"The Shining Cities are dead," said the ambassador. "We discern that they were struck by the Gray Men. As far as we can tell, no one survived."
"Then the University has been destroyed?" the Arluisian King asked. He shook his head sadly. "That is a pity. Their clever little toys have been so useful...."
"Someone will rebuild," the ambassador replied. "They always do."
"Indeed," the king mused. "Indeed. If I recall, they have been razed six times...less than half the number of times our kingdom has been attacked, though we ourselves have never failed to repel enemies." He smiled a faint, satisfied grin. "Regardless, it will be many years before they supply us with their swords or those magnificent eye-scopes...what a sad thing to hear. How long ago did it happen?"
"I have traveled many months," replied the ambassador. "And I have been waylaid many times. This news comes to you thirteen months old."
The king nodded. "Such is the way of things." He sat up then, and clapped his hands twice, smartly. "But you have not come all this way to tell me about the Shining Cities, have you, ambassador? Surely there is greater news from your own country! You have come quite a long way, to look at how dark your skin is. What have you come to tell me?"
The ambassador smiled a gleaming smile, bright against his tanned and handsome face. "I believe it best to tell you in private, Majesty. The newly-formed Parliament di'Corvex sends word of a deeply sensitive nature, and would rather that your response not be compromised by the opinions of your subjects."
"An amusing sentiment, coming from a Parliament," the king replied, and waved a hand. Within seconds, the room had cleared, but for the king, the di'Corvae ambassador, and the three men surrounding the king. Each of them wore a sword on his left hip and an eye-scope on his right eye; the glass in the latter glinted redly even in the dark.
"Your Majesty? It is a sensitive message."
"The guard remain with me at all times, ambassador," replied the king. "How is it you did not know this? My family is never without their guard." He smiled and gestured expansively at the throne room, at the walls, and at the towering statues that leaned against them. "And we are never without the Weepers."
Every king who had ever ruled Arluis—the child-state of Arluin, birthed after Arluin fell—had had his likeness carved into the wall of the throne room. Each was depicted with his head bowed and a tear coming from one eye. (Popular myth was that the tradition came from their sorrow over Arluin's demise; a different version which said the first king had been weeping because he'd stepped on a nail, and the rest of the family were too stupid to break tradition.)
Regardless, the statues represented a nearly insurmountable obstacle to would-be assassins: they negated all magic but for the work of Artisans. Eye-scopes, lightning swords, sun guns: all marked with the Stars and all immune to the negating effects of the Weepers. The Royal Guard had enough enchanted weaponry to dismantle a city, and no man could compete with them physically. The Kings of Arluis were invincible.
"A magnificent spectacle indeed, Majesty," the ambassador praised, "although ultimately, I'm afraid, futile."
"Why do you say that? The Weepers are older than any magic on this continent. Even the Artisans' cunning Stars are only as old as my ancestors."
"I'm sure," said the ambassador, and as he spoke, his face changed. Tears began pouring from his eyes, but not true tears—they glittered and shone cobalt bright. When the tears had all fallen his eyes were no longer blue, but gleaming black. His hands glowed as though with fire.
"But the Artisans are not the oldest magic in the world." He smiled, and there was lightning in his face.
Aron walked quickly down the Street of Kings. On his left hip he wore a stolen sword, and on his right eye an eye-scope flashed red. He'd glamoured himself again, making his eyes a dull green and his face pale enough to match the skin of a royal guardsman. Jinevra would have disapproved of the fact that he'd stolen a uniform from one of the men, but he hadn't the patience to glamour his clothes. Besides, why waste good cloth?
And, after all, he needed the proper costuming for this play.
He reached the end of the avenue, the city square. It was filled, seething with a mass of humanity. He lifted his hands and shouted, in a great, deep voice, "Friends and countrymen!"
"The King has been murdered! The Weeping King is dead!"
That was all he needed to do. The war was begun now, and no one could stop it. Soon, the king's servants would tell the city of the di'Corvae ambassador who had asked to be alone with their monarch, and the fledgling republic would be attacked by one of the oldest kingdoms in the world.
And the Republic would win. Aron had seen to that already, on his year-long journey here.
He grinned as he watched the crowd. Already it was writhing, passionate, hateful enough to ignite a war. His work was done here.
Satisfied, he turned to leave—and froze, very quickly, when he found a blade leveled at his throat.
"Well," Aron said coolly, "hello, there."
