In the beginning, Gideon Flynn was a child.
The youngest grandson of Evander Flynn, the biskmatar. Gideon had a mother and a father, both sets of grandparents, nine brothers and sisters, two half-tanamanmer cousins in the jungles where his mother had been raised. Gideon wrote of school, of family, of outings and fights and first-everythings. He was an uncle at eleven, then again at twelve. He exulted the first time he’d beaten his father at chess with enthusiastically scribbled illustrations.
His mother had taught him vivomancy. His father tried to make a warrior out of the child, but Gideon was both clever and scrawny, and his father soon gave up. But it was his grandfather that taught him his first biskmatry spell. Just one, his grandfather said. The rest were far too terrible. The triumph with which little Gideon wrote of finding his grandfather’s secret stash and learning contraband spells made Wyrren suspect that the old man had goaded him in that direction.
Evander Flynn went mad a few years later—he killed a great many people, including his wife, then took his own life. Teenage Gideon admitted in the diary that he’d stolen his grandfather’s books; his father would have burned them. Grandfather would have wanted him to have the tombs. He would carry on his grandfather’s legacy.
Alastair Flynn, Gideon’s father, made himself a king by conquest. He was a reaver—a bloodthirsty, supernaturally strong brute of a man addicted to defeating his enemies. The Flynns became royalty.
When Gideon’s mother told her children that their father had died in battle, Gideon didn’t believe it. He swore in writing that it had been a set-up. He just didn’t know who was to blame.
He lost his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews over the years. Accidents, they said. Bad luck. Disease, disappearances, spells gone wrong. Someone was trying to destroy his family, but his mother, the Queen, would never kill someone who might have been innocent. There was no proof.
Gideon grew up. He fell in love with a scholar’s daughter named Grace, drew pictures of her as best he could in his diary, made calligraphy out of her name. He married her. Another of his brothers died. His family continued to shrink. The queen searched for her son’s killer, but when she found nothing, she wept and would not act.
Then Wyrren came across a description of a banquet. Gideon’s writing had become strangely fluid, flowery, even. Lines of poetry with the descriptions, bordering on the melodramatic, went on and on with great flourish and ended abruptly: Grace and his mother had been poisoned. He was alone.
Things would be right, now. He would make them right.
He killed every suspect, and every suspected accomplice. He described what he did to them in unnecessary, gory detail. He relished his plans for the next traitor. Or would-be traitor. He would see them suffer, as he had suffered, and then there would be justice for all.
Wyrren couldn’t read it all in one sitting. She drank her tea and cried, sure that it would get worse before it got better. She skipped what she could, trying to get past Gideon’s madness, until at last she reached a passage that marked itself as the very last thing he would ever write. Enemy troops marched down the streets, and he had so few men to defend his fortress now. This was the end of the Flynns. But he’d be damned if he’d give them the satisfaction of taking off his head themselves. He’d jump from the tower—one last glorious moment, one more man dead.
Maybe he’d find Grace on the other side.
Death came in the visage of a drowned woman, her skin a bloated, clay shell, her clothes dripping, her fingers brown with rot, her eyes empty sockets, her lips drawn back around her teeth. She would not use her scythe. She would not take Gideon’s hand. He had the blood of a people on his head. How had he not felt it?
Death denied him.
His body healed. He fled.
<Are we still going to the festival tonight?> Edward asked.
Gideon’s diary jumped in Wyrren’s hands. Her tea sat cold and unnoticed. The sunlight out her window was fading, and she realized that she’d missed another math class. <I… I don’t know, Edward,> Wyrren returned. <Last night… last night was bad.> And she’d gotten no hints at all from Edward all this time. Was dancing with the man really helping her? How did he fit into Gideon’s story? Was she too obviously attached to Sebastian for him to try to use? Had her loyalty to Sebastian destroyed her cause? Wyrren didn’t even know where to look anymore.
<It was, wasn’t it?> Edward asked. <I completely understand. You like your champagne dry, right?>
He remembered. <What are you up to?> Wyrren asked.
