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.”
Marilia, the Warlord (The Chrysathamere Trilogy, Book I):
“Please, help me. I don’t know what to do.”
Marilia knelt on the floor of the tent, staring into the candle-flame. It was a blue candle, for clarity and wisdom. She needed some now, more than she ever had.
“Father,” she begged. “I need your help now. Anything you can give. The Tyracian army is here, and if we don’t stop them…” her voice faded into silence. She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words out loud.
Come on, she urged herself. All those games of strategy you used to play…all those war-books you used to read…what good was any of it if it can’t save you now?
But the spirits and gods felt far away. Though she stared into the light until her eyes watered, though she breathed in the smoke until it tickled her lungs and scratched the back of her throat raw, no clarity came. No wisdom. There was only fear. A dread that burned inside her with a heat far greater than any candle’s flame.
You’re going to die. You’re all going to die.
She rose and made her way outside the tent. She listened to the sounds of the army; the rattle of armor, the cries of horses, the faint buzz of nearby voices. Considering she was surrounded by almost ten thousand men, it was remarkably quiet. The soldiers of Svartennos were subdued; they huddled close to their campfires, casting anxious gazes towards the south, where a smear of red like a blood-stain scarred the ashen face of the sky. The wind carried the smell of charred wood; a gray river of smoke rose from somewhere behind the southern hills and flowed upwards to join with the sea of gray clouds.
Svartennos City was burning.
Once it was gone, the Tyracian army would come for them.
Her husband was dead. Her home was turning to ashes before her eyes.
What’s next? What will the Tyracians take? Maybe tomorrow they’ll march up this hill and kill your friends. Then tomorrow they’ll sail to the rest of Navessea. Who knows how far they’ll get? How many they’ll kill? Your father? Your brother? The empire itself? At least you won’t be around to see it, except as a spirit. Because if they make it that far, you’ll probably already be dead.
In the valley around her was an army of weary, heartsick, outnumbered men. If the great Emperor Urian was right, and hope was worth a thousand swords, then they were even more outnumbered than they looked, because after the sudden loss of their prince and their greatest city, the soldiers of Svartennos had run short of hope.
In the command tent was a general who was no match for the enemy he faced. A man too proud to listen to reason, who had sent away his strategoi so that he could pace and fret alone, doing his best to convince himself—wrongly—that his strength, bluster and courage would be enough to save the day.
There was a chance—a slim chance, but still there—that he might listen to her.
But only if she had an idea worth listening to.
In truth, she needed more than one idea—there was no way to know exactly what the Tyracians would do, so she had to be ready for several contingencies. And she had to be ready now—for all she knew, she might have only one chance to make herself heard.
“Marilia.” She turned to see Camilline standing next to her. Her friend—her sister-by-marriage—but her hand on Marilia’s shoulder. “You look like you’re about to rip out your hair.”
“I feel like I am. Camilline…I don’t know what to do. I can’t think.”
“Just take a moment.” Camilline drew close, close enough that Marilia could feel her warmth. It was a greater comfort than the warmth of the candle had been. “Just breathe.”
Marilia took a deep breath.
She pictured herself standing in her father’s shrine, listening to the deep, soothing rumble of his voice as he ran her through the Stoics’ trance. Empty your mind. Find your center.
She took another breath in and out.
This is just another game of Capture-the-Emperor, she told herself.
It’s not. These aren’t some pieces on a game board. They’re men’s lives. It’s not the same.
Then pretend it is. If it was, what would you do? Just sit back and let yourself lose?
No. Your father always called you stubborn, because you are. You’d fight to the last piece. You’d make sure that if you lost, you could sit back and comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one could have done any better.
You have to do this. You were meant to do this.
“I thought there would be more time,” she muttered under her breath. The Tyracians would be there before the sun set again.
Well, there isn’t. Make do with the time you have.
In a way, she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She thought back to all those little moments that had led her here, a long and dizzying path to this cliff’s edge. From those first, innocent games in her mother’s pillow house to those years in her father’s villa, to her marriage to Kanediel, lord of Svartennos—a union which had been so suddenly cut short.
She’d watched him fall. She’d been helpless then. She wasn’t now.
She closed her eyes, let the world around her fall away, let the noise of the camp fade to a distant murmur like a river. She forgot the taste of the smoke, the bite of fear in her chest.
It was just her and the Tyracians, trapped in their game—the only game that mattered.
Life or death.
Winner take all.
Somewhere far—but not too far—to the south, a war-horn echoed through the hills.
They were coming.
