Read an Excerpt
The High Hills
I SAT AMONG the late autumn-blooming clover amid a sloping grave-meadow and picked at my memories as if they were old scars. Fat, slow, red-bodied bees bumbled about me as they passed through scattered shafts of sunlight limning the damp, chilly air. Their indifferent drone was desultory. Empires would rise and fall, gods pass from bloody birth to fiery death, every woman who ever lived slip quietly into her final sleep, and still bees would find their flowers.
That was a lesson for me. I was certain of it. Sick of lessons, I ignored the thought.
Recollection served my mood little better. As they always have, the people of my life crowded close in these quiet moments. Federo, locked inside the bandit-god-king Choybalsan, that haunted look in his eyes at the last. Septio, the only man I’d then bedded, his neck snapped within the loving circle of my arms. Shar, the desperate woman who’d lived with my father into the final days of his ruination. Mistress Danae, whose addled mind and ravaged body survived as a shadow among the graves. Cities full of flame and despair, knives in the dark, my fear racing faster than even the flying of my feet.
The single word echoed among the silent graves scattered across this empty hillside. Tiny birds whirred up from the long, golden grass into the cerulean bell of the sky. My belly twinged as the child within stirred. She was still so little, this poor god-struck bastard of mine. I placed my hands upon my abdomen and crooned softly. I don’t know if the ancient ghosts whose abode this was heard me. Perhaps it didn’t matter. My baby returned to sleep and took the bitter sting of memories with her.
In time I emerged from my enclosing song and looked about. Inattention has never been a habit with me, not from my earliest years. Even so, the unquiet dead were no threat, the nearest possible ambush was hundreds of paces away downhill, and this place smelled of safety. Most of the bees had moved on to other stands of clover on their day’s rounds. The pallid northern sun had climbed higher into the patient vault of the heavens. The day was as warm as ever it would be at this time of year—almost enough to make me wish for a hood or a hat, rather than simply sitting bareheaded in the wind that carried the first sharp-edged tang of winter. The scent of the clover remained strong, mixed with the dusty-rock odor of the ridgetops.
Even now, I still believe that the High Hills were as timeless a place as I’d ever known, at least since the never-ending summer amid the rice paddies of my earliest youth. No ox stood placid and wise to watch over me. Instead, I watched over myself and my child. These forgotten grave-meadows were safely outside the purview of the several gods who had made themselves so dangerous to me. Nothing here but ghosts, dwindling gently with the slow passage of years as we all must do.
The grave nearest me offered a smidgen of shadow, but Ilona had said the old king who lay there rested uneasy. It was not so good to place myself close under his touch. A shame, too; his grave was pretty enough. The sepulcher had been dug back into the hill, so that only the face stood clear. That visible portion of the monument boasted a cladding of red stone, carven into small pillars and a carved entablature. The elaborate frieze had long since worn to a tale of shapeless heroism among faceless warriors. Brass and bronze banded the pillars, and served as tarnished ornaments to the tiny stoa. The grave was a miniature of a classical Smagadine temple, rendered through the imagination of some Stone Coast mason who’d likely never even sailed as far as Lost Port.
An idea of a memory of someone else’s history. Just as with my own life, from my happy beginnings down all the years since. But also as with my life, in a curious manner all the disparate elements and desperate divisions came together to form something greater than could be inferred from the constituent parts. In the case of this grave, the harlequin whole of the architectural truth served to hold a dead man and his unquiet ghost. The mound that rose behind the facing was pretty, a gentle swale of turf dotted with tiny, wound-pink flowers.
But unquiet. So unquiet.
The ghosts whispered when you walked among them if you had ears to listen. Ilona had suggested that as I had been god-touched, my hearing was plenty sharp for what was needful here. I’d certainly had my share of arguments with the divine, from the Lily Goddess to Blackblood to Endurance himself.
My god. The one I’d created.
That thought still had the power to stagger me, months later here in my exile.
I wandered along the slopes. Yarrow hissed against my calves. Clover crushed beneath my feet added a sharp rush of bruised green to the already-heavy scent of flowers. Smaller, less forward blossoms peeked eye-bright from among the larger stalks.
And through it all, the graves. Some little more than hummocks of grass, covered in brambles or roses or stranger things, depending on the will of the original mourners and perhaps the sensibilities of the ghost lurking within. Others were more elaborate, such as the final home of the redstone king I’d just left behind. Certain of their fellows were merely collapsed hollows—dents in the earth where I could lay myself down and walk awhile among the strange dreams of the lords of the dead past.
Each carried a whispering voice. Certain of them spoke like wasps under a distant eave: barely a buzzing whine, hints of meaning concealed within the cycling tonality. More resembled chatter after a temple service. Arguments, bargaining, the rhythm of a joke being recounted; the sense still not quite fully formed to my ear.
A few were awake, aware. Some called my name with voices as forceful as life.
“Come here, girl.”
“You dare too much.”
“You do not risk enough.”
Still, they were merely ghosts. Like so many of life’s oppressions, the power of such clinging souls is only that granted by the victim. I had already faced worse than any of these would ever wield against me.
“Sleep,” I called, invoking the formulation that Ilona had taught me. “Sleep, and rest upon your beds of dreams.”
I had no idea if that phrase eased the ghosts, but my use of it seemed to ease Ilona. That was good enough for me. I picked a careful path down toward the stand of dogwoods that marked the lower boundary of this high grave-meadow. These High Hills possessed a view that on a sharp-aired day might contain Copper Downs itself. As ever, I prayed that no one in Copper Downs could see me here.
