Jorn leaned on his quarterstaff behind the dead oak, shivering in his furs. The cold had long since seeped into his bones. He peered down the rocky slope at four horses and riders, four sets of shod hooves squishing through the half-frozen mud of the road. All their shadows were blurred by a steel sky. There were no silver spires here, no grand glass palaces. Nothing to protect them. They were out of their element. But Jorn was in his.
This would make up for the hard winter. Jorn had met too many sunrises with a hollow stomach, and his skin was starting to hang loose on his frame. These people had good horses and good furs. They’d fetch more than enough coin for a hot meal and a warm bed.
He lifted his gaze a little. Elendis was perched somewhere in the copse of willows across the road, trees that had seen better years. He’d have his bow out and strung, an arrow nocked and drawn. Any moment now…
The twang hit Jorn’s ears just as he saw the arrow flicker. It struck one of the riders in the back of the neck. The man tumbled over the horse’s neck and thumped on the ground. He’d been a guard or something. Muscle. Like Jorn, but with worse luck.
One of the other riders screamed in the high keen of a woman’s voice. Jorn lurched down the slope, coming to a stop in front of the party as they whirled about, seeking their attacker. The frontmost rider was a big man, almost as big as Jorn. His sword hovered uncertainly in his hand. His eyes lit on Jorn and a curse escaped his lips. Not the insulting kind, but the other: Jorn felt the curse strike him, prickle his skin, but slide past harmlessly.
“He’s a Kjeller!” the man cried in dismay.
Jorn carried only his quarterstaff. He raised it. “Dismount and disarm.” His voice was a bass horn and would have marked him a Kjeller even if surviving the curse hadn’t. The mounted soldier grimaced and raised his sword.
Jorn lifted his staff higher. Elendis’s second arrow burst through the soldier’s throat, spraying blood onto the pale mane of his horse. He crumpled and slid to the ground.
Now two were left: an old balding man, gaunt and shaking in his robes, and a young woman with her hood up against the cold. She had gone as white as the snow around them, and clutched her reins as if they might do some good against armed assailants.
“Dismount and disarm,” Jorn repeated. He didn’t want to kill her, a young girl who had likely never done anyone any real harm. The old man didn’t look like much of a threat, but you never knew what a man would do when cornered. If the soldier had had spells, why not the old man?
By now Elendis had revealed himself, hopping down from his perch and onto the road, bracketing the riders between him and Jorn. “Time’s a-wasting,” came his reedy voice. “Let’s get on with it.”
The two riders exchanged a glance, full of all the terror and despair that came naturally to the trapped. They could see Elendis now and would know him for a Taeren archer, and know that to flee would mean a swift arrow through the back. They summoned their courage and slid down off their horses.
Elendis covered them with his bow while Jorn searched the guards’ corpses for valuables. Jorn and Elendis would keep two of the horses for riding and sell the others for a pretty penny. Jorn could already feel himself slipping from winter’s grasp. “You’ll have to walk,” he said to the woman. “Sorry.”
“Jorn,” Elendis said, urgent.
The Kjeller looked at his partner. Elendis was staring at the girl’s back, or rather her rump. He wasn’t thinking of… was he?
“Jorn,” he repeated, and pointed.
Jorn came around and looked. The girl had a three-foot tail protruding from a hole in her cloak. A Darukar! She was so young, so pretty. Weren’t Darukar supposed to be hideous? Every child knew the stories of Darukar, monsters who could charm you and make you their slaves. He’d seen them in menageries in this city or that, or at least creatures that the menagerie owners had claimed were Darukar. Vicious, gruesome things. Nothing like her.
He blinked and realized that Elendis had his bow raised and drawn. “You are in the line of fire,” the Taeren snarled at him.
Jorn looked at Elendis, then at the girl. Her eyes were clenched tight, her mouth moving in a silent song, quivering as she waited for the arrowhead that would end her life. The old man seemed on the verge of fainting, waving his hands in a panic, choking on his own words. He must be a scholar or something, totally unprepared for an assault by brigands.
“No,” Jorn said. “She’s done nothing.”
“She’s a Darukar!” Elendis shouted, as if that were enough to condemn her. Darukar were not loved, not by anyone, but to kill one who had done nothing, who was so young, and beautiful… so beautiful.…
Jorn put himself between Elendis and the girl. “No.” He raised his quarterstaff. Elendis’s arrows would not pierce him easily, and the Taeren knew it. He had to protect the girl. Protect.…
They stared at each other as heartbeats stretched out. Jorn thought he heard a distant cry on the wind, a child’s cry. But there was no one else out here, not for miles. Abruptly Elendis shrieked and dropped his bow. The old man had his hand outstretched, and was muttering something. But as long as he didn’t hurt the girl, Jorn didn’t care. Protect… he had to protect her.…
Elendis writhed on the ground, then shuddered and stopped moving. Jorn relaxed. The threat was over. The girl was safe. He smiled at her. Her skin was perfect untouched snow. How could Elendis have wanted to hurt her?
