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My name is Texeliara Araxtiara Cinciara Hmarj, and I was once alive. I am writing this in Korodan, my native tongue, and it feels good to see the shapes of familiar words. No one here remembers more than fragments, so I have been forced to speak Debrasian, the tongue of our enemies from over the sea, or Gef, which was spoken by the ancients.

I was born in the seventy-sixth year of the War. I was born to a woman named Cinciara Hmarj, in Baerica on the river Hmay. It was in spring, which is warm and dry in Baerica, and the Hmay is broad and slow and the colour of caramel in that season. I know this because I lived in Baerica until I was twelve years old. It was a peaceful town, far from the front, and it had many gardens of trees with flame-coloured flowers. There were ten thousand people there, or a little more. I was raised at the Number Five creche, and then at the school named Major Jaldaen, which was esteemed the best of the schools of Baerica. I was very clever and took the awards for composition, arithmetic, and history in the year I was twelve.

I left Baerica to go to the Academy in Misrith and never returned. I was at the Academy until just before my sixteenth birthday. Misrith was about fifty leagues downriver from Baerica, after the Hmay joins the Black Hmay, and the Academy was on what is called Academy Hill, from which you could see a long way down the Hmay country. I was clever at my studies, but not the very best in anything, except in my first year I took the award for history. I was not bold or confident in my learning, because I was also slow and weak and clumsy and short and fat and bad at games. At the Academy I began to read and write poetry. I will name some of the names of my friends, because if I do not write them they will never be written, and will be forgotten forever. They were Ebasiama, and Uxuiana, and Hu-Vanth, and Cestiala. Hu-Vanth is a Lencian name, and not Korodan, and I remember she cried all night when we had word of the fall of Gedemor. All my friends were girls. We were not encouraged to have much to do with boys at the Academy. I shall name one boy, Krell, because he comes into my story again in a strange way later. He was about a year and a half older than me and was tall and angular and quick to laugh, and he was fonder of poetry than I was, so I first began to read many of the poets in imitation of him.

I was sent away from the Academy a year early to the Isthmian College in Thizar.  The Isthmian College was one of several places in the Empire where men and women were trained up for the Magical Service. Thizar was hundreds of leagues north of the Hmay country, in a desert land where everything is dry and spiny. Always during the days it was like a place being fried in a great cooking pan, but at night there were lovely cool winds off the mountains, and the air was filled with the sweet perfume of thick-fleshed desert plants. Then all the streets were lined with green and purple lanterns, and filled with laughing men and women. Thizar was three or four times larger than Misrith, which had been about twice as large as Baerica. I was at first happier at Thizar than I had been in Misrith, and excelled in learning alchemy and artefact lore, and the study of dead tongues. At that time I became bolder in my ways, and had many friends. At that time I was neither temperate or prudent. But after a time I found that my friends were not as good friends to me as I thought, when I suffered a misfortune. For that reason I will name only one of my friends there, who is Barak. Let the others be forgotten! After my misfortune my will faltered, and I was melancholy in my later years there. I finished only in the upper half of my class, and two years later than is normal, when I was beginning my twenty-second year.

From Thizar I was assigned to the Empress’s 14th Sorcerous Battalion, in the southern mountains on the frontier of Lencia, and worked on the staff of General Azaxen, though in a very lowly position.  I kept my own counsel in those times and had no close friends. I regained my will among those mountains, in the snow and the freezing rain, with the flame-spirits of the Enemy forever waiting to ambush us. From the mountains the 14th went to the Valley of the Geem, that summer- a place I have no good memories of, and am glad I will not see again- and from there to Meerenland.  That land reminded me of the Hmaylands, but when I was there it was all ruinous and filled with death and fire. So many times did I see the skies above some green meadow or orchard black with carrion birds. When we were given leave in Meerenland we used to go to a town called Baxor.  It once had a fine old school of magic, but was then broken by many sieges, and mostly given over to drinking and gambling and whoring. On one of these visits I met the Transmogrifier Xabetha, who was doing some researches in the ruins of the school, and a few weeks later I heard that she had requested I be transferred to her staff, which was part of the Empresses 11th Sorcerous Battalion.

