Chapter 1: Lin
Father told me I’m broken.
He didn’t speak this disappointment when I answered his question. But he said it with narrowed eyes, the way he sucked on his already hollow cheeks, the way the left side of his lips twitched a little bit down, the movement almost hidden by his beard.
He taught me how to read a person’s thoughts on their face. And he knew that I knew how to read these signs. So between us, it was as though he had spoken out loud.
The question: “Who was your closest childhood friend?”
My answer: “I don’t know.”
I could run as quickly as the sparrow flies, I was as skilled with an abacus as the Empire’s best accountants, and I could name all the known islands in the time it took for tea to finish steeping. But I could not remember my past before the sickness. Sometimes I thought I never would – that the girl from before was lost to me.
Father’s chair creaked as he shifted, and he let out a long breath. In his fingers he held a brass key, which he tapped on the table’s surface. “How can I trust you with my secrets? How can I trust you as my heir if you do not know who you are?”
I knew who I was. I was Lin. I was the Emperor’s daughter. I shouted the words in my head, but I didn’t say them. Unlike my father, I kept my face neutral, my thoughts hidden. Sometimes he liked it when I stood up for myself, but this was not one of those times. It never was, when it came to my past.
I did my best not to stare at the key.
“Ask me another question,” I said. The wind lashed at the shutters, bringing with it the salt-seaweed smell of the ocean. The breeze licked at my neck, and I suppressed a shiver. I kept his gaze, hoping he saw the steel in my soul and not the fear. I could taste the scent of rebellion on the winds as clearly as I could the fish fermentation vats. It was that obvious, that thick. I could set things right, if only I had the means. If only he’d let me prove it.
“Very well,” Father said. The teak pillars behind him framed his withered countenance, making him look more like a foreboding portrait than a man. “You’re afraid of sea serpents. Why?”
“I was bit by one when I was a child,” I said.
He studied my face. I held my breath. I stopped holding my breath. I twined my fingers together and then forced them to relax. If I were a mountain, he would be following the taproots of cloud junipers, chipping away the stone, searching for the white, chalky core.
And finding it.
“Don’t lie to me, girl,” he snarled. “Don’t make guesses. You may be my flesh and blood, but I can name my foster son to the crown. It doesn’t have to be you.”
I wished I did remember. Was there a time when this man stroked my hair and kissed my forehead? Had he loved me before I’d forgotten, when I’d been whole and unbroken? I wished there was someone I could ask. Or at least, someone who could give me answers. “Forgive me.” I bowed my head. My black hair formed a curtain over my eyes, and I stole a glance at the key.
Most of the doors in the palace were locked. He hobbled from room to room, using his bone shard magic to create miracles. A magic I needed if I was to rule. I’d earned six keys. My father’s foster, Bayan, had seven. Sometimes it felt as if my entire life was a test.
“Fine,” Father said. He eased back into his chair. “You may go.”
I rose to leave, but hesitated. “When will you teach me your bone shard magic?” I didn’t wait for his response. “You say you can name Bayan as your heir, but you haven’t. I am still your heir, and I need to know how to control the constructs. I’m twenty-three, and you—” I stopped, because I didn’t know how old he was. There were liver spots on the backs of his hands, and his hair was steely gray. I didn’t know how much longer he would live. All I could imagine was a future where he died and left me with no knowledge. No way to protect the Empire from the Alanga. No memories of a father who cared.
He coughed, muffling the sound with his sleeve. His gaze flicked to the key, and his voice went soft. “When you are a whole person,” he said.
I didn’t understand him. But I recognized the vulnerability. “Please,” I said, “what if I am never a whole person?”
He looked at me, and the sadness in his gaze scraped at my heart like teeth. I had five years of memories; before that was a fog. I’d lost something precious; if only I knew what it was. “Father, I—”
A knock sounded at the door, and he was cold as stone once more.
Bayan slipped inside without waiting for a response, and I wanted to curse him. He hunched his shoulders as he walked, his footfalls silent. If he were anyone else, I’d think his step hesitant. But Bayan had the look of a cat about him – deliberate, predatory. He wore a leather apron over his tunic, and blood stained his hands.
“I’ve completed the modification,” Bayan said. “You asked me to see you right away when I’d finished.”
A construct hobbled behind him, tiny hooves clicking against the floor. It looked like a deer, except for the fangs protruding from its mouth and the curling monkey’s tail. Two small wings sprouted from its shoulders, blood staining the fur around them.
Father turned in his chair and placed a hand on the creature’s back. It looked up at him with wide, wet eyes. “Sloppy,” he says. “How many shards did you use to embed the follow command?”
“Two,” Bayan said. “One to get the construct to follow me, and another to get it to stop.”
“It should be one,” Father said. “It goes where you do unless you tell it not to. The language is in the first book I gave you.” He seized one of the wings and pulled it. When he let it go, it settled slowly back at the construct’s side. “Your construction, however, is excellent.”
Bayan’s eyes slid to the side, and I held his gaze. Neither of us looked away. Always a competition. Bayan’s irises were blacker even than mine, and when his lip curled, it only accentuated the full curve of his mouth. I supposed he was prettier than I would ever be, but I was convinced I was smarter, and that’s what really mattered. Bayan never cared to hide his feelings. He carried his contempt for me like a child’s favorite seashell.
“Try again with a new construct,” Father said, and Bayan broke his gaze from mine. Ah, I’d won this small contest.
Father reached his fingers into the beast. I held my breath. I’d only seen him do this twice. Twice I could remember, at least. The creature only blinked placidly as Father’s hand disappeared to the wrist. And then he pulled away and the construct froze, still as a statue. In his hand were two small shards of bone.
No blood stained his fingers. He dropped the bones into Bayan’s hand. “Now go. Both of you.”
I was quicker to the door than Bayan, whom I suspected was hoping for more than just harsh words. But I was used to harsh words, and I’d things to do. I slipped out the door and held it for Bayan to pass so he needn’t bloody the door with his hands. Father prized cleanliness.
