As soon as the king is dead, as soon as the Dalmascan witness is made—a young man, too young, and there is a flash of remorse, but this is no place for remorse, and so Gabranth reaches further for that cold center, the thing that puts him here—as soon as these things are finished, all will be finished. The young soldier falls, his eyes rolled back, already in shock, and Gabranth lunges for his twin, hidden behind the door, bound in magic, unable to see, to hear, but knowing, surely knowing. Even after so many years apart, even after so many years of convincing himself Basch was dead, something strained in his breast when the atomos lighted in Nalbina. Something closed tight in his throat, and he feels their hands at their throats already. He is ready for this. He has been waiting. He will not die alone. He lunges—he cannot move. His left foot holds, six inches from the blood-spattered tile, and even the rising bile in his throat holds fast. But the mage’s outstretched hand shows him the source—he’s stopped, and even if he can’t move his eyes, he can see what’s before him. He sees two hoplites drag Basch to his feet, sees Ghis’s metal arm outstretched, the direction for where they’re taking him. It is not toward the atomos; he points further into Nalbina, down from the throneroom, not out. Gabranth tries to yell but his jaw won’t open, can’t open, and there is no sound, though it feels like something fractures in the back of his throat. He can only watch as the imperials steal another promise from him, the promise of vengeance, of the death he wants— The hoplites stop a moment, at the edge of the door, and something crackles in the air.
Basch’s knees stiffen—not enough that he stands; he is still suspended between armored hands—but it is enough for him to straighten his back, to turn his head, and even though the black mist of Blind wrings his face, Gabranth knows he sees him. If not with his eyes, then with whatever it is that clutches deep in Gabranth’s gut—damn him now, damn him in all of these long years for living, for putting them both here.
The soldier-boy groans on the floor, and Basch’s mouth opens, forms “No—”, and the hoplite’s gauntlet crashes across his face. Blood clouds the black and Basch is still again, is limp, magic no longer necessary, and the mage looks away from Gabranth, concentration faltering, and Gabranth darts for the door. He is nearly there when the magic bites fast, stops him short enough that he needs to gasp for air and cannot. This time, he faces the wrong direction, and Basch is dragged from the edge of his sight in the silence of only his greaves rasping the floor. Gabranth is the only one who knows the fullness of what his twin called out.
The imperials drag him to the atomos, too, and Ghis does not let the mage release him until they’re in the air. When the spell finally lifts, Gabranth falls to his knees, unable to breathe, and the scent of blood hits him now. There are dried drops of Raminas’s blood across his cheeks—he felt them when first they landed. His stomach heaves, but there is nothing to come up, nothing but choking ice if he lets it, and he cannot. He pushes himself to his feet.
“I was promised.” It was to end here—there, inside the still-burning walls at Nalbina. That was why he agreed to do this. Gramis spoke of promotion, though all he’d asked for was Basch, for his twin’s throat giving under the crush of his grip, of their throats giving, at once. Fates would give him that, he hopes, just that much, after all of these years. To end this, together.
Ghis waves him off with one gold-plated hand. “We all have to make sacrifices.”
“The six cold hells take your sacrifices—” He has never betrayed so much of himself in so few words. They crunch like ice between his teeth, old, good blades he’d never let himself wield.
“You’ll make Magister for this. Be silent and be grateful his Excellency found, and continues to find, such use for a provincial stray.” Ghis turns back to the bridge and Gabranth can feel the eyes of the metal-clad soldiers on him. They did not kill him before. These people will not kill him now. He turns and walks into the ship’s interior.
But he longs for death. He has since Basch left, since he saw the horizon where he thought Basch was explode in smoldering rock and ash. That was the day it was decided—they would die alone, though they’d sworn many times before that such a thing would never happen. As young men, they swore they would die with their shoulderblades touching, each holding one of their father’s twin swords, while the enemy rained their hell around them. Then that was impossible. And what was possible then was that they should die at each others’ hands, and for weeks that has spurred him forward, as he grew his twin’s Dalmascan beard, trimmed his hair for a desert knight’s carelessness. He’d taken a lover, a new one, one who reveled in stoicism, one who reveled more in the tipping point, when he could not be stoic under pleasure or pain any longer. He was ready to die, and so there was reason to live.
He does not know reason at all now. In the blue-lit engine chamber, under the cover of the skystone-turned thrusters, he beats his fists bloody against the grated walls, and though the gloves he wears have never been into the desert, he swears there is sand rasping into the wounds.
