Chapter 1: I
Bonding with a spirit was…different. It was new. It was a singular experience that Tsubame had no real way of describing, because there was really nothing she could compare it to. It wasn’t quite like having a hole in her heart filled, because there hadn’t been any hole to begin with. It was more like…more like a place had been made in her heart, just for Reveny. Like it had melded its way snugly somewhere inside her, almost like it’d always been there.
It was the most peculiar feeling, and she needed to tell someone.
She thought the ride back to Diadem would be a good opportunity. On the Mindeer, they were back on their own ground, and the fresh air outside of Mira would soothe everyone’s spirits. Then she might be able to pull aside Dame Uzlaly, or sneak a word in with Sir Marello. Reveny was not someone who should be kept secret, this she knew.
As it turned out, the journey back was nothing but one long, terse silence. King Evrakahn had emerged from the Duchess’s estate that afternoon not with the air of regal composure with which everyone was so familiar, but in the throes of a barely restrained furor that threatened to spill over at the slightest provocation. He boarded the Mindeer with thunderous, angry footsteps, and every knight — even Cumoly — knew well enough without being told to keep quiet and stare straight ahead. No one would breathe easy until the King did.
Even the Head Knight herself seemed agitated, and though she barked only one short command at her soldiers, that was enough. Though she was standing right next to him, Tsubame didn’t dare ask for a word with Sir Marello, not while everyone was this tense
Even when they arrived back at Castle Elnath, the tension seemed to still be hanging thickly in the air, buzzing about their ears. Even as Dame Uzlaly officially dismissed the knights from their duties for the day, the atmosphere had an unfriendly tinge to it. The severe mood seemed as though it had spread from the Head Knight herself to the rest of them. Even Cumoly had fallen into an uncharacteristically sullen silence, and neither Sir Marello nor Dame Uzlaly seemed to be in the mood for any kind of earthshaking news. Tsubame felt out of sorts herself. The atmosphere on the Mindeer had been less than encouraging, and not being able to tell anyone of the miraculous events in Nekton felt stifling, to say the least. And it didn’t improve her mood any when Sir Marello pulled her aside in the castle to remind her sternly to clean off her armor before she returned it to the armory. It seemed like an ill-fitting time to bring up the spirit.
You’re being awfully quiet about all this.
“Can’t you see what a foul mood everyone is in?” Tsubame muttered. Although she was now alone in the hall, she kept her voice down. Her feet traced the path back to the dormitories all on their own. “I can’t spring this on them when they’re all so agitated. Especially in a time like this.”
What, you mean this whole ‘maybe there’ll be a war’ business?
“Well — yeah. It’s kind of…scary, you know?”
Well, you don’t have to be scared. You have a guardian spirit now. You won’t die so easily.
“It’s not just me, though.” Back in her dorm, Tsubame began to shed the borrowed armor, laying it out on a towel to keep the dried mud from getting all over the floor. “If there’s a war, lots of people will die.”
You could change that.
“How? I’m just a squire. I’m not even a real knight yet.”
You’re not just a squire. You’re a spiriter now. There was almost a smile to Reveny’s voice. Come on, don’t you know the stories? They say that those who have bonded with a spirit have the power to sway the fate of the world.
It’s the power of the bond. What we have is far from ordinary.
Tsubame fell silent as she scrubbed the surface of the armor with a cloth. It was several long moments before she spoke.
“What are you?”
Reveny’s startled silence was all the answer she got.
“How do I know you’re a spirit? What if you’re…something else?” The words bubbled up out of her, quicker than she could think about them. “What if I fell and hit my head back in Nekton, and you’re just something I imagined up? I don’t know anything about you, except a name. I don’t know what you want with me. Even if you are a spirit, how do I know you’re not a — a bad one?”
You know because you can feel it.
“But I don’t even know if that feeling is real,” she argued. “I don’t know, because — because stories about guardian spirits, they’re just stories. And suddenly you come along, and I have a strange dream, and now they’re all real? You can’t just appear out of nowhere and expect me to believe you all of a sudden!”