Bayan glared at me as he passed, the breeze in his wake smelling of copper and incense. Bayan was just the son of a small isle’s governor, lucky enough to have caught Father’s eye and to be taken in as a foster. He’d brought the sickness with him, some exotic disease Imperial didn’t know. I was told I got sick with it soon after he arrived, and recovered a little while after Bayan did. But he hadn’t lost as much of his memory as I had, and he’d gotten some of it back.
As soon as he disappeared around the corner, I whirled and ran for the end of the hallway. The shutters threatened to blow against the walls when I unlatched them. The tile roofs looked like the slopes of mountains. I stepped outside and shut the window.
The world opened up before me. From atop the roof, I could see the city and the harbor. I could even see the boats in the ocean fishing for squid, their lanterns shining in the distance like earthbound stars. The wind tugged at my tunic, finding its way beneath the cloth, biting at my skin.
I had to be quick. By now, the construct servant would have removed the body of the deer. I half-ran, half-skidded down the slope of the roof toward the side of the palace where my father’s bedroom was. He never brought his chain of keys into the questioning room. He didn’t bring his construct guards with him. I’d read the small signs on his face. He might bark at me and scold me, but when we were alone – he feared me.
The tiles clicked below my feet. On the ramparts of the palace walls, shadows lurked – more constructs. Their instructions were simple. Watch for intruders. Sound an alarm. None of them paid me any mind, no matter that I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I wasn’t an intruder.
The Construct of Bureaucracy would now be handing over the reports. I’d watched him sorting them earlier in the day, hairy lips fumbling over his teeth as he read them silently. There would be quite a lot. Shipments delayed due to skirmishes, the Ioph Carn stealing and smuggling witstone, citizens shirking their duty to the Empire.
I swung onto my father’s balcony. The door to his room was cracked open. The room was usually empty, but this time it was not. A growl emanated from within. I froze. A black nose nudged into the space between door and wall, widening the gap. Yellow eyes peered at me and tufted ears flicked back. Claws scraped against wood as the creature strode toward me. Bing Tai, one of my father’s oldest constructs. Gray speckled his jowls, but he had all his teeth. Each incisor was as long as my thumb.
His lip curled, the hackles on his back standing on end. He was a creature of nightmares, an amalgamation of large predators, with black, shaggy fur that faded into the darkness. He took another step closer.
Maybe it wasn’t Bayan that was stupid; maybe I was the stupid one. Maybe this was how Father would find me after his tea – torn to bloody pieces on his balcony. It was too far to the ground, and I was too short to reach the roof gutters. The only way out from these rooms was into the hallway. “Bing Tai,” I said, and my voice was steadier than I felt. “It is me, Lin.”
I could almost feel my father’s two commands battling in the construct’s head. One: protect my rooms. Two: protect my family. Which command was stronger? I’d bet on the second one, but now I wasn’t so sure.
I held my ground and tried not to let my fear show. I shoved my hand toward Bing Tai’s nose. He could see me, he could hear me, perhaps he needed to smell me.
He could choose to taste me, though I did my best not to think about that.
His wet, cold nose touched my fingers, a growl still deep in his throat. I was not Bayan, who wrestled with the constructs like they were his brothers. I could not forget what they were. My throat constricted until I could barely breathe, my chest tight and painful.
And then Bing Tai settled on his haunches, his ears pricking, his lips covering his teeth. “Good Bing Tai,” I said. My voice trembled. I had to hurry.
Grief lay heavy in the room, thick as the dust on what used to be my mother’s wardrobe. Her jewelry on the dresser lay untouched; her slippers still awaited her next to the bed. What bothered me more than the questions my father asked me, than not knowing if he loved and cared for me as a child, was not remembering my mother.
I’d heard the remaining servants whispering. He burned all her portraits on the day she died. He forbade mention of her name. He put all her handmaidens to the sword. He guarded the memories of her jealously, as if he was the only one allowed to have them.
I didn’t know where he kept the copies he distributed to Bayan and me. He always pulled these from his sash pocket, and I didn’t dare try to filch them from there. But the original chain of keys lay on the bed. So many doors. So many keys. I didn’t know which was which, so I selected one at random – a golden key with a jade piece in the bow – and pocketed it.
I escaped into the hallway and wedged a thin piece of wood between door and frame so the door didn’t latch. Now the tea would be steeping. Father would be reading through the reports, asking questions. I hoped they would keep him occupied.
My feet scuffed against the floorboards as I ran. The grand hallways of the palace were empty, lamplight glinting off the red-painted beams above. In the entryway, teak pillars rose from floor to ceiling, framing the faded mural on the second-floor wall. I took the steps down to the palace doors two at a time. Each step felt like a miniature betrayal.
I could have waited, one part of my mind told me. I could have been obedient; I could have done my best to answer my father’s questions, to heal my memories. But the other part of my mind was cold and sharp. It cut through the guilt to find a hard truth. I could never be what he wanted if I did not take what I wanted. I hadn’t been able to remember, no matter how hard I’d tried. He’d not left me with any other choice than to show him I was worthy in a different way.
I slipped through the palace doors and into the silent yard. The front gates were closed, but I was small and strong, and if Father wouldn’t teach me his magic, well, there were other things I’d taught myself in the times he was locked in a secret room with Bayan. Like climbing.
The walls were clean but in disrepair. The plaster had broken away in places, leaving the stone beneath exposed. It was easy enough to climb. The monkey-shaped construct atop the wall just glanced at me before turning its limpid gaze back to the city. A thrill rushed through me when I touched down on the other side. I’d been into the city on foot before – I must have – but for me, it was like the first time. The streets stank of fish and hot oil, and the remnants of dinners cooked and eaten. The stones beneath my slippers were dark and slippery with washwater. Pots clanged and a breeze carried the sound of lilting, subdued voices. The first two storefronts I saw were closed, wooden shutters locked shut.
