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The Will of the Many: Part 3 – Chapter 74

I FADE IN AND OUT of reality.

I am in the infirmary. In that same bed I was in the first time I came to the Academy. Emissa and Indol and Belli curious about me, curious about the destroyed Transvect. One of them dead now. One of them broke my heart. I see their afterimages, like ghosts. Belli at the door. Emissa peering down at me. Smiling. Beautiful.

Then sleep, then a parade of faces. Callidus joking about his death. Aequa promising to warn him. Eidhin refusing his place in the Iudicium.

Tear-stained Emissa stabbing me over, and over, and over.

Then, finally, my father. Sitting beside my bed, face drawn. As real as I could imagine him to be, but unchanged by the years. Another figment. Blurred by exhaustion and pain.

He sees my eyes open. Sees me looking at him. Smiles gently, with such tenderness and grief that my heart can take it no longer, and I feel tears welling. I try to move to wipe them away but I can’t; I’m bound to the bed. Immobilised.

There are tears in my father’s eyes, too. I have only ever seen him cry once before. It only makes me sadder.

“My boy.” Heartache in the words. He reaches over and clasps my shoulder. Resting his hand there. No different to any other human’s embrace, and yet it means everything.

I close my eyes against the pain remembering his loss brings. Hate that this spectre can give me more comfort with a touch than anyone living. My breath’s short, emotion threatening to choke me.

“You’re dead.”

His look of sorrow deepens. “Yes,” he says softly.

I nod. Grit my teeth as his admission settles in the pit of my stomach. I wanted him to be alive. To be real. I wanted it more badly than anything I have ever wanted. The realisation breaks something in me. I shake with sobs. Tears and snot trickling down my face. Near four years of scars, opened in an instant.

“I’m so alone,” I whisper to him. I feel the words with all my hopeless heart.

Then he’s there. Kneeling by the bed. Cradling me, head pressed against mine, and we weep together.

Finally my choking subsides and he leans back, wiping my face tenderly with the edge of the sheet. “I never wanted this for you,” he tells me. “But I am proud, Diago. Proud of the decisions you have made, of the strength you have shown, of the man you have become. Proud beyond measure.” He strokes my forehead. Pushes back strands of hair. “I know it will be painful, but you cannot give up now. Remember who you are.” He pauses, moves as if doing something just out of sight. “You have to fight.”

“Why?” I croak the word, looking up at him. Heavy-hearted, but I don’t know what else to say. “I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard to live in this world and still be me. Still be your son. But what’s the point? Suus is still gone, and the Hierarchy still takes everything from me, one way or another.” I think of Callidus, lifeless and cold in my arms. I’m hollow, though. Have no more tears to shed. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t lose anyone else, Father. I just… can’t.”

“You mourn your friend.” He cups my cheek in his hand. “But death is a doorway, Son. You will see him again. No one is ever truly lost.” He leans down and presses his lips gently to my forehead. “I am so glad I got to see you again. Even if it is too short. Even if it ends up being the last time.” His voice cracks a little. Aching. “I love you, Diago. I love you, Son. Never forget that.”

He turns as if ripping himself away. Starts walking from my vision.

“Don’t go.” I know he’s not real, but I can’t help myself. Pleading. My voice weak and breaking. “Please, Father. Don’t leave me.”

He doesn’t stop.

“Courage,” I hear him whisper as he vanishes into the darkness of the dream.

WHEN I WAKE, VERIDIUS IS where I imagined my father was.

I rasp, and the man stirs from where he was dozing in the chair. He’s wearing his white physician’s cloak. I force my eyes to stay open, take another uneasy breath. Even that hurts. My lungs burn. My body aches all over.

When I try to move, I can’t. A quick, panicked jerk confirms it. I wasn’t imagining being bound to the bed.

“Easy, Vis.” Veridius sounds weary. He turns to someone behind him. “Go and fetch the committee. They’ll want to know he’s awake.”

Out of sight, I hear someone shuffling away.

“Am I a prisoner?” The croaking words scald my throat, and I give a half-retching cough afterward. Talking is going to be difficult.

“No.” Veridius pauses, as if considering the question again. “No.”


“We needed to keep you still.” He’s talking gently. My expression must give away my confusion because he leans forward and loosens the bindings around my chest. Carefully draws back the sheet on my left side. “I’m sorry.”

I look down. There’s a disconnect, a moment where my mind refuses to accept what I’m seeing. My left shoulder is swathed in white bandages, clean and tightly wrapped.

There’s nothing attached to it.

I stare. Hands trembling. Hand trembling. It feels like the arm’s still there. I can see it’s gone, but throbbing discomfort shoots down it nonetheless.

