MINUTES AFTER THE EMPEROR’S MURDER
Your name is Ianthe the First: sister, Lyctor, backstabber. You chose this path. You did murder to get here, clear-eyed and cold-blooded. You saw your dreadful chance at sainthood, and you said fuck yes. You saw ten thousand years with the same five weirdos unrolling before you, complicated power dynamics and all, and said sign me up.
Now you don’t know where Gideon went — either one. You don’t know where Harry’s body is. You know jack shit, frankly, about the whereabouts of your sister, the real one, which seems more pressing now that you are alone with God. And God Himself is slung over your shoulder like a sack of drowned cats, soaking wet and mostly naked, as you splash for the edge of the River. You feel this might dent anyone’s faith.
You saw a miracle; you saw Dominicus restored a second time. And you saw God wrongfooted and lying. And you saw him absolutely explode the hell out of Mercymorn’s torso, and you’ve always been a pragmatist.
The pebbles of the bank grind unreally under your feet. Every piece and part of you hurts, and you’re shaking and sick with residual Herald-madness. You do your best to lay the King Undying down gently, but he slips from your gilt grip in a long-limbed tangle. Mostly you drop him in the mud. He stirs, half-rolls onto his front — you keep your gaze a fixed eight inches above the gauzy fabric plastered wetly to his body — and makes a bad noise. You consider CPR, then decide you’d rather die.
The River is turbulent and nasty, skeined with oily floating scum and pieces of Beast and twisted, blackened pieces of space station. It’s not a pleasant view. You have to try hard to look engrossed.
The Emperor stops choking, and sighs. You look at him sidelong. His face is in his hands. In your heart you are a horrible busybody, but this is like touching a hot stove, or seeing your parents naked: it provokes instant avulsion. You look away.
Finally, he lifts his head and rasps: “Did you see her?”
You frown. “Harry — Gideon? I didn’t —”
“No,” he says. In the dirty-glass light, his eyes are raw-edged holes in the world. You kneel beside him, waiting, confused. He does not speak.
You don’t want to vocalize Mercymorn. “The Saint of…”
“No,” God says.
You can’t place the emotion in his voice. Searching, maybe. You think of Harrowhark.
When God beholds your face, what does he see? For the very first time ever, he reaches out to touch you — you flinch, remembering the wet thump of blown-out muscle — but all he does is put his hand on your shoulder, and look very seriously into your eyes. Thus forced to pay attention, you have a front-row seat to the process of your Lord pulling himself together, tucking that raw look away like an escaping coil of intestine.
“The River… it’s embarrassing, but you’ve seen a hell of a lot today already… it gets in your head. I thought I saw…”
“Oh,” you say, relief making you stupid. “No, I only saw — Augustine.”
God winces, and lets you go. When he turns from you, he looks human and old, exhaustion heavy on his shoulders.
“I should really thank you,” is all he says.
You are Ianthe Tridentarius — Ianthe the First — Ianthe the last, eighth saint to serve the King Undying and the only one left standing. You had not imagined it this way: you, the Emperor’s eighth digit — which makes you right-hand middle, as you count it. Ha! You salute the world, solitary and obscene.
Which is to say: you and God wait by the bank of the River in silence for hours, and no one else crawls out.
HOURS AFTER THE EMPEROR’S MURDER
The shuttle is gone. You learn to traverse the River on foot. This should be impossible; in the shadow of God, you learn, it is only very horrible. You dive and surface, dive and surface, scream until you lose your voice. You come to know the shape of a ghost ward more intimately than you ever hoped: you grit your teeth, and the skin of your back splits open untouched into perfect curlicues, again and again. You feel like an overripe fruit.
The River, as God said, gets in your head. You see — Babs, often. The Saint of Joy, face-down in the scummy water in a wet mass of hair the color of fat-sheened flesh. Augustine, bloody-mouthed, a tooth-edged hole screaming at you from his chest.
