Like Vines

“Like Vines”

by Alicia Power

12 Thermidor, Arisene Year 1244

My Dearest Cecilia,

Though it has only been a week since I said farewell to you and your formidable gaggle of youngsters, I feel as if I’ve reached another world entire. The caravan was rough going at first, truthfully. The roads are harsh and pitted, all the more so on the way to the front. This damnably dry summer and the heavy traffic have conspired to leave us with little more than pitted animal tracks. I’d thought a motor carriage over cobblestones was bad, but the idea that this is all that remains of the so-called greatroad through the old city and Roless beyond drives one to hysteria.

Thankfully, that ingenious trunk you gave me seems to have done its job with aplomb, and none of my tools or instruments are the worse for wear. Once I finish this letter, I fully intend to write the artisan responsible and implore her to work that same magic on carriage seats. Would that my aching bones were not quite so jealous of my soldering iron and con filament clips duit benders.

I found myself a trifle lonesome in the first few days. Perhaps you’ll laugh at me for saying so, but it’s not only the smiling faces of your family I miss. As it happens, I was the only artificer in the entire caravan! It would seem that it’s no wonder I was called up—despite never having touched military engines in my career—if they are so lacking in warm bodies.

But even armed with that knowledge, I spent most of my idle time during the journey pondering the absurdity of my presence. To think that I was riding the same roads that carried the Mothers of Aris when they birthed our state so long ago. Aye, that I may have stood on the same bare stretches of earth that Mazzini did when she said “No, not yet” and traveled still further south to plant the seeds of civilization. That I may have already passed the point where Rossi fled the path, spitting on the first among Mothers and striking north to found Roless.

The truth is, I have seldom felt so out of place. The soldiers march on as though it is nothing, but part of me still cannot fathom that I am moving through history and the great deeds of old. If I can keep my wits about me when we first set eyes on the ruins of the old city, I will count my blessings.

But ultimately, whether I belong here or not, I do believe I put any concerns—even my own—about my skills to rest. As it happened, one of the cargo transports—a hideous, hulking thing with no style whatsoever—ran itself off the road, and the success of the caravan fell bewilderingly to me. I shall do my best not to bore you with the details of my work, but in this case it turned out to be a fascinatingly tricky little problem for such an inelegant beast. A bolt in the steering column’s first universal joint had worked itself loose, and had been scraping against the engine block above. Now, that would have been enough to make steering a chore even before the bolt fell and the joint collapsed, but the damnable little thing had actually worked through the engine housing and exposed a primary etheric filament! That it was operable in that state is marvel enough, but if it had sparked and damaged the etherstone core itself, I hesitate to think…. Oh, I’m rambling again, aren’t I?

I’m dreadfully sorry, my dear. It’s only that this sort of thing never happens in the halls of the Academia, where novices’ work is too small and in operation for too short a span to risk a major accident. And far from being afraid of it, I was thrilled! I scarcely dared hope that I could be of use out here, where utility is so prized that artistry might as well go unmentioned. But I helped! And while I thought none of my companions, however temporary, could relate to my experience, several of the officers seemed to know enough to understand the catastrophe that could have befallen them without my intervention. A particularly strapping lieutenant by the name of Despreaux even offered me a toast of some foul-smelling rotgut by way of thanks—in the harsh light of morning, I wish I could tell you that I declined.

It was not an hour that will go down in the history books, but to be of value, however small, in our fight for the old city and the riches of its hallowed hills… well.

In the remaining days of our journey, I reviewed much of the equipment throughout the caravan, and while I have not been so grease-stained at the end of a working week (or any single working day, for that matter) in some years, it is somehow quite wonderfully refreshing.

I start work soon, so any more shall have to wait until my next letter. Duty calls!

Your Faithful Brother,
Matthew

15 Thermidor, Arisene Year 1244

My Dear Cecilia,

I hope I’m not inconveniencing you by writing again so soon. As I pen this missive, it’s entirely possible you’ve not even received my first letter, but I must tell you…. What I have witnessed today is beyond extraordinary.

