Someone was shaking her. Dylis reluctantly cracked one eye open to see who dared disturb her sleep. Maybe she should be grateful for it. Wherever she'd fallen asleep it wasn't very comfortable. Everything ached.
Reality caught up with her. It was Glaw who was shaking her and he was framed by the naked night sky. The darkness above had taken on a blue tone. Sunrise had to be close.
'We're never doing that again,' Dylis managed to sign. With a smile she watched Glaw laugh, tears dripping from his eyes. 'Unless someone who didn't deserve it died, I don't want to see any crying. Cheer up you weepy rat!'
He helped her sit up. She bit back a groan as her ribs protested this. They were on the plains, not far north of Growth if the stars could be trusted. Hills and grass stretched as far as the eyes could see in all directions. Good, means we probably didn't land on anyone. There were pieces of blimp everywhere and a surprising absence of body parts.
'The Adviser?' she signed, raising a hand to rub at the back of her head.
'That is her.' There was a mess of blood and expensive fabric under a nearby pile of rubble. 'The soldiers are the same. Seems they all had lived beyond their years.'
Others were moving around the wreckage. Thais knelt down next to Dylis and put a hand on her arm. It glowed green and Dylis gave her a grateful nod. 'I need to start paying you for this. Feels like I'm scamming you.'
Thais rolled her eyes. 'Maybe later. You just sit there and be glad that the rest of us had enough power left to soften our fall. You would have been in even more pieces otherwise.'
Dylis smiled, her shoulders sagging as the pain bled out of her. She did a quick headcount. 'Where is Demostrate?'
Five meters away Bernike pushed aside a beam, helping Aculeo to his feet before answering: 'She and her husband took their son away somewhere. We thought they deserved from privacy.'
'Yes, the third Captured One.' Bernike made a face as if she'd tasted something rotten. 'Your leaders truly were monsters. Demonstrate said to tell the two of you that if you squander the gift her children died for, she'll tear you apart limb by limb.'
Dylis blinked at her brother's answer but decided not to comment. 'We can't stay here much longer. The plains are full of herders. Someone will have seen the crash and will come investigate. Do you lot have enough strength to run back to the forest?'
'I'm not taking another step,' Nikon signed, throwing himself to the ground in a dramatic swoon. 'Someone will have to carry me.'
Vita aimed a lazy kick at him, which he easily rolled out of the way of. Dylis could have sworn she saw Vita smile. Her mouth opened. She probably said something to Aelius, who was standing in front of her, an amused look on his face.
Dylis chose to ignore them for the time being and looked to Bernike for answers.
Bernike began to form the sign for 'no', but stopped halfway, turning to stare up at the sky. A smile spread over her face. 'We don't, but they do.'
There were shapes moving across the sky, black blurs against the pale morning light. They were jumping in a way that told Dylis exactly what they were, even before they got close enough for her to see their glowing eyes.
'The barrier is down!' Glaw signed, jaw slack with disbelief and joy. 'We did it! We actually did it!'
'Don't burst the seams of your uniform,' Dylis signed, knowing her grin would completely discredit her words of calm.
All in all, nine demons landed before them, every single one of them armed and looking ready to fight.
'We thought you could use a helping hand,' the one in the middle, a demon who Dylis wasn't sure if she should refer to as 'he' or 'she', said; at least according to Glaw's shaky handed translation. 'Seems you took care of it by yourselves though.'
'Aren't you supposed to be guarding the border?' Myrrine said, helpful enough to supply her own translation.
'No border left to guard!' a woman even shorter than Thais signed, her face shining with joy. 'L-A-E-L-I-A decided she was well enough to lead the city guards in a surge against the invaders. When the mist cleared and most of them turned to dust, we border guards figured we could expand our horizons a little.' She did a twirl not advisable for someone armed with so many knives. 'I like these grasslands. Very spacious.'
