A new novelette set in the realms of Kerstin Hall’s acclaimed The Mkalis Cycle series. The 813th realm of Mkalis has fallen to a cruel and mercurial god, but Tahmais, its would-be successor, finds an unlikely ally in her quest to reclaim it at any cost…
Sneak a peek at the cover for Kerstin Hall’s new standalone fantasy novel ASUNDER, coming August 2024 from Tordotcom!
On the night the 813th realm fell, Tahmais had been sleeping in her old bed. Another argument with Vasael—the same argument, really. She had stormed out of her ruler’s chambers, scorning her usual place beneath the demon’s sheets, and descended to her own quarters. Vasael had not said anything to stop her, but then, she never did. The demon had always been scrupulously careful in their relationship; a consideration born out of respect and integrity. Out of love.
Tahmais often wished her ruler would just snap and command her to stay.
As with most of the flightless dwellers of the 813th, Tahmais’ quarters were situated near the base of the lily spires, only a short distance from the ground. Vasael resided in the highest reaches of the towers, amongst colossal jade- and rose-coloured blooms. Lower down, it was warmer, and the wetland noise provided a soothing blanket of sound: the frogs and the soft rustling of the night waders, the creaking of the giant stems in the wind. Tahmais had a small pad platform to herself, wreathed in a tent of pale silk; she had a bed and a trunk for her limited possessions. It was quiet enough, and comfortable enough, but it wasn’t really home anymore; she had grown too used to Vasael’s nearness and now found the demon’s absence oppressive. Her sleep was shallow, punctuated by remembered snatches of their argument.
And the realm? Where do we fit into your grand ideals, Vasael?
I have obligations. I can’t just sit by—
Of course you can. You’re a ruler; you can do whatever you want.
The question that Tahmais did not voice—the one that she would never, ever allow herself to ask—always hung between them.
What about me?
It was humiliating. There was no way to say please be a coward for my sake when her ruler’s principles hung in the balance. It was childish and ridiculous and selfish, and Vasael knew she was thinking it, and the harder Tahmais tried to bury her feelings, the shorter her temper frayed. They were fighting all the time these days.
It was not as if she didn’t understand Vasael’s position, she just—
The shout jerked her awake. Tahmais sat up, confused; it was still dark, and there was yelling, movement in the air—the winged dwellers were in flight. A second later, Vasael landed on the waxy surface of her pad, her dappled silver wings folding sharply, expression wild.
“Get up,” she said. “I need you to cross to Res Oreq’s realm, call for aid. It’s Temairin; he’s already here—”
“Vasael?” Tahmais’ voice came out high and thin.
The demon crossed to the bed in three strides, and pressed her lips to Tahmais’ in a hard, scared kiss, pulling her to her feet at the same time. “Go. I’ll buy time until help arrives.”
“You should leave—get out of the realm—”
“He’ll come for me first. While I’m his target, he won’t pursue anyone else.” She pushed Tahmais toward the cords. “I’m sorry, my love. You were right all along.”
It seemed unreal, like she had been ripped from sleep into a waking nightmare. Tahmais could not make sense of the situation; she only saw the terror in Vasael’s eyes. Her feet carried her to the cords, the slim green ropes that would hoist or lower her through the lilies’ canopy, but her heart remained twined to her ruler’s.
“Go,” urged the demon. “You know what to do.”
The pad tilted violently, and Tahmais nearly fell off the edge. Vasael’s wings unfurled in a moonlit rush; she leapt into the air. Red spines thrust out from her fists and the ridge of her breastbone. Then the creature appeared, dragging its obscene bulk up the stem of the lily and onto the pad. Too large, too many legs, a shell the colour of wet tar, stalked eyes—Tahmais did not perceive more than that, because then she saw that the god was there too, astride the creature, and Vasael was falling, crumpling, and there was blood.
“I claim the 813th realm,” said Kan Temairin, loudly, clearly, irrevocably.
At his words, something wrenched inside Tahmais’ chest—like a slender branch bent almost to the point of snapping—and the world went dark.
She lay on her back, and the ground beneath her dipped and rolled, undulating like waves. The air tasted of dust, and her skin itched. Only half-awake, Tahmais experienced a bleary confusion—where was she, why was the world moving, why was—
Then memory returned like cold metal sliding into her brain.
For a second, she lost control—her lips parted and a ragged sound of grief escaped her, a strangled moan. Vasael. Behind her eyelids, she could see her ruler falling; the wide arc of blood spraying across silk. This could not be real, this could not be happening. Here she was, still alive, and Vasael—panic rose up and wrapped its fingers around her throat. The 813th realm had fallen. Vasael was dead. Her ruler, her lover, the star around which her life had orbited—extinguished. Slaughtered. And the god…Tahmais could see him standing on his awful creature’s back, his bloody machete in hand. Could hear him speak the words: I claim the 813th realm.
Temairin. The god, his name was Temairin. God Emperor of Black Chitin, Master of the Spinelight, Ruler of the 194th Realm. And now too, Ruler of the 813th. Although a brutal swath of demon realms had been conquered in recent months, somehow the swiftness of the violence remained incomprehensible. There should have been an exception made; it should not have happened to the 813th, not to her home, not to Vasael. But all that the demon had ruled belonged to the god now; the realm, the channels, the dwellers. Tahmais herself.
He could be watching her at that very moment.
Tahmais breathed out. No trembling. No tears. She inhaled again, forced her lungs to work. The god had already taken everything, but he would not have the satisfaction of watching her fall apart. She was still alive. That was significant. She was alive, which came with responsibilities, whether she wanted them or not. She needed to learn what might still be salvaged.
She opened her eyes.
The light here held a different tint. Colder, bluer. Unfamiliar. Overhead, the sky gleamed stormcloud pewter, and dark-winged birds dipped through the air. She had left the 813th realm, that much was certain. Lifting her head hurt—something was wrong with her body; she was feverish and aching, and her mouth tasted of salt. Vasael’s blood itched where it had dried on her bare skin.
What she had taken for the ground was in fact the chitinous carapace of one of Kan Temairin’s beasts. Tahmais was roped to the creature, not to prevent escape, she suspected, but to stop her from sliding off its side. The creature moved soundlessly upon a tide of thin segmented legs; it was twenty feet long, and its appearance occupied the narrow divide between insect and crustacean. From her awkward angle, Tahmais could not see its head clearly, but she had the impression of a blunt wedge crowned by two pairs of swivelling stalked eyes. Its elongated black pincers weaved from side to side as it scuttled along the road: each easily the size of her whole body, oddly graceful in the way they swayed. Where its abdomen met the upward sweep of its thorax, a person stood.
They had not noticed she was awake. Tahmais lowered her head again. Her knowledge of Kan Temairin’s realm was sparse, but she felt reasonably sure this was the 194th. The landscape here stretched wider, harsher; the scrublands on either side were pitted with unfamiliar vegetation.
Why had the god brought her to his homelands?
“Yes,” said the person, the creature’s handler. “I am aware.”
There did not seem to be anyone else around; the person, who was almost certainly a dweller of the realm, spoke to the air. They had a soft, smooth voice. Cropped mousy brown hair and narrow shoulders.
“I exist to entertain you,” they said. “Although I would sooner not.”
“Both,” they said.
“Hello?” Tahmais’ voice came out in a scratchy whisper. She wet her lips, tried again. “I greet you, dweller of the 194th realm.”
The creature’s handler turned. They had unremarkable features, weathered and lined, tanned; their body was probably a little over forty years old, but their eyes looked much, much older. They walked toward her, perfectly balanced on the smooth carapace, leaving the creature to move unguided.
“I humbly beg an audience with Kan Temairin of the 194th realm.” The words tasted like ashes in Tahmais’ mouth. “I throw myself upon his mercy.”
The dweller stood over her, but their gaze hovered somewhere beyond her head.
“One day I will kill you,” they said, calm. “And when I do, I will make sure it is agony.”
They crouched beside her on the beast’s back, and drew out a black, bladed hook from the folds of their waistband. Tahmais thought they would cut the ropes and allow her to rise. Instead, they roughly lifted her left hand and manipulated her fingers straight.
With a clean, sharp jerk of the hook, they severed her ring finger.
They reached the walls of the city-palace by dusk.
Although the bleeding had slowed, Tahmais’ hand felt scorchingly hot. The stump of her finger throbbed with a thick, inescapable persistence—but she was glad of it. Perverse, she knew, but she clung to the gnawing pain all the same. Its fierceness kept her trapped in the present, obliterating, at least temporarily, both terror and grief. Better physical pain, better this terrible distraction than the suffocation of her loss. She could not think about Vasael. If Temairin wanted to maim her, so be it. Maybe he had meant it as cruelty or a show of force, but if so, Tahmais felt that the god had miscalculated.