* * *
Ilona’s cottage crouched among the untended apple orchards like a rabbit in a cornfield. More of a cabin, in truth, it was a compact structure of sturdy logs caulked with clay and covered in a neutral gray stucco, topped with a slate roof. The first time I’d come here, I’d been half dead in my flight from the war camp of the late Federo. Ilona had nursed me back to health and sent me onward without ever revealing her name, let alone much else. When my business in Copper Downs had concluded as much as it was likely to at the time—given an overabundance of fatalities and a shortage of competent governance—I’d traveled back to this place in hopes of a welcoming hearth.
Today Ilona met me at the door, wearing the orange dress of hers that I loved so. I never was able to disguise my interest in that dress, and the way she filled it out. This was well enough. We had not become lovers as I had hoped, but we had become very good friends indeed in the five months I’d stayed here with Ilona and her daughter, Corinthia Anastasia. Given my ragged hair and the scars I’d carved into myself to seam my cheeks and notch my ears, I knew that I was not one to tempt a woman close simply for the sake of my beauty. Still, I never stopped hoping that the fires within my heart might light her path toward me.
Perhaps it did not matter in any case. For the first time since my days with Samma in the aspirants’ dormitory back in Kalimpura, someone cared to watch over me while I slept. And I felt safe enough to allow it. Such a rare trust at any time in my life then or since, I yet treasure the memory.
Everyone else was afraid of me.
I set that thought aside and accepted Ilona’s swift, welcoming embrace. “Where’s Corinthia Anastasia?” As I spoke, I let my lips almost brush her pale ear lest she had somehow forgotten my interest.
Ilona’s hands tightened on my shoulders. “She’s gone down to harvest onions. The stand along the Little Bright Creek has grown in nicely.”
Nothing up here was more dangerous than me; both Ilona and I knew that. The lynxes prowling these woods would not bother the child. The wolves stayed away from Ilona and any who smelled of her, through some old bargain I did not understand. I was fairly certain the ghosts had something to do with that. Even so, any number of things could happen to a girl wandering alone.
Bandits still roamed the lands Federo had for a time controlled in his incarnation as the nascent god Choybalsan. Most of his army had returned to their fields and farms on disbanding. Some had been burned out of their homes, or turned away for misdeeds and old grudges. A few simply preferred to carry on in predatory packs, knife-armed and ruthless. Most were smart enough to stay away from this part of the High Hills, but not everyone got the word. We’d found that out the hard way twice since I’d come here.
The hard way for them, I should say. I burned the two flames to the souls of each dead man, and made them decent graves in a beech grove far enough from the house that we would never be troubled by their unquiet shades.
That word snuck up sometimes. When it did, it frightened the life out of me. “I’ll check on her,” I told Ilona, my left hand straying to cradle and protect my belly. Too many children had been stolen in my earliest youth. Starting with me.
“Green.” Ilona put a finger to my lips. “The war is passed. You ended it. If my daughter cannot gather onions for a few hours, then our problems are much larger than we know. Let her roam and let her learn.” The older woman grinned. “Besides, she runs fast, and is a fine hand with the boning knife.”
Ever since my previous stay here at the cottage, Corinthia Anastasia had made it her ambition to be a Blade like me. Though I was secretly flattered, I had absolutely refused to teach her anything about the business of violence and intimidation. This of course had not stopped her independent experiments in the matter.
“Fair enough.” I shuddered to think how far I’d run, only a little older than the girl was now. At least Copper Downs had been no nest of child thieves and youth gangs, as Kalimpura was. We tended to other vices here. The idea of Corinthia Anastasia trying her hand at political assassination made me vaguely ill. Yet slaying the Duke had seemed so needful to me at the time.
Another lesson there, I was sure of it, but I was heartily sick of lessons. Even now, I must laugh to admit it has ever been my habit to follow the long path to understanding. Instead I grasped Ilona by the hand and drew her across her own threshold. The overlay of my deep brown skin against her pale ruddiness was a blessing, a pair of contrasting gems, each highlighting the beauty of the other. If only she would see it. “Surely we can find some way to pass the time alone together?”
“Yes. You may chop the potatoes, and I will check how the quail stock is coming.”
I gave off a halfhearted attempt to squeeze her close again and went to look for a knife that was not intended for killing.
* * *
Corinthia Anastasia returned breathless and reeking of onions, with her feet caked in mud, and rain upon her face. “There’s a dark brown man down the hills looking for Green!” the girl shouted as she burst into the small cottage. “I was going to give him a good kicking to, but I ain’t got my knife-toed boots!”
“You don’t own any knife-toed boots,” I said sharply from my place at the table. I was shredding carrots with a too-short, too-safe blade. The nonweapon made my fingers twitch. “And even if you did, your mother wouldn’t let you wear them.”
Ilona abandoned the pot over the fire and knelt close to her daughter. The line of her thigh pulled my eyes, until I looked away again, torn between embarrassment and lust.
“Who is looking for Green?” Ilona demanded, her voice low and fierce. “Did he see you?”
“No, Mama.” Corinthia Anastasia stared at the floor. “I followed the Little Bright all the way to Briarpool hunting onions, and the man was down there talking to the Saronen brothers. I listened from the bushes, which I think maybe Eller Saronen saw me. But maybe not. He didn’t say nothing if he did.”
Ilona’s eyes met mine over her daughter’s head. No accusation glittered in her expression, but this problem was mine, following me into the High Hills. No question. I draw trouble the way a honed edge draws blood—fast and all too easy. I turned to fetch my long knife, the fighting blade I would choose every time over most Stone Coast swords, at least in the hands of most Stone Coast swordsmen. Ill-trained brutes, one and all, in this part of the world. With my long knife and the two short knives, I could bring a swift end to almost anyone’s regrets.
“Wait,” said Ilona in a voice straight from the Factor’s house. We had both been trained there, at the hands of women focused on molding girls into a certain kind of female. Ilona had grown too plump for the role and been cast off, while I had slain my way out some years after her time.