Part I: Childhood
Nine Years Ago
“Come on, before Tyreesha comes back.” Annuweth took Marilia’s hand and pulled her along the hallway.
Marilia hesitated. Truth be told, she didn’t really want to come on. She wasn’t sure what waited for them at the end of the hallway, but the sounds coming from the rooms on either side made the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and she would have much rather gone back downstairs to where she and her brother were supposed to be working with the other children, serving drinks to Oba’al’s buyers.
But she wouldn’t let her brother see her fear. So, with one last, uneasy glance behind her, she followed Annuweth down the hall.
The ceiling was hung with paper lanterns. The hall was red, the color the sun made when it shone through her fingertips. Annuweth’s face glowed with the same bloody color, as if he was a traveler who had just emerged from a storm at the edge of the Red Wastes.
Hand-in-hand they went. On either side, silk drapes hung across open doorways. Dark shapes flickered on the other side. There were sounds, too—the voices of men and women.
Then they heard Mother’s voice. They paused outside the curtain.
“Maybe we should go back,” Marilia said.
“Do you want to?” Annuweth turned his eyes toward her.
There was a pause as they waited. From inside came a sound like feet landing on wet clay.
“No,” she said, holding his gaze.
“Me neither. Let’s see.”
It was, after all, what they had come for. Why they had sneaked away.
Annuweth reached for the curtain but Marilia’s hand was faster; she took hold of the edge of the curtain and, ever so slightly, drew it back.
They peered in through the gap.
It probably wasn’t the first time Marilia had caught a glimpse, but it was the first time she would remember. Before she had been too young, and the memories of that time were already going, slipping away like a dream forgotten upon waking. This memory would be different. It would burn on like a prayer-candle in the night that refuses to fade.
Marilia knew that what the buyers and the painted ladies did was called loving (the buyers had another name for it, but Mother didn’t like them to say it), and she had gathered that it was some kind of game, perhaps not unlike the street games she and Annuweth played with the other children of the pillow house—except that this game was only for two. What form such a game would take, she’d had only the vaguest idea.
Mother was on her knees on one of the pillows. She was naked, and in the light from the candle that guttered in a lantern overhead she was the same deep bronze color as the coins the buyers paid her with. Her skin was shining and slick. Her dress lay tangled to one side. Her head hung down, and her hair dangled to the floor, except for the few strands that were still stuck to her forehead. Her eyes were closed.
A man was bent over her from behind. He pushed his face into her neck as a shudder coursed through him. His thick dark beard rasped against her skin. Mother sucked in a slow breath. The candle flame fluttered like a trapped thing. The man started to turn his head, and Marilia quickly let go of the curtain. She and Annuweth stared at each other.
Marilia’s face had grown hot. She wished she hadn’t looked. She wished Annuweth hadn’t been there to see.
Mother’s room would be hers someday.
That was the way of things; the daughters of painted ladies became painted ladies themselves.
“Let’s go back,” she whispered. “Please, let’s go back.”
Without another word, the two children tiptoed back the way they had come.
The pillow house was busiest in the night. The buyers came in droves. Oba’al sat at the doorway, smiling, greeting them with a voice like melting honey. They paid him for the food and the drink. They paid his painted ladies to be loved.
The common room was vast, filled with big, round tables and colorful cushions. Thin drapes the deep red color of arandon berries hung from the ceiling. At one end of the room was a bar where Tyreesha, Oba’al’s cook and medicine-maker, poured drinks for the buyers. Near the bar Oba’al’s painted ladies stood in a long line, brightly colored in their dresses with habithra sashes wound around their waists, waiting to be chosen.
“Where were you?” Tyreesha demanded when Marilia returned, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Just…just had to take a piss,” she lied.
“Well, hurry. There’s orders that need filling. He’s here tonight, you know. Your one-eyed friend. He said he had something new to show you.”
“What something?” Marilia asked. She stared up at Tyreesha, feeling a shiver of excitement. He had brought her many things before—stories of Tyrace’s king, who, like him, had only one eye; stories of killers and desert battles; once even a set of dice carved (or so he claimed) by a wanderer all the way from the Red Wastes. But these words—something new—suggested a thing more marvelous, more exciting than all those others. Something special.
Tyreesha shrugged. “You think I know? Go and see, girl.”
