I. Cloak & Sickle
The city sits on a plateau overlooking the delta. It must have been beautiful once, and, from a distance, it still retains something of its old character, especially at night when the thousand lamps are lit and the flames reflect on the floodwaters like a swarm of golden fireflies. But then, most cities are beautiful from far away.
On the streets, I flit between heaps of filth, collapsed walls, burned out masonry like the husks of spiders, and I am almost invisible, just another shadow in a city of shadows where the constancy of the funeral march means that no one native is ever out of mourning attire for very long. I did not grow up here. I do not know the city’s name or that of anyone around me. But, it is the world I inhabit now, for however long they choose to remain.
I find one of them attempting to loot the houses on a street that has been abandoned for months—some kind of canine or other, perhaps a hybrid. His uniform is covered in dry black mud as is the matchlock he has slung across his back, his hair wildly tangled and matted. Not a bad-looking guy, black hair, grey fur…just like me. I tail him for nearly an hour until he’s far from the lamps.
Cloaks have an unparalleled functionality. With the hood pulled up over my ears (which makes them lay flat), I blend into the darkness like a part of it, moving unseen when I wish. On revealing myself, it adds a certain mystique; like the leaf-wrapped trinkets we received as children on holy days, some people just can’t help but wonder what’s inside.
I coo out to him softly and take down my hood. He whirls around, fumbling to bring his mud-choked rifle to bear, eyes wide, ears flat, tail between his legs. There have been rumors in his camp that a vengeful spirit stalks lone soldiers in the night, but he sees that I am only a female half his weight. He relaxes somewhat and lowers his weapon.
A flick of the hand, and my cloak comes ever-so-slightly open upon my bare left thigh (always the left, never the right). Without looking away, I trace an invisible line up my leg, over the curve of my hip…
“How much?” he asks. Though his dialect is different from my own, he is perfectly intelligible. I hold up three fingers and he balks. “Two,” he says, “and no more. Don’t complain, or I’ll have you for free.” As if the crude slag coins they carried had any real value. I nod and beckon to him.
He tries to put his arm around me and kiss me, the stink of dirt and blood and gunpowder heavy in his hair and clothes. I slip aside and giggle to him enticingly, beckoning again. As he comes close, I extend my arm and lightly caress his throat, slowly circling towards his back. A sigh or shudder of desire passes over him as I find the handle on my right hip (always the right, never the left).
The precise design of the sickle varies from region to region, according to the needs of the population and the skill of the craftsmen, mine just so happens to be the perfect size and shape to fit around someone’s neck. I press my breasts into his back and whisper, “Close your eyes…”
It has occurred to me at times that it might, perhaps, be more merciful to lay with them once before I…
I wrench the blade into his throat. Getting through the fur and skin cleanly is the hardest part. Now I slide the sickle around like a lever and feel it bite deeply into soft tissues underneath. He’s only just begun to grasp what has happened at this point. An awful gurgling noise emanates from his mouth and the wound simultaneously.
I am not merciful.
The volume of blood released in this way is immense. I quickly step away before he can turn around, avoiding both spatter and retaliation. He could not cry out even if there were someone other than me to hear him.
Eyes closed, I sing to him very softly:
“Night is never burrow-dark,
had you this fear within the womb?
The sky is made to guide by mark,
With ribbon-light and star and moon…”
He struggles—they always do—only for a little while. Later, I wipe my blade on his clothes. The nights are short this time of year and there is so much to do.
I am not a warrior. I am not an assassin. I am neither a spirit of vengeance nor a righteous avenger, though I have been called both by different polities. It seems that people turn up dead so often here, it is not easy to say who is doing what to whom. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that I will be captured and executed for crimes of which I have not even the knowledge contained in rumor.
The invaders call themselves the “Ninth Division of the Army of the Alliance of Northern Territories,” or something to that effect. The locals have other names for them, the sort modesty forbids me from using but which are so apt that I cannot fault their applicability. In turn, slurs that have not been heard here for generations have made new homes in the soldiers’ mouths, and spill out with little provocation.