For the next seven years I served the Transmogrifier Xabetha, for most of them as her chief assistant and scribe, and saw many wonderful and terrible things. In her service I saw the city of the Empress, Gaboth of the Hundred Gates, and the endless flesh-coloured mountains of the Ammar Pahg, and what I had never seen before, the blue ocean endless and alive. I thought that Xabetha was my great and good friend, and she had me taught in many things that I had not understood before: among other things the four banes, and what little of her art of transmogrification that I could learn, and the ancient tongue of the Gef that has served me so well in the last few days. I grew accustomed to the company of the great, and learned to how to speak and how to hold my tongue among them, and how to wear raiment that did not make me look so ill-favoured. Things and people I must not forget from that time are the summer house at Fhal, Fa-Zorm the Lencian, wise Daciara, Idiama, Captain Vsalba, Choltis, and the library in Green Ammar. Andara, and poor foolish Thalk, and the khan of Debuur Migh and the yellow wine they served there. And there are many other things of which I may write later.

The hundredth year of the War the Empire launched a great offensive on the southern and western fronts, but in the hundred and first it was all undone, and in the hundred and second a very bad time began. I was there with Xabetha at the fall of Green Ammar, and heard of the invasion of the Hmaylands by the Black Prince while in a chamber of the War Ministry in Gaboth. In the last months of my twenty-ninth winter Xabetha was sent to a town called Quorim. This place lay in the midst of broad plains of grain, a drab town of hulking granaries and fortresses. It was near to the home provinces of Korodan itself, which had not touched by anything save honour raids since the campaigns of Hedorin the Grey, long before I was born; so much had the tide of war turned against us.

The Alliance came against Quorim in more force even than we thought, and it seemed the town would certainly be besieged, and probably fall. Xabetha was sent off on an errand of moment by the Commander of Quorim, flying on a dragon out of the beleaguered city. I was sent with one of the long columns of men and beasts crawling across the plains toward the Inner Lines. I had been separated from Xabetha before in the tumults of war, and had no especial fear at this parting.  I remember the thousands of fires burning on the plains about us- for we did not mean any of our stores to feed the soldiers of the Alliance- and the sour smell of the great Qo that were our beasts of burden. I shared a carriage with Xabetha’s books and papers and a whining scholar named Piphar. I became very angry with his complaints, but he was little more than a boy, and now I am sorry I was cruel-mannered toward him. I have forgotten many faces that I should remember, but his is still clear in my memory. I cannot remember Andara’s face, how can that be? Piphar had a narrow face, like a hatchet, and frightened little rabbit eyes. He wore a violet silk cap, the same colour as his eyes.

From a distance I saw something dark looming in the ruddy sky, like a lightless moon. Piphar was looking the other way and I did not point it out to him, because it was coming towards us. It came closer and closer, faster and faster, and before I could think that it would strike us, all was blotted out in an instant of blackness. I can remember no pain.

I dreamed a long dream, or a long vision, that seemed to be without beginning or ending while it was going on. I walked with Krell along the Hway at Misrith. The river there was all lined with gardens with paths for men to walk on, and we were walking in those gardens. We talked of poems and poets, hundreds upon hundreds of them, and about other things also- nothing of any great moment, just the trivial things of life in Misrith. And for long times also we walked in silence.

‘It seems we are taking a long time,’ I said to Krell in my vision. ‘I would have thought we would be in Namaj by now.’

‘That is because you have not asked me to take your hand,’ said Krell, and I remember being shy, and thinking how sweet it was of Krell to say such a thing. It seemed that were of an age in the dream, rather than him being older than me, and we were both something like seventeen years.  We walked on a little while further, and then I asked, ‘Krell, will you take my hand?’ And he said, ‘When we pass the next bend in the river.’ And we walked along for a while and spoke of other things, so that I had half forgotten and was surprised when he reached across and took my hand. And when he did I awoke.