Empire of Ghouls (the Chrysathamere Trilogy, Book II):
Annuweth lay on a bed in a Tyracian villa. The sheets smelled of dried sweat, of the coppery stench of his own blood. It was a smell that not even the garden breeze through the window could hide.
Inside, his body raged, at war with itself. His lips were chapped, and he felt a dry heat racing through him like the fury of the desert winds. His mouth was thick and gritty, as if choked with sand.
He felt much like he had all those years ago, when he’d lain weak and shivering after Tyrennis Castaval had tried to beat him to death. The fear crept in on him along with the darkness that always seemed to be gathering at the corners of his eyes, a darkness that might have been the beginning of sleep or the beginning of death. He was afraid that the darkness would claim him for good. He was afraid that even if it did not, he would not get better; afraid that his body was broken.
He needed his body; he wasn’t like his sister, whose greatest gift was her mind. His greatest gift was his sword hand. His speed, his strength. Without all of that…he wasn’t sure what he was.
Physicks came in and out. They pinched and poked and prodded and made the pain dance across his skin like a wicked child skipping across the cracks in a broken road. They peered at his chest, at his side, at his broken nose, at the gash across his face, and they forced water down his throat. They sewed him back together. That part made him weep with pain, though it shamed him. He wished he could gather the tears back into his eyes. He wished he could silence the sobs that racked his body. Tears are the recourse of those who have no other weapon, Karthtag-Kal used to tell him. Women and children.
The physick crept away, leaving him alone in the dark. His only tether to the world of the living was the rippling, gaping pain that wrapped around his chest like a red scarf.
While he was awake, the pain held him and rocked him in its arms. When sleep finally came, his dreams were no relief.
He stood by the edge of a rushing river, the night around him darker than any he had ever seen. There were no stars in the sky, and a single pale sliver of moon made the ripples on the black water shine silver like the toothy grin of a razorfish.
Figures stood before him—the knights who had sailed with him and Livenneth in the Bay of Dane. The children of Oba’al’s pillow house who had been his friends. Where their eyes had been were smoking holes; grave beetles crawled from rotting gashes in their skulls. Annuweth tried to raise his sword to fend the monsters away, but then he realized that his sword was just a broken stick.
From out of their ranks stepped the Graver. He grew giant, tall enough to blot out the stars. He took Annuweth in his hands and crushed the life from him, squeezing until Annuweth’s bones came popping out through his skin.
Annuweth woke up with his mouth open, but his scream died soundlessly inside him.
The next day Marilia came to him. Her blurred face hung over him like a half-finished silk tapestry distorted by the wind. She laid her hand on his brow and whispered to him that he would be all right, that she was sorry. So many things she whispered, on and on, until at last one of her men came to call her away.
Through half-shuttered lids he watched her walk to the window and look out at the garden.
He looked for sleep, but it would not come; it was stymied by the song that pounded through his head, over and over. A song he’d heard once as a child.
The tiger lord of westerland stood gazing out to sea
Golden clouds and golden sun, my lady’s gone from me
No, he thought. Make it stop. By the gods, by the spirits, just let me rest.
Her hair was black as midnight’s cloud, her eyes like living flame
Now I wake weeping in the night; with tears I call her name
A hundred men my spear laid low, I sent them to the pyres
I turned their broken halls to ash, the brave sons and their sires
He closed his eyes. He drew one breath; another. That was all he could do—keep breathing. One in, one out. On and on and until his broken body mended itself and he found the strength to stand again.
She lit candles for him. He wanted to tell her to stop, that the smell was too strong, that he was choking on them. But he could not find his voice.
The smoke tickled his face and curled in his hair like the fingers of his long-ago mother. It spun shapes in the air.
How bright his future had seemed, when he’d first ascended the steps to Karthtag-Kal’s villa. How long ago it felt now. How far away. It was this place, this city that had left him hollowed, laid its shadowy hand upon him. A curse that began the day Tyrennis Castaval laid him low.