If your horse is lamed, build a carriage that doesn’t need one. That has always been my approach to artifice, and the prevailing attitude of the Academia. To transcend the natural world, not to emulate it. Let nature remain a thing of beauty forever out of reach, to be depicted in filigree and ornamentation. But do not seek to steal notes from the forge of the world itself.

But here I see not only an objection to my way of thinking, but its antithesis.

It is an engine of Rolessan make, salvaged from the western bank of the Mater after a skirmish. It begins with a body much like one of our own tanks: squat and sturdy, mounted on treads. But from there, something else arises: a torso, casting the entire contraption as something like a centaur—a thing out of a fairytale, shaped in steel. Adding to this grotesque tableau are the arms, bulbous and reaching long enough to nearly drag upon the earth, ending in powerful clamps for hands.

I can only imagine how it would look in motion, and the thought both sets my heart racing and turns my stomach. It would be one thing to see devices modeled after the natural world’s wonders, clinging vines and iron-hewn muscles working towards some majestic purpose. Such things are not to my taste, but they do not spit in the face of the Academia. Indeed, though I hesitate to lend the idea credence, there are some younger fellows who insist we must preserve or emulate the earthly if we are ever to drive progress forward. But to see this gross facsimile of nature merged with such austere function is enough to raise my gorge even as my hands twitch at the thought of pulling the beast apart. It is abomination and fascination at once, contrived and original, classic and profane.

I had thought…well, I seldom thought of the war at all when I was at home, tucked away in workshop or classroom. It is a strange thing, to know that one’s fellows fight and die, while giving that fact no more regard than the weather. When I received my summons, it seemed preposterous. I had thought of soldiers as a different breed, or even a different species. That there was something—call it bravery or patriotism, bloodlust or foolishness—embedded in the bones of the men and women who fought. Something that I lacked utterly.

Aye, I have passed it off as a fear of boredom and isolation before now, but you know how I bluster. And now, seeing grease and blood intermingled within this machine’s treads and gears, I find myself feeling something else entirely, my fear overridden with foreign sensation. I have thought of Roless even less than I have our own soldiers, but now I realize it had seemed some far off, repelling place, its people barely people at all. How strange it is now, to see something precisely as alien as I had thought…but utterly human at once.

Perhaps I do not know what war is, but I see now that to me, at least, it shall be a great teacher. I hope only that whatever I create, discover, or become need not be quenched in blood as this engine has been.

I should like to know who would come up with this sort of contraption, that appears almost as though two conflicting minds impacted one another in its creation.

And yet, there is such pride in it.

No. Not pride, but love.

Yours Faithfully,

Matthew

25 Fructidor, Arisene Year 1244

My Dear Cecilia,

I should have joined the military years ago.

Do you think me mad for saying so? But it is true. I am in love with this! The long-awaited—and now seemingly ceaseless—rains of the past month have gifted me long hours to study the Rolessan engine, while the rest of my time in this now-dreary season has largely been spent performing maintenance on our standing materiel and dreaming of an end to the humidity. But all that changed this week, when the fighting began again.

I know, I know, I am hardly one for pugilism, and I doubtless would have little appreciation for the romance of blood on sand or what have you. But to hear the troops’ cheers as the engines rolled out, to feel the excitement run over and through you like mist…it is something breathtaking and new to me.

And now that the current campaign is more fully underway, I must confess the work is even more intoxicating. As someone new to the base, I’ve been limited in my access and ability to ply my talents. But Lieutenant Despreaux has been looking after me even after the end of the our pilgrimage, and had a word with the chief artificer at the base. The very next day, I found myself with a workspace of my own, and clearance to not simply maintain and repair, but to modify the devices under my purview and create new ones. The arms of the Rolessan engine have given me some ideas I wish to put into practice shortly, and I am overjoyed at the opportunity.

