Set during the aftermath of Dissonance.
The air is brighter here than it was before they moved to the coast - fresh, and clear, and sharp with salt. The sea is wonderful, and Armand spends the whole morning gleefully flinging himself into rockpools. So far, he’s discovered the existence of hermit crabs, and of those coarse, green clumps of seaweed that look like ugly, bedraggled choker necklaces, and of the fact that you shouldn’t tread on hermit crabs unless you’re wearing really thick sandals and don’t care about the way they go cracksmush against the pale rocks, and of tickly little sandhoppers that wriggle between your toes when you step out far enough into the waves, disappearing back into the ground when the water retreats. Now, having exhausted all the potential of the sea itself, he’s turned his attention to the sand.
He’s going to create the biggest sand kingdom in the world, and nothing - be it storms, sharks, or teatime - is going to stop him.
He’s halfway through construction by the time his father approaches. By then, Armand, who has devoured his parents’ stories with avidity, if not cartographical inclination, has a large plateau within brittle city walls, and has now moved on to carving multidirectional sand channels as homage to his grandfather’s collection of aged street maps.
Laurent Cargan carefully skirts the city borders and props himself against a nearby rock.
“Founders’ Square,” he says, giving the eponymous heap of sand a gentle nudge with the tip of his cane.
Armand gives a proud, effusive nod.
The cane wafts its way towards the edge. “College of the Stars?”
A broad, answering grin. “I did the turrets.”
Laurent smiles. “You’re going to need some help with the Palace. There’s seaweed a little way back that looks sort of purplish. Want me to fetch some?”
The sand looks pale when festooned with wrack, and Armand gives it a sceptical glance. His father clearly lacks Armand’s own flair for construction.
Still, he displays an admirable propensity towards letting his son make the bulk of the design choices, so Armand is content to tolerate the partnership. He crouches with his head bent over his knees, carving windows out of wet sand. Meanwhile, Laurent is beginning to recite the age-old story, the one Armand could recite in his sleep.
“… And of course, even the centre of Thys can’t even begin to compare to the city where our family once thrived. It’s a marvel. A walled paradise, adorned with turrets, and spires, and -”
“- And hidden little marketplaces where you can buy absolutely everything!” interrupts Armand, looking up - triumphant at having beaten his father to the punch.
Laurent chuckles. “And towers that catch at the edge of the sky.”
“And libraries bigger than the biggest mansion anywhere on the island!”
“And at the centre of it all,” continues his father, seamlessly - cane tip circling the mound of sand enclosed within the walls, “at the seat of power, is a single family, wise and just. Reigning over the city forever.”
“The Salics,” says Armand, dutifully. The words taste the same as they always have - familiar and unfathomable all at once.
Laurent nods. “The Salics. Jewel in the Acryn crown.”
“Father, when am I going to be old enough to see it for myself?”
His father doesn’t answer. But then, his father never does. “Come on - let’s see if we can find some sea glass for the windows.”
Present day, five years and several months since the Upheaval - Acryn
Founders’ Square at night doesn’t feel like anything at all.
There’s an odd, aseptic nothingness to the crafted stone; he’s not sure whether it’s the bitterness of his imagination, or the death of a thousand old associations at play here, but it feels just as symbolic a conclusion as anything else. Loud carvings of the Rosemile crest stand in the place of the lamppost where he and Francesco had once hung a stolen trinket of the People’s College, opposite the narrow alleyway where they’d kissed - and he’d told Astraeus that he’d saved the place from collapse during his very first adventure, and spent the entire subsequent conversation worrying that the boy had taken it as a jibe. Astraeus had been quieter after that. Solemn.
What he’d meant to say was, it’s okay that you’re not me. Probably he hadn’t managed to convey anything of the sort.
But one of him is enough, frankly. He treads through the streets of Acryn like a spectre, shadowing the paths that he’d memorised by rote - drinking in the bruising, clammy humanity of it all - feeling it rinse him of doubts like a remedy for the chill that soaked its way into his bones from the Otherside.