Annuweth had imagined at the time that his father’s spirit had saved him, that the prefect’s blood that flowed in his veins had given him strength, had spared him from the wounds caused by Castaval’s wooden sword. Nelos Dartimaos had saved him for another day, some other destiny that was waiting for him.
What if that destiny was only to die here in this room?
Again came the song, and he realized for the first time that it wasn’t only in his head—someone was singing it, someone outside his room. The men of Svartennos, many vices raised as one.
The war was one, the battle done, the crown upon my hair
While in my gardens children laugh, and women’s voices fair
The western trees are tall and strong, the rivers bright and clear
Yet none of them so dear to me as my Chrysathamere
The Lady Chrysathamere. His sister. Once again, she had risen, and he had fallen. Now she had taken the dream of his childhood—to defeat the Graver, to make things right and avenge his father’s death.
A new feeling flooded him. As hot as the fever, as fierce as the pain. His eyes opened; beneath the thin linens that covered his embattled body, his lungs swelled with a new, full breath.
Fuck this city. Fuck curses. I’m going to live. I’m going to get better.
Let his sister have her moment in the sun. Let her enjoy it, for all it was worth. He would lie here, and hurt, and weep, and piss himself if need be, if that was what it took.
But when it was all over, he would walk out of here, his sword at his side, to fight another day.
Because he was Annuweth Sandaros, son of Nelos Dartimaos.
And this was not the end of his story.
Marilia stood with Nyreese in the common room of Oba’al’s pillow house. The floor had been swept clean; silk banners and paper lanterns once again hung from the ceiling. The sun caught the red silk and lit it up, making the threads glow hot as blood.
In her hand Marilia held the broken end of what had once been Kanediel’s sword. She offered it to Nyreese.
“What will I do with a broken sword?” Nyreese asked, brow furrowing.
“It’s fine quality aeder,” Marilia told her. “It’s worth a lot of gold.”
“Then why not just give me gold? Like you gave the others?”
“Because…because I wanted you to have this,” Marilia said. It was a feeling that was hard to explain, to put into words.
Slowly, hesitantly, Nyreese reached out and laid her hands on the blade. Her eyes met Marilia’s.
“I’m sorry,” Marilia said—not for the first time.
“For what happened here. For making it happen. For not being able to stop it.”
“I told you before. It wasn’t your fault.”
But it was, and they both knew it.
Nyreese moved to take the blade, but her hand slipped; she cut herself on its edge. She cried out; a bright line of blood welled across her palm. Instinctively, Marilia reached up to take Nyreese’s hand, another apology forming on her lips.
She forgot that the broken sword was still in her hand.
When she stepped forward, the jagged end struck Nyreese in the belly.
For a moment they both froze, bound together. Nyreese’s wide eyes were inches from Marilia’s face. Blood ran down the length of the blade; it wrapped around Marilia’s wrist like a serpent. She felt its heat, like molten aeder, eating its way through her skin, down to the bone of her wrist.
Nyreese sagged against her. She let out a feeble groan.
“No,” Marilia said. “Gods, no.” She finally found her strength; she took a step back. “It’s only a little cut. You’ll be all right.”
Nyreese collapsed. She was shaking, and the shaking was only making it worse; the blood was pouring out of her faster now. Marilia sank to her knees, placing her hands atop Nyreese’s belly; she called for her men. She called for Septakim. She felt the other woman’s skin against her hands—hot, why was it so hot?—and felt something moving there, as if there a coiling dragon was trapped beneath Nyreese’s skin. She called again, this time for Annuweth—and then she remembered. The Graver had stabbed Annuweth in the chest. Annuweth was upstairs in the silk hallway.
Annuweth had succumbed to his wounds; Annuweth was dead.
The heat was unbearable; she thought surely it would be all right if she took her hands away, just for a moment. But the instant she did the red dragon exploded from Nyreese’s belly. It slammed into her, snapping with its jaws, throwing her onto her back. Nyreese collapsed, shriveling into nothing, a pile of dry brown flesh like a discarded snake-skin, like a heap of cast-off clothes.
Marilia woke from the dream, eyes straining into the darkness. Her night-gown was wet, hugging her skin. She buried her face in her hands and wept, her shoulders shaking until her back ached. Hiding the night behind a curtain of tears.
