Author's Note: July Camp NaNo starts tomorrow. That sound you just heard was me screaming in terror.
Book 1 Chapter XV: Skeletons
...great schemes make the actors in them careless of humanity; the life of a man goes for nothing against a point in the game. – Anthony Hope, Rupert of Hentzau
The royal crypt was exactly the same as it had been before. Still lifeless, still silent, still lit only by the pale glare of the gas lamps. The only difference was that now there was no one else at all. Abi took the precaution of checking. It took her over an hour to search around all the graves and monuments until she was sure she hadn't missed anywhere a person could be hidden. And that was only the third and lowest lever. Hunting around the other two would have taken the better part of a day.
Finally she was convinced that she was alone. No one would think of looking for her here. They were all too busy panicking over Kiriyuki's unexpected arrival and the diplomatic headaches it caused. Under other circumstances Abi might have tried to help her. Right now she was thoroughly angry with Kiriyuki, and more than happy to let her sort out the consequences of her actions on her own.
If she had time to think things through, the royal crypt would be the last place she tried necromancy. An undead royal wandering around the city was the sort of thing that would attract notice. But she was in a hurry, and one of her distant cousins had died only a few weeks ago. He'd come off the worst in a duel and bled to death before his friends could get him to hospital.
In most cases this would have been the prelude to a murder trial that would keep tongues wagging for decades. In this case the other party in the duel had been the dead man's sister. The cause of the fight was a dispute over inheritance. The pair's great-great-grandmother had died without making a will. Both of them insisted they deserved the same amount of money. There simply wasn't enough money in the estate for both to get what they wanted. It ended in months of unpleasantness that culminated in a duel and a disaster. Their mortified family brushed the whole thing under the carpet and pretended Lord Tiraldhros had died in a tragic accident.
None of this would have had the slightest effect on Abi if not for a simple fact. Tiraldhros was the most recent member of the Sinistrah family to die. His body would be the least decayed - especially in the midnight-cold depths of the crypt, walled into an airless stone tomb.
There was just one problem. She would have to open the tomb to get the reanimated body out.
Experimentally she pushed the edge of the lid. It didn't budge. Some far too conscientious builder had cemented it in place. She rapped her knuckles against the top, then further down against the walls. They were all solid. Nothing short of an explosion could open them quickly.
At some point in their life everyone learnt how to magically make things explode. It sounded like a very exciting skill to have. Of course, no sooner had they acquired it than they discovered it wasn't nearly as exciting as it seemed. Explosions were loud. And messy. And brought people running. Worst of all they had a nasty tendency to destroy indiscriminately.
Blowing up the tomb would also blow up the body. And possibly half of the crypt. No, it simply wasn't practical.
Where's the nearest pick-axe? Abi wondered.
It would take hours of hard work. There was a good chance someone would notice something odd was happening. What in the world was she to do with all the dust? The more she thought about it the more impractical the whole thing seemed.
Finding a corpse in a common graveyard would be easier, she decided. I'll just have to find the freshest one I can.
Recently-dug graves were always easy to spot. The most difficult part would be dodging gravediggers, cemetery caretakers, and relatives.
Abi sat down on the cold stone floor beside the grave and eyed it dubiously. Everyone will know I've succeeded if I raise Lord what's-his-name. If I choose a commoner instead they'll say it's all a hoax and the person wasn't really dead. Damn you, Kiriyuki! Why couldn't you mind your own business for once?
Two storeys above her the main door creaked open. At once Abi jumped to her feet. She shook her coat and dusted off her trousers. Quickly she glanced around to make sure nothing was out of place. The whole time she listened for footsteps.
She heard them. Someone descended the stairs to the first level. They crossed it and descended another flight of stairs to the second one. At the bottom of those stairs the footsteps stopped. Then they started again, crossing the second level towards the third flight of stairs.
Abi looked around wildly. None of her immediate relatives were buried here. She hadn't been close to anyone here. How could she explain her presence if she was caught?
Idiot, she grumbled at herself. Why didn't I think of an excuse earlier?
The footsteps stopped again. For a moment there was dead silence, as if she'd imagined the whole thing.
"Abihira? Are you down there?" Irímé's voice called from the top of the third stairs.
Most people who've just had a fright will feel extremely foolish when they learn there was nothing to be afraid of. Abi had called herself an idiot when she thought she had reason to worry. Now she called herself a good few stronger words.
"What are you doing here?" she shouted up at Irímé, not bothering to answer his question. Well, she supposed that she was answering it simply by speaking.
Irímé began to descend the third staircase. The eerie echoes of his footsteps almost drowned out his voice. "I couldn't find you anywhere else. I thought I might as well try here before looking outside the palace. Are you going to raise the dead here?"
