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original fiction: Tin Man [15/16] - Diary of a Necromancer
Excuse me, I'm making perfect sense, you're just not keeping up
original fiction: Tin Man [15/16]

Chapter Thirteen

She was still there in the morning. I woke slowly, a sense of having gone very wrong wrestling with an utter selfish disregard for the consequences, content for quite some time simply to lie in an abandoned tangle of limbs amid the luxury of clean linens and quilts and look at her as she slept.

Eventually, too soon, she stirred and sighed and opened leaf-brown eyes to regard me in sleepy wonderment. "Morning," she mumbled. "Assuming it is."

"I have no idea. Is it important?"

"Not particularly," she agreed, closing her eyes and settling her head against my shoulder. "I'm for pretending we haven't woken up yet, how about you?"

"It would be irresponsible of us," I said. "But then we do seem to have been letting discipline slide of late."

"Would you rather we hadn't?" The eyes opened again, and looked up at me, and I found that I couldn't speak, or look away. Finally I reached up to stroke her cheek with a finger, and she smiled.

"But what would the other mercs say about us?"

Liane shrugged, resignation and relief all bundled into the gesture. "It's not as if mercs never end up sharing each other's blankets," she said. "Those two Sharpshafts we met were a couple, in case you hadn't realized. It's mostly... trying not to let it get in the way of the job, that can be a problem. Sometimes."

"I'm finding you quite a distraction," I admitted.

"You're not a merc," she said with a tilt of her head. "Never will be, I don't think, you care too much. But that's not necessarily a flaw. A real merc probably wouldn't have bothered to come this far. And then where would we be?"

"I'm not sure where we are now," I said. This seemed to amuse her greatly.

"Well, wherever else we are, it's warm and dry here and no one's making any demands on us at the moment," she said, and ran a lazy hand down my flank. Out in the corridor I heard a shiver of metal. "This merc's instinct, irresponsible though it may be, is to enjoy it while it lasts. Thoughts?"

I bit my lip hard, trying my best to be rational in the face of an unreasonable inducement to dawdle abed that the idling hand had further set itself to, and managed to say, "This is hardly a fair fight, you know."

"Not intended to be," she replied contentedly. "My, my, I thought you said you were thirty-seven, not seventeen..." I clutched blindly at the headboard to steady myself, struggling finally not to disturb the rest of the villa as she laid renewed claim to already conquered territories with a singleminded determination that left me in absolutely no doubt as to whose banner now flew over them, and frightened, a little, at how readily the besieged defenders threw down their arms...

Sometime later, quite a lot later, when either satisfied or exhausted she had finally decided to let me be for a time and curled quiet and all but unconscious against me once more, and I lay spent in the pillows feeling the sweat slowly drying on my skin, completely unable to put two words together in my head and not particularly feeling any need to, there came a tentative knocking at the chamber door. Liane stirred resentfully and dragged her eyes open. "If that's your laundry, have the golem make them leave it outside," she whispered hoarsely.

The knock came again, louder, and a voice that I recognized as the mayor's called, "M'lord sorcerer? There's been... an incident."

For a fleeting moment I considered a few of the ways I could have the golem get him to go away. None of them seemed quite fair, though. Resigned, I sat up, made sure that some minimum requirements of formality were met, and called out, "Golem, let him in."

The door opened and the mayor stepped in past the golem, eyes traveling from the golem's empty visor along its arm to the doorhandle and back more than once before he turned into the room and squared himself. "M'lord sorcerer," he said, and then couldn't seem to think what came next.

I let him stew that way, perplexed stare taking in pale hair, pale skin, paler scar, and when I judged that he was never going to say his piece and go away I said, "Yes?"

"Um," he said, blinking. "Yes. Well. A rider's come in from the east valley -- nearly in the shadow of Pridening, you know -- and -- didn't you say you needed two...?" He faltered, the look on his face suggesting that I could probably guess at the expression on Liane's. "Yes. Right. Um. Anyway. The strangest thing, yes. The rider said that the vines are dying."

A cold feeling began somewhere beneath the muscles of my belly. "Dying," I repeated.

"Or dead, yes, I believe he said dead. We can't find Pridening's envoy to ask him if they were, um, doing -- And this is all since yesterday morning. They've never seen anything, even, um, blight doesn't, um. All brown."

"As if the life had been drained from them," I said. He nodded vigorously, relieved that I was catching on without his having to make the effort to be coherent about it --

the orchards of tremare-outlier, leaves and limbs and sweet spring snowdrift petals all brown and dry and dead past asking who or why. husks of seventrails horses and cattle scattered over the land as i rode slower, and slower, and finally stopped, shuddering under the weight of the deafening uncanny silence --

Liane laid a hand on my shoulder, and some of the sick tension left me, replaced with the beginnings of an awful resolve never to see another spring landscape laid so waste ever again. "I guess it's up to me, then," I said.

He looked as if he might have liked to have argued, but he nodded tremulous assent, visibly deferring to the inevitable assumption that someone associated with an Art would of course know better than a mere tradesman what to do in this sort of a situation. "I'll give you some soldiers."

"It wouldn't help," I said. His eyes widened and his mouth opened, but I could see his already tenuous grasp on words desert him entirely as the implication sank in farther, and he shut his mouth again without anything having come out. He backed out of the room, and the golem pulled the door shut behind him, and I shifted round to face Liane.

"I would have thought we'd have more time," she said, an uncharacteristic flat note of despair creeping into her voice. "I wanted --" and she took a deep, shuddery breath, and wouldn't finish. I drew her close and held her, but it wasn't weeping that had her, only the same dreary overwhelmed helplessness rising in my own breast, and presently she stopped shivering and simply lay quiet in my arms.

"One good thing," and I had to swallow before I went on, "if you can call it good; if this rider made it here to tell the story, then whatever's happening may have come in a burst, not something that's still going on."

"Yesterday morning --" She pushed herself upright against me. "Right when you had a fit?"

"For all I know this is what happens when Sorson tries to do something like at Obermond to another necromancer," I said, feeling queasy. "And if he hadn't stopped --" I had the sudden disquieting sensation of eyes upon me, just for an instant and gone before I could think to focus after it. "Maybe he got distracted. Maybe a Pridening discovered him. Maybe..." Maybe that was Sorson murdering the Pridening, and I only got caught in the backwash...