I hate being away from the city, is what he’d told Senta, and he’d been overheard by Amelia Stone, who’d misunderstood. What he means is he hates the quiet, alien chaos of the Lost Spaces, just as he hates the strange, hostile interior of a dragon - hates the absence of the city’s noise, and the uncertainty of ever returning home.
Ascension, he reminds himself, cannot be comparable. But that does nothing to shift the ache in his chest, or the certainty that he has traded one burned bridge for another, more permanent crossing.
The gateway to Francesco’s bazaar is the same as ever it was: large, ornate - and utterly unresponsive to the efforts of either ritual or reason.
Armand approaches, the same as he does every night. Every sense, despite himself, still sings at the unmistakable scent of the divine that permeates the area, and, despite everything else, a sick thrill of anticipation chases up his spine. He bows his head for a whispered prayer. Opens a vein as payment.
As ever, the door doesn’t shift, and what lies within - as far as he is capable of sensing - is silent.
The first time it happened, he’d cursed his throat raw, and pounded at the stonework until the surface was spotted with blood. He’d shouted, and pleaded, and curled up to sleep at the foot of the threshold. Now, he just kneels, and leans until his forehead touches the stone. And waits.
An exhaustive list of the things Armand Cargan-Graves has left of his husband:
1. One scribing notebook, heavily scribbled-in, full of argument and flirtation alike - still in use.
2. Three absurdly lacy shirts, discarded in Armand’s room and never returned, alongside one stolen blue waistcoat that Francesco had claimed was out of season, but Armand basically just liked. The rest - along with sundry other possessions - are locked up in a ludicrous legal feud with Corlo Graves, who seems to enjoy taking people to court for more or less the hell of it, and that’s another fight that might as well go on without him.
3. A motley selection of screwed-up pieces of paper lying a couple of feet away from his bedroom door, from where Armand had laughingly pelted him with balled-up failed treatises after some particularly obnoxious comments on the state of his handwriting.
4. The remnants of a dream - fragmented, half-remembered - that he cannot quite place as reality, nor entirely dismiss as fiction. Try as he might to dismiss it, this last seems by far the most substantial.
They’d never moved in together - never formally shared a space, as such - but their lives had overlapped in so many perfect, indescribable ways that he aches at the rawness of their absence: Francesco, peeled back from the edges of his existence, leaving him exposed and wanting underneath it all.
He has taken to addressing the ceiling with these complaints.
“Look at me, you monumental wanker - I’m appalling. This is embarrassing. What the hell kind of right did you have to reduce me to this?”
Francesco’s responses are sparser and sparser these days - and gaps between messages agonisingly prolonged. Some days, Armand would like nothing better than to send him furious, accusatory paragraphs: what could possibly have been the point of leaving me here, and I hate you for putting me through this - for endowing me with every power you possessed, and then taking away the one thing I ever wanted from you. But the irregularity of their correspondence scares him, and if he gives vent to all the malice pressing against his throat like a brand, then who’s to say the bitterest message won’t end up being the last Francesco ever sees?
And so he scrawls into the corner of the notebook, I love you, and bites his lip until it bleeds.
Six years before the Upheaval - Thys
“I don’t hear anything!” Armand’s fists hit the table.
Anabelle Cargan studies him, lips pursed in vague amusement: the same expression she made that one time he came down to dinner after trying to put on his best jacket and boots without his valet’s help. Turning to her husband, she says: “No, it’s definitely there. Slight, but enough. We’ll start tomorrow.”
They exchange glances. Armand stares between the two of them, aghast. He tries desperately hard not to stamp his foot, but then father gives a slight chuckle, and that is enough - all bets are off -
He stamps not once, but twice, relishing in the satisfying clatter his boots make against the tiles. “Mother, I don’t hear it!”
“Oh, it’s nothing of consequence, son,” she laughs, placing a gentle hand over once of his fists. “Just the slightest touch of Thys to your vowels. Elocution lessons will work wonders.”