The war with Tyrace was over.
The Tyracian armies surrounding Dane City withdrew south into their own lands; the Navessean army that had been marching to meet them turned back north. On Svartennos, Tyracian nobles who had been captured in battle were put onto ships and sent back home.
In Tyr Ober, Ben Espeleos, Prince of Svartennos, was hauled, blinking and bewildered, into the light, leaving behind the dungeon where he had passed the better part of three months.
Ben found himself standing beside a man the Tyracians believed was Victaryn Livenneth, nephew to the emperor (that was what he’d told them when they’d boarded his ship and captured him), but who Ben recognized as none other than Prince Ilruyn; had King Damar of Tyrace known the true value of the man they’d captured, he might have sued for better terms. But he had not known; now the chance was lost, the deal struck, and the prisoners freed.
Five galleys filled with some of Tyrace’s finest aeder and twenty more packed with some of her best war horses sailed north to Surennis—a kingly ransom to Emperor Vergana in exchange for the safe return of Tyracium and King Damar’s family. Those galleys then made their way south to the Neck of Dane, where they joined with the rest of Tyrace’s battered fleet. The ships were drawn up onto the shore, where grim-faced Tyracian soldiers doused them with oil and set them aflame.
The Tyracian navy burned; ribbons of black smoke curled into the sky like the fingers of a vast, shadowy hand. They raked the underbellies of the clouds, clawing for purchase in the house of the gods. But the gods had chosen Navessea; the columns of smoke blew apart on the wind. The gutted skeletons of the Tyracian galleys crumbled; gray ash clogged the harbor for hours. The fleet of Tyrace would not threaten Navessea’s shores any time soon.
Not all the ships that burned were truly Tyracian. Part of the treaty between Emperor Vergana and King Damar had specified that the ships Tyrennis Castaval had seized from Navessea during the Battle of the Bay of Dane were to be returned to the emperor. But somehow, those ships, too, had found themselves given to the flames. Castaval claimed it was the act of a few defiant sergeants, a bit of stealth-work done in the dead of night…the offenders long-since punished. Though no one really believed him, the damage was done and there was no point in openly questioning the honesty of one of Tyrace’s most powerful and well-liked nobles. The fleets of Osurris, Neravenne and Surennis had been diminished by Castaval’s act of disobedience, but the wounded Imperial feet was still stronger than Tyrace’s nonexistent one, and that was what mattered. In the interest of peace, Emperor Vergana pretended to believe Castaval’s story.
Not long after the burning of the fleet, Karthtag-Kal, Prefect of the Order of Jade, arrived in Tyracium; the emperor’s Chronicler, Ephrayenne, traveled with him, moved by his curiosity, by his desire to visit the city where the war had ended and to speak with the curious young woman at its heart. For the better part of three hours, the Chronicler spoke with the Lady Chrysathamere, asking questions, taking down her account of what would be remembered as the Lightning War; memorable for its brutality, but also for its swiftness. Fortunately for all, it had been brought to an early end through the cunning and courage of two unlikely heroes—the children of Nelos Dartimaos and Karthtag-Kal. The twins who began their journey inside the very walls they had gone on to conquer.
The bastard siblings of a painted lady.
Marilia Sandara, who had led the attack on Tyracium, who had organized the assault on its gates and had conquered the king’s Tower.
And her brother, Annuweth Sandaros, who had thought to attack the city in the first place. Who, in a moment of great cunning, had devised a plan to get past Tyracium’s mighty walls.
At least, that was how the story Marilia told the Chronicler went.
When she was finished with her story, Marilia made her way to her brother’s bedside.
Annuweth lay on his back on his bed beside the window. His head was tilted to one side, so that she could see the scar on his face. The sight of that scar made her stomach flutter, as if a child’s fingers had tickled her there. Her own face had been scarred by the Graver’s gauntlet—a gash across her cheek; but his was worse, a ropy mark that traveled from the corner of his lip up around the side of his head, where his right ear had been cut in two.