<The festival’s getting boring. I’ll come get you; we’ll play chess half the night. I’ll say nice things about you, you’ll say terrible things about me, and we’ll both enjoy ourselves thoroughly.>
<See, just like that. I’ll be over in a few minutes.>
<I’m not dressed…> Wyrren locked the diary in her box of sand.
Wyrren sputtered mentally. He laughed at her, and she ran to make herself decent. Ana wasn’t here now. Wyrren had to dress herself. She had no idea how to properly paint her face; Ana’s army of cosmetic stood like enemy troops on the vanity desk. Edward arrived too soon; Wyrren came with her half-mask clutched to her chin.
“What have we said about you wearing masks?” Edward said, and pried it away. “Let go.”
Wyrren fought him for a moment, then gave in. “I don’t have my makeup.”
“It’s different, isn’t it?” Edward agreed, and offered his arm. “My room?”
He poured her champagne when they’d arrived, and set up the board for chess. On their second game, Wyrren assembled the pieces—white for Edward, black for her, but instead of the correct formation, she’d given Lowar only his back row, and set five lines of black pawns against him.
Edward raised an eyebrow.
“The peasants are revolting,” Wyrren told him matter-of-factly.
Edward laughed so hard that he nearly fell over, then made her play him like that. By their third drink, he had brought out a four-person chessboard and they each took two armies, and again she fell asleep, still dressed, beside him. But she learned absolutely nothing useful.
The next morning, Edward rose before she did and squeezed her hand. “Wyrren?” he asked. “There’s something I need to talk to you about. When you’re awake?”
Wyrren opened her eyes. The sun hadn’t yet risen. “Now?” she asked, stretching. “What is it?”
“It’s about the Grand Meister,” Edward said.
All fuzzy thoughts of sleep fled as if Edward had poured cold water on her. “I’m awake,” Wyrren said, and sat up. “What is it, Edward?”
“Part of my job is looking into his past, making sure Kartania is safe. … I’ve noticed that you’re fond of him, too, and… well, I’ve found something. If it affects you, then I think you should hear this, too.
“If… Sebastian wasn’t the man you thought he was… if he’s been deceiving you… you would want to know, right?” Edward asked. “If Kartania isn’t the next queen, you seem to be the alternative. I don’t want to rescue Kartania and leave you behind.”
“Just tell me what you’ve found,” Wyrren said.
Edward hesitated. “Look. Give me a day to make sure that I’m not slandering the man too soon. Know that I’ve found something, and… keep an open mind, if I need to warn you about something crazy?”
“Of course,” Wyrren said. “I’ll always listen. But you need to bring me proof, Edward. Can you at least give me a hint?”
“It… has to do with his succession,” Edward admitted. “Enough of that, though. I’ll bring you proof tomorrow… or you can laugh at me for being a conspiracy theorist.”
When Wyrren returned to her room and the diary, she locked the door and pulled the book from her chest, hurrying to read the rest of the book. It was the fifth day of the blinkerbug festival. Kartania’s engagement would be announced on the evening of the seventh… or Kartania would have to leave. Whatever Edward was up to, she didn’t have much longer to uncover it if he meant to make his move soon.
The next section of the diary meandered. Gideon escaped his enemies. He went to the other end of the world to start over. He moved from town to town, took stupid jobs, pretended to work and completed his tasks with magic. He avoided the girls he caught looking at him, raged in his diary over the injustice of what Death had done to him. This went on for nearly a decade’s worth of entries, with no sign of Edward, or anyone who might have been Edward. Wyrren wanted to smack Gideon and tell him to get to the good parts.
Finally, she found an entry where Gideon had made a breakthrough. He had been cursed for being evil. It then fell that he must live a life of charity and good works, and once his good works out balanced his bad, Death would rescind its curse and he’d be able to go home.
He went to the most corrupt city he could find—the metropolitan center of an empire. Wyrren fetched several history books from the palace library, but couldn’t find its name in its earliest entries—those people must have come and gone, their records forgotten.