“It was some kind of rot. There was no saving it.”

I still don’t say anything. There’s newfound anger and frustration and hopelessness, but I’m weary of the emotions. They’ve lost all meaning to me.

Veridius glances around the otherwise empty room. Lowers his voice.

“Your blood’s been tainted, Vis. If the wrong people see it, they’ll kill you. So when I say I need you to be honest with me about what happened, I am not understating the situation.” He waits, checks that I understand. “You ran the Labyrinth in the ruins, didn’t you?”

I just nod. Too disoriented and in pain to come up with a good story, if there even is one to be had.

“The writing on your arm. Was that help getting back out?”

Another weak nod.

To my surprise a small, irrepressible smile flickers on Veridius’s face. “How did you know the Labyrinth was there?”

“Ulciscor.” My voice grinds; Veridius quickly holds a mug to my lips and I slurp greedily, water trickling down my chin. “He was convinced… it had something to do with you… murdering Caeror.”

“Gods’ graves, I wish that man would just listen.” Veridius sounds drained. “Did you see anyone else in there?”

“Belli’s dead.” I grate it flatly. Let him know I know it’s his fault.

Veridius hangs his head, and doesn’t respond.

“Emissa will want to see you,” he says eventually. “She’s been distraught.”

“She tried to kill me.”

“She didn’t.”

“I was there.”

“No, she…” He grimaces. “It was your blood. She thought you were past saving. She wants to see you. Just… it might be easier to let her explain.”

“I don’t want to see her.”

There are faint sounds outside in the hall. Voices. Veridius hisses in frustration. “We’re out of time. You’re going to need to trust me, Vis. Things are about to get very complicated. Tell the committee you want to join Religion. That you want to be an Imperator under Magnus Tertius Pileus. This isn’t anything to do with politics.” The words rush from his mouth. He pours all he has into them. “Please. We need your help avoiding the next Cataclysm.”

Behind him, the door swings open, and whatever else Veridius was going to say is lost.

Eidhin enters.

I barely register who it is; Veridius’s last claim is so grand, so outlandish, that I’m having trouble processing it. With an effort I push it to the side, focusing again. The hulking boy coming toward us has dark circles beneath his eyes. He’s looking at Veridius. “They are outside.”

Veridius sighs. “Let me talk to them.” He leaves, shutting the door behind him.

Eidhin walks over to my bed and sits next to it. We study each other, and then he gives me a single, meaningful nod. He’s relieved to see me awake. He’s pained by everything that’s happened.

I shift my gaze to the far wall.

“He didn’t want to come.” I admit the miserable words to the silence.

“Yes, he did.” Quiet and calm. Sure.

“I tried to save him.” My voice cracks. “I tried, Eidhin.”

“I know.” No judgment. No blame.

“They weren’t even looking for him. They were looking for me. It was just so…” I curse. Bitter and low. “It was so meaningless.”

Eidhin glances around at the sound of an argument out in the hallway. Stands again and leans over. Grips me by my good shoulder and waits there until I reluctantly meet his gaze.

“No.” His eyes are sad. “Death is only meaningless if it does not change us, Vis.”

The door to the infirmary opens again and Eidhin lets go. Steps back.

“When you are well, we will celebrate him together,” he promises softly.

He turns away and politely skirts Veridius and the other men entering. Leaving before he’s ordered to go.

Three strangers approach my bed now, none of them familiar, but all looking infinitely relieved to see me awake. “Thank the gods,” says the short, bearded one on the right, smiling broadly. He claps Veridius on the back. “Marvellous work, Principalis.” He’s an older man, in his fifties, more than a few streaks of grey at his temples. The other two are of a similar age. All senators, judging from the purple on their togas.

“He’s still weak, not out of danger yet. Don’t make him talk too much.” Veridius doesn’t hide his displeasure at the men’s presence. “But it appears you’ll still have your hero, Magnus Quartus. Still have your Domitor.”

Of course. The Iudicium has already been a disaster of unimaginable magnitude for Religion. But my death at the hands of the Anguis, given my reputation after the naumachia, would have been a blow from which they may never have recovered.

“Domitor Vis Telimus. I extend the congratulations of the Senate on your victory, especially under these trying circumstances. I am Magnus Quartus Vaesar. I have been asked to convey to the Senate whether you have a desired assignment upon graduation.” The pronouncement from Vaesar is all pomp and ceremony. I remember his name from Lanistia’s lessons, but other than his being from Religion, the details are vague.

“Can’t that wait?” I need time to think.

