A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain

Issue #210

I’m on my knees in the snow, Black Rain’s Thoughtblade biting into the back of my neck; I can already feel the obsidian metal sticking to my skin, winter frost binding us together.

“I never thought it’d be you who turned.” From the sound of his voice, he’s already mourning me.

“It isn’t as it seems, Rain.” I grit my teeth against the terrifying weight at my neck, the thin thorn of the blade’s edge licking at my flesh. “Share with me. You’ll see.”

Rain snorts. “I’m not stupid, Glass. You murder two city guards, headed straight for the Pillar, on a night you’re not on duty? What innocence is there in such actions?” I can hear him shake his head, disappointment turning the snow on my shoulders to lead. “Do you think I’ve forgotten what you did to Stone Dancer? I never taught you to fight with that breed of violence. No, I don’t think I’ll share with you, Glass, not ‘while whatever you’re hiding moves you to such destruction.”

I shouldn’t laugh, but I’ll never claim to have a heart. The Empire won’t allow it. “Stone Dancer had no more sense than a seashell. He tried to trick me. You taught me in the House of Potential, retribution must be swift. So what if he can’t sleep?”

A moment passes. Black Rain eases the pressure on my neck, and I bite my lip to keep from gasping. Still, his Thoughtblade doesn’t lift.

“Come now, Rain.” My speech is the panting breath of a hunted hound. “Words are water. Trust me. Share with me in the Tangle, and know that I am no traitor.”

The snow whips around us in the quiet. I have seen Black Rain dance for years, his deadly grace making even surgeons seem clumsy in their efforts. That I am a woman will make no difference to him; he’ll end my life all the same. That we are comrades? Friends, even? It’ll only guarantee the same swiftness he taught me.

Black Rain lifts away his blade. He puts two bare fingers against the back of my neck. “Together, then. Try anything, Glass, and I won’t hesitate t—”

Let Rain talk long enough and he’ll convince you the sun is blue and snow is made for wishing.

His fingers are warm; I follow their mnemonic heat, finding the path through his fingers, and I grab him. Tapping my own Thoughtblade, so sharp it can perform surgery on memory itself, I wrench us away into the Tangle.

A brief pulse of pressure; a loss of breath, of senses, of time and place; the whole world blinks in a storm.

I open my eyes in the Tangle. On every side, it’s a room of mirrors fit together like a puzzle, the floor a frosted light. Reflections of Black Rain stare back at me, disapproval in a thousand angles.

“You were supposed to wait for me.” He puts away his Thoughtblade, girding himself for a situation in which he’s not in control.

“I don’t have time to waste, Rain. Enough starlight has burned away as it is.” I run a hand against a mirror behind me, wiping away the mental moisture. “Here.” I grin at him, wave him over. “See how I trust you?” For a moment, it almost feels like it used to: too weary a teacher and too clever a student, one breathless with excitement, the other breathless with age.

But Rain waits too long, and the moment melts away. Has the trust of years been so easily broken?

Another infinite heartbeat. Then he blinks and walks over to stand beside me at the mirror. “Show me then, Glass, the best of reasons for your betrayal.”

I push a lock of hair behind my ear and avoid looking him in the eye. “Please. You speak as if I cut the head of the Coldmonger from his neck and paraded it around Jitka’Lant. The guards I attacked—”

“Had families, Glass—”

“—didn’t stand down when I asked them to. Didn’t listen to me when I said what I was. Didn’t let me do my job!” I snap at Rain; even to me, my reasoning sounds petty, my loss of control evident.

Black Rain rubs his temple, grimaces. “Stop wasting my time.”

I wipe away more of the frost on the mirror, the glass rippling beneath my fingers as the shore laps at the sand. Every person’s Tangle is unique, if crafted well, and if they’re smart enough, they can shape it to their will. My memories hide behind frosted reflections, as Rain’s hide behind curtains of dark water from the sky. The memories of a Thoughtblade must be kept well hidden. 

Our shadowed reflections fade and a memory appears, pulled from my mind, only two hours old.

I watch Rain’s eyes go wide as he sees her, dark sapphires in an exhausted gaze growing bright.

“But she disappeared.” His breath catches in his throat; from fear or love, I can’t say. “How is she still in the city? I thought she’d left for good after her brother was executed.”

I shrug. “Before she was Empress, she was a Scimitar for her father. She knows how to travel and stay quiet about it.”

In my memory, the Empress of Broken Time grabs me by the chin, pulls my face towards her. My Tangle floods with the fullness of her: perfumed oil and sweet copper, the echo of damaged clocks forever swinging back and forth, roaring like a metallic ocean. Black Rain watches in horrid fascination as she whispers in my memory’s ear.

He puts a hand to the glass. “Bring me in.”

“No.”

He turns to me, urgency flooding his voice. “Bring me in, Glass. The time for games is past.”

“No.” I plant my feet. Rain’s hands push against the mirrors of my mind, his fingers trembling; he was traipsing through the Tangle when I was a squalling storm of a child, and I can feel his power swell and begin to exert against my own.

“Bring me in, Glass. Please. I don’t want to break your mind.” He’s pleading, almost. Then, he puts a hand on my shoulder. “She’s my Empress, too, no matter what you think.”

I know I shouldn’t. Rain is the Cold Crown’s most loyal hunter, and I’d be letting him walk right into my mind. He could overwhelm me if he chose to; I feel him on the edge of my thoughts, ready to shove if I don’t let him in. He could leave me a gibbering fool, playing in the snow for the rest of my life.

But if it’s the only way for him to trust me, enough to get past him... The glass melts at my touch.

We walk in to the memory.

Her voice is lilting, closer to music than speech, a phantom of her life in the sun-swaddled empire of Komorrokos, candle of the south. She has eyes that burn with bitter laughter, something I haven’t seen since the day she came to court, staring down the man she’d be wed to by sundown. The city of Jitka’Lant can strip a man of his mirth faster than a biting wind weathers stone. It still strikes me as odd, even in my memory, to see her wearing trousers and a loose shirt, like some common worker. But if the Empress who had fled would stay hidden in her old seat of power, perhaps it’s best to blend in.

“Are you still mine?” Her bright eyes bore into my dark ones. My memory self stands at attention, though now that I’m outside myself, I notice how I tighten my grip on my wrist.

“I’m always yours, Empress.” I see how she smiles; she knows I’m anxious.

“Of course you are. Thoughtblades are mine to command.” She steps forward, traces her dark hand down my pale, trembling face. “But are you truly mine? Have you been purging those pesky emotions of yours? Do you answer to the cold or to the clock, my sweet bird?”

