“Biyya alt bas Anya, you kneel before the heads of the Merchant’s Conclave bound by wrist and ankle, a disgrace to your family’s trading company and to our collective industry.”
The Conclave magistrate paced the tiled rotunda in a lazy loop. Her slippered footfalls were muffled by the coughs and whispers drifting from the mezzanine. Biyya felt their eyes on her as so many trailing fingertips drawn across her skin. They prodded at every inch of her, looking for the defect in character that had brought her here that they might avoid it in themselves.
As they watched her, she watched the floor.
“You kneel before us, daughter of bas Anya, held in responsibility for the loss of several assets due your family, itemized as follows: twenty years’ labour, one advantageous contract of marriage with all associated benefits therein, fourteen trading days, and one life.”
A flock of whispers burst from the mezzanine. The viewing boxes were swollen with minor members of the Conclave houses, sons and daughters of trade desperate to mark their family’s importance among the Conclave.
The heads-of-house regarded her from a long, low table behind the still-pacing magistrate, all placid save for one. They sat seven altogether, and one of them was her brother. His face was knotted with rage, his under-eyes bruised with grief.
“Can you tell us, daughter of bas Anya, how this came to be?”
The Council heads already knew her story, told hours prior to this hearing as she sobbed breathlessly at their feet. She told it again—for their benefit, for the benefit of their collective, and for herself.
On Lamplighter’s Eve, Biyya took little Mita down to the bank of the wide and winding Timan River beneath the hulking Merchant’s Cross Bridge with the intention to skip rocks.
The sun lazed fat, dripping honeyed light on the distant horizon, casting the spindly towers of Qi Qala in sharp relief. Day-drunk revellers crowded the shallows, splashing and screaming in defiance of the languorous heat. Their laughter echoed against the underside of the bridge.
Endless stalls selling all the wealth of Qi Qala lined the promenade beneath the bridge: opals lit by internal flame; tea leaves smoked over apricot wood; delicately embroidered skirt fabrics woven from sea silk; and fruit diced, spiced, and speared in a profundity that tempted even the most abstemious tongue.
Shadows were long on Lamplighter’s Eve, and a cooling breeze moved like an exhaled breath through the bars of the Merchant District, which had thrown open doors and windows. It was a quiet holiday wedged between the sale of crops to distant cities across the sea and the return of the flooding rains. It was a night the people of Qi Qala drank away the moonless, final days of harvest between corridors of flickering light and thanked the Wanderers for their largesse.
Mitane hopped about Biyya’s feet and tugged at the waistband of the other’s labourer’s trousers. Her vicious little fingernails dug into the meat of Biyya’s stomach.
“Aun-tee!” Mitane shouted. Biyya struggled to keep her pants up. “Aun-tee, can I swim? Papa never lets me swim.”
Biyya ruffled the girl’s dense black curls. Mita squirmed away, a frown cut deep in her full-moon face.
“Your papa has good reason to keep you out of the water, Mita. See how the algae grow on fair Timan’s surface? The Lady’s gracious hair is long and tangling—she might tie you up in it and pull you to her breast!” Biyya grabbed her about the waist and wiggled her fingers into the child’s armpits. Mita squealed and tried to push her hands away.
“Papa says when I am strong and smart and tall, I can swim. Aren’t I strong, Auntie? Aren’t I tall?”
Biyya hefted the child up onto her hip. Mitane had grown heavy overnight, it seemed—no longer was she Biyya’s squirming puppy with an infant’s fat-cheeked face. Mita hung her arms about Biyya’s neck like drooping garlands and whispered nonsense in her ear in her breathy child’s voice. Biyya flicked Mita’s nose, and the little river shark tried to catch her finger between her teeth.
“It’s so very hot, Auntie. Wouldn’t the water be cool?”
Biyya paused in their promenade to wipe the sweat from her brow. She imagined the cool water of the Timan River soaking her hair, weighing down her clothes. She saw it carry her away from Qi Qala, through the rambling shantytowns, through the clamour and crush of flat-bottomed merchant boats, and out to the wide beryl sea where all was arching blue above and aching green below.
“Aye, it would indeed,” she said. “But what would you bathe in, little scamp? Are you hiding wading trousers beneath your skirt?”
