The city-state Sirapirat once knew only warmth and monsoon. When the Winter Queen conquered it, she remade the land in her image, turning Sirapirat into a country of snow and unending frost. But an empire is not her only goal. In secret, she seeks the fragments of a mirror whose power will grant her deepest desire.
At her right hand is General Lussadh, who bears a mirror shard in her heart, as loyal to winter as she is plagued by her past as a traitor to her country. Tasked with locating other glass-bearers, she finds one in Nuawa, an insurgent who s forged herself into a weapon that will strike down the queen.
To earn her place in the queen s army, Nuawa must enter a deadly tournament where the losers souls are given in service to winter. To free Sirapirat, she is prepared to make sacrifices: those she loves, herself, and the complicated bond slowly forming between her and Lussadh.
If the splinter of glass in Nuawa's heart doesn't destroy her first.
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The season's last match brings with it a press of audience, the mass and noise of them audible even in the preparation vestibule where silence is meant to be the final word. There's nothing for it, Nuawa supposes, as she tightens the seals on her armor and checks her gun one last time. Everything is oiled, ready.
The gladiator's bell rings. The arena gate lifts slowly, a hum of blindfolds and lion helms, a susurrus of tiger tails and specters. She knows the mechanisms are lubricated well, the ghosts fed a rich diet of incense and candlewicks, but the tournament masters like their theatrics.
She steps into a dome of obsidian glass and agate tiles. It is opaque from inside, transparent from the outside. If she falls, they will hear every last noise: the rattle of her final breath and the wet slap of viscera meeting glass, while she will never see their faces. Their rapt faces, empty-eyed, mesmerized by spectacle. So it goes.
The opposite gate unfurls, dove wings and mandarin petals. For half a moment, she sees nothing at all, then discerns the solid outlines of the muzzles, the light-drinking coat, the sleek knotted limbs. They have sent her leopards to fight.
She hears the whirr of their articulated legs, the scrape of their curse-alloyed claws, and knows they are more than animal. Guided by a human mind, potent with thaumaturgy. She counts: four pairs of jade-dark eyes, four tails like whips.
An instant's calculation for angle and trajectory, and she fires. The leopards are fast, upon her far quicker than any human or natural beast could be. Her bullet ricochet off the dome, piercing a leopard's shadow; its flesh corresponds in a rip of meat, a spray of gore. Her second shot catches another in the haunch, interrupting it mid-pounce.
Her drop to the floor is a fraction too late. Claws screech across the metal of her armor, not penetrating but leaving a slick of concentrated grudges: pain flashes down her vertebrae, bright turquoise synesthetic across her vision. Her gauntleted arm is all that keeps her face from being shredded to cartilage and gore.
She pulls a polynomial from her belt, tearing off its safety with her teeth. An implosive flash, more light than heat, blinds the puppeteer behind those feline eyes. Nuawa uses the pause to gain distance, rolling away, drawing her blade. Her sword's beaked shadows click and clatter, a spread of five today: thanks to the lighting, all far longer than the blade itself or her reach. More than sufficient.
Blade shadows roar as they meet the leopards'. Fur tears; arteries rupture and tendons snap.
Nuawa beheads the animals, for theater and for good measure. Even then she half-expects each to get up for a rematch, but apparently they haven't been witched to work beyond stopped hearts and spilled brains. A ground fog of expended power rises, is quick to dissipate. She wonders what shape the puppeteer is in. Incapacitated, with luck. In agony, she hopes.
Her gate lifts. There is no announcement of her victory, no applause. The Marrow is too refined for that.
Back in the vestibule there are attendants waiting, sent by her manager Tezem. One is moon-dusted, the other with a face painted half white and half green. Both are slim, male, adolescent: the diametric opposite of Nuawa's preferences, Tezem's idea of a joke. When they offer her purifying balm and cleansing ointments, she takes the bottles and jars from them. "I'll go up for a bath." Many of Tezem's duelists enjoy being pampered, with attendants to scrub their backs and lather their hair, oil their limbs and perfume their throats. Nuawa prefers to be left well enough alone.
She steps into an elevator; here no sense of drama interferes with function and so the ghosts are efficient, the ride smooth and fast. From overhead, a portrait of the queen looks down, the royal coiffure as iridescent as borealis light. Winter's visage is everywhere, austere in its gauntness, alien in its sclera the black of frostbitten flesh. Speculations as to the queen's origins run abundant, in euphemism and guarded whispers, and most say she is from the distant isle of Yatpun: a snow-woman from permafrost peaks, sick of the mountain gods' tyranny and determined to be lord and deity of her fate. But Yatpun has been inaccessible for centuries behind its event-horizon wall, and if she is indeed from the island nation, the queen is the sole individual alive certain of that truth.
Nuawa presents her credentials, a chalcedony cube at her wrist, to the toothed locks that guard the Marrow's highest, most exclusive floor.
