Prince Vladimirov was found dead the day after he closed the Imperial Marionette Theatre and transferred its building and assets to the ballet company that were run by his lover. The Okhrana opened up a special investigation to deal with the matter, since it seemed obvious that one of the marionette makers had been involved. Vladimirov had, after all, been found in his own dressing room, hung from the same horsehair ropes that were used in the elaborate puppetry masques of old.

But the staff were carefully accounted for in the investigation, with the orchestra playing at an engagement across the Neva and the major marionette players performing at a private engagement for Grand Duke Mikhail. Even vengeful old Sakharov, the theater’s owner, manager, and head puppetteer, had spent the previous day vainly attempting to secure a personal audience with the Czar or Czarina. The Okhrana determined their movements rather precisely, given their informants and the aristocratic circles in which the puppeteers and musicians tended to move.

In the end, those in the Prince’s inner circle privately suggested that he had used the marionette cord, which had been quite accessible to him after the theatre’s closure, for an unwise bout of autoerotic asphyxiation. Nevertheless, Sakharov was officially charged with the crime and exiled to Siberia–who, after all, would have wanted to tell the Czar that his second cousin had died in such a sinful way?

The Okhrana report tactfully omitted the tiny footprints found in the dust on the closet floor and on Vladimirov’s shirt.

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I think they’re alive, living. I’ve seen them bleed, I’ve seen them flee from danger. There might even be language in the words coming from their mouths, if you can call them mouths. And yet when they’ve been followed to their obscure lands of origin, through chinks and cracks from the natural world into places that are wrong, it is as if they’ve forgotten how to be a people, how to be a civilization.

Their buildings, dwellings, whatever you want to call them are magnificent. Edifices built to some age-old plan and a purpose that defies understanding. But even now they clearly do not know that purpose. The beings squat in the decaying ruins, using them as little more than base shelters where once clearly much more was meant to be.

There is infrastructure, technology even, in those places. I see them use it, but it is never repaired, never extended. When it crumbles, they simply go elsewhere. I may not be able to understand much about the intricacies of their world, but I think I understand this much.

They are living beings, and they have forgotten how to live.

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Name: Takenaka Chihiro
Title: Divine Chef
Weapon: Unmei no Fuguhiki

A legendary chef, Takenaka Chihiro wandered as a culinary ronin, wandering in search of his brother and cooking to feed his way as he did. Legendarily gentle and good-humored in temperament, he followed a personal code he called the “Menu of 108” that emphasized the value of friendship, laughter, and good meals shared. Perhaps his unhappy early life, in which his impoverished family had sold him into servitude under a local chef, had some bearing on this. Eventually he came to apprentice under the legendary court chef Fukuda Hitoshi in Kyoto. It was not until Fukuda’s death that he began his journey. His weapon, the Unmei no Fuguhiki, is an ordinary chef’s knife made with traditional katana crafting techniques as a personal gift of Sengo Muramasa.

Name: Masaki Miyako
Title: Divine Calligraphist
Weapon: Shi no Fude

A noted calligrapher and artist, Masaki Miyako was the illegitimate daughter of a daimyo and a washing-woman. One of a pair of fraternal twins, she was rejected by her father while her brother was accepted and legitimized. Knowing her father’s love of calligraphy, Masaki trained herself from a very young age in the art, cutting her own brushes and making her own ink sticks. Despite her incredible skill, her father preferred her near-illiterate brother, but the legendary calligraphy teacher Fujiwara Dai took her on as a pupil instead. Known for her cold, efficient, and ruthless work ethic, she has traveled ever since as an artist-for-hire, inheriting her master’s appellation as Divine Calligraphist upon his sudden death. She makes each of her Shi no Fude herself; calligraphy brushes with steel handles, they double as kunai and can be thrown or stabbed with lethal effect. Her handmade ink is also impregnated with a deadly poison; only she knows the secret of safely licking a brush coated in it.

Name: Sando Fumio
Title: Divine Architect
Weapon: Tenno Luopan

A geomancer and builder, Sando Fumio is renowned for the classic beauty of his structures and the exceptional quality of feng shui present in his creations. A very silent, very private man, he is known for his terseness and laconic remarks and very little else. Other than his place of origin, Osaka, little else is known about his origins. It is believed, based on his accent and affect, that he trained for some time in China, though as with all of his life, details are quite scarce. His prized possession, the Tenno Luopan or Emperor Compass, is a device of rare quality and sturdiness, equally at home in architecture and combat. On those occasions when he must do battle, Sando is known to affix the Tenno Luopan to a staff and use it as a spear of sorts.