“No-o-o,” Mita said, and tried to put her fingers in Biyya’s mouth, just as she had when she was small and round-bellied. “You’re silly, Auntie.”
Biyya shifted the girl to her other hip. Her back ached with Mita’s weight, but she couldn’t help the smile that cracked her face. “Am I your favourite auntie, Mita?”
“No, that’s—” She stopped and moved her hands frantically against Biyya’s neck. Biyya realized she was signing. Biyya set her down and Mita jumped up and down beside her, signing, “Atan! Atan! Cousin Atan!”
Biyya turned her back to the river, and there, strolling down the boardwalk toward them, weaving through the throngs like he was born to the crowds, was Atan. His wrapped skirt clung to his hips, tied high and tight on his stomach. His chest was bare—the better to show off the extensive and costly tattooing across his collarbone. His skin shone like wet copper in the late afternoon sun.
Atan was Biyya’s second sister’s first son, and among the many children of her family they mocked him as Blessed Atan. Their late, doting grandfather might as well have swept the ground with fresh bulrushes wherever Atan walked for how shamelessly he acquiesced to the other’s demands.
Atan’s long face turned skyward, his gaze unfocused. Mita took off at a run, tripping over her own bare feet in her haste to catch his attention. Biyya let her run—one lone child bouncing along the boardwalk was not so unusual in Qi Qala, and she needn’t fear for her safety.
Mita finally drew Atan’s eye. He entangled her in his arms and swung her around, heedless of the people dancing out of their path. She grinned harder than Biyya had seen in the weeks she’d been watching her while the girl’s father, Ondel, was on caravan to distant Belam. This night was Biyya’s last watching Mita, and though she was bone tired, she was loath to return the girl to her father’s care. Atan had himself been several months absent from Qi Qala, running some scholarly errand for his patron at the University. Biyya hadn’t heard he was yet returned to their city.
The cousins laughed together as Biyya threaded toward them through the crowd. The smell of smoked tea leaves clung heavy and sweet to the humid air, casting all the stalls along the waterfront in a smothering haze.
“My heart beats again,” Atan signed to Mita in greeting.
“What did you bring me from Serna Fast, Cousin Atan?” Mita signed in return.
He clutched his middle and laughed. “And what have you done to deserve gifts, my little shark? Dear cousin Biyya here looks positively sanguine. Did I not ask you to torment her mercilessly while I was away?”
Mita pulled at his skirt. “Cousin, I tried, but Biyya never gets mad! Papa says she is as placid as the river cow.”
“But several times deadlier!” His eyes sparkled, gleeful at his own tired joke about Biyya’s strength, which she had earned through long years in the family warehouse. Biyya thought of putting those eyes out, and it helped her resist hitting him.
Biyya met him with a bow, hands crossed on her chest, as was proper. “Well met in quiet times,” she signed to him.
“May they last for an age,” he signed in turn.
“How went your journey to Serna Fast? It must have been eventful to keep you from Qi Qala for so long.” Her hands flew through the motions.
Atan shrugged expansively. “Once my patron’s contracts and titles were delivered, well, you know how the Sern like to quarrel—we endured many nightly debates at their university’s Department of Allotropy.” He danced back on light feet and dealt the air between them a few wicked hooks and jabs. He broke off, laughing in his too-loud way.
Biyya waved him off. “Please, Cousin. You know I find your studies grisly.”
“Ah, gentle Biyya, weak in stomach but not in arm. It’s a shame you never cared for the academy—we could use an extra fist or two in our ‘debates’.” He grinned. She wanted to wrap her hands around his long throat and squeeze, if only for a moment.
Atan knew well that it was not that she had never cared for the academy—it was that her brother, Ondel bas Anya, the head of their family, did not care for her attendance. She had a head for numbers, which made her an asset to the family business, Ondel had said; it would not do to waste that gift on tallying every star in the sky.
The fading light shone off a new piece of sharpened, polished silver where a tooth had been when last she saw Atan. It matched his other silver canine perfectly. Biyya gulped down the bile that rose in her throat. She couldn’t stop from wondering to what purpose that tooth had been turned—perhaps to manifest an arc of light, or bring a deceased animal back from the dead. Atan had explained that bone holds more power than hair or even skin and is capable of incredible things, but of course she had only heard of such things from him, and she could never be certain when he was telling the truth.
