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Tears Waiting to Be Diamonds: Part Two
Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Tears Waiting to Be Diamonds, Part One,” our first story of January 2023, brought us news from the Other Lands and absolutely blew our socks off. Now, as January comes to a close, we hope you enjoy Part Two of “Tears Waiting to Be Diamonds,” with all the joys and surprises that entails. ~ Julian and Fran, January 29, 2023
Tears Waiting to Be Diamonds: Part Two
An In Other Lands Tale by Sarah Rees Brennan
To achieve his ends, Mark needed allies. To his surprise, they were close at hand.
Ilyria had an illustrated drawing of the Sunborn Champion pinned to her wall with a knife. Mr. Schafer shuddered when he saw.
“It’s only a small knife,” said Mark.
Mr. Schafer eyed the lovingly sketched golden hair and wings with a jaded air. “It’s not the knife.”
“You don’t want to see the Sunborn Champion?” asked Ilyria. “You don’t enjoy handsomeness? He’s the greatest warrior ever to have lived!”
Mr. Schafer scoffed. “He’s some loser who used to follow me around at school.”
That seemed deeply unlikely.
When they learned of warriors on the surface, Mark’s favorite tales were of the Sunborn Champion, illustrious hero of the most famous family in the Borderlands. Unrivaled in war, friend to elves and mermaids, hero of land and sea. The champion had wings due to harpy heritage, so he’d conquered the entire fearsome sky. The champion had brought a golden age of peace to the Borderlands.
For a human, Mark supposed the Sunborn Champion was handsome. If the poster’s proportions were to be believed, the champion wasn’t as unpleasantly tall as Mr. Schafer. His hair was reminiscent of rich gold beneath the earth, rather than the searing near-white of Ilyria’s hair or the sunset horror of Mr. Schafer’s. He was as muscular as the best miners.
Mark imagined the Sunborn Champion hadn’t reached the ancient age of twenty-four without finding a bride. He didn’t believe the rumors of the Sunborn Champion’s forbidden romance with his elven sister-in-arms, Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. The Sunborn Champion could do better than an elf.
Mr. Schafer covered his eyes. “Take it down.”
“No,” said Ilyria. “You said freedom of expression is vital for the young mind!”
“I hate the children,” muttered Mr. Schafer, as he did twenty times a day.
“If you ask me,” Ilyria said later, “Mr. Schafer started the rumors he has been exiled to teach in this fortress outpost for a grand crime. Haven’t you seen how he calculates trade? I bet he was exiled for theft, and he’s never even met the Sunborn Champion.”
There was nothing wrong with Ilyria’s wits. Marcus believed she was right. He said as much.
“I don’t know,” murmured Piper.
“Have you ever met the Sunborn Champion?” demanded Ilyria.
“Well, no,” said Piper. “He’s always away on campaigns, but Mr. Schafer used to get letters from a lot of important people.”
“Does he?” asked Ilyria. “Or does he say they’re from a lot of important people?”
Mark nodded with royal conviction. “He’s a liar. He said he wanted to help me, and he could have helped some of my men, but he let them go to the mines instead.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. Slowly, Mark realized that not even Piper believed in him. Everybody imagined he was some poor miner’s boy thrown on the scrap heap, making grand claims to hide the fact he’d been sold off.
“I’m not like Mr. Schafer, making up lies,” he insisted. “When you’re telling the truth, you can prove it. If you want proof, help me. Mr. Schafer has been tracking supplies, so his logs will show where my men have gone. We break into his files, then liberate my men. They will tell you I am who I say I am.”
“You can’t even fight,” objected Ilyria. “I had to save your ass while you wailed for a healer! You want to take on a fortress?”
Mark didn’t dignify this with a response.
A thought caught Piper’s mouth, tugging it up on one side. “Might be fun to take on a fortress.”
Ilyria gave a sniff, indicating she was disappointed to find herself in their deranged company. Ilyria gave eloquent sniffs.