'You'll have a chance to enjoy this place later,' Myrrine said, backed up by a nod from Bernike. 'I say it's time we all go back home and celebrate. I'm starving.'
'Dylis and Glaw are coming with us. The first person to protest that gets to stay and clean this up,' Bernike said, giving a broken plank of wood an absentminded kick.
No one said anything more. Instead, they all paired off, the rested ones offering to carry those who were exhausted. Dylis climbed up on the back of one of them without hesitation. She might not be hurting any longer, but her limbs felt like they were moving through water. She wanted to sleep for a week.
The way back to the forest was the fastest one yet. Or maybe it just felt like that because she kept nodding off. The trees were a welcome sight this time around, the sunlight that shone through their tangled leaves and branches soothing.
Before she knew it they'd landed in the city.
The streets were full of demons, dancing and moving about like squirrels after a long winter. Dylis' helper put her down in the middle of some sort of square and she quickly found herself mobbed by several of the dancers. Rings were forming around the others as well, obscuring them from her view. She spotted Glaw on the other side of a line of twirling and leaping bodies. 'They're playing music,' he signed, his mouth spread in a grin so wide his cheeks had to be aching.
'I figured,' Dylis answered, laughing. The exhaustion was there, tugging at her, but the energy of the dancers was contagious. She kept on her feet all the way to the stage with the large stairs that she'd visited before. Someone had covered the half-moon of space at the bottom of the staircase with blankets, pillows and more food than she'd seen in a long time.
Her line of dancers deposited her on one of the piles of pillows and she gratefully took a seat. Glaw soon came to join her, as did the rest of their little squad, collapsing in heaps on soft pillows and blankets.
If I'm dead, Dylis thought, then I don't mind.
An elderly man approached them, flanked by two women. Dylis recognized one as Agape. It was hard not to, she'd left quite the impression.
'The city guards have taken prisoners,' the man signed, his smile kind. 'We think they were meant to be sacrificed to the border, seeing as most of them were locked up. As they are of your people, we will allow you to judge them. What soldiers do under orders might not be their own will and we will hold no grudge. Tomorrow we will negotiate new terms between our peoples. Hopefully, you lot will be willing to trade us some food. Between the fires and this celebration we will last about a week.' His expression held no worry.
Agape and the other woman had walked past him, to embrace Thais, Lykos, and Bernike.
'Tomorrow,' Dylis agreed, her eyes wandering to the heartwarming reunion between mothers and children. Her thoughts felt like they were wrapped in cotton. They were pleasant thoughts and the cotton was the soft, familiar sensation of being dead tired, so she felt no alarm.
'You helped us be free,' the elderly man signed. 'You have our eternal gratitude. Stay as long as you wish.'
Dylis did her best to bow without moving too much.
To her right, Glaw was having a lively conversation with Lykos and the woman Dylis assumed was Lykos' mother. He was wearing a goofy grin she recognized, but couldn't quite place. The trio was lit up by a green light that drew Dylis attention back to the sky.
Someone had lit fireworks. At daytime. She hadn't even known demons had fireworks.
Glaw bounced more than walked over to her and threw himself down on the blanket next to her, grinning like a loon.
'We'll need to go back,' Dylis signed. They'd left eight cities without a central place of power, the Adviser's death even killing the leader of Yates little rebel group. It was their responsibility to make sure the land didn't descend into chaos. 'I've no interest in the throne, but I'll be damned if I don't get a say in who sits on it next!'
'Maybe we shouldn't have a throne,' Glaw signed. 'Maybe we should have a S-E-N-A-T-E instead?'
'Keep dreaming, little brother.' But she couldn't deny the idea was appealing. 'Enjoy the feast while it lasts.'
'I will! By the way, I think Lykos has something he wants to ask you.'
The look of false innocence on her brother's face made her instantly suspicious. 'And what could that be?'
'You'll just have to go and find out for yourself!'
Dylis gave Glaw another long look, before sighing. 'In a minute.' She had food to enjoy first. And possibly a nap. A long nap.