Atan clapped her hard on the shoulder, shaking her from her thoughts. “How is the family business? Fruitful? My portion of tuition fees is due by moonfall of the first month of Flood, do not forget.”
Her smile was sickly sweet in return. “I could not forget if I wanted to, dear Atan—I’ve been carting away our stock of granite for just that purpose for several days now.”
He threw a hand against his mouth in mock horror. “Not all by yourself, I hope!” He formed the words with discreet, precise movements of his fingers. “The more you grow to look like a common labourer, the more difficult it will be to make you a suitable contract.” He grinned. “What an awful tragedy that would be.”
Biyya briefly considered crushing the bones of his hands so that he might never form those familiar mocking words again, but it would not do to cripple the family favourite, even if he was an incorrigible ass.
Mita pulled again at Biyya’s trousers. “Auntie, can I walk with Atan?” she signed. Mita was always careful to speak in a way that included Atan—she was an uncommonly considerate child, their Mita.
“I’m sure Atan has very important things to do—”
Atan swept Mita up in his arms and sat her on his shoulders. “Nonsense. Biyya just wants you all for herself!”
Her little hands clung to his broad forehead like a limpet to seastone. Atan grimaced.
“Enjoy the festival, Cousin!” Biyya said. She flung a mocking goodbye over her shoulder as she strode away. She didn’t turn to look, but knew that if she had she would have found Atan wearing the frown of the contrarian who’d accidentally gotten his way. That thought alone was satisfying enough to put a spring in her step, and she wandered down the boardwalk and out of their sight. She had a sudden craving for smoked tea.
Atan liked to point out that it was he who had been chosen by their heads-of-house to sign a patronage contract and attend the University, not she. No, indeed, her labour was still owned by her family, bound to their business until she came of legal majority at twenty years. That she was twenty and five now and still laboured for her family, that she had not signed a marriage contract in blood ink or left to seek her fortunes on caravan, was unusual and more than a shade pathetic, which Atan liked to remind her whenever he had the opportunity. His opportunities were ample.
But she had little desire to sign herself, her blood, to another family, little desire to take blood from her palm and mix it with iron gall ink, to be bound in that way to anyone, no matter how it might improve her family’s wealth.
It was true that they had a generous plot of bloodwood trees in their sprawling compound, more than they could ever hope to seed and support when their fruits ripened. It’s true she could have had her pick from the Conclave families; could have taken their commingled blood and fed it to any of bas Anya’s many trees; could have watched the tree burst into bloom, white blossoms exploding along its branches; could have tended to its health through several seasons, and, when its fruit was ripened, birthed her child from its burl. She could have dragged their thin, translucent limbs from the guts of the trees, and named them hers.
She did not do those things. She wanted to study the shapes of the stars and vagaries of the wind. She wanted to be responsible for no one’s comfort and success but her own. And when the heads of her family’s house chose to invest in Atan by investing him in the University and not her, she refused the marriage contract they offered instead and settled for a job in their warehouse for as long as they would have her. She made a small life. If she could not have the sea, she convinced herself, then she would see herself buried before anyone would keep her.
Biyya had stopped at a tea merchant’s stall to investigate their stock. There came a scream. She knew it at once from any other scream, because it belonged to her cousin. She turned from the tea stall, carelessly knocking jars and baskets to the ground, and dashed off down the boardwalk.
Her bare feet beat the weathered wood. Revellers may have yelled as she knocked against them, but she wouldn’t know, because she couldn’t hear a thing for the rushing of her heart in her ears.
She found Atan by the river. He kneeled in the shallows and shook. A crowd of gawking onlookers gathered around him, and she knew for certain she knocked them aside. Atan turned wide, miserable eyes on her, red-rimmed, liquid, sloshing with regret. There was no young cousin by his side.
Biyya shook him with such violence she was distantly surprised she didn’t snap his neck. “Where is Mita!” Her spit made a constellation on his cheek.
He looked at the water and at her, and a fresh torrent of tears fell down his cheeks. She shoved him away from her and dove into the river.