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The massive bulk of the airship loomed over the fugitives, illuminating them. But it wasn’t a police ship with spotlights, but rather flashing an advertisement: IF YOU HAVE A BLIMP NEEDS LIFTING WHY NOT HYDROGEN? COME RIDE THE FIERY WINGS OF HUMANITY HYDROGEN: IT’S WHAT’S FOR LIFTING
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An apparently ordinary loblolly pine that had been either planted or allowed to grow unmolested since approximately 1980, the Prophecy Tree’s special gifts were only revealed following a 2019 summer pruning. The City of Davis and Pollocona County had disagreed about the ownership of the trees along Polk St., allowing the pines there to grow essentially unmanaged and unpruned. After the ice storms of early 2018, however, the jurisdiction issues had been sorted out, and the pruning in summer 2019 was initially unremarkable. A large branch was removed from the tree to improve access along a nearby sidewalk, and no one thought anything more about it.

However, in the record heat of Summer 2019, sap began to leak from the stump of the branch, and by September it was possible to make out a word: PLAGUE. This ominous word, dismissed by the City of Davis and the County of Pollocona as a hoax, quickly spread among the rumor mills in city Facebook groups. Many, especially in the First Baptist Church of Davis Women’s Auxiliary Facebook group, wondered if the dire pronouncement was a sign from a higher power.

In response, a local with a chainsaw cut off another of the largest branches on the tree. Thanks to the mild fall that year, the sap flowed from the fresh would just as easily as it had from the earlier pruning. The word MARCH was therefore revealed.

The City of Davis responded by erecting a fence to keep further branches from being cut, but the March 2020 arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown convinced locals that the tree was a prophet of some sort, and the fence was soon scaled. This time, three more major branches were cut, all that could be reached without a ladder. They revealed, in sap, the words PROTEST, MASK, and BREATHE.

By the time the Black Lives Matter protests began in earnest later that summer, there was no doubt in the locals’ minds that the tree was a prophet and despite a new, taller, fence brought in by the Mississippi DNR, five more branches were cut with the aid of a ladder from July to September of 2020. They revealed the words DEFEAT, ELECTION, RIOT, and ICE. Even before these events had been seen through, still more branches were cut. However, it seemed that only the very largest boughs of the pine would furnish prophecies, and there were only three such remaining along with the crown.

Two of the remaining branches were cut thereafter, one in November and another in December. The first read DEATH, the second STRIFE. Alarmed, the City of Davis erected a further fence 25 feet away and put the area under police guard; discussions began about felling or relocating the tree to forestall what was still officially a prank. Events soon outpaced this plan, however.

In mid January 2021, another branch was cut. This failed to produce any sap despite a warming trend at the time, and as such in early February the crown was cut off the tree. This failed to produce any sap either; state forestry officials who observed the stump noted that the tree had already been essentially dead, likely since late 2020.

The stump was subsequently cut down, the mystery of its amber prophecies dying with it.

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The smithy was on the outskirts of the village, and it abutted a small fenced pasture with a few goats. The warrior followed his host out into a far corner of the field, gently shooing a doe out of his way.

“There are my teachers,” the smith said, with a small nod of his head.

“They are stones,” the warrior said, confused, as he followed the smith’s gaze. “Standing stones, well-hewn as any I’ve seen, but no more a teacher of braiding than my sword is a singer.”

“Ah, but I’m sure it does sing when you bring it through the air to cut down those that it will,” said Braidar. “These stones I have raised are also songs of a sort, for my teachers who have themselves been cut down as well.”

Falling into a respectful silence a moment, the stranger examined each of the six stones. “They are beautiful,” he said. “Tell me more of your teachers, Braidar.”

The smith ran a callused hand over the first stone. “This was my Alswith; she died bringing little Sigrith into this world. Her last words to me were an apology, you know, for not giving me a son to inherit the smithy. I told her that I wouldn’t trade my girls for anything, but by then she was beyond hearing.”

His guest could only manage a nod.

“Our oldest, Regnild,” the smith said, moving to the next stone. “She kept her hair long, and loved for me to experiment with new knots and patterns. She met a good man, whom I still see from time to time. Her first and only son, stillborn, lies at her feet. When the time is right, I have promised her Jon a place at her side.”

