Awakenings Book Smugglers Publishing

TIMSHALA by Leah Cypess

Timshala by Leah Cypess
Published 10/30/2018

Siara has always known that every step of her life is predestined—with the exception of a few true choices, a few points in time where she can exercise free will. But when she is condemned to be buried alive in her mother’s tomb, she figures choice is no longer an issue.

She is wrong.

Siara doesn’t know why her own mother wanted her dead, or why others at the royal court are determined to save her. In her attempts to untangle the secrets swirling around her, she will discover that some choices were taken from her before she was ever born. Now, only she can take them back—if she is brave enough to confront a future she never believed possible.

1

We sat in the shadows waiting to die. There were five of us: the royal secretary, the two handmaidens, the music master, and me. The tomb was dark and musty, shadows pressing around us, darting into the flickering circle of light.

It was ridiculous to be afraid of ghosts when you were about to become one.

“It’s an honor,” one of the handmaidens said. She had said it five times already, more firmly each time. Her fellow handmaiden turned a chiseled profile toward her in annoyance.

That one believed it, and therefore didn’t have to say it.

The two men in the tomb didn’t believe it at all. Unlike the handmaidens, who had been offered at birth to serve the Empress, they had fought their way to their positions. Around the purity of the Empress’s inner court was a mass of scheming and plotting and endless deceits, not very conducive to religious devotion. Both the music master and the secretary had spent years struggling through it.

Silence filtered in again. I kept my eyes down, but I could feel them looking at me—all except the taller handmaiden, the one with the sure and quiet faith. None of them knew why I was there.

Well, I thought, that makes five of us.

The tomb felt almost peaceful—or rather, the little circle we sat in, lit by four torches, felt peaceful. Beyond it, in the darkness where the Empress’s corpse lay drenched in perfume, with her scrolls and her clothes and her favorite things laid neatly around her, was darkness and fear and a terrible stillness.

I had once wondered aloud, with one of my maids, what happened in the tombs. Did the people wait to die, quiet and accepting? Did they scream and try to dig their way out? Did they kill themselves, to end the waiting?

“Maybe they fight and kill each other,” my maid had whispered, eyes alight with the scandal of discussing this, and I had looked at her blankly and asked, “Why?” I had never understood people very well. Not until it was too late to do me any good.

“An honor,” the shorter handmaiden said again.

With any luck, if we did start fighting, she would be the first to go.

For now, we sat still, not looking at each other, and not looking at the spot in the darkness where I could almost feel the Empress’s casket pressing on the earth.

Surrounded by all her favorite things.

But I had never, really, been one of her things at all. She had borne me and pushed me out onto the earth, it was true, but then she’d handed me to a nurse and washed off the blood and gone back to being Empress. I had seen her twice in fifteen years.

And then, in my sixteenth year, every day. She had started coming to my quarters, just to watch me—at lessons, at embroidery, at rest. I had not understood it, and had not been happy. I had long ago abandoned any need for a mother, or so I’d thought. Seeing her made me feel a sharp longing, a painful ache that was as impossible to fill as ever.

She must have known she was dying when she remembered that she had a daughter. She had already chosen my father’s new wife, a girl my age who would presumably bear him lots and lots of round-faced sons. I met her, the future bearer of sons, right before the funeral—a pale, lazy-looking thing, though perhaps I wasn’t at my most objective. I had just found out about another of my mother’s decisions.

“It’s a—” the shorter handmaiden said, then stopped. I looked up. Something long and thin and dripping protruded from her chest. A jagged dark circle rose around it, staining her white silk robe.

The music master twisted the knife and pulled it out, casually lifting the handmaiden’s trailing sleeve to wipe her blood off his blade.

Her body hit the ground with a thud.

I let out a strangled sound, and clamped my lips firmly together before it could turn into a scream.

The other handmaiden looked at the corpse gravely, then turned her head and gazed at the music master.

“We’re all going to die,” he snapped. “It makes no difference, except now we won’t have to listen to her whining.”

The taller handmaiden pursed her lips. She had one of those classical faces, all dark eyes and raised cheekbones. “You didn’t know she would be like this. She didn’t start until after we were buried.”

“So?”

“So why did you bring a knife?”

The music master sneered. “You don’t think we’ll need knives in the Afterlife?”

Her eyebrows went up a deliberate fraction. “You don’t think she’ll be angry at you, in the Afterlife?”

“I’ll keep the knife.” He slid it back into his boot and returned to his chair.

The brief excitement died. Eventually blood stopped spreading from under the handmaiden’s body, and became a still, stagnant pool, uninteresting to watch. I watched it anyhow, because it was better than watching the others. Especially the music master, who had his head tilted back, as if he was more bored than ever.

The music master, I knew, had spent time in the Cthonian port—on the Emperor’s orders, of course, but that didn’t make him any less tainted. Clearly, it had skewed him somehow, and everyone had sensed it. In the months since his return from the port, no one would step within arm’s length of him. Even now, the other chairs were set apart from his.

Even now? Especially now. The Afterlife was practically touching us, and there were no more cleansing rituals possible.

He had killed the handmaiden knowing that. She was so still, so dead, with the pool of blood around her.

Not that it mattered, really. We would all be that still, that dead, very soon.

I wished it had been the other handmaiden, the calmer and more beautiful one. I hated the half-smile on her lips. It reminded me of my mother.

The most beautiful woman in Timshala. So the songs said, and I had always believed them, not knowing that any empress would be declared beautiful by the bards. They were saying the same thing about my father’s new wife, now, somewhere up where the sun shone and the air moved. The wedding was probably over by now, somewhere up where the sun shone and the air moved. They couldn’t do it until the old Empress was buried, but my father would not have waited an extra second. He needed sons.

There was no requirement that he wait until his daughter was dead.

I wondered if he had fought my mother over her decision. Probably not; I doubted he remembered my name. Arguing would have been pointless, anyhow. She had the right, by law, to choose five of her subjects to accompany her into the Afterlife.

The remaining handmaiden had stopped smiling, and was gazing thoughtfully into the darkness. If there had been light, she would have been staring at the stone wall slanting over our heads. Not that it mattered….

“What are you looking at?” I asked.

I was surprised by the fact that I had spoken, and even more surprised by the edge in my voice. It was panic. I hoped it sounded like irritation.

The handmaiden turned, her eyes large and calm. I was sure she would refuse to say anything, or spout some mystical nonsense. Instead, she said, “I think there’s something moving in here.”

The music master sat bolt upright. My fingers dug hard into the seat of my chair.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” the secretary said. “It’s just the four of us.”

The music master was on his feet. “What did it look like?”

“It didn’t look like anything,” the secretary snapped. “It’s pitch-black, and there’s nothing there. Sit down.”

“Now I hear something,” the handmaiden said dispassionately.

“I heard something, too,” the music master said. I hadn’t seen him draw his knife, but it was back in his hand.

I forced down my fear. I couldn’t afford to be afraid, not now, not until I was much closer to death. If even a tiny bit got through, it would all come flooding in, and I would scream and weep like a madwoman until the moment my breath stopped.

“Everybody sit down,” I said.

They all turned to look at me, and for a moment I thought they were going to obey. Then the secretary raised an eyebrow, the handmaiden looked back at the darkness, and the music master said, “You’re not a princess anymore, Siara. You’re just a sacrifice like the rest of us.”

Nobody except my nurse had ever called me by my first name. While I was speechless with the shock of it, the secretary said mildly, “That’s only temporary. Surely you realize that she’ll still be a princess in the Afterlife? You should watch how you speak to her.”

There was something underneath the words, something that mocked me despite the complete absence of mockery in his tone. Whatever it was, it turned my shock into fury—and that was when I realized I still had faith. Despite my anger, despite the way I had lost control at the end and screamed at them to please, please not bury me; despite the fact that for the past few hours I had sat and stared at death as if it was a black wall with nothing on the other side. I still believed it was right that we were in this tomb, that the Empress should be escorted into the Afterlife. That we would escort her into the Afterlife. That we would die, and it wouldn’t be the end.

For a split second, I understood why the handmaiden was so calm.

“It’s still there,” she said.

The second passed. “Be silent!” I snapped.

The handmaiden looked right at me, for the first time. I hadn’t noticed before that she was avoiding my eyes. “It will still be there if I’m silent, Princess.”

“There’s nothing there,” the secretary said.

And then it stepped into the torchlight.

What was it? Large, and clawed, like an animal. But there was no fur, no heavy, breathing flesh. It was made of darkness, as if the night had wrapped itself into form and detached itself from the shadows. I think it had no eyes.

The silence was broken by the handmaiden’s scream. She knocked over her chair as she stumbled out of it, backing all the way to the end of the dim circle of light. The—thing—moved, and she screamed again. It was pure panic, not mixed with hope or faith of any kind.

It makes no difference, I told myself. It’s just another type of death. But the only reason I wasn’t screaming was because my breath had frozen in my throat. The thing had no eyes, but it was looking at me.

Dimly, I was aware that the music master was still as a statue, that the secretary was on his feet. The thing had no eyes, but it was looking at me. It moved toward me, in a way no living thing should move; blackness flowing into new space, forming new limbs.

And then it was upon me.

My scream ripped through my throat. It had weight, but not heat or feel or smell. I was on my back and it was on top of me, but it was like being attacked by a gust of wind. I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t feel why.

The handmaiden was screaming. So was the music master.

The secretary was not.

Cold sliced into my chest, cutting off my screams. There was no pain, only a terror so deep it was worse than pain.

“No!” the handmaiden shouted, and the creature was thrown off me. I had a quick glimpse of a long polished object—a spear—jutting from its side, and then the darkness swallowed both the creature and the weapon. I rolled over and scrambled to my feet, gasping and sobbing, just as the secretary threw a second spear. It missed its mark completely, thudding into the wall.

“No,” the handmaiden said, in horror.

I raised a shaking hand to my throat. The cold was completely gone, as if it had never been.

“Princess,” the secretary said. He backed away from me, into the center of the flickering circle of torchlight, away from the darkness where the thing that had attacked me either lay dead or stalked toward us. No way to tell; it was pitch black, and the creature had been soundless.

The handmaiden was shaking. “Defiler!”

