Terasadh arrived in the world with a force so abrupt that the resin womb holding her split in two, cracking as she took her first breath and cried out from the shock of being alive.
Her aunt, King Nadjana, was the sole witness; she cleared the infant’s throat of birth-fluids and warmed the infant’s breath with her own. For a week the king secluded herself. In that week she fed the newly-made prince with the juice of ripe language-fruits, the milk of wisdom-orchids, and the nectar of doorway birds. Royal birth is a delicate matter, and she would trust no other to anoint her heir.
At the end of seclusion, Nadjana summoned a foreign seer. She said, “Lay out the possibilities that await my heir, as accurately and specifically as you can.”
The seer loosened their eye sockets and drew out each sphere, all twenty-three. The infant prince quieted as the cast was made, baby senses drawn to the cicada pitch of corneas and irises, the gentle choir of eyelashes and optic nerves.
“As many futures await as stars bud and wither in a universe’s span,” the seer said with embroidered mouths, “but we shall speak of the ones that lie closest to your heir. These are the forks we foresee. In one, he will become a just and wise ruler, but while he will die in peace he will not be remembered. A hundred years after he passes, Dajral will be annexed. In the other, he will march on states uncounted, devastating and conquering all that lies before him. Dajral will stand forever. The third and final fork will see him as the last of your dynasty: he will end Dajral itself, and end you.”
The king studied the seer, considering their shifting mouths and opal eyes. “You will tell me of where her fate will diverge, and how.”
The seer did. After, the king folded the seer’s body back into its cage of slow-moving time. She buried the cage deep, twining her name into its hinge and lid, such that none but she might open it.
Terasadh ul-Samiss, twenty years of age, prince and heir to the empire Dajral. She is hunting.
The beast she rides is steel-bone and hide, its hooves kicking up bleached sand. The desert, they say, is not sediment but ivory ground down by eons: remains of a white giant that Dajral’s founder and first ruler slew. Whether there is truth to the legend Terasadh does not know, but she knows her prey.
At the heart of the desert where six winds cross, there stands a temple of thin-lipped gates and long-throated wells. The prince fights the winds step by step.
She reaches the smallest gate. Here silence falls like a miracle of rain, and for a time Terasadh stands in the quiet. She tethers her mount to a well by hook and shark-rope, smoothing her hand over the beast’s muzzle. It lowers its head, tusks burrowing in the sand for stray shadows to eat.
The small gate comes no higher than Terasadh’s ankle. She kneels before it and speaks in the language of bells she has spent the last five years mastering. Waits.
An eruption of hands. Tapered digits with nails like claws, finer than any pen, the arms as large as palace-pillars. Their color is that of asphyxiation.
Rolling back her robe and sleeve she cuts into the hard meat of her forearm, slices off a thin strip: a bit of flesh, a touch of fat. She places this piece of herself in one of the blue-black palms. The hand withdraws. To bring the sliver of Terasadh to a vast mouth, she imagines, where a tongue–indigo or mauve–licks the still-bloody offering and teeth tar-black crunch down.
On her way back, she encounters a brilliant beast, loping neck to neck with her own. It is sturdy of flank, powerful of legs, and its coat is equal to summer nights. On it is a harness fit for a monarch, shaped precisely for Terasadh, the reins just right in her hand. So exquisite an animal it makes her mount look dull and flat. But she rides on, ignoring the strange beast.
On the second third of her ride, she becomes peculiarly lost, for all that her mastery of the dunes’ topography is second to none. The dunes curve in on themselves; the familiar paths snake and twist. Even the sky, that most absolute of maps, betrays and shifts sidewise. Shadows slip and slide, pooling in cornices and crevices of cloud, spilling wetly over. Even her animal, which has some instinct for homing, circles and turns.
In its confusion, her beast brings her to a house. The roof is laminated paper dipped in woad, and through its thin door Terasadh hears the soothing call of running water. Trained much as any child of Dajral to prize water far above any metal or gem, yet she ignores this house. She presses on, despite the heat that tightens around her throat with the fervor of a noose.
On the last third of her ride, she comes upon an androgyne. Hairless, flesh stone-smooth, eyes the shade of faded bruises. Mouth pitiless and skull soft as fontanelle yet impervious to the winds. Their drape and trousers billow, jellyfish-blue.
She reins her beast to a stop, holds out her hand, and says, “It seems I can’t put it off any longer. Will you come?”