Too late? I’d seen the blacksmith’s storefront from the palace walls, and this was what first gave me the idea. I held my breath as I dashed down a narrow alley.
He was there. He was pulling the door closed, a pack slung over one shoulder.
“Wait,” I said. “Please, just one more order.”
“We’re closed,” he huffed out. “Come back tomorrow.”
I stifled the desperation clawing up my throat. “I’ll pay you twice your regular price if you can start it tonight. Just one key copy.”
He looked at me then, and his gaze trailed over my embroidered silk tunic. His lips pressed together. He was thinking about lying about how much he charged. But then he just sighed. “Two silver. One is my regular price.” He was a good man, fair.
Relief flooded me as I dug the coins from my sash pocket and pressed them into his calloused palm. “Here. I need it quickly.”
Wrong thing to say. Annoyance flashed across his face. But he still opened the door again and let me into his shop. The man was built like an iron – broad and squat. His shoulders seemed to take up half the space. Metal tools hung from the walls and ceiling. He picked up his tinderbox and re-lit the lamps. And then he turned back to face me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
“But do you need to keep the key?”
He shook his head. “I can make a mold of it tonight. The key will be ready tomorrow.”
I wished there weren’t so many chances to turn back, so many chances for my courage to falter. I forced myself to drop my father’s key into the blacksmith’s hand. The man took it and turned, fishing a block of clay from a stone trough. He pressed the key into it. And then he froze, his breath stopping in his throat.
I moved for the key before I could think. I saw what he did as soon as I took one step closer. At the base of the bow, just before the stem, was the tiny figure of a phoenix embossed into the metal.
When the blacksmith looked at me, his face was as round and pale as the moon. “Who are you? What are you doing with one of the Emperor’s keys?”
I should have grabbed the key and run. I was swifter than he was. I could snatch it away and be gone before he took his next breath. All he’d have left was a story – one that no one would believe.
But if I did, I wouldn’t have my key copy. I wouldn’t have any more answers. I’d be stuck where I was at the start of the day, my memory a haze, the answers I gave Father always inadequate. Always just out of reach. Always broken. And this man – he was a good man. Father taught me the kind of thing to say to good men.
I chose my words carefully. “Do you have any children?”
A measure of color came back into his face. “Two.” He answered. His brows knit together as he wondered if he should have responded.
“I am Lin,” I said, laying myself bare. “I am the Emperor’s heir. He hasn’t been the same since my mother’s death. He isolates himself, he keeps few servants, he does not meet with the island governors. Rebellion is brewing. Already the Shardless Few have taken Khalute. They’ll seek to expand their hold. And there are the Alanga. Some may not believe they’re coming back, but my family has kept them from returning.
“Do you want soldiers marching in the streets? Do you want war on your doorstep?” I touched his shoulder gently, and he did not flinch. “On your children’s doorstep?”
He reached reflexively behind his right ear for the scar each citizen had. The place where a shard of bone was removed and taken for the Emperor’s vault.
“Is my shard powering a construct?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I don’t know, I don’t know – there was so little that I did know. “But if I get into my father’s vault, I will look for yours and I will bring it back to you. I can’t promise you anything. I wish I could. But I will try.”
He licked his lips. “My children?”
“I can see what I can do.” It was all I could say. No one was exempt from the islands’ Tithing Festivals.
Sweat shone on his forehead. “I’ll do it.”
Father would be setting the reports aside now. He would take up his cup of tea and sip from it, looking out the window at the lights of the city below. Sweat prickled between my shoulder-blades. I needed to get the key back before he discovered me.
I watched through a haze as the blacksmith finished making the mold. When he handed the key back, I turned to run.
“Lin,” he said.
“My name is Numeen. The year of my ritual was 1508. We need an Emperor who cares about us.”
What could I say to that? So I just ran. Out the door, down the alleyway, back to climbing the wall. Now Father would be finishing up his tea, his fingers wrapped around the still-warm cup. A stone came loose beneath my fingertips. I let it fall to the ground. The crack made me cringe.
He’d be putting his cup down, he’d be looking at the city. How long did he look at the city? The climb down was faster than the climb up. I couldn’t smell the city anymore. All I could smell was my own breath. The walls of the outer buildings passed in a blur as I ran to the palace – the servants’ quarters, the Hall of Everlasting Peace, the Hall of Earthly Wisdom, the wall surrounding the palace garden. Everything was cold and dark, empty.
I took the servants’ entrance into the palace, bounding up the stairs two at a time. The narrow passageway opened into the main hallway. The main hallway wrapped around the palace’s second floor, and my father’s bedroom was nearly on the other side from the servants’ entrance. I wished my legs were longer. I wished my mind were stronger.
Floorboards squeaked beneath my feet as I ran, the noise making me wince. At last, I made it back and slipped into my father’s room. Bing Tai lay on the rug at the foot of the bed, stretched out like an old cat. I had to reach over him to get to the chain of keys. He smelled musty, like a mix between a bear construct and a closet full of moth-ridden clothes.
It took three tries for me to hook the key back onto the chain. My fingers felt like eels – flailing and slippery.
I knelt to retrieve the door wedge on my way out, my breath ragged in my throat. The brightness of the light in the hallway made me blink. I’d have to find my way into the city tomorrow to retrieve the new key. But it was done, the wedge for the door safely in my sash pocket. I let out the breath I hadn’t known I’d been holding.
Bayan. My limbs felt made of stone. What had he seen? I turned to face him – his brow was furrowed, his hands clasped behind his back. I willed my heart to calm, my face to blankness.
“What are you doing outside the Emperor’s room?”
Chapter 2: Jovis
I hoped this was one of my smaller mistakes. I tugged at the hem of the jacket. The sleeves were too short, the waist too roomy, the shoulders just a bit too broad. I sniffed the collar. The musky, star anise perfume went straight up my nose, making me cough. “If you’re trying to attract a partner with that, best try a little less,” I said. It was a good piece of advice, but the soldier at my feet didn’t respond.