The city-palace sat atop a ridge of craggy mountains, overlooking the flat expanse of the scrublands. The complex stretched for miles, surrounded by curved black walls that shone with a beetle-bright lustre in the light of the setting sun. The gates reared high: two bristling bowed doors. In her sickened state, they made Tahmais think of a spider’s chelicerae. Like entering the city-palace would be walking through the jaws of a vast, dark creature.
Temairin’s dweller had not spoken since severing her finger. They had not even looked at her for the remainder of the journey; they had guided their master’s beast up the winding grey slopes of the mountain with their gaze fixed ahead. They stopped when they reached the city-palace, and hailed the guards.
I must see this through, thought Tahmais. Her sweat had chilled on her skin, and she was shivering; both too hot and cold at once. The guards opened up the great gates to let them inside. As they passed under the arch, the air warmed and the smell of jasmine filled her nose, cloying and sweet. A garden. Voices echoed off the walls: shouting, laughter, a braying inhuman bark. Yellow-leaved trees hung with dark red fruit, and fireflies danced below their boughs. The dweller turned the creature left down a cobbled street.
“Excuse me.” Tahmais’ tongue felt rough as sandpaper.
They did not react.
“I must…” She was so thirsty, so exhausted. “Please, I must beg an audience with Kan Temairin. People are relying on me.”
It was like speaking to the walls or to the trees; the dweller did not seem to hear her. They guided the enormous creature to the doors of a wooden building, a stable of sorts. All around, the garden echoed with the voices of unseen revellers. The atmosphere felt charged with a riotous edge, although perhaps that was only in Tahmais’ mind; the lights had begun to blur and shimmer around her, and she felt her grip on lucidity slipping.
She flinched when the dweller jumped down from the creature’s back. They walked over to where she lay, and sliced through the ropes binding her.
“Come,” they said simply.
Tahmais sat up in a daze. A bad taste lingered in the back of her throat. She looked down at her mutilated, sticky hand, at the unnaturally wide gap that now existed between her middle and little finger, and the ringing in her ears swelled to roaring. I want to go home, she thought with a sudden fretful need. She lifted her uninjured hand to her mouth, fighting back the urge to throw up. It was too loud here, too fragranced, too strange.
“You will have your audience,” said the dweller.
Tahmais dragged her gaze away from the wound, and found, for the first time, that the dweller was looking directly at her Their eyes were dull brown, the colour of brackish water.
“You shouldn’t keep our ruler waiting,” they said. “He gets more creative when he’s bored.”
In spite of everything, Tahmais’ lip curled. Our ruler. The idea felt absurd, insulting. She belonged to Vasael alone; she would rather cut off all her other fingers than willingly submit to the demon’s murderer. She suspected her feelings were apparent on her face, because the dweller grimaced.
“You’ll adjust to your new situation,” they said. “Or you’ll die.”
It was a role to play, nothing more. Tahmais nodded stiffly. She should not have betrayed her feelings like that—and she would not do so again. Put on a mask of subservience and take stock of what could be salvaged, that was what remained to her. Responsibilities. Duty. There could be no mistakes.
She tried to slide off the creature’s flank, and her legs folded. The dweller caught her.
Even though their expression never changed, their hands felt warm and steady on her arms. Tahmais lifted her head to look at them. She could not have said why, but she had expected their skin to feel colder, harder; like their blade as it bit through tendon and bone. And yet, with the garden spinning around her, the dweller’s grip felt curiously reassuring. Strong, but…ordinary.
They frowned, and pushed her away from them. Not hard, but firmly.
“This is not in your interest,” they said.
Tahmais did not know what that meant. Two other dwellers—men dressed in draped tunics and silver visors studded with black chitin—appeared from the stable. They approached the enormous beast and clipped twin metal cables to the holes bored through its neck plates. It produced an irritated rumbling sound in its thorax. Both men flinched, but when they pulled on the cables, the creature grudgingly followed them inside.
“This way,” said Tahmais’ escort, turning back toward the garden.
A hot wind gusted down the path and shivered through the trees. Tahmais trailed after the dweller, holding her bloody hand close to her chest. They did not look back; their shoulders were straight and their steps brisk, as if they wanted nothing more than to get away from her. In her fevered state, she found it difficult to keep up with them.
“What is your name?” she called.
“Not your concern.”
“Mine is Tahmais.”
“You cut off my finger.”
No response. Deeper within the gardens, someone gave out a hyena-loud cackle. The dweller came to a large building, long rectangles of yellow light pouring from its windows, and entered via a small, dark door. Inside, the walls of the corridor were a pale cream. They swam with strange movement; beads of light moving leisurely beneath the smooth surface. A pliant material covered the floor: brown, with the smoothness and elasticity of skin.
“I want your name,” said Tahmais.
The dweller exhaled. They kept walking.
“Lfae,” they said. “But again, this is not in your interest. Stay away from me.”
“Because you won’t survive the attention that my company attracts. You’ll understand soon enough.”
They reached the end of the corridor, where a great silver door was set into the shifting wall. It swung open before Lfae, and a coarse rush of sound and heat flooded the passage.
The banquet hall stood a hundred feet long, and almost as tall—the ceiling was lost in a hazy blue mist, and the walls marbled from ice white to navy as they climbed skyward. Gods and their attendants crowded the chamber; they gathered around tables laden with obscure delicacies and horrors, they bickered and lounged and talked. Concentrated together, their mingled power spiced the air, and their influence pulled reality thin.
Tahmais recognised a few of them, lesser gods who had moved through Vasael’s circles. Not allies, exactly, but familiar faces. She was struck by the sudden terrible notion that any one of them might have betrayed her ruler to Kan Temairin.
Lfae was still moving, and she hastened after them. A few rulers looked up as the pair of them passed, but most kept eating or talking. A leopard-skinned goddess bared her long, curved canines at Tahmais, and her attendants lashed their barbed yellow tails like whips. It seemed the festivities were well underway; a fight had broken out on the other side of the hall, and the smell of blood was in the air.
From the head of the furthest and largest table, Kan Temairin surveyed the celebrations. He sat upon a straight-backed chair made of the same chitin as the exterior walls of the city-palace, and the ground before him roiled with hundreds of scorpions. He was a beautiful god; he had youth’s easy grace, a sweep of pearlescent grey hair. He wore scaled gloves, each finger tapered into a perfect red point. There was no trace of Vasael’s blood on him now.
“Lfae,” he drawled as they neared. “My favourite returns at last. You must be hungry.”
“I hope to strangle you with your own intestines,” the dweller replied matter-of-factly.
Tahmais recoiled, but the gods around Temairin only tittered as if the disrespect were nothing remarkable. The dweller’s expression never changed; Lfae stood tall and indifferent to the massed power around them, apparently bored by it all.
A satisfied smile spread over Temairin’s face. He idly picked up his knife and pricked the blade to his tongue.
“Eat the successor’s finger,” he said. “The one you removed. Do it now, slowly—I want a sideshow.”
The blood command worked instantly; Lfae reached into their pocket and retrieved Tahmais’ severed finger. She gagged and looked away before they could raise it to their mouth.
“Barbaric, Temairin,” said a pale goddess seated to the ruler’s left. The woman had milk-coloured skin and a smooth rope of snowy hair; her lips appeared obscenely red against her complexion. She had not joined in the laughter, but she made no move to interfere either.
“Come, Fanieq,” said Temairin. “Lighten up. You were bored.”
“And I remain bored.” The goddess waved a hand dismissively. “You could at least find a new dweller to torture, if you must play these juvenile games.”
“The others are too easily breakable, I find.” Kan Temairin turned to Tahmais and spread his hands in greeting. “In any case: welcome, successor. I am glad you made it here in one piece. Mostly.”
More laughter. Tahmais felt light-headed. Duty. Responsibilities. What did pride or pain or revulsion matter? Vasael had chosen her for a reason; under no circumstances would she betray that trust. She bent her knees and knelt before the god, prostrating herself. For you, Vasael. For all of us. The scorpions skittered away from her, stingers raised.
“Your Reverence.” She spoke to the ground. “I am honoured by your attention.”
“Oh, and she’s polite,” he said. “Lfae should observe this. Please, do go on.”
Tahmais took a deep breath. This was where it mattered.
“Your Reverence.” She kept her head down, kept her voice even. “I entreat you to show mercy to the dwellers of the 813th realm. I ask you to shelter and care for them, to bless them with kindness, to…” she stumbled, “…to love them as well as you can.”
Temairin’s foot tapped a rhythm through the air, inches away from her head.
“I see,” he said. “And these dwellers—they would have been your dwellers, had I not claimed the realm after conquering it. Correct?”
Her throat burned.
“Yes,” she whispered. “I was successor. They are—were my people.”
“Interesting. I’m curious what the demon saw, that she would have made a goddess of you. I wouldn’t select bedmates, myself.” The god’s foot stilled. “Well, wouldn’t you prefer to rule them yourself?”
