That Rough-Hewn Sun42 min read

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Death or dying, Violence
Originally appeared in Methods Devour Themselves: A Conversation, Zero Books, 2018.

In a time of siege, familiar topography becomes foreign and fluid. It is not a matter of deprivation but a strangeness that’s descended like a mirage, making a labyrinth of Kemiraj’s streets, ribcages of Kemiraj’s tapered roofs. The architecture and avenues that Lussadh knows as well as the working of her muscles, the teeth and wheels of her mind, all have become displaced from memory.

She thinks this as she scales the western wall, up toward the Gate of Glaives. She does not hide her face. Now of all time, it is imperative that she is seen, the prince, the king-in-waiting, climbing the ramparts. It is symbolic; she performs. There is no grit in the wind to shield her eyes from. That, too, has changed. The air is damp, vaporous, thawed ice gone to mist.

One last step mounted. She is shaded from the day, which despite the siege remains itself, gold-white and lethal. She is also obscured from the sight of marksmen, though conventional combat ceased months past. For the moment, she is not at risk of bullets. Enemy soldiers, parched and sun-blind, retreated ignobly in a disaster of strategy and logistics. Their general is a fool. The desert is its own world, a terrain that has created its own laws. Every last infantry must be armed with comprehension of the human body: the proportion of liquid, when to replenish it, how to tame the demon of thirst. The balance of the flesh is not a lesson foreign invaders can learn overnight, or even over months.

Lussadh puts a spyglass—once a situational instrument, subject to the whims of sandstorms—to her eye. Now the skyline is always clear. She peers, expectant, searching. It is not as though her eye, however inured to the glare and the terrain, can match the seer-scouts and their paper hawks. But she wishes to see for herself, and they report to the king first, not to the prince.

Empty, as they have said. But toward the vanishing point, she sees a trim of white upon the bronze, mantling the shoulders of a dune. This pallid stippling seems closer than it was two days ago, evidence of a gradual advance. A trajectory that gathers speed, little by little, the direction relentless.

The Winter Queen, it is told, does not require food or rest.

§

In her wing of  the palace, corridors bristle like briars, the doors shiver deceptively petal-soft, and the walls hiss sibilant with guard snakes. This part used to be different, somber geometry and dressed panels, but in the last three years the current look have come to suit Lussadh better. The new features have made her wing difficult to enter, the hallway that separates it from the king’s court thick with thorns and bifurcated tongues. The architecture answers to her moods.

One of her tigers is waiting by the inner gate, serene, not especially eager. She strokes its head, its fur passing like silk water under her palm, its ears twitching briefly. This is the entirety of its obeisance, its greeting, and for this, she has found tigers much preferable to people.

“My lord.” Her aide Ulamat steps from the ophidian shadow, almost as quiet as the tiger. He takes her outer robe and bows. “Colonel Zumarr awaits your pleasure.”

She sheds her gloves, hands those to him as well, and imagines a world in which she may rove about her city without performing the role of her birth. There are lesser cousins of the al-Kattan name, and there are those who have abdicated their responsibilities; she is not one of them—ambition and hunger, as the king says, are too addictive a thrill, too delicious a force, for those like her and Lussadh. Though the pleasure has grown wan these past few years, in a time of siege it is not a choice. Her window of opportunity has passed since. “I’ll receive xer in my study.”

There is not much to clean off, the weather being what it is, but she changes into something lighter and polished. Whatever the occasion, it is important to appear in total poise. The bloodline of the sun. She wears gold, by tradition—a glimpse of the divine fire at her throat or earlobe. But the rest of her attire is indigo more often than not, save for during court functions.

She limns her eyes, a dusting of rose, a line of kohl.

When she enters, Zumarr stands at attention, then drops to one knee.

“Rise,” says Lussadh.

“Little has changed, Highness.” Xie cuts a narrow figure, profile as trim as a blade turned sideways. Stronger than xie looks, with beautiful muscles—Lussadh knows personally. A paper wasp perches on xer wrist, one of xer many familiars. “The queen marches,” xie says. “And where she treads, the land alters. She leaves a wake of winter. One would’ve thought it would evaporate behind her. When we cut her down five days past—a clean shot through the spine, one through the head, another through the heart—she merely got up again, as before.”

Three points of severance, simultaneously. It usually kills most things. “I do wonder why it is that we call her by her preferred title.” The Winter Queen. An arrogant way to call oneself, but she has given no other title. Far and wide, among her subjects or to her enemies, she is addressed only as this. A title, an office, not a name or a person. “Normally you mock your enemies. You give them unflattering nicknames. Yet here we are, being prim and proper about her. How far away is her envoy?”

“They arrive tonight, in I would say six hours. Alone, no more armed than would be ordinary. On horse.”

“On horse,” Lussadh repeats. “How have they survived.” In the desert, the air itself hosts vultures. Carrion beasts in the sky, carrion beasts roaming across the rocks and beneath the sand. When the queen’s soldiers did not fall to the heat or the sun, they fell to the lynxes of the winds, the golden chameleons that hunt at daybreak. A thousand dangers for those naive to the terrain.

A pause, abashed. “We think it is some protection bestowed by the queen. No predator approaches the envoy. Nor do they appear to thirst or fatigue.” Zumarr does not admit or betray fear. Xie is not a creature given to anxieties. Even so, there is a slight faltering. “Such protections are not impossible. A potent alchemist of the spirit can alter skin to endure extreme temperatures, or the digestive system to forget hunger.”

Lussadh does not ask whether her grandaunt the king has received this same report; it is moot. But Zumarr is one of a handful who do, after all, come to her first. She gazes out the window, at the flat sky. Her room is higher than most, though nowhere can be built very tall. When she goes abroad, it is the towers that engage her the most, their marvelous height. Palaces, the scriptoriums of temples. Sites of proximity to the sky and therefore to apotheosis. So much of the world believes that. To fly is to be liberated from the earth, from primate origins. “My thanks. That’ll be all. On your way out, can you tell Ulamat to bring me the count of their casualties?”

“Of course.” Xie rubs at xer mouth, a nervous tic. “And if I may, my lord, Her Majesty will not want to see you in indigo. It has been … some time.”

It has been three years, though xie is much too polite. “I’ll take that into account.”

Three years since the king had her execute a girl from Shuriam, the land of bone fastnesses and ivory sentinels. Three years since the king had her execute her first lover.

Yet she does not wear indigo to mourn that, or even the annexation of Shuriam. She wears it to mourn her own faith, her own certainty.