It’s not as if I stepped in uninvited. That’s now how it works. There were two of you in that forest today — it wasn’t a random occurrence. You opened your heart and let me in. Tsubame would have expected it to be agitated, but Reveny’s voice was gentle. But I can’t blame you. It’s only fair, after all, that if you open your heart to me, then I should open mine to you.
She felt something in her heart, like the sigh of someone falling softly asleep. There was a moment of silent nothing, as if Reveny had simply disappeared.
And then suddenly she was assaulted by an onslaught of sensory overload, of smells and tastes and brushes against the skin, of distant laughter and indistinct images characterized only by the brilliant lights that danced before her mind’s eye. There were memories, a flood of memories drowning in her heart, pouring out to fill up every corner of her, one after another after another, coming so fast she could hardly see anymore. Somewhere in there, amidst the thousands of fleeting senses, she thought she caught the glimpse of someone’s face. And underneath it all, underneath the memories and the senses and the taste of the past, she felt a deep, quiet sadness welling up just beneath the surface.
Tsubame’s knees buckled.
I’m sorry — it wasn’t meant to come out all at once like that. Are you all right? Tsubame?
Her vision swam. She groped for one of the posts of her bed and sat down just as her legs gave way beneath her. When she touched her face, her fingers came back wet.
Tsubame? Hey, are you all right?
“You…you were so…lonely.”
All wandering hearts are lonely.
Tsubame shook her head, trying to shake away the dizzying fog that had settled over it. She wiped her face on the back of her sleeve. “I’m sorry, Reveny.”
It’s all right. Its voice was gentle as ever. It couldn’t be helped. I suppose it was a bit much to ask you to trust me implicitly. Do you believe me now?
“I believe you.” She felt her tongue against the back of her teeth; it felt somehow strange in her mouth, remnants left over from the queer sensation of Reveny’s heart. “I believe you, and I trust you. But I don’t know you. Not yet.” She let herself smile a little. “But I will. Because we have a bond, right?”
An echo of a laugh sounded in her heart. An inseparable bond.
“And we’ll become friends. Or…it’s more than that, I guess.” Tsubame thought for a moment. “I don’t know if there’s a word for it.”
It’s hard to describe, Reveny admitted.
Tsubame took in a long, slow breath, feeling herself come to center again. She stood up, the last shreds of that visceral dizziness fading away at last. “I’m sorry,” she said again, although this time it seemed to be to no one in particular.
Chapter 2: II
Tsubame had promised to be in Nashira at the end of the day. The daily catch would come in just before sundown, and she couldn’t afford to miss it. As soon as she had finished polishing off the borrowed armor and stowed it back in its proper place, she skipped out of the palace and headed for the Cloud Passage.
This time of year, the Cloud Passage was easy to navigate. The tides of the Lesser Celestial River ran low, and though that meant the catch wasn’t as plentiful as other seasons, it was a gentle current and easy to manage even in a slow boat. It was the perfect season for leisure rafting, if you weren’t trying to make a living off the river.
Tobari had asked her to come to the docks when she got back from her mission, and she couldn’t say no to him. If it hadn’t been for him, her family would still be struggling to make ends meet, even now. He had been a most generous neighbor — and friend — throughout the years, more than they ever could have asked for. Even though he was twelve years her senior, Tsubame thought of him as an older brother.
She found him at the docks of Nashira, hauling nets full of writhing fish off the boats along with several other well-muscled men and women. Fishing in the Lesser Celestial River, even this time of year, was no feat for the frail. The fishers made quick work of the small catch, and by the time Tsubame reached the docks, all the nets were laid out on the ground, the flopping fish gasping their last dry breaths on land.
“Well, that’s all of them, looks like.” The head fisherman, a short but imposing man whose tattoos creeped up on his neck, wiped his hands off on his trousers and then rang the heavy brass bell on the wall by the docks. “Good work, everybody! Now, let’s get this catch up to the storehouse!”
