Her master interpreted the stars and wrote his constructs in the foreigners’ language. Though he had been born an Alidiman, the Yiúsians had acknowledged his gifts and afforded him prestige. Prestige—not freedom. No Alidiman, Avni figured, would ever live free again.
Master Saket pretended to be free like a lord. He barked orders at Avni and her older brother, demanding more wine, more ink. When she would set food and drink on his desk, she hovered as long as he allowed, trying to read what he wrote. Though she understood Yiúsian words aloud, the pitch scratches upon the vellum appeared as meaningful as lines left in dirt by ants.
Back when he had been simply Saket, he would share his interpretations with the village every full moon. If one knew within what moon she had been born, she could hear, through Saket, what the stars said about her future. Avni had never been such a person. She knew not what day her life had begun.
She ground burned bones for his ink. The smell of rock against charred fragments of ribs and vertebrae reminded Avni of the mine in the mountain. She wondered if her dad still swung his axe, or if he, too, had died in last week’s collapse. Not that it mattered. She had grieved the death of her father a hundred times over. In any way it mattered, she lived as a parentless child, neither daughter nor girl. Only slave.
The bones a gray powder, she added the tar and pitch. She stirred the masi into Saket’s desired thickness, relishing the rare solitude she had found in the courtyard today. The birch trees hinted to fall in leaves lined with gold. Rows of flowering shrubs, flowerless for near a moon now, grew beneath the trees. Avni didn’t know the names of these plants. The Yiúsians had brought their seeds along with their army.
She worked on the graveled walkway between the planted rows. Pebbles pushed into her bare knees. The sun, hot with summer’s end, bore down from the rectangle of sky the courtyard permitted. The courtyard was all she saw of the outside world. The mountains—the gods of her people—stayed hidden behind the walls of stone. She took as much time as she dared making the masi. These sips of the outdoors helped her endure the white and black walls waiting for her underground.
When she stood, the pebbles left little craters in her knees. She wondered, with no fat beneath her skin, if her bones, too, had little indents. She dusted off her chiton, dyed slave-red with lac resin, and shook out her hair. They kept her thick hair chin length and curled. All the female slaves living in the palace received daily beautification. When Avni had last returned from the courtyard, a single leaf’s defile of the beauticians’ work had earned her nothing short of three whippings. She hadn’t seen her reflection in years, but she imagined her back looked a lot like the vellum etched with those foreign words.
Her sandaled feet pitter-pattered down the stone hallway. She passed a pair of Yiúsian lords, their chitons a deep purple achieved only through dye made from a snail they shipped here from their homeland. She kept her eyes to the ground as taught. They swept by, speaking with harsh tones about an overdue shipment from Spítheo.
Avni skipped down the stone steps leading to the basement where they housed the exceptional Alidiman. It was a dungeon by all but name. Only a few small torches lit the dirt hallway, and rats the size of small dogs were often found ravaging cow legs they had stolen from the kitchen. Sometimes Avni imagined the rats feasting on her sleeping body. She also sometimes imagined being buried alive, should, or when, this underworld cave in on itself.
Saket sat hunched over the desk, muttering to himself in Alidiman. Avni slipped into his room. He startled upright and cursed her sudden appearance.
“Sorry, master,” Avni said, bowing her head. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
He slouched back over the vellum. “They said they’d cut my tongue out should I speak again in that language,” he whispered in Yiúsian. “It’s just—I think in it.”
She set the bowl on his desk. He sniffed at the masi and stirred it with his needle. When he returned to his fevered writing without another word, she knew she had done her job well. Judging by the salted stubble of his usually clean-shaven head and jaw, Avni figured he hadn’t left the room in over three days. She wondered what the stars could have possibly said to demand such continuous work.
In their quarters next door, Ved rolled a scroll. Avni sat on her cot and watched him unfurl the scroll, again and again, until it wrapped flush around the wooden rod. He secured his work with a cut of white linen and set it in the pile of scrolls next to his cot.
“Well done,” she whispered.
“We’ll see,” he replied, shifting to lie down. He had outgrown the boy-sized length of his bed, and his feet, still sandaled, dangled off the end. He told Avni a moon ago that his sixteenth year had arrived. She doubted the sureness of such a statement but had congratulated him nonetheless. Sixteen for an Alidiman male was considered old. Most died their first year in the mine.