The worst are the visions of Coronabeth. You cry out at those in utter panic, forgetting and remembering and forgetting again that they’re not real.
Distressingly often, you come back to yourself being actually carried by God. At these times your heart pounds a mortifying artillery barrage. Your ragged breathing seems gauche. Harrowhark would have gone into a religious ecstasy or a heart attack. You just wish you were not conscious of having beaten at his sternum with your fists, like a child. But if the Emperor is angry, he doesn’t show it. You croak “My Lord —” and are gently hushed, and thereafter try to become invisible.
Time stretches and sags. He talks — whether to you, or to himself, is an academic question at this point. There are weird little stories you’ve never heard before (“... and Death says, you can have her, but you must not look back… which seems very achievable, if you ask me…”), and poetry, and one time you surface to awareness to hear God muttering a sort of repetitive chant under his breath. The words, when you scrape together enough gray matter to make them out, seem to be about diminishing liquor supplies.
Near the end of your journey, he addresses empty space: “Christ, don’t look at me like that.”
Then: “I know. I know.”
Your three remaining brain cells say: this is strange, pay attention, but your vision is full of migraine bursts and dead wet hands are pawing at your ankles, and you’re pretty busy not throwing up.
“No one else would have done it,” says God, far away, in a voice you would have called helpless in anyone else’s mouth. And: “I won’t argue with you.”
And then he says a name, but it’s too late. You’re already gone.
DAYS AFTER THE EMPEROR’S MURDER
The Nine Houses are in major disarray, due to the fact that the fucking sun went out. The reappearance of God is an epochal event. You sleep through it. The River left you no physical mark, but your ghost ward keeps opening again, reflexive and weeping; you wake to blood-smeared skin, sheets, hands.
You think to yourself — in that particular way you often think things to yourself, imagining the moment when you might deploy them in conversation — ugh! puberty all over again. Only then you have a vision of the horrified little scrunched-up face Harrow would make in response, and feel … cross. Sick. Personally aggrieved by the experience of feeling things. Petulantly, you go back to sleep.
When you recover sufficiently to stand and smile, you are expected to take your role in the drama playing out around you: The Empire At War, co-starring Ianthe the First as the ill-favored and unused right hand of the Emperor. You say ill-favored — well, even if God spares you not a word beyond, essentially, heel, this is nothing new, and should not surprise you. Unused stings more. You are a silent shadow at his elbow, a symbol without potency. You become a creature of meetings, which were already low in your personal ranking of activities, and which fall further every time you are subjected to the Emperor saying “Hmm” out loud.
You have a lot of time to think.
There were gardens on the Third, in your childhood. Coronabeth’s favorite (your favorite, by extension) was a miniature forest picked out in gold sunlight, with a miniature ecosystem of beetles, birds, and rare lichens. You had liked to sit on a particular bench and read, while your twin ran around like a wild thing with an abandoned piece of tubing for a rapier.
One afternoon she ran back to you, all bouncing curls and frantic energy except for the careful stillness of her cupped hands. She opened them to show you a sad lump of feathers, a shell-shocked, half-dead little thing that was probably worse for being handled. “Fix it,” she pleaded.
“Do it yourself, if you care so much,” you said, even as you slipped a marker into your book and set it aside. Corona pouted. Curiosity tugged at you: when you wrapped your hands around hers, you could feel the thanergy and the thalergy delicately balanced in the bird’s meat, slipping this way and that. You wanted to put your thumb on the scales. So you reached, and your sister wriggled and laughed with delight as the creature rustled its feathers and opened gleaming eyes… and then the thalergy boiled over in a cytogenic cascade, and a fatty tumor popped through its vitreous jelly. Even for you, this was gross.
Now that you think about it, maybe Babs was there too — but when Corona had cried and cried, it was you who rubbed her back, made soothing noises, and (later) took notes.