Tsubame all but glided across the town square, headed straight for the one fisherman she knew best. He turned away from the head fisherman, and held his hands out in front of him. “Hey! Don’t get too close, now, I stink of fish guts.”
“Yeah, and I smell like sweat and old armor.” Tsubame grinned, and leapt for a hug anyway. Tobari caught her with a hearty chuckle, giving her a squeeze.
“Good to see you made it just in time for the catch!” He set her down on the dock and pulled a spotted cloth from his pocket, dabbing at his sweat-streaked face. “How was that fancy pants diplomatic mission to Mira?”
“You know I can’t talk about that,” Tsubame said evasively, but she tried to keep her tone light. “But actually, there was something else I wanted to talk to you about. Do you…?”
“Have a minute? For you, kiddo, of course.” Tobari slung an arm around Tsubame’s narrow shoulders and nodded at the head fisherman. “Hey, Tanys, you guys can handle things from here, right?”
Tanys’s answer was a nod and a grunt. Tsubame watched as the other fishers hauled the rest of the fish away.
“So what’s up, kiddo?”
Tsubame glanced around the docks. It was an open space, but there was no one left around. It was probably about as private as it was going to get. She fumbled for the words to begin. “It’s about what happened today.”
Tobari cocked an eyebrow. “I thought you couldn’t talk about that.”
“No, not the — not the meeting with the Duchess. It was after that. I — I met someone.”
He gave her a look of grim concern. “Hey, you don’t have a boyfriend now or anything, do you?”
“What? No! A totally different kind of someone! And don’t look so relieved! Listen to me. Thanks to Cumoly, I got lost in Nekton earlier today. And while I was wandering around, looking for his foolish self, I met — a spirit.”
Tobari knit his brow, and he bent down slightly to get a good look at Tsubame’s face. “A spirit?”
“I know how it sounds. I mean, I’ve heard the stories too, but I always thought they were just fairy tales.” Thin streaks of desperation had crept into her voice as the shock unfolded on Tobari’s face. She needed him to believe her, more than anyone. “But it’s real. I met a real spirit, and it’s in my heart. Spiriters are real!”
“Of course they’re real!”
His vehement outburst caught her by surprise. It was, perhaps, not what she had expected to hear.
“Of course spiriters are real. They’re right there in history. Kinda hard to deny that.” Tobari’s face was intent, excitement written in every line on his face. “You really bonded with a spirit today? It’s here with you right now?”
“Yeah.” Unconsciously, she placed one hand over her heart. “Its name is Reveny.”
The fisherman started, as if flinching. Tsubame couldn’t help but grin.
“Did you feel that? He was saying hi.”
“I felt something. Like…a tickling sensation, almost.” Tobari scratched at the back of his neck, as if an itch had suddenly crept up his spine. “Man, Tsubame — do you know what this means? This is huge. You told the King, didn’t you?”
“Not yet. Everyone was in such a bad mood when we got back. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing to — ”
“Bad mood my ass! You tell the King he’s got a spiriter in his knights, he’s going to do a backflip right off his throne!”
“I don’t think that’s necessarily — ”
“Come on! I’m taking you back to Elnath. You need to tell the King! Or at least Uzlaly!”
“But Tobari, I was supposed to see my parents!”
“You can see them later! This is important.” He grabbed her around the middle and hoisted her unceremoniously over his shoulder, ignoring her plaintive yell of surprise. “Come on, kiddo! This is big!”
Gaining audience with the King of Diadem, even if you were in the knighthood, was no small feat. He was a busy man, and today especially, when his mood was soiled by an unsuccessful attempt at diplomatic relations. Even though Tobari was an old friend of the Head Knight, it took a bit of wheedling on his part to convince her to even hear him out. She, too, was busy, and in only a slightly better mood than the King himself. But she conceded at last to merely deliver a message to the King, when there was such time as he could receive it. A wide-eyed look of incredulity unfolded slowly on her face as she listened to Tobari, and in all fairness, he probably enjoyed it a little too much.