A low humming and a haze of steam. Yifen is coming out of the bath, toweling her hair dry and unselfconsciously nude. At the sight of Nuawa her eyes brighten, her mouth widening into a grin, openly voracious. "Nuawa! I'm just done cleaning up but I don't think I have gotten all the grime out of my hair. May I join you?"
Nuawa holds up the purification jars. "Only if you want to risk getting curses on you. This was a dirty fight."
"Please, stuff that weak can't begin to touch me." The other duelist widens her eyes, tilting her head, coquettish. "Or have I begun to bore you?"
In truth, a little. She enjoys Yifen's company well enough most times, but while Yifen is a fine lover, her appetites tend to exceed Nuawa's. Still, a good source of information. "If I tire of you, I would be tiring of life." She disrobes and follows Yifen into the bath. There's only one other occupant, a sour-faced, taciturn duelist from abroad; they don't greet or so much as look up, attention fixed on the pane displaying an intake audition. Nuawa takes a look. Duelists at the Marrow go into each match blind, but the auditions give her some idea of new challenges.
Yifen has opened the jars, spooned out ointment, and warmed it between her tattoo-protected palms. She is inked everywhere, inscribed for stamina and luck, for senses beyond the five physical ones; their first time together was an educational experience for Nuawa. "Scouting for a fling?" Yifen asks, following Nuawa's gaze.
"I'd never slight you to your face." On the pane, Nuawa spots two duelists she's fought in other venues. But most of the aspirants are foreign, a few occidentals whose faces and coloring are only slightly less alien than the queen's. "Why so many travelers?"
"You haven't heard? You must mingle more, visit the commoners once in a moon." Yifen lowers her voice as she spreads purifying balm down Nuawa's spine and hips. "We're getting our first tribute game. The winner gets an officer's commission and the queen's general will train them as her very own protégé. Imagine if one of us gets chosen? The first officer ever from Sirapirat."
Despite herself, Nuawa is intrigued. Sirapirat citizens have never been allowed to enlist in the queen's army, let alone rise to an officer. They have to give the queen tribute the same as any other territory, but never in a game, never with the promise of reward. "How is it going to work?"
"Ah, now you're more interested in that than in me. How I self-sabotage." Yifen makes a moue. "Our rankings will give us no head start, I fear. All participants will begin equal. The first part will be a survival course. Ten to thirteen winners out of nearly three hundred applicants will then proceed to fight in single-combat matches."
"And?" She inches her legs apart, an invitation. Behind her, the foreign duelist makes a disgusted noise and climbs out of their bath, then to the dressing parlor.
"And I can get a roster of the applicants, should you wish to ..." Yifen's thumbs a warm, oiled line up Nuawa's thigh. "Get preemptive."
"Which ex-partner or enemy do you want gotten rid of?"
"Little cynic. What if I just want you to win and bring Sirapirat the glory we've long been denied, even though we produce fighters as fit as any for the army?"
Nuawa slides into one of the pools, down until the water comes up to her throat then her face. Her hair flares in naga corona, snake-tendrils floating in the water. She shuts her eyes, feels the grime of perspiration and leopard-carried grudge sluice away. When she emerges, she finds Yifen laid flat against the floor, chin in hands and watching with undisguised interest. The gaze of a hawk on prey.
Nuawa wipes hot water from her mouth. "Are you not participating, then, in this tournament of tournaments?"
"Given what'll happen to the losers? I'd rather not." Yifen cards her fingers through Nuawa's drenched hair, tickling an earlobe. "The soldier's life is not for me, besides. Too demanding and I'd look terrible in that uniform. You, though, have just the right mindset and could go far. Only don't forget me when you rise high in the general's favor, hmm?"
"You overestimate me," Nuawa murmurs. The pool is churning, curse-vestiges calling out hungry ghosts from the pipes. She climbs out. "But tell me more and I'll do my best."
Out in the streets, away from the luxuries of the Marrow, Sirapirat is bitterly cold.
Nuawa's boots crunch on new snow, her hands and body all but disappearing into the bulk of her coat and gloves and furs. Her breath curls in the air, the warmth of the bath already a distant dream. Mother tells her that Sirapirat once knew three seasons. Hot, wet, cool. Monsoons and storms, draughts and floods, rice paddies running full and mangoes bursting on the tongue. It is beautiful at first, snow, Mother would say, until it erases and turns all you know into a copy of itself. Soon you no longer recall a time without; soon you forget warmth and buffaloes dozing by the riverbank. Soon, you remember only what it wants you to remember.
She can't picture any of that and has never seen a live buffalo, though there are paintings and sculptures in galleries, in museums. The queen doesn't forbid commemoration of the past, regards them with the apathy most might regard an insect — inconsequential, beneath her notice. No museum in the world, no shelf of gold-leaf history and marble maps, can alter the absoluteness of winter. The only thing the queen forbids is fire. Candles and lamps are allowed, barely; pyres are prohibited outright. Cremation used to be the truest form of bidding the dead farewell and seeing them off into the rebirth cycle. Now they are consigned to the queen's machines that turn them into power that warms, feeds, and animates Sirapirat's infrastructure.