We lay clinging to one another for comfort for the longest time, straight through the knock that was my laundry, and at length a servant called through the door that we would shortly be expected to supper. My stomach growled; Liane smothered a laugh, sitting up amidst the devastated bedclothes and looking down upon me with an abiding fondness. "I did try," she said.

"I suppose I had better put in an appearance or the rumors will really start flying," I said, stretching reluctantly.

"They already have," she said, sliding off the bed and fishing around in the scattered covers for the bathing-robe. "But it's probably nothing compared to what the housekeeping staff is going to be telling their grandchildren, I think." She sounded startled, and I couldn't see why; but then she reached out to touch the headboard of the bed, and I twisted round to see what had her attention. The wood had blossomed with fuzzy catkins. I coughed.

"I guess it beats leaving char-marks like the poor Scaldberries," she said, stroking one of the catkins with a delicate finger. "But I will say it's... unusual. Very unusual. Are we going down to supper? I need to get dressed..." Still looking at the headboard in fascination, Liane knotted the belt of the robe around her waist and backed out of the room, nudging the basket of my laundry through the doorway before letting the door close behind her.

It was a marvel just having something clean to put on. I dressed in an abstracted fog and then stood before the mirror, running a comb through my hair and wondering what that strange look in my eyes was. The sudden absence of a look, maybe, the pinched habitual worry brought finally to bay for the first time in slightly longer than I could remember: she was right, my eyes are green sometimes...

Automatically, I began to separate a lock of hair at the side of my face into three narrow strands for a braid. And I watched my own deft fingers, performing a task that they had done uncountable times throughout the whole of my adult life until it was as instinctual as a bird's call, and I stopped them, and began to comb the half-completed braid back out again. Liane had come back into my room at some point during this process, and she stood watching me silently until I shook my head savagely to free the last of my hair.

"Here," she said, and took the comb from my hand. She sat me down on the edge of the bed and parted my hair in the middle, and then drew it back into a child's plain plait, controlled and mannerly from nape to tailbone. "I must confess I've been wanting to get my hands into your hair from the very first moment I saw you," she breathed into my ear when she had finished.

"I couldn't do it," I said. The braid felt strange, stranger even than granting someone the freedom of my hair again after so long braiding it alone. "I've been Tremare for longer than before I was Tremare, and... there isn't any point anymore. I guess I'm just Robling now."

"There isn't any 'just' about that," she said firmly, and drew me up. "Now come on, we've probably missed the soup already."

I drew some stares, an adult man with no mark of a Guild upon him and it not an informal event, but apparently word had spread about our purpose here, for despite some nervous shuffling the assemblage at the mayor's table were excruciatingly polite to the point of petrification. The mayor didn't notice any of this; he spent thirteen courses addressing me as a sorcerer, and it didn't seem worth correcting him as to the niceties of my actual position. If, in fact, I had known what it was myself. I tried to distract myself from my doubts with some aimless theorizing on whether the whorls decorating the dinner service were meant to represent shells or ferns, and almost welcomed the periodic interruption of having to repeatedly remind the servers that I didn't eat fish.

When the last ludicrous dessert had mercifully been slaughtered, the mayor, in the brightest flash of something resembling actual intelligence that I had yet seen from him, requested my presence at an immediate meeting of Viparring's governance Council. Half worried that he meant to force the aforementioned soldiers upon me regardless, I trailed after him and a goodly number of the dinner guests into a side chamber. There was more nervous shuffling once the councillors realized that the woman with the Sharpshaft hair had come in with me and apparently intended to take an active role in the discussions, but I did my best to give them a look that said, it's not up to you whether she stays, and no one found the nerve to make a formal objection.

We had to repeat our entire story, including now our guess as to the cause of their sudden blight, and they did us the credit of listening silently and for the most part raptly, except for one older gentleman who had dozed off halfway through and kept waking up and peering at Liane in a confused fashion, apparently laboring under the misapprehension that she was the entertainment. "And what is it that you intend to... do, about this -- Sorson, was it?" the sharpest-looking one of the lot asked once I had run out of things to add.

"I have no idea," I said, and watched them rustling in shock. Yes, your Hero is only a man with about as much of a clue how to go about this as you have... "But if I don't come back you'll at least know to try something else, like maybe an army."

"We can, ah, juggle your hiring budget," the mayor put in as the Coldfire who looked to be something in the line of a military attaché opened her mouth.

"I was going to ask what assurances we have that he's even what he says he is," she responded peevishly, and gestured at the empty seat at the table that Pridening's envoy to the town still hadn't turned up to fill; "His timing's so awfully convenient?"

Liane reached over and took my hand, squeezing it reassuringly, and I realized that I had been sitting staring dumbstruck at the Coldfire for some while without answering; "I guess I don't have an answer for that," I said. "It hadn't occurred to me how... this might look, to someone who hasn't been caught up in it from the beginning. I'm sorry, I really don't know what to tell you."

Here, to my surprise, the mayor cleared his throat. "Well. Um. It strikes me. Um." A serious look from the Coldfire, but he held his ground: "If he was only trying to swindle us... wouldn't he have brought up his price for helping us by now? He didn't even ask for our hospitality. Much less payment."

"I keep telling him he's not any good at being a merc," Liane sighed. The Council erupted in laughter.

"I suppose, at this point, we're already in it to some degree anyway," the Coldfire said with a defeated shrug. "But I'd still like to go on record as objecting. The possibility that this is a confidence game or otherwise nothing we have a concern in does exist, and if I wake up dead in my bed tomorrow morning for saying that because it turned out he's the actual danger here, I expect that the appropriate measures will be taken against these two."

"I didn't have to come here, you know," I said, glaring back at her now. "I don't even want to be here now. But if I'm right about Sorson it's not going to matter whether you want to believe me or not; I just..." I realized I was shouting and drew a deep breath. "I just needed to try to warn you. And now if you'll excuse us, tomorrow's already too close. Good night."

I got up and walked out, not looking back to see what they thought of this performance, and got as far as the hall outside the dining room before my knees went wobbly and I had to lean on the golem for support. "That went better than I thought it would, anyway," Liane said, coming up behind me. "They're back there arguing numbers instead of trying to convince each other we're crazy."

"I just shouted down a roomful of officials," I said incredulously. "I just walked out on the mayor."