“Shut your mouth,” the secretary snarled.

My mind lurched and started working again. I stared at the spear that had hit the wall, then to my left, toward the darkness where my mother lay surrounded by her favorite things.

It was much debated, among priests, whether one needed weapons in the Afterlife. The general consensus was: better safe than sorry.

“You used her spear—” It took my voice a moment to work properly. “You violated her death-state!”

“I saved your life,” the secretary snapped.

“I am here to die.” I managed to say it steadily.

“Not like that.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it, recognizing both the stark truth of his words and the enormity of what he had done. He had wrapped his hand around spears dedicated to the dead, his skin coming into full contact with the smooth wood. He could not become more defiled, not if he walked over to her casket and touched the preserved body itself. And he was about to die, and there was no priest here to cleanse him.

“Do you think it’s still out there?” The shrillness of the handmaiden’s voice gave me a mean sense of satisfaction.

The secretary glanced around the circle. “No.”

“Is it… dead?” The shrillness of my voice didn’t bother me. I had just been attacked by a creature that shouldn’t exist. I had a right to be shrill.

“It can’t die,” the secretary said. “It sneaked in from the Afterlife.” He reached down and, deliberately, picking up the death-touched spear.

The rest of us stepped back, eyeing the secretary warily. The secretary looked from the handmaiden to the music master, lips pursed. The handmaiden stepped away from him, closer to the darkness.

The secretary took two quick paces in and drove the spear under the music master’s heart.

The music master didn’t scream. He gurgled, lifted his hands, and dropped them. The secretary yanked the spear out, and the music master staggered backward.

This time, I managed not to scream.

“Sorcerer!” the handmaiden gasped, and only then did I realize that the music master’s body wasn’t falling to the floor. It stood, swaying slightly, blood and—other things—spilling over its white robe. The secretary chanted under his breath, fast and furious, and a faint light surrounding the death-spear he held.

Something moved near the edge of the darkness. I tore my eyes from what I was seeing—foul sorcery, desecrating my mother’s tomb—and focused instead on a spot near the edge of our circle of light, where the darkness was thickening.

“We don’t have much time,” the secretary said. He had followed my gaze. “There’s more than one of them.”

“What are they?” My voice was beyond shrillness now. “What are you?”

The handmaiden must have been even more shocked than I was, but she still managed to focus on the most pertinent question. “Not much time to do what?”

The secretary spoke to me, as if she were invisible. “To get out of here.”

“We can’t get out of here!” I said. My voice rose, despite my best efforts to control it. “It’s a tomb! The only way out is through the Afterlife!”

“Exactly.” He tossed me something. I didn’t react fast enough—I didn’t react at all—and it fluttered to the floor: a strip of cloth. “Blindfold yourself.”

“This is blasphemy!” the handmaiden gasped. “You are stealing from the dead!”

Behind me, something growled—a growl I heard with my mind, not my ears.

“I can’t put down the spear,” the secretary told me. “I can’t put on the blindfold for you. Make a Choice.”

It was in the briefest inflection of the word: Choice, not choice. He thought this was one of my Choices, a decision I actually had the power to make.

If he meant to make me move faster, he had miscalculated. My heart pounded in an uneven staccato against my ribs. Terror choked me; all I wanted was to get away from the things in the darkness. But if I truly had a Choice, could I let this—betrayal, desecration, theft—be the action that defined me forever?

“I think,” the secretary said, “you should hurry.”

I found myself bending and picking up the cloth. The secretary was wrong; this wasn’t a Choice. I was completely ruled by my terror. I could not possibly do anything but follow his orders.

The cloth was silk, but covered with dust; once, I would never have let it touch my face. As I tied it on, with fingers that shook so much I could barely manage the knot, I said, “Why do I need a blindfold?”

“Because we’re going through the Afterlife. Here, take his hand.”

The hand that reached for mine was warm and soft. By the time I realized whose it was, the dead fingers had closed around mine. I opened my mouth to scream, and was interrupted by the handmaiden’s voice. It sounded even shriller now that I couldn’t see her face. “How can you do this? She’s your mother!”

Rage ripped through me, and I accepted it as a gift. I turned my face in the direction of the handmaiden’s voice. “What sort of mother asks her child to die for her?”

“It is your duty!”

I knew she was right, but I didn’t want to die. I said the first thing that came to my mind, knowing it was a rationalization, not caring. “It is my duty to die when air or food runs out. It is not my duty to stay here and be ripped apart. That was not my mother’s intent.”

“You don’t care about your mother’s intent!”

“Stay here, then,” I snarled. “The creature came for me, but I’m sure it will be just as happy to take you.”

“No,” the secretary said. “That will only give it strength. You will come with us.”

“I can’t.” Her voice hitched into a sob. “It’s impossible.”

“People can do the impossible. Trust me.”

“But I don’t trust you.”

I felt the secretary’s body move, a sharp jerk. I couldn’t tell what he did, what weapon he used. I knew only that the handmaiden screamed once, and then was silent.

“To be fair,” the secretary murmured, “she was right not to trust me.”

The dead man lurched forward, and I stumbled after him. My foot hit soft dirt, and everything around me changed. The air burned my skin. I opened my mouth to ask a question, and my breath seared my throat. The dead hand pulled me forward.

Everything around me was wrong, wrong, wrong. Shifting shadows moved across my blindfold, and I closed my eyes tightly, but I could still see them. My skin hurt from the inside out.

“How much—” I tried to say, and heard my voice come out in a series of growls, as if I had become something else. Something not human. Panic overcame me, and I tried to yank my hand away. The dead fingers held on tight.

I tried to scream, and nothing came out of my mouth. I tried to breathe, and nothing came in. My mouth worked frantically, attempting to suck in air that wasn’t there. The dead man pulled me forward.

Faintness whirled around me, and I gave into it, with a feeling that was almost relief.

As I lost consciousness, I took my terror with me into the blackness.

2

I woke in a low mat bed, in a small room, with a soft breeze drifting between the slats in the walls. I’d had a dream—a terrible nightmare of a place shifting and cold, where I had wandered for hours while my skin slowly faded away. The terror of the dream still gripped me, and I lay rigid and still, trying not to breathe.

A gust of air brushed my face, bringing with it the scent of grass and water. I opened my eyes and realized that I was alive.

I ignored the fact that I shouldn’t be. For now.

I got out of bed and pushed aside one of the room’s sliding walls. It let me out onto a covered porch, and before me lay the world. Craggy mountains retreated toward the horizon in green waves, then faded into misty gray peaks. A waterfall, thin and clear, rushed down from the rocky heights. When I tried to see where it fell, and couldn’t even make out the mist, I knew the mountains were farther away than they seemed.

Footsteps hit the wooden floor behind me. The secretary stepped onto the porch, wearing a short, embroidered robe over baggy riding trousers. He bowed from the waist, very properly, his gaze averted from my face. “Princess Siara. Your servant, Keijan.”

“What are you,” I said, “and what did you do back there?”

He straightened and smiled.

“Answer me!” I snapped. And, when that accomplished nothing: “You owe me an explanation.”

He looked me straight in the eye, a presumption that stopped me cold. “I don’t owe you anything, Princess. I just used my only Choice to save your life.”

My skin prickled. I had heard people say it before, of course, despite what we had all learned as children. Minor blasphemies: This has got to be a Choice. At least I know this couldn’t possibly be a Choice. Let’s hope I used up all my Choices long ago. But I had never heard it said with such certainty.

In my confusion, I fell back on what we had all learned as children, though the secretary had surely been a better student than I. “We can know how many Choices we have, but never what they are, even after we have made them. Only a fool tries to figure out the unknowable.”

He twitched his shoulders slightly, as if I was a persistently buzzing fly. It was the most disrespectful move anyone had made toward me in my life. “When I was born, my divination revealed that I would have only one Choice. And that, in the tomb, was it.”

An old saying ran through my mind, in my nurse’s soft voice: There is none so dangerous as he who thinks his Choices are all made.

That, some cynics said, was why we were taught that it was impossible to know when our Choices were made. There were, in truth, ways to figure it out; but the knowledge was too dangerous. Every person had to believe he had Choices left, that there were consequences for his actions, that he would suffer in the Afterlife for his sins. Without that, society would collapse.

Most of a person’s life was like a stone rolling downhill, predetermined and unchangeable. The choices we thought we made, from the small to the large, whether or not to take a walk, which robe to wear, whom to marry, were illusions. Forces within us and around us steered us inevitably into the course we took. No matter how agonizing the decision seemed, most of the time, we really had no choice at all.

Most of the time.

There were a few decisions in each person’s life that were true Choices; moments where the forces of nature and society were equally balanced, and the decision one made was truly one’s own. There was no way to tell when those moments were, to distinguish them from the thousands of illusory choices made every day. The Choices could be small or large, made in a split second or agonized over for months. But they alone were the actions upon which, in the Afterlife, a soul’s worth would be weighed.

It was generally agreed that we had to treat each choice as if it was a Choice, not to distinguish between decisions; because we couldn’t know which ones counted. It was only with reluctance that the law allowed priests to divine the number of a person’s Choices at birth. And the same law absolutely forbade a priest from divining a person’s Choices ever again. A man who had made his final Choice at the age of seven would never know it.

Because if he did, he would also know that for the rest of his life, he could do whatever he liked, and it would make no difference.

There is none so dangerous as he who thinks all his Choices are made.

Except perhaps one who thought that and had powerful death-fueled magic at his disposal.

I looked away from the secretary, so he wouldn’t see my fear, and stared out at the landscape. I had never been so close to wilderness before. At first, it looked like a picture—one of the paintings that hung in my room, with quick dark lines creating a river and trees and distant mountains.

Even when I saw the rider coming, he seemed part of the portrait, six horses winding their way along a riverside. Only when the horses came close enough for me to make out the features of the man riding the first did the landscape seem suddenly real: a vast, wild, uncontrolled space, stretching all around me.

I could see the line of gray dust the horses’ hooves kicked up, a thin cloud that followed them across the valley. Two were clearly pack animals, loaded down with bags. But even the saddled ones were far more heavy-boned than the horses in portraits, or than the elegant mare I had occasionally been allowed to ride.