“Someone should liberate prisoners put to work. It’s wrong to capture people for your own benefit,” Piper continued. “Ask me about the foster system. Except maybe don’t.”
It was gratifying to have a comrade, but logically he couldn’t take a fortress with one ally. That would be absurd. Mark needed at least two.
“You didn’t get to go to the Border camp and become a hero like your Sunborn idol,” Mark urged Ilyria. “All because you killed one person, for which I’m sure you had your reasons. Mr. Schafer’s ethics classes say the Border camp has strict regulations regarding prisoners, but the farther out, the more lawless the fortresses. We must attract the attention of Commander Woodsinger and the Sunborn Champion. If you become a hero, they’ll let you attend Border camp training.”
Ilyria hesitated, showing a chink in her golden armor of disdain.
Mark tempted, “Maybe you’ll even meet the champion.”
As Ilyria flounced from the room, she tossed over her shoulder, “Just to prove you wrong, Diamond.”
The opportunity to prove himself reminded Mark of one of the most welcome sights at home: a bright seam in dark rock. All Mark must do was find the right place, and swing.
* * *
Mark’s chance came when a visitor arrived. They were eating breakfast, morning sunlight an invading army stabbing at Mark’s unprotected eyes. A trainee was harassing Ilyria. “Your eyes are like summer skies.”
“How dare you address the lady in this fashion?” snapped Mark.
Her eyes were grossly oversized, but not to that extent! They were always talking to Ilyria in this manner. Mark despaired.
“Thanks,” said Ilyria. “They do objectify me.”
Piper stared at them in a wondering manner. Usually Mr. Schafer did this, too, but today he was gazing fixedly at the oak door to the great hall.
“If you don’t behave today, children, I’ll feed you to the huge sea mermaids.”
Miss Applegold twirled her hair around her finger. She didn’t even have a strand of beard to fiddle with fetchingly. It was tragic. “Elliot, you’re so funny.”
“No, I mean it,” said Mr. Schafer earnestly. “A visitor is coming, kids. An old friend from school.”
“‘School’ as in fish?” asked Mark.
“An old friend from Border training camp,” explained Mr. Schafer. “Be nice. Well—be normal. Well—no murders or explosions.”
Piper drooped. Mark was curious to see what someone who voluntarily spent time with Mr. Schafer would be like.
The door opened. A woman entered. She was small for a human, with a neat shining mustache. She was the prettiest thing Mark had seen crawling on the surface.
She didn’t have even a hint of a beard, so she was still unfortunate-looking by any reasonable dwarven standards, but her smile reminded Mark of his grandmother.
“Hello, Mark.” Her voice was water on cool stone. “I’m your cousin Myra.”
“Then you can tell them all I’m a prince!”
Her brow wrinkled. “A what?”
The trainees and the soldiers’ laughter was like dust after a rockslide, filling the air and choking everyone near the disaster.
They were mere humans, but being surrounded by disbelief made Mark feel as if it weren’t real. As though his sisters had never died, never even lived, his brothers never fought, his mother never decorated for grand ceremonies, his father never lit the Great Candle Clock with hands strong enough to hold a kingdom steady and filled their halls with soft gold. As if Mark had never been a prince at all.
He slammed the door on their laughter. Ilyria and Piper followed him.
“Do you want comfort, or do you want to break into Mr. Schafer’s records?” Piper asked.
Mark raised an eyebrow. “Naturally, I want to break into Mr. Schafer’s records.”
“Good,” said Ilyria. “I’m not the comforting type.”
Piper shrugged. “Just checking. Let’s go.”
* * *
Mr. Schafer simply had too much parchment. Nobody could read all this, unless they were word-drunks or determined past reason.
Mark, determined, kept clawing steadily through the papers while Piper roamed Mr. Schafer’s office at random. Ilyria was facedown on Mr. Schafer’s desk.
They froze on hearing Myra of Diamond Clan’s voice, sweet and low, in response to Mr. Schafer’s voice, annoying and annoying.
