzia snorted. “Taking the mountains, I can understand,” said Mazzia, shaking his head. “The valleymen have no great city, just their cult religion and a few scant villages. But surely Jhidnu, and the Temple, and the winter clans will hold?”
The Lady Fall shook her head, forlornly. “You, and the rest of Albumere, underestimate what the Stronghold will gain by taking the valley. It will be ages yet before they build their great tower, and you will be long dead before they do, but then mankind shall see for themselves the gift of the First Smith.”
Mazzia rolled his eyes. “There’s going to be more?”
“Many more,” said the Lady Fall, her eyes twinkling. “As many as the stars innumerable. They shall forge blades of steel, and boats with iron hulls, and the empty husks of man and beast that you will mistake as your downfall but will truly be your salvation.” She paused. “But that will not be for a while yet. Do not concern yourself with smiths for now.”
“All that, the martyr taught them?”
“A martyr, not the martyr,” said the Lady Fall. “His is jade, not iron.”
“Sometimes, I feel like you just say things. Am I supposed to understand this?” said Mazzia, shaking his head. “How do you know this will happen? How do I know you know this will happen?”
He heard the rustle of wings once more behind him, and he stopped as she took to the air again. Even under the harsh glare of the sun, the Lady Fall shrouded herself in layer upon layer of thick black cloth; Mazzia could see only the glint of her eyes beneath the cloak. In that way, she was the exact opposite of her sister, the Lady Spring, who walked across Albumere unashamed of her nakedness.
The Lady Fall threw her wings open and levitated before Mazzia, a harsh wind building around the both of them. She hovered above him, a terrible blot upon the sky, blocking out the sun, consuming the world in whispers and shadows. “I am the Muse of Quiet, the Moon that is the Eye, the Painter of the Wind. I looked upon you when you stumbled, bleary-eyed and crying, from the hollow tree, and I shall look upon you again when you stumble, bleary-eyed and crying, into your grave. I am a god,” boomed the Lady Fall, her normally quiet voice resonating around Mazzia. “Is that not enough?”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” said Mazzia, matter-of-factly, and the shadows shrank away. Light returned to the world, and the Lady Fall landed beside Mazzia. They walked on.
“I taught you too well,” she said, once again folding her wings behind her.
“I find that my faith in the gods has been utterly shaken by knowing one personally,” said Mazzia, nodding. “I’m sure Raggon and Gahhay would have a lot to say about that, but they’re the kind of people of who ask nothing but questions, and right now I want answers. The truth, please.”
“You would ask for truth from the goddess of lies and secrets?” The Lady Fall tittered.
“The Lady Winter is the liar. She tells the lie of compassion, and mercy, and the painlessness of death. No, I say, who better to ask for truth than the goddess of secrets? A secret’s no good unless it is true.”
The Lady Fall nodded approvingly. “It seems you paid attention when you last visited the libraries. Debate has honed your words like a whetstone to a sword.”
“A what to a what?”
“If only you had paid that much attention in the valley where there is yet no tower,” sighed the Lady Fall. “I thought it would be interesting to you.”
“But you were wrong,” said Mazzia, grinning. Then he realized what she was doing, and shook his head. “Enough misdirecting, honestly. Answers, now. How do you know? What makes you so certain?”
The Lady Fall did not answer for a long time. Mazzia was beginning to wonder if the Lady Fall was going to answer at all when she at last said, “I know what will happen because I will make it so.”
Mazzia laughed. “So it’s just over-confidence? You don’t know any of this is going to happen, do you?”
“For all your criticism of the electors, you are just like them,” said the Lady Fall. “Always with questions.”
Mazzia’s response was cut short when he heard singing from down the road. He craned his neck, peering around the sheer walls of rock around him to get a better look. A man, with a wizened, graying beard and the coonbat cap that marked him as a native of the high mountains, sang boisterously as he walked along the path. It was a wonder Mazzia hadn’t heard him earlier, although talking to a goddess had a way of distracting a man.
“We are men of the mountain, my son, my son,” he sang. “Together we’ll climb to the top of Mont Don.”
He came around the bend, and winked at Mazzia. There was no one else with him—at least, no one Mazzia could see.
“The slope is steep and the steps are high, but on top of Mont Don we’ll touch the sky! We’ll hear the flap of the thunderbird’s wings, and on top of Mont Don our voices shall sing! The song of the mountains, of rock and of stone! For on top of Mont Don, you are truly alone!” He passed by Mazzia, and stopped. “You’re alone now my son, but don’t be afraid. I know that you’ll find your very own way. I’ll see you again, my son, my son, on top of Mont Don, on top of Mont Don.”