I can’t help but feel embarrassed to watch myself flush, see my gaze break from hers, look away. It’s all the answer she needs, but she is waiting for me to say it. “The clock, Empress.” I can feel Rain’s eyes on me, a thousand questions burning into my back, though he says nothing.

She nods, pleased. “I loved my husband, if one can love the cold so well. But he’s been losing his mind ever since his blood froze, and he can’t be trusted with the power of you and that blade of yours, sweet bird, certainly not after the mindless murder of my brother. The poor revolutionary.” Her eyes flicker to Black Rain beside me, as though she can see him through time. She plants her cold lips against my forehead; I find myself blushing in the flesh. Her fingers tighten on the back of my neck. “I’ll win you all back in time, my sweet bird. You’ll all be mother’s again soon. Together, we’ll keep the world out of the hands of handsome madmen like my husband.”

Rain turns to look at me, comprehension of my allegiance dancing across his face like hailstones peppering the earth. I thought he’d angry but instead he asks, “When did you stop purging, Glass?”

I don’t turn from his gaze. It’s time to own up to my transgression, even if it saved me. “A year, a little more.” I take no pride in my treachery. To admit it now, even to Rain, makes my stomach clench. “Purging makes me feel sick, Rain. It makes me feel hollow and empty. Sometimes, he makes us hang onto the rage. It’s the only one he’ll let us hold on to. You should know that.” I turn to him in the silence, wishing he’d say something. “The Empress values my emotions, and treats me as a person. She approached me, Rain, promised me more than life as a weapon, more than the guilt of slaughter and destruction. I don’t care if it’s treason; I’ll not be his scalpel anymore.”

Rain stares at me through the memory of fresh snow falling. Then, “I’m not pleased to know the Empress has been amassing a secret cabal of my fellow soldiers behind my back and against her husband, but—” a smile blooms across his face, “—I haven’t purged in years either, Glass. If it’s a crime, I fear we’re both in trouble.”

Joy leaps into my heart, the feeling itself still alien after wiping it away for so many years. Knowing Rain and I are guilty of breaking the Coldmonger’s decree, even if he kills me for what he hears next? I could die so happy.

The sharp whip of the Empress’s voice snaps us both back to the memory.

“I don’t understand, Empress,” I hear myself say.

The Empress, for all her passion, can be as cold as her husband when need be. “What’s not to understand, my sweet bird? You either kill the boy my son has become, or my husband will do it. Simple, really.”

My memory self remains silent, frowning.

“For a year, he’s been changing, becoming someone different than what his father needs him to be. And when his father finds out, because he will find out, he will kill the boy with no hesitation.” Her eyes cut my heart in two. “With your Thoughtblade, you can kill who he’s become and keep him safe. You’ll go to the Pillar tonight while the city celebrates and end who he’s becoming.”

My memory self has started shaking, and it’s barely snowing out. “Who’s he becoming, Empress?”

Her smile is a knife’s edge sharpened by sorrow. “He’s infected, Glass, with a warmth my husband abhors and would rather end than understand. Walk his memories, look for the priest in the purple and gold robe, and watch.” She lays a hand against my cheek, using her thumb to stroke my skin; her hot touch burns me in the cold. When she speaks, her voice is low and awful. “Look for the memories that do not belong in a hell like Jitka’Lant. Ask yourself: what does my husband hate more than anything?”

Her hand tightens on my face, her nails suddenly digging into my cheek. I gasp. Her eyes bore into mine.

“Cut out my son’s heart, Glass, so he may live. Give him back his heart of ice.”  

A hitching sob pulls me from the memory. When I look over, I see that Black Rain is crying, his tears freezing on the memory of a cold wind.

I can’t stand it, the pulsing pain in my chest, to see the old man my teacher is becoming. That he weeps at this, that he cannot keep his heart in his chest, is another sign of his growing weakness. Age should only be inflicted on the young and awful.

Closing my eyes, I take his hand and pull us up and away, climbing out of the Tangle until we are flesh, back on the roof in the snow.

I stand. Marble gargoyles carved by the Royal Dashi’ma leer at us in the icy gloom. Across the city, lanterns of blue and violet and ivory burst to life for the third night of Cammu’Nant, the Stone Celebration; flowers of star flame blooming in a meadow of midnight.

Black Rain has his face in his hands.

His voice is a ragged whisper as he wipes away his tears, composing himself. “How could she? Her own son?” He looks up. “Glass. He’s so young. Surely, she’s wrong.”

I touch Glass Kiss, the Thoughtblade whose name I bear, and roll my shoulders. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

I make for the edge of the roof. Rain lashes out; his large hand wraps around my bare wrist.

“Glass.”

I ignore him and try to pull away.

“Armila, don’t do this!” He sounds like he’s shouting through a throat of steel shards. I flinch at my true name, dead all these years. Armila could never do this. Is that why he said it?

His grip tightens. He looks up at me with an honesty reserved for saints and the soon to be executed. “When I was young, I made a mistake and it cost me everything. If you do this, it’ll ruin you, too. Please, come back with me to the school, give up this alliance with the Empress, and together we can find a way to save the boy. Armila, please, this kind of murder, to one so young? You can’t come back from that kind of corruption.”

It’s tempting, to lift this stone from my shoulders. Rain’s grip slackens, and my heart is flooded with a compassion I’ve only recently discovered; I cherish it. It’s from that compassion that I make my decision; better the boy live as a shadow than not at all.

“It doesn’t matter, Feyon,” I give him his true name back, my voice curdling with unexpected venom. “When the Empress speaks, I obey. We all obey. That’s what we do, isn’t it? If I don’t do this, the boy will die the final death, and I can’t live with that.”

I tap my Thoughtblade. His bare skin in my hands is a path and I follow it. Like a child stealing sweets, I snatch the memory of movement from him, and his whole body stiffens as though he is made of stone.

Slipping my arm from his grip, I leave him behind. He’ll find himself soon; he’s too skilled to remain like that. But not before I find the prince and put him to the blade.

I look back as I step off the rooftop. Black Rain is frozen, his hands raised to the sky, as though beseeching anything that lives there to have mercy.

I leave and let him pray. It won’t do any good.

There’s no such thing as mercy in the Cold Empire.

The Thoughtblade is a comforting weight across my back. From the day we are chosen, we bear it with us always. Its name and blade and gems are ours until our hearts stop. As I run across the rooftops of Jitka’Lant, what should feel a terrible burden feels like nothing at all.