“—where could he be?” asked Myra. “I have to explain. We never talked about the dwarven side of the family. We had a lot of impressive jewelry, but I thought perhaps that was normal for dwarves. I knew my parents married in spite of family opposition, but then—they weren’t happy. It made them even less happy, after what they’d sacrificed, to realize true love was ringing hollow. Nothing bitterer than a bad bargain.”
Mr. Schafer laughed, a small cynical hurt sound. “Nobody knows that better than I do.”
The door handle turned, but the door didn’t open. If Mark had to guess, cousin Myra had put her hand on Mr. Schafer’s arm.
“Elliot. I hate to see you like this. Your mind is wasted in this miserable outpost in the wilderness. There must be some way back.”
“No,” Mr. Schafer answered. “I’m guilty. Our side was in the wrong. So I gave away military secrets. I stopped a war. I’m a traitor and I should be executed. I knew what I was sacrificing: my whole life. I can’t complain now it’s gone.” He paused. “I do complain extensively, but that’s because I have a terrible personality.”
Myra didn’t laugh. “Can’t you at least answer his letters?”
Mr. Schafer, usually brimming with hateful energy, suddenly sounded weary unto death. “I haven’t read his letters. What’s the point? I know what they say. I chose to be a traitor to everyone. I chose the end of everything. I don’t need to torture myself past the end.”
So Mr. Schafer was indeed a traitor. Sincerely, Mark believed the Border guards should cut his head off. Mark shrugged and scanned through more papers.
“Mark!” Piper held up a map. “A day’s march from our Westering fortress is Deepfort. There’s a mine by Deepfort. Mr. Schafer noted it’s a gold mine.”
* * *
The men of Deepfort appeared surprised when they blew the fortress doors off. Soldiers rushed into the courtyard between the fortress proper and the great doors, which was their cue to blow up the door of the main building, and half the walls. This left the majority of Deepfort’s forces trapped.
“Nobody ever expects the second explosion!” cackled Piper. Ilyria and Mark both grabbed an arm and piloted her toward the back of the fortress.
Eventually the armed forces would dig their way through the rubble. For now there was nobody to give commands or keep men at their posts. The gates to the mines were chained and guarded, but not by half-enough guards.
“I can probably defeat three men,” mused Ilyria.
Mark smiled. “Why can’t I have any fun?”
Ilyria sighed. “Mark, that sword is too big for you to even lift. You can’t fight.”
There were no proper battle-axes back in their fortress, so Mark had condescended to liberate a broadsword from the armory. Disgusted by this inadequate weapon, he’d been dragging it in the dirt behind him. He hadn’t realized this might be misinterpreted.
He drew the sword from its grubby scabbard.
“You’re under a strange misapprehension. A highly trained dwarven warrior only uses a blade when he is ready to kill.”
“Yeah, okay,” said Piper. “Then what was all that ‘Call a healer’ stuff about?”
“Naturally, a prince must be responsible.” Mark was appalled. “The healer wasn’t for me.”
He held his sword high and charged. An instant later Ilyria charged after him. She was too late. Mark cut down two men. Ilyria only got to fell one. Since she was his companion-in-arms, he let her take the keys off one of his corpses and open the gates.
Mark shouted his father’s war cry: “Light in the dark!”
From the depths of the mines, in voices past counting, he heard the response. “Clear as diamond!”
When they poured out, Mark realized his mistake—another mistake, when he had made too many already, and all had been lost since the first. The miners weren’t only the men taken with him, but dwarves this fortress had been collecting for years. Perhaps his uncle had handed some over. Perhaps some had been youths sporting on the surface and seized. The majority were men of fighting and deep-mining age, but from the dark emerged elders and children younger than Mark. Anyone might be put to work, even if they died in harness.
The sergeant at arms showed no relief at the sight of Mark. “My prince. I knew you would come. But I hoped you wouldn’t.”
