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Rise and Fall of Empires

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1) Castle on an Island
"Not available." The pronouncement layered a sharp tang of nostalgia with an unusual certainty that the statement was pure truth.

Amarelle eyed her friend. "Come on, Sophara. The world is ours for the taking! Doors open before us.”

"Also pit traps." said Jade, sharply. She'd nearly stepped in one four hours ago.

"Pit traps add piquancy to a stroll." Amaralle replied, and began again. "Doors open before us, shadows cloak us, coins and gems shower upon us. Our names are known in dozens of cities. I am the Duchess Unseen, you are my crew, and we are glorious!"

"Wanted in most of them." Jade, again, idly sorting piles of coin into wobbling stacks. "Half of these are forgeries. I thought they felt light."

Amarelle waved it off. She was cheerfully in her cups, having drunk enough of Sophara's latest concoction to be amiable and forgiving and broadly affectionate. "What's not available, Sophara?"

Sophara was less drunk, though this was not to say she was sober, and she shrugged. "Can't get the moss from a stone on a tower on a castle on an island in the sea far from shore in a time long gone." she said, her voice taking on the cadence of an old children's chant.

"Ix?"

"Ix. Capital I, lower case x. Two letters." Sophara waved the hand with her glass and Brandwin caught it, the lavender of her skin contrasting with her lover's rosewood tint. Brandwin took the glass, set it down before Sophara could spill it with gesturing, and said easily "There's a drink, a historical drink. The Rise and Fall of Empires. She's had her heart set on it since she found half the recipe."

"That requires moss." It wasn't quite a question.

"Moss. From the tallest tower of the citadel of Ix, which vanished centuries ago, into a rubble of - actually, stories differ. There's a lingering theory about mechanical squid."

Sophara blinked at her wife, and said. "You remember that one because it's got devices."

Brandwin replied tolerantly, "Nothing wrong with a well-placed mechanical squid, though scarcely cutting edge engineering these days."

"What are the other theories, then?" Amarelle had never met a piece of information that might not be useful some day. Brandwin obliged, of course, and Jade chimed in, and Sophara kept them in drinks, and when Scavius and Shraplin came back with the food they settled in, Shraplin dealt the cards, and the evening went on as their evenings after pulling off an excellent job usually did.

2. A Book is for Use
Months later, Amarelle found herself in the library of Hazar, with nothing much to occupy her for a day. Remembering the conversation about Ix (it being before the part where the room got pleasantly fuzzy with drink), she asked about it at the front desk.

She followed the directions she was given, across the courtyard, through the history reading room, back through the first stacks, take a right at the third study room (the one named Ostrich), down the stairs, and there would be a librarian at the desk, then back to these shelves on the left. She nodded at an older man at the librarian's desk, before taking the last steps to the relevant shelves.

There were a number of books about Ix, enough to fill five or six long rows of shelves. She ran her fingers along the shelves, taking her time, unhurried. She was on the third row, when she suddenly drew her hand back, sharply, and peered first at her fingers, then at the shelf.

There was one narrow book among much thicker volumes, bound in a mossy green, with gilt letters on the cover in an old font, the imprint wearing away but still readable. "The original and most accurate history of the island fortress of Ix, whose people rule the waves, delve deep in caverns, and climb toward bright stars."

She took the book to a reading table. Several hours later, the librarian had stopped by twice, to see if she needed anything, and she was still reading. (For such a remarkably small book, there kept being more pages.)

Finally, she had to pause, stretch out a crick in her neck, and it was only then she thought to look for more about the book. She flipped to the inside cover, to find deep black words, as crisp and dark as if they had been printed by the latest presses, more than a bit jarring against the faded inks of the ancient pages.

"A book is for use, this is the law of the library of Hazar. Each book shall find its reader, and each reader their book. But as a book is for use, so the whole of the library is the responsibility of all her users."

Amarelle read the notice several times, glanced at the other information. A single name for the author, one Saeclus, and no publication details at all.

This left her with a puzzle.

The older librarian had packed up his things, and in his place was a middle-aged woman, a broad streak of teal in her hair matching a sparkling nosering and a bright spiral tattoo on the back of her left hand.

"Ix." said Amarelle, trying not to be too abrupt. "I found this book."