But that truth belongs to her alone.

§

The envoy is called Crow.

As Zumarr promised, they arrive at night. By the Gate of Glaives, under the eyes of seers and snipers, Crow surrenders their weapons. One rifle, a knife, and a sword whose white blade ripples and whispers as it cuts the air. They bow to her with fluid grace, a gesture of foreign courtesy. “I did not think I would be received by the prince herself.”

Lussadh appraises the envoy. They are almost as tall as she is, long-waisted and thick-boned. Their jawline is prim, their skin as starkly pale as that of the queen they serve. She searches for any sign of frost, a suggestion of unnatural chill, but Crow seems as much flesh and blood as she. “We wish to accord the Winter Queen’s ambassador the highest honor.” She grips their sword by the hilt. It enters its scabbard with sweet smoothness, satin-soft. This and their other weapons she straps to her back. “I’ll personally take care of these and will see to it that when they return to you, they are spotless.”

“I would be grateful. The sword is Pious Pledge. It’s of sentimental value and has seen me through many battles. And I’m sure I won’t require it in Kemiraj.”

They take a circumspect path through the city, down tight alleys where seers’ familiars—moths and wasps, dragonflies and detached mandibles—can relay what they see to snipers stationed at high windows. Lussadh watches Crow, their gait, their bearing. Solid, easy. If they are aware or afraid of the snipers, they show none of it. But then they would not. Kemiraj has never welcomed an enemy emissary. The empire destroys or takes; it does not negotiate. There are no treaties—never have been. Until now.

On their part, Crow is polite, hardly the swagger of a winter agent secure in diplomatic immunity. They take in the lamplit streets, the sloping roofs, the mystic quartz hummingbirds that glint atop lampposts. She would judge that they are surveying with a traveler’s eye, a connoisseur’s interest rather than a scout’s. Confident of their queen’s strength or perhaps sharing her immortality.

At the palace, she sees them to their quarters, closer to her wing than to the king’s. “Her Majesty Ihsayn, Sun-Bearer, will see you before midday.” She holds out a heavy, thickset key. “Breakfast will be brought to you in the morning, and lunch after the audience. Which hour would suit you?”

Crow gives her an odd smile. “Truly I did not expect the prince to be so kind.” Their hand brushes hers lightly as they take the key. She’s startled to find their skin is warm rather than ceramic-cool, the way she imagines the queen’s servants would be. “Yours is a country that resembles a beautiful dream; any hour in it would suit. I wish you a restful night, Your Highness.”

A disarming person. No doubt this quality serves Crow well in their duties, even if winter bargains from a position of strength. And as Kemiraj never negotiates, neither has winter, until now.

Either way, she does not mean to sleep. There is business to take care of before dawn. She dresses and arms herself. Out into the streets once more, her steps light as she climbs onto the roofs. Zumarr would be watching, but for a time she will have the illusion of privacy. She finds a spot on the mezzanine of a gardener’s shed and waits. There is dew in the air, a dampness that might have been welcome once as benison, reprieve from the killing sun.

She keeps her calling-glass close to her ear. Zumarr’s voice soon comes through. Her cousin Nuriya has left the palace grounds, intent on taking advantage of the emissary’s arrival, the opening it has created.

Like Lussadh, Nuriya knows the city well. Ey is intimate with the fall of each shadow, the curve of each intersection. Beyond the walls, ey would also be closely familiar with the contours of every dune. None of them is raised indolent, and none of them is permitted to do less than excel at whatever they choose to pursue. Arms, strategy, commerce. Even at poetry and song, an al-Kattan must be worthy of their name. Those who do not answer this definition are fostered out to vassal houses—aristocratic houses, but shamefully lesser.

There was a time she might have let this be, allowing Nuriya to forsake dynasty and responsibility.

She shadows Nuriya, moving in parallel. Her cousin nears the Gate of Glaives but does not head straight for it. It will not open at this time of the night, save by command from the king or Lussadh herself. Nuriya instead turns to a narrow street, and from there into the back of a narrower house. To wait out the day, to slip out with a scout contingent or a supply train at dawn. In Lussadh’s ear, Colonel Zumarr lets her know what is inside the house: not much. A painter and his child. Not rich, not poor, kept in moderate comfort by Nuriya’s stipend. A lover, though she hopes the offspring is not Nuriya’s. Every bearer of the al-Kattan name watches closely for where they sow, one way or another. The king does not like illegitimate loose ends. The painter keeps to himself, according to Zumarr, and Nuriya has been seeing him for some two years.

She enters from the roof, winding snakelike through the window frame. Crouches in a shadow, the way court assassins have trained her, making use of perspective and natural blind spots: where the eye will settle first, where the eye will overlook. By function, a court assassin should undertake this task, but they are bound by word and seal to guard al-Kattan flesh; they may not harm it. It falls to the king and the prince to carry out royal executions. Not that the king would risk herself—she would be accompanied. The blow that severs mortality is the one that counts.

There is furniture in this bedroom but few belongings. The wardrobe is almost empty. On the ground, a broken doll made of cracked clay, its beaded hair trailing. Pigment jars on a bench, their bottoms thick with dregs of primary colors. Empty paint-smudged cups that might have held brushes and pens. Rolls of discarded paper, cross-hatched with charcoal. This is the look of decampment, possessions that matter packed away, perhaps sent ahead in a train and hidden among some trader’s cargo. Commerce continues apace, whatever the season. War, peace, stalemate.

Voices through the rough, thin wall, from the stairwell. They speak of sedating the child for the journey. She cannot tell from Nuriya’s inflection whether it is al-Kattan offspring. There is a split-second decision to make depending on whether it is the painter who enters first or Nuriya emself.

Nuriya, to her fortune. Easier this way.

The painter would have been oblivious for the first minute or three. Nuriya is sharper. Ey sweeps the room with eir gaze, visibly relaxes for a moment before realizing—by sight as much as smell, palace perfumes—that ey is not alone. The immediate alertness, the coiling and readying for locomotion, individual ligaments and muscles tensing. A gun is drawn.

“Nuriya.” Lussadh doesn’t move from her spot; it doubles as cover. “You know that to depart now, of all times, is unusually treasonous.”

“I abjure my name.”

“I can grant you a chance.”

“How kind of you. No.”

The whiplash noise of a gun being cocked. Lussadh and Nuriya used to be close; she knows what round ey prefers, smoke and spitfire. It melts stone.