A wave of disorientation washed over me. Since the moment I had stepped into my mother’s tomb, I had accepted that my old life was over. I had done unthinkable things–gone unveiled before men who were not my relatives, spoken to people of lower ranks as if they were my equals, even been ignored by them. Still, I froze at the thought of exposing my face to that rider. I reached for my veil, but of course it wasn’t there. One did not go veiled into the Afterlife.

I gestured at the line of horses. “Who is that man?”

“He’s a priest.” Keijan leaned both his elbows on the railing. “And a friend.”

A priest? I looked again. The rider’s sleeve had fallen back, revealing a red swirl tattooed around his wrist and forearm, liked a graceful wound.

I went cold, as if the shadow I stood in had suddenly darkened.

“He is a Bechirian priest,” I said accusingly.

“Ah, so people still recognize the symbol.” Keijan sounded pleased.

“He is not a priest,” I snapped. “Not anymore.”

Keijan made a tsking noise with his tongue. “You have walked through the Afterlife, and you still think priesthood is made and unmade by your father’s word?”

I had no answer to that. And so I said no more, as the man who should not have existed galloped closer.

 

No one knew why the Emperor had ordered the destruction of the Bechirian Temple, the oldest and wealthiest order of priests. This in itself was not unusual; nobody knew why my father did most of the things he did. It didn’t matter. He was the Emperor.

The Emperor, unique among mortals, had no Choices at all. Everything he did—everything—was predestined.

It had to be that way. No man could change the tide of time. A person who embodied a nation would, of necessity, have his will subordinated to the destiny of that nation.

So the Emperor could do no wrong. Even when what he did seemed clearly immoral, it was the only thing he could have done. There was no point in wondering about his reasons.

And, for the most part, people didn’t. It was a saying not repeated often, because we needed no reminding: The Emperor has no Choices.

The destruction of the Bechirian Order had been different. Both for the suddenness and savagery with which it was carried out, and for the great respect in which its victims were held. The muttering carried even into the women’s quarters, for years after the massacre.

I myself had never seen a Bechirian priest. One had divined my Choices when I was born, but by the next time I left the royal compound—at the age of ten—the Bechirians had already been destroyed.

Only it seemed the destruction had not been as complete as reported.

I kept my head down as we rode away from the travel house, daring only the occasional sideways glance at the impossible priest who had brought the horses. He was not precisely handsome—in fact, he was the opposite of handsome, with hair that clung to his head in tight curls, and an unusually strong-boned face. But there was something oddly compelling about his rough, raw appearance. I had never seen anyone like him before.

But then, I had spent most of my life in the women’s quarters of the palace, and everyone there was chosen for their beauty. They had all looked the same.

We climbed the path upward, into the mountains. I kept my eyes on the ground right in front of me, focusing only on the grass and mud, trying not to think about anything else. For weeks, all thoughts of my future had ended with my imminent death. I didn’t know what to do with the sudden vast unknown stretching ahead of me.

I didn’t know where we were going. I didn’t know anything. From the moment the ex-priest had ridden up, I had been too afraid to say a word. Keijan had greeted him calmly, as if he had expected him–which clearly he must have, given the two saddled horses.

My horse’s shadow lengthened to a sprawling, elongated grayness before we finally stopped. I was relieved; I hadn’t ridden in a year, and my thighs were in agony. But I remained where I was. Despite wanting nothing more than to be off my horse, I didn’t know how to manage it. At the travel house, there had been a mounting step; here, the ground seemed miles away. And Keijan, who had helped me mount, was busy untying one of the saddlebags, and seemed unaware of my dilemma.

Finally, the priest came over, linking his hands together so I could step into them. I revealed more than my ankles in my desperate scramble out of the saddle, and as I rearranged my robe, flustered, I caught the priest staring at me. His rough-hewn face was expressionless, but something in it made my stomach tighten. As soon as I was on the ground, I turned my back on him and looked around.

I knew where we were immediately, though I had never been here before—at least, not since I was three days old. A stone stairway, gray and pitted, led up to a low, flat plateau littered with half-broken white pillars. Tree roots snaked across the ground, but there was not a single tree left standing, and the ruins were baked in sunlight.

I drew in my breath. “My father said no one was to step foot in this place for a hundred years.”

Keijan removed a brown pouch from the saddlebag. It was tightly closed, but I could make out the faint, sweet-and-sharp scent of incense leaking out. “Your father also said that you were to die in your mother’s tomb. We seem to be breaking a lot of laws today, Princess.”

I could hardly argue with that. “Why are we here?”

Keijan re-tied the saddlebag. “We are here because I need to be cleansed.”

I couldn’t argue with that, either. He had desecrated the dead, practiced sorcery in a tomb, and opened a path through the Afterlife. “The Bechirians can’t cleanse you. They no longer exist.”

“One of them brought us here.”

The stranger had finished hobbling the horses and was watching us, his deep-set eyes like smoldering coals. “He is no longer a priest.”

“Why not? Because your father said so?”

Until the day of my death, the royal court had been my whole world. There had been excursions, occasionally, in silk-sheathed carriages and litters; I had seen mountains and trees and temples before today. I had been taught languages and history and art.

And I had been taught that all the Bechirian priests were dead. But one of them was staring at me, so hard his eyes were darts of fire in my back.

“There’s no temple here anymore,” I said finally. My father had certainly accomplished that.

“It’s not the temple that’s important; it’s the site. And Parun knows the rites. It will take an hour, no more.”

And then what? I said, “Parun?”

“An odd name, yes. His mother gave it to him.” He hid a smile, and I could tell he planned to shock me again. “She was Cthonian.”

Despite being braced for it, I couldn’t control my expression. Keijan let his smile out. “Don’t look so repulsed, Princess. It’s impolite.”

Cthonian. That explained both the priest’s strange name and his strange looks.

A Cthonian had come to my father’s court once, to negotiate the expansion of the Port of Foreigners, the only spot in Timshala where Cthonians were allowed to remain overnight. But I hadn’t seen him. The women and children had stayed in their quarters that day, for fear of attracting one of the evil spirits sure to be trailing him. But we had watched him through the windows as he left the castle and headed back to the port.

“Be reasonable,” Keijan said. “Going strictly by tradition, you should be dead right now. An unorthodox cleansing seems like a small price to pay for passing through the Afterlife.”

I remembered the dark forms brushing against me, the shivers of fear and fury that had swirled around me. I pushed the memories away, and was left only with an uncomfortable disquiet in the pit of my stomach.

“How did we pass through?” I asked. “How am I still alive?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you’re the one who did it.”

“I was given instructions, and I followed them.”

“Given instructions by whom?”

Someone cleared his throat behind us. I turned and saw the half-Cthonian priest—ex-priest—standing right behind us. I couldn’t tell, from his face, how much of our conversation he had overheard.

“I’m ready,” he said. “I’ll cleanse the girl first—”

“You will not,” I snapped. “I’ll wait for a real priest.”

His face didn’t change expression. He looked at Keijan, as if nothing I said could possibly be important enough to merit his attention.

“You should allow it,” Keijan said. “If nothing else, it will settle your mind.”

I drew the tatters of my dignity around me. “No one has ever been cleansed by a priesthood that shouldn’t exist.”

“And no one has ever walked through the Afterlife and come out sane.” Keijan shrugged, his robe rippling with the movement. “Just because no one ever has, doesn’t mean no one can.”

That was assuming we had come out sane. Which I did not consider a settled fact.

I didn’t quite dare say it, but I didn’t have to. Keijan smiled, a bit ruefully, and turned away. “You only can’t if you think you can’t. Consider that, Princess. Meanwhile, I will take on the impossible.” He untied the pouch, and the warm scent of incense—of security, and home—filled the air for the briefest of moments. “Again.”

 

I didn’t watch the cleansing ritual. It would have felt wrong, watching a priestly rite performed by someone who was not—no matter what anyone claimed—a priest.

Besides, I had undergone the ritual myself, plenty of times. It would have been both wrong and boring.

The two men disappeared behind a huge fallen pillar, its elaborately carved base inscribed with green and black mold.

It occurred to me that they had left me alone with the horses. The path into the valley was a dusty brown ribbon. The clouds’ shadows drifted over the mountains, shifting patterns of dark green. If I wanted to escape…

The thought didn’t last more than a second before reality shredded it into wisps. I didn’t know if I could get on a horse by myself, I had no idea where I was, and I wasn’t even supposed to be alive. Escape was not a real option.

Though it hadn’t been an option in the tomb, either. Until Keijan had violated the dead and ripped open a path through the Afterlife.

Shadows under my skin. Soft, dead fingers around mine. No air in my lungs, no sound in my mouth….

I shook my head furiously and pushed it away.

I wondered what it was Keijan was being cleansed for. The touch of the spirits, creatures with no souls and no Choices? The touch of the dead—a human body stripped of soul and Choice, even worse than spirits who had never had them to begin with? Or the loss of his own Choices, which caused the greatest uncleanliness of all?

Surely, he was correct; what he had done in that tomb was a Choice. There was no upbringing, no temperament, that could compel a man to do something so unthinkable.

And what I had done? Taking his hand and letting him lead me into the unthinkable? Was it really true, as I’d told myself, that my fear had ruled me too entirely to leave me a Choice? Or had that been one of my Choices—in which case, I did need cleansing?

I couldn’t know. No one could, which was why we all got cleansed once a year, in case we had used up a Choice since the year before. It was futile to waste time worrying over it.

The clouds’ shadows drifted over the mountains, shifting patterns of dark green. Every once in a while, I heard one of the high notes in the ex-priest’s chant, or smelled a faint waft of incense. The horses occasionally slurped water from an old cistern, and a few flies buzzed around their hides. Eventually, I curled up on a patch of grass and closed my eyes.

Exhaustion washed over me, a black wave. But the ground was covered with rocks, and my mind was worse, ricocheting between jagged thoughts. For the first time in my life, I had no idea what the next day would bring, or even what the purpose of today was. I didn’t even know who I was, now that I was neither a princess nor dead.