The librarian tilted her head. "A lost city with a lot of stories. Mostly about it rising to the sky and then falling down into the island it was built on. Forty-three versions of a children's rhyme in five major languages, sixty-two dialects, and an additional twenty-three translations. May I see the book?"

Amarelle handed it over, trying not to mantle over it like a falcon with its prey. The librarian traced a finger down the spine, then flipped the cover open, glanced at the front matter, and looked up.

"Would you like to borrow it? You may."

Amarelle blinked. "I don't live in Hazar. I'm only visiting."

The librarian shrugged. "That's not a problem. We have an arrangement with the three major shipping routes along this coast - Apeiron, Vagantur, and Western Islands. You can have an extended loan, three lunar months."

Amarelle blinked, trying to figure out what to say to that, when the librarian went on. "I can check to see if there are other titles of interest, but I believe the rest of our works are rather more recent. That." And she handed it back to Amarelle, an almost courtly gesture, "Is the oldest tale of Ix, and the one considered, on the whole, most accurate."

Amarelle raised an eyebrow. "Most accurate?"

The librarian shrugged. "It is a regular topic for students at five major universities, who produce a great many words but not always much new understanding. Most of what is on our shelves comes from their work. The five are, of course, The Eothudahre, Calford-by-Sea, the Sanctum of Wazteus, Ipritity, and Risiara-Under-Mountain." A beat, then a "You are likely familiar with their reputations, that the first, third, and fourth are all considered somewhat limited by the acceptable views current in their polities at the time, Calford focuses on the elegance of the rhetoric more than the facts it is based on, and Risiara-Under-Mountain lacks a certain ... understanding of the nuances of oceanic life. "

It was delicately phrased, and Amarelle grinned back. "Oh, yes." she said, cheerfully. "Also, I can't say I recommend the legal system in Ipritity. Rather unsubtle." She taps the book. "So I may borrow this, even though it is presumbly very rare?"

The librarian blinked, and there was an immediate "Books are for use, reader," as if the idea of a book being locked up unused was blasphemy.

"And if I do not return it?"

The librarian blinked. "You have read the front of the book, I am sure, reader." she said. "Here is additional information you may find of use."

She handed across a half-sheet of parchment with a border the color of the sky on the brightest summer day.

"Should one borrow a book and not return it, that selfish borrower will know the burning of knowledge lost, the pulling weight of memory, the pinning fear of lost choices, and the swallowing of the Great Eel until the book is returned to its proper home."

Amarelle blinked and looked up. "That’s a strange one. The eel."

"We believe the last clause may be metaphorical." the librarian said, dryly. "It comes from the very earliest days of the Library, and it has been a long time since that clause was invoked. Would you like to borrow the book?"

Amarelle allowed as how she would, filled out the paperwork using her proper name, which got a raised eyebrow, and the librarian adding "The Duchess Unseen" in small tidy letters to the end of the line on her borrower's card.

"Labels for the return package are available in the front courtyard, reader." she said, cheerfully. "Enjoy your research. Oh, one more thing." The librarian tapped the cover and continued "That book, reader, is considered the oldest extant work on Ix. The author's name is a pseudonym, but we believe him to have been a citizen of Ix, a survivor of the diaspora."

3. Except for the Eel
There had been that job with the rabbits. And that jewel heist from a country home full of wizards, planned rather last minute for her taste. The one with the werebadger. The one with the clockwork tortoise, and the entirely too cliched 'steal from another master thief', though the Zanzibar Marketplace that followed was a nice way to stretch their legs.

Not their most notable jobs, as a crew, but not entirely routine, either. (Scavius was still nursing bite marks, and half Shraplin's cogs needed adjusting, and Jade had forger contacts to talk to. Few people appreciated that the aftermath of a job was important as the preparation in advance.)

That left Amarelle in her current rooms, six months after she borrowed the book, rearranging the contents of her travel trunk, while she talked idly with Sophara. She was about to lift the bottom panel, when Sophara suddenly said "Stop."

Amarelle had learned to obey that tone, at least from Sophara. She looked up, to see all three of Sophara's current magic detection devices going haywire, whirring and buzzing and sending off sparks.

"What were you about to do?"

