“No!!” The deserter shook his head, more as if to clear a bug from his ear than to negate a thought. “Not for me. ‘No aid for deserters,’ I know so well. Do it for the nation, then.” He pulled a tattered old piece of paper from an inner pocket. No, she realized, vellum. “Do this and I will lie down, never at peace, but troubling the others no more.”
She took the vellum carefully with just the tips of her fingers. Next to her, the Diamond Raven was looking at the paper too.
“If this is real-” He sounded sick.
“Real! Real and then some! It is exactly what it looks like and nothing more, I swear it on my honor!”
“You have no honor.” The Diamond Raven growled it out as if the deserter had personally offended him. “How do we know this is real?”
“Look at it. Feel it. Touch the magic inside it – but carefully, carefully! It is tainted all the way through, it is taint even to touch it too long!”
“And you’d give it to a young girl like my companion here? Shame on you, you monster! Why would you think she should risk the touch of such a thing?”
“Because she is young and she is protected, she is shiny with all of the eyes on her. She can put it where it goes and none will ever know it was her, and its taint will not stick to her. You, you are old, like me – well, not like me, but you are not young and you are not pure and you are protected only by her. I do not think her protection can carry you quite that far. She, on the other hand, I think the protections on her could carry her all the way into the underlands and below. Ah.” He sighed. “The ,underlands. Would that I could ever go to the resting.”
“Then you shouldn’t have deserted,” snapped the Raven. He wasn’t giving Raizel any time to speak, but Raizel was having her own problems. She was squinting at the vellum, trying to make the words make sense. They were written in an old version of the Tzar’s script, many of the words spelled strangely — well, if it was from the time of the Tzar’s grandfather, that made sense.
“This…” Something in her shivered. “What is this?”
Is that a question? Asked a voice in her head.
“Not yet,” she muttered. “But maybe.”
“It’s the problem,” the deserter answered. “It’s the secret to the ‘win.’ And for all my life I have been looking for someone who could take it and not be shifted by it, who could post it without being turned sick by its touch.”
“All your life?” She stared at the once-man. “Truly all?”
“Since I learned of this when I was a private, yes. I tried to my higher officer, and to his higher officer, and to hers, and so on, right up to the Tzar, who laughed at me. I tried the wizards, but they told me they could not help me. I told the priests, and they sent me away as a liar. And then, and only then, I left the army, because the army was tainted from the privates right up to the Tzar.”
“This is treason and heresy to say,” the Raven warned the deserter, but he sounded far less angry and far more somber now.
“Treason then, and I paid the price, and didn’t I?” He flapped his arms at them. An old, old wound guttered red, pink and orange at Raizel. She swallowed hard to keep her stomach from misbehaving. “But now it’s just history, the things they put in books as flavor. As curiosity. We won, aye. But what was the price?”
“Everything has a price,” Raizel muttered. She was thinking of Trinner Traln and his evil statues. “What is this thing?”
“This, this is the secret. This is the reason that we managed to beat everyone in the Seventh War, even the Partrion, who there is no way we should have beaten.”
“It’s heresy,” the Diamond Raven muttered. “It’s the nastiest sort of evil magery. Don’t touch it any more, Raizel, don’t take it, don’t post it. Let someone else do it!”
“Someone else cursed by a pixie and quested by a god-touched?” she muttered. “We won the Seventh War with luck, magic, and cunning.”
She remembered that much from her history classes, even if they had not always been her most fun lessons.
“By magic and cunning, yes. This thing is evil, Raizel, and for people to know about it-”