This is an unedited version of chapters 1-3 and is not reflective of their final state.
My interview with Darrell is available here!
Honour, at all costs.
So steadfast in its pursuit, Tirdad had never stopped to consider that anything that had to be done at all costs shouldn’t be done at all. For all his talk of moderation, he had never thought to apply that to honour.
Only now did it dawn on him. Only too late. As Ashtadukht’s ragged breathing thinned, as her head began to droop, as an unraveling plait brushed over his knuckles with a gentleness that grief had strangled out of her: only now. He’d never again have the pleasure of proving her wrong.
Ashtadukht had walked the path of the warlord. She had descended upon their homeland cruel with vengeance, as heedless and unforgiving as the procession of the planets. Her div host had defiled the land with greasy stains where families had once thrived. Running her through would guarantee him a lifetime of honour—restore his name if not their House.
She had orchestrated misery. All the same, Tirdad considered himself privileged to have journeyed by her side. He thought of her as a just person who had been backed into a corner.
For many years her annual ritual had claimed another star-reckoner, and in doing so furthered her twisted revenge. She had cursed them for her husband’s death because she couldn’t bear to curse herself; the loss had all but extinguished her spirit. Tirdad had witnessed firsthand the good she’d done, and he figured her rites paled in comparison, despicable or not.
That sordid night when he’d walked in on Ashtadukht, meaning to apologize for their earlier encounter, he’d interrupted her ritual. Then he’d banished her. In doing so, Tirdad had deprived her of her one coping mechanism. If only he’d been more composed; if only he’d forgone those draughts of wine. Maybe things would’ve gone differently. This is what troubled him for the years following her disappearance, and what troubled him now.
What is the cost of honour, and at what point is the price too steep?
“I am truly sorry,” he said. “It is over now. Find peace, cousin.”
Ashtadukht drew her last while hunched against him, having slid further and further down his blade as she faded. She reeked of divs so strongly it made his stomach turn, but he held her a while longer. He recalled their time together, the wonders they’d shared, the trials they’d overcome, and more than anything he feared the finality he now faced. She was gone. So too was any chance of rekindling their bond. When at last he eased her to the floor it was with great reluctance, withdrawing his sword from her heart as he did. So focused on committing her face to memory, he didn’t notice the magpie-black oil that clung to the blade until it was pulled free.
“What in the seven climes?” Tirdad muttered, holding the sword out to better examine it. The tar-like glaze swam with iridescence that seemed to suck the life from the already cloud-choked moonlight. Worse, it throbbed in his grasp. Tirdad felt the obscene throbbing—and there was no mistaking its obscenity—emanate from the blade as though he were holding a beating heart. That was enough to convince him to fling it aside, which was the worst possible reaction.
The room he was in retreated from view as if slinking away from the solar system that stormed in with stars and planets blazoned. Some cosmic awareness rushed over him, bringing with it the theatre of the luminaries.
Ashtadukht had explained to him in layman’s terms the nature of star-reckoning, had given credence to the celestial battlefield described in doctrine. He’d taken her word for it because she was family, and because she was the star-reckoner. Now and then he’d imagine it while gazing into the night. His imagination had failed him spectacularly.
Tirdad careened through an unfathomable, glimmering expanse girdled by the smoky length of Gochihr, the terrible dragon that will someday collide with the world and drown it in molten metal. He should have been awestruck, but it all came to him with the familiarity of a past life. The faraway clashes of those countless lights reached him as charged sighs—no more than hints at their puissance. Sighs he knew intimately, each and every one.
This transpired as his sword flew away with meaningful revolutions. The first few were harmless enough. But an overwhelming lethargy soon compromised those revolutions, nearly bringing it to a halt mid-air. If Tirdad’s consciousness weren’t indisposed, he might have picked out a mounting struggle, as if the blade itself were too frightened to go on. A struggle it lost. The blade broke free of his gravity, and in doing so was thrown into the wall with such force that it was buried halfway to the hilt.
That spelled doom for Tirdad.
With neither pomp nor circumstance, Saturn interrupted his heretofore blithe visit. Where there had been empty space, it now hung before him every bit a gas giant.
The planet was more than the manifestation of death. It was the calculated patience of a frost that yearned to consume the universe, a cosmic glacier. Its rings glinted with pride, their sharpness stolen from the constellation of the Lion in a recent triumph. Within its millennia-old storms, trillions of divs licked their wounds, awaiting the next clash. What’s more, it hungered with a bided ferocity, as if Tirdad had been keeping it at bay for a lifetime.
He wasn’t even a speck in its shadow.
Saturn must have been nonplussed by the appearance of a planet-reckoner besides Ashtadukht, because it hovered there with the planetary equivalent of a creased brow long enough for his eyes to rove over its features. Then it answered his lot.
The wretched hedrons of planet-reckoning violated his mind, leaving permanent furrows wherever their chaotic rattle took them. But he was no planet-reckoner. Saturn had answered his lot fully aware it would end him.
Agony bunched his every muscle. The patient frost of Saturn eased itself into the freshly-carved furrows of his mind, daring him to burn his memories for heat or risk losing his mind altogether. But that was only the beginning. Even the most confident star-reckoners and planet-reckoners used their souls to channel a careful, almost insignificant fraction of the power of the luminaries. It buffeted Tirdad like novae through a nebula. His soul would be eroded long before his mind or body failed.
He reeled. If he had ideas about things not getting any worse, they were soon dashed when a star rocketed out of the Lion to take advantage of Saturn’s distraction. Their collision lashed at his soul with white-hot intensity. The exchange that followed had the two grappling, Saturn scoring Regulus with its whetted rings, their innumerable forces emerging like a swarm of locusts—divs and yazatas loaded for bear.
He was lost in a world of pain. But the voice had as much substance as the theatre, threading its way between the sorties and skirmishes as if it were at home in their wake.
He couldn’t immediately place it because he hadn’t expected his sword to be calling his name. The blade throbbed from a breach it’d carved in the curtain of space, the steady heartbeat somehow reaching him over the din. It beckoned.
He struggled to heed its call, a struggle so pitiful it could scarcely be considered a fight. Somehow, he managed to will himself toward the breach. If with only minor headway. The power that buffeted him caused his muscles to knot, his mind to reel, and he could only summon the strength to move during the all-too-brief pockets where the fighting was least fierce. The blade directed him through the thick of the swarm with nudges that came to him like gut feelings.
If it weren’t for those nudges, he would have died summarily. Divs and yazatas were at odds all around. Some fought with tooth and nail; some with sword and shield; some with ideas; some with what he could only grasp as divinity. And there loomed over the fray a planet and star locked in single combat. It was a wonder then that he emerged from the swarm at all.
When at last he reached out and clutched the hilt of his sword, there was no mistaking the voice that followed. It belonged to Ashtadukht, though utterly deprived of emotion.
“Don’t ever let go.”
Her words had immediate and spectacular effect. The bedroom returned like a sandstorm, swallowing the celestial theatre, snuffing out stars and suffocating planets.
Left with a headache so sharp it’d give the bite of Waray’s axe a run for its money, Tirdad collapsed against the wall, a death grip on the sword. Before he had the chance to recover, Ashtadukht’s memories flooded his brain like rapids, too quickly and vehemently to make out. Interred in that flood were the remains of every div she’d dispatched, every lonely night contemplating suicide, every meal that tasted like dirt, every star-reckoner brought to justice, everything she’d learned and experienced. Only her final moments came with clarity, though he wished they hadn’t.
His lips were warm on her forehead. His sword bit at her chest. A profound sense of failure hung over her.
Tirdad stared at the wall. He knelt in a bed of eggshells, one arm raised to cling to his sword through sheer force of will. All else fell slack. He issued a groan that broke into a sob.
On that ill-fated night, in an estate that would never be a home, a good man would forsake honour.
Tirdad awoke to the wandering, virtuoso performance of a nightingale arrived too early in the year. Its song accompanied a soreness so thorough it afflicted his soul—as if his existence were somehow less than whole. With a lasting wince, he sidled to sit against the wall.
“Looks like someone beat you like a filthy carpet.”
Tirdad’s thoughts were thick as molasses. He squinted through the dusty dawn light at a figure who leaned against the wall just across the room. The shadows were more resilient there. Only the hint of trousers and boots caught the light.
“Who in the?” Tirdad mumbled drowsily, furrowing his brow and squinting in earnest.
“They box your fucking ears, too?” the man asked, his tone limned with amusement. “Or has a night with her made you forget me that easily?”
The man stepped forward, and the full-toothed smile he wore made an embarrassed shift to a frown. His attention turned to the corpse of Ashtadukht. “Sorry. That was thoughtless.” He ran his fingers through his hair, disheveled like the wool of a dirty sheep, and grimaced at his crassness. “You okay?”
“Chobin,” Tirdad greeted. He had been the only one to sympathize with Tirdad after the news of his cousin’s vile deeds had spread. In that way, it was more than his tall, lean stature that earned him the name ‘Javelin’, it was his ability to sense a person’s heart true as a javelin finding its quarry. “Far from it. I don’t think I’ve ever—” The sword!
Tirdad scrambled for its hilt, kicking eggshells in his desperation, and an almost unnatural relief washed over him when he hung from it once more. That brief yet keen surge of fear had the effect of scattering the clouds in his mind.
“I killed her,” he uttered, thick with regret. So intent on remembering Ashtadukht yesterday, he couldn’t bear to look at her now. “Why’d I kill her?”
Chobin grunted. He’d been nonplussed by Tirdad’s sudden clambering, but he knew this mood well. Tirdad had vacillated between depression and anger over the years, though he figured his friend had a damn good reason. No words would soothe him. So he gestured at the wall. “Need help with your sword? How did you manage that?”
With a defeated sigh, and realizing how sorry he must look, Tirdad pulled himself to his feet, muscles objecting all the while. He stared at his blade, which was still choked in magpie-black. “Don’t ever touch my sword,” he warned, almost threatened. “For your own good.”
With that, he began working it out of the wall little by little, relating the events of the night before as he did. He left nothing out. The man behind him had earned his trust many times over. Only when he’d finished did he look at Chobin, who’d listened in silence. “Well?”
Chobin shrugged, thumbs hooked over his belt. His brow was knotted, but with what, Tirdad couldn’t surmise. “I believe you. Explains earlier.”
Tirdad sighed, and held out the blade to demonstrate an iridescence that settled one and unsettled the other. “I don’t know what to make of it. I’m sure it has something to do with her. What do you think?”
“Something different about the way you talk.” Chobin was examining him rather than the blade, an ear canted his way. “Sounds off.”
“You’re worse than Waray at answer—” He swallowed the rest of that remark, and it went down with an edge. “Stop tilting your head like that.”
Chobin straightened his back in feigned offense, but it only made him look all the more like a dashing marzban, province commander. Tirdad had nothing but love for the man, but he often envied him his military prestige. That might have been him if he hadn’t volunteered to ride off alongside Ashtadukht. Instead, he’d been reduced to a lowly mercenary, getting by on the charity of the man before him.
“Always lost in thought. It’s a fucking wonder you survived this long.”
Tirdad shook his head. He felt as if a part of him were still out there in the cosmos. “Huh?”
