IF HE DOES NOT COME soon, she may not have the heart to kill him.
For an hour now, she has sat at the foot of her bed, gripping her sword in its crimson scabbard. Over and over she whispers, I am the sword of the Catresou. I was born to avenge the blood of my people.
But her traitor throat aches and her coward eyes sting. Once upon a time, she believed she was only a sword. Now she fears she is only a girl.
She hopes he will come soon. She hopes he will never come.
The casement swings open.
She stands. Her numb hands draw the sword and let the scabbard drop.
His dark eyes are wide as he climbs through the window, but there is no surprise in them when she greets him with the point of her blade, held to his throat.
He looks strangely small. Just a boy, with messy black hair and a sweet laugh she will never hear again.
Her only love, and now her only hate.
“I see you,” she says, speaking the ancient words for the first time, “and I judge you guilty.”
He sighs, and the corner of his mouth tips up just a little. “I know,” he says, and he kneels and bares his neck.
She can smell the blood on him. He is clean: he took the trouble to bathe before coming here to die. But he spilled the life-blood of her kin, and she can smell that guilt upon him—she can almost taste it. Her body shakes with the desire to kill him for it.
She wants him to fight. She wants him to beg. To flee, to threaten, or persuade.
Ever since she met him, she has most terribly wanted.
“Look up at me,” she demands, and he does, his gaze as simple and sure as the night she fell in love with him.
“Why did you come?” she whispers. “You knew what I would do. You know what I must do.”
He swallows: she sees the muscles move in his throat, and she thinks of the blood pulsing just below the skin. He is a fragile, perfect balance of breath and heartbeat, skin and bones and blood. A little world entire, most beautifully made—he was her world, and now she is going to destroy him.
“‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’” She says the words flatly, without tune, but they both remember the sun-drenched afternoon when he sang them to her. “‘Every wise man’s son doth know.’ Why did you come back?”
“Because I’m sorry,” he says hoarsely. “Because I know you loved him. You deserve to avenge him.”
Not because it is her duty. Not because vengeance is written on her skin and the spells that wrote it compel her to obey.
Because she loved her cousin. Because he ruffled her hair and comforted her when she was a little child. Because he is dead and cold now, in a vault beneath their house, his arms sliced open as the embalmers do their work.
And yet even he, her most beloved cousin, never wondered if she wanted to avenge or not.
Nobody ever wondered. Nobody until this boy who kneels before her now.
Slowly she kneels so they are eye to eye, and she lays the sword upon the floor.
“I see you.” Her fingertips trace his cheek; her voice is tiny and soft. “I judge you guilty. But you belong to me now. So all your sins are mine.”
She slides her fingers into his dark hair and kisses him, kisses her dearest sin, again and again. Her heart pounds with the desire to kill him, to wreck and ruin and revenge, but she only clutches him closer, kisses him more fiercely, and his arms wrap around her as he kisses her back.
She will not be the one who kills him.
She will give everything else to her family, to her duty, to the adjuration written on her skin.
But she will not give them this.
THE WALLS THAT KEPT OUT death could drive you mad.
That was the story Runajo had heard, whispered among the other novices: sometimes, when a Sister of Thorn climbed the central tower of the Cloister to inspect the wall of magic that guarded the city, she would go mad and throw herself down. The other novices liked to giggle about it as they sat up late at night in the dormitory, but not one of them ever went up the tower by choice.
Runajo had volunteered for the duty sixteen times.
Some of the novices thought she was already mad. A few probably thought she was brave. Runajo knew she was neither. She just wasn’t fooling herself, like everyone else in the city: she knew they were all dying, no matter what they did.
The daily inspection started at dawn. It took nearly half an hour to climb the narrow stairs of the tower; despite the early morning chill, Runajo was sweating when she finally reached the top. She flung open the trapdoor, heaved herself up, and col- lapsed to the white floor. For a few moments, she did nothing but gasp for breath.
The wind stirred against her face. She heard a soft rustle and looked up.
There was no wall around the rim of the tower’s roof; but there were narrow steel posts, and strung between them, cord after cord of scarlet silk, every inch hung with the slender white finger-bones of those who had been sacrificed to give the wall its power. Each skeleton finger was complete, the bones hung with thread so they could flex in the morning breeze.
Memory clutched at her throat: her mother’s fingers, thin and pale as she wasted away with sickness. When Mother died, one of her hands had rested on the coverlet, and Runajo had seen the last color drain from the knobby joints.
A proper daughter would have gazed at her mother’s dead face and wept. All night as she sat vigil, Runajo had stared at the bony, bone-white fingers and felt nothing at all.
Well, she thought, if you didn’t have a stone in place of a heart, you might not do so well up here.
If Sisters went mad at the top of the tower, it wasn’t the wall that did it, but the world: so vast, and yet so very small.
Runajo wasn’t scared of heights, but it was still a little dizzying to look down to the red-and-white domes of the Cloister. Down the steep slope to the white buildings and twisting roads of the Upper City that clung to the sides of the vast, rocky spike. Down to the grimy mess of the Lower City that tangled on the ground of the island around the base of the city spire; and the water around their island shimmering silver in the early-morning light.
This was Viyara, the last city left alive in the whole world. It was the whole world.
Because very close to the far shore was a barely visible line in the water: the line where the walls of Viyara—the translucent, dearly bought dome—ended.
