The Generosity of Spirits
by Luke Thomas
The appointed night was dark and wet to start. Eiko Villon picked his footing carefully under lantern light. Once he reached the tree line, it was easy enough to spot the oily little fire, lit by whichever of his cadre had arrived first.
It was Duncan’s broad smile that greeted Eiko as the latter joined him under the low cover of a carob tree. “Eik! Enjoy the slog through this muck? It’s not so cold at least.”
This was true of the late spring night, though Eiko welcomed the fire, for the damp. He opened his cloak and hunkered. “The wind was picking up from the east when I came out of the valley. We may have a moon to see by before long.”
Duncan shrugged. He rose to a knee, patting his satchel. “You’re going to want to offer ahead of me, my friend. After I’m done, the mundies in there won’t so much as sniff at anything else until harvest.” This was idle bragging. Those they were headed to see were always hungry.
Eiko nodded. “All right, then.” His brevity frustrated Duncan as he’d known it would. His companion only wanted to ease the tension a little.
Eiko didn’t have any real motive for off-balancing him, but it was a simpler matter to teach a stud horse to plow than to quell the constant simmer of rivalry among young aristos. Frankly, Eiko hated the bald manufacture of callousness, but it was second nature for him to go through the postures... and Duncan was just so easy to read.
Yet he did cherish Duncan Mathis as a member of his cadre. Their training had brought him closer to this soft midlander than he’d have thought possible all those years ago, on the day the Archduke’s seer had yoked them together, along with Otto and Reis. It chilled Eiko’s gut to think of the swaggering little thug that he’d been back then, rolling his eyes at the Oath of Cadre as if his father’s military record elevated him above it.
Now he understood the significance of the oaths to which the Archduke held the noble houses: the Oath of Cadre for the young and then a suite of others when sworn in as protector of an estate or mature member of a bloodline with sway over the aether. The oaths were all that kept the aristocracy from murdering the land itself in open warfare. Under his tunic, Eiko could feel the gnarl of scar tissue where, in their first month as a cadre, Otto’s machete had nearly split his bile sac before Duncan and Reis intervened.
A hand’s breadth from there, he felt the small packet of his offering. A kerchief: such a simple object. But if Eiko’s theories were right, the simplicity was another element that would elevate the offering in the world spirits’ estimation, although that little bit was only seasoning on the significance behind the swatch of cloth. If the spirits didn’t crave the meaning, then any elegance in the offering’s form mattered little.
The scar on his belly and the kerchief stowed in his belt: all the change brought on by these years with his cadre, expressed in a space he could cover with his palm. He was now married to the sister of the man who had given him that scar. And once he revealed that to Otto, they’d set out to change their country.
Eiko ended the silence. “Good advice, Dunk. I thank you for it. I’ll happily go first.” He watched Duncan react: grimace and grimace, followed by a shine of conspiratorial delight. “Damn you, Eik! You’d not save an ounce of their attention for any of the rest of us. No, I’ll try mine before you. Before you and before Otto, too.”
“It all pleases me.”
Certainly much would change after tonight, but Eiko hoped Duncan and he would remain close allies. That was looking too far ahead, though. What Duncan had already let slip about his own offering worried Eiko. It seemed overambitious. It was all too possible that Duncan Mathis would be of no concern as an ally or enemy after the night was over. But there was no time left to change plans.
They heard a whoop from the drenched slope beyond the trees. They both knew it for Otto, laughing in the way he laughed only at Reis. A full-throated indulgence in some barely private observation. It was cruel, sure, but Reis’s lowborn father was so absurdly rich that he could buy up an old name. It fell on his cadre to toughen the son up.
“Such a hurry, Waldheim!” Otto bellowed, appearing first and stopping at the carob’s fringe. He bowed low and fanned his cloak out, formed a sopping canopy. “Your esteemed colleagues arrived early, milord! Well, you two, please do make yourselves presentable and bid welcome to his Lord highest triple-honorific, Reis Waldheim.”
Reis emerged to sidestep Otto with a scathing look. But his anger didn’t last. Brushing the water from his hair and looking at the others, he became giddy.
Eiko felt it, too. The air, even at the fringe of the Altwood, hummed with aethereal presence.
Otto joined them around the fire. Something played across Otto’s features when his eyes met Eiko’s. A wink? A wince? For all his bombast Otto was often inscrutable.
By silent consent they began their way into the forest. Eiko could feel Otto’s presence at the back of their procession. There was something he’d been meaning to understand just now. Had Nina told her brother more than she was supposed to? No, she wouldn’t have. It would degrade Eiko’s offering if Otto had even an inkling of what was to come. Nina knew that. She could be incautious, but she’d never risk ruining their chance to end the feud between the two families. Feud, too small a word for war.
Ahead of him Duncan hacked at the increasing tangle of vine and briar with his machete.
At a certain point, the forest rot scenting the air turned abruptly sensual. They were closing on the standing stones. Eiko knew he should focus on what was coming, maybe chant the words of his invocation to himself, but the voluptuous air possessed his thoughts and turned them to Nina.
* * *
They’d last seen each other six months ago. Fairly, he’d expected the combination of pining and fatal anxiety he’d lived through in the last months would stretch them into years. But the preparation of his offering had occupied him in full.
“Don’t worry about my father,” Nina had said with throaty assurance. “The affairs of the estate have been in my mother’s hands for years now. That means Otto and I can take control as we see fit. She’s more reasonable by far than I’m sure you Villon brutes make her out to be.” She’d nipped his ear as she mocked his family, a sure enough way to make him hard.