For your sister, you would do anything. It is a fundamental fact of you, much like God is powerful or triangles have three sides. To hell with the Emperor and his houses: you would burn it all down and eat the scalding ash, to keep her safe. You would throw away the power you killed for. All things being equal, though… you would prefer to have both. So you wait.
Two things sustain you. The first: a close study of the man who is God. When you first met him, you would have described him as kind of tired, and kind of shitty, relative to your expectations. These attributes have only increased. The Emperor is not reassuring to look upon. He is ashen and exhausted. More often than not, his crown of office sits crooked on his dark hair (a fact which you observe dispassionately, feeling no impulse to action or speech). His patience runs out, and he is sarcastic at people, and then he wastes huge chunks of both your immortal lives talking those people down from falling on their swords. He fidgets constantly — this is standard; but then sometimes he withdraws from conversation to stare at nothing until someone ventures to get his attention, which is alarming.
Your second hobby involves making bets with yourself about how long it will take before someone dares to ask God what happened out there? In the uncomfortable gray rooms you haunt, curiosity and reverence and fear mingle in the air like cigarette smoke. The Empire’s finest struggle with their courage, and you perceive tensing and stilling vocal cords, molars pressed together. Adrenaline spikes and diffuses, ghosts lights fading in and out in your necromantic sense.
The Emperor is … not forthcoming. You were out for a while, but you now suspect he hasn’t told anyone anything, which surely only God could get away with. You follow his lead, although you are secretly disappointed that no one takes the opportunity to corner the baby Lyctor in a hallway somewhere and squeeze you for information instead.
Two weeks, that’s your latest bet. A nice round number. But only nine days after your convalescence ends — as you sit in the back of an Admiralty meeting picking at tangles in your hair and studying the back of God’s chair — someone says hesitantly, “Most holy Lord, if you deigned to spare one of your Hands—” and then cuts herself off.
Flares in your periphery. Everyone holds their breath; you squash the impulse to do the same, blank your expression and raise your eyes to God. There is a horrible beat of silence.
God puts down his cup of tea with a click, and squares his shoulders like a man preparing for a blow. “The Saint of Duty is gone,” he says solemnly, to the agonized room. “The Saint of Patience, the Saint of Joy — likewise; and Harrowhark the First, also.” You think: it might have been kinder to put them all in one sentence.
Ten pairs of eyes turn to you as if dragged by hooks. You wink.
“Forgive me,” says the Emperor — triggering the usual chorus of mumbled assurances, which add up to the usual point that it would be unbelievably heretical to be offended in the first place — “I should not have kept you in suspense” — more mumbling. What a farce. You prop your chin in your golden palm and let yourself go limp.
He sighs, and sits up straight. Draws a breath. “As I am your Lord,” he says, more firmly, “I tell you that my Saints, my holy Hands, those far-flung beacons of Trentham and Koniortos — the Saint of Joy, and Harrowhark the First, last-reborn — are gone. I tell you that my Lyctors are lost to us. As their brothers and sisters before them, they have passed into the River in glory, defending me and mine from a great and terrible enemy. And with that sacrifice they have lent me the strength to protect the Nine Houses … mourn them, for my sake, but trust that this is not the end. Not even close. Do I not walk amongst you? Does Dominicus not shine?”
In your opinion, this is not the most inspiring speech ever given, but there is no arguing with it. The admirals mutter assent and apology.
Not quite as an afterthought, he continues: “Excepting Ianthe the First, the ever-faithful… who yet stands by my side.”
“My Lord.” You are pathetically buoyed, to be acknowledged as existing. You perceive it happening, and do not try to stop it, but as a childish counterbalance, you murmur, “Your crown is crooked, most holy.”
“Good to know, Ianthe, thank you.”
God stands up, and shakes out his arms as if to banish stiffness. “I think that might be enough for today. Thank you, yes, let us reconvene tomorrow…” The meeting dissolves into the typical algebra of calendars and appointments, albeit more subdued than usual.