And now Tsubame was standing in the throne room before the King himself, feeling naked and vulnerable in her civilian clothes. Tobari stood with Dame Uzlaly and Sir Marello against the adjacent wall, all three at attention. Her senior knight had been called in by Uzlaly, and although he kept his eyes straight ahead, it was impossible to ignore the way with which he swelled with pride.
Tsubame was doing her best to keep her numb ears attentive, but it felt like the words merely tumbled past her unidentified. Holding solo audience with the King was the single most nerve-wracking experience of her career so far. Reveny was silent, offering no words of comfort or courage, but it was probably for the best. At this point, his voice would only be a distraction.
“And you say you went into Nekton, Shrine of Spirits, today?”
The King’s voice sounded like nothing more than a distant echo. Tsubame drew in a breath through her nose and licked at her dry lips. “Yes, Your Majesty. After we were dismissed, I was asked to stay with Cumoly. But he ran off, sir, and I went after him to bring him back. I followed him into Nekton, sir.”
“And why was he going to Nekton?”
Tsubame’s ears burned. “He was…chasing a hograt, sir.”
“I see.” King Evrakahn steepled his fingers, looking pensive, but he offered no further comment. “Please, tell me what happened next.”
“I got lost looking for him, Your Majesty. I found myself in a clearing in the woods, and there were all these lights dancing about. To be honest, Your Majesty, I’m not sure exactly what happened next, but then…” Unconsciously, she touched her chest again. “Then I had Reveny, sir.”
“Reveny. Is that the name of your spirit?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
Evrakahn’s gaze was piercing. He studied the squire’s face, as if trying to detect words unspoken that lingered in her mouth. Tsubame swallowed uncomfortably.
“Do you think this spirit has any ill intentions?”
“No, Your Majesty. Not as far as I can detect. Reveny opened its heart to me, too.” She hesitated. “I know it’s hard to swallow, sir, and no one else can hear its voice, but — it’s there, and it’s…well, I don’t know how to put it. Having Reveny in my heart, it’s like…a warm, safe feeling. But it doesn’t wish anyone any harm, Your Majesty. It’s just here because…because it’s supposed to be, I think.”
“I see.” The King rose from his throne. The sound of his armored boots against the glossy surface of the floor resonated in the throne room like echoes off water. And then, to the awe of Tsubame and everyone else in the room, he took the squire’s hand and inclined his head.
“We are honored to count you among our ranks, Reveny,” he said, his voice almost hushed. “I pray you’ll watch over Tsubame in times to come.”
Though Tsubame’s nervous heart thudded loudly in her ears, she repeated the words Reveny spoke in her heart. “Always, Your Majesty.”
Chapter 3: III
The kingdom was beside itself.
News of Tsubame’s spirit bond spread like wildfire throughout Diadem, and suddenly she was hearing her name everywhere. What had started as a private audience with the King had quickly become the talk of the town everywhere. The public opinion on Diadem’s one and only spiriter seemed to vary depending on who you asked. The chatter around the marketplace in Nashira suggested cautious skepticism and idle wondering of what, exactly, it all meant. After all, it was all well and fine that she had a guardian spirit, but what did that mean for the rest of them? Probably nothing, as it were. To most of them, a guardian spirit seemed to be the kind of thing that affected an individual, not the whole nation. The fishers of the village, on the other hand, always finding comfort in superstition, took it to mean an omen of good fortune for them. A spirit was a lucky thing to have, they said, and that luck would certainly spread. The catch would be good next season. Tsubame failed to see what Reveny had to do with the fish.
The socialites of Sheliak were another matter entirely. Their attitudes seemed to range from aloof indifference to outright indignation — and many refused to believe it at all. Please, a spiriter? They looked down their noses at this lowly squire, this immigrant, who dared to be so bold as to make such a claim. The nerve of this girl, to think so highly of herself! But in the end, the thing they had in common with Nashira was, mainly, that the buzz seemed to die down within a week. It was really nothing more than the gossip du jour for the civilians, and they just as soon forgot her name.