As with so much of my life, that was another memory not bearing close examination, for behind it lay so many deaths. And worse, the broken terror of Mistress Danae, who did sleep among the graves of the High Hills. The horrible fractures in her mind were slowly being replaced with the horrible fractures of stronger wills long dead but yet restless.
Ilona turned back to her daughter. “Describe the man.”
“He was dark, like Green.” Corinthia Anastasia touched her own face, as if the freckled paleness of her skin were in doubt. “Brown skin, brown eyes, black hair. He talked funny.”
“A Selistani?” I blurted. “Here in the High Hills?”
“More than one, I’d say.” Ilona’s voice was dry but loving. “You’re here, after all.”
I collected both my thoughts and my better judgment. At that time, I was still blind enough to believe the Bittern Court was not after me here, protected as I was by the width of the Storm Sea. With equally foolish certainty, I assumed that the Temple of the Silver Lily would not pursue me into the exile they’d laid upon me, either. Not with male agents, in any case. “What did these Saronen brothers tell the searcher?”
Corinthia Anastasia shrugged. “I don’t know. I left after a while.”
Ilona cast her eyes toward me once more. “They will not speak of you,” she said with confidence. “Still, your time of shelter here is nearing an end.”
I touched my growing belly. Within, my daughter stirred. Uneasy, already. Five months I’d spent up here, right into the margins of winter. I’d grown so. I blew out a long, slow breath before replying. “I’d hoped to wait until the baby came.”
“That day is three months away, on the other side of winter yet to come. You barely show even now, and your body has not yet begun forgetting the things it needs to forget in order to learn what it must know for the baby to arrive.”
Despite myself, I bristled. “I can still run and climb.”
“Exactly.” Ilona smiled.
“You’ll always run and climb,” Corinthia Anastasia added with a sturdy loyalty.
“As may be.” Her mother’s voice snapped though her eyes were still merry. “Now wash those onions. And for Green’s sake, keep your eyes and ears open.”
* * *
That evening while I sewed another day’s bell to my silk in the manner of the people of my birth, Ilona sat beside me on the split-log bench outside the little cottage. A starveling moon rode thin-bellied at the bottom of the eastern sky amid ragged, icy clouds. Corinthia Anastasia was already snoring faintly in the wall bed I normally used. The notion of simply sharing Ilona’s cot seemed warmly inviting, but distinctly improbable. That border had not yet been crossed. Perhaps it never would.
Still, our thighs pressed together. Her scent filled my nose—musky, rich, traces of salt and spice and that sweet-sharp honey of a woman with love on her mind. The evening air carried the cutting odor of windfall apples on the rot, overwhelming the host of small changes night brought to the forested hills. Ilona twined my fingers within her own, causing the silk to shiver and chime, but turned her eyes away from me.
“I shall not tell you to leave. But I am certain you will soon need to return to Copper Downs, regardless of either of our intentions.” She sighed. “You cannot bring them so close to the edge of their own disasters, then walk away.”
“Of course I can. That is not my city.” Even I did not believe that. Inasmuch as I had a city, Copper Downs was it. Or so I understood at the time. In my earliest youth, I had been stolen from a rural backwater, where a settlement of a hundred people would have been considered a vast, brooding metropolis teeming with sin and darkness. As to the only other candidate for my city, I’d been banished formally from Kalimpura, Selistan’s capital and home to the temple of the order that had trained and sheltered me. Otherwise, none of the wretched towns and villages I’d visited on either side of the Storm Sea had any claim on the loyalty of my heart.
“You slew their Duke. By some lights, that makes you responsible for them.”
There was nothing wrong with her command of history, but Ilona’s grasp of politics seemed to be lacking. “I was eleven years old. No one sane would have handed me the throne, then or now.”
“That is not my point, as you well know.” Her grip on my hand tightened. The baby stirred within my belly. She moved so much, for such a small thing. “This is not a matter of ruling, this is a matter of repairing what you have broken.”
I glanced downslope in the direction of the beechwood grove and the bandit graves. “That repair is already beyond the work of a lifetime. And I did not inflict the break, only the final blow to what was already rotted. It took the people of Copper Downs four hundred years to dig the hole they find themselves in now.”
She followed the line of my gaze. “You are no bandit yourself, girl.”
Tugging at Ilona’s hand, which suddenly seemed heavy, I brushed the fingers to my lips. All I wanted was to stay here. To love and be loved. To put away my knives and open up my fists and simply cook and clean and live. Quietly.
“I will not go back,” I whispered, trying to swallow the quaver in my voice.
Ilona squeezed my hand once more. “As you will, Green. You are always welcome here.” She stood, the hem of her dress brushing my thigh. “Tomorrow, will you take some food up to Mistress Danae?”
“She will not be approached by me.”
“Perhaps. In any event, you can leave it at one of the sheltered graves up on Lady Ingard’s Hill.”
“You think it good for me to be among the dead,” I muttered. We had discussed this before.
Ilona smiled and swept into her house.
I sat in the wan moonlight awhile. It had paled Ilona’s skin, rendering her nearly into a ghost. My own fine dusky hue simply darkened until I was almost no one at all. Not Selistani, not of the Stone Coast, of neither divinity nor womankind.
Just a shadow girl hidden in a shadow world. As ever, for me, both then and now.
In time, I stretched upon the bench and took my rest. I couldn’t bring myself to displace Corinthia Anastasia. If Ilona had wanted me in her bed, she would have invited me. Still my hips twitched and rolled as I settled in toward sleep. The scent of rotting apples was my lullaby, the night mists my blanket.
* * *
Morning brought a pale sky almost brittle blue. The early sun lifted my fey mood of the previous evening into the autumn air. I shook off the veils of gloomy anticipation that had settled upon me, stretched my aching limbs, and ventured forth among the frosted golden grass to capture a hare for breakfast. They were numerous enough in the meadows above the neglected apple orchards, and slow with the summer fat they had not yet lost to winter’s coming.