“So, what now?” Chobin shifted his weight, a subtle sign of uneasiness that Tirdad had come to recognize.
For the first time since he’d laid her there, Tirdad gave his eyes leave to fall on Ashtadukht. She looked pitiful, an unstrung harp that had never really played in tune. “She was brilliant once,” he said soberly. “Brilliant like you wouldn’t believe.”
He punctuated the pithy elegy with a prolonged silence over which he watched her world-weary frown and silver-streaked plaits, and as he did, the strangest memory came to him. He remembered watching himself sleep. Just watching. Just the steady rise and fall of his chest. Then as smoothly as it’d arrived, it dispersed. Tirdad blinked confusedly and turned to Chobin. “Have you come alone?”
The marzban met his gaze. “Brought a small detachment. Had no way of knowing what we would find.”
Tirdad nodded, then looked again at the corpse. “I’d like to perform the rites. I want to take her to be exposed, observe the mourning period—everything. I’ll look into the sword after. You have my word. I realize it’s a lot to ask, but—”
Chobin took Tirdad by the head, and pressed his forehead against the once-black hair now banded with grey. “We will find a dog to follow, and a priest to purify the estate. After, you will mourn,” he said, then paused as if to contemplate. “I’ll make it right with the others.” Another pause. “Find you some fucking wine, too.”
“This means a great deal to me,” replied Tirdad, knowing full well the gravity of that short silence. After the crimes she’d committed, convincing the royalty, nobility, and clergy to allow the rites of death would take some doing. They’d treat her like a div. Although, knowing the marzban he would skip straight to giving the orders. Asking for permission was too much trouble, he’d always say. Forgiveness, on the other hand, made the slighted party feel good about themselves. And people hunger for self-righteousness. “I’ll make it up to you,” he added at length.
“Hah!” exclaimed Chobin, unable to smother his characteristic joviality any longer. “You are full of tortoise-sodomizing shit. More full of it than a northerner playing at loyalty. What kind of friend accepts compensation?”
“You’re a northerner.”
Tirdad grinned, but it strained to reach his eyes, which were still trained on his cousin. What kind of friend kills you?
• • • •
Tirdad fastened his sword belt over his girdle. He secured a dagger to his thigh, where it was partly hidden by his baggy yellow trousers, then a short sword to his right hip. All that remained was his long sword.
He kept it bedside on a length of bunched silk the color her tunic must’ve been before all the dirt and wear. Its narrow golden scabbard was embossed with a feather motif emblematic of Wahram, yazata of victory, and inlaid with garnet and glass. From there, the guardless hilt curved slightly downward to end in a ram’s head pommel, and had been given the same decorative treatment.
Tirdad pensively ran his fingers along the scabbard. He picked it up and unsheathed the blade enough to see the magpie-black. Its throbbing hadn’t ceased. He slid it back in, then finished his morning routine by securing it to his left hip. The long sword had come first since his youth; now, it came last. He wasn’t sure why he’d made the change.
With a deep, steadying breath, he fastidiously smoothed the front of his poppy-red tunic, then about-faced and started for the exit.
The last thirty days had been devoted to mourning, and rituals before that. Ashtadukht’s passing still weighed heavily on his heart. Unlike her, he would not let it consume him.
“You spend too long getting dressed,” Chobin chided light-heartedly the moment he stepped outside.
Tirdad shielded his eyes, squinting through the too-eager glare of a sun recently freed from winter. Chobin sat on his horse, the reins to another in his hand. “A military man should have order in everything,” he said as he approached.
“Military man, huh? I only see one here.” The marzban scratched his beard. “Oh, and some sorry fuck who’s been sitting on his ass for a month and more.”
Tirdad allowed himself a chuckle. “Yeah, I imagine that’s why I’m the one who looks the part. I can’t believe you’ve been in that saddle for a month.” He mounted his horse and took the reins from Chobin. “Probably can’t tell your cheeks from a bad case of acne.”
“Listen here. My cheeks are pristine.”
“Well, your clothes sure aren’t.”
Chobin belted a full-stomached guffaw. “Hah! Do not know what you did in there for a month, but I like it!” Once his laughter subsided, he turned an appraising look on Tirdad. “Seem healthier than I remember. Good. Now, for the love of all that is Truth would you stop with all this mystery and tell me where the fuck we’re going?”
Tirdad rested a hand on the ram’s head pommel. “Are you sure about this? You should be with your soldiers.”
“Fucking nonsense,” the marzban replied. “The divs have scattered, and the nomads’ fate is sealed. More importantly, you are a friend. Must we go over this again?”
“Fine. But you’re not going to like it.”
“I like it already.”
“So? Out with it.”
Tirdad turned his horse about and urged it into a trot. He had observed the mourning period wholeheartedly, but it bred restlessness. The road called with promises of distraction and, if fortune favoured him, answers. “We’re to see a rogue star-reckoner. I think he’s our best bet.”
“There a reason we need a rogue?” asked Chobin, bringing his mount alongside.
“You know why. They’d have the sword destroyed without a thought.”
“Mmn,” Chobin agreed.
“And before you ask,” Tirdad went on, “As far as I can tell I’ve never heard of this man. I just . . . I know. Like a gut feeling with detail.”
The marzban shrugged. “Did not think to ask. But let me tell you, that does not fucking inspire confidence. Looking forward to it more and more.”
“Something’s wrong with you.”
• • • •
The pair favoured a westerly course along the Mazandaran Sea, Tirdad savouring its brackish reminder of better times, until they reached the paddy-hugged river delta that, mountains be damned, connected the Mazandaran plain with the rest of Iran. The winding way the water negotiated the range seemed like the tracks left by a leviathan—as if the Great Wall of Varkana had slithered through to reach the sea. The Ivory River carved through the range, and they with it.
“Still a while yet,” Tirdad mused as they forded it for the fifth time. The dense beech-dominated forests of the sort he’d haunted as a child would soon give way to oak and juniper, and with them the comfort of relatively level terrain would also pass. “Let’s pray the winter was kind to the paths.”
“You know,” Chobin replied as he swatted at a mosquito, “funniest thing. Almost as if I could have looked into that if you told me where the fuck we were headed a month ago.” He slapped at another, and if the dip in his bonhomie was any indication, he regretted removing his tunic. “Fucking mosquitoes.”
Tirdad turned in his saddle to look back at his travelling companion, who was riddled with bites. “I keep telling you to take some ambergris.”
“I have taken so much ambergris somewhere a whale is checking its pockets.” He slapped at the air. “Makes me want a woman with ripe quinces, but does nothing for the fucking mosquitoes.”
“Then put your tunic back on,” Tirdad said as he turned to hide the grin that had already begun to soften his features. Ambergris increased sexual potency; mosquitoes could love it for all he knew. It occurred to him that he had taken a page out of Waray’s book, and just like that his good mood plummeted.
“Better the mosquitoes than roasting in a tunic. A healthy bronze makes me look more muscular besides,” the marzban explained, probably flexing.
“You aren’t even looking.”
“You never tan.” Tirdad reached down to his bow case where it was suspended from his saddle. He drew his lips taut as he counted the arrows. While it had dampened his mood, the unwelcome memory of his single combat with Waray reminded him of the partridges that nested here. “I’ll go fetch us some heathcocks.”
Bow in hand, he dismounted and secured his quiver to his belt, then headed into the nearest thicket.
While he felt Chobin’s eyes on his back, he did not notice the look of defeat with which the man pocketed the ambergris.
• • • •
For a pair such as them the only real peril of the road was monotony. Anything else they could either outrun or outfight. So they would pass the time with nard, a game of strategy that sought—and as Tirdad had recently learned, failed—to emulate the celestial theatre. He was the better of the two, but by a small enough margin that a friendly rivalry thrived. When that grew old, or when they were riding, the two would exchange stories while snacking on ragout, preserves, and so much partridge they grew sick of it. It was a journey that would not grace future stories but for the mention of it not being noteworthy.
To Tirdad’s unspoken surprise, they reached their destination in the height of summer. What surprised him wasn’t when they reached it, but that they reached it at all. He had been nearby once, decades back, when he had been tasked with bringing a rampaging forty-armed div to heel. But this place was foreign to him. And not the sort to be forgotten.
“Castle Dahag,” Chobin whispered. “I cannot believe it still stands. The fucker’s tyranny ended millennia ago.”
“Yeah,” Tirdad replied from where they knelt in the shadow of a ridge. A tower loomed far overhead with contours at the same time graceful and disturbing. Rather than standing vigil atop the gorge, it slumped over the edge as if it were crestfallen over being abandoned. No braziers burned in its crenellations; no sentries manned its walls with torches in hand. Only the light cast by the moon described its features, and it did so with the consistency of yogurt spilling languidly over the sides.
“A stork,” the marzban said. “Looks like the head of a stork.”
“Strange,” Tirdad agreed with a nod. “That’s a first.”
“Why a stork? And why does the light . . . do that?”
“I haven’t the slightest. But the star-reckoner is in there. Of that much I’m certain.”
“A gut feeling, huh?” Chobin shook his head amusedly. “Certain about a gut feeling. How do you want to do this?”
Tirdad got to his feet and dusted off his knees. His gut told him to stroll in casually, and he found it puzzling that his gut would suggest something so obviously reckless. “I wish I knew how to put it into words.”
“I’ve a strong feeling of having been here before, but I’m sure I haven’t. It’s like salmon finding the spawning ground for the first time.”
“Sounds fishy to me.”
“I agree,” said Tirdad. “But it’s also telling me we won’t come to harm . . . I think. Whatever the case may be, I suggest we reconnoiter the area above.”
With a nod from Chobin they picked a cautious path up the gorge, doing what they could to keep to the deeper shadows. They had no way of knowing that no amount of darkness could have hidden them from the eyes that followed their progress.
Cresting the last rise brought them to the base of a castle that was, as its leading tower had suggested, fashioned in the shape of a stork—a morbid depiction of a stork that had taken some liberties when it came to exposed organs, but a stork all the same. Like the head, its ramparts were smooth, seamless, and graceful, which played a striking contrast to its grotesque features. It was as if the architect had intentionally devised something of beauty for the sole purpose of corrupting it.
The pair found it as ostensibly deserted as they had from below. The light that dribbled down the sides disrupted its stillness, but betrayed no activity. Tirdad was beginning to suspect it had been warded against the light. “The door’s ajar,” he said, indicating the gate. “Do you think it’s an invitation?”
“Could be. Could be an invitation to our deaths.”
“You were looking forward to this yesterday.”
“Still am.” Chobin had his jaw set and a wary stare trained on the tenebrous ingress. “Just thought it needed saying for your benefit.”
“Sure,” said Tirdad, not at all convinced. He drew his sword, and started for the entrance. He and Chobin sidestepped the moonlight that fell in clots from above, and stopped long enough to light a torch. They followed a bare causeway doing what they could to watch for traps, which in truth was very little, until it opened into a cloistered courtyard. All they could make out beyond the reach of torchlight were the patches of quivering yogurt that lived brief lives here and there.
Tirdad glanced at his companion, who just shrugged. He cleared his throat, and called out. “Hello? My friend and I are looking for the star-reckoner who calls this . . . this place home.” Uncertainty gripped his voice, but try as he might he couldn’t iron it out. “We’d like to talk.”