Gideon stole money from the rulers and city vaults with his magic, and with the proceeds he opened a house for the sick, and healed everyone who came in. He fed the hungry and gave shelter to those without homes, and he made checklists of every good thing that he’d done in every entry.
Eventually he noticed that the same people would keep coming to him. Drunkards with hangovers. Gang thugs who were starting to grow bolder, knowing that they could always be healed later. The same woman would arrive twice a week with bruises that made Gideon’s blood boil, and he began to write terrible things in his diary, how the people he helped weren’t even grateful—they just took advantage of him. How was he going to earn back his mortality if this was all he got? For every decent person he healed, he’d treat two drunkards and a thug as well. Gang-related fatalities rose even higher.
And then one night he lost his temper. The same woman with the same bruises, the same excuses that Gideon wouldn’t believe. He followed her home, and he murdered her husband that night. Then he returned to his shelter, furious with himself, debating whether or not Death could blame him for that, justifying everything even as he condemned himself.
Ten months later, the woman returned. The same bruises. The same excuses. She’d gotten another husband with the exact same problems as the first.
Not long after that, one of the children Gideon saw passing by every day was found dead, shot by one of the gangs, and probably someone Gideon had healed.
He was doing this all wrong.
He found the headquarters of the first gang and butchered them all. He did the same with the second and third, until the slums ran red. He wiped his hands and watched his own wounds heal on their own, and returned to his healing house, and resumed his work. For a few days, there was peace and mourning.
Then came violence. New men who wanted to control the streets came out, and they fought to establish new territories. Things became even worse than when Gideon had arrived.
Gideon’s new friends were trying to get to know him. There were people he was starting to care about despite himself. People who he’d see die someday, and he was terrified of love for fear of the grief it would bring. He called this mess a good experiment, and fled his mistakes. He moved to another city to try again.
It happened over and over and over. He tried for years, always with the same results. He could not seem to escape himself. He made the same mistakes every time.
Eventually Gideon gave up and married again, this time to a pretty farm girl in a little town in the middle of nowhere. He settled down as a town scribe and had a son, and decided he could stay there and be happy for a while. He was tired. He deserved a break. He deserved to be happy.
His son grew up—a cheerful boy with a penchant for mischief and a love of heroic epics. He became a soldier in the local militia against Gideon’s wishes, drunk on tales of glory. Then a war came with a neighboring country, and Gideon received a messenger with word of his boy’s death. His wife followed their son seventeen years later.
Gideon returned to his home continent. His former capital had changed. His enemies’ children ruled there now. He was a hated story—distorted beyond recognition of real events.
He began delving into magic. Perhaps Death could be cheated. He knew biskmatry and vivomancy, illusions, and elemental magics. Now he looked into things he hadn’t researched before. He tried necromancy, and found he couldn’t even cast the simplest spell. He had no connection to Death. He looked into conjuration and charms, but what really began to fascinate him was manastry—mental magic, the delving into the mind, the rearranging of memory, creating new memories, new desires. He’d always wanted to change the people he was trying to help, to shift what they wanted, to set their sights on better things. After a hundred years of immortality, this could be the answer.
Festival lights shone outside her window. Wyrren had read for the entire day and had missed the party entirely. Edward was ‘checking’ on Sebastian, Wyrren expected. He hadn’t called her tonight.
She slept in her own bed, and wondered what she was going to do if she couldn’t find what Lowar really wanted tomorrow. Skip through the book randomly and make wild guesses, like Ana did?
She woke to sunlight on her ceiling. The sixth day of the festival.
Wyrren grabbed the diary. She had to continue.
Manastry. The answer was manastry.
Forget the other people. Death took them. Death took the gangsters and the addicts and the beaten and the beaters alike. But Death wouldn’t take him. The answer was manastry, but it was Gideon who needed to change, not those around him. He needed to be someone else. He needed to escape himself: that would change everything.
