Yusuf is killing the men who dared to invade his homeland when he sees the child. It’s quick. So quick that Yusuf thinks he imagined it at first. He slides his scimitar into the body of one wretched soldier only to turn and find a boy in the middle of the battlefield. He’s small, terribly small. It’s his skin that caught Yusuf’s attention first. The child stands, almost naked in the frey. His paste-pale skin burning visibly in the sun. The boy’s hands are over his ears. He’s whipping his head back and forth, mouth open in a wordless scream. There are tears in his eyes. Dirt on his face. Yusuf takes one step toward him, then a soldier appears in his peripheral. He turns to block the invader’s blade. He kills the man. When he looks back toward the boy: the child is gone.
Later, when the sun sets and the armies grudgingly retreat to their respective sides for the evening, Yusuf wonders if it had been a phantom. A ghost. Perhaps even a dream haunting his daytime. He stands on the edge of the battlefield, squinting out into the abyss as if the near-naked child would appear again by his will alone.
“You still thinking about the kid?” Sebastien asks. He comes bearing fresh water. Yusuf drinks greedily from his offered canteen, wiping his lips with the back of his hand when he’s finished. “It was probably just a trick of the light.”
“A trick of the light that manifested into a whole child?” Yusuf asks, tilting his head toward his oldest friend. Sebastien hadn’t enjoyed hearing of the boy back when the fighting had just ended. He’d been leaning heavily on his sword, gulping in huge gasps of air in an attempt to not overheat in the afternoon sun. He’d stared at Yusuf unseeingly for far too many minutes before he eventually said he’d neither heard nor seen a child during the melee.
Regardless of Sebastien’s thoughts, Yusuf knows what he saw. He takes a step closer to the fighting grounds. “Hey,” Sebastien snatches at his arm. “You cannot mean to look for him?”
“It was a boy, Bas,” Yusuf says. “A young boy, this tall.” He raises his hand up to his sternum. “As young as Nile. And he was terrified.”
“He’s not one of ours,” Sebastien reminds him, not releasing Yusuf’s arm in the least. “We’d have seen a boy like that wandering our camp. Which means he’s one of theirs. What are you going to do when you find him? Walk him back to their camp and tell his parents not to let him wander off in the future? There’s no point in looking, my prince.”
But no, there is a point. There has to be a point. Yusuf shakes his head. He pulls his arm free. “Either way. He deserves to be found.”
“It’s been a long day, your highness, perhaps—”
“—It will be an even longer day if I do not search for him now .” And Sebastien, no matter how good of a friend he is, hears the definitive nature of that statement. He bows his head and keeps his protestations to himself as Yusuf walks back onto the killing field.
Carts were set out earlier, physicians and their apprentices wandered from one end of the field to the other looking for wounded soldiers. The dead were piled up to be burned, their names and faces recorded to the best of their Death Keeper’s ability. A list will be prepared for Yusuf to sign off on before the battle starts the next day. It’s one of the few tasks Yusuf’s uncle had given him once he’d arrived to fight in the war. He’d been sixteen then, and his uncle told him it was a commander’s duty to give respect to the men who died under his command. But Yusuf isn’t a commander in this army, merely the Prince of their people, and this war isn’t one of his choosing. It is a war that he fights anyway.
He walks across the blood stained earth, peering at the faces and bodies of those who still remain. He recognizes the white band around the arms of enemy men who are retrieving the dead for their side. They are here in peace. They wish for no conflict during these somber hours. Yet when they see him, they tense. They either recognize his face or his sigil. Either way they stare at him with mistrustful eyes. “Try it,” Sebastien tells them from behind Yusuf’s back. Yusuf can hear Sebastien’s sword sliding out of his sheath.
“Enough,” Yusuf commands. He bows his head at the body collectors, then continues on his way. The enemy does not follow. They return to their task and the truce is maintained.
“You’re fortunate they’re not more brave,” Sebastien mutters as he returns his sword to his side.
Yusuf thinks he’s fortunate the day has been so long and so very hot. The men collecting bodies seemed to exhausted to even complete their own task let alone attempt a royal assassination during the evening respite. In any case, Yusuf doubts Sebastien’s observation on a nominal level. It isn’t a brave man who would have thought to attack, only a desperate one who saw no way out except for this.
They keep walking.
Yusuf’s fingers twitch as he spies the rows of dead men. His skin tingles with the urge to bend down, touch them, breath life back into their bodies. But, he’d made his father a promise when he’d first been assigned to the front. He would not do anything that could draw attention to himself. Resurrecting a field of the dead can do nothing but draw attention to himself. No matter how strong the urge remains.
Lights flicker in the distance. The enemy camp is just up ahead, they’ve reached the end of the agreed upon neutral zone. The child is nowhere to be seen. Either he’d been collected already, he’d managed to escape the frenzy, or Sebastien had been right: the boy never existed in the first place. “I know the Queen of Mezzaluna is said to have a heart of stone, but even she wouldn’t send a boy to a place like this,” Sebastien says. The word he uses for ‘boy’ translates poorly in Yusuf’s ear. It’s not just a boy. But a baby. A child. A little thing that reminded Yusuf so much of his sister when she learned he had to go. How she slapped her hands over her ears as if to block out the truth, crying and telling him ‘no, no, no,’ the whole while.
Exhaustion fills him. Shaking his head, Yusuf motions for Sebastien to come with him. They make their way back to their side of the war, where the faces turn more familiar and the bodies still call for his aid. Instead of returning to his tent, Yusuf strides past the camp and out into the plains beyond. The Bask River weaves its way from Altas to Crowen here. Fish keep their armies fed, and the people of Altas provide the additional supplies they need to survive. It is the only place nearby that Yusuf has ever managed to have a few moments of peace.
Sebastien is quiet as they walk. He seems to know that Yusuf has no desire to speak, and he keeps his thoughts to himself with a rigid discipline Yusuf wishes more of his compatriots managed to show. Three years fighting an endless war has left Yusuf with the distinct impression that there’s no such thing as privacy any longer. The whole army lives on top of each other. They move in and out of tents and camp postings with little regard to who is where and what state they might be in. There’s never any malicious intent, just a neediness that life and death has always maintained. They’re fighting a war, and sometimes wars have little patience for manners.
Crouching by the river, Yusuf removes his boots and lets his feet slip beneath the water. They cool immediately. Tingles slip up his ankles and into his spine. He shivers, but then relaxes into the sensation. His eyes shut and he tilts his head up to the moon above. It’s shining so bright tonight they hadn’t needed a torch to guide their way - either through the battlefield or to this spot. Every animal burrow or possible point of discomfort had been clearly illuminated by the sky.
Everything, except for whatever it is that whimpers now in the night. Yusuf opens his eyes at the same time Sebastien draws his blade. The desperate noise vanishes as soon as it appears, but Yusuf knows he can’t have imagined it. Not with Sebastien also on alert. He sits up, squinting through the pale blue gloom. He roams his eyes up and down the riverbank, on this side and the other just in case.
Standing slowly, he pads his bare feet across the smooth rocks of the shoreline. He moves with practiced ease. Two large stones are all that could conceivably conceal something from the moon’s gaze. Sebastien follows at Yusuf’s side, louder and with more purpose. It must be frightening to the wretched creature still in hiding, because it’s when they draw near that it gasps again.
Yusuf squints through the shadows. He cannot help but laugh. “Look, Bas. It’s my ghost.”
The boy is just as pale as he’d been on the battlefield. Even so, he’s taken great pains to tuck himself into the darkest possible place he could. His knees are drawn up to his chest. His arms are tucked tight around them. He’s peeking up at them from behind his clenched limbs and Yusuf has no doubt that he’s been crying here for some time.
“How did he make it here?” Sebastian asks. His hand is still on his sword, though he hasn’t drawn it yet. Instead, he frowns down at the boy as if he could make the picture prettier by sheer force of will. Yusuf kneels before the child.
He rarely has a chance to practice his mezzaluna on anyone. His countrymen hate the sharp consonants of their closest neighbors. It’s as if, even when they weren’t actively in combat with the northern country, they still needed something to fight. The consonants were the first to fall under the assault of Yusuf’s people. With great care, Yusuf resurrects them from the dead too. “Do not be afraid,” he says as best he can. “We’re not going to hurt you.” The child’s eyes snap to Yusuf’s face with such rigid attention it’s almost enough to drive the air from Yusuf’s lungs. He frowns, unused to such piercing focus from such a small creature. “Why are you here?”
The boy unfolds himself one limb at a time. His arms slide off his knees. His legs twist as his weight shifts. He tilts himself forwards so instead of sitting on his butt he’s now kneeling. His nakedness is clear. Only a small wrap of cloth hides his groin from view. There are a few dark marks hastily slashed upon the child’s neck and stomach, as if he’d had more but attempted to clean himself. He’d failed his task, leaving behind evidence of his presence on the battlefield. But Yusuf cannot see any true injuries. Nothing that requires medical attention of any kind.
The child is perhaps a bit older than Yusuf first imagined, too. He’s certainly small, but his face is more mature than the youths Yusuf remembers from back home. Even now, in this endless campaign, when he sees the fresh faced soldiers arriving from the south, he thinks of them as young. But this boy doesn’t strike him as too young. His must be older than Nile, who at thirteen still maintained the baby-fat of her adolescence. But this boy is so thin, and so small that it casts an illusion of youth that seems to shimmer like a mirage before Yusuf’s eyes.
The boy’s ribs protrude just a little. His cheeks have a kind of hollowed out look that Yusuf sees only in the prisoners back home. There’s also a scar on the boy’s face. Something wretched and curved that Yusuf had somehow missed in the melee. It travels down from the child’s left eye to his chin, spanning one side of his cheek to the other. He’d thought it was dirt before, during the battle. But it isn’t.
A slice of fear slithers through Yusuf as he recognizes it for what it means. The boy’s already moving, though. Reaching one hand toward Yusuf as if it’s a single minded goal. Sebastien intercedes before Yusuf can tell him not to. His oldest friend snatches the child by the wrist with his bare hand and promptly falls dead where he stood.
Sebastien is both taller and heavier than the boy. His weight drags the youth crashing to the dirt with him. When they hit the ground, Yusuf can’t help but flinch at the noise. It’s been a long time since he’s seen a Reaper kill. The speed never fails to impress despite the horror that nearly overwhelms him at the sight. Swallowing back both emotions, Yusuf waits as the boy tugs his wrist from Sebastien’s lax grip. He’s not surprised in the least when the boy charges for him, hands outstretched with deadly intent.
Yusuf slaps both out of the way with a flick of the wrist. Skin on skin. The boy freezes. “He really hates it when I have to bring him back,” Yusuf chides. The boy looks so utterly baffled, that Yusuf would feel sorry for him if he hadn’t already deduced the boy’s purpose. The Queen of Mezzaluna really is the stone hearted woman they’d all heard of. If nothing else, she deserves praise for being so wickedly cruel.
Shifting his weight, Yusuf presses his palm firmly to the boy’s chest and shoves him back enough to actually inspect Sebastien. It’s not the first time that he’s died to a Reaper, but it’s the first time that Reaper was an enemy. Yusuf lightly trails his fingers over his friend’s face, closing his eyes, and willing him to return.
Immediately, Sebastien lurches beneath his touch. He gasps for air, rolling to one side and coughing to catch his breath. While he collects himself, Yusuf looks back at the boy. The mark on the boy’s face isn’t as dark as it could be. Yusuf suspects that it’s being concealed in some manner by a powder or cream. That he can see it at all is likely an accident. Perhaps the boy had washed it off when he’d tried to wash the blood off his body. Even so, Mezzaluna’s brands are famous, and this one marks the boy as exactly what he is.
“It’s terribly rude to try to kill someone just for speaking with you,” Yusuf informs him, head still churning over possibilities. He cannot just let the boy reap havoc on the battlefield. But it’s as impossible to kill a Reaper as it is to kill Yusuf , a fact the boy still seems to be coming to terms with. He’s pressing his palms to his chest where Yusuf pushed him, running his fingers over the skin as if to confirm its bare. “What’s your name?” Yusuf asks.
The boy blinks at him. Then his hands are back out. He touches Yusuf’s fingers, his palms, his neck, his face. He squeezes his fingers on either side of Yusuf’s head as if it’d be enough to do something . Yusuf waits, patiently, through most of it. He awkwardly holds the boy’s squirming body only to steady him from falling completely against Yusuf. The little Reaper says nothing through his attempts. Just keeps pushing his skin to any skin that Yusuf has available. And when all of that leads to nothing but Yusuf sitting there patiently, he bends down and bites at Yusuf’s shoulder hard.
Sebastien squawks from where he’s finally rallied himself and even Yusuf’s had enough. He shoves the boy off him, hissing curses and standing up. “You’re all right?” he asks Sebastien in their own tongue.
“Fine. What the hell is a Reaper doing out here?” The child is on his feet now, still terribly short and ungainly. He dives for Yusuf who catches him by the arms and twirls him about. It takes hardly any effort to put the boy in a tight hold, locking his arms behind his back. Sebastien unwinds his belt from his waist. He removes his sword from its looping and then offers the belt to Yusuf. It’s challenging to manage while still keeping the boy steady, but eventually Yusuf gets a tight bind around the boy’s wrists.
The whole while their diminutive captive mouths wordlessly, whining or growling, but without any true word or statement. “Are they not allowed to talk in Mezzaluna?” Sebastien asks. Any other prisoner would be spitting blasphemy at this point. But the noises emitting from the boy are more animal than human.
“I’m unfamiliar. I only recognized the sign on his face.” The new moon, branded on the boy’s cheek so all the world can see that he is death personified. Any touch to his skin brings about an instant death regardless of the age or piety of his victims.
“What’s that Queen of theirs thinking?” He squints down at the snarling beast of a boy. “He’d have been as much a liability to them as to us out there.”
More than that, Yusuf thinks as he reassesses the bloodstains he’d spied on the boy’s skin. As a Reaper, he cannot die a proper death. He could have been stabbed or sliced by hundreds of blades that day, and each wound would have healed. Each fatal blow would have ended with the boy standing up and walking away. He is death. He died once before, and will never die again. That doesn’t mean he didn’t hurt the whole while. Nor does it mean that the tears he’d been crying when they found him were false.
“He’s a child,” Yusuf murmurs as he inspects the boy before him. He may be older than Nile, but he’s young still. And for every word or condemnation that fails to form on the boy’s lips, the younger he seems. This boy’s Queen tossed him into a battlefield in the hopes that he could kill like a man, and he’d fled to hide by a river in fear.
Sebastien groans, shaking his head. “What are you going to do?”
“Take him back to Irania,” Yusuf replies. “Like you said. He’s too dangerous to remain on a battlefield...and I cannot follow him around through camp resurrecting anyone he touches.”
“So we’re going to find Andromache?” Sebastien doesn’t seem terribly upset with the idea. Then again, it’s been a long three years. Day in and day out, fighting the same battlefield that never seems to tire of fresh bodies to slaughter. It will take weeks to reach Irania, and depending on the length of time the explanations take, perhaps twice that to return.
“Yes,” Yusuf sighs as the boy manages to spin around and bite his arm again in an apparent attempt to kill Yusuf and make it stick this time. “I think our little cat here will benefit greatly from her tutelage….don’t you think?”
The boy thrashes against Yusuf, trying to pull his arms free and escape. It’s a useless effort. Yusuf’s grip is secured and he has no intentions of letting the boy run off into the night. “Peace,” he tells the child in Mezzaluna. “We’re taking you to Irania.” It may as well mean nothing to the child, because he doesn’t so much as blink at the idea. He twists and turns and tries to latch his teeth onto Yusuf’s body, and every time he makes contact nothing worse than a bruise appears on Yusuf’s skin. “Peace,” he says again. “I’m a Giver, little cat. You cannot kill life. Just as we cannot kill death. Your touch does nothing to me.” Great tears press from the boy’s eyes and stream down his face. He sobs, wordless and pathetic, over the dirt.
With nothing to lose, Yusuf wraps his arms around the boy. He cannot help but wonder when the last time someone touched this boy and didn’t die. For even though he’d been trying to kill Yusuf for the past half hour at least, the moment he registers the embrace for what it is, he sags against Yusuf’s body and doesn’t try to fight it at all.
The sparrow breaks its neck flying into the glass walls of the tower. Nile heard it when it struck the pane, and it takes her the better part of five minutes to descend to the ground floor to try and find the poor creature. When she does, it lays on in the dirt with its wings outstretched and its neck folded inwards. She kneels at its side, murmuring softly to its crumpled body. Gingerly, she scoops it into her hands. She folds its wings into position and lowers her lips to its head. Come back, she wishes, and she feels the sparrow’s heart start fluttering beneath her fingers.
Nile opens her hands. There’s some seed in her pocket for occasions like this. If it stays, she’ll feed it some and consider it a new friend. But the sparrow hops once, twice, then flaps its wings and flies away. She watches until it’s out of sight, chirping bright and happy far away from here. She wishes it’d take her with it next time. Anything would be better than this.
“Still practicing on animals?” a voice asks. Nile’s nose scrunches and she crosses her arms over her chest. Irritated at being caught, and even more irritated at who caught her.
Quynh isn’t known for being a particularly kind woman. There’s a discipline in her that keeps her rigidly focused on her tasks. Her priorities. Nile can respect that, in its abstract, but in reality she finds it to be utterly boring. The woman seems to be entirely devoted to her work and nothing else. There’s no time for any joy around Quynh, only the bleak dismal reality of what their lives are.
Still, Nile turns and bows her head to her instructor, one hand on her chest as is their custom. “It needed help,” Nile says. “It isn’t bad practice,” she adds on, though she knows that’s pushing her luck. Privately, Nile thinks Quynh’s never raised an animal from the dead. They’d be beneath her. Of little worth to her or her mission.
“It’s not good practice, either,” Quynh says. She waves for Nile to follow her, and Nile does. But only after first making a face at Quynh’s back, tongue poking out and nostrils flaring unattractively. She falls into step behind Quynh, though. Keeping two paces behind and her hands quiet at her sides. “You are meant to be at the House of the Wanting today,” Quynh reminds her.
Nile has to work to not make another face. Her mouth is already forming a mocking phrase when she noticed Quynh tilting her head back to look. Somehow she shifts from mocking to polite, saying: “Yes,” with as much solemnity as she’s capable of producing. “I was there too. But then the bird—”
“—The bird was of more importance than the people dying under your care?”
“They’ll be wanting under my care whether I want them to or not, I can’t actually help them.”
“Not yet,” Quynh agrees. “That’s why you’re training.”
This time, the snark comes too quick to bite down. Nile mutters, “Yusuf didn’t need to train,” under her breath and Quynh stops leading her back to her responsibilities so she can turn and glare down her perfectly shaped nose at her.
“Is that what you think? That his highness just woke up one day able to raise the dead and heal the sick on a whim and doesn’t actually put any thought into it?”
Planting her feet, Nile juts her chin out in defiance. “Everyone says he’s a prodigy. Besides, he isn’t here is he?”
“ He didn’t let himself get caught raising their cat from the dead in the middle of a crowded street,” Quynh replies. “Perhaps, if nothing else, you’ll learn some self control.”
“Is that why he’s fighting in a war?” Nile spits out. “To learn self control?” She tries to imagine being surrounded by the dead bodies from one end of a field to another. Tries to imagine what it’d be like for him, knowing that all he had to do is touch them once and they’d rise up and start fighting once more at his command. But he never does it. The dead stay dead on that battlefield, and he keeps his resurrections so secret that after three years of fighting - no one knows what he can do.
“Everyone needs to work on self control,” Quynh replies tacitly. She returns to walking, marching toward the glass coated tower where all the supplicants in need of aid pilgrim to. Sick people, injured people, disabled people, anyone who has a pain they can no longer bear make their way to this tower, in the hopes that a Giver will give them back their health. Unless they’re unfortunate enough to draw Nile as their Giver. Then they return home in the same sorry state that they arrived in.
Nile half wishes it would be acceptable to just kill the people asking for her help. She can raise the dead with no concern. A touch of the skin and they’re well. But piecing them back together while still alive is an altogether impossible task. She’s clung to arms, legs, and hands. She’s pressed her palms to the faces of the invalid and she’s tried imagining all manner of health and rejuvenation into their bodies. The patient always stares at her, hopeful and desperate, and then, eventually, with despair.
Quynh can heal anyone she touches. She’s done it for millenia. A flick of the wrist and the body stitches itself back together. She’s explained the process a dozen times, and still Nile cannot manage the simplicity that is helping a living person.
Over and over, Nile has been informed that her resurrection talent is improbable compared to other Givers. Most simply do not learn of their vocation by instantly summoning life from Beyond. Most, apparently, start with accidentally healing a skinned knee, a cut finger, or perhaps a broken bone. “It’s like doing trigonometry before you learn algebra,” Yusuf had explained once. She’d asked him what trigonometry and algebra were, and he’d promptly given her more schoolwork. Now she knows mathematics, but still cannot fix a bloody nose. He laughed himself silly when she’d told him so too.
It doesn’t take them long to arrive at the ward that Nile’s been assigned. Beds and chairs line the walls for her unlucky patients. She grits her teeth when she sees all their eyes staring up at her with desperate hope. Quynh steps to the side, expecting Nile to pass her and enter. Nile doesn’t. She stays right where she is. “I can’t heal them,” she tells Quynh. She doesn’t lower her voice, exactly, but she doesn’t necessarily want them to hear her either. Turning on her heel, Nile manages one step before Quynh snatches her about her wrist.
“You are here to learn how. ”
“I’m here because the King made me his ward, and this is where royal wards go.” Nile tries to tug her arm free, but Quynh is unrelenting.
Her fingers squeeze hard around Nile’s wrist. The bones ache within her arm. She tugs and tugs, but Quynh doesn’t let go. “His Majesty adopted you, yes. You are his ward. You are a princess of this kingdom. That means you will follow His Majesty’s orders and you will learn.”
“I don’t want to be a Giver,” Nile says. They’re causing a scene. There’s no hiding their conversation now that it’s started to get heated. The few patients who had politely been ignoring them at the start are now openly staring. The others have joined in too. A hushed quiet fills the once animated ward. Patients and their loved onces watch as Nile jerks and twitches to escape. She is powerless against Quynh.
“No one who is chosen wants to be chosen. And yet we are. You’re acting like you have a choice in the matter. You don’t.”
“I’ve tried healing them and I can’t! You can’t just line them up and expect me to magically be able to do it. It’s cruel!” Giving up on trying to get her arm back, Nile stamps towards Quynh’s toes. This earns her a sharp word of chastisement, and Quynh wrenches her out of sight from the patients. She’s pushed into a chair usually set aside for overflow visitors in the hall.
Quynh towers over her menacingly. “You’ll never improve if you don’t practice.”
But Nile is sick of practicing, sick of disappointing everyone around her, and most of all, sick of being told to heal people she couldn’t care less about. She doesn’t know them. Why should it be her responsibility to help them? They’re not doing anything for her, and she hates that just because she theoretically has a gift that could fix them, she’s bound by that gift to offer aid to any who require it. No amount of being told what an honor it is to be a Giver has ever actually made her feel like it’s a worthwhile vocation.
Besides, if Yusuf could go through life without disclosing his status, then she should be able to as well. It can’t be that hard to disappear into the world. If she didn’t tell anyone, maybe they wouldn’t find out. She doubts she’s so recognizable now that she can’t find someplace that will let her just be who she wants to be without all these rules.
She’s almost decided to inform Quynh of her plans to just leave and never come back when another bird flies into the glass of the tower. They both turn, flinching at the noise. It’s not the poor sparrow from earlier, though. This time, it’s a pigeon. A pigeon carrying a golden wrapped note around its foot. “Yusuf!” Nile cheers. She throws her whole body forward and Quynh doesn’t even try to stop her as Nile rushes back out of the tower to collect the bird.
It lands on a fence post, waiting patiently for her to untie the note from its leg, and even more patiently as she offers it a bit of seed from her pocket. The note’s been hastily scrawled, but Nile grins at the most important bit. Even as Quynh finally reaches her for the second time that day, Nile can’t find it in her to continue lambasting the sacred order Quynh leads. She twirls about and all but thrusts the note into Quynh’s hands. “Yusuf’s coming!” she announces. “And! He brought me a present!”
Quynh reads the note with an undue amount of patience. Her lips tug down in a tight frown. “You are correct,” Quynh says when she’s apparently finished plotting the note to memory. “You do not need to go to the House of the Wanting today.”
The news isn’t what Nile had been expecting. She waits, certain there’s a trap in there somewhere, but Quynh tells her to go back to her room and prepare for her brother’s arrival. She keeps the note with her, and Nile doesn’t ask for it back. She sees the retreat now that it’s been offered and she takes it. She runs back home, laughing the whole time.
The temple has three massive towers, all made of glass. The grounds are water gardens with swiveling stone paths that lead from one temple to the next. Nile skips over the stones, leaping the intricately carved frog heads and stone tortoises as she makes her way to the residential quarters. It’s the farthest tower from the House of the Wanting. Usually the walk makes Nile’s legs ache and her mood even more sour as she trudges from one tower to the other in order to fail once more all day long. With the unexpected gift though, she can’t help but relish in the distance. It gives her so much more time to imagine what kind of gift her brother has bought her, and what kinds of things they’ll do together for the visit.
He hasn’t been to Irania since the war started. She’d begged and pleaded for him to stay, but his father had given him an order and Yusuf is nothing if not loyal to his King. He’d kissed Nile’s head and told her to be brave for him, then swore to write once a week. Then, he changed it to once every other week. Then once a month. She’d been furious at every shift, but he always told her beforehand. Always swore that he wouldn’t stop writing. Even if his few notes were one sentence long in response to her daily diatribes she sent with a flourish.
His last letter had been just as bleak as the hundred that came before it. The war was still awful, the weather was still hot, he and Sebastien were doing fine. Not good, not well, just fine , as if ‘fine’ was an adequate summary of a state of being. Her mother told her a long time ago that the best way to make someone who’s fighting a war happy, is to not remind them of the war. They know they’re in the war. Her letters weren’t meant to discuss it, just distract him from it. She’d already had a page and a half written about a prank she’d played on a few of the other Givers at the temple, involving sheep dung and loose floorboards. Now that he’s coming, she’ll just have to tell him it in person.
Nile’s mother is home when she gets inside. She’s cooking a thick stew for dinner. The scent of fresh tomatoes instantly wet Nile’s pallet. As she throws her arms around her mother’s waist she can’t decide if she wants to compliment the smell or tell her about Yusuf first. It comes all out in a jumble of “Yusuf smells good!” that makes her wince and shake her head as her mom arches a brow patiently. “Yusuf’s coming to Irania, and the food smells good!”
“His highness is coming here?” her mother asks. She seems almost as startled as Quynh had been at the revelation. “Is the war over?”
“He didn’t say, just that he’s coming and he’s bringing me a present. I even got let out from working at the House of the Wanting to get ready!” Her mother doesn’t seem nearly as thrilled as she should be at the idea that Yusuf is coming. The hesitation feels different this time too. Nile knows her mother. Knows her like the back of her hand. From the very first moment that Yusuf and the King had introduced themselves to their family and requested permission to foster Nile because of her gift, Nile had never seen her mother look so uncertain. Yusuf had been a staple at their dinner tables for years, a constant companion and friend. Her mother had always had a kind word to say about the Prince. “What’s wrong?” Nile asks when her mother still doesn’t smile. Nile’s stomach feels strange. A bit unpleasant like it does during her monthlies. It aches and warbles. She goes to let go of her mother, but her mother just clings on tight.
“It’s probably nothing,” her mother says. She sounds breathless. Uncertain. “Why don’t you wash up. Did he say when exactly he’ll arrive?”
Nile shakes her head. “It was a really short note. Quynh has it.”
“Of course. Well. Maybe...maybe just the basic dress for now. But...yes, bath first. Go on. I should...I should finish this up.”
The squirrely feeling in her stomach doesn’t go away, but Nile does as she’s bid. She glances back over her shoulder when she gets to the stairs leading up to the washing station. Her mother’s pressing both hands to the counter and breathing hard. Next to her, the stew bubbles and steams. The bottom of the pot’s probably burning. But her mother doesn’t stir it like she usually does. Nile creeps away.
It doesn’t make any sense.
Yusuf doesn’t arrive that day. Nor even the day after. Quynh never instructs her to go back to the House of the Wanting, so Nile stays home in her pretty dress instead. She waits with her chin in her hands, staring out the window hoping to see some sign or banner of her brother on the horizon. Every day that he’s late is one more day the tension seems to rise in Irania. The peaceful silence of the water gardens feel more oppressive than ever. On the few occasions that Nile gives up waiting at the window, she walks about the grounds instead. Conversation drops the moment anyone sees her. Hushed whispers start stalking her steps. She feels almost like a pariah with each passing moment. It’s even more reason to just stay home and wait.
It’s past dark on the fourth day from Yusuf’s letter when there’s a clamor at the front gate. Nile’s half asleep when she hears the heavy wooden doors opening down below. She squints through the gloom of the evening and just manages to make out two riders. No one is permitted into the city this late. No one, except for a royal retinue.
Glee overpowers reason and Nile rushes to put on the dress she’s meant to wear when greeting her foster family. She shoves jewelry onto her fingers and around her neck. She trips putting on her sandals as she fumbles with her earrings. Then she runs out the door without calling a warning to her mother.
It takes a few minutes to navigate the swirling trails of the gardens in order to reach the courtyard. When she gets there, it is Yusuf. Yusuf and Sebastien with someone else as well. They’re dismounting slowly, Quynh and Irania’s Master Reaper already there. Nile rarely interacts with Andromache the Reaper. Once, she had been Yusuf’s Captain of the Guard. But when Yusuf went to fight the war, she came to Irania instead. And as her vocation is the direct opposite from Nile’s, there’s no reason for them to speak. All she really knows is that Andromache holds a place of honor in the city, the same as Quynh. They lead together, rule together, and they both bow to Yusuf together as their order demands.
He places his hand on his heart and bows his head in return, then gestures to the third member of their traveling party. Whoever it is, their face is hidden by a shroud. Their hands are wrapped and bound in front of their body. Yusuf speaks quietly to Andromache and Quynh, both looking back and forth from the masked person to their prince.
“Little eyes and ears should announce themselves if they’re going to snoop,” Sebastien says suddenly, loudly. Nile winces as everyone turns to look at her. She drops into a polite bow, embarrassment holding her in place until Yusuf grins and opens his arms wide. Immediately she darts to her brother. She throws her arms around his neck and laughs into his throat. He holds her there, spinning her left and right and letting her dress swish about in the wind.
“You’ve gotten so tall!” he says as he drops her back to the ground. “Look at you, you’re going to be taller than me one day!”
“I’m the tallest in my class!” she tells him, puffing up as much as she can. He laughs and pats her head. His hand trails along her braids that her mother had done for her once they knew he was coming. Dozens of rows of tight braids run from her scalp to the back of her neck, then trailing down her back. “You’re gorgeous,” he decides. “Too gorgeous. What have you been feeding her?” he turns to Andromache and Quynh. His hand waves over her with a flick of the wrist. “This isn’t the weed I left three years ago, she’s actually a flower. A flower! I thought she was a weed!”
“I’m not a weed!” Nile informs, not sure if she should be flushing or irate. Her brother’s quicksilver grin is nearly enough to douse the rising tide of emotion. He pats her head again.
“No, not a weed at all.”
The masked person shifts at Yusuf’s side. Nile had been ignoring them thus far, but the movement catches her eye. She frowns. The shroud over their head is of thick burlap. “How can they see in that?” she asks.
“He can’t,” Sebastien replies. “That’s the point.”
Andromache steps forward. She rests one hand on the masked person’s wrist. It jerks badly at the contact, but she doesn’t let go. “If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it inside,” Andromache says. “You might as well come too, Nile, as this is going to affect you as well.”
“Affect me?” She doesn’t know what that means. She looks to Yusuf, but his grin is gone. He looks just as tense as everyone has been since they got his letter. He pats her shoulder and pretends to smile. It sits wrong on his face and doesn’t reach his eyes.
“Let’s go, hm? We’ll explain in a moment.” So she follows them. Andromache tugging along the still bemasked person who stumbles and trips on the rocks of the water garden until they reach the House of the Unwanting where only the dead go.
Nile shivers as they cross the threshold. She’s only been here a few times since she first started training at Irania. Her initial tour had given her a sour taste in her mouth at the idea of ever coming back. The building is cold and dreary, dark, and lifeless. It’s structurally the same as the House of the Wanting. All the floors match, the glass walls and mirrored decorations all glisten and shine to the same effect as its sister tower. And yet there’s an unpleasant feeling here that makes her skin crawl each time she wanders its halls. A sickly unnatural that prickles at the back of her neck, encouraging to try to fix what cannot be fixed.
She’d much rather take Yusuf back to the living quarters, or even the House of the Wanting if they had to be in one of the guest towers. But Andromache seems determined on this path and no one argues with her. They climb dozens of stairs until they reach a series of administrative hallways that open to a grand room used for important moments. Nile knows little about the services the House of the Unwanting provides, beyond the basic: people come here to die. Reapers take their lives and their bodies are disposed of.
Halls like this are used for the rich or the motivated. Occasionally criminals will be executed here. Nile feels her stomach churn worse than ever before. She glances toward the masked person still being dragged along by Andromache. Are they going to kill him? It is a him, right? That’s what Sebastien had said.
“What’s going on?” she asks Yusuf quietly. He shakes his head and doesn’t reply.
Sebastien closes the chamber doors and Andromache finally releases their guest (prisoner?) Almost immediately the person’s limbs fold inward. He kneels, head to the ground, hands collapsed over the base of his neck. As if he could ward off a beheading. Nile snorts at the thought. Andromache glares at her until she looks away.
“We’ve been receiving word for weeks now that you were missing, presumed dead, Prince Yusuf,” Quynh states, standing over the huddled thing that Yusuf brought. “Your note caught us quite by surprise.”
“What?” Nile asks. “He was dead and you didn’t tell me?”
“He’s a Giver,” Quynh snaps. “His death would never have been real. That we heard of it only means they were lies. Why would we tell you lies from Mezzaluna?”
“So they’ve determined that I’m dead?” Yusuf asks. He seems most interested by the announcement. He glances back at Sebastien who shrugs.
“It’s what we’d thought they’d do,” Sebastien replies.
“Does your uncle know you’re here?” Andromache asks. She bends down and starts inspecting the bindings on the prisoner/guest’s wrists. She tugs at them idly until they come undone.
A mewling noise comes out from beneath the mask. It hardly sounds human. Nile tugs on Sebastien’s sleeve. She whispers, “Is it a bear?” She’s never seen a bear in real life, but they say they can walk on hind legs. Perhaps it’s a monkey. Nile doesn’t see a tail, but it could be. There must be all manner of oddities in Mezzaluna. Perhaps they discovered it during the war.
“It’s a cat,” Yusuf calls over, grinning at a joke that only he seems to find is funny. Sebastien rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Andromache and Quynh ignore him. “Yes,” he finally replies to his former guard. “My uncle is aware I’m here. I couldn’t very well abandon the army.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you,” Andromache replies mutinously. She’s managed to undo the bindings on the guest’s wrists. She grunts and removes the covering around his hands. Then she removes the shroud that’s keeping his face from view. Nile stands on her tiptoes to get a better look at him.
Brown tousled hair flops over a young face. He’s a boy, perhaps only a little older than she is. There’s a large black circle on his cheek that mars his face like spilled ink over an ancient text. His eyes are sea-blue, and they dart around anxiously from person to person. He flinches back when Andromache cups his chin with the thumb and forefinger of her left hand. Nile’s breath hitches at the contact. Andromache is wearing gloves, but the blasé way she handles herself is still disconcerting despite knowing of her and her skill for years.
“Were any of your men touched?” she asks as she tilts the boy’s head this way and that. He stays quiet during the inspection. He doesn’t answer the question, despite it being asked as she looks directly at him.
“No,” Yusuf replies. “He killed Bas when we first found him, but we checked with the physicians before we left. There were no bodies that were Reaper made.”
“He’s a Reaper?” Nile asks. The boy flinches at the question. He tries to pull his chin free from Andromache’s grip but she’s holding on too tight. She doesn’t let him go, merely hisses something under her breath that seems to force him to stillness. Nile dares a step closer, curiosity winning out. “But I thought Reapers couldn’t hurt us,” she says. “Why was he all tied up? Wasn’t he riding with you, Yusuf?”
“He was exceptionally worried about touching the horse,” Yusuf replies. He grins, shaking his head. “Kept fighting me the whole damn way until we had him strung up like a prized steak. Then he became this docile thing.”
“It’s how he was raised,” Andromache counters. She releases the boy’s chin and stands. He keeps his head down still. “He’s been a Reaper for about ten or eleven years. I’d wager he had his first death at about five or so.” She says something then in a language that Nile doesn’t understand. It’s sharp and pointed, rude to Nile’s ear. The boy nods at the question, and Andromache actually pets his hair in response. “He’s sixteen. Shame, really. If he died later he might have had some sort of childhood at least.” She says it with so little emotion, Nile doubts that she actually thinks it is a shame.
“How can you tell all that?” Nile asks. “And why is his face all messed up? Shouldn’t he have healed that already?”
Quynh sighs so loudly that Nile has to snap her teeth shut to keep from saying something too rude in front of Yusuf. She doesn’t mind fighting Quynh when it’s just them, but she won’t embarrass her brother with her behavior. Andromache deigns to answer her question though, even if it is far more morbid than Nile expected. “Reapers can’t heal death, they are death. In Mezzaluna they burn the face of the Reaper with the bone of a human. The coals of the dead body infiltrates the skin and scars with the coal still there. It doesn’t heal because it’s just as dead as he is.”
She wants to say that the boy looks rather alive all things considered. Scar aside, he’s moving and breathing and seems like a normal human. In a way, she’s almost grateful that he’s scarred. It’s the only way that she’d know what he is. The kind of danger he is to those around him. As if reading her thoughts, Yusuf says: “It’s a barbaric tradition.”
“Fresh skin cells will eventually grow and push the coal out, replacing it with smooth skin,” Andromache says with a shrug. “Though they usually redo the process once every few years to make sure it stays vibrant. It’s how I guessed his age. The circle isn’t perfect. It’s been redone at least five times. Had he been any older it might have been a crapshoot. But I guess we’re lucky.”
Sebastien clears his throat. He takes a step closer to them all, pointing to his own throat as he does. “He doesn’t talk. Is that…?”
“They’re trained that way,” Andromache replies. “If you can call it training. Mezzaluna collects their Reapers and puts them in cells beneath the ground. At some point the guards disliked hearing the sound of all the Reapers they collected crying alone in the dark. Punishments were doled out to anyone who made a noise. It’s been that way for...almost a thousand years now. They only use them for executions of the worst public offenders, then they’re thrown back in. When they do come in contact with someone they’re beaten for speaking or drawing attention to themselves. Unless it’s a particularly public execution, most prisoners will be thrown into the cell with the Reaper until they die there.”
Nile’s stomach clenches hard. This time nausea spikes up her throat. She presses her hands to her mouth and wills it to go away, to heal and be better. She swallows it back before she makes a mess on the floor in front of her. The Reaper is still kneeling, head down and turned away.
“I doubt he’s had a proper conversation in years,” Andromache continues. “I doubt even more he understands half of what’s happened since you brought him here. Which begs the question, why did you bring him here?”
As always, Yusuf has an answer ready and waiting. He replies in an unflappable calm manner that Nile’s never been able to imitate. He says, “He’d be a liability on a battlefield, and it isn’t like I can just send him off back to Mezzaluna now can I?” Then, he kneels beside the boy. “We’ve been calling him ‘Cat’ since he doesn’t seem to have a name to provide.”
“If they put him on that battlefield, he’s either been chosen as an assassin or a political tool,” Quynh says. “Bringing him here could compromise Irania.”
“He can’t actually kill most people in Irania, and those that he does kill can be resurrected without notice. Unless we’re entertaining the thought of putting him in a dark cell underground as an acceptable method of holding him prisoner.” Yusuf sounds almost bored as he says it. Bored, but equally challenging. There’s a glint in his eyes that Nile recognizes from when they’d play chess together. It’s sharp and poignant and always precedes a crushing defeat at his hands.
Andromache must know him well enough to know it’d be a moot point arguing with him. She sighs and looks at the boy’s huddled form. “This isn’t a Reaper from Shams, your highness, he’s a Mezzaluna Reaper. His loyalties and his life have been Mezzaluna for sixteen years. Letting him loose in Irania, is asking for trouble.”
“Are you saying you can’t manage one sixteen year old child?” Yusuf asks.
“I got rid of you when you turned sixteen too, your highness.” Nile gasps at the sarcasm, but Yusuf just laughs. He slaps his thigh appreciatively and nods along as if it’s the most logical answer to have given. When he finally sobers again, he steps up close to Andromache. He places his hands on her shoulders, never once hesitating to make contact with this aged bringer of death.
“I believe in you. And I think you can help this boy. I’m tired of fighting a war and getting nothing out of it, maybe this will finally be a good thing of all this violence, yes?”
“If nothing else, it will give Nile good practice,” Quynh says suddenly. Yusuf and Andromache glance at her. Nile stares. Her mouth drops open as Quynh says, perfectly serene: “She can’t seem to heal a living body. Perhaps trying to heal the mark off of a dead body will actually be progress. And it’s not like touching him will kill her.”
That nausea comes back up again. She shakes her head, but no one seems to care what she has to think about the situation. She looks down at that horrible black mark that mars half of the boy’s face. He seems to feel her looking, because he turns and meets her eyes. He really is a dead thing, Nile thinks. There’s not a spark of life in that sea-blue mist.
It’s that look more than anything else that makes her lose her battle with her stomach. She knows Quynh. Quynh will make her touch that face. Feel the death that coats every part of his skin. She’ll make her try to bring life into death, and the whole time he’ll look at her and she’ll know.
He should have stayed dead at five. But now he’s here, and he’s her responsibility. She throws up all over the House of the Unwanting’s floor, never wanting any of this responsibility any less than she did now.
I removed myself from the TOG Discord after a moderator accused me of writing pedophilia due to this fic. I want to be very clear: This story does not contain any underage, nor will it. Joe and Nicky's relationship is not romantic and there is no grooming.
Should this story continue the way that I imagine it will, if I get to a sequel I will explore a Joe/Nicky relationship. But there is no grooming relationship, underage, or pedophilia in this story. And in the sequel, both Nicky and Joe will be well into their 20s.
Some background adult ships will exist within this story, and they're not tagged because they don't exist for the main core of characters. This is *not* a romance. Nor was it ever intended to BE a romance. It's a whumpy coming of age political intrigue fantasy fic. That's it.
Sebastien escorts Nile back to bed not long after she’s finished hurling. He wrinkles his nose at the smell, but wisely doesn’t comment as he leads her to the residential quarters. Yusuf watches them depart, and he apologizes to one of the lay workers of the House of the Unwanting as Andromache asks for them to clean up the mess. The whole while, Cat stays on his knees with his head down. Unmoving and unspeaking.
He hadn’t been a bad traveling companion, during the weeks it took to ride from the warfront to Irania. If anything he’d been as helpful (or as hindering) as any other kind of cargo. He didn’t talk, didn’t complain. He didn’t attempt to wander off. His only dismay had been when Yusuf attempted to get him on the horse for the first time. He’d shaken his head over and over miming with his hands the danger that it would entail. But Sebastien had procured some clothing for Cat while Yusuf negotiated with his Uncle on the terms of their departure. With his skin shielded by thick woven materials, he was no danger to the horse, nor even Sebastien. And once Cat realized that, he became so utterly docile that Yusuf half suspected a ploy.
As far as Yusuf can tell, though, if there’d been a ploy it hadn’t been panned out for Cat. he didn’t fight or attempt to flee, and with a shroud hiding his face from the world, he could hardly have plotted the route to Irania with any degree of accuracy. Any information he might have had is useless now that they’re here. Then again, there’s the sticking point of his understanding of language to begin with.
“If he’s had no formal training since he was five,” Yusuf begins, eyeing Cat’s curled up body, “ Does he understand us when we speak?”
Andromache shrugs. She taps Cat under his chin so he unfurls a bit from the loaf like posture he reverts to whenever someone doesn’t need his attention. “He likely knows some rudimentary phrases. He understood when I asked if my math was correct earlier.”
“Yes, about that. Three weeks of riding and he never once answered when I spoke in Mezzaluna. But to you he does.”
“I’m a Reaper,” she says slowly, as if her designation is the only determining factor. Perhaps it is. “Depending on how his cell was maintained, Reapers would have been his only human contact for years. He knows my kind. He knows I won’t hurt him.”
“Won’t you?” Yusuf asks. She sends him a sharp look, but he isn’t interested in playing games at the moment. He shrugs one shoulder with endless patience. “You’ll train him. As I recall, your training isn’t particularly kind.”
At that, Andromache’s lips press into a thin line. She releases Cat’s chin, letting it fall back to his chest and burrow into the darkness of his own making. Cat’s hands slowly go back to cup the back of his neck. Yusuf’s seen it so many times that he can’t help but imagine that it’s a learned posture, not merely one for comfort. There are more comfortable ways to lay if it’s meant to be a soothing position. On his knees, curled up tight and small, he seems almost like a twisted version of a supplicant at a Temple mass rather than anything approaching soothed. “You want me to train him?” Andromache asks.
Yusuf hadn’t expected her to reject the idea outright. He frowns, trying to work out where exactly he’d gone wrong. He can’t quite see it though, and so presses onwards. “He should be trained, no?”
“He’s a Mezzaluna Reaper,” Andromache repeats. “Training him gives an even better weapon to our enemies.”
“You were a Mezzaluna Reaper once,” he points out.
“Almost five thousand years ago,” Andromache refutes. “Before this barbarism became commonplace,” she motions to Cat’s face. The brand is hidden by his curled arms, but Yusuf can imagine it still. He’s spent hours watching that face as they travelled. Hours where he inspected the scar and wondered again and again how it could still be present. Learning the truth had been a far less enjoyable experience than Yusuf had suspected, though he’d imagined all kinds of horrors. “There’s hardly a person inside this body, how am I meant to train a broken thing?”
“Every broken thing has pieces that can fit back together if you’re willing to find them.”
“I never said I was.”
He concedes that with a dip of his head. Still, he knows her well. Knows her as well as he knows Sebastien. He’d barely been walking when his father first brought Andromache to him. She’d looked the same as she does now. Her exterior never aged, though her mind always advanced. Thousands of years she’d walked this world as Death personified. When she swore herself into Yusuf’s service, she did it on her knees. One hand on her heart, the other outstretched and patient. Yusuf took her hand with no fear or concern. He squeezed his pudgy fingers around it and declared her mine.
For thirteen years Andromache had served him faithfully. She’d left him only when he’d been sent to the war. “He was sent into that warzone,” Yusuf tells her, knowing that she will imagine it for herself. Imagine the panic and terror Cat had on his face. The way his hands pressed against his ears and the wordless sobs that drove him to run and hide dozens of kilometers away. “He’s frightened of loud noises and petrified of water. He believes any contact with anyone will be fatal—”
“—It is,” Andromache cuts in. He ignores her.
“And that he is hardly a human. Reaper or no, Death child or no, he is still human. He deserves a chance to live.”
“It might be too late for him, Yusuf. Give him a dark room and some warm blankets and he can live his eternity in quiet solitude, happy to be away from all of this.”
“What’s a decade or so to us?” Yusuf asks. “We have nothing but time. Let him have a chance to heal.”
Andromache sighs. She looks down at the crumpled boy he’d named Cat. “Healing and training aren’t the same thing. What purpose does teaching him have at this point? He already knows he can kill.”
“Is that what you tell all the new Reapers who come into your care?” He knows it isn’t. In the same way that Quynh pushes Nile to become a better Giver, Andromache guides the freshly born Reapers that arrive in Irania. She shakes her head, but her protestations have come to an end. Instead, she kneels once more at the boy’s side and wraps an arm around his shoulders. She guides him to his feet and leads him from the chamber. Yusuf doesn’t follow. Not even when Cat glances back at him, seemingly surprised that he’s being allowed to leave with someone else.
The whole time, Quynh watches the interchange silently. Waiting, probably, for the right opportunity to speak. This world isn’t her venue. She maintains the House of the Wanting and all the young Givers with a rigid degree of control, but once it comes to Reapers she happily steps aside and lets Andromache take charge.
For many years, Yusuf wondered why Andromache had been given to him as his guard rather than Quynh. Perhaps his father presumed that it would help distract people from what Yusuf could do. After all, he’s managed nineteen years of his life without the mass populace learning of his talent. If he can make it through to his coronation, there’d be no complications with him ascending to the throne. After that...his father’s made it quite clear that after that it’s Yusuf’s responsibility to manage. His father, after all, will be very dead if Yusuf ascends.
Still, in a way, he’s grateful he did have Andromache. Quynh can be utterly terrifying when she wants to be. And often, she wants to be. “You could have put him in a box and had a courier deliver him,” she says pointedly.
He glances at her from the corner of his eye. “I could have,” he admits. “But I don’t much like the idea of putting people in boxes and expecting them to be all right when they get out.”
“Being all right is hardly his problem. Besides, he’d likely have preferred the box to being on that horse with you.”
“Perhaps.” Cat had stopped trying to bite him after the first week. By the second he’d become doll-like in Yusuf’s arms, sitting on the horse but hardly doing anything that constituted proper riding. His hands lay lax in his lap and his body leaned back against Yusuf’s like dead weight; an irony not lost on either him or Sebastien.
At meal times, though, Cat ate with a speed that turned Yusuf’s stomach. He inhaled food that was placed before him. His eyes turned shifty in their greed. If Yusuf thought it would help soothe the pit of Cat’s stomach, he’d have offered more each time they ate. But the quantity wasn’t the problem. Nor even the quality. It was merely the existence of food at all. Sebastien started looking away from Cat when they ate. His fingers tight around his own food and his expression unhappy.
“I know your uncle would have preferred you stay fighting,” Quynh goes on, heedless of Yusuf’s personal dilemmas.
“There were several alternatives to my personal delivery of our young friend. I didn’t find any of them acceptable.”
“So instead you let rumors of your death flourish around your kingdom instead.”
“I’m not dead,” he counters.
“A miracle.” She has the poor grace to actually sneer as she says it. Her humor, as always, leaving much to be desired. “But when you return, Mezzaluna will know their Reaper failed. They’ll know you’re alive, and well, and they’ll know that their Reaper is missing. Have you thought about how to address that?”
“They’d need to admit he was on the battlefield to begin with. I cannot speak to their own men, but ours would be reinvigorated by the news. A war is no place for our kind.” Quynh gives him another look, this one only slightly less condemning than the first. It’s a tired kind of argument, though. One that Yusuf’s heard more than enough since his father told him to fight this war. One that cost him Andromache's presence when she'd tried to argue it on his behalf. “It’s my duty as a Prince,” he mumbles. “I have to fight.”
“There’s something truly disturbing about a Giver killing anyone. I cannot put my finger on why that is,” she lies, tapping said finger to her lips in mocking disdain, “But I’m sure there’s a very good reason for it.”