A week ago, when the servant had come and told me of my mother’s command, I had thought my life was over. I remembered every detail of that moment: the color of my veil, the marble floor cold beneath my bare feet, the shocked and titillated gasps of my handmaidens. In that moment, I had grown a dozen years. I had tilted my head, conscious of the handmaidens’ eyes upon me–they were from noble families, every one, and my response would filter back to my father–and said calmly, “Of course. Thank you.”

The priests say that death, looked upon correctly, is not such a terrible thing. I had tried my hardest to believe that. I had amazed even myself with my calm, talked myself into the role of willing sacrifice. Until I stepped out of my litter at the tomb site, and saw the taller handmaiden serene and smiling, and recognized that she was calm and I was not. Until I saw the wet earth crumbling around the entrance to my mother’s tomb, and disgraced myself by fighting my fate.

I would not break down again. I would make up for the way I had been forcibly dragged into my mother’s tomb.

But though I forced my eyes wide open and bit my lip, the tears came, wet and salty and unstoppable.

I told myself I was letting them come—the illusion of choice giving me comfort. I wept until I had drained myself dry.

And then, finally, I slept.

 

The next morning dawned gray and humid. I woke with a sheen of sweat covering my skin, and, over that, a thick woolen blanket. Someone had covered me in the night—Keijan, or Parun.

Whoever had done it would have seen my tear-streaked face.

I sat up slowly. My bones felt as if I’d spent the night in a torture pit. When I tried to look around, a painful spasm went up my neck.

The men were both awake, and had been for a while, judging by the red embers of a campfire and the saddled horses. Parun walked over and handed me a long brown stick of travel bread.

Was a girl who had escaped her legal death by walking through the Afterlife permitted to partake of food served by a priest who shouldn’t exist?

I bit off a piece and forced myself to chew. The ex-priest smirked at me, as if I was a child who had learned to pick a flower, which irritated me so much that I handed back the bread. It wasn’t much of a sacrifice. The single piece I had swallowed lay in my empty stomach like a stone.

Keijan helped me mount, and nobody spoke as we rode back along the path, our horses’ hooves thudding rhythmically against the dirt. I was glad of the silence. Yesterday’s ride had been uncomfortable; today’s was agony. My thighs chafed with every motion, and my hunger grew into a painful, gaping ache.

I focused on that, and not on my fear. By the time the sun was high in the sky, adding burning heat and prickling sweat to my discomfort, I was no longer thinking about what lay ahead, or my doubts, or my unveiled face. All I cared about was getting off the horse.

“At some point,” Parun said to Keijan, “are you going to tell us where we are going?” His voice was a beat too slow, like he was thinking over whether talking was worth the effort.

I flicked a sideways glance at him, just long enough to see the sharp curve of his mouth, the glitter of his black eyes.

“We are headed for the Hikaras’ northern castle,” Keijan said. “We’ll be there by nightfall.”

“The Hikaras?” My voice was high and thin, but at least I didn’t sound panicked. “My mother’s family?”

Keijan shrugged. “Blood calls to blood. They might be interested in keeping you alive.”

“But my mother was the one who–” Tried to kill me. I could have said it–I didn’t need to surround the truth with poetry–but he interrupted me.

“Let’s hope it wasn’t on their orders.”

My mother was the Empress of Timshala, and followed no one’s orders save those of the Emperor. The suggestion was ridiculous–wasn’t it?

My stomach tightened. Could it be? That she had not wanted to kill me, but had been forced to do it?

I looked away from Keijan, staring instead at the purple wildflowers that rose in clustered spikes along the side of the road. I didn’t want to think too hard about why my mother had ordered my death. Thinking made me care, and I didn’t want to care.

But the priests had a saying: Understanding the past is essential. The past is a stone rolling downhill, flattening the present and shaping the future.

Something sharp pricked me, a poisoned sliver of hope. Maybe, with my mother’s family, I would find more than safety. Maybe I would find answers.

3

It was well before nightfall when I saw the Hikara castle looming ahead, the triangles of its rooftops jutting against the fading sky. The sun was going down in a swirl of blue and pink, casting a golden light over the neatly symmetrical building, making it look more regal than it had a right to be.

A clatter of hooves alerted me, and I turned as Parun pulled his mount up beside mine. Immediately, I averted my eyes, but his gaze remained on my face. My tension communicated itself to my mare, who snorted and shook her head.

My face felt prickly and naked. Parun was watching me with that expression again, the one that made my stomach twist. I looked straight ahead, tilting my head forward so my hair veiled my face.

“Come, Princess,” he said. “We’re in between palaces at the moment. On the road, you can deign to look at me.”

“And you, apparently, can presume to talk to me.” I kept my eyes on the peaks ahead. “How very tiresome.”

“Is it?” His mount trotted a few step forward, so that he was slightly ahead of me, which made it harder not to look at him. His voice went on in that irritatingly lazy cadence. “I would think you would find freedom more… interesting.”

“You call this freedom?” I said, against my better judgment.

He shrugged. “In the palace, your every move was dictated, wasn’t it? Your schedule, the tea you drank, the way your flowers were arranged. Everything decided months in advance and overseen by a dozen people. All within the same walls and screens you saw every day, and would see every day until you died.” He swept an arm out, his sleeve trailing against the sky. “Here, there are no walls. You can spur your steed down any path.”

My mare’s hooves plodded in the mud, clump-slide, lurch-suck.

“Where would I go?” I heard myself say.

His eyes brightened, as if I’d handed him some sort of victory. “You have options. The capital is three days’ ride behind us. You could go back, confront your father—”

I made a strangled noise low in my throat. He said, “Or you could escape. The Port of Foreigners is at the edge of the peninsula, and beyond even the emperor’s jurisdiction. It’s two days’ ride away, if you can manage on your own that long.”

I couldn’t, and he knew I couldn’t. Just as he knew I couldn’t go back to my father’s court, when I should be dead; just as he knew I couldn’t enter the Port of Foreigners.

He was taunting me.

“It’s not that terrible, the port,” he said. “I’ve been there.”

I knew what he expected to see in my face, and did my best not to oblige him. I couldn’t tell whether I succeeded; he laughed scornfully without even looking at me. “It was the only safe place to hide, after your mother destroyed my home. And now you need to hide, don’t you?”

I wanted to say no. That I was done hiding, done cowering in the dark. But it would have been a lie; and I had never been stupid enough to pretend I was stronger than I was. The girls who didn’t understand how helpless they were, who thought their beauty or noble birth could give them power, were the ones who ended up dead.

So I said nothing, enduring Parun’s smirk—I had endured much worse—until the trail narrowed, beginning its ascent, and he dropped back to ride behind me.

 

The trail soon became a treacherous switchback, winding up between gnarled trees and dark patches of ferns. I clung to my horse’s mane and did not look down. Up ahead, the Hikara castle rose into the mist. When the trail turned, I could see the sea, far to the east, and the Port of Foreigners: a black, viscous blot against the sweeping curve of green and blue. A blight on our nation, a scab that contained the pus but still itched.

We were met at the castle gate by a stern-faced woman, her gray hair arranged in the elaborate braids and black pearl beads that marked her as a widow. Her eyebrows were shaved in the old style, but she managed to look surprised anyhow. “Your Highness?”

I glanced at Keijan.

“Siara,” Keijan said. There was a small sigh in his voice. “This is your grandmother.”

When my mother became Empress, she had renounced all former ties; and even if that renunciation was more official than real, she had never traveled anywhere with me. So I was fairly certain I had never seen my grandmother before. Even so, I bowed and said, “My apologies for not recognizing you.”

She snorted. “That’s the least of my concerns right now. Will you apologize for being alive?”

I started to say yes—I shouldn’t be alive—but something in her voice made me think that wasn’t what she wanted. I straightened and looked her in the eye. She might be my grandmother, but I was the one with royal blood.

“No,” I said. “I will not.”

She snorted again, and not with the approval I had half-anticipated. “Follow me, child.” This time, when she turned into the castle courtyard, I didn’t look at Keijan. I strode after her.

The old woman led me into the castle, down a long corridor, and through a translucent drapery into a massive domed hall populated entirely by women. After one quick glance at us, the women went back to what they had been doing—weaving, painting, talking.

My dread unclenched, the tiniest bit. This was not the women’s court of the emperor’s palace—it was a quarter the size, the floor was plain white marble instead of colorful mosaics, and the perfume that filled the air was far less subtle. But it was familiar enough.

A group of young girls were sitting on an arrangement of rugs near the center of the hall, all colorful robes and braided hair. They looked up and went silent as my grandmother led me in, and I was sharply aware of my creased, stained robe, of my disheveled hair, and of the reek that must be wafting from me.

My grandmother turned her head, and the girls quickly looked back down. As we drew closer, I saw what they were occupied with—sets of small wooden rectangles with red and black symbols etched into them.

I had heard of gaming, of course—a vice brought to our country by the Cthonians, that had spread like the plague despite the priests’ constant harangues. In the palace, it was not exactly forbidden, but custom and sentiment made it worse than forbidden. What if you lost your Choice in a decision made in a game of chance? But these girls went on playing, apparently unconcerned by either my grandmother’s presence or the danger to their souls.

I tried to decide whether to smile at them. But my grandmother swept by without stopping, and after only a moment’s hesitation, I followed. It seemed easiest.

The perimeter of the hall was ringed by rooms, and my grandmother led me into what was, apparently, my room. It was smaller than an attendant’s quarters at the palace but had an adequately-sized bed heaped with pillows, and a sectioned chest for clothes.

“I thank you,” I said, after a short silence.

My grandmother smiled, as if I had said something amusing. “You understand that you are to tell no one who you are.”

“Of course.” I wasn’t about to admit that I understood absolutely nothing. “What should I tell them?”

“Keijan will work out the details. He’ll be here shortly to tell you about them.”

My sense of familiarity vanished; apparently, I didn’t know the rules after all. “Here? In the women’s court? How is that permitted?”

“I suppose he’ll have to come up with a story to explain that, too.”

And with that, she was gone, leaving my next question—if I had dared voice it—to wait for Keijan.

 

It took him long enough to show up. There were no hourglasses or time-marked candles in my room, and I had nothing but my mounting anxiety with which to measure the passing time. It felt like hours. The occasional giggle or squeal reached me from the hall, but I didn’t dare go out, not until I knew what story I was to tell.