Is it still talking to oneself if the other person is unconscious?
Well, the uniform fit enough, and “enough” is what I could hope for most days. I had two full, standard boxes of witstone on my boat. Enough to pay my debts, enough to eat well for three months, enough to get my boat from one end of the Phoenix Empire to the other. But “enough” would never get me what I truly needed. I’d heard a rumor at the docks, a whisper of a disappearance similar to my Emahla’s, and I’d be cursing myself the rest of my life if I didn’t suss out the origins.
I slipped from the alleyway, resisting the urge to tug at the jacket hem one more time. Nodded to another soldier when I passed her in the street. Let out my breath when she nodded back and turned away. I’d not checked the yearly Tithing Festival schedule before stopping. And because luck rarely worked out in my favor, this meant, of course, the Festival was here.
Deerhead Island was swarming with the Emperor’s soldiers. And here I was – a trader without an Imperial contract, who’d had more than one run-in with the Empire’s soldiers. I held the edge of my sleeve in my fingers as I navigated the streets. I’d gotten the rabbit tattoo when I’d passed the navigational exams. It was less pride and more practicality. How else would they identify my swollen and bloated body if I washed ashore? But now, as a smuggler, the tattoo was a liability. That and my face. They’d gotten the jawline wrong on the posters, the eyes were too close together and I’d cut my curling hair short since then, but aye, it was a likeness. I’d been paying gutter orphans to take them down, but then five days later I’d see some damned construct putting another one back up.
It was a shame that Imperial uniforms didn’t come with hats.
I should have taken my witstone and fled, but Emahla was a string in my heart that fate couldn’t seem to stop tugging. So I set my feet one in front of the other and did my best to appear as bland and blank as possible. The man at the docks had said the disappearance was recent, so the trail was still fresh. I didn’t have much time. The soldier hadn’t seen me before I’d clobbered him, but he’d patched a section of the left elbow and he’d recognize his uniform.
The street narrowed ahead, sunlight filtering down through gaps between the buildings and laundry hung to dry. Someone inside called out, “Don’t keep me waiting! How long does it take to put on a pair of shoes?” I wasn’t far from the ocean, so the air still smelled like seaweed, mingled with cooking meat and hot oil. They’d be preparing their children for the Festival, and preparing the Festival meal for when their children returned. Good food couldn’t heal wounds of body and soul, but it could soothe them. My mother had prepared a feast for my trepanning day. Roasted duck with crisped skin, grilled vegetables, fragrant and spiced rice, fish with the sauce still bubbling. I’d had to dry my tears before eating it.
But that was a time long past for me – the scar behind my right ear long since healed. I ducked beneath a shirt hung too low and still damp, and found the drinking hall the man at the docks had described.
The door creaked as I opened it, scraping a well-worn path along the wooden floorboards. This early in the morning, it should have been empty. Instead, Imperial guards lurked in dusty corners, dried fish hanging from the ceiling. I made my way to the back, my shoulder against the wall, my wrist hidden by my thigh, my head down. If I’d been a better planner, I’d have wrapped the tattoo. Ah well. My face was the bigger problem, and I couldn’t wrap that.
A woman stood behind the counter, her broad back to me, hair tied up in a handkerchief with a few loose strands stuck to her neck. She hunched over a wooden cutting board, her fingers nimbly pleating dumplings.
“Auntie,” I said to her, deferential.
She didn’t turn around. “Don’t call me that,” she said. “I’m not old enough to be anyone’s auntie except to children.” She wiped her floured hands on her apron, sighed. “What can I get for you?”
“I wanted to talk,” I said.
She turned around then and gave my uniform a long look. I don’t think she even glanced at my face. “I sent my nephew along to the square already. The census takers would have marked him by now. Is that what you’re here for?”
“You’re Danila, right? I have questions about your foster daughter,” I said.
Her face closed up. “I’ve reported everything I know.”
I knew the reception she’d received upon her report, because Emahla’s parents had gotten the same – the shrugged shoulders, the annoyed expressions. Young women ran away sometimes, didn’t they? And besides, what did they expect the Emperor to do about it?
“Just leave me in peace,” she said before turning back to her dumplings.
That soldier in the alleyway might be waking up right now with a splitting headache and a good many questions on his lips. But – Emahla. Her name chased itself around my head, spurring me to action. I slid around the end of the counter and joined Danila at the cutting board.
Without waiting for any sort of approval, I picked up the wrappings and the filling and began to pleat. After a startled moment, she began again. Behind us, two soldiers bet on their game of cards.
“You’re good,” she begrudged me. “Very neat, very quick.”
“My mother. She was – is – a cook.” I shook my head with a rueful smile. It had been so long since I’d been home. Another life, almost. “Makes the best dumplings in all the isles. I ran about a lot, sailing and studying for the navigational exams, but I always liked to help her. Even after I passed.”
“If you passed the navigational exams, why are you a soldier?”
I weighed my options. I was a good liar – the best. It was the only reason I still had a head on my shoulders. But this woman reminded me of my mother, gruff but kindhearted, and I had a missing wife to find. “I’m not.” I slid my sleeve up enough to show the rabbit tattoo.
Danila looked at the tattoo, and then at my face. Her eyes narrowed, then widened. “Jovis,” she said in a whisper. “You’re that smuggler.”
“I’d prefer ‘most successful smuggler in the last one hundred years’, but I’ll settle for ‘that smuggler’.”
She snorted. “Depends on how you define success. Your mother wouldn’t think so, I’d guess.”
“You’re probably right,” I said lightly. It would deeply pain her to know how far I’d fallen. Danila relaxed, her shoulder now touching mine, her expression softer. She wouldn’t give me away. Just wasn’t the sort. “I need to ask about your foster daughter. How she disappeared.”
“There isn’t much to tell,” she said. “She was here one day and then gone the next, nineteen silver coins left on her bedspread – as though a silver phoenix was all a year of her life was worth. It was two days ago. I keep thinking she’ll walk back in the door.”