You hang back amidst the rush for the door. A tall Cohort officer, all red and starch-white in her uniform jacket, eyeballs you aggressively, as if she suspects you of an assassination plot. God, but the Cohort bore you. Your answering smile is bloodless and bland. She hangs by the door frame as long as she can, like someone clinging to an airlock, then finally — as the last of the others leave the room — frowns, and relinquishes her grip, and disappears. The autodoor shuts behind her.
This leaves you, with your tight grip on your stress hormones, and the Emperor, framed against the void by the broad plex window, a worn black gap between stars. You venture to attempt meeting his eyes in the reflection, but he stares past the window, past you, out into nothing. You suspect he might have — no pun intended — spaced out again, until he says:
“I rely on your discretion.”
Which is — yes. Sure! You’ve been discreet as fuck. You have a not-especially-vested interest in not bringing up the Emperor’s dead Hands, those who betrayed him (at least half) and those he preferred to you (probably all, you anemic milk-slick, you eclipse-shadow of greatness). Your position is precarious. You are intimately goddamn aware of it.
But at least you have the same old advantages as always: in the deep and twisty vessel of you there is not one scruple nor drop of shame. And you are accustomed to being the overlooked sister.
So you answer, “Of course, Lord,” and then you breathe in sharply through your nose — not a sniffle, or God forbid a sob, just a hard helpless inhale that might as well be real — and throw yourself to the floor before him. Your face is hot against the tile, and your First robe settles around you in an oil-slick pool. “Most holy, I know I am a disappointment — I know you doubt me —”
For a scouring tenth of a second, you grovel without answer. It stings, you admit. Then the Emperor turns, and sits on his haunches before you: an emptiness in your necromantic senses, a blurred, dark shape through the curtain of your hair.
“Ianthe,” he says, “my Saint of Faith, you very literally pulled me back from the brink of Hell. How could I doubt you?”
You look up without meaning to, indignant. Either that is a joke, or he thinks you stupid. “Very easily.”
This presses a quiet laugh out of him. He folds himself into a cross-legged seat across from you; you lift yourself up on your forearms. “That’s true enough. I’m sorry — no, let me say it for once. I owe you a conversation. It is terribly easy, saying nothing … but you saw where that got me.”
There’s no safe way to respond to that. Your meat arm shakes a little, protesting your weight, and you still it.
“It’s difficult—” he starts, and breaks off. He looks as tired as ever, and his voice is kind; but that does not signify. “I wouldn’t blame you, if you were angry with me. You’ve seen me at… well. Not my worst, but closer than I’d like. And you will need to take it on faith, that most terrible thing… Ianthe, if I could have saved your cavalier, without … making everything really significantly worse, without bringing destruction to our Houses — I would have.”
You sit up. The Emperor hesitates to meet your eyes, but you throw yourself recklessly into those tar-pit pupils. You muster every trick you have to communicate sincerity. You are, for once, sincere.
“Don’t deny me my choice, Lord.” Your hands curl into fists. “I did it willingly — I did it with open eyes — I would do it again.”
A tiny, insufferable part of your brain says that’s what she said, Tridentarius. You quash it and press on.
“Harry did it to stop Cytherea… fine! But that woman didn’t lay a finger on me before Babs hit the ground! I killed for the chance to serve you; and if you asked me to, I would kill a hundred hundred cavaliers, and not regret one strike.”
Some great, distant emotion passes across the Emperor’s face, a leviathan in deep water. You are uncomfortably aware of your blood in your skin. This is your last card. You are not ten thousand years old, not a master of the River or the body or the flow of thanergy, not Harrowhark Nonagesimus with God’s own frown etched adorably between her eyebrows. But you were offered a choice, and you said yes, and yes, and yes. That has to count for something.
God tips his head back against the plex. He puts one hand over his eyes. “You will recognize them by their fruits,” he says. Your pulse drums in your throat. You wish he would quote things you could recognize. You wish he would stop acting pitiable, when you’re the one who got on the floor. “Forgive me.”