The Yiúsians had yet to pull Ved from the palace for pickaxing. When they had come for him shortly after a gesture of muscle formed on his arms, Saket had protested. It was the first and only time Avni had seen her master stand up to the Yiúsians. He had argued that training another boy to perform Ved’s duties would put his work too far behind the ever-moving skies. Saket probably had spoken the truth. More so, though, Avni knew their master had grown fond of Ved for reasons beyond his expedient handiwork. In either case, the Yiúsians, in an extraordinary act of assent, had permitted Ved to stay.
Avni had thanked their gods, should the mountains still care to listen.
Ved had cursed them. I would trade a day out there for a lifetime down here, he had said.
She lay down on her cot and stared up at the ceiling vaulted by stone, waiting for Saket’s next command in silence. Running a hand along the bumps of flesh emerging on her chest, she felt the day near when the Yiúsians would come to make the trade for her.
Avni leaned against the marbled surface of a kitchen counter as she waited for the cooks to finish preparing dinner. She could now almost sit on the counter after her most recent growth spurt. The cooks added leftovers from the Yiúsians’ dinner to the stew. They scraped the half-eaten lamb chops and wilted piles of greens into the pot. Avni smelled hints of garlic and sage. Even she would eat like a lord tonight.
A robust woman spooned the stew into three bowls and set them on a platter for Avni. Her red chiton, cut low in the front, revealed engrossed bosoms. Avni wondered if she was one of the nursing-slaves rumored to breastfeed Yiúsian infants. She opened her mouth to ask, but the woman shooed her away.
“Off you go now,” the woman said. “Git.”
Avni took the platter and sulked out of the kitchen. She needed to know her secret. She needed to know any secret for how an Alidiman woman managed to stay in the palace. She held her breath with each step down the stairs. Even a drop of spilled soup could be reason enough to send her away.
She reached Saket’s quarters victorious. The platter remained as clean as when she had left the kitchen, and yet steam still rose from the stew. When she walked into his room, she nearly dropped the whole platter on the ground. Entire slurps splashed out of the bowls.
He had her brother bent over. When they noticed her, Saket withdrew with a curse, and Ved pulled his chiton down. Her brother’s face matched the color of his clothes. Avni stared at the platter, demanding the tears to wait. Mumbling an apology, she set the bowls down and walked from the room without her dinner. She ran back down the hallway and indulged in a moment of crying beneath the stairs. She knew Saket took her brother in this fashion, so why had seeing it caused her to stumble?
“Stupid girl,” she whispered. “Stupid, stupid girl.” She dried her face and wiped the platter off as best she could on the stone of a stair’s underside. In the light above, she saw the stone had done nothing to hide her mistake.
The woman in the kitchen took the platter from Avni and gave her a disgusted look. The woman glanced behind her. The other cooks were busy prepping for breakfast. She quickly poured water over the platter and took a wet rag to Avni’s face.
“Never again,” the woman said. “If they saw I wasted water on the likes of you…”
Avni bit against the trembling of her lip and nodded. She strode from the kitchen, resisting the urge to run, and returned underground. When she at last reached her cot, a drop of blood leaked down her chin.
Ved had his back turned to her. She wanted to do something for him. How did one comfort another? She wanted to know if it hurt—partly because she cared for him, and partly because she wondered for her future self. Should she touch him? She remembered a time, in the courtyard, when a little Yiúsian boy had tripped and scraped his knee. His older sister had hugged him and that had seemed to make his hurt go away. Maybe her brother had held her in such a way when she was a baby. They had never touched in her remembered life. To do so would merit whippings beyond Avni’s imagination.
And yet, darkness hid them now. She slipped her feet off the cot and took one soundless step after another. She had never moved so slowly in all her life. When she reached Ved’s cot, his eyes were closed. He must not have heard her. Her heart beat frantically as she reached a hand closer, closer, closer to his shoulder. When her fingertips brushed his skin, his eyelids whipped open. He crunched her fingers with his hand. She swallowed the gasp of pain.
Never, he mouthed in Alidiman. He released her hand and returned to stillness. Avni drifted back to her cot. She lay with her back to his and held her fingers, wondering if they were broken.
A shake to Avni’s shoulder woke her. She blinked up at the face of a stranger. He wore the yellow chiton of a guard.
“Come. Now,” he said, twirling the whip’s handle.
She scrambled upright and fumbled with her sandal’s strappings. Her brother wasn’t in the room. Sleepiness caved into reality, and panic gripped her throat. She followed the guard out of the room. She had known this day would come sooner than later, and yet here she was, struggling to breathe.