"You're tired," she said, and headed for the stairs. After a moment I followed her, still boggling at myself.

We reached the top of the stairs, and came to our doors, and I stopped, not knowing how to ask the question I wanted, needed, to ask. Come to my bed seemed crude, but neither was are you tired of me yet quite anything I could bring myself to say either. So I simply looked at her, certain I was turning a charming shade of purple, until she smiled and said, "I think my sheets are cleaner," and opened her door to me.

I was tired, but not so tired that the sheer marvelous fact of her hands on my body could fail to drive me to meet her every expectation of me, and beyond, until, finally, lying replete and weary and utterly incapable of thinking of the morning, we could do no more than trace slow fingers across each other's skins in a kind of stupefied satisfaction. For a merc, she was surprisingly perfect, the only marks on her body the faint trails on her belly that spoke to the truth of her motherhood. Sleepily, Liane began to run a finger down the line of my scar, and without thinking I reached up and caught her by the wrist. "Sorry," she said, looking puzzled.

I let her go, ashamed at the reflex, and mumbled something I knew not what to the effect that if she was willing to look I could hardly stop her from doing it. She smiled at me and bent to press her lips to my skin where the scar crossed over my heart. "It makes you look like a real merc," she murmured. "All right, a careless one, maybe --"

surprised dawdling with my head already in tomorrow, thrown to the boards and stripped and unbraided and bound while the rough voices giggled about culling the herd, and finally knelt down in the hay by the harsh hands in my hair. and for one relieved moment thinking that they only meant to cut my throat -- "I've seen worse wounds that didn't scar this badly," she was saying.

"It was a sharp knife," I said. "And we'd just lost our healer." He had had time enough to carve deeply, retracing slow stroke after slow delicate stroke, before the uneasy voice behind my head remarked, You didn't say you were going to torture him first. As if murdering me cleanly would have been a perfectly acceptable afternoon's entertainment. And Ezric had never once said one word.

"He must have been a good healer," Liane said, running the flat of her hand across my chest. "From what you've said, I'd have expected more than just the one scar."

"There are a few others," I said, and smiled down at her as the same thought apparently struck us both.

"But I'm going to have to find them, is that it?"

And she proceeded to search, kissing each mark as she came to it, and then raising her eyes in wordless concern when she reached the nearly invisible seam along the veins in my left wrist. "I think that one has something to do with the golem," I said. "Or at least it wasn't there before that."

"I hadn't thought," she said. "But that would have taken a lot of blood, wouldn't it."

"I really don't know how I did it," I said. A spell? Or an offering? Or is there a difference?

She kissed this scar too, gently, and laid my arm across my belly. "I don't know how you've done any of what you've done," she said, sliding up to where she could cradle my head. "One man shouldn't have to bear so much."

And tomorrow we may both be beyond worrying about it. The cold feeling was doing its best to overtake me again. I closed my eyes and tried to know only her gentle fingers in my hair, the beating of her heart under my cheek, the violet scent of her hair cascading over my face. "Get some sleep," she whispered, kissing my forehead, and though it meant leaving her behind I couldn't but obey.


When I woke I was alone. For a long moment I couldn't breathe, mind and heart together crying out in wordless despair that Liane had finally done the sensible thing that I had been trying to get her to do all along and run the other way. Two nights and already you can't live without her? the last remaining vestige of my sanity chided cynically.

I slid out of her empty bed, taking the topmost quilt with me and wrapping it around my naked shoulders. Trying not to see the fading froth of cherry blossoms the night had wrought from the bedposts, not to picture vivid in my mind the drawing out of those silken petals through her silken touch upon my skin -- The room was too cold. I crept out into the corridor, shivering in the quilt, and to the door of my own room, past the silent calm golem standing sentry at its post. My door was ajar and I didn't recall leaving it that way. I clasped the quilt at my throat with one hand and with the other reached out to push gently on the door.

"I didn't mean to frighten you," Liane said, turning from where she had been repacking my baggage at the side of the bed. "But we have to get going." She was already dressed for travelling. I crossed into the room and she let me enfold her in the wings of the quilt, laying her head easily against my hammering heart. The icy studs on her jerkin bit briefly at my bare skin before they warmed with the heat of my body. "I wish we had more time," she murmured, hugging my waist.

"No one will have any time if we don't go," I said.

She tipped her head back to regard me with a faint sad smile. "Always the pessimist." I touched my lips to her forehead, letting my hair fall around our faces in a curtain of light. "Get dressed," she said at last, pulling away.

We crept down to the kitchens, in this chilly gray dawn, and the cooks already on duty to bake the day's bread clucked over us for our bravery and plied us with enough treats to have seen us most of the way back to Roadmeet. Word of the Council session had apparently leaked out, and they, at least, were prepared to believe our story without reservation. I felt thoroughly unworthy of their Heroic expectations. But the chubby-cheeked head cook kept smiling and patting my shoulder and saying what a good thing it was that I'd come here, and I forbore to shatter her illusions.

The sun had truly risen by the time we managed to escape the cooks. The morning could have been the last morning of the world, perfectly warm and perfectly green as if all of time until now had been the rehearsal and now it had finally been gotten right, just once. Even the few clouds dotted in the vault of blue above us were perfect. "A merc would say that this is a good day to meet the Lady," Liane said softly, and I didn't think I'd been meant to hear.

"I'm not a merc," I said.

"I guess I'm not either anymore," she admitted. "I should be thinking about getting a job over with, one way or the other, and here I am dawdling along in the sunshine wanting to have stayed in bed with a man between my legs. The Sharpshafts would laugh at me for having gone soft." And she bowed her head, and wouldn't look at me. "They're right, about it wrecking your focus."

"You do regret it, then." I tried not to look at her, not wanting to see a look in her eyes that said yes, and not wanting to see a look in her eyes that said no.

She shrugged antsily and concentrated on kicking a stone up the path. "After this I think I'm heading back to Wantrell to take myself off the active rolls for a while. It's been too long since I was home."

"At least you have a home to go to," I said, and heard the sudden quaver in my voice. "I'm tired of living out of a rucksack. I want to wake up tomorrow in my own bed and not have anything more to worry about than what I want to eat for breakfast. Yesterday --" I caught myself as she finally turned to look straight at me. "Never mind."

