Together the two old soldiers strolled the hallways of Edinburgh Castle. On a fine morning such as this, the building appeared more beautiful than ever, vast and imposing, a vision of its former glory. Jasmine bloomed heady and sweet in the courtyards, its scent wafting through open doorways on a summer breeze. Grey doves cooed at the windows, and shafts of light spilled onto freshly swept floors. Even the sandstone walls had been buffed, and now the buttresses and buildings of the castle gleamed atop their rock in the pale Edinburgh sun.
All of this had been done at the command of the last Illyri governor of the islands of Britain and Ireland, Lord Danis.
It was blissfully quiet, also at Lord Danis's instruction, quieter than the old castle had been in all its long history. No soldiers bustled past, no patrol vehicles rumbled by, no airships zipped overhead, no gunfire sounded from beyond the walls, and so the lifelong comrades could continue their daily walk without interruption. It was as if the Illyri race had never been here, nor the tourists that once thronged the cobbled courtyards, nor the medieval kings, Jacobite rebels and Celtic fighters who had preceded them. Perhaps even the long-ago footfalls of the English conquerors had never worn slow pathways into the flagstone floors. Here, in the company of his long-standing companion, Captain Peris, Lord Danis hoped to find a little peace.
The pair moved gradually towards the main castle entrance, tracing the routes they'd known for so long yet meeting nobody they knew—in fact, seeing nobody at all. They were alone in the castle. At the gateway they stood beneath the Latin script carved above the archway.
'Nemo me impune lacessit,' Danis read, and there was mockery in his voice.
He always stopped and considered the words at this point on their regular walks. Sometimes he made no comment; sometimes he shrugged; sometimes he shook his head; sometimes he swore. On more that one occasion he had broken down and wept, though that had not happened for some time now. Perhaps his heart was finally mending, thought Peris. Or hardening.
'No one who harms me will go unpunished,' translated Peris, as he always did.
'It would be better if it read "no good deed will go unpunished",' said Danis, and after a moment he sighed. 'I should never have let them go, Peris.'
Peris managed a weak smile. 'You must miss her terribly,' he said.
'Miss who?' said Danis, and he jabbed angrily at a button on the wall. Immediately the hologram of the castle disappeared and they were once again standing beside a window overlooking a nighttime garden, where milky moths supped from heavy, stinking blossoms. Dual moons shone brightly in the sky above, illuminating the high wall that enclosed the grounds of their gracious residence.
Their gracious prison.
'Why, the Lady Fian, of course,' said Peris. 'Your wife. You miss your wife.'
'Yes, of course,' came the governor's reply. He had been forced to abandon Fian on Earth during the last panicked exodus from the planet, and it was assumed that she was dead. He lived with his guilt, but only barely.
Danis laughed, but it was a hard, clattering sound. 'For a moment I thought you meant my darling daughter,' he said.
'Well, you miss Ani too, naturally,' agreed Peris.
'No!' Danis spat the denial out like a piece of bad meat. 'Not my daughter. Never her. Ani is no longer blood to me.'
Peris opened his mouth to protest, but Danis had turned to leave, and his back was as solid and impenetrable as the walls surrounding the lush garden. The stooped Illyri muttered to himself as he went, declaring that he had had quite enough with today, that he was fantasising about his bed, and as the governor shuffled away the security bracelet on his ankle flashed once, transmitting details of his movements to those who watched them, night and day.
Alone but not tired—for how could one be tired after a virtual stroll around a non-existent castle, around buildings that had long since been reduced to rubble and ash—Peris stared out into the silver-lined darkness. In truth, he wasn't sure what to think about Ani, or what to believe.
As far as Danis was concerned, his daughter had betrayed them all. She was a true Nairene, turning her back on family and friends in favour of the red witches. She had stood by while her own father was locked up, leaving her mother forsaken on an alien world, and Danis refused to believe her claims that his imprisonment was necessary for his own protection. His only child, whom he had once loved so much—and still did, deep in his soldier's heart—was dead to him.
Yet Ani was nearly twenty-one now, and in terms of the planet where she had been born, according to the traditions of Earth, she would soon come of age. However, Peris suspected that Ani had grown up much earlier than that, four years earlier in fact, on the day of the teenage killings on Erebos.
The day that started the Civil War.
He remembered it as if it was yesterday, but sometimes he wondered if he truly remembered it at all. Could he really trust his own recollection when, at the time, the flesh on his arm was being eaten away as if by virulent, ravenous bacteria, apparently at the instigation of a teenage girl, a mere novice to the Nairene Sisterhood? He wouldn't have believed it himself if those around him hadn't been dying too, by fire, or in fountains of blood, or with their bones inexplicably broken by invisible, violent hands, the audible snapping a soundtrack to their agonies.
And then Syl Hellais—the daughter of Peris's old master, Lord Andrus—had intervened, a tornado of fury turning all the destructive forces in the room back on their makers, and there had been more suffering, more death, and the bodies had piled up around him, so many young, broken bodies. Ani had arrived too, and words were exchanged between the two friends, harsh words that could not be unsaid, and a lifelong friendship had crumpled as if it were nothing.
When Syl had left, Ani had stayed. Like a silver-haired angel, she'd remained by Peris's side, holding his hand until the Archmage Syrene had appeared.
What had happened since now seemed inevitable—that much Peris had come to understand. Yet still, he clung to the words Ani had uttered before Syl had fled, for they seemed to be the only hope left for his fractured, war-torn people.
'You seem determined to forget that the Sisterhood was founded with a noble purpose,' Ani had told Syl, 'but I shall make it my mission to reclaim that purpose, however long it takes ...'
Peris had tried to explain all this to Lord Danis, but he would hear none of it.
As for Paul, Syl and those who had fought alongside them, they were surely dead, because nothing that entered the Derith wormhole emerged from it again. Peris just hoped their deaths had been clean, and quick. Sometimes a quick death was all that one could hope for. But perhaps they were all beyond hope itself now, even those still left alive.
What they really needed was a miracle.