And that, perhaps, is the crux of things. I had thought that the Academia would be the greatest place for me to improve my craft and pry at the edges and limits of etheric engineering. I wanted to create art, not just new ways of preserving paint and canvas; music, not only devices to convey it to the masses beyond the gates of the opera house; new ways of understanding the universe and this power that runs behind its walls; I wanted more than to make use of what we already have, any advancement occurring only by dint of happenstance. And in that place…well, it is a house of learning, and something—whether the act of shaping young minds or the endless meetings of those already learned—makes all thought begin to taste the same. So much brilliance, but all of it is bound, channeled through what pathways we already comprehend.

I know that here, matters are endlessly utilitarian. There is no love for elegance. But that same droll pragmatism creates the opportunity for innovation. When the first of the damaged engines came back to us—another ungainly tank, made to carry a shielded gun emplacement and a piston-like appendage I’m told is intended as a ram or a lance—its chassis pitted and dinged from opposing fire and one side burst open like over-ripe fruit from etherstone rupture, I thought it would be so much scrap. But what would have been deemed useless at the Academia is cherished here. Every piece was salvaged, ready to be hammered into new shapes, soldered into place and sent back into the field. Even miniscule splinters of filament have been retained, and the barest breath or hope of finding a use for those is enough to relegate one to the fringes of the Academia, doomed to mockery and obsolescence.

It is a comfort to see that here, where the stakes are higher, there is real credence given to such faint possibilities. It may defy modern scientific thinking, but it nonetheless lends some verisimilitude to the war, at least to one uninitiated as myself. After all, if fragments could be put to use again, it might herald a true and lasting end to hostilities. If the complete crystalline structure didn’t have to be so carefully preserved—or if it could be repaired once damaged—in order to hold or carry etheric charge, we could delve far deeper in our own mines instead of continuing this bitter contest over what little land there is still suitable for the painstaking, delicate process of extraction.

Aye, it may only be a dream, but there is beauty in that too.

Far from being nettled over having to work with slag and dross, I am more inspired than ever before. As filament and chorded steel wrap around each other in the Rolessan engine, so too do I intend to twine its ingenuity and my own around one another—the strange design and the surreal destruction it has wrought on our own materiel mingling like mating serpents.

I apologize that I seem to have adopted a tone both crass and prideful—I should say this time in the company of soldiers is getting to me, but I’m sure you’ll say that I’ve always been a foul-mouthed self-sycophant or some such riposte—but I believe that when I next write, I will have created something extraordinary.

Yours Truly,

Matthew

P.S. If I play my cards wisely, I may soon have the chance to dally with a certain strapping Lieutenant. Send me luck, my dear.

10 Vendémiaire, Arisene Year 1245

Ceci,

Do you recall the summer we spent with Nonna when we were young? I was nine, and you eleven, if I recall. I’m sure the countryside was beautiful, but I was so obsessed with repairing her old clock that I scarcely noticed. Never did get the damnable contraption to work, and I even came close to setting the house aflame for my troubles.

That is to say, I have been wrong before, but never so terribly wrong as this.

I should wish you a happy new year, but the future is black here. And yet, they say the war goes well. Thanks in no small part to me. I wrote you true these months past, when I said I did not know what war was. I did not begin to know.

It began with those damnable tanks, and the Rolessan engine. I looked upon the former and thought how slow, ungainly, and inelegant it was. I considered the latter and thought that if this enemy artificer had created arms, why not legs?

Thus, the strider.

I had Lieutenant Despreaux model for me more than once—no, not like that—so that I could study the motion of a human leg, where weight and force were placed and how they were distributed. Going back and forth between that and the Rolessan engines.

Goodness me, I have not even told you of the second one, have I? It is fashioned in the guise of a great serpent, made up of an ingenious series of interlocking segments that grasp and pull at the ground as the machine moves, or encircle and pull other constructs apart. Quite remarkable, really, as I suspect this sort of modular design could be used to carry a great number of different tools…or armaments, for different challenges. On top of that, if one segment is damaged, it can be cut off from the rest, dramatically reducing the risk of feedback to the rest of the filament or the core stones. It’s quite ingenious, and the resemblance to a living thing is much more evident here—and thus much easier for me to stomach. The only part that escapes me at the moment is a series of pock-marks deeper in the cockpit, where one’s legs would rest. They are too precise to be bullet holes, and too irregular to be for rivets or bolts later deemed unnecessary. Most strange.