His knees went soft, and he sat down in the mud. He was sad about Elendis, but happy for the Darukar girl. Darukar were wonderful, he decided. Why had he ever been afraid of them?
It was getting dark, which was strange, for it had only been dawn just a few hours ago. Sleep. Perhaps Jorn needed to sleep. Yes, that was it. The girl would curl up by his side, and he would rest. He felt her tail slide under his chin. It was barbed, sharp, a living blade; it cut him, but he felt no pain. His blood started to drain away. He didn’t need it. She needed it. It was hers. Yes… it all should belong to her.
He hoped she liked it.
Ariya shifted around to look at Benran. “Do you object?”
Benran eyed her for a moment, then shook his head. He looked nauseous. She would have to do something about that. She couldn’t have him fainting and wasting her time. The guards were dead, not that they’d have been of much use, but the Priman had insisted. She needed Benran to behave.
Ariya bent down over the Kjeller’s cooling body and drank.
Fresh. It had been months since she’d had fresh blood. Real blood, thinking blood; not the blood of pigs and sheep and goats, smuggled into the palace from the slaughterhouse. She felt its presence go down her throat, take up residence in her belly, the thoughts and hopes and wishes and dreams carried into her upon the red currents.…
There was a splat behind her and she stopped to look. Benran had lost his stomach on the snow. How could he so quickly rip the mind of the archer, and yet remain so distressed? She sighed, lapped up a few more drops from the bled-out Kjeller, and went over to the old thauman. “I need you well, Benran of Ialvanar. We have far to go.”
“The.…” He coughed and wiped spittle from his lips. “We should turn back. The Priman will not like this! He will have my head, and I mean that literally. I like my head where it is. I do not want it mounted on his wall. It would ruin his decor.”
“Your gums flap as if they are in charge and not you,” Ariya said. “Ride. We will reach Bonehaven by dark.”
She left the corpses where they lay. The guards meant nothing to her; the bandits, less than nothing. And on the bright side, now she and Benran each had an extra horse. Splendid. I would have been most displeased to die.
No further bandits accosted them, nor did they see other travellers. This road was away from the trade roads, and for good reason. There were very few men who knew of the true power of a Darukar, and those who did were a threat. Ariya had been in too much danger in Ialvanar, the Priman had said. She would be safer at Bonehaven. The thaumen who lived there did terrible things, but not to Darukar. Not to the Priman’s favorite. She almost hoped they would try. Pig’s blood was swill compared to the blood of thinking creatures, and blood that carried the taint of magic was the best of all.
The sun disappeared before they arrived. As they rode down into the cleft between two rocky canyon walls, a smile touched her lips. The Priman would be very proud of her. She would serve him well here.
Bonehaven loomed out of the darkness. The walls were a sickly gray, unassuming stone older than time, framing the maw of the gate. There was only one way into Bonehaven. For some, there was no way out.
Frightened servants took their horses and led them up to an audience chamber. Benran whimpered and complained and stamped his aged feet against the cold, until finally Ariya whispered her song at him just a little. He blinked in confusion and quieted down.
The thauman who oversaw Bonehaven came to her almost at once, and puffed out his chest, pretending to be very important. She let him blather for a short while out of politeness, then interrupted to explain why the Priman had sent her. The stupid thauman was worried that his work would be interrupted. Why should it be? Ariya was not at Bonehaven because of the thaumen and their experiments; she was there despite them. She told the craven wretch that she would send for him if she had need—which she would not. But the blood pulsing through his neck was tempting. She did almost hope he would try something foolish.
She released Benran from her song. Once he recovered, she told him that she no longer needed his protection and that he was free to do as he pleased. Naturally he objected. “My lady, I must stay with you. The Priman, you know, he’s very protective of you. You do recall the bit about my head, yes?”
Ariya was so annoyed with the man that she considered bleeding him out right then and there, propriety be damned—but the Priman liked his thaumen, and thought them valuable. She sighed and flicked her hand at Benran as she strode away. She had to prepare if she was to be ready for her guests.
The first one sat glowering silently in the chair. He was a broad man, with shoulders that pleased her eye and made Ariya sorrowful at his inevitable death. She looked into his blue eyes and smiled, asking his name and hoping he would talk without a fight. But he would not. This one had pride and courage. So it would be the hard way, then.
She sang into the air. The iron in the man’s back turned to quicksilver; the anger in his eyes became love. “Tell me, sir,” she cooed. “Tell me what your lord plans.”
He gazed up at her in adoration and licked his lips. “He… he means to take the silver mines, by some subterfuge. I don’t know how.”
“Think harder,” Ariya commanded. “Think about what you might have heard.” Men always knew more than they thought they did. The smart ones, the rulers—they were the men who knew how to mine for those hidden gems of knowledge. But even simple men such as this one could be prodded to more useful ends.
“I… maybe… there was a shipment of trees—” The golden coins of the realm, he meant; the Priman’s face showed on one side, whichever Priman had ruled when the coins were struck. The reverse showed the Tenebraech, the Dark Oak that had sat in the palace courtyard in Ialvanar for a thousand years. “They were splitting them up into pouches, I saw, but I didn’t know why.”