Glaw was drunk. Very, very drunk. He no longer mastered the skill of walking and he'd given up on sitting upright long ago. It was a pleasant kind of drunkenness. Whatever the demons used to make their wine, it was the best he'd ever tasted.
<So you're to wed our brother, then?>
Thais and Bernike had sat down on each side of him, looming over him like two magpies watching a buzzard trapped in a net.
<Looks that way. Might take some time. We don't know each other that well yet.> He was quite sure that his speech was slurred, but his ears wouldn't cooperate long enough with his brain for him to make sure. <We're all war heroes! Isn't that magnificent?>
<Quite.> Thais' poked his nose. They both giggled. <Are all of your kind in such a hurry to find mates? Why pick our brother?>
Glaw squinted. He wasn't sure which of the sisters had asked that questions. <Not really. In a hurry that is. Some of us never do that. Do your kind? Never get married, I mean.> He hiccuped.
<Some do, some don't.> Bernike batted Thais' hand away. <Not all courtships lead to marriage. But should yours succeed, you'll be a welcome addition to our family.>
<Never been related by marriage to an ambassador before!>
More giggling, from Thais. Bernike simply looked amused. <You're not giving up your esteemed position as connection between our peoples, are you?>
<You just said far too many difficult words.> Glaw closed his eyes. The buzz of the wine was soothing.
<We'll talk in the morning then.>
<Yes, in the morning.>
'Traitor! Filthy traitor!'
'Hello, Private Sayer.' The girl had never looked more like her personal sign. Behind the bars of the cage, she was the very picture of a trapped squirrel, wide-eyed and rushing about as if she could wear a hole in the floor deep enough to tunnel under the walls. 'Corporal Morgan.'
Morgan gave her a stiff nod, the friendly expression Dylis remembered replaced with guarded blankness.
'Glad to see some of you survived the massacre.'
That brought both of the prisoners up short. Sayer stopped with her pacing and Morgan pushed off the wall. They both approached the bars of the cage, stopping a hand's breadth from them.
'I take it you were the one who asked for us?' Morgan signed. His gaze darted to Bernike and Myrrine, who stood on each side of Dylis, a meter behind her.
'They said the Emperor is dead.'
Dylis didn't flinch. It was a near thing, but she didn't. With a hangover like the one she was suffering through at the moment, she thought it a quite impressive show of control. 'He is. As is the Field Marshal and the Adviser.'
Sayer's hands curled into fists around the bars, but Morgan remained calm and blank. 'So what happens to us?'
'That's sort of what I came here to ask you.'
'Stop playing games and just kill us already!'
Dylis shook her head and took a seat on the bench that was the only piece of furniture in the room outside the cage. It was carved out of the marble wall and quite uncomfortable. 'I don't want to kill you, Sayer, and neither do they.'
'No, not feeling much like killing,' Myrrine signed, making Sayer jump back from the cage bars. 'Quite tired of it, actually.'
'Stop gaping, Private,' Dylis signed. 'We managed to learn their language. You didn't think they could do the same in reverse?'
Sayer kept staring, one of her hands grasping for the string around her neck. Whatever had happened to her Emperor's Sign there wasn't a trace left of it.
'You two are the only ones I'm sure are decent of the lot we have locked up,' Dylis signed, attention mostly on Morgan. 'There's most likely a lot of decent folk among you, but I'd rather not risk letting troublemakers the likes of Colonel Blevins out to the feast.'
'The one celebrating the new peace between our peoples, of course!' Myrrine's grin could have rivaled a shark's, though a very friendly shark. Bernike was doing her best to match the friendliness with a smaller smile of her own, but the wariness of the rest of her face got in the way. 'The victory feast was yesterday, now it's time for the one celebrating peace.'