At any rate, both engines helped crystalize the design of the strider. It is essentially a turret mounted on legs, rising to a great height. I modeled the structure after the first engine’s arms, and the joints after the second’s segments. The height offers a gunner or artillery position much greater mobility and keeps the operators and the core away from any would-be saboteurs looking to destroy the cockpit in a melee. It is a bit of a hodge-podge of current Arisene designs and what I’ve taken from the Rolessan, but I’m pleased with the results, and they are much more mechanically than naturalistically inspired, to my tastes. Riding the first prototype around the base…well, the view was more than worth the unpleasantness of climbing a rope ladder to the top.

The officers ordered me to fabricate two more, and had me accompany them for their first deployment. I thought it would be the culmination of my entire career, seeing my creations march proudly for the glory of Aris, getting caught up in the fervor of battle. And for an instant, it was.

I am more ashamed now of that moment than I can describe.

The striders marched near the front of the line as dawn scattered into morning, each with its own column of troops, a few rows ahead and to the sides, with dozens more behind, spread across the fields like grand capes. The Rolessans stood to meet our ranks, their force dotted with tanks much like our own, as well as several of the armed variety that I’d been studying back at our camp workshop.

I should like to talk of the rush of battle, swift justice in the shadow of the old city. That is what’s done in these situations, is it not? But there was no pride or joy to be taken in what happened next. Not for me.

The other two striders opened fire first, and crimson bloomed in the Rolessan ranks, blood and explosive bursts. I heard an intake of breath from around me, but I could do naught but stare. And all that was nothing compared to the carnage that emerged when the armies clashed directly.

At some point one of the generals passed me a telescope, so I might better observe my engines’ performance in the battle. ‘Performance,’ she said, as if it were but a presentation back at the Academia. As if there were no true stakes at all.

I saw rifle fire rip through our lines and theirs. I saw shells fling hapless soldiers into the air like so much chaff. I saw them ripped apart. Dozens, and then hundreds of people, and the men and women beside me watching like hogs being served offal. The worst, I thought, had come when the Rolessans pressed forward into the column surrounding one of the other striders. One of their engines reached out with those powerful arms and pulled at the strider’s leg, straining amidst a sea of gore and a cacophony of screams, until I heard a groan of steel giving way, and the strider toppled. I looked away, and shuddered to think of the men and women inside.

I thought that would be the worst, but in truth it was all monstrous, and at least that horror pushed the generals to signal a retreat. I doubted we’d be able to count our losses so far down on the killing floor, but when a threat to the officers’ lives—and my own, I suppose—arose, the cost of the fight was finally considered an excess. I was too numbed to be shocked, still less appalled.

When we returned to the base to the cheers of what guard and support staff had remained, I am not ashamed to say I nearly fell more than once as I descended the strider. Nor do I feel the least remorse for falling to my knees and retching as soon as I reached the cold earth. I believe that more than one person offered me words of encouragement and even praise, but their faces were as ghouls’ to me, and I could hear nothing but the remembered echoes of steel buckling, of the sound of screams.

Somewhere in the hubbub, I believe I was given a promotion. Chief of research and design or some such nonsense. The other artificers seem to listen to me now, at least. And I have more space and time to be alone with the Rolessan engines. As my own creations and the images they’ve carved in me inspire horror, I no longer feel the sickness I once did at the sight of them. Indeed, they remain captivating to me now, when so little else holds interest.

I do not wish to be here, but desertion is met with a bullet more oft than not, and that option…. Suffice to say I will not be taking it.

I should say I am sorry I ever came, but I shall never advocate ignorance, and would that not be the only difference had I remained comfortably at home? All of this would still be happening, even if it were outside my comfortable awareness. All that would be absent would be my hand in the bloodshed and my eyes to see it.