It occurred to me, as I lay draped over the bed, that I could go out anyhow. My grandmother hadn’t actually instructed me to wait, and I knew the rules of the women’s quarter more than well enough to handle myself. I didn’t have to wait for Keijan to come with answers, or lies. (Or both.) I could walk out on my own and start looking for the truth.

I stepped over to the door and stood before it. A shard of excitement went through me, but on its heels came a wave of fear.

That terror in the darkness, in my mother’s tomb, had been the culmination of a lifetime of a gentler, more bearable fear. I had always known my life was controlled by people and forces far beyond my reach, that I could be deemed expendable at any moment. I had always known the safest course was to be pliable and easy to control.

And where had that gotten me?

I lifted my hand to the dor handle, just as a rap sounded on the door. I startled, backed quickly up to the bed, and said, “You may enter.”

Keijan walked in, with Parun on his heels. I felt a rush of relief.

Parun shut the door, and the room felt immediately overcrowded. Also, it stank—apparently, neither of them had been given time to bathe or change, either.

“Well?” I demanded. “Am I going to be allowed to stay here?”

Keijan lifted a shoulder. “That’s up to your grandmother.”

“You didn’t ask her?”

“That wouldn’t be wise. If she thinks I’ve taken too great an interest in you, she’ll make sure I’m not in a position to do you any good.”

I tilted my head up to get a better look at his face. “Do you want to do me good?”

His expression was unreadable. “I saved your life, didn’t I?”

“But I still don’t know why.” And that should have been my first question, asked long ago. The past is a stone rolling downhill, flattening the present and shaping the future.

Keijan sighed. “You are my niece, Siara. I am your mother’s brother. Half-brother, actually—your grandmother is my step-mother, and has no particular fondness for me.” He considered. “Or for you, probably. Or for anyone. I’m not sure she loved even her own children.”

She had certainly never bothered to come visit me. I had always assumed that was my mother’s doing… but I didn’t want to think about my mother. Things were confusing enough. I focused on Keijan.

Perhaps it should have mattered to me, that he was my uncle; but I’d never seen any evidence that people acted differently toward me just because they were related to me. Instead, I focused on the important part of his revelation. “You’re a Hikaran? But you’re—” I stopped, not quite in time, and felt red flood my face.

“A sorcerer? Yes. I thought my family would find a sorcerer useful.” He grimaced. “The family… did not agree.”

Had he really thought they would? Sorcery drew its magic from death; it was a powerful profession, but not precisely a respectable one. Certainly not for someone of noble blood.

“Now that we’ve all had this history lesson,” Parun drawled, “can we come up with the pretend history that explains who she is?”

He cocked an eyebrow at me, as if waiting for me to suggest an idea. Since I didn’t have one, I fell back on haughtiness. “I suppose you have a suggestion?”

Keijan smiled, as if he saw through the haughtiness, but didn’t mind it. “Let’s keep things simple. Your name is Nekudat, and you are my illegitimate daughter by a maidservant.”

“You want me to be a commoner’s bastard?”

Parun rolled his eyes. “Aside from Emperor’s undead daughter, is there any story that would satisfy you?”

Keijan flicked a hand at him, and Parun went mercifully silent.

So did I. Because Parun was right. I wanted to be who I was—who I had been: the Emperor’s daughter, the second-highest ranked woman in Timshala. I wanted to walk out and have all those beautiful, giggling girls know that, no matter how alone I was or what I looked like, I was above them. I wanted them to curry my favor, not the other way around.

But I couldn’t have that. I was unwashed, powerless, and completely dependent on strangers’ hospitality. There was no story we could tell, other than the truth, that would change my new reality.

And we couldn’t tell the truth.

“All right, Father,” I said. “But for how long—”

“As I said.” Keijan turned. “Tell your grandmother.”

“I intend to,” I said.

A smile touched his lips, briefly, before he opened the door. “Good luck.”

4

My grandmother was not an easy woman to find. First, she was on a tour of the estate, then she was holding an audience, then she was deep in her weekly meditation. I started every morning by asking my maid for a meeting with her, only to get a vague answer, soft as a brush stroke, delivered with lowered eyes. I was sure the maid was secretly laughing at me, but there was little I could do about it.

On the fourth day, though, my grandmother came to the women’s quarter—a surprise but not unexpected inspection, judging by the other girls’ resigned panic. By then, I knew the hierarchy of the women’s court and my own place in it—low, but temporarily so. I allowed the higher-ranked noblewomen to direct us into a line, and to do the talking. I lowered my eyes as my grandmother passed, and her gaze passed over me as if I was nothing to her, no different from the other girls whose lives she directed and protected.

That neither surprised nor angered me. But as she turned to leave, having delivered a few curt words of praise and a far longer list of reprimands, I lifted my head.

The silence around me was soft and thick as a wedding veil, and every bit as inevitable. Even the act of looking up had earned me a few sidelong glances. I felt my throat close, and when I forced my mouth open, it was dry as sand.

“Honored Lady,” I said. “May I speak to you?”

Everyone turned to stare at me, and the closer girls drew slightly back. But all their combined scorn was nothing compared to my grandmother’s. Her eyes flickered in my direction, as if I was a slug she had found in her morning tea.

“No,” she said. “You may not.”

She left without looking at me again.

 

On the first morning of the fourth week, we were working on paintings when we heard the quick slap-slap of sandals on marble, coming from the other side of the entrance to the women’s court. The entire hall was already taken up by hanging scrolls and vats of brushes, and a maid had just finished mixing the paints. We all groaned.

A maid scurried out through the draperies, then scurried back. “It is Lady Nekudat’s father, here to see her on an urgent matter.”

More groans, as the women began cleaning their brushes and retreating behind screens. A few shot me reproachful looks, which made my stomach tighten. I had barely begun recovering from my shocking behavior toward my grandmother; almost half the other girls were willing to talk to me again. This was going to set me back.

I did my best to smile. “Of course.”

The maid set up a screen and bench near the entrance, and I hurried over, my silk robe brushing against my ankles. I could see Keijan’s form through the blinds as I sat and tilted my head.

Keijan’s voice shook, but he kept it low. “We just received word from the capital. I regret to inform you that the Emperor is dead.”

No one could see my face, so I didn’t bother pretending grief.

“He died of the wasting disease.” Keijan spoke slowly and carefully, but I wasn’t sure why; the wasting sickness, which had also killed my mother, was a common enough occurrence. “After the three weeks of mourning, he will be buried.”

Buried. Understanding hit me, and I sat bolt upright. “Where will he be buried?”

“In the tomb of his first wife.”

My mother’s tomb. Which would, of course, have to be prepared before it could house an Emperor’s corpse. Expanded, probably, filled with more and greater things. Cleaned of dust, and impurity, and corpses.

Except they would find the tomb was two corpses short.

“What are we going to do?” I whispered.

“We have to talk.” He lowered his voice. “But not here.”

A scrap of paper slipped between the blinds. I opened it carefully. His writing was beautiful, of course, his script impeccable.

Jade Garden. Dawn.

Come in travel clothes.

 

In the Hikara household, I had no servants bound to me, who could be killed at my word and thus trusted to be discreet. There was no one I could ask to wake me before dawn.

To keep things simple, I never went to sleep.

In the dim silence, I had too much time to think about my past and my future, about the creature in the tomb and the clatter of my mother’s defiled swords, about the handmaiden’s short, cut-off scream. About the sounds and sensations that had swirled around me as I walked through the Afterlife, a dead man’s fingers clenched around mine.

Keijan had helped me escape once, and he would help me again. I knew that, but not through calculation. It was a deep still sense that was so new to me, it took me half the night to realize what it was.

I trusted him.

That was stupid, but I didn’t push the feeling away. Instead, I held it close. Everything else was cold and black, the world so empty and aching that at one point, with no one there to see me, I buried my face in my pillow and sobbed.

I knew what Keijan was going to say: Run. And I didn’t want to run. I didn’t want to have to escape. I wanted to stay here, safe and cared for, in a place where I knew the rules. Where I wasn’t alone. Where everything made sense.

Eventually, when the melted wax had crept halfway up the lengths of the candles, I decided that I preferred to wait for Keijan in the gardens. A small, meaningless disobedience, but it was the only escape I could see from the bitter emptiness inside me, or the tangled knot of terror and grief flowing into it. I left my room and walked as quietly as I could through the court. The draperies across the entrance felt heavier than I remembered, brushing over my arms and shoulders, then falling thick and silent behind me.

Something moved in the shadows, and the memories flashed through my mind—the moving darkness, the impact of the tomb floor on my back, the cold shadow crouching over me. I opened my mouth, and a meaty hand clamped over my face.

All my coiled tension exploded, in a terror that was almost relief, and I fought.

I shocked myself with my own savagery, as I kicked and bit and clawed at whoever had grabbed me. I shocked my attacker, too. He was much stronger than me, but he yelped and let go.

I could have run. Instead, I flew at him in a blind rage, barely aware of what I was doing. One of my hands wrapped itself in a thatch of hair and pulled, hard. My knee came up, even harder, and the yelp turned into a scream. He went down.

A wave of fierce satisfaction swamped me, even as the scream washed away my haze of fury. If somebody heard it… I stepped back, ready to do the sensible thing and run.

At the same moment, I recognized his voice.

I dropped to my knees on the marble floor, and, while he was still curled up on the ground, reached for the blade at his side. The dagger was still sheathed, which meant he hadn’t been going to kill me, at least not right away. I pulled it out; his hand slammed down on the empty sheath, a moment too late to stop me.

I straightened and took two steps back, glad it was too dark for him to see how inexpertly I held the knife. “Explain yourself, Priest.”

Parun moaned. I waited. Finally, he said, “That wasn’t necessary, Princess.”

Even now, his voice had that lazy sinuousness to it, which made my palm itch to slap him.

“And grabbing me was necessary?” I said.

“I needed to make sure you wouldn’t yell.”

I knew better. He had enjoyed asserting his strength over me, proving he could control me physically. Just as I enjoyed having the upper hand now, standing there with his weapon while he was unarmed.

I knew I would pay for it, eventually. But for one ferocious moment, I didn’t care.