“I don’t need to—”
“Stop.” And all at once, he is the Emperor again. You shut up. He stands, and straightens his crown. When he offers you his hand, you take it without hesitation. His grasp is strong and certain, and your gilded fingers register warmth.
“No matter what you say, I wish I had asked less of you. I wish things were different. … What a pointless thing to say. We do what we have to, don’t we? And let the pieces fall where they may.” He pulls you to your feet. “Faith isn’t quite right, I think. Rise, Ianthe the First, Saint of Necessity.”
You rise. You don’t feel great about it.
MONTHS AFTER THE EMPEROR’S MURDER
The lift squeezes up through the imperial flagship, a clot headed for the coronary. Your rapier bumps against your leg in imperfect time with the tapping of your foot.
God, but you want a cigarette! You wrung a little extra dopamine from your adrenal medulla when you docked, to compensate, but you were twitchy already — got twitchier with every nervous face and nervous system you passed — and a habit’s a habit.
After your last stele-jump, the Cohort captain shepherding you around the front had asked: “You smoke?”
You had liked her. She was scared of you, but papered it over with sarcasm, which was both endearing and rewarding. You said: “Why not?” There were plenty of reasons; but if you didn’t do things because they reminded you of Augustine, or Harry, or your sister, your activities would be seriously limited. When you took a drag, you had choked until tears came out of your eyes — power move! — but it’s gotten easier.
The lift chunks into place. “The Saint of Necessity sees fit to grace Temporary Quarters Floor Five,” announces the PA system, and then — in a different voice, with different static behind it — “the home of our lord, the King Undying…”
Thrice now the Emperor has called you back from scourging the frontier, and two times prior you have rolled your eyes at this. If you were God, you have often thought, you would get nicer rooms. If you were God, it would be possible to tell someone lived in those rooms, and not just by the Emperor’s constant detritus-halo of pieces of flimsy and abandoned mugs. But you aren’t; and his summons was curtly normal, but the people you passed stared at you like you were fucking haunted; and you can’t stop joggling your leg.
You cross the threshold. A wave of thanergy jackhammers into you so hard your knees buckle. Your outflung arm collides elbow-first with the back of a chair as you stagger sideways and downwards under the onslaught, and static sings up your ulnar nerve.
You suck in a panicky breath.
Nothing else happens. Everything is intact. You’re not being attacked, you’re just … feeling ambient levels you haven’t felt since Canaan House, and certainly shouldn’t be feeling in space. What the fuck? You put your hand to the hilt of your rapier, and call out “Lord?”
In the silence that follows, you give the room a cautious once-over: your enemy, the fleet-standard chair, pulled out from a cluttered table; a datapad leaning crookedly against a mug. No Emperor. You tilt your head to snoop at the tablet. Dispatches from the Ninth are normal, although based on satellite imaging, we suspect…
“Ianthe? Is that you?” comes the faint divine reply, through a half-open door and about ten seconds too late. “Could you come here, please?”
You were mentally prepared for the awkward, half-formal distance of the kitchen table. You don’t know what you were expecting — you were expecting something — you weren’t expecting God sitting on the floor in the hallway.
Your sightline slides downwards. The Emperor sits facing away from you, with his legs tucked casually under him and his spine gently curved, but his stillness vibrates with tension. He is more a spring-coiled mechanism than a man. Thanergy boils off him, bleeding away into the dry emptiness of space, more than you could muster without actually killing yourself.
You are gripped with the dry-mouthed conviction that surprising him would be profoundly stupid, and maybe fatal. Like most flesh magicians, you are unsqueamish, but the bloody bloom of Mercy’s ribcage still sticks in your mind’s eye like a splinter. You make your footsteps loud, and your voice quiet. “My… lord?”
