Marilia, bastard daughter of a prostitute and a deceased war hero, fled her mother’s brothel in the kingdom of Tyrace, along with her twin brother, Annuweth, in order to escape a life of slavery. She made her way to Karthtag-Kal Sandaros, Prefect of the Order of Jade, the elite knights who serve the Emperor of Navessea. Due to his friendship with Marilia’s father, Karthtag-Kal adopted the twin children as his own and brought them to his home, where he raised them and trained them; under his care, Marilia studied his books of history and warfare and impressed her father with her skill at Sharavayn, a strategy game that young Navessea noblemen play. Karthtag-Kal’s growing affection for Marilia created a rift between her and Annuweth, as her brother became jealous of her abilities.
After she turned sixteen, Marilia was married to Kanediel Paetos, a lord of an island province of Navessea named Svartennos. She lived with him and his sister, Camilline (for whom she began to develop strong feelings) until the island was invaded by the army of Tyrace. Svartennos’ leader, Ben Espeleos, was taken prisoner in a surprise attack, leaving the island’s army under Kanediel’s command. After Kanediel was killed in a duel, Marilia convinced Svartennos’ Elders that she was the answer to an ancient prophecy that stated that the spirit of a long-deceased warrior queen would return in the form of another young woman when the island stood in danger. The Elders put Marilia in command of the defense of Svartennos, and she achieved an incredible victory against overwhelming odds, crushing the Tyracian army.
Marilia and the army of Svartennos joined with the rest of the Navessean army (including her brother, Annuweth) and sailed south to attack the capitol city of Tyrace, hoping to end the war. Though the attack was a success, many soldiers in Marilia’s army—encouraged by the Graver, commander of the legion of a nearby imperial province and the man who killed Marilia’s father, long ago—pillaged the city and slaughtered many civilians before Marilia could restrain them, including most of Marilia’s childhood friends from her mother’s brothel. In order to save one of those friends from murder at the Graver’s hands, Marilia and Annuweth engaged the Graver in a duel. Marilia was victorious, leaving the Graver badly wounded, but Annuweth was also sorely wounded in the exchange.
With its capitol city conquered, Tyrace surrendered. Impressed by Marilia’s victories and her role in ending the war, Karthtag-Kal offered to ask the Emperor of Navessea to name her the new Prefect of the Order of Jade upon his retirement. However, Marilia declined, sick of war and the empire’s habit of venerating conquerors and warriors. Plagued with guilt for her brother’s suffering, she also lied to Karthtag-Kal and to the Chronicler who had come to write the story of the war, telling them that Annuweth had helped her create the strategy that led to Tyrace’s defeat.
Marilia stood with Nyreese in the common room of Oba’al’s pillow house. The floor had been swept clean; silk banners and paper lanterns once again hung from the ceiling. The sun caught the red silk and lit it up, making the threads glow bright as blood.
In her hand, Marilia held the broken end of what had once been Kanediel’s sword. She offered it to Nyreese.
“What will I do with a broken sword?” Nyreese asked, brow furrowing.
“It’s fine quality aeder,” Marilia told her. “It’s worth a lot of gold.”
“Then why not just give me gold? Like you gave the others?”
“Because...because I wanted you to have this,” Marilia said. It was a feeling that was hard to put into words.
Slowly, hesitantly, Nyreese reached out and laid her hands on the blade. Her eyes met Marilia’s.
“I’m sorry,” Marilia said—not for the first time.
“For what happened here. For making it happen. For not being able to stop it.”
“I told you before. It wasn’t your fault.”
But it was, and they both knew it.
Nyreese moved to take the blade, but her hand slipped; she cut herself on its edge. She cried out; a bright line of blood welled across her palm. Instinctively, Marilia reached up to take Nyreese’s hand, another apology forming on her lips.
She forgot that the broken sword was still in her hand.
When she stepped forward, the jagged end struck Nyreese in the belly.
For a moment they both froze, bound together. Nyreese’s wide eyes were inches from Marilia’s face. Blood ran down the length of the blade; it wrapped around Marilia’s wrist like a serpent. She felt its heat, like molten aeder, eating its way through her skin, down to the bone of her wrist.
Nyreese sagged against her. She let out a feeble groan.