My heart sours to have left Black Rain. But he would’ve stopped me. He is commander, true, and friend even more so, but his heart that has known so much pain would’ve stayed his hand. And there is no disobeying the Empire, not when we are what we are.

The snow crunches under my feet as I race north. Ahead of me is the Imperial Pillar, lit to the top in cold colors, ice blue and white frost, flags of silver flapping in the night wind. Even from here, I can see the swaths of guards that swarm its heights, black beetles shining in the moonlight.

Below me, there are songs of my childhood being sung in drunken enthusiasm. On the third night of Cammu’Nant, when we celebrate Thereshti’s victory over the Stone Serpent, even in the poorest part of Jitka’Lant no expense is overlooked. Oh, how we sang and feasted at the House of Potential; even in a home of orphans, ferals, and cripples, we ate like kings.

As I pass overheard, I relish the sweet smell of crisping apples, the sound of corn kernels popping and spraying; men clap mugs of cold beer together and women dare each other to swallow the ball of muska spice whole. I’m happy to hear Komorrokosi sea songs and witness Ethitashi hand-dancing in the streets, foreigners come to cold city to celebrate.

The night tastes like childhood. I almost let it take me away from the grim reality of what I’m to do. Almost.

With all this, the beating of serpents is barely audible, a horrendous symphony of hissing and shrieking that keeps violent time with the pipes and drums.

I try not to judge them, the poor and their beliefs. Religion makes a man’s morals turn inside out. I know that could they see me, I too, would be judged. A weapon of the Empire is not above the contempt of a peasant.

I pause for air, watch the city through the snow and steaming of my breath. My eyes scan the Pillar’s heights and after a moment, I turn west. A direct approach will not work this night. My target will not be found stumbling about alone, will not be celebrating without a care in the world. Such youth has no place on the third night.

He will be sitting in his room, reading by moonlight, hoping his guardians don’t find him out.

I leap off a low building and land on a wire of lanterns overhanging the street. In the raucous night, no one looks up and sees me run across, a shadow against a curtain of shadows.

When I stumble upon the line of men and women marching toward the Pillar, I follow. Dressed in silks of jade and crimson, their faces are held high, freshly painted in the colors of life and health. Those who already bear a child are followed by a specter, fathers with faces marked in snow and obsidian, a reminder of Thereshti’s duality.

Some part of me can’t help but feel for these young women, bearing before their youth is spent, bringing life into this miserable world. But the Empire always needs new children to cherish, to pamper, to send away to war, and so they use wombs to fuel the machine of conquest; another decision of the Coldmonger’s. I taste bile in the back my throat. I’m surprised to feel a surrogate pain in my own womb for these sisters of Empire. If I’d had no talent for the Tangle in my youth, it would be me down there, twenty summers and bloated with sick pride at being able to bear. The thought itself makes me queasy.

Yet the moment passes. How upset can I be, really? We all have our duty; this is theirs as the blade is mine. It would be foolish to think otherwise or to hope to change it.

I slow my steps, waiting for the line to march ahead of me. As the solemn march pulls away, I slide down a banister of stone slick with snow and make my way towards the street.

We Imperial Thoughtblades are taught to move like the memory of biting sorrow, invisible and quick, upon our targets like crushing grief on a normal day. I grab the last of the lifebearers from the line and pull her into an alley before she can blink.

More maiden than mistress, her brown eyes shine in the blue lantern light. Before she can say a word, I grip her bare wrist in my hand and take us into the Tangle.

She looks around the frosted glass room, beginning to panic. We stand in two worlds at once now, flesh and Tangle, and I can see how it hurts her comprehension. On the glass behind her, the frost hisses away, flashes of her life shimmering into existence. Her memories flicker before me like fireworks, bright and just as inconsequential.

The glass behind me remains dark and cold.

Her eyes drink me in, though they choke on the blade strapped across my back. “Why?” Tears leak from her eyes, marring her paint.

“You’re needed in service to the Empire. Be grateful.”

“They will know I am gone. They will look back and see I am gone!”

I click my tongue. “Please. If they are half as ignorant as you, they’ll never know. We move at the speed of thought. They have barely taken half a breath.”

In the Tangle, I catch all the detail of her, as a soothsayer might study the sky. A shiver runs down my spine, the memory of her appearance sliding over my body. I can feel the weight of her hips, stomach, and breasts latching onto my own, can feel the mask of paint assert itself over my face, can wiggle my squished toes inside the memory of her tiny sandals. The girl watches with wide eyes as she sees me turn into her.

“But... I have to bear tonight. My lover is in the Thirteenth Legacy. We were supposed to become one tonight, the Cold Empire wills it!” My heart begins to ache, that damned compassion lifting its head like a sun-drenched serpent.

It must confuse her, hearing my voice come from her mouth. “Another year for your youth and your love then, sweet bird. Enjoy it.”

I bring us up out of the Tangle and we stand again in the flesh. My casual sting has helped her find bravery in rage. She makes ready to shout.

My fingers dart forward and find her temple, smudging the paint there. The Tangle blooms and I take her memory of waking that morning. She collapses to the snow, asleep. There is no time to move her somewhere warm. I can only hope revelers come upon her and see her to safety.

I move out into the main street and catch up with the line. The older woman in front of me looks back, frowning at the person of my illusion.

“Garsai, are you well?” The way she asks it, it seems Garsai is frequently unwell.

I nod, not trusting myself to speak. The older woman sniffs, turns around. I follow behind, head held down and quiet, the perfect image of a lifebearer.

We move through the Silk Quarter in silence, all save for the singer who leads the line. Her voice is filled with volcanic magic, the Tangle’s mnemonic gifts at her beck and call; she sings Remmuki’s Dirge of the Loving Abyss, filling the night with a red-hot cadence.

We follow her light to the West Face of the Imperial Pillar. It takes time, this slow march to motherhood, and yet I don’t find myself restless, nestled in the illusion of poor Garsai asleep in the snow. Maybe some small part of my heart hopes to find Black Rain at the Pillar to arrest me. I can’t choose to pass this cup by, but to have it taken? Yes, there is a small hope for that, yes.

The low, sloping eaves and tiny stone charms of the Silk Quarter give way to the West Face barracks, squat and grey against the lanterns. The soldiers stand in ranks of blue and silver, sober and silent, a stark contrast to the rest of the city. 

The lifeline moves past squad upon squad, badges of their legacy, their rank, growing brighter, multiplying. It is only when we reach the West Face Gate that my stomach clenches.

I thought he would not appear until the sixth night, but the Coldmonger stands with the Thirteenth Legacy Legion, dressed in his formal coat, scarf, and cap, the Cold Crown bright with moonlight. But it’s not brighter than his eyes, which are a molten burning blue. His voice is no more than a whisper, but in the silent, snow-filled night, it carries.