When they passed Saket’s room, she stopped. “Please,” she said. “Please, I won’t say anything. I won’t!”
Saket continued writing, his eyes remaining on the vellum. “You speak nonsense.”
The lash on her arm silenced any response. The guard raised the whip again. “If you arrive with too many scars, you will be deemed fit only for dog food.”
She looked once more at Saket bent over his work. The palace slaves said he had been the village Wiseman. They had whispered rumors of his powers. He had lived on a hill overlooking Demá Peak, where he could study the stars above any light cast by candles in the homes below. And now look at him, Avni thought. He had no love for her. Why should he? He was neither Yiúsian nor Alidiman, but a mole living out his sunless days.
She followed the guard, holding the whip’s cut with fingers still throbbing from her brother’s grasp. She didn’t look around for Ved as they walked up the steps and down the path lined by white stone columns. The guards manning the entrance lifted the crossbar. When they opened the doors, Avni walked out of the palace and onto what, she had once heard, was called a street. Her eyes blinked against the sun’s fullness.
“This way,” the guard barked, and she followed his voice. The bursts of light subsided, revealing patches of her surroundings. Giant piles of dung littered the wide dirt road. Wood houses and buildings staggered the larger structures made of stone. Avni marveled at the wooden planks, neatly stacked one on top of the other. The palace slaves had said Alidimans had built their homes from pine, but Avni hadn’t been able to imagine walls made of trees rather than rock.
A rumbling noise grew behind her. The guard growled, “Watch out,” and pushed Avni closer to the buildings. She cowered against the wall. Creatures ten times larger than any dog she had seen in the palace thundered past. They had long noses and round, glistening eyes. The way they led with their muscled chests reminded Avni of how the Yiúsian guards walked. Their feet made clunking noises as they trotted down the dirt, spraying up dust and dung.
The two animals pulled behind them a man riding a strange table on wheels. He wore the purple chiton of a lord and a golden headband atop his black curls. The guard bowed as he passed, and the lord acknowledged him with a single nod of a head held high. Avni thought he looked serene, like the painting of the Yiúsian king hanging in the palace dining room.
Yet the man raised his whip, and any serenity on his face twisted into severity as he yelled, “Git! Go on, now, git!”
When the whip met the creatures’ golden backs, Avni could feel her own scars throbbing. The guard yanked her away from the wall, and they continued down the street. They passed Yiúsian commoners dressed in white chitons. The men and women, half a head taller than the average Alidiman, walked between buildings with importance.
Avni snuck glances at the women. Their hair grew to the small of their backs in silky black waves. Some of the women wore elaborate braids, and some had the curls twisted up into coils that reminded Avni of a beehive she once saw in the courtyard. Alidiman women weren’t allowed hair longer than their chins. She wondered if her hair could even grow as long as the women’s around her.
The occasional woman in red shook out rugs from balconies and raked dung into piles. She saw no men in red. She assumed they all worked and slept up at the mine.
The mine! The mountains! She looked over her shoulder and nearly fell to her knees. The guard, still holding her wrist, tugged on her arm. “Watch your step.”
She continued to walk forward while stealing looks over her shoulder. The palace slaves old enough to remember had said the mountains were gods, bigger than any human, bigger than any building. They had said they wore crowns more brilliant than any headpiece a king could don. They had said they gave water—they gave life. And for the first time in Avni’s life, she could see her people had spoken the truth.
The guard pulled her toward a two-story stone building. Avni gaped once more at the massive pinnacles cloaked in a purple deeper than even the lords’ chitons. She reached a hand out as if she could touch the gleaming mountaintops. The guard opened the door, and the walls once more swallowed her gods from view.
“How does it work?” Avni asked.
Pam pulled the last rod from Avni’s hair and fluffed up the curls. “You lay on the bed and wait for him to come in.”
Avni couldn’t tell if Pam sounded tired or annoyed. She knew she pressed her luck either way, but the fear of it outweighed the fear of her new master. “I mean—the act of it. How does it work?”
“It’s perfect you don’t know.” Pam stepped back to admire her handiwork. Her red chiton hung loose on her thin frame. She was almost skinnier than Avni.
“But won’t he need me to know?”
Pam leaned in and brushed a charcoal powder atop Avni’s eyelids. She painted a berry-stained beeswax on Avni’s lips. Avni fantasized eating the entire tin of lip tint. She had a fresh berry once in the palace, and its sweetness still haunted her.