“No,” Marilia said. “Gods, no.” She finally found her strength; she took a step back. “It’s only a little cut. You’ll be all right.”
Nyreese collapsed. She was shaking, and the shaking was only making it worse; the blood was pouring out of her faster now. Marilia sank to her knees, placing her hands atop Nyreese’s belly; she called for her men. She screamed for Septakim. She felt the other woman’s skin against her hands—hot, why was it so hot?—and felt something moving there, as if a coiling dragon was trapped beneath Nyreese’s skin. She called again, this time for Annuweth—and then she remembered. The Graver had stabbed Annuweth in the chest. Annuweth was upstairs in the silk hallway.
Annuweth had succumbed to his wounds; Annuweth was dead.
The heat was unbearable; she thought surely it would be all right if she took her hands away, just for a moment. But the instant she did, the red dragon exploded from Nyreese’s belly. It slammed into her, snapping with its jaws, throwing her onto her back. Nyreese collapsed, shriveling into nothing, a pile of dry brown flesh like a discarded snake-skin.
Marilia woke from the dream, eyes straining into the darkness. Her night-gown was wet, hugging her skin. She buried her face in her hands and wept, her shoulders shaking until her back ached. Hiding the night behind a curtain of tears.
The war with Tyrace was over.
The Tyracian armies surrounding Dane City withdrew south into their own lands; the Navessean army that had been marching to meet them turned back north. On Svartennos, Tyracian nobles who had been captured in battle were put onto ships and sent back home.
In Tyr Ober, Ben Espeleos, Prince of Svartennos, was hauled, blinking and bewildered, into the light, leaving behind the dungeon where he had passed the better part of three months.
Ben found himself standing beside a man the Tyracians believed was Victaryn Livenneth, nephew to the emperor (that was what he’d told them when they’d boarded his ship and captured him), but who Ben recognized as none other than Prince Ilruyn; had King Damar of Tyrace known the true value of the man they’d captured, he might have sued for better terms. But he had not known, and now the chance was lost, the deal struck, and the prisoners freed.
Five galleys filled with some of Tyrace’s finest aeder and twenty more packed with some of her best war horses sailed north to Surennis—a kingly ransom to Emperor Vergana in exchange for the safe return of Tyracium and King Damar’s family. Those galleys then made their way south to the Neck of Dane, where they joined with the rest of Tyrace’s battered fleet. The ships were drawn up onto the shore, where grim-faced Tyracian soldiers doused them with oil and set them aflame.
The Tyracian navy burned; ribbons of black smoke curled into the sky like the fingers of a vast, shadowy hand. They raked the underbellies of the clouds, clawing for purchase in the house of the gods. But the gods had chosen Navessea; the columns of smoke blew apart on the wind. The gutted skeletons of the Tyracian galleys crumbled; gray ash clogged the harbor for hours. The fleet of Tyrace would not threaten Navessea’s shores again any time soon.
Not all the ships that burned were truly Tyracian. Part of the treaty between Emperor Vergana and King Damar had specified that the ships Tyrennis Castaval had seized from Navessea during the Battle of the Bay of Dane were to be returned to the emperor. But somehow, those ships, too, found themselves given to the flames. Castaval claimed it was the act of a few defiant sergeants, a bit of stealth-work done in the dead of night…the offenders long-since punished. Though no one really believed him, the damage was done and there was no point in openly questioning the honesty of one of Tyrace’s most powerful and well-liked nobles. The fleets of Osurris, Neravenne and Surennis had been diminished by Castaval’s act of disobedience, but the wounded Imperial feet was still far stronger than Tyrace’s nonexistent one, and that was what mattered. In the interest of peace, Emperor Vergana pretended to believe Castaval’s story.
Not long after the burning of the fleet, Karthtag-Kal, Prefect of the Order of Jade, arrived in Tyracium; the emperor’s Chronicler, Ephrayenne, traveled with him, moved by his curiosity, by his desire to visit the city where the war had ended and to speak with the curious young woman at its heart. For the better part of three hours, the Chronicler spoke with the Lady Chrysathamere, asking questions, taking down her account of what would be remembered as the Lightning War; memorable for its brutality, but also for its swiftness. Fortunately for all, it had been brought to an early end through the cunning and courage of two unlikely heroes—the children of Nelos Dartimaos and Karthtag-Kal. The twins who began their journey inside the very walls they had gone on to conquer.
