Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2010
Fiction: The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window by Rachel Swirsky
My story should have ended on the day I died. Instead, it began there.
Sun pounded on my back as I rode through the Mountains where the Sun Rests. My horse’s hooves beat in syncopation with those of the donkey that trotted in our shadow. The queen’s midget Kyan turned his head toward me, sweat dripping down the red-and-blue protections painted across his malformed brow.
“Shouldn’t… we… stop?” he panted.
Sunlight shone red across the craggy limestone cliffs. A bold eastern wind carried the scent of mountain blossoms. I pointed to a place where two large stones leaned across a narrow outcropping.
“There,” I said, prodding my horse to go faster before Kyan could answer. He grunted and cursed at his donkey for falling behind.
I hated Kyan, and he hated me. But Queen Rayneh had ordered us to ride reconnaissance together, and we obeyed, out of love for her and for the Land of Flowered Hills.
We dismounted at the place I had indicated. There, between the mountain peaks, we could watch the enemy’s forces in the valley below without being observed. The raiders spread out across the meadow below like ants on a rich meal. Their women’s camp lay behind the main troops, a small dark blur. Even the smoke rising from their women’s fires seemed timid. I scowled.
“Go out between the rocks,” I directed Kyan. “Move as close to the edge as you can.”
Kyan made a mocking gesture of deference. “As you wish, Great Lady,” he sneered, swinging his twisted legs off the donkey. Shamans’ bundles of stones and seeds, tied with twine, rattled at his ankles.
I refused to let his pretensions ignite my temper. “Watch the valley,” I instructed. “I will take the vision of their camp from your mind and send it to the Queen’s scrying pool. Be sure to keep still.”
The midget edged toward the rocks, his eyes shifting back and forth as if he expected to encounter raiders up here in the mountains, in the Queen’s dominion. I found myself amused and disgusted by how little provocation it took to reveal the midget’s true, craven nature. At home in the Queen’s castle, he strutted about, pompous and patronizing. He was like many birth-twisted men, arrogant in the limited magic to which his deformities gave him access. Rumors suggested that he imagined himself worthy enough to be in love with the Queen. I wondered what he thought of the men below. Did he daydream about them conquering the Land? Did he think they’d make him powerful, that they’d put weapons in his twisted hands and let him strut among their ranks?
“Is your view clear?” I asked.
I closed my eyes and saw, as he saw, the panorama of the valley below. I held his sight in my mind, and turned toward the eastern wind which carries the perfect expression of magic—flight—on its invisible eddies. I envisioned the battlefield unfurling before me like a scroll rolling out across a marble floor. With low, dissonant notes, I showed the image how to transform itself for my purposes. I taught it how to be length and width without depth, and how to be strokes of color and light reflected in water. When it knew these things, I sang the image into the water of the Queen’s scrying pool.
Suddenly—too soon—the vision vanished from my inner eye. Something whistled through the air. I turned. Pain struck my chest like thunder.
I cried out. Kyan’s bundles of seeds and stones rattled above me. My vision blurred red. Why was the midget near me? He should have been on the outcropping.
“You traitor!” I shouted. “How did the raiders find us?”
I writhed blindly on the ground, struggling to grab Kyan’s legs. The midget caught my wrists. Weak with pain, I could not break free.
“Hold still,” he said. “You’re driving the arrow deeper.”
“Let me go, you craven dwarf.”
“I’m no traitor. This is woman’s magic. Feel the arrow shaft.”
Kyan guided my hand upward to touch the arrow buried in my chest. Through the pain, I felt the softness of one of the Queen’s roc feathers. It was particularly rare and valuable, the length of my arm.
I let myself fall slack against the rock. “Woman’s magic,” I echoed, softly. “The Queen is betrayed. The Land is betrayed.”
“Someone is betrayed, sure enough,” said Kyan, his tone gloating.
“You must return to court and warn the Queen.”
Kyan leaned closer to me. His breath blew on my neck, heavy with smoke and spices.
“No, Naeva. You can still help the Queen. She’s given me the keystone to a spell—a piece of pure leucite, powerful enough to tug a spirit from its rest. If I blow its power into you, your spirit won’t sink into sleep. It will only rest, waiting for her summons.”
Blood welled in my mouth. “I won’t let you bind me…”
His voice came even closer, his lips on my ear. “The Queen needs you, Naeva. Don’t you love her?”
Love: the word caught me like a thread on a bramble. Oh, yes. I loved the queen. My will weakened, and I tumbled out of my body. Cold crystal drew me in like a great mouth, inhaling.
I was furious. I wanted to wrap my hands around the first neck I saw and squeeze. But my hands were tiny, half the size of the hands I remembered. My short, fragile fingers shook. Heavy musk seared my nostrils. I felt the heat of scented candles at my feet, heard the snap of flame devouring wick. I rushed forward and was abruptly halted. Red and black knots of string marked boundaries beyond which I could not pass.
“O, Great Lady Naeva,” a voice intoned. “We seek your wisdom on behalf of Queen Rayneh and the Land of Flowered hills.”
Murmurs rippled through the room. Through my blurred vision, I caught an impression of vaulted ceilings and frescoed walls. I heard people, but I could only make out woman-sized blurs—they could have been beggars, aristocrats, warriors, even males or broods.
I tried to roar. My voice fractured into a strangled sound like trapped wind. An old woman’s sound.
“Great Lady Naeva, will you acknowledge me?”
I turned toward the high, mannered voice. A face came into focus, eyes flashing blue beneath a cowl. Dark stripes stretched from lower lip to chin: the tattoos of a death whisperer.
Terror cut into my rage for a single, clear instant. “I’m dead?”
“Let me handle this.” Another voice, familiar this time. Calm, authoritative, quiet: the voice of someone who had never needed to shout in order to be heard. I swung my head back and forth trying to glimpse Queen Rayneh.
“Hear me, Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath My Window. It is I, your Queen.”
The formality of that voice! She spoke to me with titles instead of names? I blazed with fury.
Her voice dropped a register, tender and cajoling. “Listen to me, Naeva. I asked the death whisperers to chant your spirit up from the dead. You’re inhabiting the body of an elder member of their order. Look down. See for yourself.”
I looked down and saw embroidered rabbits leaping across the hem of a turquoise robe. Long, bony feet jutted out from beneath the silk. They were swaddled in the coarse wrappings that doctors prescribed for the elderly when it hurt them to stand.
They were not my feet. I had not lived long enough to have feet like that.
“I was shot by an enchanted arrow…” I recalled. “The midget said you might need me again…”
“And he was right, wasn’t he? You’ve only been dead three years. Already, we need you.”
The smugness of that voice. Rayneh’s impervious assurance that no matter what happened, be it death or disgrace, her people’s hearts would always sing with fealty.
“He enslaved me,” I said bitterly. “He preyed upon my love for you.”
“Ah, Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath My Window, I always knew you loved me.”
Oh yes, I had loved her. When she wanted heirs, it was I who placed my hand on her belly and used my magic to draw out her seedlings; I who nurtured the seedlings’ spirits with the fertilizer of her chosen man; I who planted the seedlings in the womb of a fecund brood. Three times, the broods I catalyzed brought forth Rayneh’s daughters. I’d not yet chosen to beget my own daughters, but there had always been an understanding between us that Rayneh would be the one to stand with my magic-worker as the seedling was drawn from me, mingled with man, and set into brood.
I was amazed to find that I loved her no longer. I remembered the emotion, but passion had died with my body.
“I want to see you,” I said.
Alarmed, the death whisperer turned toward Rayneh’s voice. Her nose jutted beak-like past the edge of her cowl. “It’s possible for her to see you if you stand where I am,” she said. “But if the spell goes wrong, I won’t be able to—”
“It’s all right, Lakitri. Let her see me.”
Rustling, footsteps. Rayneh came into view. My blurred vision showed me frustratingly little except for the moon of her face. Her eyes sparkled black against her smooth, sienna skin. Amber and obsidian gems shone from her forehead, magically embedded in the triangular formation that symbolized the Land of Flowered Hills. I wanted to see her graceful belly, the muscular calves I’d loved to stroke—but below her chin, the world faded to grey.
“What do you want?” I asked. “Are the raiders nipping at your heels again?”
“We pushed the raiders back in the battle that you died to make happen. It was a rout. Thanks to you.”
A smile lit on Rayneh’s face. It was a smile I remembered. You have served your Land and your Queen, it seemed to say. You may be proud. I’d slept on Rayneh’s leaf-patterned silk and eaten at her morning table too often to be deceived by such shallow manipulations.
Rayneh continued, “A usurper—a woman raised on our own grain and honey—has built an army of automatons to attack us. She’s given each one a hummingbird’s heart for speed, and a crane’s feather for beauty, and a crow’s brain for wit. They’ve marched from the Lake Where Women Wept all the way across the fields to the Valley of Tonha’s Memory. They move faster than our most agile warriors. They seduce our farmers out of the fields. We must destroy them.”
“A usurper?” I said.
“One who betrays us with our own spells.”
The Queen directed me a lingering, narrow-lidded look, challenging me with her unspoken implications.
“The kind of woman who would shoot the Queen’s sorceress with a roc feather?” I pressed.
Her glance darted sideways. “Perhaps.”
Even with the tantalizing aroma of revenge wafting before me, I considered refusing Rayneh’s plea. Why should I forgive her for chaining me to her service? She and her benighted death whisperers might have been able to chant my spirit into wakefulness, but let them try to stir my voice against my will.
But no—even without love drawing me into dark corners, I couldn’t renounce Rayneh. I would help her as I always had from the time when we were girls riding together through my grandmother’s fields. When she fell from her mount, it was always I who halted my mare, soothed her wounds, and eased her back into the saddle. Even as a child, I knew that she would never do the same for me.
“Give me something to kill,” I said.
“I want to kill. Give me something. Or should I kill your death whisperers?”
Rayneh turned toward the women. “Bring a sow!” she commanded.
Murmurs echoed through the high-ceilinged chamber, followed by rushing footsteps. Anxious hands entered my range of vision, dragging a fat, black-spotted shape. I looked toward the place where my ears told me the crowd of death whisperers stood, huddled and gossiping. I wasn’t sure how vicious I could appear as a dowager with bound feet, but I snarled at them anyway. I was rewarded with the susurration of hems sliding backward over tile.
I approached the sow. My feet collided with the invisible boundaries of the summoning circle. “Move it closer,” I ordered.
Hands pushed the sow forward. The creature grunted with surprise and fear. I knelt down and felt its bristly fur and smelled dry mud, but I couldn’t see its torpid bulk.
I wrapped my bony hands around the creature’s neck and twisted. My spirit’s strength overcame the body’s weakness. The animal’s head snapped free in my hands. Blood engulfed the leaping rabbits on my hem.
I thrust the sow’s head at Rayneh. It tumbled out of the summoning circle and thudded across the marble. Rayneh doubled over, retching.