She reached out and took his hand. He stirred; his eyes opened. They looked hot, glazed, as if his fever had not yet broken…although it had, days ago.
There was a cushion beside his bed; she sat on it.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded. “Karthtag-Kal was just here to see me.” His face was unreadable; like the face of one of the statues they put around altars. “He told me you’d gone to speak with the Imperial Chronicler. I take it Lord Ephrayenne wanted your account of the war?”
“Yes. He wants to speak with you next. If you’re strong enough.”
“Does he?” Annuweth made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a bark, a sound that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. “I suppose he’ll want to hear about the Battle of the Bay; I was on the imperial flagship, after all. He’ll want to get all the bloody little details about how the Tyracians snatched Ilruyn off the deck of his own ship? How Livenneth died? No, Marilia, I don’t think I’m feeling well enough at the moment. Maybe later.”
When Marilia had told the Chronicler her story, she’d been carried away by the moment. She’d thought only of doing something to help her brother, to repay him for his suffering, to thank him for all he’d done for her. But of course, she realized, it wasn’t that simple; she had failed to consider Annuweth’s pride. It seemed so obvious now that what she’d done might offend it. She felt suddenly nervous. Careful, she thought. “‘Weth…,” she began, hesitantly, “I told the Chronicler that when we were back near the mouth of the River Tyr, trying to decide what to do next…I told him we came up with the plan to conquer Tyracium together, you and I.” The words poured out of her in a rush. “I told him that I came up with the details, and I led the attack, but that attacking the city was your idea. That you were the one who thought of diverting the river and crawling in under the walls.”
He stared at her as if she were something he hadn’t ever seen before—a rhovannon’s oddity, a silvakim with a head at either end of its body. “Why did you tell him that?”
“Because…I wanted…I thought…” she’d had all her thoughts sorted out; had known, when she’d opened her mouth, exactly what she was going to say to him. But her tongue got tangled; she felt her face growing warm under his gaze.
“Thought what?” He sat up straighter, the blankets falling back to reveal his naked chest. He had shrunken visibly over the past few weeks; she could see the curve of his ribs beneath his skin. He was shaking his head. “It’s a lie, Marilia. A damned lie. Go back to the Chronicler and tell him the truth.”
“‘Weth, I can’t. I don’t want to.”
“I don’t need your fucking charity, Marilia,” Annuweth said through gritted teeth. “If you don’t tell him, I will.”
“This isn’t about charity. I’ve been trying to explain. This is about what’s fair.”
“Fair? You conquered Tyracium. Not me.”
“I owed you, all right?” Her voice rose sharply. “Everyone calls me the Graver-slayer, but you were the one who wounded him first. If you hadn’t hurt him, I would have died there on my back on Oba’al’s balcony. He would have crushed my throat with his bare hands. And if you hadn’t challenged him in the first place, I would have had to watch Nyreese’s daughter killed…Nyreese killed, everyone left in the pillow house. And maybe no one else cares about that, but I do. Without you, I couldn’t have stopped it.” Annuweth’s face distorted before her eyes; his features running together, like the face of a man in a water-color painting. There were tears in her eyes.
“I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know. You did it for them—they were your friends, too. But you did it. You saved my life, all right? I wouldn’t be sitting here now if it wasn’t for you.”
He stared at her. She saw the muscles move in his throat, the tendons standing out in sharp relief.
“When all this is over, there will be a triumph parade, and the heroes of the war will stand at the altar of the Temple of Shavennya. The High Priestess of Shavennya will put dragon-bone bracelets around their wrists. And there are a lot of things that I don’t know, but I do know this. You belong up there with me. That’s what I want.” Take it, she thought. Just accept this, please.
She got to her feet. Annuweth was sitting up straight in his bed. There was color in his lips. He looked as if his weariness had disappeared. Not her; she felt as if she had absorbed some part of his sickness, and now it was chewing through her bones like a grave beetle. “Do what you want,” she said to him. “I just want it done, Annuweth. I want to go home, and I want this all to be finished.”
He stared at her for a long moment without speaking. When he did speak, it was in a whisper. “So do I. But it’s never finished.”