A smaller warm hand slipped into mine, and she said, with a quick nervous smile, "Tell me about your home? I mean, you haven't really said much, I'd like to... I'd like to know it as more than a name on a map."

"I can remember when Tremare was only a name on a map to me," I said, smiling at the thought. "But when I started school my teacher saw right off that I ought to be sent round to see the Tremare to sit some extra placement exams. I'd never been into Tremare Falls before, when we came into sight of the Keep and Papa said we were going in there --" I shivered despite myself, recalling the clotty terror of realizing that I was being asked for the first time in my small Seventrails life to go inside, really inside, not just into the barn when it snows but into a great hive where people rooted for all their lives out from under the sight of the sky.

"Tremare's Eldest came in after the exam and offered to give me a look around the Keep before I left. When we went into the Great Hall the sun was coming in through the west windows, and all the tilework sparkled like a winter morning. The Eldest pointed out a sunbeam and said that that was how they knew when Darkening Day would be, when the light just touched one little flower worked into the tiles. And I started pestering him about what each of the patterns in the Hall would mean -- Papa was horrified, but the Eldest just laughed and tried to keep up with my questions. I think he might have known, then; that I was the sort who wouldn't be happy to stay with Seventrails. I think they both saw it.

"The Eldest asked if I wanted to see the view from up in the lighthouse above the dome. There were so many stairs, Papa had to start carrying me about halfway up, but when we got to the top... the world was bigger than I'd ever imagined; I could see how the river fell down into the marsh, and all of the town around it, and on and on out into the prairie, out towards Overwinter. Papa said the little clouds of dust in the distance were from our cows walking around, and I couldn't even see the cows through the spyglass. I don't know why that intrigued me so much, I guess I was only five, but... it made an impression."

"It certainly sounds different from my view," she said. "The canyon walls are pretty, especially at sunset, but Wantrell couldn't exactly be said to have a view, as such. But we do have a river," she added, after a long contemplative moment. "No waterfalls, not near town, but... it's not so dry up there as you might have heard. People can go for years without bursting into flames. Well, except for the Scaldberries. I'm told some visitors even find the climate quite... pleasant?" She arched an eyebrow at me.

"I've never been up that way myself," I said, trying to keep a bland face. "Never had a reason before. Might bear investigating, though." She laughed.

The day grew hot, as the sun climbed in the sky, and as the shadows shrank slowly away I came to realize that the dull ache grinding behind my eyes had nothing to do with the furious efforts of my brain to beat itself to death against the inside of my skull trying to think of something, anything, that I could say that wouldn't come out as words between man and woman rather than merc and merc, to convince Liane of how badly I needed her to be out of harm's way. And the wrongness grew, behind my eyes, until finally I was able to see the patchy shriveled brownnesses scattered across the slopes ahead. Liane snuck her hand back into mine as I slowed and stopped. "That's not the shadows of clouds, is it," she said.

"It's the same," I said hollowly. "The same as happened at Tremare. It was Sorson who did this all."

Deadness was easy by comparison, to see; some echo of what had been always lingered, no matter it were a man or a blade of grass. This... was absence. As if nothing had ever lived here. And never would again. I forced myself to approach the nearest of the wasted areas, shivering in the bright sun as the gentle caresses of life all around me thinned and then weren't there at all. And finally I stood in the center of a circle of nothing, heart pounding in my ears, and only the fact that I could see the green green vines beyond me kept me from falling to my knees and howling out my grief.

"Come away," Liane said, taking me by the hand, and I realized how close I had been to losing my own self into the awful silence. She pulled me, staggering, out of sight into another row of head-high vines, green and lush and singing with life, a chorus of grapes and leaves and birds and bugs that made my heart leap within my breast and an answering fire rise within me; here I took Liane to me with a breathless consuming need that threatened to drown me in its singing tide. We lay together there on the warm earth, and if anyone saw us let them think we were blessing the fields, I no longer cared.

"At least you said 'please' first," Liane murmured in some astonishment afterwards.

My hair had come completely unbound, and I turned away from her while I did it up again, trying to collect my thoughts. "The instinct towards life is a powerful thing," I said. "Even for necromancers."

"Especially for necromancers, I think," she said, and stretched languidly. "I begin to understand what the Lady of Winter sees in Her lover."

"We've always had a fondness for that aspect of Her, I imagine that's why," I said. "Tremare had that likeness carved above the main gate, Pridening probably does as well. Or did," I sighed, and reluctantly hauled myself to my feet. "We'd best get on with it."

"You think I can walk after that?" she chided, but with a mischievous grin, and she stood up anyway, sorting out what had gone astray and doing her best to brush off the dirt. "I hope that golem of yours knows how to keep his mouth shut."

The golem, in fact, had wandered a discreet distance away, looking back up the road with an air of studious innocence. I found myself hoping that I hadn't offended it and wondered at myself. It's just standing guard, is all. Get a grip. "I must be losing my mind," I muttered as we rejoined the road.

"I think you're more in your right mind now than you've been since I've known you," Liane replied, linking her arm through mine.

We had to stop for lunch, some short while later, tucking ourselves unobtrusively into the shade of a rose-arbor at the gate of some farmer's side-track. It felt too good to sit down and focus on something as simple and unthreatening as bread and cheese, and when Liane drew one of her small knives and with a brooking-no-arguments look to me reached out and pruned herself off a short spray of pink-edged flowers, I let her, disinclined for once to make a fuss. With building curiosity I watched her meticulously trimming off thorns and stray leaves to some unfathomable female end, until finally she set the branch down in her lap and made for my braid; I squawked, pulling back out of her reach in surprise. "Huh?"

"Well, I realize they're not exactly wild flowers," she said, as if this was supposed to make any sort of sense to me, and this time she caught the tie between my shoulderblades, a sudden tug as the ribbon came away and my hair made a break for it spilling silver clouds across my eyes. "Hold still."

With little choice in the matter, I did, beginning to follow her intentions as swift sure fingers wove the roses through a new braid, to the accompaniment of a certain amount of exasperated grunting about Seventrails and the intransigent hair they seemed to think it reasonable to inflict upon their offspring. "There," she said, and turning my head from side to side I had to admit that whatever she had done, it seemed quite sturdy. "That's how a proper merc goes into battle. When they have someone to braid their hair for them."

"I'm afraid I'd probably make a mess of yours," I said, staring down at the remains of our lunch. "And... if we need to fight..."