“It cannot. The Censor’s office is… hostile to the Academy as it is, at present. If you don’t make your intentions known soon, they will be within their rights to assign you to military service.”

I glance in confusion at Veridius, who nods. “It’s been five days.”

I’m silent, processing the news. Thinking desperately. It’s right there. All I have to do is say I want to take up a post with the embassy to Jatiere. I’ll be far away from Caten, far away from the threat of having to cede. I’ll have years to figure out my next move. It won’t even seem terribly strange, given… everything.

But if I do that, nothing will change.

The slow, tumbling realisation is nearly too heavy to bear. I’ll still be running. Hiding. And this time, I’ll be fleeing a fight I might actually be able to impact. I’ll be leaving the people responsible for the death of my friend to keep doing what they’re doing. Making the Hierarchy what it is. Keeping it as it always has been.

I wasn’t a coward, that night at Suus. I was fourteen, and alone, and scared.

I wasn’t wrong, to refuse to cede all these years. I needed to keep that part of myself sacred. I needed it to stay me.

But that doesn’t mean they are excuses now.

Somewhere, deep down, the decision’s made. That part of me that has held on for so long breaks.

I look up. All four men are watching me intently. Veridius especially.

“Alright,” I say quietly.

I still have no idea what to think of Veridius’s claim about avoiding another Cataclysm. But even if he’s somehow telling the truth—and given the surreal events of the Iudicium, I’m almost inclined to believe him—Belli’s mangled corpse is still fresh in my mind. I refuse to leave myself anywhere near the man’s influence. At least not until I fully understand what’s going on.

And I can’t join Military. I just can’t. Not knowing their involvement in the massacre. Ulciscor might see it as a betrayal, but even if he isn’t satisfied with what I have to tell him about the Labyrinth, he won’t send me to a Sapper. Not after all this. I’m Catenicus. Domitor. An important witness to a Iudicium that’s surely already infamous. Even if he tries to invoke his rights, the Senate will stop him.

“I want to work for the Censor.”

There’s dead silence.

“Vis,” says Veridius delicately. “Think about what you’re—”

“I’ve thought about it.” Despite everything, Callidus always spoke highly of his father. And if I’m to do anything, make a difference, then the Censor’s office is where I need to be. The place through which all information in the Hierarchy flows.

Vaesar is reluctant, but also relieved to have an answer. He bends over a nearby table to write the details on a piece of paper, then uses a candle to melt three blobs of red sealing wax onto the bottom. Each of the three senators take turns impressing their signet rings. Their eyes flash black as they imbue the embossed wax.

“Done and witnessed.” The Quartus takes the sheet carefully. “I will submit this to the Senate today, Vis. Thank you. And congratulations again.” He turns to Veridius. “Principalis, if we could arrange for the Transvect to return as soon as possible…”

“Of course.” Veridius is calm, his expression smooth. “I’ll be right with you.” He waits until the door is shut before facing me. His façade of composure has vanished. “Vis, you can’t—”

“You were supposed to be protecting us.” I interrupt, voice low and hard. Let him hear my anger. “But you’ve been using us. You’ve been sending students to their deaths. So I’ll listen to what you have to say at some point, Principalis—you have my word. But we are a long, long way from working together.”

Veridius’s face is stony. I think it’s the first time I’ve seen him without even a hint of the easygoing charm he usually exudes.

“Then for now, that will have to be enough,” he says. “I need to see to the senators. Rest. We’ll talk soon.”

He leaves.

I don’t move for a long time. Just lie there. Hollow.

Eventually, I force myself to sit up. Just that is a painful, clumsy movement. I almost topple, muscles screaming, as my brain throws my left arm back to no effect. The effort of staying upright leaves me light-headed.

When I’m finally sitting securely on the edge of the bed, my gaze roves the room. No way to tell whether the empty beds are because everyone else injured during the Iudicium has recovered, or I’ve been placed in isolation. The symbol of the Hierarchy, STRONGER TOGETHER inscribed below it, leers from the wall at the far end. I shudder. I can’t see it without seeing the Labyrinth, now.

The table next to my bed holds a lamp, a jug of water and mug, and what looks like a toy ship. I frown at the latter, registering its incongruity. It’s wooden. Roughly carved. Familiar.

With a jolt, my confusion fades to something else entirely.

I shuffle along the bed until the table is within easy reach. Lean over with a trembling hand and pick up the ship. The carving’s not unskilled, but far from the work of an artist.

Just about right for a ten-year-old boy trying to impress his father.

I turn it over. Clumsily feel along its prow one-handed until I find the hidden catch, unlatch it, and let the deck slide off. The name of the ship is scratched along the inside of the wood. Diminished by time, but legible.



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