by Kate Connors
Bound by oath, Atticus Yearwood is forced to fight for the bloodthirsty king.
3. Soldier, Killer
Stand outside the throne room. Hold a rifle and stand outside the throne room. Listen and wait and hold a rifle and stand outside the throne room. Bhatan is the easiest posting I’ve ever held. I don’t have to move, I just have to stand, but even that is asking a lot right now. Trying to maintain blood flow to my head, my weight shifts in rhythm—left, right, left, right. Lucky the king can’t see me sway. I’d make him motion sick.
My chest plate is too heavy, and the pouches attached to it are arranged differently than they were on the old one. Footsteps in the hallway. I wasn’t paying attention when I filled them this morning. My index finger clicks off the rifle’s safety. Left is heavier than right and I can’t decide whether that makes left worse or better to stand on. Just servants passing by. My weight hangs on the right side. The safety clicks on. Right is worse. Footsteps in the hallway. Twelve hours of this and I’m in minute twenty. The safety clicks off.
Among mice I am out of place, not shiny enough. The swords and bows they carry are all engraved with markings that have some bearing on their magic, yet more I don’t understand about these people. My assault rifle and sidearm are conformists. No markings, no magic. Regular guns. And for some reason the mice still balk.
More footsteps in the hallway. These aren’t passing by. I move directly in front of the door as a mountain lion appears under the archway. Tail lashing, she stops within arm’s reach. Lifts her chin. Lets out a low growl. All the mountain lions I’ve met were mercenaries, but this one wears Suderian armor. Tensions run high on the border, probably one of the reasons for her visit. “I have an appointment,” she tells me, the armor on her chest glinting.
“Your name.” I’m not asking.
“Margot Sunshot. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“The reason for your visit?”
Jaws parting, her tongue runs across her bone-white incisors. “I need to speak to the rat king.” She must think as highly of him as I do.
“Not what. Whom.”
Helpful. “I need to know the reason for your visit before you can go in.”
“You already know, slave,” Sunshot spits. “Let me in.”
“You and your sword? Or just you?” Sunshot’s dagger finds its way to my throat, but the muzzle of my rifle against her breastplate stops her before she can draw blood. I could pull the trigger. I could pull the trigger and she wouldn’t have time to think. Godcreature, I want to. I miss the thrill. “How does this end, Ms. Sunshot?”
She makes a good point—and a threat—when she asks, “You die either way, don’t you?” but there isn’t time to discuss. The shot still echoes after her body slumps to the floor. More approaching footsteps outside. A hoard. So much for a peaceful first day on the job. So much for a peaceful last day on the job, I guess.
Both eyes open, I tuck the rifle into my shoulder and aim down the sights. The soldiers flooding inside wear osierium helmets. I’ll have to hit them between the eyes. Pull. One goes down. Pull. Another. Pull. A third. And then there are too many to hit between the eyes so I aim for their chests, knowing the rounds won’t pierce their armor, and the trigger clicks. Empty. Two or three—it’s hard to tell—jump on me at once. My sidearm finds one in the throat and the two still kicking are hellbent on cutting my head off. What I live for.
A sabre connects with the vambrace on my left forearm, and I can’t get out of the way of another before it catches my cheek. My knees are jammed against the lion’s plackart. I’m stuck and he knows it. If I can just get my pistol under his chin—blood. Everywhere. I roll out from under his corpse and into the arms of another mountain lion. Why does everyone have to be heavier than I am? She doesn’t bother with the sword. She wants to taste her kill. That’s the problem with the Suderians—they’re too primal in battle. Too invested. And too good at getting the pistol out of my hand.
I reach for the knife sheathed against my chest in time to stop her inch-long incisors sinking into my throat, but my arm is pinned and moving the other doesn’t throw her off balance. Instead I have to wrestle the hand not holding the mountain lion’s teeth inches from my arteries free and throw my fist into her jaw. She recoils. I get to my knees. Grab the pistol. Staring down the barrel seems to bring some consciousness back into her feral eyes, and she puts her hands up. The rest of the Suderians have been overwhelmed by rodents and are either surrendering or in the process. “Do it, owl,” the mountain lion snarls. “Kill me while my hands are up.”
