Of Saarn and the Ozirmok

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Take the weapon that I give thee
Know the weapon that I make thee.
Thus I give thee strength in hunting
In the runes inscribed on spear-shaft.
Thus I give thee might in warfare
In the words of oath thou swear me
When thou undertake this conscript.

- Ladoga III; The Solomonari Valkzaron

Interlude: Ad Momentum, Pace | In Memoria, Adytum

Even the mortals claim that the world has grown smaller, in the last few hundred years. This is, of course, not literally true - the literal truth is the opposite, shredded remnants of star and iron tumbling down from void to earth like sedimentation, a bare influx of resources. But to finite eyes it would be smaller-seeming, networks of movement and speech and thought hastening the diffusion that occurs between all peoples. A world no longer merely perfused by trade routes but innervated, from the corners of the seas to the mountains where the air is thick enough only for spirits to breathe, and where men die slowly as the sky sucks the water from their blood into the empty spaces of their flesh.

It amazes her, how Ion can still make her feel exactly like that - overfull, unshed skin too small for all the storm swelling inside her chest. How she can still tell the exact direction of their gaze as surely as the lodestones embedded in her dura show her south.

Nadox had, with only slight confusion at her lack of desire to spend every breathing moment among books, acceded to the formation of actual chambers within the Cloister. For her sake, and that of their disciples, when there comes a diastole in the tending of the plots and plans they have embedded in all corners of the world, or when Nadox calls for them to return. And so this is the one she habitually chooses for her own, the one she has shaped to her preferences - hung lamellae glistering rainbow with cilia from ceiling and walls, permineralized a hearth in which to ignite fat and lignin and to watch the flames dance like they did under the larches long ago.

It aches to turn away from the figure in the corner of it, seated upon her sleeping-platform, bare feet drawn up beneath them. Turning a frayed end of their robes between their fingers. Gradually coming back to themself.

A day ago, she had set above the fire a vessel, in anticipation of this homecoming. Kalākāran would laugh at her - and possibly Naman too, her adaptable, dual-lived followers. My lady, there exists a marvelous device known as a stove -

But certain things have to be done properly.

Her body, to her own surprise, has lost familiarity with how to stoop over a hearth, how to reach into the heat - it blinks, closes its nostrils, flinches at the sharp touch of the ladle as she fills a bowl. She turns and holds it out as a votive, or maybe as proof - though it be thousands of years, I have not forgotten old Adí-üm. Is this not how we would have celebrated, in the holy city? How we marked the years and the battles with food, drink, and dancing?

This world, this world that has been devoid of you for three millennia, has grown small, and strange, and overfull; but it has not changed so much as to have lost honey, and spelt, and the fire-flower’s winter-bitter seeds.

(To whom this proof is being offered hangs as an unclosed question.)

They take it, double-handed. “Thank you,” they say. And - what has she been expecting, from the silence? That their voice be broken, wavering with suffering, hoarse with crying? It is not. It never would have been. Instead, it is perfect. The same perfection with which she had struck the fire that still burns in the corner. The perfection that comes of concentration and of returning to a tool unused for a very, very long time.

They eat. She folds herself down onto the floor beside them, in a position that feels a mockery of old - the faithful servant learning at her master’s knee. The previous silence returns, leaden-heavy and humid - a pressure that she feels must give, and fears never shall.

“I… käsek,” she begins, haltingly. “My lord…”

A hand settles heavily on her shoulder, and they say only “Saarn,” and it cleaves her without any effort at all.

It has been millennia since she was capable of tears, and so she does not know whether now she laughs or sobs. But they reach for her and draw her in, limbs tangling, burying faces into the crevices of each other’s forms - Saarn’s tail curls into their lap; they cling to her shoulder blades and breathe into her hair. They embrace like water cleaves to carnallite, like sundews wrap around their prey, like - family, long sold apart, reunited again beyond hope.

“Oh - it is you,” Saarn whispers between their costae. “Truly you. It has been so long…”

They turn her chin from their thorax and take her face between their hands, a loose droplet of honey grinding onto her jawline. “Did you doubt me?” they ask gently.