“The lord requested a virgin,” Pam said, putting the lid back on the tin. “If you knew what you were doing, he’d question the authenticity of your—girlhood.”
Avni swallowed the familiar taste of panic. “But does he know I’m no girl? My moon-blood came this spring.”
Pam smiled and cupped Avni’s jaw. Her hands felt as cold as her smile looked. “Oh child, it takes more than blood to make a girl a woman.” She released Avni’s face and motioned for her to follow. “It’s time,” she said, walking out of the room and down the hallway.
Avni could hear moaning on the other side of the doors. So it did hurt. She tried to relax her body: this had helped make the whippings less painful. Pam held a door open for her. A window allowed sunlight in, and the stone-white room glowed. Avni stared at the window, fighting the desire to run to it and look once more at the gods. A large bed dressed in white centered the room. Long strips of white fabric hanging from the ceiling surrounded the bed.
The bed reminded Avni of a cloud. She, too, wore white. She had never seen fabric other than red against her brown skin. When she sat on the bed, she thought her bare arms and legs resembled fallen birch branches atop snow.
Pam told her to lie down in the middle. She adjusted Avni’s legs so one was straight and the other was bent. She told her to prop up on one arm and place the other so her hand rested between her thighs. Pam fluffed Avni’s hair once more. She smoothed the sheets and stepped back.
“You’re a vision.” She almost sounded motherly.
Avni tried to smile.
“Don’t move,” Pam said, any maternal tone dead in her voice. “If I hear there is so much of a wrinkle in this sheet before he arrives, you can kiss your life goodbye.” She closed the door behind her. Avni felt sweat beads bubble up on her forehead. Would she ruin the makeup? A cramp began to form in the calf of her bent leg. She closed her eyes and begged her body to relax.
Just when her entire leg threatened to seize up, her eyes now wet, the door opened. She prayed the single tear dripping off her nose fell clean of charcoal. The man, not as tall as Avni had expected, studied her as he closed the door. A belt of braided leather wrapped around his waist over a purple chiton. A branch of leaves and berries, painted gold and wound into a circle, topped his long, brown curls. He kept his beard trimmed close to his face, as was typical of Yiúsian lords.
Yet his eyes were nothing close to typical. Neither the dark brown of Alidimans, nor the golden brown of Yiúsians; they were white. Or were they blue? They gazed at Avni as two spheres of ice, though not unkindly. He looked more curious than cruel. Avni wondered if this was how all men approached a virgin.
Was she supposed to smile? She glanced down to make sure her hand hadn’t slipped away from her groin. He sat on the bed, still looking at Avni with those cool, calculating eyes. She managed to slip the corners of her mouth up. The sweat had begun to drip. She could taste its salt.
“Please,” he said. Was that—Alidiman he spoke? This position must be cutting off circulation to her head.
But he spoke again, and sure enough the words clicked and rolled in her native tongue. “Please, relax.” He patted the corner of the bed next to him. “Come, sit with me.”
When she moved to obey, her entire leg seized at last, and she dragged it like a dead weight.
“Are you okay?” he asked, watching her crawl across the bed.
“Fine, fine, my lord,” she said in Yiúsian, coming to a sit. Thank the gods, her muscles relaxed.
He traced a rib poking against her chiton. “Clearly you are not.” He continued to look at her with an expression Avni couldn’t place. Was it sadness? Maybe the color of his eyes clouded her ability to name it. “You have been a slave your whole life?”
Avni couldn’t tell if it was a question or a statement. Was he expecting someone different? A free woman, perhaps? She wondered if there had been a mistake. She remembered Ved bent over the desk, the white knuckles of his hands grabbing the edge. Saket’s hips had moved back and forth. It seemed the act of it didn’t require words.
“You have been a slave your whole life,” he repeated. He unthreaded a leather pouch from his belt. “I found this at last.”
He opened the pouch and withdrew a mushroom. The cap was the same color as the stain on her lips. Little white dots punctuated the red. Its stem, white and striated like a stone column, still had flecks of earth on it. The way he held it in his palm told Avni that he cared for this mushroom more than she had cared for anything in all her life.
So when he asked her to take it, she didn’t at first. She shook her head and said, “I can’t, my lord. I’m not worthy of your treasure.”
His smile was unmistakably sad. “But Anima,” he said. “It belongs to you.”
