Read an Excerpt
The Winged Histories
By Sofia Samatar
Small Beer Press Copyright © 2016 Sofia Samatar
All rights reserved.
The swordmaiden will discover the secrets of men. She will discover that men at war are not as men at peace. She will discover an unforeseen comradeship. Take care: this comradeship is a Dueman shield. It does not extend all the way to the ground.
The swordmaiden will discover her secret forebears. Maris the Crooked fought for Keliathu in the War of the Tongues. Wounded and left with the high-piled dead, she was rescued before the pyre was lit by the man who most despised her: her second lieutenant, Farod. "Farod," she said to him, "what have you done?" And he answered: "Do not thank me, General. I am like a man who has preserved his enemy's coin; and I am like a man who, having seen his enemy safely submerged among crocodiles, has drawn him out again."
The swordmaiden will discover that her forebears are few. There was Maris, and there was Galaron of Nain, and there was the False Countess of Kestenya.
The swordmaiden will hear rumors of others, but she will not find them.
Her greatest battle will be waged against oblivion.
— Ferelanyi of Bream, The Swordmaiden's Codex
I became a swordmaiden in the Brogyar war, among the mountains.
I was fifteen when I went there to school. Fifteen, and a runaway. The old coach swayed, the pink light of the lantern bounced against the mountainside, and I sat with my hands clenched in embroidered gloves. My furs were cold. I made Fulmia stop the carriage at the officers' hall so that I could give them my letter. This hall had once been a temple of Avalei; now fires burned among its smoke-stained pillars, and battered shields lay stacked up in the porch. Nirai stood in the doorway and cried in the wind: "What news from the Valley?" Then he peered closer and started. "It's all right," I said. "I have a letter from the duke." Inside they were all there, Uncle Gishas, Prince Ruaf, and others. They passed my letter around the great stone table.
Sparks flew in the wind; an orderly tossed a branch of pine on one of the fires. High above, shadow-faces grimaced from a frieze.
"The other rooms have crumbled," Uncle Gishas said. "Inside the hill." He pinched my chin with bare cold fingers protruding from his glove.
"Forgive an old man," he said, and they brought hot wine stewed with raspberries and I sipped it slowly and watched the candle flames torn by the wind.
"Well, Lady Tavis," Prince Ruaf said. "Are you pleased? You are the first woman to have tasted camp wine since the days of Ferelanyi."
Such cold wind, such heat from the thick sweet wine and from the fires, such elation and bitterness, such a vastness of stone. They believed my letter, every word. I took it as a sign. At last I lay down on a pile of skins and blankets in front of the altar.
"Sleep, my lady," Fulmia said. He lay down near my feet and began to snore. The others were talking, fires danced, orderlies walked by. I thought of the school and what it might be like and how soon I would die and how it would feel, but these thoughts made me more excited and more awake. So I began to think of horses. It had become a habit of mine after leaving home and had never failed to soothe me to sleep. I began with the first one, Nusha the black pony, feeding her in the dark and the blue doorway and holding the lantern up and afraid of her teeth. That would be in the early morning, the season of sour apples. After Nusha I thought of Meis although she was only a carriage horse. I realized that I had forgotten Felios and went back for him, my uncle's dusty farm, the smoking stove, the tents by the road. In the midst of apparent disorder, the horse: slant-eyed like a fox, disdainful, his mane full of ribbons. I went on counting horses but did not want to think about Tuik, and while trying not to think about him I thought of the Angel Horse, and how Nenya said she had seen it coming down to drink from the fountain at dawn. We made her call us early and crept out to the cold terrace in our furs and peered between the branches of the rose tree. Siski bit a rosebud off and chewed it to prove she could — she had once eaten candied rose petals at Grandmother's house in the north. But we never saw the Angel Horse, nor did we see the Snow Horses that came down every winter to graze on the plain. Where they passed they left the snow. Sometimes there were stampedes, the whole world blanketed in the morning with their whiteness. At other times they passed lazily and gracefully and nuzzled the trees. Nenya threatened sometimes to send us away with the Bad-Luck Horses. Look Taviye, the Snow Horses have come. Frost on the window, the sound of servants stoking the chilly fires, and next door Malino in his cloth cap.
The school perched on the mountain above the officers' hall, a great honeycomb of stone that had once held the nessenhu, the domain of Avalei's women. From the ledge you could look down on the ancient temple and the statue of Avalei that had fallen and lay awkwardly on the roof. One arm was broken, the other raised and holding a shattered vulture. The goddess looked embarrassed, as if hiding behind her arm. On a clear day you could see the smoke from the villages far below and we would sit chewing on our knuckles and dreaming of pears. That was after we had passed to the second grade, after we had slaughtered the herd of screaming pigs in the inner courtyard. In the first grade we never sat outside, we ran in the outer court and washed the clothes and cooked and scrubbed the floors. And Nirai pulled me aside one day and said: "Your aunt is here." I stood up, holding a dripping rag. My breath roared in my ears. "Go to your room and make yourself presentable," he said, irritable. "She's waiting in the officers' hall."