My finger is still heavy on the trigger and I want to make the next pull my answer. The sights stay trained on her forehead while a mouse soldier binds her hands, and her eyes never leave mine while he drags her to the wall, adding another body to a row of prisoners. A row of executions if they’re lucky. Slaves if they aren’t. Pitying the teeth once against your throat is a strange feeling.
Hot, sticky liquid coats my back, pooling under my water-resistant shirt, congealing between my feathers. Torn stitches. I know the feeling, but the thought hurts more. Mostly I want to wash. Alone. Let guilt or afterglow or whatever the hell that crushing emptiness is soak in. Only eleven something hours to go. Assuming I don’t bleed out.
Some of the mice—the men not dragging Suderians out of the room at swordpoint—watch me get to my feet. One of them puts my rifle back in my hands. I ask, “Where did this come from?” He laughs. Slaps my shoulder. Almost brings me to my knees again. Did the rifle get heavier? Something did. I can’t leave my post so other people take my paintbrush bodies outside. Clean up for the king. He’ll never see death.
Rabbits come in to clean up the blood when I’m the only one left in the room, excluded from the knights’ debriefing since whatever happens I’m stuck where the king is. They don’t look at me. I don’t blame them. Hours go by and I doubt they got everything. You can never clean up everything. Left, right, left, right.
Footsteps come to the door behind me and when it opens I’m face to face with the queen. She has to look up to talk to me. Most of them do, but I’d have to kneel if I wanted to be on eye-level with her. She’s a wisp. Soft and white like cotton. Her eyes settle on my chest. “Yearwood.”
Left, right. “Your Majesty.”
“You might be the largest man I’ve ever seen.” She sniffs. Even when they’re a quarter my size they all find some way to look over their noses at me.
“At some point mountains must all just look like mountains, mustn’t they?” Her nose gets a little higher. I chuckle. “Ma’am.”
“If I didn’t know better I would think you were making a joke at my expense,” the queen says. She speaks like someone taller.
“Do you know better?” Left, right.
“Godcreature.” She can’t conceal the beginnings of a smile before she puts her nose down. “Someone I can talk to in this palace. But you’re not terribly chatty, are you?”
“When you’ve lived most of your life in a warzone people from Utopia don’t want to hear your stories.”
“You’d be surprised, Yearwood. N’emel has never seen death like the Breaks. Many of my people thirst for violence.” She’s standing halfway between the throne room and the concourse that meets it. Can I ask the queen to move? Somehow she doesn’t seem like the kind that would kill over words, but I’m not convinced I care anymore. Here isn’t home. Here war is news, entertainment. She cocks her head while she watches me sway. “Is something the matter, Yearwood?”
“In or out, Your Majesty. I can’t watch two rooms at once.”
“You can relax,” she says, but comes onto the concourse anyway. The heavy doors close behind her. “At least for now. The knights stopped the rest of the Suderians.”
A siege. With some organization they might have seen more success. They are a fragmented nation, governed provisionally now five decades. But I’m not on their side. I’m just not really on my own side, either. “I’m happy to hear it,” I say. “What do you need of me, ma’am?”
“I came to thank you for saving our lives.”
Thank me? “I hardly worked alone.”
“Does that make you less deserving of thanks?” she asks. One of her delicate hands reaches for me. “May I?”
“You’re soaking through your shirt.” She takes a step closer. I move away. I’ve never backed away from someone so small before, but no one so small has ruffled my feathers like she does. “What troubles you now?”
“A matter of hours, Your Majesty. I’ll survive.”
The queen’s jaws part. “You fear my touch.”
Godcreature, I do. I don’t know why. Her neck would break like toffee in my hands. “Can I ask you something?”
“What is it?”
“Did you really come out here just to thank me?”
Letting out a sharp breath, she breaks eye contact. Clasps her hands between her hips. Looks through me. “I miss your predecessor.”
“To what end?”
“I think you can guess.” I watch her die with the words. She must want to see someone else when she looks at me. I wish I didn’t understand.