All was light and green and bright. Grasses bent and danced in the shallows. She kicked against the drag of her clothes and down deep to the cold river floor. The layers of the water peeled away, no longer bright but brown, no longer brown but black and soft with eddied silt.
Biyya hung suspended at the riverbottom and peered into the deep, but could see no little cousin. She pulled furiously along Timan’s floor. Pressure heaved itself against her ears and blood pounded behind her eyes. Her lungs burned and her eyes ached. No, there was no little cousin here—only shattered crockery, husks of river crab, and the implacable press of dark.
She made for the surface and emerged gasping into twilight. Atan’s wordless wailing floated downstream to meet her. For a moment, she turned her eyes to the sky, pale violet at the edges and shading to deep blue. The first stars were just beginning to punch through the night. There would be no moon to aid a search, for it was Lamplighter’s Eve, and all the moons were well below the horizon. The city had only its stilt-bound beacons to light the way.
A miserable thought came to her and she shoved it away, then reconsidered and pulled it back with hungry fingers and swallowed it down.
At least she died on a lovely night.
The river trawlers found Mita’s body the next morning, bumping against a merchant’s boat where the river and the sea braided into each other. Biyya was brought before the Conclave before the first moon broke the seal of the horizon.
The Conclave magistrate paused. She clasped her hands behind her back and peered at Biyya down her long nose. Biyya’s knees ached against the tile, and her throat was parched from recounting her story. She breathed as if through sand.
“You owe your family a great deal, Biyya alt bas Anya. Do you not?”
“I do, Magistrate.” Her voice creaked.
“A child of marriageable age who refuses a contract and opts instead to continue sweating in their family’s warehouse like a common labourer?” She looked into the eaves and frowned. “Highly unusual.”
Biyya was not the first to have done it. Doubtful she would be the last. She made the choice so long ago it seemed to her a minor thing now, though to the magistrate—to the onlookers—it was as fresh as if she had made the choice that morning.
“Bas Anya is a prominent house. Their trade—” Ah! Already she defined Biyya outside of them! “—casts a wide net across the Galloping Sea. A daughter of Bas Anya house has before her every opportunity, doesn’t she?”
Biyya’s brother burst from his seat, nearly upending the table where sat the rest of the Council heads-of-house. They scrambled to right overturned tea cups and scattered bits of cut fruit.
“We gave you every gift, every opportunity! You could have had any daughter or son of the Council and you refused them all!”
The magistrate pierced him with a glare. “Be seated, Ondel, or I will have you removed.”
But he would not stop. “Was it jealousy, Biyya? Is that why you let her drown? Knowledge that she would inherit the life you gave away? That she would receive the position you rejected?”
Tears pricked at Biyya’s eyes, but she would not let them fall. They could take her life or her blood or her practised penitence, but they would not bleed her of her feelings. Those, she would keep always in her, a roiling sickness in her gut that was hers alone.
“Tell me!” Tears poured down Ondel’s cheeks.
“You will be silent.” The magistrate’s voice was tinder igniting—it stole the air from the room. She so hated a mess, and there he was, staining her fine table with his tears.
She turned to Biyya. “Did you give over your child cousin, of whom you were given charge, into the hands of Atan alt bas Anya, a minor, who is scarcely more than a child himself?”
“I did.” Atan was ten and nine, hardly a child, but by their laws not yet of majority, not yet an adult. That anyone would have done the same, does the same, meant little.
“And did the child, Mitane alt bas Anya, your cousin, then drown in the river Timan as a result of your negligence?”
Biyya took a breath and held it. She could lie and defy them, and then suffer their choice with indignity. Or she could be truthful and pretend that this farce was justice—it would make the sentencing easier for them. Biyya knew the result would be the same regardless, and she did not care to make it easy.
She sneaked a glance at her brother. The collar of his loose blouse was torn and stained with sweat. His nails were bitten to the quick and angry red. Whatever happened next, he would have to go to bas Cassen and pay the share they were owed of Mita’s eventual marriage contract and projected labour, perhaps even a fraction of the expected worth of her as yet non-existent (and now never to exist) children, as was stated in their contract. And more than faith, more even than family, the contract was exalted in Qi Qala. Bas Anya could have easily borne the cost of the voided contract, but every bolt of cloth Ondel traded away, every wheel of copper wire, every precious block of alloy, would have been heavy with Mita’s blood. His first and only child—carefully tended, joyously birthed—was dead, and in his eyes it was Biyya’s fault.