The androgyne nods. When she lifts them on, they sit sidesaddle rather than astride, the way a priest might. They don’t weigh quite like a person of flesh and blood; Terasadh’s beast shifts in mild protest of this dense and unfamiliar heft.
She strokes its flank, a promise of good feed when they’re home. When she turns it around, the sky has righted and the desert’s edge is clear, the path out as close to her as two hands about to touch.
The palace of Dajral, eons old, house and temple to the dynasty. It is built to the scale of giants; its walls are doorless and full of teeth.
Terasadh returns dusty, sand in the folds of her robes and the creases of her boots, her sweat dried down to salt. The wall ripples around her, turning to gentle water to admit, hardening back to bone and iron once she is through. She stables her beast and gives it the best feed to be had: lightning-marbled venison, cartilage still red with death throes, and syrup ink. Later she will bathe and brush it down; for now she has her guest to attend.
She leads and her guest follows. When she loops a delicate gold chain around their wrists, they do not complain. Terasadh leaves them in an unlocked cage, knowing that–bound by the chain–they will not stray or flee.
The palace ceiling is high, the corridors army-wide in times of peace and narrow in times of siege, the better to bottleneck and defend. As a child Terasadh adored the palace, its eelish rooms that hid her from tutors and parents, its flower-corridors that played with her like a friend. As an adult she’s grown to love it more than she loves any person or creature. The core of Dajral, honey steel and anemone resin. The only one to whom it answers above Terasadh is the king.
She takes time making herself presentable: the monarch is never alone or truly private, and so neither is the prince in proximity to kingly audience. Terasadh casts off the grimed robes, washes and oils herself, puts on the symbols of her title. Every position in the palace, from ruler to mechanic to cook, is its own office with attendant rules and lexicon. Hers is exacting in posture, inflection. Down to the angle of the sword she wears–its tip must point just so, not dragging on the floor as a common soldier’s would, nor lifting higher than the monarch’s.
A court in session exerts its own gravity. Flows inbound and outbound, traffic made whiplash-strict by soldiers in armor as impeccable as Terasadh’s. She enters, is announced by a herald who knows how to ensure attention–royalty may not be accorded any less–but does not disrupt the ongoing presentation of tributes. King Nadjana does not demand as much as some of her predecessors, but to allow her city-lords to keep all their taxes and wealth encourages corruption. And so: a new batch of riding-beasts, their coats slate and their tusks black silver. Second comes a system of abacuses, spinning apart complex polynomials and computing vast sums. On it goes, a parade of the finest each province has to offer, competing to outdo the rest.
Terasadh assumes her place at her king’s side. Nadjana nods at her, exact in angle: superior to lesser, monarch to subject. “News, niece?”
“Majesty. I have what I set out to obtain.”
Her aunt’s gaze remains on the tributes and her expression betrays nothing save desultory interest. But the twitch in her scepter-blade, as much appendage to the king as her arm, says all for those who know what to watch. “I will see it.”
Terasadh allows herself a small smile. “As Her Majesty requires. I’ll prepare them.”
She returns to the cage. The walls have grown blue and angular, ridged with white heels and sapphire knees. The androgyne sits cross-legged on the floor, gold chain grown thick and thorned around their wrists. Their expression is stone.
In the language of bells, Terasadh says, “The giants are called a great many things: chain-breaker, eater of rivers and dreams, folder of a hundred paths. But that’s all a mouthful and seems more description than name, so what shall I call you?”
The giant-sending considers her. “Call me what you like.”
She has a name ready. “Bernamés.” The traitor-queen who gave his people to Dajral, the synonym for defeat and surrender.
“I am not conquered. Neither is the accord which I represent.”
“You aren’t what I expected.”
“My power of speech and cognition has been gestating since I came into contact with you; as it crystallizes, I adapt to suit where I have been given to abide. Had you passed me by in the desert, I would have dissolved like a mirage.” Even their appearance has begun to change: the soft head has become more defined, skin stretching taut over an angular skull. “We can play a slow game, you and I, Prince of Dajral. Or we can be efficient, state what we want, and haggle. In such a way we may have a transaction, conclude it with speed, and I will swiftly depart.”
Terasadh joins the sending on the floor, for all that she ought to make the palace produce a chair, elevate her over the sending. Who is unhuman, less even than an automaton or a thinking ghost: the least of the least. But there will be enough etiquette when the king comes. “You make it all sound so simple. What happens when you return to your–”
“Accord. When I return I will be reabsorbed; as a species we do not waste resources. Not flesh, not water.” Bernamés glances at her, sidewise. “That’s something you ought to understand. Time is another resource, not to be squandered.”