Prowling slowly among the late wildflowers, I realized that Ilona had the right of it. Even if no one had come asking after me, I could not stay here in the High Hills. The declining weather would strike a wound in me as deep as any blade might hope to cut. Even the chill coastal fogs of Copper Downs froze and shrank my soul with little more than a graying damp that numbed the fingers. Snow up here would pile eaves-high on the north side of the cottage. The streams froze for months.
This was no place for a child of the sun.
I touched my belly again. Just a bump, not so much more than an overlarge meal might leave me with. Other women showed far greater than I, six months pregnant. Ilona had said I’d probably carry well nearly to the end. I am not a large woman, and was not even quite to my full height at that time, but she placed much faith in the strength of my frame and the fitness of my body.
“Will you grow here and be happy?” I asked my baby. I didn’t know if I meant the High Hills, Copper Downs, or the world at large. And with Septio dead well before her birth, what would my baby miss about her father? I had been raised by and among women, but Papa had been there first, along with my grandmother.
At that moment two hares emerged from a gorse bush. My chase was on. It is a simple enough affair. You close in sufficiently to overtake them; then, when you judge the moment correct, you break right. A hare will randomly break either right or left, but you cannot outthink an animal with little sense of its own. I always break right. Half the time I have my chance, and I never worry overmuch.
So I ran, scooping up a good-sized rock as I did, watching for the twitch of their stride that meant the escape attempt was coming. I broke right with one of my targets, while the other headed left. Short knife in my off hand, I went for him with a swift toss of the stone. I tripped on something in the grass. Still I caught him, but I lost the blade.
Stunned by my throw, my prey managed to kick, clawing my neck and arms, though I kept my face away until I could break his neck in return. I rose, found my weapon glistening in the damp grass, and paced back a few steps to see what had grasped at me from the earth.
Nothing, in truth. Nothing but my own clumsiness.
I patted my abdomen again. “You do me no favors, little girl,” I told the baby. “I cannot feed or protect either of us if you steal my balance away.”
* * *
Once I had returned to the cottage, I dressed the hare in the work area out back. The pelt I left for Corinthia Anastasia to prepare for tanning. The offal I dumped in the cracked clay pot we kept outside against such uses, for later disposal. The prepared carcass I carried inside to place in Ilona’s smaller iron pot with a goodly portion of well water, some of the previous night’s onions, a very generous pinch of salt, and a pair of gnarled carrots that I shredded. As Ilona still slept, or at least rested, I set about making the day’s bread. My earliest lessons with Mistress Tirelle back at the Pomegranate Court had included cookery, and those memories were among the few that I treasured from the years of my enslavement. Dried rosemary and fresh chopped garlic went into the dough along with the leavening, and I worked it just so. The loaf would not rise and bake in time for the breakfast stew, but we would eat well this afternoon, especially with butter or honey.
As I folded the dough back into the crockery bowl to rise, Ilona’s hands snaked around me. I stiffened and almost pushed her off out of sheer reflex before stopping myself. Fool! She hugged me tight, just below my breasts, before pressing her head against my shoulder.
“Much cannot be,” she said, voice muffled.
“Much can never be,” I replied. The moment spun between us like a dropped wine glass. “This is not to despair.” I grasped her forearm with my left hand and squeezed it. If only she would turn me that we might hug or kiss! Still, I didn’t move for fear of upsetting the mood.
“I worry for your child.”
This feeling I understood. Ilona rarely showed me anything save practical strength, but I also knew how she regarded Corinthia Anastasia with a deep and helpless love. The same maternal aspects that drew me to Ilona were brought out in rare force by the prospect of her own daughter.
My own child … Well, a bastard at the least. Neither fully Selistani nor entirely Stone Coast; not with poor lost Septio’s seed long since quickened inside of me. If only I’d understood then what lay ahead.
Despite a lack of invitation, I summoned the nerve to squirm about in Ilona’s arms and take her in the embrace I’d been craving so long. She pressed her body against mine, and we leaned into the kiss, finally.
Then Corinthia Anastasia spilled out of my cupboard bed with a giggle. I broke away from Ilona, my breasts aching, to turn urgently to my bread. A blind man would have known my heat was up from the scent flooding the air.
My would-be lover stroked my hair a moment, before stepping away with a secret smile into her daughter’s needs.
* * *
Ilona frowned. “I think it important that you make an effort to speak with Mistress Danae.”
In truth, I would much rather have spoken with the Dancing Mistress, had she not vanished into the distant country of her kind. Teacher, trainer, friend, sometime lover—I missed her fiercely, especially when I ran through the woods, working my body hard. And I felt little guilt concerning the Dancing Mistress, for everything that had passed between us both good and ill had been wrought equally by the pair of us. Whereas Mistress Danae’s current, broken state was entirely my fault, if not my actual doing.
I had never much minded my dead. Which was fortunate, given their restless numbers. It was the living who had the power to haunt me.
“Yes,” I said, summoning a smile.
The little bundle I would take up onto Lady Ingard’s Hill was nearly complete. The butt of my garlic-rosemary loaf, still hot from the oven, steamed at the top of the pile within. Mistress Danae would quite possibly eat better than I today.
She had been just one of the Factor’s constellation of women, captive to whatever money or penalty or stranger currency of trust the old schemer had used to buy each of them off one by one. She had taught me my letters, and through them much of the history and philosophy of these people who had fathered my child.
I could not imagine spending a lifetime working at the training of unwilling children into pliant women. At my most mercenary, it was obvious to me that teaching anyone to read and think ran directly counter to an expectation of unquestioning obedience. Even beyond the brutal practicalities of educating a hostile student, what of the damage to each teacher’s own soul when they bent an unwilling child to their devices?
As I tied off my bundle, I wondered if I would manage any better with my own daughter. Surely her personality, her needs would run counter to my desires for her. That was the fashion of children everywhere. Whom was I to trust? Whom to believe?