Confused, she continued to shake her head. “I’m sorry, my lord. You have been misled. My name is Avni, not Anima.”
He tore a piece off the mushroom’s cap and folded the fragment into Avni’s hand. He then tore off another piece, held it to his mouth, and gestured for her to do the same. She did as told, and when he began to chew the mushroom, she did as well. Swallowing took effort. The mushroom tasted the way fall smells, of sweet decay. When the white canopy overhead spun and spun, she felt like the sky had yawned open and the cloud they rode took them into the sun.
Water dripped, dripped, dripped from the stalactites. Wax stubs littered the ground. Avni and her war council gathered around three candles and a map of Prajatuya. Thousands of Shapeshifters had amassed. Dozens sat in caverns and leaned against the cave’s mossy walls. Hundreds more stood outside in the mountain air, waiting.
Hamia placed a finger on the palace. “Avni says the kings’ quarters are in this wing.”
“Lords,” Avni said. “They are but lords. The king lives in Spítheo.”
“Kings, lords, whatever the name. They are the men in power here. If we kill them first, chaos will be our ally.”
A few dozen Shapeshifters murmured their agreements. A few, though, whispered concerns.
“What of the guards?” Sabaa asked. She sat poised in her human form next to Gaagi. The other Shapeshifters often said she and Avni looked like sisters. They both were Alidiman. Like all Shapeshifters, Sabaa had been born millennia earlier than Avni, even though they appeared similar in age.
“When I flew over the town yesterday,” Sabaa continued, “I saw at least twenty manning each of the four entrances. And for every twenty manning an entrance, a hundred more guard sections where the wall is incomplete.”
“And that is why we attack now,” Hamia said. “Before the wall is done.”
“How many in total, would you say?” Avni asked.
“At least five hundred,” Sabaa said, looking at Gaagi.
Gaagi confirmed Sabaa’s estimate with a nod. As a Salvager, he already knew the exact number of guards. He hardly resembled the man who had come to Avni in the whorehouse two years ago. His hair had grown back to its natural white color. Avni couldn’t believe she had fallen for his impersonation of a Yiúsian. He could speak and dress like one, but as he sat now in quiet, preferring, as usual, to listen rather than talk, he was anything but Yiúsian.
“Making the odds two to one,” Hamia said, smiling. Her white teeth gleamed in sharp contrast to the silky black of her skin. She kept her long hair in hundreds of tiny braids.
Avni rose to her feet. “We are the ones able to stop this Disorder spreading,” she called out loud enough for the Shapeshifters gathered outside the cave to hear. “The Anima and her Shapeshifters are enough to bring the Sacred Balance back to this land.” She flexed the muscles of her chest and arms, feeling them swell with their power. The scars on her back thinned as they stretched across the expanse of her strength.
The Shapeshifters exploded into their preferred form. Sabaa stripped into her silk animal underskin and morphed: her arms grew black and red feathers, and her skull curved forward into the scythe shape of her eagle head. Her golden eyes alone didn’t change. Half of the Shapeshifters remained human, and half turned into animal. The snow leopard hissed. Hamia, still human, growled as if she had morphed into her cheetah form.
All the Shapeshifters joined in a cacophony of roars, howls, and yelling. When they ran down the mountain, the earth quaked, the evergreens shook, and they trampled grasses under paw and foot. They charged through the town’s outskirts, slaying men dressed in white. The Yiúsian women and children were gathered into a cow corral. Avni put the dead men’s weapons in the hands of humans dressed in red. They held the swords and spears with limp grips, blinking at Avni and the half-dozen Shapeshifters who stayed to help stand guard over the prisoners.
“If they try to escape, injure, don’t kill,” Avni commanded.
She sprinted away to join the flood of fur, feathers, and skin descending on the white walls enclosing Prajatuya. The guards scrambled to form lines. Some guards yelled and others screamed as they angled their spears at the strange wave of creatures galloping at them. Their beards did little to hide their fear.
Avni’s long hair whipped as she launched at a Yiúsian, stabbing him with her daggers. She landed on her feet in a form remarkably similar to the snow leopard next to her. Shapeshifters weaved through sweeps of iron. The boar ran between a guard’s legs and pierced the man’s groin with his tusks. The tiger killed another Yiúsian with a massive claw to his head.