Yet on that last late night he was fully the pragmatist. Rather, he tried to be, before Nina had disrobed and pressed her heat against him. He understood that she, with years’ more experience in the world, knew the correct order of things.
After sex, they went once more over their plans. “Your father will see the shape the alliance will take, you know. He’ll understand he’s to be put aside, given some token garrison while Pietro controls our combined regiments. I don’t know how you expect him to take that quietly.”
“Oh, Pietro Pietro.” She’d always been amused that Pietro Villon preferred to be known by his given name, not his titles. “No, my father will rail against the alliance with every spiteful old bone in his body. But I’ll see to it that he makes his noises somewhere out of the way.”
“It’s a lovely idea, Nina, but how, exactly, will you get him out of the way?”
“By means of the scores of guardsmen that are loyal to my brother, if you have to know. What a bunch of nosy ingrates you Villons really are.” She’d brought his hand to her breast, giving him the most scornful look.
“Fine. Maybe I’m only nervous. I don’t want to take any more risks than we must. If only we could bring Otto in now, even partway.”
“He is partway in. Eiko, don’t dwell on the past. You and he have both known this feud for the criminal idiocy it is since either of you could piss standing up. And Otto loves me far more than he loves Father. You know everything has to be set in motion all at once. How lame would your offering be if my brother was prepared for it? Or does the young viscount lack confidence in his own design?”
“Oh, I’m confident. I’ll make an impression on the damn sylph. But the thing would have an easier time understanding me if I offered it your heart instead of taking it for myself.” He’d squeezed, and she’d broken into laughter. With him or at him, he wasn’t sure.
* * *
Recalling that last time with Nina caused him to walk right into a thorn branch that Duncan had ducked. As the spines caught in the flesh of his throat, he grunted and threw a fist up so that Reis wouldn’t stumble into him.
“Eik, you know these woods are full of things that’ll prick you.” Reis’s soft voice came from unnervingly close behind. He must have been deep in his own head to not realize how tightly Waldheim was following him. Not that he expected any hazard from a fellow in cadre and a pampered northerner besides, but a youth spent in the Four Arms conditioned you to hate yourself for such lapses.
Eiko seized the wooden stalk and yanked it. His skin distended as two long thorns slid out. “I do know that, Reis. Hence my rush to keep you out of my ass.” He ducked away and let the thorns snap back. Otto burst into laughter behind them.
His hand sought the punctures automatically, and he was relieved to find nothing but two small beads of blood. That had been a blunder of his own making, but it wouldn’t do to forget that, this far into the Altwood, bored manifestations could skewer his eye on a tree branch for sport.
“So what have you got, Villon?” Reis again, jumped-up and with no respect for the notion of a silent procession. “Come on. You know all their preferences, right? I’m sure filthy old Luther showed you plenty that you haven’t shared with us. What are you going to give that’s different than the twisted offerings you’ve arranged for Uncle Luther already?”
Eiko sighed. “Your mother’s tits, Reis. The severed tit of the Countess Waldheim, that’s what I’m bringing. Some toadie will use it for a coin purse and draw silver from the nipple.” This time it was Duncan who laughed.
They covered a fair bit more ground before Reis, slow on the uptake, offered something back. “Too political, Villon. They prefer more straight-up cruelty, you know? Purer stuff. Disfigure a commoner, sure. That’s more to their tastes.”
“Unbelievable, Waldheim!” Otto called. “He says that about your mother, and you lecture him on the nature of spirits? Very unblooded, Reis. Very soft.” Reis scoffed but said no more.
“Unblooded” was a favorite Four Arms putdown that both Eiko and Otto slung around liberally, but just now it turned Eiko’s stomach to hear it. It celebrated the fact that in the Upper and Lower Arms it was nearly impossible to make it to fifteen without killing a man. When Eiko or Otto used the term, each made reference to spilling the blood of the other’s subjects.
The aethereal presence ahead of them now set the air tingling. The spirits knew what phase the moon was in tonight and sensed the four young noblemen approaching.
* * *
Reis’s comments weren’t wrong. The world spirits surely did like the way things lay on the continent, especially in the Arms. So many aristos and rogue summoners vying for little samples of aethereal sway, offering tokens of senseless crimes that the spirits paid for like long-gone drunks bidding on a last jug of wine. The constant churn of struggle served their perversities well.
Cheap, lurid crimes were simple. That was what Reis meant. Uncreative trauma. Simple and thus the norm. Eiko understood that. Yet experience and research had convinced him that the more powerful spirits responded to effort, and even grace. Real, dramatic change was what they loved to hear of and feed on. Eiko was sure that was the case. Violence was just an easy way to make that kind of alteration happen.
Lowly mundies and toadies were content to revel in the case-by-case rape of the weak. “Oh how despicable,” he’d seen them croon while devouring the aura around a shepherd’s testicles, cut free after their owner was forced to molest one of his own flock. At spearpoint, of course; all such things were accomplished at spearpoint.
But a freia, a spirit of a far more powerful genus, wouldn’t settle for mere personal agonies. Only the souvenir of violence of scale was known to bring a freia to an altar. A village of slaughtered families could appease one, but only if the killing was done with a special kind of ruthlessness.
A freia might also, Eiko hoped, attend him at the promise of two bleeding provinces made whole in one bold stroke. Yet if his theory was wrong... But there was nothing to be gained in thinking of that.
* * *
Copyright © 2014 by Luke Thomas