“When you are reabsorbed…” Terasadh’s imagination stutters: the mass of writhing hands, perhaps other organs bolted together, a nest of parts animated by appetite. After all, no one has ever seen a giant whole. “What then; do you retain your thought?”
They gesture at themselves. “What you see is an image, a façade built for the occasion. It is of no more import than a garment, to be put on or discarded as necessary. Foremost we are a race of merchants. Now, shall we proceed?”
“Perhaps I prefer the slow game where we intuit each other’s goals and work at bending the other to accept the price we’re willing to pay.”
“As you wish. I’m not the one with a finite duration.”
“Then I ask only your decorum before the king.”
Bernamés shrugs. “A king, what is that? Less than a dress you put on; less than the measure of a minute and lighter by far than a grain of sand. But I will be polite.”
Nadjana is heralded by the blacking-out of the cage, such that she will be the only light. She enters in full regalia, sheathed in radiance: descendant of the sun, born in desert-blaze. In reality her aunt came into the world much as Terasadh did, with no more heat or fury than any other birth. Despite the process and ceremony subsequent, the muck of parturition equalizes. Menial or monarch, it is all drool and noise.
The palace hatches a miniature throne, pushing it forth in heaving labor. The result is luminescent, fashioned to catch and amplify the king’s brilliance. This is acknowledged with a glance from Nadjana, little else. Nadjana’s indifference to the palace has never sat well with Terasadh, not that it is a prince’s place to criticize.
“Emissary,” Nadjana says. “I hope your journey has been tolerable. Consider yourself our guest.”
“My guestship is immaterial, Majesty. Your desire however is paramount.” To the king, Bernamés sounds different: a note or two higher, voice lilting and sweet as though coming from a different set of cords. Not impossible, Terasadh supposes. Who can guess at the anatomy of a giant-sending, at the arrangement of their parts.
The king motions with her scepter, speaking with it, the vocabulary of gesture and edge essential to the ruler’s lexicon. “There is a predictive set that we wish to verify. This, we believe, lies within the capability range of your accord.”
“So it does, Majesty. Give me the set and I will be my accord’s conduit if you grant us requisite compensation.”
“What will that be, emissary? The crown of Dajral is generous.”
“Our service is unique.” The sending cants their head. “For payment, we would have Prince Terasadh.”
The trade is out of the question, that much the king agrees. “And yet the creature is right in that the service they peddle can be found nowhere else.” Nadjana locks her hands together. “Despite their great hunger, ever since their defeat they’ve become leery of humankind. Once you could summon them with the tawdriest bait and they’d come most eagerly. These days, even royal flesh barely suffices.”
They are in the nursery where water runs plenty in stone pots and small fountains, the air sweet with lilies-of-marrow and clean infants. Each has two nurses, one to guard and the other to tend. All are Terasadh’s cousins, parentage no less dynastic than her own, fed the same ceremony at birth: a version that tempers potential, limits ambition, and molds personality to allegiance. Once an heir has been chosen, the others must not be permitted to compete or even aspire to do so.
Terasadh likes to think she will do it differently, make the decision later in each child’s life–eight or twelve–when their deftness of mind and body has already been demonstrated. But she understands the wisdom of shaping the royal child from the start.
“The emissary will not settle for any of them,” Nadjana says.
“My liege,” Terasadh murmurs, “I wasn’t thinking of sacrificing babies–my kin every last one–to save myself.”
“They are of less value than you.” Matter-of-fact. “So what will you do?”
“I’ll negotiate with the creature.” She glances at the children. Uniformly grave, as she must have been at that age, consciousness already wheeling toward thought and information even before they learn to walk: ul-Samiss children speak early. It’s not that they inspire softness in her, but she feels an obligation. “The emissary can be reasoned with.”
“Reasoned not likely, but swayed perhaps.” The king takes one of the babies from a nurse and examines it. She is adept with children, handles infants with the same confidence she handles statecraft. “I trust in your persuasive force, niece.”
Bernamés’ cage has shed the knees and heels, growing in their place a honeycomb of chimes and bells. They are spheres or pyramids, made of zoisite or gleaming clay. Invariably, they are tongueless, blue like the pelt of temporal coyotes. Bernamés lies on their side, cupped in the bed Terasadh has made the palace produce. A dress, red silk, simmers along the length of their limbs and sheathes their torso. “You must understand,” they say as though continuing a conversation, “that I am a door.”