“Just a friendly chat,” Chobin stressed.
Giving his sword an anxious squeeze, Tirdad waited and watched, allowing anyone who might be considering their options time to do just that. After a few steadying breaths and no reply, he glanced back at Chobin with a shrug. “Watch my back,” he whispered.
Rather than waltz into the clearing, he nodded to the covered causeway to his left and forged on. Blade interposed between him and whatever lay in wait, he and Chobin crept around the perimeter. Like a thief skulking the shadows, and none too happy about it, they made it to the halfway point where a corridor branched off. A quick wave of his torch illuminated a line of beds caked with what looked to be dried blood. Among them were discarded bandages, open unguents, and what were probably barrels of wine judging by the empty wine vessels scattered about. He and Chobin exchanged a curious look, then they pressed on around the courtyard.
As they neared the exit opposite the way they’d entered, their torch revealed a figure directly in their path. Tirdad halted and brandished his long sword.
“Shouldn’t be here mhm,” the figure said, accompanied by a low hiss. A div. With its semi-keeled scales and sanguine breastplate over mail, Tirdad recognized it as one of the viper-like Eshm sisters who had proven fearsome in the recent war. She reminded him of Waray. This one was badly injured: she had one arm in a sling, her head and abdomen wrapped in stained bandages. “Shouldn’t be here,” she repeated.
Tirdad’s eyes flicked from shadow to shadow in search of others, but he couldn’t pick out anything unordinary. “We don’t want to fight.”
“Speak for yourself,” Chobin said from behind.
“Don’t care. You shouldn’t be here mhm. Go.”
Something more than her injuries gave Tirdad the impression she had no interest in fighting either. He took measure of the div, and when the likely reason came to him, he lowered his weapon. “The war was months ago. You’ve no doubt been on the run since. Harried all the while, I’d wager.” He waved his blade at her dressing. “And those are fresh wounds.”
“Go,” the div commanded. She unslung her arm, which looked mangled beyond repair, and flexed it with little more than a wince. Then she drew her sword. Her eyes flashed with a visceral hunger he had come to know and respect in his years with Waray.
Tirdad swallowed. Fear swelled in his throat, and his breathing quickened. Adrenaline was quick to follow.
“You tried words,” Chobin spoke up from behind. “Doesn’t seem like the tortoise-fucker will heed them. Now, we came all this way to see this star-reckoner, so kill the div and move on.”
“Don’t underestimate her,” Tirdad warned. Then to the div, “Do you want to die that badly?”
The div hissed, and what had been a neutral stance shifted to something decidedly more aggressive. She seethed; she bared her fangs. Tirdad hardly had the time to register the host of divs that seemed to manifest out of thin air just beyond the reach of his torch. Then they were on him in a frenzy. Unlike everyday divs, the Eshm sisters fought with brutal finesse and cooperation, weaving in and around one another’s attacks like a mass of swiving snakes. It was all he could do to fend off their strikes, and for every strike parried three would connect.
“Not good!” Chobin called out. They were back to back, and the marzban was having marginally more luck both because he had brought a shield and because his lean build belied the strength of a larger man. Every swipe of his shield sent divs flying. But no sooner than they’d hit the ground they were on him again, injuries be damned. “Not fucking good!” he yelled.
“Gathered as much,” Tirdad said through gritted teeth. He batted aside one blade, then his frustration drove him to counterattack. That rewarded him another five gashes. And he missed.
“They are—” The marzban interrupted himself with a growl, and three divs were thrown back by his shield. “They’re toying with us.”
Tirdad had worked out as much. With this many, they could have simply overwhelmed the pair. He’d been given a good twenty light wounds already, most of which could have been death blows. These divs were in a bad way, on their heels for months, and were just now licking their wounds. Issuing threats to such a gathering was beyond stupid. For that, the Eshm sisters were going to pick them apart. “We have to—”
He had meant to direct Chobin somewhere more tenable, if such a place existed. Instead, he was run through. Pain like a firebrand gripped his abdomen, bringing him to one knee. He cried out, but managed to ready his sword for the next attack. None came.
The sister responsible was on the ground in front of him, her shin snapped in half and a failed splint beside it. She made no move to clutch her leg; neither did she give any indication it bothered her. She just sat there wearing embarrassment.
“What the fuck?” The one they’d first encountered marched on the fallen div. “What the fuck was that? We’d only just begun!”
“S-sorry,” stuttered the one on the ground. She gestured at her shin as if that were explanation enough.
The leader shook her mangled arm in response. “Like I give a flying fuck about your fucking leg! This is like a fucking . . . a fucking ruined orgasm!”
Meanwhile, Chobin knelt to examine Tirdad. “Got you good,” he said. “Put some pressure on it.”
“I’m fine,” said Tirdad. With the marzban’s help he got to his feet and applied pressure to his abdomen. “I’m fine. It caught me off guard after all the nicks is all.”
The leader began to whale on her subordinate, so they seized the opportunity to edge their way out of the crowd. The other sisters seemed too absorbed in the beating to pay them any mind. As they crept away, Tirdad counted twenty-three divs, each and every one sporting a mean injury. They hadn’t fought like it. “We don’t stand a chance,” he muttered. “We’ve got to find another way.”
“Yeah,” said Chobin. When Tirdad raised his eyebrows, the marzban went on. “Adventure is grand. This is suicide.” Then, with a grin, “We need to talk about those gut feelings of yours.”
They’d almost cleared the courtyard when the leader once again blocked their path, having cut them off without a sound despite her heavy armor. She had her fangs bared. “You’re already dead mhm,” she said, her delivery dripping with venom. Her muscles bunched, her legs flexed, and—
“Enough!” The shout spilled over everyone present with almost tangible authority.
—her pounce misfired. “Fuck,” she breathed, catching her stumble before it became a fall by driving her blade into the dirt.
A brazier went alight in the centre of the courtyard, rousing a chorus of hissed complaints from the divs. Tirdad glanced over his shoulder. A figure in pristine white robes stood by the fire, a cowl over its face and sleeves to its ankles. It seemed to raise its chin and asked, “What did I say when you stumbled in, pitiful and on the brink of death, seeking the aid of a star-reckoner?”
Tirdad furrowed his brow and turned to face the mysterious figure. His palm came to rest on the pommel of his sword. Whatever it was, it was a star-reckoner, and none too pleased. “I’m not sure I follow,” he said.
And he was utterly ignored. The star-reckoner continued without so much as acknowledging his response. “That you could only shelter here provided you behaved. What I see here is nothing short of misbehavior.”
“Fuck,” the nearest Eshm sister hissed under her breath. More loudly, “They’re intruders. We’re earning our keep.”
“You were intruders until you were not,” the star-reckoner replied. Its tone had softened, though a subtle yet unmistakable warning maintained its bite. What followed would brook no argument. “Cause trouble again and you will wish you were out there.”
With the Eshm sisters addressed, the star-reckoner finally chose to acknowledge Tirdad. When it strode over, it did so with an otherworldly gait that gave the impression of being too big for its frame—and it stood a few heads taller than Chobin. Upon reaching him, it indicated his wound. “I will heal you,” it said in a surprisingly youthful voice.
Tirdad stared at its cowl for a moment, attempting to pick out anything behind the fabric to no avail. He then glanced at the marzban, who only offered a shrug. This was his first venture into Ashtadukht’s world without her, and he was already beginning to understand just how little he knew. He swallowed and spread his arms. The star-reckoner uttered an indistinct phrase, lifted its branch-like arms, and just like that his wounds were closed.
“I . . . thank you,” he said, his awe evident, as the star-reckoner did the same for Chobin. He thought it was strange that the Eshm sisters came to mind, but he didn’t fight it. “Why not heal them?” he asked, gesturing at the crowd.
“You were injured in my home. They were not. They can only afford shelter.”
Right. It’d almost slipped his mind that this was a rogue star-reckoner—purely mercenary. “Of course,” he said.
“An uncommon question,” it mused, its tone briefly betraying curiosity before a swift return to business. “Not what I would have expected. Now, what do you want?”
Tirdad cleared his throat. He felt ill at ease, and was having second thoughts about asking a creature such as this for its help. The star-reckoner scarcely breathed, but when it did, those heavy inhalations pulled at his soul. There was no mistaking it: he was in over his head.
Chobin answered for him. The marzban wasn’t the slightest bit intimidated, and his flippant tone reflected as much. “So much for hospitality,” he said. “My friend here finished off a planet-reckoner. Things got strange as fuck after that. So here we are.”
“That isn’t quite right,” Tirdad cut in, finding his confidence in what he believed to be a disservice to Ashtadukht. He had done so much more than finish off a planet-reckoner. “In my youth, my uncle—a great general if there ever was one—once asked me the distinction between a ram and the ram. ‘Exactly that,’ he had said. ‘Distinction.’ So no, I didn’t finish off a planet-reckoner. I finished off the planet-reckoner.” The passion of his delivery commanded the attention of everyone present.
“With this blade,” he said, unsheathing it to reveal its magpie-black coat. Tirdad then related the tale of the night in question. Once he’d finished, he craned to look into the cowl of the star-reckoner. “I need answers. I need to know what happened to my sword. What happened to me.”
“I will look,” the star-reckoner replied.
A prolonged silence intervened during which a queasy sense of being watched by something hidden and terrible threatened to empty his stomach. It made his hair stand on end. He had had about enough, and was on the verge of making that patently clear, when a power best described as a planet’s glower amassed within. It too made his stomach turn, but in a manner he had never thought possible. A pleasant nausea. Then, when it sloshed at the lip of his too-full soul, it surged free. Out of nowhere the star-reckoner was hurled through the crowd and against the ramparts at the far end of the courtyard with such force it cratered the stone. Tirdad made to run over, but the Eshm sisters were once again hankering for a fight. Before they could act on their bloodlust, the star-reckoner spoke up.
“Do not attack them,” it said, its voice quaking. With a great deal of effort, legs shaking like a newborn foal, the star-reckoner got to its feet. Where it towered over the sisters, it favoured one side, and its cowl was splashed with blood where its mouth must have been. It shambled over, crowd parting around it. “This will not come cheap,” it said. “You could have killed me.”
Beetle-browed, Tirdad spread his hands. “I did nothing.”
“Was standing by his side the whole time,” Chobin added. “He tells the truth.”
The star-reckoner tilted its head. “I see. Not directly, but through you. That makes sense. Still, the fee is double.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Chobin fumed, pointing his sword at the star-reckoner. “Think you can pull a fucking fast one on us because you consort with divs?”
Tirdad placed a hand on his forearm, easing the sword back down. “Don’t,” he said. “Thanks, but it isn’t necessary.” He turned a frown on the star-reckoner. “If anything was behind what just happened, I’d wager it was your overconfidence. Now, I’ve travelled far to enlist your services, and still wish to do so. Are you going to start charging for your recklessness? Because word gets around.”
After brief consideration, the star-reckoner consented. “Very well. I would however ask that you pay the rate for undertakings rather than divine consultation.”