Mazzia applauded, and the wayward traveler bowed.
“You’ve an excellent voice, but I must ask, is it wise to sing so loud?” Mazzia asked, cocking his head. “You walk alone, and there are wild children about.”
The man shook his head, and the limp wings on his cap dangled about his ears. “I’ve nothing to fear from children or from loneliness,” he said, grinning. “Sing, and even if you have no one else to listen to you, the mountain will hear!”
Mazzia just nodded, and smiled, as the man wandered away, whistling merrily as he walked unseeing through the Lady Fall.
“I see it,” said the Lady Fall, after the man had walked away.
“See what?” asked Mazzia, continuing up the pass. They were getting closer now, although Mazzia’s mouth grew dry at the thought of having to climb the steep slope ahead of him. He rolled his shoulders, and cracked his neck. No one ever said climbing the tallest mountain in the world would be easy.
“Doubt,” said the Lady Fall, as Mazzia began his climb. She flew by him, offering no assistance, watching him with her eyes beneath her shadowed veil. “It is the constant of all things.”
A bit of rock crumbled beneath Mazzia’s hand and he froze, arms tense, heart in his throat. He didn’t respond. There was a time for banter, and a time for concentration. “On top of Mont Don…,” Mazzia muttered, the words forgotten but the tune remembered.
“Doubt is silence,” whispered the Lady Fall, flying so close that Mazzia could feel the beat of her wings on his face. He blinked, clearing dust from his eyes. “But silence can be deafening. Even now, you wonder, you doubt my existence.”
Mazzia climbed higher. Bright spots danced on his eyes in the harsh sunlight.
“Perhaps those long days in the plains truly drove you mad. How else would you be worthy enough to hold discourse with a goddess?” The Lady Fall’s gloved hand traced Mazzia’s cheek, wicking away the sweat trickling down his face. “You are just a man. A slave to the chains that bind you.”
Mazzia knew better than to answer. The Lady often spoke this way, in words that were half-soliloquy, half-poetry. There was no use in interrupting her.
He hauled himself over the lip of the rock face, and sat on the ground, catching his breath. The Lady Fall watched from above, as always, her expression illegible beneath the shadows.
“Then tell me. Why me?” asked Mazzia, finally. He swallowed, licking dry lips. “Why do you show yourself to me?”
The Lady Fall cocked her head. “Do you think you are the only one I reveal myself to?”
Mazzia pursed his lips, then shook his head.
“We use what tools we have, to sow what we can,” said the Lady Fall, and her eyes grew distant. “You must know fear, and doubt, and death, before you may know power. I have whispered in the ears of a thousand heroes whose names now only I remember. I have guided the steps of a thousand children, telling them, this is how you will live, and I have led the way of as many emperors, telling them, this is how you will rule. Because that which will happen, I will make happen.”
A chill passed over Mazzia, and he tightened his scarf around his neck. The Lady confided in him infrequently, but even then Mazzia wished she didn’t. It was like watching a man play at Wwa Ta, or any other dice game. The stakes were high, and though the gambler was so sure of his victory, no one could ever know for sure.
“Why me?” asked Mazzia, again. “You never answer my questions the first time.”
The Lady Fall’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “Some questions I never answer at all. Now, will you climb this mountain or won’t you?”
Mazzia rose to his feet, groaning, stretching his arms behind his back. There was a fighter rising to prominence back home, by the name of Kennya, who could hop over walls and run across rooftops like other men trudged along the narrow streets, but Mazzia had not become his noni—his student—and had no intention to. That could be left to younger men.
All the same, as Mazzia began to climb again, he wondered if maybe just one or two lessons would have been a good idea.
The way was easier, now, though. Roots as thick as an elephantbull’s legs, grown into the side of the mountain, provided easy surfaces for Mazzia to hold onto, and his raw and bloody hands were glad of a reprieve from the harshness of the stone. He squinted up, but regretted it at once as the blinding white sun shone in his eyes.
From what he had seen, glancing upward, there had been no trunk, no branches, no leaves. Wherever these roots led, it was deeper, inside the mountain.
As always, the Lady Fall flew beside him, watching with those careful eyes. She was the patron goddess of travelers, and artists, and spies: the first Mazzia was, but the second and third he had never been. He was just a nomad of the plains, who had wished to see all the wonders Albumere had to offer.
Mazzia had walked to far Jhidnu, and sailed as far out into the sea as the sailors had dared go. He had walked to Sivnag and Gurnag, and eaten summer boar with the Wilder Clans. He had gone to Albumere’s lowest point, the Teeth of the Abyss in steaming Moscoleon, and now he would go to Albumere’s highest, the summit of Mont Don.