And outside the walls was death.
The wind must have been blowing all night, for the white fog of the Ruining had drawn back from the far shore. Runajo could see pale beaches and rocky cliffs. She could see the green of moss and the spreading branches of trees—the Ruining was deadly only to humans. She could even see the peaks of the mountains, rising out of the fog that swirled around their slopes.
On the far shore lay the ruins of Zucra, the city that had once been the bustling gateway to Viyara, when people came on pilgrimages from all around the world. But now it was crumbling and abandoned. Its stone quays were empty, the ships having long ago rotted away as they waited for sailors that would never come.
Something moved in its streets.
At that distance, Runajo could barely make it out, but she still saw the sudden scurrying of a tiny, pale figure in the abandoned streets. No. Two figures.
Revenants. The dead that rose and walked again.
Fear slid up her spine like the touch of a cold finger. Her heart pounded, but she refused to let herself look away, so she watched the two tiny figures scramble down the street until they turned a corner and disappeared.
Runajo let out a shaky sigh.
The Ruining was more than the white fog that killed every person it touched. It had changed the nature of death. Even here in Viyara, behind the walls, the dead would rise again within two days, mindless and hungry for the living. And so the bodies had to be cremated first; the furnaces of the Sisters never cooled.
Outside the walls, there was nobody left to burn the dead. In the early years of the Ruining, revenants had crowded the far shore, hungering for the beating hearts inside Viyara. But over the past century they had slowly wandered away. After all, they had a whole world to walk.
That, Runajo believed, was why Sisters sometimes threw themselves down from the tower. Because standing up here, they had to see what everyone pretended wasn’t true: that death had already won. That Viyara’s walls hardly made a difference. That in the end, nobody survived.
It didn’t bother Runajo. She couldn’t pretend she was going to live forever, not after the years she spent helplessly watching her parents die. Up here on the tower, staring death in the face, at least she could fight.
At the center of the tower’s roof was a round hole, about as wide as Runajo was tall. Out of the hole—rising up from a shaft that plunged deeper than the height of the tower, down into the heart of the Cloister—grew the wall. Here, near the base, it looked like seven columns of tiny, faintly glowing bubbles, pressed together into a ring. Overhead, it became transparent as it spread out in a vast dome that covered the city, the island, and part of the water.
Gently, Runajo leaned forward, taking a breath through her nose. The surface of the wall hummed against her lips, then swirled into her mouth.
It was lighter than water, thicker than air. It hummed and almost sang against her tongue; it had a bright, mineral taste, like the scent of sunlight on clean, hot stone.
There was no hint of bitterness, no discord in the not-quite-song. Which meant there were no cracks forming in this part of the wall. No need for adjustments in the spell-weaving chambers far below. But the wall felt thin and faint in her mouth. When Runajo had first tasted it eight months ago, it had been as hot as noon sunlight beating down on her black hair. Now it was barely warm at all.
Tomorrow was the Great Offering, and not a moment too soon. The wall desperately needed the fresh strength it would gain from another human life.
Runajo should have released the mouthful of magic—it was dangerous; if she breathed it in, she would die—but she hesi- tated, rolling it over her tongue. This was why she volunteered to inspect the wall, again and again. Because the wall had been the last great magic of the Sisters, before they had lost so much of their knowledge. When she tasted it, she tasted those vanished secrets.
Visions flickered through her mind: complex diagrams and blueprints, memories of the foundations of the city. The images were so clear, every line as sharp as a needle’s point, she felt sure that if she could just remember them, she would know all the secrets of the city.
But she couldn’t keep them in her head. They faded too quickly, though she tried and tried to memorize the patterns. Finally, when her tongue started to feel numb, she leaned forward and opened her lips. The tiny mouthful of magic swirled back into the wall whence it had come.
Runajo had to check each of the streams rising out of the base; she took a few moments to rest and regain the feeling in her mouth before she went on to the next. And the next, and the next.
Each time she waited, trying to read the secrets hidden in the foam. Each time, she couldn’t. And each time, the knot of frus- tration in her chest drew tighter. They didn’t know how this wall worked. They had the ceremonies to keep weaving it, to check for simple flaws and make small adjustments, but they didn’t understand.
They only knew that to keep the wall standing, they had to offer it human lives. And they knew that the need was increasing: in the beginning, they had only needed to sacrifice every seven years. Now, it was every six months.
Her fingers dug into her palms. They were all dying, and nobody wanted to admit how soon. It was the same sort of cowardice that had made Runajo’s mother spend all of Father’s illness prattling about the things they would do as soon as he was well again. Even at the end, when the tumor in his side had turned into an open wound, Mother still whispered to him that next spring they would sit beneath the flowering trees and she would read him poetry.
For all the years of her father’s illness, and her mother’s illness after, Runajo had been a perfect daughter: silent, obedient, still. She had smiled and agreed with the lies. Her only rebellion had been refusing to hope for either of them.
When Mother finally died, Runajo had joined the Sisters of Thorn the next day, because they were the only ones who resisted death in any way that mattered.
And then she had found that they, too, were sick and unwilling to admit it.
Runajo was done with silent obedience. She refused to watch the whole city fall in her lifetime, without even trying to keep it alive a little longer. Without even knowing why the wall was failing.
And she had a plan. She would take the first step this afternoon, at the Great Offering. It was risky, and it was probably going to get her killed.