"It's all right," she said, with perhaps the faintest edge to her voice suggesting that it wasn't. "I'm rather out of the habit for sitting still for it anyway. It's tedious when you don't have a mirror to watch what's happening."

"Still," I said. "Um... If this is what mercs should do..." She cocked her head at me curiously, as I cast about for something to back myself up with; I soon came away with a leafy tendril of grapevine, which I wound twice round her topknot and tied as securely as I dared. "Will that stay out of your eyes?"

She waggled her head, testing; "It's a start, anyway," she said, then turned serious. "So... is it a start?"

And I looked at her, and for once I felt the blood draining out of my cheeks rather than into them. "If I were to tell you," I said fearfully, "that I think I've fallen quite hopelessly in love with you; would you say that I'm overreacting to the circumstances?"

"I don't know," she said. "Does it seem like the sort of thing you're likely to say?"

I reached out and took her hand, and she looked up at me with the slightest hint of a smile. "That would depend on you, I think," I said. "Or at any rate that would be how I was brought up."

"Go ahead, make me out to be a mare in season --" Now I felt hot color blossoming across my face as she looked me up and down: "Well, let's see, good conformation, nice high withers, seems eminently trainable... I suppose it would be worth at least exploring the question further. No promises, now," she warned as I broke into what had to have been an exceptionally silly grin, "I'm still an old merc who's better at planning military fortifications than my own life, but I have grown rather fond of having you around, and I will admit to being particularly intrigued by that noise you were making last night, I'd like to see where we could go with that at the very least."

"What noise?" I said, horrified. She chuckled throatily.

"Never mind. Just remind me if we ever visit my parents to ask for the guestroom off the kitchen. What they'll think of me dragging home an impoverished old necromancer, I don't know, but I'd love to see the look on their faces when I tell them you're really a Guild Eldest."

"What noise?" I asked again blankly. She made an aggravated face.

"I'd point it out to you, but we can't spare the time, in case you'd forgotten. And look, we're almost there."

And we were, I turned around to look again for the approach road to Pridening and when I traced it down the hillside with my eyes I realized that it came out at an unassuming ivy-covered arch not much farther along the road from where we sat now. I bowed my head under the dreary weight of vengeance, wishing I'd never started. "Perhaps it's selfish of me, but I find that I'd much rather pursue the idea of this noise that you claim I was making than go up there," I said.

She pretended not to hear, pulling me to my feet with a gentle tug and then all but dragging me up the path by the hand step by unwilling step. Until, at last, we had reached the top, and the keep of Pridening loomed before us. The main gates stood locked up tight, but the after-hours door right in the center hung slightly ajar, like an invitation. Above the gates, as I had guessed, stood a hauntingly familiar relief of the holly-crowned Lady of Winter in Her long wolfskin cloak, a single acorn offered in Her cupped hands.

"If I asked you to go back to Viparring, would you go?" I asked Liane, feeling my entire body balking at the thought of walking under the archway.

"There you go again, trying to protect me," she said. "Look, whatever happens next, I want to be with you to see it, huh? I want --" And I heard the catch in her voice as she turned swiftly away to gaze up at the effigy of the Lady of Winter. "All right, I love you, dammit. I want to see what my parents will make of you. I want to have to tell my brother that he was right about the way you were acting in Roadmeet. I want..." and her voice dropped to a whisper. "I want to see what color our children would be. Now can we just get this over with? I have to pee."

"Your brother guessed in Roadmeet?" I echoed faintly, reeling gutstuck at the sudden realization that for all I'd thought to ask, the past two nights might already have left her carrying my child. Sweet Lady, You wouldn't, not again... I couldn't focus my brain enough to look at her properly, as a necromancer would look, I could only see the outside of her with the eyes of a man, and that told me nothing except that she was looking up at me in turn with an unreadable expression in her eyes.

"He said you left me because you didn't want me to get hurt," Liane said. "To which I said, nonsense -- well, I used a worse word, he's a merc after all -- I was the one keeping you from getting hurt, wasn't I? And he said, I didn't mean hurt that way, I meant --" And she reached out and tapped my chest with one finger, above my heart. "And I said the same bad word again, and he told me just wait and see, you'd be back. And I went and I spent the next three days drunk, because I didn't want to think about what I felt about it. I didn't..." she made a sound suspiciously like she was snuffling back a tear, "I didn't want to think about you not being able to come back. And I meant it about having to pee, can we hurry this up?" she barked, glaring belligerently up at me, and this startled from me a nervous laugh.

"All right, then, but if you get yourself killed don't run crying to me," I said. I saw her puzzling around on this for a long moment before her face creased in a reluctant wry annoyance.

"Necromancers," she said, and pushed open the small door.

Pridening's courtyard looked achingly like Tremare's courtyard, Tremare's courtyard before Sorson had been at it, a sheltered and gentle space thick with ivy, and in the center, rising through the cobbles, an ancient, ancient oak spreading its limbs in a living green roof. "It's beautiful," Liane marvelled. "Did Tremare...?" I nodded, not trusting my voice not to betray me if I tried to speak.

Like Tremare, Pridening was an architectural nightmare of galleries and balconies overlooking the courtyard. Unlike Tremare, the Pridening kept flowers in pots on those ledges. I could see shattered heaps of earth and leaves here and there around the walls, ominous in the context of the apparent desertion of the complex. "On the presumption that the worst has happened," I said, "if I were a madman, what would I be doing now?"

"Taking the bodies somewhere, would be my guess," Liane said, too practical by half. "Unless he'd already rounded them all up before he killed them. So where would be a good place to handle a heap of bodies, in a place like this?"

"There would have been several places big enough at Tremare," I said. And shivered under the weight of unwanted memories. "But I don't know Pridening at all. I don't..." And an idea struck me, and I stopped, feeling the rightness of it. "But I think I know how I can draw him out here."

"I've seen that look before," she said in a wary voice. "The last time, it was on the face of a merc who went charging down into a horde of Things to save the rest of his company. Please tell me, you're not thinking...?"

"Not quite," I said, and folded myself down to the ground before the oak. "Go up to that gallery and cover me. This..." I shuddered. "If this doesn't get Sorson's attention, I'll shave my head. Be ready."

She looked as if she wanted to say something, but then she bent and kissed the crown of my head. "Good thinking," she said. "All right, then, see you in a bit."