“To what?” Terasadh stands over the bed, hands behind her back. The giant-sending has developed further still: skin deepening to the color of deoxygenated blood, triangles of skin hardening to lavender scales at the shoulders and throat.
“What do you believe we would do to you?”
“Whatever it is would be fatal.”
“And if I assured you that you will be treated with the utmost courtesy, fed and clothed richly? That accord-fragments, shaped to your preference in action and thought, would wait on your every requirement? Time would be slowed for you and you would know no wound or sickness, and it will be as close to forever as humans may attain. Once a year we’ll permit you back into the human world so you may witness the ages advance and history make itself, and it shall be the vantage point of a god.”
She regards the emissary’s back, notes the sinuous curve of spine that was not there before, as if their bones are filling out. “I have duties to my monarch that I must perform, and duties to my subjects likewise. Neither, I fear, shall be feasible from that distance. No matter the largesse of your hospitality.”
Bernamés turns to face her, still prone, head on their arm. Eyelids at half-mast, lashless. “It’s not the unknown that fertilizes the seed of your fear; it is the known danger that there you will be owned, made lesser when from birth you have been trained to supremacy.”
“You know us so well.”
“As the hawk knows the hare. We observe you in all your permutations.” Bernamés pulls upright. Frowns: a crease of cartilage rather than eyebrows. “A culinary fascination, though I’ve never–in this body–tasted what my accord craves. Will you let me? Then you can bargain from a position of some strength.”
Terasadh touches one of the chimes. Softer than she expected, more like fontanelle than it appears. Part of the giant-sending after all, not the palace. “Being eaten alive is hardly a position of strength.”
“Nothing more than a bite and I’ll leave no mark. Or are you so afraid of pain, prince of Dajral?”
Wordlessly she extends her right arm, the same one from which she cut that first slice. Bernamés grasps her elbow, holding Terasadh’s gaze as they bend their mouth to her skin. A brush of lips to begin, then a rasp of tongue. Grainy, far rougher than human, and oddly dry. They lap, pushing at and abrading skin. The sensation plucks the string of her nerves into strange music. Her breath grows thick; her ears fill with drums, and when Bernamés draws blood she feels no pain, only a shuddering intensity.
When Bernamés looks up, mouth rouged sanguine, Terasadh staggers and draws air in harsh ragged gasps. Her palate has flooded with piquant sweetness. On her arm, a small bite: barely visible, as the sending had promised.
“You taste of prophecy,” they say. “A seduction of what could be, written out like fire. Flavors so rich would intoxicate any of us. I see why my accord yearns to have you.”
Terasadh licks the inside of her mouth. The flavor is fading but her head is light, far more than the blood loss warrants. “I will not go to the land of giants.”
“The accord’s realm is nothing like what you imagine.” Bernamés blinks. The whites of their eyes have saturated to azure and their voice slurs. “We’ll compromise; you could start by unchaining me.”
She smiles slightly. “No, but I’ll keep you company.”
A second bed is extended with a partition erected between. Terasadh sleeps with a blade close at hand, mostly for show. Any advantage must be seized, in combat or commerce. She excuses herself from princely duties, relegating them to a pair of uncle-kin: rival siblings, sure to keep one another in check. Occasionally she wonders what would transpire if she chooses to abdicate. Of course some of her cousins are adept and can take her place with some honing and a ceremony of expansion that’d unfetter their intellect, their ambition. Still.
She unreels the sending’s chain, commanding it to length and slack so that Bernamés can be led around the palace like a housebroken coyote. She brings them where the public may not see their prince with this alien creature, who is wide-eyed and inebriated, who breathes her smell with the fixation of first lust. Their attention gives Terasadh a strange thrill: she is used to being offered temptation, not to being tempting–always the one expected to act, not the one acted upon. This is novel, but she is a quick study and has seduced her share of virgins.
When she offers the sending conventional food, they refuse until she feeds them by hand. Bernamés suckles every drop of curry that runs off Terasadh’s thumb; they clean every rivulet of goat milk that trickles down Terasadh’s wrist. No grain of rice escapes this meticulous attention.
In the palace lapidary, Terasadh slops her wine. It spills down a corner of her mouth, warm and bitter-sour. Bernamés, unimpeded by decorum or human code, licks it from her chin. Terasadh sets down her glass, cups the back of their skull. A steady hold. The sending drinks out of her mouth, draining out the wine, their dry rough tongue tickling her gums and incisors.
Their sclera gone blue-black and pupils to pinpricks, they break away.
