I watched my love die in the claw of a Scorpion Man. I watched him sever her in half; watched as her long hair dripped down to the ground; watched as her hand let go of her spear; as her long legs folded under her; as the Scorpion Man’s tail rose in triumph. His chitin carapace shone in the dwindling sunlight. So did my love’s armor. Her armor that had served her so well until the end. Her armor that made her look like a queen, not a general. Many women had told her that. Many women.
I knew when the Scorpion Man killed my love, when all his people charged forward at what was left of our sisters, that she had been right to send me away. I watched as the Scorpion Man’s many charged our few; charged them across the flat desert sand. I watched this from my place high up on the red rocks of the Vashwa. I heard my love’s own voice in my head, smooth and silky and dark as her hair.
She said, “Awanshe, you will live to tell our story.”
And so, I will. I will tell it to all who listen. I will live while my sisters die.
What a terrible burden to bear.
But the truth did not happen that way.
That is only the truth I have told you before. Here is what happened. One truth for another. A story for story.
The women of the Vashwa have always been at war with the Scorpion Men of the Ratch. And we have always loved them. We send our women to them and accept our women and our daughters back. We raise our chitinous daughters as our own, among our soft-skinned daughters, born of soft-skinned husbands, who come from other lands—softer lands, greener lands.
The Scorpion Men have always given as much as they took. They take our sons, we take their daughters. They take one of our oases, we snatch one of theirs. They destroy a caravan, we destroy a night patrol. We fall in love with one of their traders, and it is just the way of our soft-skinned women to love such a hardened man.
I, Awanshe, am a chitinous daughter. You can see my back and chest, made of segmented carapace. You can see it is as brown as my skin. My mother brought me home from her Scorpion Man lover, and she loved me as much as she loved my soft-skinned sisters and brothers. I was one of seven. Now I am one of five. When I came of age, I was presented with soft-skinned suitors, but I was a chitinous daughter and none of these soft men with their soft professions suited me.
I was a warrior. I fought with spear and spit. I had a venomous tongue and a dagger wit. My carapace hid not only the foolish fluttering of my heart, but the catch of my breathing. A chitinous girl could hide fear. Hide scars. Hide lies.
No, only a Scorpion Man would do. And he did do very well.
My lover, Tarkir, was tender, but he drank much and fought hard. We went to the bars in the Ratch every night and boasted and blustered our way through the melee until we came out breathing heavy and kissing hard. Tarkir’s best friend, Kuvo, once said to him, “Stop playing with these boy-women like this Awanshe Toy.” And I said back to him, “I am more man than you are, Scorpion Boy. And I am more woman than you will ever have.” The flat edge of my chitinous chest shone hard that night in the gaslights. The light cut against my segments, it cut harder against my wit. I felt Tarkir’s dangerous tail wrap close around my leg, then, as he pulled me into him.
Tarkir’s claw always felt right on my back. His hand always felt right on my neck. His claw’s weight had purpose. His fingers’ callouses told stories. His touch told me he needed me. I explored his chitinous carapace with my own ten fingers, and his breathing responded as I wanted it to, as I hoped it would. It responded well.
I spent a year with Tarkir in an attempt to do my duty as a woman of the Vashwa. But something was wrong. We spent every night tangled in each other’s soft-skinned legs, tangled in the sheets, mouths on each other’s mouths. We spent hours on top of one another. Behind one another. But still, no babies came.
When my queen demanded me back home, to fulfill my duties as a warrior, Tarkir took my hand in his. His hand was as brown as mine, our chitin matched in shade. But he was far taller, and his eyes wider and always full of wonder.
“I’ll come for you,” he said. “I’ll come for you, Awanshe, Jewel of the Vashwa.”
And we kissed again, for the last time.
I left him in the Ratch. I left all my memories of him in the Ratch. My carapace held Tarkir close to my heart. It also held my desire. It also held the truth.
Because when I returned to Vashwa, I found someone else.
Here is the truth I need you to believe.
Here is the what I witnessed while standing on the red rocks of the Vashwa. Here is what I saw as the sun set on the flat desert sand. As night threatened to overtake us.
My love charged Tarkir with her spear held tight in her grip. Its dark wood shaking with each of her strong steps, her steel-leaf armor shining with every last inch of sunlight. Her eyes pierced Tarkir’s soft soul. Her mouth writ in a sneer.
Tarkir rose up to strike my love down with his claw. His claw that had once held me so close. He rose up, tall as he was, mighty as he was. He rose up, and my love slid down into the sand. She slid into the sand and thrust her spear up. Up in and between the segments of Tarkir’s chitin carapace. Up into and piercing Tarkir’s soft and tender heart.
Tarkir died on that spear. He died with his lips coated in his own blood. Those lips I had once kissed so many times. Those lips that had told me they loved me. My love threw Tarkir to the side, and the rest of my sisters, all the rest of them, charged forward across the flat desert sand. All of our many against Tarkir’s few.
I knew, when we charged, that my love was right to send me away. I heard her voice in my head, dark and silky and smooth as her hair.
She said, “Awanshe, you must go to tell of our victory.”
