“A lot of people will tell you that the Darkest Lord is a force for evil in Creation - or even the greatest force for evil, if they’re feeling particularly hyperbolic - and I wouldn’t dispute it,” he said conversationally as he laid what looked for all the world like a series of bobbins on the table. “ He taints the very ground he walks upon, he fouls the air he breathes. If his gaze touches a woman with child, she will miscarry. He makes healthy things sick and whole things broken, and though Hell doesn’t claim him, nor he it, the flowers of the Pit are the only ones that bloom where his shadow falls.”
I didn’t know why he was saying these things to me; he surely knew that I was not lacking in faith in his Lord’s cruelty. But his voice was warm and resonant, for all that I knew who and what he was, and it cut through the veil of numbness in which I’d been wrapped since my own Lord’s treachery - so much worse than treachery - had been exposed. I couldn’t help but listen, though I was far from being able to feel.
“Those same people,” he continued while two creatures who wore the shapes of men, but who had only emptiness where their faces should have been, wheeled a large machine made all of rough-hewn wood and dull grey metal next to the table where he worked, “will say that Ananda is the hope of the world, that he is all that sustains us in the darkness of this Age. He is the beauty that nothing can sully, the light that cannot be corroded, the song that drives out all despair. To look upon him is to forget that there ever was such a thing as evil.” He began to slot the bobbins into place in rows across one side of the machine. “And that is, of course, also true. And then you’ll die, because you were not made to see such a thing, and your soul will not abide it.”
His eyes flicked briefly in my direction, as if to see that I was paying attention. “Because here’s what’s forgotten, when they say such things: there are more corpses in the Cityback than in all my Lord’s domains. It doesn’t matter if you love or hate your executioner, the axe falls all the same.” He smiled at me then, just for an instant, but it was terrible to see. His teeth were very sharp. I still wasn’t afraid, exactly, though I surely should have been-- but all my thoughts remained an empty, fathomless grey.
“Well,” he said, “you’d know that as well as any, wouldn’t you? Because that’s the thing people don’t seem to realize: this war isn’t about good and evil. There’s a reason heaven has allied with hell, and it’s not that they’ve realized it was all a big misunderstanding.” He glanced at me again. “It isn’t life and death either, though I can see you thinking it. You should learn not to wear your thoughts so openly, by the way.”
Now he was laying out knives on the table where the bobbins had rested, with blades of shining, polished steel; the only objects I had seen in all this place so lovingly cared for. He ran his hand across the blades almost fondly, and then for the first time turned fully to face me. And though I still wasn’t afraid, I felt the weight of his gaze as though it were a blow. For all his so very civilized demeanor and easy conversation, it was impossible to be fixed in his sights and not see him for the creature he was.
“I suppose I shouldn’t blame you; it’s a common mistake. Hell, plenty of Excrucians make it. As though their losses are measured in bodies. But you’re a clever girl, so I imagine if you think about it you’ll realize that it doesn’t matter if a dozen warmains die to unmake one Imperator. It’s still a win for them.
“Likewise,” he said, and ran a hand across my hair, “just because a Noble dies, it doesn’t follow that we haven’t profited by it.”
It had been so long since last I’d spoke, my voice should have been rough, but there hadn’t been anything mortal left within me for an age of men and more. I sounded exactly as I had when last I’d sat upon my throne. “Am I dead, then?”
He hummed thoughtfully. “Not quite dead, but not really alive.”
I turned my head, as much as the bonds that held me down allowed. “And also not really a Noble at all, or so Baalhermon said.” My voice wavered a little on those words, though I tried not to let it. The memory of seeing my lord unraveled still burned white hot in my mind, casting everything else into formless shadow. The Imperator who had raised me to the Nobility, who had been the lodestone of my heart for uncounted generations of men pulled apart by the hounds of Lord Entropy to show what lurked within him. Nothing that should ever have existed.
Not really an Imperator at all.
He smiled at the tremble in my voice, though he had to know I wasn’t properly capable of fear. He liked that I sounded afraid. “That is what we will discover. Your lord is dead, and your familia died defending him. You should be dead, but here we are, and your estate remains in the world when everything else of your family’s is unmade and vanished. Clearly, you are not only an Excrucian shard; the question is, can anything else be salvaged from you?” He gestured towards the great machine that towered above me. “Which is where the loom comes in. We will unravel your spark, and see if it can be cleansed and rewoven. Perhaps your estate may be saved.”
I swallowed. “You don’t seem like the sort to care if roses vanish from the world.”
He laughed, a sound of genuine mirth that was somehow more disturbing than the predatory smile he’d sported earlier. “I would be sorry to lose the thorns. But you’re right of course; I am here because my talents are called for.”
“It will hurt, then?”
“The loom? Oh, I imagine so, but I don’t think you’ll notice by then. To unravel your soul, you see, we must first expose it; strip the detritus away until nothing but the core of you remains. And that,” he ran his hand through my hair again, “will hurt a great deal.”
“Hence the knives.” It comforted me, then, that I was still so far from fear. Perhaps it was the treacherous soul shard within me, but though I understood him to be - oh irony - a truer servant of creation than I apparently had been, I knew as well that he would relish hurting me. He would have enjoyed my fear even more, and it pleased me in a small way that he would not have it. I had been a Noble. I wished still, despite everything, to die with dignity befitting a Noble, not shrinking in terror from an ogre’s claws.
One final thought occurred to me, and though I realized he must have been waiting for me to ask, I did so all the same. What had I left to lose? “Why have you told me all this? Why not just… begin?”
He picked up the first knife. “So you can choose, of course. Are you of creation, or an enemy of it? What will you fight for, and what will you surrender to, when you have only one choice left? My task is the same, either way, but whether there is anything in you to be salvaged... It may be that you have some influence there.”
I stared up at the ceiling. “Is it not the law to serve your Imperator before the war?”
“You have no Imperator; you serve the war or nothing at all.” He laid the knife across my skin. “Are you true or false? Choose.”
I drew a deep breath. “I am the Contessa of Roses, St. Talia of Thorns. I will be true to that, if I can.”
I closed my eyes.