There is no way out, but even if my only company is that of cold steel and crystal, at least I shall not be alone.

Yours,

Matthew

13 Brumaire, Arisene Year 1245

My Dear Cecilia,

I do believe I’ve cracked it.

I should apologize. I am sorry to have not written more often. Unfortunately, my work here keeps me more than occupied. I have even taken to keeping a camp blanket at my workbench in case I overstay my own wakefulness—a preparation I’ve put to use more than once.

I understand your concerns after my last correspondence, but I am doing much better now, truly. I am more aware of the realities of our situation than before, and my enthusiasm has perhaps dimmed as a result, but there’s really no cause for alarm. I am dreadfully sorry to have sent you such a ghastly description of events, the more so when I consider your little ones could have seen it. I was quite overwhelmed and without thought.

Nonetheless, the soldiers have dealt with such things—and worse—on a constant basis for the decade since the last armistice collapsed, and many of them are quite jolly if anything. Lieutenant Despreaux has been a true friend in this regard, even if I have not been prepared for anything more than that. He’s brought more of his dreadful moonshine by the artificers’ out-buildings a number of times, and I admit it has been pleasant to release my cares face-to-face with someone else—not to mention that the liquor puts me to sleep with alarming efficiency.

Despreaux told me once to remember that we are all of us on these fields of war for a reason, and that the trappings of service to one’s nation-state are only a yoke if I allow them to be. Instead, he told me, I must think of them as crown and scepter: symbols of office and of duty, duly accepted.

I know I am not the patriotic sort, and far less now that I have seen battle, but when I think that what I have done may in some small way protect the smiles of your family…well, I confess to feeling a stir of pride. I do not know that I shall ever again feel excitement at the prospect of a new day of battle dawning, but returning to my work with a firmer sense of purpose has been a powerful boon, and something like enthusiasm remains kindled within me.

To wit, I believe that I have discerned the true purpose of the markings on the second Rolessan engine! As I suspected, the pock-marks within the serpent’s throat do carry some meaning. I had at first thought to find similar markings on the first engine, but I believe most of the marked portion was too badly damaged to be intelligible. Indeed, few parts of the first engine are intact enough to contain a pattern the length of the second’s, and I have checked them all. But last night, when my lantern was burning low—can you fathom that we must use oil lamps here? Etheric filament is in such short supply that even such basic devices as camp lanterns must be pillaged to power war engines—and I was beginning to drift off.

But when the lantern showed through holes in a piece of scrap from the armed engine, I realized that amidst the bullet holes were some of the same symbols from the second engine’s gullet!

Realizing this sequence occurred at the furthest end of the serpent’s markings, I thought of the possibility of a signature of sorts. I know little of the linguistic arts, but even determining that much felt like a triumph. And from there…I was able to stumble into the rest of the truth.

Eden.

Eden is the name of my inspiration, the mad Rolessan artificer who blends the truth and lie of that very title, “artificer,” as they blur the lines between nature and machine in their creations.

It was quite a simple code, really. The number of pips in each symbol correspond to a letter in our alphabet, and their arrangement I believe defines matters such as the beginnings and ends of words and sentences. Truth be told, I haven’t fully worked that part out yet, and it’s entirely possible they merely represent an attempt to throw any unwanted eyes off the truth of the message. Adding complexity for its own sake.

And so the name, Eden.

And the message:

I should rather live than die.

That, at least, we have in common.

So why do they mistrust me when I say

I should rather dream than bleed?

I would be glad of either, were it my own free choice

And not another’s burning need.

A message in a bottle, as it were. What was that opera we saw on your birthday last? I recall a youth locked in a tower—and a rather clever pulley system. The message reminded me of that more than anything. Can you imagine? Still….

I must try to get a hold of more of these machines. I can’t imagine there will be anything of strategic import, even if there are more messages, but…well, I’ve no need to inform anyone as of yet. I shall endeavor to find out more before offering a report. The strider production and deployment takes up much of our time here, so I can continue my studies of Rolessan artifice on my own, in spare moments.