"There's this book." Amarelle said. And about how she'd meant to return it, only there was the werebadger. And the other things.

"And is there anything magical about it?" Sophara asked. "Honestly, you know the stories about Hazar."

Amarelle explained the way the book sucked her in - more than most books - and then about the notice in the front, and then, carefully, rummaged out the slip she'd been handed. Sophara eyed it, warily.

"Well, this isn't magical. Great Eel?"

"The librarian said it might be metaphorical."

Sophara got a look on her face. "If it weren't for the eel, I have an idea." Amarelle raised an eyebrow. "Well. It says you'll burn with lost knowledge, be pulled down by memory, be pinned by fear of your lost choices. Those are all things I can do magically. With a little adjustment. At least with a little preparation. Maybe also some drinks. It might satisfy the terms of the loan."

"Except for the eel."

"Except for the eel, yes. Metaphorical or not."

Amarelle recognised the expression of Sophara working out magical puzzles, backed carefully away from the trunk, handed over the abacus and writing board and settled in to fiddle with her lockpicks.

4. An Embarrassing Problem
Their companions argued over what to do. Quite a lot, even given their usual habits. Brandwin designed devices that might help and rummaged in archives. Shraplin volunteered his own self, unsullied by the fallibility of flesh. Scavius muttered about how libraries were unpredictable. Jade scribbled on sheets of paper, demanded to see the loan agreements, and scolded Amarelle about entering into contracts without running them by her.

Amarelle found it reassuring, how they worried, individually and separately. But the worrying at the problem did not begin to produce a solution.

Jade suggested simply returning the book, but that would involve touching the book, which Sophara was unwilling to risk at this point, even someone else returning it.
Everyone else became more convinced after Brandwin constructed mechanical devices to gather it up and package it. When she tried the devices, all clamps and lifting pistons, the machines fell still, and then the gears locked and fused. Clearing the oily smoke out took an hour and a half.

Amarelle forbade Shraplin to try touching it himself, even with the Extending Probes he’d designed for stealing acids and destructive potions, and after a "If you insist, boss," Shraplin withdrew, as grumpy as an automaton could be.

And Scavius, well. Scavius slunk off into the night, performing feat after feat of cat burglary, getting more and more bold every day they didn't have a solution. That would not end well.

They had faced much harder challenges than a book. This was embarrassing.

5. More Curiousity Than Fear.
The spells Sophara finally came up with were not pleasant. Not that Amarelle had expected they would be.

They went ahead with them - without having a solution for the Eel - because Amarelle had a lurking sensation. Something just outside what she could see, flickers. She had increasingly odd dreams, when she slept, of a place she'd never been, and people she'd never met, and languages she'd never heard. And it felt, every day, like something was building.

Scavius woke her from the dreams, half a dozen times, but wouldn't commit to it being anything other than an overactive imagination. Sophara was less certain.

There were parts of the dreams Amarelle rather liked. Great ballrooms, swirling music, very much a duchess seen for once. Looking down at herself to see jewels that would make Scavius sit on his hands, dresses charmed bright and glorious, the quiet click of shoes on marble floors. Amarelle did enjoy the finer things in life, as fleeting as these were.

Other nights were quieter, but also pleasant. She was on the top of a tall tower, nothing around for miles, that gave a clear view out to the sea. Or in what she thought was a different time, but maybe the same place, hills and valleys of rolling land, green and brown wilderness some nights, planted golden and near harvest on others.

And one or two nights, she was in a great system of caverns, stalactites and stalagmites forming arches and suggesting pathways, walking along a path knee deep in water. She felt more than heard that something was in the water, something large enough to make waves against her legs when it shifted, but in the dreams, at least, she felt more curiousity than fear.

The remaining nights, however, those were difficult. She would wake, and her hands would shake. Or she would feel a great emptiness that gnawed at her. It made her lockpicks slip, her mind lose the thread of planning their next job. It was taking her away, piece by piece.

It was a fragile balance, and it could not continue. So when Sophara's spells were ready, they went ahead with it. Just she and Sophara - she couldn’tt bear the thought of the others standing around and watching her.