For the knights, however, the news was something else entirely. Although they had been careful not to let word of war slip outside the castle grounds, the rumor mill inside Elnath was still churning frantically, especially after the diplomatic mission to Mira. And now that they had a spiriter in their ranks — well, it boosted morale, that was for sure. Knights swaggered and boasted on the training grounds, talking up to each other about how Diadem would never fall with a spiriter on their side, not to Alfard or anybody else. Let the war come, some said. Let the Empire storm their gates, and Diadem would find them wanting. With the power of a spirit, they would crush any opposition.
The whole thing made Tsubame vastly uncomfortable. Admittedly, it was kind of nice at first, the way everyone seemed to notice her now, they way people looked up when she walked into the room and smiled and waved and knew her. Up until now, she had been nobody; she had been a promising young squire in a sea of knights, so short in stature compared to the rest of them that it was all too easy to look past her. But now she stood out. People knew her. People liked her.
But it got tired fast. The big talk, almost like war-mongering, that was flying around the training grounds and dormitories was starting to unnerve her. It almost seemed like some of them wanted to go to war, now. Tsubame found herself wanting more and more to excuse herself from the room, to skip out on training, to hide in her dormitory or even go back to Nashira and sit in quiet peace with Tobari and her parents. She wouldn’t, though — being a knight of Diadem meant too much to her — but in her free time, she found herself slinking away to solitude more and more in the days following her first meeting with her spirit. Her discomfort was almost too great to bear.
After a while, even her dormitory wasn’t a private enough space. Of course the room was not strictly her own; she shared it with Cumoly and two other squires. But she had mistakenly thought that she might find peace from the guardian spirit mania there. Even Cumoly had taken to asking the most inane questions in relation to her spirit. One day he’d even asked her what shirt Reveny thought he should wear that day. What were they, some kind of petty fortune tellers? Reveny’s acerbic response had hovered on the tip of Tsubame’s tongue, the temptation to repeat it almost too great. But she left the room instead.
Now she spent her free time in the royal gardens at Castle Elnath. The gentle clouds that surrounded it muffled the sounds of daily life in the castle, making it one of the most peaceful places in Sheliak that Tsubame could think of. And most hours of the day, it was almost always empty, and even when it wasn’t, she could usually find someplace in the hedges to sit in solitude, far away from the commotion in the training grounds. She could breathe in the clean, gentle scent of the clouds and trees and just…be herself.
It’s really getting to you, isn’t it?
She tucked a loose piece of hair behind her ear, sinking into the soft grass beneath her. “Well — yeah. I mean…it’s all just happening so fast, you know? I didn’t expect anyone to suddenly get excited about going to war. It’s…kind of disgusting, to tell the truth.” She let her eyes unfocus, staring off into the middle distance. “If going to war is what we have to do to protect our King, that’s one thing. But I don’t wish for it. Is this just…a part of being a spiriter? Having people rally around you, even if it’s not for something you want?”
Sometimes, Reveny admitted.
Tsubame sighed. She picked away blades of grass from between her feet, shredding them thoughtlessly in her fingers. “What if I don’t want to be that person?” she mumbled, although the inquiry didn’t seem directed at anyone in particular.
It’s not up to you to decide those things. As ever, its voice was gentle, almost soothing. Reveny never seemed to get riled or upset. Tsubame pinched her eyes shut. It’s just part of the fate you and I are supposed to fulfill.
“How do you know that? How do you know anything about this…fate stuff?”
The same way you know I’m real, I guess. I just…know it, somewhere in my heart. It’s hard to explain. But trust in me, Tsubame. I promise not to lead you astray.
“I’m counting on you, you know,” she said, but even as the words slipped out, the terseness evaporated from her voice. “Even with all this going on, I’m glad you’re here.”
She could feel a smile in her heart. I’m glad I’m here, too. Don’t worry, Tsubame. You can rest easy. This, too, will pass.