Ariya did. It fit with other things she’d heard. The man’s lord was Garvot Meladris, and Lord Meladris was the most dangerous kind of man: he had taken to heart early that he who has the gold makes the rules. Lord Meladris could smooth any obstacle with a liberal application of gold, and inch by inch his power grew.
So he wanted the silver mines? Perhaps he would buy them, slowly, one greased palm at a time. The guards would quietly divert some of the silver his way. The mines’ output would slowly dwindle, and by the time the Priman took notice, the lifeblood of his domain would be half gone into the coffers of a lord who, to all external appearances, was minor and harmless.
Ariya knew better. She would dispatch a letter to the Priman at once. She longed to be with him again, but it had grown too dangerous in Ialvanar, too risky to keep a Darukar in the palace. Here at Bonehaven she could do her work in peace and privacy, with no risk of snooping courtiers bribing the guards for information. There were no courtiers here, only the thaumen and the servants. And the servants knew that good service was rewarded, while betrayal meant swift death.
Ariya bent down over the adoring man and put her lips before his, feeling his hot breath on her face. She rewarded him with a single, slow kiss, and then brought her tail up to his throat.
The prisoners came and went. Some men, some women; some useful, some a waste. All terrified, even the ones who put on a brave face. Ariya did her duty, wringing whatever information she could out of them, and hoping each day for the summons that would bring her back to Ialvanar.
To amuse herself, she took one of the thaumen to her bed: a willow of a man, nervous and tidy. The Priman would not begrudge her a little entertainment. It pleased her to watch the thauman’s conflicted reaction. A beautiful girl wanted him in her bed, yes; but she was a monster, an abomination with a tail and—perhaps more disturbingly—innate powers that the greatest thauman could never match even after a lifetime of study.
She waited, and sang, and fed. It was on the fiftieth day that the first Kjeller came. She hadn’t seen one since those idiot bandits. Kjeller were rare enough that all the servants crowded at the door to the main hall, hoping for a glimpse as the Kjeller was brought inside, hands manacled. Aside from their innate resistance to being cursed, and their impressively tough skin, Kjeller were not special. The thaumic armor of their bodies did not extend to their minds, as the bandit had proved.
Ariya did not crave her work today, though, and put the Kjeller off until the evening. She summoned her pet thauman in the afternoon and had her way with him, but her heart was not in that either, so she took pity on him and let him go. She spent some time on the balcony of her chambers, staring at the grim gray canyon beyond Bonehaven’s walls, watching a pair of thaumen. They stood near the leatherleaf grove beside the road, doing some sort of magical experimentation.
It took Ariya many minutes to realize what was bothering her: she’d been here so long that the arrival of a Kjeller actually seemed novel to her. It meant she was getting used to this place, and that sickened her. She wanted the palace back. She wanted her huge, downy bed; her maidservants, there to accommodate her every whim; she wanted to see the glass towers of Ialvanar again. To sit under the Tenebraech again, to lean against its ancient, soft bark. Even if it meant going back to a diet of pig’s blood.
The Kjeller awaited her in the questioning chamber, a dim, empty room in Bonehaven’s lower reaches. Ariya could see better in the dark than most mortals, so there was only a single candle to provide illumination. The Kjeller sat passively, looking not at all terrified. Well, some of the men feigned courage. It never lasted long.
But this one was different. He did not turn a fierce or defiant gaze upon her; he merely looked at her with vague interest. Almost… boredom. “What is your name?” she began.
The Kjeller’s mouth opened and for a moment nothing came out. Slowly Ariya became aware of a distant whisper, but it did not come from the Kjeller. Instead it seemed to emanate from the air itself, surrounding her, echoing to the ceiling. The Kjeller’s jaw hung open, unmoving.
She jumped when sudden words sounded in her ear; but there was no one beside her. …me… hear me…
Ariya spun about in a futile attempt to locate its source. “What trick is this?” she said. She considered starting her song, to stop the Kjeller from doing whatever it was he was doing—
It is not him, said the voice, and it was then that Ariya realized two things: the voice was male, and it held a familiar sibilant lilt, something that Ariya had only ever heard before in her own speech.
It was the voice of another Darukar.
You have been deceived, the voice went on.
“Enough nonsense,” Ariya said, and turned to face the Kjeller. She began her song, but in an instant found herself writhing on the floor in pain. The song had turned back on itself, shrieking in her ears. Spots flickered in her vision as she struggled to her feet.
Listen, the voice said. You must listen. There was a pause during which Ariya heard nothing more. The Kjeller sat in the chair, his expression unchanged, his mouth still hanging open. During the silence, Ariya felt a sudden shift in the air, a sort of… sharpening. As if everything before had been a dream, and now she had awoken. Think of your master.