“It must have been difficult, to be Mistress Danae,” said Ilona from behind me.
“Not so difficult as to be the girl under the lash,” I replied with more bitterness than I intended. Ilona had shared my early fate, though her path was different. How could she bear such sympathy for our tormentors?
“You have no idea where she began.” Ilona’s voice was soft but carried a strange edge.
I turned to her, bundle in my hand. “I used to wonder if the training mistresses were failed candidates themselves. But Mistress Tirelle always made such grave threats against me that I could not believe it.”
“You were surely a special case, Green.”
I forced another smile to my face. “Always. But now I must depart, if I wish to be home again prior to sundown. Then I will ready myself to return to Copper Downs before more of those men come finding you up here.”
Ilona leaned forward and kissed my forehead. “That is well enough, dear. You will always be welcome.”
“Save me some bread for tonight, then.”
“Perhaps not that welcome.” Laughing, she saw me off into the day’s weak light. I waved to Corinthia Anastasia, who was weeding in the little garden along the south wall of their cottage. She threw a clod at me by way of response, then bent again to her work.
I headed uphill through the orchards, careful as always not to take the same route twice to minimize any visible trackways.
* * *
Mistress Danae had moved up on to Lady Ingard’s Hill shortly after my arrival at the cottage in the late summer. Ilona reported that she’d been lurking down among the Adamantine Graves before then—all the ridges and upper slopes in this part of the High Hills were dotted with necropoleis—but my presence, even unseen, seemed to have disturbed her.
I’d since watched from a distance as Ilona took food and supplies up to Mistress Danae, and twice had stalked my old teacher for the practice, but the sheer cruelty of that was quickly apparent. She was wounded, frightened, and scarred so deeply that no words or deeds of mine could ever heal her. All I would do was reopen the injuries to her heart and mind. Now, perhaps, I might be wiser and so behave more kindly to my fallen teacher, but I was still very young then.
When I’d brought down the Duke of Copper Downs four years past, all of his powers had unraveled at once, like a storm cloud at dusk. This included the money and spells binding the guards he’d placed on the Factor’s house. I’d been safely away by then, sprinting toward a ship and flight from the erupting chaos in the city. The girls of the other courts and any of their Mistresses who happened to be within the Factor’s bluestone walls were slain by his guards in a rampaging orgy of rape and flame. Of them all, only Mistress Danae had escaped with her life.
The gods had granted her no favor in this.
I wondered if one of the Lily Goddess’ sisters had spared Mistress Danae for some future purpose. Desire, their mother-goddess, watched over women, it was said. Protected was too strong a word, though. Women were so obviously unprotected in this world, unless they stood very close indeed to a divine altar, or ran with the Lily Blades.
Mistress Danae had been protected from nothing, in the end. Not even the elements up here, that I could see, though Ilona said she’d passed the last four winters on these mountaintops. Somehow my former teacher survived. That required more than Ilona’s little packages.
All this on my mind, I climbed the shallow cliff that led to the slopes of Lady Ingard’s Hill. Once long ago a road had wound up this face. Its piers and footings were still somewhat in evidence, though most of the collapsed stonework had long since been hauled off for other purposes elsewhere.
Mistress Danae had climbed this as well. How, I wondered? She had the use of her arms and legs, but the few times I had seen her, the woman had been so visibly confused as to seem trapped senseless within her pain.
I slipped over the crumbling edge into the meadows above. I had no idea who Lady Ingard had been or why this was her hill; my extensive history lessons in the Factor’s house had not once concerned the ancient graves of the High Hills. The usual scattering of turved mounds and little stone death-houses covered this whole area. A squat tower rose near the ridge of the hill, half a mile’s walk upslope from me, like the king on a chessboard.
Ilona had left her gifts for Mistress Danae there before. It was the only real building up here, as most of the graves were either sealed or shattered. The tower stood roofless and doorless so in the winter it would likely be even more miserable than the leeward shelter of one of the mausoleums.
I headed upward in long, ambling switchbacks across the slope. The air was clear and sharp, as if it had abided upon some higher, colder mountain before blessing my lungs. Grasses nodded in the wind. The fat red bees also did their patient work here. I startled up quail, rock doves, and swift little green snakes as I strode among the graves.
As always, those were interesting in their own right. Much like the miniature Smagadine temple I’d noted the day before, these mausoleums, monuments, and cenotaphs constituted a condensed history of architecture and ornamentation of Copper Downs. Several sported tiled domes of a style that were almost certainly imported from Selistan somewhere down the long ages. That lent a flush of pride to my sunstruck southern heart.
Very few of the graves were marked to tell who lay within. This seemed odd to me—most cemeteries I knew of featured little biographies of their inmates, as if knowing the year a baby had died would make the child more real to a passerby of a later generation.
Markings or not, these graves were decorated in a manner that had clearly once been lavish. Jewels and metal chasings had for the most part vanished uncounted generations past. Carvings remained. Details. Images cast in tile, or painted underneath a sheltering roof. That a person was buried here at all stated “I am wealthy” in the manner of distant Copper Downs long before the rise of the Dukes. These graves dated from the time of Kingdoms, and some from the Years of Brass prior to that, when the mines beneath the city were active and stranger things had walked the streets than did today.
At least for the most part, given that Skinless and Mother Iron inhabited the city now.
Wordless, the graves still offered their tales. This one featured small bat-winged children, like demon messengers, with a hint of torment on each tiny, wind-worn face. That one’s pilasters were bundles of sheaves, wrapped in vines, as if the dead had been overlords of some great swath of farms or vineyards. In this manner, each crypt told its silent story. Some were little more than threadbare memories; others shouted from beyond death’s veil.
The whispers I ignored. I was not here to treat with ghosts. Nothing of my experience with the Factor after his death lent me any desire to pursue their fickle company.