The three spells were woven to fill the requirements as precisely as Sophara could arrange. The burning of knowledge sucked up everything she had ever learned - in school, in preparing for contract. In what she'd learned to break herself loose of custom and expectation when she was young. All the things she'd learned and then forgotten. She swallowed hard, and reminded herself she'd lived through it once. This was just drinking spirits spiked with magic, and she knew what to do with that. She came out on the other side feeling weighed and found wanting, but with her mind more or less intact. Just - duplicated.

Memory was, all things considered, a bit easier to manage. It pulled her down and away, forcing her to confront each thing she'd done (and she had done a great many things in her years so far.) It took a long time - she vaguely heard the others fussing above her despite Sophara’s best attempt to keep them out - but she kept on and on, into the depths until finally something released her and she floated back to consciousness.

The lost choices were sharp, perhaps because she had so many of them. Each job she'd taken, there were others she could not take, each with their own precise place. It felt like walking through fields of knifegrass, only she had to keep going, let the grass bite, put one foot in front of the other despite her sharp fear. And each step she took, she saw other futures. Her companions tortured in Frin, 're-educated' in Gand, or burning as lamps on the bridge in Theradane. Her, with them, watching them all shattered first.

There was no way out but through, and so she kept going. And going. On her knees, sometimes, on her feet at others, until finally, she came to a blessed darkness.

6. An Unexpected Canal
They still had no solution for the eel. Amarelle kept twitching, wanting to look over her shoulder. Have someone scry. But days went on, and then weeks, and nothing happened. Amarelle was scolded into avoiding the waterfront or rivers of any size, but that was easy enough.

Nothing kept happening.

They took jobs again. A little painting theft here, replaced with a high quality forgery. Undetectable. Unless, of course, you knew how to reveal the magical signatures in the paint.

They broke another team's Glengarry Glen Death scheme. (They all considered playing on the emotions of innocents, good people, beneath them. A good thief has limits, after all.)

They were well into the Mummy Job, several months later, forging an infinitely rare book. Scavius was working on making the perfect paper while Sophara turned her mixing skills to ink and illumination paints instead of drinks. As well as drinks. And Jade's engravings were perfect, or rather suitably imperfect, to match the tools of the era.

Amarelle went for a walk. A trifle too close to water's edge, as it turns out, since some accused idiot put a canal in the middle of the city.

There was a great surge of water, soaking Amarelle's favourite leather vest and boots. And then there was a great deal of darkness. Warm squishy moving darkness.

7. Extensively Well-Travelled
Amarelle awoke to find herself on a beach, uncomfortably draped across a large rock rather more like a virgin sacrifice to some dire sea monster than any sensible person would want. She suspected the wrong kind of wizardry, which had no respect for a person's dignity.

It was just after dawn, not her preferred time of day. She could see a great deal of rocky beach, the tide coming in, and in the distance a hill with a small village.

There was nothing for her on the beach, so the village it was. She picked her way through the rocks, up onto the path, and began walking. Five minutes in, it was eerily like the book, feeling like there was more and more space to go, while she had already come a fair way. And yet, at the same time, like she should go on, let herself come deeper into the pages, further along the path.

It was midmorning by the time she came to the gates, and the village seemed to have grown from a tiny hilltop town to something more solid and expansive. Inside the gates there were a wide range of houses, something akin to one of the Almire trading towns. A town not quite sure of its identity yet.

She stepped through the gates, and breathed in, listening for the sounds that would tell her about the town, taking in the smells. Bakery that way, stable the other. Someone singing in an upstairs room, the sound of cloth snapping in the wind as it was hung out to dry. She could see people up the road ahead of her, but none of them were quite close enough to speak to.

Looking around, the town suddenly felt larger, more established than it had outside the gate, more like one of the Spreztura city states. Something of Matessino’s sense of proportion (occasional earthquakes did interesting things to renovating city design), and a bit of Tralieri's elegance. Definitely not the small village she'd assumed, there were marble facings on some houses, carvings in wood, a lovely stone fountain with arching lines of dolphins.

She kept walking. The important places in a town like this would be uphill. She had no idea if it would be temple or cathedral, palace or parliament, great trading market or a library, but it would be something, and it would tell her useful things about where she was. What they valued.

There were benefits to being extensively well-travelled.