She reminded herself that Ondel stole the skies from her.
And yet, and yet, and yet. She looked at his face and saw her own. His eyes were hers, his cheeks, his chin, his dark skin. She remembered when he escorted her as she paid her first moon tithe at Seble’s temple. He taught her to swim beneath the riverboats and to never turn her back on the sea. He was her blood.
Biyya nodded to the magistrate, but her eyes were for her brother. See me, she pleaded. Forgive this unforgivable thing your nephew has done. Forgive me.
For all that she had shamed her family, she was still a scion of the guild—they would not see her hanged, at least. She made her decision. She said: “Mitane alt bas Anya did drown, Magistrate. Her death was a result of my negligence.”
The magistrate nodded once, sharp. Her mouth set into a thin line that edged toward a grimace. Biyya expected her to approve, but instead she seemed nervous.
“Ondel bas Anya, do you accept Biyya alt bas Anya’s admission of guilt in the death of your daughter?”
In all the trials Biyya had seen, the magistrate’s script was always perfect, always assured. So why, then, did her voice shake?
“As the cost your family has incurred is in excess of what any family should endure, you may decide how payment is rendered. What would you ask of Biyya alt bas Anya?”
His eyes did not soften. He no longer cried. What softness his face held fled in anticipation of his words.
Trade? A length of cold dread began to uncoil in her gut. Never had she seen “trade” levied as a punishment, nor had even any idea to what it could refer. Did they intend to force her in contract with bas Cassen, to trade her in Mitane’s place? She bid her heart to still its sudden pounding, but it galloped on.
The mezzanine hummed and buzzed, a hive of whispers, questions, and exclamations of confusion. The underarms of the magistrate’s blouse were soaked through.
“Silence!” The magistrate’s voice was a shrill bark. The muttering ceased. “Ondel bas Anya has called for trade. How would bas Cassen see payment rendered?”
A woman stepped up beside Biyya’s brother and rested a heavy hand on his shoulder. Her face was stern, though the set of her shoulders—pulled close about her ears—betrayed her anxiety.
“Bas Cassen calls for trade as well.”
Biyya’s palms grew damp with sweat.
The magistrate addressed the rotunda. “Do we host a Savant of Allotropy?”
A man Biyya had only ever seen at a distance stepped from an adjoining room. “Indeed, you do,” he said.
He was bald from head to foot; not even his eyebrows remained. He wore an exquisitely tailored skirt knotted just below his ribs. His hands were missing their fourth and fifth fingers. As well he lacked both his ears, all of his natural teeth, and his nose, replaced now by a false one. He was Esun, Atan’s patron at the University and Qi Qala’s foremost mind on the fledgling study of allotropy—the science of dissolution, of bond-breaking, of the exploitation of flesh to accumulate untethered energy. A science only in jest and the province chiefly of charlatans.
“Are you prepared to perform a trade?”
He grinned and his mouth was silver, every tooth a perfectly cast and moulded imitation of the real thing. He pulled two tightly folded squares glinting sunrise pink from a richly embroidered leather pouch at his waist. He unfolded the squares from what seemed like infinite, boundless space; the squares doubled then doubled again, their tiny, interwoven chains coming as if from nothing. Soon, he stood before the gathered heads-of-house with two nets of alloy slightly longer and wider than he himself was tall.
“I am. You need only command me to it.” He nodded to the magistrate and flashed his teeth to the crowd.
The magistrate grimaced and looked away from him, sweat beading fresh on her forehead. “And do we have the—the remains?” Her voice hitched on the word.
“We do!” He seemed almost joyful. His glee made the dread in Biyya’s stomach churn sour with a growing terror.
A collective gasp from the crowd. There was Atan, rabbit-wary in the doorway to the adjoining room. And there was Mita in his arms, her limbs loose and graceless in death. Atan looked a ghoul, ashen and insubstantial. With a brittle clarity, Biyya realized what it was they meant to do. She bit hard on her lip to stop the animal whine that fought to escape her mouth. The hot salt flavour of blood bloomed on her tongue.
