“Comrades, Beloved” by Heather Clitheroe
Draald Kane, Officer of the Order of the Bells, and Anellen Mirren, Dame Commander and Wardress of the Seventh Circle of Artifice, were in town to talk about their book. They arrived separately, Kane coming by carriage that, he said, seemed to find every pothole and bump in the road. By the time he arrived at the hotel where Mirren was staying, he felt nauseated.
“We can take our time,” Mirren told him as she finished her breakfast. It was early, and they were the only guests in the dining room. A sleepy waiter sat in a chair by the wall, looking bored. Mirren wore a black dress, somewhat too severe and plain, but pinned on the lapel was the jeweled brooch given to her by the Queen years ago, when Mirren brought her the signed decree of surrender from the council of Merryval. By all accounts, Mirren tried to refuse the brooch, claiming that the lands granted to her were enough, but now, at sixty-eight, she frequently wore it to public engagements. “It makes up for my grey hair,” she said, laughing. Kane, eighty-two, wore the purple sash of his station over a suit.
He asked for a cup of tea. “I’ll just go and get ready, darling,” said Mirren. “Make myself presentable.” It was the start of a seven-week tour that would take them through eight cities, going from one lunch club to another, giving interviews to newspapers, lecturing to social rooms, guild halls, classrooms, and the like. It promised to be an exhausting schedule, but then, Mirren and Kane were hardly strangers to weeks spent together on the road.
The pair were picked up from the hotel and taken across town to meet with journalists from the Daily Mirror and the Empire Quarterly. In a conference room, with tall windows looking out onto the brick wall of a chancery building, they answered questions about the book’s controversial retelling of the early days of the Merryval conflicts, and its incredible, daring tale of espionage and infiltrating the capital. (“How did you get the accent down?”) When it was over, Kane gave a private interview. Mirren went to a primary school down the street to speak with the children about the importance of courage.
At the school, little girls in uniforms listened with rapt attention. Mirren stood at the front of the classroom and described how, with magic woven tightly around her, she had slipped through the sewers and found her way to the palace underworks, laying the trap that would collapse the building on generals meeting with the crown prince. If the story was familiar, it was still thrilling, and the girls leaned in, eyes shining. Was she scared? “Of course I was scared, darlings,” she said. “I didn’t think the plan would work. I thought I would die. But I knew that Kane was relying on me, and I had to try my best. That’s courage. When you do your very best, even when things are the very worst.”
She asked if there were more questions. There were many.
No, she did not have the magic sword anymore; she had given it to another, younger adventurer. “And that’s the way it should be,” she said crisply. “Don’t waste what you don’t need.”
She rarely worked magic now, but yes, she still could.
She explained how hard it was to get armor for a woman back then, and that yes, pants and breeches were much easier for fighting, but a good dress with pockets was fine, too.
A small girl, her hair in braids, a star of Kli on a chain around her neck, waved her hand in the air with determination. When called on, she asked why Mirren and Kane never married. The teacher looked exasperated, but Mirren just laughed. “We were always friends,” said Mirren. “Two people can be the very best of friends,” she went on. “It takes a very great friend to love you for who you are, and never to ask more than you are willing to give.”
The little girls were frankly skeptical, though one child, sitting at the back of the room, had a thoughtful expression.
Mirren and Kane reconvened at the Royal Society for Cartographers and Celestial Works, nineteen blocks north on the waterfront. It was mid-morning and felt like rain. Kane was pale and had a pounding headache. Mirren offered him a peppermint candy in the lobby. “I didn’t sleep well,” he said, taking it. “I never do.” He blew his nose and asked for a glass of water.
“You should try whiskey,” Mirren advised. “That would help.”
The cartographers had more questions than the journalists, but far fewer than the little girls. They listened gravely to a prepared speech about the essential functions of the Society and its vital contributions to the war. Mirren, now with a silken scarf embroidered with constellations draped around her shoulders, spoke with the practical aplomb of a diplomat: gracious without demeaning, encouraging without stooping to condescension. When the talk was over, she took a fountain pen from the pocket of her dress and signed copies of the books handed to her by an aide, chatting briefly with each recipient.
Lunch was a casual affair. Kane’s headache had subsided, and he was revived enough to ask for a plate of oysters. “I don’t know how you do that, darling,” said Mirren, looking at it with distaste.
“You try not to think too much about it,” he said.
Mirren ordered a glass of wine and a bowl of hearty fish soup that arrived with a plate of toasted bread and cheese, which she slid across the table to Kane. “You need something that’ll stay with you.”