Tirdad nodded. That amounted to a fifty-percent hike, but he had expected those rates coming into this. Ashtadukht had told him that competition bade rogue star-reckoners to offer fees similar to what the empire imposed. He untied a pouch from his belt and handed it over, noting the too-long digits that raked the inside of the star-reckoner’s sleeve as it accepted his payment. “Forget whatever formalities are involved,” he said. The unknown had weighed on him long enough. “I’m interested in hearing it in full. Immediately.”
“Here?” the star-reckoner asked, referring to their audience.
“I would be remiss in my service if I did not warn you of the danger of this information, especially in the hands of those who would wish you harm.”
Tirdad glanced at Chobin, who offered a sinister grin. Of course he would. “Your warning has been noted. Now, if you would.”
The star-reckoner took a seat, its slender legs showing signs of giving out as it did, and everyone present gathered around. The Eshm sister with the mangled arm drew up beside Tirdad as if she hadn’t just made an attempt on his life.
“It all started with her sacred girdle,” the star-reckoner began as if they were sitting around a campfire. “From what I could gather before you kicked me out, Ashtadukht had unwittingly created a phylactery of it over the years. With every knot, a little of her would be tied to the fabric. When you ended her life, the phylactery did what phylacteries do: it set to reviving her. Your blade seems to have obstructed its path, or perhaps it sought your blade because the phylactery was unfinished. That I could not ascertain. What I can tell you is that her soul was redirected partly to you, mostly to your blade. Having said that, I should make this clear: Ashtadukht is no more. You have preserved a mere shadow of the planet-reckoner. Her sentience is lost.”
Tirdad interrupted by raising his palm. In the span of a few sentences his hopes had been summarily reinvigorated, then dashed. He turned a pensive frown on the blade, and began tracing it from end to end, watching with intensity as the splashes of iridescence danced at his touch. In a way, it was beautiful. He would have likened it to a black pearl if there were such a thing. He told himself that this was all that remained of her—that what he held was no mere sword, but a relic. Chobin gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Continue,” he said without looking up.
The star-reckoner did as instructed. “The events had the effect of investing in you her access to the celestial theatre. Think of it as assuming her stamp seal. But the sword, having inherited the bulk of what was left of her, contains her control over planet-reckoning. Without it, you will be thrown into the heavens head first, and next time you will not be so lucky. So I strongly recommend you do as it said and never let go. Always keep it within reach.” A contemplative pause. “You have become a planet-reckoner. I would say an unconventional one, but there is no established convention. So few and far between are they that most star-reckoners of our time are unaware the title exists at all.” Another pause. “A planet-reckoner need not be a servant of the Lie.”
“Planet-reckoner,” Tirdad said. “How’s that possible? I couldn’t draw a lot if my life depended on it.”
“Have you tried?”
“Well, no. But—”
“Do not try here.”
“I hadn’t planned on it. There’s something else, though. I get glimpses of what I believe are her memories.”
“What are we but the sum of our memories? She is a part of you, a part of the sword, so it is only natural.”
Tirdad applied a white-knuckled grip to the blade, which was all too eager to draw the heat from his blood. “You’re positive?”
One such memory had just come to him with excruciating precision. Smell heralded its arrival, reeking of blood and sweat and too much hatred for one person. The stench flooded his nostrils and stole him away like the incense of priests. What followed did so all at once. Blood, unmistakably metallic, clogged his nose and coated his mouth; it gurgled at the back of his throat. Wildfire spread through his lungs, one of which was crushed, shoved aside so that the claw that bore through his back could tease his heart. Pinned against hewn stone, his skull drummed where his many injuries found a splitting juncture. Fingers like leathery spider legs clamped his face in a cage, twisting his head and drawing it back such that he thought and hoped it’d be torn from his shoulders. Beneath them, the tears had become salty tracts, and the one eye he could see out of glared with untrammeled malice at the stars that had forsaken him—stars he had trusted and adored. He cursed them for their mockery, vowed to give their children their just desserts. This failure changed nothing.
He would smear the heavens with their souls, stain the windows an eternal vile. Through the ages, long after he had returned to dust, the stars would still have no choice but to observe the world through the gore of their chosen.
A white cowl leaned into his vision. “Am I losing you yet?” it asked with insincere concern. “Would that I could revive you and start anew—oh, but I guess we have already figured that one out for ourselves.” It sunk its nails into his heart. Then the memory absconded, leaving Tirdad to sort through the aftermath.
Rage and hatred swelled within—some belonging to him, some the dream. Tirdad bellowed so loudly it rattled in his throat. He surrendered to the aftermath, and in one swift lunge his blade pierced the star-reckoner’s cowl and emerged triumphant from the other side. Sparks popped and sizzled in its sleeves, remnants of a rejoinder that was cut brutally short.
“Good riddance,” he spat, then planted his boot on the star-reckoner’s chest to kick it free of his blade. The corpse folded backward, and its sleeves caught fire. Without giving it another thought, Tirdad lifted his sword and turned a circle, daring someone to challenge him. As he did, Chobin shuffled in to cover his rear.
“By Ohrmazd,” said the marzban, doing his best to watch his half of the crowd though he would have been fully aware his best wasn’t good enough. “You are fucking full of surprises lately. Anything else you want to throw at me?”
Tirdad offered no reply.
The Eshm sisters had drawn their weapons, and though they emanated bloodlust, they were patently distant, heads askew and pupils dilated.
“Think this one through?” Chobin asked as they circled back to back, having found themselves back where they started.
“Less than I’ve ever thought anything through,” Tirdad admitted.
“I can tell. What’re they doing? Toying with us again?”
“Haven’t the slightest, but it’s off-putting.”
In a round of hisses, the Eshm sisters broke their trance and retired in the direction of the corridor the pair had passed earlier, cursing and throwing down their weapons along the way. Only the leader remained.
“You’re a lucky menstrual-fucker mhm,” she said as she eased her arm back into the sling. “Get out of here before . . .” She bared her fangs, but not at anyone in particular. “Just get.” She picked up the coin pouch meant for the star-reckoner, looked Tirdad square in the eyes, then went to join the others.
Tirdad wasted no time breaking into a sprint that his feeble torchlight couldn’t hope to guide. He had gotten what he came for and more. Now, he wanted to put as much distance between him and this wicked castle as his lungs would allow. Once the head of the stork had disappeared around a bend in the gorge, Chobin took purchase on his arm and stopped him as true as an anchor.
“What the everliving fuck happened back there?” the marzban demanded.
Tirdad spun on him, torch throwing stark shadows on the glower that twisted his face. “Exactly what it looked like, Chobin. I shoved my blade through the skull of a star-reckoner. I smeared his soul across the heavens, and I can only hope the stars were watching.”
Chobin wore an incredulousness unlike anything he had ever seen in the man. Planet-reckoner and marzban stood silent for a few heavy minutes that seemed to go on forever. The planet-reckoner was the one to fold.
“That . . . that thing!” Tirdad shouted, thrusting a shaking finger at the castle. Rage still coursed through him, which bled into his delivery. He let out a charged scream that went on until it cracked just to give the rage a chance to escape. With that, and under Chobin’s unwavering scrutiny, he deflated. He was being judged. “If you’d seen what I saw,” he said, which drew his face into a grimace. “If you’d felt it as if you were . . . as if you were her.”
He dug his fingers through his hair, staring daggers at the sky. “What it did—”
Her heart had been in its dreadful grasp. In her chest. Something about that made it so much worse than if it’d been ripped out. The star-reckoner had no interest in killing her; it wanted to violate her.
Tirdad’s stomach turned, and he lurched over to wretch, hands on his knees as it splattered the earth. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve without a care for his appearance. “Ugh.”
He looked up at the marzban, whose judgment still had not been reached. “The things it did to her, Chobin. I just had to.” His tone plainly read that he was sick of explaining himself.
The marzban expelled the sort of sigh a person uses when they have no desire to be cross with a person, but all the justification. He offered his waterskin. “What kind of person wears a cowl backwards?”
Tirdad took a swig, relieved to see the casual amusement once again honey his friend’s features, even if they were fraught with concern. “The kind who walks into swords I imagine.”
Chobin let out an uneasy laugh and slapped him on the shoulder. “Something is wrong with you.”
Waray tried to suck in a breath. And another and another and another. The trouble, she discovered, was in getting them to go down. Suffocating, she panicked, eyes wide and kicking her feet as she frantically scratched at her neck.
Try as she might, she couldn’t get in. The gash that had so inelegantly drained her of her life had been reduced to a scar. So she dug her nails into her flesh in an attempt to rip the wound open and free the squirming mass that clogged her throat. Waray struggled for minutes, but the more she panicked, the more her lungs cried out, the less fight she could muster.
It wasn’t long before her racing thoughts had slowed to a crawl. Waray pawed weakly at her neck where she had managed to rake out a few maggots. Then tranquility dethroned panic. She stared vacantly into the sun, though she didn’t really see it. Her pawing ceased, and her futile breaths grew further and further apart until, quiet and alone, she died again.
Within seconds, her soul was shunted from her corpse. This had the effect of thrusting her into a world swathed in starling-black that stretched for eternity in every direction. Cage might have been a better term for it; it kept her in and everything else out. Waray couldn’t see a thing—not even herself—but her connection to the world of the living remained. Through that, she could sense the Nasu buzzing around her.
They were the divs that polluted the body and soul after death if they weren’t driven away by priests. She had seen them many times, and they had devoured her other selves after the forty-armed div struck them down. Nasu seemed to her the result of a fling between a crocodile and a fly, though as creative as her mind was she couldn’t conjure the image of the two copulating. The logistics were a nightmare. But she had convinced herself that life had found a way. Even life with knobby limbs like runaway gout, soggy wings that had no business generating any amount of lift, and a snout flat and picketed. They buzzed irritably, unable to breach her cage.
Waray sat down, or thought about it anyway. Here, surrounded by curtains of starling-black, things were clearer than they had been in centuries. She remembered. She had been different back then, had—
She coughed up chunks of maggots and dried blood. “Šo-damned—” She cursed when it came back down to land on her face, and bared her fangs at what she believed to be a conspiracy orchestrated to have her eat maggots. Waray rolled over and struggled to get to her hands and knees. “Šo-damned cabal plotting like some . . . like some land over yonder with—”
A coughing fit had her littering the earth with everything she had managed to dislodge before dying, and wheezing all the while. When her esophagus was finally cleared, she threw an irritable hiss at the squirming mess. “—a compost heap.”
Next thing she knew the breath was knocked out of her. As she fell over, she realized peripherally that she had been kicked, but was more concerned with losing the air she had finally tamed. She had worked so hard for it, too—died for it. Then it just fled like so much wind.
Having landed on her back, Waray made to spring away, but it turned out dying had done a number on her reaction time. The infantryman who had presumably kicked her was already driving his spear into her gut, which tore through her organs, severed her spine, and lodged in the ground. Pain like a falcon’s curved beak ripping at her abdomen shot up her torso and latched onto her vocal cords. But before she could wail, her lineage rushed in.
A wave of heat swept over her flesh, the pomegranate-red of bloodlust swamped her vision, and enough adrenaline for thirty men coursed through her veins. The pain no longer registered. She bared her fangs, saliva dripping from her mouth, and snapped at the air.