One can only hope, I thought, watching her scamper up the nearest steps and vanish behind a wall. I closed my eyes, feeling the tree's steady strength surround me and cradle me, and when I felt myself caught and anchored by the web of green I opened my eyes and drew an arrow from my quiver.

I pricked the first finger of my left hand with the head of the arrow. Blood welled up bright, and I had to resist the reflex to stick the finger in my mouth to stop it. You always loved to see me bleed... I touched my finger to the earth at the roots of the tree and said a Word.

The light filtering down through the leaves of the oak took on shadows and tones and form, and became the fetch of a honey-haired youth, just new to the braids of a man, flame-blue eyes sharp with interest. "I was busy," Ezric said. "But it's nice to see you finally figured out what the girl is for, anyway. Took you long enough."

"Shut up," I said. He is a shade, he is a ghost, you are the one with power over him now. "Tell me: did Sorson send you after me?"

"Well, which is it, shut up, or tell you?" Ghostly lips curved into a smirk studded with aggressively guileless dimples. "Can't do both, genius."

I was leaning towards shut up, myself, but the longer I kept him talking the longer I could hold the spell together. "Tell me," I said. "Tell me why you were following me."

"Maybe I felt like it," he said. Was there a flicker of alarm in his eyes, as he felt compelled to answer? I gritted my teeth and felt the deep rooted life of the oak buoying me up. "Sorson..." He was fighting it, and losing, and I reveled in it. "All right, Sorson hired me to tail you when you came back from Whiteraven. Part of some sort of experiment he wanted to do. And you are so incredibly boring that I wish I'd asked him for more money." He glared at me sullenly. "You could at least have started fucking the girl sooner, given me something to watch."

"And do you know..." I had to swallow, struggling to let the blue gaze roll off my skin without piercing me through. "Do you know why he wanted me?"

He shrugged. "The way he explained it I don't think he understood it. Something about 'experimental control', I think it was. Probably means more to you than to me, you're the overeducated one. It sounded painful, anyway. What'd you do to him?"

"I have no idea," I said.

"And here I've been thinking that bracelet of yours that he stuck me with had more to do with this than just the spells on it -- no?" He sighed. "I'm sure you did something to deserve it, anyway. Buried somebody on him, or something." And he actually shivered. "That was hateful. I wouldn't have done that to you."

"No, I imagine you wouldn't have," I said, trying not to shudder. And failing. "Tell me: have you been following me all along?"

He scowled. "You didn't know, did you," he said, leaning forward to study me more closely. "All that fancy education and you didn't even think to guess. I... I would have thought what you did might have weighed on your mind a little. Despite everything." He looked... pensive, maybe, unexpectedly contemplative, and I caught myself, tempted to want to believe the look. "I saved you from Sorson the other day, too," he said, the blue eyes lowering. "I was hoping maybe we could call it even."

Too many thoughts tried to enter my mind at the same time and collided into a smoking heap; I simply stared at the fetch, dumbly, and whatever shadow or sham of repentance I had seen in his eyes vanished, replaced with sudden hard malice. "I suppose it's just as well you didn't see me, anyway, or you might have done something," he said, sneering now. "To ensure your privacy."

"Shut up." The golem shifted restlessly.

"Although I found it a little sickening myself."

"Shut up."

"I mean, fucking a girl who's nearly young enough to be your daughter --"

I drew in a breath, to say a Word I had just thought of in a new light, and then let it out, and said instead, "I love her."

"If I thought you had a heart maybe I'd even believe you," he said. "Does she?"

And before I could gather my wits to respond: "Really, what an appalling question," said another voice behind my head. "This is exactly why we're not supposed to Call the fetches of intimates --"

Ezric's mouth opened in a soundless scream as a furious wind that wasn't wind tossed the limbs of the oak tree and scattered the light into a random shifting pattern once again. The shattered spell rebounded into me with a wallop that knocked me sideways, nowhere for the magic to go without the ghost but back to its source. Tremors still crashing down my spine from the force of it, I turned and saw Sorson. He was squatting on the cobbles about five feet away, between me and the golem, regarding me curiously. "One hesitates to say it," he said when he could see that he had my attention, "but you're not looking your best."

"You --"

"You've undone your hair," he continued as if I hadn't spoken, reaching out as if to touch my vanished braids. I flinched away. "And flowers -- Are you leaving us, then?"

"What us, Sorson? Tremare's gone. Now Pridening's gone. What would you have me do, run to Whiteraven and wait for you to murder me there?"

"I haven't murdered anyone," he said, the perfect picture of wounded pride. "Mistakes were made, I suppose, but one always has to allow for some experimental error."

The presumptuousness of it staggered me. "Why are you doing this?"

Sorson blinked at me, uncomprehending. "Eventually research has to lead out of the workroom," he said, as if this ought to have been self-evident to me.

I drew in a breath, shuddering, and wondered how far I would get if I tried to run. "Sorson," I said, voice steadier than I would have thought, "the Art isn't for this."

"Why not?" he said, and stood up, turning to face the golem. "You certainly seem to have been doing some odd things with it."

"Oh, for rot's sake," an exasperated voice snapped from the gallery. I spared a glance towards Liane where she stood rigid, bowstring drawn taut to her cheek, arm shaking with strain, and realized that she was in a bad position to fire without hitting the golem, and that she knew it, and that she knew what would happen to me if she missed that shot.

But Sorson didn't oblige her by startling away at the sound of her voice, only squinting up into the brickwork curiously with a hand shading his eyes. "You are still travelling with the lady? Remarkable. One does hope she hasn't been distracting you from your work?"

Slowly I got to my feet. "What business is it of yours?"

"Quite, quite," Sorson said, and returned his attention to the golem. "This is really a fine piece of work." The golem seemed confused and frightened, metal crest trembling as Sorson gently lifted its visor. "That's a very clever application," he murmured, peering in at the lines of bloody sigils. "I wouldn't have thought of that quite in that context. I wonder..."

And Sorson reached up with an absently raised finger to trace a line of the writing, reached through the opened visor to touch the metal inside. My vision went white. I felt my left hand closing around a fine-woven linen collar and the beating arteries beneath. "Well," Sorson said, and blinking back stars I saw the strange tableau: Sorson, looking too calmly towards the metal fingers at his throat, and my own outstretched hand with a smear of blood on the first finger tingling around nothing but air.