He thinks of all the bodies that have fallen to his sword. The men he’s stabbed and slashed at with a hateful vengeance that bubbles deep in his gut. Their bodies swaying in the fierce winds of the desert plains. Only a few times had any of these men accidentally come in contact with his skin during the melee. Only a few times had he been startled enough to watch as he raised them with his touch, only to jerk away and kill them twice over. Those few times had been enough. He has no desire to repeat the process again in the future. No matter how often he’s certain it must happen.
“Taking life guarantees our kingdom retains their lives,” Yusuf says. It’s a tired and repeated phrase he’s heard so often from his Uncle’s lips that it makes a poor appearance on his tongue. He shrugs uncomfortably and Quynh snorts in a particularly unladylike fashion unbefitting of her station.
“Killing doesn’t end wars,” Quynh says. “Grief does.” There’s nothing he can really say to argue that point. He’s felt enough grief to last him a lifetime, and he’ll be living several lifetimes until his time comes and his abilities fade away as easily as they came. Until finally his weary body is allowed to rest, and he passes on from this world to the next.
There were times, late at night, when he held the list of the dead between his hands and just knew... knew that he could have saved every single one of them if he’d been willing to lose his crown in the process. His father had told him not to reveal his secret to anyone, and he’d maintained it. But the endless dead lay their claim on him anyway. He’s as responsible for the deaths of his men as all the soldiers of Mezzaluna who came to invade their land. He could have done something, and he didn’t.
He feels agitation flare up under his skin. "I cannot save everyone,” he tells Quynh quietly. “But I can save him.”
“Your Cat?” she asks.
“Yes. He’s a child.”
“The same age you were when you went off to war.”
“A child,” he repeats. “He’s so small..”
“It’d have been the dark that did that,” Quynh assesses. She’s always had a blunt edge to her words. Always said exactly what she meant and offered no kindness to ease the way down. He wishes she would, though—be kind. H wishes she’d be more gentle here, now, as he tries to wrap his mind around the kind of horrors that Cat experienced growing up. “The dark and lack of nutrition. Depending on if they felt the need to feed him at all. I’m surprised he’s as tall as he is all things considered. Even if he does seem a bit pre-pubescent because of it.”
“They didn’t feed him?” Yusuf asks.
“He can’t die, why waste the resources?”
Because he’s still a child, Yusuf thinks. A human child despite his status. One who deserves a chance to eat and sleep and wake to a world that didn’t wish him dead. One that doesn’t expect a sixteen year old belongs on a battlefield slaughtering his enemies while the dead pile at his feet.
Eager to find a few moments’ respite, Yusuf tips his head to Quynh and said his goodbyes. He leaves the chamber and meanders back down the House of the Unwanting. Its gloomy halls always feel somewhat peculiar to him. Not bad, not horrible, just peculiar. Andromache told him once that the House of the Wanting made her feel the same way. A desire to push her gift outwards, and just end all the suffering from the bodies that tingled on the edge of her consciousness.
Yusuf doesn’t need to know where Andromache brought Cat. He can feel it through the building’s floor. Feel the warm sweeping sensation of their presence reverberating along the edges of his mind. He turns, follows the paths to a more secluded section of the House. She hadn’t brought him to the standard residential tower that hosts all of the acolytes away from their guests. Instead, she’s installed him in one of the basic overnight rooms for families who needed a place to stay while their loved one visited the House.
He pushes open the door to the room that fills him with most certainty. Cat’s curled up on the ground beside the bed. Andromache is crouched before him, pressing a wet cloth to Cat’s face and stroking it with slow and gentle movements. Cat’s eyes are closed. His posture relaxed. He breathes deeply under her ministrations. He almost seems to be sleeping. When Yusuf closes the door behind him, though, Cat flinches. His eyes snap up to look at Yusuf. He grimaces badly for a reason Yusuf can only begin to understand.
“Why here and not the residential tower?” Yusuf asks, quiet and gentle. Cat watches him for a few moments then averts his gaze again.
“It’ll be too loud there to start with. Too bright. Besides. This feels like home, doesn’t it?” She asks the last part in Mezzaluna. Her lips tug upwards a little in what could almost be a smile. Cat nods. It’s short and quick. A bit shy. “All this death,” Andromache murmurs in their own tongue. “Sometimes being around it feels more right than being anywhere else. You understand that, don’t you little Prince?” she hasn’t called Yusuf that in years. It settles in his gut nice and warm.
“You’ll take care of him for me?” he asks, because despite her seeming acceptance earlier, it would mean a lot to hear the actual confirmation. Andromache huffs out a long breath of air. She finishes cleaning Cat’s face. She leans forward and taps her brow against Cat’s. Cat leans out to meet the touch, a visible sign of affection that Yusuf hadn’t seen once in all their time together. It shifts something inside his heart. Something that had retained its uncertainty and despair.
When Andromache stands, she passes the cloth to Cat and lets Cat finish washing the dirt off his skin with awkward but determined movements. “You know I’d do anything for you, Yusuf,” Andromache says. “I swore that I would follow you when you were still being swaddled, and I still follow you now.” She cuts a brief glance to the young Reaper now wholly in her care. “But he’ll never serve in Irania the way you might think he should. He’s like Nile in that sense. This place isn’t meant for them.”
Irania isn’t meant for a lot of people, Yusuf doesn’t say. There’s a reason his father had been so adamant against revealing what Yusuf is. But there’s nowhere else like Irania in the world. It’s a safe haven for people like them, just as much as it’s a cage. Nile’s already started to test the strength of Irania’s walls. Yusuf wouldn’t be surprised if Cat joins her when he finds his footing. He hopes by then, they both have a safe place to land.
“There’s nowhere else,” he whispers. “If he stayed at the front he’d have been made into a weapon or sealed away like they do in Mezzaluna. I can’t do that to one of our kind.”
“Our kind,” Andromache repeats. She smiles at him. Reverent. “It’s why I’ve always put my faith in you, Yusuf,” she says. She rests her palm against his cheek. The gloved hand feels cool against his skin. “You’ve always included Reapers in your mind. No matter how different we are. I’ll take care of your Cat. But you should go before your Uncle tries to undermine your tenuous authority even more. We knew the rumors of your death were greatly exaggerated...but he did nothing to quench them.” Yusuf turns away. He doesn’t want to look at her for this. Doesn’t want to see the pain so clear on her features, or feel the accusation on her tongue. She forces his face back toward hers. “Be careful my Prince. Sebastien is your weak spot and your Uncle knows it. One day you’ll have to choose.”
“That’s why I’m leaving Cat here,” he says. “So I won’t have to.” It’s not good enough for what she’s trying to imply. Cat isn't Sebastien. Relocating the Reaper may have bought him time, but only nominally. They both know it's true, but she doesn't argue it. She accepts his words at face value, releasing him so he can spare Cat one final look. The black stain on his face invigorates him in a way that three years at war have made it difficult to feel. He hates again. Hates over his exhaustion at constant fighting. “How could anyone do that to their own people?” he asks Andromache. She follows his gaze.
“Shall I tell you the worst part?” Andromache asks. He glances at her, quick as can be, then his eyes are back to Cat. “In Mezzaluna, the father is tasked with one thing: providing the mother with a child. If the child is unsatisfactory, it’s the father’s fault. In cases with Reapers...it’s tradition for the father to be executed. His bones used for the brand...I didn’t think Nile needed to know.”
“No,” Yusuf agrees. “She doesn’t. He’d meant to leave and leave quickly, but he stops. Kneels before Cat. “I must go back to the front,” he says in Mezzaluna. “I may be gone for many years. I wish you well, Little Cat.” He kisses his fingertips, then touches the brand. He wills it to heal, but nothing happens at his touch. Instead, the boy looks back at him, quiet and patient. He doesn’t nod or mime like he did so easily for Andromache. He just sits still and waits. Yusuf lets his hand fall. He bows his head, one fist clasped his heart, then leaves.
Yusuf’s gone when Nile wakes up the next morning. Sebastien too. There’d been no feast, no showing off of her skills. Nothing that Nile had expected. She’d thought maybe he would stay long enough to make the trip out there actually worthwhile. But instead, he’d given her the gift of a horrifying homework assignment and left to go back to the war.
Her mother had tried to ease her into the news, but as soon as Nile heard she screamed and slammed her door in her mother’s face, shouting that she’s never going to work with Cat or any of the Reapers in Irania ever. Nile throws herself onto her bed, sobbing into her arms as she kicks her mattress with her shins. She weeps half the morning away, ignoring how the sun rises higher and higher along the glass walls of the residential tower.
It isn’t fair. He should have at least stayed so she could have talked to him. Should have done literally anything else except for what he did. When Quynh comes to collect her for being late again, Nile screams that she’s not going anywhere anymore. Quynh, naturally, kicks her door off its frame in retaliation. Nile rolls off her bed, swatting at tears as she stares at Quynh in horror.
“Even princesses show respect to their mother,” Quynh says sharply. Said mother is standing in the doorway, grimacing but firm. She’s angry and Nile flinches at the sight. Quynh catches Nile by the arm and drags her straight to her mother. “Apologize.”
“I’m sorry,” she says weakly.
“Just do your job,” her mother replies. She steps back, and Quynh continues to drag Nile right out the door and into the water garden. They don’t go to the House of the Wanting though, instead veering to the opposite tower that immediately has Nile digging her feet into the gravel.
“I’m not helping him,” she hisses, tugging at her arm as hard as she can. “I’m not doing it, and you can’t make me.” The stinging slap across her cheek stuns her into silence. She blinks dumbly up at Quynh who still holds her arm in a vicious grip.
“How dare you?” Quynh hisses. “Do you think this is a game?” Nile can’t bring herself to formulate an answer. Her lower lip warbles as Quynh presses on. “Your brother is fighting a war that will never end. He left only to bring that boy someplace safe. You would deny Cat even the slightest bit of kindness because you’re angry at your brother? You petulant child! ”
“I’m not a child!” Nile shouted, childishly. “He is! He left and he didn’t even say goodbye!”
“And you’re crying about it isn’t going to bring him back. There’s a war going on.”
“A war that won’t end. You said so. So why does he have to go back? Who cares where he is! He’s obviously not helping!” Quynh’s grip turns so perilously tight that Nile begins to wonder if she’ll need to heal her own broken wrist soon. Then, suddenly, Quynh releases her. Releases her and turns away. She walks toward the House of the Wanting and doesn’t look back at Nile in the least. Nile stares, mouth opening and closing in confusion as she tries to work out what’s going on.
But if Quynh thinks Nile is going to walk into the House of the Unwanting on her own, then Quynh is wrong. Without anyone to tell her where to go or what to do, Nile scurries from all the towers and instead flees into the city itself. Separated from the temple by a wall and a gate, the city is filled with normal people living normal lives. The kind of life Nile had lived before she loved her cat enough to will it back to life. She skips into the market, smelling the fresh spices of the street vendors. The sounds of their hustle and bustle reminding her of her days living above the dye station in Havask.
When she was very small she used to look out her window and watch as the dyers turned plain white cloth all kinds of colors by the magic of their potions and the skill of their fingers. The women sang songs as they hucked up the skirts of their dresses and stirred the steaming pots of reds and blues and golds.
Nile hates the white dress she’s meant to wear to designate her as a Giver. Why wear the most basic of all colors when there’s an endless world to explore instead? She longs to dip her gowns into those pots, a few minutes in the blue, a few minutes in the red, then swirl it about and about until it changes into a blushing purple. The purple dyes were always the best. Only the richest customers could afford the materials needed to make it and Nile used to relish running her fingers over the fabric, feeling how soft and smooth it was beneath her touch. She’d always wanted to wear purple one day.
She’d thought after the King took her in as a ward that she could wear purple then, but even as a Princess, she had been consigned to white. The royal family gave life to their country, so they wore white like the Givers. It was an irony that she loathed from the first moment it'd been explained. All that ugly white. Ugly ugly ugly white. Even Yusuf wore white on ceremonial occasions. He hadn’t been wearing white when he arrived last night, though. Just the plane dirt grey of the army as if all that white got swallowed up by the desert sand and stained him the color of the earth.
Nile meanders through the market. She lets herself get carried away by the sound of the people talking amongst themselves. She slips in and out of stalls, chasing colors and music whenever they catch her senses. She finds a street musician playing a pipe and she grins as he dances along with the music he plays. She claps with his small audience, thrilling at the sensations he brings to her ear.
Hunger tickles her belly as the day tarries on. She finds some youths playing dice in the park and she joins their game, betting the rings on her fingers against the coins in their hand. She wins enough to let her buy some flat bread and cheese. Nile eats both while sitting on the stone steps of Irania’s library. She licks the cheese from the roof of her mouth when it clings on, refusing to be swallowed, her belly sated as she relishes the flavors on her tongue.
And still, no matter what she does, she’s ever conscious of the great glass towers of the temple. Long ago, when Irania had first expanded from a place of worship to a place where lay people could live and work, it had been decided that no building could ever block the view of the towers. Even crouched low on the steps of the library, Nile only has to glance to the side and she’ll see tips of glass spearing the sky.
Inside one, is Quynh: endlessly disappointed in Nile’s ability. In another: her mother, angry at Nile’s behavior and not the least bit sympathetic to her rage. In the last: the boy with the black stained face that she’s meant to heal.
A pigeon lands next to Nile, beady eyes squinting at her with open interest. There’s no note tied to this pigeon’s leg. It’s a stray, and it eyes her flat bread with greedy intent. Nile tears a piece off and tosses it over. “I don’t have seeds today,” she laments. “I thought Yusuf would be staying, so I got all dressed up. And he’s gone now.” The bird doesn’t seem to care about the lack of seed. It snaps up the bread and swallows it down in a few quick bites. It walks even closer to Nile, intention clear. “No, I already gave you your fill, go away.” It doesn’t go. It keeps staring, waiting and assessing until Nile shoves the rest of the bread into her own mouth and chews it so the bird can see there’s none left.
The pigeon coos unhappily at her, then flutters off to find another victim. Nile’s left alone, surrounded by people who all have their own lives to live, and not a one looks her way.
Discomfort take’s hunger’s place. It coils about her limbs with judgment and disdain. She chews her bottom lip, forces herself to stand, and walks the market one more time. She may as well be a ghost for all the attention she’s given. And the sounds of the people do little to uplift her spirits. Crossing her arms over her chest, she slowly drags her way back to the temple.
The guards at the gate didn’t blink once when they let her out, but as she goes back in they frown and squint as if she’s something to be despised. She forces her chin back up and keeps her back straight as she comes to the first split in the water gardens that will lead her to one tower, or the other, or the other.
She can’t go home. Her mother will know that she’s there too early and be suspicious. She has no desire to see Quynh, either. No desire to listen to Quynh tell her what a failure she is or how she needs to practice. That leaves only the task she’d been avoiding from the start. The one that she still doesn’t want to do now.
Gritting her teeth, Nile makes her way to the House of the Unwanting. She asks someone inside where Cat is, and at the blank look she receives, she asks where Andromache is instead. They direct her to a room at the far end of the hall, and she drags her feet there in hopes that time will speed up and she’ll be able to just disappear back into the abyss of her bedroom before she reaches the door. Time, stubbornly, stays at the exact same speed it always is.
She knocks once, half hoping Andromache doesn’t answer. That too, is a useless prayer. She hears the Reaper beckon her in, and when she goes inside, she finds both Andromache and Cat sitting together in the dark. The great glass windows have been blocked off with thick curtains. There’s a candle lit between them, keeping the room from being entirely consumed by the dark, but the light is minimal at best.
Andromache is sitting with her legs folded like a butterfly. Cat’s mimicked the posture. Their hands are outstretched toward each other. Or, at least they were. As Nile approaches, Cat draws back. He folds himself over. Head down and arms tucked in. He doesn’t kneel like he did yesterday, but he’s still crumpled and small.
“We’d thought you’d decided not to come,” Andromache says even as she reaches toward Cat and adjusts his position. She draws him back so he’s sitting upright. Two fingers under his chin guide his face up. He seems to be resisting, slightly, but not nearly enough to forestall her intentions. She doesn’t let up, and he eventually concedes to her directions.
Andromache speaks for both of them, and Nile needs to swallow back her immediate thought of asking if Cat really had voiced any opinion one way or another. For a person who doesn’t speak, she can’t seem to fathom that he cared if she’d come or not.
“I don’t think I can help,” Nile says.
“You don’t have much experience with Reapers. Do you, Nile?” Andromache turns to look at her fully. She’s not wearing her gloves, Nile notices. Her bare hands are clear to see. When she and Cat had been reaching toward each other, they’d done so to press skin against skin. Nile’s stomach churns. She swallows hard. “Come, sit. Tell us what you know of who we are.”
It sounds like a trap, and Nile glances at Cat just to confirm that it is absolutely a trap. Cat’s eyes are on Andromache. They’re watching her lips with razor focus. He hardly seems to pay Nile any mind. A part of her is thrilled that he isn’t looking her way. She can’t see his broken face like this. Another part is furious that he can’t offer her the mere modicum of respect she should receive.
Not that I deserve it, she thinks as she drags herself just a little bit closer to the pair. She is late after all. And he hadn’t endeared herself to them yesterday when she’d hurled at the mere thought of touching his face.
“If you touch their skin you die,” Nile says awkwardly, crossing her legs like Andromache and Cat. Andromache hums thoughtfully for moment, then reaches out and presses her hand to Nile’s. She flinches at the contact, but she doesn’t die. She can’t die. She scowls angrily at Andromache, but Andromache just leaves her hand right where it is. “If a normal person touches a Reaper’s skin, they die.”
At this, Andromache finally pulls away. She tilts her head consideringly. “Baseline, I think is the word that gets tossed around the most,” she offers. “Baseline human. As opposed to touched or divine.”
Nile doesn’t like either of the two words for what makes them what they are. ‘Touched’ sounds a bit too on the nose, while ‘divine’ seems excessive. Just because they have the powers of life and death doesn’t make them gods. And even if the ability is rare enough, effecting only a fraction of a percent of the population, it’s still prevalent enough to fill the halls of this temple with their numbers. And eventually the gift does fade. No one knows exactly when or why, but it will fade away and let them die sooner or later. If they were gods, they'd truly be immortal, and, if they were truly gods, they were gods with a pantheon so obscene it’s an impossible figure to track. But... 'baseline' isn’t much better than ' normal' either. Both presume an equality at birth. Semantics alone can’t fix the linguistic complications of magical reality.
“Do you know,” Andromache says, “More people study the history of Givers than the history of Reapers.”
“Gee I wonder why,” Nile mutters. It came out so instinctively that she doesn’t even feel ashamed of it until even Cat is glancing her way. “Can he understand us?” she asks, awkward under the pressure of that gaze.
“He’s a clever one. He knows more than I thought he did. Either he picked up some from Yusuf and Sebastien, or he’d known enough prior to being captured. Either way, he’s quite bright, aren’t you, Cat?” Cat doesn’t deign that with a reaction at all, which seems to only make Andromache laugh. She seems inordinately fond over someone she’s just met. “In any case, to answer your rather rhetorical question, Nile, why we haven’t been studied is because of fear. No one wants a Reaper to be able to kill better. But for Givers? Healing seems like a natural extension of resuscitation. The two have always been intertwined and explored. Where Reapers are only offered executions and little else.”
“Why would you want to do anything else?” Nile asks. “Isn’t killing things bad enough?” Cat flinches and finally tears his gaze from her. He looks back at the floor. Andromache taps his chin with two fingers like she did earlier. He looks up, but only at her. Waiting and expectant.
“Sometimes killing something is what saves something else,” Andromache reveals. She lowers her hand to the flickering light of the candle. Nile watches as she hovers it over the flame. “Die,” she says. Instantly they’re plunged into darkness. The light vanishes at her word alone.
A noise rattles through Nile’s ears. It’s a voice, maybe. A voice that’s been turned about and skinned so only its abstract form can be understood. It hitches, like a moaning rasp, three times in succession. Each repetition gets slightly higher in pitch. Andromache strikes a match. Her face is illuminated in a subtle orange glow, and so is Cat’s. Cat’s lips are spread in what could almost be considered a smile, and Nile realizes: he’d been laughing. That horrific noise had been a laugh.
Andromache lights the wick of the candle and gestures for Cat to give it a try. He does. He snaps his hand out like he’d been waiting for an opportunity to show off, and now that he’s been given leave to do so— he snaps his thumb and middle finger together and the light winks out between one flicker and the next. It’s Andromache’s turn to laugh now. She throws her head back and releases a great barking guffaw toward the ceiling. “Very clever indeed,” she admits. “Where did you learn to do that, little Cat?” He doesn’t respond. When she relights the candle, Nile can see on his face: his smile has vanished. He stares at Andromache, and Andromache stares back. Andromache’s humor dissipates and she pats his knee. “No,” she says quietly. “Never mind. I can guess.”
Nile stares down at the flickering of the candle. She reaches for it. Its heat burns her fingers and she hisses, pulling away. Instantly, her skin heals. Still, her thoughts jumble. She says, “But fire isn’t...isn’t alive.”
“Isn’t it?” Andromache asks. “Are the molecules not moving? Does the flame not need sustenance to thrive? Does it not require fuel to keep burning? Can it not move? Who is to say that fire isn’t a living thing?”
“It can’t think,” Nile refutes.
“Neither does a plant. And yet, is a flower any less alive than you are?”
“I can’t make flower spring up from the ground either.” Andromache doesn’t seem terribly impressed by her proclamation.
“Have you ever tried?” she asks.
She hasn’t. She doesn’t know anyone who has. No one in the temple has mentioned plants. As far as she’s seen or heard, Givers work exclusively with animals and humans. There is no in-between or room for alteration. “Life is life. Death is death. There are some things that are alive that need death to benefit others, but that does not mean that all a Reaper can do is extinguish the life of a human. Sometimes, extinguishing a fire is more than good enough. And for you...Nile. Sometimes healing that which needs help, doesn’t necessarily have to come from a closed ward with paying clients. Perhaps you should start thinking more about what actually is alive and dead, rather than what you think should be.” Andromache stands. She holds out a hand to stop Cat from doing the same. “I’ll be right back.”
She leaves, quiet steps muffled against the dark carpet floor. Nile stares down at the candle. Fire isn’t alive. She knows that. It can’t be alive. And yet. If it isn’t alive, then why can they affect it? More than that, “How did you do it without touching?” Nile asks. “I thought you had to touch it.”
Cat bites his lip and stays silent. He doesn’t try to make eye contact like Andromache encouraged. He twists his head away and stays precisely as curled up as Andromache would have corrected. Frustration burns at Nile’s chest. She grinds her teeth together. She wonders if she should correct him like Andromache did. But Cat doesn’t seem interested in anything that isn’t Andromache.
Nile reaches for the flickering wick. She doesn’t go as close this time. She lets the heat warm her fingers. She feels its presence against her palm. She closes her eyes. The fire moves with their breaths. Sometimes an exhale shivers too close and it flutters rapidly before settling.
Its smoke rises up, always. The small flame rotates around the wick ever so subtly. It descends down the wax coated string with one bite at a time. Why? To eat, yes. To sustain itself. It needs to sustain itself somehow to exist. But what is fire? Why does it burn? Why does it need air to survive? Why the heat?
Abruptly, the heat vanishes. She blinks her eyes open, squinting in the gloom. Without the light from the candle it’s hard to see at first, but there’s just enough radiant light from under the curtained windows for her to make out Cat eventually. He’s moved his hand. Moved it so it’s directly parallel to Nile’s. Just like he’d been sitting with Andromache when she’d first entered.
He doesn’t speak, just stares down at the light he must have willed into stillness. There’s nothing to touch. Nothing except the wick. But is it the wick that she’s bringing alive? Or something else? Nile tucks her tongue in the corner of her lips. She shuffles forward. Andromache had mentioned molecules. But which molecules need to speed up? Which ones need to go faster in order to burst with combustion?
She stares at the wick. She thinks burn as hard as she can, willing all her energy to her palm as if that will make even the slightest bit of difference. It doesn’t change a thing. The wick stays cold between their hands. Sweat forms on Nile’s brow as she concentrates. Light, she tries this time. Nothing happens. Start, she commands. It stays exactly the same. Live, she finally settles on.
The strangled voice gasps, “Ah!” and Nile’s eyes fly open. She can feel it. She can see it. The wick is glowing, just the slightest bit. It’s turning more bright as the seconds go on until finally it goes from flickering coal to flame. Cat grins, and she could almost say it’s mischievous as he tilts his head up at her and with a perfectly silent wave of his hand, the fledgling light vanishes.
“Hey!” she swats his hand away. Her palms cup the wick. She thinks it again. Live. The sparkle of orange comes faster this time. It crests into a flame brighter and more vibrant than before. She grins at him, challenging just a little. He blinks, and the fire goes out. Spreading her hands a bit wider now, she throws her energy at the fire. Live, she shouts in the back of her mind. Live!
Red spears through the candle from tip to tip. It illuminates the inside of the wax, melting the whole body in moments as the fire bursts up like a rocket between her fingers. Flames shoot out at all sides, licking their way along the curtains and the bedding and the floor.
Nile yelps, tumbling to the ground. Her sleeve is burning. She slaps at it hysterically, hardly cognizant of Cat or the keening noise that echoes between her ears. She throws herself upright once she’s patted out the flames, staring in horror as more fire spreads all around them. Cat’s hands thrust into the center of the flame. He grabs onto the pitiful remains of the candlestick and Nile almost screams: that’s not going to do anything, when the candle’s fire snaps out of existence just like that. Cat holds his hands out and squeezes his fingers into fists. The moment his knuckles crack and his fists lock, the room settles into quiet darkness once more. All fires have been suppressed, killed, by Cat's will alone.
“Good,” Andromache says when she re-enters the room with a bag of seeds in one hand and a book in the other. “Thank you for not burning down the tower.” Nile’s not sure which one of them is getting thanked. She’s the one who started the fire, but Cat’s the one who ended it. The bag of seeds is tossed at her before she can puzzle it out. The book is gently laid at Cat’s side. Andromache pauses only to check his palms and frown at the healing burns that he’d acquired from holding them in flames.
She must not be able to see if they’re healing well enough in this lighting, because she finally pulls back the curtain to let the light of the outside world shine in. Cat flinches at the contact, tilting his head down and away from it, eyes squinting badly as he tries to block the worst of it.
“Why was the fire so much bigger that time?” Nile asks. “Did you see how big it was?”
“I watched the last few minutes, yes,” Andromache says. “It’s because you wanted it more. To prove a point, no?”
“Spite’s never healed any of my patients in the House of the Wanting,” Nile mumbles. She didn’t want Andromache to answer. Thankfully, she doesn’t. Instead, Andromache crosses her legs and sits right where he had before. Even though the carpet beneath her is now scorched and awful.
“Tomorrow, you two will meet here and you’ll go together to locate each of the poison ivy vines that have started growing around the water gardens. Cat will kill them, Nile you’ll plant these seeds in their place. Are we understood?” Cat nods. Nile just looks at her seeds.
“You think I can make plants grow from this?” she asks.
“Why not? You made a fire appear out of thin air. No one’s done that before either.”
This time, it’s Nile’s turn to stare. Something squiggly tugs on her stomach. It bubbles up her chest, making her laugh an almost insane giggle that can only emerge after Nile asks, “You didn’t know it would work?”
Andromache just looks at her. Patient and unreadable. “No, but neither did you. You did it anyway. That’s why you should always try.”
Nile doesn’t know what to say. She waits for something more, an explanation, a reason, a theory. None comes. But Andromache is right. She did do it.
And for the first time in a long while, she wonders what else she can do.
Tw: Discussion of stillbirth, actual stillbirth does not actually happen.
It’s a long ride back to the front. Yusuf and Sebastien left at dawn, passing their farewells to Andromache and Quynh before setting off, and they rode in silence for most of the first day. One of the grooms had filled their bags with supplies for their journey. They ate while they rode, stopping only to give the horses a break. Even then, Yusuf didn’t know if he wanted them to ride faster to make it back sooner, or take the gift of a few weeks of freedom for what it had been.
Andromache had offered to host them for longer. She’d been near insistent on it, actually, in the way only Andromache could seem insistent. She’d offered twice, and when he’d refused both times she’d let it go with a disapproving frown. It felt so much like home that he nearly acquiesced just to vindicate her love.
“We could go back,” Sebastien says only once. He’d caught Yusuf staring off to the south-east where Irania lays hidden beyond the horizon. Yusuf shakes his head, though. They can’t go back. “You’ll have to apologize to Nile, of course,” Sebastien presses on dutifully. “She’ll be upset with you, and she’ll be right.”
Instead of commenting on Nile’s state of being, Yusuf whistles for his horse to come back from where it started to stray. Its head pops up and, with grudging slowness, it does return. “I’m lucky,” Yusuf tells Sebastien as his horse presses its nose into the cup of his palm. “To have friends who care so much about me.”
“You are,” Sebastien agrees. “You also should listen to those friends more frequently.”
“I listen. Sometimes it is impossible to both listen and act, but I do listen.” He strokes his horse’s nose, then lowers his brow to touch the spot between its eyes. For three years, he’s known that Sebastien has been the only one truly at his side, the only one who truly could understand and support him. Seeing Andromache again had hurt in a way he hadn’t expected. He knew why she’d been banished to Irania, had begged his father to rescind the order once it’d been given. She’d been the only one brave enough to argue that sending him to fight a war would go against everything he was. Her loyalty cost her her freedom. He’d listened though, when his father hadn’t. Listened and known how horrible the war would be.
She’d been right too.
She’s always right.
He re-saddles his horse and adjusts their bags, then mounts. They don’t talk for the rest of the day, and Sebastien never again brings up returning to Irania. On the second day, Sebastien distracts him instead. He tells stories of their childhood. Remember when? Remember this? Remember how? Yusuf adds on tidbits and anecdotes, thrilling in the distraction even if it’s a simple one.
Sebastien spins him a tale of Amelie the Fair. The beautiful handmaiden who serves Yusuf’s mother on her gilded throne. Amelie’s dark locks and copper warm skin mark her are not uncommon amongst their people. Yusuf can name any number of beauties in the palace at Jerrah who far surpass Amelie. Men and women bedecked in glittering jewels and shimmering robes, whose faces are both chiseled and rapturous. But Sebastien’s heart has been Amelie’s since the day she flung her slipper at a courtier who dared speak out of turn at a banquet.
Sebastien had hooted with such laughter that he’d turned to Yusuf and informed him that one day, Amelie would be his bride. He’d proposed no less than five times in the intervening years. Each time she’d turned him down with frank finality that left him more wooed than ever before. “You’re a boy,” she told him, time and again. “I have no interest in children.”
But Sebastien’s heart had been struck by the gods. He could see no one but her in his mind. “Do you remember that Amelie let me escort her to the Solar Festival?” he asks Yusuf, dreaming of memories coated in cobwebs within Yusuf’s mind. It takes ages for Yusuf to summon the image up. To pull back the layers of dirt and disrepair that blanket his past.
Most of the events of their last Solar Festival in Jerrah were lost behind his father’s announcement that Yusuf would join his Uncle fighting against Mezzaluna. But if Yusuf scrapes hard enough, he can just manage to conjure the image of Sebastien and Amelie. Both dressed in the pale blues of senior members of the royal household. Her neck had been draped with gold. Her hair wrapped in the finest silk the kingdom could buy. Her eyes were framed with kohl, and she had gallantly allowed Sebastien to walk her into the ballroom. Her hand tucked neatly in the crux of his elbow.
They bowed to the royal family together, then they bowed to each other before taking their assigned places next to their patrons. Sebastien at Yusuf’s side, Amelie’s at the Queen’s. Sebastien had been so flushed with pleasure at the gesture that he’d not heard the King’s announcement at all. He’d kept on smiling, dreamy with delight, until Andromache dragged Yusuf from the Festival so he wouldn’t faint before all their assorted guests. Then and only then did Sebastien realize the calamity that had just befallen them.
And yet, a month later when they rode out from Jerrah with the reinforcements Yusuf’s uncle requested: Amelie had offered Sebastien one of her silk hair wraps. She told him to keep it close, and return it when the war was won.
Yusuf glances at Sebastien now. He’s stroking his hand absently over his chest, over the layer of fabric that hides Amelie’s silk gift from sight. He keeps it folded over his heart, always, pressed between his light linen underclothes and his far more coarse tunic. On the coldest nights of the year, sometimes Yusuf spies it wrapped around Sebastien’s neck instead. His nose pressed against the cloth as if he could inhale her scent from three years past.
And still he writes to her, and, more shockingly, still she writes back. “I’m not a boy anymore,” Sebastien reveals as if Yusuf isn’t very much aware of that fact.
“We turned nineteen some months ago,” Yusuf agrees solemnly. He doesn’t reveal that he’d tried to grant Sebastien a leave of absence from the army. He doesn’t reveal that he’d argued for weeks to allow Sebastien time to return to Jerrah, to see his mother and Amelie. To have the chance to show Amelie his devotion in person, rather than endless letters filled with poetry Yusuf crafts for Sebastien each time his friend begs him for help wooing the love of his life.
“She said she’d not interested in boys,” Sebasiten repeats, a story so familiar it’s akin to breathing. A simple fact of life, never to be altered. “But I’m not a boy anymore.” He puffs up his chest. Yusuf can just barely make out the square fold of Amelie’s wrap where it protrudes ever so slightly beneath his shirt. “I’m a man. And when we win this war, I’m going to propose again. I’m going to do it right.”
That night, when they finally rest for the evening, Yusuf lies on his bedroll and he imagines Sebastien’s wedding. He imagines blessing the union of the most devoted man in all of Shams. When the war is over, he dreams. What would the world look like, when the war is over?
They ride hard for the next week. Their horses bemoan their persistence, but they waste no time. The weather holds through most of it. Only a few moments of too hot sun force them to break before they’d prefer. They rest in the cool shade of a hastily pitched sun-screen, or they shelter in the annex of buildings that were once a part of Mezzaluna before they’d been conquered years ago. They rest empty now, uninhabited and a consequence of war alone.
For generations the battlefield has pushed into one territory more than the other, and only the bravest of cities retain their presence as border towns. The endless refrain of siege and conquer, conquer and siege is a song that few people enjoy. Most cities have constructed escape routes underground so that if a siege lasts too long there are methods for the delivery of food and water, while also providing escape to those who need it. The result is simply a longer campaign.
Even the grass has acclimatized to their warring. Growing only where their boots refuse to tread. Expanding outwards, adjusting a landscape so every few decades the cartographers must rally themselves to redraw the lines again and again and again.
The only benefit to the abandoned structures that Yusuf can see are the wells. They’re reliable sources of water, and so they refill their canteens and let the horses drink their fill whenever they happen across the dusty ruins of conflict. If they need to spend the night, they do so with a roof over their head and the wind blocked out by strong walls that survived the blades of thousands and the blood of many.
By the second week of their journey, these lodgings become more commonplace as they approach the present battlegrounds. So too do travelers who have grown used to the ruins as waypoints on their way through the plains. Yusuf and Sebastien sit with their sigils hidden and their identities quiet, disinterested in being recognized or explaining their presence. They listen as one of the travelers pulls out a lute and sings songs of Jerrah and the grace of the sun. Children dance with their parents, and lovers share kisses by the light of a community fire. Some of the vagrants trade goods with each other, spitting and shaking hands to cement the bargains for all time.
“Come,” they beseech Sebastien and Yusuf. “Join us!”
“We couldn’t possibly intrude,” Yusuf demurs, but Sebastien nudges him with his elbow and grins so bright and hopeful Yusuf cannot help but give in. He stands and they walk closer, sitting with the others by the fire.
This group is larger than most: seven adults and four children. “We’re from Altas,” a portly fellow named Kirin informs. He’s cooking meat on the fire and Yusuf’s mouth waters at the smell. “War’s getting a bit too close again, so we decided to leave before we end up like this,” he gestures to the abandoned border town that used to house someone a long time ago.
“Have they pushed to the walls again?” Sebastien asks, reaching out to help a young pregnant woman find her seat. Yusuf’s fingers twitch as she thanks Sebastien for her help. She’s about six months along. Her stomach protrudes from her as a badge of honor and pride. She rubs at it with the kind of gleeful exhaustion only an expectant mother can possess. Delighted by the possibility growing within her, while equally ready for the whole experience to be over so she can have her body back to herself.
Kirin waves his hand in the air. “They came close enough to smell their stink, and that’s too close for us.”
The news strikes a harsh blow against Yusuf’s chest. They’d been fighting that stretch of land for too long to let Altas fall. But a month gone from the battle and it seemed the city might actually be in peril. He tries valiantly to control his expression, but it must fail to pass muster. Kirin pats his shoulder, kindly. “Don’t you worry. This happens sometimes, young man. It’s the way it is. We’ll beat those bastards yet. Lord Najima isn’t going to let those bastards just run roughshod over Shams, and neither is the Prince!”
Hearing his Uncle’s name is hardly a surprise, the man’s been fighting this war since before Yusuf was born. But his own title catches him off guard. “You have such faith in him?” Sebastien asks, ignoring Yusuf’s pointed glare in his direction. “Your Prince?” Sebastien’s smiling though. Bright and pleased, as if he’d orchestrated this moment from the depths of his daydreams just to provide Yusuf with a stunning moment of clarity that could overcome his persistent ennui.
“Of course,” Kirin says. “Joined up as soon as he came of age, never a braver man. I saw him when he first took the field. Riding that white horse like something out of legend. He’s going to end this war, I know it. End it like Lord Najima can’t. Najima’s a good man, don’t get me wrong. But he’s been fighting for forty years now and nothing’s changed much except a few cities. He’s giving it his all, but Prince Yusuf is going to end it. I see it in the stars.”
“He sees it in the stars,” Sebastien repeats to Yusuf. He’s grinning so wide that Yusuf thinks he might just give them both up to these travelers. He even shoves Yusuf’s arm when Yusuf doesn’t adequately respond.
Kirin must take his levity as mockery though and he wags one wrinkled finger sternly before Sebastien’s nose. “I won’t accept no foolery here about the Prince. He’s a good man.”
“I would offer no foolery,” Sebastien swears, one hand to his chest—right over Amelie’s silk. “I too would follow our Prince into the heart of hell if it meant he had a chance to succeed.” His eyes slide to Yusuf. He winks. “No matter what.”
Embarrassment sways Yusuf’s hand. He stands and makes his way to the pregnant woman, eager to ignore everything Sebastien and Kirin are insinuating. He kneels at her side and offers to help her with her shoes. She thanks him so fervently he blushes worse than he had under Kirin’s unexpected praise. He ducks his head and unstraps the sandals from her poor feet, making quiet small talk as he works. Her name’s Kassandra, and Kassandra’s ankles are swollen and her soles seem tender. He asks if he might rub them to ease her pain. “Are you certain?” she asks, propriety demanding she question before accepting, he can see how much she wants to say yes.
“I have much experience in these matters,” he replies as solemn as he can. “There were many babes born in my youth. It was my job to assist those in need.” Kassandra agrees before he even finishes spinning his tale, and he gently rests his hands on her feet. He doesn’t need his gift for this. He’s learned enough simply fighting a war to understand the flexes and arches of feet and their troubles.
He presses his thumbs to the center line of her sole, then pushes up toward her toes. She gasps, leg turning limp as it rests on his knee between them. He pushes and massages, feeling for the tense straining muscles and letting his thumbs maneuver them back into comfort. “Where is the father?” he asks. She’s young still, perhaps only a few years older than he. He hopes she will not tell him the father has died in the melee.
Instead, she tells him: “There is no father, he’s Giver born.” Yusuf’s fingers spasm mid stroke. Kassandra seems ready for his judgment, but he doesn’t offer it. He has to do everything in his power to keep his fingers moving though, to nod and say something passing acceptance.
“May the sun shine on your lives,” Yusuf manages. He switches to her other foot, heart thundering in his chest.
At his words, she relaxes just a touch. She’s smiling again, bright and excited as she tells him: “I’d wanted to be pregnant, and the Giver said he could do it. I know it’s illegal, but he was so friendly and it worked out so well. My wife was thrilled. She went out to Jerrah right away to find a new place for us to live. She said she found one, right near the market where you can still see a part of the palace. I’m going there to meet her and when this one’s born we’re going to raise him right and proper.”
“I am glad you are happy,” he tells her. He finishes his task and sets her foot back down on the earth. He smiles, as best he can. “I wish you well.” He shouldn’t go on, but he can’t help himself. “You know...Giver children, they’re...they’re female. When they’re born. Because...they’re wholly of the mother. So…”
Kassandra’s eyes widen, her mouth twists into such a delighted smile. “It’s a girl?” she asks him.
“If it’s Giver born, yes,” he replies. Kassandra’s face fills with light and life and promise. He hopes desperately that the Giver who gave her the child had been truly kind in their actions. That the baby in her belly is fully formed and growing properly. It is reckless, to do such a thing. Reckless still, when the results happen so long after the Giver’s had a chance to disappear with little chance of being found.
“May...would you mind if I…?” he gestures with his hand. She hesitates.
“He—she hasn’t...she doesn’t really move all that much…”
“I’ve been told I have a way with that too,” he lies. Kassandra hesitates some more, but eventually nods. Hope outweighing practicality.
He reaches out, spreading his palm over the swell of her stomach. He closes his eyes and feels inward. There’s a child there. But she’s malformed. Her heart is too small for this stage of development. It beats too slowly, restricting its progress as it grows. Her libs are weak and twisted. Yusuf traces its formation in his mind. The shape of her body, the frame of her being. Be well, he wishes. Live. Live, and be well. He can feel it against his palm when the heart within answers his call. It thumps. An arm moves, as sinew and bone realign. Kassandra gasps, excited enough to press her hand against her stomach too.
He pulls away only when he’s certain that he’s done all he can. When he looks up, she’s vibrant with her joy. “She’s moving, she’s moving!” Kassandra announces. Some of the children run over, chattering loudly amongst themselves as they eagerly touch her stomach and whisper in awe at the feeling of each gentle movement of the baby growing in her womb.
Yusuf pulls away. He steps back, fingers tingling as he searches for Sebastien once more. His old friend is looking at him, smiling fond and proud. Kirin’s looking too. “I believe in my Prince,” Kirin says. Yusuf wants very much to believe that he’d merely been continuing whatever conversation he’d been having with Sebastien, but he suspects that that’s wholly incorrect.
Exhaustion pulls at him. He says his good nights and retreats back to his bedroll. He stretches out, listening as Sebastien sings songs of home with the lutist and the children dance and play, as the young woman giggles each time she feels her baby in her belly fascinated by a feeling she’s never known before.
“What was wrong with it?” Sebastien asks him quietly in the morning after the travelers have gone on their way.
“It would have been stillborn,” Yusuf replies. “It was a foolish risk to help.”
“That’s your father talking.”
“He’s the King.”
“And one day you will be. What kind of King do you want to be, Yusuf? The kind who knowingly allows his ailing subject to continue on until they suffer heartbreak at their loss? Or the kind who helps them despite the risk to yourself?”
“Does helping her now outweigh the good I could have done later if I never get that far?” Yusuf asks.
“Yes,” Sebastien replies. “Because you can help her now, and you don’t know what will happen later. You did good, your highness. You always do good.”
“It doesn’t feel good enough.”
Sebastien sighs. He clapsYusuf's shoulder and says: "It never does."
The attack comes three days later.
Large groups of travelers start to become commonplace, shifting in Yusuf’s mind from migrants to refugees. His grip tightens on his reins as he encourages more speed from his horse. There’s a fine balance between overworking the beast and reaching maximum efficiency. He balances that line as best he can, worrying all the while as the faces of his people grow more grim with each passing day.
When he sees his Uncle’s banners he falters, stunned by their presence. He draws his horse up short, stopping it mid stride. It huffs angrily at him, and even Sebastien needs to pull around in a circle to make it back to his side. The banners are too far from Altas. If they’re here, then the city has fallen. Panic thrums through Yusuf’s veins as he clicks his tongue and urges his mare forward. His heart beats faster and faster as he approaches those flickering yellow flags set to either side of a great tent.
A soldier holds out their hand as he approaches. Yusuf tugs at the thick wrap of cloth that he’s been using to shield his face from the sun, revealing his features to the man. “I am Prince Yusuf son of King Ibrahim,” he reaches beneath his shirt and removes a golden necklace, spun with the insignia of his family. “Let me through.” Immediately, the soldier bows. Yusuf dismounts and thrusts the reins into the man’s hand as Sebastien follows behind him. “Where is my uncle?”
“Inside, your highness.”
It’s the accent that tips their hand. The words are from Shams, but the accent is Mezzaluna. Yusuf stops mid step and swirls about. Sebastien’s already pulled his sword free from its scabbard. He impales the soldier before Yusuf could think twice about it. Moments later, the tent flaps are thrust open and more soldiers come billowing out.
Yusuf scrambles, hand fumbling for his sword as he’s caught wrong footed. A blade catches him in the side. He gasps as lights flicker across his vision. Sebastien roars loudly behind him. Yusuf's consciousness fades as he crashes to the earth. Time blinks forward and he gasps, jerking upright to see bodies lying in a crescent around him. Sebastien straddles his legs, sword up and defending his prone form from further harm. He must hear Yusuf wake, though, because he steps to the side and makes a series of lightning fast strikes against a pair of assailants to the left.
Rolling over, Yusuf lurches to his feet. He draws his scimitar and falls into step beside his friend. They’re outnumbered, and badly so. Black clad soldiers flood through the flap of the tent in an endless tide, streaming out one by one. An army of ants focused on one thing and one thing alone.
Yusuf grits his teeth as he swings his blade toward the enemy. He twists and turns, stabbing at each body that dares throw itself toward him. It is, of course, only a matter of time though until one finally manages to strike Sebastien in the back. Yusuf hears the harsh hiss of air as it leaves Sebastien’s mouth. He turns to see Sebastien fumble and falter, stabbed once, twice, three times before Yusuf can even try to get between him and those who would harm him.
“Enough,” someone shouts. He turns, but does not recognize the tall man with acorn brown skin who approaches with all the cadence of a commander. “Surrender, and you can heal your friend.”
Cold horror crashes through him. He stares, uncomprehendingly at the man, the flags, the tent, and the Mezzaluna soldiers so deep in Shams territory. His fingers tremble. Sebastien is bleeding out on the ground beside him. Unconscious. Perhaps he’s already dead.
Good now, Yusuf thinks wildly. Good now, because who knows what comes next?
He drops his scimitar. He kneels besides Sebastien and presses his bare hand to Sebastien’s face. Come back, he wills. His closest friend, his brother in all things, jerks awake beneath his touch. He gasps for air even as the soldiers rush forward, binding Yusuf’s hands behind his wrist and thrusting a dark shroud over his head in an almost amusing mockery of how he’d handled Cat a month prior.
He hears Sebastien start to shout, hears him yelling profanities. It makes Yusuf smile. Andromache was right. He’d had to choose. And his loved ones would win every time. He’s mid-laugh when something hard strikes him in the back of the head.
His consciousness winks out, and after that: he doesn’t know how much time he loses. Only that it’s been long enough to not know where he is or how far they’ve taken him.
Cat can’t read. Nile discovers this about a week into their practice sessions in the water gardens. He carries around the book Andromache gave him, holds it on his lap and stares at the pages with the most dedicated frown of concentration that Nile has ever seen, but he barely moves from one page to another and his nose stays crunched for far longer than it should if the topic were merely perplexing.
The seeds that Andromache had given Nile remained just that: seeds. They didn’t sprout or do anything of interest, and so while Cat merely had to reach out and touch the vines he was meant to kill, her own progress remained…stagnant. Which led her to his book. A far more interesting and potentially productive topic.
She slumps at his side, cognizant of exactly where his limbs have folded in on themselves in his standard hunched posture Andromache corrects whenever she sees him. Nile would think he was doing it on purpose, spiteing Andromache by crunching over once she couldn’t see him, but Nile has also seen him correct himself. She’s watched his eyes widen just a touch and his back straighten as if trying to meet Andromache’s standards even without a witness. It usually doesn’t last that long, but Nile would have given him good marks simply for trying.
Peering over his arm to get a good look at the page he’s been staring at, she frowns a bit to see it’s history. A history book of Mezzaluna and Shams. With such a bland cover she hadn’t recognized it, but now that she’s skimming the sentences, she does see a few familiar phrases. “Why’d she have you read that?” Nile asks. Cat, predictably doesn’t respond. His fingers do tighten a little around the book though. He shies a touch to the side as if she intended to snatch the book from his hands and toss it into the water by their feet.
Scooting just a little closer, Nile feels hyper aware of Cat and his body. The heat that radiates just a little through his clothes. The way he stiffens as she leans over to get a better look at his book. She thinks, suddenly, that he’s frightened. No one’s ever been frightened of her before. It makes her stomach twist about and her skin itch. “You can understand Shams can’t you?” Nile asks. She doesn’t necessarily expect a reply, but he manages a slight shrug. So quick she half suspects she imagined it. The gesture merely a bob of his shoulders, up and down. His hands still tight on the book and his eyes directed away. “But you can’t read it?” Because that’s the language of the book. Her mother tongue. The sentences are simple and the structure meant for student use.
Cat presses his lips tight together. His cheeks are flushing. From this angle, Nile can just see the burst of red behind that ugly black mark that still stains his face. Her fingers twitch. She squeezes them into a fist and keeps her hands steadily away from that cursed mark. It occurs to her, then, that he’s embarrassed.
Over the past week she’s encountered him on many occasions. She’s seen Andromache wiping dirt and debris off his body with a wet cloth. She’s seen him curl up like a pillbug at the slightest provocation. She’s seen him sitting on a rock overlooking the water garden and utterly oblivious to the way that his hair and clothes were in total disarray. He barely seems to notice that he wore the same outfit two days in a row, three, four. He’s wearing the same tunic from yesterday, she can spy some crumbs that had accumulated during their mid-day meal on Cat’s sleeve right where he wiped his mouth on it. And yet, it’s this that embarasses him.
She reaches for the book. He flinches, then hands it over, fingers hovering in the air longingly once it’s in her possession. She doesn’t mean to take it far, though. She keeps the page he was on, twisting it so the spine of the book rests between their knees. Nile places her index finger beneath the first letter of the first word. “ The ,” she says firmly. He blinks, sea-green eyes flickering in her direction with all the tumultuous colors of a storm. Then, he adjusts his position and he stares at the word like it’s the only word that matters. “T-H-E,” she spells out. “The.”
It’s Nile’s turn to be embarrassed now. She doesn’t know if she’s made a great mistake or if this is even helping. He doesn’t react outwardly or seem to show any interest in what she’s saying. As he stares at the book, he stares the same way he’d been staring for the past week. Perhaps he just likes to stare at books. Perhaps she’s overstepped her bounds.
“Well go on,” she insists. “Say it.” The storm is back, flashing lightning and crashing thunder as he scowls at her. “I’m teaching you how to read, and if I’m going to teach you, you’re going to have to prove you’re paying attention,” she insists. The words slip out without much thought. She has no idea if she’s doing this right, but she knows the seeds aren’t reacting when she tells them to grow, to live, or to sprout. At least Cat frowns sometimes. That’s better than nothing at all.