She wouldn’t. I knew, because I’d thought the same for a year. I could still see the nineteen silver coins scattered across Emahla’s bed. Could still feel my heart pounding, my stomach twisting – caught in that moment of both knowing she was gone and not being able to believe it.
“Soshi was a bright young woman,” Danila said, a quaver in her voice. She struck the tears from her eyes before they could reach her cheeks. “Her mother died in a mining accident and she didn’t know her father. I never married, never had any children of my own. I took her in. I needed someone to help.”
“Was…?” The word thudded from my mouth; I couldn’t form the question.
Danila picked up another wrap and studied my face. “I may not be old enough to be your auntie, but to me you are still a boy. If the Empire had anything to do with her disappearance, she’s already dead.”
I have never been in love. We never met as children, we never became friends. I never took the chance, never kissed her. I never came back from Imperial Island. I told myself the lie, over and over. Even so, my mind layered on top her teasing smile, how she rolled her eyes when I made up a particularly silly story, the way she leaned her head onto my shoulder and sighed after a long day. But I needed to believe the lie. Because every time I thought about living the rest of my life without her, panic fluttered up my chest and wrapped itself around my throat. I swallowed. “Did you look for her? Did you find any trace?”
“Of course I looked,” she said. “I asked around. One of the fishermen said they saw a boat leave early that morning. Not from the docks but from a nearby cove. It was small, dark and had blue sails. It went east. That’s all I know.”
It was the boat I’d seen the morning Emahla had disappeared, rounding the edge of the island, the mist so thick I wasn’t sure I’d seen it at all. In seven years, this was the best lead I had. If I was quick, I might be able to catch it.
One of the soldiers in the hall laughed, another groaned and cards hit the table. Chairs scraped against the floor as they rose. “It was a good game.” A beam of sunlight warmed the back of my neck as they opened the door. “Hey you. You coming with us? The captain will bite your head off if you’re late.”
No one answered, and I remembered the soldier’s jacket I wore. He was talking to me.
Danila seized my wrist. The one with the tattoo. Both her voice and her grip were intractable as tree roots. “I’ve done you a favor, Jovis. Now I need a favor of you.”
Oh no. “Favors? We didn’t speak of favors.”
She talked over me, and I heard footsteps approaching from behind. “I have a nephew. He lives on a small isle just east of here. If I have it right, you’ll be headed in that direction anyways. Take him before the ritual. Get him back to his parents. He’s their only child.”
“I’m not one of the Shardless Few. I don’t smuggle children,” I hissed. “It’s not ethical. Or profitable.” I tried her grip and found her strength greater than mine.
By the sound of the footsteps behind me, there was only one soldier. I could handle him. I could lie my way out of this. But after all these years, I still remembered the trickle of blood from my scalp, running down my neck. The cold touch of the chisel against my skin. The wound felt like fire. The Emperor says that the Tithing Festival is a small price to pay for the safety of us all. It didn’t feel like so small a price when it was your head bowed and your knees digging into the ground.
I am hardened to the suffering of others. Another lie I told myself because I couldn’t save everyone; I hadn’t been able to even save my own brother. If I thought too much on all the suffering, all the people I couldn’t help, I felt like I was drowning in the Endless Sea itself. I couldn’t carry that weight.
Mostly this worked. But not today. Today I thought of my mother, her hands on each side of my face: “But what is the truth, Jovis?”
The truth was that someone had saved me. Sometimes one is enough. “I’ll take him,” I said.
I was a fool.
Danila let go of my wrist. “He owes me for a mug of wine. He’ll be along shortly,” she told the soldier.
The man’s footsteps retreated.
“My nephew’s name is Alon,” Danila told me. “He’s dressed in a red shirt with white flowers embroidered on the hem. His mother is a cobbler on Phalar. She’s the only one on the isle.”
I brushed the flour from my hands. “Red shirt. Flowers. Cobbler. Got it.”
“You should hurry.”
I’d have snapped at her if her grief wasn’t so obvious. She’d lost a daughter. I’d lost a wife. I could be kind. “If I find out what happened to your foster daughter, I’ll figure out a way to let you know.”
She wiped at her eyes again, nodded and turned back to pleating dumplings with the ferocity of a warrior on a battlefield. It seemed the lie she told herself was that these dumplings were the most important thing in the world right now.
I turned to go and the earth moved beneath me. Mugs rattled in their cupboards, Danila’s rolling pin fell to the floor, and the dried fish swayed on their strings. I put my hands out, unsure of where to steady them. Everything moved. And then, just as quickly, it settled.
“Just a quake,” Danila said, though I knew already. She said it more to soothe herself than me. “Some people think it’s the witstone mine causing them – it runs deep. It’s nothing to worry about. They’ve been going on for the past few months.”
A lie she tells herself? Quakes happened sometimes, but it had been a long time since I’d felt one. I took an experimental step and found the ground steady. “I should go. May the winds be favorable.”
“And the skies clear,” she responded.
Spiriting a child away from the Tithing Festival wasn’t going to be easy. The census takers made sure that all children who had turned eight years old attended, so I’d need to find a way to strike his name from the list. But I’d dealt with census takers before, and Imperial soldiers, and even the Emperor’s constructs.
I smoothed the front of the uniform jacket and went to the door. I should have drawn aside the curtains, or cracked the door to look beforehand. But the quake had unsettled my nerves, and I was close to finding the boat that had taken Emahla. I was close to an answer. So instead, I stepped back into the narrow street, the sunlight hot on my face, wide-eyed and unsteady as a newborn lamb.
And found myself in the midst of a phalanx of Imperial soldiers.
Chapter 3: Jovis
If only the street were busy, or loud, or anything but quiet and still. Ten uniformed men and women turned their attention to me. Sweat prickled in the small of my back.
“Soldier,” one of them said. The pins at her collar marked her as a captain. “You’re not one of mine. Who is your captain?”
Lies were well enough when you had substance to back them with. “Sir, I was with the first company to disembark.”
