“Please, help me. I don’t know what to do.”
Marilia knelt on the floor of the tent, staring into the candle-flame. It was a blue candle, for clarity and wisdom. She needed some now, more than she ever had.
“Father,” she begged. “I need your help now. Anything you can give. The Tyracian army is here, and if we don’t stop them…” her voice faded into silence. She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words out loud.
Come on, she urged herself. All those games of strategy you used to play…all those war-books you used to read…what good was any of it if it can’t save you now?
But the spirits and gods felt far away. Though she stared into the light until her eyes watered, though she breathed in the smoke until it tickled her lungs and scratched the back of her throat raw, no clarity came. No wisdom. There was only fear. A dread that burned inside her with a heat far greater than any candle’s flame.
You’re going to die. You’re all going to die.
She rose and made her way outside the tent. She listened to the sounds of the army; the rattle of armor, the cries of horses, the faint buzz of nearby voices. Considering she was surrounded by almost ten thousand men, it was remarkably quiet. The soldiers of Svartennos were subdued; they huddled close to their campfires, casting anxious gazes towards the south, where a smear of red like a blood-stain scarred the ashen face of the sky. The wind carried the smell of charred wood; a gray river of smoke rose from somewhere behind the southern hills and flowed upwards to join with the sea of gray clouds.
Svartennos City was burning.
Once it was gone, the Tyracian army would come for them.
Her husband was dead. Her home was turning to ashes before her eyes.
What’s next? What will the Tyracians take? Maybe tomorrow they’ll march up this hill and kill your friends. Then tomorrow they’ll sail to the rest of Navessea. Who knows how far they’ll get? How many they’ll kill? Your father? Your brother? The empire itself? At least you won’t be around to see it, except as a spirit. Because if they make it that far, you’ll probably already be dead.
In the valley around her was an army of weary, heartsick, outnumbered men. If the great Emperor Urian was right, and hope was worth a thousand swords, then they were even more outnumbered than they looked, because after the sudden loss of their prince and their greatest city, the soldiers of Svartennos had run short of hope.
In the command tent was a general who was no match for the enemy he faced. A man too proud to listen to reason, who had sent away his strategoi so that he could pace and fret alone, doing his best to convince himself—wrongly—that his strength, bluster and courage would be enough to save the day.
There was a chance—a slim chance, but still there—that he might listen to her.
But only if she had an idea worth listening to.
In truth, she needed more than one idea—there was no way to know exactly what the Tyracians would do, so she had to be ready for several contingencies. And she had to be ready now—for all she knew, she might have only one chance to make herself heard.
“Marilia.” She turned to see Camilline standing next to her. Her friend—her sister-by-marriage—but her hand on Marilia’s shoulder. “You look like you’re about to rip out your hair.”
“I feel like I am. Camilline…I don’t know what to do. I can’t think.”
“Just take a moment.” Camilline drew close, close enough that Marilia could feel her warmth. It was a greater comfort than the warmth of the candle had been. “Just breathe.”
Marilia took a deep breath.
She pictured herself standing in her father’s shrine, listening to the deep, soothing rumble of his voice as he ran her through the Stoics’ trance. Empty your mind. Find your center.
She took another breath in and out.
This is just another game of Capture-the-Emperor, she told herself.
It’s not. These aren’t some pieces on a game board. They’re men’s lives. It’s not the same.
Then pretend it is. If it was, what would you do? Just sit back and let yourself lose?
No. Your father always called you stubborn, because you are. You’d fight to the last piece. You’d make sure that if you lost, you could sit back and comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one could have done any better.
You have to do this. You were meant to do this.
“I thought there would be more time,” she muttered under her breath. The Tyracians would be there before the sun set again.
Well, there isn’t. Make do with the time you have.
In a way, she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She thought back to all those little moments that had led her here, a long and dizzying path to this cliff’s edge. From those first, innocent games in her mother’s pillow house to those years in her father’s villa, to her marriage to Kanediel, lord of Svartennos—a union which had been so suddenly cut short.
She’d watched him fall. She’d been helpless then. She wasn’t now.
She closed her eyes, let the world around her fall away, let the noise of the camp fade to a distant murmur like a river. She forgot the taste of the smoke, the bite of fear in her chest.
It was just her and the Tyracians, trapped in their game—the only game that mattered.
Life or death.
Winner take all.
Somewhere far—but not too far—to the south, a war-horn echoed through the hills.
They were coming.
Part I: Childhood
“Come on, before Tyreesha comes back.” Annuweth took Marilia’s hand and pulled her along the hallway.