“The Priman?” Ariya said. There was no response. She wondered if this was some trick of the Priman’s—some test of loyalty, perhaps. Why would he do that to her? She had never done a thing to betray him. He had been good to her. So loving, so generous… so cruel.… What? No, that wasn’t true. But.…
She recalled Lord Cammar, a noble from the eastern coast, who had come to Ialvanar seeking aid from the Priman. Other lords were encroaching on his lands, Cammar claimed. He had arrived at a most convenient time: the Priman had needed a patsy, a lord from that area to serve as a stalking horse. The Priman had enemies among the eastern lords, and to turn them wholly against one another would secure his reign from their influence for a time. So he had used Lord Cammar to deliver a deadly insult to another eastern lord, which had set about a chain of duels and revenge killings—all of them insulated from the Priman’s touch, of course.
Lord Cammar was a gentleman, and would not have done such a thing on his own. But coerced with Ariya’s song, forced to love her—or think he did—he was all too willing to help. The Priman had smiled thinly at the news of the unravelling alliances of the east, and Ariya had watched with glee as her work set about a sluicing of blood.
She remembered all this, remembered remembering it fondly, but now it made her sick. Poor Lord Cammar! He had been the first to die, stabbed through the gut in a rage by the man he’d insulted. Ariya had seen it from her balcony, watching as Cammar strode up to the other man, tapped him on the shoulder, and said what she had sent him to say. She remembered the thrill of watching his death; the longing for his blood as it pooled on the ochre tiles beneath his cooling body.
She wanted to vomit. She looked at the Kjeller, still motionless, still staring. Listen, the voice came to her again. Remember.
She thought about how the Priman had smuggled a young man into her chambers, on the night of the first full moon of the new year. A servant, he’d been, who had overheard the wrong thing and had to be disposed of. But rather than cutting his throat and dumping him in the harbor, the Priman had gifted him to her, to do with as she pleased. The Priman had only sat in a velvet chair and watched as Ariya sang to the young man, and made him dance for her, and made him pleasure her, and made him prostrate himself before her, before she slashed wounds in his ribs and drank from him. She’d felt such pleasure at the gift, and such devotion to the Priman.
The boy. Blue eyes. He’d been terrified at first, and though she’d sung her song and set his mind whirling, now she could see the fear lurking beneath the false love she’d imbued him with. What did I do?
The memories came, faster and faster, each one bringing her back to something she’d taken pleasure in. She felt a blow as each memory was interpreted anew, as she saw the horrors she’d wrought in the Priman’s name.
Monsters, someone said—but not the Darukar voice that spoke from thin air. This was her own voice. She realized she was lying on her back on the chill stone floor, and sat up. The Kjeller’s mouth still hung open; still he stared blankly at her.
And then one last word came from the air.
Instantly the air changed. Ariya realized that there had been a low drone filling the air, noticeable now only by its absence. The Kjeller’s mouth snapped shut, and he blinked, and emotions flooded onto his face—distress, grief, resignation, determination. He looked up at Ariya. “You heard the message?” he said in his bass rumble.
Ariya nodded. “Who was that?”
The Kjeller shook his head. “Not here. You will learn his name in time. For now, you must kill me, and escape. Go west for three days to where the split mountain reigns. There you will be found.”
Ariya’s head spun. Kill him? It should have been easy; he was manacled, and anyway she could use her song and he would put up no resistance. But she hesitated.
No. It would be wrong.
He must have seen the ambivalence on her face, because he shook his head. “My time has ended. You must escape. She is waiting.”
“You would sacrifice yourself for me?” Ariya blurted out. She covered her mouth in sudden alarm. There were guards in the corridor, just in case a prisoner somehow broke free; could they have overheard any of that?
“Others have sacrificed more than a life for me and mine,” the Kjeller said. “I do this willingly. It is the greater good.” He paused, and shifted in his seat. “If you do not, they will wonder why you let me live, and you will not escape.”
Ariya sank to her knees. She was almost overcome. How could she kill this man, this Kjeller, who had done nothing but come to free her from her illusions? “What sort of magic was that?”
“Do not stall,” the Kjeller said, all his fear gone and command in his voice. But there was no magic in it, not as there was in hers when she used her song. “Kill me and go.” He lifted his head up, exposing his throat, and clenched his teeth.
Ariya stood and went slowly over to him. “What is your name?” she asked again.
His eyes met hers. She saw no fear in them. “Parn,” he said.
Ariya touched his cheek. He was warm under her fingers. She pushed away the horrible pit that had opened within her stomach, and began to sing.
Ariya tried to leave Bonehaven without revealing anything to the thaumen, but they panicked at the idea of the Priman’s favored pet travelling on her own. Their man in charge insisted on knowing why she wanted to leave when the Priman had sent no summons for her. She thought about making up a story, but decided that the truth would serve. She said that the Kjeller had told her of another Darukar to the west, and that she wanted to investigate it herself.
This they believed—and why not? It was true. But they insisted on sending an escort with her: three thaumen and a dozen mundane soldiers. Ariya thought about trying to kill them all once they were away from Bonehaven, but the thought made her sick. Besides, she could only use her song against one person at a time, and the other men were not stupid; if she took control of one of the men and turned him against the others, they would figure out what had happened and put a sword through her heart before she could do any real damage.