He learned to meditate. He studied and he practiced. He founded a group of mages dedicated to magic, and he learned from some of the most brilliant minds in the area. In the meantime he prepared. He was going to be a good person, to rid himself of his faults and his weaknesses, to get away from the things he did over and over again, no matter how hard he tried to break away. He was his own worst enemy. And since he could not manage to reform himself, he was going to force the issue.
At one hundred and forty years of age, he found a brook in a wood, sat quiet and still, let himself relax. He listened to the sound of water, the birds in the trees, the wind in the leaves. And he separated the man he wanted to be from the man he was.
The pain was sharp and brutal, like cleaving his physical brain in two. He fell unconscious. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself staring at an exact double who laid naked on the ground. His double woke, and for a moment they both stared.
Then the copy got to his feet and ran.
Later Gideon wrote that he’d found his double impersonating him. His name, his own traits, his own talents, but he was also the very worst of his own person, the things about himself that he had come to abhor. He had let a manifestation of his own darkness loose in the world. His own personal shadow.
Wyrren put the diary down, closed its cover with a calm that she did not feel. Pieces clicked together in her mind.
Ana brought Wyrren lunch. Wyrren ate, silent. She felt like she had a fire inside her, a raging inferno, and couldn’t focus on Ana’s news and small talk. She didn’t remember a word of it after her sister had left.
<Edward?> Wyrren called. <Do you have your proof yet?>
<It’s not air-tight yet,> Edward admitted. <But it’s leading. Wyrren, I think you need to get out of here. You’re in danger.>
<You’ll have to do better than that.>
<I’ll come to your room and explain,> Edward offered.
Wyrren accepted. She cleared her sitting area, and invited him in when he arrived. Edward came with his arms full of books and files. Wyrren spotted the original red diary among them. “Tell me everything,” Wyrren said.
Edward put down a print of a portrait of the child-prince Sebastian del Torlo. “Most didn’t think much of the change in his personality when he took the throne,” Edward said. “Those closest to him made excuses. Gabriel del Torlo’s murder made some statements before they disbanded—you know each Grand Meister picks his own murder. It made sense. People change when they go through hardships. It was mentioned to me a time ago, and I let it pass without investigating.”
Then Edward began setting down papers. Laws that Gabriel had began that Sebastian had finished, almost unhindered. From irreverent to solemn, from irresponsible to duty-bound, and evidence of each. Edward presented Wyrren with letters, with written testimonies from the prior murder, who had urged an investigation be launched years ago. He spent hours showing her everything, building his case carefully, methodically.
Then Edward brought out the red diary. “I stole this from his office last night,” Edward said. “I wanted to be sure. Let me show you something, Lady Jadis.” And he opened the book backward, flipped back a ways, and began reading Gabriel’s abandonment and renaming of his son—the true Sebastian del Torlo renamed Claudio, his memory erased, abandoned on another world.
Edward went back farther, and read a similar passage. This time it was Gabriel who was removed—relocated to the other end of the world, his memory erased, his place taken. He read passages that Wyrren knew to be taken out of context about the importance of being king, justification arguments with himself about how this is best for the people.
“You only have an evening,” Edward said when he’d finished, and pushed the diary at Wyrren. “Read until you’re convinced. Keep everything, in fact.
“Wyrren, Kartania’s decided against having Sebastian. Please. Don’t stay here, either. It’s not safe. He’s going to use you and discard you, like the rest of these women. He’s going to twist your memories around until you think how he wants you to.”
Wyrren couldn’t move her face. Edward expected her to be shocked and dismayed… but without a face that could convey emotion, he would have to take her feelings on faith. Wyrren flipped through the pages, read sections here and there. “You think Sebastian will use me to replace Kartania?” she asked.
“I know you’ve been having an affair,” Edward said. “I’ve known since you dueled Kartania.”
“If I were to marry Sebastian…”
“He’d pretend to be Sebastian. Which he isn’t. You’ll find a monster if you go back in that diary far enough. He would give you a son, then pretend to widow you when the child is old enough to be useful.” Edward paused, let Wyrren take all this in. “I can give you the night to think this over, but Wyrren, when I leave Doppel after the festival, you must come with us. Kartania’s agreed to take both you and your girls, in light of all this.”