She peered at my face, frowning, offering me nothing.
“Lindara’s?” another soldier in the phalanx asked.
“Yes,” I said in a tone that implied this was obvious, and the soldier foolish for verifying.
But the way the captain examined my features had me wanting to sink my chin into the collar of the uniform. Still studying me, she said, “You should be with your captain. This isn’t a pleasure outing.”
“I understand. It won’t happen again.”
“Did you happen to see another soldier around? Short, stocky, big nose and stinks of star anise.”
I’d seen him, though we’d not become acquainted. His uniform and I had become intimately acquainted, however. I hoped fervently that the smell of fish and seaweed covered the scent lingering on my jacket. “No, I’m afraid not, sorry. And you’re right, I should be with my captain.” I turned to go.
A hand landed on my shoulder. “I didn’t dismiss you,” the captain said.
Oh, I would have made a terrible soldier. “Sir?” I pivoted back and did my best to wear “deferential” better than I wore this jacket.
Her fingers tightened around my shoulder and she squinted at my face. “I’ve seen you before.”
“Probably digging latrine ditches. Lindara doesn’t like me much.” The other soldiers cracked grins, but the captain was uncrackable. I ran through all the tried and true tricks in my mind. Flirting with her would probably get my head chopped off. Self-deprecation didn’t throw her off. Flattery maybe?
“No,” she said. “There’s something about your face.”
Damn the Empire and their pettiness over a small bit of stolen witstone. Damn their power over both men and magic. But most of all, damn their stupid posters. “My face?” I said, to buy some time. “Well, it’s—”
The ground beneath me shook again, and this time it shook harder. Everyone eyed the buildings above, hands out in vain attempts to stave off falling walls with fingers. A tile fell from the roof behind me, shattering on the stones by my feet. The shaking stopped.
“That’s another one,” one of the soldiers said. “Two in one day.” He sounded anxious. Truth be told, I didn’t like it much either. Sometimes there were small aftershocks, but this one had been stronger than the first.
The captain turned her attention back to me. Her eyes narrowed.
I cleared my throat and straightened my shoulders. “Should we be at the square, captain? It’s nearly time for the Festival.”
I’d finally hit the right note – respect and discipline. The captain’s hand dropped from my shoulder. “We’ll have to find our comrade later. We’ve a duty to fulfill.” She strode up the street, beckoning for the others to follow.
I saw a couple of hands reach behind right ears to touch their trepanning scars. I wondered if they remembered that day as crisply as I did. I fell into step behind them – I had business at the Tithing Festival too after all. I might be a liar, but I kept my word. Always kept my word. So I put my legs into it and climbed the hill with the rest of them. The stones beneath my feet shifted as I trod upon them, loosened by the quake. The street opened up at the top of the hill, joining with two others.
The man in front of me turned around to check the view when we reached the top. His face paled, his eyes widening. “Captain!”
I whirled, wondering what it was he saw.
The narrow street wended behind us, buildings looming over it, pressed together like teeth. Dust glittered in the air, but this wasn’t what had captured the soldier’s attention. Down by the ocean, something had changed. The outline of the harbor had widened. The docks lay at strange angles to one another. There were dark shapes near the shore, jutting from the water.
The tops of bushes. The harbor had sunk.
The captain regarded this revelation with a grim set to her mouth. “We go to the square,” she said. “We tell the other two phalanxes. Keep calm, keep order. I don’t know what this means, but we stick together.”
It was a testament to her leadership that the soldiers fell into step behind her.
I eyed the docks behind us. Promises were well and good, but I’d also promised Emahla I’d find her – and I couldn’t very well do that if I were dead. I thought of Danila folding dumplings for her nephew’s Festival feast. After mine, my normally reticent mother had held me close, kissed the top of my sweaty hair. “I wish I could have protected you,” she’d said. She hadn’t known then that I’d been spared. I’d barely known it myself. The square wasn’t too far now, and I was a quick runner.
So despite my dread, I followed the soldiers. The air had gone still; no voices, no birds calling, only our footsteps scraping against stone. After another turn and a climb, the stillness gave way to murmuring. Ahead, the street widened into the city square.
Deerhead Island wasn’t the largest of the known islands, but it was one of the wealthiest. I’d heard natives brag about their spicy fish soup, their vast markets, and had even heard one claim that Deerhead floated higher in the water than other islands. Their witstone mine produced a good deal of the Empire’s supply, and the square was yet another reflection of this wealth. The stones beneath our feet became smooth, laid in patterns. A raised pond adorned the center of the square, bridges leading to a gazebo in the middle. The vine-like carvings on the gazebo marked it as one of the few Alanga-era structures still standing in one piece. It would have been a place I’d liked to have visited with Emahla. She would have given me a sly, sidelong look: “So why did the Alanga build that?” And I would have launched into a story about how this graceful building was merely one of their outhouses. She would have laughed and added in her own details. “Of course. Who doesn’t dream of relieving themselves in a gazebo?”
But she wasn’t actually here.
I stopped at the mouth of the street, waiting until the soldiers in front of me had made their way to the other end of the square. Dozens of children stood there, hemmed in by Imperial soldiers. Like sheep being led to a slaughter. Some were calm but most looked nervous, and several of them openly wept. They’d have been dosed up with opium to make them docile and to dull the pain. I strode closer and searched their ranks. Red shirt, flowers on the hem. Too many children in red.
It shouldn’t have been me doing this. It should have been one of the Shardless Few, with their romantic ideals about freedom and an Empire ruled by the people. I wasn’t an idealist. Couldn’t afford to be.
The earth moved. Dust shook loose from the tiled roofs and I struggled to keep my feet underneath me. Panic jolted to the tips of my fingers. An aftershock, fine, yes. Three quakes in one day, and the sinking of the harbor – this wasn’t anywhere close to normal. At the other end of the square, the soldiers crouched around their charges, hands going to weapons as though that might help. The census taker presiding over the Festival hunched over his book. The children watched the buildings shake with wide eyes.