Her own nerves oscillating like an arrow deep in target, Terasadh says, “Letting you devour me is out of the question, but we might satisfy your appetite another way.”
“Perhaps–” A sharp intake of breath. “Yes, yes.”
A slide, a twist, and the dress goes. Naked, Bernamés is humanlike save that their complexion is perfectly even throughout, like a statue of unblemished iron. They are curious. They explore. Their mouth visits Terasadh’s ankle and knee, hip and navel, the small of her back to the top of her spine. When she touches them in turn she hesitates, unsure of their anatomy–but it corresponds well to what she knows; when she guides them onto her cock, the force of their hunger scatters the butterflies. She has to turn them on their back, put her hand over their mouth. Their keening cry batters at her palm.
The second time, within the cage, under the glare of midday. Bernamés on their hands and knees, pushing back at her, and in climax heaving so hard they nearly throw her off. In orgasm there is something of seismic movements in them, a strength that belies their true genesis. Later they take the length of her cock into their mouth, and though Terasadh is not precisely small they do so with the fluidity of a snake swallowing live prey. Engorged as she is, even that moment’s misgiving–that image–does not stop the climax.
“I will conceive,” Bernamés says over the fruit platter Terasadh’s brought for lunch. They bite into a fresh date.
“Yes. That’ll suffice as my price and conclude our transaction.”
Terasadh, like any royal, takes her contraceptives with a fanatic’s adherence. But she says only, “When can you examine the prophecy?”
“Immediately.” Their eyes gleam, silver rings in their irises catching the desert light. “I am most ready. You’ve awoken in me an eagerness for existence most fragments do not experience, for you are so delicious and we live for the delight of eating.”
“When most lovers say that of me, they don’t mean it quite so literally.” She draws a copy of the prophecy from the pendant around her neck, shakes it out into a semi-solid cloud of ether and script.
The sending grasps the copy, smoothing it over their arm like a glove. When they peel it off again, the prophecy has transmuted into a bouquet, as though by absurdist sleight-of-hand: jagged flowers, faceted leaves. They open their mouth wide, much too wide, and engulf it whole. There is crunching, of bones shattering under unthinkable pressure.
“They are valid predictive sets,” they say, their throat still working, monstrous, “but ultimately all of them are. Your seer was from the accord–” They make a string of syllables, impossible with a human throat, that thump like distant drums. “And the accord does not lie. But some of the prophecies are less linear than others. In human terms, prince, they would be considered false.”
Her mouth is dry. “Which?”
“All but one.” Bernamés opens a hand and pulls a tattered smoke-flower from it. “This is the set, out of three, that sings truest to the alignment of your path. I have translated it for you.”
But there were only two, she wants to say as the flower falls into her hand, and on it clearly written in Dajral script the prediction that she will be the destruction of her empire and her king. That she will be the last of her dynasty. “If that first seer could lie–”
“They circumvented truth because their shaping allows it. I have been shaped by you and, whatever qualities you perceive within yourself, falsehood isn’t one of them. I am obligated to you; that much you can verify with your king if you like.” The sending shrugs. “And these matters of empire and succession mean less than a garment’s casting-off. What matters, Prince Terasadh, is consuming and taking. What matters is to enjoy.”
The king summons. Terasadh answers to say only that she requires more time, but that the giant-emissary is coming around. Nadjana seems certain that Bernamés will not dissemble. “You named the creature,” the king says. “For all beings of the accord, from the least to the most, to name them is to have command of them.”
Terasadh surreptitiously compares her copy of the prophecies with the original, preserved within her aunt’s chamber in amber and written in the giant-tongue. It is exact.
The third time, on cold stone, under the gaze of frigid moons. Bernamés sucks Terasadh to a swollen ache and presses her into the tiles, sharp ridges branding mosaics into her back. She will have marks long after, lacerations then scabs. They climb onto her, slick and hot. They hold her wrists in a grip of stone, and ride her until their cunt constricts and they shout a chorus of iron gongs. Before that she is helpless, her body surges and bucks, she comes and comes until their thighs are lustrous with her seed. They clean it up, every drop.
Terasadh jolts awake inside the cage, stirred by heat and pain-cries.
Night. The window is clasped shut and the darkness is thick, palpable as hide. Still a light from somewhere pierces it. Blade in hand, she pulls aside the partition; takes a small breath, though it is audible only to her. Bernamés, in their seizure of agony, pays her no heed.