She also knows, with exactness, how Nuriya fights. They were frequent sparring partners, and Lussadh sometimes let em win. One learns more about people that way, she finds, in their moments of victory.

For good or ill, Lussadh is the one selected, the one made prince. Each day she breathes she must justify her title, or else.

Lussadh does not wait for the first shot to fire; she has the advantage. She throws her knife, hilt first, and the blunt weight of it cracks across Nuriya’s wrist. Disarm, subdue. She is across the room, bearing down on her cousin. A fist to the gut, hard enough to wind, not so hard it would fracture ribs. “You can still come back.”

Nuriya gags on eir saliva. Footfalls from the outside. “Don’t come in!” ey gasps out, breathy but still heard. The footfalls pause. “You don’t have to do this. Winter will fell Kemiraj. This is the enemy that’ll end us. You can leave, find another life, find even one where you can become a lord in your own right, unbeholden to any higher authority or destiny. Imagine that. Imagine a life other than this. What does the king care for you except as a device to rest her crown upon, someone to take her place when she passes? I remember the girl—”

Lussadh looks down at em. She imagines her expression a canvas as perfect as a dune on a windless day. “I do not remember,” she says mildly. “Kemiraj will not fall so easily.” She picks up her knife, slices across with precision. No point to prolong the suffering. It is not even anger that animates her, just expediency. The moment has outstayed its welcome; time to hurry it along.

Regardless of the source, blood is a phenomenon. Beast or human, common or royal. The geyser of it from the jugular, so much arterial pressure. The painter has not entered. She wonders if he is listening at the door. Through her calling-glass, she says to Zumarr, “See to it that the painter receives a widow’s recompense.” The same as the spouse of any fallen soldier. “And bring me a sack, the absorbent kind.”

She unsheathes her sword. Decapitation necessitates more than a knife. There is a saying that no two affections are alike, and that is true, but after killing the first loved one the second is much easier. By her third, Lussadh expects, she will feel nothing at all. She glances up at the window to make sure she has total privacy: Nuriya deserves that much. On the pane she pried open to get in, there is a furring of frost, and for a moment it seems as if it might resolve into something: a silhouette, tall, like the outline of a mannequin. But the ice melts fast, and when she touches the glass again there isn’t even a drop. She merely leaves a fingerprint, sticky and red as congealed claret.

§

King Ihsayn: Sun-Bearer, Ghazal of Conquest, the lord who has added twelve provinces to al-Kattan territory. Even in the privacy of her library, without crown or armor, she is an avatar of might. Broad, though softer than she used to be, and imposing despite her lack of height—many towers over her, including Lussadh. Her chair is simple wood and lightly upholstered, but with her in it, by definition, it has transmuted into a throne. She sits with a hummingbird in her palm, the crest animal, a bird that can sip from cacti without being pierced by their thorns. “What news, Lussadh?”

“I have brought Nuriya to heel.” Lussadh sets the box down. Ulamat has dressed and cleaned the head, lined the casket. Most of the fluids have been drained out, the glistening attachment to the spine removed, but best to be safe.

“I grieve eir loss.” Said as though the matter was inexorable and immutable, the way dawn and dusk proceed. “Ey had promise and was such a capable commander.”

In the dialect of Ihsayn, this means Nuriya was a good spare, had Lussadh met with misfortune or proven unworthy. “Where shall I put eir remains, Majesty?” It is her first execution of another al-Kattan, the one area of protocols she is not familiar with.

Ihsayn returns the bird to its cage, shuts the little door with a gilded tinkle. She retrieves the casket, takes a look, nods. “Have the head frozen for now. You’ve done perfectly, as always. Among our illustrious family—” Her mouth twitches. “Among that, the multitudes of children my siblings and nieces have so helpfully produced, you’re the gold among the brass.”

Lussadh goes to one knee. “That is high praise, Your Majesty.”

“Only just praise has meaning. Flattery is chaff.” Ihsayn passes a hand over the marble map on her table. Ink vectors stir into motion, like unquiet poetry. They usually signify troop positions, enemy resupply sites and lines of transport: the accountancy of battle. At the moment, only one vector shows meaningful activity, at the border between the outermost provinces and a garrison town. “Winter doesn’t parlay, so it is said. The queen demands surrender, takes the answer—yes or no—and proceeds accordingly. What do you wager goes on in her mind?”

Death by starvation, death by cold. The Winter Queen conquers lands that have never known snow. Lussadh expects few can survive the change—not the young children, nor the ailing old. A country yields in life or in death, but it submits all the same to this alien creature’s advance. “For someone of her nature, the desert proves more of a challenge than most. She isn’t much of a tactician.” Not that she has to be. “It depends on what she will claim to want from us.”

During her reign, the king has had the map altered a dozen times. Ihsayn touches the area around the queen’s marker. “Ambition such as hers is reckless; her expansion is hardly tenable. Nations are not founded on simple hunger and bloodthirst. One acquires territory because it holds something one covets. I take it that her emissary is thus far not forthcoming.”

“A difficult person to read. The bearing of a soldier, the manners of a courtier. The queen’s compatriot, I’d guess.”

“And there is an oddity: by all accounts, this Crow has never been seen. Not at her side, not anywhere. They weren’t present among her infantry or commanders. I watched them rendezvous with the queen, and they are who they claim to be. Yet…” The king circles her map the way a hunting beast might circle trapped prey. Lussadh understands this: for the moment, cartography is adversarial. The next time this map is redrawn, it may not be to Ihsayn’s favor or Kemiraj’s glory. “Her emissary is a secret, I’m certain of it. A tool deployed in exceptional circumstances.”

It is conjecture, but Lussadh lacks the information to counter. She, therefore, elects to say nothing. It would be chaff, as the king would say.

“Have you thought of defeat?” Her grandaunt’s tone makes it clear this question, like so many others, is a test.

Once, three years past. Bedsheets sopping with hemorrhage. There was the option of sand or courtyard, but she had wanted that moment to belong to her solely. Between the two of them. How impractical, in hindsight. “No. I’ve contemplated the conditions that might lead to it, but that is not the same.”

“And your courage cannot be faulted.” Ihsayn sweeps her hand across lines of demarcation, the reduction of cities and populations to paint.

Her grandaunt wishes something of Lussadh: a task, a test. She waits as the moving vectors disperse, the map once more an ornamental declaration of Kemiraj’s ever-expanding borders, seemingly an item that exists in service to the king’s ego and nothing more.