“It seems,” I said, “you would have done better to worry about your own yelling. How did you know I would be here?”

“Keijan told me. It’s–may I get up?”

I liked that he had to ask. “You may sit.”

“Thank you.” I did not like the mocking undertone in his voice, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. The outlines of his form shifted as he raised himself into a squat. “Spirits! I’m going to be sore for a while.”

“I hope,” I said, “you’re not waiting for my apology.”

He laughed again, this time with an edge of nastiness—just enough to remind me that he hated me. I gripped the knife tighter, though no more efficiently. “I’m not expecting anything. And you have a lot more than my bruised backside to apologize for, Princess.”

“Why?” I said. “What do I have to apologize for? I’ve done nothing to you.”

“You took my Choice away.”

Which was not only insulting, it was heretical. “How odd. You’d think I would remember doing that.”

In the dimness, his eyes gleamed black. “Do you know how I escaped the Bechirian massacre, Princess?”

“I don’t—”

“There were two of us, hiding in a crack between two rocks. I sneezed, and they came looking. Malik—my friend—he must have been as terrified as I was. But I was in deeper—I had found the crack first. He tried to scramble around me, to hide better, and I….” Parun drew in a breath. “I pushed him. I pushed him out, far enough that when they found him, they didn’t look any farther. When they killed him, the blood sprayed on the rocks, but none of it got into the crack.”

“How old were you?” I said, but I knew it didn’t matter. Children, generally speaking, had more Choices than adults did, because they hadn’t yet used any of theirs up. And a child’s Choices were no less important than an adult’s. A child is a rock at the top of a hill; a slight nudge can make all the difference in where he lands.

“I’m sorry,” I said, then rallied. “I’m sorry, but it still has nothing to do with me. I am not responsible for my mother’s sin.”

In the deep silence that followed, I could hear the faint sound of crickets through the walls. Then Parun said, “You don’t know.”

“That seems likely. What, specifically, do I not know this time?”

“At the Temple, when you kept talking about the destruction of my priesthood—I thought you knew. I thought you were being vicious.”

My eyes were adjusting to the light; I could make out the flicker of his eyes toward my face, the spasmodic clench of his jaw. Just for a moment, he looked at me as if I was a real person, not a manifestation of an old, bitter memory.

A person never knows their own Choices. But sometimes, you can see someone else’s. In the moment of their making them.

I saw the moment when Parun let his hesitation go. His mouth formed a straight, hard line, and he said, “The Bechirians were massacred because of you.”

 

He tried to be angry, when he told the story. But it must have been clear to him that I had never heard it before; that I was already as horrified as he wanted me to be.

It was a simple story—at least, it was the way he told it. When I was three days old, my mother had taken me to the Bechirian priests for my divination. The visit had officially never happened, because officially the royal family did not countenance divination. There was no public ceremony: just my mother and me and the high priest.

Afterward, they had retreated to the high priest’s office and spoken for hours. When my mother left, she announced that the high priest was meditating and should not be disturbed.

The next morning, my father’s soldiers came and massacred everyone.

“Even the high priest?” I said. I had figured out, by now, that the high priest must have been Parun’s father. It explained not only Parun’s presence at the Temple, at such a young age, but the ferocity of his grief after all these years.

“No.” Parun’s rigid lips curved, into a smile that wasn’t a smile. “When I saw the soldiers coming, I ran to his office.”

“But he was medi—”

“He was not meditating.” Parun’s laugh, also, was not a laugh. “He was dead. He was on his couch, and his throat had been slashed. The blood was already dry and stiff on his robe.”

My heart climbed in slow, careful beats up my throat.

“Your mother killed him,” Parun said. “After he divined your Choices, she killed him, so he wouldn’t tell anyone what he saw in his divination. And then she massacred the entire Temple to cover up her crime.”

I stepped back, my fingers slippery on the dagger hilt. “You think she did it to protect me?”

“Yes.”

“You’re wrong.” My mother’s face flashed into my mind, her thin aquiline nose and sharp chin, the way her kohl-lined eyes had always flicked past me. A hundred times, she had turned her head a fraction, shifted her gaze sideways, as if I wasn’t worth a stray thought. “My mother didn’t care about me.”

“I think she did.”

“Oh, do you?” I laughed, and it came out sounding like a sob. “My mother had me buried alive. In case you missed that.”

“You’re not buried alive,” Parun pointed out.

I snorted. “No thanks to her.”

“Wasn’t it Keijan who saved you?”

“Yes, but—”

“He is her brother, Siara. You don’t think she was behind his presence in the tomb? You don’t think he was there specifically to get you out?”

My mind flashed back to that darkness, the dank, dusty smell I tried so hard not to think about. To the creature made of shadows, and the way Keijan had been the only one of us not screaming.

It sneaked in from the Afterlife, he had said, right before picking up my mother’s spear.

He had known where it came from, because he had already opened the entrance to the Afterlife, in order to take me through it. He had let in the creature by accident, and then he had killed it to save me.

I was given instructions.

“She knew you would be in danger,” Parun said. “From your father’s second wife, probably. Or from someone who suspects whatever the Bechirians divined for you. So she arranged for you to escape. She arranged it at the cost of her own eternity. Don’t tell me she didn’t love you.”

“But she didn’t.” A whisper swallowed by a sob.

“I saw her,” Parun said. “When she brought you to the Temple. You were swaddled in violet silk, and she held you tight.” He swallowed. “She loved you. I was only four years old, but I know what I saw.”

I thought of my mother’s still dead face at the funeral, surrounded by burning rushes, cold and remote as it always had been. I had been angry at myself, then, for feeling grief. What, I had asked myself, was I grieving for?

“You want proof of your mother’s motives?” Parun said. “I want that, too. We can help each other.”

I didn’t see how I could help anyone. Living princesses had little power. Officially dead ones had even less.

“I know you’re going to talk to Keijan,” Parun said. “He must know the truth. Let me come with you, and let’s ask him together.”

He thought I had power that I didn’t. He thought I could refuse.

Which meant I could.

I looked at him. My eyes had adjusted enough for me to see the plea in his eyes, the anger around his mouth. Not aimed at me… or was it? Could I trust him?

I wanted to trust him. Maybe that meant I shouldn’t.

It felt like a Choice. But I had always believed Choices were clear decisions between honor and shame, between your nobler self and your baser instincts, between what you wanted to do and what you were supposed to do. Could it be a real Choice if I myself didn’t know what the right thing to do was?

I wasn’t sure. So I did what I wanted, without really understanding why I wanted it.

And as it turned out, what I wanted to do was nod my head and say, “Come with me.”

5

The sky was a faded rose petal when we stepped out of the castle, into a garden so perfect it could have been in my father’s courtyard. A small, asymmetric pond filled most of the center, half-covered with thick mats of water lilies. A flat wooden bridge spanned the pond at its narrowest, ending at a raised boulder shaded by the branches of a twisted pine.

I blinked at the boulder, which seemed expressly designed to have someone sitting on it cross-legged, robes draped over the jagged edges, exuding wisdom and calm. The Women’s Garden back home had a rock exactly like that, and the head mistress used it to speak to maids who needed correction or advancement, or who had caught the eye of a nobleman.

But this rock was bare. Instead, Keijan appeared around a curve in the cobblestone path, his robes flapping around his ankles, his forehead gleaming with sweat.

“Where were you?” he gasped.

“I—”

“Did anyone see you?”

“I did,” Parun said, in that slow, lazy voice I hated.

Watching it be used on someone else made the purpose of the voice obvious. It was irritating because it was designed to irritate.

And I had fallen for it, every time. But Keijan just nodded. “Good. You can help. Anyone else?”

“I don’t think so,” I said, at the same time that Parun said, “Help with what?”

“Help Siara escape,” Keijan said. “She is in great danger. The Hikaras want to use her, and the Emperor’s spies will soon figure out why. But if we get her to the southern provinces, she can hide from both of them.”

I don’t want to hide, I thought. But no one was asking me—and besides, it wasn’t really true. I was tired of being scared, but scared was probably my only alternative to dead.

I opened my mouth to say it anyhow, but I never got to. I was distracted by a movement—a whisper. A sudden rush that didn’t belong in this garden.

I looked, just in time to see two shadows detach from the trees, black-clad men with silver blades too bright for the gray dawn. Keijan blinked at my expression and turned just in time to see his death arcing toward him, but without enough time to avoid it.

“Stop!” I shouted.

Two blades froze inches from Keijan’s throat.

It took me a moment to recover enough to speak. I had not really expected them to obey me.

“Leave him,” I said, and my voice fell naturally into its old, regal intonations. Power settled around me, like a warm familiar cloak. Not much power, I knew that; no woman had power in the wild roads outside our palaces, and no human being had power in the shifting foreverness of the Afterlife. But in this garden, to these men, I had power. Right now, that was all that mattered.

“Step back,” I said.

The guards remained where they were, blades shining near Keijan’s face.

Then the bushes rustled and my grandmother stepped into the clearing, and I realized whom they had really been obeying.

“Before you decide to spare your uncle,” she said, “perhaps you should know what he is hiding from you.”

Before you decide. Meaning it was my decision? A Choice?

I didn’t know why she would give me that power, when clearly it belonged to her. But I knew enough to accept her terms. I nodded.

“Tell her, Keijan,” my grandmother said.

The two guards stepped backbut did not sheathe their blades.

“Tell her,” my grandmother said to Keijan, “what was divined for her when she was born.”

Beside me, Parun sucked in his breath. I stepped away from him. I needed to focus on my grandmother, and my uncle, and the truth they knew about me.

“Have you figured out,” my grandmother said to me, “why your mother had the Bechirians killed?”

“It was because of me,” I said. “But I don’t know why.”

“She did it for you. To save your life.”

“She hated me,” I said. And discovered that, despite what Parun had told me, I still believed it.

My grandmother tsked. “She… had some trouble dealing with her guilt. You were a reminder to her of what she had done, and she found it hard to look at you after that.” I flinched. “Your mother’s Choices were divined at birth, too, and she had only one. She believed the massacre was it, that it had condemned her to eternal servitude in the Afterlife.”

No wonder she hadn’t cared about defilement afterward.

“And she blamed me?” I said.