Tahmais could not help it; she lifted her head. “Your Reverence?”
“Your dwellers. Your inheritance.” Temairin looked down at her. “Don’t you want it?”
She felt at a loss—like the ground had crumbled, like the lights had been doused in water. The god stared at her with his unearthly violet eyes; waiting, expectant. All the while, Lfae’s chewing continued unabated, and with each second the sound cracked something deeper inside of her, something that wore thinner and more brittle, and came closer to snapping, and which she would never be able to repair. It seemed like Lfae was trying to be as quiet as possible. It did not help; the wet crunching was all Tahmais could hear.
“You conquered the realm, your Reverence,” she said shakily. “It is…my claim as successor is forfeit. We are all your dwellers now.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He sounded amused. “To ‘love as well as I can,’ wasn’t it? To do with as I please. But I don’t actually have any particular interest in that forsaken backwater realm, so perhaps I could leave it to you. What do you think, successor?”
The grinding of a small bone between teeth. Tahmais’ tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. “Why?”
The god raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”
“If you have no interest in the 813th realm”—she could scarcely breathe, scarcely think—“why did you kill Vasael?”
“Oh!” Temairin smiled, obviously pleased by the question. “That? Well, I suppose because I don’t think that demons should be permitted to live.”
The fragile, battered thing inside her chest gave way, and Tahmais’ mind went blank. She began to rise, her body moving of its own accord. There was no thought, no intention or plan, but—
“Do you need anything else, your Reverence?” asked Lfae. “Or does my standing here like a part of the furniture amuse you?”
Their voice was dry, without a trace of fear, and it brought Tahmais to a halt. Temairin’s gaze shifted to his dweller; this time a hint of irritation crossed the god’s perfect face.
“Dislocate your fingers, Lfae,” he commanded. “All of them. Start on your right hand.”
“Ruler’s mercy,” muttered the white-haired goddess, Fanieq. “Do you want to set up a rack while you’re at it, Temairin?”
The god ignored her. His gaze returned to Tahmais.
“I want a regent,” he said. “I want the 813th quiet, and well-behaved, and brought to heel—I want to never think of it at all. And you, successor, are known to the dwellers there. Correct?”
She nodded, unspeaking.
“They will heed you?”
Another silent nod. Lfae’s joints popped loudly; they had three fingers dislocated already. Their breathing grew harsh.
“Well, in that case, I suppose I can delegate the business of loving them to you.” Temairin made a sweeping gesture. “That would suit us both, would it not?”
There went the fourth finger. Lfae gave a small, suppressed gasp.
“Although,” said the god, eyes glinting, “I’ll have to be sure of your loyalty first.”
Tahmais’ skin felt too tight around her flesh. To her own ears, her voice sounded far-off. “What do you require of me, your Reverence?”
In a sinuous motion, Temairin rose to his feet. The scorpions gathered to him, climbing his legs to cover him like a living robe.
“Proof,” he said. “I have three tests for you. Complete them to my satisfaction, and you can return to the 813th and oversee it for me.”
“Theatre,” muttered Fanieq derisively.
Tahmais’ stomach clenched. She nodded swiftly, horror and a nauseous hope warring inside her. If she could care for the 813th realm, if she had the chance to shelter Vasael’s fierce, quiet people from this—of course. There could be no other choice. Lightless take him, it was more than she had expected from her lover’s killer.
“Thank you,” she said softly.
Lfae made a low sound of pain. They had moved to their left hand, but now lacked the help of their right to effectively continue pulling their joints out. They trapped their thumb in one of the ornate curlicue running along the apron of the table instead.
“You’re very welcome, successor,” said Temairin. “And still so polite too. Lfae, stop that; you’re going to spill my drink. Leave the rest of your fingers alone.”
The dweller panted—their complexion wan, their skin shining with sweat, their eyes murderous. “One day, I am going to leave you choking on your own blood.”
“Yes, yes, of course you are. Go fetch the chest now.”
Lfae turned sharply and stalked away from the table. The gods chuckled. Temairin noticed Tahmais’ expression.
“They’re terrible, aren’t they?” he said cheerfully. “Endlessly amusing. I am beginning to think it’s impossible to break them; I’ve been trying for thirty years.”
She swallowed, unable to find a reply. She could not imagine spending her life as this god’s dweller. Although now she would, now he was her god too. Without Lfae beside her, she felt exposed; although they had just chewed and swallowed a part of her, she was far more frightened of the smiling crowd of rulers.
“So, successor, I gather that your demon was bedding you?” Temairin picked up his glass and leaned against his chair. The scorpions flowed around him, avoiding being crushed. “How did you find the experience?”
Tahmais flushed—half in rage, half in shame—and could not speak.
“Go on,” Temairin prompted. “Give me details.”
Her voice emerged dull. “I don’t think our intercourse was unusual, your Reverence. She invited me to her bed, and I was happy to please her.”
“Oh, come, a little colour. This was a longstanding arrangement?”
“And did she please you?”
Why should she feel humiliated? If these craven gods already knew about her relationship with Vasael, if they wanted to mock her for it, why should she care? Heart beating fast, Tahmais lifted her chin.
“More than I can express,” she said. “Her affection was the greatest gift of my life—I loved her, your Reverence, and I believe that she loved me.”
Temairin’s smile widened; he looked delighted. “Is that going to be an obstacle in your loyalty to me?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. I am yours to command.”
“Ah, but that’s no challenge; it doesn’t signify if I blood compel you into obedience. I want your heart, successor. I want you to choose fealty. Ah, there’s Lfae now. Shall we begin your first test?”
Tahmais turned. The attention of the banquet hall had shifted; the rulers quietened and craned to see Lfae, who was dragging a heavy sled across the room. They pulled it with their left hand; their right fingers hung nerveless at their side. On the sled was a familiar wooden chest.
Tahmais’ stomach sank.
“I took the liberty of collecting your belongings, successor,” said Temairin silkily.
Her chest from the 813th realm: now specked with Vasael’s blood, and splintered on one corner where it must have been dropped or knocked. Let it all be shattered, Tahmais willed, even though her chest went tight at the thought.
Lfae stopped before Tahmais’ table and threw down the sled’s rope.
“Anything else?” they spat.
“No, that will do for now.” The whole room’s eyes had turned to Temairin. He revelled in the attention, exuding satisfaction like a sheen of light. He walked toward the chest, and necks craned to follow him. “Successor, if you would do the honours?”
Tahmais moved as if through a dream. She could hear the beat of blood in her ears with strange acuity, the sticky weight of her clothing. She crouched beside Temairin to open her battered old chest, and the bare skin on the back of her neck crawled like she was the one robed in scorpions.
She undid the latches and swung open the lid. With equal measures of fear and relief, she found the contents undisturbed. Clothing, cosmetics, wind bells and palm flutes, small tokens from other realms—a pearlescent shell holding a ball of light, a neatly made ragdoll, a knife that folded into silver paper. And there, nestled inside the case of woven reeds, were the whisper rings. Fourteen of them, each glass ornament a slightly different shade. Tahmais blinked. There should be fifteen. The coral was missing.
Do not react, she thought.
“What are those pretty things?” asked Temairin. “Show us, won’t you?”
Tahmais stayed the shaking of her hand and gently picked up one of the whisper rings, the tourmaline. It was warm to the touch. Around the room, gods were standing up from their seats to observe the spectacle.
He knew full well what they were. Tahmais kept her head lowered and spoke downward. “Mementos, your Reverence. Nothing valuable.”
“Show us how they work,” he said, undeterred.
Tahmais closed her fingers around the smooth curve of the glass. These gifts were meant for her, only for her. Now, surrounded by these hateful, jeering deities, she raised the ring to her lips and blew softly through it.
“I noticed your hair first, obviously.”
Vasael’s voice—amused, resonant, slightly self-deprecating—rang clear through the room, and Tahmais almost lost control of herself then, hearing it again. The demon sounded a little shy, or flustered.
“When you arrived, it stood out, that pale colouring—it made me think of moonlight, or the sun on white silk. I considered changing mine to match.” A small laugh, cutting into Tahmais like a razor. “I’m glad I didn’t. I think I was embarrassing enough, honestly. Was I embarrassing, Tahmais? You seemed much better composed to me.”
Sounds of derision and mockery through the hall. Temairin waved his hand, as if calling for quiet, but it only encouraged his audience. Unaware, Vasael continued.
“I was unsure of myself, in a way I had not felt in a very long time. You undermined me without ever setting a foot out of line. It was so annoying. I liked you so much. I wanted your hair. I wasn’t sure what I wanted it for—to wear, to touch, to pull—but I found myself looking at it far too often. And of course, I had no idea how to approach you without it feeling…well, I had too much power over you. You know, my usual worry. Although I swear you enjoyed vexing me.”