The bastard siblings of a painted lady.
Marilia Sandara, who had led the attack on Tyracium, who had organized the assault on her gates and had conquered the king’s Tower.
And her brother, Annuweth Sandaros, who had thought to attack the city in the first place. Who, in a moment of great cunning, had devised a plan to get past Tyracium’s mighty walls.
At least, that was how the story Marilia told the Chronicler went.
When she was finished with her story, Marilia made her way to her brother’s bedside.
Annuweth lay on his back beside the window. His head was tilted to one side, so that she could see the scar on his face. The sight of that scar made her stomach flutter, as if a child’s fingers had tickled her there. Her own face had been scarred by the Graver’s gauntlet—a gash across her cheek; but his was worse, a ropy mark that traveled from the corner of his lip up around the side of his head where his right ear had been cut in two.
She reached out and took his hand. He stirred; his eyes opened. They looked hot, glazed, as if his fever had not yet broken...although it had, days ago.
There was a cushion beside his bed; she sat on it.
“Are you all right?”
He nodded. “Karthtag-Kal was just here to see me.” His face was unreadable, like the face of one of the statues they put around altars. “He told me you’d gone to speak with the Imperial Chronicler. I take it Lord Ephrayenne wanted your account of the war?”
“Yes. He wants to speak with you next. If you’re strong enough.”
“Does he?” Annuweth made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a bark. “I suppose he’ll want to hear about the Battle of the Bay; I was on the imperial flagship, after all. He’ll want to get all the bloody little details about how the Tyracians snatched Ilruyn off the deck of his own ship? How Livenneth died? No, Marilia, I don’t think I’m feeling well enough at the moment. Maybe later.”
When Marilia had told the Chronicler her false story, she’d been carried away by the moment. She’d thought only of doing something to help her brother, to repay him for his suffering and thank him for all he’d done for her. But of course, she realized, it wasn’t that simple; she had failed to consider Annuweth’s pride. It seemed so obvious now that what she’d done might offend it. She felt suddenly nervous. Careful, she thought. “‘Weth...,” she began, hesitantly, “I told the Chronicler that when we were back near the mouth of the River Tyr, trying to decide what to do next...I told him we came up with the plan to conquer Tyracium together, you and I.” The words poured out of her in a rush. “I told him that I came up with the details, and I led the attack, but that attacking the city was your idea. That you were the one who thought of diverting the river and crawling in under the walls.”
He stared at her as if she were something he hadn’t ever seen before—a rhovannon’s oddity, a silvakim with a head at either end of its body. “Why did you tell him that?”
“Because...I wanted...I thought...” she’d had all her thoughts sorted out; had known, when she’d opened her mouth, exactly what she was going to say to him. But her tongue got tangled; she felt her face heating under his gaze.
“Thought what?” He sat up straighter, the blankets falling back to reveal his naked chest. He had shrunken visibly over the past few weeks; she could see the curve of his ribs beneath his skin. He was shaking his head. “It’s a lie, Marilia. A damned lie. Go back to the Chronicler and tell him the truth.”
“‘Weth, I can’t. I don’t want to.”
“I don’t need your fucking charity, Marilia,” Annuweth said through gritted teeth. “If you don’t tell him, I will.”
“This isn’t about charity. I’ve been trying to explain. This is about what’s fair.”
“Fair? You conquered Tyracium. Not me.”
“I owed you, all right?” Her voice rose sharply. “Everyone calls me the Graver-slayer, but you were the one who wounded him first. If you hadn’t hurt him, I would have died there on my back on Oba’al’s balcony. He would have crushed my throat with his bare hands. And if you hadn’t challenged him in the first place, I would have had to watch Nyreese’s daughter killed...Nyreese killed, everyone left in the pillow house killed. And maybe no one else cares about that, but I do. Without you, I couldn’t have stopped it.” Annuweth’s face distorted before her eyes, his features running together like the face of a man in a water-color painting. There were tears in her eyes.
“I didn’t do it for you.”
“I know. You did it for them—they were your friends, too. But you did it. You saved my life, all right? I wouldn’t be sitting here now if it wasn’t for you.”