Morgan's look was calculating, which gave Dylis' some hope. 'Listen to me,' she signed. 'You two saw what was going on at Outer Camps. You lived it. From what I heard you were locked up like sheep for the last days of this battle, waiting to have your throats cut to strengthen the border. I don't know why you were sent to Outer Camps and I'm not going to ask, but I assume it was done against your will. I'm giving you a chance to return to whatever home you might have had or to make yourselves new ones wherever you please. I just need your help first.'
'Help storming the palace, perhaps?' Sayer's mocking smile dripped poison.
'I have no desire for the throne and neither does my brother,' Dylis signed, leaning back against the marble wall. 'But I have a desire to not see our people run amok.'
'What do you need from us then?' Morgan signed
'People who'll support me in saying the Emperor and his ilk had gone mad. Don't look so skeptical. How many of your friends have you seen be stabbed by superior officers and then get up again, a new, red Emperor's Sign around their necks?' She'd only guessed at the last, but the way Sayer's lips trembled told her it had been a lucky one. 'You can tell yourselves that was the Brigadier and the Colonel acting on their own all you want, but you'd be lying to yourselves. They wouldn't have gotten away with it for so long if they had been.'
'The Emperor was a good man.'
'Said the Emperor.' Dylis got up from the bench and began to pace in front of the cage, her steps light, her posture relaxed. 'I have no doubt he was a noble man with noble intent two thousand years ago. I'm also sure he was as mad as a rabid dog during the last years of his life, if not more. You see these scars?'
Sayer nodded, while Morgan stayed mute and unmoving, like a watchdog trying to decide if Dylis was a burglar or a friend.
'I was eight years old and I got no painkillers during the surgery. Surgery which was performed by a demon who'd been forced to cut up his own newborn children to harvest their organs. All this in an attempt to create a spy that could sneak into the demon's city to find out how high they can jump. Does that sound the least bit sane or noble to you?'
'You're making that up.' Sayer's hands returned to curl around the bars, her knuckles white.
'No, I'm not, but there's no convincing you of that, is there?' Dylis huffed a breath through her nose. 'Then ask yourselves this: why would the demons be bothering with keeping you alive?'
'To lull us into a false sense of security, of course! Use us to get to the rest of the Empire, to ensure their victory,' Sayer signed, teeth bared in a grimace of frustrated rage.
Dylis stopped her pacing and slowly lifted an eyebrow. 'Is that right? Funny how unlikely that seems to me. See, with the three strongest spell-weavers of our great nation gone and the border fallen we're not much of a threat to demons. Or what do you say, Bernike?'
'Not much of a threat, no.' Her eyes flashed blue for a second.
Sayer jumped back, hands raised as if she was preparing for a fist fight.
'Easy there,' Dylis signed. 'If the demons wanted victory over us, of any kind, they would have it now. One of their guards would be enough to level a city block in a minute. You've seen them fight. But fighters isn't all they have. They've got old people and children and bakers and carpenters and all other people a city is made of. They just want to be left alone, possibly set up some trade agreements. Nothing more.'
She paused, moving back to the center of the room. 'You know who will take advantage of our loss of leadership? The people across the ocean. I doubt they're all bad, but I've lived in Trade most of my life and I've seen and heard things. The only reason some of them haven't invaded yet is that they fear the Emperor. We could use the demons' help in keeping that fear alive, for our own safety. No war, just a good guard around our borders.' She shrugged. 'But that's not really for me to decide. All I want is to help establish a new order before the Empire crumbles. Why don't you just agree to help me make that happen so we can all go get drunk?'
Sayer's eyes were dark and locked onto Myrrine's ax, but Morgan's had lit up with something akin to hope. 'You get us out of this cage and then we'll talk.'
Dylis returned his smile. 'Well, it's a start at least.'
The walkways and road-channels were close to empty as the hour was nearing midnight. There were no regular guard patrols out. Instead the occasional civilian could be spotted, standing at strained attention at various points by the docks.