Tahmais remained stock-still beside the chest. Someone called: “I’ll pull your hair!” and there was a roar of laughter.
“I’m so fortunate, Tahmais,” said Vasael, and, from her voice, she was smiling. “I’m so lucky that you found your way to me. What were the chances that, of all the realms in Mkalis, you were reborn to mine? It sometimes feels like a miracle that I was graced with you.”
The whisper ring fell silent, but conversation rushed in to fill the vacuum. Temairin’s smile, when Tahmais lifted her head, looked almost giddy.
“Very poetic, you demon,” he remarked. “To think that you inspired such devotion.”
She hated him. She did not think it was possible to despise anyone so much, but she held her feelings deep within herself and gave nothing for his amusement. She imagined herself as an ancient boulder beside the ocean: the water crashing against her face, herself unmoving. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
“Smash it,” said Temairin. A few gods, sycophants, whistled approval, but others had already begun to lose interest.
Tahmais held the whisper ring a moment longer. Vasael’s voice, her words, her feelings. It doesn’t matter.
She threw it down against the hard tiles, and the glass shattered.
“Let’s hear your next love letter, then,” said Temairin.
In that moment, surrounded by the glittering gods and their bored decadence, Tahmais wished that she had died.
She was given a small, bare room at the city-palace. It had a little window that looked out over the mountainside, down to the plain. In the moonlight, the landscape appeared cast in silver.
Tahmais lay on the floor, her left hand cradled to her chest. She thought that she could feel Kan Temairin’s attention on her. As her ruler, he had the power to see through her eyes, hear through her ears. He could make her do whatever he wanted, and she would be unable to resist. With barely more than a thought, he could kill her.
He could not read her mind, however. That remained her own, out of his reach. She would not give him any amusement, or reveal her feelings.
She would not cry.
He had stolen her grief, she reflected. All meaningful avenues of release and mourning were barred to her now. He had stolen her grief, but here at least she could lie alone with the open wound like an ocean inside her, and feel its edges. Temairin could not make her love Vasael any less, only hate herself the more—and that was fine. In that moment, it seemed only fair recompense.
I’m sorry, Vasael, she thought. I should never have argued with you. I should never have left your quarters that night. If I hadn’t…
Would it have made a difference? Would it have granted her ruler the time to escape? In her mind, she saw the dark arc of spilling arterial blood, the way that Vasael’s body caved—
Tahmais breathed carefully.
Duty, she reminded herself. Responsibility.
Inside her, something had changed at the moment of her ruler’s death. At first, Tahmais had assumed it to be shock, but the sensation had not faded in all the time since then. Now it struck her as too physical, somehow. Too immediate. A discomforting coolness nestled below her breastbone, like a smooth river stone lodged beneath the interior curve of her ribs. Something pulled painfully taut.
They had talked about it—successorship, how it might work in practice. Vasael had insisted on having the conversation even though Tahmais hated the subject. When the demon first asked Tahmais whether she would accept godhood, she had framed it as a remote possibility. Just in case. It was only a precaution; if Vasael were killed by some accident or unforeseen disaster, Tahmais could ascend and claim the 813th. A contingency. The other dwellers would need a guardian, and they trusted Tahmais. Vasael trusted Tahmais.
Don’t sulk, Vasael had said, exasperated. I don’t want to die. You are being ridiculous.
I would make a terrible goddess.
No, you wouldn’t. You’re stubborn as death, and you love the 813th far too much to let it come to harm.
I love it because of you, Tahmais had wanted to say. Instead, afraid, she snapped: This wouldn’t be necessary if you just stopped taking such stupid risks. You’re getting too comfortable with the idea of dying; you think I’ll be able to step in—
That isn’t what this is about, Vasael sighed.
Then why now? This was never a consideration before you supported the Usurper’s Bond. You never talked about contingencies then.
The demon had looked weary. She folded her slim fingers together in her lap.
If I’m conquered, it won’t matter: your claim won’t be strong enough to stand, she had said. So any risks I might be taking are irrelevant to this conversation. But if you do have the chance, if you can protect the others…I trust you.
“Won’t be strong enough to stand.” Tahmais silently mouthed the words to herself. That didn’t mean that her successorship claim had vanished entirely. If she challenged Kan Temairin for rulership of the realm, she would be annihilated; his claim as conqueror was infinitely stronger—but she was still tied to the 813th. The acute pressure in her chest meant something.
She started at the sound of a soft knock on her door, and lifted her head. Outside, she could hear retreating footsteps. Her body was stiff with cold, and she winced as she stood up. Her hand had swollen around the black and bruised stump of her ring finger. Moving made it throb worse.
Outside the door was a small bundle: bandages, gauze, a flask of water, and a round clay vessel. Otherwise, the corridor was empty; whoever left the items had already disappeared. Tahmais knelt cautiously, picked up the gifts, and retreated into the room.
The vessel held a yellow mud that smelled strongly of anise. When she touched some to the skin around her wound, the flesh immediately cooled. A gentle numbness seeped into her, and, for the first time since her ruler’s death, Tahmais relaxed. Just slightly. She blinked away the tears that pricked at the corners of her eyes, and methodically smoothed the mud over the rest of her hand, only avoiding the stump itself. Then she set the gauze to the wound—eliciting a suppressed whimper of pain—and unwound the bandage to wrap across her hand and keep it in place. A small scrap of paper fell out of the folds of the fabric.
Tahmais picked it up. She held it closer to the window and the moonlight.
You can’t hurt her now, it read, in a very unsteady hand. She is already dead.
With the celebrations ending, most of the other gods departed in the morning, returning to their own realms via a myriad of channels. It was a long, drawn-out affair of goodbyes and rituals and negotiations. On Temairin’s orders, Lfae retrieved Tahmais from her room, and led her up to the city-palace’s parapets to watch the exodus. The dweller’s finger bones were back in their sockets, and their hand looked ordinary, not even bruised. As ever, their face remained impassive. They did not say much, only that her second test would begin after Temairin had finished making his farewells.
The grasping wind tugged at Tahmais’ clothes. She felt hollowed out and queasy, and the fever-touched pressure in her chest still lingered. Together with Lfae, she watched the rulers leave—and she studied each familiar god’s face, silently asking: Was it you? Did you betray her? Are you the one who let Temairin into Vasael’s realm?
“He told me that he has been trying to break you for thirty years,” she said.
“Thereabouts,” replied Lfae.
She did not turn to look at them. “How do you endure it? What he makes you do?”
On the road below the gates, Temairin embraced a goddess with birds tattooed over every inch of her skin. The animals moved, fluttering their black and gold wings. Her four human attendants crawled behind her on their hands and knees.
“It’s only pain. That’s all he can do to me. Pain.” Lfae’s eyes tracked the movement below. Their voice was indifferent. “And my spite is far greater than his imagination.”
“That’s all you have? Spite?”
Temairin made some remark, and the goddess laughed. He gestured to the attendants. She made a gesture of careless acquiescence, causing all of her dwellers to flinch in unison.
“It’s all I require.” Lfae rolled their shoulders, loosening some stiffness their back. “And all he deserves.”
Temairin strolled over to the cowering attendants and examined each in turn. He pointed to the largest; a man with hair only a few shades darker than Tahmais’ own. The other three dwellers sagged with relief, while the chosen attendant went rigid. Tahmais shivered.
“I could not live on spite,” she said. “And I don’t believe you do either.”
“Believe what you like.”
“Does being his favourite mean something to you?”
Lfae glanced at her sidelong. Dark circles ringed their eyes.
“It means,” they said slowly, quietly, “that while he is trying to break me, his attentions are not fixed on anyone else.”
The goddess compelled her attendant to stand, and then to follow Temairin back into the city-palace. The man’s face had gone slack with terror; his eyes as bright and shining as a lamb to slaughter. His ruler turned her back on him, and continued down the mountain road. She might as easily have gifted Temairin an old scarf. Tahmais lowered her gaze to the stone floor of the parapet.
“I know Vasael’s gone,” she muttered. “I’m not stupid. They were only mementos anyway; I didn’t care about smashing them. But thank you for the salve. It helped.”
A long pause. The wind whistled over the mountainside. A risk, they both knew, to say anything aloud when Temairin might be listening, but it seemed likely that he would be distracted at that moment, and not paying attention to them in particular.
“I did an unspeakable thing to you yesterday,” Lfae said at last. “Don’t thank me.”
“It was not your choice.”
“But I did it.” They shook their head and turned. “Come. He’ll be expecting you for his second test, and if you give him what he wants, you’ll be one step closer to that regency. Try to…try to remember what I told you.”
They did not reply.
In daylight, the city-palace’s true size was apparent; it spanned miles of perfumed pleasure houses and shaded gardens, feasting halls and trophy cloisters, chambers for sleeping, for meetings, and for darker amusements—all of it Kan Temairin’s, and all of it only a tiny corner of the 194th realm. Many buildings featured slabs of the same black chitin that formed the outer walls of the complex.