Ihsayn is not someone who paces, who fills the silence with nervous motion. Such habits belong to the lesser, she has said. But she does gaze into the distance now, eyes falling on the shelves where she keeps her favorite books. Not volumes on military history, the rise and fall of dynasties or republics. Her favorites are nature historians, those who study birds, who write long treatises on the poesis inherent in the span of coverts and alulas: the beauty of beaks, the monstrous insides of an avian mouth. Lussadh knows because she’s checked that shelf. Often, she wonders what Ihsayn’s childhood and youth were like. Whether the king was much like Lussadh, pitted against other al-Kattan children, vying to be heir. Whether Ihsayn had executed her share of treacherous lovers. But if such deeds are part of her history, Ihsayn is at peace. The king’s portion of the palace is open splendor, tall insulated windows and broad chambers, smooth mosaic floors, and soft walls where beautiful illustrated aristocrats hunt. A pristine conscience.

“Crow is an opportunity. I want you to do anything necessary to draw them out. The seers have shown me what they look like.” And, judging by Ihsayn’s absent gaze, she is observing Crow in the guest quarters as they speak. “It ought to be no ordeal.”

Lussadh glances at the hummingbird in its cage, but not for long. “Your Majesty, I very much doubt a monarch’s prized agent can be suborned through means so unsophisticated.”

“Do you?” The king smiles. “Desire is a potent currency, as you’re well aware. At our roots, we are base impulses. There may be an opening to exploit. If not, you’ll have tried your best.”

It was as much chastisement—a reminder that Lussadh fell to her own base impulse—as dismissal: You’ll have tried your best. “I will see what can be done, Majesty.”

She calls Ihsayn that—never aunt or grandaunt.

§

The reception is as folded in ceremony as any other, and like most public ambassadorial affairs, next to nothing of meaning passes. Crow gives obeisance, sharply correct, and does not miss a single title of Ihsayn’s. They extend the courtesy to Lussadh. “Prince of al-Kattan, the Dastgah that Strikes, the sword to the crown. To you the Winter Queen sends her greetings.”

“Which I accept as host to her envoy.” Lussadh occupies her customary place, a seat below the king’s. The subsequent one, a chair lesser than hers, is empty. Ihsayn has not had a spouse or favored concubine for many years. “Kemiraj gives you welcome, and Her Majesty grants you audience.” The signal that says Crow may rise.

They do so, small in the deific-scale hall, alone on the mosaic floor and limned in morning sun. For the occasion they have donned an elaborate ensemble: layered silk robes defined by straight lines, secured by a black sash. Their hair is held by a long hairpin from which silver hyacinths depend. Their resemblance to the queen is striking, illuminated. Offspring, nephew, cousin’s get. That close in kinship. Younger than Lussadh first took them for—not far from her age. “Winter does not seek conflict with the dynasty of the sun,” they say. “The queen wishes for a relation and sees no gain in us bringing each other to ruin, or at least to squander. She regrets the losses on both our parts.”

Ihsayn regards the emissary from her elevated vantage, outwardly impassive, disinterested. “What does she propose?”

“An exchange of knowledge. We shall send our finest scholars and inventors to your university, and they will learn from your scientists and alchemists. In such a way, we may engage in the most honorable of commerce and come to peace. Winter most wishes to have you as ally.”

In other words, spies. No doubt some would be legitimate scholars, but not all. Lussadh glances at her king.

“An ennobling idea that will enrich us both.” The king spreads one hand, munificent, as though months ago she was not slaughtering winter soldiers and they weren’t doing their level best to terminate the al-Kattan lineage. “I am amendable to this. Indeed, the prince shall show you the university herself, and we shall see from there the fine details of our agreement.”

Crow bows deeply. “The wisdom of the Sun-Bearer is renowned, as is her magnanimity. I thank you for this chance, Your Majesty.”

The conversation seems underwhelming after all the artillery those months past, but then both sides are acting on pretense. Further pleasantries are traded, monarchic praises. Too humble by far, Lussadh thinks, for the agent of winter who may be the queen’s relation. Nor has Crow admitted to any title. Hard to read, harder to place in hierarchy. She scrutinizes the robes and attempts to divine their meaning: Does the sash indicate rank? Does the color or texture of the silk? But they are foreign; she has never seen their like.

She escorts Crow out of the audience hall, curious to see them move in the heavy attire. They are no less fluid, and they make their wood sandals look elegant. The robes add to their dignity rather than impede their movement. They are observing her in turn, and she wonders what they make of her, the gun and blade at her hip, the circlet atop her skull. “I wasn’t able to have them prepare food you might find familiar, but perhaps you’d be in the mood to try our cuisine.”

“I have an adventurous palate.” Crow smooths down their wide sleeves. The folds seem voluminous, infinite; anything can be hidden within their shadow. “It may be impolitic to mention this, but I was there to bear witness, and I thought you magnificent on the battlefield. Like the red-gold god, who in my homeland governs the science of combat.”

“Were you on the field?”

“After a fashion. While I can fight, I was there as a … standard-bearer, if you will. A symbol.” Their hairpin tinkles as their head twitches side to side. A fragrance of apple and cinnamon emanates from them, some strange edible perfume. “You fueled our officers’ nightmares. So many sleepless nights given to imagining how you would dismember or torture or behead them. In a way, it kept them disciplined.”

Despite herself, Lussadh almost laughs. Obvious flattery, but Crow is so matter-of-fact about it. She does not press as to what exact capacity they filled in the queen’s army. That would be for later.

They have lunch in the river room, the one part of Lussadh’s wing that has not been overtaken by thorns and serpents. She has kept it clear. The artificial stream that bisects the room gleams with small fish, their scales like precious metals and eyes like rubies, framed by banks sculpted from sandstone. There are pots of trimmed hedge and imported anthuriums in every color that she can get her hands on: albumen white, pollen yellow, jade green.

“You must like this flower,” Crow says.

“I’m impressed by their endurance. They aren’t a desert plant, but with a little help they’ve got exceptional longevity. One of my tutors was fond of violets. To please her I tried to grow some. As you might imagine, however much water I squandered, they couldn’t be kept alive for long.”

“The prince is most practical in what she finds beautiful.”

“I am of Kemiraj,” Lussadh says. It is an explanation, in its own manner. “What about you; what do you find beautiful?”

“Strength. Not necessarily strength at arms, strength of the body, or even strength of the intellect; I mean strength to resist inertia, to break free from a prescribed path. Strength to carve one’s course. That is what I find the most superb.”

