A faint smile crossed Vasethe’s face. He followed her into the clean room and set his pack down. Although Eris had not noticed, he had also washed the gauze curtains and cushions. The room was perceptibly brighter and smelled of soap.

She fetched a spool of leather cording and wad of black feathers from her bedroom. While Vasethe spoke, she knotted the them together.

He started broad. He described the escalating tensions between Utyl and Rabri Uhm, the rise and fall of empresses, the routing of terrors from Feki Road. He drew a pad of crumpled paper from his pack, and sketched while he spoke, illustrating his stories with rough caricatures and drafts of landscapes.

Her interest in major world events proved secondary to her desire for the particulars; she hungered for the smaller details of ordinary lives. She wanted to know what people valued, their songs and fireside stories, customs, their individual tragedies and triumphs, feelings. Vasethe told her about rain festivals and initiation rituals, the strange superstitions held by inhabitants of the volcanic isles in the far north, self-proclaimed necromancers of the western gambling towns, villages of children. He described the great libraries of Utyl, Kwasa’s famed harbour, the crystal caves of Pol. All the while, he spoke with an insider’s knowledge but never about himself.

Eris completed her feathered ward and set it aside. Her wariness faded by degrees. She offered the occasional contribution of her own, about the nomads who used to occupy Chenash, or about long-dead travellers from Jiksem or Phon who had knocked on her door in years past. She joked about their prowess in bed.

The sun moved across the sky and they migrated to the kitchen. A furrowed wooden table took up most of the space, surrounded by three rickety chairs. Eris opened the door to her pantry and brought out handfuls of peaches and bright peppers. She set them down on the table. Later, when she opened the pantry a second time, Vasethe saw that more had replaced those taken.

While he spoke, she pitted the peaches and basted them in cinnamon, thyme, and pomegranate molasses. Vasethe cut the peppers and scraped away the tiny white seeds. He recounted the intrigue surrounding the assassination of the crown prince of Pol, laying out the factions and rumours. The light fell; Eris lit a candle and roasted the peaches in her oven. When the fruit turned brown, she emptied the oven tray into a single bowl and gave it to Vasethe. She started searing the peppers with a handful of brown grains and cashew nuts.

The dolls’ legs rattled.

Vasethe stopped speaking midsentence. With a soft hiss, the fire inside the stove went out and the kitchen was suddenly quiet and cold. Clack, clack, clack, the wooden legs hit the post.

Eris flowed out of the room, gone in an instant. The candle flame wavered and died.

Vasethe got up and took the skillet off the stovetop. Through the window he could see the wards trembling along the yard’s fence, their clattering loud in the stillness. The moon gleamed above the southern horizon. He leaned over and checked the knife in his boot.

She stood in the middle of the yard, perfectly still, staring out at the saltpan beyond the shadowline. Her back was to Vasethe. He watched her from beneath the deeper shadows of the awning.

As before, it appeared without warning. Much closer this time, only a few paces from the line. The creature’s eyes were the colour of old milk left in the sun. It gazed unblinkingly at Eris.

A moment later Vasethe saw the second creature, farther off, trailing its brother.

The moon rose. Like a children’s game, no one moved while they were watched. The creatures’ presence radiated through the cold air, keen-edged and contaminated.

Then, as abruptly as they appeared, they were gone. The wards stilled. Vasethe let out a long, slow breath.

A shiver ran across the border keeper’s shoulders, the first movement she had made since the creatures appeared.

“Eris?” Vasethe called.

“Don’t say that name.” Her voice was like the wind over dead leaves.

He stepped out into the moonlight. “Are you . . .”

“Four hundred years. Then you arrive and it starts again.” Eris turned. Her cheeks were wet, and her eyes shone bright and furious. The air crackled with power. “Why?”

He stumbled backwards. “I don’t know.”

She took a step towards him and his knees buckled. Blood trickled from his nose.

“I don’t know,” he gasped. Pressure pounded against his chest in waves; he struggled to speak. “But I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

A moment longer. Then the pressure abated. Vasethe sagged back onto his heels, breathing heavily.

“I will take you to Mkalis.”

There was blood in his mouth. He raised his head to look at her.

“I will find out what you want and who you are and then I will destroy you.”

“I—”

“What was her name, the dead woman you loved?”

He shook his head.

Eris gestured, a quick twist of her wrist, and Vasethe flew backwards. The air left his lungs as he slammed into the ground.

“Her name.”

“You don’t understand.” He coughed, clutching his ribs. Eris walked closer, each footfall a threat.

“But I will. No more lies. Tell me the name of your woman.”

The desert fell quiet; the whole world held its breath.

“Raisha,” Vasethe whispered.

The Border Keeper