“Life is a privilege. It is not a right. The clouds do not turn in the sky for want of painters to love them. The sun does not set for us. This earth would sooner swallow us up than let us live. It is thanks to Thereshti’s wrestling of the Serpent that we live still. It is by his victory that you all have the opportunity to bear and bring life to this barren rock, this world that hates us.”

He gestures to the line of Legacy generals behind him. “Lifeline meets strongheart in the snow and life is born. May you all bring strength to this Empire. It is that strength, whose secret is found in the cold bastard water that had to have its way, that pushes civilization upward, toward the sky and away from the earth.”

The singer walks up the steps and in one motion, kisses the Coldmonger. Even from here in the back, I watch as the memory of fire that lurks in her body moves into him and meets impossible cold, the arcane ice that flows in his veins, a web of blue against his pale skin. The red light floods his cheeks and just as quickly, dies. Soon, the singer is drained. She falls to the snow, cast aside like day-old meat.

The Coldmonger makes no move to help her. He only consumes, as he has always done. Even if he hadn’t slaughtered the Empress’s brother, it’s no wonder she left him.

“Pair up, where the fire of your wombs knows the cold strength of Empire. Come together and provide life where there should be none but will be because we are strong, stronger than the stone beneath our feet.” The Coldmonger turns on his heel, and I breathe a sigh of relief to see him walk back into the Pillar.

If he knew why I was here, he’d applaud me.

If he knew who’d sent me, he’d have me killed.

Ahead of me, the men and women are pairing off, each going where they feel they must. The specters accompany their lovers to spend time together and dream of a future that is not as miserable as the present.

At last, only a small man, stringy with a long thin moustache, stands alone. His eyes find me and the line of his lips turns up just so, joy washing over him: Garsai’s lover, then.

I walk up to him and bow low, lower than a woman should to a man of his features, but I assume it’s what she would have done. When I look at him again, he has a confused look on his face but seems to have accepted it as ritual. In silence, we walk into the Imperial Pillar, to the gardens.

The chamber that is given us is cozy. A fire crackles before the bed; frost-coated vines drip melting water onto the stone floor, just missing the threadbare rug.

Garsai’s lover has begun to remove his uniform and trappings, taking great care to place the sash and medals above the fireplace with distinction. He smiles at me as he undoes his shirt. I smile back at him, silent.

He turns his back to me as he fumbles with his belt. There will be no better time than this. I let the illusion of Garsai melt away like the frost that hangs above us. I draw Glass Kiss.

He glances back but not before I’ve thrust Glass Kiss through his throat. He stands before me, gurgling, as the muscle memories of his vocal cords are drawn into my blade. Like a quill from an inkwell, I remove the blade from his throat and grip his head in my hands, knocking his skull against the wall.

He drops like a stone from the sky and slides to the floor. He makes no sound as he falls into unconsciousness, his voice dead in his throat. He will live, though if he ever speaks again it will not be for many, many years.

We’re on one of the lower levels of the Pillar, nestled in the West Face. The prince is higher up, near the heart. Outside the small window, the great moon is heading ever higher, not yet at its apex. He will still be awake, then.

I crack the door open to find the hallway empty. Still, best not to risk all when I have only just arrived. Looking back at the man on the floor, I conjure his image from my Tangle, feeling it slide over mine like a coat of clouds. It is a weak illusion, nothing like Garsai’s. I will not sound like him, will not smell like him, will not move or react as he does.

But it will help me creep further into the heart of the Pillar. I slide Glass Kiss back into place and open the door.

I pass private garden chambers as I walk toward the center, pass the shadows of lifebearers and stronghearts working against one another in the ember filled rooms. There are some sighs of pleasure, some muffled grunts of effort, but on the whole, no sound leaks from under the doors. The shadow of Empire has fallen over even this intimacy and left the passionate act cold. Duty and fear work these hearts, these muscles; love is absent in these halls.

The snarls of vines, canopies, and flowers begin to give way to meeting rooms and maintenance halls. I pass these and break through into the center of the Imperial Pillar.

Here then are the people, many of them moving at a frightening pace. Servants carry food, wine, and blankets to the North Face chambers, where foreign diplomats are being shown the true way to celebrate Cammu’Nant, while soldiers march in rank after rank towards the east, back toward the slums. The celebrating must have pushed past the breaking the point, though with the Coldmonger, that bar is set incredibly low. Still more lords and ladies of Legacy mill about drunk and make their way towards the South Face. The Royal Dashi’ma usually put on a lightshow for the elite, each night more spectacular than the last.

I walk past them all, head held up; a man of this high a Legacy would never tip his chin below the horizon.

I slip into the heart stair, the massive twining column of stone steps that lead upward and even further down. Below sit the prisons and I shiver to think of the silent hell I’d be trapped in should they throw me into a deadrock cell; there is no Tangle to be found in those pits.

So I ascend.

It’s empty on the heart stair save for a servant or two, who all bow as they walk past, cowering.

The lanterns begin to dwindle, and when they do appear, their heat is weak. My breath plumes in the air as the carvings on the stone grow more intricate, more ornate. Down the halls that I pass, I see great lengths of tapestries, some from Jitka’Lant, others stolen back from across the oceans or over the mountains: The Taming of Durroban, Thereshti’s Victory Over the Tree of Stone; there is even one showing The Long Sleep of Avenadresalaka, stolen from some ruined church in Ballaronte.

“Officer!”

I glance behind me. A small man in a blue and white robe looks up at me from a floor below, emerging from an adjacent hallway. “You are Thirteenth Legacy, yes? Why is it you’re wandering the heart stair and not with your lifebearer?” He stares at me, eyes narrowing, as though he already knows the answer. When I don’t speak, he begins to ascend, smirking. “You are very far from the garden of sleep, officer. Explain yourself, now.”

There’s no point in continuing the charade. I turn and run up the stairs, three more flights, and down the hall before me, my target at the very end, behind doors engraved with stars and signs of Empire.

I don’t see the woman step out from a side hall. I run right into her fist.

On contact, the thin illusion around me shatters like fresh-cracked ice and falls away. I stagger to the floor, pain igniting along my jaw and look up to see a familiar woman grin at me, her teeth seeming too sharp; Therissana always did fight like some wild thing. Along her knuckles shine the dull glint of deadrock, veins of white dancing in the black, responsible for shattering the Tangle-induced illusion. Footsteps behind me; I hear the man in the robe come into the hallway entrance.