I paused a few dozen yards from the battered tower. Up close, the structure looked as if it might at one time have been besieged. Why anyone would invest a grave site with force of arms was beyond me, but fire scars surrounded the narrow tunnel of the door, while shallow dents in the stonework testified to the impact of projectiles hurled in blunt anger. Nowadays moss and tiny grasses grew in those hollows, a scattering of eye-blue flowers lending them a melancholy air. The top was eroding, only a third of the crenellations remaining. The remainder of the circle of stone dipped like a dancer beneath her partner’s arms.
“Mistress Danae,” I called in a gentle but carrying voice. My judgment was that it would not be meet to shout, either for the dignity of the place or for the sake of her fragile mind. “Green is here.” I took a deep breath and uttered a word I’d long ago sworn away amid blood, pain, and murder. “Emerald. You knew me as Emerald. Of the Pomegranate Court.”
I received no answer but the wind, which took little note of my name—either of my names. A bird trilled nearby. Clouds sighed slowly across the sky, dragging their shadows behind them here upon the ground. Flowers and seed-heavy grass stalks nodded. In time, I tried again with cupped hands and raised voice. “This is Emerald, Mistress Danae. I am here. Ilona sent me.”
Then I picked up my bundle and trudged to the tower’s broken entrance. I could leave the food in the shadows within the shattered door, look about for any sign of her as news to bring to Ilona. After that I would be free to return to the necessities of my life, those violences and demands that I’d had no business bringing into these High Hills and laying upon my hostess’ quiet hearth.
* * *
The tower’s interior was a domain of bats and spiders. Something occluded the open roof above, though my eyes could not make out what within the shadows. A crosswork of sticks and branches, up here so far from the trees? The dirt floor was scuffed and tamped down, confirming Mistress Danae’s at least occasional presence.
I had bent to lay the bundle just inside the door when I realized the floor was not dirt, but rather soil scattered over stone. Washed in by generations of rain, spread by the tracks of animals, and finally carried upon the feet of this broken woman I sought.
Tracing my fingers through the layer of grime, I found marble beneath. Of course this was a tomb—everything was in the grave-meadows of the High Hills—but instead of a mound or a mausoleum, whoever was buried here had caused a tower to be built in his name. This left no doubt that he was a man.
“Erio,” croaked a voice in the inner darkness. I jumped so hard I banged my shoulder against the rocky jamb of the doorway.
“Erio?” I slipped my long knife free from my thigh scabbard.
“That is who abides here.” The voice …
“Mistress Danae,” I gasped, fears of ghosts slipping from me with an overwhelming sense of having simply been silly.
“She has died.”
My eyes were already adjusting to the shadows within. A small, pale figure huddled bent-limbed and askew not four yards from me, at the back wall of the tower, surrounded with lumpy mounds of scavenged belongings.
“Ilona sends food, and needful things. Stockings for your feet at night, and a small comb.” After a moment I added with a shyness that surprised me, “I baked the bread for you.”
Some insect whined close to my ear for a moment before she replied. “Danae is dead.”
“I-I’m sorry to hear that.” I didn’t know what more to say. My failure of words shamed me. I could not thank this woman, or apologize to her, or heal her in any way. A gulf opened in my heart then, as I realized once again that some wounds were too deep to treat. “Mistress Danae was kind to me when I was young.”
Her voice flashed, the broken, growling quaver momentarily fading to return me to afternoons in the still air bent over the classics of the city’s literature. “You are still young.”
And you will never be young again, I thought, but halted the words before they passed my lips. Thus is the foolishness of youth, to think such things, as if I would be immune to the ravages of time. As yet uneducated by the years, I bent down to lay the bundle on a piece of broken masonry. “Whoever you are, take this offering in peace.”
“None of it is mine.”
That was almost an aphorism from Alimander’s Booke of Thought, which she and I had spent several weeks studying. “Nothing belongs to any of us but the breath in our lungs,” I replied, quoting the ancient philosopher back to her.
This was an old game, and it must have caught at some corner of her memories of herself. “If we do not hunt, we do not kill.”
I supplied the next line of that quatrain. “If we do not kill, we do not eat.”
“If we do not eat, we do not live,” she answered.
The closing line was “If we do not live to hunt, why do we live?”
“I don’t know, girl,” Danae said. “I do not know why we live.” That was when I knew beyond doubt that she was my old mistress of letters, and that, furthermore, she knew exactly who I was.
“I am so very sorry,” I whispered. My eyes stung with unshed bitterness. But for my deeds, she would still be hale and whole. “I lit the white candle and the black for everyone I could name within the walls of the Factor’s house, and also more for those whose shades were beyond my knowing.”
She made no answer. I waited, as the bright meadow at my back came further alive with the morning. The eddying breeze brought a grassy smell to war with the rotting funk of Mistress Danae’s lair, while some troupe of insects began a cycling, buzzing hum.
Eventually, I turned to step into the sunlight.
I paused, unwilling to face her again. Mistress Danae did not need my sharp gaze when trying to draw her own words forth. Instead I stared down across the shoulder of the meadow at the rucked-up forest of the lower slopes. A flock of birds—starlings?—circled above a towering oak, as if something moved beneath. A haze of mist lay in the valleys farther below. Somewhere out of my line of sight Briarpool glimmered, and the Greenbriar River, which eventually spilled into the sea just west of Copper Downs. All through those woods and hills were mossy walls, stretches of paved trackway, tumbled towers. What was now almost a wildland had once been a daughter city of my adopted home.
I could see the sweep of the land, the benison of history given over once more to the wilderness. Whatever impulse or power had drawn the people of Copper Downs north into these High Hills had long since released them back to the chilly margins of the coast. The wonder of the struggle between the Dancing Mistress’ fading people and the power of the old Duke was that it had not prevailed over a much deeper time.