Resistance cells, foreign sympathizers, and all groups between or outside them construct secret vocabularies of master-words and occult symbols impenetrable to all but their own members.
In regards to the recent throat-cuttings, the latest prophet of the Krissa sect spoke of the “Divinity’s Vengeance” until he disappeared. Since then, his followers have changed this to “Devil’s Vengeance,” though they themselves cut the throats of apostates and blasphemers.
Orphans huddle around coal-pits and frighten each other with fantastic stories about a ghost called “The One-Night.” I listened to them, entranced, for near a whole evening before I realized they were talking about me, after a fashion. As the smoldering light grew more dim and their shadows were swallowed up by a greater darkness, they took heart in new legends about a “Saint of Sunsets” who had come back from the dead to punish the foreigners, and this, too, was my reflection in a myth, though as I have said I am a foreigner myself and know little of righteousness.
Half-naked in the humid belly of my den, I finger the long, diagonal scar on my breast and my thoughts turn back to other days, to ropes and chains, camps of frozen mud, forced marches, razings, the rape of peoples and persons and lands. And I think of death.
Grandfather used to say, “Death is the most beautiful coyote, whiter than cloud or snow and dressed in sunsets and traces of rainbows. Its eyes are like the rising of twin harvest moons that start out taking up half the sky, but shrink and grow pale during their ascent. If you stare at those eyes until they turn into stars and disappear, then death has trapped your soul and you fall up into the sky and never return.” That is the sort of story he used to tell us during the march, that is, until he himself was trapped by that gaze and couldn’t return to us anymore. But it is not permitted to weep so long after the fact, so I do not weep.
My scar is still painfully tender under my fingertips, even half my age since the wound was fresh. It is from this that I was given my third name when the slavers forbade us to use our mother-tongue. Before that, I was known as Maelahni, “grey female dog,” which I had thought was my first name until I was an adult.
Summer on the delta is too hot, and I share my den with hundreds of beetles the size of capusaia nuts. They skitter over me constantly, unconcerned. I wonder if they have names for each other, when they rest, and if they dream. I do not disturb them. We are all night-creepers here.
Groping, I locate my little stash of holding-leaf and roll a little wad to chew; then, when that one is exhausted, I roll another. It takes more and more to get any effects these days, to numb the hunger, or to put me to sleep.
III. Ribbon-Lights and Other Ephemera
I am home on the Autumnal Plains. Our settlement is never more than semi-permanent, subject to change each season with the ebbing of game or the fruiting of certain plants, but we find ourselves reoccupying the same places, more or less, by the wisdom of our traditions that ensure we have always food to eat and clean water. Now I experience it as I never did before, in the full ripeness of my body, so that I am tall to look straight into the eyes of elders. And I wear paint and braided copper to tell everyone that I am no little cub, but a woman of the tribe versed in the secret stories and fit to claim husbands, to chew dalbia and drink api.
I am telling a little one, “…and the first dogs were the coyotes, who marked from the Great Molars all the way down to Ice-that-Growls, and so today their descendants have a broad land to hunt in, that we need never go hungry if we are clever…” which is part of a story that Grandfather used to tell us, only now Grandfather is alive and the little one is myself as an almost-adult. She, my younger self, shakes her head at me, face taut and grave, and her breast has been cut in twain and hangs open like a plucked game-fowl. She is naked, bloody to the ground on her right side, and also on the insides of her thighs, and the tents are burning, just as it had all been on the day they came to take us north and west.
The tongs and charcoal and fishing-hook are there on the ground. I force her to her knees and tell her not to be afraid or to cry out as I take up the hot coal in the tongs. She makes no sound as I thrust the fire into her breast where the flesh sizzles—not even a tear falls until the fishing-hook’s barb sinks in one side of the wound and tears back out through the other—stitched now, as then, with a piece of leather cord from my boot. But though she is tearful, her voice is calm and she does not choke when she speaks. “Will the ribbon-lights come north with us?”