There is nothing in the question to suggest what answer they want to hear, even if Saarn knew what answer she could give. Certainly she feared for them - Nadox had called her, when Lovataar’s letter had reached him, that she too might read the words with her own eyes. And even buried beneath her sister’s excitement and the dense nest of abbreviations, she had detected the contact’s subtext as though his thoughts had settled on her tongue: he sought to dissuade. Though sympathetic, the Syrian believed Lovataar wrong; no soul, he thought, no matter how strong, could survive the tides of the Nevermeant. Whatever Lovataar called back would not be her beloved - at best some shattered imitation, at worst a monster, an inversion of everything they had ever fought for. The one who knew these mysteries best of all thought their quest hopeless, and only liable to break their own hearts fully upon it.

The thought had not unsettled Saarn. But it had been a thought.

And after the first sacrifice had been made, and Halyna had given proof in mind of her deed, images of those five effigy-corpses in the triumph of immolation, Saarn had ascended to the surface and the rooftops of the city called Prague, and watched the wheeling of the Wain and the Char across the velvet of the void.

Suppose it is not enough, she had asked herself. Suppose their trust in you has been misplaced, and none of what you have or will or can do will be sufficient to revive Nälkä, to bring back your promised paradise. What will you do, if this world is all you have? Where will you go?

But even in that case - the failure would have been on her own head, not on theirs.

“I doubted me,” she says instead. “You commanded me to make your preparations, and I have to the end of my strength, but…” there is much implicit that I have failed to do. I have tried always to make preparations, as the shape of the future is forever shown in the present, and so when Kalmaktama fell I did not grieve.

When their followers slaughtered each other as the threads of evil will Ion had kept bound arrowed into their minds, she did not mourn. How easily she had then traded her bronze blades for iron! How easily iron had shifted to steel and then to lead, how rapidly the young languages had taken root around Ämärangnä in her mouth!

She had settled her heart and turned forwards, and in all her preparations, she failed to preserve herself among them. And so, if Ion wishes, they would be well within their rights to take up again Orok’s armies and Kalākāran’s weapons and yet cast her herself away. For having forgotten. For having seized so enthusiastically upon the alien advantages offered by every false empire since. For being a creature as much of the current quarrelling states as of Nälkä as it ought to be.

She has given Ion the food of old Adí-üm - and yet that same taste would be nigh as foreign in her own mouth, for of late she has filled herself with the clumsily-altered rusks from the mortals, and ignored whatever sin she sensed in it.

“Command me,” she begs. “Command me as of old, let me be your will, your hands, the edge of your anger. What do you desire, my lord, for I will do it, anything -“

“Why, Saarn, do you ask this of me?”

She bites her lip; it draws saline blood. “My lord… you have come to conquer, and I have done what I can to scribe history, to prepare your way. But… I am changed by these times, käsek, even as I have worked myself to change them to your purposes. And it may not be a change you would have desired for me.”

They tilt their head and kiss her, thrice: temple, cheek, winter-bitter lips. “I stole you for yourself, Saarn,” they say. “My desire is not the sum and total of your being, whether you have fulfilled it or no. I have not loosed you only to bind you again in shame.

“You have changed; you have become a thing that can live in this world, as all things must if they wish to endure.” They hold up a hand, and the flesh softens and merges, growing translucent until Saarn looks upon a seven-rayed paw. “And yet the memory and mark of all you have been remains within you, still. She before me now is she who helped direct my armies is she who followed me out of that cell.”

But Saarn shakes her head. “No, my lord, you do not know -“ This time, she knows she sobs. “If you were truly lost - if all memory of Adí-üm were lost - I would have survived, still.” And how wrong would that have been, the disciple surviving what she had devoted herself too? What an insufficiency of love, to refuse to die their death, to selfishly and hard-heartedly continue breathing, whatever befell Ion and their cause.

“Good.” The word is a vibration in their chest, passing into her bones. “I would want you so strong. I would want you to know all of these current times as you can, for we still have much work ahead of us, no?”

Constrained, she nods.

“And you shall be needful as ever, in it.” They laugh. It is not entirely as mirthful as her memories - dampened, translucent as the hand - and yet it warms her, orbit to tail. “Ah, my dear, my best intelligencer - I send you before me, and you go. What else could I have asked from you?”

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