Marilia hesitated. Truth be told, she didn’t really want to come on. She wasn’t sure what waited for them at the end of the hallway, but the sounds coming from the rooms on either side made the hairs on the back of her neck rise, and she would have much rather gone back downstairs to where she and her brother were supposed to be working with the other children, serving drinks to Oba’al’s buyers.
But she wouldn’t let her brother see her fear. So, with one last, uneasy glance behind her, she followed Annuweth down the hall.
The ceiling was hung with paper lanterns. The hall was red, the color the sun made when it shone through her fingertips. Annuweth’s face glowed with the same bloody color, as if he was a traveler who had just emerged from a storm at the edge of the Red Wastes.
Hand-in-hand they went. On either side, silk drapes hung across open doorways. Dark shapes flickered on the other side. There were sounds, too—the voices of men and women.
Then they heard Mother’s voice. They paused outside the curtain.
“Maybe we should go back,” Marilia said.
“Do you want to?” Annuweth turned his eyes toward her.
There was a pause as they waited. From inside came a sound like feet landing on wet clay.
“No,” she said, holding his gaze.
“Me neither. Let’s see.”
It was, after all, what they had come for. Why they had sneaked away.
Annuweth reached for the curtain but Marilia’s hand was faster; she took hold of the edge of the curtain and, ever so slightly, drew it back.
They peered in through the gap.
It probably wasn’t the first time Marilia had caught a glimpse, but it was the first time she would remember. Before she had been too young, and the memories of that time were already going, slipping away like a dream forgotten upon waking. This memory would be different. It would burn on like a prayer-candle in the night that refuses to fade.
Marilia knew that what the buyers and the painted ladies did was called loving (the buyers had another name for it, but Mother didn’t like them to say it), and she had gathered that it was some kind of game, perhaps not unlike the street games she and Annuweth played with the other children of the pillow house—except that this game was only for two. What form such a game would take, she’d had only the vaguest idea.
Mother was on her knees on one of the pillows. She was naked, and in the light from the candle that guttered in a lantern overhead she was the same deep bronze color as the coins the buyers paid her with. Her skin was shining and slick. Her dress lay tangled to one side. Her head hung down, and her hair dangled to the floor, except for the few strands that were still stuck to her forehead. Her eyes were closed.
A man was bent over her from behind. He pushed his face into her neck as a shudder coursed through him. His thick dark beard rasped against her skin. Mother sucked in a slow breath. The candle flame fluttered like a trapped thing. The man started to turn his head, and Marilia quickly let go of the curtain. She and Annuweth stared at each other.
Marilia’s face had grown hot. She wished she hadn’t looked. She wished Annuweth hadn’t been there to see.
Mother’s room would be hers someday.
That was the way of things; the daughters of painted ladies became painted ladies themselves.
“Let’s go back,” she whispered. “Please, let’s go back.”
Without another word, the two children tiptoed back the way they had come.
The pillow house was busiest in the night. The buyers came in droves. Oba’al sat at the doorway, smiling, greeting them with a voice like melting honey. They paid him for the food and the drink. They paid his painted ladies to be loved.
The common room was vast, filled with big, round tables and colorful cushions. Thin drapes the deep red color of arandon berries hung from the ceiling. At one end of the room was a bar where Tyreesha, Oba’al’s cook and medicine-maker, poured drinks for the buyers. Near the bar Oba’al’s painted ladies stood in a long line, brightly colored in their dresses with habithra sashes wound around their waists, waiting to be chosen.
“Where were you?” Tyreesha demanded when Marilia returned, eyeing her suspiciously.
“Just…just had to take a piss,” she lied.
“Well, hurry. There’s orders that need filling. He’s here tonight, you know. Your one-eyed friend. He said he had something new to show you.”
“What something?” Marilia asked. She stared up at Tyreesha, feeling a shiver of excitement. He had brought her many things before—stories of Tyrace’s king, who, like him, had only one eye; stories of killers and desert battles; once even a set of dice carved (or so he claimed) by a wanderer all the way from the Red Wastes. But these words—something new—suggested a thing more marvelous, more exciting than all those others. Something special.
Tyreesha shrugged. “You think I know? Go and see, girl.”