Or perhaps it had done so. Were humans driven from this land by pardines, some years after the grave builders had given up on their hilltop refuges?
My thoughts brought me back to where I stood, facing away from a woman who could not speak to me but had something she needed to say. I was not expected to answer her, that much was clear. Knowing this would take some time, I settled into a more comfortable crouch to ease a twinge in my back. This allowed me to remain faced three-quarters away from her while keeping her at the edge of my sight.
I did not fear attack. No matter how feral or desperate Mistress Danae might be, that slight, bookish woman could not overpower me. Rather, I wanted to see what she would do.
My patience was rewarded as she eased out into the middle of the tower floor. She was not hiding her movements from me, I think, so much as from herself. I closed my left eye to block the greater part of the sun, and cocked my head slightly to bring my right into shadow where I could see her better without quite watching her.
At the pace of a flower opening, Mistress Danae shifted her bundles of rotting straw and cloth and began to sweep the dirt on the floor with her left forearm. She was making a place at the center of the little round room. If the tower truly was a grave marker, that was most likely the occupant’s resting place.
Was he one of the uneasy dead with whom Ilona spoke? My hostess and protector had a secret life among the graves of which she would sometimes hint in fragments, but had never shared directly. For my own part, I had too many dead of my own to want to open congress with that world.
That was the word she had first whispered to me. “Erio” must be the name of whoever slept away the centuries here.
Eventually she cleared a spot about the size of a coffin lid. Marble gleamed faintly in the shadows, the stone catching the sunlight from my doorway. I watched sidelong as Danae polished the exposed stone for a while. When her voice cracked to life again, though almost an hour had passed, it seemed no surprise. “Erio wishes to speak with you.”
One hand patted the empty spot.
I knew what happened to those who slept among the graves. Besides Mistress Danae, Ilona was the only permanent resident up here. She acted as a sort of guardian, though these dead seemed quite capable of maintaining themselves. Others came and went, I had been told, seeking the wisdoms of the past by taking a night or two or ten among the graves, until the whispering ghosts drove them out again.
What no one ever seemed to understand about the past was that the people who lived there were just as petty and thoughtless and misinformed as those today. The dead had only the advantage of the veil of years to make them seem noble and wise.
Still, this was why Ilona had sent me up these hills one last time before I made to take my leave of her. To learn what might be here for me to learn.
Moving very slowly, though nowhere near Danae’s creeping pace, I stretched to my feet and sidled once more into her shadows. I was careful not to turn head-on, but rather kept myself sideways to her. That seemed to alarm my old mistress less. At the cleared spot, I lowered myself to the marble and stretched out as if for a nap. The stone was far colder than I had expected. I rolled to one side and placed my ear against the ground.
From outside, the autumnal insect hum built louder. Winter lurked already in this patch of ground to which I had pressed my face. Though I had not seen them in the dim light of the tower’s interior, I could feel incised letters against my cheek.
Mistress Danae’s hand brushed my ankle, only for a moment; then she scuttled back to her resting place with a speed that must have felt blinding in her silent, years-long stupor. I closed my eyes and let the dank quiet of the tower wrap me. Already the noises and scents of the day outside seemed to be fading. It was as if I had taken ship, and the meadow was a receding shoreline.
“Why do you tarry here, little foreign girl?”
The male voice was so close, so normal, that I startled. My muscles twitched as my free hand brushed the hilt of my long knife. Mistress Danae squeaked some small, animal terror, but did not flee.
“I was bid to lie down in this place.” As I spoke, my lips brushed against the slab of the grave. I felt foolish.
“You are needed in your city.”
A man, definitely. Speaking the Petraean of Copper Downs with a curious accent, but clear enough. He sounded old, tired, and distracted. Or perhaps bored. Surely death was the most uninteresting part of life?
I denied Copper Downs again. “It is not my city.”
“You who birthed a god and slew one on the streets?” He laughed, though the sound of it was airless and frightening. “You have made the city your own, and the city has made you into its own.”
“No,” I told him, kissing his grave with every word. “Your people stole me away. I gave myself back to myself.”
“You will learn. All you have worked for is in the balance once again.”
“All I have worked for is ever in the balance,” I protested. “There is no going back, no setting things to rights. Not the way people play at politics. I will not be the fulcrum on which the fate of Copper Downs rests.” It occurred to me to wonder why I was arguing this point with a ghost.
“You do not carry the seeds of choice.”
No, I carry another seed. How deeply did this ghost-Erio see? How deeply did he spar with me? “The choices are always mine.”
His tone grew more plaintive. “Go. Please. I speak as a king of old begging one of the queens of latter days. Return and see what they are making in your absence. Set things to rights. I fear for our city.”
My blood curdled. “I am no queen, and never would be one.”
“Go.” Now his voice was hollow, lost, more like the whispers I’d learned to ignore while walking among the graves. “Go, go, go, go…”
A cold silence followed.
“Erio is the strongest of them,” Mistress Danae finally said, though it took me a moment to recognize that it was she who had spoken.
I sat up slowly and looked toward her shadowed face. “Is that why you live here?”
“I would rather borrow his purpose than have none at all.”
Those words wrenched at my heart, but I had nothing else to offer her, so I rose and stepped back into the world of daylight.
All the way down through the meadow the graves called to me, some pleading, others crying, as if Erio’s spirit yet clung to me and drew them forth in their broken numbers. Mistress Danae was no different from these, except for the accident of breath still in her lungs.
I prayed that when I died the Wheel would swiftly take me up and pass me onward. Their fate seemed immeasurably sad.
* * *
Scrambling down the cliff from Lady Ingard’s Hill, I fell almost two body lengths. I knew how to take such a drop, and managed to protect the baby, though I wrenched my left shoulder doing it, and surely collected some bruises. I might not yet be showing much of my pregnancy to the casual eye, but my balance was clumsier than ever it had been. Ilona had already let out my leathers once, which embarrassed me to no end, even just between the two of us.