“I… this is difficult to believe,” Wyrren said slowly. “You must understand…”
“Take the book,” Edward said. “By all means. But don’t be caught with it. Keep it locked up. Read as much as you can. I… I’m sorry, Wyrren. I’m very fond of you. I admit it. I don’t want to see this be your fate, too. Please.” He looked in Wyrren’s eyes, his brown eyes sincere. Desperate, even.
Wyrren kissed his forehead. “I like facts, Edward. I need to cross-reference the dates, the entries. I need to check the handwriting, and make certain there are no spells on the volume. I don’t like to sound as if I don’t trust you, but…”
“I stole it from his desk myself,” Edward said. “Examine it at your leisure. Test it as much as you want. It’s all valid.”
Her skin still tingled when he touched Wyrren. Wyrren knew why now. He may have even meant what he said when he claimed to be fond of her.
After Edward left, Wyrren called to Ana and Saffira. She paced along the edge of her carpet by the time her girls arrived, and told them to sit.
“I know who Edward Lowar is,” Wyrren said, “and I know what he’s doing.”
“You’re sure?” Ana said.
Wyrren nodded, and she continued pacing. “Sebastian del Torlo is the immortal Gideon Flynn,” she said, “inheriting his own position generation after generation, displacing his sons, trying to make up his past wrongs as king by being a benevolent ruler. When Edward threatened him in the catacombs, he wasn’t going to kill Sebastian. He was going to destroy his current facade. End the Torlo line. There is no Torlo line. It’s always been him.”
“What about Edward?” Ana asked.
“I’m getting to that,” Wyrren said. “A little over a hundred years into his immortality, Gideon Flynn tried to purge himself of evil with mental magic. But the split didn’t work. He expelled traits that he thought he didn’t want… but it wasn’t his evil side. He rid himself of his sense of humor. His carelessness. His love of pleasure. His fierce passion. Sebastian kept his discipline, his responsibility, his sense of duty.
“Gideon Flynn is immortal. He couldn’t kill half of his own soul. So when he expelled it, it healed as its own entity. Edward Lowar is the half of Gideon Flynn that Sebastian is missing—they’re both half of a whole person. That’s why they both love chess, why they’re both vivomancers and biskmatars and manasters and mages and politicians. Why they’re both attracted to me. Why the closer I get to Sebastian, the more I want Edward too.
“Sebastian… he’s determined to do the same thing over and over,” Wyrren said. “He still believes that if he works harder, if he does better, Death will come take him away. He’s trying to do everything right so that he can die. And in the meantime he has become addicted to his routine, and has nothing to pull him out. He despises the only person who understands him.”
“But he’s destroying his sons’ lives,” Ana said.
“And he’s holding himself back from the people around him,” Wyrren said. “And he’s trying not to get attached, not to really care about anything. He’s done this pattern so long he no longer sees its flaws, I think. He hasn’t lived in… centuries. Millenia, maybe.
“As for Edward, he’s figured out that Sebastian is in love with me. He must have suspected since I mouthed off to Kartania in the library. Sebastian tries to stop himself, but he’s only human. Edward’s used this week to see Kartania fully humiliated. Sebastian has treated her terribly… I think Edward’s right. Five thousand years of this… it’s a wonder Sebastian’s even partly sane, still. Kartania is going to the council, where she’s going to denounce Sebastian’s behavior. When Sebastian refuses to cooperate with their plans and insists on marrying me, he’s going to set Hael Malstrom in a very bad diplomatic position.”
“So Edward’s trying to start a war?” Ana asked.
“No. Edward came to me with Sebastian’s diary—stolen from his desk—and showed me his secrets in the worst light he could. I’m supposed to be crying my eyes out now because the diary is genuine. All my hopes and dreams are supposed to be crushed. Tomorrow night I’m to tell Edward that he was right all along and refuse Sebastian as well. Edward knows me well enough to know that I wouldn’t marry a monster for a position.