She was, however, rather hungry by this point. She came to a set of food stalls, but with no one nearby. She called out, once or twice, but no one came, and in the end, rummaged a small golden coin from her still-damp purse. It was worth much more than the small handpie she took, and if the pie was a bit too fishy for her preference, it was warm and solid food.

The top of the hill kept getting further and further away, and somehow it was after noon when she came to a rather impressive castle. She made her way toward the main doors of the building. No one tried to stop her - there were guards, but they waved her through, like she belonged.

The carvings were more ornate here, less fortress for defense than for exhibition of wealth and status, all the little details of culture that changed from place to place but spelled out the same basic sentences. Here is power. Here is plenty. Here are things to steal.

The hallways wound around, brightly painted frescoes and glittering mosaics that caught the light, with great sea scenes of ocean life, of great sailing ships, of wondrous beasts only half of which she could name. Swirling motifs in the corners, that caught her memory as something she'd seen before, something with more imperfection than perfect mathematics behind its curves.

A young man stood at the beginning of a flight of stairs, gesturing her on, before he disappeared from sight. One moment there, then not. Entirely suspicious and full of unknown wizardry, but she knew what was behind her, and not what was ahead, so why not.

8. Competence like a Cloak
It was a very tall tower. She paused, here and there, on landings, to catch her breath, to look through an arched door into one scene or another. They changed and grew as she went, as if the tower itself was changing from a civilization finding its legs to one at the height of its power. There was a ballroom full of swirling nobles in the finest silks and lacework, like her dreams. But she was up here watching; not down there dancing, feeling the smooth stone under slippers.

A few flights higher, the arched window gave her a view of some sort of grand theatrical performance with fire-dancers, illusionists, and the swirl of magic so thick it made her cough. She watched until the water-charmers began a display of sleek coils of some great unknown serpent sliding past each other, and she found herself becoming dizzy and had to look away.

A dozen flights higher, there was a feast set out in the hallway, all sorts of delicacies from a dozen far-flung countries, olives, berries she knew only grew in the frozen north, herbs from the great mountain ranges of the Palantine range, an entire roast boar prepared as the Lalternans did.

Foods she knew from her travels, and foods whose ingredients she recognized but not their combination. Chicken pie with spices and fruits, squid in an inky sauce richly smelling of wine, crumbling sharp salty cheeses. A few things she did not recognize and had no intention of trying, something that looked like snails, and something else that was an odd quivering jelly.

She shook her head, ate a few things, tucked others into her vest for later, and kept climbing.

It was a good score of flights later that she got to look out a window to the larger world. It showed her a view of the sea, hundreds of ships spreading out from the harbor with brilliantly colored sails, like a glorious peacock parading his tail. Great trading ships, smaller nimble ships for quick communication between far distant lands, and everything between.

She could see great docks now, and she must have turned around somehow, for they covered the beach she thought she'd come from, and then far more land. Warehouses for goods, inns for the crews, before the city below her stretched out into mansions and rich estates, cupolas and towers glimmering gold-capped in the sun.

The ships moving across the great ocean were mesmerising, and she paused long enough to eat a few things pilfered from the feast below before she kept climbing on and on.

She was beginning to get very high now, and the next thing was an arched door, not a window. Something different, and she was immediately alert. In her line of work, different was often a sign of imminent excitement.

The room inside was a study. Book shelves on every wall, books stacked on desk and table, a man sitting at the desk and writing with a great feathered quill from some bird she could not name.

He looked up, and raised an eyebrow, and looked down at his writing again, utterly unfazed by her presence. She blinked at him. He kept writing. She looked at the stairs, and she looked back at him. He kept writing.

She took a breath, and he said "Moment." and then he was setting the quill aside, scattering a handful of crystalline sand across the paper to dry the ink, and then a spell to follow it that made the ink glow like the sea depths. She took half a step back, and he said "Oh, I won't use magic on you. More magic."

This made her instantly suspicious.

"You have my book."

She blinked. "It's the library's book."

"No, it's mine."

"But."

"My book."

She paused, since this line of conversation was clearly going nowhere useful. "Sir." she tried. "I don't have your book with me."

"No. Or you wouldn't be here."

This was also not useful. "Sir." No reason not to be polite. At least to start. Without provocation. You could always be rude later. "I'm confused."