“I’ll make you slop for the broodmother!” she screamed. “I’ll nap in your šo-steamy offal, then I’ll shovel you into her gullet!”
“Seems to me it’s the one what the traitor killed,” said the infantryman. “Must have a phylactery.”
“Aye,” said another. “Take ‘er apart. Legs first. They’ll come right off like that.”
As they dismembered her, she realized that not only was she speared to the ground, but her legs were paralyzed as well. It was a faraway realization all but drowned by her state, but it did have the effect of amplifying the fight in the parts of her body she did have control over. By time they had finished with her legs, she was gnashing her teeth and flinging drool, struggling with such ferocity that she was tearing her stomach free of the spear. But she was still the same crafty Waray. So when the infantryman slammed his boot into her face in an attempt to calm her down, she let him believe he had succeeded.
Control, even for a few fleeting seconds, didn’t come easy; he had just given her blood. Hot, wet, tinny blood. Her mind swam in it.
“Mind ‘er teeth,” he said, coming to dig his knees into her forearm as if that would contain her. When the axe came down to cleave her arm, her heightened senses were free to roam its every familiar notch. Turned out they were chopping her to pieces with her own axe. Waray canted her head. The meaning of it eluded her, but she would pack it away in one of her many nests to revisit at a more suitable time. Then the axe bit almost clean through her arm.
In doing so, it spurred a spike of adrenaline that sliced through her daze as effortlessly as if it were silk. What followed would have been a blur to onlookers, and the infantrymen may as well have been onlookers.
Waray flexed her abdomen and shot up like the viper she was, just beneath the next swing. She registered somewhere along the way that it put her directly beneath the bit, but she didn’t care. More than anything, that was what made an Eshm sister’s bloodlust so formidable. Her fangs sunk into his neck, eliciting a muddy cry, while her working hand pulled the axe from his already failing grip. Her attention darted to the remaining soldier, whose second of shocked hesitation would soon mean his end. A grin like a waxing moon soaked in blood reached for one sanguine eye more than the other. Waray’s heartbeat drummed madly in her ears, the soldier’s failed in her fangs, and despite having torn both her torso free of the spear and her right arm from her shoulder, she felt giddy. She could topple the heavens.
She swung her axe into the infantryman’s brow faster than he could react, leaving it there as if she’d just spent the day splitting firewood by the sweat of her brow. Something else to be stashed in a nest for later.
Then she closed her eyes and fell back, taking the soldier with her. She lay there basking in the warmth that showered her face. It invigorated her, but without a drive, her bloodlust was sloughing away faster than it could be sated. And where it retreated, the pain it had held at bay was quick to rush in. So much of her cried out that it all blended together.
Waray emitted a muffled cackle. By the sweat of her brow. Groans were all she had left in her after that, and far be it from the half-div to deny them after they’d queued so patiently. So she groaned and groaned until she bled out.
Until her soul was shunted again into the starling-black cage. Everything was the same as before, besides the sorry shape of her body, which she sensed as an incompleteness and nothing more.
She had been torn about this place the first two times she had waited here while her phylactery worked its magic to put her back together. Now that she was growing used to it, Waray decided she found it disconcerting. She figured no self-respecting cage would suffer an existence without bars. Come the annual cage convention the other cages would surely harangue it into finding some. (Held annually only because she was never certain whether biannual was going for once every two years or twice a year, proper usage be damned. Biannual made her itch something fierce.) This is what she told herself when the fear took purchase on her haunches, which was worsened by the fact that she had no haunches there.
Forgetting isn’t about the everyday—everyday omissions are little more than red herrings. Forgetting sustains a person if done right. To not dwell on the tragedies, but to have the strength to remember at times. Those who dwell end up consumed by it. Those who lock the tragedies away do so with a piece of themselves.
Waray had forgotten because she couldn’t have lived with the part of her that was responsible. She feared recollection more than any sword or divinity, more than any of her imagined threats. Here, she remembered it all. She was a—
She couldn’t feel her legs. “Oh,” she said, not bothering to look.
For a time, she gazed into the deceptively placid heavens. She star-hopped from star to flickering star, a method of navigating the night sky Ashtadukht had taught her before their travels took a turn.
“If you can find your bearings,” she had said, “the rest will come easier. All you need is that one star you can always rely on. It’ll guide you through the others.”
Waray pondered those words as she made her way from constellation to constellation—even those with near-forgotten epithets that fought on the fringes of the celestial theatre. Patches in the sky glimpsed a contest of realities: one innocent, the other out for her blood. But she felt oddly reflective, oddly calm. Soon, roving between the insidious patches that prevailed upon the constellations, she began to wonder if the three of them as travelling companions had been her one star.
“Fuck,” she said, pushing the body off and sitting up. Waray turned pursed lips on her mangled stubs, then the severed legs not far off. She cocked her head. “That šo-wretched phylactery. Legs are right there. Always knew phylacteries were bad news.” She heaved a sigh and tested her reattached right arm. Though sore, it flexed.
She activated the pits in and around her nose, which bled tones of purple into her vision like the ink wash paintings of the Chini, and put them to work in scanning her surroundings. There were a few distant figures with torches that seeped oranges and whites in the breeze. “Bad news, bad news. Maybe.” She crawled to retrieve her axe, sliding it into the loop on her belt. “They,” she said, flexing her fingers in a claw and swinging it at the diffuse violet around her, “they say you survive with a phylactery. We didn’t—” She blinked and knotted her brow. “Didn’t need a phylactery until now. Then it goes and puts you together like some—” She planted one hand firmly in the dirt, and with a series of grunts, dislodged the spear that had impaled her earlier. “Like some šo-weary craftsman with his head on his workbench.” While she complained, Waray used her trousers to make a bundle of her legs and the spear. “And maybe,” she tilted her head, “maybe things aren’t going so well. Maybe his shop is in shambles. Used to be a trade hub, but the road was diverted because of . . . don’t know. Why’s it matter why?” She slid one arm through the bundle and positioned it on her back, then set to crawling through the corpse-laden battlefield one hand at a time. “But a craftsman’s a craftsman. Shouldn’t forsake the craft. Should put legs on a person.”
To anyone watching it would seem as if she were talking to herself. While that may be, her thoughts were directed at the phylactery only she could sense, where it lay at the far end of the field. “Anything less is just—” She posted on one hand, angling her head this way and that to check for warmer brushstrokes, then went back to crawling. “Just a šo-shameful insult to the craft.”
Waray paused again sometime later, tongue giving her blood-stained fangs a series of deliberative prods. “Phylactery guild should intervene,” she said at length. “Cause a row.”
She pressed on until she reached an overturned litter. It had been stripped of its gold, leaving only a wooden frame under which Ashtadukht’s belongings were strewn—anything that wasn’t of value anyway. Mainly missives and maps. She wasn’t interested in the litter so much as the phylactery hidden nearby.
Ashtadukht had bestowed upon her a lapis lazuli girdle that had become Waray’s most prized possession. Waray had in turn made the decision to turn the girdle into her first phylactery. The act of vouchsafing a soul in an object or animal came naturally to intelligent divs, but she had never felt inclined to use it. That was until her dear friend had asked for her help, believed in her, and entrusted her with her dream of killing every last star-reckoner—even if it meant starting a war. Waray had wanted dearly to realize that dream because it meant not being alone. Instead, she had betrayed it.
A div had been slain in the vicinity, beneath which she could sense the girdle. That was likely the only reason it hadn’t been looted. She worked an arm beneath, and after fumbling around for a moment, pulled the phylactery free. Waray held it up, allowing the moonlight to polish its striking blue gemstones scored with streaks of gold. A few were missing here and there, but it still brought a faint smile to the half-div’s face to see those dull crow motifs. Holding it against her chest, she used her one arm to pull herself into the cover of the litter, where the deeper shadows harboured her like they did all of her kind.
“Better right my bum leg,” she said as she removed her bundle and arranged her thighs to line up with her stubs. “Won’t do to limp. Won’t . . . hmm.” She canted her head. “Maybe.”
As she lay back, Waray wondered whether limps were the trappings of hardened heroes. Heroes who had accomplished much but whose better years were behind them. She was nothing if not old. “Keep the limp,” she decided. Then the half-div took her axe in both hands and brought it down on her brow as hard as she could.
For a third time, the starling-black returned. She tried not to think about the bars it had forsaken, and in doing so forsook her distraction. This misstep gave her phylactery leave to fully restore a memory she had fought for so long to forget. It came to her with terrible fervour. She was Shkarag. She was a—
Shkarag stared at an empty, overturned throne. Tears welled in her eyes, and she tried so desperately to liken that throne to the thread of a tale worth spinning. She dragged trembling fingers curled into claws over the scales and scars of her scalp.
“Coward,” she finished. She was a coward.
Beneath that litter, overturned like the nest she’d hidden the memory under for lifetimes, she wept from sunup to sundown. She damned herself for not having been the hero her long-dead sister deserved. The only reason she crawled from out her hole the next night was because she yearned for comfort food.
Shkarag didn’t bother checking for danger; neither did she bother finding an intact pair of trousers. On her way out, she did take the time to gather the strewn documents into a sheaf, which she shoved between the girdle and her back. Spear over her shoulder, axe by her hip, she made for the hills.
“Eggs,” she said as she limped along, snorting snot all the while. “Need some šo-scrumptious eggs.”
Movement at the edge of her vision urged her into a crouch, which shot splintering pain down one leg. A grimace soured her features, but she endured it. The half-div cocked her head and cast a sidelong glance in the direction of the movement. Still and silence. Shkarag waited, scratching at the latest scar in her collection where it bifurcated her forehead. If there were something out there, she should have no trouble seeing it. But all the running ink showed her was the tract of shrub- and body-strewn land between her and Nishabhur. She emitted a nervous hiss and pressed on.
The movement returned immediately, only this time it was joined by a host of voices. They all murmured, intoned, crooned, and cried.
“. . . To betray such a sacred bond . . .”
“. . . were to look out for one another. Always be . . .”
“you were one.”
And she was. Shkarag had her spear in one hand, her axe in the other, but she couldn’t keep them still. “Stop,” came her brittle plea. “Stop . . . stop . . . stop.”
Against her better judgment, which was already suspect, she cocked her head to peer into the night. Nothing. Her head fell further into its slant. She tried conventional eyesight.
Close enough for her heavy breathing to excite the worms and grubs that dangled from its porous flesh, a face vaguely like her own hovered before her. It tilted. The starling-black that trickled from its overlarge sockets disrupted the surface like ink encouraging wet paint to run. It tilted the other way. An exaggerated frown pulled at the corners of a maw that hung slack, broken fangs jutting out at unnatural angles.
Shkarag trembled. A hiss that bordered on a whine petered through her lips. She turned her head away, but her eyes were glued to it. It tilted yet again, and the voices redoubled their abuse. “I’m,” she stammered, “I’m, I’m sorry. Forgive me.”
She tried to back away, but tripped and dropped her weapons in doing so. Her cheek to the ground, one eye forced shut by dust, she still could not look away.
“Forgive you?” the voices said as one. “Sorry?”