There’s a rustling of cloth and Black Rain steps out from behind my old childhood rival, standing in front of the prince’s door. His eyes are filled with mourning and his arm is behind him, hand wrapped around the hilt of his blade whose name he’s carried for forty of sixty-five years. He doesn’t move an inch, only stares at me. “I can allow you no further, Armila. If this is the course you intend to hold to, then I must hold to mine.”

I spit blood to the floor, suddenly petulant, as though my father has shown favor to another child. “So you hire this bandit? You know she’s a failure, right? Otherwise Therissana’d have a Thoughtblade on her back like us. She’s no more special than a stone.”

“Oh, Glass,” Thereissana said, rubbing her rock-plated knuckles with vicious affection, “you make me wish our time at the House of Potential had never ended.” I can hear her poorly healed jaw click and grind, and between us, I feel the weight of years, of battles. Somehow it doesn’t thrill me like it used to.

I put a hand to my temple and push myself to my feet, unable to keep myself from speaking. “Your forms have always been shit, Therissana. Decorating yourself with deadrock won’t change that, and I’ll break your jaw again if I have to.”

Therissana growls deep in her throat. “I’ve had time to improve. Now toss us your blade, get on your knees, and maybe we won’t throw you down the heart stairs to let your head explode against the bottom.”

“Better yet, you could give me that delicious Thoughtblade.”

I spin on my heels, squinting at the man in the robe, now right behind me. His eyes have taken on a sharp light, like shadows flickering at sunset; the air around him is fuzzy and dark. “It’s been so long since we’ve eaten something so... delicious. I know my dashi would feed so very well.”

Now that he’s closer, I can see: bottles of deadrock are strapped across his chest and waist, each of them holding a dashi, a spirit of the earth, ready to be commanded by their damnable tamer.

I turn back to Therissana, who is stretching ever so slightly, confident in what is to come. Rain stands back behind her, implacable, waiting. Whatever happens next, I’ll have to go through him, too. I have no illusions about the next part of this dance, but if I can slow it, I will.

“My orders come from a higher authority than even the Coldmonger.” Let the white lie be enough. “My duty must be done. Let me pass.”

Therissana snorts. “‘Higher authority.’ Sure. Poor Glass, always kissing the ass of whoever said they loved her most. Makes your loyalties a bitter medicine. Who was it that promised you the moon this time?” She cracks her neck. “I don’t care if Thereshti himself came down from his mountain and asked for you by name. Commander Rain told us your mission and you’re going no farther. So get on the ground, now!”

Behind me, I hear the stopper of a deadrock bottle pop open and see the faint shine of a dashi leak from its lid. The hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention, the air tasting of damp earth and the stillness before a storm. I lick my lips and fix my gaze on Therissana. “Would you really stay the hand of the Empress?”

“Liar, liar.” I turn; the man offers me a sad smile. “The Empress is gone, fled from her husband and our hearts.”

So Rain didn’t tell them everything. I’m only satisfied for a moment, before the man in the robes, a dashi’ma, plunges his dashi into the shadows of the wall next to him. Teeth the color of ink emerge and snap at the air as the dashi burrows into the darkness, throwing it over its spirit bones like skin. It begins to slide out of the wall, becoming flesh, dripping onto the floor.

I whip out Glass Kiss from its sheath, run a finger over the gems in her hilt, trying to steady my breathing. “Don’t do this.” And yet, some part of me wants it; some part of me thrills with the hope that they can stop me.

Therissana advances, her eyes boring into mine. She’s smiling. “I’m going to break every part of you, Glass, and save your jaw for last!” Therissana is quick, even with the deadrock knuckles weighing her down. She’s so fast I barely have time to move my head out of the way. The wind of her passing fist make my eyelashes flutter.

On instinct I move Glass Kiss up, hoping to catch her elbow or shoulder, but she expects it. There’s a shriek as deadrock strikes Thoughtblade, a shower of sparks as the arcane items connect. I see scratches on the black metal of my blade, and I have a moment of panic. I’ve never seen that happen.

It’s the creature’s scream that gives me the time to move, heel skidding, my spine bending as its claws barely miss my stomach. I’m wearing no armor, and I curse myself for thinking it would be this easy. I stumble back, against the wall, my body acting before thought can catch up.

The barbed tendrils and spiked claws of the dashi fly quick and furious, biting into the stone wall behind me, missing my flesh by the barest of inches. It does not have a face, only a maw in the center of its liquid being, like the depths of the ocean given form. Behind it, I see the man smiling like a saint, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, controlling the mad spirit.

Therissana has recovered and throws herself between the creature and me. Her fists strike like firefly light dying, there and gone. Between her and the dashi’s flailing barbs, I cannot block everything.

Deadrock smashes into my ribs. One snaps. Another.

A spike of shadow pierces my shoulder, as wicked as any thorn, embedding itself in the wall behind me. I scream. The creature squeals at the taste of my blood.

Therissana brings another fist into my jaw. The force of it snaps my head back, crunching against the stone. My world goes fuzzy.

“Pathetic. To think, they gave you one of the most powerful weapons in the world.” Therissana laughs as she kicks me in the knee, making me drop against the wall. Tendrils of shadow spin around her, striking but never harming Therissana, only me, tearing away at me, my flesh. “It’s better for you to die this way, Glass. You’re too soft for this world. Maybe they’ll give me your blade, like they should have years ago.”

I look up between the blows and can barely see her through the hazy world of pain around me. I scrabble at my hilt and feel for it, find the sharp and angled gem, the golden one.

“Sorry, Therissana,” I snarl while batting away the dashi’s attacks, “but you’ll never get my blade.”

Therissana sneers at me, ready for the kill. “Is that because I don’t have enough talent for the Tangle, huh? I don’t have any talent for the blades?”

I don’t know why, but I smile. My voice turns thick with mocking. “It’s because you don’t have any brains, darling.”

I reach through the Tangle, to the memory of blazing sunlight stored within the golden gem’s molten angles; I wrench it free of the hilt, thrust it into the air, and crush it in my hand.

Its thin shell crumbles and a mighty, golden light erupts, exploding out and into the hall. I can feel its loss as a hollow in my Tangle, but it’s worth it.

Therissana shrieks and tries to cover her eyes against the memory of piercing sunlight, but she’s not quick enough. The golden blaze burns her eyes and she stumbles away, tripping over herself. She falls to the ground, screaming for her ruined sight.

The shadow dashi screams too, an endless loop of echoes, like a thousand bats taking flight. The shadows scatter, finding no purchase in the bright storm. The dashi’ma doesn’t make a sound but his muscles seize, his mouth wide and silent, frozen in pain.