Cat doesn’t say “the.” Cat seems thoroughly unimpressed with her attempt at getting him to speak. Cat, Nile’s decided, needs better priorities. “Look, you want to read this?” she asks him. He tilts his head to one side, as if he suddenly can’t understand a word she’s saying. He’s a liar. “Andromache wants you to read it,” Nile says, going for the heart. Instantly, Cat’s lips part. He almost seems distressed by the idea he might be causing Andromache an undue burden by not reading a history book. “And I need to know you’re figuring it out, so you’re gonna have to say something.”
He doesn’t say anything.
“Fine,” Nile spits out. “For the duration of any study sessions, you have permission to speak as much as you want so we can confirm you learned it properly. And when we’re done with the lesson you can go back to being silent as the grave.” She winces the moment the euphemism comes out, fearing for a moment that she may have offended him.
He tilts his head, squinting at her Quynh-like. Assessing all her faults and features and determining how best to ridicule. Her own embarrassment starts to take precedence over his. She shoves the book back into his hands and stands up. She snatches her seeds from her pocket, muttering apologies and defenses as she sets off to her own part of the water garden to stare a plant into submission.
Fire seems to come naturally to her now. She has no trouble combusting things when she puts her mind to it. Speeding up something’s atomic structure until it bursts into flames, however, is as useful to a Giver as healing birds. She could be an arsonist or an animal handler but she’d never be of any use to human society. She’d never get that mark off of Cat’s face, where it stays as a daily reminder of her incompetence.
Live, she thinks at the seed in her palm. It stubbornly does nothing at all. Grow, she tries. Nothing.
Shuffling feet alert her to Cat’s presence. She glares at the seed instead of acknowledging him. Sprout! Not so much as a wiggle. Live! Be a plant!
“The,” he says, startling her bad enough to drop her seed. She whirls about, blinking dumbly at the too-shy boy holding the book out to her like it might spontaneously burst into flames and he’s not sure he’s ready to manage it. His hands are trembling, lips twitching spastically. They part and seal together over and over like he’s trying to decide whether to muzzle himself for all eternity or spew apologies for his error.
Ignoring the seed, she reaches for the book. His knees collapse just as her hand touches it. She yelps, dropping the book too as he pillbugs at her side. “No, no, it’s...it’s…” panic drives her. She whirls her head around in hopes that Andromache might be lurking somewhere. She’s not. Nile bites her lower lip and touches Cat’s shoulder. “That’s good. Um. That’s good. Stop please? Look up. Come on. It’s good.”
It’s not his skin, but it’s the first time she’s willfully touched him. Foolishly, she thinks, he’s just like everyone else. She knows this. Knows that he’s just as human as she is. And yet, he’s the embodiment of death. He’s a dead thing walking. The opposite of everything that makes her who she is. “You’re more scared of speaking than I am of Quynh,” she blurts out. Immediately she slaps her free palm to her face, covering her mouth at her own stupidity.
Slowly, Nile collects the book from the ground. She splays the pages out, flipping them until she reaches the very first chapter. “Come on. Come on look, how are you going to learn to read if you don’t look?” Her heart thumps painfully in her chest as she waits for him to unfurl. Her fingers tremble and even her breathing hurts as she inhales. The air rasps against her throat, sending her head spinning with vertigo as she struggles to keep the panic in line.
“Please, come on, please, I’m sorry. Cat? Cat?” She nudges his shoulder again. When he finally lifts his head up, he looks as bad as she feels.
Nile doesn’t think as she moves. Driven by an instinct her mother instilled in her at a young age. She wraps her arms around Cat’s neck and pulls him to her body, petting his tangled brown hair as they both cry against each other’s shoulders. He jerks at the contact, muscles tight and expectant. But when she doesn’t drop dead at the touch of him, he slowly raises his hands and returns the gesture.
He’s so small. His bones feel fragile against her body. He’s a delicate thing. A glass doll, finely made and carved and meant to be kept on a shelf away from the rest of the world. But he’s not a doll. He’s a boy. A person just like her. She squeezes him close. Feels how his bones shift beneath her arms. His nose ducks against her shoulder, and she cries without knowing the reason.
When they finally pull away, there’s snot dribbling down Cat’s nose. He wipes it on the back of his sleeve, flinching and wincing like she’s going to condemn him. “What’d they do to you?” she asks him. “To make you like this?” He doesn’t respond. He twists his face away, shivering in the heat of the day. The black stain on his cheek seems to swell like an ink patch, spreading from eye to chin. She hates it more than anything else.
Raising her hand, she slowly presses it to his face. His skin is warm and damp against her palm. His skin trembles at her touch. His eyes stare at her, lips parting. He doesn’t speak, but she remembers how his voice sounded. Fragile and reedy, like the wind through the wheat fields on a warm summer day.
Everyone says that Reapers are dead things walking. The only things Nile’s ever fixed were dead. She closes her eyes and thinks of what his face might look like without that horrible mark. She thinks of what he could have been like if he hadn’t been a Reaper. If he’d just had a chance to be whoever he wanted to be. She wonders what he might have done if he hadn’t become this.
Live, she commands in her mind. And, when she doesn’t feel anything beneath her palm except for that horrible scar of black death, she thinks, Be free.
And the skin moves.
She jerks back, not expecting the contact. He flinches as well. The two of them stare at each other. Nile presses her tongue to the corner of her mouth. She wipes the tears from her eyes and sets her face in grim determination. Her palm returns to Cat’s cheek, hesitating just before she makes contact to ask: “Do you want it gone?”
If pressed, Nile wouldn’t be able to explain why she asked. The answer seemed so obvious to her. Why wouldn’t he want it gone? And yet. Something about the way he’d pillbugged at the mere thought of her condemning him for daring to speak the word ‘the’ had her questioning more than she should. What if. What if no one had asked him what he wanted? What if he never had a choice to say what he wanted? What if they all decided for him? Maybe he liked it. Maybe—
“Please,” he whisper-breathes. The word has barely any power behind it, and yet it hits her like an axe in her chest. He hardly offered any voice to the word, air leaving his lungs in a fluctuating way that shaped a sound familiar to her ear. He clenches his teeth, his hands squeeze at the dark pants Andromache gave him to wear. The fabric wrinkles under his fingers and he’s shaking so minutely that Nile wonders how he’s keeping himself from folding over once more. He’s trying. Which is more than she’s done.
She touches his face. Imagines exactly what she’d imagined before. Be free. And feels it when the skin changes. This time she watches it happen. The black doesn’t vanish so much as push from his skin. It drops down like a fine coating of dust, staining his shirt and her hand as it leaves his body. It’s slow. Slow and jagged. The top heals at a different rate from the bottom and the sides, but it heals. The malformed edges of his cheek become smooth as the charcoal is forced from his flesh.
Nile thinks she can see what Andromache had mentioned. The many years the scar had been reapplied. She can feel it under her palm, how certain parts disappear faster than others, the stain of the trauma melting away like butter under a hot sun. Until all that is left is a too pale cheek and a mole that she’d never noticed beneath the scar. Small and innocuous and just enough to give a personality to a face that seemed desperate to hide whenever it could.
She lowers her hand. He looks at her. She doesn’t know what to say. She holds up her palm, showing him where the black stains her fingers now. She still isn’t prepared when his eyes turn wild and he reaches for her wrist. His fingers rub at the black, stilling only when he realizes that it’s just soot. She carefully dips her hand into the pond closest to them, and they watch as it all washes away.
“It was my father,” Cat says, still speaking so quietly that it’s nearly impossible to hear. She looks back at him. He’s cupping his cheek, stroking skin that hasn’t been unmolested in years. “I killed my father and it...” he keeps touching that cheek. Her stomach clenches.
I can bring him back, Nile things absurdly. She just barely manages to stifle the words before they come out. There’s nothing to bring back. She’d just washed his father off in a water garden pond. Not even Yusuf could resurrect a man from ashes.
“What’s your real name?” she asks instead.
He shakes his head and doesn’t say any more. The book is still between them. But she doesn’t want to teach him to read right now. Doesn’t want to do anything like that. Instead, she stands. She holds out her hand and waits until he acknowledges it. When he does, she wiggles her fingers until he slowly places his palm on hers. She hoists him up, still marveling at the fact that she’s just a little taller than this boy more than three years her age.
Taking him by hand, Nile guides him back to the House of the Unwanting. They don’t pass anyone outside, but inside a few people glance their way, double taking when they see Cat’s face. She brings him back to his room and they stand in front of the mirror provided for his use. He looks at himself for the first time in over a decade without that scar on his face. Releasing him, Nile goes and collects water for his wash basin.
They spend the rest of the afternoon cleaning all traces of soot and charcoal off their clothes and bodies. He doesn’t say anything else for the rest of the day, but Nile thinks that’s all right. He’s said more than enough.
And whenever he’s not looking, she looks down at her hand. She thinks, I did that. I fixed him. Not all of him. But his face at least. It hadn’t been hard. Not compared to the seed. Not even compared to the fire. She’d healed him just by trying. She’d never healed anyone else before. But I did it, Nile thinks. I healed him.
Later, when Andromache and Quynh come to check on their progress for the day, they’re both stunned to see Cat’s face. Andromache very nearly drops the platter of food she’d brought with her, saved only by quick reflexes that had her stumble stepping to the dresser to deposit it before rushing to kneel at Cat’s side. Her hands cup Cat’s face, turning it his way and that. She kisses his cheek and his eyes, embracing him like a mother would their long lost child.
Nile watches, awkward and uncertain as Cat folds himself against her with a relieved sigh. She excuses herself from his room, but barely makes it out the door before Quynh’s snatching her by her wrist and spinning her about. “You did that?” Quynh asks.
“I just...I touched it and I thought it, and it healed.” Nile winces at the explanation. It’s so pedantic and weak. Quynh doesn’t seem the least bit bothered by it. If anything she’s mystified.
“Yusuf couldn’t do it,” she tells Nile instead.
Anger snaps through Nile like the burst of combustion needed for flame. She throws her arms so hard to the side that it breaks Quynh’s typically tight grasp. Nile’s fingers curl into fists. She glares at Quynh with all the hatred she has in her heart. “Don’t lie to me,” she hisses, then turns on her heel and leaves.
Nile’s seeds still stay seeds.
She plants them in glass jars, watching their roots grow in the dirt all on their own, without the slightest bit of encouragement from her. During the days, she takes one and walks out to the water gardens with it. She places it in a sunny spot and lays on her tummy as Cat carefully presents his book for her assistance.
They lay there, shoulder to shoulder, and she drags her finger along the page—sounding out words as she goes. He nods quietly most of the time, lips wordlessly forming the shapes and sounds. Contextually, he’ll grasp where a sentence is going and “read” on despite not actually looking at the page. She thinks that’s cheating, and she tells him so. Sometimes, he even smiles in response.
His smile’s a crooked thing, growing higher on the cheek that had never been scarred, as if his face isn’t quite sure what to do with itself now that it has a full range of motion. His lower lip dips low on his formerly bad side, creating a kind of spoonish grin that is equal parts off-set and sweet. Usually his smiles are quicksilver, though. There and gone in a flash. He twists his head away so she can’t see them and she rolls her eyes and bops his shoulder with her own until they’re both looking back at the book.
Sometimes, she catches him tapping the glass jar with the reluctant sprout inside. She’s pressed the seed close enough to the glass so they can see the roots growing. The fine white limbs crawl about in the dirt, seeking nutrients that Nile couldn’t produce by will alone.
“I don’t get it,” she tells him as he clinks his fingernails against the glass. “Why can I heal you and raise the dead, but I can’t make a plant grow?”
He keeps clinking against the glass, not listening in the slightest. “Cat, what’s this word?” she asks him, pointing to the longest word on the page of his book he’s ignoring. He glances at it, squinting as if the sun’s blinding him, then mouths out something she doesn’t feel like interpreting. “Out loud. What’s the word.”
He mouths it again, scowling when he finishes and twisting to go back to tapping her seed. She shoves at his arm. He doesn’t look up. “I know you can speak, I’ve heard you, what’s this word?”
“It doesn’t grow because you didn’t give it life.”
Nile can’t think of a good response, so she says: “That’s not the word.”
Cat plucks up the jar, shifting so he’s on his knees. He holds it out to her, waiting until she sets his book down so she can take it from him. “It’s not dead,” he says, voice scratchy and gross.
“You should talk more, you don’t practice enough.” He frowns, unimpressed and disinclined to argue. She returns her gaze to her little seed and all its weird roots. “So I can only fix dead things?” she asks. “Yusuf can fix anything. There’s a whole tower of people fixing living things. Why can’t I?”
But Cat shakes his head. He points to the seed then waves his fingers at her. She blinks at him, expectantly, but he doesn’t clarify. Scowling, he looks about the water garden until he spies a leaf. It must have fallen off the tree ages ago, it’s brown and broken. He plucks it up and holds it to her. Waits until she takes it, then he waves his fingers again.
Turning her attention to the leaf, she sighs and wills it to live. Almost immediately the crumbling infrastructure pieces itself back together. It turns fleshy and moist, green and vibrant. Its stem springs outward until it’s formed a stick equipped with roots at the very bottom. Roots that could make it grow. She frowns at it. But feels compelled to plant it now that it’s here. She digs a hole and deposits it root down, burying it where it belongs.
“It was still dead first,” she tells Cat who looks so put out by her observation that she wishes she could just stomp off like she usually does with Quynh. But Cat’s sweet, and shy, and she doesn’t know if he’ll still come out to sit with her in the water gardens if she leaves like that. She doesn’t want to be alone.
Cat goes back to foraging as she holds onto her seed. Her dirt stained fingers offering her no advanced knowledge on what exactly she’s meant to be doing. He returns a few moments later, holding out a couple of new seeds that he must have torn straight from their plants. His fingertips are equal parts filthy from dirt and damp with dew. He places the seeds down in front of her, then takes a rock and splits one of the seeds along its side. Then he points, and keeps jutting his finger at it until she takes it in her hand and squints at the mess he’s made.
The seed’s not entirely cut in half, but it’s close. It’s hanging on by a thread. Cupping it between her palms, she thinks live, and when she opens her hands again, the seed’s been made whole. “It wasn’t dead,” he says. “You fixed it.” He points to her jar. “It’s not dead. You can’t make it live if it’s already alive.” Then, he grins that spoonlike grin and says: “I could kill it.” She tugs her jar away.
“Don’t you dare!” And when he laughs it makes her smile too. She looks back to the seed she’d fixed. Its perfect edges smooth and right. It would have died without her. And yet, now it’s living because of her.
With little else to do, she buries it in the ground too. Maybe one day it will grow. “You still didn’t tell me this word,” she reminds him. His smile drops off his face. He crosses his arms over his chest and ducks his head down. “Read it,” she commands, pleased as punch to have something to hold over him. He mouths the word one more time, but refuses to bring it to life. He’s a Reaper. Words are the only thing he can resurrect. Maybe it’s why he stays so quiet. Maybe her euphemism all those days ago had some logic behind it. What should the dead say about anything?
It’s a question that puzzles her for so long, that she doesn’t notice that Yusuf’s usual letters are late. Not until her mother brings it up over breakfast almost two months after Cat first arrived, quietly inquiring how the Prince is doing. Nile had been reaching for some jam, and she stops the moment the thought registers. She blinks at the table, then looks up at her mother in shock. “He hasn’t written,” she says. Her mother looks just as shocked as she feels, and immediately starts backtracking. She makes excuses, says Yusuf’s likely busy. But Yusuf is always busy. He still always writes.
Nile stands up so quick her chair falls over. She turns on her heel and marches herself up to her bedroom. She closes the door and lays on her bed, tears pressing against her eyes. Ashamed that not only did she forget about her brother: apparently he forgot about her too.
She’s still there come mid afternoon when a quiet knock that is too soft to be Quynh and too uncertain to be her mother rattles her from her despair. She sits up, wiping at her face. When she opens the door, Cat’s there, covered head to toe in the most skin protecting Reaper garb she’s seen him in yet. He’s got a pair of Andromache’s gloves on, his sleeves are the thick black wool of his order, even as a dark cloth wraps tight around his neck, head, and face. All she can see are his eyes. There’s no one else she knows quite this short with those kind of eyes.
Over Cat’s shoulder, she spies her mom, standing awkwardly and uncertain like she always does when Nile locks herself in her room. The knocking, at least, had been better received than Quynh literally dislodging the door from its frame the last time. Nile wipes the tears from her face, and steps aside to let Cat in. He slips around her and she forces a smile at her mother before closing the door between them.
They sit, shoulder to shoulder, on the floor by her bed. Her jars of seed spread out before them like marimba pipes. “Do you remember Yusuf?” she asks him. He doesn’t say anything, but he tips his head. “Of course you do, he’s the one who brought you here...he’s my brother. You know?” He does. He doesn’t tell her that, though. He lets her ramble, just sitting at her side waiting patiently as she crawls across her room to the box she keeps all of Yusuf’s letters in. She collects the stack and crawls back, handing them to him one at a time. “He always writes. Always. But he hasn’t now. Why wouldn’t he write?”
Cat runs his gloved fingers over the pages. He traces them with a gentle touch, caressing the seams and following Yusuf’s pen with a slight swaying of his hand. Nile flips through pages, showing Cat the ones where Yusuf amended his writing schedule. “He’s never late. Never. And he left without saying goodbye last time. He just dropped you off and left as if I...he’s my best friend. Why did he leave without saying goodbye?”
Snot clogs in her nostrils. She tries to inhale but it gets plugged somewhere right in front of her forehead. It makes a horrible trumpeting sound that has her coughing and sniffling worse, rubbing her nose on her sleeve and tears starting up even harder. “He can’t die,” Cat says, in his quiet way that always seems on the tip of being lost in the ambient noise around him.
“So why isn’t he writing!”
“He can be caught.”
Nile blinks at him. Cat blinks back. He hands her her letters back. She takes them with numb fingers, dizzy at the mere idea Cat’s presented. She stands up, letting the papers all fall to the ground. Whirling on her heel, she makes her way to her writing desk. A flick of her fingers lights the candle to her left. She fetches up her ink and a fresh slip of paper, then slowly begins to write out her missive to her adoptive uncle, Lord Najima.
Cat follows her to the rookery to send the letter, but neither of them have much to say as they watch the pigeon fly out. His hand slides into hers as the pigeon flaps out of sight. She feels lashed open. Bleeding and raw. But like anything living and breathing, this is also a wound she can’t heal.
“What if he was taken?” Nile asks Cat quietly. “What would they do to him?”
Cat doesn’t answer. She squeezes his hand tighter. “Tell me. What would they do to him.”
His lips press tighter. He twists his gaze way, down toward the ground. His shoulders slump. She grabs his collar with her other hand, jerking him about to look at her. “What are they going to do to my brother?!” she screams.
“Nothing,” he says. “He can’t die.”
“Neither could you,” she snaps back.
He doesn’t say anything else. Then again, she didn’t expect him to.
All they can do is wait.
The capital of Mezzaluna, Città Lunare, is built entirely of alabaster and limestone. Yusuf’s wrists are bound by thick rope as he’s dragged through the intricately bricked metropolis. His feet stumble awkwardly beneath him, but his fingers twitch at the thought of just running his hands along the stone and feeling how smooth it all is. The glittering structures grow taller and taller the deeper into the city he walks. Each building angled toward the citadel which glistens with unabashed glory above them all.
Behind him, Sebastien stumbles even worse. He’s lost weight over the four weeks they’ve travelled. Their captors not deigning to offer much in the way of food and water to their prisoners. Where Yusuf’s body will regenerate itself as it needs, Sebastien’s can only waste away. He trips and falls in such regular intervals that often Yusuf needs to barter with their guards for permission to help his friend. Then and only then can he send soothing waves of comfort into Sebastien’s body, hoisting him along as they continue to trudge forward.
Once they crossed into Mezzaluna territory, there’d been no need to hide their journey or obfuscate their directions. Even if Sebastien and Yusuf managed to escape, they’d have to flee over enemy rich lands that offer little protection or opportunity. That didn’t stop them from attempting the impossible, but it certainly made their re-captures more assured.
They are not brought into the citadel.
It looms, taller and taller with every step, but instead of entering its walls, they’re brought down a series of steps into the depths beneath the city itself. Torches light the way down into the abyss. Yusuf’s thighs burn as they go down step by step. His knees creak unpleasantly and he needs to steady both himself and Sebastien when his friend’s feet slide unfortunately and nearly take them all tumbling to the bottom.
“I’ve got you,” he whispers, squeezing his hands around Sebastien’s arm as one of their captors shoves him in the back. He nearly falls, but he holds his balance. “I’ve got you,” he repeats. They keep walking. Deeper and deeper into the depths of the city, down where no light can shine.
He has the most absurd thought that all the stone work would provide an excellent echo, however, and that he would finally be able to practice his cantos in all their glory. He snorts as he tries to ignore the humor of the situation, reminding himself only to pass the idea to Sebastien once they finally have a chance to rest for the evening.
By the time they reach the bottom, Yusuf’s energy is flagging. He sways a little, squinting at the room they’ve found themselves in. It’s an endless row of cages, that span so far away he cannot see the back wall. Pillars hold up the ceiling, but he cannot count the number as they too continue on eternally. Another hand shoves Yusuf in the back. His knees hit the ground this time as a wave of vertigo overcomes him.
Sebastien reaches for him, “My Prince—” and promptly gets struck right in the same spot. His knees hit so hard that Yusuf winces at the noise. They practically crack against the stone. Sebastien curls over himself, gasping and bracing for another hit that doesn’t fall.
“He’s not your Prince here,” one of their escorts informs them.
“Shockingly,” Yusuf replies, getting a hand around Sebastien’s arm once more. “That’s not how monarchies work.” He waits until his friend meets his eyes. “Ready?” At Sebastien’s nod, they stand together. Sebastien sways a touch, but manages to keep his feet. Their legs are gelatinous beneath them, but they keep walking. Neither get struck again.
Yusuf peers into the cages as they go. It’s dark here, so dark that only one pillar in five seems to have a torch. Their guards carry their own to illuminate things better, but the oppressive gloom feels far more poignant as it becomes clear that outside of their glowing light it’s an empty abyss of shadows.
For a time, Yusuf thinks the cages are empty. If they are, he doesn’t understand why they’ve been brought this far past all the possible real estate they could use instead. It’s only when one of the guards moves a bit closer to the cages themselves, that Yusuf see they aren’t empty at all. There are people inside each one. Naked and dirty and curled up in balls that turn Yusuf’s stomach at the familiarity.
When the party stops at a truly empty cage, the door is opened with a screeching clamor and both he and Sebastien are shoved inside. They’re left alone there, without being asked any questions or provided with any information in the least. And as their unpleasant traveling companions depart, the light goes with them. Their cage is settled precisely at the darkest part between the illuminated pillars. It takes nearly an hour before Yusuf’s eyes can adjust, and when he does, there’s precious little to observe.
The iron work that holds the cages together is sturdy and bolted into the ground. He’d presume they were cells, rather than cages, but they don’t reach up to the ceiling. He can stand, but only if he hunches over, his spine touching the top and his head tucked low. If he reaches as far as he can, he wouldn’t quite make it to the cages on either side. At best, he might be able to grasp his new neighbor by their fingertips. They’ll most likely ignore him instead.
Even now, when he can finally blink through the gloom to gather some sort of understanding of his surroundings, the people in the neighboring cages aren’t looking his way. They’re curled up on their sides, backs to him, silent in all things.
It’s the silence that makes Yusuf’s heart beat painfully behind his ribs. He presses his palm against his chest in a horrible attempt at calming it. But the silence is so all encompassing that he feels sweat pour down the back of his neck. He shivers and tries to take a few steadying breaths, and is saved only when Sebastien rallies enough to ask: “Where are we?”
The question echoes just like Yusuf thought it would. Bouncing off the walls so loud that it rings in Yusuf’s ear. Sebastien hadn’t asked it with any great volume, but the deafening nothingness had been so great that it felt booming. Sebastien even winces, rubbing his hands up and down his arms to keep warm as peculiar shame seems to whittle through him. It’s a shame that doesn’t last long, because spite swiftly overtakes it. “Hello!” Sebastien shouts. Yusuf tilts his head, chasing the end-vowel as it reverberates again and again and again.
“We’re in the Reaper cells,” Yusuf tells him. He thought he’d managed to keep his voice down, but it still feels too loud. Too oppressive. There’s a cloying kind of despair in a place this quiet. An inbred respect that wars with the horror of their circumstances. Cat had been militantly mute during their journey, curling up and turning away just like all these endless rows of Reapers had. He’d been that way because he’d been raised like this. In this place. Quiet and dark and with no one to speak with except the shadow people who don’t raise their faces to see the world around them.
“They’re Reapers?” Sebastien asks. He modulates his voice, but scrunches his nose. It still feels too loud. Yusuf presses a hand to his head. He cannot decide if he wants to embrace the somber quiet or smash it to pieces, but anxiety won’t leave his blood now that it’s taken root.
“Yes,” Yusuf says. “This is where they keep them.”
Sebastien swallows loud enough for Yusuf to hear. Yusuf tilts his head down to squint at the floor of their cage. It’s not barred, they’re sitting directly on great slabs of alabaster. But alabaster’s a soft stone. Very soft. It’s what makes it so moldable and good for use. He presses his hand against it and feels the grooves from constant wear. There’s a divot in the back of their cage, a small one where it looks like a body has lain over and over. Yusuf thinks he might get sick as his mind supplies him with an image.
Five years old, Andromache had said. Cat was brought to these cells when he was five years old. He tries to imagine a baby in a place like this. Tries to imagine what the oppressive silence would have been like for that child. It breaks his heart. He squeezes his eyes shut. Pulls forth, instead, a much different picture. This time, of Cat in the House of the Unwanting. With Andromache at his side.
“We’re fucked,” Sebastien says. Too loud, and yet perfect. He shakes the bars of the cage, as if the door will magically open for him when it’s clear it had been in use for many, many, years before them.
“Yes,” Yusuf replies. He looks out into the looming darkness. Someone, several cages down, looks back. But when their eyes meet, the face ducks down and away. He says: “No one is going to look for us here.”
He doesn’t say: No one is going to look for us, th ough he knows down to his marrow that no one will come into Mezzaluna for them. They’ll send cursory patrols to Irania and back. They’ll investigate their routes of travel, but they won’t find Yusuf or Sebastien or anything related to them. His father will have no choice. He’ll need to declare Yusuf dead, or a deserter.
Mezzaluna didn’t publicize his capture. He wasn’t brought before the Queen and her court. There’s still time for that, but if they wanted to use him as a political tool, they wouldn’t house him in a place no one goes. If formal talks between Mezzaluna and Shams begin, Yusuf cannot see her admitting that she has Yusuf as a prisoner. They’ll deny his presence. And if they deny it, and there’s no proof...death or desertion are his father’s only option.
His father won’t admit Yusuf’s a Giver. He won’t admit Yusuf deserted. It would make the country look weak, the monarchy—weak. His father will need to keep the energy for the war going. A dead Prince serves as better propaganda than a flighty one. Death it will be. No one will look. It’s going to be up to Yusuf and Sebastien alone to find their way out of this mess. Exhaustion slithers through his body at the thought. He squeezes his eyes shut. Leaning down, he lays in the smooth divot that the cage’s previous occupant had made. It’s almost comfortable, conforming to the angles of a body just right.
“Fuck,” Sebastien whispers. He rattles the cage again, and says: “Fuck” one more time.
Yusuf can’t find it in himself to disagree, and, still, the silence stretches on.
There’s no sunlight. Obviously. But the lack of sun makes Yusuf’s concept of time more vague than it has ever been in his life. He sleeps in fits and starts, waking up to the near darkness of the endless hall of the dead, gasping awake and trembling. He looks, always, to Sebastien, who has taken to curling up at Yusuf’s side to keep warm. Sometimes, someone remembers that Sebastien is human. They bring him food and he eats it so quickly that Yusuf needs to press his hands to his friend’s stomach to keep it settled enough for Sebastien to metabolize the meal. He sobs at the pain in his gut, shaking under Yusuf’s touch, and then sleeps deep and sated once the sensation settles. In the hours (days?) after Sebastien eats, Yusuf holds him close and tries to will heat into his body. It never feels like enough. He wishes he knew how long its been.
There are shifts of guards. One man will walk the length of the room. It takes him long enough to return, that Yusuf imagines him gone for hours at a time. He tried to count once, but the numbers slip away from him. He keeps losing his place, repeating his integers until he concedes defeat. Maybe there is another exit on the other side of the room. Maybe the guard leaves from there, sleeps, and starts his shift the next day walking all the way back.
Time is a game that Yusuf loses whenever he wakes, and sleep is how he survives.
Exhaustion overtakes him as his mind tries to adapt to the never ending darkness. He tries to entertain himself, but the world is dark and dull. He can’t focus on Sebastien or the people in the cages around him. He sleeps, and wakes, and lies on the ground waiting for a new stimulus that never comes. When it doesn’t, he rolls over and sleeps some more.
Sometimes, when he wakes, it’s to Sebastien’s voice. He listens as Sebastien rambles, talking to himself as much as their neighbors. They don’t talk back, but Yusuf has noticed them looking over more frequently, now. They glance their way and keep watching long after they notice their attention’s been seen. Sebastien pats his fingers against the bars and hums bars of songs that the Griots sing back home.
He’s never had a quality voice, but Sebastien enjoys music. He enjoys dancing. Maybe he’d dance now if he could stand properly. But Sebastien is even taller than Yusuf and it would break his spine to even try. Besides, Yusuf doubts Sebastien has the energy. Still, Sebastien taps his hands on the stone floor, the bars of the cage, and his own legs. He hums and sings and makes a nuisance of himself as much as he serves as a balm for much of Yusuf’s anxieties.
A few times, the guards had heard Sebastien and had come to shut him up. They thrust open the cage and dragged him out by his ankles. Yusuf threw himself at them, trying to stop them as best he could. He earns more than a few harsh strikes upside the head, and he lays dizzily as he watches Sebastien fight and inevitably lose against the men who came to muzzle him. He’s thrown back into their cage and Yusuf heals all his hurts. They wait until Sebastien can breathe properly on his own, and for the guards to continue further down their usual walk, and then Sebastien grins and starts humming even louder.
“Eventually, they’ll take you where I can’t heal you,” Yusuf warns. “You’ll be killed.”
“Then I’ll die for a just cause.”
Yusuf flinches at the honesty. The kindness. “You should regret ever having met me. You’ve died half a dozen times in my service. You could have lived a life far away from all of this if not for—”
“—Aye,” Sebastien admits. “I could have. And I would never have met Amelie. Or had the privilege of having you as a brother.” He smiles, bright as sunshine in the dark. “We’re going to go home,” he promises.
Yusuf doubts very much that’s the case. But he pats Sebastien’s arm and he grudgingly relishes the familiar music Sebastien makes. He wishes he can give Sebastien that life he deserves, but this is all that his best efforts have given them so far. If he tries any more, Sebastien may very well never come back again. It’s a level of despair he’s happy to push off to another day.
Even if he needs to heal his friend over and over to make sure that he’s staying alive despite the hell they’ve been put in.
It’s ages before they speak to someone of substance. The man who had orchestrated their capture to begin with, the tall one who knew full well in advance that Yusuf could heal Sebastien if they killed him, was a man named Keane. He kept his distance from them when they were first captured, coordinating with his subordinates rather than paying any attention to the prizes he’d won.
During the trip north, Yusuf had imagined the negotiations that would inevitably take place with his Uncle for his return. When they’d crossed into Mezzaluna, Yusuf had to readjust his thinking. He’d never been caught to be ransomed. But he had still been caught. And their only witness had been taken along as well. Yusuf’s grateful they didn’t kill Sebastien and leave him in a ditch far away from where Yusuf could heal him, but his longevity meant very little.
The question of their purpose continued to plague Yusuf’s dreams, and when Keane finally makes his way to their pathetic cage in the deep dark of the Reaper cells, Yusuf still doesn’t have an answer. He looks up at the man, waiting for some kind of explanation to be forthcoming. But Keane has no interest in explaining a thing. He squints down at them, steps to the side, and lets someone else approach.
This someone is a child. Younger even than Cat, perhaps even truly younger than Nile. He lacks Cat’s emaciated appearance, and so his youth is instead glorified with thick patches of baby-fat on his cheeks and hands. He’s pale as snow. Curly brown hair cascades around his face. Keane hovers at his side as though Yusuf would ever harm a child, regardless of which side of the war he was on.
Some of the guards, and there are many of them now that Yusuf deigns to notice, step closer to the cage. They hold up torches and fill their whole living space with light. The glare burns Yusuf’s retinas. He holds up a hand to block it out, shying away from something he used to run toward with glee. Sebastien hisses and curls over, looking much like the Reapers they’ve spent all their time with lately. “You’re a Giver?” the boy asks. His misshapen teeth gleaming sharklike beyond the torches.
“Who are you?” Yusuf asks in turn. He squints outward, trying to memorize faces and clothes. Keane, he recognizes and dismisses in a moment. The boy, he’s analyzed already. There are a few servants, but only one other person seems to be of any importance. A woman who has a writing slab with her and a roll of parchment and ink. She’s taking notes. As if there are any notes to be taken. What could possibly interest her about their present circumstances?
“I am the Stello of Mezzaluna,” the boy informs him primly. The translation takes a moment for Yusuf to understand. His history and politics lessons that used to come so quickly to his mind now coming forth only after dragging themselves through mud. His brain feels muggy after all this time in silence, as if it isn’t certain how to retrieve information that it used to know.
Stello, a male form of the word ‘star’ and the symbol of the heir to Mezzaluna. It was customary to call their heir Stella, as it is always a woman who inherited the throne. But in the absence of a woman, it is modified uncomfortably to Stello.
By the time Yusuf manages to work out what that means, he’s barely able to summon the will to remember the boy’s name. He knows the first son of the Queen died years ago when he was just a toddler. That left… “Stello Merrick.”
A loud hissing sounds all around them. So loud that Yusuf jumps. Sebastien whirls about, head twisting this way and that as every cage seems to spring to life in an instant. Their neighbors are all on their hands and knees. They glare through the bars of their cages, hissing that same noise like the steam from a geyser, spewing up into the air. It started with only one voice at first, but it multiplies. Down and down the sound goes, from one side of the room to the other. A multitude of voices clamoring together, hissing in unison until the noise echoes and crashes upon them from all directions.
It’s so loud, and so sudden, that Yusuf crushes his hands over his ears. Sebastien does the same, jerking about so he can still look at everyone in their cages. Keane’s started shouting now, trying to get over the din. He slams a baton against the cages, but the crashing bangs do nothing to halt their unified furor.
Merrick begins shouting, screeching his name as if that will make them stop. He snatches a torch from one of his guards and aims it at the Reaper nearest to Yusuf. The howling screech of fire burning flesh overtakes the hissing. “What the fuck are you doing? Stop!” Sebastien throws himself at the bars of the cage. He rattles the iron even as Yusuf snatches him by the shoulder to pull him back.
“You’re hurting her!” Yusuf yells, and finally the boy pulls the torch from the Reaper. The rancid smell of human skin and muscle fills the air. Horror swirls through Yusuf as he tries to reach out to fix the problem. He can’t touch her, she’s too far away. Merrick slams the torch hard against his wrist for even considering it.
“I am the Stello,” Merrick repeats. The hissing doesn’t start up again. The whole room is silent. But all the Reapers watch. They stare at him with unabashed distaste. “I am the Stello and you, you are a Giver.”
“Yes, what do you want with me?” Yusuf asks, distracted by the whimpers emitting from the woman just one cage over. He can’t see how bad it is. She should be healing on her own. She should be fixing the damage all by herself. As a Reaper, her pain is temporary. But temporary pain is still pain. His heart hurts as he looks out to her. He wishes, desperately, that he had a way to ease it. That he could do something. Anything.
“I want you to disappear,” he says. “And I want the world to forget you exist.”
For the life of him, Yusuf cannot recall having ever seen a child speak with such hatred. When he was a boy, he’d engaged in no shortage of school yard battles with his peers. He’d seen bullies at their worst over the years. He knew just how cruel children could be, and was under no illusions that they were ever anything approaching innocent.
And yet. He’d never seen a child press a flaming torch into a person’s body just to watch them burn, and he’d never seen a child sneer with such loathsome disdain at a person they’d just met. “Your highness…” Keane says quietly, and Merrick glares at him. Glares and shoves the torch his way. Keane catches it by the handle, removes it from Merrick’s hand and bows deftly.
It’s all the encouragement Merrick need to head back down the hall and toward the exit. Darkness swirls around them once more, but the quiet doesn’t seem as oppressive as it once was. The woman is still whimpering, and Yusuf reaches back toward her. He closes his eyes and imagines flesh made anew. He wills everything he has across the span to her cage.
He has no idea if it works, or if her own healing finally manages to catch up to her. But she stops crying soon. She sits upright, arms around her body. She looks towards Yusuf. “He is not our Stello.” It’s the first he’s ever heard a Reaper of Mezzaluna speak. He’s so flabbergasted he cannot manage a word in response. “You lie in the home of our Stello.”
Yusuf blinks. He looks to Sebastien, but Sebastien doesn’t seem to understand anymore than he does. When he looks back, he notices that the others are watching too. All around them, Reapers are staring their way. Watching and waiting. Their hissing reproach of Merrick their first sign of discontent. “Your Stello...is a Reaper?” Yusuf hazards.
And it is then, in that moment of befuddled confusion, seeking clarification, that Yusuf remembers the thought he’d had when he first tried to remember Merrick’s name. The Queen’s first born son died years ago, barely older than a toddler. The thought solidifies into something more specific. Something as strong as stone. The Queen’s first born son died at five. He drowned in the river, and Yusuf’s family threw a party at the news. They’d celebrated the child’s death, thrilled that Mezzaluna had suffered such a blow, and Yusuf had been eight years old and horrified by the delight everyone had in the tragic end for a young boy. Prince of the enemy or not.
Five years old.
Yusuf’s hand snaps to his mouth. “My Prince?” Sebastien asks. Yusuf turns to look at him. He’s trembling, trembling and feeling more than a little faint. He’s not sure if he wishes to laugh or cry or rage.
It doesn’t take Yusuf long to remember the child’s name. The boy whose death his parents had enjoyed. He memorized it that night, and prayed the boy had found peace in the afterlife. He knows now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that boy had never found peace. He’d died, and woken up in hell. “Nicolo,” Yusuf says. “Stello Nicolo...he’s alive.” Sebastien frowns, not understanding. Not putting the pieces together yet. Not even when the woman next to them nods and murmurs her assent. “He’s alive, Bas,” Yusuf gasps. He presses a hand to his friend’s arm, shaking as the knowledge courses over him.
“What are you talking about?” Sebastien asks him. His hands wrap around Yusuf’s arms. It’s an attempt to steady him, to hold him together. It’s not enough.
“Cat,” Yusuf says, shaking under the weight of the knowledge. “Cat is Nicolo, Stello of Mezzaluna, Bas.” Sebastien squeezes Yusuf’s arms so hard that pain ricochets from one side of his body to the other. Yusuf can do nothing but squeeze back. Sebastien’s eyes are wild and shocked. His mouth falls open.
“Did we...did we kidnap their crown prince first?” he asks.
Gods damn them, but Yusuf’s relatively certain that’s exactly what they did.
They kidnapped him and they sent him right into the heart of Irania, the most sacred land in all of Shams. No one at home has any idea of the kind of threat they willfully brought to their door, and there’s no way to tell them either.
Sebastien said it all that time ago, but it never before felt more real than now.
They are absolutely fucked.
No one tells Nile anything. That’s usually par for the course. She’s used to it, to some extent, but there’s a difference between willful ignorance and blatant disregard. Each week she writes to her Uncle, and each week she receives no response. Cat refuses to leave the temple with her when she goes out to town, regardless of how many layers she swears she’ll drape him in. He stands with his feet firmly planted at the entrance to the temple, arms crossed and frown so deeply entrenched on his face that it might as well be a permanent fixture. So she goes by herself, to walk amongst the people and try to capture any fleeting bit of news about the war.
The first announcement is that Altas’ walls were being besieged for the first time in nearly a decade. Three weeks later, great parties burst through Irania as the news reveals the Mezzaluna savages have been beaten back. They’ve been pushed even further into their own lands and the boarders are back where they once were. Altas had never been breached, and the people were entirely safe the whole time.
“How hard is it to write a letter letting me know if my brother got there?” Nile asks Cat, when even the aftermath of the battle of Altas hadn’t yielded a single response from her uncle. She’d been willing to concede that maybe he’d been preoccupied with the siege. She’d been willing to offer him the benefit of the doubt that maybe, just maybe, he had been too overwhelmed to say anything. But with each week that passed, that grace period grew perilously small.
Especially when the guards who protected the Temple gates started to give her the side eye whenever she slipped into town. Watching her as if they knew something. As if they heard something that she hasn’t heard. It’s a feeling familiar enough to set her teeth on edge. “It would take seconds,” she continues, to Cat. Nile digs up some flat rocks from the side of the pond and skips them out. They plip, plip, plip across the water, then sink. “You know they said all this Mezzaluna propaganda said he died when he brought you here.” Cat finds a fresh rock and hands it to her. She takes it and hurls it across the pond. It bounces once then plops through the water. A bad throw. “But my uncle knows that Yusuf can’t die, so he has to know it’s not true.”
“Why can’t he rule as a Giver?” Cat asks.
“Because Givers, ” Nile says with as much condemnation as she’s physically capable, “are meant to heal the people of Shams. The King is obliged by law to turn over Givers over to Irania to serve. It’s not that Yusuf can’t rule as a Giver, it’s that he won’t be able to ascend if anyone knows. Once he’s crowned, his sacred duty to Shams overrules any law that would force him to abdicate. But he has to get there first.”
Cat fetches her another rock. He hands it to her without looking, still frowning his customary frown. “People know, though.”
“The only people who know have all sworn themselves to Yusuf. If they tell anyone the King will have them executed as oathbreakers.” Nile shrugs and skips the rock, flicking her wrist at just the right angle that the stone bounces all the way to the other side of the pond. She whoops in delight and Cat even nods his encouragement before they let the melancholy overtake them once more. “Maybe it wouldn’t stop Yusuf from being forced to stay here, but it wouldn’t benefit the tattler any.”
“How would he know who told?” Cat asks.
Nile shrugs again. “You just don’t break an oath.” Then, scrunching up her nose, she squints at Cat. “You didn’t take an oath did you?” He blinks at her, mute and sarcastic. As if to say that he doesn’t speak nearly enough to be a possible offender. She raises a finger at him and he holds his hands up, head ducking ever so slightly. “Swear my brother fealty,” Nile commands.
Cat doesn’t move. He keeps his hands up in the air, dirty fingers swaying ever so slightly. His eyes remain pinned to the ground. Nile steps a little closer. She puffs up her chest and wags her finger like she’s seen her mother do when she means no-nonsense. “Swear my brother fealty,” Nile repeats.
Cat’s frown vanishes only because the grimace he makes takes all of his lips’ concentration. He presses his lips together so hard that Nile can see white starbursts beneath his skin. “If you’re going to be my friend, you have to swear him fealty. You can’t just know something like that and not do it. It’s the rules. ” The argument sounds weak even to her, but she doesn’t know how else to explain the importance of this.
“Sorry,” Cat finally gets out. He drops his hands, but keeps his head down. He takes a step back. Then another. Nile can see the exact moment he’s thinking of turning and running - probably back to the House of the Unwanting where Andromache will swaddle and baby him and let him escape his responsibilities like Quynh never lets her escape. Anger flashes through Nile’s body as she takes two quick steps forward. She snatches him by the wrist. He flinches and tries to pull free, but Nile’s been on the receiving end of grabs just like this before. She knows how to dole them out. He doesn’t escape and she has no intentions of letting him go.
“Swear fealty!” she demands.
He shakes his head, jerking his arm and slapping his other hand to hers as he tries to get her off. His mouth opens and closes uselessly. Sweat forms on his brow and she almost lets him go when she sees just how scared he is. How nervous he’s become. It’s not enough to outweigh her duty though. It’s her job to keep Yusuf safe. If she can’t fight the war, and she can’t get any information from anyone else, she can at least do this. She’s not going to let a threat to her brother go unchecked.
As much as she likes Cat, she knows full well that people say things without meaning them all the time. But oaths aren’t just words to be tossed around. There’s honor in an oath, and Cat won’t break it if he makes it. She knows this, knows it like she knows her own soul.
Her fingers tighten even harder. She crosses her arm to squeeze his wrist with both hands. He panics and mewls, whimpering and hitting her hands with his. Tears press to his eyes. “Swear fealty!” she demands, hating herself but resolving to do this even if it hurts.
“I-I-I—” his head snaps left and right. His knees buckle and he starts to curl like he always does, head down and back bent. He’s folding in on himself, his arm the only thing ‘upright’ as she keeps it locked in her grasp. He dangles from it like a weight on a string, collapsed to the earth in miserable supplication.
Unease wraps around her throat. Her lungs struggle to pull in air. She feels like she’s going to cry, but she can’t. She has to be brave. She has to show that she means this. That it’s important. She squeezes harder, and can feel bruises beneath her touch. Her hands heal them as soon as they form, disappearing wounds that she’s making before his own body thinks to correct the error. “Swear it!” she gasps, breath ragged and torn from her.
She hears something loud thumping behind her. Nile turns and blinks as Andromache bursts onto the scene. She has a labrys in her hand, held high as if she intends to cut Nile down with it then and there. Nile jerks back so hard, she nearly trips. Her hands squeeze reflexively around Cat’s arm, dragging him with her as she steps to the side. He does nothing to stop the motion, collapsing like the glass doll she always thought of him as. His limbs akimbo, and his head pressed against the dirt.
Andromache asks, “What the fuck is going on here?” and Nile can’t let go of Cat’s arm. Can’t release it. It’s a lifeline and a desperate plea all in one.
“He has to swear fealty to Yusuf,” she says, lips trembling as she tries to explain. She straightens her back, ignoring the tears streaming down her cheeks. “He has to, he knows. And if he doesn’t swear...Yusuf will be in danger! He has to swear!”
“Let him go,” Andromache orders. She steps closer, lowering her labrys even as she draws up to Cat. She lowers her hand to touch Cat’s shoulder, but Nile doesn’t let go. She squeezes even more. The bones of Cat’s glass arm shift. She imagines hearing them creak. She feels the strained muscles and sinew beneath her hands. For each injury she imparts, the pain heals just as fast. She can’t really hurt him. By now, the healing is natural. He’s a dead thing, and death is the only impediment she’s ever managed to knit back together.
“I am the Princess of Shams, you are an instructor and Guide of Irania. You have sworn yourself to my service, and I will not be ordered by you.” Andromache’s head snaps up, her lips part, then press together in a firm line. She glares up at Nile, folding herself down on one knee. She keeps her hand on Cat’s shoulder, but the other sinks to the ground. It grips her labrys still, but when her knuckles touch the dirt she falls into the almost perfect posture of a House Guard of the Royal Family.
“Your highness,” Andromache spits out. “I humbly request you let Cat go. He’s not going to swear any oaths to you or your brother like this, and he’s killing the garden.”
Nile recoils. Her head snaps up and looks around. Reaching out in all directions is a sweeping arm of death. Leaves have fallen off their trees, grass has shriveled and died, the fish are floating belly up in the pond. The smell of it suddenly breaches Nile’s nose. She throws herself away from Cat, retching as the stench of decay and rot swivel up her nostrils.
She hadn’t noticed. How could she not have noticed? Andromache had appeared so suddenly, and why wouldn’t she have? The garden was being destroyed and there was only one person who would have done something like this. What had she been planning on doing? Hacking Cat’s head off there and then to stop him from perverting their temple?
“He wasn’t touching it,” Nile babbles as Andromache shifts from her Guard-perfect kneel in order to tuck her arms under Cat’s shoulders and lift. “He wasn’t touching any of it, how did he kill all of that without touching it?”
“We need to go,” Andromache snaps. Nile can hear it now. Other voices. Concerned voices are coming their way.
Quynh’s the loudest of them all, practically throwing her voice in a highly affected manner: “Oh, what could have possibly happened?”
Cat’s legs don’t seem capable of holding him. They crumble when Andromache tries to get him upright. She grits her teeth and hoists him up over her shoulders like a sack of grain, then leaves. Nile follows, feet slapping the earth beneath her as she rushes from the scene of the crime. Her heart pounds ruthlessly in her chest. Andromache takes twists and turns through the trees, following paths that are full of life and have been untouched by Cat’s despair.
They come to a part of the garden that Nile’s never been before. It loops along the backside of the House of the Unwanting and Andromache lets herself inside within seconds. They vanish within the boundaries of Cat’s bedroom, curtains drawn and lanterns turned low. Then and only then does Andromache slide Cat from her shoulders and let him curl up on the ground, knees tucked to his chest and terror so pungent that it makes Nile’s head swim.
Andromache turns to her almost immediately. She kneels once more, so formal that Nile hates every moment of their interaction. She wants to run. She wants to hide. She wants to rewind time to before Yusuf’s oath had ever been discussed. “Your highness, I pray you’ll forgive my impertinence as I remind you that Cat is not a Shams citizen,” Andromache says with all the dignified courtesy of a noblewoman.
Nile had been there, the day Andromache beseeched the King to not allow Yusuf to go fight the war. She’d watched as Andromache knelt before her adoptive father and presented her argument in cool, careful tones. She’d watched as Andromache grit her teeth when the King rejected her petition, and as Andromache rallied onward despite the King’s command. Andromache argued over and over, until the murmurings of court reached a fever pitch as the assembled lords and ladies balked at Andromache’s gumption.
Her punishment had been Irania. Her place at court, and at Yusuf’s side, irrevocably torn asunder because she dared speak the truth. Yusuf shouldn’t fight the war. Nile had never understood why Andromache kept arguing. Andromache only hurt herself by trying like she did.
But now, Andromache kneels before Nile, her head down and words firm. Beseeching her on behalf of Cat who could not argue for himself. Who’s pillbugged and muted. Trembling so violently on the floor that Nile feels the sudden urge to shove her hands into boiling water as recompense for hurting him. “Cat can not, and will not swear fealty to Yusuf,” Andromache continues. “To do so will compromise who he is.”
“He’s still loyal to Mezzaluna, then?” Nile asks. Then, incredulity overrides shame. “Why? After everything they did to him, why would he be loyal to them?”
“Your highness, if I may ask, what did Mezzaluna do to him?” Andromache asks. The question is so absurd, all Nile can do is point. Point and keep pointing until Andromache turns to look at the crumpled boy kneeling pitiably on the carpet. “Did the country do that?” Andromache asks, somber and quiet. “Can a country do that?”
“What are you talking about?” Nile shouts.
“Did the country of Mezzaluna do that, your highness, or did people do that?”
“The people of that country did that. It’s their laws, their rules, their choice. They did that! They hurt him! Why would he protect them?”