The small hangar echoed with the sound of Dylis' tinkering. Glaw let the noise wash over him. It was a nice change of pace from the yelling and arguing he'd had to listen to earlier in the day. I hate politics. I didn't even know what the word meant before last week, and I already hate it.
Movement from outside the open hangar door caught his attention. There was someone out there, waiting. The silhouette was very familiar.
Glaw held his breath as he approached the door, walking as if the floor was covered in eggshells. He could hear the soft clangs of Dylis putting her tools down but didn't turn around to see if she was following him. Instead, he said:
The silhouette smiled, its eyes shining blue in the pitch black of the hangar. <You seem to be doing well.>
<And you're basing that on what?> Glaw asked, raising one eyebrow. <That we're in a hangar building airplanes? Or have you been spying on us?> There was no real accusation in his voice.
<I promise this is the first time I've left the woods since you returned here.> Lykos took a step closer. <I'm basing my estimation of your situation on the fact that both of your heads are attached to your necks.>
<We're not going down that road again,> Glaw said. He put a hand on Lykos' shoulder and was both surprised and please when it sagged with relief. <Especially not when it's all over and done with. It was a bit rough at first, but I'm pretty sure Dylis was right about the whole 'bringing demons along for negotiations will just make this look worse'- thing. So no feeling guilty.>
<Who did you negotiate with?>
Glaw sighed. The chatter and yelling from earlier was very fresh in memory. <Who didn't we negotiate with! The soldiers from Outer Camps were the easy ones and you were there for that part. You don't want to imagine what the rest was like.>
<I think I might want to.>
<Then imagine us walking right into the shambles of the Emperor's Hall and demanding to use the Imperial Messengers to call for a vote for a new Emperor. If it hadn't been for Yates and her people, we'd probably been slaughtered.>
The way Lykos paled at that made Glaw regret his words. <There was no danger though! Dylis wouldn't have let me come with her if there had been. Things have worked out. We've just reached the point where people are tired of yelling at us, and each other, and actually are starting to discuss important things. It helped that the will-less people started waking up yesterday, but we've got Yates to thank for most of it. She wasn't too happy to hear about the whole business with the Adviser being her group's secret leader, but she really loved the idea of voting and politics.> Glaw shuddered. <Never get on her bad side. Ever. She could talk a wild horse into letting her ride it into battle.>
<I shall take your advice to heart. What about the traitor?>
<Which one? Oh, you mean Rhian. We haven't been able to track her down yet. But Dylis is quite set on finding her. I think...I think she's prepared to forgive her.>
<I see. That-> Lykos' eyes moved from Glaw's face to look past him, into the hangar. Footsteps told Glaw Dylis had to be approaching.
<Right, how are things with your people?> Glaw asked. Behind his back, he signed: 'If you make me have to explain what the sign 'lovebirds' stands for, I swear I will punch you in the face.'
<Come join us by the water and you'll see.> And with that Lykos was gone, no more than a oddly harsh breeze in the still evening air as sign that he'd been there.
'He a love-them-and-leave-them kind of guy?'
'Punch you,' Glaw signed. 'In. The. Face!'
Dylis smirked. 'We'd better catch up with him then. Might be important news.'
Glaw set off at a dead run, his feet smattering against the metal walkway, Dylis not far behind him. Lykos had left them a trail of blue sand to follow. Easy to see, but surely gone by first light, thanks to the morning winds.
Glaw called out a greeting to Huw and Owain who were loitering by one of the guard houses. They waved back. Glaw couldn't see their faces, but Huw's laughter carried over to the other side of the road-channel with ease.
Even at top speed, it took Glaw and Dylis twenty minutes to reach the appointed meeting place. There was a small strip of sand leading up to a dry dock that should have been empty at this time of night. Glaw could make out five silhouettes and he was sure that none of them were carpenters. Three of them were holding lanterns.
'You take too long,' Myrrine signed as Glaw and Dylis took the last steps down onto the sand, both of them panting. 'Some spell-weaving would do you good if shaping is too tricky for you.'