Lussadh finds her smile a little tight. Too close to home, too like Nuriya’s taunt. Coincidence; naturally, Crow would profess to lofty ideals.

Servants bring their meal: covered platters of garlic flatbread, bowls of curry and milk curds, dethorned cacti stuffed with spices and ground lizard meat. Lussadh makes a point of sampling from every dish first to show her guest that the food is safe to eat, that Kemiraj would not stoop so low as to poison an ambassador. On short notice, she can learn much about someone through these simple means—in combat or at a meal. The manner of eating tells the upbringing or at least the training: whether someone converses over food, how quickly or deliberately they consume, whether they pick at their plate. Crow is, as they promised, adventurous and does not balk at eating cactus. They ask if it was fried in olive oil, how sumptuous. There is efficiency to how they dine, and she can believe they have been in the field, in circumstances where meals are rationed and irregular and must be finished in good time.

“If you will forgive me, Prince Lussadh,” Crow says as they spread milk curds on a flatbread, “I expected you would be more extravagant in person. Louder, more raucous. But you’re as dignified as any poet.”

She refills both of their cups. Chilled milk, sweetened with honey. From the rim of her cup, she meets Crow’s gaze with one eyebrow raised. “Is it so bad a thing, to be quiet?”

“It’s a trait that intrigues. But it is not that you’re merely quiet. You observe. Ah—may I? I’ve to redo my hair.” Crow cranes their neck sideways, unnecessarily. It draws attention to the line of their throat, to the hollow at the base, those exquisite places that invite the lover’s fingers and mouth. They smooth down their hair, repin it. They smile. “I am not used to being the subject of study. Like you, I prefer to be on the other end.”

“I would have thought someone of your station would be used to attention.” Lussadh leans forward a little, allowing that show of interest. Her grandaunt’s order or not, she will concede that Ihsayn is correct in that the task would be no ordeal if she chooses to carry it out. She has overseen torture. This is more pleasant, as far as the arithmetic of it goes.

Crow laughs, a velvet sound. “What is my station? I am my queen’s instrument. In her lands, many would have my life so they may displace me in her favor. But this is gorgeous food in even better company. Rank has fallen away; I feel capable of anything.”

§

Over the next weeks, Lussadh guides Crow through the city, its shops and gardens, its temples and academies. She does not show them the city garrison or palace defenses and does not mention the seers or the assassins, and Crow does not ask. Zumarr relays that the queen’s march has paused, far out at the borders where she has raised a little palace for herself made of her element. Though Crow must be in communication with the Winter Queen, they rarely mention her.

At the temple to the sun, in a prayer room of rutilite tiles and murmuring fountains, Crow asks whether Lussadh believes herself a containment for divinity. “It seems odd to come to a temple when you’re the object of veneration.”

“We don’t literally think we are gods incarnated in mortal coil,” Lussadh says. “What we are is a deific contract. We pay tribute to what is above us and carry out what they require of the earth. This may seem oblique, but it follows a certain logic.”

“Ah, a little like priests. Still, that makes you worthy of worship.” Crow’s gaze turns, fractionally, speculative. “There is a magnetism to that which is holy.”

“Indeed?”

“Back in my birth country, I had this habit. I was a person of faith, and I left offerings at every temple, spent a great deal of time praying. I began to notice how self-contained and pure the priestesses and shrine maidens were. That drew me. I suppose I made a game of seducing and tempting them.” They say this lightly, leaving it ambiguous, perhaps a joke and perhaps not.

Lussadh fills a cup of water from the fountain, gestures to the prayer basin. “I know little of seduction, but I would be pleased to show you how we pray to the sun. Hold your hands over the basin, like so.” The emissary has eidolic wrists. Her body and theirs touch at the hip, the shoulder, forearm to forearm. Lussadh can feel their breath on her cheek. “Summon your closest desires to the forefront of your thoughts.” She tilts the cup over their joined hands. “Now you are blessed, and your wishes wheel closer to fulfillment.”

They remain in her loose hold, their damp wrist cool next to hers. “And is this all the more potent because a princely demigod gave me benediction?”

“As to that, I cannot attest.” Lussadh sets down the cup. “But I’m curious what methodology is effective on holy women. One day I may find myself in need of such tactics, and, as you said, an exchange of knowledge is the noblest of commerce.”

Crow’s grin is quick, a flash of slightly crooked teeth. “First you approach at a distance, so as not to alarm your quarry.” They step away with a rustle of silk and lean against the wall. “You arrange yourself strategically—I would drape myself across a bench or kneel by an altar, if any is available. It’s best to look faint and tortured. Perhaps you reach out, breathless, and beg for spiritual salvation.” They stretch their hand forward.

Lussadh does not quite take it. She holds her palm to theirs, a millimeter of air between. “And those ordained must give you succor.” Their fingers meet, the lightest contact, and part. “Taking you to a secluded, private place fit for cleansing the soul.”

“Much like this little chamber. There I’d ask them about yearning, about passion, and guide their attention to—I cannot replicate it here; it requires a certain mode of dress, certain assumptions, to find the revelation of a collarbone risqué.” Crow loosens their collars, even so. “Have you ever wanted something desperately only to have it slip out of your grasp? Have you ever felt the agony of absence. On I’d continue, quite cornering the poor priestess? At this point, I would take my leave, for to go all the way through seems like a terrible sin.”

“Considerate,” Lussadh says, her mouth twitching, “and cruel.”

“I like to think I was helping them preserve their vow of celibacy.” They draw themselves up, their posture straight once more, no longer an offering. “Oh. I must ask, as a matter of academic interest, do you keep to such a vow? For you are in your fashion—”

Lussadh looks Crow in the eye, directly. “No, I can’t say I have ever considered practicing celibacy.”

“Ah.” Their expression is a between thing, secret, shadowed. “This has been most educational.”

They leave the temple, speaking of the inventors and scientists that would arrive from winter. Crow gives a schedule, lays out the logistics, though it is all pretext. But pretexts fill up spaces and populate what would otherwise be blank; they are the ink of governance. The queen is willing to expend the resources necessary to transport a dozen people to Kemiraj who may or may not be scholars. Lussadh bargains it down to half a dozen—easier to monitor, easier to control—citing that it is early days. Crow agrees.