Speaking of, I believe I must be back to it. As I’m sure you will admonish me, I truly will try to take better care of myself and sleep properly now and again.

Yours Truly,

Matthew

17 Floréal, Arisene Year 1245

My Dear Cecilia,

This winter has been truly dreadful, has it not? I hope you have kept warm and dry throughout—it was quite impossible to do so here. When the storms made the greatroad impassable, I feared I would go mad for lack of proper conversation. I have missed you dreadfully, and started this letter half a dozen times at various points. And while I am glad the snows have made large-scale combat impossible…I quite missed my other pen-mate, almost more than I could bear.

It seems a lifetime ago that I wrote you to explain Eden’s message in a bottle, and so much has happened since. I suppose it started with Despreaux, when I think on it. It was the day after I’d finished deciphering the message, and I was in fine spirits—though I hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do with the information. I decided to seek the man out for a drink, and when we were thoroughly in our cups, the conversation turned to…well, to the enemy.

Truthfully, I remember embarrassingly little of what we were taught in school about modern Roless and how their society differs from what we have in Aris, and the subject was on my mind. Perhaps it was a mistake to ask a soldier, but Despreaux was quite dismissive of the entire question. In his view, the Rolessans are austere, single-minded imperialists, the state being governed by tyranny and greed with no thought beyond self-interest.

We were sitting at the fireside, enjoying our refreshments—such as they were—and taking in the night air alongside several of our fellows. But I swear, as we began to speak of Roless, something in the atmosphere changed. An acrid smell to the woodsmoke, a feverish gleam in my companion’s eyes….

“They may be sisters to fair Aris,” he said, “but we are not the same.” He even went on to posit some nonsense about ‘evil twins’ or the like. I told him he was being absurd, and that I was studying more than enough evidence of Rolessan prowess and artistry, barely on the other side of camp.

“A slavering barbarian may hold a sharp stone to your throat, but that does not make it an equal,” he said.

The next thing I knew, we nearly came to blows, and an enlisted man had to pull Despreaux away. I don’t know entirely what came over me, but…I cannot abide the lie that we are somehow more distinguished, less brutal than the Rolessans. It might have easier to believe such things before I came here, but I know now that we all carry our own bloodied blades.

I can’t imagine how I found such a cruel, closed-minded man attractive.

I stomped away from Despreaux and the rest of the troops and returned to the workshop, where I could at least be alone. And I could not tell you if it was my frustration and hurt, the drink, or some ineffable aspect of the snow-blunted night as the air turned chill, but I took up a chisel, hammer, press, and some other tools, and I wrote a letter. I feverishly etched a message in scrap, just the same as Eden had.

Why, I wrote, should we wet our fields with blood at all, when the waters of the mind flow freely?

Not my finest work, I do admit, but when I stepped back to view it, sweating through my shirt and breathing heavily, something about it felt right. I affixed my signature and began working the metal into place as part of the plated undercarriage of the latest strider.

The machine was coming together better than I would have hoped. Thinking of the cables in Eden’s work as akin to muscle fibers, I’d been experimenting with new materials, making the legs of the strider more flexible and stronger, able to withstand rapid changes in speed and direction. In other words, the device was more human than I’d ever planned. Not to mention that, with the help of the rest of the camp artificers, the turret apparatus, now able to rotate freely in a full circle, had become a particularly deadly innovation.

Yet, this message, punched into the floor of that merciless head-piece, filled me with more pride than anything I created since the beginning of my tour of duty. I slept better that night than I had in months.

And that was before they wrote back.

It was only a week later, and there it was. Salvage from another Rolessan engine, this one decorated with embossed filligree and paint—the officers assigned me to determine its significance. And there it was, beneath the crown of the machine’s head, a message, now addressed to me.