So she let them accompany her, and rode west. She had never before felt trepidation at a journey, even into unknown lands. Now she did, bedding down each night beneath the stars, wondering what she would find at the “split mountain,” whatever that was. She had never been this far into the hinterlands before; her life before Bonehaven had always been spent in, or at least within spitting distance of, large cities like Ialvanar.
By the afternoon of the third day, the road had devolved into little more than a low place in the slush. The land was bereft of vegetation. There was no reason to come here; no life, no game, nothing but rock and snow and endless cold. The thaumen had begun to mutter that she was chasing shadows, and while the guards would never utter a complaint in their masters’ hearing, Ariya saw how they looked askance at her.
They came around a barren hillock, and there a ghostly mass loomed before them. It certainly must have a name; nothing so distinctive could remain unnamed for long. The mountain sat astride the surrounding plain as if planted there by the hand of I’al. Its sides rose vertiginously, jaggedly striated knives of gray stone jutting toward the sky.
At the very top, the peak was cleft by a crumbling gash, so stark in contrast to the angular sides of the mountain that it looked as if it had been cut by the blade of I’al falling from the heavens.
The party came to a stop and gaped at it. “Is this where he said the other Dar—Darukar lives?” one of the thaumen stuttered. A master he might be, but he was only a speck before the mountain. The thing was like a living presence, a titan of stone with its baleful gaze turned upon them.
“Somewhere near here,” Ariya said. Her horse skittered nervously and she whispered to calm it a little. She looked around the landscape, trying to keep her eyes off the mountain. “He said a Darukar would be found.”
Where that might be was not obvious. The land was rock and snow and mud all the way to the flanks of the mountain. Ariya realized belatedly that the mountain had no snow on it. Just gray rock, from toe to crown. Somehow that unnerved her even more than the rest of its appearance.
They made camp right there, since no one in the party showed any inclination to go any closer to the split peak. Ariya suggested they search the area in the morning. She assured the thaumen that she would be able to find any Darukar nearby. When the thaumen asked how, she stared coolly at them until they subsided and left her alone.
Her dream of lying in bed in the Priman’s embrace was interrupted by a bleeding, screaming man who burst in through the door of her bedchamber—no—this was real—she bolted upright in the dark, and there was shouting and clanking all around her. There had been no campfire, no decent wood within an hour’s walk. Ariya stared around, frantically trying to tell what was going on. Her vision was blurry; she rubbed her eyes and saw shapes sliding through the black. She made to stand, but there was suddenly something shoving at her back, forcing her down. She screamed and tried to lash at them with her tail, but something iron caught it, and then there was a crushing weight on her for a moment. “Don’t move or you’ll die,” a voice in her ear said, and then the weight was gone.
She hesitated. The man’s breath had been hot on her cheek–but there had been a subtle sibilance to it that she’d almost missed in the chaos and shouting. Another Darukar! Ariya planted her face into the dirt and prayed that no one would step on her or put a spear through her back in the darkness.
The cries dwindled, and soon there was only the faint crunch of bootleather on snow. Ariya risked looking up. Half a dozen shapes moved about the camp. Under the starlight she could barely make them out, but they were not thaumen, or the guards from Bonehaven. These shapes all had something that those men did not.
These shapes all had tails.
The nearest one glanced her way and then plodded across the snow dampened ground toward her. Her chest tightened as fear gripped her, but she held herself frozen. The approaching shape stopped a few paces off and crouched down. “Are you unharmed?” it asked. It was the same one who’d knocked her down and warned her. A man. A Darukar.
Ariya slowly pushed herself onto her knees, waited a few heartbeats, and then rose to her feet. The other Darukar stood as well, but did not come closer. “I am Haeron,” he said, and reached out a hand.
Ariya found herself drawn away from the camp and surrounded by six people—no, eight; two more came out of the shadows. Eight of them, and all Darukar.
She wanted to cry. She had only ever met one other Darukar, and that had only been in passing. A lord from a distant land had come to treat with the Priman, and that lord had had a pet Darukar as well. A pale-haired girl, blank-faced and wan, hewing close to her master’s side, tail twitching nervously. The lord had left shortly thereafter, and Ariya had not seen the other Darukar again.
She had always told herself that Darukar were simply rare; and she, being the Priman’s favored pet, was the rarest of all. Perhaps she had actually believed that, before the Kjeller came with his arcane message, and the new eyes he had given her. Parn. She would not forget his name.
“Welcome, sister,” said one of the others standing around her. “The Mother very much wants to meet you.”
She learned much that night as they rode. She learned that Darukar were far more numerous than she’d ever been led to believe, but most of them lived in isolated groups far away from humans and Kjeller and Taeren and all the rest. She learned that the Priman’s soldiers had standing orders to kill any Darukar they found—except, of course, for the Priman’s pets. Pets, yes; Ariya was not the only one, Haeron told her. The Priman had Darukar secreted all around the realm to serve as his interrogators, as Ariya had done for him at Bonehaven.