The crowd trembled and exclaimed. Over the din, I dictated the means to defeat the constructs. “Blend mustard seed and honey to slow their deceitful tongues. Add brine to ruin their beauty. Mix in crushed poppies to slow their fast-beating hearts. Release the concoction onto a strong wind and let it blow their destruction. Only a grain need touch them. Less than a grain—only a grain need touch a mosquito that lights on a flower they pass on the march. They will fall.”
“Regard that! Remember it!” Rayneh shouted to the whisperers. Silk rustled. Rayneh regarded me levelly. “That’s all we have to do?”
“Get Lakitri,” I replied. “I wish to ask her a question.”
A nervous voice spoke outside my field of vision. “I’m here, Great Lady.”
“What will happen to this body after my spirit leaves?”
“Jada will die, Great Lady. Your spirit has chased hers away.”
I felt the crookedness of Jada’s hunched back and the pinch of the strips binding her feet. Such a back, such feet, I would never have. At least someone would die for disturbing my death.
Next I woke, rage simmered where before it had boiled. I stifled a snarl, and relaxed my clenched fists. My vision was clearer: I discerned the outlines of a tent filled with dark shapes that resembled pillows and furs. I discovered my boundaries close by, marked by wooden stakes painted with bands of cinnamon and white.
“Respected Aunt Naeva?”
My vision wavered. A shape: muscular biceps, hard thighs, robes of heir’s green. It took me a moment to identify Queen Rayneh’s eldest daughter, who I had inspired in her brood. At the time of my death, she’d been a flat-chested flitling, still learning how to ride.
“Tryce?” I asked. A bad thought: “Why are you here? Has the usurper taken the palace? Is the Queen dead?”
Tryce laughed. “You misunderstand, Respected Aunt. I am the usurper.”
“You?” I scoffed. “What does a girl want with a woman’s throne?”
“I want what is mine.” Tryce drew herself up. She had her mother’s mouth, stern and imperious. “If you don’t believe me, look at the body you’re wearing.”
I looked down. My hands were the right size, but they were painted in Rayneh’s blue and decked with rings of gold and silver. Strips of tanned human flesh adorned my breasts. I raised my fingertips to my collarbone and felt the raised edges of the brand I knew would be there. Scars formed the triangles that represented the Land of Flowered Hills.
“One of your mother’s private guard,” I murmured. “Which?”
I grinned. “I never liked the bitch.”
“You know I’m telling the truth. A private guard is too valuable for anyone but a usurper to sacrifice. I’m holding this conference with honor, Respected Aunt. I’m meeting you alone, with only one automaton to guard me. My informants tell me that my mother surrounded herself with sorceresses so that she could coerce you. I hold you in more esteem.”
“What do you want?”
“Help winning the throne that should be mine.”
“Why should I betray my lover and my Land for a child with pretensions?”
“Because you have no reason to be loyal to my mother. Because I want what’s best for this Land, and I know how to achieve it. Because those were my automatons you dismantled, and they were good, beautiful souls despite being creatures of spit and mud. Gudrin is the last of them.”
Tryce held out her hand. The hand that accepted drew into my vision: slender with shapely fingers crafted of mud and tangled with sticks and pieces of nest. It was beautiful enough to send feathers of astonishment through my chest.
“Great Lady, you must listen to The Creator of Me and Mine,” intoned the creature.
Its voice was a songbird trill. I grimaced in disgust. “You made male automatons?”
“Just one,” said Tryce. “It’s why he survived your spell.”
“Yes,” I said, pondering. “It never occurred to me that one would make male creatures.
“Will you listen, Respected Aunt?” asked Tryce.
“You must listen, Great Lady,” echoed the automaton. His voice was as melodious as poetry to a depressed heart. The power of crane’s feathers and crow’s brains is great.
“Very well,” I said.
Tryce raised her palms to show she was telling truth. I saw the shadow of her mother’s face lurking in her wide-set eyes and broad, round forehead.
“Last autumn, when the wind blew red with fallen leaves, my mother expelled me from the castle. She threw my possessions into the river and had my servants beaten and turned out. She told me that I would have to learn to live like the birds migrating from place to place because she had decreed that no one was to give me a home. She said I was no longer her heir, and she would dress Darnisha or Peni in heir’s green. Oh, Respected Aunt! How could either of them take a throne?”
I ignored Tryce’s emotional outpouring. It was true that Tryce had always been more responsible than her sisters, but she had been born with an heir’s heaviness upon her. I had lived long enough to see fluttering sparrows like Darnisha and Peni become eagles, over time.
“You omit something important,” I said. “Why did your mother throw you out, Imprudent Child?”
“Because of this.”
The automaton’s hand held Tryce steady as she mounted a pile of pillows that raised her torso to my eye level. Her belly loomed large, ripe as a frog’s inflated throat.
“You’ve gotten fat, Tryce.”
“No,” she said.
I realized: she had not.
“You’re pregnant? Hosting a child like some brood? What’s wrong with you, girl? I never knew you were a pervert. Worse than a pervert! Even the lowest worm-eater knows to chew mushrooms when she pushes with men.”
“I am no pervert! I am a lover of woman. I am natural as breeze! But I say we must not halve our population by splitting our females into women and broods. The raiders nip at our heels. Yes, it’s true, they are barbaric and weak—now. But they grow stronger. Their population increases so quickly that already they can match our numbers. When there are three times as many of them as us, or five times, or eight times, they’ll flood us like a wave crashing on a naked beach. It’s time for women to make children in ourselves as broods do. We need more daughters.”
I scoffed. “The raiders keep their women like cows for the same reason we keep cows like cows, to encourage the production of calves. What do you think will happen if our men see great women swelling with young and feeding them from their bodies? They will see us as weak, and they will rebel, and the broods will support them for trinkets and candy.”
“Broods will not threaten us,” said Tryce. “They do as they are trained. We train them to obey.”
Tryce stepped down from the pillows and dismissed the automaton into the shadows. I felt a murmur of sadness as the creature left my sight.
“It is not your place to make policy, Imprudent Child,” I said. “You should have kept your belly flat.
“There is no time! Do the raiders wait? Will they chew rinds by the fire while I wait for my mother to die?”
“This is better? To split our land into factions and war against ourselves?”
“I have vowed to save the Land of Flowered Hills,” said Tryce, “with my mother or despite her.”
Tryce came yet closer to me so that I could see the triple scars where the gems that had once sealed her heirship had been carved out of her cheeks. They left angry, red triangles. Tryce’s breath was hot; her eyes like oil, shining.
“Even without my automatons, I have enough resources to overwhelm the palace,” Tryce continued, “except for one thing.”
“I need you to tell me how to unlock the protections you laid on the palace grounds and my mother’s chambers.”
“We return to the beginning. Why should I help you?”
Tryce closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. There was shyness in her posture now. She would not direct her gaze at mine.
She said, “I was young when you died, still young enough to think that our strength was unassailable. The battles after your death shattered my illusions. We barely won, and we lost many lives. I realized that we needed more power, and I thought that I could give us that power by becoming a sorceress to replace you.” She paused. “During my studies, I researched your acts of magic, great and small. Inevitably, I came to the spell you cast before you died, when you sent the raiders’ positions into the summoning pool.”
It was then that I knew what she would say next. I wish I could say that my heartfelt as immobile as a mountain, that I had always known to suspect the love of a Queen. But my heart drummed, and my mouth went dry, and I felt as if I were falling.
“Some of mother’s advisers convinced her that you were plotting against her. They had little evidence to support their accusations, but once the idea rooted into mother’s mind, she became obsessed. She violated the sanctity of woman’s magic by teaching Kyan how to summon a roc feather enchanted to pierce your heart. She ordered him to wait until you had sent her the vision of the battleground, and then to kill you and punish your treachery by binding your soul so that you would always wander and wake.”
I wanted to deny it, but what point would there be? Now that Tryce forced me to examine my death with a watcher’s eye, I saw the coincidences that proved her truth. How else could I have been shot by an arrow not just shaped by woman’s magic, but made from one of the Queen’s roc feathers? Why else would a worm like Kyan have happened to have in his possession a piece of leucite more powerful than any I’d seen?
I clenched Okilanu’s fists. “I never plotted against Rayneh.”
“Of course not. She realized it herself, in time, and executed the women who had whispered against you. But she had your magic, and your restless spirit bound to her, and she believed that was all she needed.”
For long moments, my grief battled my anger. When it was done, my resolve was hardened like a spear tempered by fire.
I lifted my palms in the gesture of truth telling. “To remove the protections on the palace grounds, you must lay yourself flat against the soil with your cheek against the dirt, so that it knows you. To it, you must say, ‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window loves the Queen from instant to eternity, from desire to regret.’ And then you must kiss the soil as if it is the hem of your lover’s robe. Wait until you feel the earth move beneath you and then the protections will be gone.”
Tryce inclined her head. “I will do this.”
I continued, “When you are done, you must flay off a strip of your skin and grind it into a fine powder. Bury it in an envelope of wind-silk beneath the Queen’s window. Bury it quickly. If a single grain escapes, the protections on her chamber will hold.”
“I will do this, too,” said Tryce. She began to speak more, but I raised one of my ringed, blue fingers to silence her.
“There’s another set of protections you don’t know about. One cast on your mother. It can only be broken by the fresh life-blood of something you love. Throw the blood onto the Queen while saying, ‘The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath Your Window has betrayed you.”
“Life-blood? You mean, I need to kill—”
“Perhaps the automaton.”
Tryce’s expression clouded with distress. “Gudrin is the last one! Maybe the baby. I could conceive again—”
“If you can suggest the baby, you don’t love it enough. It must be Gudrin.”
Tryce closed her mouth. “Then it will be Gudrin,” she agreed, but her eyes would not meet mine.
I folded my arms across Okilanu’s flat bosom. “I’ve given you what you wanted. Now grant me a favor, Imprudent Child Who Would Be Queen. When you kill Rayneh, I want to be there.”
Tryce lifted her head like the Queen she wanted to be. “I will summon you when it’s time, Respected Aunt.” She turned toward Gudrin in the shadows. “Disassemble the binding shapes,” she ordered.
For the first time, I beheld Gudrin in his entirety. The creature was tree-tall and stick-slender, and yet he moved with astonishing grace. “Thank you on behalf of the Creator of Me and My Kind,” he trilled in his beautiful voice, and I considered how unfortunate it was that the next time I saw him, he would be dead.
I smelled the iron-and-wet tang of blood. My view of the world skewed low, as if I’d been cut off at the knees. Women’s bodies slumped across lush carpets. Red ran deep into the silk, bloodying woven leaves and flowers. I’d been in this chamber far too often to mistake it, even dead. It was Rayneh’s.
It came to me then: my perspective was not like that of a woman forced to kneel. It was like a child’s. Or a dwarf’s.
I reached down and felt hairy knees and fringed ankle bracelets. “Ah, Kyan…”
“I thought you might like that.” Tryce’s voice. These were probably her legs before me, wrapped in loose green silk trousers that were tied above the calf with chains of copper beads. “A touch of irony for your pleasure. He bound your soul to restlessness. Now you’ll chase his away.”
I reached into his back-slung sheath and drew out the most functional of his ceremonial blades. It would feel good to flay his treacherous flesh.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Tryce. “You’ll be the one who feels the pain.”