“Of course not. She blamed herself. But part of her fault, she believed, lay in loving you too much.”

So she had tried to stop loving me at all.

I’d told myself my mother’s abandonment had stopped hurting me. But it had merely curled up tight, a contained knot deep within me; and now it was unfurling, scraping me raw, like I was once again a child who didn’t understand why she wasn’t loved.

I forced it down, to seethe deep within my gut. None of this mattered right now. It couldn’t matter. I had to think. I knew, I almost knew, what my grandmother was saying.

Your Mother’s Choices were divined at birth, too.

Too.

She killed him so he wouldn’t tell anyone what he saw.

“How many?” I said. I looked at Keijan, whose life I had just saved, who owed me. Who cared about me. “When the Bechirians divined my Choices, how many did I have?”

Keijan looked past the knives, past the guards, straight at me.

“You had none,” he said.

 

An Emperor has no Choices. Because no man could change the tide of time.

No man.

It had always been a man.

But my father, the Emperor, had killed all his brothers before they could bear sons. And my mother had given him only a daughter.

A daughter who now had the right to rule.

But when the Bechirians had told my mother that I would be Empress, she had known she would bear no sons—which meant the divination had placed us both in danger.

“Revealed how?” I said. “She killed them all. There’s no proof.”

“She did not,” my grandmother said, “kill them all.”

Parun stepped even farther away from me.

But my grandmother was already looking at him, her skin stretched tight over her bones. “You were there,” she said.

“Not at the divination,” Parun said. “I don’t know what they saw.”

“I think you do.” Her voice was low, steady, and sweet. “I think your father told you, before he died. And I think if you tell the people that, they will believe you.”

Parun swallowed.

“You will go with her,” my grandmother said. Her voice was calm and inexorable; it was clear, as her will poured over me, that nobody in this garden had any Choices right now. “Our soldiers are waiting in the capital. We’ve infiltrated the palace guard and the street patrols. Once we have control of the city, you and Keijan, together, will tell what you know. You will proclaim my granddaughter Empress.”

“And if we don’t?” Keijan said. His voice shook, but he got the words out—the defiance I had, just a second ago, believed impossible.

“Then I will have to kill you after all.” My grandmother let out a small sigh. “I probably should, anyhow, for your disobedience. Not to mention your stupidity. Did you really think you could get her away?”

Keijan’s jaw tightened, but he said nothing.

“What if I don’t obey?” Parun, too, was speaking the unthinkable—though it was less unthinkable now that Keijan had said it. “What if all three of us refuse to fall in with your plan?”

My grandmother shrugged. “Then no doubt, she will die.”

Parun looked at me. “Siara. What do you want?”

Now that they both had spoken, it was easy for me to. But unlike them, I didn’t know what to say.

“It’s not up to me,” I said finally. Which was so obvious I felt immediately stupid. Nothing was up to me. Including what I did, or said.

Within the next few days, I would either become the first female Emperor in all of history, or I would be dead. There was nothing I could do to affect the outcome, either way.

I had no Choices. I’d never had any. I couldn’t even pick out a color robe to wear. Only in my imagination did my thoughts, my choices, or my will have anything to do with what I decided.

“I think,” Keijan said, “that we should give Princess Siara time….”

“Time to what?” I snapped, and the viciousness in my voice shocked him silent.

I might have felt bad, if the viciousness had been something under my control.

My grandmother gestured imperiously, and we all followed her across the garden and through the ornate iron gates to the stable. Five horses were saddled and ready.

“It’s a four-day ride to the capital,” my grandmother said, as we all mounted. “There are new mounts waiting for you at every travel house on the way.”

Parun grinned, white and sharp. I gripped the reins hard, breathing in the scent of horse and leather, so oddly familiar. As if I had always been a traveler, and my stay with the Hikaras had been only a dream.

The guards saluted. Keijan nodded. As the castle’s outer gates opened, I found myself leaning forward. When the horses broke into a canter, I leaned into the smooth, rolling motion and let out a little sigh.

As if, without knowing it, I had been waiting for this all along.

6

I had never dreamed of being Empress.

Okay. That’s a lie.

I had dreamed of it all the time, when I was a child. Cosseted, pampered, protected, and ignored. Every time my father passed without a glance, every time my maids yanked combs through my hair and ignored my whimpers, every time one of my handmaidens accepted a suitor.

But I knew it was impossible. I always knew.

And yet, as we reached the end of the switchback trail and turned south, slowing to a walk between a thick mosaic of autumn-leaved trees, there was a stillness deep within me. I should have been shocked, terrified, conflicted; and I was all those things, on the surface. But deep down, where the feelings would have hurt, I felt only calm.

As if some part of me had always known this was my destiny.

It wasn’t until the sun passed over our heads and sank into the woods, drawing all the colors of the sky down with it, that I truly understood why none of this felt like it mattered.

Because none of it did.

At some level, I must have known all along that I was never directing my own fate, choosing my own path. When I’d put my hand in Keijan’s and stepped into the Afterlife. When I’d let myself sink into the familiarity of the Hikara household. When I’d waited up until midnight, when I’d accepted Parun’s offer, when I’d come to the garden. I had been weak and foolhardy and scared, and I hadn’t striven to overcome those things because it didn’t matter.

It had never mattered. Whatever I did, it wasn’t me doing it. My thoughts, my decisions, were illusions. Every last one.

Which meant that as we moved forward, over the leaf-strewn trail and down the corridor of my life, I knew that there was no turn, no passage out, no door leading somewhere else. I had felt that way in the past, convinced I had no Choices left. But I had only been guessing. There could have still been a Choice ahead of me, unexpected and unpredictable. I hadn’t known.

“Hsst!” one of the guards said, and we reined our horses in. The sun had already set, but pink-rimmed clouds were still coiling toward the vanishing horizon; in the trees around us, darkness gathered to wait out the night. In the distance, I heard the crash of some animal racing through the underbrush, and the long high call of a bird. “I think—”

We never found out what he thought. He toppled sideways off his horse, an arrow sticking out of his chest.

Parun wheeled his horse around and slammed it into mine. Another arrow whizzed over my shoulder, so close I heard the whine as it went by, and then the thud as it hit the ground behind me.

The dead guard’s horse reared. There was a horrible crack as his hoof came down on his rider, but no scream. The rider was already dead.

“There must be two of them,” the second guard said. He drew his blade, his words coming sharp and fast, his eyes darting up at the dark-gnarled tree branches. “That was a crossbow, so we have a few minutes while they reload. Princess, get down—”

The knife hit him in the back, a low sickening sound. His death wasn’t as silent as the first guard’s; he screamed, then thrashed, craning his arm back to try and reach the hilt in his back. His horse snorted and turned—these mounts were battle-trained, obviously, or they would have bolted by now—and he slid off.

By the time he hit the ground, he was dead.

My mare did not move, but I felt her trembling. Probably because she could sense my fear, the way my blood roared in my ears.

“Open a portal!” I shouted. “Keijan, get us out of here! We can go through the Afterlife—”

Keijan’s voice was high-pitched, but his words were steady. “I can’t, Princess. I wasn’t close enough to guards’ deaths to take power from them.”

“Then let’s run—”

“No!” Parun reached over and grabbed my reins. “They’ll be prepared for that.”

Keijan wheeled his horse around, facing the dark trees. “Stop!” he said loudly. “Declare yourself. We are on the Emperor’s business.”

Something rustled, and a voice spoke from the forest. “As are we.”

I narrowed my eyes at its source, wishing I had a knife to throw. Or that I knew how to throw one.

A different voice, from a different spot in the foliage. “We are here to escort the princess home. Give her to us and be on your way.”

They must have had time to reload the crossbows by now. What were they waiting for? My shoulderblades prickled, and I heard again the whine of the arrow, passing over my shoulder….

I looked at the ground, where the arrow that had been aimed at me still quivered among the leaves. Next to it lay the first guard. The arrow jutting out of his back was perfectly still.

I replayed it in my mind: the speed and force of the arrow, Parun knocking me sideways, the arrow whizzing past my cheek.

Parun hadn’t been fast enough to save me. Not if the arrow had been aimed at my heart. I would be as dead as those guards if they had been aiming to kill.

They were telling the truth. They wanted to take me alive.

But how much did they want me alive?

Hope and terror coiled within me, so tightly I could barely tell one from the other.

“Be on your way,” Keijan said, “or face the wrath of your Empress, once she ascends the throne.”

The wind carried a throaty sound, like a snicker. And then another, more ominous sound: a series of short, sharp clicks.

I had never heard a crossbow being drawn. But I knew what that sound was.

Keijan sat his mount in the center of the path, his body outlined in the dusky light. My foot twitched toward my mare’s side. A few steps, and I would be in front of Keijan, blocking his body with mine. If they really wanted me alive, they wouldn’t shoot.

If.

We stood frozen in that tableau for what felt like minutes, but must have only been seconds. Long enough, if my heel had actually nudged my mare’s side.

I didn’t move. And then the thick wooden snap, and Keijan fell back on his horse, still holding the reins, the arrow in his chest pointing straight at the sky.

No!” Parun screamed.

Keijan didn’t scream. He grabbed the arrow shaft with one hand and gestured sharply with the other.

The clearing lit up, an unearthly red light, like the blood that was drenching Keijan’s hand. His own life’s blood. He was using it to summon magic.

The trees around us erupted in screams. And then there was silence.

The red light faded, leaving behind a faint glow. Enough to wash Keijan’s face with pink, as Parun lowered him off his steed. Parun was sobbing, his face contorted and wet.

I slid off my horse with no awareness of how I had done it. My feet hit the ground hard, and I stumbled and fell, then crawled over the twigs and ferns to Keijan. He lay silent on the leaf-strewn ground, looking at me with an expression that made my stomach twist.

I’m sorry, I tried to say, but discovered that my throat had closed up. Which wouldn’t do at all; I had to stay in control.

I drew in a gasping breath, but it didn’t quite make it all the way out, and I still couldn’t speak. Which was for the best, because I couldn’t be sorry. This had nothing to do with me. I couldn’t have stopped it even if I wanted to.

It didn’t matter if I was brave or weak, if I was selfish or self-sacrificing. It didn’t matter. I would do what I would do, and then it would be done.