“There is…no nobler duty,” said the warrior.

His host did not seem to hear, having moved to the another marker. “Little Ingrith, the first to go. Taken by illness when she was just coming into her own. I braided her hair every day to keep the mud out, even when there was nothing but her sickbed.”

“Emma and Edeva,” the smith continued, at two stones set close together. “Twins. A miracle that Alswith was able to bear them and live. They would always insist on different braids, as different as I could make them, so they would not be mistaken for one another. Edeva fell to a putrefying wound from a scrape, and Emma wasted away without her.”

The penultimate stone, carved with the image of a woman and a dog. “Godgyth, and her pet Gilbert. An animal lover, it was her fancy that I braid the tails of the animals she brought home. Gilbert died in a scrap with a stray, and my Godgyth died of putrefying wounds, sustained trying to protect him.”

“And here is Sigrith, my youngest and last. Gone now only a handful of years. She was a fiery one, always willful. I was showing her how to run the smithy, and always gave her the tightest and most intricate of braids to keep the sparks away.”

The warrior touched his own locks, gently. “The forge in my home port has claimed many as well.”

“Indeed so, and here as well, though not my Sigrith.” Braidar looked into the middle distance, eyes cloudy. “She fell in love and married, despite my warnings. He was a drunkard, violent. I could stand the bruises, when she begged me not to harm him. But when he struck her the final time, and she did not rise…I brought her here. I used the tallow from his bones to run the fire, for a time.”

There was silence then, nothing but the gentle wind of an early spring beneath dour clouds. “I think we understand one another now, O Braidar,” said the stranger. “I will take my leave and consider the wager decided in your favor.”

“You are welcome here any time, as are your men,” Braidar replied, his eyes still fixed on Sigrith’s gravestone. “The village has endured worse than the depredations of a few men with swords.”

“Perhaps, but if they come, they will come as guests,” the warrior replied. “I would see your fate and theirs braided together peacefully, as this hamlet has clearly seen enough sorrow.”

He left then, quietly, while the smith remained at the site for some time, looking over markers etched by intricate braids of stone, the intertwining of what was and what had been, even as his latest living knots returned to the world beyond–messages both, writ in loops with love at their roots.

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To keep from forgetting the combination, Lou would sing it to himself as he walked to the locker, every day around 4pm. He wasn’t allowed to write it down, and numbers had a way of slipping through his brain, so the song was a compromise that the boss allowed so long as he didn’t sing it where anyone could hear.

After Lou “disappeared” and the boss “retired,” it seemed there was no one left that knew the combination. Eventually, a group of safecrackers showed up with their tools, and an angle grinder for good measure, to take possession even without the combination. They found that they had been beaten to it, with the lock open and whatever the boss had stored long-gone.

No one could figure out how it had been done without explosives or tools, at least not until dawn was approaching. Then they heard a mockingbird singing, from the top of a nearby tree, Lou’d old combination song.

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So every month, in a pit out back
He put his secrets to the flame
Raking papers as they turned black
They were mysteries without name

Surely no one in such a small town
Could have secrets grim and dark
Yet still his neighbors all did frown
And they gathered at the park

“We simply must know,” the people said
“The secrets in all those fires”
“That man must surely wish us dead”
“If there’s so much raised his ire”

A traveler was passing through
And overheard this reverie
A bit of magic did they know
“This sounds like good news for me!”

Approaching the people as they spoke
The wizard offered to the throng
“Around his house let me have a poke”
“And you’ll have his secrets long gone”

“Tell us how,” came a shout as he left to go
And the wizard heart their plea
“I’ll ask the ashes and then you’ll know”
“For a very reasonable fee”

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The third revolutionary Valoise flag.

The First Valoise Republic had been so chaotic and nigh-ungovernable that it rapidly lost the support of the majority of its people and, crucially, the army. As a result, a coup of the presidential cabinet led to the institution of the Valoise Directorate, in which supreme executive power was shared in a complex arrangement among a small group of politicians. While still ostensibly a republic, it was in practice more of an authoritarian oligarchy. With the decline of the chaos, infighting, and executions that had plagued the Valoise Presidency, as the earlier period came to be known, the Directors turned their attention to more mundane matters.