But Lfae did not take her deeper into the warren. Instead, to Tahmais’s confusion, they led her back toward the stables where they had left their mount yesterday. Just past the building was a paved square surrounded by a high fence, which she initially took as a kind of exercise area for the animals. Rows of cushioned benches overlooked the square, and a few gods lolled around atop them. Kan Temairin sat on the highest bench, dripping with fat scorpions, basking in the sun.
“Ah, just in time for the main course,” he called, smiling broadly. “Thank you for delivering the successor, Lfae. You may now go retrieve lunch.”
“One day, I will cut out your eyes and spit into their sockets,” Lfae replied.
Temairin seemed in an indulgent mood; he leaned sideways on the bench and rested his chin on his hand. “You risk giving me ideas, my savage.”
“You clearly need them.” Lfae showed their teeth. “All you had yesterday was fingers.”
The god waved them away. “Go now.”
There was a considerable amount of fresh blood soaking into the stones of the square, Tahmais noticed. It trickled darkly between the cracks, and the smell hung thick and cloying in the air. An abattoir, she thought. What did Temairin intend for her to do here? He had brought friends to watch, which felt as ominous as the gore. The pale goddess, Fanieq, was amongst those seated on the benches, but Tahmais did not recognise any of the others.
“Come closer, successor,” called Temairin.
Tahmais walked across the bloody stones. The day was warming quickly, and flies buzzed over the ground. At the foot of the benches, she knelt.
“How may I serve you, your Reverence?” she asked quietly.
“I see you have attended to your injury.”
Tahmais’ left arm rose into the air through no force of her own. The bandages unwound themselves, unspooling weightlessly around her hand. The gauze pulled free from the wound, and she gasped as pain ricocheted through her raw flesh.
“Ouch,” said Temairin. “That isn’t pretty.”
Tahmais lifted her head to meet the god’s gaze. He was wearing white today, and his scorpions were arrayed across the cushions.
“Of course, I could repair it,” he continued. “I imagine you saw that, despite their base ingratitude, I healed Lfae? I could restore your finger, flesh and bone, easy as breathing.”
But you won’t.
“But I won’t.”
Lfae was right, Tahmais thought bitterly. You really do lack imagination.
“As your Reverence wills,” she said, trying to keep her tone neutral.
“So polite, so polite.” He gave a small laugh, and most of the other gods dutifully joined in. “You see, successor, I need you to remember that you belong to a new ruler now. My gift might not be quite as pretty as your old love letters, but when you look at your hand, you’ll always think of me. A worthy memento, don’t you feel? And a reminder that I can take so much more from you, if I wanted to.”
“Of course, your Reverence.” Was that where this was headed? Would his second test involve some kind of voluntary bloodletting? The thought made Tahmais feel sick. She had no choice but to be strong; she could not afford to buckle or falter, but the rabbit-fast thumping of her own heart clawed at her resolve. She was no warrior.
“Oh, absurd,” said Fanieq abruptly, her tone one of incredulous disdain.
Lfae had returned. Tahmais turned automatically. The dweller was bent beneath the weight of the burden on their back, which they shrugged off once they reached the square. A cry escaped Tahmais’ mouth; without thinking, she rushed toward the crumpled body on the stones.
Vasael’s wings lay crushed beneath her back, broken and blood-matted. Her chest gaped with the dark wound that Temairin had inflicted. The sight of the demon pulled the air from Tahmais’ lungs; she dropped down beside the body, wanting to draw her ruler into an embrace, wanting to cling to her. Vasael’s death was ugly, but she was still beautiful underneath it, as if Tahmais only needed to scrape away the violence to bring her ruler back clean and whole. She touched the demon’s arm, and then recoiled from the cold stiffness of the limb.
Lfae stood above her. They had not moved when Tahmais ran to Vasael, and now they kept their gaze fixed on Temairin, as if the scene at their feet was some embarrassing distraction better left unacknowledged. Tahmais felt the gods’ eyes upon her, and hunched her shoulders. She had shown too much.
“How moving,” said Temairin. “You truly are a devoted dweller, successor. It speaks well of you.”
Tahmais rose unsteadily, and turned back to the benches. “My apologies, your Reverence.”
“Come now, I appreciate your honest feelings. Such ardour. Lfae, give her the hatchet.”
Lfae, for a moment, did not move. Tahmais glanced at them, uncomprehending. They still would not look in her direction; they only had eyes for Temairin.
“I think,” they said slowly, “that I could torture you for centuries. It would still be less than you deserve.”
Temairin smiled. “At least I also inspire some feeling in my dwellers. The hatchet. Or shall we start making meals of stablehands again?”
Lfae’s face did not change. They walked over the side of the stable and picked up a worn, bloodied hand axe from the workbench in its shade. They returned to Tahmais and thrust the tool into her hands. She flinched at its weight.
“Very good,” said Temairin. “Now, successor, you have already been introduced to one of my ocur; it conveyed you to city-palace yesterday.”
From within the stable, there was a loud bang; as though something had collided with the interior wall.
“They’re useful creatures, but they do have considerable appetites.” The god leaned back on his bench. “Don’t worry; they won’t hurt you, not unless I allow them to. Lfae, open the door.”
Don’t, Tahmais thought, and tightened her grip around the hatchet. Her breathing had grown short. She did not know Temairin’s exact intentions, but her instincts screamed that she should run. Lfae walked over to the stable doors and drew up the heavy bar. They did not show any fear. The door swung outwards, and they moved over to the workbench, out of the creatures’ path. Tahmais took a step backwards.
Three ocur appeared at the entrance. In daylight, facing them from the ground, they seemed enormous. In a wave of sinuous, rippling limbs, they flowed out into the square, circling Tahmais and waving their black claws like scythes. Their dark carapaces shone in the sun.
“Time to show me your loyalty, successor,” called Temairin.
She felt like a rat cornered in a weasel’s nest. Her voice shook slightly. “Your Reverence, I don’t follow.”
“Feed them. You will have to divide their meal, of course.”
She was at a loss. The creatures spiralled around her; she looked down at Vasael’s body, and felt herself sinking. There was a scream in her throat. A wild streak of madness; she imagined burying the hatchet in her own neck. There was a hysterical voice inside her head, howling.
“Successor?” said Temairin, voice mild.
What was to stop her? In death, she might find Vasael again. In their next lives, reborn, they would draw together as the moon pulled the tides, like magnets, like gravity; they would be rid of this nightmare and free. The 813th was already lost. Tahmais felt giddy. What was to stop her? What was left for her to lose? She adjusted her hold on the hatchet. A quick, hard blow. No hesitation; she could not give the god time to react. Fast, sharp, and true. It would not hurt; if she were fearless enough, it would be over too quickly for her to feel anything at all. Her heart pounded. It would not hurt.
“Is that the best you could come up with, your Reverence?”
Lfae’s raised voice startled the ocur; the animals jerked at the unexpected noise. Tahmais looked toward the dweller. They were still leaning against the wall of the stable, their arms folded.
“I bet you were so proud of this test,” they continued, with unshakeable insolence. “I bet you schemed all night—and in the end, your grand idea was the butchery of a day-old corpse. Astounding, your Reverence. History will surely remember your subtlety.”
Temairin’s eyes narrowed. “You are beginning to tire me, Lfae.”
“So this is how you impress your guests.” They snorted. “Well, at least the demon was spared the pain of embarrassment. I’m sure she would rather be dead than play an active role in your melodrama.”
Tahmais’ mouth was dry. The ocur circled, circled, circled. Although Lfae had not so much as glanced in her direction, she knew that their words were meant for her. You can’t hurt her now. She is already dead. All along, they had anticipated what was coming. They had tried to warn her, prepare her, and even now, strove to press their message home. Vasael was dead; nothing worse could befall her. This was only an empty shell, this was only Tahmais’ own sentimentality weaponised against her. Just a body. Just one more memento. Just meat.
Vasael had selected her to protect the realm. Not for sentimentality, but for steel. I trust you. Tahmais slowly crouched down beside her ruler’s beautiful corpse. The demon’s dark hair had fallen across her cheek; she gently tucked it back. She was the successor; she had the spine for it, she was servant to her role—so obey.
She silently raised the hatchet, and brought it down hard.
The gods, distracted by Lfae, looked around sharply at the thud. Teeth gritted, Tahmais freed the tool. Obey. She mouthed the word like a prayer. Duty. Responsibility. Vasael would expect no less. She swung the hatchet again, and the force rippled through her hand, wrist, arm; she felt the blow travel through every muscle in her body. Do this, become regent, and salvage what the demon had devoted her life to building. Obey. Her breathing emerged in cracked gasps; her body felt like it belonged to someone else, as if she witnessed her own actions from a great distance. Everyone in the 813th was relying on her. Vasael had chosen her.
