The River was not what she expected.
The King Undying reached his naked hand into her chest, and he was merciful even in tyranny. She was dead before she knew it. The waters of the River parted to receive her soul and bore her away, among the wailing ghosts that tore at her hair, her skin, her eyes.
And then the current changed. The great caliginous susurrus of the torrent beyond death quieted, then swelled again, an ebb and flow of blood and salt and debris; the water filled her nose, choked her lungs. The tide tossed her this way and that until, already disoriented, she lost all understanding of where, or what, or who she was. The waves ground her between their roiling jaws, macerating, dissolving her into her component parts and swallowing her entirely.
Then they spit her back out.
Mercymorn the First, the Saint of Joy, the Emperor’s Holy Finger, crawled up the sandy shore, battered and soaked, her drenched hair clinging to her back like the hateful fingers of a lover.
Once, in a fit of contrary desperation, you invited the Saint of Duty into your bed. Well, you tried to; really, you never made it that far. He had you against the wall out on your favourite terrace at Canaan House, his back to the waves crashing against the base of tower. You were not quite sure why you had done it. Certainly it was not because he was such a superior lover—his breath in your ear was louder than the screeching of the gulls, the hard length of him driving into you with relentless but uninspiring force, and afterwards he left you leaning against the brickwork with your shirt half undone and that same hateful need still bubbling inside you. He did not even offer you a cigarette.
Her limbs were heavy and numb. She dragged herself far enough that the waves gently lapping at the sand did not reach her and turned to lie on her back. What light there was bled red and pink and orange over the impossible horizon, not quite warm enough to dry the streaks of salt water from her skin. She had not clutched her chest when she regained her senses, had not dug her fingers into the flesh that the Man Who Became God and the God Who Became Man had rent in twain. She need not have worried. Underneath the salt and sweat and sand, her skin was unbroken and whole.
Mercymorn shivered a little. She had never harboured illusions of actual immortality; it always would have come to this, eventually. If not the Resurrection Beasts, one of her brothers and sisters would have inevitably lost the last shreds of their restraint and rid themselves of her once and for all. In a way, to be murdered by the man whom she loved and hated above all was its own kind of relief.
No, dying had not come as a shock. But she had spent the myriad of her second life up to her knees in the River, dipping in and out like a kingfisher in the spring. She was no expert—no Cassiopeia. Still, she had grown to know that eternal stream of the dead, its currents and rocky shores and piles of driftwood, and this was not the same. This was like the endless ocean on the First, stretching into the distance with no discernible features or boundaries.
Struggling to her feet, Mercymorn turned her back on it. She had washed up on a sandy sort of beach that the ocean rushed up to kiss in a steady, continual crescendo. There was wind; it whipped the sand up into her eyes and the stiffening tendrils of her hair into a frenzied cloud the colour of bruised peaches.
She was utterly alone.
Once, Cassiopeia met your bleary eyes across a table strewn with books and charts and pens with bite marks on the end, and she said, “I know how,” and it was the sudden spark of joy in her voice that made you reach across for her hand and draw her close enough to kiss. She smiled against your lips. Her fingertips slipped into your hair and a stack of flimsy slid to the floor as she leaned into you, and then you were tearing at her cloak and dress and barely noticed as you both toppled backwards.
She had to teach you how to touch her, and your ears would have burned with mortification if you had let them. In the end, you cheated; you were not yet that adept of anatomy, that artist of the carnal that you would hone yourself to be, so it was not as subtle or tidy as you would have liked. Your sister Lyctor frowned at you even as you overwhelmed her with your own clumsy cocktail of artificial ecstasy. You cleaned yourselves up, gathered up your notes, and went on with your work.
A figure stood up in the dunes. The wind rustled long blades of sharp grass against her bare legs; her dark hair swallowed the dying eternal light. Blinking, Mercymorn’s burning eyes struggled to make out where the edges of her bled into the sky above, burnished copper and cinnabar and garnet. She was holding out her hand.
The dead saint fell to her knees and raised her face to the firmament. “It is too much, Lord,” she told the wind and sand and water. “It is too much to bear. Obliterate me, shatter my soul into a billion atoms, swallow me whole, but do not torment me like this. You have won. I surrender.”
Footsteps in the sand, rapidly approaching. A hand at her chin, solid and warm. Her dead cavalier on her knees before her, lovely and unreal as the day she died. “My love,” she said, and her sandstorm eyes burned, “my love, do not cry.” Her clever fingers wiped the tears from Mercymorn’s cheeks. She was smiling.
The first lips you kissed after your first death were those of the man you would come to call God, and Lord, and Teacher. He had raised you to your feet and welcomed you as his disciple and he had kissed you, chastely.