"What is all this sudden resort to violence with you, Robling?" Sorson asked mildly, eyes tracking from the golem to myself. "Is it this company you've been keeping, or --" My fingers tightened and Sorson's eyes bugged. "My, it's this, isn't it. I wouldn't have thought that would happen if you kept a golem too long. What's whom here?"

With some effort, Sorson raised both of his hands and wrapped them around the golem's outstretched forearm. His lips shaped some sounds I couldn't hear, a Word or maybe only a note to himself, and a knife-edge of fire drove itself through the hollow between my bones. I bit my lip, tasting blood. Sorson's eyes narrowed, noting this result.

"I must write a paper," he remarked. "I'll need to find a broader study group... Do you remember if Whiteraven are much for golems?"

"Don't you touch them," I growled, and my voice echoed from the golem's helmet. Sorson shifted his hand, and I felt his thumb come to rest over the veins in my wrist, over the faded scar.

"The problem," Sorson said abstractedly, the fact of my continued existence fading completely from his eyes, "is going to be finding enough test subjects. The spoilage rate at the unMaking --" And a fierce light flared up around his hands, flowing red and molten into the golem's arm.

Desperate, burning, bound, I held the golem's fingers locked around Sorson's throat even as the fire surged through the steel and out of the scar and up along my own arm, searing and tearing its way towards my heart. Intolerable pressure gripped me and held me and squeezed --

I can't breathe, I can't breathe

and with the last of what I was I tore at my spell, clawing at the overheating thread of magic tying me to the armor --

And it snapped, and I fell, and I fell, and as the dark came up to meet me I knew that no amount of Art would be able to call me back. Liane -- I'm sorry --

The pain in my chest surprised me. It seemed to be getting worse, not fading with the fleeting light. I marveled at the sensation, wondering if it meant that this was what the true death was like and everything else had only been trickery after all. Not knowing if it was going to work, I tried opening my eyes. Just in time to be more confused as Liane bent over and put her lips to mine -- and blew --

I coughed, not at all clear what was going on here, and Liane rocked back onto her heels with a cry. "Uh?" I said, and she fell upon me, sobbing and kissing my face.

"You were dead, you looked dead, your heart wasn't beating, and I remembered the Poppybalms in Sarmeng and I thought --" She sat back up, collecting herself, and looked over at something behind my head. "I think the golem's dead. There was a bang, and... it stopped."

I sat up, or tried to, and managed to catch a glimpse of the golem, frozen in place with its left arm still outstretched. A tatter of charred cloth dangled from the blackened metal fingers. I fell back gasping as my left elbow buckled under me. "What did I miss?"

"They burned. When you fell; they just -- flared up. Too bright to look at." She helped me to my feet. The entire left side of my body wasn't working the way I expected it to, and I nearly fell again, but she slipped under my arm and steadied me.

I could see a thin line of blood welling from my wrist. "Golem," I said. No response. I knew without having to look that the sigils had been seared off the inside of the armor. I felt, somehow, naked.

"Will you fix him?"

"I don't know if I can. I don't know if I should. I don't know..." And I felt a smile creeping onto my face. "I don't know if that's what he would want."


9 responses | moved to respond?
bovidae From: bovidae Date: June 23rd, 2010 03:00 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Good, but also confusing. I still don't get why Sorson went off the deep end, nor how exactly he was going about blighting the whole place (different from the necrotizing-the-alive spells from that one village earlier on?).

Also, did I read that right that Exric's ghost continued to follow Robling even after he was buried? How did he (alive or ghosty) save Robling from Sorson?

I hope/expect that you'll address those topics in the next (last! boo!) post.

I think the line was my favorite for the whole piece. And hurray for the Poppybalms trick coming back into play!
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 23rd, 2010 09:30 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)
Hehe, part of what went wrong with the project overall is that it never wanted to pick up certain threads in the way that the conventional structure of a story like this would lead a reader to expect them to be picked up, which is sort of why I gave up on pitching it commercially; the things that would need to be done to address some of these issues would have involved telling an entirely different story than the one that wanted to be told, and it comes down to whether that investment was "worth" making in terms of A) the time already invested and B) the violence it would involve doing to the story. So... yeah. Better to give it up and let it wander out into the world as its own, flawed self than to force it into what might be the wrong size shoes...
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 04:30 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)


>>Better to give it up and let it wander out into the world as its own, flawed self than to force it into what might be the wrong size shoes...<<

I see what you mean. I'll refrain from picking at it, then. It seems unbalanced, but I do like it.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 29th, 2010 11:15 am (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Yes...

Oh, go ahead, pick away, it's always useful to try to work out what went wrong if only in the hopes of heading similar issues off the next time...
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 05:31 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)


Major structural problem #1: The story has a long leisurely build, which is enjoyable. Unfortunately this makes the ending seem rushed in comparison; I suspected this was going to happen when you started saying "the end is near" and we hadn't even caught up to the villain yet. That's a common flaw in mileau stories; for an example how to avoid that, see The Lord of the Rings. The climax is over too soon, and what happens does not entail enough effort and skill on the part of the heroes. Ideally, they should defeat the opponent because they are smart, skilled, and good; so the method in which they defeat him must reflect that. Right now, he largely got in his own way, which is also viable, but requires a very different flavor of support.

Suggested repair: Flesh out the ending more, expanding the conflict scenes in the climax. Don't hack down the early storytelling aspects: those are hard to do well, but they totally work in this case. My first recommendation would be to give the heroes more agency in defeating the villain. But if you want to tell the story where Evil Is Its Own Worst Enemy, that'll fly with the way you've established Robling -- and the climax of that arc is not the villain's death, but the fact that his meddling has damaged the world somehow and the Hero must somehow fix the damage. In that version, tangling with the villain becomes the pre-climax that sets up the real challenge in which the Hero must use all his faculties and make a great sacrifice to Save The World From Evil Taint.

Major structural problem #2: The setup is romance, but the conclusion is fantasy. This is subtle -- most readers will sense that something is wrong, but not be able to pin down what. I learned it from romance writers who handle paranormal topics, and it goes like this: If the hero and heroine settle their relationship differences and then save the world, it's fantasy; if they save the world and then settle their relationship differences, it's romance. The reason you have a romantic setup is because they keep hitting all these blocks to what should be a fairly straightforward relationship; that's a romance plot structure. There isn't nearly as much in the way of challenges directly related to the fantasy plotline; it's mostly environmental stuff. So when they hitch up before the end, the plot stumbles, because it's switching horses in midstream (okay, well, actually just before shore).