First and foremost was a revision of the national flag. Rémy Hauet had by this time been imprisoned as an enemy of the people, so the task fell to one of the Directors, Jean-Claude Fouquet. Rather than reconstitute the Flag Committee, he simply revised the design himself, simplifying the old recolored Oriflamme into a series of geometric shapes. This new design, which he called the Republican Sun, greatly eased manufacture of the flag and hastened the incorporation of white suns into the revised military uniforms then coming into service. Foquet also toyed with a revival of the Morsflamme, with no bars and a white sun of the simplified design, for use against enemies of the state. A number of these flags were prepared for, but not used in, the desert campaigns in Khemet–the Osmans occupying the area were coincidentally using a very similar black flag.

The flag of the Empire of Valois, also known as the Scierie-Soleil.

When the Directorate was overthrown in favor of the Despotate, the three Despots were divided about whether to keep the flag or revise it again. Given that the Despotate was, at least in theory, a temporary government until a new constitution could be drafted, the First Despot elected to keep the banner largely the same, and his opinion was the one that really mattered. Jean-Claude Fouquet did not object, as he was executed along with all the other Directors who did not become the three Despots. As such, the flag remained unchanged for the relatively brief period of the Despotate, even as the First Despot solidified his power base and undermined the others in what was essentially a military dictatorship with republican trappings at that point.

When the Valoise Despotate evolved in the First Valoise Empire, the Emperor himself revised the flag. Iterating on Fouquet’s simplified white sun design, the Emperor gave the rays emanating from it a rakish tilt reminiscent of the original Oriflamme, perhaps as a reflection of the newly monarchical nature of his regime. This flag, which became known as the Scierie-Soleil, or Sawmill Sun, persisted through the Emperor’s ultimate overthrow and the restoration of the royal standard following over twenty years of near-continuous warfare.

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The first revolutionary flag of Valois, also known as the Merde-de-Poulet Flamme.

When the Royal Sénat purged itself of royalists and declared itself the Revolutionary Assembly, one of the first orders of business was to design a standard that could be distinguished from that of royalists who had risen in the Touraine and were also fighting with the Teutons in their campaign to return the monarchy to power.

Assemblyman Rémy Hauet, an enthusiastic amateur vexillologist who had been denied entry to the Academy of Arms since commoners were not permitted to be heralds, chaired the Flag Committee. Much to his disappointment, the committee voted almost immediately to retain the existing flag with changed colors. White replaced royal yellow for the sun, supposedly standing for a desire for universal peace, while blue replaced the green stripes. The latter was Hauet’s doing, having argued passionately that the “color of liberty” should be reflected in the new standard. Since many of the revolutionaries had worn blue ribbons, which had been produced in quantity but never delivered for an anticipated state visit from the Prince-Regent of Albion, this seemed to make sense, and the Flag Committee’s recommendations were enthusiastically taken up by the Revolutionary Assembly.

Second revolutionary flag of Valois, also known as Les Barres-Bleues.

One benefit of the decision was that the existing flagmakers could reuse their old patterns, and record show that the new flags were delivered to military units on the frontier less than two months later. However, it quickly became apparent that the new flag, nicknamed the Merde-de-poulet Flamme–roughly, the Chickenshit Flame from its white color–was too close to the old Oriflamme to be easily distinguished at a distance or through battlefield smoke. After a friendly fire incident in Artois, where two Revolutionary Guard units fired on each other while a battalion of Royalists and their Teuton allies slipped by, Hauet and the Flag Committee were recalled to service and told to modify the design.

Once again, Hauet was frustrated by the committee’s conservatism, as he had prepared dozens of unique drafts that can still be seen today in the Museé Vexillologie. Obsessed with creating a new flag as cheaply as possible, they instead voted to increase the width of Hauet’s liberty-blue stripes to the edges of the flag, leaving a much-diminished red field and the white Merde-de-poulet Flamme. “A chicken is a noble animal, the animal of the people, and we should be grateful to be associated with it,” one assemblyman said when confronted with the derogatory nickname.

This period coincided with the Constitutional Convention and the First Valoise Republic, and as a result the revised flag, which came to be known as Les Barres-Bleues or the Blue Bars, can be seen in many contemporary paintings. Given the instability of the period, and the number of presidents and prime ministers that came and went in short order, the official edict that each inauguration had to be painted left a dazzling array of examples of the flag.

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