Mark hated how young he sounded as he stammered, “I—I didn’t know there would be so many. I fear—we cannot all escape.”
The sergeant at arms bowed his head. “I would be honored to hold them off, while you and your companions retreat.”
“No,” answered Mark. “I will not do that.”
He wouldn’t be left behind again. He could hear the thunder of stones and voices, from the gates and beyond. The armed guard of Deepfort was coming.
“Please escort my companions to safety,” Mark requested.
“Think we’re good here,” said Piper.
Ilyria grinned. “Fight in the dark, didn’t you say?”
“I clearly said ‘Light in the dark,’ Ilyria, and I don’t make fun of your ancestral battle cries,” Mark snapped. “Can somebody get me an axe?”
Over the ringing of steel and eager voices, the sergeant at arms said quietly, “Was the poor brave girl in a terrible accident?”
“No,” Mark whispered back. “Her nose is just like that. We don’t talk about it. Hush!”
“Excuse me, what was that?” Ilyria asked.
“Nothing!” said Mark.
A fight had broken out behind them. A comely dwarven girl emerged from the melee to present Mark with a battle-axe, clearly crafted secretly in the depths of these mines and hidden from the guards. It was the crudest axe Mark had ever beheld, but it was painstakingly made, bearing holy pictograms and many family crests. It was a symbol of their last hope. It was precious beyond price.
“My prince.” The maiden performed a deep curtsy.
“Yes, thank you.”
“If I may be bold enough to speak at this desperate hour, you are even more handsome than the stories say.”
“Ah, yes.” Mark was somewhat discomposed. “Well, thank you.”
“Might I beg a kiss so I can die happy, my prince?”
“Better not,” said Mark. “There might be a riot.”
She nodded in understanding. “I love you, my prince.”
“And I love you, fair maiden,” said Mark. “As I love all my subjects.”
She bowed and departed into the throng, where Mark saw her answering many questions. She held up the fingers he’d brushed where he had taken the axe. Many reached out to touch her hand for luck.
Ilyria and Piper stared. Mark wished they would not. It was a trifle embarrassing, but it happened constantly. One became accustomed.
Piper regrouped. “Can someone take me to materials I might fashion into explosives?”
Mark took his place at the head of his army. If he must die, he would die with his battle-axe in hand. Under this strange sky he could die a death worth singing of in the halls of home.
“So I guess you’re a prince?” asked Ilyria.
“There have been a few indications that way.”
Ilyria stuck her tongue out at him. Mark answered in kind.
“Prince or not, I must make one thing clear. You and me? Never gonna happen, Mark,” said Ilyria.
Mark tried to make his voice gentle. “I’m glad you know that.”
Poor girl. Seized by a hopeless passion. How awkward, but Mark was used to it, and could handle the situation gracefully.
“Thanks for taking that so well,” said Ilyria. “The boy I killed . . . made overtures to me and was not pleased when I refused to favor him.”
“It’s good you killed him.”
“I had to,” said Ilyria. “Nobody would believe me.”
“I know how that feels,” said Mark. “They were the ones in the wrong for not believing. The type of men who prey on women do not prey because of the women’s looks, but because the men themselves are miserable, vicious scavengers.”
It didn’t matter if a woman was hideous or fair, unclothed or in battle armor. It wasn’t about her; it was about their need to establish power over her. In all likelihood, the man was rendered insecure by Ilyria’s prowess with a blade.
The way Ilyria stood, poised for battle, was suddenly a little easier, as though her armor or her sword had grown lighter. “Glad we had this talk. There’s one thing you may be missing? I’m actually extremely attractive.”
“It makes me happy you believe that,” Mark told his friend, and lunged into battle.
There were more soldiers than Deepfort ones here. The men of Westering fortress must have missed them far more swiftly than Mark had hoped.
The fight was impossible, but at least they were free to choose an impossible fight.
Sword clashed against axe. Their cry rang out in defiance against the terrifying sky.
“Light in the dark!”
“Clear as diamond!”