“Well,” said Temairin softly.
Tahmais didn’t pause from her bloody task. The god could burn. They could all burn, all the rulers of Mkalis. Temairin wanted her to shatter—but she had thwarted him, beaten him, exceeded his expectations. In giving him what he asked for, she denied him what he desired, and through her daze swept a vicious rush of vindication.
She slammed down the hatchet. He would not win. Her body felt electric, her arms were red and wet. She would take it all back, everything, she would rip apart his life with her bare hands. With every breath, she would seek his end. For Vasael. For the 813th. For herself.
The limb came away clean, and Tahmais threw back her head and screamed her defiance to the sky.
The ocur shied backwards, hissing. Shuddering and covered in blood, Tahmais lowered her gaze to meet Temairin’s. Fear me, god. Watch me spit in your eye. His expression remained cool, although his scorpions roiled around him, stingers raised in distress. What he saw on her face, she did not know.
“I am done here,” said Fanieq.
The goddess had risen. She stood, pale and impervious, and the other gods shrank from her like a physical force. Temairin’s head swung toward her, and he began to speak, but she cut him off.
“Consider our allegiance ended,” she said. “Our goals might have aligned, but your dweller is right—this is juvenile theatre. I will not be further sullied by association; should you seek to cross into my realm in future, I will slaughter you without hesitation.”
“No, be silent,” she interrupted, merciless. “I say this as a warning, Temairin: your crass immaturity will prove your undoing. I have no intention of being dragged down in that wake.”
In a fluid motion, a twist of the light, the goddess was down from the benches and walking away from the stable. Temairin stared at Fanieq’s retreating back, the spool of her ice-white hair blinding in the sun, and his perfect face grew ugly. The threat of violence was in his limbs, his body had gone tight—but he did not move. A confrontation within his homelands gave him every advantage, and yet the goddess’ power still exceeded his own. For her part, Fanieq did not even look back.
Lfae began to laugh, mirth spilling out of them.
“That must hurt, your Reverence,” they said. “Oh, that must sting. Your highest ranked ally, wasn’t she? But ultimately you are too much of an embarrassment.”
“Hold your tongue!” Temairin hissed the command, his temper giving way.
Undaunted and gleeful, Lfae captured their tongue between their thumb and index finger, and continued speaking. “You netha could conthrol yourselth—”
Their words cut off abruptly as the god exerted a greater, silent power, although the dweller continued to shake with soundless laughter. Temairin himself was trembling; his gaze swept across his friends on the benches. The other rulers avoided his eyes. It was quiet. The ocur had stopped circling.
“Will that be all, your Reverence?” Tahmais asked, her voice low and hoarse.
He considered killing her; she saw it on his face. You never could control yourself. His lips thinned.
“Go,” he replied. “Lfae, remain behind—I want you to demonstrate your obedience to my guests.”
Tahmais hesitated, glancing at the dweller. Lfae smiled at her. It struck her as a curiously gentle expression. They made a small motion with their hand. Go on.
“A problem, successor?” asked Temairin dangerously.
Whatever was about to happen to Lfae, she had no power to help them. She bowed over the ruin of Vasael’s corpse, closing her eyes against the sight. Then she turned her back on Temairin and walked away. Behind her, she could hear the ocur slithering over to feed on her lover’s body. At the edge of the square, she dropped the hatchet. It clattered on the stones.
Only later, once she was back to her room, did Tahmais lift her hands to her mouth. Temairin was certain to be distracted; he would not see her. With care, she licked each of her fingers clean. Even in death, rulers’ blood held power.
“I am successor,” she murmured. “I am successor. I am successor.”
It might have been her imagination, but she thought the hard pressure inside her chest grew stronger.
Nothing confined her to her room. No one seemed especially interested in her or concerned that she might pose a threat. Tahmais, by the late evening, began to suspect she had simply been forgotten. When the cold grey chamber at last became too claustrophobic, and she could no longer stand the oppressive intrusion of her memories—visions of shattering bone, sundered flesh, pale feathers—she got up and left the room.
She did not feel sane, not entirely. A strange calm had covered over her like an invisible film, elastic and smooth, and beneath it she felt almost cheerful. Strange things amused her: the idea of the other gods trying to reassure Kan Temairin, the memory of Lfae grabbing their own tongue. It was all absurd, even laughable. She wished she could tell Vasael about it. She wished the taste of blood would wash off her tongue.
The gardens were much quieter tonight. She wandered through the leafy pathways, alone and unhurried. The moon hung high in the sky, barred by white clouds, and it was cold. At a water fountain, she washed her hands and face. The stump of her missing finger hurt, but no longer pulsed with sickly heat; whatever salve Lfae had provided seemed to have worked wonders. The pain that remained was a persistent, dull-edged ache. As Temairin had said: a reminder.
What else could you take, I wonder? She gazed down at the rippling spill of moonlight in the fountain. I am not sure what I have left to offer.
She walked on. It was past midnight, and the city-palace rested uneasily. She saw no one else on the paths, and only once caught the sound of voices drifting through an open window. Although she had not truly slept since Vasael’s death, Tahmais did not feel tired. It seemed better to be moving, better not to close her eyes. She followed her feet, drifting, until she heard the sharp ring of metal on stone, and then she traced the noise to a dusty quadrangle nestled between two buildings.
Lfae moved like trapped lightning. Their body, unassuming at rest, transformed into something unearthly while in motion. They held a white spear loosely in their hands, but it was difficult to determine where the weapon ended and they began; the polearm seemed to bend and twist with them, supple as a vine. The dweller flowed and struck, bent and spun; each movement was as precise and controlled and elegant as an alchemical equation, as fast as quicksilver. For all their grace, they appeared devastatingly lethal.
Tahmais watched them quietly. Their expression was pure focus, unadulterated willpower. They looked unhurt. Whatever Temairin had done to them, he had subsequently repaired, and Lfae moved through each sequence of violence like steps in a dance. She had never seen them so at ease.
When they came to a stop, they let the spear fall to the ground. They took a few seconds to catch their breath, and the hot air from their lungs misted in front of their face.
“Stay away from me,” they said, panting.
“Because that’s in my own interest?”
They nodded. “Correct.”
Lfae grimaced. “Because anyone to whom I pay the slightest attention risks being used against me. Violently used. Possibly with my own hands—he knows I still flinch.”
“I see.” Tahmais gazed around the empty quadrangle. The buildings on either side were tall and silent; the walls chipped and gouged with broken spearheads. She gestured at the space. “And does he know about this?”
They snorted. “Of course he does. It amuses him.”
“I didn’t think you liked to amuse him.”
“I don’t. But it’s…” They wiped their forehead, and sighed. “One day, he’s going to make a mistake. One tiny mistake is all I need, just one careless little error. He’ll slip, and when he does, I’ll be ready. All I need is one opening to kill him. If he finds my practice amusing…” A shrug. “Let him choke on that laughter.”
A nice fantasy. “Do you think he’s watching you now?”
“It’s possible, but unlikely. He was drinking earlier, and has probably passed out by now.” They picked up the spear, and a cruel smile touched their lips. “To be spurned by Kan Fanieq was a hard blow; he won’t easily recover from that. I am surprised she tolerated him as long as she did.”
They resumed their drills, albeit at a far slower pace. Tahmais watched them, tracing the point of the blade through the air.
“He said that he does not care about the 813th realm,” she said. “That he conquered it just for the sake of killing Res Vasael.”
Lfae arched their back, swinging the spear around in a clean arc. “Yes.”
“I want to know who betrayed her to him.”
“Thinking of vengeance?”
“Your demon played with fire, making too many alliances. Pure naivety. If you want to apportion blame—”
“Vasael,” said Tahmais, “was not naïve. She knew the risks.”
“Given the results, that makes her choices even less forgivable.”
She looked directly at Lfae, and spoke low. “She chose righteousness even though it killed her. I will pay for her choices until the end of time, and never hold that against her.”
“You say that now—”
“I will say it always. Vasael did nothing wrong.”
And it was true, Tahmais knew. All along, she had clung to her own selfish fears, her terror of losing the demon. When Vasael had joined the Usurper’s Bond, a coalition dedicated to the protection of newly ascended rulers, she had felt betrayed. They had both known the decision would draw attention like a red target painted on Vasael’s back. What was valour, what was kindness and honour, if it meant the demon’s destruction?
But Vasael had been a usurper herself. She knew the cost of tearing a tyrant from their throne—the years of fear, the wrath of affronted gods, the solitude—and its necessity. Amongst the vulnerable crowd of newly ascended rulers, she had seen the shadow of her former self. Through the Usurper’s Bond, she had tried to be an ally to those rulers with none. No delusions, no misapprehensions about what might result. Vasael had stood to gain nothing and to lose everything. And she had.
“You truly bear no resentment,” said Lfae, their voice strange.