I shake my head. “Be still, now, don’t talk. Mind this wound, or we’ll—
“Will they shine less brightly after we are gone?”
“No!” I am losing patience with her. The wound is getting longer so that no matter how fast I sew, I will never get to the end of it. “No! One by one, we fall up into the sky, and when the last of us is gone, it will be as if we had never been.”
“And so they have to die. All of them,” she says. Somehow, we have switched places, and the almost-adult from back then is pinning me down, and she is heavy, like a mountain, crushing me. She smiles, and her teeth are a deep red. “So, what is the difference between a soldier and a slaver?”
I want to thrash, to throw her off of me, but her strength is absolute; I can’t even move my fingers or blink my eyes. Then she kisses me and her tongue tastes of blood and burns the inside of my mouth, like the coal I used to cauterize her breast became lodged there and has traveled up her throat, into her mouth, and now she pushes it into my throat and I swallow it, where it seers the flesh down to my heart…
I taste wine and honey. I am paralyzed, and my mind and body are dull, like on waking from a dream. Someone is kissing me, I think, I feel warm breath on my face as a tongue pushes something into the back of my mouth. Then a gentle hand lifts my head onto something and massages my throat. I swallow as my eyes come open. A deer-woman looks down at me and the ribbon-lights flare a brilliant green in the sky around her head.
It is Tlaelle, a midwife from an allied tribe. Her eyes are very blue, even in firelight. She is not young and she is not old, and one could not say towards which of these she tends. “It’s all right,” she says. Her voice has the substantive quality of gosling-down. “We gave you the antidote in time. Just rest.”
It is winter in a forest I do not know. The ground is hard with frost and there are sharp rocks and thorns everywhere, and I only have pieces of scrap leather for clothes. The wind is blowing hard enough to make my eyes water; the tears freeze partway down my face. There is the pain of hunger, of cold, of being lost with no hope of ever finding the way again. I am looking for something or someone, but what, I do not know. Yet I continue to search in caverns, in hollow trees, across frozen rivers and lakes…but everywhere I look, there is only black empty space and a wind that drives snow deep into my fur, and I can move less and less.
The clouds came in on a raft of cool air while I slept; the twilight is soft and grey. I stop and put my cloak aside to drink from a puddle near my den. Even in the vague reflection cast by the storm-muted sun, my eyes are dark and drawn-in, my face emaciated. I close my eyes and lap up the water. It has been two days since I last drank anything. I do not remember eating recently.
I pass through the streets in silence, the raindrops rolling down and off my cloak. There are few lamps lit tonight, and every pit, dimple, and crevice is filled with water which gleams in the lightning flashes like black glass. Between the scarcity of people out-of-doors and the darkness in so many of the windows, the city has been infused with a spectral unreality that unnerves me on some elemental level. A silent voice wells up in me, saying, “Turn back, hide away in your den, hunt again some other night.”
We would never have traveled under such a blank sky as to be thus deprived of our means of both navigation and divination would have been palpably inauspicious. So thinking, I tell myself it is only my ancestral prejudice that has given me over to unease, that this night is, in fact, better than most for my work, and that I do dishonor to myself by feeling fear in this unreasonable way. My hand has reflexively stuffed the last of the holding-leaf into my mouth to accord me a stronger courage, only now I become afraid of returning to my den with nothing to numb me…
The leaf-keeper bazaar is boisterous and well lit at night, even in the rain. The fact that trade of the leaves is more tolerated than allowed inclines the business to nocturnal hours and one would not find a single stall or peddler displaying this particular comestible openly. Instead, they set themselves up as sellers of an api brew, or of medicinal herbs of dubious effectiveness, but food is rare indeed, for the leaf blinds one to hunger.
It is wisest for me to not buy from the same person more than once, for these are an idle bunch and interminable gossips. This time, I select an old, thin queen, black in color but streaked with silver highlights from the many seasons she has lived. I have seen her a few times before, always with a heavy bundle of firewood on her back, inside of which she hides her true commodity (for I have witnessed her produce it twice). Tonight she has taken an awning for shelter, but is nonetheless damp and tired-looking, though those who chew the leaf are almost to a one skinny and lacking vitality.