The great light fades and I hurry, using Glass Kiss to get to my feet, pain lancing up my body in great waves. Therissana is on the floor, screeching for my blood. But I don’t go to her. It’s the dashi’ma I worry about, for already the shadows are beginning to come back together again, his control shaken but not shattered.

Some say dashi’ma are monsters, that only the worst devils may command the memories of the earth. Others find them to be blessed, if you like that sort of folk stupidity. I don’t really think one way or the other as I rush to him and use Glass Kiss to bite through his skull, the blade striping away his memory of life in a single swing.

His eyes roll back to the front of his head, the muscles around his mouth and neck slacken. Behind me, I hear the shushing of shadows as the spirit in his control unravels, released back into the world to seek its brethren.

The dashi’ma slips to his knees and falls to his side, breathing but gone. His life is in my sword and will remain there. Panting, I slip the bandolier of deadrock bottles off of him and hitch it to my belt, careful not to touch their white and black stone; even a moment’s contact is agony. I can sell them for a good price later.

I walk back to Therissana, see her weeping on the stone floor, her eyes clenched shut, mewling. I cannot be gentle and take her to the Tangle while she wears the deadrock knuckles.

So I kick her in the head, knocking her unconscious. She may live to see again, but I do not pray for her, one way or another.

Every part of me is in pain. My knee wants to give way as I walk toward the door. I can feel my broken ribs sliding and grinding in my chest. Blood drips from one hundred different barbed kisses. Every breath teaches me a new way to hurt.

But I move forward. Pain is secondary to duty; even if I’m a traitor, that’s a lesson the Empire taught me that I’ll never forget.

I’ve only taken a single step when I feel the world tense and hear a blade slide from its scabbard.

Rain.

He still stands in front of the door. His features are painted in sorrow, and he stands ready, eyelids closed. He was waiting, wanted to see if I would fall at the hands of those he brought. He doesn’t want to fight me, and yet...

“Move, Rain.” My voice sounds so coarse and harsh, I wonder if I’m still human and not some demon born of stone scales.

He shakes his head from side to side, as slow as snow falling. “I will open my eyes and you will be gone from here, Glass. Tell the Empress you failed. Tell her you tried and you failed.”

My grip on my Thoughtblade tightens. “Are you so willing to gamble that boy’s life for decency’s sake, Rain?”

He opens his eyes at this, says nothing.

I lick my lips, hating the taste of blood I find. “If this isn’t done, the boy will die. The Coldmonger practices as he preaches, and if he finds out what the boy has become, he’ll slip steel into the little prince’s heart without a second thought. The kind of death I bring him will be better for everyone.”

Rain’s form doesn’t waver. “You don’t know this. You play at seeing the future when all you know is your past. The Coldmonger may have a heart of ice, but even he is not so lost to that brand of cold.”

Heat rises to my cheeks, and every pulse sends fresh pain along my bones. “She told me as much, Rain. She told me this was the only way to save him!”

Again, he shakes his head, and his mouth turns up in a sad smile. “And what mother does this to her child?” His words cause my spine to shiver. I blink the sensation away. I try. “We bring pain, but only when we must. To say there’s only one path means you’re not looking hard enough. There’s always another way, Armila.”

I shiver to hear my true name.

Rain sees it, nods his head. “I used to hide behind my blade, too, Armila—”

“That’s not my name anymore!” I wince at the way my voice tightens.

“—when I was young, it was easy to shoulder its burdens. It was never you yourself, yes? It was always the blade. When we did our bloody work, it was never us. How could it be? That would make us monsters. So it was always the blade. We simply follow orders and let the sword lead our arm, don’t we?” 

I hate how my stomach aches, how I can feel water in the corner of my eyes. “Shut up! Thereshti take you and your damn honor up the Mount, Rain. If I don’t do this, the boy dies, and I’m stuck in Jitka’Lant serving that... monster forever! Maybe if I do this, the Empress takes me away from this frozen hell.” I’m lifting the blade and I hate myself. My eyes are burning with tears. “I don’t want to do this to you, Rain.” I’m outside myself, watching myself fall into form, Glass Kiss bent back, only just shaking.

He favors me with a sad smile and bows his head to me. “I know you don’t, Armila. But Glass Kiss will try and stop me. Know that it is Feyon who stands in her way. Black Rain still kneels on that snowy roof, waiting for his young friend to return to him.”

We surge forward.

Our blades meet in a clash of ruby-shadow sparks, and I know in that first push that he’s going to win. Pain screams along my body; as certain as a storm covers the sun, I know I’ll not get through this, maybe not even with my life.

He shoves me back, step by step, moving as though alighting on ice. Precise and quick, he dances me toward the heart stair. I can barely keep my blade up to block.

All he needs to do is delay me here until the palace guards come. Surely they will. And though he is old, he still moves as the best of us, better than the best of us. He was our teacher, and is our commander. He is the best there can be until he dies.

I don’t want to be the one to do that.

I stumble back, tripping over the prone body of Therissana still out cold. I trip, smashing against the stone floor with a cracking sound somewhere in my chest. Another rib. Another scream of pain leaks from behind my gritted teeth.

Rain stops his advance and stands over me, blade held behind him, waiting for me to get up. His damned honor is going to get him killed. But I don’t look at him. I’m too distracted by the sounds of the deadrock bandolier hitting the floor with me, tinkling against the stone. 

I move without thinking, desperation making me cruel. My hand is around the bandolier, gasping in pain as I touch the deadrock with my bare fingers.

Rain only has enough time to raise an eyebrow as I undo the stopper and throw it between us.

The bottle rolls on the stone but stops well before it should. A shimmering cloud bursts from it and dives into the stone floor beneath Rain’s feet. For a moment, the two of us hold our breath.

Then the hall is alive with grasping hands of stone and sediment, as the dashi spirit draws breathe and screams. It is an undulating ocean of rock that Rain and I ride, tossed this way and that.

The creature is mindless, with no dashi’ma to reign it in. And like every wild dashi, it screams and it screams and it screams.

I push myself past my pain, up off the floor and sprint towards Rain, who is busy dodging the dashi. I’m running over the dashi’s flailing limbs, and Rain doesn’t see me. I push myself even harder. This could be my only chance.

He sees me coming at the last moment, sword up, and only barely catches me. Sparks fly but I am already behind him. He tries to follow, can’t. His foot sinks into the floor; a tendril of rock bashes his skull.