Tahmais smiled without a trace of humour. “Oh, I do. But not for her.”
The dweller had stopped their drill. They rolled the spear across their palm, an unconscious movement.
“Kan Parile,” they said abruptly. “That would be my assumption. A nobody, a coward, ruler of the 872nd. He’s been trying to curry favour with Temairin. I know he has sold out others.”
“Parile,” Tahmais repeated, tasting the name. Unfamiliar, and strangely disappointing. She shook her head. She had expected a revelation, something to give direction to her feelings, but no. Two syllables of emptiness. “Never heard of him.”
Lfae gave a short bark of a laugh. “He is newly ascended; your demon might have established a channel with his predecessor. I doubt he will survive long. A poor choice of successor.”
She nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
“It’s only a name.” They turned away from her. “Leave now. Go back to bed.”
“You remind me of Vasael, in some ways.”
“I think you might be more subtle,” Tahmais continued. “Far more subtle than Kan Temairin realises. Vasael was always open, and you are not like that, but still—I see her in you.”
“You see nothing,” they said harshly.
“It’s your protectiveness, I think.”
“Don’t be absurd. What have I protected?”
They scoffed. “You delude yourself. That isn’t surprising, given what you have lost, but—”
“You share her kindness,” said Tahmais.
They whirled around.
“You don’t know me,” they snarled. “You are a grieving fool, trying to project what you have lost onto me, but I cannot help you, I cannot protect you, and I cannot save you. You are so close to completing his damned tests, but you’re going to throw it all away with this idiocy.”
Tahmais did not move. Lfae’s cheeks were flushed.
“I want you to know I’m grateful,” she said softly. “That’s all.”
She left them standing there alone, with the cold still air turning their breath to white clouds.
So this is it, Tahmais thought.
Having control of both the 194th and 813th realm, Kan Temairin had established channels to run between them. From the 194th, the passage opened just outside the walls of the city-palace, on the dusty plateau of the mountaintop. The channel itself was only a few feet long; its walls shimmered with sliding black oil, pearlescent and slick. The ground had a hard, grooved texture, like a tortoise’s shell. Through it, Tahmais could see the sky of home.
“Complete the last test to my satisfaction, and thereafter you may remain in the 813th,” said Temairin.
Dressed in a gold tunic and his mantle of scorpions, the god had recovered at least the semblance of a good mood. Tahmais did not trust his tight, calculating smile or pleasant voice; she knew that he remained furious about yesterday. While he dangled the rewards of success in front of her, he would undoubtedly also enjoy her failure.
“I will not disappoint, your Reverence,” she replied.
“So good to hear.” He strolled forward into the channel. “I hope you are taking notes, Lfae.”
“I hope you are eaten alive by worms.”
“Well, there will always be room for improvement.”
Tahmais followed the god and Lfae into the channel. Her skin prickled. One more trial. One last test, and I will be able to shelter Vasael’s people. My people. Whatever was to come would be awful, but survivable. And Temairin would not renege on his bargain; breaking his promises, even to an irrelevant dweller, would mar his reputation all the more. As long as she obeyed him perfectly, she would win.
The familiar scent of the wetlands, dense, clean and dark, drifted from the mouth of the channel. Tahmais stumbled slightly, her chest going tight with yearning. She had already half-forgotten that rain-smell, the strains of damp soil and green fronds, the faint fragrance of the water blossoms. It hit her harder than she had expected.
“My new subjects, rejoice!” said Temairin, stepping into the realm. “Your ruler has returned.” He added, as an afterthought: “Face down, thank you.”
Tahmais emerged behind him. The 813th realm was deathly silent, and the cool air was still. Mist hung over the waters. For an awful moment, she thought that the figures collapsed along on the path were dead—hundreds of prone dwellers lined up, a parade of corpses, her friends, her makeshift family…but no. Her people had simply prostrated themselves before Temairin, and lay perfectly still as he approached. The winged dwellers had weights shackled to their legs, and the sight quickened an anger inside Tahmais. Where were they supposed to fly, that the god could not reach them? There was no escape. Everyone lay in the mud, unmoving, denied even the smallest measure of dignity. If Vasael had not singled her out and made her successor, Tahmais would have been amongst them.
Soon, she promised silently. I will right this. Soon.
“I brought a familiar face today,” Temairin continued. “Greet my dwellers, successor.”
What could she possibly say? I’m sorry, I’m so sorry she is gone. Her voice came out low and raspy with feeling. “I…I am glad to see you.”
“Look up,” the god commanded.
In perfect unison, a hundred mud-smeared heads rose from the ground. Faces she had known her whole life leapt out at her. Ami, Vasael’s messenger and scribe, always calm and composed, but now red-eyed and bloody-mouthed. Sivir, who cared for new arrivals to Mkalis, who had borne Tahmais’ own early fits of confused distress. Dacote, incorrigible gossip and the best singer in the realm, sporting a lurid bruise on his forehead. Their exhausted gazes settled on her.
“Successor, to whom do you pledge your loyalty?” asked Temairin loudly.
She lowered her eyes to the ground. “To you, your Reverence.”
“She’s hurt,” someone murmured. “Her hand—”
“To whom do you devote your life, your mind, and your heart?”
“To you, your Reverence.”
“And to whom do you owe thanks for disposing of the demon usurper of this realm?”
She swallowed. The words came out dead and flat. “To you, your—”
“What have you done to Tahmais?” Ami yelled.
No! Tahmais’ head jerked up. Ami’s body shook with anger; she wore her loathing for the god undisguised on her face. Temairin, however, did not seem to mind.
“Your former successor and I have an arrangement,” he said. “I’ve found her to be extremely tractable, in fact.”
Murmurs rippled down the line of bowing dwellers. Tahmais wanted to be sick. They did not recognise the danger; they did not know how easily Temairin could destroy them all. Her voice emerged breathless. “Please, don’t—everyone, please obey our new ruler.”
Audible gasps. Tahmais’ face burned. She knew how they would see her now; a faithless turncoat, a coward, stain on Vasael’s memory. She could not blame them—
“We are glad to see you too, Tahmais.”
Ami’s voice had lost its heat. Her gaze lingered on the bandages around Tahmais’ hand. She forced a tight smile, which made her bloody mouth look all the more painful.
“Welcome home,” she said.
Not trusting herself to speak, Tahmais gave a swift nod.
“Yes, listen to the successor,” said Temairin, apparently growing bored. “She sets a good example. Now, shall we see how construction is progressing? I tire of standing in the mud.”
At the base of the lily spires, where the green stems clustered most thickly, new slabs of flat brown stone had been laid: the foundations for a large, rectangular building. Walls of the same material had been erected on three sides, but the last was only half-built, construction interrupted by their arrival. The god strolled down the path, and the dwellers remained prone on either side, a forced honour guard.
“I found the existing accommodations too exposed,” he said. “What do you think of my new hall, successor?”
How could it have been built so quickly? The weight of all that stone was sure to damage the lilies’ root structure; it looked grossly heavy and out-of-place. Tahmais wanted to tear it down. “I hope it will suit your needs.”
“It’s hideous,” supplied Lfae.
“I doubt I’ll have much reason to visit,” said Temairin, ignoring them. “But at least the workforce here proved capable, once suitably motivated.”
Tahmais repressed a shiver. “That’s…good.”
A rich blue rug covered the floor at the entrance of the hall. Temairin stepped onto it, soiling it with mud from his shoes. He spread his hands, mocking, as he turned to welcome her and Lfae.
“Your last test awaits,” he said. “Come in.”
The roofless interior stood about sixty feet long and thirty wide, and the space was largely empty but for an enormous throne at the far end of the room. Black, and constructed from interlocking sheets of shining chitin, it sat like a scaled predator in its den. The floor around it was dressed in thread-of-gold rugs, against which its shining darkness appeared especially pronounced. The rest of the hall remained bare and chill, shadowed by the lilies.
Temairin strolled over to the throne, his steps echoing slightly in between the walls. Tahmais glanced around the room. There were no obvious clues what the test might entail.
“It is not easy, you know,” said the god, as he reached the throne. He ran his hand pensively over the black chitin. “Rulership. It entails a great deal of vigilance. You never know when your allies might turn on you, when loyalty might prove…provisional.”
He beckoned for Tahmais to approach. With a dull feeling of foreboding, she obeyed, and knelt at the foot of the throne. Lfae remained standing.
“That is why I value action over words,” said Temairin. “If I asked you to cut your heart out of your chest, would you?”
She kept her gaze on the gold rug. “If you required it, your Reverence.”
“I do not.” There was a soft ringing sound; metal sliding across a smooth surface. Temairin pulled a long, thin silver dagger from the back of the throne. He turned it over in his hand, studying its length. “In some respects, I think that would be too easy for you. What is your opinion, Lfae?”
“That you would benefit from the removal of most of your organs.”