She learned that Kjeller were not all lone wanderers, either. They had tribes and villages, and looked enough like humans to avoid the genocidal attentions of men like the Priman. But they were not loved by humans, and were not treated well. In their own defense, some Kjeller tribes had formed loose alliances with Darukar families. The Mother’s alliance was considered the strongest of all. She had more than given a life to stand against the Priman’s empire. She had given over her whole lifetime.
Ariya was glad to put the split mountain behind her; it felt as malevolent as any thauman she’d ever known. They rode past it and through the badlands beyond. They came out of the rock and snow and into lower, warmer lands, lands as green as memory and resplendent with flowers. Lands too far from the Priman and his—his lies, his deceptions.
Ariya could not remember a time before the Priman. He had raised her from a child, keeping her safe until she was old enough to serve him, to please him. He had convinced her that she loved him—him, a human, when she was the one with the power to make men love her!
Haeron and the other Darukar looked at her with pity and compassion. Haeron himself had once been a prisoner, captured along with his sister and compelled to use his power to serve another cruel human lord. Haeron had been told that if he disobeyed, his sister would be tortured, raped, slaughtered. He believed it, for what choice did he have? But then a sympathetic maid had told him that it was a lie; his sister was already dead. Haeron went into a rage and killed the lord and his family, all the guards and servants. He’d spared only the kind maid.
He’d fled the city and wandered in grief through the wilderness, feeding on animals and sleeping in trees, until he’d come across the Mother and joined her. She would show Ariya the truth, Haeron told her, as if all she’d learned so far had been merely prologue. Ariya was terrified of what that might mean.
They passed settlements, small villages, loose collections of huts and mean cottages. The people—most of them Darukar, some of them Kjeller, and occasionally a human—did not look at her with fear or hatred, as she expected. She’d served the Priman, the enemy. She felt a traitor to her own people. But she saw no judgment. Only consideration.
At last they came to a vast, grassy field, and at the far end stood a simple hut, smooth mud walls beneath a thatched roof. As they came close, someone emerged, and even at this distance Ariya could tell that it was a Darukar. A woman. Old, if her gray hair was a sign. The party dismounted when they reached her, and Haeron embraced her warmly, as did all the other Darukar in turn.
Finally the old woman looked at Ariya, but she spoke to Haeron. “So this is the girl you risked so much for.” Haeron’s face clouded for a moment, but then he smiled tightly at Ariya, as if to reassure her. “I am Madaai,” the old woman went on. “Come inside and we will talk.”
“Haeron said that he has already told you much about us,” Madaai said. They sat beside a window that looked out over the grasses. The other Darukar had gone, leaving Ariya alone with Madaai and Haeron. Haeron sat by the hut’s door, watching the two women intently. “Unlike your Priman, I do not coerce people. Those who join me do so out of their own convictions, I am proud to say.” And she did seem proud. Ariya had known many nobles and lords, arrogant men who saw the world as their playground. Madaai had confidence and command, but unlike those sneering courtiers, she had clearly earned it.
“I don’t know what you want from me,” Ariya said.
“I want you to join us.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“Then we will imprison you. You were the Priman’s creature for many years. We cannot let you return to him and tell what you have learned. I have fought him for longer than you’ve been alive.”
“I—I don’t ever want to go back to him,” Ariya heard herself say. “That spell you sent with the Kjeller—with Parn. What was that?”
Haeron came over and crouched down beside them. “It is possible to harness one’s song to, um, a sort of thaumic foundation. It can force a shift in perspective. It doesn’t control your thoughts, like our song does. It just makes you able to see things a little differently.”
Ariya remembered the room in Bonehaven, and Parn. “Why did he do it?”
Haeron glanced at Madaai for a moment. “Parn, you mean?”
Ariya nodded. “He said that you had sacrificed… something.”
Madaai shifted, leaning closer. “Children want the world to be well-ordered. Everything in its right place. Simple rules. But the world is not like that, and you are not grown until you know it.” She gestured around at the hut, the land, the sky, all that was out of the Priman’s reach. “This does not preserve itself. We can rest, for a day, or a week, a month. But not forever. Life is struggle. Some struggle for power, control, or dominance.” Her tone told what she thought of that last—and of the Priman. Ariya felt a stab of shame again. “The Darukar here are numerous, but we were once far more numerous. When I was young, as young as you are now, I still thought as a child. I thought we were safe.” Her expression hardened. “It took a sacrifice of a whole tribe for me to see how wrong I was.” She stood up and went to the hearth, and began fiddling with her tea kettle.
Haeron watched her for a moment, then turned back to Ariya. “You’ll have to forgive her,” he said, grinning. “Her tribe was wiped out by an army of men, for no other reason than that they were Darukar. Madaai was the only survivor, and I’m afraid it’s made her a touch bitter.” His smile faded. “She was taken away and forced to serve the same way you were.”
“I was never forced,” Ariya protested. “It—it was just how things were.”
“Hm,” Haeron said, unconvinced. “Anyway. Madaai escaped and began to fight. Parn joined us after Madaai helped save his village and his family. He worked and fought alongside us for many years. What he did for you, he did gladly.” Haeron looked into Ariya’s eyes. Her breath caught and she glanced away.