He stared at her. She saw the muscles move in his throat, the tendons standing out in sharp relief.
“When all this is over, there will be a triumph parade, and the heroes of the war will stand at the altar of the Temple of Shavennya. The High Priestess of Shavennya will put dragon-bone bracelets around their wrists. And there are a lot of things that I don’t know, but I do know this. You belong up there with me. That’s what I want.” Take it, she thought. Just accept this, please.
She got to her feet. Annuweth was sitting up straight in his bed. There was color in his lips. He looked as if his weariness had disappeared. Not her; she felt as if she had absorbed some part of his sickness, and now it was chewing through her bones like a grave beetle. “Do what you want,” she said to him. “I just want it done, Annuweth. I want to go home, and I want this all to be finished.”
He stared at her for a long moment without speaking. When he did speak, it was in a whisper. “So do I. But it’s never finished.”
Something she’d said must have swayed Annuweth; the Chronicler did not come seeking her out demanding to know what really happened back on the River Ob.
The chance to change what had been written soon passed; the Chronicler moved on, sailing away up the river to gather more stories, to spread her words—her lie—to every corner of the empire.
It was the right thing to do, she thought, as she stood at the villa’s window and watched his ship sail away. A debt owed and paid, just like I said.
But another voice, a little nagging voice buried deep in her head, said are you sure? Are you really sure?
Tell me, Marilia—do you really know what you’re doing any more?
Another week passed. The army of Svartennos made ready to return home.
Boarding houses and captured villas that had housed Svartennan soldiers for the past several weeks began to empty; horses were saddled and wagons were loaded with supplies. Ships flying the banner of House Espeleos came floating down the River Ob to carry them back north.
One of those ships brought another visitor.
Marilia was finishing packing up her belongings when a knock against her doorframe made her turn. Camilline stood there, dressed in a simple white dress fringed with the gold color of the Svartennan fields in summer.
“I thought…well, I thought I’d come to see you,” Camilline said.
For a moment, Marilia just stood there. Then her body remembered how to move; they were in each other’s arms. Marilia was crying, her tears dampening the shoulders of Camilline’s dress. She could smell Camilline’s familiar smell; it reminded her of horses and wildflowers and the dry grass of Svartennos.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, embarrassed. “It’s just...it’s been a lot.”
Camilline laughed. “Just the biggest war in almost twenty years.”
They sat together by the window. They talked of the health of Camilline’s mother and the rebuilding of Svartennos City, of Vergana’s treaty and the Chronicler’s visit.
“I missed you,” Marilia said.
“That was nice of you. I missed you, too.” Camilline’s expression sobered. “Are you all right?”
Marilia looked down towards the floor. The sunlight was flickering there, the shadows of the trees outside the window dancing with the movement of the wind. “I thought I could trust my men. I thought I could even trust Andreas. In the end it wasn’t even Tyrace; it was my own side that almost killed me. That’s what hurts the most.”
Marilia felt Camilline’s palm against the side of her face. “You can’t take the deeds of evil men on your shoulders,” Camilline said quietly.
“I should have seen it coming. There were signs; Annuweth warned me. I just didn’t want to believe...”
“Marilia, no offense, but you always had a tendency to blame yourself for things that weren’t your fault.”
“I look back and I...”
“Think about all the things you might have done differently?” Camilline asked, raising her eyebrows. “So did I, after Zev got my sister killed. Don’t look back.”
Marilia chewed her lip. “That’s the trouble...I don’t know where else to look. I don’t know what comes next.”
“Well, first a triumph in Ulvannis with lots of food and wine, at the end of which you get to climb up to the Temple of Shavennya and listen to the whole city cheer for you,” Camilline said lightly. “That might be nice.”
“But after that...”
“Surely you must have given some thought to it?”
“I thought maybe I’d become an Elder,” Marilia said. Partly, though she didn’t want to admit it, she’d thought that because she didn’t know what else there was for her. All her life, she’d thought she wanted to be one of the great generals in Karthtag-Kal’s history books. But she’d just turned her best chance of that down when she handed Karthtag-Kal’s sword back to him.