“Hm.” The god sat down on the throne; his scorpions climbed the arms and over the back. “Yet another example of your great subtlety and kindness.”
Tahmais breathed in sharply, the echo of her own words ringing in her ears. But Lfae only laughed.
“Not as drunk as I took you for,” they said. “Or maybe too afraid to sleep with your alliances crumbling around you. The tables turn so quickly; now that Kan Fanieq has spurned you, it’s only a matter of time before someone makes a play for the 194th realm. I hope a demon gets there first.”
“An attempt to divert me?” Temairin smiled. “Oh, you will need to do better than that. You are worried. Successor, stand up.”
Tahmais rose. Lfae had warned her, time after time. Anyone to whom I pay the slightest attention risks being used against me. She swallowed. Well, they had already severed and eaten her finger. More of the same. She could endure it. Only pain. Duty. Responsi—
“Take this,” said Temairin, holding out the dagger.
She did not allow her hand to shake. Perhaps it was to be self-mutilation after all. She took the dagger, which struck her as unexpectedly light. The hilt was smooth and cool under her fingers.
“Oh,” said Lfae.
Tahmais lifted her gaze, and found that Temairin was looking past her, to Lfae. A faint smile touched the god’s lips, a little ironic, a little hungry. Lfae merely appeared surprised.
“You admit defeat?” they asked.
“An odd way of looking at things,” said Temairin. “Typical of you, that arrogance. Perhaps I am just out of patience.”
“After all the years?” Lfae tilted their head. It was the first time Tahmais had heard them address the god in any tone other than scorn or anger; they sounded perplexed and slightly curious, like they had been presented with a riddle to solve. “I no longer amuse you?”
Temairin made a careless gesture, as if he could not even be bothered to answer.
“Unless…oh.” Lfae’s expression darkened. “You expect—”
“Successor,” the god interrupted. “Cut out my dweller’s heart.”
Tahmais almost dropped the dagger. “What?”
“Do this, and you will be regent of the 813th realm.” Temairin leaned back on his throne. “You do not need to fear; I won’t allow them to fight or run.”
There was a roaring in her ears.
“You want me to…to kill Lfae?” she said faintly. “That’s your test?”
Lfae’s voice was cold. The dweller remained as fearless and upright as ever; they glared at the god even as they spoke to her.
“I didn’t expect him to turn his trick around,” they said. “Try to use your kindness, your empathy…No. He doesn’t want you to kill me. He wants you to fail to kill me.”
“I—” Her mouth tasted like ashes. “I don’t understand.”
“What is there to understand?” asked Temairin. “It should be simple. Unless, of course, someone else holds sway on your loyalties now? Perhaps someone who reminds you of your old ruler?”
Lfae shook their head in disgust, turning to her instead. They lowered their voice.
“Tahmais, listen,” they said. “Listen to me. He expects you to fail; he knows that you are too honourable and that you care too much, he knows that you pity me. It’s the same game he’s always played, except you can win this time.”
She clutched the dagger. The hard stone foundations felt as though they were sliding beneath her.
“Successor?” said Temairin.
“Don’t you see? He wants me to be responsible for your final failure,” Lfae spoke quickly, plainly, their eyes fixed on her. “After that, he’ll turn around and force me to kill you. But it doesn’t have to be that way. He thinks he knows you? Prove him wrong. Do it.”
“Too much,” she whispered.
“No, it isn’t.” Their face was fierce. “Think of your people. Think of Res Vasael.”
Tahmais jerked like they had struck her, and backed away. “Don’t—”
“Hand me victory. For all his efforts, he couldn’t find a way to break me. It’s only pain, Tahmais; give me my vindication.” Lfae stepped closer. “Set me free.”
“Last chance, successor,” said Temairin.
From his tone, the god believed that he had already won. Tahmais felt choked; she could not bear to look at him, could not stand his triumph after she had come so close to succeeding. It had all been for nothing; she would never be regent now. Too weak. Felled at the last hurdle by such a stupid, needless cruelty. She had given everything, lost everything—but not this. She would not do this.
“Please,” said Lfae.
This is what your kindness brings. Tahmais bit down hard on her tongue, tasting her own blood. Fine. She raised her head to meet Lfae’s eyes again. The camaraderie of the damned. Some vindication. They saw her resolve, and their face lit up with joy. That might have broken her; to see anyone so overcome with happiness at the prospect of their own death. Shaking, she lifted the dagger. Stepped toward them.
“Are you ready?” she whispered.
Their eyes widened slightly at the sight of her bloody teeth.
Good, Tahmais thought, and thrust the dagger, hilt-first, into their hands.
“I claim the 813th realm,” she said.
The pain was immediate and explosive; the hard knot of pressure between her ribs ripping into the air. A savage magnetism spun her around to face Temairin; her claim as successor collided with his right as conqueror. The god cried out, more shocked than hurt, temporarily pinned to his own throne by violent forces rippling between them.
Your claim won’t be strong enough to stand, whispered Vasael.
I know. Tahmais could feel her bones breaking, her body tearing apart beneath the assault of the contestation. Even with Vasael’s blood, even back home where she belonged, the outcome was inevitable. But then, it doesn’t need to stand for very long.
Through the agony, she saw it: the space of a heartbeat when Temairin’s divinity slipped. For the smallest instant, rulership of the 813th realm tipped slightly in her favour; she was the goddess, and he was nothing—his authority meaningless, his rules founded on air, his laws mutable as water. In that moment, Tahmais was no longer his dweller.
And neither was Lfae.
They moved like their entire life had been spent waiting. Tahmais did not see them pass her; they were before the god, and the dagger was lightning in their hand, swift and unstoppable, and it rose and tipped Temairin’s head upwards as it pierced through his neck and into his skull. The god did not make a sound. Briefly, his gaze rested on Lfae, and his expression held a hint of incredulity. Then he was dead.
The force that held Tahmais upright gave way, and she dropped, hitting the stone floor hard. She scarcely felt the impact; every part of her body already sang with pain. In the recess of her chest, her broken claim to the realm dissolved. Not a successor anymore, nor a ruler.
Lfae’s voice, far away. She tried to focus, and their face shimmered through a dark haze. Nothing like Vasael’s, really. She was glad they were there. She felt her body lift, and the movement was excruciating.
“Hold on,” they said. “I can—I can fix this!”
They couldn’t, although they would try, she knew. Always kind. Missing whisper rings. Bandages in the night. Fingers out of joints. Grateful. The light changed, vague shapes receding from her or drawing closer. Not home. But not alone.
“I claim the 194th realm,” Lfae gasped.
The darkness was warm, and she was cradled within it. The pain had not changed, only it seemed further from her. Only pain, that’s what Lfae said. It felt easy to let go.
Something inside her kindled, and the world grew clearer; she saw Lfae’s face above her and the blue of the sky. They were still holding her; their expression one of rapt attention. The broken parts of her body drew toward realignment, willed to mend, and then…fell apart once more.
“Heal!” Lfae insisted, their lips wet with their own blood. “You will heal.”
The same tightening, the same collapse. Tahmais’ breath fluttered.
“I claim this realm!” snarled Lfae. “I have the power, I set the rules. Heal! Just heal.”
With each repetition of the blood command, the response inside her grew weaker. Tahmais tried to shake her head, but failure seemed to only make Lfae angrier. Their breathing had grown erratic.
“He did this all the time. He fixed me over and over and over, until I couldn’t even remember what he had broken. Until there was no part of me—” Their voice cracked.
With difficulty, Tahmais made her throat work. “You are not him.”
Lfae cursed viciously. Their shoulders heaved with their breathing, and she saw that they were crying. Behind them, hazy in her vision, the city-palace of the 194th waited for its ruler.
“What was the point?” they asked. “If I have all this power, why can’t I even do this? He could. He could always—”
Tahmais’ body did not cooperate as it should, but she found their hand. Their weeping was completely soundless, but their body shook around her.
“Not him,” she repeated.
“It isn’t fair,” they whispered.
Tahmais shook her head, and tried to smile. It’s all right, she wanted to say. She wanted to say a lot of things: take care of the 813th and thank you and I want to go home now. But she was too spent, and she suspected that they knew anyway. She held their hand a little tighter. The world was growing darker, but she did not feel afraid. It’s all right.
She was conscious of Lfae moving, the brush of something cool and glass-smooth to her lips. Then, Vasael’s voice, familiar and aching. Close. Tahmais could not open her eyes to see her, could not make out the words from their sounds, but Vasael spoke and she followed, like tides to the moon, like magnets, like gravity; her love spoke and she followed her up into the air.
“A Heart Between Teeth” copyright © 2023 by Kerstin Hall
Art copyright © 2023 by Cristina Bencina
Sneak a peek at the cover for Kerstin Hall’s new standalone fantasy novel ASUNDER, coming August 2024 from Tordotcom!