The view from the water tower had a stark, monochromatic beauty to it. Out to the horizon in all directions, plains of unbroken white stretched beneath the roiled grey of impatient storms. Lawns and trees and rooftops lay huddled beneath snow; only walls, cars and plowed streets provided any color to the scene, and even they felt muted, as if their colors were too busy struggling to protect civilization's thin foothold.
It almost, the singer decided, felt like the Wastes.
The thought was a cheerful one. The Wastes were the one place where the singer could taste freedom. The barren freedom of isolation, yes, but a refreshing draught for that. Everywhere else had rules, rulers and ruled -- even in the Shadowlands, there were formalities, duplicities, concessions, negotiations.
Someday, the singer would be beyond all that.
The shadow unicorn reclined, feeling the astringent touch of ice against the black fabric and fur of its back. It watched the slow dance of patterns in the passing blanket of clouds, and listened to the sounds of the Weave: the quiet hiss of distant cars, the sigh of lazy wind, the defiant chatter of birds too stubborn to migrate.
It was quiet, but quiet on the Weave was not like quiet beyond it. Elsewhere, the distant voices spoke up faintly in the silence; here, they spoke up in the noise of life and motion. It always took an adjustment to hear the chorus while visiting. But soon the singer recognized the tune, and closed its white eyes to sing along:
"The Archon feared I'd rise above my station;
and thus he made me Shadow Lord.
So soon he offers gifts of complications.
Perhaps he thinks I'm bored.
I've placed the players in my shadow game;
why does he seek to do the same?
Has he deduced that black outnumbers white?
He's only halfway right."
The shadow paused, sensing a shift. Here on the Weave, it was much easier to detect the Archon's approach. And the singer had no desire to offer him a song this time.
There was the soft squeak of fresh snow as boot-shod feet came down behind the singer's head. The unicorn opened its eyes; fur-edged cuffs and bulky down coat covered a human figure, and big brown eyes stared through broad-lensed glasses above an equally broad moustache and mouth.
"Well," the Archon said. "If it isn't my muse. Thank you for coming."
"I greet you, Keeper," the shadow said stiffly.
The Archon put on a look of distaste. "Why so formal? You shouldn't call me that. With all that's going on, we're practically partners."
"No, just aligned by common goals," the singer said, sitting up. "We're exchanging favors for mutual benefit ... if you can call the giant target on my back a benefit."
"... Does the magnitude of what I've given you mean so little, then?" the Archon asked. "The entire shadow world to toy with as you wish?"
"It means responsibilities," the unicorn responded. "Which I don't take lightly. It means diverting precious time and energy to consolidating my power there and to accomplishing your tasks. It's all part of the deal."
"Oh," the bundled-up man said softly. "That really is all this is to you. A deal."
The shadow turned, blank white eyes staring into the Archon's. "Why? Was it supposed to be something more?"
The Archon spread his hands. "Less about expectations and more about ... possibilities."
"I don't understand your disappointment, Keeper."
The Archon leaned in. "Look. I know what the Bound Ones want -- you think I don't listen to the celestial songs? And you're the only one to give up on their futile game ... the only one who has done anything to make my job easier. Clearly you're the most far-sighted of them. Surely you're also smart enough to see how rewarding it could be to have a deeper understanding with me."
"So an alliance ...?" the unicorn asked, standing and brushing off snow. Then its eyes narrowed. "No, you're not stupid; there's no utility in an ally who has given up the game. What else are you offering me, then?"
"No, Muse," the Archon said, face pained. "This isn't a deal. Stop trying to make sense of it that way. Not everything works like that."
"You don't. I've watched you with the threads. You care about something besides yourself."
The dark unicorn shrugged. "Think what you wish. Is there anything else to discuss, Keeper?"
The Archon looked around and lowered his voice. "Look, Muse. I understand you --"
"You understand me? You?" the shadow interrupted, incredulous. "You can look at me and say that with a straight face?"
"I understand the pain of powerlessness that stares you in the face as a tiny piece in a large game," the Archon said. "I understand the longing, the loneliness. I understand the constant fear of being surrounded by others ready to backstab you the instant you turn around." He took a breath. "We're really not so different, you and I."
The shadow flinched as if slapped in the face.
"Well, Keeper," the shadow replied slowly, "I understand your gifts and trifles of praise. I understand the panic and self-doubt. I understand your attempt to bribe your way to forgiveness." The unicorn's voice dripped with venom. "Don't you deign to tell me how alike we are. I am a Weaver. You are a naughty little child desperately hoping that if he just acts nice enough, someone will tell him he's doing the right thing."
The Archon's expression stayed level, but his face drained of color.
"Singer," he said softly, "do not forget your place --"
The unicorn laughed, a sharp, incredulous bark. "Forget my place! As if I could look into your eyes without seeing the chains that bind me."
"I will not apologize for my purpose. But I have shown you the greatest kindness. Throw that back at me at your own peril."
"You have shown me courtesy," the shadow said, "and I will continue to respond with courtesy in turn. But there is no kindness while I remain bound. So do me another courtesy and keep our talk to business."
On the wind, the birdsong died away. The world seemed to hold its breath as the two beings faced off.
Finally, the Archon spoke, his voice holding an edge. "To business, then. You are setting events in motion. I need more oversight."
The shadow spread its hands. "You don't have enough? I'm already letting those three kids run loose -- despite the complications it introduces in our mutual goals."
"You know I can't deal with them directly. I want an outside party. Like, let us say, their friend Crissy. But," the Archon said pointedly, "she seems to be having some trouble entering your Shadowlands."
"Are you saying what I think you're saying? Beyond the hassle of a fourth wild card running free in my delicate games -- who reports directly to you -- you also want me to tote her back and forth from the Weave myself?"
"That's exactly what I want, yes. And more: I want her to have full access to your plans, unfettered communication with myself, free entrance and exit ... hmm. Sanctioned enforcement powers if she finds evidence of wrongdoing. Knowledge of your location at all times. And your personal protection."
The shadow was momentarily speechless. "Just off the top of my head, that's four of your own rules that you're ordering me to break. My rejecting your 'deeper understanding' must have really hit home."
The Archon's lips curled into a vindictive smile. "Ah, singer, there's the thing. I'm not ordering you to do anything beyond allow one additional thread in for oversight. Beyond that, I've merely expressed what I want."
"Hmm. I see. Clever. And the consequences of my compliance or inaction?"
"I make no promises either way."
"Naturally. Will you at least give sanction to any rules I break in pursuit of your desires?"
"You know I can't do that," the Archon said. "But may I remind you that I have nothing to gain from a petty game of gotcha."
The unicorn turned and stared out at the snowy plains, bringing a hand up to its chin. "Not when there are richer prizes at stake."
The Archon, waiting, said nothing.
The singer listened to the Weave, lost in quiet deliberation. "Perhaps," it slowly said, "you are beginning to understand something about me after all. You wish to play a game of respect, Archon? I accept. Let the game begin."
News: Ah, Muse and the Archon. It's about time that our schemers spoke to each other again.
Over the weekend, I rearranged all the Acts that were originally published out of order; the story flows much more smoothly now, especially in the "Companions" arc. If you've been following the story all along, no content has changed, so there's no need to reread. If clicking on a link to any of those sections takes you somewhere unexpected, please let me know.
Also, if you haven't seen the archives yet (they're linked from the left-hand sidebar), they're a great way to keep track of the overall progress of the plot and to find the last time a particular character had the narrative focus. Give them a skim any time you need to refresh your memory.