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Written by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.


In the muted light that occurs once a century when the Three Sisters all shine full upon the Great Plaza of Astralis, a man stands within a tall and graceful tower and before a mirror of silver eternaglass nearly as old as the fabled walls of Astralis itself, those ramparts of gray granite bleached almost as white as marble over the long generations under the unforgiving glare of Soleilgrand. Alone in the high and spacious apartments, he straightens the uniform of a skylancer—his uniform. It fits him well although it has been many years since last he wore it. There is also a Priority Marshal's uniform hanging in the large wardrobing chamber, but he has chosen the captain's garb because the captaincy was the last rank he knows he truly earned.

"Vanity. Another form of vanity." He laughs. "What else is left?" Turning from the mirror, he strides swiftly from the dressing room and through the bedchamber, then down the hallway and past the formal sitting room. Is there a glow from the single lamp, illumining the high-backed reading chair last occupied by his wife before he dispatched her with their children, and all others within and without the City, to the highlands west of the Ramparts of the Sky? She and the children are safe. That he knows.

He slows and looks again, but the lamp has long since guttered out.

"Why you?" she had asked on the last day they had shared, her silver eyes intent on him, her glittering hair flowing over her faultless shoulders.

"Can I ask it of any other and remain who I am? Can I be certain that what must be done will indeed be done? And that, and no more?" His eyes had met hers.

"It is so . . . so . . ." She shook her head.

She had not needed to finish her sentence.

"I cannot let all that is good vanish," he had said, though he knew his words had been as unnecessary as that single word she had not uttered.

Terrible. Beyond terrible, if that were indeed possible.

In the end, she had offered no reply, her only response an embrace and unshed tears, before she had gathered their son and daughters and flown westward, while he had watched from the skytower. Then he had watched as the City emptied.

None of those few who had known what he would do had dared to call him "fool," or "evil beyond belief," or worse, although they had doubtless thought him such, even as they hoped for—and feared—his success.

The man in the skylancer's uniform shakes his head and puts his memories aside. He leaves the inner hall and crosses the outer foyer to the open shaft, where he steps into the emptiness and drops swiftly—but not too precipitously—downward through the darkness. In moments, he steps out at the Plaza level, ignoring the depths to which the shaft drops below. He walks toward the Great Foyer of the Residence. Before him, the elaborate and shimmering metallic doors gape open onto the receiving courtyard. Why now would there be any reason for them to be otherwise? No one else and nothing of value remains in the Residence . . . or in the City beyond.

His boots carry him outward and across the courtyard toward the outer gates, also open, their fine tracery dark against the full light of the Three Sisters, a graceful scrollwork around the symbol of Soleil that belies the strength of those heralded gates. The cool and pervasive glow of the triple moons lightens the stones of the Plaza beyond into a gentle white, also softening the towering barriers formed by the distant City walls into a near-misty whiteness. The stones of those walls and pavement had been laid so firmly in their courses that generations had believed them eternal. Yet he knows that, although mortal will once shaped and raised those very stones, the stones' strength still remains, while human will has been eroded by indulgence and complacency.

"Not mine," he murmurs, knowing his words contain hope as if it were fact.

The impact of his boots on stone echoes across a Plaza that holds no other souls. That, too, he had assured, although there might be a few who had defied the remnants of the Legions.

At the far side of the Great Plaza, he pauses, then glances down the narrower avenue that angles to the southwest. He frowns. Two long blocks away, two brilliant lamps frame an archway into a modest building. There should be no lights. The City should be empty, save for him.

He turns toward the avenue leading to Priority headquarters, where a single skymount awaits him. Then he stops and turns back, as if his feet remember that he must.

No matter. He has time. More than enough. Those words come from deep within his thoughts. He should not waste time. Yet . . . his skymount and deadly cargo can wait for a short while. A short while.

His strides are long, throwing forth equally long and distant echoes as his boots strike the time-polished stones of the pavement, which is even more ancient than he recalls. His hand rests on the butt of the deadly sidearm that is but a child's toy compared to the weapon he will soon unleash.

How has it come to this? The question echoes in his mind, not that he has not pondered it long before now, and he has heard the dry words reported by the Priority's First Skymarshal, repeated time and time again. How many times? Does it really matter?