'No talent for it,' Dylis signed, leaning against the wall of the dry dock. 'And why couldn't we be having this conversation in the airplane hangar? Didn't you get my message?'
Glaw looked up towards where Bernike had pointed. Far out at sea, almost by the horizon, he could make out a band of star-like lights. 'What...?
'Since someone burned all our food stores,' Nikon signed, giving Lykos a look that was all teasing and no anger, 'and we had no interest in arguing with your kind about whose crops are whose, the Senate decided we should move. We were quite tired of the scenery as well.'
'We figured,' Myrrine cut in, 'that since there's a big, empty island in the middle of the sea, why not go there? And in case some crazy spell-weaver decides to attempt another curse, we'll have all the flowers we need for bracelets.' She was still wearing hers. 'We left your prisoners locked up and with plenty of food to last them the winter if you don't have the time to go get them.'
'We'll guard your sea border well,' Lykos sign. His expression had shifted to his usual, serene smile. 'Your Emperor's mist trick will come in handy we believe. As soon as we're settled we'll send runners to speak with you, and you, in turn, can hold a council of your citizens. We will not interfere in your affairs until we have your approval, though the island shall remain ours.'
'Don't worry, no one will fight you for it.' Dylis signed. 'Most of our kind prefer not to leave dry land unless they do so with the barrel of a pistol aimed at their head.'
'Well, those were our news,' Myrrine signed, crouching low in preparation for a jump. 'Better get going before the others get too far ahead of us. See you in a month or two!'
Glaw blinked at Nikon's words. 'You're not going with them?'
'No, I'm going for a bit of a walk,' Nikon answered without hesitation, his grin as wide as it ever had been. 'So many places to go, some many of our kin to find! And I'll have a most helpful traveling partner to keep me company.' On his right-hand side, Aelius stood, lips drawn into a small, pleased smile.
'Better leave Lykos to say his goodbyes in peace,' Aelius signed and gave Nikon a light push towards the water. 'I'll race you to the other shore.'
'As you wish, T-E-R-R-A.' And he was off, Aelius hot on his heels.
Glaw vaguely recalled having taught Nikon the sign language alphabet during the victory feast. He had a feeling he would live to regret that in some way.
He started as Lykos took his hand and pressed something into his palm. <This is for you,> he said. <Thais made it. It's supposed to make the same noise as an emergency cry, so I don't recommend you try and play music with it. To keep you safe until you can join us on the island as an official ambassador.>
It looked like a flute. A thin, silver flute without holes to place your fingers on. It looked far too thin and fragile to make a noise anything like the demons' emergency cry, but he'd learned to not let only his eyes guide him. <Thank you.>
'You'd better get a landing strip done the moment you get there!' Dylis signed, more or less elbowing her way into the conversation. Her face was scrunched up into a grimace of mock threat. 'If you're to be courting my little brother, I expect to be able to go and inspect your home shortly. Can't have just any riffraff asking for his hand, now can I?'
'I'm aiming for a little more than his hand,' Lykos signed, drawing a bark of a laugh from Dylis.
Glaw knew his face had to be resembling a tomato at that point, but he was too happy to bother trying to hide it. 'The teasing is getting old,' he signed to Dylis, no real bite behind his words.
'I'll make sure I'll be among the runners. Our builders and spell-weavers are quick; I promise I'll be here in less than a month.'
With a final wave Lykos' eyes lit up and he took off into the sky after the others. Glaw watched him shrink into the distance, unsure of what to feel. Elated? Worried? Lonely?
'Come along,' Dylis signed, giving his shoulder a light shove. 'Time to hit the hay!
'I'll be right behind you. Just...give me a minute.'
Glaw stood and watched the horizon until he couldn't tell the lanterns from the stars. Then he shook himself, pulling away from where his thoughts had strayed. It wasn't like they'd be gone forever and he needed sleep. Especially tonight.
It wasn't every morning you had your first Senate meeting.