I approach, innocuous, as though only to share the awning overhead, and I keep my face turned away into my hood so that she won‘t see it clearly. Many such vendors utilize a simple sign-language for the purposes of trade. I sign to her that I wish to purchase a half-block of leaf for eight units of scrip. Her tail twitches anxiously. She takes down her bundle and swings open the back of the bottom half as though it were on hinges, which, I think, must indeed be the case, an ingenious little invention.
It is not unusual to get a discount on one’s first purchase in the hopes of return business on the part of the seller, and so I am not alarmed that she had accepted my offer of less a third the usual value for a half-block. But when I offer my hand up for her to take her payment, she seizes my wrist and snatches the slag coins like a starving vulture would rend a carcass, the violent action of which turns me to face her directly. I twist my way out of her grip and swipe at her instinctively, but she avoids it. Just as suddenly, she bends down to fetch out my purchase and offers it to me.
Cautiously, I take it from her; this time there is no ado about it. Not, that is, until I start to walk away. Then, her hand is on my shoulder and I turn around, ready to fight and kill if necessary. The fur around her face has fluffed up, as though she really were about to leap at me, but she just smiles, her tail swishing from side to side. “Youngling,” she says, “would you so happen to be of the Lahn tribe? Do you know of the Lady of Lullabies?”
On impulse, I recoil from her. “I…I can’t help you. I’m sorry.” I walk away fast and she begins to call, “She is here! She is here!” and I turn down an alleyway, searching for an open door or window, but everything is locked up. As the footsteps splash in at me from both sides, I know I am trapped.
I lash out wildly with my sickle and am disarmed and pinned down in seconds. I try to bite into a sleeved arm and shatter a tooth on the mail hidden there. The last thing I hear before they beat me unconscious is the old queen from a moment ago complaining that the amount they were offering her now was much less than what had been promised.
V. The Other Side of the Mirror
After the first three beatings, I am too tired to fight back. After the next three, I am too exhausted to even curl into a ball to shield myself. The sun has risen and set twice since I was brought here and neither food nor water has been granted me. I awake during the night to find a skin of water hanging from my cage, I am so delirious that I mistake it for an impossibly large cockroach and cower for a moment before my sense returns. I am able to drink, slowly, as I was taught to do in such a situation.
Each of the four walls outside my cage has many mirrors upon it, as does the ceiling, with the end result that looking at anything aside from the floor presents a view of just the state I am in—naked and battered, pitiful, even by my own standards. At twice my age, it should not have been this bad, and I despair at the ruin of myself, although I know I must soon die. But eventually, the sight becomes familiar and I study my face, which is so strikingly close to that of my mother. “Did I do well, matra?” I ask her. “Tell everyone I’m coming soon.”
Storms come and go with moisture, the lightning flashes that reflect on the mirrors, and the deep vibrations of thunder that go through the bricks, at times shaking out bits of ancient mortar.
On sunrise of the third day, the inquisitor comes into my cell with a lamp, but the storm winds extinguish it. For the brief time I see him, he looks all the world like a fellow Lahn, but clad in robes of appointment beneath which a clinking sound implies he wears armor. “No matter,” he says, “there shall be light enough to write by presently.”
I say nothing.
“I am the Reverend Rehnem Xahndra,” he continues. “You are the Lady of Lullabies, previously known as Scarheart—”
“Selahni,” I interrupt him. “That is my birth-name.”
The cell grows brighter by the minute. He sits on the floor with a little book in his lap. “Because you were born whiter than cloud or snow. Yes. But your outer coat was shed and you were grey underneath.” There is a pause. Then, as if answering to my wonderment, he says, “I have spoken to your former schoolmistress.”