In the evening she summons Zumarr, who notifies her that the queen has not advanced and there have been no winter troop movements. Good news, Lussadh supposes, though by now the queen should have withdrawn. Whatever her true intent, with Crow here as her spy her presence at the border serves no purpose other than as a threat. Except Crow has not hinted at anything remotely menacing, has accepted Lussadh’s every requirement. There is something winter wants, or Crow wants, that she can’t quite yet see.

She keeps an eye on the westering sky. As an adolescent she wanted more than anything to wander beneath it, to be a courier who could always be on the move. Transient inside and out, stopping for rest only when necessary. She’d told the Shuriam girl, who said, Inside all of us is a second self, one that could have been. We’re an envelope for futures. But we all dream of falling, great prince. Did the girl know, even then, and anticipate her conclusion? The way it’d end. Lussadh did not ask before the kill whether there was love, whether she’d ever meant anything she had said. Why bother. A prince cannot be that weak. Lussadh is not that weak. How the Shuriam generals must have laughed, up until the point she put a bullet in them.

She hasn’t been to Shuriam for a long time. Little enough remains in it, an array of empty fastnesses. Hardly a country, barely a city.

A knock on her door as she strips down for bed. She wraps herself loosely, and when she opens the door, she is not entirely surprised to find Crow. They are in a pale, spectral robe weighed down by hyacinths at the hem, at the sleeves. Their feet are bare, white against the black floor, a statue’s immaculate feet.

“I’m impressed,” Lussadh says, “that you didn’t step on a snake or a thorn.”

“I have my ways.” Their voice is low, a whisper. “May I come in?”

She steps aside. Shuts the door. Crow’s robe is thin, nearly translucent. Little is hidden—no place to conceal a weapon, unless it is the secret kind, concealed between gums or on tongue tip. “Will you want something to drink? I may not—it’s not past midnight and still the day of pendulums. The time of the week where one must keep a vigilant mind and avoid all intoxicants.” Coitus not being on the list of prohibited acts, which she’s always found faintly amusing.

They press their hand against their front, as though to keep their robe tightly shut. “I too wish to be of clear wits. You aren’t going to chase me out?”

“You are an honored guest of the palace. If I can entertain you at so late and dull an hour, I would be glad to.”

Crow laughs. “So courteous; so faultless. Someone like you I cannot imagine doing anything imperfectly. Anything.” They untie their hair; it falls, black, like solid ink. “I have a confession. For all my boasts of tempting priestesses, I have never—actually. Not with them, or anyone else.”

“Would you rather not, then? We have known each other for less than a month.”

They exhale. “I would rather.”

Lust, virgin curiosity, something else. They are both in a position of risk, precipitous. Yet here they are. “Then it would be an honor.”

Crow moves to undress. She stops them, saying, “Let me learn your attire.” Their broad sash comes to knot at the small of their back, and when it has been loosened there is not much that keeps their robe in place. There is no second or third layer, nothing under the white silk and the indigo hyacinths. There is only Crow.

Laid bare, they seem to shine under the lamplight. They turn in her arms, pulling the loose wrap from her. They palm Lussadh’s chest as if they mean to measure and map it, as if it might at any moment transform into another material—jade, quartz, a vessel of sunrays. “How soft your skin is,” Crow murmurs. “No one who thought you a terror on the battlefield would imagine.”

Lussadh cups the emissary’s jaw. The apple and cinnamon scent, Crow’s pulse throbbing in the side of their throat. These signifiers of vitality. “May I?”

Virgin or not, Crow is a bold kisser, all teeth, avid and expeditionary. They suck at Lussadh’s lower lip—Lussadh thinks of their mouth elsewhere—and when they break the kiss, Lussadh’s mouth is tender from their attentions, her heartbeat in thunder. Crow is breathing hard, trembling, their eyes bright.

It’s been some time since she’s taken to bed someone with Crow’s anatomy, and there are things she’s missed. Like this. “You’ve got gorgeous breasts.” Lussadh bends to them, their soft heft, the tight gathered nerves at their tips.

“A great prince must’ve seen finer—” Their breath cuts short. Their fingers curl in Lussadh’s hair.

Lussadh charts her way down, nibbling, licking. Crow’s stomach is a fascinating landscape, a record of their history and what uses they have made of their body. There are scars from combat and training, vivid striae from growing and living. Whatever else, it pleases Lussadh to make these small discoveries when she takes a new lover. The secret curves captivate her the most, the inside of an elbow, the back of a knee, the inner thigh. She attends to that last now, pinching the tender skin between her teeth. Crow’s voice climbs.

“Wait.” Their hands on her shoulders, staying her. Crow inhales, shuddering. “Inside me.”

“My fingers?” Lussadh bites again, lightly, another breath this close.

You. I want to know how it feels. I want to know how a prince feels in me.”

Lussadh makes sure, even so. She uses her thumb, her tongue, and finds the envoy as intoxicating as any wine—so much for the prohibition of the pendulum. When they kiss again, her chin is drenched, and Crow licks it off, this salt-and-tang of their arousal.

They watch as she oils herself.

Crow’s eyes clench shut when Lussadh eases in, and this she has to do little by little. Her breathing judders at the grip, the pressure, the slick heat. The drum of heartbeats in simpatico. “Hold onto me,” she whispers, hoarse.

Lussadh stands with their arms and legs locked around her. The distance between here and the bed is a short one, but her steps are unsteady and weighted. Each movement jolts a cry out of Crow. They fall onto the mattress, and here they are wordless, language discarded. There is only the supreme immediacy of skin and writhing chemistry, the sensation of sinking into one another. Crow’s low moans. Her own harsh, high gasps.

Quiet for a time, after that. Noiseless save for their breathing.

“Could we extinguish the lamps?” Crow’s voice is glazed, feathery. They lie facing one another, a nest of bunched sheets and sweaty limbs.

She passes her hand down the length of Crow’s spine, the wonderful inviting arch of it like good architecture. “A minute ago, you didn’t seem shy.”

“I know no shyness. I desire to see you in the moonlight.”

It is an exquisite demand. Laughing, Lussadh acquiesces. One by one, she snuffs out the lamps by her desk, by the bed. She draws the curtains all the way and stands before the glass, before the vastness of the sky, the shadow-shapes of a city asleep. The moon in full wax, ascendant, its light pouring down like thawed ice. Lussadh holds her arms out, pivots slowly on her feet.

“How is it possible,” Crow says softly, lying on their side, “that it is not known across all the realms that the prince of Kemiraj is beautiful beyond compare? What injustice it is that they sing your renown only in combat, in your acumen. But you are beautiful, beautiful. You’ve branded me from within. You’ve remade me.”