You would come to resent this.
“Do not cry,” the apparition said. “You’re here now. You’re safe.”
Her idiot meat hiccoughed pathetically into the space between them. “I am not in the habit,” she said, “of conversing with illusions.”
Her lovely brows furrowed. “This is not an illusion, my love.” The ghost that was Cristabel kissed Mercymorn’s dead face. She permitted it, trembling, hating how her body leaned foolishly into the touch of soft lips on her skin. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
“This cannot be real. It cannot last. This place—the River—”
“We’re beyond the River now.”
Mercymorn scoffed, a little of her old disdain reasserting itself. “Impossible. There is no beyond the River. It’s the River.”
Cristabel took one of her clenched fists in her hands, turned it over, stroked her fingers until she reluctantly opened up. She took up a handful of sand and let it spill from her palm into Mercymorn’s. “It is only a story,” she said. “All of it is nothing more than a story. Let me show you.” And she dropped her head to press her lips to Mercymorn’s lips, and they were full and hot and tasted like salt.
Augustine tasted like wine, and like the sweet berries you’d had for dessert. Kissing him was part of the ruse. You did not grimace, nor scrunch up your nose. You gave a very convincing little sigh and let your body melt into his and only bit him the once; he grinned at you over God’s bare form prone on his bed with his teeth sharp and stained red, and you rolled your eyes and tossed your hair and bent your head to the task at hand. You had agreed, ahead of time, that you could not afford to be obvious, so you endured the touch of his hands on your body without complaint.
Cristabel laid her out in the dunes like a precious piece of art. Mercymorn’s hands were erratic, grasping at her arms, her waist, her breasts for some sort of proof that she was not dreaming. This could only be a pipe dream, a glittering soap bubble she had conjured in her deliquescing insanity to soothe a myriad of regret and self-hatred. Cristabel caught her fingers with her own and pressed her palms into the cool sand. She kissed her again, soft and gentle, brushed her hair back from her face and knelt beside her to whisper in her ear: “I’m here, I am here, I have you, trust me.”
It had been a long time—ten thousand years—since Mercymorn had trusted someone the way she was being asked to trust now. She had been betrayed, then, and she still despised herself for it. Still, she wanted. She wanted so fiercely that it hurt; she wanted with the fire of a myriad of smouldering ashes finally given new fuel. If this was an illusion, as she knew it was, it was painfully lifelike. The deep brown shade of her dead cavalier’s skin, the tight coils of her hair, the soft curve of her belly covering finely tuned muscle were all exactly as they had been, if a little out of focus.
And her hands—her swordswoman’s hands on Mercymorn’s body! Those hands were the fresh log on the dying fire and the pool of water in the desert. Cristable spread her fingers over her chest and pushed her back down into the sand, and she whispered, “I have you, I have you, trust me, I love you.”
Still, Mercymorn protested, struggled for purchase. But her cavalier had always known how to soothe her, and she did so now, with barely the ghost of a touch; trailing her fingertips through her hair and down her throat to the hollow of her collarbones and the valley between her breasts and lower still, until Mercymorn arched her back and dug her heels into the sand. She whimpered; Cristabel stroked her forehead and said, “Trust me, my love.”
She did not know how long she lay there. Was it a minute? A year? A century? She did not know if time existed here, at the end of all things, on the shore of the great ocean of the dead. At first, all she knew was the touch of her long-dead lover, and her voice in her ear as she brought her ever-so-gently to the brink and down again without ever letting her cross. She heard her own voice say, “This is a dream, it won’t last,” and Cristabel repeating her promises like a prayer: “It is not, and it will.”
She lost all sense of herself. She contradicted, then she whimpered, and at last she begged. Cristabel’s lips were at her neck, fluttering open-mouthed kisses against her skin in time with her fingers dancing over her aching flesh as she teased and soothed all at once. At the end, all she knew was the desperate need humming in her ghost of a body, tenfold the sensation of what her meat could have endured, and finally Cristabel kissed her again and asked: “Do you trust me?”
With the last of her coherence, Mercymorn, swallowed, gasped, “I do,” and fell.
“I love you,” I said over the breakfast table, so early that none of the others were awake yet. You spluttered a little into your teacup, and coughed, and you could not say it back yet. That stung, but I understood; I had pierced your shell, and I had done it without warning, like a poison-tipped arrow from a high-up window. I did not press the matter. That night, as I slept at the foot of your bed, you crept down to touch my face and you whispered my name, and I whispered yours, and you told me you loved me, and when I did what I had to do, it was the last sound I heard from your lips.