Atan laid Mitane in the centre of the rotunda. She seemed impossibly small in that large room.
A trembling began in Biyya’s hands, and she could not still them. It snaked up her arms; the muscles of her thighs shook and spasmed. Mita is here and caught and drowning again, and I am still bound to the shore, she thought, and grieved anew.
“How do you—” The magistrate’s words left her. She put a hand to her mouth.
Biyya wondered what Atan’s words would be were her fingers free to ask him.
“It is deceptively simple, Magistrate.” The Savant Esun bounced on his heels. “Yes, I think even you will be quite surprised by how straightforward the whole business is.” He flourished one of his nets and it shimmered like a wave in the air. He held it up to the light—to the viewers in the wings—that they might see and be amazed, like a merchant hawking at market. Then he knelt on the tile beside Mita and carefully wrapped her in the net. She looked shrouded in dawn light, as if she came to bring the day.
He knelt next beside Biyya. He ran a warm, calloused finger under the restraints on her wrist. “We will need to remove the shackles from the prisoner’s wrists and ankles; the base metals in them may interfere with the alloy.”
A shaky man scuttled from beside the table of the heads-of-house and unlocked Biyya’s shackles. She could smell the sweat on him. She imagined it as sea spray in her nose. Free, she shook the stiffness from her wrists and ankles.
If she should want to run, this was the moment. She looked to Atan, but he stared at the floor. She looked to her brother, Ondel, but his gaze was locked on Mita’s shrouded form. So, she considered alone.
If she were to run, where would she go? Insular Serna would not take her, stranger that she was. Righteous Belam would not have her, a fugitive. Amiable Djen was too far. There was Vulho, just south along the water and across the Galloping Sea, where slaves mined the alloy that lubricated the trade of their city from oozing sores in the earth. She had heard of other cities, arid places far distant, farther even than Djen, but they were beyond her reach.
And even if she ran, if she made it out of the rotunda, out of the administrative complex, and out of the winding lamplit streets of Qi Qala and ran to Seble knew where, the truth remained: Mita would still be dead.
Esun looked with silent question to the magistrate.
“Is there anything you would like to say?” she asked Biyya.
Her fear leapt ahead of her dignity. Trying to hide her shaking with a steady voice, Biyya asked: “What will happen?”
Esun’s smile was kindly, sad. Biyya saw, so close to him now, that the colour of his false nose did not quite match the colour of his skin. He looked shoddy in her eyes—no longer the pride of the University, but an addict, an obsessive, ragged and unravelling at the edges. His research spilled the borders of his life and advanced like an invading force upon his own body, and she was but one more vulnerable city-state on the winding road to his sure infamy.
“My experience tells me you will feel nothing. But your experience, well—it may be different.”
She nodded absently. Of course, she thought. He would know—he had clearly performed the exchange (albeit on a smaller scale) upon himself, evidenced by his missing fingers, nose, and everything else.
The magistrate cleared her throat. “Anything else?”
Biyya searched for Atan and caught his gaze at last. She looked between him and Ondel and waited for one of them to speak on her behalf. They did not.
Esun stepped behind her and placed his hand on her shoulder. “I would resist the urge to make any sudden movements,” he whispered. “It would be…regrettable.” She turned her head to look at him, and he tapped her shoulder as if to say, No.
He draped the net over her head and it fell about her shoulders like a light rain. It weighed hardly more than breath.
What will happen to me? She burned with the need to know, but dreaded her forthcoming education. She imagined instead that she was among the moons, treading the narrow pathways of the sky and teetering on the cliffs between the vast canyons of stars, and it calmed her sprinting blood. The stars do not blink, she reminded herself. They do not breathe. They do not fear. They do not wish and do not dream. They simply persist; to do aught else would be beneath them.
I am a star. I am a sea. I am a moon. I simply am. All else is beneath me.
Still, the tile was hard on her knees.
The Savant Esun moved away from her, and she wondered how she must appear to the children of the houses watching in the wings, how they must wonder if her fate might someday be theirs, and whether they quaked in fear or stood in confidence that no such thing could befall them, that they could make no such mistake.