"You have my book. This is my tower. This is also my book." He cast another little charm, a whirl of magic, and the sheets folded and formed themselves into signatures, the signatures lining up to be bound together,, and leather wrapped around them, until he could fan the pages open. “Both things exist in the same moment, but one, easier to carry.”

She could only blink again and let her mind make its usual grumbling noises about the obscurities of wizards. He let the pages fall open, and said, in a tone of voice that she thought wizards must learn with their magic, the amiable threat, "Here you are. Just as you should be." And then he paused, before doing whatever the threat implied, and asked, sudden emotion, curiousity, in his voice. "Why did you take the book?"

She was off-balance enough to be entirely truthful. "Moss."

"Moss?"

"A friend has a recipe that requires moss from the top of the tallest tower of Ix. I pride myself on giving unique presents." She did her best to draw all her hard-earned dignity and competence around her like a cloak, but it was rather spoiled by him bursting into laughter, the sound echoing much larger than the room.

She waited. There was nothing else to do with a wizard being this unpredictable. Finally, he caught his breath, snorted, and said "Oh, the moss will not be a problem. Fill this pouch, when you get there."

He tossed her a leather sack, the size of her fist, empty but sturdy enough in her hand, and she caught it instinctively. Then he waved his hand at her. "Go up. You'll know what to do."

She watched him, still wary, and he waved his hand. "Up." he said, insistent. "That's the only way out. Up."

He might have a point, and so she stepped back from the doorway, turned to the stairs. One story, two, three, and she could smell the open air, hear wind, then see the last minutes of the setting sun on the horizon.

On the top of the tower, there was a great spire, overgrown with moss, and she reached out to take it, pinching it between her fingers, feeling the roughness, the earthy greenness, the tang of something sharp in the scent. She dropped pinch after pinch in the bag, because what else could she do, and it's only when the bag is almost full that the tower shook. She closed the bag, tucked it in her vest, and braced herself.

She could see now, looking out at the ocean, a great turmoil in the shadowed water, like thousands of whales rising from the deep. Or other things. Squid, perhaps, there were tentacles everywhere, and some sort of great ship beneath the waves.

The tower shuddered, shifting and tilting one way, then the other, and all of a sudden it was clear the island was disappearing beneath her, flooded by great waves, sinking more and more quickly.

She was bracing for one last pounding wave against the tower when everything went dark, not with water, but some other way, and she lost her grip on the tower's spire, and any sense of which way was up.

9. Nothing Wrong with a Little Suspicion
Someone was poking her. Repeatedly. With a stick.

She coughed, rolled over on her side, and made a face. Her throat felt like someone had gone over it with sandpaper, her bones like a dozen hares had been kicking her all night.

"She's moving! Sophara!"

Someone was immediately handing her something to drink, and whatever it was felt bloody good going down, enough that she took a deep breath, sprawled on her back, and then immediately patted her vest. Still there.

A moment or two later she opened her eyes, to find her crew looking at her. "Thought you'd misplaced a breast?" Scavius offered. She glowered at him, and he actually backed up a step or two, which let her calibrate exactly how worried he'd been.

She pushed up on her elbow, and then sat up, patted the end of the bed for Sophara to sit down, before she said "Gone long, was I?" The tone fell flat, and they stared back at her.

"You went out for a walk." Brandwin said.

"And you disappeared." Jade said. "I was following you."

"No sign where you went. No footprints, no slamming doors, nothing." That was Scavius.

"I even put on the three-story legs for you, boss." That was Shraplin, and she knew he hated those legs and the way they felt.

She stretched, cracking her spine, then her fingers, then the crick in her shoulder, before she said, carefully. "I was getting Sophara a present." She rummaged in her vest again, and pulled out the bag, tossing it over.

Sophara eyed it, warily, cast spells on it, the usual ones to make sure the thing would not explode nor poison nor confound magically nor a dozen other things. Nothing wrong with a little suspicion.

When she was satisfied, she opened the bag, and blinked. "Amarelle?"

Amarelle shrugged. "Moss. From a tower."

She had never seen Sophara quite that speechless, nor quite that shade of stunned before, and it was entirely delightful. Almost worth the eel.