Of course she had come herself. I had not expected it — I had thought she would send Uncle Fenya — but once I realized she was there I saw that it was right. It was perfectly right that Aunt Mardith should come herself. She had set out from Faluidhen before dawn; they must have changed horses at Noi. Now, just at dusk, she sat before the fire in the officers' hall. The whole room looked guilty: someone had cleared the omi cards from the table. As I came in, a noisy clinking erupted in the far corner of the room, where Uncle Gishas was shoving some bottles out of sight.
"Well, Cousin Tavis," he cried, giving the pile a last hurried kick, "you have a most illustrious visitor. Some wine, Aunt?" he asked Aunt Mardith. "We've nothing too fine to offer — not what you're used to — but a warm glass, at the end of a journey —"
"No," Aunt Mardith said.
Uncle Fenya sat beside her, gloomily twisting his gloves in his hands. He half stood, as if intending to embrace me, and then sat down.
"Well," said Uncle Gishas.
"Gishas," Aunt Mardith said, in the special tone she reserved for inferior branches of the family, "you may go."
She waited for him to go out. Her eyes glittered. She wore a gray cloak trimmed with white squirrel fur. Her hood thrown back, her hair in place, she was like a pillar of snow. "May Leilin curse and cripple you," she said.
"Oh, Aunt," said Uncle Fenya.
I tensed my legs to stop their shaking and gripped Ferelanyi's book close to my chest. The Swordmaiden's Codex. I had brought it with me as an anchor, and it anchored me: I stood motionless. Aunt Mardith, too, was perfectly still.
"If I understand matters correctly, you spent less than a fortnight in the capital, where you had been sent, at no little expense, to stay with your uncle the duke. The idea was to introduce you to the best society — though I hardly consider Bainish society to be of the best. In Bain — and please correct me if I am mistaken in the details — you forged a letter of application to this school, signed your Uncle Veda's name, and stole his seal to complete the trick. You then lied to your manservant and induced him to drive you here. You have practiced a deception not only upon your family and your servant, but upon the staff of this school and indeed the entire Olondrian military. You have now spent three weeks in the company of soldiers, chaperoned by none but an aging manservant. Am I correct?"
"Yes," I said, louder.
"Fenya. Strike her."
"Oh, Aunt, really," Uncle Fenya cried, staring.
"Do as I say."
"I'll defend myself," I said.
"For the love of peace!" exclaimed Uncle Fenya. "We're not going to start sparring with one another, surely?"
He stood and shuffled toward me. When he reached for my shoulder, I flinched, but he was only patting me. "There, there," he said. He reeked of ous. His eyes watered; the bags under them were swollen. "There, there, now," he said, "it's all right, we're just going to take you home."
He turned to Aunt Mardith. "Isn't that right, eh, Aunt? We'll take her home and forget all about it. Why, it's no worse than the escapades Firvaud used to get up to! Stealing all the pencils — you remember that, Aunt, don't you?" He turned to me. "She stole all the pencils once. Our governess was in tears!"
"Fenya, if you are going to be useless, sit down."
"I only meant to say, now that we're taking her home — why, everything will be forgotten. I'll buy her a gown myself. You'd like that, wouldn't you, Tavis? A gown in the latest shade — butterfly's heart, I believe they're calling it. We might even have them put a pattern of shields on it — eh?" He chuckled, beads of excess spittle at the corners of his mouth. "That's often how fashions get started. You'll be our little swordmaiden, with shields all over your gown. A red gown! Pretty as a sunrise!"
"I won't go," I said.
"Oh, come —" he began.
"No?" said Aunt Mardith. Her eyes two flawless mirrors of black ice. "Look at your niece, Fenya," she said. "Defiant still. She does not appreciate our kindness, our willingness to take her back."
"You call it kindness?"
"Quiet," she said. She never raised her voice. "If you come with me, Tavis, you must not expect new gowns. You must expect a year of seclusion — enough, perhaps, for the world to forget that you have lived with soldiers. That you are irrevocably damaged."
"Oh," Uncle Fenya said, "not —"
"I'm not at all damaged," I said. "I'm like Ferelanyi."
I held the book toward her, hating myself for trembling. She rose and took it. She was so upright, despite her age — taller than me. She glanced at the stamp in the book. "Ah. Stolen from your uncle's library."
"Yes, but —"
"The swordmaiden," she read, "will discover the secrets of men."
She looked up. For one breathless moment she met my eyes. A moment that seemed to hold everything: war and passion and Faluidhen and snow. Then she flung the book into the hottest part of the fire.