I steadied myself at the edge of the fountain, counting. One, two, three, four . . .
At five, my throat tightened. At ten, I knew this shaking might not stop. Something terrible was happening. I could feel it to the very marrow of my bones. As soon as I felt it, I could walk again. If the world was ending, then just waiting around for it to end would help no one, least of all myself.
A boy in the group of children seemed to sense the same thing I did. He rose from his crouch and ran. One of the Imperial soldiers caught him by the shirt.
Red shirt, flowers at the hem. Alon, Danila’s nephew. Short for eight years old, with a mop of black hair that threatened to overwhelm him.
Duty held the soldiers together like a piece of fishing string. A hard push and they’d snap. I ran toward them, stumbling as the ground shifted. “The island is sinking! I’ve seen this happen before,” I lied. I didn’t have to try at all to sound panicked. “Get to the ships, get out of here before it takes us all with it!” I couldn’t be sure if I was exaggerating or not, but I wasn’t about to stick around to find out.
The soldiers stared at me for a moment, stricken, the buildings behind them rumbling.
“You!” the captain called to me. “Get back in line.”
With a sound like thunder, a building on the opposite side of the square collapsed. With that, the string tying the soldiers together snapped. They ran. Children and soldiers buffeted me, threatening to knock me to the ground. I reached through the crowd and seized Alon’s arm. So small I could fit my entire hand around it. “Your Auntie Danila sent me,” I told him, shouting to be heard above the rumbling earth. I’m not sure if he heard me, but he didn’t try to slip from my grasp. That was something. “We need to run. Can you do that?”
This time, he nodded at me.
I caught a glimpse of the faces of the other children – panicked but still placid, their steps unsteady. Their parents, their aunts and uncles would come. A lie, a lie – my mother’s voice. I shook it off. I couldn’t help them all. “Deep breaths,” I said, and then ran, still holding on to Alon’s arm. The boy might have been short, but he could keep a decent pace. We dashed around the pond and back toward the docks.
My heartbeat pounded in my ears. The narrow street now felt like a chasm, one into which we were falling without hope of escape. Another building to our left teetered, beams breaking. The soldiers behind us screamed as I yanked Alon forward, just out of the way of the collapsing facade. Dust swept across the paving stones, climbing into my nose. I tried not to think of the soldiers now buried in the rubble, the people that might have been inside. I had to focus on keeping us alive. Alon began to cry, a high-pitched keening sound. “I want my mother!” he sobbed, pulling at my grip.
Oh, child. I did too. She’d sat through hurricane winds, ignoring the rattling shutters and the wailing wind as if they were merely overwrought children. I promised myself – I would find a way to visit home again if I lived through this. “Listen,” I shouted, “you need to run. If you don’t, you’ll never see her again.” The words shut him up more cleanly than a slap. There wasn’t time to regret them. I wasn’t big or strong enough to carry him.
I thought I recognized the doorway to the drinking hall, but Danila would have to make her own way out. The ground jolted, throwing me into the wall of a building, my shoulder catching the brunt of it. I pulled on Alon’s arm to keep him upright. The air was hazy; it made my eyes water. But between the gaps in the buildings I could see blue ocean and blue skies. We skidded down the uneven stones. A falling tile hit Alon on the shoulder and he reached for the wound. I pulled him along before he could touch it, merciless.
And then the air cleared and we were at the docks, a cloud billowing behind us as though we’d brought this destruction with us. Despite the shaking and the destruction, people hadn’t yet filled the harbor. They hesitated on the edge of that precipice: is it bad enough? Will I feel foolish when this is all done? What of the belongings I’ve left behind?
Fear nipped at my heels, and I knew by now to pay heed to my fear. The thought of remaining on this island filled me with a dread I couldn’t name. Maybe this would all stop, the island having sunk only a few measures. But maybe it wouldn’t, and it was the second maybe that roared in my mind.
A few people tried to get into the Imperial boats – searching for protection – but were warned off by the soldiers. Others made for their fishing boats. A hulking construct with the face of a long-beaked bird did its best to stop each of them. “Please declare your goods before leaving,” it croaked out. “The shipping and sale of unauthorized goods may result in fines and imprisonment. Sir, I need to perform a randomized search of your cargo hold.” Bureaucrat constructs were my least favorite. I waited until it was occupied with someone else. “Alon,” I said to the boy, “that’s my boat out there, at the end of the dock.” Wood creaked and groaned behind us; stones ground against one another. “The dock is unmoored. We need to swim. I’m going to let go of your wrist now, but you’ll need to follow me. Kick off your shoes if they weigh you down.”
I didn’t wait to see if he nodded; I ran for the water while the construct’s back was turned. It couldn’t do much without Imperial soldiers backing it up, but this wasn’t the time I wanted to be attracting undue attention. The ocean’s surface jittered with the shaking earth, obscuring my reflection. I saw, with a shock, that the backs of my hands were gray with dust and dotted with blood. No time to check for injuries. I plunged into the water. Here, in the harbor and at the end of the dry season, it was as warm as the surrounding air. I took my own advice, kicking off my shoes as soon as the water came to my chest.
Anchors still weighed the docks to the ocean floor, so they’d only shifted instead of completely floating free. Each stroke felt surreal, brought me back to swimming in the ocean as a child, even as the island behind me fell to pieces. I seized the edge of the dock and climbed up, splinters digging beneath my fingernails.
Alon was only a short distance behind me. Good boy – he’d kicked off his shoes. I bent to help him onto the dock. My boat was moored at the other end, swaying gently in the water. It was a small thing – big enough for some decent cargo and for weeks at sea, but smaller was quicker. Smaller meant less witstone used when I had the use of it at all. This far from the dust and falling buildings, my mind cleared. “There’s my boat,” I told the boy, and this time I didn’t have to shout. “We’re going to your parents.”
He followed me like a little lost lamb.