Esun beckoned to Atan, who pulled a spool of thread-fine alloy cordage from a pouch at his hip. He unspooled several feet of the wire and hastily wove it through the net around Mita’s body. He then shuffled over to Biyya and unwound several more feet before cutting the cord. He wove it through the net covering her as he did with Mita.
“Very good. Thank you, Atan,” Esun said, speaking to the crowd. He did not bother to sign for Atan, probably expecting him to read his lips or guess at his words. Atan bowed and retreated, then returned a few moments later pushing a wide, flat cart on which sat a stout urn. He wheeled it to the centre of the room and placed it between Mita and Biyya before severing the cord that bound their shrouds. He rested the ends of the cord beside the urn and hastened several feet away.
The magistrate stepped up and cast a nervous glance at Mita’s still corpse, then at the somber collected heads-of-house sitting stiff-backed and grim at their low table. “Are you ready to begin?”
Esun grinned hugely, quickly, as if by reflex, as if he could not help himself. “Oh yes, oh yes,” he said hurriedly. “All necessary preparations have been made.” He turned to Atan and signed. “Would you like to?” But he stopped himself before Atan could respond. “No, no,” he mumbled to himself. “That would be unseemly. Yes, it should be me. It is my due, after all.”
A wave of goosebumps rose across Biyya’s skin.
Esun turned again to meet the magistrate; she regarded him with alarm, her brows high on her face, her shoulders turned as if she would like to run from the room but was steeling herself to stillness. “If you would step back—” he said, and she nearly leapt to be clear of him.
He cleared his throat and looked to the house members gathered in the wings. “Before you are the wages of several years of scholarship on the part of myself and sundry other curious minds spread across the Galloping Sea. This is ‘trade’ as you have never imagined, never could have imagined.”
Biyya’s heart thundered in her chest and her bowels turned to water. The net wrapped about her shook with her quivering, its caress whispers from otherworldly mouths sliding across her skin.
Esun warmed to his speech and to his audience’s rapt attention. “You few here, gathered from the premier houses of Qi Qala, you who are the best of our city, know well the power of blood, for the blood’s power is manifest in the bloodwood trees sequestered away behind your family walls. Here, with this alloy,” he held up the slip of cord wound about in Mita’s net, “we may harness the blood’s energies to their utmost, and act upon our world in monumental, magnificent ways.”
Biyya’s mouth, so dry, suddenly ran with saliva. Bile climbed her throat.
“Get on with it, then!” Someone—a younger daughter of bas Miron, perhaps—yelled from the mezzanine.
The Savant chuckled and took up the length of cord attached to Biyya’s own net. “Indeed, I go on too long. So, then: watch as blood is consumed to stir still blood anew.”
He plunged the cords of alloy into the urn before him. Silence fell across the room, and for a moment, nothing happened.
Then, the air about Biyya began to press against her skin, first like a strong wind, then like crashing waves, pummelling her against the shore of herself. She was pressed to the floor, and the air began to vibrate, began to scream, and distantly—so faintly she couldn’t be sure she heard anything at all—came a whistling. The air was punched from her chest and her eyes flattened in her head, her lungs—I can’t breathe—I can’t speak—
—all was blue, the deepest blue she’d ever seen, staring at the space between the stars or into the depths of the sea, and she was sinking down, the pressure of the birth in reverse, weights tied to her feet, but where were her feet? She was no longer her but the sea, endlessly churning, cold and vast as anything, and then—
A torrent of light poured from a pinprick of darkness, and the space that once was Biyya alt bas Anya was barren.
The rotunda was deafeningly silent. Into the silence burst a sob, a crashing cry like a delicate pot shattered on tile, reformed, and shattered again. It went on for too long, and those assembled fought to catch their breaths.
The magistrate, eyes wide and glassy, stumbled stiff to the centre of the room and fell to her knees. Jerkily she raised the shroud off the crying, crumbled form that revealed itself to be Mitane. She pulled the child into her arms.
Ondel rose shakily from the table. He pet the hair of his once-dead daughter. “Mita..?” He breathed her name and she burrowed further into the magistrate’s arms, shrinking from his touch. “Mita, Mita, look at Papa. I’m here, dear one, look, I’m here.”
But she would not come to him, and stared at him with a stranger’s eyes. She was identical to his daughter, but she did not know him. His eyes narrowed, and he wrenched her from the magistrate’s arms. The girl began to scream in a language strange and foreign.