I sheathed the blade. “You took the castle?”
“Effortlessly.” She paused. “I lie. Not effortlessly.” She unknotted her right trouser leg and rolled up the silk. Blood stained the bandages on a carefully wrapped wound. “Your protections were strong.”
“Yes. They were.”
She re-tied her trouser leg and continued. “The Lady with Lichen Hair tried to block our way into the chamber.” She kicked one of the corpses by my feet. “We killed her.”
“Don’t you care? She was your friend.”
“Did she care when I died?”
Tryce shifted her weight, a kind of lower-body shrug. “I brought you another present.” She dropped a severed head onto the floor. It rolled toward me, tongue lolling in its bloody face. It took me a moment to identify the high cheekbones and narrow eyes.
“The death whisperer? Why did you kill Lakitri?”
“You liked the blood of Jada and Okilanu, didn’t you?”
“The only blood I care about now is your mother’s. Where is she?”
“Bring my mother!” ordered Tryce.
One of Tryce’s servants—her hands marked with the green dye of loyalty to the heir—dragged Rayneh into the chamber. The Queen’s torn, bloody robe concealed the worst of her wounds, but couldn’t hide the black and purple bruises blossoming on her arms and legs. Her eyes found mine, and despite her condition, a trace of her regal smile glossed her lips.
Her voice sounded thin. “That’s you? Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath My Window?”
She raised one bloody, shaking hand to the locket around her throat and pried it open. Dried petals scattered onto the carpets, the remnants of the red flowers I’d once gathered for her protection. While the spell lasted, they’d remained whole and fresh. Now they were dry and crumbling like what had passed for love between us.
“If you ever find rest, the world-lizard will crack your soul in its jaws for murdering your Queen,” she said.
“I didn’t kill you.”
“You instigated my death.”
“I was only repaying your favor.”
The hint of her smile again. She smelled of wood smoke, rich and dark. I wanted to see her more clearly, but my poor vision blurred the red of her wounds into the sienna of her skin until the whole of her looked like raw, churned earth.
“I suppose our souls will freeze together.” She paused. “That might be pleasant.”
Somewhere in front of us, lost in the shadows, I heard Tryce and her women ransacking the Queen’s chamber. Footsteps, sharp voices, cracking wood.
“I used to enjoy cold mornings,” Rayneh said. “When we were girls. I liked lying in bed with you and opening the curtains to watch the snow fall.”
“And sending servants out into the cold to fetch and carry.”
“And then! When my brood let slip it was warmer to lie together naked under the sheets? Do you remember that?” She laughed aloud, and then paused. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter. “It’s strange to remember lying together in the cold, and then to look up, and see you in that body. Oh, my beautiful Naeva, twisted into a worm. I deserve what you’ve done to me. How could I have sent a worm to kill my life’s best love?”
She turned her face away, as if she could speak no more. Such a show of intimate, unroyal emotion. I could remember times when she’d been able to manipulate me by trusting me with a wince of pain or a supposedly accidental tear. As I grew more cynical, I realized that her royal pretense wasn’t vanishing when she gave me a melancholy, regretful glance. Such things were calculated vulnerabilities, intended to bind me closer to her by suggesting intimacy and trust. She used them with many ladies at court, the ones who loved her.
This was far from the first time she’d tried to bind me to her by displaying weakness, but it was the first time she’d ever done so when I had no love to enthrall me.
Rayneh continued, her voice a whisper. “I regret it, Naeva. When Kyan came back, and I saw your body, cold and lifeless—I understood immediately that I’d been mistaken. I wept for days. I’m weeping still, inside my heart. But listen—” her voice hardened “—we can’t let this be about you and me. Our Land is at stake. Do you know what Tryce is going to do? She’ll destroy us all. You have to help me stop her—”
“Tryce!” I shouted. “I’m ready to see her bleed.”
Footsteps thudded across silk carpets. Tryce drew a bone-handled knife and knelt over her mother like a farmer preparing to slaughter a pig. “Gudrin!” she called. “Throw open the doors. Let everyone see us.”
Narrow, muddy legs strode past us. The twigs woven through the automaton’s skin had lain fallow when I saw him in the winter. Now they blazed in a glory of emerald leaves and scarlet blossoms.
“You dunce!” I shouted at Tryce. “What have you done? You left him alive.”
Tryce’s gaze held fast on her mother’s throat. “I sacrificed the baby.”
Voices and footsteps gathered in the room as Tryce’s soldiers escorted Rayneh’s courtiers inside.
“You sacrificed the baby,” I repeated. “What do you think ruling is? Do you think Queens always get what they want? You can’t dictate to magic, Imprudent Child.”
“Be silent.” Tryce’s voice thinned with anger. “I’m grateful for your help, Great Lady, but you must not speak this way to your Queen.”
I shook my head. Let the foolish child do what she might. I braced myself for the inevitable backlash of the spell.
Tryce raised her knife in the air. “Let everyone gathered here behold that this is Queen Rayneh, the Queen Who Would Dictate to a Daughter. I am her heir, Tryce of the Bold Stride. Hear me. I do this for the Land of Flowered Hills, for our honor and our strength. Yet I also do it with regret. Mother, I hope you will be free in your death. May your spirit wing across sweet breezes with the great bird of the sun.”
The knife slashed downward. Crimson poured across Rayneh’s body, across the rugs, across Tryce’s feet. For a moment, I thought I’d been wrong about Tryce’s baby—perhaps she had loved it enough for the counter-spell to work—but as the blood poured over the dried petals Rayneh had scattered on the floor, a bright light flared through the room. Tryce flailed backward as if struck.
Rayneh’s wound vanished. She stared up at me with startled, joyful eyes. “You didn’t betray me!”
“Oh, I did,” I said. “Your daughter is just inept.”
I could see only one solution to the problem Tryce had created—the life’s blood of something I loved was here, still saturating the carpets and pooling on the stone.
Magic is a little bit alive. Sometimes it prefers poetic truths to literal ones. I dipped my fingers into the Queen’s spilled blood and pronounced, “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath Your Window has betrayed you.”
I cast the blood across the Queen. The dried petals disintegrated. The Queen cried out as my magical protections disappeared.
Tryce was at her mother’s side again in an instant. Rayneh looked at me in the moment before Tryce’s knife descended. I thought she might show me, just this once, a fraction of uncalculated vulnerability. But this time there was no vulnerability at all, no pain or betrayal or even weariness, only perfect regal equanimity.
Tryce struck for her mother’s heart. She let her mother’s body fall to the carpet.
“Behold my victory!” Tryce proclaimed. She turned toward her subjects. Her stance was strong: her feet planted firmly, ready for attack or defense. If her lower half was any indication, she’d be an excellent Queen.
I felt a rush of forgiveness and pleasure and regret and satisfaction all mixed together. I moved toward the boundaries of my imprisonment, my face near Rayneh’s where she lay, inhaling her last ragged breaths.
“Be brave,” I told her. “Soon we’ll both be free.”
Rayneh’s lips moved slowly, her tongue thick around the words. “What makes you think…?”
“You’re going to die,” I said, “and when I leave this body, Kyan will die, too. Without caster or intent, there won’t be anything to sustain the spell.”
Rayneh made a sound that I supposed was laughter. “Oh no, my dear Naeva… much more complicated than that…”
Panic constricted my throat. “Tryce! You have to find the piece of leucite—”
“…even stronger than the rock. Nothing but death can lull your spirit to sleep… and you’re already dead…”
She laughed again.
“Tryce!” I shouted. “Tryce!”
The girl turned. For a moment, my vision became as clear as it had been when I lived. I saw the Imprudent Child Queen standing with her automaton’s arms around her waist, the both of them flushed with joy and triumph. Tryce turned to kiss the knot of wood that served as the automaton’s mouth and my vision clouded again.
Rayneh died a moment afterward.
A moment after that, Tryce released me.
If my story could not end when I died, it should have ended there, in Rayneh’s chamber, when I took my revenge.
It did not end there.
Tryce consulted me often during the early years of her reign. I familiarized myself with the blur of the paintings in her chamber, squinting to pick out placid scenes of songbirds settling on snowy branches, bathing in mountain springs, soaring through sun-struck skies.
“Don’t you have counselors for this?” I snapped one day.
Tryce halted her pacing in front of me, blocking my view of a wren painted by The Artist without Pity.
“Do you understand what it’s like for me? The court still calls me the Imprudent Child Who Would Be Queen. Because of you!”
Gudrin went to comfort her. She kept the creature close, pampered and petted, like a cat on a leash. She rested her head on his shoulder as he stroked her arms. It all looked too easy, too familiar. I wondered how often Tryce spun herself into these emotional whirlpools.
“It can be difficult for women to accept orders from their juniors,” I said.
“I’ve borne two healthy girls,” Tryce said petulantly. “When I talk to the other women about bearing, they still say they can’t, that ‘women’s bodies aren’t suited for childbirth.’ Well, if women can’t have children, then what does that make me?”
I forebore responding.
“They keep me busy with petty disputes over grazing rights and grain allotment. How can I plan for a war when they distract me with pedantry? The raiders are still at our heels, and the daft old biddies won’t accept what we must do to beat them back!”
The automaton thrummed with sympathy. Tryce shook him away and resumed pacing.
“At least I have you, Respected Aunt.”
“For now. You must be running out of hosts.” I raised my hand and inspected young, unfamiliar fingers. Dirt crusted the ragged nails. “Who is this? Anyone I know?”
“The death whisperers refuse to let me use their bodies. What time is this when dying old women won’t blow out a few days early for the good of the Land?”
“Who is this?” I repeated.
“I had to summon you into the body of a common thief. You see how bad things are.”
“What did you expect? That the wind would send a hundred songbirds to trill praises at your coronation? That sugared oranges would rain from the sky and flowers bloom on winter stalks?”
Tryce glared at me angrily. “Do not speak to me like that. I may be an Imprudent Child, but I am the Queen.” She took a moment to regain her composure. “Enough chatter. Give me the spell I asked for.”
Tryce called me in at official occasions, to bear witness from the body of a disfavored servant or a used-up brood. I attended each of the four ceremonies where Tryce, clad in regal blue, presented her infant daughters to the sun: four small, green-swathed bundles, each borne from the Queen’s own body. It made me sick, but I held my silence.
She also summoned me to the court ceremony where she presented Gudrin with an official title she’d concocted to give him standing in the royal circle. Honored Zephyr or some such nonsense. They held the occasion in autumn when red and yellow leaves adorned Gudrin’s shoulders like a cape. Tryce pretended to ignore the women’s discontented mutterings, but they were growing louder.
The last time I saw Tryce, she summoned me in a panic. She stood in an unfamiliar room with bare stone walls and sharp wind creaking through slitted windows. Someone else’s blood stained Tryce’s robes. “My sisters betrayed me!” she said. “They told the women of the grasslands I was trying to make them into broods, and then led them in a revolt against the castle. A thousand women, marching! I had to slay them all. I suspected Darnisha all along. But Peni seemed content to waft. Last fall, she bore a child of her own body. It was a worm, true, but she might have gotten a daughter next. She said she wanted to try!”