The grime-encrusted semi-keeled scales that lined the top of its mask-like face became a chittering cascade. Where they splashed the earth, they transformed into greasy extensions that conspired to be hair but couldn’t quite pull off the lie. Then, filthy tresses propelling it like a thousand spiteful snakes, it advanced.
If it were up to Shkarag’s mind, she would have lain there paralyzed by a horror that had her heart in a vice. But her body reacted of its own accord, snatching up her spear and axe and high-tailing it for the hills. She didn’t look back, not once.
Energized by the same shadows that closed on her, the half-div sprinted, stumbling and falling but never stopping, up the wrinkle of the nearest ridge. She followed crease after crease, maintaining her pace though shifting cobbles threatened to undermine every stride. Oftentimes, they would, but she would scarcely kiss the dirt before she was up again. To Shkarag, her cowardly mistake from so many thousands of moons ago had caught up to her. She had fled. She had betrayed her sister. Now, she fled from her comeuppance. The longer she did the more the temperature dropped. Every now and then there would arise a lull in the abuse hurled by the voices, but before her exhaustion or the cold could sink in, they would return to grief her once more.
Cobbles and dirt were eventually smothered by the crunch of snow and the pale bite of the higher reaches. The voices faded to background noise. Her stressors came to a head, and cognizance fell by the wayside. Shkarag just went, unaware of her surroundings. The snow reached her bare knees, sinking its icy teeth in, and Shkarag oblivious all the while. She continued through the night, until the cobbles once again reduced the snow to patches that clung to the shadows thrown by the crest of the ridge. When at last the voices relented, the windows of the sky were blanching at the coming dawn. Drenched in sweat, Shkarag collapsed midway down. She was asleep before she hit the ground.
• • • •
“Nngh,” said Shkarag, waking up to an ache like white-hot needles embedded in her right thigh. “Heroes,” she complained. “Šo-hardened heroes. A wonder they don’t all retire.”
She was already beginning to regret her eagerness to keep her limp. It seemed to her it’d gotten worse. Starting at the nasty scar where it’d been severed, Shkarag began kneading the scales and flesh of her thigh while soaking in her surroundings.
“Don’t know any heroes,” she said. She canted her head at an alpine accentor that darted by, taking note of where it landed. There prevailed a common belief that birds are altogether clever, and Shkarag had always wanted to have a word with the person responsible, because she thought birds were plain stupid. More often than not, she would hardly have to search for their clutches before the birds led her to them.
“Don’t know any šo-hardened heroes. Or šo-this or šo-that heroes. Could use some pointers.” She spied a bearded vulture circling overhead just outside the glare of the sun. Pupils contracting to a sliver, she glared back. “Not dead. Was dead.”
Shkarag gave an exasperated shake of her head. “Vultures. Makes you wonder. Think they have a heroes guild somewhere? All those legends gathered around circling the fresh meat and showing the ropes. Like how to deal with a bum leg. Is there a root to chew?” She paused, cocked her head, then decided, “Maybe.”
She stood with an exaggerated groan, though no one was around to hear it. Another glare at the vulture. It had heard. Only with the vulture probably not looking at her did it register that her clothes were in shambles. The infantrymen had cut the legs from her trousers, her tunic had one sleeve missing and a hole in the midriff, and all of it soiled with blood, sweat, dirt, eggs, piss, and shit. She sneered. She hadn’t emptied her bowels until she killed herself. If only the phylactery had done its job the first time around.
“Eggs,” she said, picking up her spear and setting off for the rock on which the accentor had last alighted. Shkarag poked around in the surrounding tussocks and crevices, eventually conceding what she’d known all along: breeding season was just around the corner. And the vulture would have a range too big to cover. She put her hands on her hips. “That’s just as the crow flies,” she said, confident in her use of the idiom.
Without the comfort of a fresh egg to sink her fangs into, Shkarag instead sank into a lousy mood. She ambled along, kicking up dust with the toes of her boots, back in the direction of the battlefield. At her pace it would take a few days.
Here and there, her surroundings tilted, demanding she adjust accordingly or suffer the consequences. That emboldened the nagging thoughts; it always did. But enduring the tilt would have been worse. She’d grown accustomed to this over her protracted lifetime, to always feeling as if she were at war with not only her surroundings but with herself. There had been times when even her sister had seemed to plot against her. It could not be overcome. Shkarag had accepted as much. She would endure it, or ignore it where possible. Mostly.
The half-div had never subscribed to the necessity of clothing, thinking it the product of an underhanded marketing scheme spread by tailors and merchants. Nevertheless, she was half viper. While not entirely ectothermic, her body temperature was less stable than that of a human. So she wore clothes, if begrudgingly. How she made it through the snow-capped ridge without so much as a winter cloak was anyone’s guess, though it could be reasonably chalked up to fright.
She skirted the higher passes this time, which meant scaling many more ridges than she had during her flight. The first night would come and pass without the faintest whisper, but she maintained her inky refuge all the same. This led her to a slab of igneous rock that was waterlogged with a welcoming yellow. Eager to soak up the heat, Shkarag settled in to weather the cold.
The next day brought a much-needed respite. Not feeling especially vigilant, she hadn’t bothered watching for signs of nests or birds to liven her mood. But she happened to drag her downtrodden stare from her increasingly vexing limp at the right time to spot a vulture nest. Disbelief plain, she canted her head and narrowed her eyes. Half-way up a sheer rock wall, the nest clung to an outcropping. She hadn’t bothered searching for it because bearded vulture territories ranged hundreds of farsangs. It would have been like searching for a beetle in a salt flat.
A tempered grin coloured her cheeks. She had long ago learned that the world has a habit of throwing you a bone—or an egg—to keep you suffering another day. She had thereafter concluded suffering was the currency of the universe. Why else would the luminaries wage their eternal wars? Or mortals for that matter? Some would claim it is the work of the Lie, of Ahriman, and she surrendered that point. Be that as it may, the nature of the currency went unchanged. What she wanted to know was what was bought with all this suffering. Or did it all go to a nest egg?
Setting that aside with a flex of her fingers, she approached the cliff, hefting her spear for a throw. A vulture with blood-stained feathers stood guard atop a large nest of sticks covered in animal parts. It was situated at a perilous enough height that her phylactery would have to mend her bones if she fell, so Shkarag meant to avoid a fight while dangling from the cliff face. To that end, she drew the spear back, put one arm forward, broke into a trot, then let it fly. And it flew true, skewering the vulture. A clean kill.
Now to snatch the eggs before the mate returned. Shkarag immediately set to scaling the cliff, finding the nooks and crevices she needed to make a hasty climb to the nest. There, she withheld a whoop at her luck, and quickly set to her task. She reached around to pull free the documents she’d taken, then used them to roll up the pair of wheat-colored eggs. She hurriedly removed her spear from the vulture, and used a length of trousers to secure it and the eggs in one package, then stowed that beneath her girdle.
The tangle of sticks, bones, and sun-dried viscera drew a frown. “You’re too much,” she figured. “Can’t dislodge you. Missing tools and time.”
Shkarag gave the nest the same wistful caress she would have given a loved one. “Too much.” As she did, her chin puckered and her lip trembled. She missed them. Then she was gone, hurrying down the cliff face and breaking into a run the instant her boots hit the ground.
Once she made it over the next crease in the range, she returned to her ambling gait—if marginally less so. The half-div unwrapped the larger of the two eggs with a touch that was trained but not all that delicate. She held it in one hand while the other studied its chalky texture. This one would have been her sister’s share. So rather than savour the taste, she bit into it, shell and all, such that the pieces stabbed at her gums and tongue while the contents slid down her throat. It hurt, but she hummed all the same. A brief yet painful treat was right. Shkarag popped the rest into her mouth, certain to chew the shell. Later, she could savour her share.
Content in her small triumph, she pressed on.
The following night wasn’t kind enough to afford her a warm slab to sleep on, so she walked through it rather than wallow in an uncomfortable chill. Besides that, she was doubly nocturnal as both div and viper. The bleeding purples and red-violets of ink wash suited her. And when she was feeling more confident, the glimmering of the stars and planets.
“Wonder where Ashtadukht burrowed off to?” she asked the planets. The half-div canted her head, stroking the oblique scar that connected her jaw on one side to her clavicle on the other. “Should find her. Maybe.”
For the remainder of her trip, which crested ridge after ridge as if they were waves passing beneath her, she pondered that thought.
Shkarag was relieved to find the battlefield still. The soldiers, looters, and priests must have finished canvassing, because all that was left were the remains of divs. That was all well and good because she had some looting of her own to do, and what she had in mind would be of no interest to humans. She made her way down, the stench of death washing over her a morbid reminder of her childhood, and began her search.
While there weren’t many Eshm sisters in the div host, it didn’t take her long to find one. Their blood-red armor stood out even amidst the carnage. Shkarag approached the corpse uncharacteristically solemn. She went to her knees and gazed at her half-sister’s face. The jaw had been pulverized, probably by a mace or hoof, but she recognized it. Hesitation moored her. So she just stared until the hesitation eased enough for her to lean in and caress the ridged scales above her half-sister’s ear.
“Sorry,” she said. “Whole šo-wretched universe hates us. Like we’re some . . .” She trailed off before she could finish the thought. “I’m sorry.”
In truth, her half-sisters had been good to her in their own way. They had accepted her and her sister despite their alloyed lineage. In seeking to extirpate her frail humanity, they had perhaps gone too far in brutalizing her. Had damaged her irreparably. But that’s the thing: they hadn’t done so out of malice. The Eshm sisters brutalized one another regularly, constantly pounding out any sign of weakness so that they could survive an existence without allies. It was them against the world.
For the longest time, Shkarag had firmly believed that was why she despised them. With her sharpened memories she knew that wasn’t the case. All that loathing had sullied their image because every time she saw them she was reminded of how she’d betrayed her sister.
“Sorry,” she repeated, countenance strained. “You broom sweepers were good to us. Tried to prepare us for the oncoming storm. I’m the bad egg. Such a . . .” She trailed off again, fighting the urge to ramble, and let out a sigh. Shkarag began stripping the corpse of its gear.
Once that was taken care of, she disrobed—if it could still be called as much with what little remained of her rags. Labouring to keep her thoughts from taking a dive, she focused on the task at hand.
“Trousers first,” she decided. The half-div held them out appraisingly. She avoided black for a simple enough reason: she thought it veered too closely to the windows of the night. Something about that didn’t sit well with her. As if the colour had designs beyond its station. “You’re lucky,” she said, extending her arms to get a better view. “The dirt debases you, I think. Like you kowtowed to the sky. It remonstrated you something fierce, but never let it be said the sky has no clemency.” With that, she nodded and slipped them on.
Next came the caftan, which she plucked from the pile without fuss, then swung it by the collar, causing it to billow dramatically as her arms found the sleeves. She fastened one end over the other, then flexed her arms. The sleeves were tight, but not uncomfortable. Shkarag gave it a once over, cocking her head as she did. Caftans were by make form-fitting, but this one hugged her figure with refined sleekness, with a hem that rounded smoothly across the hips. Shkarag cocked her head further and patted the caftan as she had seen Tirdad do during his daily routine. She figured it drove the lice away. “That’ll do,” she said, bending to retrieve the hauberk. “Bloody caftan, bloody mail, bloody breastplate. What’ll they bloody next?”