Armand shrugs her off. Darkly, he considers if a full-on tantrum will do the trick. It had worked well enough back when Wilkins had caught him putting beetles in Penelope’s dresser, but what convinces the help won’t necessarily pass muster with his parents when they’re set on educating him unnecessarily.
Thus, he switches tack.
“Well, so what if I do sound like I’m from Thys?” he demands, as loudly as possible for maximum impact. “I’ll sound like I’m from Thys if I want to! I - I don’t care about Acryn! Acryn can go to hell!” He wrestles with all he remembers of his history lessons for something appropriately damning to round this off with. “Down with the Salics and their stupid purple palaces!”
Much to his horror, his parents utterly fail to look shocked. In fact, they look - his mother’s lips are thinning, which is a sure sign - is she laughing at him?
“Armand, if only you knew how ironic that -”
Armand throws up his hands, gives a wounded cry of outrage, and storms right out of the room.
For about two weeks, he hates his elocution lessons with an ardent, incandescent passion that utterly dissipates in the face of the realisation that he’s actually rather good at it. Better than Penelope, for certain - which is probably because Penelope spends her time sneaking off to gods alone know where on the island when all the civilized Cargans are studying, and comes home with eyes bright with excitement and a smile so sharp and secretive that he wants to set her entire face on fire.
But it feels good, learning how to speak properly. Productive. Adult. And there are more stories to be heard as he sands down the rough edges of his accent, refining it into something acceptable: tales out of old hymn-books, mostly, about the gods of Acryn and their heroism - read in the smooth, melodious tones of Grandmother Elodie, and dispensed piece by piece as together they pore over pronunciations.
(It will be several years before he realises that it was Elodie’s age that recommended her, not for her hard-won wisdom - or any inherent teaching prowess - but for her dim recollection of a bygone era pre-exile, and the moderate vowels and clipped consonants with which it was accompanied. Later still, he’ll come to realise that it was something of a botch-job too, and none of her fault: they all carry the buzz of Thys in their voices - regardless of their efforts to preserve Acryn in everything they touch here, frozen, like a mosquito trapped in one of those ornamental droplets of amber that the stallholders on the island like to turn into cheap bracelets. But. Later.)
For the first few weeks, his voice sounds alien to his own ears. A little while later, once he’s used to it, it’s the merchants in Thys who sound foreign, and all the stuck-up, pert little children of island nobility that his parents insist on introducing him to at parties - and if there was a point to all this finishing, he realises, then that was it.
Present day, the night of a Cargan party - Acryn
These days, he forgets he’s not meant to be telling the truth.
It’s worse when he drinks, which he does infrequently, but with commitment; he never drinks alone, and up until recently, he only ever seriously drank with Francesco. As is, the images press down the edges of his awareness like the weight of brandy on his tongue, and when he dislocates himself from conversation, there’s no defence. A murmured witticism; the curl of teeth at his throat; feeling, if not hearing his heart beat rabbit-fast at the brush of a hand. Sprawled chest to chest against the sofa, fingers twined in each other’s hair. It is with absolute clarity that he recalls the angle of Francesco’s frown whenever he said something deliberately provocative - and the precise curve of his smile as he issued some flashy rejoinder.
If Francesco understands anything, it is that in their habitual domestic power struggles, Armand just as frequently plays to lose.
Anyway. Anyway. It seems that if old habits die hard, habits formed within the space of weeks and entrenched out of sheer self-preservation are nigh-ineradicable, and it’s with excruciating lack of regret that he finds himself without the shame to be anything other than candid. And this, if nothing else, is truly a sign of the end - if he can let Xavier bloody Sarmandastra fling Penelope in his face, and not throttle the question right out of his throat, that is.
He tells Aunt Serena exactly what he thinks of her new velvet pelisse. He tells Senta that he loves her like a sister. He tells Hoskins he’s a charlatan and a fraud, in full view of the entire Council, and then he says it again for good measure. He tells Hugh Branch he’s afraid that ascension doesn’t leave a person the same, and he tells Alexander Everett that he’s tired, he’s done, and maybe he’d have had the will to keep fighting if he felt this any less keenly, but as is, there’s no kind of choice whatsoever, and anyway, the Oracle thinks he’ll destroy life as we know it if he stays. So there’s that.