“I’m not him,” I say.
“No, you’re not.” The queen’s tail twitches against the floor. “But you look like him.”
Godcreature, I look like a traitor. Enough that she presses her lips to my right hand, which for some reason I let her take from the rifle’s handguard. She lingers in the kiss meant for someone else. I wonder how much the rat king knows about his wife, whether they both see others on the side.
When the queen lets go of me, her shoulders shake like quaking earth and her ears are pinned flat against her head. I have to open the doors. She gets out a thank you through convulsions on her way through and then they swing shut and I’m alone again. Left, right, left, right. Wait. Listen.
Why am I here? To mourn a city I never knew? Stare into the emptiness in their skulls and try to feel something for the people they used to be? Remind myself what happens should I falter? The door with the answer is open. Not wide open, just cracked, beckoning. No one with any sense will disturb the Iconoclast. The air here tastes too much like contagion.
Skulls that stare back and broken ribs and bones I’ve never seen out of context, white like the full moon, are plastered without order along the facade of the only building in miles. Some have given in to gravity. Rot wafts through the cracked door and nothing moves nearby. Even the trees are nonliving, but I don’t feel alone. I’m the one without sense. I’m the one disturbing the Iconoclast in its unmarked mausoleum in the middle of the woods. What an unholy place. Demons might see me home.
Grip tight on my rifle, which I doubt will deter anyone or anything I meet out here, the wooden door groans against my shoulder. I have to stop on the threshold. Organs spilling from bodies, severed and broken limbs, sucking lungs, my own brothers dead in summer heat for days—nothing has defeated me like the Iconoclast’s fetor. I might be sick. Death hasn’t made me sick in twenty years.
Knowing I can’t get away with never inhaling again, I tuck my beak into my shoulder. Breathe through my sleeve. Taste the decay. Tell myself I’m getting used to the smell, don’t be a coward, push past it. Nothing works. I barely make it outside before I break. Five miles, on an empty stomach, a day after losing more than a liter of blood, to visit a rotting carcass. Small lapse in judgment.
Clutching my stomach, kneeling over a puddle, the convulsions have taken everything I had to give. I don’t think I can get up. Maybe I’m dying. I know the mice all believe the Anathem is binding after death, but there has to be more than this on the other side. Doesn’t there? What if there isn’t more? What if the other side is worse? What if I never see the Breaks again? Godcreature, I’ll never go home, will I?
My lungs seize up and won’t let go no matter what I do. I am dying. I have to be. But then something slams into my back and I’m flat on the ground but the world doesn’t stop yet. No light, no dark, only the muted stars and the southern pines and the full moon. And a long, pointed—a spear? Is that what hit me? Who the hell still uses spears? My hand finds my sidearm before I can ask it to move, and when I sit up I’m staring between the sights at a coyote holding a stone dagger over his head and I feel Lennox tearing into me. But now I don’t have to get on my knees and let him.
“Drop it if you want to live,” I tell the coyote, who stops short. He wears furs. Riath.
“Why don’t you bleed?”
Exetium weave, the layer under my plating, stops falling stars. But I’m not about to explain—he’d try to take it off me. “Drop it or I’ll shoot,” I say again.
He kneels. Lays the dagger in the soft soil. Raises his hands. He’s only a pup, no more than twenty, but Riath live short lives from what I know of them. I might be the oldest person he’s met. “Why do you seek Khenal?”
“I could ask you the same thing.”
“I do not seek Khenal. I followed you long and you came here,” the coyote says in an accent that makes Kridali sound like a foreign language. “You smell like blood.”
Fuck, of course I do. How many others are following me? “Good hunting out here?”
“No. I am the lowest in my clan. Here is the worst—”
“Shut the fuck up.” Cannibal. I’ll kill him when I get the chance, but I won’t kill him so near the Iconoclast unless I have to kill him here. “Are there more of you?”
The coyote’s ear twitches. “No more.” Liar. They’re all so bad at lying.