My teacher, Nehgai, had never actually referred to herself as any kind of “mistress” and certainly never asked that of her students. I had liked her and was saddened when I thought that she had died, but knowing that she still lives gives me but cold comfort in consideration of the fact that she betrayed what she knew of me to an inquisitor.
He opens up his book, for the light was waxing full though filtered through grey clouds. “If you swear you will cooperate and answer my questions truthfully, I will give you something to eat.”
I had never any intent to deceive this man, seeing as how I was already caught. I nod to him and make the gesture of promise. “I swear it.”
He nods in return and cups his hands and brings them to his mouth as though drinking from a stream: the gesture of acceptance. This surprises me and reaffirms my suspicions that he or his parents are of my tribe. He reaches into his pocket, and when his hand comes back out, he is pinching a brown rat by the tail.
“I believe you,” he says. “Here.” He flings the rat at me. Despite my weakness, I catch it in my jaws with a short snap and swallow it whole and alive. “Mine is the duty to determine the extent of your crimes, and, if possible, to save your soul before you are executed.”
“I will tell you everything you wish to know.” I use the formal standard, so he will not mistake me for being ignorant of it. “Yet, for my soul, you would only waste time. My destination was foreordained long ago.”
With a wax pencil, he scribbles some things in his book. He drops back into standard vernacular. “Is that right?” he asks. “And where is that, exactly?”
For my next response I keep my teeth bare. “Same as you: The Fire. If you want to save me, then kill yourself after my execution. For each of you that dies, one from among my kinfolk is freed into the sky…”
“Is that something your aurora-priests told you? Or maybe you had a vision?”
“I…” Here, I do not know what to say. It is true that I had a vision, but that is not a matter to be discussed with others, and neither may I tell a lie, so I swore. The silence seems enough of an answer for him, though; he continues.
“Well, I’m sure you’ve had many,” he says, “considering how much of that leaf you were chewing every day. Which of your gods sent you this…vision? Selahn? Ostraiyis?”
I shake my head. “If there are gods here, then they are full of malice. No. If ever a god ruled this world, he forsook it long ago. Visions are just visions. Where they come from doesn‘t matter.”
“Then why put so much value on an experience you acknowledge to be a hallucination?”
I lock with eyes with him. “You are the hallucination.”
He smiles, apparently amused, and laughs to himself. “Your teacher was right about you. Troublesome and hard-headed.” His face turns serious. “However, that doesn’t change the fact that you are guilty of enough crimes to condemn you many times over. You stand accused of some six-hundred murders—”
“Oh, goodness, no. No. More like one hundred.”
“Still a grave crime…”
“I did not say it wasn’t.”
Neither one of us can think of anything to say. He looks at the floor, and I look at him. Finally, I say, “Your parents were…gentrified?” That was one of the words Nehgai had used at the schoolhouse. Its meaning was never entirely clear to me, as it has no equivalent in my mother-tongue, but I am given to understand it has something to do with making people forget who they are.
He nods. “They studied at a mission, like yourself. But, of course it isn’t as if their childhood memories were erased…”
“Where were they from?”
“The foothills of the Great Molars,” he answers. “And that makes us…”
“We might be cousins!” I say, and my eyes must have been as wide as all the delta. As young as I was at the time, I remember distinctly interacting with the more sedentary, western branch of the tribe. “So. That must be why they sent you….”
“I don’t deny it,” he says. He writes again and smiles without looking up at me. “My father’s father would be your great uncle. Now…I am writing two things for you to sign. The first is a confession; it states simply that you attest to being the murderer called ‘Lady of Lullabies’ by the army. It will simplify your trial and lessen your public humiliation if you sign it. The second is an oath that you take the one true God to yourself with none before or above him. This will…”
“Save yourself the trouble,” I tell him. “The first I will sign, but not the second, on any pain whatsoever. You and your god can go to The Fire.”
“You can expect a thorough torturing if you speak like that to the Grand Inquisitor.”
“What does that make you, then?”
“Oh,” he says absently, “I’m only an understudy.”