“Bet,” she went on as she pulled the hauberk over her head, “bet they’ll want bloody undergarments next. Can’t blame em. Nothing beats a šo-good fuck.”
She tugged at the cuffs of her caftan to adjust it under the short sleeves of the mail, then did the same with its sweeping hem. A bunched caftan was a maddening caftan.
The breastplate was held at arm’s length for a moment of evaluation, but she had already made up her mind. An embossed viper constricted its sanguine gloss, fangs bared where its diamond-shaped head was sculpted into the left shoulder. She strapped it on without further consideration. The bottom rim hardly protected half her midriff, but in doing so it allowed her more maneuverability.
When she’d called the items bloody, she’d meant something more than the river of red that parted around the caftan’s diamond motif, or the sheen of the breastplate. For the armor to be crafted, every Eshm sister was charged with providing the blood of both a human and a div with which it would be imbued. That’s what gave them their signature colour. And that’s why they hadn’t been looted.
Shkarag finished with laminated thigh and forearm armor, then tied the ensemble together with her weapon belt and prized lapis lazuli girdle.
She had decided against taking her half-sister’s weapons in the event that somewhere out there a lackadaisical phylactery had just remembered its charge. So she did her best to work a sword into each of the cold, scaled hands of the corpse.
Rather than leaving, Shkarag hovered there, head canted and trained on the ruined face.
“Is this all you were after they slaughtered you?” she asked the memory of her sister. “An overripe lime, fallen and forgotten and—”
She clenched her eyes shut to stave off the tears and groped for her vulture egg, rushing to pierce it with one fang. The anxiety that had drawn her muscles taut sloughed away at that first crisp crack. The scraping of the shell along her fang soothed her. It retracted toward her mouth, puncturing a second hole from within. Then she threw her head back and let it hang there, savouring the sliver of yolk that oozed over her tongue.
Once the egg had run dry, she tossed it aside, bade her half-sister farewell with a dismal wave, and set off in search of Ashtadukht.
Thing is, she hadn’t the faintest idea where to look.
• • • •
Tirdad took a generous draught of wine. Heady and bittersweet, it went down with a warmth that dulled the ache in his bones.
“Almost there,” said Chobin, palm out expectantly.
“Almost,” agreed Tirdad, taking another draw before relinquishing the wine. He raised his eyebrows and wiped his face. The haze of intoxication had floated in without him realizing it. “I’ve decided,” he said. “I promised I’d discuss it when we returned, and here we are.” He spread his arms wide, indicating the sea to his left and mountains to his right, all but invisible on a moonless evening were it not for the profiles that demarcated the sky.
The estate wasn’t far off. That struck him as . . . well, he couldn’t quite figure how it struck him, only that it did. Had history not veered so sharply in the direction of tragedy, someone else might have called it home. But it had. Ashtadukht’s estate belonged to him now. He had no way of knowing how much she’d loathed the place, how often she’d considered torching it.
“And what have you decided?” Chobin asked with a hint of a slur. “Fucking arms out like you are putting on a grand speech. I sure as fuck don’t hear it.”
Tirdad grinned and tapped his head. “You should’ve heard it in here. I thought it was mighty convincing, and I’m a tough crowd.”
“Now listen here,” Chobin said, raising his fist in mock anger. “Been waiting the whole ride back. So help me if you put it off one more minute you will wish . . . you . . .” He squinted long enough for exasperation to kick in. “Fuck it,” he said, tossing his hands. “Lost my train of thought.”
“A world deprived of the wisdom of the great Chobin, tall as a cypress, strong as a lion, virile as a bull, wise as a—”
“Shut the fuck up.”
“—shoot of fig.”
“I’ve decided,” Tirdad began as he drew his long sword and lay it across his lap, “that I’m a planet-reckoner.”
Chobin blew air out his nose. “You decided that?”
“Well, no.” Tirdad allowed his fingers to drift over the blade, caressing its heartbeat. “You’re right. It was decided for me. But it needn’t be a curse. It’s what you do with the power that defines it.”
An affirmative grunt to his side.
“I’ll use this sword to carve out some good in the world. That’s what she did before things went . . .” He gestured vaguely. “Before.”
“And the planet-reckoning?”
“I’ll figure it out.”
“It’ll come to me.”
The look Chobin threw him spoke for how full of shit he sounded.
“It will,” Tirdad said, not all that convinced and sounding it. He watched his blade as it devoured the light thrown by Chobin’s torch, tearing it into the pearlescent waves that livened its surface. “If it doesn’t, I’ll do without. The sword will suffice.”
“Your tales never involved many spells. Seems to me she got by on her knowledge,” Chobin figured.
Tirdad gave a slight nod, and a nostalgic smile crept ever so faintly up his cheeks. “Oh, there was a great deal of luck involved. Bad and good. Bumbling, too. But she knew her craft, and took pride in that. Hard-earned pride as far as I can tell.”
The quiet that ensued did so in the pursuit of a question that had hung unspoken between the pair since Castle Dahag. Chobin, generally a man as frank as they came, harboured no small amount of sympathy and love for his friend. He wanted to broach the topic without accusation. “And how well is that?” he asked.
“Hmm,” grunted the marzban.
Tirdad pulled in a breath, inviting the brackish air to do its part in stirring long-dormant memories. He recalled giggling blithely as his brother gave chase, scrambling under branches and through brush, splashing across silver streams. With his illness weighing on him like a wet wool blanket, it didn’t take long for his brother to catch up.
“Ashta,” Gushnasp said, his tone both amused and admonishing.
“I—” He tried to say, but a wheezing fit doubled him over. “I won’t—” The wheezing refused to relent. He felt as if he’d been beaten half to death, but at the same time as if it were routine. Gushnasp eased him to the forest floor, dry leaves complaining but bringing him closer to the earthy scent so at home in his life. “Won’t sit around when we’ll be separated soon,” he finally managed to get out between wheezes. He followed with a weak half-chuckle, half-wheeze. “I’m dizzy.”
“Of course you are.”
“I like this,” he said, digging his fingers into the earth.
“Of course you do.”
He raised tired eyes to meet Gushnasp’s, which were framed with the furrows of concern. A lump rose in his throat, unease in his chest.
His brother took a seat beside him, and began rubbing his back in the placating way he had since before he could walk. The hand that massaged him had grown powerful since. It pressed calmness into his soul.
“You will be fine,” Gushnasp offered, reading him perfectly. “You are strong, and we will find time to see one another until you have finished your training.”
“Strong,” he said, dripping with sarcasm.
“You are,” Gushnasp replied, his tone brooking no argument. His brother made a mess of his hair then, saying, “Here.” Then he placed his other hand on his chest, warm and steady. “And here.”
His heart leapt in his throat. He blushed furiously, and an utterly sincere smile claimed his cheeks so thoroughly they grew sore.
Tirdad forced the memory out, knowing full well what had next transpired on those noisy leaves. He glanced over at Chobin, who had a contemplative look turned his way. “Her memories are mine now,” he explained. “Not to be referenced at will, but dredged up through necessity or outside forces. Just now, the scent of the sea showed me something I couldn’t have known. Something intimate.”
“Forgive me if I am skeptical,” the marzban said, doing his utmost to convey sympathy in his criticism, “but this could all be your imagination fucking with you.”
“It could. It isn’t.”
“Or the wine.”
“Where’d you get this exactly?”
Chobin’s only reply was to wink while wearing a sly smirk.
“The star-reckoner confirmed as much,” Tirdad added with a shake of his head.
“Right before you killed it.”
“Yeah,” said the planet-reckoner. “I killed it. That’s why you’re having trouble coming to terms with this. That’s the real issue here. And I don’t fault you for it, not in the slightest.” He eased his sword back into its sheath, guiding it with his thumb in what amounted to a good night, and his palm came to rest on its ram’s head pommel. “It must’ve seemed like I’d gone mad at the time, but I killed it because it was right about her memories.”
“So what the everliving fuck did it do?”
“Terrible things,” Tirdad said, searching the darkness ahead. He spoke softly, but with an edge that’d been stropped to the point of hatred. “Things no one should have to endure.”
He knew that wouldn’t be enough, so he related in that deadly-soft tone all he’d seen and felt before putting an end to the star-reckoner. The conversation ended there. They navigated the plain in pensive silence, Chobin patently unable to put together a response because he was both ashamed and disgusted.
That suited Tirdad. He needed time to simmer. Relating meant remembering, and that meant reliving the experience in all its horrific detail. The reins creaked in his white-knuckled grasp. Would that the star-reckoner were still alive just so he could run it through a second time.
“So,” Chobin began after a nightjar had darted by, ending their well-kept silence with its telltale trill. “How do you plan to achieve this ‘planet-reckoner for good’ angle?”
Tirdad shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t know. I’d like to continue to root out divs for the good of the nation. Ashtadukht meant well in that, and Truth be revered I enjoyed it.”
“You mean to travel as she did?”
“And how the fuck do you mean to convince the star-reckoners, or the King of Kings for that matter?”
A sly smile of his own accompanied Tirdad’s answer. “I don’t.”
“Hah!” Chobin punctuated the shout by slapping his thigh. “You fucker. Where has this Tirdad been all these years? I fucking love him!”
“I’ve been here by your side all along.” The planet-reckoner gazed wistfully into the night. “But you had eyes for another.”
The marzban burst out laughing. One gloved hand gave his thigh a series of emphatic slaps while the other offered the wine. “Take it,” he insisted, giving the wineskin a shake as if it’d have the same allure as a topless dancer. “I want to hear more.”
Tirdad needed no encouragement. He accepted, raising it in salute to his friend, and drank with gusto. Moderation, he decided, had gotten him nowhere enviable. It’d gotten him here.
• • • •
With only a short rest before dawn, the pair reached the estate as the sun reached its zenith.
“Glad you cleaned the place up a bit,” Chobin said as they traversed the forecourt, flanked by gardens in bloom, busy with bees and birdsong. He took a whiff and grunted his approval. “Almost drowns out the fucking stench of saltwater.”
“I enjoy the smell,” Tirdad evenly replied.
The marzban leaned over the head of his mount to inspect the path they followed. “Weeds could use some tending to. You sure you pulled them up before you left?”
“Something bother—oh, hah! What are you now, fifty? Hangover must be brutal.”
“Forty-five,” said Tirdad. He dismounted, then went through the motions of tending to his horse and gathering his gear. When that was taken care of, he lumbered into the vestibule with the timeworn ram mural. “I’m going to sleep,” he called over his shoulder, planting his hand on the plaster painting for support. Tirdad paused to consider it. His heart drummed painfully behind his eyes, but he wanted to take a moment to appreciate the image of the ram. Such a noble creature. And like the family it represented, it was fading from existence. He gave it a pat and moved on. “I’ll see about getting you restored. You shouldn’t suffer for our mistakes.”
Merry with amusement, Chobin sounded off from the forecourt. “Drink some water!”
“I know,” Tirdad grumbled, grimacing at the nausea that washed over him.
“Off to fetch something fresh!” Chobin cried.