The Dancing Mistress would have known what to do. For a moment I mourned my absent teacher and friend; then I limped down through the woods and into the apple orchard, careful as always to make no path where I could help it.
Approaching Ilona’s cottage, I heard adult voices. Living voices. That put me very much in mind of Corinthia Anastasia’s report of someone searching for me down at Briarpool. I crouched lower, moving now as I might have running with Mother Shesturi’s handle. Blade training was never far from my mind; though I had been lazy enough in my months up here, I still maintained my form. Even with my poor balance and aching shoulder.
I drifted into a stand of brambles that would afford me a view of the house. A dark-haired man stood in the open doorway, his back to me. I could hear Ilona’s voice from within. Her tone did not sound panicked or afraid, though the rise and fall of argument was clear enough. And the visitor’s accent held the familiar rhythms of Seliu. The searcher from Briarpool was here! Carefully I scanned for guards, for watchers, for reinforcements.
Had this one come alone?
From the tenor of the conversation, their contention seemed likely to continue, so I slipped to my left and carefully circled the house from about a dozen rods into the trees. I would have to cross the gardens outside the south wall, or considerably widen my arc of travel, but otherwise I could flush out whatever wards the visitor had set. It was the work of twenty minutes or so to creep full circle. I found nothing except a fox and a few angry jays bickering amid the fall corn.
Now was time to face whatever hunted for me. While I was skulking in the woods, the intruder had gained access to the interior of the cottage. Not gone, certainly, for I would have marked his departure, but Ilona had admitted him within. Or she had been forced.
Abandoning caution, I sprinted for the door and burst through, short knife held low in my right hand. Ilona jumped up from the kitchen table, dropping her second-best crockery bowl to shatter in a shower of beans on the flagstone floor, while Chowdry stood to meet my attack.
I turned my blade in to the wood, unable to stop from slamming bodily into my old friend and sending him flying across the table. Grabbing the edge to right myself, I gasped several short, sharp breaths to regain my usual calm.
“What in the name of the Wheel are you doing here?” I shouted in Seliu.
Chowdry picked himself up and wiped beans from his hand and arms. He bled from several cuts. Ilona rose to stand beside him, her skin flushed. My heart missed several beats at the fear and panic in her face, though she smoothed her expression swiftly enough. He was looking for you, Green,” she said slowly, picking up my meaning without understanding the language.
“Endurance asks for you,” Chowdry said by explanation, answering in Petraean for the sake of politeness.
Onetime sailor, cook, and reluctant pirate—or at least coastal raider—I had left this man in charge of the cult I had accidentally founded in the process of bringing down the bandit god Choybalsan. Many prices were paid that day. One of them was that I had made this man who he was. How dare he come to fetch me?
“I do not answer to you,” I snapped.
“And you are not answering to the god either,” Chowdry replied mildly. “But he asks for you anyway. Your work in Copper Downs is in danger.”
“That is the second time I have been told this thing today,” I muttered. “It is not my city, and there are tens of thousands living there. Surely someone among them can step forward.”
“You sulk, Green,” Ilona said mildly in her most maternal voice, as if chastising Corinthia Anastasia. “It is unbecoming.”
I whirled away from both of them to regain my composure. “S-sorry about the bowl,” I told the fireplace.
Chowdry touched my shoulder, a brief gesture of comfort or camaraderie. “I know how you are,” he said in Seliu. “I was wrong not to wait outside where you could see and hear me.”
“You don’t assassinate someone for the sake of a bowl of beans and a conversation,” Ilona added, though I knew she had not taken the meaning of Chowdry’s words.
“I have killed for less,” I said in my smallest voice, and screwed my eyes shut against the tears. My breath shuddered in my chest, and I was shamed that the two of them could hear it. When I turned back, the compassion in their faces stung me even more. “Why did you come up for me, Chowdry? Your man at Briarpool was already looking.”
He glanced sidelong at Ilona before answering. “I am not knowing of Briarpool. I am sending only me. I knew you would listen to no one. You never do. Especially not me. But I can be arguing with you. Anyone else is too frightened.”
Ashamed all over again, I leaned forward and snatched my short knife from the tabletop. I was not a difficult woman! “If you were not frightened, you weren’t paying attention. And who was looking for me at Briarpool?”
“More Selistani have arrived in Copper Downs from across the sea. Kalimpuri high-noses with their city ways, wearing their money as if it was being power. They prepare for someone greater. I do not yet know who.”
I was momentarily distracted by the political issue that implied. The number of Selistani back in Kalimpura who spoke Petraean was quite small. Who was coming, with the power to scour the merchant families and counting houses for those people? Not Mother Vajpai, or anyone from the Temple of the Silver Lily. Wealth and influence we—they—had. But not sufficient to compel unwilling persons on an adventure across the Storm Sea. Our writ was mighty, but definitely limited to the bounds of Kalimpura’s city walls.
Oh, how much I later paid for lacking sufficient foresight then.
“It is time for me to leave here.” I nodded at Ilona. “If such people are seeking me, I cannot stay. But I resent being pushed into the service of the city once more.”
“There is no pushing here,” Chowdry said. “All I am asking is that you come to speak to Endurance.”
“The god is mute,” I gently pointed out. I had made him so myself.
“The god is wordless. He still has much to say at times.” The pirate-priest smiled. “Born of your deeds, how could he be otherwise?”
I had to laugh at that. To my immense relief, Ilona chose to laugh with me. We bent to cleaning the scattered slops and ceramic fragments, while I furiously wondered what was so bad that both the god Endurance and the ghosts of the High Hills should care that it be me who stepped into it.
Copyright © 2011 by Joseph E. Lake, Jr.