Four years before the Upheaval - Thys
“So you lied to me.”
Armand finds, to his infinite disgust, that he’s shaking. Preposterous to imagine that he ought to be scared. Still, it had taken a truly embarrassing amount of time for the truth to hit. And by embarrassing, he means actual years of his life.
Actually, it seems prudent to mention this. “For years! Not only years - my whole life. By the gods, it’s - egregious -” egregious is a favourite word with him, currently, “- and I will not let you ask my forgiveness: you don’t deserve it, either of you!”
If there is amusement in either parent’s eyes, it is well-shielded by what appears to be genuine remorse.
“Darling,” begins his mother, carefully, “it wasn’t intended as deception.”
“Wasn’t - wasn’t intended? You were the ones who insisted I speak like an Acryn citizen - you’ve never even seen the place!”
He’s peripherally aware of one of the maids flinching - and his mother, in turn, giving a fractional wince. Good. Let them hear.
His father bites his lip. “No, Armand. Not as such.”
“My gods, I never even wondered why you weren’t the ones to teach me. I just thought you were busy - but honestly, what do you actually do here? What is there to do when we’re in - in exile -!” There’s a low, angry thrum building up in his chest, and what’s worse - what’s unimaginably worse - is that he finds himself biting back tears. “We were supposed to go back!” His voice cracks in his throat. He hates himself. “… Are we never going to go back?”
It’s suddenly too much at once, and too real: the walled city of Acryn crumbling before him like sand engulfed by the tide. When his mother takes his hand, he doesn’t wrench it away like he promised himself he would. Nor does he stand when his father touches his shoulder.
“I swear it,” says Laurent Cargan, as fiercely as Armand has ever heard him. “Yes. No matter what else happens, we will all see Acryn soon.” It’s almost believable. But it’s a while before Armand is able to do anything other than cry.
Present day, seven weeks and three days since the Arcane Arbiter’s ascension - Acryn
“I thought I was done with you.”
It’s - a dream. He’s dreaming. But it’s a dream that he’d very much believed he’d never have to live through again.
Still, there he is, sitting at the edge of his own bed: one knee held boyishly against his chest, and a deep, red gash split open across his throat. The face is newly pensive, angular - a mirror of his own slightly altered features. Mark of divinity. The only other thing that is new is the distinct, crescent-shaped scar on the side of his face.
Hugh’s. Another twist of the knife, then.
“Just because you lived long enough to develop new nightmares doesn’t mean you ever resolved this one,” says his double, with a tightly-curled grin.
“Yes I did,” says Armand, indignant. “We worked this through. Together. When I stabbed you.”
He rests his elbow on top of his upright knee, and just - looks - and for a moment, there is something almost piercingly pitiable about the set of his eyes against the wet, torn flesh of his throat. “Remember when I told you that delusion was the only thing you’d learned? Well, you keep doubling back on the same mistakes.”
“Bullshit.” Armand feels his hands curl into fists. “I’ve taken Acryn’s political stage by storm. I’ve reformed laws, and published manifestoes - I’ve written my way into significance. I’ve damn near built the legacy I can be proud of - so don’t you dare try to tell me I’m avoiding the point. Don’t try to pretend I don’t know exactly what I’m doing.”
His double raises an eyebrow - in the exact way that Armand has always cursed himself for being just unable to pull off. “Branch is right. The people don’t care about your Bill. They care about… well, I don’t know, actually. You don’t either. You never bothered to find out.”
“That’s not true.” Armand bites the edge of his cheek, hard. This is hardly the moment for wild emotionality. “It’s amazing, isn’t it - how many excuses people can find to slow the pace of progress.”
“You’re not god of progress.”