He wavers, dazed, sword flailing. He is trying to find me, trying to stop me. But I’m behind him and my heart swells with dread as I’m already moving and no, I cannot stop myself because if I do, I fail. And if I fail, that little boy will die.

But not Rain. Ever the coward, I can’t kill my friend.

Glass Kiss wants the heart, but I pull away, lean down; see in that perfect moment the sickening sheath for my sword.

I shove Glass Kiss into his spine. Black Rain screams.

No blood, never blood with this blade; it never pierces flesh, only what lies beneath. I see a path of pain as the Tangle blooms within me and I see how this vertebra has such powerful memories of walking, of motion, of movement through the wind and snow and rain.

I take it and feel the life of his legs and his spine leak into my blade. I withdraw Glass Kiss and sob once, wretched, as he falls to the stone floor.

Screams merge as the dashi wails itself into nonexistence and Rain cries himself to ruin. He drags against the ground like a fish on land and I look away, my heart feeling small and dead. I can’t witness this, not this, not this awful thing I’ve done.

I’m moving before I know it, as fast as only cowards can. I drop my blade and straddle his shaking body. I place both hands against his temples and grip his head, tight; I can’t have him remember me. Gods damn me; I need to purge everything my shame can’t stomach.

He bucks, thrashing with his deadened limbs. But it doesn’t matter; he won’t remember anyway.

I dig deep into his mind and purge him. From the moment he found me on the roof until now, I snatch it all away. I can’t let him know it was me, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t. It would kill him.

After I’ve eaten his memories, I send him to sleep, disperse the memories I’ve stolen into the air, and hate that he will wake not knowing why he cannot walk, why he’ll never walk again. And worse, why he’ll never fight again. I’ve taken more than his mobility; I’ve taken his life.

I get off of him, chest heaving, and go to pick up my burden. Glass Kiss seems heavier than ever before, but still, she is mine and I am hers, am her, and will always be her. Armila only lives on in memory; she’ll always be a dream three years dead.

I go to the door at the end of the hall, the hall that is so still as though silence has been murdered and all that is left is quiet sobbing.

I go inside.

The room is small but well furnished, lit by the great moon outside the window, a white and gold witness. The wall is filled with murals, famous battles and generals and weapons woven together to create a tapestry of history that speaks of war rather than truth. There are bookshelves to either side of the bed, thick spines of tales waiting to be read, a myriad of languages shining in the moonlight.

In the bed is a boy. He is slight and he squints to look at me. His optics sit on a table by the bed.

“Good evening, Scy’ranai.” His voice is whisper thin and shaking. He’s wary, cautious, and I see how tense he is.

Scy’Ranai, an old term for a Thoughtblade, the language is Old Chelay. Through the fog of pain, I remember the response phrase his mother gave me, a key that will open the door of his friendship to me. “Good evening, prince,” I whisper back in Old Chelay. “The moon is such a dancing lady tonight.”

A smile kindles on his face. He relaxes and he clutches for his optics beside him. “You’re mother’s friend! She said a friend of hers would be coming tonight, and that I must wait for you to say her words, and now you are here!”

He slips the optics over his eyes, and the smile dies on his face; he notices how I bleed, how I limp; he puts a face to the noise he has just heard outside.

The prince sits up straighter in his bed, worry flashing across his face. “You’re certain you are a friend of mother’s? Mother doesn’t have many friends left in the city.” Fear at my wounds is touching the edge of his voice.

I swallow sand and ache down onto one knee, bowing my head before him. “I’m your mother’s friend, my prince. And I am yours. I swear.”  

I look up, and the boy is very still, watching me intently. Then, another smile washes across his face. “You don’t have to kneel. I don’t like when people kneel. Father does, but I don’t. I believe you. Do you want to read, then? Mother comes by my room, sometimes. She tells me legends of the world and brings me gifts!” He throws the covers off, runs over to the bookshelf by the balcony. “This is a book of creation myths she brought me from Tahkir! My favorite is from ancient Ballaronte called ‘The Dance of Stars.’ In the south, they don’t call him Thereshti, his name is Skathar, and his wife is Avenadresalaka and together they—”

He stops, looking at my silent figure and the black sword I hold, the blood that is still slowly trickling down my face. Does he see how dead my eyes are? Does he see how pale and trembling I am? He closes the book and looks out the window, suddenly quiet. “You’re not here for tales though, are you?”

Better to get it done with quickly. “In a way, I am.” I move toward him, getting down on one knee again so that we face one another; to his credit, he doesn’t try to run. His breath plumes white in the cold room. “I’m here for yours.”

I touch his temple and take us into the Tangle.

His memories appear in the glass of my mind like fog from the sea.

I walk toward his side of the Tangle and put my hand to them, these memories of youth. “What are you doing?” His voice is shrill but controlled. He’s trying not to show his fear. He’s trying to be like his father; I taste bile in the back of my throat.

I say nothing, only plunge myself into his memories, working to find the right one.

I fear he will start to panic, but when I glance back, his face has gone as still as a stone, his fear swallowed up. His training is revealing itself, and he watches me as I work. “What are you doing?” He does not command me, does not scream. He is only curious, though his voice seems very cold.

“This time last year your mother and father had visitors to the Pillar.” The boy nods, watching the shifting images on the glass in front of us. “There was a man, in robes of purple and white. Do you remember him?”

“Yes, a priest from the Qeivoan Islands.”

As I’d hoped, the glass ripples, the image of a dark-skinned man in robes of purple and white coming into focus. He is young and tall, a golden eye tattooed into the hollow of his throat; he reminds me of Rain.

I tap on the glass and hold the boy’s hand as it dissolves in front of us. I walk us into the memory—

—the scent of spiced wine is thick in the air, as the Coldmonger and the Empress of Broken Time drink and speak with their guests. It is still six months until the Empress’s brother publicly defies the Coldmonger and is delivered to Thereshti for his insolence. Here in the memory, they look... satisfied, if even content. It’s strange, how in so little time everything can change.

The boy and I are at the high table in one of the gardens. It is the second night of Cammu’Nant, when Thereshti brought life from the barren earth that hates us, and so we must feast that we yet live.

In the memory, the boy and I look to see the priest refuse all wine and pass by all sweetcakes as he walks across the garden. He moves to where an old man sits shivering, with skin turning a soft blue, his thin eyes all but frozen shut.

The foreign priest undoes the buttons of his heavy purple cloak and shrugs it off like it weighs nothing. He goes to his knees in the snow and wraps it around the old man, who looks up at him in disbelief.

The music stops. The Coldmonger’s voice cracks in the silent air, a frozen lake giving way. “Take back your cloak and leave him be, priest of Darek. He is of no concern to you.”

