Dreaming of Crowns, Swords and Sharp Edged Things
part 17 of Threshold
Ashe's hands catch at clouds, at nothing.
Why am I falling? Raithwall hears her gasp. He wonders at that. She is not frightened, not angry: she is perplexed. If not for that distinction, he would have let her fall.
It is an unbearable effort to reach her, but he does, and his grasp is unyielding as the chill of stone. She looks up, and he sees recognition in her eyes.
Raithwall cannot smile, because he is hewn of stone and stone will not allow that fine a motion. He inclines his head downwards, and will not return his gaze to the sky. Beneath his feet, the tower tapers away to thread into the earth. And she dangles from his grasp. It has been such a long time since he had turned his gaze earthward.
Things have not changed.
It is as it should be, as the gods promised him so long ago, the day they turned his heart to stone and shards.
This would-be queen is squirming. She will fall if he lets her go, plummet the distance to the base of the tower, to break upon the uncaring stone. Perhaps the tower is no longer the tallest, the first, the only, but it is still enough to break her.
He wants to know why she is still struggling for freedom. It is false, regardless of who promises it.
Ashe wields her sword with her free hand, angrily. A small chip of him careens from the edge of the blade, and falls, falls. He recognises the sword. It is his. He wonders if he still wants it. He remembers wanting it so badly he would have done anything, promised anything, just for the sword. What did he promise to the gods? His arms, his legs, his flesh turned to stone?
Stasis, that's what he promised them.
All he had ever wanted, Raithwall must admit, was somewhere without swords. He wanted somewhere to rest. He wanted his women to collect water in the cool dark of dawn without the threat of a raid, without risking death or thirst. He wanted his children to play, instead of staring, staring, endlessly, weeping because there was no longer a mother to comfort them. He wanted his people to finish the aqueduct, the city walls without threat of death.
You must release me! the queen demands.
But Raithwall does not know why he must do anything, because here is a perfect moment, and there is a forever peace, and he must make her understand that she cannot change the way things are. It is a part of his promise, a part of the treaty - peace for stasis, stasis for peace. She must understand that this, this is perfection, and this is how it must be. The gods know it, and so does he, and so will she.
I will not, Ashe snarls. I will not cling to your past.
—she throws away the sword.
Raithwall moves with all the speed that this frozen moment allows him, his hands reaching for the blade. It is precious; it is more than the queen's fleshy body. He releases her in favour of the blade.
Ashelia B'Nargin Dalmasca falls to her death. For a moment she is desperate, fingertips seeking purchase along the tower's unpleasant shingle, her body flat in an effort to slow her fall. Raithwall catches the blade, and the hilt is uncommonly warm in his grasp: nothing has been warm in this moment for longer than his memory stretches. Warm, with Ashelia's last moments of life.
She surrenders. It is sudden.
Her hands catch at clouds, at nothing.
There is a lament that sings in her ears as Ashe falls, a multitude of prayer in Raithwall's resounding voice, and the refrain is: if only.
If only time stood still, then my tower would stand the tallest, the first, the only; if only peace could last forever, then never again would wives die in the dust at dawn; if only what I built never had to fall.
The multitude of voices is discordant, a plaintive whine, and across the chaos of a thousand hopeful wishes for security, for stability, for permanence and for everything that hume life was not, she hears this:
Dalmasca! Take the sword and carve your shard, your kingdom for a future; what say you, fallen regal who could be dynast?
—and her fingers close on clouds, on air, on something, and it is solid, and she is no longer falling.
The something in her fingers is Rasler, holding her hand, and he is smiling. He is curled in a window of the tower, a part of the frame, as comfortable as another brick in the wall.
Yes. The word is on his lips. Rasler says yes, and he says in it her stead.
Ashe looks her hand where it clasps his, and terror claws at the inside of her lips, desperate to escape. Her flesh turns to stone where he touches, and she feels it only with a strange, warm numbness.
'No,' she says, but now there is more than panic at her lips, there is cold, and stillness, and the taste of no tomorrow.
But your arm aches, Rasler tells her. It wields a sword too often. Your shoulder throbs at night, and you cannot sleep. Give me your arm, and you will not have to feel it hurt.
And because it is Rasler, she tells him, 'Yes.'
Her arm no longer hurts.
The stone encroaches upon her chest.
But your heart hurts, Rasler tells her. It hurts from striving. It has been broken a hundred times over. Stone cannot be hurt like that any more. Stone cannot be broken.
'Yes,' she whispers, and the warmth is a blanket, and it is cold like snow, and as welcoming.
But your head cannot hold the world's hurts, he tells her, as she tries to claw with white-tipped fingers at her neck, her throat. Your voice cannot make a difference. Your hopes cannot change the thoughts of others. Be easy. Rest easy. Think of me, and the way it will be, forever.
But, but, she is almost asleep when something fights, and it is from the pit of her stomach that it leaps, and the words spill from lips already numb and inexpressive:
'I would not cut off my limbs for the sake of having them cause me no trouble!'
When she looks up again, Rasler is bearded, darker, his eyes shadowed, and he is Raithwall.
He lets her go.
This time when her fingers close on something, it is a window sill, and Ashe struggles bitterly to pull herself inside. She is half frozen with the white of stone, and she moves as if in a suit of armor for the first time, unsteady, unwieldy. But she finds purchase, with the stubborn grit that permeates her blood. Raithwall is pleased to see her again.
Stubbornness must have somewhat of value, he considers: at least she would always know what she would be thinking.
And to what purpose, she spits, from white-stone lips, when there are no tomorrows within which to think of change?
Her persistence is beyond reason: she drags her half-stone body out of the maze and into the circular passage that rings the core of the tower. Raithwall follows, and perhaps it is that almost forgotten spark of curiosity that drives him. What will she see, what does she seek; what can she possibly hope for?
The tower is confounding. He knows this as well as he no longer knows himself.
This is the tower, a circle because a circle is the shape that defies the natural shape of a stone block and she paces the length twice and again. This is the tower, ringed with paths that lead nowhere, mazes with no exit but the entry; the queen passes the shadow of herself. The path is an endless circle; never a spiral, never a direction, but she will not accept it.
This is the tower, a tower because it is all that humes are not: it is forever, it is the sky, it is warning, defiance, a challenge, achievement. It is everything that humes could be, and then the gods laid claim to its heights and all that could be froze in endless circular stasis.
I will reach the summit, the queen tells him. I will challenge the gods. You will not stop me.
But her venom mystifies him, because he is not the one who will determine her worth. The gods find some wisdom in allowing architecture to decide who, precisely, is worthy of power.
Circles, she shouts. Circles, endless, pointless, sourceless labyrinthine circles. Is all our striving reduced to this?
Yes, Raithwall thinks. He who rejects change is the architect of decay; what has he done with the Ivalician future but set it into shard and stone. The only hume institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.
He has made such a big mistake.
Yet he can do nothing about it but dream, perchance of a fallen descendant who will never become a dynast queen.
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