I begin to laugh. The laughter turns to cackling, and the sight of my own withered face twisted up in a spasm of hysteria, as seen a hundred times in the many mirrors, does nothing to calm me. When my junior inquisitor has finished with the confession, I sign it “Selahni Scarheart, Saint of Sunsets,” tittering to myself all the while. “Be seeing you, Reverend.”
“Maybe…” He has the confession in his hand. That is what he came in for, yet here he is, lingering. “Listen,” he says, “for what it’s worth, I’m sorry. That you suffered doesn’t make what you chose to do about it any less wrong. Still…somehow, I feel sorry for you. Here, cousin.” He tosses something onto the floor of my cage and I stop laughing, for in truth I am very sick from not chewing the leaf, and to see my half-block there on the floor makes my heart pound.
“Did it ever occur to you that you might be too soft for this kind of work?” I ask, but he only slips out and pads away down the hall.
VI. Epilogue – The House at the End of the World
I never saw the sun again. The clouds hid the sky and the first raindrops began to fall among the branches of shuddering trees, a trickle at first, but building into a low roar that swallowed up the forest noises. This was accompanied by great winds that shook every green thing and still, to this day, blow through the gaps in the cabin wall.
It didn’t strike me as unusual that the rain was ceaseless just as I was not alarmed to note the water rising up around the bases of the trees and the pegs of the cabin porch. I was not afraid when the cabin began to creak as it tore free of its supports, and it did not seem even slightly peculiar that the dirt floor should float up along with it, with the cellar in tow.
It still cycles from night to day, though I have never witnessed the actual transitions between the two. By night, I sit out on the porch and watch the sky, or the waves, or stare down into the dark sea where a lightning flash sometimes illumes the bodies of titanic beasts that could shatter my little cabin with a tongue-tip. On occasion I have even witnessed the emergence of colossal fins or flippers, or of sinuous, undulating forms that scrape the clouds. I can feel the vibrations of their silent calls from many miles away. There are times when they swarm the sea as though migrating in accordance with some unknown cue, but there are also times when it seems so long since I saw anything but water, I think I must surely be the only creature in the world. In any event, they never disturb me.
By day, I stay in the cellar. It is much bigger than the house, and I have never found the edges of it, only row upon row of floor-to-ceiling shelves containing precarious stacks of rusty gears and broken levers, statues with features worn away by time, and the odd unique item such as a guitar with a broken clock instead of a resonator, or a deformed partial skeleton with tiny candleholders screwed into its ribcage. Once I even found a box of anodized jewelry that I took to ornament myself, for it fit as though it were made for me. But it is the well that keeps me in the dark when the sun is out.
The well is thirteen steps from anywhere in the cellar if I intend to visit it. It is a hole of indeterminate depth, perfectly smooth and circular. Staring into it, I feel I can see any time or place, and then suddenly I do see it and I have a degree of control. There are countless peoples and races scattered there. If I wish, I can follow a single person, and each person is marked by a series of invisible colors that tell me everything about them—where they were born, what they have done, and when they will die. But with hardly more effort, I can realize the same things about vast swaths of people simultaneously.
A sort of energy runs through everything I see in the well. It is difficult to explain in words, but I can manipulate the energy by concentrating. I focus onto a barren desert and lo! Little animals begin to appear, devour each other, grow, die, divide, come together…all that follows after may prosper or perish, as I will, but the energy is not limitless. Everything consumes a portion of it, and so it becomes a game of diverting to the right places at the right times. I find myself gazing in the well, and that self also gazes into the well, and so on, infinitely smaller until there is nothing more to see, and also (I feel certain) above me until the image grows too large to see.
Someday, I think, I’ll find myself again. I’ll take myself from the sea and live, and I will be happy. For now, I am young and healthy. My coat is an absolute shade of white, and, as I stretch my arms apart to embrace the sunless sea, lightning expands the gleam of my jewelry’s rainbow hues, turning each little droplet of rain into something more magnificent than any gemstone, if only for a moment.
My fingers trace the line of scar tissue on my breast. I wince and wonder how it ever got there.