Andromache doesn’t answer. She just looks terribly sad. Sad, and exhausted. But she kneels for Nile’s understanding anyway. Kneels between her and Cat, as if Nile is going to snatch him back by the arm and shake him into submission. Nile presses the heels of her palms to her eyes. She sniffs loudly, then wipes her face. “He doesn’t have to swear fealty to Yusuf,” she says at long last. “But he has to swear not to tell anyone about Yusuf.”
Andromache glances toward Cat. Nile waits. The boy doesn’t move, and eventually Andromache sighs. She shifts to move toward him. Her hands gently scoop him up and bring his face from where he’s hiding it so it’s pressed against her chest. She wraps her arms around him and keeps his head tucked close and out of sight. She lowers her lips to Cat’s hair and whispers soft words that Nile can’t hear.
“I’ll bring him to you, your highness,” Andromache tells her after several long moments of the same. It’s a dismissal, and Nile accepts it. She walks back to her home, ignoring the swaths of Givers that are running about the water garden healing all the death and destruction Cat caused.
Did Yusuf know? When he brought Cat to Irania, did he know that Cat could kill without touching someone? That he was powerful enough to just end all the life around him with a thought? Perhaps it hadn’t even been a thought. What kind of person thought specifically about killing the fish in a pond? The trees to his side?
No. He hadn’t thought about it. He’d done it anyway. He’d panicked and tried to escape, and when he couldn’t he killed everything around him that could die. Except Nile. Because she can’t die. She’d stood there, so focused on him that she hadn’t seen the chaos he’d wrought. The monster she’d begun to unleash.
She never should have forgotten what he was. Never should have taken for granted what his purpose was. He brought death wherever he went. He was death walking. And she’d grown complacent as he followed her around being quiet and sweet.
She won’t ever forget again.
Nile doesn’t see Cat for the rest of the month. She spends that time helping the others to heal the garden instead. It’s surprisingly easy, all things considered, but there’s so much to be done it takes a long while. She runs her hands along the grass and the trees. She hunts down flowers and animals that had been caught up in Cat’s path. He seems to have extended himself to a fifty meter radius. It’s a terrifying reality to behold.
Quynh frowns when she sees Nile joining some of the other Givers in her cohort for lessons. It’s been so long since Nile attended a standard class, she can understand Quynh’s concern. But the alternative is to work with Cat, and Nile can’t stomach the thought yet. So she goes willingly to the House of the Wanting, and she tries her best to heal people that are still alive.
Her old instructor loiters as Nile works, frowning as Nile struggles with the most basic parts of their gift. But there are no reprimands, no chastisements. Quynh watches and leaves. It’s the nicest she’s ever been. Nile half expects to be told that the reports have finally been confirmed: Yusuf has been captured and that’s the end of everything.
But the days drag on without any information regarding Yusuf. The garden finishes being pieced back together, and Nile avoids Cat as much as she can. She’s still not ready for it when Andromache requests her presence at the House of the Unwanting, but it’s a formal request written on the proper paperwork and signed by a subject requesting service from their liege. She has to answer it.
Nile arrives late in the evening, petulantly wearing clothes that depict her station as a Princess of Shams, rather than her uniform as a Giver. She meets Andromache and Cat in the same room they had gone to on Cat’s first night in Irania. Cat keeps his head down, but he stands at Andromache’s side nonetheless.
Eventually, he steps around Andromache and goes to one knee. Andromache must have shown him how. His palms touch his heart, and he whispers: “I swear on my life, and the life of my people, I will not betray Prince Yusuf of Shams nor any member of his family.” He rasps badly at the end, still not used to speaking so much at once, but the point is made and he’s done it well enough that Nile can’t find fault in it. Andromache must have coached him through the wording to ensure she’d accept it.
“I thank you for your pledge,” Nile recites dutifully. Then, because even despite all the time she’s spent avoiding him, she says: “I’m so sorry I hurt you, Cat.”
He doesn’t look up to meet her gaze, nor smile and offer any kind of gentle encouragement. She doubts she deserves it and she doesn’t want to touch him right now as it is. He must know that too, because he stands and returns to Andromache’s side. “I have received notification from the front,” Andromache says. “In one month’s time, Lord Najima will arrive in Irania. He wishes to speak with you in person. I suspect you already know what it’s about.”
Nile does. Yusuf. Her heart hurts as she thinks about asking Andromache for more information. Cat still isn’t looking at her, so there’s no way to tell if he’s heard anything and is just waiting. Nile feels lonely, suddenly, even if it is a loneliness of her own design. But he’d been there almost the moment she realized something was wrong, and had been there through all her worry since, and now he’s over there and that’s her fault too.
He should have just sworn fealty, she thinks angrily. It’s not like his people gave a damn about him when they locked him up to begin with. But they’d been important enough for him to add them to the oath he did give. Important enough to hold him at his word. Important enough to serve as a permanent reminder that he would always be over there while she stood here by herself.
“I’ve also received word,” Andromache continues, retaining the formal posture and tone that is so separate from the casual way they’d interacted over the past few months. Nile hates that too. “King Ibrahim has requested that following Lord Najima’s visit to Irania, both you and Lord Najima are to return to Jerrah. Your present term in Irania has been suspended in light of your duties required at court. Quynh will accompany you to provide private lessons so you do not fall behind.”
I’ve already fallen behind, Nile thinks savagely. Tears press against her eyes. She nods and waits for more. There’s nothing more to say. Andromache bows and they all stand there in silence until Nile dismisses herself and leaves. She only spends a small moment wondering why they came all the way to this room for such an innocuous conversation. It occurs to her relatively quickly that it’s because Cat doesn’t want her in his room, and it would be inappropriate for her subjects to call on her at home.
She’s the one who drew the line in the sand. Only she can undraw it. She cries on her way back to her quarters, ignoring how the guards still seem to know everything she doesn’t as she passes underneath their gaze.
Nile turns fourteen and celebrates it at home with her mother. She eats fruit tarts and wears soft clothes, and she looks out the window waiting for a letter that will never come. She doesn’t feel like seeing anybody else, or listening to the obligated well-wishes of her peers. Soon, she’ll have Quynh’s undivided attention, and the thought is nauseating enough that even her mother doesn’t push for her to attend lessons or do her duty.
They just sit together in quiet companionship, waiting for Najima to arrive and break their hearts in person. “Yusuf will be all right,” her mother tells her more than once, but it’s a hollow confirmation. Nile nods when she hears it, but can’t bring herself to agree.
After dinner, Nile takes a loop around the gardens if only to remind herself of what it all looks like. For a place she’s hated since the day she arrived, she thinks she’ll miss it when she’s gone. There’s a peace at the temple that is unlike anywhere else she’s been. And she’ll miss the lack of formality that usually exudes from the temple’s pores. A formality she’s cursed herself with thrice over if she’s going to be relocating to Jerrah.
She’s on her way back when she finds Cat. He’s sitting cross legged not far from the epicenter of his botanical murder-spree. His head cast downward and his teeth chewing uncertainly on his bottom lip. He looks up as she approaches, even moves to stand, but she shakes her head. “Please stay?” He does, but that look of worry doesn’t dissipate. “I’m sorry,” she says again. “I...I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
“I understand why,” Cat tells her. His voice sounds stronger than ever before. She wonders if Andromache’s been helping him while she’s made herself scarce. Maybe he found a proper Giver who could fix him where all she does is mess things up. “You love him,” he says. She nods, drawing her knees to her chest. Her arms hug her legs close. “I don’t love my brother.”
The words startle her enough that she nearly overbalances as she turns to look at him. Her hand slaps out to the ground to keep her steady. She stares at him, mouth open and eyes wide. “You have a brother?”
He nods. He presses his lips tight, as if to keep the rest from coming out, but when he opens them again it’s to release a long stream of air. “The people I love...they were there when my...when I was…” He sighs, shaking his head. “After I died, there were people who...cared. They taught me...things.”
“Reaper things? Were they Reapers? There are cells right? That’s what they say, that Reapers are put in cells.”
“Yes,” he confirms. “And no. Not Reaper things...they…” he motions to his mouth. “To speak Mezzaluna and Shams...they taught me numbers and stories. Kind things. They were my family. I cannot...I cannot swear fealty to your future King, Nile. My loyalty is to them and they...they are not Shams.”
“Would you go back?” Nile asks. “If you could, would you go back to Mezzaluna?”
“Where else would I go?” He looks so bewildered that Nile reaches out to hug him. She wraps her arms around him and ignores how he flinches. His glass body trembling and uncertain once more. She deserves that. She’ll spend however long it takes to fix it. When she pulls away, his eyes look moist. He wipes them on his sleeve.
“They hurt you.”
“The guards, yes. My...brother, yes. But not them. Not...not my family.”
“Your brother isn’t your family?”
“Not in the way that matters.” He sighs heavily, rubbing his face again and again like a real cat licking its paw and cleaning with rough swipes of an arm. “He is a cruel boy, my brother. I did not know brothers could be kind. That you could...love them as you do.”
Nile straightens her shoulders and juts out her chin, “My brother’s the best person in the world, no one’s better than him.” Cat grins and pats her leg. Reaching for her and touching her kind and gentle.
“I know. I know.” He turns to look at the garden.
They sit in silence, listening to the night creatures chirp in the grass. She picks at individual blades, absentminded and without purpose. “Did you know?” she asks. “That you could...kill so much without touching?”
“Yes,” he whispers.
“It’s why they sent me,” he replies. “To kill the armies of Shams...murder the Prince.” He doesn’t sound like he’s talking about the death of her people. It sounds more like a report. A read statement that he’d memorized long ago but never followed through with. “But Yusuf is a Giver.”
“And you didn’t kill the army,” she says. It seems like an important thing to say.
He frowns, hunching his shoulders. He mumbles, “I don’t want to kill anyone,” and “I’m not a good Reaper.”
The only thing she can think to say is “I don’t want to heal anyone,” and when he looks at her, “I’m not a good Giver.”
He smiles that spoonish grin, and she smiles back. She doesn’t know why she offers, but she holds out her hand. “Come with me to Jerrah?” and he says yes. It feels so good to have a friend. She’s tired of being alone.
When Yusuf was eight years old, the Moon Prince, Stello Nicolo drowned while swimming in a river. The news comes while he’s chasing fireflies with Sebastien in the courtyard. They were laughing together. Running about and staining their white trousers in the dirt. Yusuf’s hands snatched at a bug, trapping it between the cage of his fingers. He giggled and ran to show his father, rushing over just as a herald announced the Stello’s death. His father laughed, clapping his hands and cheering. He shouted the news so all could hear. King Ibrahim plucked Yusuf up from they round like he was a much smaller child, whirling him about as he exclaimed his great delight.
Yusuf didn’t understand. A boy had died. A boy even younger than him. He looked to Sebastien, but Sebastien only frowned and shrugged. All the adults cheered. Trumpets began playing and a celebration was called. The rest of the week was filled with revelries. His father even sent fresh meat to the war front so all the soldiers could celebrate.
Nearly twelve years later, Yusuf lies in the cage that became that hated boy’s home the moment his eyes opened and he breathed air after he’d drowned. Sebastien leans with his back against the bars, hungry and weak. And Maya, the Reaper in the cage to their left, tells them the story of Stello Nicolo.
Her voice is low deep. It resembles the sound the earth makes when it shifts. Rocks cracking and breaking, splitting apart and tumbling into an abyss. It doesn’t resonate. It doesn’t echo. Yusuf imagines they, and the few cages closest to them, are the only ones who can hear her speak. The Reapers nearby are all watching. They have been ever since Merrick came and wished Yusuf would disappear. They watch, and they wait. He doesn’t know what they’re waiting for.
Perhaps they too wanted to hear this story.
“Most Reapers have their first deaths when they’re already old,” Maya tells them. “They are aged and wrinkled, and have seen the world and its many possibilities long before. Nicolo...he was the youngest I’ve ever seen. He should have died much later in life.”
Yusuf used to imagine what that life would be like. If the Stello hadn’t died back then. He used to look up at the night sky and wonder what that little boy would have grown into. And then, when Yusuf had gone to war for the first time, he imagined what it would have been like to cross swords with the Stello.
He’d never imagined crossing swords with Merrick. The new prince is only twelve. He’d never considered meeting him at all. That fantasy was reserved only for a dead child that could have been his equal but never was.
“Queen Astra divorced Nicolo’s father when he failed to give her an heir. She married Merrick’s father almost immediately after, but still: no daughter.” Maya laughs, low and rumbling. She shakes her head and drags a hand along the alabaster stone beneath her body. “It was Merrick’s father who took Nicolo swimming that day. Merrick’s father who released him in the water and turned his back, walking to shore and ignoring his Stello as he drowned.”
Murder, Yusuf surmised easily. Merrick’s father had murdered Nicolo to ensure Merrick took priority. A boy held little weight compared to a girl in Mezzaluna, but a second born Prince held even less weight than a first born. He imagines the King-consort acted quite alarmed when they fished Nicolo from the depths. He imagines the charade would have been convincing. Perhaps it would have been so convincing, he’d have escaped punishment.
“He was the first one Nicolo killed when he woke.” Yusuf sees it clear as day. A small child, lying on the warm stones by the river. Coughing and struggling to gain air. His step-father hurrying to appear concerned, touching him and then falling dead the moment his hand made contact with Nicolo’s skin. And the boy, so startled and uncertain, would just sit there, coughing and stunned as everyone around him panicked and screamed.
He remembers Cat’s eyes - Nicolo’s eyes - when he led the boy to Irania. Remembers the fear and the terror. The way Nicolo thrashed and tried to escape. The way he collapsed so suddenly into an embrace once it was given. It’s so easy to imagine that face, just a little smaller. A little younger, and so much more confused.
Maya continues. “They threw a blanket over him, stuffed him in a sack. They brought him to the cells and there.” She points to the spot Yusuf likes to sleep. The curved stone fit for a body. Where little arms and legs had curled up in a desperate attempt to keep warm and feel something. “He cried for hours, days. The guards did not know what to do. They did not know how to act. He was their Stello. But he was one of us.”
“And then they branded him,” Sebastien mutters. He crosses his arms over his chest, hugging his ribs like he would have wrapped them around that crying boy from years ago. The boy they feasted over. The boy they dragged from a warzone and slept beside on the road to Irania.
Maya nods. She touches her own scar, the thick black stain of death that marks her as a Mezzaluna Reaper, and as a source of eternal shame. “They dragged him to the Queen. Released him in a room and told him to go to his father. And when Nicolo went to him…”
“He killed him too,” Yusuf finishes. He strokes his own face in a compulsory manner. Feeling the flesh of his cheek, the patchy hairs of his beard that will one day grow long and distinct. He can imagine the feel of Cat’s brand. Nicolo’s brand. The way that it bubbled beneath his touch. The way that it remained stagnant even when he tried to fix it. A permanent reminder of how he’d murdered his father for loving the man enough to run to him when he was scared.
“The Queen declared her son dead, and his father a traitor for breeding a Reaper. She named Merrick her Stello and sent Nicolo here.”
“What a life for a Prince,” Sebastien whispers.
What a life indeed. Light flickers at one end of the long hall. A guard walks toward them. Maya falls perfectly silent and still. She folds over and keeps her head down. Sebastien and Yusuf watch the guard pass before their cages and keep on going, down the hall until even the last flickering of his light fades away.
Only when it’s safe, does Maya speak again, her quiet rumbling voice whispering for them and them alone. “Merrick does not deserve to be Stello. He is a monster.” A few quiet hisses of agreement sprinkle in from the cages around them. It doesn’t grow to the cacophony of before, but stays subdued and shuttered.
“What I don’t understand,” Sebastien says, shimmying a little closer to Maya’s side of their cage, “Is why you all can talk just fine but...when we met...Nicolo he didn’t say a word.”
She seems to take her time in formulating an answer. She runs her fingers along her lips, the underside of her chin and down her throat. Yusuf watches her thin fingers, sweep along her flesh. “We all speak. We spoke for lifetimes before we came here. Some, far more than others.” Maya “But Reapers are not meant to be seen nor heard. Our Stello knows very well what it is like to speak out of turn.”
Sebastien makes a noise under his breath. It’s a huffing growling sound that rolls about anxiously on his tongue. He pats his feet noisily on the ground, his shoulder tapping loudly against the iron bars of the cage. “These fucks, these...these fucking fucks, they hit him? These guards?” A light is starting to make their way close.
“Bas…” Yusuf warns.
“Five years old,” Sebastien snaps back. “Five. Nile was seven when we found her, what would you have done if she were being beaten because of what she is? Because she talked out of turn.” The light keeps coming, Yusuf can just make out the shape and figure of a guard on their way over.
“Getting yourself worked up isn’t going to save him now, ” Yusuf says, even though his hands have been in fists since the image presented itself properly in his mind. Cat’s sea-green eyes on a baby’s face, weeping in terror and loneliness in the cold dark of a cell.
But Sebastien’s always been less restrained than Yusuf, and when the guard comes close - he ignores how all the Reapers duck and turn away. He shouts, “You put your hands on that kid?” and the guard startles at being called out. He turns and squints down at Sebastien. “Your Stello, your real Stello, the one you assholes buried alive because he had a gift. Did you put your hands on him?”
Yusuf grits his teeth. He shakes his head. He can’t control his friend. He never could. Sebastien follows him only because he believes in him, and if he believes in something more: Sebastien will follow that to its end instead.
Sebastien’s hands grip the iron. He shakes it, hard. He snarls and spits, taunting until the guard is stupid enough to slap a baton against he cage and tell Sebastien to ‘shut up.’ Sebastien snatches the baton in the split-second that it snaps against the bars. His fingers moving with preternatural speed. He wrenches the baton with all his strength, tearing it from the man’s hand.
More lights are glittering at the end of the hall as Sebastien’s shouting draws attention. More guards are coming. But this one, right now, is furious enough to reach for his keys and try to unlock the cell to retrieve his weapon. The moment he does, Sebastien’s on him. He slams the baton hard at the man’s body. He beats him and beats him long and hard, shouting and screaming profanities even as Yusuf crawls from the cage and drags his friend off.
“You’re going to get us both killed,” Yusuf growls, throwing Sebastien in the opposite direction. But it’s not an escape Sebastien wants. It’s vengeance, eleven years too late, for a child he barely knows. Sebastien leaves the guard only so he can charge head first toward the new ones. With little option, Yusuf takes up the first man’s torch and batters it at the others.
These guards are largely untrained. They may be perfectly capable of wandering up and down a hallway, but they’re not soldiers and they’re not fighters. Yusuf swings the torch into one man’s face and bludgeons a woman’s nose with the still burning end. He drops low and sweeps the legs of the first man, then scrambles to straddle his body and shove the torch in the man’s mouth. It douses the flame but only after the man’s screaming flails end in a gruesome death. A death that is instantly corrected when the man’s bare hand brushes against Yusuf’s as he stands.
The man gurgles awake, but in agony, he screams with such ear piercing pain Yusuf kicks him in the face three times to shut him up. When he swivels to check on Sebastien, he finds the woman with a bloody nose has been knocked out or killed and the two others that had come to assist were being summarily dealt with. Sebastien had broken one’s arm, and the second’s throat is struck with a particularly brutal blow with the baton.
Someone had gotten a good strike in on Sebastien’s eye. It’s bleeding and swollen. Yusuf heals it with a harsh shove of his palm against the wound. He ignores how Sebastien hisses, muttering “You fucking deserve this,” even as the cacophony of more gaurds running from all directions distract him from his job.
Reaching down, Yusuf collects a baton of his own. Sebastien’s rage hasn’t quelled, and escape is a non-starter. Even from here, Yusuf can see the next round is going to involve dozens of men and women. That’s dozens more than Yusuf knows they can handle. Taking a deep breath, he does the only thing he knows how to do in such a circumstance.
He plants his feet, and he makes as much of a mess as his best friend does. They fight back to back, side to side. They trade blows and duck under the strikes their enemies try to land. Yusuf can’t heal Sebastien mid-combat, but he feels it when his friend starts to falter. Feels how their rhythm shifts and adjusts for the pure exhaustion of the melee.
At the border, the battles wage for hours. There’s a constant wave of fresh troops sent out to provide relief to the ones already there. The first wave goes, then the second, then the third. The body isn’t capable of sustained fighting for very long. Actual combat is fast, and to make any mark in this war, its the army that can sustain just long enough to put too much pressure on the exhausted soldiers on the other side that will win.
But in the end, the human body is only capable of operating at full capacity for short bursts. A blink of an eye to the muscled grunts that continue to emerge from the depths just to cast their judgment. Even so, Sebastien keeps his screaming. His taunting. His viscous tongue. Child-beater, murderer, weak. He grows more creative the more times he’s struck. The more times his guard warbles and he wants to let them know that they haven’t beaten him. Not yet.
“Limp-dick spermless cunt! Ball-less goat fucking whore! Spineless cow-shit eating worm! Piss gargling philanderer!”
It’s the last one that makes Yusuf laugh hard enough that he’s entirely distracted when something hard and excruciating smacks him right between his teeth. He feels half his mouth shatter at the impact, but he’s still laughing when he blacks out. After all. What did that even mean?
Sebastien and Yusuf’s violent foray into meeting the guards of the Reaper Cells don’t earn them a single friend on the staff. Yusuf wakes up in more or less one piece. Sebastien wakes up in far more pieces. One of his eyes has been knocked clean out of its socket. His bones have been shattered. His chest crushed. Yusuf jerks badly when he sees the state of his friend, and it takes him hours to piece him back together. By the time he’s finished, he’s dizzy and close to swooning, but Sebastien sleeps on and that’s good enough for him. When a guard passes by on the usual route, tentatively walking over the bloodstained alabaster like a nobleman over a mud puddle, Yusuf bares his teeth and earns a verbal rebuke but nothing more.
The next few weeks prove much the same, only now even Sebastien’s basic human needs are entirely ignored. Food and water dissipate as if they were long forgotten items of the past. Yusuf spends each day just pressing his hands to Sebastien’s chest and willing his body to keep going. “You’re gonna turn me into a Giver at this point,” Sebastien sighs wearily, organs reluctantly accepting the artificial offerings of sustenance that Yusuf willed them to accept.
“One can only hope,” he replies, shaking and tired and weak. Sebastien opens his arms and lets Yusuf collapse against him, and they doze for ages.
Sometimes, Yusuf dreams.
He dreams about fireflies and running through the private gardens in Jerrah. About a little boy floating in the water, illuminated by the moon, and a teenager hiding in the shadows of a large rock that doesn’t belong.
When he wakes, he still feels the afterimages of that boy, as if Yusuf’s face has been branded by that Nicolo’s memory alone. His cheek tingles with the thought. “Why was Stello Nicolo sent to fight the war?” he asks Maya.
Maya peers at him in silence for a long time. Perhaps she’s waiting, Yusuf thinks. He doesn’t push her for an answer. There’s nothing he can do but wait with her. So he does. He waits. And eventually: Merrick comes back.
Despite his bombastic proclamation that he wants nothing more than for Yusuf to disappear and never be seen or heard from again, Merrick seems to have an entirely different point of view when it comes to just how best to make someone vanish from memory. He trots down to the Reaper cells and stands before the cage that used to be his brother’s, puffing up his chest as if it would cast the appearance of an older and wiser prince. It only makes him seem terribly young to Yusuf’s eye. Terribly young and foolish.
“You’ve not been behaving yourself,” Merrick scolds. It’s bizarre. The boy’s voice hasn’t broken yet. It’s still high pitched and infantile. Yusuf can’t recall the last time someone scolded him like this. For years, he’s ridden into battle and faced down enemies. When his Uncle disciplined him, he did so with military sharp swiftness. When his father issued commands, he did so with the firm knowledge Yusuf would follow without question. Yusuf doesn’t even think his blessed Mother had ever chastised him in this manner. Not since he’d worn his first pair of trousers, outgrowing the skirts of childhood.
Yusuf isn’t even entirely sure what to say. The finger wagging Merrick does just seems particularly ineffective and he has the most suicidal urge to laugh at the boy. Laugh, and ask him where his entourage has run off to because there are less people here this time around. Only Keane and the woman with the writing utensils, who Yusuf still cannot fathom the point for. Feeling not the least bit like catering to this boy, he offers only the most polite he can manage. A tired and very put out: “Admittedly, your highness, there’s little entertainment to be had otherwise.”
The boy’s button nose (because he’s young enough to still have a button nose) scrunches up like a napkin. All pert and dissatisfied. “You killed my men.”
“Yes.” He waits, and when Merrick doesn’t offer any additional complaints, Yusuf says: “Your men have seen fit to torture and abuse a child for eleven years. Your older brother, for eleven years. It did not sit well with my companion and I.”
Merrick has the audacity to laugh. “You did it for that thing?”
That thing had cried and desperately tried to run away when he saw the horse Yusuf needed to put him on. He’d panicked and flailed and mouthed wordlessly, clinging to Yusuf and shaking his head at the sheer terror of accidentally killing the beast. But when Yusuf had hoisted him up—safely—and secured him, that thing had stared down at the animal with such a look of wonder. His hands trembled so fiercely, that Yusuf could feel the desire through his skin. Yusuf removed his gloves and gave them to that thing and watched as that thing ran his fingers along the horse’s neck for hours.
“Don’t call him that,” Yusuf says, voice low and quiet. Sebastien jerks awake at his side, blinking rapidly until he notices Merrick there. He rolls his eyes and then rolls his body, positioning his back to the child and making a show of ignoring him entirely.
“It’s not a person. You do realize that right? It’s not a human being .”
“Your brother is more human than half the men I’ve met in my lifetime. He can kill with a touch but he longs to preserve life and there’s nothing more precious in this gods damned world. I hope one day you understand even a fraction of what that’s like. To have power over someone, to be able to do anything you want, but choose to do the right thing anyway—simply because it’s right. .”
Merrick glowers at him. He snarls like a puppy angry that someone touched his food. He takes a step closer to the cage. Keane mutters a quiet word of warning, but Yusuf doesn’t hurt children. Sebastien doesn’t care. The boy is safe, and will remain safe. “You think that’s what it’s like?” Merrick asks. “Some sweet little thing? You’re wrong. It’s a murderer. That’s all it is, that’s all it will be. A murderer.”
“And what will you be?” Yusuf asks. Merrick stares at him, lips parted as if he wants to respond but doesn’t have the words. “Why are you here, your highness?”
The child looks uncertain. He glances back toward Keane and the woman. It’s a quick look, but Yusuf recognizes it. He’s seen looks like that before. A subordinate checking in with a superior, or someone who thinks they’re in charge looking for guidance from the ventriloquist at their back. “I want to know what you can do,” the doll-like prince says. Then, straightening his back, he speaks louder. “Open the cage.”
Finally, Sebastien rolls back to see what’s going on. He’s frowning, looking between the open door and Yusuf in confusion. “Come here. Not you,” Merrick corrects when Sebastien shifts ever so slightly. “Giver. Come here.”
“I’m a prince, your highness,” Yusuf says. He traces a hand along Sebastien’s wrist. Calming and supportive. This was always going to happen eventually. “Perhaps you could show me some of the courtesy I’ve shown you.”
“Come here and I won’t have Keane slit your toy’s throat.” And there’s the savagery of the child he first met. The brutal bloodlust that doesn’t coincide at all with what Yusuf saw in the boy’s older brother. Sebastien starts muttering curses. He hisses a diatribe that Yusuf pays little attention to. He just crawls forward, exiting his new lodgings to stand before the vicious prince and his cronies.
Keane locks the cage behind him, even as Sebastien cries out to go too. To not be left behind. To stay with Yusuf as he always has. By his side, no matter what. From the moment Yusuf’s mother had required a nurse when her own breasts refused to feed her babe, and Sebastien’s had offered to share the nutrients that used to only belong to her child.
Yusuf glances back only once, smiling at his dearest friend. “See you soon,” he promises.
He doesn’t intend to lie.
Lord Najima has skin the color of honey. It glistens under the sun, and sometimes he wears perfumes that make him smell like all the best things on earth. When she was young, Nile used to follow after him, awed by his very presence. He walks with a kind of dancer’s grace, and he dresses in the most beautiful clothing. Bright colors and shimmering golds.
He’s not purely ornamental, though. As he rides up to the temple, Nile catalogues all the changes she’s missed over the past few years. Her adoptive uncle’s armor is polished to a bright shine, but he wears each dent and ding on it like it’s a badge of honor. He’s a man who has been fighting a war for most of his life, and he knows how to separate the two while simultaneously honoring both his heritage and his position on the battlefield.
Unlike Yusuf, he doesn’t enter Irania in the dead of night with no one there to see him come. His retinue announces his presence and this time Nile stands in her finest clothes and receives him with all the honors that he deserves. He dismounts and he bows the correct amount. She returns the gesture and welcomes him to the city. At her back, Andromache and Quynh provide their greetings as the Guides of Irania’s temple.
When the pleasantries are done, Nile leads him to a room where he can freshen himself up for the welcome banquet that’s been set up for him. He removes his armor and washes his hands in the basin that’s been provided. “I’d like to know about my brother, sir,” Nile says as he splashes water on his face and uses a cloth to pat the moisture off.
“Later,” Najima says. “After dinner.” She can taste the dismissal in the air, and she grinds her teeth at the idea, but she acquiesces.
The banquet has been prepared at the center of the water gardens. Tents have been pitched so as to block out the burning heat of the sun, and corked jars of sugar water have been strategically placed to draw away any offending insects. All the pageantry is beautiful as much as it’s infuriating. Nile finds herself tugging on her fingers just to feel the way the joints pop in and out of place as she waits for the moment Najima finally informs her on her brother’s status.
He had told her to wait. So now she waits. She waits and watches as his retinue eat merrily, chomping at the fruits that have been prepared in their honor. Juice sluices down their beards and Nile’s nose wrinkles just a touch as she tries to maintain her composure. Food on the front isn’t bad , necessarily, but it’s routine. The same meals are prepared day in and day out as supply chains maintain a carefully constructed delivery schedule. Melons and pears are not included simply for logistical purposes. It would be absurd to try to keep that many fruits from spoiling both on the journey to the front lines and in the delivery. They relish the flavors and Nile knows it’s unkind to think less of their eating habits, but her stomach turns as she watches them. It’s a kind of gluttony that she’s not used to seeing.
Najima busies himself in talking to Andromache and Quynh throughout the meal. He tells them of his great victory in defending Altas, and the way that he’s led the army forth to capture even more land than they’d previously had. Nile’s almost gratified to see that neither are particularly interested in the war stories. They nod with the most affected politeness that Nile’s ever seen, but they don’t contribute to his diatribes. Quynh, in particular, seems the most put out by the process. As Najima tells her of one rather lethal exchange, she sets down her fork and knife and quietly reminds him that all life is sacred.
“Of course it is,” Najima agrees without missing a beat. “Which is why it’s imperative we defend our country from those who would seek to end our lives.” It’s a stunningly fast riposte that has Nile’s head spinning. She glances awkwardly toward her mother, at her right, but all she can see is her mother’s arched brow of disapproval. An arched brow that immediately returns to its proper position when Najima turns and says “Sandra, how are you finding Irania?” and the two engage in small talk over Nile’s head.
Nile wishes Cat were here, but Andromache had firmly insisted that Cat has no business at this particular meal. It’s true. Nile knows that. Cat doesn’t have a place at court, nor is he an honored guest of Najima, and yet Cat’s presence would have been a balm of sorts. She could have had someone to talk to. That job used to be Yusuf and Sebastien’s, or sometimes even the Queen’s handmaiden, Amelie, would speak with her during these formal engagements. But without any of them she’s by herself. She pokes at her food and she feigns interest. She doesn’t sulk or lose her posture, and she wishes she was anywhere else but here.
Once the meal is concluded, Najima is escorted to the House of the Wanting’s audience chamber. It matches the House of the Unwanting’s perfectly, including the great discomfort Nile feels as she steps in. The looming ceilings and harsh architecture seem to drain her soul just by standing there. A table has been set up for them all to gather around. By rank, Najima concedes one head of the table to Nile. He takes the other. Andromache, Quynh, and Nile’s mother sit on the long sides. The rest of the room is empty.
“As you’ve no doubt surmised, Yusuf did not return to his post after his journey to Irania.” Najima speaks as though he is delivering a speech. His words sound pre-prepared and rehearsed. Nile glowers at the sound of each phrase leaving his lips. She needs to squeeze her hands tight together. Her knuckles pop slightly beneath the table. “I did not return your letters, princess, because letters are easily intercepted. The knowledge of our prince’s whereabouts are not things that can be transmitted so casually.”
“You could have sent a courier direct,” Nile says.
“I sent a courier to your father,” Najima replies. “Until we knew how to handle this circumstance, informing you was not the priority.”
Sometimes, Nile wonders what the point of her adoption was in the first place. The King knew she was a Giver, but that hardly meant that he needed to formally take her in as his ward. There were hundreds of Givers in Shams. Only she had been given a place at the King’s table. And if she wasn’t a priority, then why bother? Why bother to give her these rules and expectations if she wasn’t actually a member of the family?
She tries very hard not to let how much that comment hurt. Tries her hardest to not show just how much it felt like another rejection. Another reminder that she wasn’t a proper princess, just like she wasn’t a proper Giver. Her eyes burn and she needs to blink hard more than once to keep the tears from falling. She can see her mother’s look of concern, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except for saving face in front of Najima and proving she can do her job no matter how hard it is.
“How was it handled?” Nile asks. Her voice only cracks a little, right in the middle. She clears her throat with a delicate cough, and adjusts her position so she’s sitting up even straighter.
Najima squints at her from across the table. He seems to be waiting for something, though what: Nile couldn’t tell. In any case, he must find it because he nods. He nods and says: “In two weeks time, Yusuf will be declared dead.”
Nile’s chair clatters to the ground as she throws herself to her feet so fast it over balances. Her hands slam against the table. She shouts, “NO!” and Najima settles into his seat like he’d expected this all along. “He’s not dead!”
“Of course he’s not. He’s a Giver. But it’s either death or desertion, and as far as the people are concerned, death is more palatable.”
“They took him! Mezzaluna must have taken him!”
“How would they have done that? How would they have crossed so deep into Shams that they managed to spirit our crown prince out of the country with no one noticing?”
“I don’t know, but they had to have taken him! He’s been captured and we need to find him!”
“Our spies in Città Lunare have reported nothing: Yusuf is not there.”
“Then he’s somewhere else!”
“Where, Nile? Where is he?”
Nile doesn’t have an answer for that. She shakes her head and slams her hands onto the table as hard as she can. The wood reverberates beneath her palms. Anger and hatred war for their proper place on her emotional spectrum. “You can’t give up on him. He needs help!”
“Until we know for sure where he is, we can do nothing. There’s no trail, there’s no sign. He’s all but vanished into thin air, so unless you know where he’s hiding, this is our only course forward.”
Nile feels like her legs are going to collapse beneath her. She leans hard on the table, blinking at her uncle and trying to work out just what she wants to say. She looks at Andromache and Quynh, but neither are paying any attention to her. They are quiet and meek, as if they’d never once engaged in any kind of political discourse. Nile’s mother, though seemingly distraught by the news, also doesn’t argue. She angles her head toward her hands, and she doesn’t say a word. No one is going to argue for Yusuf. Not a single one.
They’re going to let this go. They’re going to do nothing. “How can you just let this happen?”
“Let? Let?” Najima stands. He walks around the table. Andromache and Quynh follow him with their eyes, but Nile’s mother keeps her head down and lips pressed tight together. “You think I let my Prince—my nephew— vanish?” Nile’s lips tremble as Najima towers over her. Her spine twinges as she arches backward to meet his eyes. Her feet shuffle to fix her balance. “You think I let him do anything? Yusuf demanded my permission. He commanded me to let him come here with that boy, that thing , and now he’s vanished and the blame is on me?”
“Cat’s not a thing,” Nile says, unthinking and instinctive. She winces even as the words leave her mouth. Najima’s nostrils flare and a waft of pleasant perfume slides up against Nile’s senses as he looms over her. Monstrous and terrifying.
“Cat?” he asks.
A chair slides back. It screeches across the hard stone floor. Andromache stands and both Nile and Najima’s heads swivel about to look at her. “The name we’ve given my charge,” Andromache says. She meets Najima’s eyes with the unflinching strength that Nile didn’t think she’d ever have herself. Andromache’s back is straight, her chin tilted every so slightly up. Like a challenge or threat. Her coiled muscles, wrapped in the dark cloth of her order, seem to flex just a touch. Nile feels a tremble of something along her senses. A pressure that she has no name for. A pressure that seems to slide gently between her and her uncle, pushing them away from each other. Najima folds his hands together behind his back. He steps away from Nile, but only a little.
He frowns deep. The corners of his lips touch the swell of his beard. Disappearing into the dark thick curls she’s never seen him without. He asks, “Where is this boy?”
“Resting,” Andromache replies.
“Bring him here.”
“He’s resting, my lord,” Andromache repeats.
“Bring him here,” Najima echoes. Nile bites her lip, but Andromache pushes no further. She bows with one hand over her heart and leaves the room. With Andromache gone, Najima’s attention returns sharply to Nile. Air seems to pause in her lungs, refusing to exhale appropriately. “I love my nephew very much, Nile Freeman,” he says, cursing the name her true father gave her like it hardly belonged in a stable’s muckrake. “You will never know the depth of my affection for that boy. I didn’t let him risk his life on this foolish campaign. This disaster is entirely of his own making.”
Nile knows better than to argue. She follows her mother’s example. She nods her head, keeps her eyes angled to the ground, and she waits. Najima returns to his seat, but he doesn’t sit. He collects a pitcher and pours himself a glass of wine. He drinks it in slow drafts, balancing the drink precisely between his fingers. Nile rights her chair and sits down. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands, so she keeps them folded in her lap.
The door opens. Andromache returns with Cat trailing behind her. He’s wearing his most layered outfit again. A dark blue cloth wrapped around his face. Nile thinks for a moment that it seems strange to see all his features hidden, but then she realizes: Cat’s cheek is hidden too. The brand she’d healed cannot be detected. His smoothe cheek is blocked from Najima’s view.
“Remove the shawl,” Najima orders once the doors close and Cat’s standing still at Andromache’s side.
Andromache sighs heavily. She rests a palm on Cat’s shoulder. Starts to say, “My lord,” but is cut off as Najima slams his glass on the table. For whatever reason Andromache had attempted to conceal Cat, it’s lost now with no hope of returning. She slowly slips her fingers around the cloth and pulls it free from where it’d been tied.
Najima’s gasp echoes all around them, and from this far away Nile can see quite clearly how Cat’s hands have started to shake. Najima approaches her friend. He plucks the tail end of the shawl and uses it to cover his hand as he takes Cat by the chin and turns his face this way and that. “Your healers did this?” Najima asks.
“I did it,” Nile reveals. Quynh lets out a long breath of air just out of sight, like she’d been preparing a lie and now had no reason to speak. Anger and pride war within Nile at the reaction. She takes in the disbelieving look Najima throws her way and she rebuffs it instantly. “I healed him.”
“Don’t lie to your betters, girl,” Najima chastises. “You don’t have the talent for this.”
“Nile did it,” Cat says. His voice cutting through the air so sharp and swift that Najima recoils. He drops the shawl and actually stumbles back. His eyes widen and he runs his gaze over Cat’s body head to toe. Cat’s not looking at him, or the floor. He’s looking at Nile. He’s more pale than Nile thinks he was the day he killed the garden, and his hands shake so violently that even his shoulders have started to sway. His knees are all but buckling right before their eyes. But he keeps himself upright. Keeps his gaze on her. “Nile did it,” he repeats. “She has the talent.”
“My, my,” Najima whispers. “Perhaps you are capable of miracles, Andromache. To take that shell of a thing and teach it to speak.”
“He’s not a thing,” Nile says again. She swallows and gathers her courage. She walks across the hall to stand by Cat’s side. Her left hand slips into Cat’s right. She squeezes it, offering whatever strength she can. “He’s my friend.”
“Then tell me, friend of the crown,” Najima says, “What do you know of Prince Yusuf’s disappearance.”
Nile thinks the expression on her uncle’s face is particularly ugly right then. The way his eyes narrow in suspicion. The way his hand seems to hover over the blade at his side, as if he would strike Cat down for a lie or lack of answer. His beautiful attire and pleasant scent, prickle her nose hairs and turn her tongue sour. She squeezes Cat’s hand just a little harder, and he squeezes it back.
He says nothing.
“You came to my niece’s defense just moments ago, but you will not do so for our Prince?” Najima presses.
The shaking palm starts to send shockwaves up Nile’s arm. She wonders how Najima can’t see how scared Cat is. Perhaps, she concedes, that’s what war does to someone. It makes them incapable of seeing fear as anything but something to be exploited. Cat’s afraid, and so he deserves to be pressured.
“How could I know where Prince Yusuf is?” Cat asks, lips trembling and words weaker than they’d been in weeks. “I’ve been here.”
“Yes,” Najima agrees. He glances at their palms, still sealed together. “You’ve been here.”
“I’m taking him back to the capital with us,” Nile informs him.
“No,” Andromache says even as Najima’s lips part and his eyes narrow.
“I’ve decided,” Nile vetoes, not even daring to look at her. The last time she pulled rank on Andromache their relationship never recovered. She cannot imagine what this will do. Maybe she’ll finally make Andromache hate her like Quynh hates her.
“You have no authority to decide,” Andromache retorts. Nile whirls about, stunned. Cat hasn’t moved. He stays statuesque between them as they argue. A doll being tugged by his arms by jealous children at play. “Prince Yusuf placed Cat in my care. He is my ward, and my responsibility. He is underage, and therefore his actions are mine to command. He is not going to Jerrah.”
Najima laughs. It’s a great booming sound that sends shivers down Nile’s spine as it echoes all around them. “You’re fond of the boy? Six months and you’ve decided he’s enough to replace the child you never had all those years ago?”
Andromache’s face does something then that Nile’s never seen. The very bridge of her nose twitches. Then her nostrils flare. The corner of her lips tug down, then flat again. Her ears pull back just fractionally, even as her brows stay perfectly level. She’s always had a musculature to be admired, every sinew tight and appreciative. Her lithe body is built for dancing and fighting, and Nile’s seen her in the practice yards with her labrys as she teaches other Reapers how to kill with more than just their hands. Cat never joins those sessions, but Nile’s never doubted this woman’s ability.
They say she’s six thousand years old. That she might even be the oldest Reaper who’s ever walked the planet. No one knows why she hasn’t died like the others. Why she hasn’t lost her power and aged out like every other member of both her kind and Nile’s. The next oldest to her is Quynh, four thousand years of spite locked into a diminutive body. But they’re the only two who’ve ever reached that far. The only two who were there when Mezzaluna and Shams first split in two, and the world fell into a war without end.
Something like fear takes control of Nile’s mind as she squeezes Cat’s palm. Andromache follows the laws and edicts of Shams because she chooses to. Because she cares about mortals in a way that seems antithetical to what she is. But it’s always that: a choice. She chose to let the King break her oath to Yusuf and send her to Irania to labor away as a Guide for new Reapers. She chose to abide by all of the rules and regulations placed on her.
And she chooses to stand before Najima, look him in the eye, and say “Cat is mine. He will not leave my side.”
Najima receives Andromache’s condemnation far better than Nile does. Where Nile’s throat turns dry, Najima merely glances at Cat. “And you? What do you think?” he drawls the word out. Tone dripping with implication.
“I told Nile I’d go,” Cat says.
The strength in Andromache’s stance seems to have been beaten out of her by those five words alone. She physically bends over, receiving the blow right in her gut as she lightly slides the back of her fingers across Cat’s unblemished cheek. She says, so soft it nearly breaks Nile’s heart, “You didn’t ask.”
Cat’s lips tremble. He leans into the feeling, pulling away from Nile ever so slightly as he finally redirects his gaze to something else. To Andromache. He looks at her, and even from this angle Nile can tell there are tears in his eyes. “I do as you wish,” he whispers. The words float so quietly in the air that Nile’s heart breaks at the sound.
“No,” she says, but her voice echoes strangely. Someone else has spoken at the same time. Najima. Najima who repeats the word with brute indifference.
“No you will travel to Jerrah, and if Andromache won’t leave your side then I will permit her presence in the city. I’ll inform my brother of the complications once we arrive. But you will be going.”
Andromache shakes her head, “My place is—”
“—You either travel with him, or without him. But unless you intend to commit treason here in Irania, the boy is going to be leaving with us, either in chains or on a horse. The choice is yours, Andromache.” For all the strength and power behind the subtle movements she’d shown before, Nile should have guessed: it was still a bluff. Andromache had no desire to actually assassinate Najima in this tower. He grins when she says nothing. Grins, and claps his hand. “Congratulations, Andromache, you’re allowed to go home.”
Cat isn’t a particularly good rider. He sits on the geriatric horse he’s given with a posture so stiff that it’s a wonder he doesn’t fall off. His hands squeeze the reins so tight that Nile half fears he’ll be thrown just for bothering the poor beast. Andromache rides close to him, murmuring softly beneath her breath. Quiet corrections that make some difference but not a great deal of one as the boy stares helplessly at the beast in sheer terror.
Nile can’t ride next to him. She rides at her Uncle’s side surrounded by guards. Her mother is in one of the wheelhouses prepared for the journey, along with the less sturdy members of their retinue. Every few minutes Nile glances back down the long row of soldiers and Irania servants until she can spot Cat, Andromache, and Quynh. It doesn’t matter how many days it’s been since they left: Cat’s agitation never lessens.
“Tell me about your friend,” Najima commands when he catches her sneaking glances for the fifth time in one morning. She flushes under his attention, shy beneath his dark gaze. “I hardly expected such loyalty from a Mezzaluna Reaper.”
Nile doesn’t quite know what to say. Najima’s never asked her about any of her friends before. He hardly ever paid her any attention. When the King appeared in her home that first day, the only one with him had been Yusuf. The King had petitioned Nile’s mother, and they’d all relocated to Jerrah as the adoption became official. But Najima had been fighting the war then, just as he always was. She only saw him on the few formal occasions that brought him back to court. On those special days or allowances when he came, he had eyes for Yusuf and the King primarily. Always them. She cannot recall the last time he inquired over something as benign as who she liked to spend time with.
When it comes down to it, Nile’s not sure how to describe her friendship with Cat. He isn’t nice persay. He doesn’t talk enough to be called nice. He’s quiet, so perhaps his listening is something she should mention. But saying she likes someone because they listen to her feels uncomfortable even just as a thought. She can’t imagine giving that thought life by speaking the words aloud. He’s humorous, but his humor is so quiet and so intrinsically faceted that explaining it would take time. Cat teases with a quirk of his lips and a flicker of his fingers.
But telling Najima that Cat can kill at a thought is not something that Nile wants to entertain. He’s already letting an untrained Reaper go to Jerrah. She doesn’t want to push her luck by showing just how powerful said Reaper actually is.
With little options, Nile just shrugs. “Tell me about your friends,” she asks, snotty as can be. Najima already thinks poorly of her, if she’s obnoxious enough perhaps he’ll let the matter go. From the way his lips curl and his nostrils flare it seems she’s successful. He scowls so long and hard in her direction that she has to bite back the flare of victory that threatens to make a smile bloom on her face.
He leaves her alone for the rest of the day, and she tries her best not to keep looking back at Cat and check up on him. She pushed her luck earlier, and she doesn’t want to do it again. Even so, when they stop for the evening she hurries to where Andromache and Cat are staying. She ducks into their tent and finds Cat rubbing at the welts on his hands from where he’d squeezed the reins. They are healing even as Nile forces his fingers open so she can see them properly. She still adds a bit of her own power to speed the process along.
Andromache shoos her out of the tent too soon though. After barely half a conversation. They’re eating, and Nile’s told to go find her mother and spend time with her. So she does. She casts a last look over her shoulder, taking in Cat’s utterly miserable expression, and wonders if she made the right choice.
During dinner, she asks her mother. Quiet and uncertain, chewing her food into tiny little bites that barely make a dent in the meal that’s been prepared. “His world has been very different before this,” her mother says. “He’s been isolated and alone for many years, but now he is here, riding in a royal entourage to the capital of the country his has always been at war with. Give him time,” her mother cautions.
Time is, regrettably, one thing they don’t have much of. They reach Jerah within the week. The bright sounds and smells of the city echo across the plains. As they crest the hill that leads them to the city walls, Nile can’t help the rush of excitement that thrums through her. She isn’t looking forward to returning to her duties at the capital, but the city itself is a wonder. Great sandstone walls wrap around the city from one end to another. They spiral inwards, so as reaching the palace can only commence when one has walked the entire length of the city.
Once a year races are held to see who can run through the loops of the spiral the fastest. Thousands of participants start at the great gate that connects the only opening of the wall to the first part of the city. Trumpets sound and the runners leap forward. They throw themselves, sweaty and naked headlong into the challenge. As a member of the royal family, she was meant to meet the runners when they reached the palace, but Yusuf came up with a game of their own. They stand at the very top of the wall that lets out to the palace ground, watching the runners through spy glasses as they navigated the endless turning of the road. Nile would whoop and cheer from her position on Yusuf’s shoulders, calling out each person who pulled ahead. And just when they started in on the last two loops of the spiral, Yusuf would scramble off the wall and down to his father’s side, balancing her as best he could while she kicked him like a horse and urged him to go faster. They’d make it to the King just as the runners began their final journey, breathless and excited from the race.
There’s no race now. Nile rides almost at the head of the company. Najima takes the lead. The usual hustle and bustle of pedestrians and vendors as they went about their business is stymied by their approach. People hurry to the nearest shop, pressing themselves along the buildings as Najima’s procession advances. A few civilians cheer as they pass, waving happily when they recognize who leads the group. Najima’s posture is always flawless, but Nile can’t help but notice when he tips his head in acknowledgment that he looks even more regal.
She tries to mimic it, the stiff back and the straight shoulders. It doesn’t last long. She makes eye contact with a few people and they wave happily toward her. She waves back, lips breaking from their stoic facade to a bright grin, eager and pleased.
The more loops they spiral through, the more word has spread. Their path becomes far less congested as the citizens step off the road and make space. They clap their hands in unison, sounding out a series of beats that seem to echo the pounding of Nile’s heart. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Clap. Her fingers squeeze her reins in time with the noise, even as her ears start to hurt as the cacophony rises. The thought sends a twinge of panic through her body. She resists the urge to look back at Cat. He doesn’t like loud noises. But there’s nothing she can do for him. She keeps going forward, smiling and waving on occasion, feeling the soul of her people radiating through every step her horse takes.
As with any spiral, the closer they get to the palace, the tighter the loops become. Their party is large enough that even as Nile and Najima round the final turn into the royal gardens, some of their group are still two turns behind. It doesn’t matter. In the end, they’ll all reach the same destination.
King Ibrahim and his wife, Queen Fatima, are waiting for them as they approach the meeting grounds. Neither look happy. They’re smiling, but their expressions are strained. Perfunctory. Valets step out to hold Nile and Najima’s horses steady as they dismount, and when they approach the King and Queen they bow in unison. It all seems forced and rehearsed. Ibrahim welcomes them home, and gestures for them to follow inside. He sounds old. Old and tired. His voice strains a little, dipping off into a quiet sigh when he finishes.