Mark had to kill men he recognized from the halls of Westering fortress. He was almost sorry, but not as sorry when they recognized him in return and came at him in force. A Westering guard struck the axe from his hands. Though the guard lost his life in the next moment, Mark feared he wouldn’t get the chance to pick his weapon up.
Captain Arch loomed before him, sword in hand. From training class, Mark knew he was good.
“You little brat. After we showed you mercy!”
“Scraps from the table aren’t mercy,” Mark retorted. “Give me freedom or death!”
The captain’s swing halted when a tall form interposed himself between Mark and the blade.
“Freedom,” said Mr. Schafer. “There is no acceptable alternative. Murdering my students would greatly interfere with their education, Captain.”
His fingers clasped around the captain’s wrist, forcing the hand that held the sword down. But Mr. Schafer wasn’t armed, and Mark saw the captain’s face darken.
“You’re a worse brat than he is!”
“I try to be the preeminent brat in every situation.” Mr. Schafer never seemed to realize he was pushing too far.
Captain Arch bunched up his fist. With the force of a man pushed too far for months on end, he struck Mr. Schafer across the face.
Silence briefly dominated the battlefield. Mr. Schafer put a hand to his mouth, seeming startled when his fingertips came away bloody. Mark couldn’t believe how surprised his tutor appeared. Surely people struck Mr. Schafer frequently.
“Stand back, Captain. I’ve gathered evidence of you skimming off the top, selling off weapons and grain supplements. I will talk.”
Captain Arch snarled, “Not if I shut your mouth.”
Mark didn’t know if he would strike or stab Mr. Schafer. The spell of silence broke as Mark went for his axe, the captain lunged, and over the stone tower tops of the fortress came a rush of movement. For an instant the unforgiving sun in the morning sky was blotted out by the shadow of wings.
The Sunborn Champion landed on the bloodied battlefield, wings curved above his head in a great arch like the carved ceiling in the grand hall of home. When he lifted his face, it was cold as gold beneath the mountain.
“Hi, loser,” said Mr. Schafer.
The Sunborn Champion was focused on Captain Arch. “Try to hit him again,” he suggested. “Give me a reason to kill you.”
“Don’t kill him,” commanded Mr. Schafer. “He’s only committed petty crimes. I have a list back in the Westering fortress. He and most of his men need to be fined, but it’s the men of Deepfort who forced prisoners into indentured servitude—”
“Elliot, I am going to kill you,” said the Sunborn Champion.
He wheeled on Mr. Schafer, all wings and bared sword and fury like the sun. Mr. Schafer rolled his eyes.
“That’s not fair. I haven’t committed any crimes. Not since the treason. I’m glad you’re here to see justice done, as I outlined in my letter to Commander Woodsinger—”
“I did notice you’d suddenly regained your ability to write letters!” snapped the Sunborn Champion.
Mark rose, brandishing his axe so his comrades could see him. Ilyria made her way to him, sword in one hand and her free hand over her mouth. An ululating noise was happening behind her fingers. Escorted by his sergeant at arms, Piper picked her way across the field toward them.
The Sunborn Champion seemed very angry. Mr. Schafer had that effect on people.
“—my back turned for one mission and you’re exiled and risking your life—”
“He’s right, Mr. Schafer,” said Mark. “Think of Miss Applegold. She’d be crushed if anything happened to you.”
“Is that so?” asked the Sunborn Champion, voice growing even more dangerous.
Mark was affronted when Mr. Schafer gave him a venomous look.
“This is my pupil, Prince Marcus of Diamond Clan. We’ve got ‘avenging his murdered family’ on the to-do list. Forgive Mark, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Possibly someone hit him on the head during the battle.”
It was outrageous. Mark was an accomplished warrior who had been barely touched during the battle. He glanced at Ilyria and Piper for confirmation.
Behind him, Mr. Schafer and the Sunborn Champion continued to bicker on a battlefield.