If ever anyone wrote a book about him, as the Lady Fall promised they would, it would be a long book indeed.
“Do you remember going north?” asked the Lady Fall. The summit was not far now. Mazzia was nearly there.
Mazzia grunted an affirmative. The fall beneath him was a terrible one.
“What was the question you asked me there, which I would not answer?”
His head pounded as he tried to think back to his time walking the icy battlements in the frigid cold. The air was thin up here. It made it hard to think. “Why build a fortress here, when there is nothing to defend?”
“And do you remember Kazakhal? What did you say there?”
“How strange it is,” muttered Mazzia. “This swamp, where there should be none.”
“Do you remember the pyramid of Raj Mal Azu, and how I forbade your entrance?” asked the Lady Fall. “Do you remember the Greenskull mines in the valley, and how the farmers whispered that death itself lurked within that darkness?”
“Yes. And yes.”
At last, the ground began to level out. Mazzia strained, and tumbled onto flat ground, the wind screaming and rushing around him. He laughed, pumping his fist into the air, staring at the blue sky above him. Though the air was bitingly cold and the wind doubly so, there was no snow here, only gravel and bare rock. And, of course, the roots, twisting and snaking their way through the ground.
“Rise,” said the Lady Fall. “Come and see the last of the martyr’s court.”
Mazzia blinked. What more was there to see? Staggering to his feet, wrapping his scarf even tighter around him so that it would not flap so violently in the wind, Mazzia walked forward. The Lady Fall was standing over a hole in the ground—the entrance, Mazzia realized, to some sort of cavern.
He looked up at the Lady Fall, questioning, but when she said nothing. Mazzia knelt at the edge of the darkness. He could hear something breathing, down there.
He not become the most traveled man on Albumere by ignoring that which made him curious. Mazzia swung over the side, and dropped into the pit. His hand grasped at the side of the cavern as he slid, down, into the darkness, using only that little circle of sunlight to penetrate the shadows and see what lay within.
Suddenly, something sparked. Like lightning, an arc of blinding white energy burst from the shadows and for a second illuminated the entire cavern, in all its enormity. Mazzia sucked in a sharp breath.
The silhouette of something monstrously huge slumbered beneath the mountain, its great head tucked away beneath wings so large that each individual feather was larger than Mazzia himself. The entire inside of the mountain must have been hollowed away just to fit this beast.
“What is it?” breathed Mazzia, edging closer. Again, sparks flew from the monster, crackling violently though the beast slept still.
“A misbegotten attempt from a bygone age,” said the Lady Fall.
Mazzia stood before it, his breath catching in his throat. Never before had he seen, in the flesh, an animal so great and so huge. His fingers curled into fists. “Does it have a tabula?” he asked.
The Lady Fall laughed, light and airy. “You’re standing on it.”
Mazzia looked down, but could see nothing for the darkness and the bright spots dancing on his eyes. He backed away and knelt down, sweeping at the dirt and dust, but he could feel nothing.
“There is nothing to gain from finding it, though,” said the Lady Fall. “He would kill you the moment you touched it.”
“The beast?” asked Mazzia.
“No,” said the Lady Fall. “The beast’s master.”
She walked away into the darkness, and lightning flashed again. Mazzia saw the shadows it threw against the wall, and rose, stumbling towards the largest hollow tree he had ever seen, its desiccated branches hanging limply, as if begging for water and sunlight.
Mazzia’s footsteps echoed as he walked up to it, and with the sound amplified the way it was, Mazzia did not miss as he stepped on something that was not stone.
He looked down, and through even the darkness saw a glint of amber. He bent down, to trace it with his hand.
“Wait until I show them this,” Mazzia breathed, his eyes widening at just the thought.
But before he could move any farther, he felt a cold, sharp pain in his back, and heard the crack of his tabula as it began to split. “You will tell them nothing. Your book will include many things, but not this.” The Lady Fall withdrew her knife from Mazzia’s back, and he collapsed, his blood trickling into the thirsty roots of the great hollow. “I know this will happen because I will make it so.”
Mazzia stared at the Lady Fall, the metallic taste of blood in his throat, and his vision shifted. He looked at his own dying body while his gloved hand drifted over his broken tabula, and his bat-like wings stretched out behind him. He felt the whisper of a thousand dead souls beside him, felt a single will, her will, overpower them all. Then he was himself again, dying, watching the Lady Fall rise into the air.
“First fear. Then doubt. Now death,” said the Lady Fall, and she clenched her fist. “Then, you may know power.”