Nile glances back toward the rest of their party. Andromache and Cat have finally rounded the last turn. Cat’s so violently pale that Nile thinks he might just tumble from his horse at any given moment. “A friend?” Fatima asks, genial and polite. Nile’s head swivels around to look at the Queen. She’s smiling ever so slightly, even if the corners of her eyes strain downwards.
“Yes,” Nile replies. “His name’s Cat, he’s a Reaper.”
“He’s the Reaper that Prince Yusuf deigned to leave his post for,” Najima informs. Both Ibrahim and Fatima take that news in stride. Ibrahim raises a hand and calls for Andromache and Cat to approach. Nile grimaces, watching out of the corner of her eye as Andromache dismounts and then helps Cat down. She was right. Cat’s legs crumble beneath him. Andromache holds him up with a strong arm at his back. She keeps marching him forward until eventually his legs cooperate enough that he can walk on his own. Even so, he’s unsteady enough that he trips over his own feet just as they reach the royal family.
Fatima reaches out to catch him on instinct, but Cat throws himself bodily in the opposite direction. He crashes to the ground in a violent heap, blinking up at them with the most dumbfounded expression on his face. He’s covered head to toe. There’s no trace of skin visible except for his face, but it doesn’t seem to matter to him. He stares up at the Queen with such a horror-stricken expression that Nile’s chest aches at the mere sight of him.
She reaches for him, only to be gently nudged out of the way. Fatima crouches down. She holds out her hand. “Welcome to Jerrah, Master Cat.” He stares at her hand for a long while, so long that Nile shifts uncomfortably at his lack of engagement. But eventually, he places his palm in hers. His gloved fingers curl around her hand. She stands, pulling him with her. Andromache steadies him when he makes it to his feet.
“We should go inside,” The King says. Nile bites her lip as she glances at the man who adopted her. His gaze is fixed on Cat, though. His lips pressed into a thin line. Still, he turns eventually. Turns, and walks toward the great palace doors. They stand four meters high. Solid metal bars rest vertically on each door. Two very fit guards are responsible for pulling on their respective bar, dragging their feet back step by step as the sheer weight of the entrance fights their efforts. Once they’ve finished, though, they stand proud with one hand over their hearts and their backs perfectly straight. Ibrahim nods at each of them as he leads his guests into the throne room.
Najima’s second in command stays behind to see the rest of the procession settled in their temporary quarters. Some will rest in the barracks, others: like Nile’s mother, will move to her personal squirt. Quynh too, will likely have a designated room specific to her station. Nile doesn’t know where that might be, but she guesses near Andromache’s.
Ibrahim settles on his throne, both hands draped casually on the arm rest. Fatima sits at his side. Nile, Najima, Andromache, and Cat stand before them in a line. Andromache on one end, Najima on the other. Nile feels like there’s something missing. The sensation leaves an aching pain deep within her. She struggles not to reach down and take Cat’s hand.
They wait as Ibrahim orders the royal servants to leave, and only when they’re fully alone does the king speak. “The funeral will be held in three days.”
Nile flinches badly. She opens her mouth to argue, but Ibrahim raises a hand. Her voice falls silent behind her teeth. Tears press to her eyes instead. “There has been no word on Yusuf’s presence. Not in Mezzaluna...and not in Shams. Until a body or some sign of life has been determined...this is our only course of action.”
For all her attempts at remaining stoic, it’s Cat who takes her hand in his. He holds it, and she squeezes so tight she fears she might hurt him. He squeezes back, though. Warm and present there by her side. “Please don’t hold a funeral,” Nile asks.
“If he returns alive, he will need to account for his whereabouts. Until then, we must present a united front on his disappearance.” Ibrahim doesn’t say anything different than what Najima had back in Irania, and though Nile had known this was what they were here for, she still feels off put by the proclamation. She knows Ibrahim. Knows how deeply he cares for his son. Somehow, she’d still retained a small bit of hope that he wouldn’t do this.
Not when Yusuf had to still be out there, somewhere.
“After the funeral, I ask that you return to the front, brother,” Ibrahim continues. Nile feels him shift at her side. Surprise, maybe. He takes one step forward.
“One thing I know for certain,” Ibraham says, talking over Najima with a definitive edge to his tone, “is that my son is missing. My son who was your responsibility to care for.”
“He asked to go to Irania—”
“—And you sent him there with no one but Sebastien as his guard?”
Nile’s mouth falls open. She turns ever so slightly so she can get a better look at Najima. The man’s jaw is clenching so tight that Nile’s own muscles twinge in sympathy. He isn’t clenching his fists, but he is staring straight at his older brother with barely the requisite level of respect required for this interaction.
“Sebastien is his sworn guard,” Najima says.
“Sebastien is— was— a nineteen year old child who cannot be expected to thwart an attacking party on his own.”
“Then he never should have been sent to a war to begin with.” The back of Nile’s neck prickles. She bites her lip and glances between King and brother in anxious desperation. She feels like she’s witnessing something she shouldn’t be seeing. She feels awkward and flatfooted and terribly in the way.
She wants to leave. Just take Cat and leave the room so that neither of them witness Najima’s punishment being delivered first hand. Najima’s been her country’s hero for decades. He’s always been the first line of defense for the nation against Mezzaluna, and to see him as anything less than respected and treasured by the crown is wrong.
“Sebeastien and Yusuf were both highly trained soldiers, and they were traveling into Shams. There was no perceivable threat, and as the siege on Altas showed: I couldn’t spare any additional troops to guard them.”
Fatima clears her throat. She coughs delicately, a slight humming that radiates all around them. “Master Cat, have you any information you can provide to us in this regard?”
Cat, naturally, says nothing. He shakes his head, lips pressed tight and attention firmly on the ground. But now that the attention is on him, it seems that the King feels ready to switch targets. His gaze slides over Nile to Cat with all the deadly focus of a viper.
For several long moments, Nile forgets to breathe. She waits, uncertain and uncomfortable as the King just looks. He seems to have ignored all the rest of them as he scans over Cat’s body. Absorbs his feet, his dusty travel clothes, his too pale face and cheek without a brand. “Step forward,” Ibrahim commands. Cat flinches. He shakes his head and stays right where he is. “Leave us,” Ibrahim says next. Then, when everyone stares at him in abject confusion, he stands from his throne. “I wish to speak with Master Cat alone. I’ll finish with you later, brother. ” Then, with a smile that still manages to fill Nile with warmth after all these years, he says, “And I’d like to speak with you as well my dear. It’s been so long.”
“Cat’s kind of...nervous, father,” Nile says as carefully as she can. “I would like to—”
“Nile,” Fatima says her name with the same maternal indulgence that Nile’s mother has. The Queen stands, holds out her hand and Nile knows it’s not a request. She glances at Cat and Andromache. Andromache’s teeth are clenched tight enough to pulse out the structure of her jaw under her cheeks. Still, she bows once and steps to the side. She leaves to the main hall where Nile suspects she’ll stay until Cat’s been released.
Nile has no such option. Instead she whispers goodbye to her friend and follows the Queen. She glances over her shoulder to watch Najima make his exit and the King approach Cat with slow and careful steps. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned by a former-enemy Reaper in his palace, and Nile hopes Cat doesn’t do anything foolish.
Fatima leads Nile to the residential quarters. She walks at a sedate pace, hands folded in front of her. Nile keeps her strides even, looking up at the woman she’d never called ‘mother,’ but who she had always respected. “I don’t want to have a funeral for Yusuf,” Nile says quietly. Fatima nods.
“Neither do I.” She offers no more than that, and Nile wishes she knew what else to say. Ibrahim had made his decision. There’d be no turning back on it now.
“Najima will be named heir, then?” Nile asks. Fatima’s fingers tighten. One of her palms rests against her stomach. She’s never been able to conceive another child. Nile knows that Yusuf offered to heal her, to find what’s wrong and make it whole, but Fatima denied that request. She believes in fate. In accepting the nature of things. To her, she’d given birth to the most perfect child she could have imagined. She never wished for another so desperately that she wanted to alter her own body’s natural course. At least, that is what Nile understood of the matter. Maybe in the private of their rooms, Fatima dreams of another baby.
In a way, Nile almost feels bad that she’s the child Ibrahim offered to adopt. She cannot be another baby for Fatima. Her own mother is very much alive, and the whole of Shams knows that she’s a Giver. Even so, Nile touches Fatima’s arm. “I will do anything I can to help you,” she says.
“I know, my dear.” Fatima taps her hand. They round the bend to Nile’s wing and Nile stops short when she sees the young woman exiting her usual room. She’s wearing black from head to toe, even her headscarf is black. Her wrists and neck are free from adornments, and she looks so terribly plain that Nile strains to find the traces of the woman she’s known since first coming to Jerrah.
“Amelie?” Nile gasps. The woman looks up, there’s none of the standard kohl that she usually has around her eyes. Her lips are unpainted. Her honey-gold skin is so dreadfully pale that she looks almost sick. Nile’s hands flex forward as if they’re actually capable of healing whatever ails Amelie bad enough to make her seem waifish and weak.
Amelie bows, one hand to her chest. “Your grace, your highness.” Even her voice sounds rough. Nile hurries toward her, hovering awkwardly as Amelie makes no move to embrace her as she once might have. Fatima approaches at a more sedate pace, her expression growing tighter with each step.
“You’re meant to be resting,” Fatima chastises her head handmaiden. She reaches out and adjusts the way Amelie’s scarf is settling around her throat. It had been perfect already, not a wrinkle out of place, but Fatima fusses regardless. “Why are you working, dove?”
“I was just preparing Princess Nile and Lady Sandra’s quarters. It was only for a few moments. I apologize for not heeding your wishes.” She goes to bow again, and Nile throws her hands out to stop her. She’s never seen a more dedicated servant in all her life. “I’ll be going now,” Amelie says. Then she departs. Head down and gait uneven.
“We know Yusuf is alive,” Fatima murmurs. “The same cannot be said for Sebastien.” Nile’s head whips around to stare up at the Queen. Her mouth falls open as the horror of that statement finally takes hold. “We held a funeral for him, privately, last week. Amelie’s been in mourning since.”
“Resting at home. She’s asked for privacy and we’ve granted it. Amelie should not have been here.” Fatima sighs. She steps toward the door to Nile’s quarters and opens it.
Nile’s mother is already within, moseying about the space and moving their packed belongings to the correct room. Her mother stops when she sees them, smiling at Fatima and bowing appropriately before embracing the woman in her strong arms. They’re a unique duality, side by side. Nile’s mother is short and plump, her clothes are tasteful and comfortable. Fatima is terribly thin with jewels and silks adorning her body. Yet they hold each other like old friends, and Nile steps aside to let them have a few moments of privacy.
She opens the three doors it takes to get to her private room. The bed’s already made up, and all her childhood possessions are delicately placed right where she’d left them before leaving to train in Irania. She runs her fingers over the glass horses and beaded dolls. She stops only when she stands before the only portrait she owns. It’s of her father.
He died just before Nile discovered she was a Giver. She was three, and without this painting she wouldn’t know what he looked like. Wouldn’t know anything about him. She has his chin. His ears. His nose. The rest of her face is her mother’s, with soft cheekbones and small lips. Her father’s dressed in the royal uniform that she’s only ever seen on Sebastien. The uniform of the crown prince’s most trusted advisor.
He grew up besides Ibrahim. A brother in all the ways Sebastien is-had been- is a brother to Yusuf. When the King first came to her home, years after her father had died, he said he would make sure she never had to fear her gift. That she’d be raised with all the love and care that her father would have wanted to provide but hadn’t been able to.
The door to Nile’s room opens, and she glances over her shoulder to see her mother. “The Queen left,” her mother says softly as she approaches. “She has invited us to a private dinner this evening.” Anything sounds better than a full court dinner with all the courtiers and their preening. Nile nods as her mother steps up to her side. She wraps an arm around Nile’s shoulders, and they look at the portrait together.
“Amelie came to speak to you, didn’t she?” Nile asks. She doesn’t know why Amelie would have lied to Fatima. Perhaps it wasn’t even really a lie. A misdirection, maybe. A distraction. But she hadn’t told the whole truth. A truth Nile’s just starting to put together now that she’s looking at her father’s portrait and that familiar uniform that she last saw on Sebastien’s body before he left Irania.
“We’ve both lost loved ones in service to the Crown,” her mother confirms softly.
“You know Yusuf’s the one who was writing all those poems to her, right?” Nile asks. Her mother’s nose scrunches up as she peers at Nile from the corner of her eyes.
“You know she knew that the whole time too, right?” Nile didn’t. She gapes, floundering for a moment as her mother sighs. “She liked that Sebastien tried. That he cared enough about her to sweet-talk the Prince into writing her those poems, because he felt she deserved sweet poems to be written about her. It was a gift he procured on her behalf. A gift he didn’t need to bother with, and one that she appreciated despite the authorship.”
Nile wonders what that’d be like. To love someone so much that things like who wrote the love poem didn’t matter as much as getting a love poem. She doesn’t think it sounds appealing in the least.
She tells her mother as much, and her mother snorts and starts to laugh. She’s still laughing when Andromache leads Cat into their room.
“Oh! That wasn’t that long at all!” Nile cheers as she runs to get a good look at him. He doesn’t seem any worse for wear. He’s not pale, not trembling. He seems strangely calm, all things considered.
“Your father is nice,” Cat says, quiet and soft.
“He’s not my real father,” Nile corrects. She slides her hand in his and drags him to the portrait. “This is my father.”
Nile tells Cat all about her father, then. Andromache and Nile’s mother hover in the doorway, watching and listening. Nile ignores them and keeps talking. She lets Cat sit down on the floor when he seems too tired to stand. Lets him stare at the portrait as she gestures to it with increasing enthusiasm. She tells him everything she can think of. The faintest memories that she pulls up from the darkest corners of her mind, memories that she doesn’t know for sure are real or not. Perhaps they’re just stories she’s heard so often she’s made them real.
But she shares them anyway.
Her father was a kind man, in service to Prince Ibrahim all his life. He fought in the war with Najima, and he died in Mezzaluna. “He was on a mission, a very brave mission! He was an intelligencer,” Nile adds in case it wasn’t clear enough. “He went right into the heart of the city to steal secrets…” her enthusiasm falters as she reaches the dramatic conclusion. “But they caught him. And he died trying to make it home.”
“He died eight years ago?” Cat murmurs.
“Yeah, eight years ago.” Nile flops on her bed and leans back on her hands. She stares at the portrait of her father. “The King used to give us money and stuff, to make sure we were well taken care of after he died...but when they found out I was a Giver he asked my mother to make a formal adoption so he could properly take care of us. Members of the royal family have different responsibilities if they live in Irania. More leeway I guess...he was trying to be nice.”
“I’m sorry,” Cat whispers.
“For what?” She frowns and looks toward him. But he doesn’t look her way. Just stares at the portrait. Looking at it like it has an answer to a question she hasn’t asked.
Andromache clears her throat. “That’s enough for one day.” Cat stands without protest. He goes to her and Andromache cups a hand at the base of his neck. “We’ll see you tomorrow, your highness,” Andromache says. Then she leads Cat out.
It’s just like the ride from Irania. Just when Nile thinks she’s settling in to spend time with her friend again, they’re separated. She hates it. But that’s what it’s like in Jerrah. Everyone always has different priorities than the ones that she has.
“You’ll be all right,” her mother says. It doesn’t make any sense. She just shrugs. She doesn’t know what else is expected of her.
Maybe she’ll get to spend time with Cat before the funeral. She hopes so. Having him here is only beneficial if he’s actually here after all.
The nation mourns for its lost prince.
The funeral is attended by thousands. Every spiral of Jerrah is filled with civilians pressed shoulder to shoulder, chanting the funeral prayers and giving praise to their beloved son of Shams. Nile stands beside Irbahim, Fatima, and Najima as their people come forward one at a time to express their grief.
Her hair had been let loose from its braids. It frizzes and curls naturally, unadorned and untreated. Her dress is plain and simple. Her rings and jewelry left back in her room. It will be several weeks before she’ll be permitted to wear them again. And though she doesn’t despise the custom, she cannot help but feel ridiculous. Like she’s cheating. Her brother is alive, and she’s pretending to mourn. It feels like a mockery of all the people who are actually in pain.
Nile casts a glance over her shoulder to where Amelie has returned to her position as Fatima’s handmaiden. She’s still in her own mourning attire, but unlike Nile: her pain is so viscerally real that it actually breaks Nile’s heart. What’s worse: she cannot commiserate with Amelie. She cannot tell Amelie that Yusuf is almost certainly still out there, because Fatima was correct. There’s no promise Sebastien is with him. What good would hearing about Yusuf be if Sebastien remained dead?
When the funeral procession ends, the royal family retreats inside for their last meal together as a unit. All the most highly ranked courtiers are expected to attend this final meal, and though it’s supposed to be a somber affair, the sound of chattering fills the hall as everyone finds their seats. Nile’s not sure who established the seating arrangements, but she’s grateful that whoever made it didn’t follow proper protocol. Nile’s mother should be sat at Nile’s right, while Nile sat closest to the heir to the throne (now Najima). Instead, her mother sat to Nile’s left, leaving Nile’s right open for Cat to sit. Andromache on his right. He’s bracketed in, kept from needing to worry if he accidentally touches someone. Quynh is naturally on Andromache’s right, and though it leaves their side of the table a bit overburdened by their ranks and positions, there’s no threat of a safety concern from the way both Reapers are surrounded.
Nile’s eternally grateful Cat’s even been allowed to attend the dinner. He’s miserable about being there, she knows. His face is pinched tight and he keeps his head down and lips pressed closed.
“I shouldn’t be here,” he murmurs at one point, so quiet that she almost misses it amongst the general ambiance of the hall. Nile nudges his arm with her elbow and smiles at him as comfortingly as she can manage.
“When we’re done,” she suggests, “I’ll show you the garden. It’s beautiful. And it’s a lot quieter than here.”
“When we’re done,” Andromache interjects, “Cat and I should return to our quarters.”
Nile glowers at the Reaper over Cat’s head. Complains, “You never let me spend any time with him any more.”
Andromache reaches for her glass of water and sips it with slow draws. She peers at Nile with an utter lack of interest or concern for Nile’s particular displeasure. “Not all of us have the luxury to have leisure time, your highness.” The words are perfectly polite, but they’re harsh and painful nonetheless. Nile glares down at her plate, clenching her fingers into fists as she curses Andromache’s persistent interference.
The first course is served by a positive throng of servants, all plating dishes before them with the kind of relishing exuberance that Nile loathes. She’d much rather be home with her mother eating stew alone than play into this farce. Her mother doesn’t seem particularly concerned with the food. She’s speaking with Najima in a somber voice, reminiscing about the time that Yusuf and Sebastien tried to scale the walls because they read about an elite set of warriors from earlier Shams history who could climb anything with just their fingers and toes. The boys had made it halfway up before they ran out of places to grab onto and the palace guard needed to fetch them down with a hastily procured ladder and some fierce yelling by the King.
Nile remembers that story. Remembers too, how after they’d been fetched off the wall Yusuf had lamented the fact that the walls were in such good shape. He’d gotten his hair tousled by his exasperated mother when he made that proclamation too. “If only the mortar wasn’t so smoothe,” Yusuf had complained. “We could have made it to the top.”
“If only the gods had granted you with brains instead of curiosity, you may have remembered there’s a staircase that could have taken you up instead,” Fatima had chided, rolling her eyes as she kissed her son’s cheek. But it wasn’t about being on the top. It was about how he got there. He liked the challenge more than he liked the achievement itself. Winning meant nothing if it didn’t take any effort to get there.
The final plate is set before the King and silence descends upon the hall as he stands. “Friends, family, we thank you for joining us as we bid farewell to our beloved son.” He lifts his glass and Nile reaches for hers to copy the toast.
Cat takes his drink slowly, cradling it between both hands. He stares down at the liquid, quiet and intense. She hears Ibrahim continuing his final eulogy for Yusuf, but she won’t be able to repeat anything he says if pressed. She taps her foot against Cat’s, mouths: are you all right? to him. He looks at her for a long while.
Nile can’t describe that look. She doesn’t understand why he has the expression on his face that he has. Like something between longing and desperation. There’s a sadness that she’s always associated with him too, lurking right behind his eyes. He holds his glass with such ginger trepidation, his gloved hands keeping his dangerous touch at bay.
But he doesn’t need to touch anyone to kill them, and in that moment, Nile becomes hyper aware of the fact that every single member of the royal court and their most highly ranked personal attachés are there. All Cat would need to do is blink.
His jaw tightens. His fingers squeeze the glass a little harder. His tongue darts out to lick his lips before retreating back between clenched teeth. Ibrahim is still talking. The whole room is focused on him, no one is looking at them. Nile shivers. She shakes her head ever so slightly and Cat closes his eyes. He closes his eyes and a great shout from the King jolts Nile right where she sits. She whirls about. “For the greatest King we’ll never know,” Ibrahim calls out. “For Yusuf.”
“For Yusuf!” the room echoes back. They’re all raising their glasses even higher. Then they drink. They drink and Nile whips her head back to look at Cat. He settles his glass back on the table. He didn’t sip it. He mouths the words though, not even bothering to try to speak them. Just shaping the letters as if he were trying to decide their meaning.
For Yusuf, he mouths out. For Yusuf.
It takes a full month before Nile manages to get Cat alone to ask him about the funeral dinner. Once Nile’s official duties for the service had ended and Najima returned to the front, Quynh took it upon herself to ensure that there would not be a single missed moment to train. She takes an alternative approach now that they’re in Jerrah, one that Nile cannot decide if she likes better or worse than the horrific conditions of Irania.
Quynh escorts her from her wing to the palace library where she produces bound volumes filled with anatomy, physiology, and medicine. She lectures Nile with unending energy, pointing to diagrams and explaining each part of the human body in such horrifyingly precise detail that Nile’s often grateful Quynh doesn’t let her eat breakfast before the lessons start.
When Nile is permitted to leave for the day, she’s given homework that takes up the remainder of her free time. She commits herself to reproducing a drawn human body with every bone labeled, every muscle identified, and every organ in its correct location. She draws terrible renditions of anatomical models and grudgingly admits to her mother that if she didn’t hate Quynh so much she might actually enjoy learning about the processes they’ve been discussing. Her mother, thankfully, doesn’t scoff too loudly at the statement. She actually rewards Nile with an extra peach at dinner for her troubles.
Most days Nile is so exhausted by the time she drags herself to bed that she forgets that she’d been trying to track Cat down to begin with. She wakes up in the early twilight of the mornings, gasping for breath as her subconscious provides her with a false memory of Cat taking a sip from his drink at the funeral and killing everyone around him before he even finishes. He sets his glass down only when he’s done. He stands up, looks Nile in the eye, and tells her You never should have brought me here. Then he stabs her in the throat with a table knife and she wakes up choking on tears that taste like blood.
On those days, when she can’t go back to sleep, she wraps herself up in her warmest blanket and toddles out of her room like a child. She hugs the palace walls as she shuffle steps toward the gardens that are always filled with fireflies in the summer. She sits out under the moon or the pre-dawn light and she waits for the warmth of the sun to come fill her bones with life again.
It’s an accident, then, when she finds Cat in the garden one morning, just before dawn. He has a sword in his hands and she recognizes the pattern he’s following. Sebastien and Yusuf both practiced the same forms before they left for war. The overhead block, the step back, the twist of the hips that lead into a deep lunge. He’s committed to his movements. He bends and turns and steps confidently into each position.
“You’re good at that,” Nile says. She doesn’t startle him. She wonders when he noticed her, but it doesn’t really matter. Cat finishes his form, then returns his sword to his sheath. When he turns to look up at her, she realizes that his hair’s started to grow out even more. He even seems a little taller than the last time she saw him. He looks thicker too. As though he’s finally tipped over the edge from emaciated into healthy. His clothes don’t sag as much around his body, but nor do they squeeze in so much that she can see his bones. She thinks, if she hugs him now, he won’t remind her of glass.
“Princess,” Cat whispers. He bows his head to her, and she snuggles closer into her blanket.
“Were you going to kill them?” Nile asks. She doesn’t know when she’ll get another chance. Doesn’t know when she’ll see him again, and she can’t wait. Can’t risk getting found, or interrupted. As the words leave her mouth, she worries that she’ll need to explain what she means. She opens her mouth to clarify, but she needn’t bother. He walks toward her, head down, chewing his lip like he does when he tries to find his words.
“Yes,” he says eventually. “I told you...I told you in Irania I was supposed to kill...and I…”
“You didn’t,” Nile says. He huffs a laugh. It doesn’t sound particularly humorous though. He’s not smiling.
“I swore I would not betray you or your family.”
“Would you have killed them, before I made you promise?”
He looks up now. His face glows a little under the full moon above them. Mezzaluna features glistening under the moon’s light. “I don’t know.” It could have been an excuse, could have been a useless statement meant to distract or mitigate her anger, but Nile realizes it’s neither. It’s the truth. Cat doesn’t know what he’d have done. Doesn’t know what course of actions he should have taken. “I was sent to end Shams’ royal line. To...destroy from within. I am where my...Queen wishes I am.”
“Because you can do it. You could kill everyone.”
“And I brought you here.”
“But you’re not killing anyone.”
“No.” A firefly glows just to the left of Cat’s face. It illuminates his features pale yellow in addition to the moon’s blue. Just for a moment, Nile imagines him shining in the liminal space between both her country and his. The sun of Shams and the Moon of Mezzaluna. It bisects him down the middle. A duality that started when Yusuf held out his hand and promised to take care of the frightened boy he met on the edge of a battlefield. “There’s a traitor in Shams, Princess.”
Nile swallows. She takes a step closer. She was right. He has gotten a little taller. They’re the same height now. “Someone betrayed my brother didn’t they?”
“And the rest of you. I’m here...aren’t I?”
“Only because I invited you.”
“Not only.” He touches the hilt of his sword. She can’t help but think of Andromache and her labrys that she’s always carried into battle or whenever she was guarding Yusuf. A being of death who could kill with more than just a touch. “Andromache is teaching me,” Cat reveals quietly. “Teaching me how to stop someone without killing them.”
The distinction isn’t what Nile expects. She feels the information sliding perfectly into place, though. Why would Andromache or Cat need a blade? Unless they wanted to threaten and maim, but not kill. To protect life, not end it.
“How are your seeds growing?” he asks next. She sniffles, rubbing the back of her hand under her nose.
“I left them in Irania.”
“Because there’s no point...I’m useless at that.”
“What are you good at?” he asks.
Anger grows in her chest and she needs to clap it down. Needs to shake off how it feels. He didn’t mean it the way it came out. She knows that. Knows with a certainty that she’d never had in anything else before. He wants her to answer. What is she good at? “Fixing dead things,” she says. “But that’s useless.”
“It’s not.” Cat touches his cheek. His pale and perfect cheek, glowing intermittently under the light of a firefly eager to let him shine. “Ask Quynh...ask her how to heal dead things.”
“Dead things can’t heal, they’re dead. ”
He smiles. “You healed me, Nile. I...I believe in you, Princess.”
She holds out her hand and he takes it. They walk together and sit on the steps that lead back to the palace. It reminds her a little of the time they spent in Irania together. She tells him about the books she’s been reading. She holds up her fingers and names each muscle and bone. He starts pointing to different body parts and she identifies them with a relish. She tells him about the illnesses and diseases she’s studying too. The way they present, the effects of the ailment.
And when she’s done, he tells her about working with Andromache. About the speech lessons she’s started enforcing. About etiquette and grammar and posture. Nile giggles as she recognizes some of the comments. She stands up to show him how to bow properly. How to address a member of the court.
She’s mid-mime when she notices something moving along the walls. Half-delirious with the delight of a good night, she almost thinks it’s Yusuf. Yusuf climbing the walls like a child. The memory summoned up by her mother’s mention of it only a month prior. Except it’s not. Yusuf was never that small. Never that narrow. The figure continues scaling the walls, reaching a palace window. “Hey!” Nile yells up. All at once the person throws themself inside the window and disappears. “That’s the residential wing,” Nile says, thoughts taking their time in processing what just happened.
She turns, and runs. The blanket falls from her shoulders. She throws herself down the hallway, yelling for guards and for someone to listen. Cat is behind her. His usually quiet footsteps padding loudly only paces apart. Nile rushes up the stairs that will bring them to the right floor. Some of the palace guards have started to take notice to her panic. They jostle from their posts, blinking at her as she continues shouting about an intruder.
Her mind swirls around and around, framing a mental map of the palace and informing her exactly which wing it was. Ibrahim and Fatima’s. Air rushes into her lungs as she throws her feet forward as hard and as fast as she can. She shoulders past the people and doors that stand awkwardly in her way.
Lanterns start blinking on as she barrels into the royal chambers. The guards try to stop her, but immediately acquiesce when she yells “I saw an intruder climb through the window!” they burst into the King and Queen’s rooms.
And the figure is there.
Black clad but moving with purpose. The guards charge forward and all it takes is a swivel of a wrist. A flash of a palm. A bare palm. Nile’s mind screams Reaper! Even as the guards drop dead from the frighteningly fast attack.
On their bed, Ibrahim and Fatima are struggling to untangle themselves from their bedding. Nile dives forward and tackles the Reaper, tucking her head and driving her shoulder into the Reaper’s chest. They fall to the ground and the Reaper slaps and shoves at her, hand sending lightning shocks through Nile’s body. Her teeth chatter as spots start flickering across her vision. She’s touched Cat before, but it’s never felt like this. Never like something was trying to kill her with everything they had and sheer magic is what kept her alive. It makes her skin tingle. Sharp pinpricks stab against her senses. She gasps and feels her grip weaken.
The Reaper shoves her away and Nile barely has time to think before the Reaper is aiming himself at Ibrahim. Where they are stopped by Cat’s blade. His practice sword that he’d been using so he wouldn’t have to kill an enemy, just incapacitate. The one that Nile doesn’t even think is sharpened properly. Cat stands between the Shams’ royal family and Death, and he says in frighteningly cold Mezzaluna: “Stop.”
And the Reaper stops. The Reaper stares. Asks in the same tongue, “You defend them?” It’s a woman. Nile catches her breath and starts to rise. More guards are filling into the room. Andromache amongst them.
“With my life and death,” Cat swears. “Stop, Celeste.”
“You know her?” Nile asks, dumbfounded.
But no one listens. The Reaper is lowering herself to her knees. She is staring at Cat like he’s something to be respected. Something to be feared. She knows what Cat can do too, Nile thinks hysterically. Knows, probably, what else Cat can do that Cat’s never told Nile.
“Cat?” Andromache questions softly.
And Cat turns his back to Celeste to look at the King and Queen, standing close together and looking no worse for wear despite being so obviously rattled at so early in the morning. “Please don’t hurt her,” he asks.
Instead of answering properly, Ibrahim just sighs and says, “I think we’re going to need another private talk, son.”
Cat agrees without hesitation. Which leaves Nile to ask: “How do we handle a Reaper assassin?” as Celeste continues kneeling between them all, waiting for their judgment.
Celeste is much, much older than Cat. She’s just as thin as he was when he first came to Irania, and the mark on her face makes Nile’s fingers twitch in discomfort. She had stayed perfectly still when Cat tied her wrists with a rope Andromache provided, but Nile keeps expecting her to move again. To do whatever she’d done when Nile first tried to stop her. Celeste does none of that. She stays loose and pliant as Cat murmurs to her in soft Mezzaluna. Too soft for Nile to make out, too smooth for her to identify.
Ibrahim and Fatima don robes and request that their antechamber be used to discuss the present business. Guards shuffle this way and that as they try to determine how many of them are required for the task of monitoring the assassin in their midst. Andromache resolves the situation well enough. With the King’s permission she starts giving directives. Patrols are organized and sent out to look for any more intruders. From what Celeste says, there won’t be, but no one trusts her enough to believe her word. No one save Cat who nods and translates uselessly for Andromache.
Nile stands awkwardly amongst them all, shivering in the cold. Fatima notices. She fetches a spare robe from her boudoir and wraps it around Nile’s body. “Whatever were you doing up this late, child?” she asks as she fusses over Nile’s state of dress.
“Had a nightmare. Went to the firefly garden...that’s when I saw her,” Nile tilts her head toward Celeste, shivering hard enough that her teeth start to shatter. Fatima’s hands rub up and down Nile’s arms. Then, she draws Nile to her chest, cradling her against her bosom. One hand rests against the back of Nile’s scull. Petting her curls as she whispers soothing sounds in Nile’s ear.
“My lady,” Ibrahim calls. Fatima shifts, but keeps Nile’s head pressed against her. Nile can’t see what’s happening, and suddenly doesn’t want to. She wants to stay right here, holding the woman who is not her mother, but has always warmed a special place in Nile’s heart regardless. “Are you well?”
“Yes, my love, Nile and I are going to return to her rooms.”
Nile thinks about protesting. Thinks about arguing to stay behind and figure out what’s going on. No one ever tells her anything unless she forces herself to be in a place to learn. But Fatima’s arms around her are so warm and so comforting. Tears sting at Nile’s eyes. She feels so cold. Like she’ll never be warm again. Her legs tremble beneath her. Her fingers are spasming against Fatima’s back. She wants to know what’s going on with Cat and Celeste and Ibrahim and—she wants to just sit down.
She feels her head spin and her balance shift. Fatima’s grip tightens on her back. Nile feels herself being led from the room. Vertigo swivels her brain about in a soup. She babbles something entirely incoherent and loses time between the royal chambers and her own. She cannot remember descending the staircase, nor rounding the bend to her wing. She feels as though she blinks once, and then suddenly they were standing before the doors to her room. Fatima opens them.
Nile’s mother is already awake, dressed for the day and wringing her hands around the blanket Nile had abandoned in the garden. Amelie is with her. A few guards too. They bow to Fatima who must say something because the guards step back to stand along the periphery as Nile is gently deposited into her mother’s waiting embrace. They curl up on the settee. The blanket goes right back around Nile’s shoulders.
“What happened?” her mother asks.
“Your daughter saved our lives tonight,” Fatima informs.
“Your majesty, please sit,” Amelie beseeches. She has collected another blanket from storage and Nile watches from the crook between her mother’s arms as the Queen delicately descends onto the most comfortable chair in the room. She accepts the blanket even as Amelie says she’ll start some hot water for tea.
“Nile, I wonder if you could tell me more about Master Cat’s associates in Mezzaluna?” Fatima questions as she waits. Nile’s mother
“I don’t know,” Nile whispers. She’s so cold. She buries in closer to her mother, breathing in the smell of her body. Even this late (early) she already smells like spice. The comforting aroma clings to her mother’s skin, familiar and right.
A tray clinks somewhere in the other room. Amelie returns, not with tea — the water can’t possibly have boiled this quick — but with cheese and bread. Sweets. She sets the dish out and serves them all with the dedicated focus of her station. An assassination attempt occurs, and Amelie serves snacks. Nile laughs, sharp and hysteric. Tears start falling down her face. She swipes at them, trembling as her mind brings her back to the sharp stinging pain of that Reaper’s hands upon her skin. The burn that had coursed through her. Her failure. She’d let that Reaper—Celeste—go. She’d let her escape. If Cat hadn’t been there…
“She almost killed you,” Nile whispers.
“She didn’t,” Fatima replies, calm as a summer breeze. Gentle and soft. She takes a slice of cheese and delicately places it on a piece of bread. She bites into it, chewing slowly and looking out toward the windows. The sun is peeking up over the walls. Pink light washes out the midnight blues as the last stars start twinkling away for the morning.
“She could have,” Nile goes on. “And I...I couldn’t..if you died they won’t let me…They wouldn’t have let me—”
“Bring us back, I know.” Fatima turns the bread in her hand, rotating it absently as Nile’s teeth chatter more. “You and your friend did well tonight...thank you Nile.”
The kettle’s finished boiling. Amelie fetches it and pours them all lemon tea. Nile’s mother asks quiet questions, trying to piece together exactly what happened. Fatima answers as best she can, but until the interrogation is over there’s no telling what kind of information they’ll glean from the other Reaper.
All they knew now, was what Cat had said when he’d tied her wrists. She was a Reaper from Città Lunare and that she is three hundred years old. Andromache asked her a few questions in Mezzaluna that Nile couldn’t remember, but the age had stayed in Nile’s mind. Three hundred years.
Compared to Andromache and Quynh, that isn’t particularly old. But Andromache and Quynh have always been anomalies. The next oldest Giver that Nile knew of was a Giver of legend: Asa the Bold, who resurrected the first King of Shams so he could rule indefinitely. After one thousand years, both Asa and King Solomon died together, exhausted and with a kingdom in ruins. Never again did Shams allow Giver intervention in their monarchy. Asa’s name remained a cursed thing in all of Nile’s readings. Givers didn’t belong in politics. That is the realm of mortals alone. Who are immortals to decide their fate?
As far as Nile knew, most Givers and Reapers’ abilities faded after they passed the five hundred year mark. Celeste isn’t reaching her theoretical expiration date yet, but it’s approaching. And still, she broke more taboos tonight than Nile could dream of. She’d tried to murder a monarch. Mezzaluna sent a Reaper to murder their monarch.
“Do-do you think she knows where...where Yusuf is?” Nile asks, chilled fingers warming around her cup.
“Keep drinking, Princess,” Amelie instructs softly. “You’ll feel better.” She does. She sips at the too-hot liquid. Then she sips again. The fluid feels like it tumbles over her ribs as she drinks, warming her one bone at a time.
“We’ll see,” Fatima whispers.
Nile finishes her tea in silence. When she’s done, Amelie takes the cup from her. Suggests she rest. Nile’s mother murmurs soft words and Nile settles back down against her mother’s body. She closes her eyes. The blanket is so warm around her shoulders. The tea is so hot in her belly. Nile rubs at her eyes. Sniffles. Her head hurts. But between one breath and the next, she falls asleep.
Hours later, Nile wakes to a royal summons.
Her mother gently urges her up out of bed. She helps Nile dress. Nile’s head feels heavy and dumb. She yawns loudly, tears forming as sleep wars with consciousness. She wipes at her eyes, yawning again and again as her mother fetches her a good dress to wear. Good sandals. NIle’s hair is wound together by a dark scarf that catches her tumbling curls and holds them at bay away from her eyes. It’s not the same as the headscarves that Amelie wears, which hide all of Amelie’s hair from sight, but rather an accentuation to Nile’s natural hair.
Nile thanks her mother for her help, then hurries back to the royal apartments. An official summons would usually see her in the throne room, or the council chamber. But Amelie had politely informed Nile to return to her guardians’ personal quarters. She’s not sure she wants to return. Not sure she wants to see it again in the afternoon light.
When she steps inside, it looks perfectly normal. The furniture is exactly as it should be. The bed is made. There are no bodies, no blood stains, no signs of a foiled assassination. The King is sitting at his desk in his most perfunctory official attire. Fatima is dressed the same. Her hair is neat, but without ornamentation.
Nile half expected Andromache or Cat to be there, perhaps even Celeste. But it’s just her and her adoptive parents. The door shuts behind her and she isn’t sure if she’s meant to bow or embrace them. She can’t stomach decorum and so she forsakes it. She goes to Fatima first, then Ibrahim. The King stands as she approaches and they hold each other close just long enough for Nile to feel the warm spicy smell of his perfume to settle upon her clothes. She knows that when she leaves, if she presses her face to her collar, she’ll be able to still smell him there. It feels nice.
“Take a seat, Nile,” Ibrahim requests. He sighs as he says it, the energy seeming to bleed out of him the longer he speaks. He reclaims his seat, sagging against the backrest and pinching the bridge of his nose. Nile sits, but Fatima takes her hand as she does. The Queen holds it tight enough to be comforting without straying too close to confinement. Even so, a thread of worry starts to twist about Nile’s insides.
“Are you all right?” she asks.
“Someday soon, my brother will assassinate me,” Ibrahim reveals. He reaches for a pitcher of water on his desk and pours himself a glass. Nile watches him drink it, half expecting him to die then and there. He doesn’t. He returns the glass to the desk and runs a hand over his hair. Nile doesn’t know what she’s supposed to say. She’s not sure she’s supposed to do anything.
She thinks: he can’t do that, it’s not allowed , but she doesn’t speak the words. She just stares at Ibrahim, and wishes someone told her how to react in this kind of situation. No one ever has.
“When I die, he will take control over the country as the only legitimate heir,” Ibrahim continues. “Fatima will be afforded rights as the former Queen, but will be expected to depart from the palace. When that happens, I’d like for you to take her in.”
“Okay,” Nile says. It’s a request, and it’s an easy one so long as she doesn’t think too much on the particulars of the request itself. When her adoptive father dies, he wants her to look after his wife. She can do that. Except, “Where will I be?”
“Tomorrow I want you to take Cat and travel to Crowen.” He plucks a piece of paper up from his desk and hands it to her. She takes it and looks down. A crude map has been drawn along with several notes and figures. The letters form words, and she’s certain that the words mean something. She’s certain that they’re in a language she can read. Yet the words seem to blur and her head spins dizzily the longer she looks at the map. She shakes it, desperate to clear it, but when she looks down again it’s still just as difficult to understand.
She looks back to Ibrahim. He’s watching. Waiting. Fatima still holds her hand, supporting but quiet. So very quiet. “I don’t...I….Najima’s going to kill you?” she asks.
“Can’t...that’s not...if you know then why don’t we stop it?”
Fatima’s hand squeezes a bit more. Nile squeezes back. She thinks she can feel some of Fatima’s delicate fingers shifting in her grasp. She can’t stop from squeezing as hard as she can though, half certain that if Fatima pulls away then the assassin will appear. The death will occur. Unlike last night, there will be nothing she can do.
“The Reaper who came last night...Celeste...she told us where Yusuf is,” Fatima says. “He’s being held in Mezzaluna, and is under the care of Doctor Meta Kozak. Do you know who that is?”
“No I...yes—she’s done something with Givers and Reapers, there was a book once. Quynh told me to read it, but I...didn’t.”
Fatima smiles. Her lips twitching in a wry parody of good humor. She nods solemnly enough, and goes on. “Doctor Kozak believes there is a way to inhibit a Reaper’s ability to kill through touch. A...preventative measure so to speak. She’s been studying the relationship between Givers and Reapers for almost three decades. She’s the one who has Yusuf now.”
“So...so we know where he is. We can go get him right? We can...we can save him.”
“No,” Ibrahim says. “He’s in the palace of Città Lunare. We’ve only ever managed to breach those walls once...your father died trying to get back from them. We won’t get him out, and we’d lose too many good men and women in the attempt.”
“He understands.” Ibrahim collects his water once more. He drinks it until it’s empty, then pours himself another glass. “He has always understood what would happen if he was taken that far into enemy territory.”
“You talked to him about it?”
“I talked to him about many possibilities before he went to war. He understands, Nile. I promise you that. But I...I need your help, my child.”
For all that they’re family in name, rare is the time that Ibrahim actively calls her by a familial title in a private setting. In public, there’s never a moment of hesitation when it comes to naming her. But here, like this, Nile feels her heart skip a beat. It lurches so painfully that her vertigo returns with a vengeance. The world tilts on its axis as she tries to look into Ibrahim’s eyes. Her mouth is as dry as the desert, but the idea of drinking any of that water feels wrong. She can only watch, parched and wanting, but never capable of more.
“In Crowen there’s a physician. I want you and Cat to train with her.”
“A physician? Why would I need to train with a physician?”
“Because you heal death, Nile,” Fatima says. “You’re not the same as Quynh or the others in Irania. You don’t simply provide life. You reject death. And Cat...he does not wish to kill, and yet he can end that which exists merely by thinking hard enough.”
“You know?” Nile asks. She twists about to look at Fatima properly. The Queen hardly looks perturbed. Merely patient. Calm.
“Cat is an extraordinary Reaper,” Ibrahim agrees quietly. Nile swivels back to him. She feels like a pendulum. One person than the next. Than back to the first. Over and over and over again. “But you’re an extraordinary Giver, Nile. One I think...this country will desperately need in the coming years.”
“I can’t heal the sick,” Nile says. “I’ve tried.”
“No,” Fatima interjects. “You’ve tried giving life to that which is already living. Your talent isn’t in healing the sick. Quynh believes it lies elsewhere, as do we.”
Nile shakes her head. She wets her lips with her tongue, scooting forward on her chair. “But what does this have to do with Yusuf? With Najima? If Najima is going to kill you—”
“—I need to die, Nile.”
“Why?” Finally, she tears herself from Fatima. She stands. She stands and doesn’t know what to do with her body. She’s fourteen. She hasn’t known what to do with her body for four years when suddenly doing-something-with-her-body suddenly became of key importance to every single person around her. When there were rules and regulations for how she was supposed to stand, how she was meant to walk, how her lips were allowed to twitch this way or that. Rules against appearing provocative, against appearing standoffish, against appearing anything other than placid and plain and unremarkable except for the absurdly priced gems decorating her hands and ears and neck or the demure-yet fashionable-gowns meant to entice-but-only-the-right-amount. Everything in her life has been picked and prodded and set into place by someone else, but not one of them provided her with the rules and expectations around this and she can’t remain seated but she doesn’t know how to stand. She shouldn’t pace but she can’t hold still. She feels like she’s about to implode within her skin and tears press against her eyes. “Why do you need to die?!”
Ibrahim stands now. Fatima too. The King makes his way around the desk. He goes to his knees before her. Kings aren’t meant to go to their knees. It’s inappropriate. Tears start to fall down her face. She takes a step back, but he takes her wrist in his hand even as she swipes at her eyes with her other sleeve.
“I die, so that my country can live and my enemies will fall.” He reaches up, cupping her face with his gentle fingers. “But for that to happen, you and Cat cannot be in the capital. You cannot return to Irania.”
“What am I going to learn from this physician that Quynh’s never taught me?” Nile asks. “Why can’t I stay here? Stop Najima, save Yusuf—”
“—Yusuf will save himself,” Ibrahim says. “I promise you.”
“How do you know?”
“One final lesson, then, my child.” He releases her wrist. Places his hand on the other side of her face so he’s cradling her head between his grasp. He’s warm and comforting, kind and gentle. He looks at her with eyes just a shade deeper than ocher. He strokes his cheeks beneath her lashes, chasing away her tears. “No matter what happens moving forward, remember this.” She nods against him, confusion warring valiantly against duty. “People are always predictable. Know everything about those around you, and you can guess what they’ll do next, and if you’re good enough: you can use it to tell the future.”
“That’s not true,” she whispers, but he smiles anyway. He straightens his back and pulls her face to him. His lips touch her brow. His whiskers tickle her cheeks. He pulls her close and she hugs him for the last time.
In the morning, she’s smuggled out of the city in a cabbage cart. Cat sits behind her, holding his sword to his shoulder as if it could provide some measure of comfort. They take turns killing a cabbage and bringing it back to life all the way to Crowen.
Neither of them speak.
Neither have anything to say.
They never see King Ibrahim alive again.
Yusuf isn’t used to being alone.
There’s always been someone there. Sebastien—his ever present guard, his other guards, often serving on rotations at his father or uncle’s orders, Nile, who’s been chasing his heels since she was adopted and he’d loved her from the moment it was official, and even his parents or other members of the royal household, all occupied the empty spaces of his periphery from the moment he first drew breath. True isolation had been few and far between, segments of his life devoted to piety and official obligation rather than any form of strange happenstance. Even when he wanted to be alone, he’d never actually been alone. Someone always stood at the door to his bedroom, or lurked in the corners of the hallways: watching for any sign of trouble. To be alone, he’d needed to pretend they weren’t there.
He doesn’t need to pretend here.
The room Merrick put him in is brighter than the Reaper cells. He can see the sun moving across the sky with the changing of the seasons. He can feel the wind against his fingers if he holds his hand up to the open window. He can hear the sounds of movement outside. But the door to his room is always closed and there is never a face to accompany such noises. There’s never a presence to reflect his own emotions against. Whole days pass without any form of human contact. When it comes, it comes in the form of harsh hands and belligerent lackeys who are more interested in standing by and waiting for Doctor Kozak to finish her day’s work than anything else.
Shamefully, he comes to anticipate Kozak’s arrival. When she speaks, at least she occasionally speaks to him, and he finds that the attention is more necessary than his cramping stomach’s persistent reminders that just because he doesn’t have to eat, doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to eat. (Kozak, naturally, finds this to be an interesting biological phenomenon and is determined to monitor his stomach’s aches and pains for as long as he appears to have them).
At night, when a chill comes through the open window that is set too high for him to reach, Yusuf curls into a ball on his bed and he imagines himself at home. The scenes vary from day to day. Sometimes, he thinks about chasing fireflies with Sebastien. When the ache of Sebastien’s fate becomes too much to contemplate, he naturally transitions to Amelie instead. He remembers days of his life spent in her solar, watching her stitch a new gown or embroider some fine image that marked her as a master craftswoman. She’d never be released from her service to pursue a career in tailoring, but she had the talent for it. Her needlework never failed to impress and he used to read over his lessons while she added beads or some other form of flair to whichever woven fabric she’d thought of next.
The finest gift Sebastien had ever given Amelie had been a loom he’d built himself. Yusuf had played the role of an informant and he went back and forth between Sebastien and Amelie, questioning both and trying to squirrel away answers from each of them so he could make sure Sebastien had the correct specifications he needed. When the pieces were prepared, Yusuf drafted his mother to ensure that Amelie was away from her room long enough for them to assemble it.
She cried when she saw it. Cried and ran her hands over the carefully sanded wood. Later, later, Yusuf still worked on his lessons at her side and he timed his reading to the sound of her throwing her shuttle left and right, making patterns out of colors his mind could barely comprehend.
In the emptiness of his room, Yusuf can almost conjure the sound of the shuttle as it moves. The whoosh of the beater as it swings this way and that. The calming familiarity of quiet days spent in simple contemplation. If Amelie were here now, Yusuf thinks, she’d have a ten point plan for how to most effectively manage her circumstance. She’d retain her quiet poise and grace even in the most perilous of circumstances, her back straight and her chin up.
“What a load of horse shit,” Yusuf says to the ceiling. He presses his hands to his eyes. If Amelie were here now, she’d be terrified out of her mind and he wouldn’t blame her one bit. Amelie likes order and logic. She likes patterns and sequences she can depend on. She likes strategy and expectation. Nothing about his present circumstances lends any possibility to such things. She’d have been homicidal by the second day, and damn near genocidal after she fully came to appreciate the conditions in the Reaper cells. All of Mezzaluna would be a victim to her wrath and Yusuf scrubs his mind with a figurative rag to force his thoughts away from his best friend’s paramour.
It isn’t easy. His only form of entertainment is to sleep, and sleeping leads to dreaming. Dreaming leads back to Amelie and Sebastien and Nile and home. Round and round his brain runs, pulling up memories and perverting them to twisted nightmares or outlandish curios that have little logic and offer even less relaxation. Time slips away from him as he loses himself between fantasy and reality. Worse yet, when he sleeps, he wakes more exhausted than he’d been beforehand. His mind spins outwards and his chest aches as veins throb as every beat of his heart shoves blood far too quick along its course. And between it all, he fears he’s lost a part of himself.