The priest looks back at the Coldmonger, eyes narrow, breath pluming. “This man is cold and his stomach is empty. He’ll die here in this garden, surrounded by food and drink and warmth, but will feel none. Tell me, what else am I supposed to do?”

“Let him die.” The Coldmonger’s words are simple, flat, and as unassuming as the sunrise. “He does not have the strength to see him through this life. So, he will die.” After a moment, he adds, “My apologies if this offends your soft heart.”

“‘Offends me’?” The priest has picked the old man up and holds him like a newborn. “You barely scratch the surface of my offense, Coldmonger. Here in your Cold Empire, you quash the embers of any heart that does not beat to your steady drum. You are savage in your destruction of kindness and ruthless in your conquest of compassion. You only find value in your fellow man’s might or cunning or wallet, not his smile or his heart or his soul. But the worst part,” the priest says, looking to where the boy and I stand, “is that your son watches you and will never learn how wrong you are.”

The priest carries the old man out of the garden, does not look back to see the wrath of the Coldmonger writ plain. The Empress does not show a thing, though she looks at her son with concern.

The boy holds my hand as I walk us back into the glass room, the memory fading behind us. “I didn’t understand then, what the priest said. Father and Mother have always said that kindness will get you killed. But that priest, he helped that old man and lived. I saw him at court the next day as strong as ever, saw him lift a great stone above his head! He handed out bread to the poor on the streets, and sang with the peasants. He seemed alive in a way I didn’t understand and I... I still don’t.”

He looks up at me, thoughtful but with a mature intensity behind his eyes, as if his life depends on the answer. “Can a man be weak and strong at the same time, Scy’Ranai? Can I show kindness and still be Emperor one day?”

I can’t look at the boy, who wants so badly to hear that what he has felt in the past year is a good thing, who so wants to please his parents but cannot deny the growing warmth in his heart. Thoughtblades are taught to stand like stones, move their swords like surgeons, but how can I, when my hands shake so terribly?

How do I tell this young boy that he is right, his parents are wrong, and the world is not what it seems?

The answer is, I can’t. I’m not strong enough for that.

All I can do is put my sword through his soul and save his life from his father.

“No, my prince. It’s not possible.”

I bite my lip until it bleeds, the tang of blood amplified by the Tangle. I bleed as I lift Glass Kiss, my sword that is my name that is my arm that is my heart, and plunge it into the glass wall before me. I bury the obsidian blade in the glass up to the hilt.

“No,” I choke out, “no, my little Prince of Pain. Kindness has no place in a king.”

I begin to cut.

I can’t bear to look at his face as I move the blade through his mind. I sift and I search through the past year, cutting through those moments of warmth inspired by the priest of Darek: the prince helps up a girl who has fallen, he holds the door for the staff, he feeds scraps to hungry dogs, he reads books of poetry, he smiles and waves to the poor; he even questions his father. Those gentle memories, those moments of warmth and curiosity, are drawn into the sword like iron to a lodestone, and Glass Kiss bids them goodnight.

In those memories that cannot be cut away, I cut around, then stitch together: He kicks the dogs away. He spits on the poor. He burns the books of poetry.

Gods, why can’t I cry? There is hollowness in my heart, and it’s screaming.

I circle back to the heart of the infection. I cut away at the edges of the priest in purple and white, remove him entirely from the night, remove his words, his rebukes.

His cloak is taken from the old man. Now, that old man dies in the snow, reaching out, pleading for anyone to see him, to help him.

Now, the boy does not look his way, not once.

I rip out my blade from the glass, grip the boy’s hand, and bring us out of the Tangle. The boy is lying on the cold floor, shaking with shock.

I pick him up and place him back in his bed.

I tuck him in and even in his slumber, he cries, and in the morning, only I’ll remember why. He’ll wake and from this day forward only find an empty shell of this night, a shell so deep it will never be filled, not if the whole world gave for weeping.

The hole in my heart is screaming, mourning for the man he could have become, for the world he could have forged and now instead will only burn or let burn, all because his father is a madman and his mother would rather see him go cold than die. I mourn for Black Rain on the stone outside, still and sleeping, the destruction of his body a nightmare to which he’ll wake. I mourn for my path of destruction through the capital, all in service to an Empire, a world, that will only ever see me as a weapon.

The Empress had said to throw the prince’s memories into the sea or the air or the earth, but watching this little boy cry in the night, I find that I can’t. I can’t let who he may have been die. I have already done too much horror tonight to become this terrible a monster.

I can feel his gentle memories sitting in my blade, waiting to die. It’s not a conscious decision; the hole in my heart has taken control of my mind. I snatch them up in my mind’s hand and move them into my Tangle. I can’t let the world forget such kindness.

His kindness floods me, the memories embedding themselves into the glass of my own mind. My Tangle begins to buckle beneath the weight of their warmth. My mind is ready to shatter into a thousand sharp memories.

I’m screaming through my teeth from broken ribs and bleeding cuts, and his memories are a worse pain still, as they weave themselves into my very being. My broken ribs heave and grind with my sobbing, but I don’t care. The sickly warmth of the boy’s kindness worms its way into my heart. I cannot turn from what I have done tonight. I no longer know who or what I am.

Armila? Glass Kiss? Turncoat? Weapon? I fear the answer more than anything.

I’ve fallen to my knees, my whole body shaking, a deep howl working itself from my lungs out into the air. I want to open my arms wide, beseech anything that may live above the clouds to gather me up and forgive me, to offer me refuge from this terrible heat in my breast.

But I won’t. I can’t.

There’s no such thing as mercy in the Cold Empire.

And now, thanks to me, there never will be.  


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Martin Cahill is a writer working in Manhattan and living in Astoria, Queens. He is graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers' Workshop and a member of the New York City based writing group Altered Fluid. He has had fiction published in Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, and has a story forthcoming at Fireside Fiction chosen by guest editor Daniel Jose Older. Martin also writes non-fiction for Book Riot, Tor.com, and Strange Horizons. He is very excited to introduce you to the Cold Empire and hopes you enjoyed your time in the snowy city of Jitka'Lant.

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1 Comment on “A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain”

One Response to “A Glass Kiss for the Little Prince of Pain”

  1. Rosella Lewis says:

    Great world building. It’s a world easily envisioned because the central themes are still grounded in reality. I also really liked the characters. Even those briefly introduced do not come off as one-dimensional.

    Above all this made me want to read more about Armila and her world. My only critique is that it has an over abundance of similes and metaphors not all of which work to enhance the story. But that might just be my personal taste talking.

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