“Is that their blood?”
She held out her reddened hands and stared at them ruefully as if they weren’t really part of her. “Gudrin was helping them. I had to smash him into sticks. They must have cast a spell on him. I can’t imagine…”
Her voice faltered. I gave her a moment to tame her undignified excess.
“You seem to have mastered the situation,” I said. “A Queen must deal with such things from time to time. The important thing will be to show no weakness in front of your courtiers.”
“You don’t understand! It’s much worse than that. While we women fought, the raiders attacked the Fields That Bask under Open Skies. They’ve taken half the Land. We’re making a stand in the Castle Where Hope Flutters, but we can’t keep them out forever. A few weeks, at most. I told them this would happen! We need more daughters to defend us! But they wouldn’t listen to me!”
Rayneh would have known how to present her anger with queenly courage, but Tryce was rash and thoughtless. She wore her emotions like perfume. “Be calm,” I admonished. “You must focus.”
“The raiders sent a message describing what they’ll do to me and my daughters when they take the castle. I captured the messenger and burned out his tongue and gave him to the broods, and when they were done with him, I took what was left of his body and catapulted it into the raiders’ camp. I could do the same to every one of them, and it still wouldn’t be enough to compensate for having to listen to their vile, cowardly threats.”
I interrupted her tirade. “The Castle Where Hope Flutters is on high ground, but if you’ve already lost the eastern fields, it will be difficult to defend. Take your women to the Spires of Treachery where the herders feed their cattle. You won’t be able to mount traditional defenses, but they won’t be able to attack easily. You’ll be reduced to meeting each other in small parties where woman’s magic should give you the advantage.”
“My commander suggested that,” said Tryce. “There are too many of them. We might as well try to dam a river with silk.”
“It’s better than remaining here.”
“Even if we fight to a stalemate in the Spires of Treachery, the raiders will have our fields to grow food in, and our broods to make children on. If they can’t conquer us this year, they’ll obliterate us in ten. I need something else.”
“There is nothing else.”
“Think of something!”
I cast my mind back through my years of training. I remembered the locked room in my matriline’s household where servants were never allowed to enter, which my cousins and I scrubbed every dawn and dusk to teach us to be constant and rigorous.
I remembered the cedar desk where my aunt Finis taught me to paint birds, first by using the most realistic detail that oils could achieve, and then by reducing my paintings to fewer and fewer brushstrokes until I could evoke the essence of bird without any brush at all.
I remembered the many-drawered red cabinets where we stored Leafspine and Winterbrew, powdered Errow and essence of Howl. I remembered my bossy cousin Alne skidding through the halls in a panic after she broke into a locked drawer and mixed together two herbs that we weren’t supposed to touch. Her fearful grimace transformed into a beak that permanently silenced her sharp tongue.
I remembered the year I spent traveling to learn the magic of foreign lands. I was appalled by the rituals I encountered in places where women urinated on their thresholds to ward off spirits, and plucked their scalps bald when their eldest daughters reached majority. I walked with senders and weavers and whisperers and learned magic secrets that my people had misunderstood for centuries. I remembered the terror of the three nights I spent in the ancient ruins of The Desert which Should Not Have Been, begging the souls that haunted that place to surrender the secrets of their accursed city. One by one my companions died, and I spent the desert days digging graves for those the spirits found unworthy. On the third dawn, they blessed me with communion, and sent me away a wiser woman.
I remembered returning to the Land of Flowered Hills and making my own contribution to the lore contained in our matriline’s locked rooms. I remembered all of this, and still I could think of nothing to tell Tryce.
Until a robin of memory hopped from an unexpected place—a piece of magic I learned traveling with herders, not spell-casters. It was an old magic, one that farmers cast when they needed to cull an inbred strain.
“You must concoct a plague,” I began.
Tryce’s eyes locked on me. I saw hope in her face, and I realized that she’d expected me to fail her, too.
“Find a sick baby and stop whatever treatment it is receiving. Feed it mosquito bellies and offal and dirty water to make it sicker. Give it sores and let them fill with pus. When its forehead has grown too hot for a woman to touch without flinching, kill the baby and dedicate its breath to the sun. The next morning, when the sun rises, a plague will spread with the sunlight.”
“That will kill the raiders?”
“Many of them. If you create a truly virulent strain, it may kill most of them. And it will cut down their children like a scythe across wheat.”
Tryce clapped her blood-stained hands. “Good.”
“I should warn you. It will kill your babies as well.”
“A plague cooked in an infant will kill anyone’s children. It is the way of things.”
“Unacceptable! I come to you for help, and you send me to murder my daughters?”
“You killed one before, didn’t you? To save your automaton?”
“You’re as crazy as the crones at court! We need more babies, not fewer.”
“You’ll have to hope you can persuade your women to bear children so that you can rebuild your population faster than the raiders can rebuild theirs.”
Tryce looked as though she wanted to level a thousand curses at me, but she stilled her tongue. Her eyes were dark and narrow. In a quiet, angry voice, she said, “Then it will be done.”
They were the same words she’d used when she promised to kill Gudrin. That time I’d been able to save her despite her foolishness. This time, I might not be able to.
Next I was summoned, I could not see at all. I was ushered into the world by lowing, distant shouts, and the stench of animals packed too closely together.
A worried voice cut through the din. “Did it work? Are you there? Laverna, is that still you?”
Disoriented, I reached out to find a hint about my surroundings. My hands impacted a summoning barrier.
“Laverna, that’s not you anymore, is it?”
The smell of manure stung my throat. I coughed. “My name is Naeva.”
“Holy day, it worked. Please, Sleepless One, we need your help. There are men outside. I don’t know how long we can hold them off.”
“What happened? Is Queen Tryce dead?”
“She didn’t cast the plague, did she? Selfish brat. Where are the raiders now? Are you in the Spires of Treachery?”
“Sleepless One, slow down. I don’t follow you.”
“Where are you? How much land have the raiders taken?”
“There are no raiders here, just King Addric’s army. His soldiers used to be happy as long as we paid our taxes and bowed our heads at processions. Now they want us to follow their ways, worship their god, let our men give us orders. Some of us rebelled by marching in front of the governor’s theater, and now he’s sent sorcerers after us. They burned our city with magical fire. We’re making a last stand at the inn outside town. We set aside the stable for the summoning.”
“Woman, you’re mad. Men can’t practice that kind of magic.”
“These men can.”
A nearby donkey brayed, and a fresh stench plopped into the air. Outside, I heard the noise of burning, and the shouts of men and children.
“It seems we’ve reached an impasse. You’ve never heard of the Land of Flowered Hills?”
I had spent enough time pacing the ruins in the Desert which Should Not Have Been to understand the ways in which civilizations cracked and decayed. Women and time marched forward, relentless and uncaring as sand.
“I’m sorry. I’m not doing this very well. It’s my first summoning. My aunt Hetta used to do it but they slit her throat like you’d slaughter a pig and left her body to burn. Bardus says they’re roasting the corpses and eating them, but I don’t think anyone could do that. Could they? Hetta showed me how to do this a dozen times, but I never got to practice. She would have done this better.”
“That would explain why I can’t see.”
“No, that’s the child, Laverna. She’s blind. She does all the talking. Her twin Nammi can see, but she’s dumb.”
“Nammi’s right here. Reach into the circle and touch your sister’s hand, Nammi. That’s a good girl.”
A small hand clasped mine. It felt clammy with sweat. I squeezed back.
“It doesn’t seem fair to take her sister away,” I said.
“Why would anyone take Laverna away?”
“She’ll die when I leave this body.”
“No, she won’t. Nammi’s soul will call her back. Didn’t your people use twins?”
“No. Our hosts died.”
“Yours were a harsh people.”
Another silence. She spoke the truth, though I’d never thought of it in such terms. We were a lawful people. We were an unflinching people.
“You want my help to defeat the shamans?” I asked.
“Aunt Hetta said that sometimes the Sleepless Ones can blink and douse all the magic within seven leagues. Or wave their hands and sweep a rank of men into a hurricane.”
“Well, I can’t.”
She fell silent. I considered her situation.
“Do you have your people’s livestock with you?” I asked.
“Everything that wouldn’t fit into the stable is packed inside the inn. It’s even less pleasant in there if you can imagine.”
“Can you catch one of their soldiers?”
“We took some prisoners when we fled. We had to kill one but the others are tied up in the courtyard.”
“Good. Kill them and mix their blood into the grain from your larder, and bake it into loaves of bread. Feed some of the bread to each of your animals. They will fill with a warrior’s anger and hunt down your enemies.”
The woman hesitated. I could hear her feet shifting on the hay-covered floor.
“If we do that, we won’t have any grain or animals. How will we survive?”
“You would have had to desert your larder when the Worm-Pretending-to-Be-Queen sent reinforcements anyway. When you can safely flee, ask the blind child to lead you to the Place where the Sun Is Joyous. Whichever direction she chooses will be your safest choice.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. Her voice was taut and tired. It seemed clear that she’d hoped for an easier way, but she was wise enough to take what she received. “We’ll have a wild path to tame.”
The woman stepped forward. Her footsteps released the scent of dried hay. “You didn’t know about your Land, did you?”
“I did not.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. It must be—”
The dumb child whimpered. Outside, the shouts increased.
“I need to go,” said the woman.
“Good luck,” I said, and meant it.
I felt the child Laverna rush past me as I sank back into my restless sleep. Her spirit flashed as brightly as a coin left in the sun.
I never saw that woman or any of her people again. I like to think they did not die.
I did not like the way the world changed after the Land of Flowered Hills disappeared. For a long time, I was summoned only by men. Most were a sallow, unhealthy color with sharp narrow features and unnaturally light hair. Goateed sorcerers too proud of their paltry talents strove to dazzle me with pyrotechnics. They commanded me to reveal magical secrets that their peoples had forgotten. Sometimes I stayed silent. Sometimes I led them astray. Once, a hunched barbarian with a braided beard ordered me to give him the secret of flight. I told him to turn toward the prevailing wind and beg the Lover of the Sky for a favor. When the roc swooped down to eat him, I felt a wild kind of joy. At least the birds remembered how to punish worms who would steal women’s magic.
I suffered for my minor victory. Without the barbarian to dismiss me, I was stuck on a tiny patch of grass, hemmed in by the rabbit heads he’d placed to mark the summoning circle. I shivered through the windy night until I finally thought to kick away one of the heads. It tumbled across the grass and my spirit sank into the ground.
Men treated me differently than women had. I had been accustomed to being summoned by Queens and commanders awaiting my advice on incipient battles. Men eschewed my consult; they sought to steal my powers. One summoned me into a box, hoping to trap me as if I were a minor demon that could be forced to grant his wishes. I chanted a rhyme to burn his fingers. When he pulled his hand away, the lid snapped shut and I was free.