And so, I will. I will tell it to all who listen. I will live while Tarkir and his brothers die.
What a terrible burden to bear.
But that is not the truth, either.
You must think me a terrible woman, to keep spilling lies forth again and again. To keep hiding the truth. Why do I do it? Because the real truth is too brutal. Honesty, too harsh.
I returned from the Ratch lovelorn and lovesick. A carapace is not as hard as steel-leaf armor. It does not protect from heartbreak. That wound slid deep, burrowing between my segments, eating me alive from the inside. So, I returned to the Vashwa hungry and in pain. I returned longing for another’s hands on my neck, another’s mouth on my mouth.
I tumbled through temporary lovers. Chitinous girls and soft-skinned men, but none of them remained longer than a week. None of them remained longer than a few nights in my bed. None of them until I took my place in the army; until I fell under our general’s steel gaze.
Our general’s name was Dalmana, and her hair was long—far longer than mine would ever be—and straight as a razor, while mine grew in curls tighter than corkscrews. Her hair was black like mine, her eyes were black like mine, but that is where our similarities stopped. Dalmana was short, far shorter than me, and had to bind her breasts to wear her steel-leaf armor. Her muscles rippled under her sweat, whereas my chest was chitin-flat, and my brown arms as sinewy as the acacia tree.
She first looked at me the way she looked at everyone, with disapproval, but it was the way her fingers trembled on my arm when she corrected my spear work that told me her heart. Dalmana’s kisses tasted like wine and dates, unlike Tarkir’s, which tasted like hops and salt. Dalmana and I spent our evenings drinking wine and eating goat cheese, looking out at her vineyard and chasing her three chitinous daughters. At first, she was quiet and only talked of battle and training.
She told me how to be better: “Hold your spear like you’re holding a man,” she said. “Charge with your eyes everywhere, but always on your feet first. A prone warrior is a dead warrior,” she said. “Our greatest asset is our sisterhood. Never forget that. Never,” she said.
Dalmana told me plans of a new battle. One to take place soon. One she hoped I would be part of. I dreamed of this battle. I dreamed of it between her two older daughters bringing me candies and flowers. Her youngest daughter brought me a drawing she had done of me throwing a spear.
In truth, it was a drawing of her.
One evening, our legs wrapped together in the sheets, Dalmana told me stories of her life: where her children had come from, what she had been before she became a general, before she became a hero.
“Their father is the general of the Scorpion Men, Tarkir,” she said.
My heart, long light for her, grew heavy and rough in its beating. It threw itself against my carapace. It rose to take hold of my throat.
“He called me Dalmana, Jewel of the Vashwa. We spent years together, to make my wonderful children. He was kinder to me than anyone before, or since.” She stopped herself. “Except you, of course. You are my Awanshe.”
“I didn’t think I was included,” I lied. I knew Tarkir was kinder, gentler, more affectionate than I would ever be.
“I will tell you a secret,” Dalmana said. “But only you can know.”
The soft spots of my carapace ached and shifted from from the too many secrets I held already. I could not hold any more, but I would have to. For Dalmana; for Tarkir.
“Our next battle is not a battle, it is a truce. Tarkir and I are going to unify Vashwa and the Ratch.”
“How?” I asked, but I did not want to know.
“You will see, my Awanshe. You will see.”
Now we come to the truth of the battle; the truth I have held in for so long. It sits like a fever, burning deep between the segments of my carapace, eating me up from the inside. I must tell this truth to you, I must let it out. It is time I faced judgment for myself.
Tarkir and Dalmana have been judged for too long.
All two hundred of us stood on the flat desert sand, the red rocks of the Vashwa surrounding us, keeping us safe. We stood in the golden light of the late afternoon; our shadows long as we stood with our weapons held ready, our armor laced tight. My sisters were hungry for bloodshed. I could see this by the way their tongues thirsted at their lips. I could see by the way they stood, by the way they hungered, that Dalmana did not tell them of the truce.
She had told only me.
Dalmana’s gaze was cold, cast at the horizon. Her hand, too, was readied on her spear. Her armor, too, was laced for battle. I stood at her side, mirroring her posture, mirroring her gaze, as the Scorpion Men arrived. And as they did, my duty and Dalmana’s truce festered inside me.
My Tarkir was at the front, his chitinous carapace brown and shining, recently polished. I imagined the feel of it underneath my calloused fingers. I imagined the taste of his coconut oil against my tongue. He was smiling, his black eyes wide and bright and full of wonder. My heart grew as heavy as iron; it fell to my feet, and I became weighed down by it. My sisters continued to stand at attention, their shoulders back, their spears held at their sides. But my shoulders hung low, my spear loose in my hand.
My stomach was hollow with knowledge of this truce, of this peace.
Dalmana approached first, then Tarkir came to meet her under the boughs of a long-dead acacia tree. She called for me to join her, and my feet dragged through the flat sand. She gave me her knife and spear, to solidify the truce. Tarkir called for Kuvo, his right hand, to join him. Tarkir held his claw at rest, down at his side. Both Tarkir and Kuvo smiled in recognition of me, but it was Kuvo who took hold of my hand with a ferocity that shook my bones.