In the year three thousand eight hundred and eighty-seven, the skyships of Saarmara overwhelmed Maarklar, the men butchered to the last for their sins in resisting the Prophet. So, too, a generation later had Sundyn fallen, scorched bare, with the annihilation of men, women, and children, to allow the replanting and rebuilding of all by and for the New Faith, the Word of the Prophet. Those catastrophes had left the Priority of Soleil to stand alone. A decade passed, and more, but even the Great Eastern Ocean and its violent solar storms had succumbed to the technology and persistence of the Saarmarans, who had finally crossed the endless churning waters and invested themselves in the minor port of Scertia, avoiding the defenses of Sansfroid. From that foothold in Scertia, they had held off the Legions of the Priority while their massive troopships had arrived and landed the hordes of red-armored Janissaries.

None in the Priority would order the necessary. Too terrible, even to save the City. That was what they had said.

Rather than face what was required, all had left—all except him.

Why had he bothered?

In the millennia of human aspirations and follies, why would the fall of Astralis matter more than any other inevitable decline? It did not really matter, did it? Should it have? To anyone other than him? He ignores the question. The time for contemplation has long passed, and he continues through the mooncast shadows down the narrow avenue.

In time, his steps halt, and he stands before the ancient pub framed by the lamps that had appeared so bright from the Plaza. Yet they have long since guttered out. Had that illumination been a reflection from the still-bright brass? Should he have noticed that?

After the briefest of hesitations, he steps through the single open door and into the pub, a man with the build of a young and seasoned captain but with authority wrapped around him like a silver cloak that holds the darkness of ancient tradition. He turns one way. There is no one seated at the stone tables. When he turns back, he is greeted by a woman who might well be clothed in the light of the triple moons, so pale and luminous does she appear.

"We're closed, sir."

He studies her closely. Surely, he has seen her before—except that he does not recall ever setting foot through the metal-bound door of the pub.

"There's no one to serve, sir. Not since the Priority . . ." Her words halt. After several moments, she speaks again. "The City is going to fall, isn't it?"

The words come from his lips as if rehearsed. "The City fell a long time ago, mistress." When none would sacrifice themselves for its life.

Her eyebrows, a pale red whitened in the dim light, lift in puzzlement.

How can he explain? Why should he even have to, especially to a pub owner? After a long moment, he gestures to the nearest table. "We have some little time."

She sits, more like perching on the front edge of the ancient straight-backed chair.

He takes the seat across from her, moistens his lips, although they still feel cool and dry. At last, he tries to answer her unspoken question.

"A city isn't the stones of her walls or the weapons of her defenders. A city endures on the will of her people and upon the will of those in the lands from which she draws her nourishment. Cities fall when the will to nourish them fails."

"So you refuse to defend the City?"

"What is there left here to defend . . . now?"

"The City. Me. What else?"

"Why did you not leave with the others?" he asks.

"In the City is all I have. What good would it do me to leave?" She pauses. "Why are you here, then?"

"Do you mean when the Saarmarans will soon be at the walls?" His smile is forced. "Skylancers are not like the paladins of legend, you know?"

"Why not? They were men. You're a man. Does not that uniform mean more than the brass upon your collars?"

"Gold," he corrects her dryly. "And yes, it does." More than you will ever know.

"What will you do?" she asks.

Rather than answer her directly, he says, "The Saarmarans will never take Astralis, but you should leave and flee to the highlands beyond the mountains, as quickly as you can."

"Never." Her voice is barely above a whisper, yet low and unyielding.

Never. From some great gulf within he knows that single word is all too true, hanging between them in the dimness.

"I must go," he says.

"Will you, too, desert the City?"

"I did not say that, mistress." He smiles sadly. "You are here, and you will see." Would that you would not. He rises from the chair. The time has come for him to set out to do what must be done, that which only he can and will do.

He takes a step toward the door, leaving behind him the pub owner, her words echoing in his thoughts. He glances back, but she has vanished. Had she ever spoken, or had he just imagined her words and questions? He knows she had certainly spoken those words, once, but, as he strides back up the narrow avenue toward the Great Plaza and the avenue beyond leading southward to Priority headquarters and his skymount, he is not so certain what he saw and what he recalled.

When he leaves the shadows cast across the narrow avenue by the Three Sisters, their full and soft light falls across him. He leaves no shadow in his wake as he once again retraces the steps of his destiny. Shortly, the clouds will gather, and the rains will fall on the emptiness of the Great Plaza, which will remain empty for yet another century . . . until the three sister moons are all once more full on the same night.

* * *

The Priority of Soleil and its peoples exist still in the Western Highlands, as does Saarmara far to the east across the endless Great Eastern Ocean and beyond the solar storms, but Astralis and the lowlands are lifeless, as they have been for millennia.

There are all manner of altars, and not all sacrifices are burnt offerings.

* * *

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