Our magic had centered on birds and wind. These new sorcerers made pets of creatures of blood and snapping jaws, wolves and bears and jaguars. We had depicted the sun’s grace along with its splendor, showing the red feathers of flaming light that arc into wings to sweep her across the sky. Their sun was a crude, jagged thing—a golden disk surrounded by spikes that twisted like the gaudy knives I’d seen in foreign cities where I traveled when I was young.
The men called me The Bitch Queen. They claimed I had hated my womb so much that I tried to curse all men to infertility, but the curse rebounded and struck me dead. Apparently, I had hanged myself. Or I’d tried to disembowel every male creature within a day’s walk of my borders. Or I’d spelled my entire kingdom into a waking death in order to prevent myself from ever becoming pregnant. Apparently, I did all the same things out of revenge because I became pregnant. I eschewed men and impregnated women with sorcery. I married a thousand husbands and murdered them all. I murdered my husband, the King, and staked his head outside my castle, and then forced all the tearful women of my kingdom to do the same to their menfolk. I went crazy when my husband and son died and ordered all the men in my kingdom to be executed, declaring that no one would have the pleasure I’d been denied. I had been born a boy, but a rival of my father’s castrated me, and so I hated all real men. I ordered that any woman caught breastfeeding should have her breasts cut off. I ordered my lover’s genitals cut off and sewn on me. I ordered my vagina sewn shut so I could never give birth. I ordered everyone in my kingdom to call me a man.
They assumed my magic must originate with my genitals: they displayed surprise that I didn’t strip naked to mix ingredients in my vagina or cast spells using menstrual blood. They also displayed surprise that I became angry when they asked me about such things.
The worst of them believed he could steal my magic by raping me. He summoned me into a worthless, skinny girl, the kind that we in the Land of Flowered Hills would have deemed too weak to be a woman and too frail to be a brood. In order to carry out his plans, he had to make the summoning circle large enough to accommodate the bed. When he forced himself on top of me, I twisted off his head.
The best of them summoned me soon after that. He was a young man with nervous, trembling fingers who innovated a way to summon my spirit into himself. Books and scrolls tumbled over the surfaces of his tiny, dim room, many of them stained with wax from unheeded candles. Talking to him was strange, the two of us communicating with the same mouth, looking out of the same eyes.
Before long, we realized that we didn’t need words. Our knowledge seeped from one spirit to the other like dye poured into water. He watched me as a girl, riding with Rayneh, and felt the sun burning my back as I dug graves in the Desert which Should Not Have Been, and flinched as he witnessed the worm who attempted to rape me. I watched him and his five brothers, all orphaned and living on the street, as they struggled to find scraps. I saw how he had learned to read under the tutelage of a traveling scribe who carried his books with him from town to town. I felt his uncomfortable mixture of love, respect, and fear for the patron who had set him up as a scribe and petty magician in return for sex and servitude. I didn’t know it felt that way, I said to him. Neither did I, he replied. We stared at each other cross-eyed through his big green eyes.
Pasha needed to find a way to stop the nearby volcano before it destroyed the tiny kingdom where he dwelled. Already, tremors rattled the buildings, foreshadowing the coming destruction.
Perhaps I should not have given Pasha the spell, but it was not deep woman’s magic. Besides, things seemed different when I inhabited his mind, closer to him than I had been to anyone.
We went about enacting the spell together. As we collected ash from the fireplaces of one family from each of the kingdom’s twelve towns, I asked him, Why haven’t you sent me back? Wouldn’t it be easier to do this on your own?
I’ll die when your spirit goes, he answered, and I saw the knowledge of it which he had managed to keep from me.
I didn’t want him to die. Then I’ll stay, I said. I won’t interfere with your life. I’ll retreat as much as I can.
I can’t keep up the spell much longer, he said. I felt his sadness and his resolve. Beneath, I glimpsed even deeper sadness at the plans he would no longer be able to fulfill. He’d wanted to teach his youngest brother to read and write so that the two of them could move out of this hamlet and set up shop in a city as scribes, perhaps even earn enough money to house and feed all their brothers.
I remembered Laverna and Nammi and tried to convince Pasha that we could convert the twins’ magic to work for him and his brother. He said that we only had enough time to stop the volcano. The kingdom is more important than I am, he said.
We dug a hole near the volcano’s base and poured in the ashes that we’d collected. We stirred them with a phoenix feather until they caught fire, in order to give the volcano the symbolic satisfaction of burning the kingdom’s hearths. A dense cloud of smoke rushed up from the looming mountain and then the earth was still.
That’s it, said Pasha, exhaustion and relief equally apparent in his mind. We did it.
We sat together until nightfall when Pasha’s strength began to fail.
I have to let go now, he said.
No, I begged him, Wait. Let us return to the city. We can find your brother. We’ll find a way to save you.
But the magic in his brain was unwinding. I was reminded of the ancient tapestries hanging in the Castle Where Hope Flutters, left too long to moths and weather. Pasha lost control of his feet, his fingers. His thoughts began to drift. They came slowly and far apart. His breath halted in his lungs. Before his life could end completely, my spirit sank away, leaving him to die alone.
After that, I did not have the courage to answer summons. When men called me, I kicked away the objects they’d used to bind me in place and disappeared again. Eventually, the summons stopped.
I had never before been aware of the time that I spent under the earth, but as the years between summons stretched, I began to feel vague sensations: swatches of grey and white along with muted, indefinable pain.
When a summons finally came, I almost felt relief. When I realized the summoner was a woman, I did feel surprise.
“I didn’t expect that to work,” said the woman. She was peach-skinned and round, a double chin gentling her jaw. She wore large spectacles with faceted green lenses like insect eyes. Spines like porcupine quills grew in a thin line from the bridge of her nose to the top of her skull before fanning into a mane. The aroma of smoke—whether the woman’s personal scent or some spell remnant—hung acrid in the air.
I found myself simultaneously drawn to the vibrancy of the living world and disinclined to participate in it. I remained still, delighting in the smells and sights and sounds.
“No use pretending you’re not there,” said the woman. “The straw man doesn’t usually blink on its own. Or breathe.”
I looked down and saw a rudimentary body made of straw, joints knotted together with what appeared to be twine. I lifted my straw hand and stretched out each finger, amazed as the joints crinkled but did not break. “What is this?” My voice sounded dry and crackling, though I did not know whether that was a function of straw or disuse.
“I’m not surprised this is new to you. The straw men are a pretty new development. It saves a lot of stress and unpleasantness for the twins and the spirit rebounders and everyone else who gets the thankless job of putting up with Insomniacs taking over their bodies. Olin Nimble—that’s the man who innovated the straw men—he and I completed our scholastic training the same year. Twenty years later? He’s transfigured the whole field. And here’s me, puttering around the library. But I suppose someone has to teach the students how to distinguish Pinder’s Breath from Summer Twoflower.”
The woman reached into my summoning circle and tugged my earlobe. Straw crackled.
“It’s a gesture of greeting,” she said. “Go on, tug mine.”
I reached out hesitantly, expecting my gesture to be thwarted by the invisible summoning barrier. Instead, my fingers slid through unresisting air and grasped the woman’s earlobe.
She grinned with an air of satisfaction that reminded me of the way my aunts had looked when showing me new spells. “I am Scholar Misa Meticulous.” She lifted the crystal globe she carried and squinted at it. Magical etchings appeared, spelling words in an unfamiliar alphabet. “And you are the Great Lady Naeva who Picked Posies near the Queen’s Chamber, of the Kingdom Where Women Rule?”
I frowned, or tried to, unsure whether it showed on my straw face. “The Land of Flowered Hills.”
“Oh.” She corrected the etching with a long, sharp implement. “Our earliest records have it the other way. This sort of thing is commoner than you’d think. Facts get mixed with rumor. Rumor becomes legend. Soon no one can remember what was history and what they made up to frighten the children. For instance, I’ll bet your people didn’t really have an underclass of women you kept in herds for bearing children.”
“We called them broods.”
“You called them—” Misa’s eyes went round and horrified. As quickly as her shock had registered, it disappeared again. She snorted with forthright amusement. “We’ll have to get one of the historians to talk to you. This is what they live for.”
It was becoming increasingly clear that this woman viewed me as a relic. Indignation simmered; I was not an urn, half-buried in the desert. Yet, in a way, I was.
“I’m just a teacher who specializes in sniffing,” Misa continued. “I find Insomniacs we haven’t spoken to before. It can take years, tracking through records, piecing together bits of old spells. I’ve been following you for three years. You slept dark.”
“Not dark enough.”
She reached into the summoning circle to give me a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Eternity’s a lonely place,” she said. “Even the academy’s lonely, and we only study eternity. Come on. Why don’t we take a walk? I’ll show you the library.”
My straw eyes rustled as they blinked in surprise. “A walk?”
Misa laughed. “Try it out.”
She laughed again as I took one precarious step forward and then another. The straw body’s joints creaked with each stiff movement. I felt awkward and graceless, but I couldn’t deny the pleasure of movement.
“Come on,” Misa repeated, beckoning.
She led me down a corridor of gleaming white marble. Arcane symbols figured the walls. Spell-remnants scented the air with cinnamon and burnt herbs, mingling with the cool currents that swept down from the vaulted ceiling. Beneath our feet, the floor was worn from many footsteps and yet Misa and I walked alone. I wondered how it could be that a place built to accommodate hundreds was empty except for a low-ranking scholar and a dead woman summoned into an effigy.
My questions were soon answered when a group of students approached noisily from an intersecting passageway. They halted when they saw us, falling abruptly silent. Misa frowned. “Get on!” she said, waving them away. They looked relieved as they fled back the way they’d come.
The students’ shaved heads and shapeless robes made it difficult to discern their forms, but it was clear I had seen something I hadn’t been meant to.
“You train men here,” I ascertained.
“Men, women, neuters,” said Misa. “Anyone who comes. And qualifies, of course.”
I felt the hiss of disappointment: another profane, degraded culture. I should have known better than to hope. “I see,” I said, unable to conceal my resentment.
Misa did not seem to notice. “Many cultures have created separate systems of magic for the male and female. Your culture was extreme, but not unusual. Men work healing magic, and women sing weather magic, or vice versa. All very rigid, all very unscientific. Did they ever try to teach a man to wail for a midnight rain? Oh, maybe they did, but if he succeeded, then it was just that one man, and wasn’t his spirit more womanly than masculine? They get noted as an exception to the rule, not a problem with the rule itself. Think Locas Follow with the crickets, or Petrin of Atscheko, or for an example on the female side, Queen Urté. And of course if the man you set up to sing love songs to hurricanes can’t even stir up a breeze, well, there’s your proof. Men can’t sing the weather. Even if another man could. Rigor, that’s the important thing. Until you have proof, anything can be wrong. We know now there’s no difference between the magical capabilities of the sexes, but we’d have known it earlier if people had asked the right questions. Did you know there’s a place in the northern wastes where they believe only people with both male and female genitals can work spells?”
“Everyone’s a fool, sooner or later. I make a game of it with my students. What do we believe that will be proven wrong in the future? I envy your ability to live forever so you can see.”
“You should not,” I said, surprised by my own bitterness. “People of the future are as likely to destroy your truths as to uncover your falsehoods.”