The guards, their yellow chitons stained red, littered the ground. For every four Yiúsians killed, one Shapeshifter fell lifeless to the earth. Avni and the Shapeshifters rushed through the gate and continued their attack within the walls. Alidimans ran past, some crying, some whooping and hollering. Horses stampeded out of the town and into the open. Some of the Alidiman women pulled weapons from dead hands and sought their own revenge.
Avni moved through the chaos with her head bent toward the palace. She slipped her daggers back into her boots and withdrew a whip from a man dead beneath his chariot. When a sword or spear tried to stop her, she wrapped the whip around the weapon and flung it into the sky. She let the Shapeshifters trailing behind her take care of the weaponless men left in her wake.
Her footsteps echoed in the empty palace. No guards manned the doors; no lords strutted down the stone paths. Avni found the cooks hiding in the kitchen. She paused, seeing the woman who had cleaned her tear-streaked face a lifetime ago. She went to the water basin and filled a jug. Standing before her people, Avni poured the water over her own head. It washed the salt and blood off her face.
She went back to the basin, filled the jug again, and helped the woman she remembered to her feet. She poured the water over the woman’s head and said, “We are worthy.”
Setting the jug back down, she left the kitchen. Hamia, Sabaa, and a few others followed behind as she walked downstairs. She could smell the lingering smoke of the extinguished torches. The lack of light mattered little: she and the Shapeshifters saw through the dark. They found the Alidimans in the last room, her old quarters.
The children screamed. Avni couldn’t hear them over blood pounding against her eardrums. She walked to her old cot, and the children sitting on it scurried to the opposite side of the room. One of them was a girl not much older than Avni had been when she last slept here. Avni watched the girl stumble to Ved’s old cot, and Avni raised a hand as if to touch her. She instead ran her fingers along the hard surface of the cot. She lay down on it and stared up at the stones above.
They all shared in the silence. The Shapeshifters stood quiet with a knowing reverence. The children, unaware of their freedom, held their tongues as they had been taught. Avni returned her feet to the ground. The children bit their lips, and tears welled in their eyes. She resisted the urge to tell them they could cry; it would take moons of freedom for them to understand.
“Where are the men you call masters?” Avni asked in Alidiman. The children exchanged looks of terror. Again, she resisted an urge to place a reassuring hand upon them. Touch, like emotion, would take time to understand. Instead, she placed the whip on her lap and asked the same question in Yiúsian.
A little boy, his hands stained black with masi, whispered, “They are hiding beneath a lord’s bed.” Shaking from the effort, the boy lost control and broke out in sobs.
Hamia moved to hold him, but Avni told her no, not yet. She asked the Shapeshifters to watch over the children until the fighting was done overhead. On her way out of the basement, she stepped into Saket’s room. He had spilled a bowl of masi across a cut of vellum, obscuring the entirety of what he had last written. Avni studied the sea of black liquid across the stretch of skin. If Saket had seen their coming, he hadn’t warned the Yiúsians.
She returned above and found the hallway she had never been permitted to walk down as a slave. She opened the large wooden doors, carved with ornate patterns, and stepped into a circular room with four more doors. Behind each one was a dead lord. The last door revealed the Alidimans who had lived downstairs. A pair of Shapeshifters watched over them. One of the Alidimans lay in a pool of his own blood. Avni recognized him as the woodworker.
The fox Shapeshifter, standing in his human form, frowned at the corpse. “He fought back.”
Avni nodded. He chose prestige over freedom. So be it.
“Avni?” Saket’s voice was a whisper.
She walked to where he was sitting on the bed, his knees pulled into his chest. He seemed even bonier than she remembered. His sunken cheeks and ashen skin told Avni he was weeks away from death. She twirled the whip’s handle in her hand as she examined the wrinkles falling from his eyes and mouth.
When she imagined this moment in the moons leading up to the attack, she thought she would find him and exact the pain he had inflicted on her. But now, more than his cruel dismissal of her, and even more than his twisted taking of her brother, she remembered the image of him bent over his work, a mole among men. She set the whip between them. He flinched when she touched his shoulder.
“Where is my brother?” she asked.
Saket looked at the floor and mumbled, “The mine.”
She thanked him, although she had already figured as much. She stopped in the courtyard on her way out of the palace. The birch trees, full with summer’s bounty, trembled in a breeze. The flowers of the foreign plants blossomed with yellow and red petals. Avni crouched on the pathway and gathered the pebbles within her hand. She had once believed these pebbles were fragments of the gods. Now she couldn’t say one way or the other.