It was Marilia’s task—and the task of the pillow house’s other children—to carry food and drink to the buyers while they talked and gamed, their raucous laughter so loud it almost drowned out the sound of the minstrels, who stood on their stage at the far end of the room, gamely singing on through it all. Though some of the other children grumbled about it, Marilia liked serving the buyers. It was much better than her other chores—namely, cleaning and working the kitchens. In the common room, you got to hear things, stories about the sand-people and lava ghouls and far-off places. You got to see things—games of chance and people from distant lands and, apparently, whatever it was One-Eye meant to show her tonight.
She made her way over to him now; he was sitting close to the window, only one companion with him tonight. Behind them, she could see the glowing lights of Tyracium spread out at the base of Oba’al’s Hill like a thousand fireflies, the last glow of the setting sun kissing its way down the darkening face of the sky.
“Ah. There you are, girl. Come here.” He gestured for her to approach, and she did.
At first, she’d been frightened of him. He looked frightful enough; three long gashes marked the side of his face, a wound he had earned in Horselord Castaval’s service, years ago. The left-most gash was deepest, a furrow like one in a farmer’s field, bisecting his eye. He wore a patch to hide it, but had shown it to her once. It was white like the moon.
She wasn’t frightened of him anymore; she much preferred him to the other buyers. Most of them cared little for the pillow house’s children—they had eyes only for the painted ladies. They took their drinks and waved her away and went back to their games, paying her so little mind she might as well have been one of the lanterns or silk drapes. One-Eye was different. Sometimes, he invited her to sit with him and his friends. Sometimes he even let her join in their games.
At first Oba’al had frowned at that. But One-Eye had passed him a few coins—for the pleasure of the young one’s company, he said—and after that, Oba’al never frowned again. Oba’al never said no to more coins.
One-Eye took his cup. There was an empty cushion nearby and Marilia took it. “Look at the view,” One-Eye said, pointing out the window. The moon was full and huge, like a silver-scaled dragon egg resting high above the city. “Magnificent. It’s moments like this that make life worth living.”
“This is the fourth-highest hill in the city,” Marilia informed him. Oba’al, she knew, was very proud of this fact; the height, he’d told her, meant distinction.
“Is that so? Well, aren’t you full of interesting little secrets,” One-Eye laughed. “A perfect spot, isn’t it, then? High enough to see the lights and the moon, but not so tall that a man could get tired out walking up here.” He took a sip of his drink. “How’s your brother? Annuweth?” That was another thing; to the other buyers she was just girl and her brother just boy. But One-Eye had learned their names.
“He’s well,” she said, her feet tapping restlessly on the floor. She could no longer wait; her eagerness was a feeling like an itch on the palm of her hand. “Tyreesha said you had something to show me?”
One-Eye’s companion rolled his eyes. “Do we really need the company of a five-year-old dress twirler?” he asked One-Eye in a low voice.
“I’m nine, sir,” Marilia informed him. “Almost ten.”
One-Eye beamed. “There you have it. Almost ten, and that makes all the difference. This girl is a ghoul at dice, Derrion, she’d surprise you; and even when she’s not playing, she’s good to have around. She’s my Lady Luck. Aren’t you?”
“Well, we’re not playing dice today, but maybe you’ll prove lucky all the same. Here’s what I wanted to show you, girl; take a look.”
Marilia scooted up onto her knees to get a look at the table, and sure enough, there were no dice there that night. Instead there was a board, eleven squares by eleven squares, with a cluster of white stones in the middle and four smaller clusters of black stones arrayed around the edges.
“What is it?” she asked.
“This is a new passion of mine. It’s quite the thing at the markets these days—a game all the way from Navessea.”
“Land of the fish-eating bast—” Derrion started.
“Have a care. This girl’s father was from Navessea, isn’t that right?”
Derrion raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Who was he? Traveling merchant? Or one of those scum priests from Dane who come to speak shit about the Horse God?”
“My father was a prefect, sir,” Marilia said. She stared at Derrion, willing him to choke on his drink. She had only a vague notion what a prefect was—some kind of Navessean Horselord? —and hoped he wouldn’t press her for details and make her look stupid. Thankfully, he didn’t. Maybe—probably—he didn’t know what a prefect was, either.
“A prefect,” One-Eye repeated. “Yes, indeed. Well, this might have been the kind of game he would have played.”
She looked at the board and tried to imagine her father hunched over it. She had never laid eyes on him, but she had crafted an image of him, piecing him together from the things her mother had told her. Handsome, with rich hair and a proud chin, the sort you would find on a statue. He’d been one of Navessea’s best warriors—until a giant killed him.
“How do you play it?” she asked.