She turned toward me, her face drawn with empathy. “You may be right.”
We entered a vast, mahogany-paneled room, large enough to quarter a roc. Curving shelf towers formed an elaborate labyrinth. Misa led me through the narrow aisles with swift precision.
The shelves displayed prisms of various shapes and sizes. Crystal pyramids sat beside metal cylinders and spheres cut from obsidian. There were stranger things, too, shapes for which I possessed no words, woven out of steel threads or hardened lava.
Overhead, a transparent dome revealed a night sky strewn with stars. I recognized no patterns among the sparkling pinpricks; it was as if all the stars I’d known had been gathered in a giant’s palm and then scattered carelessly into new designs.
Misa chattered as she walked. “This is the academy library. There are over three hundred thousand spells in this wing alone and we’ve almost filled the second. My students are taking bets on when they’ll start construction on the third. They’re also taking bets on whose statue will be by the door. Olin Nimble’s the favorite, wouldn’t you know.”
We passed a number of carrel desks upon which lay maps of strange rivers and red-tinted deserts. Tubes containing more maps resided in cubby holes between the desks, their ends labeled in an unfamiliar alphabet.
“We make the first year students memorize world maps,” said Misa. “A scholar has to understand how much there is to know.”
I stopped by a carrel near the end of the row. The map’s surface was ridged to show changes in elevation. I tried to imagine what the land it depicted would look like from above, on a roc’s back. Could the Mountains where the Sun Rests be hidden among those jagged points?
Misa stopped behind me. “We’re almost to the place I wanted to show you,” she said. When we began walking again, she stayed quiet.
Presently, we approached a place where marble steps led down to a sunken area. We descended, and seemed to enter another room entirely, the arcs of the library shelves on the main level looming upward like a ring of ancient trees.
All around us, invisible from above, there stood statues of men and women. They held out spell spheres in their carved, upturned palms.
“This is the Circle of Insomniacs,” said Misa. “Every Insomniac is depicted here. All the ones we’ve found, that is.”
Amid hunched old women and bearded men with wild eyes, I caught sight of stranger things. Long, armored spikes jutted from a woman’s spine. A man seemed to be wearing a helmet shaped like a sheep’s head until I noticed that his ears twisted behind his head and became the ram’s horns. A child opened his mouth to display a ring of needle-sharp teeth like a leech’s.
“They aren’t human,” I said.
“They are,” said Misa. “Or they were.” She pointed me to the space between a toothless man and a soldier whose face fell in shadow behind a carved helmet. “Your statue will be there. The sculptor will want to speak with you. Or if you don’t want to talk to him, you can talk to his assistant, and she’ll make notes.”
I looked aghast at the crowd of stone faces. “This—this is why you woke me? This sentimental memorial?”
Misa’s eyes glittered with excitement. “The statue’s only part of it. We want to know more about you and the Kingdom Where Women Rule. Sorry, the Land of Flowered Hills. We want to learn from you and teach you. We want you to stay!”
I could not help but laugh, harsh and mirthless. Would this woman ask a piece of ancient stone wall whether or not it wanted to be displayed in a museum? Not even the worms who tried to steal my spells had presumed so much.
“I’m sorry,” said Misa. “I shouldn’t have blurted it out like that. I’m good at sniffing. I’m terrible with people. Usually I find the Great Ones and then other people do the summoning and bring them to the library. The council asked me to do it myself this time because I lived in a women’s colony before I came to the academy. I’m what they call woman-centered. They thought we’d have something in common.”
“Loving women is fundamental. It’s natural as breeze. It’s not some kind of shared diversion.”
“Still. It’s more than you’d have in common with Olin Nimble.”
She paused, biting her lip. She was still transparently excited even though the conversation had begun to go badly.
“Will you stay a while at least?” she asked. “You’ve slept dark for millennia. What’s a little time in the light?”
I scoffed and began to demand that she banish me back to the dark—but the scholar’s excitement cast ripples in a pond that I’d believed had become permanently still.
What I’d learned from the unrecognizable maps and scattered constellations was that the wage of eternity was forgetfulness. I was lonely, achingly lonely. Besides, I had begun to like Misa’s fumbling chatter. She had reawakened me to light and touch—and even, it seemed, to wonder.
If I was to stay, I told Misa, then she must understand that I’d had enough of worms and their attempts at magic. I did not want them crowding my time in the light.
The corners of Misa’s mouth drew downward in disapproval, but she answered, “The academy puts us at the crossroads of myriad beliefs. Sometimes we must set aside our own.” She reached out to touch me. “You’re giving us a great gift by staying. We’ll always respect that.”
Misa and I worked closely during my first days at the academy. We argued over everything. Our roles switched rapidly and contentiously from master to apprentice and back again. She would begin by asking me questions, and then as I told her about what I’d learned in my matriline’s locked rooms, she would interrupt to tell me I was wrong, her people had experimented with such things, and they never performed consistently. Within moments, we’d be shouting about what magic meant, and what it signified, and what it wanted—because one thing we agreed on was that magic was a little bit alive.
Misa suspended her teaching while she worked with me, so we had the days to ourselves in the vast salon where she taught. Her people’s magic was more than superficially dissimilar from mine. They constructed their spells into physical geometries by mapping out elaborate equations that determined whether they would be cylinders or dodecahedrons, formed of garnet or lapis lazuli or cages of copper strands. Even their academy’s construction reflected magical intentions, although Misa told me its effects were vague and diffuse.
“Magic is like architecture,” she said. “You have to build the right container for magic to grow in. The right house for its heart.”
“You fail to consider the poetry of magic,” I contended. “It likes to be teased with images, cajoled with irony. It wants to match wits.”
“Your spells are random!” Misa answered. “Even you don’t understand how they work. You’ve admitted it yourself. The effects are variable, unpredictable. It lacks rigor!”
“And accomplishes grandeur,” I said. “How many of your scholars can match me?”
I soon learned that Misa was not, as she claimed, an unimportant scholar. By agreement, we allowed her female pupils to enter the salon from time to time for consultations. The young women, who looked startlingly young in their loose white garments, approached Misa with an awe that verged on fear. Once, a very young girl who looked barely out of puberty, ended their session by giving a low bow and kissing Misa’s hand. She turned vivid red and fled the salon.
Misa shook her head as the echoes of the girl’s footsteps faded. “She just wishes she was taking from Olin Nimble.”
“Why do you persist in this deception?” I asked. “You have as many spells in the library as he does. It is you, not he, who was asked to join the academy as a scholar.”
She slid me a dubious look. “You’ve been talking to people?”
“I have been listening.”
“I’ve been here a long time,” said Misa. “They need people like me to do the little things so greater minds like Olin Nimble’s can be kept clear.”
But her words were clearly untrue. All of the academy’s scholars, from the most renowned to the most inexperienced, sent to Misa for consultations. She greeted their pages with good humor and false humility, and then went to meet her fellow scholars elsewhere, leaving her salon to me so that I could study or contemplate as I wished.
In the Land of Flowered Hills, there had once been a famous scholar named The Woman Who Would Ask the Breeze for Whys and Wherefores. Misa was such a woman, relentlessly impractical, always half-occupied by her studies. We ate together, talked together, slept together in her chamber, and yet I never saw her focus fully on anything except when she was engrossed in transforming her abstract magical theories into complex, beautiful tangibles.
Sometimes, I paused to consider how different Misa was from my first love. Misa’s scattered, self-effaced pursuit of knowledge was nothing like Rayneh’s dignified exercise of power. Rayneh was like a statue, formed in a beautiful but permanent stasis, never learning or changing. Misa tumbled everywhere like a curious wind, seeking to understand and alter and collaborate, but never to master.
In our first days together, Misa and I shared an abundance of excruciating, contentious, awe-inspiring novelty. We were separated by cultures and centuries, and yet we were attracted to each other even more strongly because of the strangeness we brought into each other’s lives.
The academy was controlled by a rotating council of scholars that was chosen annually by lots. They made their decisions by consensus and exercised control over issues great and small, including the selection of new mages who were invited to join the academy as scholars and thus enter the pool of people who might someday control it.
“I’m grateful every year when they don’t draw my name,” Misa said.
We were sitting in her salon during the late afternoon, relaxing on reclining couches and sipping a hot, sweet drink from celadon cups. One of Misa’s students sat with us, a startle-eyed girl who kept her bald head powdered and smooth, whom Misa had confided she found promising. The drink smelled of oranges and cinnamon; I savored it, ever amazed by the abilities of my strange, straw body.
I looked to Misa. “Why?”
Misa shuddered. “Being on the council would be… terrible.”
“Why?” I asked again, but she only repeated herself in a louder voice, growing increasingly frustrated with my questions.
Later, when Misa left to discuss a spell with one of the academy’s male scholars, her student told me, “Misa doesn’t want to be elevated over others. It’s a very great taboo for her people.”
“It is self-indulgent to avoid power,” I said. “Someone must wield it. Better the strong than the weak.”
Misa’s student fidgeted uncomfortably. “Her people don’t see it that way.”
I sipped from my cup. “Then they are fools.”
Misa’s student said nothing in response, but she excused herself from the salon as soon as she finished her drink.
The council requested my presence when I had been at the academy for a year. They wished to formalize the terms of my stay. Sleepless Ones who remained were expected to hold their own classes and contribute to the institution’s body of knowledge.
“I will teach,” I told Misa, “but only women.”
“Why!” demanded Misa. “What is your irrational attachment to this prejudice?”
“I will not desecrate women’s magic by teaching it to men.”
“How is it desecration?”
“Women’s magic is meant for women. Putting it into men’s hands is degrading.”
Our argument intensified. I began to rage. Men are not worthy of woman’s magic. They’re small-skulled, and cringing, and animalistic. It would be wrong! Why, why, why? Misa demanded, quoting from philosophical dialogues, and describing experiments that supposedly proved there was no difference between men’s and women’s magic. We circled and struck at one another’s arguments as if we were animals competing over territory. We tangled our horns and drew blood from insignificant wounds, but neither of us seemed able to strike a final blow.
“Enough!” I shouted. “You’ve always told me that the academy respects the sacred beliefs of other cultures. These are mine.”
“If you will not agree then I will not teach. Banish me back to the dark! It does not matter to me.”
Of course, it did matter to me. I had grown too attached to chaos and clamor. And to Misa. But I refused to admit it.
In the end, Misa agreed to argue my intentions before the council. She looked at turns furious and miserable. “They won’t agree,” she said. “How can they? But I’ll do what I can.”
The next day, Misa rubbed dense, floral unguents into her scalp and decorated her fingers with arcane rings. Her quills trembled and fanned upward, displaying her anxiety.
The circular council room glowed with faint, magical light. Cold air mixed with the musky scents favored by high-ranking scholars, along with hints of smoke and herbs. Archways loomed at each of the cardinal directions. Misa led us through the eastern archway, which she explained was for negotiation, and into the center of the mosaic floor.