It is only sex, Lussadh could say. You will go on to bed others; it is nothing transcendent. She could say that and tarnish the moment. Instead, she says, “When I poured water over your hands in the temple, what did you wish for? Was it perhaps this?”

Crow studies her through half-lidded eyes, and the way they spread across her bed makes her want to grip their hips all over again, begin this frenzy once more. “A little of this. What I wished for the most was courage. When I departed my homeland, it was to leave behind the reign of unjust lords. I desired freedom from the fate they set down for me, which was to be a tool. I desired to reign over my own destiny.”

“You still serve your queen.”

“In some ways.” They smile up at her. “In others, not at all. In those ways, I am master of my wants and goals entirely. Let me taste your lips again, Lussadh. I long to forget everything and remember only you.”

Against the windowpane, they merely kiss.

§

A pattern is easy to fall into.

Lussadh reports to her king. She is thorough each time, conveying all she’s learned from Crow, every piece of intelligence. Ihsayn is impatient when Lussadh does not bring anything pertinent, and there is always the threat of the Winter Queen herself looming in the distance. “Winter is turning its gaze to Johramu,” Lussadh says one day, aware that everything Crow has said to her was meant for Ihsayn to hear. “It seems the queen intends to expand ever faster, and of her existing territories a quarter or so have been consolidated. There is some issue as to selecting her governors, for securing loyalty is not easy even for her, and despite her might, she cannot be omnipresent.”

Ihsayn has brought in more hummingbirds, half a dozen. All are silent, trained or bred to it, in cages by the window and next to the king’s map. To Lussadh it seems a sign of desperation, to have the al-Kattan living crest multiply. It is not strength; it is overcompensation. For the first time, she does not think Ihsayn an avatar of power. Instead, the king looks harried, diminished. “How does she mean to remedy this?”

“Crow would have been one of her governors, so they say. But, of course, they are here with us.”

Ihsayn looks away from one of the cages and studies her. The pause lengthens, crawls. “You don’t seem worried.”

“They are easy to handle,” she says, more or less truthfully. “Ulterior motives, naturally. I believe that they are hoping to negotiate with their queen. If they can get what she wants from us, they’ll have earned the favor to choose a domain to administer.”

“They tell you this?”

“I can discern their hints.” Lussadh visited the mausoleum the other day to pay respects to what is left of Nuriya. She liberated, from the casket of personal effects, a gun. Some conquered provinces remember their dead through ash jars; pistols she finds far more practical. “As to what their queen wants, Crow has not yet seen fit to reveal.”

“Perhaps she wants merely to stall us. It can be that simple. While she puts her territories in order, she can continue this pretense of intellectual exchange, sending us a spy or two, a few meaningless inventors. More comfortable than wasting her soldiers in the dunes.”

Lussadh has, for a change, not worn indigo anywhere on her. If the color on Crow bothers Ihsayn, she has not bothered to correct the envoy as to what it signifies in Kemiraj. Instead, Lussadh has put on princely attire, pomegranate red, chains of gold. It occurs to her that she is not only taller than her grandaunt but stronger, younger. That has always been obvious, but somehow Ihsayn’s presence has elided that, obscured it. Ihsayn has ever seemed ageless. Not today. “That must be so. The first of them will arrive next week, and I will ensure Crow doesn’t get time alone with them.”

Ihsayn’s head snaps up. Her expression is flat. “Not all winter soldiers were able to evacuate. One of my assassins captured a straggler near the garrison Nuriya used to command. This officer had something of interest to say.”

Under duress, Lussadh presumes. “Yes, Majesty.”

“I have held this straggler for many days. During that time, he has forgotten much. The human mind is a malleable thing, the inner gyroscope of it susceptible to reorientation by force. He did yield this: Crow’s likeness to the queen you have no doubt noticed. This officer claims they are not merely kin to the Winter Queen but a container for a piece of her. That Crow functions as an effigy and holds the queen’s mortality. Destroy the emissary and the queen perishes.”

She thinks of the white sword, locked away in her chamber. Crow has not even tried to look for it. “My king, that seems phenomenally unlikely. If such a binding exists, she wouldn’t send them far from her.” A standard-bearer, if you will. A symbol. Her pulse steps up.

“It would explain, wouldn’t it, why Crow was such a secret. Never before seen at her side. Where else to hide such a crucial piece but in plain sight, in a place where they enjoy total diplomatic immunity. What’s more, here they are safe from treachery in winter domain.”

In her lands, many would have my life. “This is a dangerous line of thinking, Your Majesty. We cannot attempt something halfway. To harm so much as a hair on Crow’s head—”

“Tell me,” Ihsayn says with a thin smile, “of the wealth of options available to us.”

Lussadh falls quiet. There is nothing to propose. It is impossible to suggest the Winter Queen’s terms were ever in earnest.

“Your next meal with them.” The king herself is never dressed in less than her finest. Of late there is a piece of armor on her nearly constantly. A breastplate, a gauntlet. A gorget, to protect the throat. “There will be poison you can ingest safely and which will leave them delirious for a day or two. We will use an unfamiliar ingredient to the emissary’s palate: wind-lynx meat. Anyone would be indisposed having that the first time. The seers will observe the queen, and we’ll determine our course of action from there.”

“And if Crow does not believe it an innocuous case of indigestion?”

The king looks at her. “Then I am sure you’ll be able to persuade them otherwise.”

Lussadh thinks of what she will wear. She could oversee the preparation of the meal in the kitchen herself, but the king will likely relegate that task to a court assassin. The addition of toxins must be exactly measured and weighed, calculated for the volume of food, the body mass of the diners. When the aim is not to kill but to test a theory, the process must be the most precise of all.

At dinner, Crow remarks how handsome her indigo dress is. “I’ve never seen you entirely in this color before. It suits you brilliantly.” They reach across and bring her hand to their mouth. “It makes you otherworldly. A vision.”

They eat the wind-lynx without objection. After all, it is tender, delicious: to mask a poison’s bitterness, the meat must be marinated that much longer, the spices must be added with that much heavier a hand. Lussadh can taste the toxin if she lets the meat linger in her mouth. She has been tasting it since she was ten, in minute amounts at a time. Building resistance had begun even before she’d been selected heir.

Come evening, she is informed that the emissary has fallen ill.