“It’s like a battle, you see? A battle that’s gone poorly for white, and now all white’s enemies are closing in. The white stone in the center is the king, and his goal is to escape to one of the corners. The black stones are his enemies, trying to cut him off and trap him.”
She watched them play. She watched the pieces move, and she could almost imagine that she was seeing knights in dark armor—cresting a dune, rising above the sand like a sudden storm-cloud as they prepared to fall upon the heathen king. The crystal blades of their swords glowing red, blue and purple, capturing the sunlight until they shone as bright as the pillow house’s paper lanterns. A game a prefect might have played. A game my father might have played.
It was much more interesting than dice.
One-Eye soon defeated Derrion. He turned to her with a satisfied smile. “I see your good luck holds, girl. Here; have a try.”
She leaned in over the table, reached out, and took one of the black stones in her hand. Her brows narrowed. She sucked in one cheek and chewed on it as she thought. There was a pattern to the game, she saw, though she couldn’t quite make out what it was. And as she tried to find it, the game swallowed her. The noise of the common room fell away as if she’d plunged her head underwater. She stared at the pieces as they moved until trails of black and white blazed like threads of fire across her vision.
In the end, she lost. She sat back, disappointed.
“What did I tell you?” One-Eye said to Derrion. “See how she played? She’s sharp as aeder crystal. Too clever for this place, I think.” He smiled at her. “You keep practicing, and if you ever beat me, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Marilia blinked. The threads of fire faded. Slowly, the room returned; she became aware of where she was. A painted lady was walking past, dancing on the tips of her toes, the hem of her dress spinning around her ankles in a wheel of color—the walk that let the buyers know she was ready to be loved. Tynaeva’s minstrels were heading into a quick new tune, one that had the buyers at the next table over banging their cups on the table in time to the rhythm. One of the lanterns overhead was fizzling out, making the shadows on the walls flicker.
And One-Eye was watching her, brows raised, waiting for her answer.
She found her voice. “What kind of secret?”
“What kind do you want?”
She considered this. She sensed it was the sort of question that was not to be answered in a rush, all at once. Annuweth or one of the other children might have done that—over-eager, carried away by their excitement—but it wasn’t her way. At last she said, “Do you know anything about the giant? The one that killed my father, I mean?”
One-Eye raised an eyebrow. “You’d do better to ask a trader from Navessea. I don’t know much about that.”
She chewed the corner of her lip, thinking. What she wanted was a good story; one she could be proud to trade with Annuweth. It was a game they had—each night as they served drinks they listened to the chatter of the buyers and when they awoke the next morning, they shared the best story they had heard. Yesterday, for instance, Annuweth had told her a story he had heard from a group of soldiers—how Horselord Castaval had defeated Chief Malack of the Kangrits in battle and mounted his head atop a spike. In return, Marilia had told him a grisly tale she’d heard from a trader, about how a mysterious man named the Night Killer had claimed another victim in the East Quarter, leaving a smile like a bloody moon carved into the neck of a charm-seller’s daughter. Everyone knew the bloody tales were always the best.
An idea came to her. She leaned in to whisper in One-Eye’s ear, feeling bold. “Do you know how the king lost his eye? How he really lost it?” She had heard a few options—a battle with the Tigrits, a duel over a lady, that he’d cut it out himself to save his wife from a dremmakin’s curse. But she wanted the truth.
One-Eye coughed. “You’ll hear lots of tales about that,” he whispered back. “But it just so happens I know the true one. Is that the tale you want?”
She nodded. It would be the kind of story the other children in the pillow house would almost have been willing to cut out an eye of their own to hear. She felt rather pleased with herself.
One-Eye chuckled. “Fair enough. All right, girl. If you beat me at this fish-eater’s game, I’ll tell you how our king lost his eye. So it goes. But I won’t play easy, so you’d best practice well.”
A thought occurred to her. “How can I practice? I have no board and no stones.”
“I guess you’ll have to find them, then.”
He leaned back, staring at her for a long moment before he frowned and tore his gaze away. “Best run along now. I’ve kept you longer than is fair; Oba’al will start grumbling. Go send Raquella over.” He smiled and touched her arm. Raquella approached at Marilia’s beckon, the hem of her dress swirling around her ankles, her body swaying as she came. A painted lady moves like water, Marilia thought, remembering something her mother had told her. Not stiff like aeder. Always like water.
One-Eye took Raquella up to the silk hallway and loved her. Marilia returned to the bar, gathering another tray of cups. And as she poured jala juice and wine and night-tea her mind was elsewhere, far-away. In the fish-eaters’ game.