Then it began.
“Who proposes this truce?” Kuvo asked. His voice as confident as always.
“We do,” Dalmana and Tarkir said together.
The truth will not let me deny it, Tarkir and Dalmana were harmonious in that golden light. All of them harmonious: their voices, their smiles, the way their eyes danced off each other. Tarkir held Dalmana’s hand with a familiarity and a tenderness that he never had with me. With a love that I never had for either of them. Dalmana appeared truly at peace with Tarkir: her breathing was slow like the breeze. Her hair shone like his carapace, and visions of the two of them in his bed, on top of one another, behind one another, warred in my mind.
“In what way?” Kuvo asked.
Tarkir drew a line in the sand with his claw.
“This is the line that separates the Ratch from the Vashwa. It is the line that separates my love from my duty. I will not have them separated any longer. I will cross this line for love and duty because they are one and the same.”
“No,” Dalmana said. “I will cross this line for love and duty because in my heart, they are both most needed.”
Dalmana stepped over the line first, placing her hand on Tarkir’s shining carapace. Her eyes did not leave his; his eyes did not leave hers. My grip was strong on my spear, as strong as Dalmana had taught me. My shoulders were back, now, my eyes were on Tarkir’s chest. I knew what had to be done. I knew what I must do for love and duty. I knew what was most needed for me, for mine.
Tarkir’s right foot stepped over the line, his gaze locked on Dalmana. Kuvo stepped forward to protect Dalmana from the other Scorpion Men, his back facing me. Only my sisters could see me. And their eyes were all that I wanted; all that I needed. As Tarkir’s tail passed the line, I stepped in front of him with my spear held ready.
He smiled at me.
“Hello, Awanshe, Jewel of the Vashwa,” he said.
I said nothing. Instead, I lunged forward, thrusting my spear up and between the segments of Tarkir’s chitin carapace. Up and in, piercing Tarkir’s soft and tender heart. He was not smiling as his blood trickled out of his lips. His lips that I once kissed hard, kissed tenderly, kissed longingly. He was not smiling as he grabbed hold of my spear and looked at me with his black eyes wide, full of wonder, full of pain. I did not blink. I only thrust the spear forward again. I thrust it in deeper, in farther, and finally twisted it.
The hollow pit in my stomach was not sated as I threw Tarkir aside. It grew larger; my rage grew larger. It burned hot inside me as Dalmana grabbed my arm, her voice shaking, her body shaking. She screamed, “Awanshe, no!” I saw the pain written on her face. I saw the tears shining in her eyes. But I could not kill her, too. My heart grew sick at the thought; it then stuttered as I looked down at Tarkir’s paling face, at the blood flowing from his mouth.
I had done this, and it had done nothing to sate my jealousy. The emotion was still there, drowning me. The thunder of hundreds of footsteps was now coming for me, coming for war. This was what was most needed. This was my love and duty.
War for betrayal. Hate for hate.
I felt Dalmana’s grip tighten on my arm, her trembling fingers this time spoke not of desire, but of fear. “Why?” she asked. “Why?”
But I would not say. I could not say.
I did not have to tear my arm away. Dalmana was torn from me by many of my sisters. They tore at her with their fingernails. They tore at her with their voices. They tore at her with their teeth, sating their bloodlust.
I was torn away by Kuvo. His bulk black and shimmering; his rage just as dark. Night was coming quickly; the battle would wear itself out before dawn. This I knew. So, as Kuvo swung his giant claw at my head, I ducked below it. As I ducked, I took a handful of sand. And when I stood, I blew him a kiss.
The sand flew into his mouth and eyes. He spat on it, choked on it. He screamed from the blinding pain. In his flailing, I jabbed my two spears into his soft-skinned leg and pinned him deep, deep into the flat desert sand. It was foolish to remain. It was foolish to stay where he could retaliate. Where he could recover and destroy me. So, I left him there, writhing, cursing, and trapped.
I had only two knives to fight my way to an escape. To abandon Dalmana and my sisters. To flee. But I did flee. I did escape. When I reached the red rocks of the Vashwa, I could not look back. I only heard the sounds of death and slaughter below. I left my sisters behind. I left my love behind to go to her house; to take her food and her water; to kiss her daughters goodbye.
I vowed to make my own truth as I traveled to softer lands, to greener lands. To your lands. The truths that I have told you. The truths that all in this city and the cities that surround us now know.
Does the Vashwa still live? I do not know. Does the Ratch still thrive? Again, I do not know. I do not want to know. The truth is something I ran from long ago. The weight of it will kill me. I buried my emotions long ago. Tucked them underneath my carapace; let them fester like an old wound. The ghost of them now causes my old bones to ache with their memory.
Surely you can understand.
I have no daughters to carry on my stories, no legacy to live out the consequences of my lies. I have only this: that I, Awanshe, Jewel among Jewels of the Vashwa, killed all she loved that day on the flat desert sand. And that Awanshe, Jewel among Jewels of the Vashwa, has lived on a diet of lies ever since.
What a terrible burden to bear.