The council’s scholars sat on raised couches arrayed around the circumference of the room. Each sat below a torch that guttered, red and gold, rendering the councilors’ bodies vivid against the dim. I caught sight of a man in layered red and yellow robes, his head surmounted by a brass circlet that twinkled with lights that flared and then flitted out of existence, like winking stars. To his side sat a tall woman with mossy hair and bark-like skin, and beside her, a man with two heads and torsos mounted upon a single pair of legs. A woman raised her hand in greeting to Misa, and water cascaded from her arms like a waterfall, churning into a mist that evaporated before it touched the floor.
Misa had told me that older scholars were often changed by her people’s magic, that it shaped their bodies in the way they shaped their spells. I had not understood her before.
A long, narrow man seemed to be the focal point of the other councilors’ attention. Fine, sensory hairs covered his skin. They quivered in our direction like a small animal’s sniffing. “What do you suggest?” he asked. “Shall we establish a woman-only library? Shall we inspect our students’ genitalia to ensure there are no men-women or women-men or twin-sexed among them?”
“Never mind that,” countered a voice behind us. I turned to see a pudgy woman garbed in heavy metal sheets. “It’s irrelevant to object on the basis of pragmatism. This request is exclusionary.”
“Worse,” added the waterfall woman. “It’s immoral.”
The councilors around her nodded their heads in affirmation. Two identical-looking men in leather hoods fluttered their hands to show support.
Misa looked to each assenting scholar in turn. “You are correct. It is exclusionist and immoral. But I ask you to think about deeper issues. If we reject Naeva’s conditions, then everything she knows will be lost. Isn’t it better that some know than that everyone forgets?”
“Is it worth preserving knowledge if the price is bigotry?” asked the narrow man with the sensory hairs, but the other scholars’ eyes fixed on Misa.
They continued to argue for some time, but the conclusion had been foregone as soon as Misa spoke. There is nothing scholars love more than knowledge.
“Is it strange for you?” I asked Misa. “To spend so much time with someone trapped in the body of a doll?”
We were alone in the tiny, cluttered room where she slept. It was a roughly hewn underground cavity, its only entrance and exit by ladder. Misa admitted that the academy offered better accommodations, but claimed she preferred rooms like this one.
Misa exclaimed with mock surprise. “You’re trapped in the body of a doll? I’d never noticed!”
She grinned in my direction. I rewarded her with laughter.
“I’ve gotten used to the straw men,” she said more seriously. “When we talk, I’m thinking about spells and magic and the things you’ve seen. Not straw.”
Nevertheless, straw remained inescapably cumbersome. Misa suggested games and spells and implements, but I refused objects that would estrange our intimacy. We lay together at night and traded words, her hands busy at giving her pleasure while I watched and whispered. Afterward, we lay close, but I could not give her the warmth of a body I did not possess.
One night, I woke long after our love-making to discover that she was no longer beside me. I found her in the salon, her equations spiraling across a row of crystal globes. A doll hung from the wall beside her, awkwardly suspended by its nape. Its skin was warm and soft and tinted the same sienna that mine had been so many eons ago. I raised its face and saw features matching the sketches that the sculptor’s assistant had made during our sessions.
Misa looked up from her calculations. She smiled with mild embarrassment.
“I should have known a simple adaptation wouldn’t work,” she said. “Otherwise, Olin Nimble would have discarded straw years ago. But I thought, if I worked it out…”
I moved behind her, and beheld the array of crystal globes, all showing spidery white equations. Below them lay a half-formed spell of polished wood and peridot chips.
Misa’s quill mane quivered. “It’s late,” she said, taking my hand. “We should return to bed.”
Misa often left her projects half-done and scattered. I like to think the doll would have been different. I like to think she would have finished it.
Instead, she was drawn into the whirl of events happening outside the academy. She began leaving me behind in her chambers while she spent all hours in her salon, almost sleepwalking through the brief periods when she returned to me, and then rising restless in the dark and returning to her work.
By choice, I remained unclear about the shape of the external cataclysm. I did not want to be drawn further into the academy’s politics.
My lectures provided little distraction. The students were as preoccupied as Misa. “This is not a time for theory!” one woman complained when I tried to draw my students into a discussion of magic’s predilections. She did not return the following morning. Eventually, no one else returned either.
Loneliness drove me where curiosity could not and I began following Misa to her salon. Since I refused to help with her spells, she acknowledged my presence with little more than a glance before returning to her labors. Absent her attention, I studied and paced.
Once, after leaving the salon for several hours, Misa returned with a bustle of scholars—both men and women—all brightly clad and shouting. They halted abruptly when they saw me.
“I forgot you were here,” Misa said without much contrition.
I tensed, angry and alienated, but unwilling to show my rage before the worms. “I will return to your chamber,” I said through tightened lips.
Before I even left the room, they began shouting again. Their voices weren’t like scholars debating. They lashed at each other with their words. They were angry. They were afraid.
That night, I went to Misa and finally asked for explanations. It’s a plague, she said. A plague that made its victims bleed from the skin and eyes and then swelled their tongues until they suffocated.
They couldn’t cure it. They treated one symptom, only to find the others worsening. The patients died, and then the mages who treated them died, too.
I declared that the disease must be magic. Misa glared at me with unexpected anger and answered that, no! It was not magic! If it was magic, they would have cured it. This was something foul and deadly and natural.
She’d grown gaunt by then, the gentle cushions of fat at her chin and stomach disappearing as her ribs grew prominent. After she slept, her headrest was covered with quills that had fallen out during the night, their pointed tips lackluster and dulled.
I no longer had dialogues or magic or sex to occupy my time. I had only remote, distracted Misa. My world began to shape itself around her—my love for her, my concern for her, my dread that she wouldn’t find a cure, and my fear of what I’d do if she didn’t. She was weak, and she was leading me into weakness. My mind sketched patterns I didn’t want to imagine. I heard the spirits in The Desert Which Should Not Have Been whispering about the deaths of civilizations, and about choices between honor and love.
Misa stopped sleeping. Instead, she sat on the bed in the dark, staring into the shadows and worrying her hands.
“There is no cure,” she muttered.
I lay behind her, watching her silhouette.
“Of course there’s a cure.”
“Oh, of course,” snapped Misa. “We’re just too ignorant to find it!”
Such irrational anger. I never learned how to respond to a lover so easily swayed by her emotions.
“I did not say that you were ignorant.”
“As long as you didn’t say it.”
Misa pulled to her feet and began pacing, footsteps thumping against the piled rugs.
I realized that in all my worrying, I’d never paused to consider where the plague had been, whether it had ravaged the communities where Misa had lived and loved. My people would have thought it a weakness to let such things affect them.
“Perhaps you are ignorant,” I said. “Maybe you can’t cure this plague by building little boxes. Have you thought of that?”
I expected Misa to look angry, but instead she turned back with an expression of awe. “Maybe that’s it,” she said slowly. “Maybe we need your kind of magic. Maybe we need poetry.”
For the first time since the plague began, the lines of tension began to smooth from Misa’s face. I loved her. I wanted to see her calm and curious, restored to the woman who marveled at new things and spent her nights beside me.
So I did what I knew I should not. I sat with her for the next hours and listened as she described the affliction. It had begun in a swamp far to the east, she said, in a humid tangle of roots and branches where a thousand sharp and biting things lurked beneath the water. It traveled west with summer’s heat, sickening children and old people first, and then striking the young and healthy. The children and elderly sometimes recovered. The young and healthy never survived.
I thought back to diseases I’d known in my youth. A very different illness came to mind, a disease cast by a would-be usurper during my girlhood. It came to the Land of Flowered Hills with the winter wind and froze its victims into statues that would not shatter with blows or melt with heat. For years after Rayneh’s mother killed the usurper and halted the disease, the Land of Flowered Hills was haunted by the glacial, ghostly remains of those once-loved. The Queen’s sorceresses sought them out one by one and melted them with memories of passion. It was said that the survivors wept and cursed as their loved ones melted away, for they had grown to love the ever-present, icy memorials.
That illness was unlike what afflicted Misa’s people in all ways but one—that disease, too, had spared the feeble and taken the strong.
I told Misa, “This is a plague that steals its victims’ strength and uses it to kill them.”
Misa’s breaths came slowly and heavily. “Yes, that’s it,” she said. “That’s what’s happening.”
“The victims must steal their strength back from the disease. They must cast their own cures.”
“They must cast your kind of spells. Poetry spells.”
“Yes,” I said. “Poetry spells.”
Misa’s eyes closed as if she wanted to weep with relief. She looked so tired and frail. I wanted to lay her down on the bed and stroke her cheeks until she fell asleep.
Misa’s shoulders shook but she didn’t cry. Instead, she straightened her spectacles and plucked at her robes.
“With a bit of heat and… how would obsidian translate into poetry?...” she mused aloud. She started toward the ladder and then paused to look back. “Will you come help me, Naeva?”
She must have known what I would say.
“I’ll come,” I said quietly, “but this is woman’s magic. It is not for men.”
What followed was inevitable: the shudder that passed through Misa as her optimism turned ashen. “No. Naeva. You wouldn’t let people die.”
But I would. And she should have known that. If she knew me at all.
She brought it before the council. She said that was how things were to be decided. By discussion. By consensus.
We entered through the western arch, the arch of conflict. The scholars arrayed on their raised couches looked as haggard as Misa. Some seats were empty, others filled by men and women I’d not seen before.
“Why is this a problem?” asked one of the new scholars, an old woman whose face and breasts were stippled with tiny, fanged mouths. “Teach the spell to women. Have them cast it on the men.”
“The victims must cast it themselves,” Misa said.
The old woman scoffed. “Since when does a spell care who casts it?”
“It’s old magic,” Misa said. “Poetry magic.”
“Then what is it like?” asked a voice from behind us.
We turned to see the narrow man with the fine, sensory hairs, who had demanded at my prior interrogation whether knowledge gained through bigotry was worth preserving. He lowered his gaze onto my face and his hairs extended toward me, rippling and seeking.
“Some of us have not had the opportunity to learn for ourselves,” he added.
I hoped that Misa would intercede with an explanation, but she held her gaze away from mine. Her mouth was tight and narrow.
The man spoke again. “Unless you feel that it would violate your ethics to even describe the issue in my presence.”
“No. It would not.” I paused to prepare my words. “As I understand it, your people’s magic imprisons spells in clever constructions. You alter the shape and texture of the spell as you alter the shape and texture of its casing.”
Dissenting murmurs rose from the councilors.
“I realize that’s an elementary description,” I said. “However, it will suffice for contrast. My people attempted to court spells with poetry, using image and symbol and allusion as our tools. Your people give magic a place to dwell. Mine woo it to tryst awhile.”
“What does that,” interjected the many-mouthed old woman, “have to do with victims casting their own spells?”
Before I could answer, the narrow man spoke. “It must be poetry—the symmetry, if you will. Body and disease are battling for the body’s strength. The body itself must win the battle.”
“Is that so?” the old woman demanded of me.
I inclined my head in assent.
A woman dressed in robes of scarlet hair looked to Misa. “You’re confident this will work?”
Misa’s voice was strained and quiet. “I am.”