The Yiúsians guarding the mine hadn’t heard or seen them coming. The Shapeshifters swept over the men in yellow as quick and complete as a mudslide. The Alidimans walked out of the holes in the mountainside. They covered their eyes and moaned with the pain of light. Avni remembered the first time she walked onto a street, how the sun had overwhelmed everything else.
When all the freed men had walked out of the mines, and Ved did not appear, Avni rested a hand on the cliff and breathed into the hole where her hope had lived. The Alidimans sat on the ground, still covering their eyes. There weren’t even a hundred of them.
The Shapeshifters piled the bodies of the guards. Some of the Alidimans had begun to peek out through slits in their fingers. Many of them coughed persistently. Dust particles drifted out of the mines. Avni could feel a thin layer of grime forming on her sweaty limbs.
She spoke quietly. “I am Avni, the Anima,” she began. “And you are no longer slaves, but Alidimans once again.”
The men tilted their chins up. Some managed to open their eyes completely. One began to laugh. His cackling digressed into a rattling cough. Another began to cry. The men around him moved away as if he had a contagious disease.
Avni asked them to follow her back to Prajatuya. They hesitated to stand up, stealing glances at the pile of their former whip-bearers as if the evidence of their freedom would suddenly evaporate. The Shapeshifters stayed behind as Avni and the men trudged down the mountainside. When the men staggered across the farmland leading to their town, more than one of them began to cry. By the time they reached the wall, a wall half-done, Avni was crying as well. They walked into their town and were greeted by a couple hundred people dressed in red.
Only a few recognized a spouse or child. These sobbing reunions, though, were enough to help the rest of them remember that they, too, had been loved by someone at some point, even if it was but the moment their mother saw them enter the world.
One person, then another, turned to Avni. The crowd all looked at her and waited. How did they begin again? She returned their stare as she struggled to find words.
The woman from the kitchen knelt. Another did the same, and another, until all the Alidimans were bowing. A prayer moved through her people, and she heard them call her goddess. The whisper grew from a question to a proclamation. They called her a beast, saying she ran like the fox and killed like the tiger. They agreed she was a child of the gods.
Avni shook her head with horror. “No,” she said. “No, no. I am no goddess. Please, stand.”
They didn’t seem to hear her. They continued to kiss the earth, murmuring words of gratitude and thanks to the gods for their daughter, the emancipator.
She stepped back. “No, that’s not the point. I’m not the point. Stand up,” she yelled. “Stand up!” Gaagi’s hand came to her shoulder. She hadn’t seen him approach and hugged him with relief.
“Remember how you had to learn to be free,” he said. “Let their beliefs serve as stepping stones to the truth.”
“But they think I’m a deity. I am no goddess. I am no queen.”
Gaagi turned Avni back to face her people. They were still bent low to the ground. Blood from the battle had stained their knees red. “For now, you will be what they need,” he said.
“And what is that?”
“A bridge between their hopeless past and their new reality.”
On her deathbed, Avni remembered these words Gaagi spoke. He had died a decade ago, shortly after celebrating over three thousand and five hundred years of life. He had hoped for Avni to bring all of Lacuserra under the banner of Order, starting with the Yiúsians, then the Flüschen further north. Alongside Shapeshifters and Alidimans, she had driven the Yiúsians back to their homeland and restored Order to the liberated people of the Socok Desert and Samnotama Steppes. Yet while the Yiúsians had been defeated in Makalon, Disorder continued to fester in Lacuserra.
The medicine man said Avni was dying of old age. She figured she was dying from caring too much for too long. Her heartbeat waned. The Task remained far from complete—it was now a charge for future Animas.
The Salvager born in Gaagi’s place, a woman named Laurel, held Avni’s head and kept her face cool with a wet rag. The entire village prayed for her death to be a beginning. They had gathered in the streets with candles and song. Even as she died in this very moment, her mortality circling in like an owl on a mouse, they still thanked their gods for the gift of their child, the goddess, the Anima.
A bridge, Gaagi had said. “He made it sound temporary,” Avni muttered.
Laurel, her eyes like his, white and blue at once, looked upon Avni with love. “Everything is temporary,” she said, running her cool fingers along Avni’s jaw.
Avni smiled at this, and, lying in the courtyard beneath a sky made starlit with darkness, she felt her life run free from her body. But before she released into nothing—everything—she whispered, “The next will be born where animal became human.”