Esun bounced on his heels, delighted. “Witness, Conclave: payment has been rendered by bas Anya House unto bas Anya and bas Cassen. All debt in this matter is dissolved.”
Atan knelt where Biyya alt bas Anya once lay and was consumed, and lifted her shroud from the tiles. It was liquid light rolling over his fingers. He thanked Seble that there was nothing of Biyya left to witness the pale shadow her bad blood bought.
Mitane’s wracking sobs echoed through the rotunda as her father dragged her from the hall.
Biyya woke in a dark womb of water. Buoyed by black waves, she floated beneath a black sky void of cloud, the wandering moons, or even her familiar stars. She blinked, and vertigo overwhelmed her. She felt as if she was falling, that there was no up nor down, but then a warm wind roared out across the sea and she was tangled up in it. Wind kissed cool across the soft undersides of her arms, trailed its thousand tiny fingertips across her lips. The wind marked her place—neither up nor down, neither above nor below, only floating on the warm, sweat-slicked skin of the world.
An age passed on that gently rolling sea before she choked air into her lungs. I am alive. What had once been a bottomless sea became a shallows, and she sat up in surprise. I am alive? The ocean rushed away as if chasing another tide. Biyya wondered if it ran to hold another body lost in the black.
And where there had been shallows there was then wet sand, cool and yielding between her toes.
The sand begged for walking, so she followed its path. A cheerful wind, different in spirit from the one that had woken her, played about her feet. When she slowed, uncertain, it pressed her on, grabbing at her ankles with its countless fingers small as a young cousin’s, and tugged her along just as insistently. Soon the sand was hard-packed desert.
The desert’s dark road held the warmth of a just-set sun. It sang the saved heat of midday up her bones. For the first time, Biyya was warmed from within, not just from without. There was a stirring in her chest. She pressed a hand to her breast and stopped in bewilderment. The wind whined that they must go on but she told it to shush, and listened. Like a bird shaking out its feathers her heart shook off its bindings, the thick-knitted cobwebs that had, she realized, so ably cocooned it. The wind whined again and she acquiesced. It pulled them on.
Biyya, whose thoughts had been all a fog of wonder and confusion, began to shape a question. She lacked words; fingers to lips she mouthed them: Is this death: to search the endless nothing for sundered parts of yourself?
She walked on in the dark and came to a door. How long it had taken her to get there, she couldn’t quite say, just that the wind had pulled her across a flat, endless waste beneath dark skies and over dark earth; it had only ceased its pulling when she looked up and saw the door.
The door was not impressive. In fact, it reminded her rather much of the servant’s entrance to the bas Anya compound: plain, shaped with raw wood, and liable to give one splinters. Her gut gave a tiny twist—how long had it been since she’d thought of her family? Were they well without her? Perhaps they celebrated finally being rid of their unmarried daughter. The door’s frame stood alone, the door in it only just ajar.
Biyya drew her fingers down the frame. The wood was curiously warm to the touch. A needle-thin bit of wood speared her finger, but she felt no pain and did not bleed. She put her fingers to the door and pushed; it swung wide. Across the threshold lay more interminable desert. The wind, not to be denied, pressed at her heels. When she balked and leaned and pressed back against it, the wind shoved harder still and sent her tumbling through the doorway.
Story copyright © 2017 by Kate Dollarhyde
Artwork copyright © 2017 by P. Emerson Williams
Kate Dollarhyde is a writer of speculative fiction. You can read her stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Gamut, and Lamplight. You can find her on Twitter as @keightdee. She is currently a narrative designer at Obsidian and the Co-Editor in Chief of Strange Horizons. Though she lives in California, her true home is on the internet.
P. Emerson Williams is an artist, musician, actor, and writer who works on a creative continuum that draws upon an interest in the arcane and esoteric. His passion is for embodying the mythic in visual media and melding visual art with narrative form. He has collaborated with writers James Curcio and Nathan Neuharth, and illustrated Bedlam Stories: The Battle of Oz and Wonderland Begins, the first novel in Pearry Teo’s series. As a musician he has worked with SLEEP CHAMBER, Jarboe, Manes, and kkoagulaa among many others.