The door opens as unceremoniously as it always does. Sudden, abrupt, and without the slightest bit of forewarning. Yusuf flinches when the noise rattles through his brain, and when he turns to see Kozak he’s almost gratified to notice the little goblin prince has followed her this time. Without an adequate way to keep track of the days, Yusuf’s been marking his time by Merrick’s height. The boy’s still growing, and Yusuf takes to memorizing just how tall he’s gotten between visits. He’s grown at least an inch since the last time Yusuf saw him. The hem’s been adjusted on his sleeves at least twice. Merrick’s shoulders are a bit more tightly squeezed into his tunic, however, and Yusuf imagines that he’ll be receiving a new wardrobe imminently.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Prince Merrick?”
“Stello,” Merrick corrects stubbornly.
“Not so long as Nicolo lives,” Yusuf replies. Merrick snarls at him. He stomps forward, raising a hand to strike. It’s a humiliating ordeal. The sting is nothing. It barely registers. But the mere thought of sitting there and letting the boy do it sets his teeth on edge. “Do you slap all your guests, or just the ones you don’t like?”
The child’s face turns red all the way to his ears. His nostrils flair. He clenches his fists to his sides and looks back at his guard — Keane — as if his guard had any possible influence on the situation. When the guard says nothing, does nothing, Merrick returns to his usual methods. Methods that even in Yusuf’s isolation, Yusuf cannot find himself to pay much attention to. The taunting is more exhausting than the solitude and Yusuf sighs as he settles himself against the wall of his room. He lets his mind wander, idly toying with thoughts on what Sebastien was doing now. If he was well. If the Reapers were better company than four walls and Merrick.
Eventually, even Kozak grows tired of the boy’s ridicules and she politely requests permission to begin her work. Merrick gives it with a sniffing gesture that does nothing to improve the mockery of his authority. Kozak tells Yusuf to lie down and he does. There’s little point in fighting against her. Even if he manages to overpower her, Keane, and the child-prince, he can’t leave Mezzaluna without Sebastien and he has no idea where his friend is.
Amelie would kill me, Yusuf thinks as Kozak takes a small curved blade and carves a slice along his arm. Even if I can’t die...she’d find a way. He snorts inappropriately at the thought. Kozak stares at him, and even Merrick looks confounded. But telling them that Amelie would discover a way to end a Giver’s life as vengeance when Kozak was already trying her damndest to do the same seems more than a little suicidal even for him. “Can I ask for something to read?” he throws out, watching as his blood starts pooling in a basin beneath his arm. His skin is already knitting itself back together, so Kozak slices the wound again — deeper this time.
“You want to read?” Merrick asks him.
“It’s rather boring here,” he replies. “I don’t even care what it is, but something long and tedious would be lovely.” The more complicated the better. It’d give him something to rage at while he struggled through the hours of the day.
Naturally, when the request bore fruit some days later, it was the longest and most tedious product imaginable: a complete history of Mezzaluna. It hadn’t been what he’d expected.
He read it anyway.
Growing up, there were times when Yusuf’s father called for family time. Sebastien was released from his duties to go home with his parents, and Yusuf found himself sitting in his father’s solar swinging his legs miserably as he waited for something entertaining to happen. If it took long enough to appear, he’d eventually find himself ink and paper and dedicate himself to writing poems or sketches for the rest of the afternoon. Amelie, usually just as bored without the enforced schedule of her position, aggressively turned the pages of a book that he never quite believed she was actually reading. Her fingers twitched for a needle and thread, and they stayed put only because the Queen insisted that such work was - well - work, and Amelie deserved a break.
Reading about Mezzaluna is almost as tragically entertaining as family time. The learned historian who penned this illustrious tale must have been the least popular member of his academic society. His prose leave much to be admired and his expressions are dismal. Yusuf had hoped for something that would infuriate him into an emotion besides ever present ennui, and he achieved it. The text is vile and he spends quite a few lovely hours imagining stuffing page upon page of it down the author’s throat. (He’d considered, briefly, doing it to Merrick, but he shied away from the idea quickly enough. He hasn’t quite devolved into fantasizing about brutalizing children just yet. Though he imagines the taller Merrick gets the less hesitant he’ll feel about the prospect).
“The pretentiousness alone is enough to strangle a nation,” Yusuf informs a spider that’s crawled through his window to avoid the brisk chill of the outside world. It’s a good sized fellow with long legs and a threatening mark on its back. Yusuf imagines it’d hurt quite a lot to get bitten by it. He keeps to his side of the room and expects the spider to honor their truce by keeping to the window and the window alone. But Yusuf had also been raised with manners so he acknowledges his temporary roommate and dictates his research as much as he deems appropriate. “Listen to this,” Yusuf clears his throat and affects a particularly harsh accent to read: ‘“Her Holiness, the Graceful Catherine of Nuvola, ascended to the glorious throne of the heavens with ninety-three years of her life spent in dedicated and committed service to the people of Mezzaluna. Her Holiness, the Graceful Catherine of Nuvola, was blessed with fourteen glorious children, ten of whom remained earnestly committed to the War with Shams, setting aside their own potential prospects in their personal lives to commit themselves wholly and without exception to the glory of Mezzaluna.’ It’s tripe!” Yusuf flops backwards on his bed.
The spider doesn’t move and likely isn’t paying attention. “It’s repetitious, redundant, reprehensible, and wrong, ” Yusuf waves it toward the spider as if to get his point across. ‘“For the betterment of the country, Her Holiness dispersed all the Reapers in the land, forbidding their loathsome presence amongst the people to ensure the proper longevity of her nation. No Givers have been born in Mezzaluna following this decree, ensuring that all of Mezzaluna was an honest and pure country with no insidious perversions of humanity amongst their populace.’ Except that’s statistically impossible, ” Yusuf grumbles. “The only reason they don’t exist , is because they don’t let themselves be known!”
A sound shuffles by the door and Yusuf looks up, expecting Merrick or Kozak to be coming for their semi-frequent bout of medical experimentation. Instead, he finds himself peering at a tall stocky fellow with a shaved head and a guard’s uniform. His brown eyes are squinted in what can only be described as confusion, and Yusuf grudgingly feels a bit ashamed at his spider/history induced outbursts. “Who...are you talking to?” the guard asks, peering about the room as if someone might magically appear.
Yusuf points to his eight-legged roommate with as much stoicism as he can manage. The guard follows his finger and winces at the sight of the creature. “It’s not so bad,” Yusuf suggests. “Though I admit I’d prefer a mouse.”
“They do more...and are softer to pet.” Yusuf waves his hand as if that could sum it all up, and the guard tilts his head consideringly for a moment before shrugging and closing the door once again. “Hey! Is someone always standing out there?” Yusuf calls out, feeling his heart start to pick up its pace once more. It takes several long moments before he gets a reply.
“I’m out here every day,” the guard says, quiet but just loud enough to be heard. Yusuf scrambles off the bed. He places his hands on the wooden frame of the doorway. His breath starts coming faster and faster. The guard goes on: “You can talk if you need to.”
Not alone, Yusuf realizes suddenly. He laughs a touch at the absurdity of it all. Then he crouches by the doorway, leans his back against the wall, and starts to speak.
He’s not nearly finished complaining about his book yet.
The guard’s name is James Copley, and sometimes when Yusuf misses home more than he cares about breathing, Copley tells him stories too. They’re silly stories, for the most part. Shopping lists and trips to the market. Watching festival days and old school remembrances. The Mezzaluna of Copley's world is almost like Shams. A real country with a functioning government and people who did ordinary mundane things. They played in the streets and complained about the price of produce. They bickered about sporting events and cherished their loved ones. Once, Copley spins a tale of a lady so beautiful the world stopped spinning from jealousy at the way she danced.
Yusuf presumes this lady is Copley’s wife, but all he can think of is sweet Amelie and how Sebastien once said the same thing about her. Love, Yusuf thinks, is a game of repetition that cycles itself over and over and over again. “Your friend said you were a poet,” Copley chastises through the door.
“My friend...Sebastien? You’ve seen Sebastien?”
“When I’m not here, I’m assigned to the cells. I pass him on my rounds.”
“And he’s well? He’s still alive?” He hasn’t gone off and threatened another set of guards, attacking them until they beat him to death, leaving his corpse to rot as Yusuf enjoyed a private room elsewhere?
“He’s well,” Copley replies. “How old is he?”
Nineteen, Yusuf almost says. He doesn’t. He thinks back. Tries to remember the amount of days that have passed since they left Shams, since they were separated, since...since… “How long have we been here?” he asks.
There’s a pause, as though Copley were trying to figure that out on his own. Yusuf imagines the man counting on his fingers. There’s no reason for the image, but it springs to his mind and he plays with the imaginary representation of his acquaintance until the answer is given. “Just over two years,” he reveals.
“Oh,” Yusuf says. His mind is blank. Math is the only thought that makes it through. “Twenty-one,” he says. “Maybe twenty-two. What’s the month?”
“Yes. Twenty-two…” What did twenty-two mean. Twenty-two meant… "My sister’s older than I was, now, when I went to war...” He tries to imagine Nile as a woman grown. Tries to picture her in her white dress and perfect pleats. At sixteen she’d have been given her first lessons in leadership. Perhaps a wing in the House of the Wanting. And Cat... Nicolo, he’d be the same age Yusuf had been when he found him by the river if the Complete History of Mezzaluna could be trusted on the tragic dead Prince's birthdate. (It certainly couldn't be entirely trusted regarding Stello Nicolo's death date). At nineteen, Nicolo should have advanced through his lessons with Andromache to a Mastership perhaps. Or maybe he just sleeps, warm and contented, blissful in the knowledge that he’s safe and cannot be harmed anymore.
Yusuf thinks he’d like that quite a lot.
Copley clears his throat. “Your friend said...that you used to write poems for the woman he loves.”
“Amelie,” Yusuf confirms. “I lied prettily on paper and wooed a girl that’s not mine.” And when Sebastien received Amelie’s response at the front, Yusuf cherished the way Sebastien’s face lit up in delight. The way he grinned and read Amelie’s response to Yusuf’s poem. “How’s the war going?”
There’s silence for a long while. Silence that stretches on long enough to inspire more than a little anxiety within Yusuf’s chest. He hasn’t had Merrick skipping in and gloating about any major victories, so Yusuf can’t imagine that it’s gone too badly for Shams, but perhaps he’s been giving Merrick too little credit. Maybe he can keep his ego to himself.
“It’s continuing the same as it always has,” Copley says eventually. “Only...there is some news.” He’s dithering. Dithering enough that the anxiety mounts to an unparalleled level. “Your sister, the Princess Nile, she’s been missing for some time now. For over a year. No one’s seen or heard from her.”
“Is she here? Was she captured?” No, if she was, Merrick would have told him. He’d have been elated at having two Givers to play with.
“No,” Copley confirms. “No one knows where she is.”
She’s fine then. Yusuf sags against the door. He presses his hands to his face and tries to steady his galloping heart. A position of responsibility indeed. He hopes whatever she’s doing she’s well.
“Someone’s coming,” Copley warns softly, and Yusuf stands. He drags himself to his bed and flops down onto it. The door opens, and Kozak steps in. She’s dragging someone in behind her. Rather, her entourage is dragging someone in behind her. A trembling, pitiful, speck of humanity that is dressed in prison garb with chained feet and ankles. Another person is pushed in behind them, covered head to toe in the black garb of a Reaper.
“Stand there,” Kozak orders. The Reaper crosses around Yusuf’s bed and waits to be ordered. The prisoner is shoved to his knees between them. “Touch his skin, Yusuf.”
“Prince,” Yusuf corrects cheekily. Without Merrick, he isn’t given his customary slap. He almost misses the sting. She waits for his cooperation, squinting down at him dispassionately. Sighing, Yusuf does as he’s bid. He places his palm to the prisoner’s arm. Closing his eyes, he settles into the familiar sensation of feeling another person’s life in his hand.
There are a few injuries on the prisoner’s body. Skinned knees. Tight stomach. Frayed vocal cords from screaming. Yusuf grimaces as he heals them all. Shock lines the prisoner’s face. He tries to pull away. “No-stop-no! Not you!” Yusuf flinches, releasing the man even as Kozak’s enforcers shove the prisoner closer and he’s told, once again, to touch him.
He does, willfully ignoring the way the man flinches and twitches. “It’s not like I asked to be your cultural taboo,” Yusuf mutters as the prisoner starts sobbing openly.
“Now you. Touch him,” Kozak informs the Reaper. Yusuf tries not to feel too offended when the prisoner doesn’t seem nearly as horrified at the idea of instantaneous death as he was by Yusuf’s far less lethal contact. The Reaper approaches slowly, glancing awkwardly to Yusuf who shrugs in return. He’s never tried something like this before and has no idea what’s going to happen. He has a feeling neither of them will enjoy it all that much.
The Reaper slowly presses his fingers to the prisoner’s arm and the man’s head gets thrown back in a wordless wail. His eyes stare vacantly at the ceiling. Yusuf feels the moment that the man would have died, the way that his soul would have left his body, his heart stopping and brain function ending. A wriggle of discomfort wraps around Yusuf’s mind and he feels a shiver rattle down his spine. His stomach flops over as his fingers tighten along the prisoner’s arm.
Resuscitating doesn’t generally need any active thought associated with it, but Yusuf still has a tendency to think his desires as he engages. The urge for this prisoner to live, slips from him through his palm and onto the stiff skin of a man Yusuf’s never met before. He feels the man’s blood moving through his body. He feels sharp pricks of electricity igniting in the man’s brain, trying to do something, trying to return to normalcy. And with each physical response that sparked and pulsated with the active processes of life, the swift and sharp ending mixed with the finality of death swatted back.
The Reaper’s presence is a blanket along Yusuf’s ministrations, smothering and enveloping. A heady reminder that Yusuf is the air to the fire in this prisoner’s existence. His palm is the distributor of that fuel. The moment Yusuf releases his hold, he knows that blanket will smother the flame entirely. Death winning out the moment life cedes the field.
“Fascinating,” Kozak says. She’s walking around them. Taking notes on her ever present drawing table, her pen making sharp strokes of potentially influencing interest. She taps her fingers as she contemplates their situation.
Yusuf spares a glance at the Reaper. His eyes have glazed over, lips trembling. His fingers are still holding tight to the prisoner’s arm but the grasp seems desperate almost. It’s not like this when they touch each other. Cat- Nicolo- had been cool against Yusuf’s chest but Yusuf hadn’t felt anything strange when he’d held the Stello. He’d felt potential and possibility when he touched Nicolo’s skin, but he’d never once felt this sickening spiral of desperate back and forth.
Strangely enough, touching Nicolo had made him think only that this must be what it’s like to feel human. Where Yusuf’s touch couldn’t arbitrarily inspire any excess life in the bodies he engaged in. He didn’t need to worry about hugging Nicolo wrong or promoting fertility at an inopportune moment. He could merely exist and know that Nicolo would exist the same as him.
But with an intermediary between them, Yusuf can’t help but feel the very energy it takes to keep him alive suddenly being transferred to being the only thing capable of retaining this prisoner’s life.
The Reaper drops to the side in a dead faint. The prisoner gasps, head falling forward as his chest rises and falls in a steady rhythm. Yusuf’s hand drops to his side. He looks down at the Reaper. There’s nothing anyone can do for him. There’s no healing that can fix death itself. “Very fascinating.” Kozak finishes her notes, and then looks to her escorts. “Bring in the next one.”
Yusuf’s head spun toward the door. Another Reaper is being escorted in. The unconscious body of her fellow is left where it fell. The prisoner starts babbling, shaking his head, trying to get away. The guards shove him back in place. Yusuf feels bile start to climb up his throat. He swallows, trying to keep it all down.
“Again,” Kozak orders.
Yusuf closes his eyes, presses his hand to the prisoner’s arm, and for the first time in his life thinks: I don’t think you want to live anymore, but the prisoner’s body continues to fight to survive every second Yusuf keeps his palm to the man’s skin. No matter what they do to him, or how many Reapers are brought into Yusuf’s room: the man still lives. And for the first time, Yusuf genuinely feels bad about it.
Winter comes and Yusuf’s spider dies. It curls up on its back with its legs tucked inwards. Yusuf pokes it a few times with the tip of his finger, listening as Copley tells him the latest update on Sebastien. Copley’s begun to bring Sebastien extra food now and then. He’s taken Yusuf’s blanket from his room and given it to Sebastien on Yusuf’s request. Sebastien’s response to the delivery had been something along the lines of You promised you’d be back soon and now you’re a cold liar. It had sounded so much like his friend that Yusuf wept.
Yusuf flips through the pages of his book, waiting for something to make sense. Waiting for anything to happen. Waiting for a change, for a prospect, for a possibility. He shivers through the winter and dreams idly of summer. Of Amelie and Sebastien. Of the children they’ll have one day. Dressed like princes and princesses, running through Jerrah and giggling the whole time. He imagines reading his poems to them.
Across the fields of milk and honey, far from merchants and their money,
leagues from palaces and faith and home,
there rests a child, soft and tender, born under the moon waxen slender,
huddled beneath the wings of an owl just newly flown—
Merrick throws open the door. Yusuf cracks his head against the wall as the intrusion rattles his senses. “Get up,” the little prince orders. He’s dressed in the finest garb Yusuf’s ever seen on him. The fabric is a deep midnight blues with glittering gold sequins. His hair has been combed into something that vaguely looks proper.
“Are we going somewhere?” Yusuf asks, slipping off the bed and yawning awkwardly at the sudden change in position.
“My mother has summoned you to court,” Merrick replied. “I’m to escort you.”
“Efficiency in this country really leaves much to be desired, she just discovered I’m here now?” He takes the slap with as much dignity as he can manage, even if the brat needed to reach up to catch his face just right. “Starting to think that’s just how you people say ‘hello.’” He’s dragged out the door and Yusuf’s right foot collides with the back of his left angle. He flops over himself, cattywampus and awkward. Merrick laughs, kicking Yusuf’s knee as he daintily jumps over Yusuf’s crumpled body.
“And I’m starting to think your people should stay on your knees, since you’re so desperate to get down there,” Merrick says, affecting a bored undertone that slips right into the back of Yusuf’s psyche.
“Well why wouldn’t we?” he grits out, standing up and tugging away from a guard that makes a haphazard attempt to snatch his shoulder. “Your flooring is the only thing worth mentioning of your entire country.”
Merrick’s face has returned to that pudgy purple red that precedes most of his tirades. “If we weren’t on our way to my mother, I’d cut your heart out of your throat.”
“Wrong part of the body, your highness, but it’s always a good idea to practice your anatomy.”
“Your highness?” Keane asks, interrupting the boy before he could say or do anything else.
“We don’t have to keep your little play thing alive,” Merrick says to Yusuf, tugging his clothes into position. “Remember that the next time you think about misbehaving. I wouldn’t hesitate to send you bits and pieces of your friend until every inch of him lined that room.”
Yusuf nods, forces his expression to something approaching courtesy, and says: “Stello.” Merrick grins so wide that Yusuf almost retracts the honorific that doesn’t belong to the boy. Instead, he keeps his lips pressed shut and follows Merrick to the Queen.
They haven’t blinded him this time. They walk with such confidence that Yusuf half wonders why they’re so certain. He does his best not to appear obvious, but with every twist and turn they take, he memorizes the route some unique feature to ensure he won’t lose his way. He spies one path that leads down to the courtyard of the palace. Another that leads out to a garden.
One hall permeates with the smell of food. His mouth waters as he imagines juices on his tongue, savory sauces, wines, vegetables. He’d call Merrick “Stello” again if it ensured him an apple. He also knows it’s not worth the exchange. There are other things he’d exchange for the honor. Sebastien’s life and wellbeing, at least for now, are not comparable to an apple.
The doors leading to the throne room are massive. They’re made of wood, but are intricately carved with beasts of legend. Griffons and dragons, phoenixes and harpies. Two members of Merrick’s escort open the doors. He walks in first, head held up and pompous smile so wide Yusuf can see it while walking behind him.
The hall is similar to the great hall in Jerrah. For half a moment, he feels an odd sense of déja vu. They’re inverses of each other, Yusuf realizes suddenly. The two halls are twinned. One reaching out toward the other. Something hard shoves Yusuf in the shoulder, and he stumbles after Merrick along the mirrored hall.
Queen Astra sits on her throne wearing a gown so elegant that Yusuf can barely take his eyes off it. The shimmering fabric and the glistening embroidery speak to the finest craftsmanship in Mezzaluna, potentially the world. When he meets her eyes though, he can’t help but recall the look on Cat’s face when he left Irania. They’re similar in appearance. Far more than Merrick and Cat had been. Her brown hair is carefully styled into an intricate arrangement on the top of her head, but the shape of her face and the curve of her jaw are distinct. Her sea-green eyes even more so.
“I know your son,” Yusuf says, not waiting to be introduced or bothering to care about Mezzaluna protocol. He’s been her prisoner for well over two years now.
“And I knew your father,” the Queen replies. She snaps her fingers and a chest is brought forward. The lid opens, and Yusuf glances inside. He wishes he hadn’t. The attendant plucks the head of Ibrahim, King of Shams, from the chest and holds it aloft like a victor of some great tourney. Yusuf’s father’s eyes are slightly open. Mishappen and ringed in dark purple circles. Blood mars the skin beneath his nose. The skin on his face has started to deteriorate, dripping off the muscle without properly detaching. He’s been drained of blood. His honey gold skin turned a waxy sand. His hair a spongy mess of black curls sheared and shorn at the neck in whichever strike severed the skull from its body.
“I sent the Reaper boy—”
“Your son,” Yusuf murmurs.
“What was that?” the Queen asks. Yusuf steps toward his father. What’s left of his father. Decaying muscle and rotting flesh. Eyes turning gelatinous. He wonders when it happened.
“Your son,” he repeats, no louder than he had the first time. The hall is silent, though. Silent save for his footsteps. They echo. They echo like the beating of a drum, the steady thumping of his heart. He reaches the attendant and his father’s head. The attendant looks back at the Queen in her beautiful dress. She must provide some kind of gesture, because soon the head is thrust at Yusuf’s chest. He catches it with both arms. It’s not heavy. Not really. Five kilograms, maybe. He holds it close. “You sent your son, ” Yusuf says once more, “to your enemy.”
His hands touch the weathered flesh, but there’s nothing there. Nothing to heal. Nothing to fix. Nothing to give life to. His father’s soul, and everything that could have returned him to this earth is gone. It’s forbidden to revive a King, Yusuf thinks hysterically. It doesn’t matter. He couldn’t do it if he tried.
“The Reaper’s job was to—”
“Nicolo.” Yusuf looks up. He meets those sea-green eyes. The skin on his father’s fash shifts and smooshes beneath his touch. Nausea spirals through him. He meets her eyes and says, “Nicolo, Stello of Mezzaluna, nineteen years old but sixteen when you sent him to us. That is who you sent to Shams. Your son.” The skin kept moving. Dripping. Yusuf shifts his grip and then tears the shirt off his back. Shocked and surprised voices burst out all around him. Someone calls him a barbarian and he ignores it entirely. He wraps his father’s head in his shirt, swaddling it like a babe. “You sent your son to Shams to murder the royal family. He didn’t do this.”
“You’re quite certain.” But she doesn’t sound surprised.
“A Reaper doesn’t need this level of violence to kill someone.”
“Quite right. Your father died falling from his horse. Your Uncle was kind enough to send the head as confirmation of his work.” White noise drowns out the Queen’s voice. Yusuf blinks slowly, trying to pull forward the definitions of words he knows he knows. His understanding of Mezzaluna fails him though, her words spill forth and he can only stare at her, uncomprehending. Syllables arch across his consciousness, and all his mind can do is skip back to the last thing he truly thought he understood correctly. Uncle.
“My uncle killed my father,” he says in the most basic conjugations he thinks he can manage. He must have interrupted her. The Queen stares at him for a moment, lips pursed in displeasure before returning to that placid predator’s smile.
“At my request. A sign of friendship, to end this bloody war.”
“Why send Stello Nicolo to Shams if my Uncle was going to kill him anyway?”
“That thing is not the Stello, I am!” Merrick hisses. Yusuf had lost him the moment the head had been revealed, but now he searches him out. Finds him lurking like a gargoyle at the base of the dias leading to Queen Astra’s throne. He’s gone purple again. Fists clenched. Yusuf wonders if he’ll slap him in front of all these people. He can’t find it in him to care.
The Queen intercedes. She says, “Enough, Merrick,” as if the boy’s a yapping dog rather than her child. And like a yapping dog, Merrick ignores the command.
“Mother, I’m the Stello.”
“Nicolo is your first born son,” Yusuf says, talking over Merrick. “He’s alive. He’s alive and in Shams, and you know this.”
“My son is dead. The Reaper I sent to Shams is the thing that replaced my son when he died.”
“And yet he lives, and breathes, and speaks...and he doesn’t kill the King you sent him to kill.” Yusuf laughs. He can’t help himself. He laughs and laughs, and when the tears start falling down his cheeks they spill onto his father’s head like ceremonial wine.
Murmurs start up around him. His head spins. Vertigo swivels his senses in a violent tremor. He’s shaking, he realizes. The Queen persists. Dogged in her relentless pursuit of something Yusuf cannot quite understand. “Your father is a traitor to his country by not seeking terms to end this war.”
“And you’re a traitor to your son,” Yusuf says. “He was yours and you abandoned him to be tortured in your own prisons. Nobody is perfect, Your Grace, least of all you.”
“Least of all you,” she says in turn. She smiles, folds her hands delicately on her lap. “Bring him in,” she says. Yusuf waits. He waits, and almost laughs, if only because the idea he’s waiting is so absurd. He waited for over two years and his father lost his head because of it. A door opens somewhere to the right. Not the same door he’d come in, that’d been the main entrance. Nothing but the best for the pretend Stello.
It’s the sound of dragging steps that makes Yusuf look. He had been determined to keep his eyes on the Queen. Determined to stare at her until he knew just how to murder her on her precious throne. Until he could find a way to sever her head from her body as she’d ensured his father lost his head. But that dragging step meant someone was injured. Meant someone needed help. Meant—
“Bas!” His oldest friend is thrown to the ground at his feet. Yusuf kneels at his side. Where I belong, he thinks savagely as Sebastien struggles to push himself upright. Their hands collide, then Sebastien’s fingers shift to grasp Yusuf’s forearm. “You’re late,” Sebastien tells him in their tongue. Not Mezzaluna. Shams. Their language. And even the relief of hearing something so beautiful is overshadowed by the way Sebastien’s teeth are chattering. His hair has started to fall out in clumps, leaving bald patches along his scalp and behind his ears. His skin is so tight against his face that Yusuf thinks he could balance a quill along Sebastien’s cheekbones. Or maybe make little chairs out of them. He laughs at the idea, placing a hand on the back of Sebastien’s neck and tapping their brows together. He parts only to see Sebastien’s blue eyes turned wide and frantic. “Are you…” And Yusuf watches as Sebastien takes in everything. Everything there is to take in.
“I’m holding my father’s head,” Yusuf replies breathlessly. Sebastien’s lips part. His head turns down, Yusuf repeats himself, laughing again because he has no idea what else he’s meant to do in this circumstance.
“As I was saying,” Queen Astra announces. Yusuf flinches. He glances her way. He holds the head closer and squeezes Sebastien’s neck just a little. Feels ever ailment in his friend’s body reflected against his palm. He’s starving, dehydrated, malnourished, vitamin deficient in conjunction with several muscles in various states of atrophy. Absently, Yusuf starts healing the muscles first. It feels good, healing something and actually experiencing the sensation of success. Each muscle stitching itself back into working order sends a thrill through Yusuf’s body. There’s no Reaper on the other side tearing his work apart. This is the way it’s meant to be. The only way it’s meant to be. “Due to your own demise, Prince Yusuf, your Uncle Najima is now King of Shams. In a fortnight we will sign a peace treaty at the Kingsmeet neutral zone. The terms are still in negotiation.”
“You have a hard time understanding who is and isn’t dead, don’t you?” Sebastien hisses. The Queen’s eyes snap to him. Yusuf’s heart pounds doubletime. He digs his nails into Sebastien’s neck.
“Here are my terms prior to the signing.” The Queen stands. She leaves her dais and her courtiers bow their heads and avert their eyes. Yusuf and Sebastien do not do the same. They watch her as she approaches. As she crouches down to their level. Her skirts fold outward like the lapping waves of a perfect pond. Her jeweled necklaces glitter as they hang about her throat like a noose. She dips her voice low, a quiet conversation between her and them. An appeasement to their circumstances, a bargain over the head of her enemy laid in the hands of a King without a crown. She says, “Give me a child.”
And Yusuf, expecting land or fiscal benefits, says: “What?”
“I have tried for twenty years to have an heir worthy of my throne. Instead I have a dead thing, and a monster. Give me a child, and you will be returned to Shams. You can take up your throne, and the peace between our countries will remain. Giverborn are always female. I’ll have my heir and you’ll have your kingdom.”
“And your present Stello?”
“As you say,” Astra murmurs. “He’s safe and probably very happy in Shams.” Yusuf falls still. A woman, a mother twice over, looks back at him. “We each have our roles to play, young Prince. Give me this daughter, and you can go back to playing the role your family set out for you.”
It wouldn’t take long. A hand pressed against her stomach. A desire for life to bloom in her already capable body. He’d need to stay for the gestation. Stay until the Stella was born and first drew breath. After that...he could go home. Mezzaluna would have its heir. Shams would have its. Najima...he doesn’t know what Najima would do, but he knows what Najima can do. Yusuf glances over the Queen’s shoulder. He knows what she’s done too. What she’s likely to do in the future.
Maybe culture and custom demanded the Queen’s actions toward Nicolo. She was the leader of both faith and country. Maybe she wasn’t in a position to buck against centuries worth of tradition just because her son had unfortunately become a Reaper. Their laws demanded she imprison him. Their laws demanded she keep him separated from her people. Maybe she had somehow made it so that Nicolo escaped to a better place. Maybe she had known all along that he would not kill Yusuf or his father.
But that doesn’t explain Merrick.
That doesn’t explain how a boy like that, twisted and evil and wrong, can continue to exist. Can do what he did every day—burning or tormenting Reapers just because he’s a royal child. That doesn’t explain why Merrick is so uncertain about his position in court, so knowledgeable that at any moment his mother could become pregnant with an heir and his potential will be destroyed, that he clings to the ill-fitting title with hands and teeth.
Giving a child to Astra, Queen of Mezzaluna, is condemning that child to the same kind of life her brothers faced. Perhaps kinder, perhaps with more intention, but without any of the love and nourishment a child deserves. “No,” he says quietly. “I won’t do it.”
The Queen doesn’t seem surprised. He doubts much could surprise her. “The agreement with your Uncle necessitates a child,” the Queen says. “Either by your hand, or by your sister’s.”
“My sister’s been missing for over a year, or so they say,” Yusuf reminds her.
“Yes, with my son, or so they say. That boy might not be a murderer at heart, but do you truly believe he won’t come when I call him home?” And he can’t know that. He has no way of knowing that. No way of knowing anything at all. He knew Cat for only a few weeks. A few traumatized weeks where he trembled and shied away from everything that Yusuf said or did.
It doesn’t matter. “She’s not a talented Giver, she can’t give you what you want.”
“It doesn’t matter if she can fix a broken bone or a runny nose, she’s a Giver one way or another. If I cannot have a daughter, then Merrick remains my heir and your sister will stand as his bride. She just turned sixteen, isn’t that right?” Sebastien stiffens beneath Yusuf’s touch. His whole body is rigid. The muscles that Yusuf’s healed are so tense that there’s a faint level of backlash against Yusuf’s senses as he feels them fraying again under their sudden strain. “And one thing that’s certain about Giver-mothers...they always bear healthy children.”
“They’re still children,” Yusuf murmurs. It’s a terrible argument. It’s not even an argument. The words slip out and he’s too exhausted and worn low to know what he’s supposed to say. But Merrick’s...fourteen now? That’s insane. It has to be insane. This can’t be right. This can’t be.
The Queen doesn’t refute it, merely continues speaking as if she’d known he’d mention it. As if she’s known all along how their conversation would play out. “Plenty of time for them to come to terms with their position. Your sister will either bear our heir, or you will provide me with a proper Stella.”
“No,” he says again. “You can’t have her and...I will never give you a child.” His child. Made because of him. He...he can’t. He won't. He won’t think about it.
The Queen sighs. She stands up. Her skirt sluices up off the ground, fabric folding oh so beautifully back into position. Her hands fold charmingly in front of her and she nods to Yusuf. A bargain struck whether he wished it or not. He has no control over the former, and she cannot pursue the latter. It doesn’t matter what he says. He can’t stop this.
“Then I have no need to keep you comfortable,” she informs him. “Kill him.”
The Queen turns back to her dais. Her courtiers lift their heads. “What?” Yusuf asks, stupid and slow. He can’t die. She can’t kill him. He’ll survive any blow they give him. His fingers spasm on Sebastien’s neck. The Queen sits on her throne and Yusuf meets his best friend’s eyes. The guards are coming.
Ibrahim’s head falls from Yusuf’s grasp. He stumbles to his feet, pulling Sebastien up with him. He swivels on his heel. There’s so many. They’re advancing from all directions. Marching like ants to a rotted fruit waiting to be carried back to their nest. “No.” Yusuf shakes his head. He pulls Sebastien closer. He doesn’t know where to go. Doesn’t know what to do.
“Yusuf,” Sebastien murmurs.
Somewhere, he hears Merrick laughing. Laughing and clapping his hands in glee. And how can Merrick do that when earlier he’d been delighting in the chance to give pieces of Sebastien to Yusuf as a gift. If they kill him now they can’t torture him later. They can’t find a way to escape. They can’t get out of this.
Swords are being drawn. A hand grabs at Yusuf’s arm. He whirls about and punches the man who tried to restrain him. More bodies are coming. More hands. Blades are swinging through the air. Yusuf shoves Sebastien out of the way and feels one slice brutally through his own arm. Blood splatters all around them, but the wound heals quick as can be.
“No!” Yusuf yells. He fights with every ounce of energy he has. He throws himself at them, kicking and scratching. He twists a sword out of one guard’s hand and takes it for his own. He spars. Dizzy and without having expended this much energy since he last fought on the front lines, Yusuf throws himself at the men who came to end Sebastien’s life.
He thrusts his blade into their bellies. He parries and ducks and dives under their relentless brutality. He carves open arteries and veins and he beats them all back from where Sebastien lays behind him. “Idiot,” Merrick laughs.
Yusuf turns. The would-be-Stello has drawn the ceremonial sword that he’d been toting about as if he knows how to wield it. He grins, savage and wrong. He swings it down, and Sebastien mouths a word that never sees light. The blade lands right against the soft expanse of Sebastien’s throat. Blood spews out in a roaring gush. It catches Yusuf in the face. He blinks through it, falling forward, hand outstretched. Heal, heal it, I can heal it! But hands and blades descend on his body.
He’s crushed to the ground. Sebastien just out of reach. “NO!”
“You know my terms,” the Queen says, bored and uncaring.
She flicks her hand. “Clean the mess, take him away. Congratulations Merrick, you’re engaged.” She stands once more and seems to float from the room. Her dress shimmering with each step. Yusuf screams after her. Screams as they drag him back. Screams as Sebastien’s body is lifted by its ankles and pulled farther and farther away.
“Oh shut him up,” someone grumbles.
A sharp pain slices through Yusuf’s brain, a mockery of his first day in captivity, and he knew no more.
Casual reminder again to please don't tell me how much you hate me or how horrible of a person I am. I don't personally like those kinds of comments.
Yusuf’s mother fell ill the moment he was born. She lay in bed, burning from fever and unable to lift her hands to hold her babe to her chest.
Yusuf remembers the story as he sits in the cold dark of the Reaper cells. In Nicolo’s cell. In Sebastien’s. His father used to tell him, that Adeline le Livre had only given birth to Sebastien a few weeks before Yusuf. That she came to the palace to nurse the infant Prince, and when the rest of the court fluttered fitfully around the Queen, she watched over Yusuf and her son. Never again had they been parted.
Even when his mother recovered and could tend to him on her own, Yusuf screamed and howled and wailed for his milk-brother. He fitted so obnoxiously, only calming when he could cling to the chubby blonde baby he’d known from his first day alive, that it simply became accepted. Sebastien became the youngest sworn member of the royal court, and Yusuf was given the most precious gift he’d ever had.
Sebastien had been there when Yusuf first fell and noticed his hands healing before his eyes. He’d lied to everyone they ever met about who and what Yusuf was. He fought harder and faster than anyone Yusuf knew, desperate to become a guard worthy of a Prince. Worthy of Amelie too.
Amelie. Yusuf presses his hands to his face. He can almost imagine the feeling of Sebastien’s skin beneath his palm. The sweat that had beaded on his neck as they listened to the Queen’s demands. Amelie’s going to kill me, Yusuf thinks. He almost feels relieved at the notion. He’s too tired to live anymore. To face a future existence that goes on forever, knowing his sister is soon to be deposited in Mezzaluna to have child after child raped into her by a sadistic child, knowing his father had died at his Uncle’s hands, knowing that he couldn’t even save one person. Not one person he actually cared about.
Even the guards he killed while defending Sebastien had been brought back to life while he’d been unconscious. A trick Merrick delighted in informing him. They’d only needed to deposit the dead guard’s body onto Yusuf’s and suddenly they were springing up again as if nothing had happened. The mere thought is more violating than it has any right to be. But Yusuf’s already been sick four times since he woke up.
There hadn’t been anything in him to begin with, there certainly isn’t anything in him now.
The Reapers watch him in their cells. They’re quiet. Subdued. This isn’t the same silence he remembers from his first weeks or months in Città Lunare. It’s like they know. Like they’re mourning. He swipes at the tears on his cheeks. He doesn’t have the water in him to cry, but he supposes his body is healing that too. Providing them endlessly, to show his misery is real. That it’s ever present. That it cannot be taken away by Merrick, the Queen, or Mezzaluna.
“Where do they take the dead?” Yusuf asks the silence of the room. Somewhere, someone, maybe Copley, is walking down the endless hall. Footsteps echo, but no voices. “If someone dies,” Yusuf wipes the tears on his cheeks, “Where do they take them?”
“You mean, where did they take Sebastien?” Maya corrects.
“Yes.” Skinned knees and lies. Promises made under fireflies. Poems written in the night for a girl Sebastien had been destined to marry. Thoughts run through Yusuf’s mind. Images and memories, shattered dreams and desperate prayers. Tears keep falling down his face. His father’s head had served as a receptacle for his pain. Now those tears fall to the carved out ground where Nicolo once lay. Where a frightened boy had been sentenced by his mother. The same mother who wants to turn Yusuf’s sister into a broodmare and call it peace.
“A pit.” Maya points to her left. Points as though her finger could spear through wall and stone and darkness, emerging into the world above and reach a target with the accuracy of a seasoned hunter.
Yusuf shifts to his knees. He places his head on the ground. His palms shoulder width apart. His brow kisses the alabaster stone as the balls of his feet brace himself. Heels up. He aims himself in the direction of where Sebastien’s body lays, and he stays there. Eyes shut. Hands cool against the earth.
This is not a prayer.
Come back, Yusuf wills. He flattens his palms as much as he can. Come back.
The first time Sebastien died, they’d been climbing the walls. Yusuf had just reached the top and Sebastien was just behind him. He reached up, bold and excited to get there too, when the crevice he’d been using as a handhold failed. Yusuf watched, horrified as his friend sailed back to the earth, shattering his spine and his skull in the process. He’d been too stunned to scream. No one had been watching them. Why would they need to? They couldn’t get hurt.
They could get hurt. Sebastien could get hurt. Yusuf scrambled down the wall as fast as he could. He pressed his palms to Sebastien’s body, trembling as he thought what if...what if...what if... but Sebastien jerked upright only seconds after Yusuf made contact. His skull pieced itself back together. His spine straightened. His veins filled with the exact amount of blood he needed to survive perfectly. And he held Yusuf as he sobbed apologies and promised never to climb the walls again.
(That was a lie too).
Yusuf has resurrected Sebastien over a dozen times. Sometimes, he’s felt like he was in a constant tug of war with Death. Death wants to take Sebastien for its own, but Yusuf refuses to let him go. Refuses to part with the only person he’s ever felt truly comfortable with. Who has always known every part of Yusuf’s soul and who has never once turned his back on him.
I’m going to die of old age one day, Sebastien had told him once, years ago, covered in blood from a day of fighting a war that no one could remember starting. Yusuf, too tired to say anything, had only rolled over to watch. Waiting. Expecting. Sebastien smiled. I’m going to leave you with a couple of kids who’ll take care of you just like me. His smile grew bigger and bigger. And you’ll never be alone, little brother. You’ll always have someone there with you, no matter what.
Yusuf clenches his eyes. He breathes in deep through his nose and out through his mouth. He grinds his brow into the alabaster. He pushes against the earth, willing it to bend to his will and his will alone. Sebastien’s skin is a feeling Yusuf memorized years ago. His heart, a steady thump thump...thump thump...thump thump...that speeds up only in combat or when he looks at Amelie. Amelie.
I promised to bring him home to you, Yusuf thinks. Come back. Come back, brother, come back. I promised Amelie you’d come back. So come back. Come back.
206 bones, 650 muscles, 187 joints, oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, but most importantly: soul. The soul. It rests all through the body. It shines and sparkles with life, more than anything else. It’s the first thing that shatters under a Reaper’s touch. The precious ether that keeps everything running, dissipating the moment a Reaper begins their trade.
Yusuf’s spent enough time lately fighting Reapers for control over a person’s soul, and he can trace the exact form and shape of it. He can outline it like a shadow painting. The feeling of a soul: electric and spicy. It’s pepper and mint, hot and cold, sweet and salty. It’s clashing flavours and wondrous sensations. Rain before it falls. Ozone right before the lightning strikes. It’s the feeling of resting your head against a warm chest, and listening to a heart beating right beneath your ear.
Merrick’s blade cut Sebastien’s trachea, his jugular, and his carotid. He bled out in seconds, most of it spraying on Yusuf’s still sticky face. Yusuf is drenched in the blood that should be in Sebastien’s body. He can feel it. Every atom. Every molecule. Every twisting strand of unique matter that when pieced together are what make Sebastien—Sebastien.
Yusuf’s palms warm. The blood on his face drips off. Plopping onto the ground like water. Fresh and vibrant. He breathes in through his nose, out through his mouth. He presses his hands even harder against the ground. In his mind, he sees Sebastien lying in a mass grave. Sees him with his blue eyes staring up at the heavens. The moon. Staring up at the moon. He sees Sebastien’s throat. His unkempt posture.
He imagines the wound closing. Yusuf’s hands burn against the alabstar. Someone hisses. The Reapers always hiss when they want to pass messages, but Yusuf doesn’t care. Can’t care. His hands are meaningless. The ground his meaningless. Everything except for the thread between him and his friend—his brother.
The throat closes in Yusuf’s mind. The wound heals itself so perfectly there’s not even a scar. Blood replenishes itself in Sebastien’s body. Mass produced by will and dedication.
Sebastien’s heart starts to beat. Thousands of meters away, his heart starts to beat. Yusuf sees it in his mind. Feels it in his hands. He can feel the ground trembling beneath his balm. Thump thump, thump thump, thump thump. Electricity sparks within Sebastien’s brain.
And the soul...Sebastien’s soul…
Yusuf presses his head as hard as he can to the earth. His tears mix with the puddle of blood, fresh and wet against the alabstar. “Please, brother...come back.”
Sebastien’s eyes snap open. He jerks for air, and Yusuf throws himself backwards in his cell. His head clangs against the bars above him. His back bashes against the bars behind him. He gags, trying to breathe but finding no air. His body is burning. He’s on fire. He’s on fire. His pants have gone alight and he beats his palms against them, coughing against the smoke and trying to catch his breath.
He gags as the fire is finally put out. The Reapers are hissing louder and louder to each other. Something clunks on the far end of the hall. Something loud and desperate. A guard. Yusuf coughs and tries to find fresh air. He swings his hand through the smoke. He doesn’t know where it came from or how. The footsteps are coming faster. Voices are sparking all around.
Yusuf slaps his fingers against his eyes. He rubs as hard as he can, and when he finally manages to see, a figure has positioned itself in front of him. Keys jangle loudly as the cell is unlocked.
Copley kneels down to look at him. “Your grace,” he says softly. Grace. Not highness. Because his father is dead. And that would mean...
“My uncle’s king,” Yusuf says.
“You’re the rightful king, your grace.” The bars swing open. A hand is extended. “I can get you out.”
“Out?” The words don’t make sense. Yusuf presses his palms to his face. He rubs the tears from his eyes. Pushes the moisture up into his hair. Slowly, he returns to a crouch. He crawls, hand and knee, toward Copley and lets the man pull him the rest of the way out of the cell. When he stands, his head spins. He loses his balance and leans against the bars behind him. His breath shudders.
Copley braces him. He puts his hands on Yusuf’s arms. He holds him steady. Keeps him upright. “Come with me.” Copley motions down the endless hall. Deeper into a darkness where Yusuf’s never been. He shakes his head in response.
“He’s dead, your grace. You’re King of Shams. You need to return home. The Queen is leaving for the Kingsmeet with your Uncle, if that treaty is signed—”
“Nile.” Yusuf’s brain feels like it’s a step behind. Many steps behind. He tries to conjure an image of his sister, still in the middle of growing up, her limbs too long, her joints too bony, her anger entirely justified. He trembles as he thinks of her in any state of captivity. Of her being here , under Merrick’s sadistic care.
Amelie is going to kill him, Yusuf knows this, but hopefully she’ll do it after he keeps Nile from suffering an even worse fate than Sebastien. He shakes his head again. A wet dog throwing loose every stray droplet of pain and despair. He tries to get his feet to cooperate. His legs. He shifts on his heel, and looks up. Maya.
Maya’s brown eyes are staring straight at him. She emerges from the shadows, glowing in the faint light of the torch that Copley’s brought with him. Her lips are pressed thin together. Her hands wrap around the bars as she looks straight into Yusuf’s soul. “Unlock her cage,” Yusuf murmurs.
“What?” Yusuf makes a haphazard grab for the keys in Copley’s hand. He gets them on his first attempt and it’s likely the shock that has Copley just give them to him. Stumbling a little, Yusuf lets himself fall bonelessly in front of the lock to Maya’s cell. He tries the first key. It isn’t a good fit. He goes for the next. “Your grace—”
“Can you...can you get them out?” Yusuf asks Maya. “Get them all out?”
Her hand reaches through the bars. She touches his knuckles. Wraps her fingers around his palm. “We took care of him as best we could,” she tells him softly, her wizened voice resonating in his soul. He nods, tries another key. It doesn’t fit. He goes for another. “He was a good boy...a sweet boy.”
He pushes the key into the lock. Hears Copley shifting about, nervous and unsettled. “He was my brother,” Yusuf says. He turns the key. The lock slips to the side. The cage opens, and Maya shifts so she can wrap her arms around Yusuf’s neck. She holds him close, maternal and kind. The kind of hug that Nicolo should have had growing up. The kind of hug that his own mother had denied a five year old child. The same mother who had Sebastien butchered in her throne room out of spite. “Can you get them out?”
“They may not wish to leave,” Maya tells him. “Where would we go?”
He doesn’t know. He can’t even begin to know. He feels like he’s never known anything in his life. As though every year of his past has been a useless charade of experiences that lead him to a point of pure stupidity. He’s at the top of a wall he wanted to climb in his hubris, and Sebastien is down at the bottom: shattered and broken. Only this time there’s no fixing it. There’s only imagining a resurrection that’s impossible to achieve.
“Why stay here?” he asks instead. “Here, like this...forever?”
“Because there’s nowhere else to go. And there are thousands of us all over the country, Yusuf. There is no other life for us.”
That can’t be it. That can’t simply be good enough for her. For them. He trembles in her grasp. Copley called him a King. And she is not one of his people, but that shouldn’t matter. A King is supposed to help the people. He should be able to do something. Anything. He should be able to fix this. “Maya—”
“Tell our Stello we follow him,” Maya says. “If he tells us to leave...we will leave. But if he needs us here? We will be here for him.”
Nicolo. They wait for Nicolo. Yusuf pulls away. He meets Maya’s dark eyes. “He’s free,” he whispers. He can’t imagine finding Cat in Shams and ordering him home. Can’t imagine sending him back to his mother and this viper’s nest. Not even to save these people. Not when here, now, Yusuf is offering them a way out. A way to be free themselves. Why should Stello Nicolo sacrifice himself to help them?
“He will be our King,” Maya says. She places a hand on Yusuf’s cheek. She kisses his brow. Then, she pushes him back. She closes her cell door. The lock snicks closed. All around them, voices rise up, in unison, all saying the same words. Our King. Our King. Our King.
Copley pulls Yusuf to his feet. He forces him to stand straight and tall. He takes the keys from Yusuf’s hand and places them well in reach of Maya in case she changes her mind. In case any of the Reapers change their mind. He pushes Yusuf gently down the hall. Yusuf’s feet trip and stumble, but all around him the voices keep speaking.
Our King. Our King. Our King.
It’s not him they’re talking about. It will never be him. These people will never be his people. But their words resonate through him anyway. They fall in line with the beating of his heart, the step of his feet, the breath in his chest. Copley leads him down the hall without end. They pass cage upon cage. Reaper upon Reaper. Each one chants the same words, hollowing out a promise that Yusuf isn’t sure he’ll be able to keep.
They keep walking. On and on they go. Time flutters across Yusuf’s consciousness. His legs burn from the strain. His feet shuffle slide the whole way there, but he moves. He has to move. He has to reach Nile, has to stop his Uncle, has to stop the Queen. He doesn’t know how he’s going to do any of that, but he knows he needs to do it.
A ladder descends from one of the stone pillars without a torch on it. Copley gestures for Yusuf to wait as he climbs up. Yusuf waits. He leans against the ladder and tears slip down his face. He held his father’s head in his arms. His brother had been nearly decapitated only a few moments later. His sister—
“Your grace…” Yusuf looks up. Copley’s reached the top of the ladder. He’s thrown open a trap door. He’s peering down at Yusuf and Yusuf knows he’s supposed to climb. So he climbs. Hand over foot, he climbs. He gets to the top and he wipes his face. He lets Copley continue to lead him. He doesn’t know what else he’s supposed to do.
They’re on the main level of the palace now. The gardens are just over there. The courtyard. The kitchens. The throne room where Sebastien died. Yusuf flinches away from it, keeping his head angled downward as Copley hurries them along. It’s pre-dawn. The guards are few and far between. At each vague sound of a possible interloper, Copley huddles him into an alcove. They hide until they’re certain it’s safe, then keep walking.
They stop only once. Once, where Copley hesitates at a wooden door, glancing over his shoulder at Yusuf as if he expects Yusuf to self-combust then and there. “This leads to the paupers graveyard of Città Lunare,” he says carefully. He waits, as Yusuf processes that bit of information, as Yusuf imagines the line that Maya had drawn in the air, from her finger...straight to here. “He was buried hours ago,” Copley continues. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Copley says it so bluntly that for a moment Yusuf can’t fathom if he’s talking about his father or Sebastien. Maybe both of them. Maybe his father was buried in Sebastien’s arms. He’d like that. “We cannot stay there long, it’s too open. There are windows that look out to the land up above. Do you understand?”