I told the supervising officers that there was nothing remarkable about this design we hadn’t already gleaned from others, that the decoration likely had more to do with the identity of the pilot or its role in formation than anything else. I deciphered the message much faster this time, and it was much shorter:

Who are you, Matthew? Wear red if we are to meet.

And I began writing back.

The system was simple enough. Constructs painted red were prototypes to be deployed in the vanguard, to increase the likelihood they would be recovered for study. Eden adopted the same approach with blue on their side. Each device so colored would carry a message, redundant in case they were damaged beyond legibility. Aye, it was a risk for both of us to propose such similar strategies, but at least on the Arisene side of things, few soldiers paid enough thought to my work to even notice the parallel, much less remark upon it. And so we began to talk.

I confess, I never expected to become Eden’s friend.

They told me about life growing up in Roless. It is a place driven by faith, far more so than Aris, and much of education there is focused on finding the gifts granted to each child from on high, the particular talents they are destined to follow. Eden had a hard life, having a calling both for art and for artifice. They dreamed of making beautiful inventions of spun steel and blown glass, whistles and songs. But whether because of the particular ingenuity implied by their dueling talents or the needs of the state, they were pressed into military service. When they resisted, they were met with duress. They do not easily speak of what they suffered, but I gather that they feared for their family, not only their own corporeal well-being. I suspect that some threats were delivered with more than words.

It strikes me that I have never heard what happens when someone in our fair home refuses a call to serve.

I told them of you, and of your family. I hope I have not overstepped in this. Truly, I trust Eden beyond measure. I’ve spoken at length of father and our childhood misadventures as well. I promise I have not painted myself with an overly generous brush in that regard, but they seem genuinely joyed to hear the tales regardless. “Tell me a story,” they often instruct at the end of a missive. It warms my heart, truth be told.

Most of all, we talk of our work. I know this may be considered dangerous, even treasonous. That conversation with Despreaux sticks in my mind, and I know I am taking greater risks for Eden than would be wise. But they are that brilliant. Truly, I have never had a friend such as this. You have always listened to me prattle on about the latest developments in etheric design, but I know well that it is not your passion as it is mine. Eden takes their inspiration from the natural world, and from the artificial cruelty of their own imprisonment. This melding of ideas, though born of monstrous reality, has been truly illuminating to me, and I believe they feel similarly about my more discrete approach.

We both have a profound love for the art, and it stops my breath to think they have maintained that despite the conditions they are under. It is invigorating, and a true relief after these long months of being surrounded by the military mind. I am more aware than ever of the struggles I have escaped in my lifetime, but I now feel all the more determined to create something truly for the sake of good, not merely in support of some impossible notion of glory.

I still sleep little, but now it is with dreams of how these sharp curves and hard edges might one day fit together.

Yours,

Matthew

30 Fructidor, Arisene Year 1245

Dear Cecilia,

It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? Aye, but my indenture here will soon be at an end. One way or another.

I am so very tired, Ceci. I have tried so hard for so long, and it is not enough.

I believed when Eden and I began conversing that the meeting of our minds would be something extraordinary, and I remain overjoyed to say that I was right. United, we can change everything. Even after all that has happened, I have faith in that. I must.

In our correspondence, we’ve often talked of the fragments of etheric filament collected and preserved from broken engines. I have maintained that there is no way to repair them into a usable whole, but Eden has on more than one occasion pointed out that there may nonetheless be a use for them.

I have spent much parchment and metal on praising the novelty of Eden’s designs, the counter-intuitive merging of discreet, even antithetical concepts. But in truth, their most remarkable quality as an artificer may be in their ability to return to base principles and re-examine them. It is not for minds such as ours to determine from where the crystal structures we call etherstone draw their energy, nor how the veins of that same crystal we call filament can transmit it so effectively. We only know that when damaged, that etheric energy dissipates, or, in the worst case, feeds back upon itself, creating the devastating explosions. We know that we cannot string together broken strands and shattered spheres without consigning ourselves to disaster.

But if etheric energy leaks from fractured crystal back into the atmosphere…can we not reverse the process?