“What was going to happen is that Sebastian places himself in a bad situation with Doppel and the council, while the woman he’d picked instead also retreats from him. He’ll ruin his relationship with Renideo, not to mention being an enemy to the king de Marla for sheltering me in the first place.
“Worsening relations with Doppel is bad enough, but both Doppel and all of Marla is unacceptable. Edward nudges Sebastian’s wild ‘childhood’ forward, convinces the council that Sebastian never really changed and can no longer rule after he’s ruined everything, then agrees to patch everything up between Doppel and Hael Malstrom. He’ll be an agent of peace. The price… I will bet anything the price will be that Sebastian steps down from his office. Exile.”
“Which… puts Sebastian out of the job that was supposed to save him, from the people he’s addicted to ruling, and the woman he loves despises him,” Ana said. “Well done, Edward. Sebastian will probably break down completely.” She cocked her head. “What then?”
“Then… then Edward goes to Sebastian, after his will’s been completely broken. Probably somewhere secluded,” Wyrren said. “He’s going to rape him—take Sebastian’s unwilling half of a soul and force it to join with his own, and remake Gideon Flynn. But… the Gideon Flynn that comes out of such a union… they were split in agreement, Ana. They’re equals. If Edward dominates over Sebastian like that, half broken? It won’t be any Gideon Flynn you’d ever want to meet,” Wyrren said. “Edward is desperate to be whole again, I think. Expelled five thousand years ago, and still trying to come home. He’ll take Sebastian’s half in any condition. Checkmate. One king on the board.” And Wyrren had seen how Edward ended that game the week before.
“But that’s not what’s going to happen,” Ana said. “Kartania may still turn against Sebastian—Edward’s close to her enough to see that. But you…”
“He made mistakes,” Wyrren said. “Three, in fact. One—I’d found Gideon’s diary before he’d presented it to me. I don’t think they’re reading my mind, for some reason. I’d never have gotten so far if they were. Two, I was in the catacombs when Edward threatened Sebastian. I’ve never considered Edward to be a caring, neutral figure in this game.”
“And the third?” Ana prompted.
“The third is that as far as anyone knows, I met Sebastian three months ago when I arrived,” Wyrren said. “But my affection for the man called Sebastian goes far beyond that. He may be a monster or a bastard… but he still saved me as a little girl. I am convinced more firmly than Edward has any idea that Sebastian is redeemable, despite all he’s done,” Wyrren said. She looked at the window, at the darkening sky. “The sixth festival night will start soon. I’ve waited more than long enough. This needs to stop tonight.”
Wyrren turned and surveyed her two girls, knowing full well what she would need to do. “Ana, you’re going to minimize Kartania’s rage at Sebastian, if you can. Throw the whole of the blame on me. Hint at… oh, I don’t know. Love potions or something like that.” Wyrren didn’t even know if love potions really existed, even here in Hael Malstrom. “You’re going to undermine Edward Lowar. He won’t expect you to work against my interests.”
Ana frowned, but nodded. “Kartania would love to blame you,” she admitted. “There’s bare-handed fighting in a bar called The Shambling Man in the city. I know Kartania’s been visiting it. Probably working out her aggression.”
Wyrren nodded. She could hope that Kartania wouldn’t murder her later. “Saffira, what I’m about to do… I’m putting myself in danger, but I don’t think a bodyguard will help me. If Sebastian reacts badly… I need you to get far away. If my memory’s erased, you will need to find me and tell me everything. Here.” Wyrren took the diary she had desolidified, opened the back page, and wrote a quick note to herself, then handed it to Saffira. “Here is your proof. I’m a stubborn fool sometimes. I’ll trust your judgment as to the how and when.”
Saffira took the diary and nodded. “As you wish, my lady,” she said. “I will not be captured.”
“Wait,” Ana said, as Wyrren got to her feet. Wyrren had the bag that Edward had given her on her arm, and the stolen diary inside. “What are you doing, Wyrren?”
Wyrren clasped her half mask to her face: her painted smile. She opened the door. “I’m going to save Gideon Flynn.”