When the atomos touches down in Archades, Gabranth wishes he had something else to wear, dreads that there will be those who think to congratulate him. His return is evidence of success, to them. But none of the crew looks him in the eye, and the hallways to his room are near-silent. It must be late, very late, though time has ceased to exist for him. He thinks he should be grateful for that much, but he can only pass his hand over the magicked doorlock and lurch inward. Before he can close his door behind him, Drace crosses the threshold.
“It’s done, then.” Her face is shrouded in shadow, and he knows this is no congratulations.
“The treaty,” he says. She nods as if she knows the whole of it, and she likely does. She may have known that he was lied to, that there was never any intention of letting him have his twin. It doesn’t matter. He stands in the middle of the room, and the blood on his knuckles has dried, has bonded the gloves to his hands.
Drace steps farther into the room, pushes open the door to the washroom, holds it open until he steps in, and then she closes the door behind him. “Clean up,” she says through the wood. “The emperor will want to see you in the morning.” There are no footsteps to say she has walked away from the door, but though she is only on the other side of the partition, he is alone with the looking glass.
In the crystal’s yellow glow, he looks like neither of them, a foreigner’s clothes on his own frame, none of the life that was ever in Basch’s eyes lighting his own. He scrubs the glove over his face and none of the blood smears away.
Has the blood on Basch’s face dried yet? Has he any breath yet to notice? That thought strikes to the bone. Basch might be dead, at someone else’s hand. They may have executed him then; he may have come to again, fought, been killed that way. There are so many ways to die, so many ways to be alone.
He braces his hands on the sink’s edge, lets his head hang. His hair—Basch’s hair—shrouds him, and this is not who he is. His hair had been longer, before, the same as it had been when they were young, but he cannot wear his twin’s hair, cannot suffer it until it grows as it had been. He lifts his head, takes his razor from the cupboard, and there is Basch in the glass, a shadow behind him. He whirls toward nothing, and with his back to the mirror, he cuts away handfuls of yellow hair. There is blood there, too, dried nearly black, and he cuts more still, until nothing can touch his ears, his cheek, his neck, until there is nothing to protect him there, nothing familiar on his own head. The hair looks like old bone on the floor, and the thin beard waits.
For this he needs the mirror, and when he looks at himself, he sees no one before or behind. This shorn sheep is nothing at all, but he is not done. He sets the razor on the edge of his jaw and the hair lifts and falls under the blade, baring the whole of his face. His hand does not shake, his hands do not shake, and he lowers his wrist to set the razor against the place his pulse beats. He has only to give his hand a ghost of pressure and the skin will part, then muscle, then the vein. He knows how gently it could be done, how different this from the stabbing blade, how much easier, how much more quiet this death than the king’s. Than that pale Dalmascan boy’s. What death has Basch had? What death will he?
He breathes deep and the calm is all places—if Basch is dead, so will he be. There is a thin red line under his jaw; the blood beads, but does not fall. He does not know if Basch is dead, and there is something in his chest that makes him doubt, though there are leagues between himself and whatever fate his twin faces. Has faced. Faces. He hesitates and the blade does not lick across his skin. This would be to die alone, he knows—somehow he knows.
The razor falls, and Drace’s voice comes at the door.
“Nothing,” he says, and he kneels beside the jack-knifed blade. If he had that much courage.
Drace pushes the door open, bends, folds the razor, puts it away. She says nothing about it or the mark on his neck. What she does say is that she will fix the damage he’s done to his hair. “You cannot go to your conferral like that.” So she knows his helm is coming, too.
He lets her lead him to her quarters, next door, and he sits while she clips his hair close, even. She wipes away the stray hairs that scatter across his cheeks, and the damp cloth comes away with the rusty stains of Raminas’s blood. She rubs more firmly, and then she tells him to quit the Dalmascan’s armor. She lets him keep his bloodied fists, gets clothes from his own room for him. His body moves as though it were puppetry, but he sits in her drawing room, wearing Archadian clothes that have somehow become his own. The twelve years spent here are gone from memory now. There was Landis, and now there is this. They had been together, and now— He may as well be naked, as bare as his head feels, but Drace points to the pillow at the chaise’s end.
“You will need all of your wits about you in the morning.”
It is already morning. The dawn is already pulling itself from the horizon’s cave. But he lies down because there is nothing else he can do. He faces east, toward the place where he is certain, now, his twin still lives. It is already daylight in Dalmasca, but all they can see is darkness.