She visits them in their suite, still in the dress they like, plainly attired otherwise. She wears no jewelry. The only metal on her is Nuriya’s gun.

They are abed, eyes dilated, chest rising and falling fast. When she touches their hand, she finds their skin hot. Their fingertips feel raw, like little cinders in her palm. For a time, they lie there, between conscious and not, twisting beneath the sheets. She calls for a basin of cool water and a washcloth. She wets Crow’s brow, their bare shoulders. Even now, she thinks, they are exquisite. Is it true, deep affection to want to sit by the sickbed and see beauty even in weakness? Or else it is perversion, and she has been confounded by her upbringing, and that must apply to the Shuriam girl too. A mind that has not known love can hardly conceive of and practice it.

When Crow wakes, they seize her hand. “I need you to know,” they say hoarsely, “that I love you, Lussadh.”

“It’s the fever talking, emissary.”

Their grip tightens. The strength of it startles her. “I’m of clear mind. No matter what, I love you. It is not a thing I planned, yet what can I do?”

Has she heard this before? Did the Shuriam girl say this, or something like this? She can’t remember. Recall bends under the weight of duty, the accrued and crushing pressure of symbol. “You should try to rest,” Lussadh says. “I’ll stay here.”

“All night?”

“All night.”

They fall into uneasy sleep, eventually.

Toward midnight, Zumarr knocks. She steals away, shuts the door behind her, and speaks to xer in the corridor. The queen has been seen, stumbling out of her ice palace, falling to her knees. Not dying, far from that, but vulnerable. Mortal.

King Ihsayn’s order comes as night yields. Lussadh paces the suite on bare feet, wondering whether she should pull back the curtains and let in the dawn. No. The sun would be too harsh, and Crow is unwell. Some countries commemorate their dead in jars, in bone keepsakes. Shuriam does the latter, or rather it did, and sometimes she thinks that she should have kept the fragment of a skull or a phalanx. She has never been a stranger to the grip of a gun, yet it feels alien in hand now, eelish or serpentine. Slippery, a thing prone to falling. We all dream of falling, great prince.

She draws the gun.

By the bed, she kneels and touches Crow’s cheek. “Crow. Are you awake?”

They blink up at her slowly. A soft smile. “I dreamed of a future in which I can wake up to your face every morning. Can I have some water?”

“Yes,” Lussadh whispers. She fires. There is hardly any sound, so much cushioning. Flesh, sheets, mattress. It all muffles; it all turns a moment that should be unbearably loud into one that is almost silent.

The third time and, as she thought, she feels nothing at all.

§

The white blade is light, as though it was made from something other than steel. Bird-boned, if such a thing can be said of a weapon. Pious Pledge. Lussadh thought that a peculiar name for a weapon, peculiarly elegant. Not unlike its owner.

The ride to the old crematorium was long, solitary. Still, she has made good time. Her beast is comfortable and loose muscled in its armor, not tired. For the most part she was able to steer clear of predators, though half her carrion traps are gone, the decoys to lure the wind-lynxes and bind the chameleons. Navigating the desert without the protection of a retinue or a train is an exacting science. There are rails in the distance, black lines like a second horizon, but none of the routes come near this place. There are no reasons to. It is a relic, defunct and fading from even the memory of those who once utilized it. There are aspects of a holy place to the crematorium, the finials and naga scales of a temple winding up the spire that vented smoke. The walls stand shredded and perforated. What little remains of the stone is gouged by lynxes. Of the attached monastery, there is next to nothing left.

A quiet day, the wind stilled for now. She is safe from the lynxes, which cannot fly or perambulate on their own, dependent on the caprices of weather. Lussadh peers through her spyglass in the distance. As the seers have reported, the frost that encroached upon the dunes is gone. The Winter Queen’s abode must have melted or shattered. Now you are ready to be king, Ihsayn said, and you’ll be remembered as Kemiraj’s greatest hero. Historians will never forget you.

Lussadh pushes her way through a rusted gate. Empty, ruinous. She thought of doing this at the sun temple, but there was no way to safe-keep Pious Pledge there without the clergy informing the king. This crematorium used to be a playground for her and Nuriya. There was an appeal to a spot of absolute quiet, away from the monitoring of their retinues and caretakers.

She climbs to the second floor, where monks once presided over funeral rites, and looks for the pot of loam she and Nuriya brought all those years ago. By miracle it remains there, though the violets are gone; they never really sprouted. Ey had laughed at her. She had argued that violets might thrive on history.

The loam has hardened and dried. She places down hyacinths carved from imported wood, birch and cypress, and fresh anthuriums that have bruised from the journey but remain alive enough. Bright, lustrous. Then she takes out Pious Pledge and thrusts it into the soil.

At first, it seems her imagination that the air has grown tight and knifed. Then the crack, as of glass under stress. Her skin sears and a roar fills her as if thunder has infiltrated her veins, her heart gone to lightning.

A hand falls on her arm. She turns.

“I did mean it,” Crow says, “when I said I would love you no matter what. Your ruthlessness. Your warmth. Your desire.”

The same thin robe they wore on the night they first came to Lussadh’s room, the spectral shade of frost on a windowpane, the indigo hyacinths. Except… they are sparer of frame and taller, not so thick boned, not so— “You are not Crow.”

The Winter Queen’s head moves side to side. That familiar gesture. “Even my strength had its limits against this killing climate. To venture as far as your city, I required a vessel, and so I made Crow. My effigy, my second self. I never meant to get entangled as I did, but you worked a strange alchemy upon me.”

“I didn’t—” Lussadh inhales. She is paralyzed. She is… Something in her pulls and pulls. She can sense the limit of her tensile strength. Between that dawn and now, she thought herself transmuted to iron within and without, that she had achieved the final transition from person to function. A thing that performs what is given to it, never faltering. “What do you want?”

“When I left my homeland, it was to create my own maps, chart my own trajectory. In our time together…” The queen’s voice lowers, and then it is Crow’s. “You may not believe that I offered you my heart, but I did. Now I also offer you the chance. To leave your homeland and make your own purpose. Whatever you decide, I will leave to you Kemiraj’s fate.”

Can it be this easy, Lussadh thinks. Can anything? She looks at the flowers and the sword and feels the heft of Nuriya’s pistol. It occurs to her that she has not brought anything on this journey that signifies her connection to the throne.

Now you are ready to be king.

She pulls the white blade out of the hardened loam and offers it, hilt first, to the Winter Queen. “I suppose,” she says, “you will be wanting this back.”

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