God nods and does not look up. He looks worse than ever, which is impressive. The shadows under his eyes rival his pupils for blackness. It dawns on you that he is staring at the bedroom door, and idiot fear runs a fingertip down the back of your neck. You check behind you reflexively — nothing.
“I find myself needing your help once again,” he says, and makes a sound that bears distant resemblance to a laugh.
Your fingerbones tighten on your sword. “Anything.”
“My saint,” he says, somewhat wretchedly. “My savior. Would you do me the favor of — of looking in the bedroom, please, and telling me what you see therein.”
Oh. Oh, Harry would have been his daughter, if the universe had any poetry in it at all.
You comprehend what you are being asked: you have been asked it before. Is this real? In the high, cold slopes of your mind, an avalanche of implications begins to pick up speed. But what else is there to do? You bow a little, and go to look in the bedroom.
Therein, a corpse looks back at you.
You manage not to jump. You manage not to scream. You can’t feel it; it isn’t there, it isn’t real. Nonetheless it — she — stands solidly by the bedside, fixing you with a wet, solemn gaze in washed-out amber. Dark welts ring her wax-pale wrists. Chains and condensation both drip from her, puddling around her feet, and she smells like wet stone and salt water. Distantly, you note the carven muscles of her shoulders and bare arms, painted with true shadows and the bruise-shadows of blood clots under translucent skin.
You’re not an idiot. You behold the Emperor’s promised death, his present haunting. Your mouth tightens into a thin line.
Lie, she says.
The last Edenite planet you hit was a murky, swampy ball of mud and mangrove trees. You had wrestled its revenant into a lariat of your own lymph, neatly bisected it, and surfaced to —
— your rapier thrust through someone’s neck. Your foot on their chest. Your body, defending itself against a small indeterminate person in dirty brown and green. “What the shit!” The interloper burbled and struggled and pulled the trigger on their shitty little gun, and managed to catch you in the meat of your thigh, which only pissed you off. You kicked the weapon out of their hand and shoved them off your blade. They were practically dead already.
“... you’re …” As you threw your senses outward in a wide net and found nothing, you realized your attacker was speaking, or trying to speak, choking out syllables in between sucking breaths. You weren’t interested. “ … sister …”
You were interested. You grabbed them by the grimy collar and hauled them upright, provoking a pained whine. “What did you say?”
They took a deep, ragged breath, spite or stubbornness gleaming in their eyes, and whispered: “I thought you’d be taller.”
Then they died.
You dropped the body — reached out for a ghost to drag back — dipped for a millisecond into the River, but everything had fled from the planet you murdered. They were gone. “Very fucking helpful, Babs!” you hissed. You kicked the dead cultist in the ribs, viciously enough that something snapped. “And — we’re the same fucking height!”
The humid air of the dying planet had pressed down on you. You had sat yourself down on a root and had a crisis.
Lie, the corpse says again.
Coronabeth is alive. You know that much. You never would have been stupid enough to let her serve as your cavalier. Back on the Mithraeum, you had viewed Augustine’s tragedy with distant, high-handed pity: of course you and yours were different. You wouldn’t have — and if you had —
The corpse speaks with the voice of a murdered sister, all the same. It knocks something free in you, something you struggle to drown as you watch a drop of water slide down her arm and bead at the point of her elbow. Her hair could be any color, darkened and plastered to her neck with water. Her eyes are almost Third House gold.
What a pointless thing to think. You don’t need to have a moral realization. The very simple truth is this: no one should make you their last resort. No one should put the whole of themselves in your hands. You just can’t resist.
You walk back out of the sad, blank little room.
You can’t lie to God. But you can lie to a man who never liked you, and doesn’t know you very well.
“My lord,” you say, and you kneel before the Emperor, and bow your head, and look up through the sheer veil of your hair. “There’s nothing there.”
He sways back like he’s been punched. You watch, with interest, as God continues to crack apart.
You wonder what you can make with the pieces.