And nothing—not the act, not the consequences that followed—were my fault.

Keijan’s eyes closed, and I heard a rasping, painful sob, and realized that it had come from me. Parun slid back, away from the corpse. He looked up at me, tears still sliding down his cheeks.

“We have to go,” he said. His voice was thick. “There will be others.”

I nodded. It was all I could manage, with everything in me splintering apart.

“We can’t go straight to the capital,” Parun said. “They know we’re headed there; they’re looking for us. We’ll go to the Port of Foreigners. From there, we can take a ship around the coast to the capital. It will take longer, but no one will be expecting us to come from the sea.”

“We can’t,” I managed to say. “We’ll be defiled—”

“I’m a priest. I can cleanse you.” My face must have shown what I thought of that, because he actually grinned, just for a second. “It will be all right, Siara. Really. Cthonians won’t touch you, if you ask them not to.”

I turned my arms sideways, looking at my pale wrists. I imagined pressing a blade against the narrow purple veins. Everyone’s Choice, the songs called it: death with honor when life offered none. The priests said that was heresy, but people still sang the songs.

I turned my hands back over, curling my fingers tighter around the reins. The priests were right; it was not everyone’s Choice. I knew there was no way I could ever do it, cut through my own skin and blood. Even thinking about it made my stomach clench.

“Come on.” Parun glanced at Keijan’s body. His face twisted, and then he got himself under control. “If we ride without stopping, we can be at the port before dawn.”

Dizziness washed over me. I wondered what would happen if I just gave up. If I lay myself down on a mat of leaves and closed my eyes and slept.

But of course, I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t doing it. Instead, I was letting Parun help me remount, then gripping the front of the saddle and leaning forward. The horse moved beneath me, and the black night thundered by, and I hurtled helplessly toward whatever fate had in store for me.

7

We reached the Port of Foreigners well before daybreak. By then, my horse was shivering uncontrollably, and Parun’s mount had flecks of lather on its neck. We had probably ridden both horses to death; I felt a twinge of guilt, before remembering how irrelevant guilt was.

“Follow me,” Parun said, and of course I did. We rode through narrow streets that twisted too often, in sharp, wrong ways—as if Cthonian aesthetics were not only different from normal people’s, but the opposite of it. The buildings that threw the streets into shadow were also repellent, not just ugly but misshapen, with haphazard construction that made me feel like the walls we passed were about to tumble down on us. I did my best to ignore that, until we passed a heap of rubble, with pieces of wooden furniture sticking out of the stones, and I realized my feeling was entirely accurate.

After that… I went on ignoring it. What else could I do?

The city seemed deserted—the Cthonians lived most of their lives on their ships, and only dwelled here when they had to. The air was thick with the smell of brine and seaweed and something else, a stink so intense it made me gag on my own breath. It seemed the rumors about Cthonian hygiene had been not only true, but unexaggerated.

I ignored that, too.

The city ended abruptly, at the edge of a cliff. From here, steep stairways wound down to a flat, narrow beach, where the waves crashed against the sand over and over. Several wooden boardwalks extended from the beach into the sea, and beside each was a ship with vast, rectangular black sails.

Parun swung off his horse, and after a moment, I did, too. My actions felt thick and slow, and so did my mind. Everything about this place was wrong and dangerous, as if things could come at me from directions I didn’t know about—things, things I couldn’t anticipate and would never understand. It made my skin crawl, and freeze, and then crawl again.

The worst part lay ahead: the sea, blue-gray rippled with black, moving constantly but going nowhere, where lost spirits attached themselves to any warm-blooded creature they could find. I would require two days of cleansing, after getting off a ship. I wondered if people enacting a coup had that much time.

Though surely overthrowing the government would require killing people, and I would need cleansing for that, too?

Parun’s eyebrows drew together as he watched me. He had been on alert since we entered the port, his body rigid and his eyes darting from side to side, but he was clearly not as terrified as I was. “Siara?”

He should not be addressing me by name. I would be Empress soon. Or dead.

“What are we going to do with the horses?” I asked.

His shoulders lifted and fell. “We’ll have to leave them here.”

Which was unthinkable disrespect to the horses, if they would live; or to the people who would be defiled by them, if they would die.

I let the reins drop and slid clumsily off my horse. The mare barely reacted, her head drooping and her sides heaving. I patted her side, an inadequate apology, and followed Parun down the stairs cut into the cliffside.

We were halfway down when I saw my first Cthonian. He was going up on a parallel set of stairs, moving with a lumbering animal-like lope that carried him past us almost before I could stare. His skin had an odd blue tint to it, his bald head a bit darker blue than the rest of his body. His ears were set deep in his head rather than sticking out, and his eyes, large and colorless, passed over us briefly.

Cthonians won’t touch you, if you ask them not to. He wasn’t even close enough to touch me. But I felt defiled, already. And there was worse to come.

When we reached the bottom of the cliff, and I stepped onto the white sand, I swayed. Partly because I was dizzy, and faintly nauseated; partly because I was scared; and mostly because Parun was close enough to reach out and steady me. Which he did.

Half-Cthonian. Now that I had seen a full Cthonian, it was harder than ever to believe.

“Siara,” Parun said. “We have to go.” He gestured at the closest ship. Its sails were snapping, its decks swarming with blue-skinned figures.

“I’m scared,” I whispered, though I knew I shouldn’t. Shouldn’t say it, shouldn’t lean toward him, shouldn’t stop moving forward. I didn’t care. I was doing all these things, and there was no shouldn’t for me anymore.

Parun’s eyes met mine. They were dark and deep, as full of sympathy as they had once been with hate. How could he be half-Cthonian? It fit not at all into the world I understood.

“I’m sorry,” Parun said. “I really am. But the tide is going out. Every ship in harbor is leaving now. We have to get on the ship to the capital in the next few minutes, or it will be too late.”

I didn’t move. I didn’t care. I did not want to get on a ship.

“If we don’t go now,” Parun said, “we’ll have to stay here overnight.”

My eyes popped open, and I started toward the ships, moving as fast as I could with the sand shifting beneath my feet. The ocean was coming straight at me, smooth long surges of black folding into violent sheets of white spray.

Don’t think. Just walk.

I stepped onto the pier. The wooden slats moved beneath my feet, and I could see dark water moving sluggishly through the gaps. My stomach clenched, but I forced myself to keep going, almost at a run, until I was next to the ship, its black sides throwing a chill shadow over me. A long wide plank connected the dock to the deck of the ship, rising steeply upward over the brackish water.

Keijan’s voice in my mind: You only can’t because you think you can’t.

The only way home was on that monstrosity. Hours, or days, with the roiling sea moving constantly beneath my feet. All I had to do was keep my mind blank long enough to step on board, and the ship would sail and it would be out of my hands. Already, the deck was sliding out from under the plank, widening the gap of water I would have to cross.

Minutes, Parun had said. That was all we had. Before I could scream and sob and change my mind, and it would be too late to matter.

Not that it mattered now. Not that I could change my mind, or make this decision to begin with, even if it felt like that was what I was doing.

“Wait!” Parun shouted, and I turned with a rush of relief.

But he wasn’t behind me. I turned again, and there he was, on the pier parallel to mine. Standing next to a different ship, a smaller one.

“Wrong ship!” he yelled. “That one is sailing across the sea to the Cthonian homeland. This one is going to the capital. Come on, quick!”

Another man, too, was waving his arms at me from the side of the ship—a tall man with black hair, wearing robes in the imperial colors. I didn’t recognize him, but clearly he was from the palace. Keijan had been right: we did have allies.

For the first time, I believed it would happen. I was going to rule. I had been hurtling toward this destiny all my life, without knowing it.

An Emperor has no Choices.

The decks of both ships were swarming with Cthonians, yelling at each other in a high-pitched, grunting language, all blue-tinted skin and oily scalps. A shudder ran through me, from my gut up through my heart.

And yet I didn’t move.

An Emperor has no Choices.

I heard Keijan again, as if he was standing right next to me: People can do the impossible.

I stepped onto the plank. It swayed side-to-side, and I had to hold my arms out for balance.

“Siara!” Parun shouted. “What are you doing?”

I didn’t look back. How could I answer him? I didn’t know what I was doing.

It was, obviously, impossible that I would get on this ship. It was not a Choice I—or anyone—could make. Even if I’d had any Choices.

Which I didn’t.

I didn’t.

“That ship isn’t sailing to the capital!” Parun ran down his own pier and across the sand. His voice grew fainter, almost drowned out by the sea. “It’s sailing away!”

I took another step, and now it was just one leap to the deck. The plank was inches from slipping into the water.

It didn’t matter, whether this was a Choice or not. Because if I did it—if I stepped off this plank, if I leapt onto that deck—it would change everything. I would no longer be in the world of the Bechirian priests. And how could they have predicted my Choices, in a future they couldn’t even imagine?

But it was a world I couldn’t imagine, either.

The water roiled beneath me, black and fathomless and terrifying. The sky stretched blue and gray into the unknown distance.

Parun was still shouting, now running down the pier toward me. The capital, with its dangers and opportunities, was a few days’ sail away. I might die or I might rule, but either way, it would be in the palace where I had lived all my life. This ship, with its bow pointing into the unknown—where I wouldn’t know who I was and neither would anyone else—this was not a Choice I could make. It was not a Choice anyone could make.

I knew what I was supposed to believe. That whatever I did next, it was not a Choice. That there were forces all around me, making me either step back or forward; that the decision had already been made, and all my thinking about it was an illusion.

I knew what I was supposed to believe, and I did not believe it.

I stepped onto the deck, and the plank fell into the water below me with a sharp, distant splash.

On the ship, the Cthonians were staring at me. I looked behind me, and saw that Parun had come to a stop, face white with disbelief. I tilted my head slightly, and saw the man in imperial robes watching me with the exact same expression.

Just because no one has, doesn’t mean no one can.

I had done the unthinkable. Now it was thinkable, and they all knew it.

I wondered how many Choices they had, now.

I wondered how many I had.

And when I turned to face the Cthonians, and the vast sea unrolling before me, and the terror and uncertainty hovering around me, I found, to my surprise, that I was smiling.

The End

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