It was Marilia’s task—and the task of the pillow house’s other children—to carry food and drink to the buyers while they talked and gamed, their raucous laughter so loud it almost drowned out the sound of the minstrels, who stood on their stage at the far end of the room, gamely singing on through it all. Though some of the other children grumbled about it, Marilia liked serving the buyers. It was much better than her other chores—namely, cleaning and working the kitchens. In the common room, you got to hear things, stories about the sand-people and lava ghouls and far-off places. You got to see things—games of chance and people from distant lands and, apparently, whatever it was One-Eye meant to show her tonight.
She made her way over to him now; he was sitting close to the window, only one companion with him tonight. Behind them, she could see the glowing lights of Tyracium spread out at the base of Oba’al’s Hill like a thousand fireflies, the last glow of the setting sun kissing its way down the darkening face of the sky.
“Ah. There you are, girl. Come here.” He gestured for her to approach, and she did.
At first, she’d been frightened of him. He looked frightful enough; three long gashes marked the side of his face, a wound he had earned in Horselord Castaval’s service, years ago. The left-most gash was deepest, a furrow like one in a farmer’s field, bisecting his eye. He wore a patch to hide it, but had shown it to her once. It was white like the moon.
She wasn’t frightened of him anymore; she much preferred him to the other buyers. Most of them cared little for the pillow house’s children—they had eyes only for the painted ladies. They took their drinks and waved her away and went back to their games, paying her so little mind she might as well have been one of the lanterns or silk drapes. One-Eye was different. Sometimes, he invited her to sit with him and his friends. Sometimes he even let her join in their games.
At first Oba’al had frowned at that. But One-Eye had passed him a few coins—for the pleasure of the young one’s company, he said—and after that, Oba’al never frowned again. Oba’al never said no to more coins.
One-Eye took his cup. There was an empty cushion nearby and Marilia took it. “Look at the view,” One-Eye said, pointing out the window. The moon was full and huge, like a silver-scaled dragon egg resting high above the city. “Magnificent. It’s moments like this that make life worth living.”
“This is the fourth-highest hill in the city,” Marilia informed him. Oba’al, she knew, was very proud of this fact; the height, he’d told her, meant distinction.
“Is that so? Well, aren’t you full of interesting little secrets,” One-Eye laughed. “A perfect spot, isn’t it, then? High enough to see the lights and the moon, but not so tall that a man could get tired out walking up here.” He took a sip of his drink. “How’s your brother? Annuweth?” That was another thing; to the other buyers she was just girl and her brother just boy. But One-Eye had learned their names.
“He’s well,” she said, her feet tapping restlessly on the floor. She could no longer wait; her eagerness was a feeling like an itch on the palm of her hand. “Tyreesha said you had something to show me?”
One-Eye’s companion rolled his eyes. “Do we really need the company of a five-year-old dress twirler?” he asked One-Eye in a low voice.
“I’m nine, sir,” Marilia informed him. “Almost ten.”
One-Eye beamed. “There you have it. Almost ten, and that makes all the difference. This girl is a ghoul at dice, Derrion, she’d surprise you; and even when she’s not playing, she’s good to have around. She’s my Lady Luck. Aren’t you?”
“Well, we’re not playing dice today, but maybe you’ll prove lucky all the same. Here’s what I wanted to show you, girl; take a look.”
Marilia scooted up onto her knees to get a look at the table, and sure enough, there were no dice there that night. Instead there was a board, eleven squares by eleven squares, with a cluster of white stones in the middle and four smaller clusters of black stones arrayed around the edges.
“What is it?” she asked.
“This is a new passion of mine. It’s quite the thing at the markets these days—a game all the way from Navessea.”
“Land of the fish-eating bast—” Derrion started.
“Have a care. This girl’s father was from Navessea, isn’t that right?”
Derrion raised an eyebrow. “Is that so? Who was he? Traveling merchant? Or one of those scum priests from Dane who come to speak shit about the Horse God?”
“My father was a prefect, sir,” Marilia said. She stared at Derrion, willing him to choke on his drink. She had only a vague notion what a prefect was—some kind of Navessean Horselord? —and hoped he wouldn’t press her for details and make her look stupid. Thankfully, he didn’t. Maybe—probably—he didn’t know what a prefect was, either.
“A prefect,” One-Eye repeated. “Yes, indeed. Well, this might have been the kind of game he would have played.”
She looked at the board and tried to imagine her father hunched over it. She had never laid eyes on him, but she had crafted an image of him, piecing him together from the things her mother had told her. Handsome, with rich hair and a proud chin, the sort you would find on a statue. He’d been one of Navessea’s best warriors—until a giant killed him.
“How do you play it?” she asked.