The adventurers had met when there was still adventuring to do. “Those were the days,” Kane said, with relish. “Just went out and did, no getting permission or bandying about with clerks for supplies. Before I met Anellen, I spent most of my time looking for the lost temples.” He was reminiscing about the years he’d spent exploring the catacombs of the south, mapping ice caverns and cataloging treasures.
Mirren snorted. “You mean looting?” She shook her head. “It was always easier for men. I never would have been allowed out in the world if it hadn’t been for the border wars.”
“You would have found a way,” said Kane.
“My town burned to the ground,” said Mirren. “So there wasn’t anything holding me there; I just went out and got going. Anyways, it’s in the book.”
“You didn’t put anything in there about the gosium…”
“You old coot,” she said, throwing back her head and laughing. “As if anybody would ever believe me.”
“I hardly did…but there you were, standing over its body, that bloody magic sword in your hand, and you had the nerve to ask me for a job.”
“Well, you looked like you were hiring,” Mirren said, wiping her eyes.
“Because it had just eaten my ‘prentice, yes…”
It was still early in their day. There was a scheduled appearance at a reform school to give that afternoon, Kane said: a talk on self-discipline. “All those kids want to hear about is hacking and slashing,” he explained. “I should know — I was one.” He meant a delinquent. “But in between stories of our glory and the campaigns” — and he rolled his eyes — “a little on what it means to plan and think.” Then he shrugged. “I guess I’m still learning about that.”
Kane and Mirren were philosophical about their role in the Merryval war. Partners even before the conflict, they’d established a reputation for getting the job done. “Whatever it was — caravan work, guard duty…out on the borders, seems like somebody’s kid was always being abducted and held for ransom.”
“We were good at recovering lost sons and daughters, weren’t we?” Mirren shook her head. “You know, some of them were better off lost…”
“We’d find them and sometimes we’d help them move on,” said Kane. “Anellen had contacts all over the place, and she’d send them off. To the guilds, or mercenaries — she’d write a letter and seal it, and off they’d go.”
“Not as sophisticated as that,” Mirren said. “I knew some people, and they knew people…” At twenty-three, she’d studied magic with the Artificer’s College, binding her enchantments with a sword she’d found in a ruin somewhere on the Skull Coast. “Kane bought my way in,” she said. “We’d had a good run, built up some credit. And credibility. When Kane told me he was sending me to school, I just about knocked him silly…thought he was bundling me off like a wayward, too.” But she returned to the adventuring life three years later, catching up with him in Brotne. “And that was years before the war,” she said, “but we knew it was heating up. So we stayed close.”
Kane chuckled. “Good money, too. Brotne was thick with mercenaries — freelancers, like us, militias, and the large companies. Everybody wanted a piece of it, but there was work to go around, keeping the merchants and the guilds safe. It was like being part of one big family. But when Merryval declared war…”
“And then the plague…”
“…everything changed. It wasn’t just about money any more, was it?” Kane fell silent and stared at this hands, his eyes bright. Mirren reached across the table to touch his arm. After a moment, Kane cleared his throat. “It was a horror.”
Mirren tipped her head back, remembering. “Something changes when you lose people like that,” she said. “It’s anger…but it’s something else.”
“Revenge?” suggested Kane.
“Conviction.” He nodded. “You should tell your delinquents that,” Mirren said. “It’s not always glory. Or hack and slash. Sometimes…it’s because you can’t put things back the way they were. And you have to do something with all the hurt and the rage.” She sipped her wine. “But even that doesn’t work. Not unless you can find peace.”
“You found it,” Kane said softly.
“Sometimes I wonder if that was the right way to do it.”
They sat quietly, the heroes of the war. The explorers who found the Temple of Kli, releasing the binding that held it in torment. The blades for hire, rescuing lost children, turning the tables on blackmailers. Couriers to trust with secrets, later turned spies and deputized by the Queen’s government. Kane asked a passing waiter for whiskey. “Make it two,” he said.
“I don’t drink whiskey –”
“What makes you think it’s for you? Seven bloody weeks of this. And I still have to figure out what I’m going to tell those delinquents. Might as well fortify myself.”
“Try staring down a room of little girls,” said Mirren. “At least you won’t get the marriage questions.”
“Don’t you mean ‘again’?” They laughed together, just two old friends finishing each other’s sentences, remembering the good old days.
|Heather Clitheroe lives and writes in Alberta, Canada. Her science fiction and fantasy fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others.|