“After I see justice done, we’re going to have a talk,” the Sunborn Champion threatened. “If you can find anything to say for yourself!”
Most peculiarly, Mr. Schafer sounded like he was smiling. “You know me, Luke. I always have words.”
“I think we’re all overlooking something important,” said Piper.
Mark realized she was correct. It seemed Mr. Schafer had summoned forces from the Border camp, that he’d been collecting proof of both fortresses’ wrongdoing, and that—in fact—Mark’s men were free, and they would all live to see another day.
Ilyria proclaimed, “The Sunborn Champion is even more handsome than his poster!”
“I didn’t mean that,” said Piper. “If the battle is over, someone should quickly come help me disarm the explosives.”
* * *
After the battle, Mark had to address his subjects. He also had to do a certain amount of kissing children and refusing to kiss maidens lest they be overcome.
His uncle must pay for his crimes, but Mark couldn’t come for vengeance ill-equipped. They had almost been overwhelmed by the riffraff of two human fortresses. They needed time and patience to muster a larger force. What had been stolen from Mark in a night would take years to win back.
But win it he would.
This was the start of a long road, but the road led to home.
“Go back to my mines,” Mark called to his subjects. “Claim you escaped from the humans. Go about your lives, but when you find loyal souls in our caverns, tell them your prince is coming. Tell them there will be light in the dark once again!”
His people roared back, “Clear as diamond!”
* * *
As the sun began its descent, Mark went to the topmost tower so he could watch his people depart. When it was only him and his enemies, the sun and sky, he covered his face and wept.
He’d freed his men. His subjects had acclaimed him as their prince. He had won a victory. His sisters were still dead behind their broken doors. Somehow he’d felt that if he could fix one thing, all would be saved.
There came an awkward cough.
“Honestly,” Mr. Schafer said behind Mark. “I was coming up here to hide; I don’t know how to comfort children.”
If he was hiding from the Sunborn Champion, once again Mr. Schafer was being very stupid. The Champion had wings and Mr. Schafer was hiding on the topmost tower? It was as if he wanted to be found.
Mark lifted his head. “You stormed a fortress for my men. But I thought you said when you’re an adult, you must learn how to compromise?”
When he looked around, Mr. Schafer was grinning. “I didn’t say I was good at it.”
Mark stared at the battle-axe in his lap. It wasn’t his father’s battle-axe, but it would do in its place.
“You meant it when you said you’d help me. I’m sorry. I didn’t believe you.”
Faith was difficult, after what had happened. Mark had once believed in his old nurse and his kind uncle.
Mr. Schafer crouched down beside Mark. He patted him, more on the axe sheath strapped to Mark’s shoulder than on Mark’s actual back. They exchanged mutual grimaces of mortification.
“All the things they say about you are true, aren’t they?”
“God, I hope not,” muttered Mr. Schafer.
“All the things I say about myself are true,” Mark said quietly.
Mr. Schafer’s querulous, questioning, and eternally complaining voice was almost gentle: “I never doubted that.”
“I don’t belong here,” Mark confessed.
He would have to stay, with his strange new friends. Until he worked out how to do what he must.
When he looked at his tutor, Mr. Schafer was studying the horizon. For some reason, the sight of the sky no longer cast a shadow over Elliot Schafer.
“I didn’t belong here either,” his teacher said. “I never had a homeland, until I did. Homes happen in a hundred ways. Other lands can become our lands. Homes lost can be found again.”
Mark wiped away his tears, and took a deep breath of strange air. The shadow of wings passed over the sun’s glare, granting him a sweet moment of relief.
“I can believe that.”
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Sarah Rees Brennan is an Irish writer of dark fantasy and lighthearted jokes, whose books have been New York Times bestsellers, shortlisted for the Mythopoiec, Locus, and Lodestar awards, and nominated for the Carnegie. Her newest project is Long Live Evil, out July 2024.
“Tears Waiting To Be Diamonds,” © Sarah Rees Brennan, 2023.
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