“Madaai is not so different from the Priman, in some ways,” Haeron went on after a few moments. “She unites us by force of will, as does any great leader. But the Priman’s followers are steeped in fear and greed.” He glanced at Madaai for a moment, and nodded. “We follow out of love.”
Madaai chose that moment to return. She sat down across from Ariya again. “What do you think of your Priman now, hm?”
Ariya hesitated. “That spell… it showed me the truth. I now know what a monster the Priman is.” Tears welled up alongside the shame of her memories.
“If only I believed you,” Madaai said.
“Why wouldn’t you believe me? You sent the spell,” Ariya said.
“No. The spell was Haeron’s idea. I do… not approve of it. Too risky.” She waved a hand irritably. “But what’s done is done, and you are here now.”
“There must be some way for you to trust me—for me to prove myself to you,” Ariya pleaded.
Madaai stared at her for a few moments, and the young Darukar eventually looked away from the older woman’s gaze. “There is a way. A way to prove how you feel.”
Haeron grunted. “I don’t think that’s a good idea. She’s very young.”
“Hush,” Madaai said. “The girl was strong enough to survive in Ialvanar for I’al knows how long! She can make up her own mind. Your spell did not kill her, did it? She might survive this.”
Haeron threw his hands up and rocked back into a crouch, his tail twitching peevishly.
Madaai glared at him for a moment and then turned back to Ariya. “There is a ritual we can perform. It would allow us to inspect your thoughts, and tell once and for all whether you truly consider the Priman as evil as we do.”
“I thought we couldn’t use our powers against other Darukar,” Ariya said, confused. Haeron had told her as much on their journey from the split mountain.
“We cannot, that is true. This is different. A sort of merging of minds. But it is dangerous. Painful in the extreme. Not physically, but psychically. Some do not survive it. Their bodies go into shock, and they die.”
It sounded terrifying—but the alternative, of being imprisoned forever? How could that possibly be better? “I am not frightened,” Ariya lied, jutting her chin out and trying to sound confident.
Madaai shook her head. “That is not the only danger. If you submit to this, then while the ritual is ongoing, you must not attempt to resist it, not at all. Doing so can cause permanent madness.”
That made her hesitate. All creatures died; it was the way of the world. But to lose one’s mind.… Once, a lord had come to the Priman’s palace, accompanied by his idiot son. The boy drooled and stared off into space and was led about by a tired bodyservant whose sole job was to make sure the young idiot didn’t crash into walls or choke on his dinner.
But how could Ariya live, imprisoned, knowing that there was a chance at a real life? She glanced at Haeron. He smiled ruefully at her, clearly aware how difficult a choice this was. Tentatively, he reached over and touched her hand. “You need not decide this instant,” he said, and shot a glance at Madaai, who raised her eyebrow in response.
“No. I will do it,” Ariya declared. “It will not be any less dangerous tomorrow, will it?”
Madaai pursed her lips. “So be it. We will begin tonight.”
An infinite cathedral of glass surrounded her. Ariya floated in this empty space, seeing reflected ghosts in every surface. How had she gotten here? The memory hovered just beyond sight. In the manner of dreams, her presence here seemed entirely natural, and yet strange.
But this was no dream. She turned about, hoping to see something familiar—
Madaai hovered just before her.
Ariya tried to jerk back, and felt herself move, but Madaai did not drift any farther away, even though the endless glass panels shifted like a kaleidoscope.
“Where are we?”
“In your memories,” Madaai said. “We will go through them, and you will observe them, and I will observe you. Your reactions will tell me the truth.”
“How will you know they are true?” Ariya said, bewildered.
“You cannot deceive me here. I am privy to all your thoughts.” Madaai folded her arms. “Now. Choose a memory, and we will begin.”
To have someone inside her thoughts terrified Ariya. “Do… do I have to?”
The glass panels began to glow faintly red. Ariya felt her skin prickle.
“Do not resist,” Madaai said. “Remember what I said might happen.” Madness. But how could it happen that easily? Surely she could change her mind if she wanted to.…
With that thought, the glass panels turned a deeper red. Ariya’s skin felt as if it were being gently probed by tiny needles. “It will get worse the more you resist,” Madaai warned.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Ariya cried.
“I am not doing anything to you,” Madaai said. “You let me in to your mind; you cannot both allow me and deny me.” Her eyes narrowed. “That is how the madness takes you.”
Ariya gulped. She wanted to resist, to stop, to reject Madaai and go back to the real world—
The panels turned as red as the blood of every man she’d ever drained, and a wave of stabbing pain enveloped her from head to toe. She shrieked, flailing to fight off the knives, but there were none there. She held her breath and suffered through the pain, thinking only, I will, I will, I will let you in.…
Something snapped, and the pain switched off, leaving only a memory as fragile as any dream. Ariya opened her eyes. The panels were all clear again.
Madaai had been stern up until now, but Ariya looked at her and saw trepidation. “Perhaps you were not ready for this.”
“I am,” Ariya said. Whatever reluctance she’d had, she’d fought through it. But that was only the first step. She turned and looked at the forest of glass around her. They all looked the same. Which memory was which? Ariya pointed at one of them. “That one.”
