“And here I am, returned,” Dace said, dispassionate at the end of Ermane’s story. “So you volunteered yourself to the execution in my stead. To absolve yourself.”
The Ermane-doll moved its head back and forth, strings creaking. “No. To sacrifice myself.”
“And how did you know of my return?”
It lifted a flaccid arm and swung a finger towards its own temple. “Mindspeak.”
Dace laughed. Her voicebox thrummed and reeled mirthlessly. It was so absurd and ironic it could only be true. She took out the graphite stick and began to etch additional symbols around the containment circle.
“I could’ve endured anything, Ermane. Exile, prison, the abuse and the anathema. You can even lie to the world. But not to me. Never to me.” She spoke placidly but the graphite moved fiercely. “It was not your right to redeem yourself. Only those you have wronged can forgive you.”
The Ermane-doll watched her, head toppling from side to side, hair draping the floorboards as it followed her movements around the circle.
“You were always cleverer than me, Dacey,” it said, “even though I was the elder. I’m sorry I was afraid. I’m sorry I was weak.”
“It’s too late.”
“I know, dearest. So I can only give you my life as I have been living it, though Danar knows you deserve much more.”
Dace ignored the Ermane-doll and moved back around to the front. “Father always believed a soul didn’t need an Attending to move on, that they do well enough on their own without a goodhand’s help. We only pray and ceremonise as a balm for grief. So this is my ceremony to you, Ermane.” She closed her eyes and inhaled, graphite poised to complete the last mark, the eternity glyph. “The Alnight is coming to an end; can you feel its pull? I could keep you tethered like this, you could live forever as a necromancer’s puppet.”
The Ermane-doll propped itself up as best it could, its wooden face strangely pensive and familiar. “Do you know what it’s like where I’ve been, Dacey?” it said. “It’s a void, an abyss, and in it I’m always waiting, though I know not for what. I don’t know what Eltavari is, but it’s not that. Ermane is dead. So is Dace. Let me lie, sister, and move on. Start anew and live.”
Dace could not see the sun, but she could feel its heat prickling her skin like fingertips thawing before a fire. Now was the crossroad, before the lines descended once more: cut the red ropes and let go, or bind her forever like this.
“It’s what you deserve,” Dace said to Ermane, though it was herself she was telling. Her sister waited patiently.
Then they heard the song, not by a human throat or any recognisable instrument. It pitched high and low, shattering glass and graphite. The Ermane-doll shuddered, in reverence or fear it was hard to tell. The darkness amassed, filling the room and the air they breathed, and shortened into the shape of a man. Dace knew, though she was an Unbeliever, that she was looking upon the visage of Vironas the demon-god.
He came at her and she cowered, but instead of delivering smite, he patted her. On the head, just once. In those few seconds, she felt his benevolence and admonition. Oddly, it reminded her of Father. You’ve been mischievous, his touch said, time to stop now. Time to rest. He floated backwards, carrying with him Ermane’s soul and all the Vagabond spirits of the Alnight, back to where they belonged beyond the line.
Vironas continued to walk but Ermane looked back over his shoulder at Dace.
“Ermie, I never told you…” The words stuck, funnelling into that useless voicebox.
“I know,” Ermane said. “Me too.”
And she was gone, Vironas with her. Dace collapsed to the ground, exhausted, and waited for the light to return.
That was how Oromon found her when he arrived. Her cheeks were wet but her eyes were dry. She did not even stir when he came to examine to doll thing lying before her.
“Brilliant,” he said in wonderment. “You gave yourself away, you know.” He held up a hand and wriggled his pinkie, the one she was missing. “The tea you didn’t pour.”
Dace staggered to her feet, weary and resigned. “I’m ready. Take me away.”
“Do you not remember me, Dace?” Oromon said softly.
When she looked up, it was no longer with the face of a condemned girl from all those years ago. Of course there was none of that girl left, that little child who had seemed to blaze even as she cowered and bleated for mercy.
“Should I?” she said.
“Never mind. Let’s clear this clutter before those terraforce dogs come baying.”
Now he had her attention. “You’re not arresting me?”
“I could,” he agreed, “but you’re more useful to me alive.”
“What the hell do you want with me?”
“I’m from a relatively new branch of the Academy. We investigate activities of,” he paused, “special interest. Perhaps you’d like to put your particular skills to good use…”
to be continued…