The man with the sword wore a dark burgundy uniform with eight gold circles on the breast. He wore an eye-scope on his left eye, though the glass wasn't glowing. Aron noticed with interest that the man's sword was marked with the Stars. At the sight of the symbol, he felt his blood quicken and a thrill run up his chest. The Artificer...not yet.
"Hello, Guardian," replied the Admiral. He tilted his head quizzically, and blue light appeared deep in the eye-scope. "But you're no Guardian, are you? Peel away your glamour, young one, or I'll stick you here and now."
Aron smiled and let the glamour flicker away. As the magic bled away, the Admiral's face curled into a sneer.
"An Artisan," he snarled. "I should have expected it."
"Barely such," Aron replied, "as I never graduated."
"You left before the Shining Cities were destroyed."
"Not at all. I was there when it happened."
"And you killed my king."
Aron grinned, and as he did he felt the Artificer rise up. His voice, his eyes, everything in him changed in an instant. "What will you do if I say yes, Admiral? That sword's a pretty thing. I'd hate to see it discolored."
"I'd count it a prettier thing," the Admiral grunted hoarsely, "with the blood of a kingkiller smeared along its blade."
The Artificer nodded solemnly, then said, "Well, I would rather we not do that—"
And he moved back. The Admiral blinked in surprise, but already the Artificer was twenty meters away, smiling broadly.
"You will need to be faster than that, Admiral," he called. "I am quite—"
"Stupid," said a feminine voice behind him. He felt a hot, buzzing cylinder pressed against his back. "To run backward without looking."
He knew that voice. Oh, how very spiteful Fate could be....
"My lady wife is a magnificent ally, is she not?" the Admiral said proudly, marching forward to lay the point of his sword on the Artificer's chest. "Always at my side or behind my enemies' backs."
The Artificer glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him. "Behind your enemies' backs, yes. Although I imagine your enemies get her on her back just as often." He sneered at her. "Hello, Laera."
"You will not sully my lady wife's honor, murderer," the Admiral growled.
"Your lady wife?" the Artificer guffawed. "How long have you known her, Admiral? A month? I can promise you this: she's slept with more of the Arluisian Navy in this single year than you've commanded in your lifetime!"
The Admiral's face contorted as he let out a wordless howl, and his eye-scope turned blindingly red. His sword glowed scarlet.
"That would be somewhat more impressive if you knew how to use your tool, Admiral," said the Artificer, as he pinched the blade between two fingers. The red glow disappeared, and the pretty blade cracked, then split in two. "Practice does make perfect, I'm told." He turned his eye-scope to look directly in the Admiral's eye, and smiled. The other man's knees shook, then buckled, as he fell to the ground.
The Artificer turned to face his sister and smiled at her one last time. "This seems just a little too familiar, little Laera," he said. "I have some sense that I have done this before."
"Shut up!" Laera screeched, shoving the pulse gun into the center of his chest. "Shut up!"
"Oh, do pull the trigger, little sister," he taunted. "If you can, of course. You never did enjoy blood. Remember the first time you killed a man? But—oh, yes, that's right. You couldn't. You preferred a...softer weapon. Always preferred warming men to killing them, didn't you?" He sneered. "Perhaps that's why the Artisans never really wanted you. Not as a student, at least...."
"Things can change," Laera whispered hoarsely, but she didn't shoot. "I don't need something marked with the Stars to kill you."
"You're quite right. You'd need much more. This dear husband you've been stringing along had the Stars on his sword and his eye-scope, and, well...you see how much that's worth." He turned to stare at the Admiral's unconscious body, moodily studying the symbols that decorated his weapons. "Yes, much more than the Stars. Much more than a gun. You'd need to be more than human, I think."
While he stared, Laera pulled the trigger. A crackling ball of silver energy rushed out and punched through the Artificer's skin, muscle, heart and bone, and came buzzing out the other side. Her brother turned to look at her.
"Do you see? You'll need more than that." He looked strangely sad. "Steel, heat, light, magic...the Artisans were weak, pale imitations of what I have become, dear sister. I am much more than a man. Much more than even one of the Angels, I think. Perhaps I have escaped Death."
He looked her in the eye. "Perhaps he has forgotten me."
His eye-scope gleamed, and his little sister flew backward against the wall. Her eyes turned black as coal, and she screamed. Everything within her gaping mouth was black.
The Artificer looked into the blackness, and the blackness looked back.