Tirdad just groaned. Had the man never been hungover before? Why in the seven climes was he yelling? He passed into the courtyard with its modest three-sided dome, and headed over to the bubbling fountain housed within. Tirdad splashed his face and drank generously—it was crisp and invigorating, and now justified his decision to unclog it during his mourning period. There was a long list of repairs that needed taking care of, but he figured his ancestors’ ingenious method of tunneling into the mountain aquifer for irrigation should be given due regard.
With a newfound appreciation for his handiwork, he made for the living quarters. One of the first things he’d done after the estate had been cleansed was to clear out the carpet of eggshells, so he was in the middle of slipping off his boots when he stepped through the door.
And he stopped dead in his tracks. There stooped over a splintered table in the centre of the room a familiar div. While its exact physique was a mystery, the unhealthy coat of ashen fur could not obscure its bulging muscles. In one hand—large and strong enough to pop his head like a grape—it clutched a wooden spoon.
So that’s why Ashtadukht had kept a random wooden spoon. He thought she’d left the phylactery with the old star-reckoner. Come to think of it, she’d probably killed him, too.
Wearing only the one boot, Tirdad drew his sword. It throbbed weakly in his grip, but with a palpable hunger, as if it sensed the prey in front of it. Cautiously, he took a few steps back until he was nearly around the corner. That’s all he got.
The div turned on him a face like a mudslide. With inhuman speed it crashed through the wall in a spray of gypsum mortar, barrelling into him with its musclebound bust and taking him through the next wall. He careened end over end across the courtyard until he collided with the opposite side.
“Ugh,” he groaned, pushing himself off the ground with one arm, which lit a fire in his chest and back. He’d felt a series of cracks along the way, and figured his ribs hadn’t come out unscathed. What’s more, his left shoulder had been dislocated. “Fuck,” he spat.
Before he had time to consider his next move, the div was once again hurtling his way. This time, he managed to leap aside before it crashed through the mortar directly behind him, throwing up a cloud of dust and rubble. Coughing, Tirdad got to his feet.
“Chobin!” he cried out, hoping the marzban hadn’t ventured out of earshot. “Chobin!”
He cast about for his sword, relieved to find it by the fountain he had so blithely left not a minute earlier. Too far, he knew, and the div would be the least of his worries. He scrambled over and snatched it up just as the div stepped through the new entrance it’d made.
One arm hanging limply, ribs in a bad way, Tirdad had his sword at the ready. He wouldn’t be caught on his heels this time around. The div surged forward, bellowing as it did, with saliva flying like repulsive seafoam in every direction. It had its arms out, meaning to sweep him up again—surely to drive him through another wall.
Tirdad evaded by shuffling aside and ducking under a bicep that could probably take his head off if it tried. As he did, he brought his sword across the div’s gut, and with only one arm behind it, the blade cut clean through with no resistance. As though the marrow, sinew, and entrails would rather come apart willingly than hazard the magpie-black.
Pivoting as it passed, Tirdad could hardly believe his eyes. He’d nearly hewn it in half, and surely would have if his blade were longer. Too busy trying to hold in its guts to control its charge, the div’s momentum brought it head over heels onto its back, on which it skidded to a messy halt. Torso twisted backward, it did what it could to scoop its tangled organs back in, which was futile. Tirdad grimaced, but not due to his injuries. The div exuded the sort of stink that would make stone queasy. He summarily finished it off, then wiped his sword on its coat, but didn’t sheath it. Better not risk staining the scabbard with its stench.
“What the everliving fuck?” Chobin strode in, sword and board hanging by his sides. “Heard your shouts. Came as quickly as I could. Why is there a div here?” Then, with an enthusiasm that suggested he’d breached protocol and forgotten the most important part, he gave Tirdad a slap on the back. “Hah! Took it down without me you fingernail-swallowing—”
Tirdad tensed, either unable or unwilling to speak over the splash of pain excited by the slap. So he groaned.
“I think . . .” The planet-reckoner exhaled through his teeth. “I think it cracked a few ribs.”
The marzban whistled. “Sorry about that. Let’s—”
A sudden blow sent Chobin soaring over the courtyard wall and out of sight. The div, fully healed but with its top and bottom halves reversed, had shot up within striking distance. A snarl was the only prelude to the cross it threw at Tirdad. He managed to bob and weave beneath the boulder of a fist, swinging his sword in an arc that severed the arm at the elbow as he came up.
Unlike fighting foes with conventional weapons, many divs were a matter of dodging and retaliating—parrying and blocking didn’t quite do the trick. Tirdad had learned as much in his travels, but the blade ached for less dodging and more retaliating. The moment’s hesitation cost him a dodge, and rewarded him with a blow to the abdomen.
It knocked the air from his lungs, and his blade rattled on the stone. He staggered back a step, but that was all he got before the div followed up with an uppercut to the chest, throwing him up and into the dome above the fountain. Before gravity could take hold, the div pinned him there, its palm pressed against his sternum.
Not one long, unbroken scream, but a string of cries limited to the paltry breaths he could suck in. The div would have crushed his ribcage like a walnut.
If a spear hadn’t been thrust between its eyes.
Tirdad fell, bouncing off the div as he did and ending up on his back beside the fountain. With a wince that would stick around for weeks, Tirdad fought to sit up, but could only manage to post himself on one elbow. Turns out, he wasn’t as close to the fountain as he’d thought. What he’d heard was an Eshm sister; more specifically, the squelching of her axe as she hacked at the div. She tossed the div’s head, then started on its limbs.
“What’re . . . what’re you doing?” he asked.
“Chopping,” the Eshm sister replied, patently irritated by the question. She stopped to indicate the half-severed limb with both hands the way a person does when your answer is right in front of you, you fucking dunce. A few more chops and an arm was flung aside. She was mumbling to herself between swings, but he couldn’t make out what she was saying. He could hardly make her out as it was.
An attempt at a deep breath proved ill-advised when it stabbed at his lungs, but he needed to be sure Chobin was safe. “Chobin!” he yelled. “Chobin!” As he called, he inched his way toward his sword, which he hadn’t even needed to search for. He could feel its presence now. By time he retrieved it, the Eshm sister was nearly finished. “Chobin!” he yelled again. “Chobin!” The planet-reckoner sidled up the nearest wall for support, and laid the blade across his lap. A hairy leg landed beside him.
The Eshm sister limped over, and it was only then that he got a good look at her. What he saw stole his breath away same as a knee to the gut had—more, even. The armor had thrown him off at first, but there was no doubt about it: this was Waray. She sported some gnarly new scars—most notably one that profaned her neck—but it was her. She seemed different somehow. Something about her carriage; something in her blood-red gaze as she approached.
“Howdy your damn self,” she hissed at the wooden spoon she held between two fists, straining to snap it in half, and eventually succeeding. She tossed it at his feet. “Burn the šo-wretched phylactery. I think.”
“Waray,” he finally managed. “How did—”
He had questions, but the intensity of her stare drove them away. That stare continued, unblinking, until she asked what she’d traveled all this way to ask.
“Did you kill her?” She lowered her spear so the tip prodded his chest. She canted her head. “Did you?”
He smiled. The timing was abysmal, but he thought he’d seen the last of her idiosyncrasies. Yet here she was worse for wear but alive. Alive! He didn’t care how. But the question remained, and she deserved the truth. “Yes,” he said at length.
The spearhead pressed harder, then she jerked it back as if she would run him through. It clattered to the ground.
The high-pitched hiss she emitted defied any he’d ever heard. Any he’d hear as long as he lived. Lamentation poured out of her as if the thread of her soul unwound with it. As if she were coming undone.
Her knees buckled, but before they could commit she staggered off, raking at her head. In his sorry state, Tirdad could only watch and await her judgment. One hand clawing at the scar that ran from her temple and above a nipped ear, her other pulled out her bloodied axe to channel her emotions into feverish chops that found only air.
The dreadful hiss persisted without interruption as she paced away, then doubled back in a stalk that was unmistakably bloodthirsty, only to cock her head and turn back before she reached him. This went on for an indeterminate time. Long enough for Chobin to appear in the doorway, favouring one leg but ready to strike. Tirdad shook his head and raised his palm. The marzban furrowed his brow confusedly, but ultimately shrugged and took a seat.
Eventually, Shkarag stalked over less aggressively to stand before him, chest heaving. She swung her axe, though patently uncertain about it. “Who,” she began, canting her head, “who decides, who says, who šo-fucking—” She dragged a hand contorted into a claw over her head, and swung her axe again. “Who kills someone they love?”
Tirdad frowned. He hadn’t expected such a trenchant question, the very same he’d been flagellating himself with for the last few months.
“Who?!” she asked, screaming at the top of her lungs. “Who decides to? Who spends their šo-damned life with a person, not this person or that person or some other person but this one person, this one, then just, like some, like some—” She hissed. Another swing. “Turns their back on their love like some dastardly cliff face. And they’re circling you and they don’t understand why if you’re a cliff face they can only see your back. Why, you pinecone-arsed Dourboat-sodomizing coward? Why would you betray your sist . . . er . . . ?”
The half-div gasped. Her lips moved, but whatever words they were forming were for her alone. She stared through him.
“I . . . made a mistake,” Tirdad said, avoiding eye contact as he did. “A terrible mistake I’ll surely regret for the rest of my life.” He absently traced the edge of his blade. “At the time, I was too caught up in honour. But the truth is she was injured, Shkarag. And ready for it to be over.”
“Sister,” the half-div whispered. She gave her axe a lame look, canting her head away from him in shame. “Ashtadukht.”
“Yeah,” he said. Hoping the situation had been defused, he pulled himself to his feet. “About, uh—” He grimaced and rubbed his neck. “About killing you . . .”
“An accident,” Shkarag said. “My fault.” She glanced up at him, head tilted slightly. “You said some, said I was a hero.”
The tilt deepened. “Want to cleave your šo-double-crossing skull something fierce. All this pomegranate-red bullying like some overprotective sisters who tear you apart to make you stronger. But what about attrition?”
“I’d really rather you didn’t.”
“Want it, but . . .” She stepped closer, emanating the bloodlust he’d come to recognize and respect. “Maybe.”
Tirdad gripped the hilt of his blade, though he knew he didn’t stand a chance. Across the way, Chobin got to his feet.
“But . . .” She moved in, and in one swift movement, hugged him. “All I have left is some pinecone-arsed quack.”
An audible sigh of relief escaped Tirdad. His ribs cried out at her attention, but far be it from him to deny her when the alternative was death.
“What a šo-wretched lot to draw,” she said. “Šo-wretched. To end up with only a quack.” She hugged harder. “The fish head or the egg you forgot in the bottom of your sack and come to find it’s rotten and you wasted all that effort searching for it those months back. But it’s all you have left.”
She nodded, or canted her head. He couldn’t tell.
“Could you let me go?”
Shkarag obliged, putting some space between them and stowing her axe. Having deprived them of its haft, her fingers flexed and loosened continuously. The dangerous glint had not left her eyes.
“Need to see this,” she said, reaching behind her to pull out a roll of leather and paper. It creaked and bunched in her trembling grip. “Maybe.”
Tirdad furrowed his brow. She’d offered him a blood-stained mess. “What’s this?”
Her reply carried an uncommon gravitas. “Everything.”
An Ill-Fated Sky is now available for pre-order on Amazon!