“Well, you are a widow, and you’ve already passed all the Elders’ tests,” Camilline said. “They’d have to take you, wouldn’t they? I mean...you are the Lady Chrysathamere. And you’d be right near Svartennos City, just a few hours’ ride away. Close to Castle Paettios, too. It would be nice having you close by.” She looked sideways and her eyes met Marilia’s. Marilia felt suddenly dizzy, as if the sunlit pattern on the floor was dancing across her vision.
“What about you?” Marilia asked.
“Me?” Camilline shrugged. “What about me? I don’t have to think about it. Most people don’t. You’re the only one I know without a clear path already laid out for her. With Kanediel gone, I’m Lady Paetia now. I’m all that’s left of the family once my mother goes, and I mean to do it proud. I’ll tend the castle, I’ll watch over the lands, I’ll marry, I’ll have children, I’ll carry on the family name.”
Those last few words sent a painful twinge through Marilia’s chest, as though she’d just been pierced with a shard of heated aeder. She’d always known, on some level, that it was coming, but to hear it spoken so bluntly was painful, all the same.
“And…has anyone asked you? To marry, I mean?” Marilia asked, not sure she wanted to know the answer.
“Well…Aerael Dartimaos’ mother did write me a letter on his behalf, but…I’d rather not.” She made a face. Marilia smiled in spite of herself. “And then…” Camilline paused, and in that pause a shadow fell across Marilia’s heart and she felt her smile die. “Well…there’s Jariel Valennos.”
“I don’t think I know him,” Marilia said. She recognized the family name, though; there had been a Prefect Valennos who had led the Order of Jade, once upon a time. The books in Karthtag-Kal’s library were full of his exploits.
“He’s Lord Valennos’ youngest son. He was wounded in the Battle of the Pass, so he stayed behind with Lord Konos and helped rebuild Svartennos City. He’s an old childhood friend, so he was there when my mother…” she trailed off.
“Oh,” Marilia said. “I see.”
“He hasn’t asked me yet, but I think he will.”
“Is he better than Aerael Dartimaos?” she asked, with a lightness she did not feel.
“I would say so,” Camilline said, and she had the decency to blush.
Marilia looked back at the floor. Here was her reminder, if she’d needed one; even if she went back to Svartennos City and became an Elder, as Camilline had suggested, things would not be the same. Even if Marilia’s path was now open, Camilline was still bound to hers. That path included a husband, children, a life that Marilia could never fully share.
She pictured herself as an Elder of Svartennos, watching Camilline’s children grow up…near Camilline’s family, but never quite one of them, like a spirit looking in from the window of a family shrine. She would be only a day’s quick ride away from Castle Paettios—but she wasn’t sure if that closeness might not prove to be its own form of suffering.
“Well,” she said, feeling a hollowness in her chest. “As long as you’re happy. I want you to be happy. He’d be lucky to have you.”
“Nice of you to say so.”
Camilline’s tone was still light and playful. At least as far as she could tell, it contained nothing of the gravity Marilia felt. She doesn’t know, Marilia thought miserably. She doesn’t feel what I feel, not any of it. Yet when their eyes met again, Marilia thought she saw—or maybe she just imagined it—a flicker of doubt.
A part of her wanted Camilline’s stare to reach inside her, to the inner depths of her spirit, so that Camilline would see in Marilia’s eyes the truth in her heart that she didn’t dare put into words; another part of her, perhaps a greater part than the first, was terrified that Camilline would do just that.
What Camilline saw or didn’t see, what she suspected or didn’t suspect, Marilia could only guess.
Marilia remembered standing in her tent the morning Camilline had departed to see her ailing mother, shortly before the fall of Tyracium. She’d wanted to kiss Camilline then, but she hadn’t dared. She wanted to now, but once again she found she didn’t dare. She had faced down an army of Tyracians, had swum with razorfish and dueled the Graver, but she didn’t dare cross those last few inches of space and touch her lips to Camilline’s.
“May the spirits watch over us both,” Camilline said, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Wherever our paths take us.”
“Wherever,” Marilia agreed hollowly. Cursing herself for her cowardice, she went back to packing her belongings for the journey north.
On the day before her departure, Marilia wandered through the streets. Septakim and two other knights of the Flower Company followed at a respectful distance. Two others lead the way, some paces ahead. They walked in silence; they knew she wanted to be alone with her thoughts.