Madaai turned to look. The panel began to grow larger, slowly at first—or was it coming closer? Or both? Ariya had never seen such a thing. Ariya reached a hand out, and her finger sank into the glass like water. An icy pressure slid over her arms and chest and face, and then there she was, in the palace throne room, sitting on her silvered chair by the Priman’s side. Her tail was hidden under her dress; the courtiers only knew her as the beautiful young girl the Priman kept around, a girl who sat by the Priman’s side when he held court and sang quietly to herself. Clearly a concubine, one rumor said; no, no, a bastard daughter, said another.
Ariya eyed the courtiers as they chattered nervously at the edges of the room. The Priman was in a foul mood today, but it was his time to hold court and see to the needs of the people of Ialvanar. He’d never let peasants or servants appear before him, of course; today was for wealthy commoners, for the guild masters and merchants and ship captains to air their complaints.
Some had valid concerns; others simply angled for the Priman’s largesse, claiming that they needed special subsidies or more favorable trade agreements or lower tariffs on their goods. Ariya knew what was expected of her. When the Priman tapped his right hand irritably upon the arm of his throne, Ariya sang her song at whichever unfortunate merchant stood before the Priman. The man’s jaw would go a little slack, his eyes would unfocus, and the Priman would suggest that perhaps what was needed was for the merchant to pay higher tariffs, to show his devotion to the throne. The merchant, so open to suggestion, would easily agree, and the Priman’s reputation as a terrible, frightening man would expand that much more.
Ariya had always loved this task. Somehow it never failed to amuse her to see these puffed-up, self-important men admit in open court that they should not only apologize to the Priman for wasting his time, but in fact should compensate him for it. It was no wonder why the Priman was so powerful.
But something had changed. Ariya watched as the man fell before her song, and she could see now that there was fear and confusion behind the false obedience and adoration she’d planted in their hearts. The glory of the memory faded into shame, and Ariya felt her spirit quelled almost to the point of oblivion.
She could not change the memory, but she tried to twist away from it, and found herself floating in the glass cathedral again. The first glass panel had shattered into dust.
Madaai was there. The old Darukar woman nodded. “Another.”
That first memory had taken everything Ariya had. “I… I can’t,” she gasped. She felt no physical distress, but her mind reeled.
But the glass panels would not allow it. They all turned red again, and the razors came back, scraping fine furrows into Ariya’s skin—or so it felt. She cried, “I will, I will!” When she opened her eyes, her skin was intact.
Shaking, she reached for another glass, and it floated toward her, and enveloped her, and again she suffered through the memory—Lord Cammar, again, looking astonished at the dagger in his stomach as he sank to his knees. Ariya cried out, silent in her memory, and twisted away.
She caught her breath for a moment, and looked down at herself as she floated in the vast reflecting whiteness of the cathedral. Her clothes—something was wrong with them. But there was no time—Madaai directed her to choose another glass, and she did, and again the agony of memory enveloped her.
This time, back in the cathedral, she was certain–her clothes were vanishing. She’d had on a dress and bodice, and stockings, boots, underclothes, a cloak, a hat, a pin. They were all slowly fading away. Another memory, and another; her boots had turned to slippers, and after another memory they were gone. Her stockings faded and peeled away; her bodice split eyelet by eyelet and fell off. The pain deepened, and the glass panels shattered one by one as every part of Ariya was stripped away.
Ariya floated, curled into a ball, weeping the truth. Only when she wiped her tears and felt her arm brush against something did she raise her head and look.
She was in Madaai’s hut. Stars twinkled outside. Haeron sat by the fireplace, poking at the embers to summon a little more warmth. Madaai herself lay curled up beside Ariya, her eyes shut tight, her chest rising and falling gently.
Haeron noticed Ariya’s movement and came over to her. “You were asleep for a long while.”
“Is… is it done?” Ariya said. She remembered the glass cathedral, but it was fading, as a dream does.
“You didn’t die, so that’s good,” Haeron said lightly. “Have you gone mad?”
“I don’t think so.” Ariya glanced around. “Everything feels normal.” She remembered the prickles, the stabs, the scrapes on her skin. But she had come through.
Madaai rolled over and sat up, blinking. “Well,” she said.
Ariya waited, afraid to ask whether she had passed the test. Finally Madaai took her hand and nodded. “You did well. I saw into your heart. You have truly renounced whatever love you had for the Priman. So you are free to go or stay as you choose. I ask only that you not reveal to anyone that we are here.”
Ariya’s mouth dropped open. “Leave—are you mad? After all that, how could I do anything but stay?”
Haeron laughed. “She’s got as much fire as you did,” he said to Madaai.
The old Darukar woman smiled thinly at him. She turned back to Ariya. “Then you are welcome here. I fear you will not find it as comfortable as you might be used to.”
This did irritate Ariya for a moment–but then she recalled what Haeron had said to her, back at Bonehaven, at the very end of the spell.
“It’s a small price to pay,” Ariya said. She smiled and took Haeron’s hand.