I bruised my knees on the stone floor, scorched my hands in the flames. Uncle Fenya pulled me back. Aunt Mardith stood above us, brushing her fingers on her cloak. I shouted that I would not come home, and she told me her offer would not come again: she had only come to see me for my mother's sake. If I refused her, I would take the path I had chosen: I would finish my studies and join the army like the other students. "That's what I want!" I screamed. I was on my back, Uncle Fenya trying to cradle my head, hopelessly in the way. Aunt Mardith loomed above us, the long sweep of her traveling cloak hiding her feet like a bank of fog. She advances by weight, I thought, like a glacier. She said I would have what I wanted. She said it would make my mother suffer. She hoped I would die in the mountains. To her, I was already dead.
"If I'm already dead then why did you burn my book?" I was on my knees now, sobbing. The book a black architecture in the fire.
I did not realize then what I learned soon afterward: that I could recall the entire Codex, word for word. What Siski called my "prodigious memory for stupid things." Now I think I could tear one leaf from Ferelanyi's book and place it at the head of each chapter of my life. For the mountains, secrets. For Siski, loyalty like a necklace of dead stars. For the desert, blood. For Seren, song.
Aunt Mardith put up her hood. She pulled on her gloves, adjusting each finger. "Come, Fenya. If we leave now, we can break our fast at Faluidhen."
The next day, Master Gobries struck me because I had fallen asleep in my boots. I stood and turned my back to him and lowered my head toward the others. In the frozen air the stroke on the back of my neck was almost loving, opening out like a brush of fire and warming me to the roots of my hair. This is pain, I thought. It was warm and reminded me of the feeling in my tongue and lips after I had eaten Evmeni peppers. Where is the rest of the pain? I thought. I went and joined my line and felt that I was warm and more comfortable than the others.
"You looked like a demon," Vars said to me later, admiringly. "You looked as if you could strangle him with a curtain." And I was astonished because I had not felt the desire to kill him but only wonder, and disappointment because I could not find the pain.
That night there was a celebration for those who were going to Braith and we were invited into the masters' drawing room. A fire blazed on the hearth and we were given teiva and honitha and permitted to argue and organize games in the courtyard. I ate my honith too quickly, the cheese scalded the roof of my mouth. I stood by the wall and watched the clusters of those leaving for Braith. They wore clean scarlet sashes and stood carelessly, a foot propped on the fender or a loose hand waving a pipe. One of them looked at me strangely, suspiciously, and then he realized who I was and smoothed the lines out of his face. I smiled at him. Of course, if Aunt Mardith had come, it meant everything was in the papers, they would have heard of me everywhere. The man looked away from me, stretching his legs. Because of my high rank, he would not shout. He would not stand up and say: "A woman? Here?" He would not even stare at the young soldier he had just recognized as Tavis of Ashenlo, the Telkan's niece.
Outside the night was cold and there were screams where boys were running in the torchlight, a ball skidding across the stones. I went upstairs and down the gloomy hallway, counting the doors to reach my own. Inside it was dark with a smell of boots, there was no one there. I knelt on my bed and opened the shutters. The window was so small that I could barely rest both elbows on the sill. The cold wind blew, the night was immense and silent, and the peaks of snow shone rich as curdled milk under the moon.
Dear Siski, I wrote, I wish I were going to die at Braith. I wrote this inside my swordbox as there was no paper in the room. I thought I would use it later, but when we had passed to the second grade, and they let us write letters for the first time, I no longer wished to die. And by that time it seemed impossible to write to Siski, to come up with answers to her letters crammed with parties and flirtations, and if I wrote to Mother, I knew she would cry. So I wrote to Dasya instead. You should join the army. There's good fun up here.
In the mountains in winter the peaks disappeared in the air, so vast and white that they became part of the sky. We craved warmth like bread, we fought the frozen trees for kindling and at night the hills were dotted with small red lights. It was a foolish way to camp and when the Brogyars came they slid down on us screaming and hurling their heavy axes toward our fires, and we ran and slipped and ran again and turning to fight I saw like a burst of shooting stars a sudden fountain of teeth. They scattered beside me, and there was an axe in the snow and a faceless man. The trees shrank, a blue light shuddered over the snow. The Brogyar was huge, an inarticulate figure of hair and shadow, and it was only his own weight that pushed my sword through his leather armor. He fell heavily and twisted my wrist and the sound of his harsh breathing became mine as I struggled to turn him and free the sword. There were black shapes and red shapes, sudden screaming and wet snow soaking through at my knees, and we were all running toward the gorge. Sparks flew over the snow, we ran like beasts for the thin forest. Kestau turned back for his sword and an axe removed one of his arms. It happened as if on a stage, there was a white expanse and a glow from one of the fires and black blood spouting, and he fell. Someone was screaming in the gorge. A Brogyar rushed to Kestau and knelt to cut his throat, bent over and wrapped in scarves like an old washerwoman. I thought I saw the flash of the knife. And only when they were gone did we find Vars lying in the gorge with a broken leg. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar. Copyright © 2016 Sofia Samatar. Excerpted by permission of Small Beer Press.
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