Abi blinked in confusion. How did he jump to that conclusion so quickly? "What makes you think that?"
Irímé reached the bottom of the steps. He looked around in every direction but the right one before he saw her. "A necromancer in a crypt. It's rather obvious."
Well. When he put it that way it did seem rather obvious.
"Are you going to try to stop me?" Abi asked, fully expecting a battle.
Irímé shook his head. He wound his way around the tombs placed at random spaces all over the floor – whoever had built the crypt had not given any thought to the layout, and future generations continued in the same vein – until he reached her. From the stairs to the unfortunate lord's tomb was only about ten ornthal in a straight line. The lack of any coherent method in where the tombs were built meant it took almost five minutes for Irímé to get there.
"Actually I'd like to help you," he said, as calmly as if he was offering his help in choosing paint or wallpaper. He eyed Lord Tiraldhros's tomb with interest. Oblivious to the shock his announcement had caused, he continued, "Is this who you want to raise first?"
If there wasn't such a high chance of tripping over someone's final resting place Abi would have staggered back in astonishment. Most people did not react well to the thought of necromancy. Over the years she'd seen many different reactions to the mere suggestion it might be possible. They ranged from horror to disgust to "those are just fairy-tales and you're a fool for believing them". When people found out it was possible... Well, the uproar caused by the walking corpses showed what happened then. No normal person would ever want anything to do with necromancy. This was a simple and incontrovertible fact. Abi knew it as well as she knew that it meant she was decidedly not normal.
"Why–" Abi's voice came out as a high-pitched squeak. She cleared her throat and tried again. "Why do you want to help?"
Irímé shrugged, which was hardly reassuring. For one awful moment Abi thought she was stuck in a betrothal with one of those idiots who would do something dangerous on a whim and then blame everyone else for the inevitable disaster.
"Nothing you've brought back has harmed anyone," he said. "The corpses frightened everyone but no one was hurt. And the mouse was cute."
It took a great deal of self-control not to gawk at him. Cute? Cute? What's wrong with him? "I haven't brought anything back yet. Not properly."
She braced herself for a long argument about what constituted bringing someone back properly. Instead Irímé just nodded and accepted that without question.
"So are you going to raise this..." He paused and nodded at the tomb, "...whoever this was?"
"That's what I haven't decided yet." As succinctly as possible she explained her dilemma. "...So you see, I need a fresh body, and short of raiding an undertaker's house this is the best I can find."
Irímé frowned. "Why do you need a fresh body? The corpses you raised before weren't fresh."
True enough. They had also scared the living daylights out of everyone who saw them.
"I don't want to just create a walking corpse," she explained patiently. "I want to actually bring a person back to life."
It's just possible, Kiriyuki admitted in the privacy of her own mind, that I might have made a mistake.
Abihira's grim predictions about the trouble her presence would cause had come true – with a vengeance. For the last hours she had been whisked around the city, presented to the empress, the Seroyawan embassy, and a long line of government ministers thrown into panic by her arrival. An endless stream of letters, telegrams, and official missives were hastily dispatched to Seroyawa. Kiriyuki had to repeat her story again and again, to increasingly sceptical people.
With all the uproar there was no chance she could keep an eye on what Abi was doing. In fact no one seemed to know where that blasted nuisance was. She was certainly not with her parents, or her grandmother, or any of her other innumerable relatives.
Kiriyuki forced herself to appear suitably contrite and ashamed when people questioned her. It was rather difficult when the whole time she expected to hear the second act of the zombie apocalypse had begun.
She had a very bad feeling about this.
It's just possible, Mirio thought grimly, that letting Kiriyuki leave was a mistake.
Few things threw the court into chaos quite like the disappearance of the heir. The shouting went on for hours and got progressively nastier. Sooner or later everyone would start looking for a scapegoat. Mirio knew only too well that he would be that scapegoat. So he retreated into his palace and waited until the storm blew over.
Three days had passed and it still hadn't blown over. Worse, news filtered through that Kiriyuki had reached Saoridhlém, been seen in her sea serpent form, and caused a riot. Mirio doubted the veracity of those reports. A letter from Kiriyuki herself was rumoured to be on the way. In the meantime Mirio stayed out of everyone's sight and relied on his servants to bring him news. He left his palace only late at night, to swim in the coves and bays around the capital. In the inky blackness of the ocean under moonlight one sea serpent looked very much like another from the shore. He never let anyone get close enough to him to recognise him.
Early morning of the fourth day found Mirio perched on the narrow string of rocks jutting out into Hanazaki Bay. He was in the in-between form occasionally adopted by sea serpent immortals who were tired of one form but not quite ready to switch to the other one yet; humanoid from the waist up, but with a sea serpent's tail instead of legs.