As soon as I was aboard, years of training took over. Checking the lines, undoing the docking line, hoisting the sail. The cacophony from the island faded to a dim sound in the back of my mind. My father had started teaching me to sail as soon as I could walk. Here, on the boat, my feet were steadier beneath me than on the quaking island.
Alon found a seat at the bow, and he sat there, mute and shivering.
A crack filled the air, loud as thunder. I looked back and swallowed. The island was sinking, the harbor now nearly fully submerged, the buildings at the edge creeping into the water. This wasn’t going to be enough. I had to do something, get away faster.
The witstone. I scrabbled at the cargo hatch, and then at the loose boards below. The boxes of witstone lay beneath. Anyone who knew my boat could see it was sitting lower in the water than it normally did, but there were few who knew my boat the way I did. I grabbed a handful of the white, chalky stuff, pushed myself up and dumped it into the brazier.
I could have been gone, long gone if I’d not stopped for the boy. If I’d not stopped to ask after the boat that had taken my Emahla. But ifs couldn’t save me now. I fumbled with the flint and then struck it against the side of the brazier. Sparks showered onto the witstone; it caught fire as easily as if it had been chaff.
White smoke surged forcefully from the brazier, bringing with it a gust of wind that caught the sail and filled it. My ship lurched forward toward the harbor opening – which was now twice as wide as it had been when I’d arrived. Sweat traced tracks down the side of my face. The sun had risen higher in the sky and the heat of it licked at the back of my neck. It didn’t seem fitting that the world should end on a cloudless day.
I blew on the flaming witstone and adjusted the mainsail. We weren’t the only ones speeding out of the harbor, but we were among the first. On the ocean, my heartbeat calmed, though my fingers still trembled. I caught a look at Alon, still sitting and shivering at the bow, arms wrapped around himself. The swim hadn’t washed all the dust from his face. His eyes widened as he stared at the island behind us. I risked a glance back.
The scale of destruction stole the breath from my lips. Half the buildings in the city had collapsed – nothing more than rubble. A gray plume of dust and smoke rose into the air, obscuring the trees. Flocks of birds had risen from the trees, dark specks among the plume.
“Auntie Danila . . .” Alon said.
Sometimes one was enough. One had to be enough. I swallowed. “She might have made it out, lad – don’t despair yet.” Around us in the water, I saw other shapes moving away from the island – goats, deer, cats, dogs, even rabbits and mice – all swimming, all abandoning the island. The deep stirred, the scales of some giant creature breaking the water briefly before it dove back down. I caught glimpses of fins and bright spots of luminescence. Even the beasts that lived on the underside of the floating island were leaving. Dread burrowed at the base of my neck, prickling down my spine.
The island trembled more violently, sending more of the city tumbling to the ground. The ground began to sink in earnest, as lazily as a person slipping into a bath. My mind calculated out the problem before my heart could believe it. If the island sank completely, the water would rush to fill the space left behind, creating a whirlpool.
If we did not get far enough away, we’d be pulled in. “By all the Alanga,” I murmured. We were moving quickly, but not quick enough. We’d barely cleared the harbor. I threw more witstone onto the fire, wiping the chalky dust off on the jacket. My little boat jumped in the water, but then slowed once more. I could see the eddies and currents, moving other boats about without regard for the wind. Someone on one of the boats screamed.
The witstone. I had to dump it. It was slowing us down.
Even with death staring me in the face, my mind scrambled for other options. I clamped down. No. I wouldn’t be like those people still at the docks, still hoping the quake would end, that they’d be able to return to their homes. They were still there if they weren’t drowned already.
“Alon, give me a hand with this, would you?”
The boy unfroze when I gestured to the hatch door. People always responded better in a crisis when given something to do. He held the door up as I dug for the boxes and heaved them onto the deck. A wealth of witstone, illicitly acquired, but mine. Enough to pay my debt to the Ioph Carn.
I reserved a handful for the brazier and then tossed the boxes overboard, one after another, before I could change my mind.
Enough – now not enough. Island sinking or no, the Ioph Carn would find me and demand their payment. But for now I was alive, my boat skimming across the water, my heartbeat quick and strong.
Alon crept back to the bow of the ship like a wounded animal. I’d pushed him hard, but I hadn’t wanted to leave him behind. He curled in on himself and began to keen. The opium was likely wearing off right about now too.
“Your auntie might still have gotten out,” I said. I knew it wouldn’t help as soon as I said it. He was eight; he wasn’t stupid. Although he lived on a smaller island, he probably came to visit his auntie often; he probably knew this place like a second home. And it was gone, dissolving into the ocean, Danila with it too.
He glanced at me, red-faced, from beneath his elbow. “They’re gone,” he wept. “The people are dead, the island is dead, the animals –” He lifted his head to look at the animals swimming alongside our boat. “They’re going to die too.”
The island behind us shook once more, and that last rumble broke down the walls I’d built around my horror. What had caused this? In all the old stories – even the ones of the Alanga – there was no mention of islands sinking. Quaking, yes, but not this. Not an entire island destroying itself, taking everything with it. I did my best to bolster my feelings. It wouldn’t help me or the boy if I fell apart, no matter how badly I wanted to.
I leaned over the side of the ship and saw a brown kitten, struggling in the waves. It had nowhere to go, but still it swam on. It scrabbled at the side of my boat, hoping for some purchase. I knew the feeling. Its brown eyes met mine, and I could feel its desperation.
On an impulse, I took my net, reached over and scooped the creature from the sea. It didn’t move when I deposited it on deck; it crouched, bedraggled and shivering. “Look here,” I said to Alon. “This one won’t die if you can take care of it. Open up that bench over there. There’s some blankets on the left side and some dried fish buried beneath them. See if you can get this fellow cleaned up and eating.”
Alon wiped his tears on the back of his sleeve and crept from the bow to the kitten. He cupped the little creature in his arms, and though he still sniffled, he stopped keening.
One more life saved. It was a pittance, unutterably small against the scale of the lives lost. But it was there. And one life certainly made a difference to the one living it.