She didn’t dare stray too far; even though the war was ostensibly over, there were many in the city who nursed grudges and would be happy to take a blade to the Lady Chrysathamere. In the last week alone, there had been three attacks that had left two of her soldiers dead and two others wounded. More deaths to add to the five Tyracian men and one boy that had been killed the week before. Marilia had ordered her men not to attack the Tyracians; each time Tyracians ended up dead, the Svartennans responsible claimed the killing had been done in self-defense. There was never anyone to prove otherwise, but Marilia had her doubts.
The enmity between Tyrace and Navessea ran thick as blood, and the truce between Emperor Vergana and King Damar had not changed that; nothing could. Marilia would be glad to leave. She wanted nothing more than to put Tyrace behind her forever.
But not before she said farewell.
She passed the river-market, where, not long ago, she had crawled through a grate in Tyracium’s wall with her men; where, longer ago, she had played with her brother and the other children of Oba’al’s pillow house.
She passed the broken remains of what had once been the stage of a rhovannon troupe—maybe the place she had once seen a baby silvakim bite off its own trainer’s nose, and, in that moment, first learned the meaning of the word betrayal.
The ground beneath her feet grew steeper. Soon she was breathing hard; the sun was hot and sweat dampened her dress.
There was a reason that few made the climb up this hill during the day; it was a place well-suited to the kind of business that was done at night.
Where once had stood a sign bearing the image of a woman’s supple figure there now stood only a broken wooden pole. All the shutters over the windows were closed. Once, two paper lanterns had hung above the door; now, all that was left was two empty metal hooks.
Her dreams had lied to her; this was the truth. Nyreese, thankfully, was still alive and unharmed, but the pillow house itself was dead, another casualty of the war. Marilia had given the painted ladies gold she had gained selling the four gold aeder swords she had taken from the Tower of Tyrace—her share of the spoils of war. Since she was from Svartennos, where the amount of wealth any warrior could hold was limited by law, her spoils weren’t as much as they might have been. But they would be enough, she hoped, for the painted ladies of Oba’al’s pillow house to start new lives for themselves. To do what she herself would have to do—try to begin to forget.
The door to the pillow house had been broken open; it hung slightly ajar. Marilia stepped inside.
A figure moved in the shadows.
Her hand went to her dagger; but it was only a beggar, gray-haired, dressed in a threadbare, mud-stained tunic, his face ravaged by spots. He gaped at her, and she saw that he had lost most of his teeth.
He rose and scampered through the far door, out into the pillow house’s courtyard. Despite a limp, he moved quickly. He hurried into Oba’al’s quarters and vanished from sight.
Marilia was alone.
Septakim and the others waited outside. She threw open the windows’ shutters, letting light into the dining hall.
Marilia walked to the end of the room, to the wooden podium where the minstrels had used to play. She set a single black candle there and lit it. She sprinkled ash in a circle around it—an offering for the gods. She knelt on the floor and watched the candle burn. Wax ran like tears down the side.
This is for you, Saleema, she thought. For you, Damar. Tyreesha. Mother.
She closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of the candle, trying to find her calm. But she could still hear the screaming. When she opened her eyes and stared at the shifting shadows on the ground, she could still see the river of her friends’ blood running red across the floorboards. When she turned her eyes to the candle’s flame, she could still see the light of the Graver’s mocking smile.
Marilia took a deep breath and spoke the prayer. “May Neravos guide them and keep them. May they find their way to the House of White Sands.” One by one she spoke their names. When she was finished, she blew out the candle and rose to her feet.
The following morning, she rode out of Tyracium with six thousand men behind her.
The wind was blowing fiercely; it cut patterns out of the sand, whistled through the dunes, a sound like the reed flutes of Svartennos. Marilia squinted against the grit; she thought she could see shapes through the dust, dancing figures made of sand and reflected sunlight. The spirits of the dead come to see them off.
The wind whipped through her hair. It wrapped its fingers tenderly around her.
As she climbed onto the deck of her galley, as she watched the Tower of Tyrace recede into the distance, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was still holding onto her; that whatever had grabbed hold of her during that brief ride had never really let go.
She was leaving Tyrace behind, but its dead traveled with her.