Suggested repair: Beef up the fantasy conflicts so that the fantasy plot outweighs the romance plot. Don't throw out the romantic whimsies and conflicts; they contain much of the story's unique charm. I think this would make for the strongest story. However, if you prefer to make the opposite repair and render it fully romance, then you need to move the reconciliation and lovemaking after the fantasy plot climax with the villain's destruction -- and in most romances, the lead couple would have some kind of big emotional tension with each other right then. Either they'd have a fight or be worried sick or couldn't cope with each other's culture or somesuch. In context, I can extrapolate what it would be for these two: him trying to send her out of danger. A self-respecting female merc should respond to any attempt at that with some version of "How DARE you try to make me into a coddled wife! If I wanted THAT, I could have STAYED HOME!"

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 05:33 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Okay...

Collateral structure problem: The setup does not include much conflict that derives directly from the core plotline of life-stealing magic which must be stopped. There are relationship challenges, personal baggage challenges, and environmental challenges -- all well handled -- but very little where the hero and heroine must get past a serious obstacle that the villain has placed in their way. Most of that stuff is puzzling rather than direct conflict; they have to find him, and he's far away, so they're putting together clues. That's cool, and it's well handled for what it is, but there's not enough of it to establish these two as The Heroes, because they're getting shortchanged on their agency.

Suggested repair: Enhance the conflict between heroes and villain by adding more scenes in which they must overcome difficulties he has placed in their path. Not all need to be combat, and you don't need a whole heap; another two or three in the right places would do it. The tension should rise and fall as the story moves toward its climax, with the last big setup peak coming right before they learn about the dead zones. They solve that, they relax, then they fall out of the frying pan into the fire.

Collateral structure and characterization problem: This hooks back into most of the previous stuff, because it has to do with the hero and heroine largely getting swept along by events. They've chosen to be on that path, but they're not driving the action; they're reacting instead of acting. In real life that can get you killed; in a story, it just makes you look like Not The Protagonist. This contributes to making the setup light on direct plot tension, which is really noticeable only in retrospect; making the ending anticlimactic, which is disappointing; and not letting the hero and heroine Be Awesome as much as they could, which is frustrating.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Okay...

Suggested repair: Give the hero and heroine more control over what happens. They should be acting, not just reacting, even though their efforts won't fully succeed until the climax and resolution. Their personal virtues and skills should manifest in what they do and how they think as they meet challenges and try to out maneuver the villain.

Characterization problem: The golem starts out as a mildly interesting construct, develops a personality ... and then coasts to the end. Ideally, each character should have their own personality arc that keeps pace with the plot arc overall. Robling has to grow into a hero, for instance, and Liane has to come to terms with the fact that she's outgrowing her plain-old-merc stage. Over the course of the story, Robling and the golem become ever more intertwined even as the golem becomes more and more of a person. This creates a problem because the development kind of stops climbing a little short of where the pre-climax should be, and the golem's end is something of an anti-climax. You set up this odd, charming little metal guy made out of a stupdendous, mysterious act of magic that Robling doesn't even really understand. And then it just ... fizzles. It's too momentous for that to really work. Robling is Life's champion in this score, and Death's too; the golem is part of him and yet distinct. So the golem leans toward the 'hidden hero' role, the one who is more than he seems, the subconsious and deep wisdom.

Suggested repair: Play up the golem's role toward the end. Give him a major develop in or near the mainline pre-climax. You might, for example, show that he has become 'alive' as more than an aspect of Robling (say, if the golem is conscious while Robling is not, as a reversal of the drunk scene previously); or give him an awareness of death (say, if the golem is contemplating a dead animal or human). And then the golem needs a major role in the final climax, because that's what is really for -- what he has to be for, based on the balance of the story, because you just don't get that kind of numinous beyond-human-grasp magic unless the gods or the universe hand it to you because you're going to need it. (I'm reminded of The Last Unicorn here and her transformations and sacrifices along the way.) One possibility is simply an outgrowth of what you have already, in which the golem is destroyed during the climax; but it needs to be a more vivid, deliberate, and meaningful sacrifice and not just a desperate scramble. You're spilling the power there. If the golem is shown as self-aware and chooses to sacrifice itself, that would have a lot more punch. Another variation is if Robling chooses to sacrifice himself, or part of himself, or his talent -- and you could even leave the golem intact for that, and carve out a piece of Robling instead.

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 29th, 2010 05:39 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Okay...

You have all the pieces you need. They just aren't all in the right order or the right size yet, which makes the story wobbly toward the end. Right now, it's a charming and engrossing read. But if you were to fix it up a bit, you'd have a story that would knock readers on their ass.

Now, it's wholly up to you whether you agree with any of this or want to tinker at all. It's your story. There are aspects of it which are decidedly atypical, and some of them are things that should be left that way. If you want to keep more of the patterning intact, you may look at the problems and decide on different solutions. All the problems boil down to the climax being an anticlimax, and any solution will need to resolve that. You've already said that you know this story is flawed, which means it isn't all it could be yet. I think it deserves that chance. I'm not sure I can express to you how rare it is to find a story with such a unique flavor; I can't help wanting to see it go from a diamond in the rough to brilliance. Hence the free sample of some rather hard-core editing, which if nothing else probably will help you with future projects.

By the way, I'm planning to post about the whole story, now it's complete. Do you mind if I direct people's attention to this as an example of my work? Most of my editing is behind the scenes, but here they could see the story and the feedback together. I won't call attention to it if you don't want me to, though.
robling_t From: robling_t Date: June 29th, 2010 08:29 pm (UTC) (permalink this entry)

Re: Okay...

Oo, this is all great stuff -- some serious digesting to do, meanwhile, by all means, yes, link away! (I mean at some point to write up a postmortem on the circumstances of this project, which will probably bore the hell out of everybody but a few hardcore writing-geeks but wotthehell :) -- and part of that would be RE the ways in which it decided not to be what it seemed at the start to be setting itself up to be; stay tuned for that when I have some spoons left over...)
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