The woman turned to regard me, scarlet tresses parting over her chest to reveal frog-like skin that glistened with damp. “You will not be moved? You won’t relinquish the spell?”
I said, “No.”
“Even if we promise to give it only to the women, and let the men die?”
I looked toward Misa. I knew what her people believed. The council might bend in matters of knowledge, but it would not bend in matters of life.
“I do not believe you would keep such promises.”
The frog-skinned woman laughed. The inside of her mouth glittered like a cavern filled with crystals. “You’re right, of course. We wouldn’t.” She looked to her fellow councilors. “I see no other option. I propose an Obligation.”
“No,” said Misa.
“I agree with Jian,” said a fat scholar in red and yellow. “An Obligation.”
“You can’t violate her like that,” said Misa. “The academy is founded on respect.”
The frog-skinned woman raised her brows at Misa. “What is respect worth if we let thousands die?”
Misa took my hands. “Naeva, don’t let this happen. Please, Naeva.” She moved yet closer to me, her breath hot, her eyes desperate. “You know what men can be. You know they don’t have to be ignorant worms or greedy brutes. You know they can be clever and noble! Remember Pasha. You gave him the spell he needed. Why won’t you help us?”
Pasha—kin of my thoughts, closer than my own skin. It had seemed different then, inside his mind. But I was on my own feet now, looking out from my own eyes, and I knew what I knew.
When she’d been confronted by the inevitable destruction of our people, Tryce had made herself into a brood. She had chosen to degrade herself and her daughters in the name of survival. What would the Land of Flowered Hills have become if she’d succeeded? What would have happened to we hard and haughty people who commanded the sacred powers of wind and sun?
I would not desecrate our knowledge by putting it in the hands of animals. This was not just one man who would die from what he learned. This would be unlocking the door to my matriline’s secret rooms and tearing open the many-drawered cupboards. It would be laying everything sacrosanct bare to corruption.
I broke away from Misa’s touch. “I will tell you nothing!”
The council acted immediately and unanimously, accord reached without deliberation. The narrow man wrought a spell-shape using only his hands, which Misa had told me could be done, but rarely and only by great mages. When his fingers held the right configuration, he blew into their cage.
It was like falling through blackness. I struggled for purchase, desperate to climb back into myself.
My mouth opened. It was not I who spoke.
“Bring them water from the swamp and damp their brows until they feel the humidity of the place where the disease was born. The spirit of the disease will seek its origins, as any born creature will. Let the victims seek with their souls’ sight until they find the spirit of the disease standing before them. It will appear differently to each, vaporous and foul, or sly and sharp, but they will know it. Let the victims open the mouths of their souls and devour the disease until its spirit is inside their spirit as its body is inside their body. This time, they will be the conquerors. When they wake, they will be stronger than they had been before.”
My words resonated through the chamber. Misa shuddered and began to retch. The frog-skinned woman detached a lock of her scarlet hair and gave it, along with a sphere etched with my declamation, to their fleetest page. My volition rushed back into me as if through a crashing dam. I swelled with my returning power.
Magic is a little bit alive. It loves irony and it loves passion. With all the fierceness of my dead Land, I began to tear apart my straw body with its own straw hands. The effigy’s viscera fell, crushed and crackling, to the mosaic floor.
The narrow man, alone among the councilors, read my intentions. He sprang to his feet, forming a rapid protection spell between his fingers. It glimmered into being before I could complete my own magic, but I was ablaze with passion and poetry, and I knew that I would prevail.
The fire of my anger leapt from my eyes and tongue and caught upon the straw in which I’d been imprisoned. Fire. Magic. Fury. The academy became an inferno.
They summoned me into a carved rock that could see and hear and speak but could not move. They carried it through the Southern arch, the arch of retribution.
The narrow man addressed me. His fine, sensory hairs had burned away in the fire, leaving his form bald and pathetic.
“You are dangerous,” he said. “The council has agreed you cannot remain.”
The council room was in ruins. The reek of smoke hung like a dense fog over the rubble. Misa sat on one of the few remaining couches, her eyes averted, her body etched with thick ugly scars. She held her right hand in her lap, its fingers melted into a single claw.
I wanted to cradle Misa’s ruined hand, to kiss and soothe it. It was an unworthy desire. I had no intention of indulging regret.
“You destroyed the academy, you bitch,” snarled a woman to my left. I remembered that she had once gestured waterfalls, but now her arms were burned to stumps. “Libraries, students, spells…” her voice cracked.
“The council understands the grave injustice of an Obligation,” the narrow man continued, as if she had not interjected. “We don’t take the enslavement of a soul lightly, especially when it violates a promised trust. Though we believe we acted rightfully, we also acknowledge we have done you an injustice. For that we owe you our contrition.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “It is the council’s agreement that you cannot be permitted to remain in the light. It is our duty to send you back into the dark and to bind you there so that you may never answer summons again.”
I laughed. It was a grating sound. “You’ll be granting my dearest wish.”
He inclined his head. “It is always best when aims align.”
He reached out to the women next to him and took their hands. The remaining council members joined them, bending their bodies until they, themselves, formed the shape of a spell. Misa turned to join them, the tough, shiny substance of her scar tissue catching the light. I knew from Misa’s lessons that the texture of her skin would alter and shape the spell. I could recognize their brilliance in that, to understand magic so well that they could form it out of their own bodies.
As the last of the scholars moved into place, for a moment I understood the strange, distorted, perfect shape they made. I realized with a slash that I had finally begun to comprehend their magic. And then I sank into final, lasting dark.
I remembered Misa. I remembered Pasha. I remembered the time when men had summoned me into unknown lands.
Always and inevitably, my thoughts returned to the Land of Flowered Hills, the place I had been away from longest, but known best.
Misa and Rayneh. I betrayed one. One betrayed me. Two loves ending in tragedy. Perhaps all loves do.
I remembered the locked room in my matriline’s household, all those tiny lacquered drawers filled with marvels. My aunt’s hand fluttered above them like a pale butterfly as I wondered which drawer she would open. What wonder would she reveal from a world so vast I could never hope to understand it?
“To paint a bird, you must show the brush what it means to fly,” my aunt told me, holding my fingers around the brush handle as I strove to echo the perfection of a feather. The brush trembled. Dip into the well, slant, and press. Bristles splay. Ink bleeds across the scroll and—there! One single graceful stroke aspiring toward flight.
What can a woman do when love and time and truth are all at odds with one another, clashing and screeching, wailing and weeping, begging you to enter worlds unlike any you’ve ever known and save this people, this people, this people from king’s soldiers and guttering volcanoes and plagues? What can a woman do when beliefs that seemed as solid as stone have become dry leaves blowing in autumn wind? What can a woman cling to when she must betray her lovers’ lives or her own?
A woman is not a bird. A woman needs ground.
All my aunts gathering in a circle around the winter fire to share news and gossip, their voices clat-clat-clatting at each other in comforting, indistinguishable sounds. The wind finds its way in through the cracks and we welcome our friend. It blows through me, carrying scents of pine and snow. I run across the creaking floor to my aunts’ knees which are as tall as I am, my arms slipping around one dark soft leg and then another as I work my way around the circle like a wind, finding the promise of comfort in each new embrace.
Light returned and shaded me with grey.
I stood on a pedestal under a dark dome, the room around me eaten by shadow. My hands touched my robe which felt like silk. They encountered each other and felt flesh. I raised them before my face and saw my own hands, brown and short and nimble, the fingernails jagged where I’d caught them on the rocks while surveying with Kyan in the Mountains where the Sun Rests.
Around me, I saw more pedestals arranged in a circle, and atop them strange forms that I could barely distinguish from shade. As my eyes adjusted, I made out a soldier with his face shadowed beneath a horned helmet, and a woman armored with spines. Next to me stood a child who smelled of stale water and dead fish. His eyes slid in my direction and I saw they were strangely old and weary. He opened his mouth to yawn, and inside, I saw a ring of needle-sharp teeth.
Recognition rushed through me. These were the Insomniacs I’d seen in Misa’s library, all of them living and embodied, except there were more of us, countless more, all perched and waiting.
Magic is a little bit alive. That was my first thought as the creature unfolded before us, its body a strange darkness like the unrelieved black between stars. It was adorned with windows and doors that gleamed with silver like starlight. They opened and closed like slow blinking, offering us portals into another darkness that hinted at something beyond.
The creature was nothing like the entities that I’d believed waited at the core of eternity. It was no frozen world lizard, waiting to crack traitors in his icy jaws, nor a burning sun welcoming joyous souls as feathers in her wings. And yet, somehow I knew then that this creature was the deepest essence of the universe—the strange, persistent thing that throbbed like a heart between stars.
Its voice was strange, choral, like many voices talking at once. At the same time, it did not sound like a voice at all. It said, “You are the ones who have reached the end of time. You are witnesses to the end of this universe.”
As it spoke, it expanded outward. The fanged child staggered back as the darkness approached. He looked toward me with fear in his eyes, and then darkness swelled around me, too, and I was surrounded by shadow and pouring starlight.
The creature said, “From the death of this universe will come the birth of another. This has happened so many times before that it cannot be numbered, unfathomable universes blinking one into the next, outside of time. The only continuity lies in the essences that persist from one to the next.”
Its voice faded. I stretched out my hands into the gentle dark. “You want us to be reborn?” I asked.
I wasn’t sure if it could even hear me in its vastness. But it spoke.
“The new universe will be unlike anything in this one. It will be a strangeness. There will be no ‘born,’ no ‘you.’ One cannot speak of a new universe. It is anathema to language. One cannot even ponder it.”
Above me, a window opened, and it was not a window, but part of this strange being. Soothing, silver brilliance poured from it like water. It rushed over me, tingling like fresh spring mornings and newly drawn breath.
I could feel the creature’s expectancy around me. More windows opened and closed as other Sleepless Ones made their choices.
I thought of everything then—everything I had thought of during the millennia when I was bound, and everything I should have thought of then but did not have the courage to think. I saw my life from a dozen fractured perspectives. Rayneh condemning me for helping her daughter steal her throne, and dismissing my every subsequent act as a traitor’s cowardice. Tryce sneering at my lack of will as she watched me spurn a hundred opportunities for seizing power during centuries of summons. Misa, her brows drawn down in inestimable disappointment, pleading with me to abandon everything I was and become like her instead.
They were all right. They were all wrong. My heart shattered into a million sins.
I thought of Pasha who I should never have saved. I thought of how he tried to shield me from the pain of his death, spending his last strength to soothe me before he died alone.
For millennia, I had sought oblivion and been denied. Now, as I approached the opportunity to dissipate at last… now I began to understand the desire for something unspeakably, unfathomably new.
I reached toward the window. The creature gathered me in its massive blackness and lifted me up, up, up. I became a woman painted in brushstrokes of starlight, fewer and fewer, until I was only a glimmer of silver that had once been a woman, now poised to take flight. I glittered like the stars over The Desert which Should Not Have Been, eternal witnesses to things long forgotten. The darkness beyond the window pulled me. I leapt toward it, and stretched, and changed.