“Don’t find him,” Yusuf translates quietly. “Just keep going.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, your grace.”
Apologies mean nothing. Copley didn’t make the order for Sebastien to die. He hadn’t been involved with them getting taken in the first place. His greatest crime had been serving Mezzaluna. Perhaps, technically, from Mezzaluna’s perspective, his greatest crime is what he’s doing tonight. “Why are you helping me?”
“Lars Freeman was my mentor,” Copley says.
The words snap through him like the thwang of a slingshot. Yusuf stumbles back, staring at Copley in dull recognition. “Nile’s father,” he murmurs. “He died in Mezzaluna…”
“He died trying to rescue Nicolo from the Reaper Cells. They followed this exact route. They made it almost to the border when something went wrong.”
“I don’t know. Nicolo was put back in the cells and Lars’ body was put on display. He was my friend for many years. I took his place after his death. I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get you free. I wasn’t sure where to find you.”
Yusuf shook his head. It doesn’t matter. None of it. He pats Copley’s arm. Says, “Let’s go home.” He doesn’t want to think anymore. Doesn’t want to think about the chain of events leading up to this moment. Doesn’t want to think of Lars Freeman’s death. How Nile became a Giver soon after. How Lars had come so close to saving that terrified child that somehow had become wrapped up in all of their lives despite the odds against him. Doesn’t want to think how, all those years after Lars died, Yusuf had been the one to give Nicolo over into Lars’ daughter’s care.
Copley opens the door to the graveyard. They step out into the half light of the field. Muddy patches and awkward graves mounds are flopped over in all directions. Yusuf keeps his eyes on his feet. He can’t trust himself not to look. Can’t trust himself not to stare desperately at each patch of soft earth and wonder if that’s where Sebastien is buried. If that’s where his father is buried.
They walk, slow but steady down the rows. Feet quietly plodding along the mud. There’s an outer wall and a gate not far ahead. Yusuf can see horses on the other side of the gate. His heart clenches at the sight. It’s really an escape route. Really a way out. His eyes burn one last time. Pain lances through his chest. He shouldn’t look. He shouldn’t. They’re almost out, and if he looks he’s going to want to see.
He looks anyway.
He turns and looks over his shoulder. He scans the entire expanse of the graveyard. He lets his eyes roam over the lumps and pits and valleys and all the good and bad and possible options that there can be. He trembles under the weight of the knowledge that he’ll never bring Sebastien home. Sebastien will never get the burial he deserves. Never get a chance to rest beside his family for all eternity. Yusuf will likely never come back to Città Lunare. Even if he does, there will be no place to find the body. They’d have to dig up the whole graveyard to manage it. Even then...even then.
“Your grace?” Copley murmurs from the gate. It’s time to go. Time to leave. Yusuf shifts his right foot. Goes to turn. Something moves in the corner of his eye. He stops. Stops and tilts his head back. The earth is moving. No, not the earth, something on top of the earth. A shape, awkward and round, is shifting about. Trying to push itself up, but falling from nerveless limbs onto the ground.
Yusuf is moving before he can think otherwise. Copley hisses his title behind him. It doesn’t matter. He runs, feet slapping loudly on the earth. He skids to his knees and his hands snap out. His fingers dig into the mud stained flesh of the man that’s doing the best he can to clamber about on the ground. The man’s face lifts.
“Bas.” He’s alive. He’s alive. Yusuf drags him up to his knees. He clutches Sebastien’s face even as Sebastien’s eyes blink blearily in his direction. Clumsy hands clap against Yusuf’s sides. His arms. His wrists. Every part of Sebastien is coated in mud. It streaks through his hair, paints his face brown, stains his naked flesh and hides his skin from sight. He’s never looked better. Yusuf tugs him forward. He chokes on a sob, wrapping his arms around Sebastien’s naked body. Feeling Sebastien’s breath against his neck. Hearing the hitching gasp as he breathes in Yusuf’s ear.
“If you turned me into a Giver or a Reaper,” Sebastien warns, voice so hoarse that it threatens to shatter the elation in Yusuf’s heart, “I’m going to be...going to be...extremely upset.”
Copley’s there now. Crouching at their sides. He’s pulling off his outer coat and wrapping it around Sebastien’s body. When he touches Sebastien’s skin, he doesn’t die. “Not a Reaper,” Yusuf informs dully. He reaches forward and presses his fingers against the place where Merrick’s blade had ended Sebastien’s life. The wound has healed. But when Yusuf touches him with purpose, he can sense that there are other wounds. Nails torn from digging himself out of his own grave, skin shredded against rocks, trachea still damaged from the blade. Not lethally damaged, but strained enough to cause pain. “Not a Giver.” All of that would be healed if he were. Sebastien is as he always had been: perfectly human, with a soul that Yusuf could recognize from...all the way in the Reaper cells.
“I brought you back,” Yusuf whispers. “I...I didn’t touch you but I...I brought you back.” Shock threatens to overtake relief. Uncertainty wars with elation. Yusuf clings to Sebastien, feeding him every ounce of energy Yusuf has to fix every problem his senses can pick up, and Sebastien can do nothing to stop him because stopping would require him to stop touching him. And maybe not. Maybe I could heal him from afar.
“Stop,” Sebastien croaks. “Stop.”
“You’re alive...you’re alive and I…” How far had they been? It had to have been thousands of meters. How long had it been? Hours. Long enough for the Queen to have prepared for her journey to the Kingsmeet, and long enough for Copley to arrange for their escape. And yet still. Still. Sebastien lives.
“We need to leave, your grace,” Copley says. “We can’t stay here.” Yusuf looks up to the tower windows. The palace looming just to his right. He shivers unconsciously and presses his hands to Sebastien’s sides. He hoists with all his strength and Copley tucks under Sebastien’s right arm, holding him to his body to help support him as they go. There’s no question of leaving him behind, no murmured complaint about only having prepared two horses. If nothing else, Yusuf’s grateful that Copley understands that leaving Sebastien is not an option.
They flee through the back gate. Copley holds onto Sebastien as Yusuf mounts his horse. “Do you want me to hold him?” he asks only once, but Yusuf rejects it with a firm shake of his head. He fully intends to fix every part of his brother’s body before they leave the outer borders of Città Lunare. He doesn’t have any plans on testing to see if he can heal from afar either.
It takes a great deal of pushing, pulling, and hoisting (the poor horse whuffling unhappily the whole time) to get Sebastien seated in front of Yusuf. When he’s there, though, he leans back against Yusuf’s bare chest. Yusuf rearranges Copley’s coat to drape over Sebastien’s front. Neither of them are dressed for the weather or for a ride, but there are few options in an escape such as this.
Copley loosens the ties keeping the horses in position, mounts his own horse, and leads the way to freedom.
They stop at a bland and uninteresting swath of land marked only by a tree and a couple of large boulders. Copley dismounts first, passing his reins to Yusuf to hold as he walks toward the boulders and disappears into the shadows. Yusuf glances over his shoulder. No one’s coming for them. No alarms were raised in their flight, and Yusuf half wonders if anyone’s even noticed he’s gone. If anyone even knows the protocol for such a thing.
Copley re-emerges with several saddle bags tossed over his shoulders. He deftly hoists one up over the rump of his horse, whispering softly to the animal as he snorts and huffs at the sudden weight. He deposits his other load on Yusuf and Sebastien’s beast as well. When he’s done fastening the added supplies to their mounts, Copley gives them both a careful look.
“I have clothes you can wear,” he says slowly. “I don’t know if we’re being followed yet, but if we are we might not have much time…”
“We’ll be fast,” Yusuf murmurs. Copley nods. He places a steadying hand on Sebastien’s body as Yusuf carefully dismounts. Sebastien all but slides off the horse into Yusuf’s grasp. He’s shaky and unsteady, dazed a bit despite Yusuf’s best efforts. Yusuf can’t help but watch him critically, cataloguing every oddity he can find.
“I’m fine,” Sebastien promises. “I’m fine.” Copley hands him clothes first, the layers more than anything Yusuf’s seen or worn in ages. He takes his own bundle and quickly begins pulling them on. The linen feels scratchy against his skin, but the irritation fades as he grows more used to it. Anything’s better than continuing to ride with his deteriorating trousers chafing against the saddle.
Sebastien’s fingers lace his shirt deftly, hesitating only once his tie’s complete. They loiter there, pausing for long enough that worry starts to fill Yusuf’s chest. “Bas?” he asks. Sebastien’s eyes flicker up to him, then back down. His lips twist into an unreadable expression. He shakes his head, sending dusty blonde locks fluttering in all directions, then finishes dressing. “What is it?” Yusuf presses, already reaching out to fix whatever ailment caused the hesitation.
“I lost her scarf,” Sebastien mutters. He glances back up at Yusuf for that lightning quick look. Lips still twisted. Nose scrunched. “I...I had it before I died…” But they stripped him. Buried him naked in a hole he wasn’t meant to ever crawl out of. Helplessly, Yusuf turns to Copley who shakes his head.
“I didn’t look for any personal effects.” He wouldn’t have. Sebastien had been a prisoner whose clothes were worn and ragged. Whose precious items, sword and marks of office, had been lost the moment he’d been captured. They, along with Yusuf’s sigil, were likely in a sealed chest somewhere in the Queen’s possession. Perhaps even on her person, now that she’s traveling to meet with Najima. They’d be proof of his capture, at the very least. Though what that means for the peace talks, Yusuf doesn’t know.
“She’d rather have you, than her scarf,” is all Yusuf can say as comfort. Sebastien grimaces at the words, regardless. He had been holding onto that promise since he left for war. It didn’t matter how many times he’d been in danger, or they’d needed to move fast and swift to relocate their forces during a melee, Sebastien had kept that scarf pressed to his chest. Even if it was a little bloodstained, a little frayed, after all this time, he’d told Yusuf countless dreams of how he’d return it to Amelie. What he’d say to her when he gave it back. What he’d do when she saw it again.
There’s nothing Yusuf can do to replace it. Nothing he can conjure that can give it back. “Bas…”
“It’s a stupid thing to be upset about, given the circumstances,” Sebastien resolves. His fists are closed tight at his sides, but his voice is even. He walks with surer feet toward the horse, mounting it with far more grace than he’d dismounted. He held out his hand, and Yusuf climbed up behind him. “She’ll understand.”
“It’s not stupid,” Yusuf mumured, but his friend isn’t in the mood to listen. Nor do they have much time to discuss it there on the ground. Copley gets back on his horse and they continue southwest, keeping off the main road as much as they possibly could, but intersecting smaller trails as much as possible in order to mix their tracks with other travelers.
Yusuf tries only once to reinforce what he knows Sebastien knows deep down: Amelie doesn’t care about the scarf. She cares about him. But no reminder of Amelie’s equal devotion is enough to stop the stormcloud within Sebastien’s mind. Eventually, he acquiesce to his friend’s despair and stops pursuing the issue.
The Kingsmeet is days away. It rests on the terminal border between the two nations (the only part of the border that never changes no matter what ground is won or lost in the war) on top of a rocky outcrop that reaches high into the sky. Two long paths, one from each side of the border, lead up to the top. A single tower rests there with an outer ring and an Inner Sanctum. By sacred decree, no blood can be spilled within the Kingsmeet, and no death can occur on the grounds. For generations members of both Mezzaluna and Shams’ clerical community, leaders from both Irania and baseline human faiths, have tended to the Kingsmeet as guardians of that oath.
The Queen will be moving slow, with a full entourage accompanying her, but they won’t be able to take the direct route. If they stray too close to the Queen’s party, her scouts will spot them. If they are too slow, they could miss the signing altogether, or be caught by any pursuers. Pursuers that Yusuf would feel far better about, if he could confirm their existence.
“What happened to Lars Freeman?” he asks after they’d ridden for several hours in silence. Sebastien stirs a little at the question.
“Nile’s father?” he asks, tilting his head back to look at Yusuf as best he can in their awkward position.
“Copley’s a spy for Shams, Lars trained him before he died.” Their escort glances back at them, slowing just enough so that they can ride side by side. Copley sets his jaw a little as he thinks about what he wants to say, seemingly keenly aware of how both Sebastien and Yusuf are expecting a thorough report on the matter.
When he speaks, he starts with a story. “He hadn’t planned to kidnap Nicolo originally.”
“Wait— what?” Sebastien shifted, kicking the horse on accident. It sped up a few steps and Yusuf needed to lean back, shushing quietly as he adjusted his reins until the animal slowed.
“It was three years after Nicolo first went to the Reaper cells. He’d have been just past eight then, I think, when Lars found him and reported to Ibrahim that the Stello was not as dead as believed. He...he was appalled. I regret that for those three years I never paid the boy much mind. It simply...hadn’t occurred to me to care. He was another Reaper, just like all the rest. But Lars...on the very first day that he masqueraded as a guard, he stopped in front of Nicolo’s cell and asked who he was. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more shame than that day.”
Yusuf can feel Sebastien’s pulse quickening, his heart thundering fast as his anger spools through his veins. “And yet you kept playing guard for the next seven years anyway,” Sebastien spits out.
“I played guard to many Reapers,” Copley agrees. “At least I knew what shame felt like then. Ibrahim did not want to move Nicolo at first. It was too risky, and there were concerns of what to do with him. Lars insisted. He called upon a familial oath of sorts, said it was owed to him.” At this, Copley glances at Yusuf beseechingly.
It’s not a particularly hard guess to make, even if it is a guess all the same. “He was my father’s sworn brother. Every sworn member of the family may make one request within their lifetime that must be upheld in honor of the sacrifice of their service. My father said he never fulfilled that oath to Lars, that it was why he took Nile in as his own, to ensure she lived a good life.”
“I suppose it never was fulfilled,” Copley muses. He grimaces, then goes on. “We received word, eventually, that an experienced Reaper had been found to house and train Nicolo. To...parent him, since he had no one else.”
Sebastien hisses and twists again. “Andromache,” he says. “Do you think she knew? When she saw him?”
“She must have,” Yusuf replies. “She knew how old he was...what his life would have been like...she must have known. Go on,” he requests.
Copley clears his throat. “Lars never told me when he was going to move Nicolo. I learned about the rest second hand. I was away at a different assignment, and when I came back, Lars had already died. From what I’ve pieced together, there’d been an execution at court. Someone high enough in status that required a more distinguished death. Nicolo had been summoned to kill him. Sometime that night, after the execution, Lars took him from his cell and fled using the same path we took. They made it almost to the border when something happened. No one knows what. The horse they were on died and in the fall they were thrown. Lars either died on impact or very soon afterwards. The Mezzaluna army found Nicolo wandering the desert not long afterward.” Copley pauses. He licks his lip. “There’s...speculation that Nicolo killed the horse.”
“He’s terrified of horses,” Yusuf murmurs. Then, shaking his head, corrects himself. “He’s terrified of killing horses. Panicked the whole way to Irania that he’d somehow mess up.”
He’d kept on trembling until he dismounted, turned away from the beast and found himself on solid ground. Misery had wracked him for most of their journey. He didn’t speak a word the whole time. He flinched and wept silently, pressing up against Yusuf in a desperate attempt to keep from killing anything at all. “Damn kid…” Sebastien whispers.
“Yeah…” It’d been an accident. A mistake. A child’s curiosity to touch the creature, or an awkward attempt to catch himself when he’d overbalanced. If it’d been intentional, he wouldn’t have feared Yusuf’s horse. He’d have killed it just like he’d killed Lars’. But it wasn’t. It couldn’t have been. No boy that scared would have intentionally killed Lars’ horse. And after the fall, with the army chasing them and the border just ahead, Yusuf can’t help but wonder what happened then. There’s nothing Nicolo could have done for Lars. He’d had to abandon him there. And even then...it hadn’t mattered. He’d been caught, put back into his cell, and never given another chance for freedom again.
Yusuf’s fingers tightened around his reins. “I can’t send him back to Mezzaluna,” he whispers. Copley hums, asks him to repeat it, but Yusuf isn’t talking to him. He’s speaking only to Sebastien. “I can’t force him back.”
“Don’t,” Sebastien whispers back. “We’ll...we’ll figure it out.” He doesn’t sound certain. There’s nothing certain about any of this.
“And at the Kingsmeet? What am I supposed to do there?”
“Deny the treaty. You’re the rightful King. Show yourself, deny the treaty, and then we’ll walk back to Shams. They can’t do anything to stop you in the Kingsmeet.”
Somehow, Yusuf doesn’t think it’s going to be that simple. Somehow, he’s quite certain that there’s far too much that can go wrong. This time, when Sebastien tries speaking to him, Yusuf has nothing to say. He needs to think. In a few days, he’s supposed to challenge his uncle in front of all of Shams and Mezzaluna’s most esteemed leaders.
There’s no way it’s going to end without violence.
They plan for violence.
They reach the Kingsmeet without being discovered. Both parties are already making their way up the solitary paths to the tower. Standing on the outside, it’s uncomfortably obvious that they won’t be able to walk up the path to get into the building without drawing attention to themselves. If they try the trail from Mezzaluna, they’ll be captured in an instant. If they try to cross the border and go up from Shams, there’s no telling how Najima’s chosen supporters will react.
There’s no telling how they’ll react once Yusuf reveals himself at the Kingsmeet either, but at least the clerics and taboo should keep them from slitting his throat right away. “You’ll have to stay here,” Yusuf says as they make their way to the only other path to the top: the cliff wall itself.
It’s a steep climb, and the rocks are jagged and the edges are deep enough that Yusuf’s certain he can make it. “I always go with you,” Sebastien argues.
“If I die up there, I’ll wake up again. If you die...I can’t watch you die again so soon. And if you fall, I can’t...I can’t go down to save you. I don’t know how I brought you back before, but I need you to stay here, Bas.”
“I may need a quick retreat. You have to stay and keep things ready. That’s an order.” He says it without looking at his friend. Says it, knowing that it’s his own trauma keeping him from accepting the help that Sebastien no doubt would bring. Says it, too, because he doesn’t want Sebastien anywhere near Najima. Sebastien will want to kill him. Will find it to be his duty to kill him. Sebastien can’t have Najima’s death on his hands, though. If either of them are going to be implicated in it, it’s better if it’s Yusuf. Yusuf will swear Sebastien knew nothing about it. That’s the way it has to be.
“I understand, your grace,” Sebastien murmurs softly. “Take a blade at least,” he beseeches.
“There are no weapons allowed in the Kingsmeet,” Yusuf says.
“The actual order is that weapons must be held at the door,” Copley pipes up. He takes a dagger from his belt and slides it into place at Yusuf’s side. “You’re not going through the door.” He’s not. He still feels uncomfortable with the thought. Their worry is too hard to argue against just now, though, and he holds his peace as Copley starts telling him about architectural logistics that might help his way.
By the time he prepares himself to go, Yusuf still doesn’t know what he’s meant to do once he gets there. I’m just going to go, tell them my sister’s not for sale, and that we need to renegotiate the terms… And hope that after all this time his own people still recognize him once he emerges from the Inner Sanctum with that news.
Taking a deep breath, Yusuf presses his hands to the stone, and begins to climb. The cliff offers poor hand holds, but he digs his toes into every possible slant. He presses his fingers into the slightest arches. His knuckles burn, relishing the motions as he trusts his limbs to hold his weight steady and firm. In the places where there’s no good horizontal plane, he curls his fingers inwards and uses his knuckles as a brace inside the vertical crevasses of broken stone and weathered rock.
There’s a peacefulness in climbing. Any misstep could cause a fall. Any fall could delay or destroy his progress. In a mortal man’s life: it could end it. To climb, and climb well, his mind can only be on the rock. His weight on the rock. The climb itself. He can’t let a single stray thought distract him from his task. He can’t allow even a moment’s uncertainty. The moment he presumes to know better than the rock, is the moment he will lose his grip.
He cannot think of Najima, or the Queen. He cannot think of Nile. There is only the climb. One hand, then a foot. Then the other hand, and the other foot. He scans his path with an architect’s eye, looking for the most accessible route while also scouring for impediments. He puts his trust in his experience, and he grips hard onto jagged edges that threaten to tear open his palms.
The ascent is slow. Wind bites at his back as he climbs. The fishy smell of the river tickles his nose and wets his pallet. He shoves that thought down too. It’s unnecessary. Unhelpful. Still, when the wind blows it chases away the smell, and he finds that he times his more determined maneuvers for when the wind is taking a breath. Right when everything has settled and it’s just him and the clifface. Eventually, when it’s just him and the outerwall of the Kingsmeet.
Honored guests are permitted in the outer layer. They’re there ostensibly as witnesses to the signing, though no one except the monarchs are permitted in the interior chamber. Whatever the final terms of the contract are, they are to be determined without influence from outside factors. The ruling parties are to enter the conference chamber, together, and emerge together. If either emerges without the other, or if any blood is spilt, they will have no choice but to face the consequences of their actions by stepping into the outer sanctum and face the judgment of the opposing side’s forces. Without weapons, that judgment is expected to take the form of an arrest, but Yusuf has little doubt that the assembled party will find a way to enact their vengeance.
His fingers cling to the top of the wall. He breathes deep as he pulls himself up by his fingertips alone, holding the position just until he can confirm that no eyes are on him. There are voices in the courtyard below. The clerics responsible for ensuring the honor of the Kingsmeet are setting forth their final preparations. Their white garb covers them head to toe. Mezzaluna despises Reapers and Givers, but clerics from Shams include both. As custom, all clerics in the Kingsmeet are dressed so they can't be identified as one or the other. As Mezzaluna or Shams. As baseline human or something more. From the sounds of the processions coming up the main lane, it won’t take long before the Queen and Najima arrive.
He needs to be inside the inner sanctum before then. And from there...what? His head aches as he pulls himself the final bit upwards. His elbows dig into the wall and leverage him just enough to swing his legs on top. He spares one glance toward the bottom. Sebastien’s just barely visible now, but when Yusuf waves once, Sebastien waves back, and it’s enough to confirm that they’re both still free for the time being. He watches as Sebastien ducks into hiding, then rolls himself over so he can get a better look at the path to the inner sanctum.
There are three clerics lighting lanterns and making the final precursory rounds. They’re talking quietly to each other, familiarity breeding distraction. Yusuf squints at his path of descent. It will take him several minutes to climb it. The whole while, light will illuminate his body. He’d be spotted even by the most unobservant fellow.
No. He can’t climb it.
Licking his lips, he sends up thoughts of gratitude that Sebastien let him do this on his own. Bunching up his shirt, he stuffs the cloth into his mouth and carefully moves along the wall until the ground directly below him is open and unadorned. He waits. Waits. Waits. The clerics have maneuvered to the opposite side of the sanctum. Their white clothes making them beacons, easy to track as they move. They’re fiddling with something. With a deep breath, Yusuf bites hard on his shirt and rolls himself off the wall. He plummets. It takes barely a second before he smashes hard against the earth. His teeth snap against the shirt. His voice muffles as it tries to let out a sound. He gags and feels his bones shatter and piece themselves back together again. All the while his ears ring perilously, refusing him the chance of hearing if he’s been discovered.
Before he’s even finished healing, he drags himself away. His legs snap and creak beneath him. His rips pop back into place. His shoulder and muscles wriggle into position. He goes left, then forward, stumbling behind the wall of the inner sanctum just as one of the clerics rounds the corner and starts searching for the source of the fall. “It was probably someone outside!” his fellow calls over. “Ignore it! Help me with this!” Tears streak down Yusuf’s face as blood drips down his brow and onto his shirt. He presses himself into the shadows, fixing himself bit by bit even as the clerics mumble amongst themselves.
Finally, he’s whole again. He spits his shirt from his mouth and takes a few steadying breaths of air before daring to inspect his position better. The door to the Inner Sanctum is too obvious. He won’t make it around to the front unless the clerics all leave. But Copley had said...Yusuf squints. There. A vent for the candle smoke to escape from. It requires more climbing, but this time the pillars that decorate the exterior are close enough that he won’t need to free hand it. He presses his shoulders to one pillar, takes a deep breath, then puts his feet on the opposite. Slowly, he ascends. One foot after another, with his hands bracing his back (one to his left on the flat of the wall, the other on the pillar just beneath his bottom. He hoists the top part of his body, then shuffles his feet up. At the top, he uses his own weight to push against both pillars and hold his position. His hands shift about so he can dig his fingers into the grate. It comes open with the well oiled care of attentive clerics who are dutiful about their work. Moments later, he angles his head and shoulders through, and grips onto the dark ceiling beams that crisscross the top of the Sanctum’s dome.
The grate snaps shut behind him. He lays there, breathless and sore, and lets himself heal once more. He’s finally alone, and without anyone there to see: he takes a few moments to simply breathe. Breathe, and get his bearings.
There’s a table in the center of the room. Two chairs. No food or drink is permitted in the Kingsmeet for fear of poisonings, and all the candles are up high out of the way. They illuminate the room but offer no chance of murder. With all these precautions, Yusuf can’t help but feel the tight blossom of shame coursing through him as he thinks of the blade Copley gave him. He shouldn’t have taken it. No blood is permitted to be spilled within the Kingsmeet. It should have stayed behind with Copley and Sebastien.
He doesn’t have time to analyze that. Even as he’s taking his assessment of the layout, he hears the herald announcing Najima’s arrival. Then Queen Astra’s. Yusuf looks in all directions. There’s no good place to hide. If someone looks up, he’ll be seen in a moment. But he’s too high to be naturally seen if someone were to just walk inside. It’s a matter of placement then, and luck. Slowly, he shimmies along his beam until he’s pressed into the darkest corner he can: right above the door itself.
It opens as soon as he’s settled. He holds his breath. Queen Astra and Najima step inside. The door closes behind them, and the two monarchs approach the table. For the first time in well over two years, Yusuf looks at a member of his family. He isn’t what Yusuf expected.
Anger had motivated much of Yusuf’s journey to the Kingsmeet. Anger, and no small amount of desperation. He couldn’t let his sister fall into the Queen’s hands. He refused to let it happen. But that Najima of all people had been responsible for setting up the bargain to begin with...for Najima to have murdered his own brother in order to take the throne...Yusuf had always thought he was a better judge of character than that.
Yusuf’s mind had conjured no shortage of fantasies of what his uncle would look like as King. Proud, victorious, strong. Yusuf had seen him through countless battles. He’d listened to endless rally calls. He’d watched as Najima walked through the camp, inspecting the wounded and managing his soldiers. Najima knew how to lead, and how to look like a leader. His version of a King should have been nothing less than exhilarating to behold.
And yet. At some point since Yusuf had been gone, Najima’s hair had turned grey. There were streaks beneath his eyes. Wrinkles that Yusuf couldn’t remember having ever been there before. He walked with a limp. One of his hands was wrapped in a bandage that seemed so out of place compared to the fine clothes he wore. Clothes that Yusuf recognized as his own father’s ceremonial robes. They were not tailored for Najima’s more muscular frame. They sit poorly on Najima’s body. Too short at the sleeves, too long at the waist. Amelie would have made Najima clothing to be proud of. But she hadn’t, or Najima hadn’t asked her to.
Sitting across from Queen Astra, whose attire is just as decadent as it had been when she’d ordered Sebastien’s death, Najima appears wilted. Unkempt. He doesn’t seem at all the kind of man who betrays for power. Even though he sits straight with his head up and his posture perfect. Even though he looks at the Queen with the military discipline he always bore about his shoulders.
“Are you prepared to sign?” the Queen asks. She sounds bored. Yusuf wonders if her emotional capacity only ever extends that far. If she can experience boredom and nothing else. Her voice is calm and neutral. Her posture regal and refined.
“My nephew,” Najima starts, “you’ve yet to uphold your end of the bargain.”
“Your nephew refused my request, and therefore it is your niece I expect to return home with. You have her, I presume?” She has not moved expect to speak. Her hands remain folded in her lap. Yusuf needs to blink a few times, clearing his vision to ensure that he’s seeing her and not a doll or a puppet. She sits and speaks with such unnatural stillness that he hates her more than he thought possible.
Najima nods. Yusuf’s heart quickens. “She’s here. As is your son.”
“My son is dead,” she says. “Your people are quite bad at remembering that. I have no need of a dead thing. Keep him.”
“In exchange for your keeping my nephew? That’s hardly a fair trade. One Reaper for two Givers.”
“And an end to this war. A war that doesn’t need to end, does it, Kinslayer?” Still, her voice doesn’t change. Still, it remains as even and temperate as a pool on a hot day. Her hands remain folded in her lap. Her expression remains placid. Najima snarls dispassionately and waves his hand in her direction.
“As you say.”
“I did take the liberty of informing your nephew of your actions, of course. The boy has a right to know who murdered his father.”
Yusuf doesn’t think he makes a sound. He doesn’t think he’s so much as moved. He’s been holding his breath since their negotiations started, and yet despite all of that, Najima’s eyes flick up in his direction and for a moment they’re looking at each other. Najima blinks once, and his lips form a small smile. He turns back to the Queen before her attention is drawn. “I have no complaints to signing your treaty,” Najima informs her calmly. He stands. She stands. She removes a scroll from the long pouch of her sleeve, and he does the same. They approach one another, and just as Yusuf is trying to work out what he’s supposed to do now: his uncle reaches out. He wraps his hands around the Queen’s neck. Her eyes turn wide and surprised. The boredom slips off and shifts to a brief moment of sheer terror, but by the time she thinks to shout: Najima’s twisted his grip and breaks the Queen’s neck.
She crumples to the ground, dead, and Najima tears the treaty in half. “Come down, Yusuf,” he says softly. “We need to talk.”
And locked in a room where the moment they open the door and reveal the Queen’s dead body for all to see, they’ll be murdered by dozens of assembled guards and clerics there is nothing else Yusuf can do but obey.
“You...killed her,” Yusuf says. It’s the only thing he can think to say. He glances at the Sanctum door, half expecting the clerics to burst in and begin their retribution. It’s the most sacred law of the Kingsmeet. It is a neutral ground. No violence can happen here. It’s meant for the most difficult of negotiations to proceed without fear of exactly this . The Queen had come because she’d known she’d be safe and...Najima killed her.
“Yes,” he says. He steps toward Yusuf. His weathered hands touch Yusuf’s face. So soon after seeing those same hands murder the Queen, Yusuf cannot control the flinch he gives on contact. Najima doesn’t draw back. He doesn’t hesitate. He merely cups Yusuf’s face between his palms and looks at him. Looks. “I’m so sorry, my boy.”
“Uncle?” Yusuf asks.
“I wasn’t sure I’d see you again...I’d hoped, but I...I wasn’t sure.” Najima’s hands shift. They fall to Yusuf’s shoulders. His arms. He pulls Yusuf out into the light of the candles so he can see him more clearly, and Yusuf stumbles after him. Then, once there, he finds himself unable to move, trapped by confusion and uncertainty as Najima gives him a proper once over. “You’ve lost so much weight, but...you’ve changed a little too. You haven’t stopped aging yet. I’d hoped I’d be able to see the man you’ll become before then, but…”
It’s too much. Yusuf shakes his head. He closes his eyes and tries to banish the sight and smell of this place. He tries to find some semblance of calm, of understanding. There had to be a reason. Something had to make sense. He felt a fog clouding his thoughts, though. A deep and penetrating fog that seems only to stand in strange support of his stampeding heart. “What are you talking about?” he asks, tired of manipulation and secrecy. Tired of lies and plans that he’d never been informed of.
From the first memory Yusuf had of Najima, being picked up and carried on his hip back to the palace after he’d gotten lost in Jerrah’s spirals, Najima has always made sense to him. A loyal, stalwart, fierce, man who placed the good of Shams above anything else. For years, Yusuf had served beside Najima on the worst battlefields of the war. He’d taken the harshest tasks. Yusuf had written home to hundreds of families, informing them of their lost loved ones even as Najima stalked the paces of his camp to prepare for the next day’s fighting. Everyone had always said it was a cruel thing to give him. A reminder that he could have saved every person he wrote home for. A reminder that it was his choice to let them die. Yusuf had only questioned it once, and Najima had informed him that it’s his duty as heir to Shams to think always of his people. It’s the kind of man Yusuf always saw Najima as.
Killing Ibrahim, arranging for a peace treaty with the Queen, even arranging for Yusuf to be taken out of the way...if Najima thought it was all for the good of the people Yusuf could understand it. Najima had been fighting for so long and the end of the war would mean so much to everyone, somehow: Yusuf could understand that.
But this. “You killed her,” Yusuf says again. “You...the treaty...I don’t understand. What are you doing?”
“I’m so sorry, Yusuf.”
“Stop apologizing!” Yusuf flinches at the volume of his own voice. He glances back over his shoulder, but the door stays closed. No one is coming to check on them. No one is interfering. It’s just them, a torn treaty, and the corpse of the Queen.
“I can’t,” Najima murmurs. He smiles, but it’s too sad. Too tired. His face creaks under the weight of the emotion and he leans back to rest against the table behind him. “I owe you more than words can say.”
Nausea bubbles in Yusuf’s belly. He presses a sweaty palm to his forehead and tries to stave off a sharp sting of pain that begins to stab through his skull. His brain screeches in satisfaction as it fights against fog-filles thoughts only to find itself outnumbered by the sheer shock of the emotions in Yusuf’s body. “She gave me my father’s head,” he says. “I held...you cut off his head and I—why would you do that?”
Thankfully, he doesn’t apologize again. Najima waits long enough for Yusuf to catch his breath after his question, then quietly speaks. “It was the only way to convince Astra to leave Città Lunare for the Kingsmeet. She had to believe I was on her side.”
“You killed my father for a meeting?”
“Your father killed himself for a meeting,” Najima corrects. “I...I was taking too long for his liking." He grimaces, lips twisting and nose scrunching. His shoulders heave forward as if pressed down by a sudden weight. His head bows listlessly toward his chest. “I was meant to. It was what Astra told me to do. Your father, he knew it. I...we’ve been trying to get a way through to the royal family for years. But Astra never left the city. Our spies could never get close enough to her. She had no interest in peace unless it was on her terms. Ibrahim suggested I reach out to form an alliance with her, ostensibly without his knowledge. She agreed to parlay only if I gave you to her and ended his life. Your father confirmed the arrangements.”
No. That didn’t make any sense. Yusuf shakes his head. The stabbing pain is getting worse. Pressure builds behind his left eye, spreading all across his skull. He shoves his fingers into the pressure points at his nose, his temple. Neither stop the agony as it builds. Najima keeps talking. Now that he’s started, he can’t seem to stop. He’s desperate to reveal their maneuverings, and Yusuf barely has the wherewithal to understand the stinging tale.
“The negotiations went on for years. And I tried to stop it, Yusuf you have to believe I tried.”
“Why?” Yusuf asks dully. “If it’s what my father wanted...why stop it at all?”
Najima’s head comes up. His tired eyes are more heartbroken than Yusuf thinks he’s ever seen them in his whole life. “Because you’re my family, Yusuf...what am I fighting this war for if not so my family can be at peace?”
It’s an echo of every battle speech that Najima had ever given. An echo of the victory cries when their day of fighting ended with fewer casualties than the day before. For family, Najima had said. They needed to fight and defend their homeland so that all of their countrymen could survive. So their families could survive. So they could go home. Gods, Yusuf wants to go home.
“I put so much on you,” Najima says. He’s quiet.. So very quiet. Yusuf steps closer. His toe nudges just passed the Queen’s body. A shiver of revulsion curdles the nausea in Yusuf’s stomach. Bile rises in his throat. He swallows it back. “I hoped...I hoped that your kind heart would have you make a mistake. That you’d heal someone, the whole world would know you’re a Giver, and I wouldn’t need to do what we had to do.” The letters. The endless letters for the dead. “You proved me wrong every time. You always were meant to be King, Yusuf. I shouldn’t have tried to interfere...it only made things harder for you.”
Yusuf doesn’t know what to say. No one’s ever prepared him for this. His Father had never said a word of any of it. But any words that Yusuf might have conjured, fall still as Najima reaches into his borrowed garments and withdraws a packet of papers. There are at least five envelopes. Each sealed with the King’s mark. Najima hands them to Yusuf with ample solemnity. “Your father wrote to you...he said I’d see you again. That his spy would find and free you the moment it became possible. That I’d see you before the end. Your father was always right...in the end.”
There are names on the envelopes. His, Sebastien’s, Nile’s, Amelie’s, and... Nicolo’s. “You knew.”
“In our final negotiation before you were taken, Astra agreed to send her son to Shams in exchange for your capture. There, all I’d have to do is arrange for him to be in a room with my brother, and Nicolo would do the killing himself.”
“But he didn’t,” Yusuf knows.
This time, the half smile that crosses Najima’s face is bittersweet. Tears press against his battle hardened features. His lips turn upwards in grief, despair, and overwhelming gratitude. “He didn’t. Your father sent me to the front again. I learned later that a second Reaper had been sent, that Ibrahim had purposely had a lax guard to enable the possibility, and yet...he stopped it. Nicolo stopped it then too. And with every day that Ibrahim stayed alive...you remained in Città Lunare. You and—” Najima closes his eyes. He breathes in a ragged breath. “Bas, Yusuf...we heard…”
“He’s alive,” Yusuf shakes his head. “I...I brought him back. He’s alive. I-I brought him home. I’m going to bring him home.” The relief staggers his uncle. Najima weeps openly now. He presses a palm to his face and cries. His shoulders shook hard. Wrecked tremors shuttered straight down his spine.
“You were meant to go to Irania alone,” Najima says behind his palm. “We knew that Nicolo couldn’t hurt you. You’d go to Irania, you’d leave him, and go missing. That was what Ibrahim wanted. But…”
“You sent Sebastien with me,” Yusuf murmurs. “You thought father would not allow me to be captured if Sebastien was there.”
His father hadn’t hesitated. He’d accepted Sebastien’s loss. Accepted what that loss would mean for the future of their monarchy. He’d risked it anyway. “I’m so sorry, Yusuf.” Najima says. “I’m so very sorry.” The apologies mean little. They aren’t coming from the person that should be giving them. Just a man who has followed his duty all his life, and found nothing but grief in the process. Najima whispers, “I thought I’d die and Amelie would never again be happy. That I’d truly failed everyone I loved,” and Yusuf goes to him. He wraps his arms around his Uncle’s body and he holds him close. He presses his face into Najima’s throat, smelling the perfume that always meant warmth and safety even on the darkest days of the war.
Najima’s arms wrap around his back. He’s huddled in close. Tears fall to Yusuf’s neck. He’s never seen his Uncle weep before. Not even when Amelie came to live with them. Not even when they stood vigil by Amelie’s mother’s casket. He’d stood tall and proud, one hand on her shoulder and had seemed to be carved in stone. Amelie even admitted during one of their ‘family times’ that she’d been scared of him at first. Of this tall man who’d come to take her to live in the palace when she’d never known such splendor in her life. Of this somber giant who gave her over to Yusuf’s mother, as her own could no longer tend to her.
Sniffing loud, Najima pulls back. Cups Yusuf’s face once more. “Your father...he wrote those letters before he died. But, I heard about Sebastien’s...I heard that Bas was...so I didn’t write him one. I didn’t think, but can you tell him something for me?”
“Tell him yourself,” Yusuf says, though it’s a token statement. He glances at the Queen’s body. At the door. “How-how are we getting out. We have to get out. They’ll kill you for what you did.”
“Yusuf,” Najima sighs.
“No, no we need to leave. I...the grate - can you fit?” Yusuf’s already working the math, the angles. He can swing himself up, and then pull Najima up with him. They could escape together, Somehow. They could do it.
Najima says, “I killed the Queen of Mezzaluna at a Kingsmeet, Yusuf.” He gives Yusuf’s head a gentle shake. “It’s my duty to die for that transgression.”
“I was never meant to be King, Yusuf. You were. Always. You were always meant to wear this crown, to stand as the leader of Shams and end this war.”
“No. No, not without you, not without—”
“—Everything your father and I did...every moment we fought and argued and conceded to this negotiation was to put you, your sister, and Nicolo in the position to end this. You can do this Yusuf. The Queen is dead. Nicolo is the rightful heir of Mezzaluna. He’s had a chance to see that we mean him no harm. You’ve had a chance to see Mezzaluna for what it is. You can end this. End it the way it needs to be ended. No more manipulation. No more interference from others. It’s your time. I cannot be there for that.”
It’s not enough. It’s not nearly good enough. Yusuf shakes his head. He takes a fistful of Najima’s robes, the other hand squeezing tight to the last words his father left for him and his loved ones. “You can’t do this.”
“There’s only one way you’re going to get out of here Yusuf, and it’s if I walk through that door and give you the opening you need to leave.”
“I held his head,” Yusuf says. “I held his head in my arms. I watched them kill Sebastien. I watched their...their prince cut Sebastien’s throat. I can’t, don’t make me do this. I can’t sit here, again, and wait as someone else makes a choice that I can change.”
“Just this once,” Najima corrects. “Just this one last time. Let me finish this, please.”
“I’ll bring her back. If she’s not dead then you can’t be harmed.”
“You can’t bring her back.”
“Then you, I-I’ll bring you back after. I’ll—”
“I’m a King, Yusuf. You can’t bring me back either. It’s not allowed.”
“It’s not allowed to kill someone in a Kingsmeet either!” Yusuf yells. He shakes his Uncle’s chest as hard as he can. “You can’t do this. You can’t lay this on me and then tell me to just sit here and watch as they kill you. You can’t .”
“One last time,” Najima whispers. “And when I die, I’ll be with my willful older brother and a woman I should have married a long time ago.” Carefully, ever so carefully, Najima takes Yusuf’s hands in his. He pulls Yusuf’s fingers from his robes, he folds Yusuf’s palms inwards so they’re cradling the envelopes between them. He strokes the back of Yusuf’s palm with gentle motions. Slow and soothing. “Please...take care of my daughter...watch over her and Sebastien. Please. Tell him...he’s everything I could have hoped for her.”
“Always,” Yusuf swears. The fog is returning. The pain in his chest. Despair climbs through his body, chilling his toes and squeezing his insides tight.
“Nile and Nicolo aren’t here...they’re in a safehouse in Crowen. Ibrahim said you’d know the way.”
“Yes...yes I know it.”
“Go to them, when you leave. Go to them. They’ll need you just as much as you’ll need them.” Then, Najima presses his lips to Yusuf’s brow. “I have always loved you, my boy. Always.” It’s too much. It’s not enough. It’s too soon. Najima pulls the letters from Yusuf’s hands and tucks them into Yusuf’s tunic. He guides him back to the rafter he’d dropped from and offered his hands as a boost to help Yusuf hoist himself up. Even with the path right ahead of him, Yusuf can’t bring himself to move. He stands, staring at Najima, memorizing his face. His bearing. His countenance. Everything about him.
He’s ready, Yusuf thinks. The world has wreaked havoc on this man. It’s torn him to shreds and left him with little recourse on how to move on. And in the end, he hadn’t even been the one to land the fatal blow. Ibrahim had killed himself when Najima proved too slow at fratricide. He’d killed himself, and forced his brother to sever his head. Forced him to send the butchered remains of his body to Mezzaluna as proof of a treachery that never happened. To inspire or traumatize those it needed to influence into movement. He’s ready to go.
Bracing his hands on his uncle’s shoulders he lifts one foot and is thrown. His body sails upwards and his hands snatch onto the wooden beam. He swings himself up, climbs even higher, then looks down. Najima wipes his face free of the tears. He straightens the garments he borrowed from ibrahim, knowing that there had been no need for him to tailor his own. His death, as his life, will be wrapped in his brother’s deeds and progress.
Najima takes a deep breath. He looks up at Yusuf. He smiles that same smile he’d had when he first saw Yusuf there. Tired, broken, relieved. Then, with very careful fingers, Najima removes the crown from his head. He places it on the table next to the torn treaty. He bows. One hand over his chest. Yusuf’s too high for the bow to be received properly, but his heart spasms at the gesture. “I wish you good fortune, Sun King of Shams. May your journey be far kinder than it’s been.” Najima steps toward the door. His fingers touch the carefully decorated handles.
“Uncle...” Najima waits. He glances up. “You’re not going to be a villain in the history books. I swear to you. Amelie will know what you did, and she will be proud of you. As...am I.” It’s the only thing he can say. It doesn’t feel like it’s good enough. “I forgive you,” he adds on, softer still, but still heard. His Uncle closes his eyes. Takes another steadying breath, then nods to himself. He opens the door.
Yusuf presses his back against the wall, deep into the shadows. He presses his hand to his mouth as Najima steps outside. As he announces, in the booming voice of a veteran general, “The Queen is dead. She has kept my nephew, Yusuf son of Ibrahim, prisoner for these past few years. I accept my punishment and my fate, but say this: Yusuf is the rightful King of Shams, now and always.”
Then chaos descends, and all Yusuf can hear are the screams of the Mezzaluna troops as they call for Najima’s blood.
The clerics keep the Shams contingent back, ordering them to leave the Kingsmeet and return to Shams as the Queen’s body is removed from the Inner Sanctum and Najima is taken away to be dealt with by the Mezzaluna party. There is no trial, there is no need for one. Najima admits his guilt, and by sacred oath, he is handed over to Mezzaluna to face whatever punishment they deem fit. There can be no recourse. His people don’t even argue. Yusuf wonders if Najima told them what he intended to do. If he brought them only to hide his motivations, but expected them to leave him behind.
The shouts and yells echo through the Inner Sanctum. With the door thrown wide, Yusuf can hear everything. He can hear how they shout for Najima’s head. How they tear at his father’s clothes that wrapped around Najima’s body so poorly. He can hear the crowd growing more enraged with each passing second.
Yusuf clenches his eyes shut. He squeezes his palms over his ears. He breathes in and out as slowly as he can, waiting for the chaos to fade into nothingness. But the sounds only grow louder. The furor only grows. The Mezzaluna contingent make haste in removing Najima from the Kingsmeet grounds, shouting about honor and decency. They, unlike the Shams traitors , intend to follow the protocol of the neutral zone. No blood will be spilled inside the sanctuary. The same cannot be said for outside it.
They’ve started chanting their anthem as they march. Their voices swell together in a vicious tide, carrying on and on until there’s nothing left save the echo of their fury. The courtyard beyond falls quiet. There are some stragglers, but far less than before. They’re milling about, murmuring to themselves about the failed Kingsmeet. Some are clerics, worrying about what this means for their position as clerics. If they’ll be sent back to their respective countries now that a monarch has died under their watch.
Yusuf waits as long as he dares. When he moves, his legs cramp. He breathes through the tingling pins and needle pain that slithers up his thighs and calves. He ignores the over tightening that comes from keeping a muscle held in one place for too long. Soon, the pain vanishes. He heals fast, and he maneuvers the beams to the grate with careful ease. Even without the physical impediment though, he hesitates before he slides out.
The crown is resting on the table, right where Najima had left it. It glistens gold. Each careful thorn a masterfully sculpted sun beam. It shouldn’t be left here, at the Kingsmeet. It should have returned with the rest of his people. Perhaps the clerics hadn’t seen it before the exile began. Perhaps there simply hadn’t been enough time. The Queen’s body had been hastily collected and ferried off. But everything else had been left as it was. The crown shouldn’t be left behind. But if he goes down now...they’ll notice that it once had been there, won’t they? Or he’ll be on the ground, perfectly out in the open for anyone to see.
Leave it, Yusuf thinks. He squeezes his eyes shut. The candle smoke tickles his nose as he waits just one moment more. I’ll get a new crown, he decides. One not steeped in my family’s blood .
Pushing open the grate, Yusuf spies to the left and right. No one is there. He turns around, then carefully slides one foot out. The other. He angles his shoulders to slide through, until all he has left are his fingers clinging to the edge. With one last look in all directions, he lets himself drop soundlessly to the earth. He lands on the balls of his feet. He releases the air in his lungs, then inhales as his knees and joints shake off the force of the fall.
Turning, he presses himself against the wall of the Inner Sanctum. He listens to the maneuverings of the clerics. Lanterns are going out. Whispers are falling silent. He doesn’t know how long he’s been here, but he knows that he needs to leave soon. Sebastien will be worried the longer he stays.
He glances around the corner again, only to jump backwards when a cleric rounds it at the same time. He stumbles over his feet, voice strangling in his throat as he tries to come up with some sort of excuse. Some sort of terrible excuse that explains away his presence. The cleric is pulling down the white cloth over their face, at the same time. Raising one finger to her lips as her features are revealed. “Quynh!” he gasps.
His old mentor motions for silence again, turning to look over her shoulder to check behind her. She doesn’t spare him a glance, just keeps continuing around the back of the Inner Sanctum, returning her shroud before she steps back out on the other side. Once there, she calls out “All clear, no one left.” She disappears out of sight and he waits, frozen against the wall as he listens for more movement.
His heart thunders behind his ribs. His lungs barely fill with air. His hands have started to tremble again, even as his brow burns from where his Uncle had given him his farewell kiss. More lanterns go dark. The sanctuary is draped in the shadows of the evening. He doesn’t move.
He waits, and waits, and finally, Quynh returns. She’s not alone. Another cleric is with her. Tall and slender. They remove their shrouds and he tumbles forward to embrace Andromache. To feel her arms wrapped around him, holding him close. Andromache’s holds him as she always did. He has never felt safer than when he rested in her arms, and she never once appears dismayed by having him there. She’d been his guardian almost all his life, and once—long ago, she could have been mother to a boy just like him. He knows she would have been wonderful at it, hopes she had been able to make the most of the time she had managed to acquire, even if it was so many years too late.
“He didn’t betray Shams,” Yusuf whispers into Andromache’s neck. “He wasn’t a traitor. He didn’t kill my father.”
“We know, little King.” Andromache replies. And that’s not right. It can’t be right. He’s always been her little Prince. But now, now he’s something different. Something wholly different. He pulls back and she lets him. She squeezes the back of his neck, tender and fond. “We were informed just before it happened...your father sent us here to wait for you. He said to trust that you would find your way here on time.”
“On time for what?” Yusuf asks. He steps away from them. Quynh is there, holding up the crown that he left behind. The one that’s caused all of this despair in the name of protecting a king that has no proper rights to rule. He’s a Giver. He never should have been given this chance. And yet. She holds it up. Each ray of the sun appears like a dagger to his mind. He hates it, hates it more than he’s ever hated any inanimate object in his life. He takes it and throws it, watching as it smashes against the Kingsmeet outerwall.
There’s no one left to hear. Just him and them. They watch it fall and Quynh moves quietly to pick it up. She holds it delicately, both palms cradling its brow band as she returns. There’s blood slipping off one of the rays. Yusuf glances at his palm, watching as it heals the unintended wound.
“All life is sacred,” Quynh says. “Your father failed as a King, and a father. Your Uncle did as well.” His blood palm spasms into a fist. His hatred refocuses, shifts to the only available target that still holds that crown up for him to take.
“—Put their personal preferences above their station,” Andromache cuts in. “In their own way, they chose you every time. To sacrifice, to save, to manipulate. All life is sacred. Now, and in the future. One cannot make choices to sacrifice those in the present, for a future that might come to pass.”
“And if they’re right? If this war does end under my reign? If Nicolo and I can put things back the way it needs to be?”