“It doesn’t matter what I am!” It never pays to lose his temper with these creatures - but here he is, losing it, because if there’s one thing he always believed, it’s that they had something of significance to impart: but this - this is more of the same, and it’s - “Bullshit. It’s bullshit you think that I can’t help this city, regardless of whatever form I happen to take. You think you’re going to stop me? You think I haven’t weathered worse criticism than I can supply myself?”
His doppelganger regards him with a bright, calculating gaze. Armand can’t summon up the guilt he used to spare it.
“No,” he says, finally. “Don’t get me wrong - you’ve made it abundantly clear what you’re trying to tell me. That the biggest thing holding me back is me. But, no. Not if I don’t play your game.”
Its eyes track him all across the room as he makes his way across to the exit. One weak, insubstantial smile, and the door slams in its face.
Three and a half years since the Upheaval - Acryn
The fine spray of the sea slaps against his face as he leans over the rails, and the breeze forces a shiver out of him that is nothing to do with fright. Anticipation, perhaps. Residual queasiness from a practically interminable voyage. Still, even having spotted the dark, hazily-identifiable blur on the horizon, he cannot quite bring himself to yell to his parents - at least, not quite yet.
It isn’t resentment that gives him pause. Whatever quarrels they might have had about the nature of their exile fast evaporated along with his mid-adolescence; this adventure is as much theirs as it is Armand’s. No - it’s sheer nerves, if it’s anything: a reluctance to conjure a city out of the air the same way he once did with sand, in case - in case he’s wrong - as if Acryn is liable to melt before him like a phantasm.
Ludicrous, gods damn it all. Still, the breath catches in his throat as he spots what might be the topmost spire of the College of the Stars at a distance, and for a while, it’s all he can do not to fling himself into the ocean and swim.
They’re suspended in time until one of their Wayfinders finally takes it upon themselves to declare them in Acryn waters - and he’s waiting for just that: for confirmation; for the quick, erratic slam of his heart to accelerate further, for - for the mainland -
“Gods, I swear it,” he whispers - fist thudding against his chest. “I will be of the city.”
It had better make space for him. For the Cargans at large. Even in the wake of political pandemonium - and of the dark necessity that has brought them back - it had better be prepared for their return. And, for his part, he will see to it that his family don’t revisit past mistakes.
“Just wait,” he promises the waves - something like a greeting, and something like a prayer - and looks out towards the long-awaited shore.
Present day - Acryn
Not much left now.
A bill to pass. A legacy to secure. Then one last adventure.
He counts them, sometimes - at night, with nothing between him and the dark besides an empty bed and the utter absence of a heartbeat - staring at the wall, and whispering their names. Senta, for definite. Bartholomew, for the Tender’s blessing. Astraeus, if nothing proves too hazardous - and what could be a better parting gift than to prove that he respects him as an adventurer? Alexander Everett, to no greater surprise than his own - Xavier, if he’s desperate, but that’s an if of astronomical proportions - and Anders, perhaps, if she’s willing. Brother Miller, if he approves. Hugh Branch - who, as it turns out, does.
No-one else is really viable; these, at maximum, are the people he can rely on. And even they might be wise enough to question their judgement should certain truths emerge.
He thinks: I am a man on the edge of a precipice.
He thinks: what will they say of me, after I’m gone?
Trackless queries. He shoves his face against his pillow and wills himself to sleep.
Present day, nine weeks since the Arcane Arbiter’s ascension - Acryn
The door opens at the first touch.
It is both seconds and years before Armand staggers his way through, reeling - catching himself on the edges of the overly ornate walls. There, seated on a preposterous velvet chaise-longue, is his husband: an astonishingly smug grin curling its way across his features.
The distance between them is short. The time it takes to close it is shorter.
Light breaks in through the shutters of the bazaar, and this - this is what it is like to have come to the end of a lifelong voyage. Here, with his face pressed against his husband’s neck, and the sound of the customers, of the city’s curious inhabitants, swelling against the surrounding air.
He thinks: I am still alive.
And that is enough - more than enough - to steel himself for the rest.