When Abihira had first seen Mirio and Kiriyuki in that form she had burst out laughing and said they looked like mermaids. They had retaliated by splashing water at her with both their tails and their arms. She'd looked like a drowned rat by the time she escaped, and she'd wisely never made that joke again. That had happened on these very rocks, less than five hundred years ago. A mere blink in the life of an immortal. Now both Abihira and Kiriyuki were miles away, and Mirio was left waiting for news of them.
Idly he swished his tail through the still water, amusing himself by watching the ripples distort the moon's and stars' reflection until they looked like vast alien galaxies.
A flicker of light at the other side of the bay caught his eye. Sea serpents' eyesight was much better than most other immortals', perfect for detecting movement even in the darkest reaches of the sea. The moon's pale glow and the stars' light that gave no light both concealed more than they revealed. Yet Mirio saw what was happening as clearly as if it was broad daylight.
A ship put to sea from Hoshizora Harbour. On its own there was nothing unusual about that. Fishermen set out at all sorts of odd hours depending on what sort of fish they were looking for. Not everyone in Seroyawa was a sea serpent immortal. Probably not even half of them were. The royal family were, and so were many of the people who lived near the shore, but inland there were myriad other sorts of immortals. When they went fishing they had to do it the conventional way, in a boat with bait and nets.
What was unusual was this boat's complete lack of nets. Fishing boats had a very distinctive shape, noticeable even in the dark. This was a cargo ship. Possibly a passenger ship too. And those never left in the middle of the night unless there was an excellent reason for it.
Mirio's first thought was that his father and stepmother were personally going to retrieve Kiriyuki. As the ship drew nearer he dismissed the thought. This wasn't one of the imperial vessels. No one in their right mind would try to convince the emperor and empress to set foot on such a common ship.
There was only one likely explanation then. Smugglers.
A faint splash, a shimmer of scales underwater, and a few ripples dying away were the only signs anyone had ever been on the rocks. Mirio, back in his fully sea serpent form, made his way over to the boat. He surfaced in the shadow it cast on the water, close enough to hear without being seen.
Someone was speaking just above his head. A middle-aged woman, if he had to guess. Her thick accent immediately marked her as being from the Koshiji region. "We must be careful. The gods know we've done the most stupid thing possible by setting out in the dark. As long as we stay away in the middle of the bay we should be safe. It's getting through the rocks outside that will be hardest. Why couldn't you wait until daylight?"
A different voice answered. It was a young man's voice, with a faintly northern accent tinged with a decidedly foreign sound.
Like Abihira speaking Seroyawan, Mirio thought.
"I must reach Saoridhlém as soon as possible," the man said, confirming Mirio's suspicions about his accent.
The woman grunted in what might be agreement or disapproval. "Going to see family?"
A slight but unmistakable pause. "Yes," the man agreed slowly. "I suppose I am."
Silence fell for a while. Footsteps crossed the desk. A door closed somewhere on the ship. Mirio continued to swim alongside, listening for the slightest word.
At last the woman spoke again. From her words he deduced that the possibly-Saoridhian man had left. "Damned strange if you ask me. Why's a scholar in such a rush he can't even wait till morning? Family, indeed. Shouldn't wonder if he's running from a debt collector."
No one answered. Apparently she was talking to herself. She continued to grumble for several minutes. Most of her complaints were about the difficulties of the voyage and how little time she had to prepare for it. The rest was about the antics of the royal family and how they'd be better served watching the Crown Princess than interfering with honest tradesmen – a sure sign she was at the very least sympathetic to smugglers.
What she would have said if she knew the Prince Royal was listening could only be imagined.
In spite of her doubts the boat got out of the bay without difficulty. Mirio stayed in its shadow until they were a mile out to sea. The only things he heard were the normal remarks of sailors. Not a word about the mysterious passenger or why they left in such a hurry.
Finally Mirio dived underwater and turned back towards land. Before he left he checked the ship's name. Its characters could be read as Rotsuki or Niroto. Possibly even Ritehi. Whatever calligrapher had drawn them had done a truly appalling job. Not even a sea serpent's eyes could tell with certainty what they were meant to be. He gave up in disgust and swam away.
 ornthal = Unit of measurement equal to approximately one and a half metres.
 Sea serpents and mermaids rarely interact in their natural habitats – mermaids prefer the depths of the open sea, while sea serpents tend to stay within a hundred miles of land. But when they do interact they inevitably clash. Mermaids believe sea serpents' scales have medicinal properties, while sea serpents consider whales – used as pets and beasts of burden by the mermaids – to be a rare delicacy. Obviously neither species likes the other. (Abi's lucky she only got off with a splashing. Most foreigners who made a joke like that would be in real danger of being drowned on the spot.)