She does not, at first, comprehend. Bernamés is gushing not blood but radiance that runs viscous and silver. Their hands have rent the sheets, their legs thrown wide and corded tense, their face affixed into a rictus. “Bernamés,” she says.
Their eyes snap open. “Prince. Soon–” A howl, high and animal, underscored by chimes. They arch. Half of them thrown forward, the other back, as though their body is at war with itself.
Terasadh gradually understands: she has seen this before among the servants and a foreign dignitary who arrived grotesque and gravid, has seen it among the riding-beasts. This alien act, primeval as dying. It requires more help, it requires hands that know nurturing and mending. Knowing neither, she sits and waits and thinks on what constitutes mortality for someone like Bernamés.
She puts the blade aside and draws her gun. Primes the trigger. The bullets have been crafted to kill giant-parts and there is a limited quantity. But Terasadh expects she will require at most two. One for the parent, one for the fetus.
The screaming has slowed to harsh, shallow breathing. The silver radiance has dimmed and Bernamés has subsided, spent and drenched in sweat. In exertion they have the fragrance of baked earth and seared stone. Not unpleasant. Terasadh takes aim.
A hand closes on hers. She looks down into a small, very human face. Nothing of the giant pallor: even in this flawed half-light, she sees skin not unlike her own. And the features–she’s trained to search crowds for the ul-Samiss look, the better to make certain that no cousin or uncle has been indiscreet. This child is not merely the ul-Samiss look, seed thrice removed, but the ul-Samiss mold.
“If you would put her down like a beast whose use has expired, Mother, then first kill me. For I do not wish my first sight in the world to be the destruction of the one who gave me life.” The voice is high as all children’s are but the enunciation is perfect. The small hand moves Terasadh’s until the gun’s barrel rests against the child’s forehead. “There, she is insensate and will not see. Do it at once, Mother. A single shot is all it takes. Execute her immediately after, so she needs not wake and weep at my demise.”
“What are you?” she asks, soft. Finger on the trigger.
“The flowering of your seed and her engine-womb.” The child blinks. They have long lashes, and their hair seems as black as Terasadh’s own. “If you will not kill me, then quickly name me. In such a way you can trust that I will be bound to your will.”
An offering, a sacrifice of freedom so they may survive. She judges the child to be, in appearance, no older than three. “Murazend.”
The child bows, one hand on their heart. “Murazend it is. Now I beg you for blood, Mother. A drop or two and Father will revive, so vital and mighty is your heart.”
Terasadh recognizes court flattery when she hears it. Nevertheless she accedes with a prick of the blade.
When Bernamés wakes, galvanized by that sip of Terasadh, they pull Murazend close to them and wrap the child in torn, damp sheets. The palace has brightened the cage, giving it the warmth of candlelight. Terasadh studies the child for traces of imperfection, hints of the giant, but she can find none. Unless she has Murazend vivisected, at surface this creature seems of Dajral entirely. Untainted by the otherness of Bernamés, untouched by the grotesquerie of the accord.
It is not that Murazend inspires softness–no newborn alive could be colder, save those carved from marble and quartz–but there is an obligation.
She has them both wait. Terasadh seldom visits the nursery alone, having little need for the society of toddlers and infants. At night each child is taken to their own room adjacent to the nursery proper, but some of the nurses remain to stand guard. No one will refuse her anything, though they will report it to the king. A whim, she tells them, before taking off with small garments, gentle soap, a box of sweets that smell of honey and burnt wings. Nadjana will assume it is Bernamés’ caprice she fulfills, some incomprehensible giant-impulse driving them to take interest in nursery paraphernalia.
Murazend cleans themselves without complaint, washing the silvery vernix from their limbs and hair. They put on the nursery clothes, examining the embroidery and fabric. “This is priceless and must cost more than a month’s meals for an entire household.”
“Not a month’s water. Half a week’s at most, and only for drinking, not cleaning or much else.” Terasadh sets down the sweets and pours three glasses of water, not that Bernamés has ever evinced any thirst. No telling what Murazend requires for sustenance. “Now I command you both. Is Dajral’s doom you claim I will bring related to either of you? Speak clearly and thoroughly, without obfuscation or distortion or falsehood: whether my contact with Bernamés or Murazend–or any part of the accord, or my learning of the language of bells–will precipitate the destruction of the ul-Samiss dynasty, the Dajral Empire, the rule of order as I know it.”
Bernamés, covered in sheets, has one arm around Murazend as though to bestow protection. An aegis of sheer presence as though they are aware of what Terasadh meant to do while they were in labor. “She hasn’t yet come into prescience, prince.”