My dear, I believe we can. It may sound preposterous, but my tests confirm it. Properly shaped and aligned, fragments are more than a poor substitute for broken glass; they are a way out! With this discovery, we can pump life back into dead stones. It has been little more than hypothesis that stones regain a charge over time, and studies have yielded spotty data, implying the process occurs so slowly as to be unobservable. Now we can make it happen in a matter of days. We should not need so much, and we should not have cause for avarice, nor war.

With this discovery, broken things can do some good.

That’s what we had hoped, anyway.

In reality, our superiors on both sides had no interest in talk of peace. Perhaps too much blood has been spilled, or perhaps too many simply feel as Despreaux does, that our differences run too deep and crack too easily on contact. You know as well as I how many stories there are of Roless as the great gate to the north, the demons not only keeping us from the bounty of our history in the old city, but from the world beyond the peninsula. In Roless, they say the same about us and the sea, and they lay as much claim to the city of ancestors, as they call it. I disagree, but it is out of my hands. Be damned to bad blood and anyone who wishes to spill it on principle.

Indeed, the generals wish only to use our theory to create even more powerful weapons. It is a cold equation, to them. So long as every one of our lives trades for two of theirs, we shall win the day. Eden’s superiors feel likewise. Someday they may reach another armistice, and then perhaps our ideas will lead to peace, but I do not know. For all my newfound knowledge of and empathy for Roless, I am not one of them. I am not a man of faith, and I certainly cannot believe in half-promises and lip service. Especially not from a pack of wolves such as these.

And I do not accept the cost.

Aye, but I cannot deny them entirely without facing the consequences. I have nearly completed a new prototype using this concept, and barring damage from accident or battle, it should never need more stone than what it contains at this moment.

It is the most animalistic of any of my designs, taking the form of a gargantuan lion, a spray of cracked and discarded lines of filament for its mane. It is the most beautiful thing I have made since I came to this wretched place. Perhaps the most beautiful I have made at all. I should have liked to show it to you, to have you ride on its back, but pragmatism has won out, and rather than a saddle or anything else so fanciful, there is only the cockpit buried in the monster’s throat, with a backup in its belly.

It will run forever. And perhaps…well, no matter.

This may be my last letter. I fear that when the generals see what they’re calling my ‘infinity engines’ on both sides of the battlefield, they will realize that something has gone awry. In the best case scenario, they will begin reviewing any correspondence and keeping watch over my work. I’m sure Despreaux would be happy to speak to my treasonous sympathies. And in the worst case, friendship across enemy lines would be enough to see me tried and hanged.

And if I am denied another chance to say it, my feelings for Eden surpassed friendship long ago.

Love,

Matthew

1 Frimaire, Arisene Year 1246

Ceci,

Don’t ask after the messenger. Forget his face if you can. I do not have much time.

I promise you, this is my own mind and judgment. Question those if you must, but I have not been spirited away by a Rolessan operative, nor detained by our own fair Aris for my actions.

You have made it quite clear that I seldom understand the meaning of my actions. I stand at a precipice, calculate the acceleration, the vectors, the forces…and I step off the ledge without considering what will happen to me—even whether I should live or die—when I land. To parrot your words, I do look before I leap, but never at what really matters.

I know Father and you have spared me the worst consequences of my own foolhardy ventures, time and time again. I know you have tired terribly of my excuses. But I do not know if you would truly try to convince me to stay my hand in this. And forgetting angles, arcs, vectors, and even engines, for once—I know that this is right.

This matters, more than anything I have ever known. I will not deny it, though I may not succeed, nor survive. To even send this note is to risk everything. If all goes well, by the time you read this, I shall be dashing towards Eden, and together may we race the endless miles past where Nonno shed his blood, into free and undiscovered country. But even while I am in the belly of the beast, I hope you will know that I am happy. I am free. I am loved.

I know that it will tear at the very heart of me to lose you.

But in this mad design, a heart that does not love is no heart at all.

Goodbye, Ceci.

Always,

Matthew

_______________

BIO

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