Fifty years winter has reigned over Sirapirat, out of Mother Indrahi's sixty. Fifty out of the seventy Nuawa's giving-mother Tafari would have been, if she were alive today.
Nuawa cranes her neck back, gazing up at the sky where Sirapirat's second self resides. Up there Sirapirat is vivid with color, golden spires and scriptoriums, silver palaces and lapis gardens. Yet even there, the mirage said to have been painted as Sirapirat's ideal self, the gardens glitter with frost. Mother's fruits do not bud on the branches, mangoes and mangosteens absent. Jasmines and globe amaranths do not bloom on the bushes. Instead, the phantom trees are coated in snow, their boughs bare and bleached.
Along the streets, she occasionally spots a likeness of herself on laminated boards, a distant likeness with rather more height and bosom than the reality, eyelids and cheeks and lips painted to hyperreal emphasis. But most recently the foreigner gets more play on the Marrow's advertisements, being exotic and newer. She stops to watch an imprint of her latest match. It replays, over and over, the part where she chops the heads off the leopards — four decisive swings, four decisive decapitations. Nuawa of the Lightning. A moniker she's always disliked but which Tezem insists upon. Improbably, it's caught on.
Her home is perched on the hills of Matiya Street, a neighborhood of tenements housing students, non-tenured professors, various researchers and academics of the less-prestigious stratum. The Marrow offers lodgings to a duelist of her caliber, but she prefers distance between home and work. Her apartment is better-furnished than most, vintage rather than run-down, a double façade of wood reinforced by steel. Octagonal windowpanes and pots of white cyclamens blushing magenta. A spirit shrine on the highest balcony, visible from the ground, laden with tiny dishes of condiments and baked rice. The landlady, like Nuawa's mother, belongs to a generation that recalls the time before winter, a generation that takes her faith seriously.
She unlocks her room with a jade key. Her mother helped decorate and accordingly the ceiling is busy with meshes of rough bismuth and amethyst for luck, the chimes depending from them tinkling as Nuawa enters. She inhales the heat and sheds her coat, gloves, tightly laced boots. Heating — like water, like so much else — is ever powered by ghosts. Justice in Sirapirat has become much hungrier since winter's advent. Large thefts send the convicted to the kilns much oftener than to a prison sentence or rehabilitation among the monks. Even then much of the city goes cold and hungry; production of ghosts does not match the demand, especially when a portion is taxed for the queen's vaults.
She wrings the meltwater from her hair and checks on her cyclamens. In good shape. Thinking of her mother, she breathes on her calling-glass.
Indrahi answers, face appearing in hazy reflection. Behind her, there is a diptych of a summer sky: a blue so deep, a sun so bright, the leaves gigantic and the flowers riotous. She is doing beadwork in her lap, a complicated tangle of soft wire and semi-precious stones. Next to her, a bowl of persimmons sliced crescent and fine as a moon in wane. "Nuawa," Mother says. "How does it go? I've watched some of your recent fights."
Unlike her brother — who fled for ordainment as soon as he could, taking on the saffron robe — Mother never cautions or chides her for her profession; if anything has encouraged it. I want a child who can defend herself and what she loves. There is a time for piety, for pacifism, but we are at war. "The latest was leopards. Maybe they wanted a novelty to cap off the season."
They chat, Nuawa asking after her mother's arboretum, Indrahi inquiring whether the landlady has kept up good maintenance and whether Nuawa is taking up more contract work. There is always demand for bodyguards who have done well at the Marrow. Then the subject veers to the tribute tournament, and Nuawa asks, "Mother, what do you know about the queen's general?"
"Lussadh al-Kattan." Indrahi cocks her head. "I've studied her. A dangerous person and an unnatural child, all that troubled history. What of her?"
"The tribute game. Our first."
"Ah." Her mother nods slowly; evidently she too has heard the particulars. "The prize is real. One of their new officers was selected this way from a tribute game in Jalsasskar, three months past. And thus, so many fools will enter this one, hoping — praying — to be the next; sure that they have the prowess and the luck. The queen is excellent at tricking us into feeding ourselves to the kiln."
"Am I a fool, Mother?"
Indrahi puts down the beadwork and laughs. "I raised you better than that."
To lose is to go into the ghost kiln, a forever poltergeist. "Then may I have your leave to join the game?"
Her mother stops laughing. But she does not admonish; she does not disallow. Instead she says, "Then I will tell you all I know of the queen's general. First you must know this, the most important: if the queen can be said to have a heart, then she has given that heart into the keeping of General Lussadh al-Kattan."
Excerpted from "Winterglass"
Copyright © 2017 Benjanun Sriduangkaew.
Excerpted by permission of Apex Publications.
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