“I have an intuition–like a coyote’s. A little forward, a little backward. It’s a matter of putting my feet sideways, fast, before time can re-snare me in its tar.” Murazend opens the confectionery box and delicately selects a piece. Sugar-burnt cactus paste, wrapped in thin pastry and garnished with antennae. “I can verify, Father.”
The sending gathers the child closer still. “None of us can truly lie; your king’s seer bent the truth. They pronounced that a foreign influence will lead you astray into a war beyond the desert. But though your future is mist, as that of all humans is, mine and Murazend’s are bound in geometry. This much is clear: whether or not you shatter Dajral has nothing to do with our war.”
“Your war.” Terasadh looks from Bernamés to Murazend.
To which the child says, “The accord didn’t send Father here for you alone, Mother. She was sent to create me, and so at last secure victory over All-Tips-Toward-Balance, the accord which spawned the seer who spoke at your birth. The seer who has been doing their utmost to prevent this sequence of events, to have your aunt kill you in infancy.”
“A war.” Pieces of her cognition lag behind; Terasadh settles with latching onto the specifics–the cruxes of any conflict. “A war over what, and what have I do to with it? Explain to me clearly.”
“The future of the accords are geometry. The most exact kind.” Bernamés draws shapes in the air, isosceles and quadrilaterals. “We can measure the angle of divergence, estimate the distance to and from the endpoint. We inhale theories of what might be, exhale axioms of what will be. Through collective calculations we can affect where we go. But each accord has its own objective.”
“Those objectives don’t agree.”
“Tomorrow cannot be portioned out by treaties, traded like cattle or water or land. One accord must have control total and absolute. Mine and All-Tips-Toward-Balance have long been locked in combat. You are touched by their seer’s prediction and–” Bernamés pauses, straining between their accord’s secrets and Terasadh’s command. “You gave us their prophecy, one that contains the formulae of All-Tips-Toward-Balance. By incorporating them into Murazend’s making I’ve given my accord a weapon.”
“And through all this,” Terasadh says, “I’ve been an unwitting tool. Have been, if you’re to be believed, ever since I came into the world.”
The sending holds up their chain-gilded wrists. “The accords do not exist in relation to humankind. We’re sent forth to trade our services for food; all else is incidental. I have obeyed your purposes,” Bernamés says softly, “and fulfilled your desires.”
Terasadh listens to the palace breathe. It reaches for her in its own affectionate way, subtle touches that it doesn’t quite do around Nadjana: a tile might warm to her hand, pieces of furniture soften to her just right, the little things. It serves faithfully.
“Bernamés,” she says. “Who name-shaped the seer from All-Tips-Toward-Balance?”
“Your elder. Your aunt.”
And the seer had acted against her aunt, had tried to kill Terasadh. The seer that, accord or not, was shaped by Nadjana and reflects her nature.
“I’ll let both of you go,” Terasadh says, “but I’ll bind you to a promise.”
General Terasadh ul-Samiss, seventy-five. The pride of an army, a conqueror who has rearranged five nations and realigned a thousand maps. She is dying.
It is a wound sustained decades past from Nadjana’s hand. It hurts her intermittently, according to the crossing of certain stars and the slant of certain shadows; it hurts particularly in the presence of any commemoration of the vanquished king. Terasadh’s soldiers thought she would have every portrait and manuscript burned that bears Nadjana’s name or likeness, but she has not done so. She has borne the affliction; bears it now to the last of its throes.
By the side of a river, under the shade of a dancer canopy, the general rests. She is alone, though her war camp is not far. Where she goes, war camps spring up like flowers eager for the sun. They are her shadow, her wet footprints on the sand, and whether or not she wills it, their presence is inevitable.
Her eyes are shut. Age has chiseled grooves into the teak of her skin and scars run shiny along her bared chest, silvered by the light. She listens to the greenness of river water and the determination of herons as they fish. In her old age these are the things she has come to favor. Her younger self would have been amused, scornful, but she doesn’t hold her younger self in high regard. Save in one matter.
At the mouth of the war camp, a maid approaches. She is tall and thickly built, umber of complexion, and there is a certain look to her that startles the guards. It is not her peculiar dress–she is armored in stone shards and basalt drapes–but her countenance. Few would see it without observing the resemblance in the set of this maid’s eyes, the slope of her broad shoulders, the shape of her nose. Even so, when she requests entry they bar her way until the general’s second arrives to say, “General Terasadh is expecting her.”