Two in his chest, one in his head, dead before he hits the ground. And neatness stops with the bullet wounds. I have to pull his mail collar away but then the knife slips through hide like it’s made of water. Fluid warms my palms. Sinew snaps under the serrated edge. I can hear the others closing in—a chorus of voices—a mile or two away. I have some time. Not much. But it can be enough if I want it to be enough. I should have stayed inside, as much as I love severing cannibal heads on a deadline. Tonight could still be a good night if I don’t end it tied alive to a spit.
Dragging the headless carcass back and forth, painting the forest with blood until I can’t paint anymore, I envy the Riath’s easy death. Try not to think what mine will be should they find me. Cover my hands, my uniform, my feathers in blood, hope Riath disease doesn’t kill me before their weapons do. And then I toss what’s left of him against the roots of a southern pine, out of sight. Like trash. Part of me wants to carry guilt. The other doesn’t sympathize with people who eat each other.
I pick up the assault rifle and pull it over my shoulder when I go back for the head, hoping its absence will delay them a few seconds longer. He still looks confused. Should have put one through his brain first. Godcreature, why does he have to be warm? I set him down the first place I find, in a grove of bushes not far from pine. The other Riath are close now, howling because they know it too. Where do I go? Where can I go? I can’t outrun them. I can’t keep a hoard at bay alone. No matter what happens, they’ll find their wounded prey. When they do, I don’t want to be fifty feet up a pine, surrounded. I’m ready to make my last stand here until the Iconoclast’s stench takes me by the throat again. The mausoleum. They’ll have to funnel inside.
Knife in hand, I shove through the door. Sink the blade into a pillar at the other end of the structure. Start a climb into the rafters. Ignore the forty-foot corpse begging to break my fall. When I count the compounded “shoulds” that would have kept my hands clean of cannibal blood, staying inside is still at the top of the list.
Perched on a high beam, moonlight on my shoulders, I brace the rifle against my knee, blink between the sights until the front post comes into focus. They’re sniffing around outside. Searching. One cries a name out—Kialu—and the rest of the pack howls. At least some of him has been found. Now they want me, and I doubt they’re hungry anymore.
Silence outside. My heart and lungs won’t shut up. Head’s on fire, hands unsteady, index finger laid helplessly beside the trigger. I don’t trust myself not to jump. Safety’s off. I need to be sure.
I’m loud. But when the next Riath comes through, severed head displayed on his flat palms, soft throat decorated with gold and bones, he doesn’t think to look upward. His clan is louder. Some are in tears. Others fall to their knees before the Iconoclast, behind the first hunter. He offers the head to the moon, and there’s that word again—Khenal. From all their mouths, Khenal. Moonlight fades as clouds gather. Sinking to his knees beside the rest, the one in gold and bones lays the head down and touches his nose to the soil. Something mammoth shifts beneath me. Godcreature. Another should.
The Riath don’t raise their heads to the Iconoclast. I watch its dripping flesh return to its bones alone. She was right. He looks like me. The way we all were before Zaneth. More reason to let it burn.
Demonfire is demanding in the way any weapon is demanding. But it wants everything. Only ten, aside from its parent-scientists, watched it consume the Badlands on Frontier. And ten went to their posts with one capsule, for one emergency. For a one-way resolution. I slip the pericarp from my pocket. Twist at the median. Let it fall.
The Iconoclast goes up in emerald light, thrashing, hissing like the hearth, bleeding afterlife. Khenal echoes in the voices of dying Riath. Should have stayed inside. From childhood.
Flame already laps at the high rafters, seeping through my uniform’s heat-resistant exetium weave. Safety on. Rifle on my back. Knife buried in blackening wood, free hand anywhere it finds a hold. My chances atrophy with the mausoleum, but I climb out of the heat anyway. Better ways to die than burning alive—might as well have given up when I met the first Riath.
On the roof, the trees reach out to me and I fall into their arms. Try to breathe the heat from my limbs. Watch the firelight die. A skeleton of the mausoleum lingers, then collapses on itself. Keir Ashthorn, one of ten, traitor of two nations, Destroyer of Kunrough, is in ashes. Good riddance.