“They were still wrong.” Quynh holds the crown up. “I, Quynh of Irania, proclaim you, Yusuf son of Ibrahim, first of your name, Sun King of Shams. To uphold the sacred oath of your office, and your country.” She lowers the crown onto his head. “Long may you reign.” She steps back, one hand over her heart. In unison, she and Andromache bow to him.
“What are your orders, sir?” Andromache asks.
“Nile,” he murmurs. “Then...home. I want to go home.”
They nod. They don’t climb the walls to escape the Kingsmeet. No one is watching as they exit through the door to Shams. They walk the long and lonely path until the bottom. Then Andromache tells them she’ll collect Sebastien and Copley after Yusuf tells her where to find them. He waits for them, standing under the blood red moon that rose upon the Queen’s death.
Merrick will be proclaimed King in the coming days. Yusuf doesn’t know what started the war eons ago, but he knows what will start it up again now. Queen Astra is dead. Her forces will rally in her name, and they will be led by a sadistic child who relishes in doling out pain to those he finds wanting. And somewhere, between now and the moment that next battle starts up: his Uncle will face Mezzaluna’s fury. He’ll be slaughtered in the name of vengeance, and Yusuf had allowed it to happen.
“All life is sacred,” he murmurs to the night sky.
“Even yours,” Quynh murmurs back. He hadn’t wanted her opinion. But, now that he had it, he feels the weight of the world crush down on him once more. He presses his palms to his face, and weeps until the moment Sebastien, Copley, and Andromache rejoin them once more. Quynh offers no comfort. He doesn’t expect her to. There’s no word, nor touch, nor possibility for relief here. He can only cry. And when he’s run out of tears, he mounts his horse and guides them toward Crowen.
He wants so badly to just go home.
They ride in silence.
They’re a mourning party in conjunction with being a royal host. Andromache and Quynh take three horses from the stables the Kingsmeet clerics have on either side of the border. Everyone rides on their own. Yusuf is in front. The weight of the crown growing heavier with each hour it rests on his head.
Andromache must have explained what transpired at the Kingsmeet, for Sebastien doesn’t ask him any questions. Copley keeps to himself. He rides at the back of their party, somber and easily forgotten. Yusuf almost wishes someone would say something. He wishes that anyone had anything good to say at all. But even as he thinks it, he realizes that he has no patience for it. He knows he’ll snap or hiss, vile and cruel, to whomever dares to break the silence of their ride.
Their horses hooves plod along the sand packed earth. The plains offer them no place to hide, no place to disappear from. It doesn’t matter. Yusuf has no desire to hide anymore. This is his country. His, in every sense that matters. This earth is his earth. If they pass someone, and they don’t, they would be his people. The crown grows heavier.
Najima’s words, his father’s actions, keep spinning in circles around Yusuf’s mind. He squeezes his reins rhythmically. He tries thinking of something else. Nile. How tall she’s gotten. How strong. He doesn’t understand why she’d been sent to Crowen, but then again, he doesn’t understand much of anything his father put in place. He squeezes his reins, changes topics.
Nicolo is in Crowen. The rightful King of Mezzaluna. Yusuf had said his name so often at court, and not one of them had seemed surprised. Not one of them seemed shocked to hear that Nicolo existed. That he’d been imprisoned all his life. Maybe Reapers can’t ascend like Givers can’t ascend in Shams, Yusuf thinks. But he’s never seen an official law against it. Maya and the others didn’t seem to care either. They wanted Nicolo as their ruler. When has what the people wanted ever mattered much in politics though?
He squeezes his reins. Changes topics.
Amelie. She should still be back in Jerrah. Did Najima—
“Breathe, my King,” Sebastien murmurs. Yusuf flinches at his voice. He snaps his head about, glaring balefully at his friend. Sebastien takes it without complaint. “You’re not breathing,” he says. Yusuf releases the last bit of air in his lungs. He inhales long and slow. He turns his attention back to the plains.
The white ground is specked with green shrubbery. Occasionally, the wind will pick up a palmful of twigs and dried grass, swirling them about and tossing them to the side. The smell is sweet and fresh. Prickly pears grow by the hundreds. They pockmark their journey, enticing yet unapproachable at their current venture.
Yusuf’s mouth waters for a taste, but his stomach seizes at the mere thought. If he is going to engage in a creature comfort, he’d prefer a bed. A bed with blankets. Someplace he can sleep and wake up from the nightmare of reality. If nothing else, just someplace to sleep for a few hours at a time. He doesn’t think it’s too much to ask for, but at the same time, every night when their group sets up camp, he finds himself lying on his back with his eyes open. He stares at the sky, watching stars move and the moon shift. Where once, he dreamed up rhyming couplets or melodious stanzas, now his mind refuses to conjure anything except the smell and feel of blood drenching his skin.
There’s a five kilogram weight on his chest, in his arms. A head that can never be removed from his conscious thought. He flinches awake at the mere suggestion of the memory, and when his mind dares to give him a break from that horror: he finds himself imagining all the ways Merrick and his posse torture Najima to death.
The crown weighs heavier in the morning when he puts it on. Sebastien stops asking if he got any sleep the night before. They all keep traveling in silence. He doesn’t think there’s anything any of them can do.
The relationship is different now, between him and his companions. Andromache and Quynh defer to him on even the most simple tasks. They wait for his approval or authorization rather than taking charge. They’re not my mentors any longer, Yusuf thinks. Andromache may still be his sworn guard in the abstract sense, but she’s not there to help raise him into a man. She’s there to follow the man he’s become.
He still isn’t sure what that’s supposed to be. I used to know, he thinks. He used to ride into battle and lead soldiers in a war. He used to enter a city and feel the eyes of the world upon him. He used to know what he was meant to say and when he was meant to say it. Not anymore. He’s so tired.
It takes them nearly a week to reach Crowen.
The city’s walls are high and well defended. Yusuf can see the guards walking the top of them, armed and prepared for an assault. Considering their current political circumstances, he’s not entirely surprised. Even the gates to the city are tightly closed, barring any entrance. He stops his horse well before they reach the gates, though. He stops, and watches the guards. His people. The first strangers who will know that he’s there as King. He squeezes his reins. I’m not ready. Changes topics.
“There’s a tunnel,” Yusuf murmurs. He steers his horse away from the city and back out onto the plains. The others follow. No one asks him why he wants to take an alternate route. No one asks why he wants to effectively sneak into the city when he could very well just appear at the gates and the guards would trip over themselves to throw them open. They just follow. His word is law. His decisions are meant to be listened to like they came down from the gods themselves.
He squeezes his reins. He thinks about the tunnel. It’s not tall enough or wide enough for the horses. Of them all, he’d rather leave Copely behind to mind the animals, but one man might not be good enough. Also, a spy learning of another route into the city may not entirely be the most wise option, though he has yet to find fault in Copley’s service. He doesn’t have Copley’s full resume to examine, doesn’t know the details of what Lars Freeman had taught him. He can only trust the man’s word, and trust isn’t something that Yusuf’s finding particularly easy to swallow at the moment. He squeezes his reins, then stops his horse. “Andromache...you and Copely will take the horses back to the gate. We’ll walk the rest of the way. If we find no trouble, I’ll send a message to the gate and have them open it for you.”
“Yes, your grace.” Yusuf dismounts at her words. He hands her his abused reins. Quynh and Sebastien follow his lead. It will be awkward for them to manage three spare horses on their own, but Sebastien deftly helps tie a lead from Andromache’s saddle to his own horse’s bridle. It snorts at him and he strokes its velvet nose soothingly before stepping back and falling into position at Yusuf’s side.
Andromache is the better fighter should they run into trouble inside Crowen, but he trusts her to take care of Copley in case he does anything un-trustworthy while they’re gone. He can’t tell if he will, doubts it’ll be the case, but the feeling doesn’t subside. He nods to Andromache, waves half-heartedly to Copely, and leads Quynh and Sebastien the rest of the way.
It’s a long walk. Perhaps not long compared to their ride to Crowen, but long enough that the sun has dipped behind the horizon by the time Yusuf can identify the landmark hiding the entrance to the tunnel. The scraggly tree is dead and decrepit. It’s twisted and bent in all the wrong places. Its trunk has been nearly cleaved in two by a storm or particularly viscious sword strike. Its roots are expansive though. Moss and lichen grow across them, sand and clay compound them, but with a few fierce palm fulls of dirt, Yusuf reveals the sinkhole beneath them.
It takes a bit more time to make it wide enough to slip through. Once he does, it takes even longer to repack their entrance so their route is obscured. Darkness wraps around them the more they work, and soon: not a single thing can be seen in the deep depths of the hole. Yusuf trails his edges along the side, feeling for the path forward. “This way,” he murmurs softly. He reaches out behind him until he makes contact with Sebastien’s arm. “Take Quynh.” He hears them shuffle, then their affirmation. Yusuf leads onwards.
They walk slowly. Each step is a shuffle slide into the deep. With no air vents, lighting a torch will only lead to them choking down here at best. At worst, the heat will melt some of the fragile siding of their path and the whole route will collapse on top of them. Sebastien can be buried alive for the second time this month! Yusuf thinks savagely. He has no reins to squeeze. He can only dig his fingernails into his palm and release when the pain becomes too much for his healing body to bear.
Like their ride, they do not speak. Yusuf tracks their progress primarily through a vague mental map he’d created while they maneuvered to the entrance. His sense of direction, at the very least, continued to insist that they were heading in the right way. And when they crossed under the city walls, he stopped just long enough to tilt his head up. He could just make out the sound of feet echoing through the earth as pedestrians went about their business.
He kept walking. His hand opened and closed as he held it out before him, reopening a bloody set of wounds on his palm with each tight squeeze. By the time his fingers comes to rest against a ladder, his palm radiates heat and disappointment at him for his actions. He doesn’t care. “We need to climb,” he tells them.
Even without the torch, the air quality in the tunnel is weak. He can feel his own chest struggling to fill up, and knows that Sebastien likely isn’t enjoying it any better. Quynh, he imagines, is having a similar reaction to himself. But Quynh is like him. They’ll heal. Sebastien won’t. Not unless he’s healed by them. He’s always healed by them.
He changes topics. Starts to climb. One hand after the other he ascends. It’s not a tall ladder, just meant to take them from the underground to a slightly more acceptable underground: a basement cellar. His fingers find the lock of the hatch and he throws it open. Pushing up, he grits his teeth to hoist the whole weight of the wood with his shoulder, neck, and head. It smacks open on the other side, making a horrible clanging noise that has Yusuf flinching despite the apparent surety of their route. Continuing upwards, he stands on the steady ground of the cellar and helps lift Sebastien and Quynh up from the tunnel.
“Now what?” Sebastien asks. His voice is hushed, whispering to not draw attention to their secret travels.
“If anyone was going to hear us,” Yusuf tells him at a far more regular volume, “they’d have heard us when we opened the hatch. Quynh?”
“Take hold of Sebastien again, I’ll get us to the door. There should be light up there.” There’s some fumbling. Quynh loses her footing and nearly falls back into the tunnel, but they manage to catch her and hold onto her as they awkwardly stumble through the cellar toward a staircase that smells of mold and hay. It must have flooded during the last rainstorm. The hay has yet to be removed after soaking up its due.
Carefully, they trip up the stairs. Yusuf neglects to have his hand out, too focused on keeping Sebastien and Quynh stable as they awkwardly make their way in the dark. He smacks his shoulder against the cellar door, sending his teeth rattling in the process. Cursing to himself, he uses half useless fingers to find the latch and unlock it.
The door pushes forward and to the side, granting them entrance into a dark room. Yusuf steps in, only to freeze in place at the sound of a blade slicing through the air. He throws one hand up. The other flying in the general direction of whoever’s attacking. Even so, the blade stops perilously close to his throat. His palm loitering useless just beyond it. He hadn’t lifted it in time. He turns his head to squint through the gloom. Just as he thinks he might be able to make out the vague size and shape of the assailant, bright light bursts all around him. Fire erupts on his sleeve he yelps and jerks backward, slapping at the flame that—vanishes quick as it came.
“Nile—” someone starts. It seems like that’s all that needs to be said though, because before he could say anything else, the faint glow of lantern light fills the room. The flames, safely contained behind their glass walls, illuminate their surroundings perfectly. They illuminate Yusuf’s sleeve too, and he’s gratified to see that his shirt really had been lit on fire and he hadn’t hallucinated that in a fit of poorly timed insanity.
Blinking up from his arm, he follows the blade of his assailant as it dips down away from Yusuf’s body. It’s held by a man, lanky and short, but with a straight back and features cut from alabaster stone. Sea green eyes stare at him from an unblemished face that Yusuf recognizes all too well. “The Queen is dead, Stello Nicolo,” Yusuf murmurs. He pulls off his crown and lets its weight carry it to the ground. It clatters with a noise that rings Yusuf’s ears. Even so, he places his hand on his heart. He bows. “Long live the King.”
“Yusuf?” someone says just beyond Nicolo’s shoulder. He wearily lifts his gaze.
The girl standing before him cannot be his sister. Wearing in a deep purple tunic with black trousers and boots, she’s dressed in a way he’s never seen her. Her hair is in two sets of braids tied behind her head. She’s so tall too. Taller than Nicolo still. She’s tall and fit, and when she pushes past Nicolo to throw her arms around Yusuf’s neck, he can feel the strength in her arms. The steadiness of her stance. He catches her, and his head spins. He feels his vision fade a little as he staggers under the weight of her. “Nile…” Nicolo says. Says.
“You talk now,” Sebastien calls out from behind them. Yusuf feels like he’s losing track of what’s happening. Nile’s sobbing into his shoulder. She’s speaking to him but he can’t hear her words. Sebastien is slipping around him. He kisses Nile’s head and she wriggles an arm free to squish him into her hug too. Yusuf’s knees buckle. Sebastien’s arm comes around his back and holds him up.
Quynh’s retrieving the crown, speaking to Nicolo. She calls him Cat still. Why call him Cat? Everyone knows who he is. Everyone must know. Doesn’t Nile know? After all this time? Spots dance across Yusuf’s vision. He says something, slurred and awkward. Nile pulls back. She’s speaking. He sees her lips moving. But the sound is fragmented. A voice underwater. The spots grow larger, larger, he feels his legs collapse underneath him, and he’s gone.
Somewhere, someone cooks something that smells like home. He doesn’t know what it is. It’s warm and savory. He can imagine the salt on his tongue. People are talking. They sound happy.
It’s a good sound.
He thinks it might be real, but he must be asleep.
For once, it’s a good dream.
Yusuf wakes to the sound of a quiet fire crackling across from the bed. The room he’s in is simple and neat. There’s a desk to one side, sheafs of paper with anatomical drawings have been collected and deftly organized on one side. On the other, an inkwell and series of freshly sharpened quills. A dresser with a bowl for washing and a mirror are on the opposite side of the room. But right in front rests the glorious fire. It’s low and just sweetly burning. Someone is tending to it with quiet motions. Yusuf half expects it will be Sebastien, but as he sits up, he realizes that’s wrong.
The rightful King of Mezzaluna glances back at him as Yusuf pushes himself upright. He drops the poker he’d been using and walks to the bed. A glass of water finds itself into Yusuf’s hands. “Nile wanted to speak with your friend,” Nicolo tells him as Yusuf sips. “I told them I’d let them know when you woke.”
“Didn’t want to listen?”
“He hugged me,” Nicolo explains. He sounds mystified by the idea of it, somewhere between fond and uncertain. He touches his shoulder absently, as if recreating the gesture. Yusuf can imagine it too. Can imagine Sebastien wrapping his arms around Nicolo’s body, pressing his face against Nicolo’s shoulder so that Nicolo didn’t need to fear accidental skin to skin contact.
“He spent a long time in the Reaper cells in Città Lunare,” Yusuf murmurs. “We learned about your time there.”
Nicolo is quiet for a long while. So long, that Yusuf half wonders if the Reaper’s soft spoken words had been only a matter of circumstance rather than intention. If it was, Yusuf finds he doesn’t mind all so much. The silence is eerily familiar. Comforting in a way that it shouldn’t be. Maya had been quiet too, for the most part. He’d never doubted that Maya had a mind behind her tongue. Now, he no longer doubts as to the state of Nicolo’s. It’s there. He knows it’s there.
Slowly, Nicolo leans against the wall directly opposite Yusuf. He lets his back slide down it, keeping his right arm tucked in so as not to disturb the desk. He draws his knees up to his chest, but he doesn’t huddle or slip into the far too recognizable pillbug that Yusuf recalls from their first days together. He just rests there, wrists hanging off his knees. “I haven’t heard my name in a long while,” he says.
“Nile doesn’t know?”
“I never told her.” He doesn’t seem all that troubled by the deception. If nothing else, he seems almost placid. Lies are a thing he’s used to, Yusuf thinks. It’s hard to hold yourself to a standard you can’t hold others to. And if he had told Nile...there’s no guarantee to how she’d have reacted.
“I like it,” Nicolo admits, despite that. “Being called called ‘Cat.’ Being...someone else. Stello Nicolo of Mezzaluna didn’t have a good life.” His accent comes across when he speaks his name. He rolls the l’s in a way that Yusuf’s never managed. “Cat just wanted to keep his friend safe.” His arms draw in now. They wrap around his stomach as he stares down at his knees. “That’s something Nicolo could never do.”
“You didn’t have a choice, Cat,” Yusuf tells him. He laughs a little at the absurdity of the assurance. “None of us had many choices, but you least of all.”
“They said Najima killed my Queen at the Kingsmeet.” The non sequitur isn’t unexpected. Yusuf drops his feet off the bed and twists so he can face Cat properly. He hadn’t called the Queen his mother. But, despite the ‘my’ possibly being a natural facet of his people, Yusuf doesn’t think that’s the case.
Cat hugs himself closer. “Can I sit by you?” Yusuf asks. The words leave his lips without conscious thought. Cat seems startled by that too, but nods slowly. His brows furrow, and he watches Yusuf slip from the bed and join him on the floor. Their shoulders press against each other’s. Warmth flares through Yusuf’s body and he relaxes so suddenly he feels a bit dizzy from it all.
“Your father sent us to train with a physician, Elena Copley—”
Cat’s nose scrunches. He tilts his head just a little. He looks so much like the animal he’d been named for that it’s oddly endearing. “Yes?”
“I don’t suppose she dances like the wind is at her hips and her eyes sparkle like the glistening light of fresh morning dew.”
The baffled expression grows even more baffled. Cat’s lips part, his brow sinks so low it’s nearly blocking out his eyes. He’s squinting at Yusuf like he’s trying to read Yusuf’s mind, divining whatever logic he can from the words Yusuf provides. “I don’t...Nile said you write poetry.”
Yusuf laughs and shakes his head. “That’s not mine. I know her husband...or...I think it’s her husband. James Copley. He helped me escape Mezzaluna.”
“Oh...oh! She...she said she was married, but we never saw...she’ll be...happy he is home?” Yusuf nods at this, then twists away. He taps the back of his skull against the wall and looks up at the ceiling. “Elena taught us biology...anatomy,” Cat goes on when Yusuf doesn’t speak. “She says hormones affect emotion. Pain.” Yusuf hums to show he’s listening. “You’re in pain.” Very carefully, Cat tilts the back of his hand so it touches Yusuf’s skin. Yusuf watches him do it, surprised more that Cat’s initiating the contact in the first place.
“You can’t kill me, remember?” Yusuf asks, though this doesn’t quite seem like the latest in a long line of murder attempts. He twists his wrists and lets their palms touch, their fingers interweave. Cat’s skin feels so warm . So different from the aching cold that he used to know.
“I can kill the biological process that’s hurting you,” Cat murmurs. Yusuf doesn’t have the energy to find alarm in that statement. He frowns, though. He lets the thought spiral through his mind. He considers it and all its implications. “The hormones themselves, not what makes them. That would heal right away for you,” Cat hastens to explain. “But...but I can...the hormones themselves are what makes you hurt. I could—”
“—You can be that specific? That targeted?” It’s exhaustingly complex, what Cat’s offering.
“She...she taught us to be specific. To look at the small, not the whole.”
“All life is sacred,” Yusuf murmurs absently. Cat doesn’t seem to understand, but Yusuf doesn’t expect him to. “Have you been doing it now?” he asks. “Keeping me calm?” If he has, it might explain why there’s no panic at the idea. Why there’s no anger. But Cat looks horrified at the idea of altering his hormonal balance without his permission. “You’re not like your brother at all, are you?” Yusuf laughs.
Cat’s fingers twitch against his. He doesn’t draw his hand back, even though he seems to understand that Yusuf isn’t going to agree. Maybe later. Maybe if things become truly overwhelming and Yusuf just needs time to think without the panic and the pain or despair threatening to swallow him whole. Maybe then , Yusuf will say yes. But right now...it’s nice like this. Sitting in the quiet, talking to someone, perhaps the only person in the world, who understands the full depth of the pain he’s in. All his other allies and family members were involved, of course, but they hadn’t been betrayed and manipulated by their parent in order to lose themselves in a twisted game for a crown that seemed so pointless in the end. They both have their own personal traumas, but somehow Yusuf’s story had always been intertwined with Cat’s from the very beginning.
His imaginary friend, finally, made whole.
The rightful King of Mezzaluna picks absently at the sleeve of the hand holding Yusuf’s. He finds a loose thread and tugs and twists it between his thumb and forefinger. “I killed his father,” he says. Or perhaps, he explains. Perhaps this is Cat’s attempt at an explanation. Perhaps this is the way he’s excused all of the horrors of his life. Merrick is justified in being cruel, because Cat had accidentally killed the man who tried to murder him when he’d been reborn as a Reaper.
“Good,” Yusuf bit out, cruelly. Cat frowns. He’s dissatisfied with the response. Perhaps he wanted condemnation. Perhaps he wanted to frighten Yusuf away, scare him from the truth that Yusuf has seen with his own eyes. “You were a child.”
“Are murderers always excused based on their age in Shams?”
“You didn’t murder that man. He tried to kill you. ”
“I swam out too far. It was my fault.”
“He was meant to protect you. He let you drown.”
“Meant to or not, I swam out too far. It was my fault.” Yusuf squeezes Cat’s hand. He changes the topic.
“Merrick will be a terrible King.”
This time, Cat doesn’t hesitate. He takes the comment and its implications at face value. He answers with a calm, “Yes,” but offers no additional thoughts. No memories from how Yusuf had introduced himself. If he were anyone else, Yusuf might suspect that Cat was disinterested, but he can’t be. He’s proven himself incapable of true passivity when it comes to the political turmoil between their two nations. He refused to kill Ibrahim. He stayed with Nile, despite all the options and possibilities for endearing himself to his mother by returning home.
“There’s no law saying you can’t ascend. Your existence was still acknowledged by the Queen in the end.”
“I’m no King,” Cat refutes. His fingers squeeze against Yusuf’s hand. For a moment, Yusuf thinks they should change the topic, but it seems almost self soothing in a way. A quick twitch of his fingers. A desire for more contact. Yusuf squeezes back and he feels some of the tension in Cat’s shoulder dissipate at the gesture.
“Maya thinks you are.”
In a stunning display of speed, Cat turns about. He twists, his body lifting and shifting so his knees fall where his butt once rested. He’s kneeling facing Yusuf know, their fingers still laced together as Cat pulls their hands up. He clasps Yusuf’s hand tight between both of his own, beseeching with what Yusuf can only describe as desperation. “Maya? Maya, is she all right?”
“She’s fine,” Yusuf replies. “I tried to free her...I unlocked her cage. I tried to get her and the others to leave with me. Believe me,” Yusuf sits up, joins his off hand to the mess so all four of their hands are tangled and grasping. “I tried to free her. I swear to you, I do not lie. I asked, and she said...she said that if you needed them there they should stay there. She said they wait for their King. Their true King.”
Tears form in the corners of Cat’s eyes. The strength in his arms goes lax, but Yusuf holds their hands steady. He keeps them together, the burden nothing at all to bear. Not compared to the weight of the crown. The weight of the crown he knows he’s offering Nicolo-who-wishes-only-to-be-Cat.
“There are thousands of Reapers in Mezzaluna. The ones in Città Lunare are only a few of that number. Aside from them, none would know me. None would recognize me. And the people...the people—they hate and fear our kind. They would not accept me. They would…”
“Merrick’s a monster,” Yusuf says.
“Merrick’s a monster,” Cat agrees. His shoulders slump forward. His head bows. “I don’t...I don’t know how to be a King. I...I don’t know if I can be their king.”
“I don’t know if I can, either.” Sea-green eyes peer up from under dark brows. Cat’s frown is palpable. His uncertainty verging on the disbelieving. “What my father...what my uncle did. I can’t...I can’t make those choices. I can’t do what they did. But if that’s what it means to lead...how can I ensure all life is sacred when no matter what choice I make, someone is hurt? If all life is sacred, then doesn’t the weight of the many overwhelm that of the few? Aren’t I—” he breaks off. His chest has started to ache. Pain blossoms in his brain. He pulls one hand away from their desperate clasp so he can push it against his pressure points. It only briefly removes the sting.
Cat watches. He squeezes his hands. Yusuf hesitates, then nods. Slowly, the pain stops. His heart slows. Even so, he feels exhausted and trained. Like he’d been crying for hours and then came to an abrupt halt. He breathes in, breathes out. “I don’t know what to do,” Yusuf admits.
“Elena says, to heal a wound, you need to start small.”
It’s on the tip of his tongue to reply that a war is nothing like a wound. He doesn’t. A war is exactly like a wound. A land once whole is separated by chaos and blood. The various armies fight each other, platelets and germs, sometimes they gain ground but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the bacteria wins and the wound festers. The armies fail. The victim dies.
“I want to go home,” Yusuf admits. He waits.
Cat bites his lip, then offers: “I want to see Maya again.”
“I want to see Amelie and Sebastien get married.”
“I want to see Nile show you what she’s learned.”
“I want the war to end,” Yusuf murmurs.
“I want the war to end,” Cat agrees. “I...don’t want to be King.”
Yusuf hates that there’s nothing else he can say to that except, “Neither do I.” He wishes there could be more. He wishes there could be something else that could make any of this better. There isn’t though. They both know it. “What are we even fighting about?” he asks. “Did you ever find out?”
“No.” Cat shifts off his knees. His legs twist a bit to stretch out to the side. He rests his ribs against Yusuf’s leg. Their hands lower, resting on Yusuf’s lap. “Perhaps that’s what our people have in common,” he suggests. “No one knows why we fight, why we hate, only that we do.”
“Fighting the unknown because at least the fight is familiar.”
Yusuf lets his eyes fall down to their hands. The tangled mess of their union. Giver and Reaper. Mezzaluna and Shams. Sun and Moon. Death and Life. “All life is sacred,” Yusuf murmurs. He shifts a little, straightening his back and resecuring his grip on Cat. “One nation.” Cat doesn’t understand. He shakes his head, questioningly. His sweet look of confusion only driving Yusuf’s idea forward. “One nation, Mezzaluna and Shams combined. No conquering, no fighting, amalgamation.”
Cat looks almost fearful in the face of Yusuf’s enthusiasm. “No one will accept. Thousands of years of hatred cannot be overturned in one day it—”
“Not even in a lifetime,” Yusuf agrees. “Or two. Or three. But eternity. Until the gods deem our time is up. Will they accept then?”
Yusuf can picture it. Thousands of Reapers, of Givers, taken out of the shadows and set free from the cloister of Irania and its purgatory of serve or face judgment. Lives, thousands of lives, that have never before been permitted to engage in politics or have a say in the movement of the country they were born to. No more hiding. No more magical tasks performed ad nauseum for those who wish for fate to intervene. Instead...peace. Real peace.
They live far longer than baseline humans. There has to be a reason. If Life and Death chose them as their vessels, then it must be more than this. Everything happens for a reason. Yusuf’s father always said that if you know enough about someone, you can guess what they’ll do next. He’s spent far too long playing cards with Death. “It will take lifetimes to make true peace between Mezzaluna and Shams. To ensure that the one unified nation can prosper. Never before have there been a chosen member of the royal family...in either country. But here we are, Cat.”
“Like...destiny,” Cat murmurs.
“I don’t want to be King,” Yusuf says again. “But if I have to spend the rest of my life making sure that every single person I meet can have the life they deserve to live, it will be worth it.”
“No more war...because we will be whole…No more hiding.”
“No more hiding.”
“No more cells,” Cat leans closer. His breath comes quick.
“No more cells,” Yusuf replies. He can feel Cat’s pulse. His passion. His belief. The determination that years ago, Yusuf never would have thought possible. But this is the man Maya insisted would come to free them. The man that the Reapers in Città Lunare wait for. The man the gods built for this purpose, just as they built Yusuf.
“We’ll be free? All of us?”
“All of us.”
“Then I will fight, and I will serve, and...I will do what I can to spend my life so that all life can be treated sacred.” Yusuf kisses Cat’s knuckles as Cat tightens his grip. It’s unexpected, but Cat returns the gesture, sealing the promise on both ends.
And outside, the sky comes alight as thousands of stars start to fly. The light bursts so bright and so unexpectedly, that they’re forced to look. To watch. To take in, that in this moment of majesty, there can be no doubt: the gods are on their side.
Nile can’t sleep. She gladly gave up her bed for Sebastien to crawl into. She had no qualms at all about offering Quynh the only other spare bed in the house. She told Elena that she wanted to keep watch, and her mentor nodded silently and hurried off to get her own rest for the evening. Which left Nile to stand in the house that’s been her safehaven and her balm for over a year, listening to the creaks in the wood and the way the wind still fluttered against the shutters.
She stops by Cat’s room in the early hours of the morning, just to double check that everything is fine. She half expects Cat to still be tending to the fire absently as Yusuf dozes on the bed. Instead, as she palms open the door, she finds both Cat and Yusuf curled on the floor—sleeping together. Yusuf’s right arm around Cat’s waist, his left beneath Cat’s head. Cat’s holding on to Yusuf’s left thumb, and they were breathing in unison. Perhaps even dreaming good dreams. Neither looks unhappy. They inhale and exhale with slow and sleep heavy breaths. Nile tiptoes closer. She pulls the duvet from the bed and gently drapes it around them. They don’t wake. Not even when she deposits a couple of pillows nearby in case they do wake and want something other than their shoulders, arms, and hard stone for comfort.
It’s strange, Nile thinks as she observes how close Cat has pressed himself against Yusuf’s body, I didn’t think he’d like that. It’s not her place to judge, nor even her place to have an opinion one way or another. But something about seeing Cat so comfortable with someone’s arms around him makes her heart flutter. He deserves it, she decides, and slips away as quietly as she can.
She takes to busying herself around the house after that. She tidies things that didn’t exactly need tidying. She checks on their yeast supply and starts making bread for the morning. She presses her hand to the dough and imagines the yeast sighing out, releasing their gasses and allowing the bread to rise. It does in a matter of moments, and Nile makes quick work of preparing the oven for baking. A flick of the wrist and the fire starts. A blink of the eye and it settles to the exact height and strength she wants it to be. She moulds her dough in the meantime, getting it nice and round and perfect before placing it in the oven.
Nile next descends into their apparently far more interesting cellar than she thought it had any right to be, and collects some of the eggs they’d purchased from the market. She brings them up and settles them in a bowl on the kitchen counter to deal with later, then returns to the cellar for some fruits and salted meats.
The work is good and steady. When her brother wakes, she wants him to find a warm home filled with comforts and good food. She absently keeps track of the temperature of the house, willing the hearthfire to grow stronger whenever it seems a touch too cold for her liking. By the time the sun starts to peek out over the horizon, the bread has finished and the house feels as cozy as a daydream.
Elena wakes first, coming down the stone steps with her dancer’s grace. She checks on Nile’s progress and squints speculatively at her loaf. “Have you been at this all night, child?” she asks, gently squeezing by Nile so she can take a look at the veritable feast that Nile’s prepared for everyone. The mellons have been sliced into decent sized wedges. The apples have been cored. The strips of jerky are laid out with delicate care. Napkins and plates are stacked up, ready for use.
“I wanted it to be perfect,” Nile admits quietly.
“It’s lovely,” Elena encourages. “Why don’t you set another bread in the oven while we wait?” She does as she’s bid, and only somewhat listens as Elena steps out into the back garden to collect some flowers for a pitcher on the table.
A door opens upstairs, and Nile holds her breath as she waits to see who it is. The movements don’t sound like anyone in particular, but each movement is confident. There’s no confusion as to which way to go. Feet appear at the top of the steps, and as they come more into view, Nile releases the air in her lungs. Yusuf.
He doesn’t see her right away, his eyes going to Elena who’s arranging the flowers into a beautiful bouquet. He speaks her name in full, though, an inquiring confidence that fills Nile with a sense of ease. “Elena Copley?” he asks. Elena jumps, twisting about, weidling a jasmine like a sword. When she sees him, her face pales. She does a half-way mix between a courtesy and a bow, flower flapping awkwardly against her heart. Nile laughs loudly, drawing Yusuf’s eyes to her. He hesitates, then returns his gaze to Elena. “There’s no need, but thank you,” he says.
“Your majesty, I...It’s an honor to…” she doesn’t seem to know what to say. Even when Nile first arrived, she hadn’t been accorded this level of paranoia.
“Relax, Elena, it’s just my brother,” Nile suggests calmly.
“He’s the King!” Elena insists, twisting around to give Nile a dirty look that Nile deftly ignores.
“Yes, well, there’s no need,” Yusuf interjects. “Though...I wonder, last night, did anyone go fetch our companions?” he asks.
“Companions?” Elena asks. Nile doesn’t quite know what he’s getting at either. But he looks exhausted at having to explain. He presses a hand to his face and sighs so heavily that even Nile feels like she’s let him down somehow.
“James was the one who helped Sebastien and I escape Mezzaluna. He and my guard, Andromache, are outside. Would you be able to request the gates to open for them?”
“ My James?” she asks, and there’s no hiding her delight at the idea. Nile’s heard her speak of her husband more times than she can count, but hearing the pure joy in Elena’s voice now is almost like experiencing that joy personally. It’s an infectious sound that grows even more so as Yusuf nods. All at once Elenea is moving. She shoves her jasmine haphazardly back into the pitcher and flurries out the door, barely remembering to collect her outer cloak as she does so. She does another half courtesy half bow before she nearly trips on her ankles to depart, the door closing with a far too loud bang for so early in the morning. Nile winces at it all.
“She’s not usually so...excitable,” Nile explains, even as her brother finishes descending the stairs and walks toward her. He holds out his arms, and Nile hurries to him. She folds herself into his embrace, stunned a little at the idea that her cheek can rest so easily against his. That her arms go around his neck with surprising ease and there’s no need to stand on her toes to manage it. He squeezes tight around her back. He breathes steady along her throat. “I’ve missed you, little sister,” he murmurs, and it’s the exact words she’d wanted to hear yesterday when he’d all but collapsed against her. He kisses her cheek. Her forehead. Her hair. He pulls back and cradles her face between his palms. Examining her as if seeing her for the very first time. “You grew so much.”
“So did you,” she says, though it’s only slightly less accurate. He’s far too thin. His beard is scraggly and ill kempt. His hair is too long and his eyes have sunken in some. But she can tell that he’s aged. She can tell that he’s not quite the man he’d been when he departed. His fingers tremble a little as they hold her face. She asks, “What’s wrong?” and slowly lifts her hands to wrap around his wrists.
He draws her in to kiss her brow once more, then gently pulls entirely away. She keeps her fingers around his wrists, not willing to be parted. “I’m tired,” he murmurs.
So she guides him. Calmly, she takes him to a dining table and sits him in a simple wooden chair lacking any of the adornments a King usually receives. He hardly seems to notice or care. He sinks into it willingly. Nile kneels at his side, just like she used to when she was a much smaller girl and wanted to hear all of his stories about all of his adventures. “Father wrote you a letter, before he died,” Yusuf says. He speaks strangely now. Stilted and awkward, like there’s a flow to conversation that he missed at some point and he can only manage a few thoughts at a time. “He wrote all of us...I haven’t read mine. Need to give Sebastien his.”
“Before we were sent here, father said Najima was going to assassinate him.”
“That was the plan,” Yusuf agrees wearily.
“Sebastien says Najima didn’t kill him.”
“He didn’t. Hopefully that’s in the letter.”
“Why didn’t you read yours?”
“I’m tired,” Yusuf says again.
“Sebastien says you haven’t been sleeping.”
“Sebastien says a lot for someone who forgot Andromache and Copley were waiting for the gates to open for them.”
Nile winces at the savagery of that. A lot had happened last night. A lot that Yusuf hadn’t been there for. “He’s scared,” she murmurs. Yusuf’s shoulders slump a bit. He reaches into his shirt and removes a packet of envelopes. Silently, he hands over one that has her name on it. She takes it, but doesn’t open it. “Why did father lie to me?”
“To make sure the lie was believed,” Yusuf says. “Do you ever think of the line of succession?” he asks. He doesn’t look up from the envelopes. He shuffles through them like cards. One after the other after the other, shifting them backwards and forwards without stopping. There aren’t a lot of envelopes, but they’re thick enough to make the trick look like something worth seeing. She wonders if the paper inside is bending. If the recipients will be unhappy when they see the results of his work. “My father, then me, then Najima, then Amelie. He knew Amelie and Sebastien were making plans. Najima gave Amelie his approval already, Sebastien already had mine. I can’t die, but Sebastien can. Did. Has.” Yusuf keeps flipping the envelopes. Nile catches names. Nicolo, Sebastien, Yusuf, Amelie. “He knew Sebastien could die. When Najima informed him that Sebastien was with me when we left for Irania, it didn’t matter. My father...our King, purposefully planned so let us get captured, knowing Sebastien... knowing that Bas…” The shuffling stops. Yusuf tosses the envelopes onto the table and lets his hand fall, empty, into the space between his knees. “What if I hadn’t been in time?” he asks the floor. “What if I hadn’t saved him. Father and Najima would have still died, and that leaves Amelie and I to...what? Pretend? Hope she finds someone else to love after eight years of courting?”
“You can always find someone to love too,” Nile murmurs. “You’re more than capable of having children. Of continuing the line on your own. Amelie doesn’t need to be the one to do it.”
“I’ve never loved anyone,” Yusuf refutes.
It’s true. She’d never seen him with someone at court. He’d dance with those he needed to. He’d chat and laugh with his peers. He’d smile and do his duty, but he’d never accepted any private meetings with anyone. He’d never written letters to a man or woman that had caught his eye. He’d written poems for Sebastien and Amelie and...well. “You definitely seemed to reserve any personal daydreams to private fantasies of a moon prince that’ll help you end a war, but still. You and Cat seemed cosy last nigh—”
“—never joke about that again.” Nile’s mouth snaps closed. She stares at him, horror sliding through her as he glares, actually glares at her. He’s never chastised her, not once. Not even when she’d been at her worst. Not even when she’d kicked and screamed and yelled just to get his attention. He’d always been calm and patient with her. Always laughing and joking. Always sweet. “He’s not some plaything that happens to fit into a fairy-tale. He’s a real person. And I never once wrote of him like that.”
“What are you talking about?” she asks.
Yusuf’s glare lessens, but only enough so he can ask her: “Do you know who he really is, Nile?”
“He never said,” she replies, slow and careful.
“He’s Queen Astra of Mezzaluna’s firstborn son, Nicolo. When he died at age five, he was revived as a Reaper. He is that moon prince. And it doesn’t matter what I thought of as a child, that has nothing to do with who he is now or what he’s been through. I didn’t hold him because of a child’s hope. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Did father know?” Nile asks. It’s the only thing she can think of to say as she throws herself backwards through time. To the first moment she saw Cat. To when she healed his face. To their many moments of play and conflict over their years of companionship.
“Yes,” Yusuf says. “Maybe it’s in your letter.”
If it is, she’s not entirely sure that she wants to see it. Anger is building up within her. She presses her lips tight as she glares down at the envelope in her hands. “He met with Cat, twice, by themselves before we left Jerrah.” She wonders now, more than ever, what they talked about. What they decided there in the light while she continued to be kept in the dark. He was her friend. He was her friend and he didn’t feel comfortable telling her the truth. Not even after all this time. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Because he loved being Cat,” Yusuf says. “Being Nicolo never did anything good for him in his whole life. And as your friend...he could just be the person he wanted to be. I think you can understand that, can’t you?”
Wanting to be who she wanted to be is perhaps the only thing she does understand out of all of this chaos. Her eyes fall to her purple sleeves, saved up for and chosen specifically by her without the interference of anyone else. She’d made the dye herself. She’d mixed it and sank her white clothes into it to make it perfect. The rich color against her black skin seems to cast a luminescent glow. She will never be a proper Giver of Irania. She can’t. She knows that now. And the same is true for Cat. “Our friendship wasn’t a lie?” she asks Yusuf.
“Talk to him,” he suggests. “I don’t think it was, but you need to talk to him about it. Besides...I hear you’re the one that gave him his face back. Who would want to break the heart of someone who did that for them?” She huffs a laugh and he nudges her a little. “I couldn’t do it. I tried. You’re pretty amazing, Nile, you know that?”
“Wait until you can see what else I can do,” Nile says, winking. “Elena’s taught me a lot.”
“I look forward to finding out someday,” he murmurs.
She leans a little more against Yusuf’s legs, says, “I still think you were cute together,” and gets a tug on her braids in retribution. It feels so good to have him back. “I missed you, brother,” she tells him. “I’m sorry I never saved you.”
“It’s not your fault,” Yusuf replies, gently massaging her scalp where he’d so rightfully took vengeance on her hair. “I don’t think anything could have helped us in the end. It all happened the way our father wanted it to happen...And no amount of spite is worth it at this point.”
“I’m still sorry.”
“Me too.” He reaches down and wraps his arms around her. She lets herself fall into the embrace. The warmth, the love, the understanding. She holds him and lets go of the anger and frustration. None of that matters right now. It’s things that can be dealt with later. Holding onto her brother, she breathes him in, and finds peace in his arms.
Elena takes her time coming back.
Hours pass while she’s down at the gate. The others wake, and Nile feeds them her breakfast. Sebastien stares at the food with the same look of fervor that had set Nile’s teeth on edge the night before. He’d devoured every speck of food on the plate they provided for him, and it had taken Quynh to keep him from being sick all over himself as a result. “Sorry,” he’d said as Quynh pressed her hands to his stomach. “Haven’t...eaten in a while…” Today, Nile had hoped some of that crazed desperation would have faded. Instead, it seems to only have gotten worse. He tears into his bread so fast that even Yusuf hesitates and watches.
The difference between them is stark. Even as thin and waiflike as Yusuf is, he eats almost deliriously slow. Like every bite is something to be memorized and appreciated. Sebastien starts out with an attempt at being polite, but it fails within moments. He tears huge chunks of food off and grabs for more even as he’s still chewing. He’s barely swallowed before he goes for another. At his side, Cat quietly adds more to Sebastien’s plate without being asked. He doesn’t speak much in groups as it is, but he’s been particularly mute since Sebastien’s desperation became clear.
Like clockwork, Nile can tell the exact moment that Sebastien’s stomach cramps at the sudden addition of so many foods. He groans pitifully and Quynh slides her fingers around his wrist with a grim expression as she sets about her work. It’s on the tip of Nile’s tongue to ask if starvation is the standard practice of people in Mezzaluna, but she remembers all too well how emaciated Cat had been when he’d first arrived in Irania. Asking now just seems petty. She keeps it to herself, and slides an extra mellon for Cat to eat when she notices that he’s been more focused on feeding Sebastian than putting food in his own mouth.
When they finish eating, Cat helps her with the dishes as Yusuf talks to Sebastien in quiet tones not meant for their ears. “I wouldn’t have told anyone,” Nile tells her friend as she pumps water from the well. “You could have told me who you were.”
Cat doesn’t meet her eyes. He watches the water fall and he makes sure that their bucket is perfectly placed for collecting. “At first, it was my mission,” he tells her. “I needed to go to Irania. To kill your family. And then...when Celeste came, I thought I would need to tell you. But your father...Ibrahim said it would be best if I didn’t. That you deserved a few more years not being implicated in this conflict. I thought that was right. And later...I didn’t want it to matter. I wanted to stay here...I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Nile finishes her pumping and together they hoist the bucket up to drag it over to where they needed to do their washing. “I forgive you.” He smiles then, short and sweet. “Besides, you and Yusuf were cute last night and— you’re blushing!” He is. His pale cheeks have gone an awfully dark shade of red. Even the tips of his ears have gone dark. He’s so flustered that he trips over his own feet sending water splashing in all directions. She can’t even bring herself to care. She laughs, bright and amused at the mere idea of the possibility here. “Do you like him, Cat?” she asks, elbowing him even as he tried to bat her away.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Neither does he,” she wags her brows. “You could figure it out together.”
“Stop.” He adjusts his grip on the bucket and they manage to get it into position just as the front door of the house opens and Elena’s voice calls for them to come see her. Releasing their burden, they hurry immediately to their mentor. Their guests emerge from wherever they’d been while Cat and Nile worked, and as they gather in the front room, Nile is stunned to see it isn’t just Andromache and Elena’s husband who have been brought to the door.
Queen-mother Fatima and Amelie are there too. Just as Irbahim had said: upon his death, Fatima would travel to Crowen to stay with them. Nile can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of everything, he’d known that Yusuf and Sebastien would be here too. That they’d all gather at this one point, and this would be the reunion they needed before the next step of their journey together.
Amelie is still wearing her black clothes of mourning. It’s well past her standard grieving period. She’s been battling on the edge of social respectability for too long. Even her carefully delivered letters had mentioned that members of court had been questioning the suitability of such a hysterical handmaiden to their Queen. Amelie has never cared what the court thought of her, though. Nile presses herself as far out of the way as possible as she searches the room for wherever Sebastien is.
He’s there, standing at Yusuf’s side by the stairs. His eyes wide and his skin turning pale as he stares openly, wantingly, at Amelie. Fatima shifts a little to give Amelie room, and Nile slips her hand into Cat’s. She squeezes it. Tugs on his sleeve. Hardly able to contain her own emotions as she watches Amelie glide forward. Sebastien steps down from his position at Yusuf’s side. He walks, awkward and stilted, to his dearest love.
“You...you’re in mourning?” he asks her as they stand only a meter apart. Nile bites her lip. She’s trying so very hard not to bounce on the balls of her feet as Amelie closes the gap between them. When they’d last been together, Sebastien hadn’t been taller than her. Now, he’s nearly a full head taller. He looks down at her, and she raises her hands up to cup his face between her palms.
“Not anymore,” Amelie whispers. “You’re alive.”
“I’m alive,” he agrees, as if he hadn’t quite realized that yet himself. As if the mere thought of it had caught him by surprise when he’d least expected it. “I—your scarf, I...I lost it in Mezzaluna, I’m sorry, I had it, I had it all these years, I promise I—”
Amelie’s lips spread in the most beautiful smile Nile has ever seen. “Sebastien. I have you. ” Then, she pulls Sebastien’s face toward hers, but instead of the customary kiss on the forehead, she seals their lips together. His arms warp around her back and he holds her so close that Nile can’t help the squeal that emerges from her as she yanks harder on Cat’s sleeve.
He’s smiling too, soft and sweet in the way he always smiles at things that he truly likes. He’s never been one for great displays of emotion, but Nile is perfectly content imagining this as his most expressive smile yet. Across from them, even Quynh, as evil as Nile’s still convinced she is, seems pleased by what she’s seeing, and Yusuf...Yusuf couldn’t look more at peace if he tried. He leans against the stairs, fondness radiating from every part of his body.
He approaches only when Sebastien and Amelie part. Only when they have pulled back from each other and seem trapped in their intimacy. Sebastien’s looking at Amelie like she’s the sun upon the earth, and Amelie looks to Sebastien like he’s the reason she can shine at all. When Yusuf approaches, he does so quietly but unobtrusively. He makes no move to part them. He makes no attempt to hold Amelie too. Instead, he touches both of their shoulders with a light sweep of his hand.
He kisses Amelie’s temple and murmurs, “I promised I’d bring him home,” before stepping away from them. He continues on toward his mother and when they embrace, it’s something far different. Where Sebastien and Amelie seemed to need to touch each other to confirm the other actually existed, Yusuf’s hold of his mother is almost cold. It’s an impersonal gesture that seems all the more off when Fatima clings to him with a crushing grip. It’s a grip that is not nearly returned. If anything, Yusuf pulls away, forcing himself back from her when she doesn’t seem ready to let him go. “Did you know?” he asks. Nile wonders to what extents he fully means, but it doesn’t matter. Not really.
Fatima hesitates only for a moment, before nodding. “I knew it all.” Yusuf accepts the answer silently, seeming to mull it over and what that means to him in the end. He’d talked Nile out of some of her anger, but perhaps that had been a tad disingenuous. Perhaps he still had enough anger within him that forgiving his mother would take more time. Afterall, if she’d known and done nothing, did that make her better or worse than Najima who had known and at least tried? “Where’s your crown?” Fatima asks. She touches his hair. His unadorned hair that has been that way since he collapsed the night before.
Before Yusuf can reply, Nile fetches it from the top of the cupboard. They didn’t have a place of honor for it, and it seemed far more important to keep it safe than anything else. She holds it out to him, hoping it’s the right thing to do, but Yusuf stares at it for a long while instead. Eventually, he raises his eyes to look at Cat. “Melt it,” he says, though Nile’s not sure if he’s telling Cat to do it, or just speaking in general. “We’ll make a new one...a new set.”
“A new...set?” Fatima asks. Nile glances between Cat and Yusuf, confusion whirling through her as she tries to work out exactly what that means. She’d been teasing earlier, but that sounded...that sounded far more meaningful than a simple night of sleeping in the same place.
But Cat is nodding. His eyes are on the crown itself, taking in the sun and its sharp rays. “It should be...a sun and moon,” Cat murmurs softly. “Combined.”
“Combined?” Sebastien asks. Nile feels like a swing, flowing from one edge to the other. She keeps snapping left and right, looking between Cat and Yusuf as they talk about something that she doesn’t have a hope in understanding. Not fully. Not yet.
“We’re going to end this war,” Yusuf says. “And make our countries whole. One nation.”
“Where everyone’s free,” Cat murmurs.
“And no one has to pretend any longer.” Yusuf looks back to the crown held in Nile’s hands. “So melt it down. I won’t wear that anymore.”
Fatima makes a noise, somewhere between startled and ashamed. She holds out a hand, reaching out toward the metal ring that used to sit atop King Ibrahim’s head. “That crown has been the symbol of Shams’ monarchy for thousands of years.”
“And our new crown will symbolize a nation of peace for thousands more,” Yusuf replies. “Melt it.” He tells Nile, firm and uncompromising. He places a hand on her shoulder including her where no one has ever bothered before, and then, turning to Cat, he smiles. “We have work to do.”
So we're at the end. Thank you so much for following me on this journey, and for your lovely comments along the way. I am eternally grateful to Kat2107 for serving as a sensitivity reader throughout this story. It's better because of them!
This WILL have a sequel that I'm planning on working on during NANOWRIMO this year, so you should start seeing it posted soon. I'll update this to have a series title so you can subscribe to the series if you'd like to know immediately when it's posted.
I'm very happy that you've made it this far, and I hope to see you all in the next installment!