The maid passes through the gauntlet of gray spears and black gunpowder, shield-bearing poets and bright-eyed warriors. Coming to the dancer tree, she does not kneel or bow.
“Where is Bernamés?” asks the general.
Terasadh opens her eyes. “Is that how the accords make battle? I’d imagined it a more mechanical process, like a game on a board. Mannered rules and calculations, very abstract.”
“All war is the same, Mother, no matter the participants or the cause. It is attrition and asymmetry.” Murazend sits, cross-legged, and lifts a basalt fold to show burn scars across a small, pale breast. The scars are blue, hexagonal, as though she’s been branded and then injected with woad. “The accord is unhappy with me for introducing the human strain into our realm and bringing with it the blood and gristle of mortality. But I brought us victory and now I am indispensable, for there are other accords with which we must settle the tally of tomorrow.”
The general looks her child up and down, the construct of her most lasting youthful decision. “You’ve grown.”
“As have you. I didn’t expect to collect you so soon. What are you, Mother, seventy?” Murazend does not wait for confirmation; she lets the basalt fall back in place, clicking a short and abortive threnody. “The accord is not wrong that I brought with me the human strain. You’ve infected us both, myself and Father. We have felt discontent and we have felt apart. Father did not consent to being reabsorbed; instead he fought as a human might. I’ve found myself longing for company, and the accord as a rule does not feel loneliness.”
Terasadh brushes off a stray ballet-leaf. “I fear the fault isn’t mine, little child. At the time I was using contraceptives and my seed shouldn’t have borne fruit, but Bernamés was determined, was he not? I don’t suppose anyone made playmates or lovers for you.”
“I did not inherit all your frailties.” The half-giant unbuckles her belt, lays down her arms: arrows with air-woven shafts and diamond tips, a gun whose grip and barrel blister the air with cold. Under the gun, grass hardens to green rime, soil first to slush then glittering sardonyx. “Why did you part ways with your king?”
“Why did I kill her, you mean?” The general looks down at her fatal scar. Always fresh, always seeping blood. The kinship curse has a way of enduring, and Nadjana’s grudge is potent. “She disowned me as an heir over a disagreement we had in statecraft. Then the palace rebelled against her, which she could not abide. Among other things.”
“Such as letting us go, Mother?”
“Such as that.” Terasadh touches the wound and extends her hand, fingers tipped red. “You must be hungry.”
Murazend does not partake. “I doubt your king’s poison will touch me, but better safe. I’m here and yet not. A portion of me abides in accord-plane, an equilibrium I strive to maintain. The slightest alchemic shift may destabilize.” She passes her hand over the weapons. “You made us a pledge to retrieve you as you lie dying and take you into our country. Why?”
“Bernamés once told me that in the giants’ country I can be cured of all ills and my life extended.”
“I suppose.” The maid gathers up her instruments, arrows and gun disappearing behind her belt. They smooth into her clothes the way pebbles sink into a pond.
“You told me that my empire will fall. Look toward Dajral. What do you see?”
Her offspring does not oblige, keeping her gaze on Terasadh rather than the empire’s direction. “When I departed, it seemed in orderly shape, but your people’s affairs are not mine.”
“All roads of worth lead to Dajral, tribute and commerce and learning. It’s taken some work, but these days it’s in a state with which I am satisfied. A golden age begins. But it will not last; in two or five generations it will unravel.” Terasadh’s face pinches–a spasm knifes through her, radiating from the wound. “Take me to the giants’ country. Out here time will leap and gallop without me, and one day Dajral will fall into crisis as the seer foretold. A courageous magistrate or canny strategist will set forth towards the ruins of giants, and there seek a lost general who sleeps and waits, to rise once more to serve the empire in its time of need.”
Murazend twists her mouth. “You have left a trail of legends and prophetic promise to that effect, no doubt.”
“Most will distort. Some will survive.”
“That is a great deal of faith placed on chance.” Murazend straightens. “But it is not my concern. Once I have done this I’ll be bound to you no longer. I will be free.”
“So run all parent-child bonds. Obligation, transaction.” Terasadh stands, with some difficulty. Her child does not offer a hand. “I’m ready. Shall we go?”
The half-giant maid shakes out her basalt dress, which thins ether-soft and billows out into a veil: over air, over matter, a doorway into somewhere other. “Thus our pact concludes.”
“Not quite yet. But soon enough.” Head held high, the general looks back to her war camp, to the history she is leaving behind.
She faces the gate and disappears from this world.