“It’s like a battle, you see? A battle that’s gone poorly for white, and now all white’s enemies are closing in. The white stone in the center is the king, and his goal is to escape to one of the corners. The black stones are his enemies, trying to cut him off and trap him.”
She watched them play. She watched the pieces move, and she could almost imagine that she was seeing knights in dark armor—cresting a dune, rising above the sand like a sudden storm-cloud as they prepared to fall upon the heathen king. The crystal blades of their swords glowing red, blue and purple, capturing the sunlight until they shone as bright as the pillow house’s paper lanterns. A game a prefect might have played. A game my father might have played.
It was much more interesting than dice.
One-Eye soon defeated Derrion. He turned to her with a satisfied smile. “I see your good luck holds, girl. Here; have a try.”
She leaned in over the table, reached out, and took one of the black stones in her hand. Her brows narrowed. She sucked in one cheek and chewed on it as she thought. There was a pattern to the game, she saw, though she couldn’t quite make out what it was. And as she tried to find it, the game swallowed her. The noise of the common room fell away as if she’d plunged her head underwater. She stared at the pieces as they moved until trails of black and white blazed like threads of fire across her vision.
In the end, she lost. She sat back, disappointed.
“What did I tell you?” One-Eye said to Derrion. “See how she played? She’s sharp as aeder crystal. Too clever for this place, I think.” He smiled at her. “You keep practicing, and if you ever beat me, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Marilia blinked. The threads of fire faded. Slowly, the room returned; she became aware of where she was. A painted lady was walking past, dancing on the tips of her toes, the hem of her dress spinning around her ankles in a wheel of color—the walk that let the buyers know she was ready to be loved. Tynaeva’s minstrels were heading into a quick new tune, one that had the buyers at the next table over banging their cups on the table in time to the rhythm. One of the lanterns overhead was fizzling out, making the shadows on the walls flicker.
And One-Eye was watching her, brows raised, waiting for her answer.
She found her voice. “What kind of secret?”
“What kind do you want?”
She considered this. She sensed it was the sort of question that was not to be answered in a rush, all at once. Annuweth or one of the other children might have done that—over-eager, carried away by their excitement—but it wasn’t her way. At last she said, “Do you know anything about the giant? The one that killed my father, I mean?”
One-Eye raised an eyebrow. “You’d do better to ask a trader from Navessea. I don’t know much about that.”
She chewed the corner of her lip, thinking. What she wanted was a good story; one she could be proud to trade with Annuweth. It was a game they had—each night as they served drinks they listened to the chatter of the buyers and when they awoke the next morning, they shared the best story they had heard. Yesterday, for instance, Annuweth had told her a story he had heard from a group of soldiers—how Horselord Castaval had defeated Chief Malack of the Kangrits in battle and mounted his head atop a spike. In return, Marilia had told him a grisly tale she’d heard from a trader, about how a mysterious man named the Night Killer had claimed another victim in the East Quarter, leaving a smile like a bloody moon carved into the neck of a charm-seller’s daughter. Everyone knew the bloody tales were always the best.
An idea came to her. She leaned in to whisper in One-Eye’s ear, feeling bold. “Do you know how the king lost his eye? How he really lost it?” She had heard a few options—a battle with the Tigrits, a duel over a lady, that he’d cut it out himself to save his wife from a dremmakin’s curse. But she wanted the truth.
One-Eye coughed. “You’ll hear lots of tales about that,” he whispered back. “But it just so happens I know the true one. Is that the tale you want?”
She nodded. It would be the kind of story the other children in the pillow house would almost have been willing to cut out an eye of their own to hear. She felt rather pleased with herself.
One-Eye chuckled. “Fair enough. All right, girl. If you beat me at this fish-eater’s game, I’ll tell you how our king lost his eye. So it goes. But I won’t play easy, so you’d best practice well.”
A thought occurred to her. “How can I practice? I have no board and no stones.”
“I guess you’ll have to find them, then.”
He leaned back, staring at her for a long moment before he frowned and tore his gaze away. “Best run along now. I’ve kept you longer than is fair; Oba’al will start grumbling. Go send Raquella over.” He smiled and touched her arm. Raquella approached at Marilia’s beckon, the hem of her dress swirling around her ankles, her body swaying as she came. A painted lady moves like water, Marilia thought, remembering something her mother had told her. Not stiff like aeder. Always like water.
One-Eye took Raquella up to the silk hallway and loved her. Marilia returned to the bar, gathering another tray of cups. And as she poured jala juice and wine and night-tea her mind was elsewhere, far-away. In the fish-eaters’ game.