Pain, despite what you have been told, is not a Martyr’s foremost professional consideration. We get over the pain quite quickly. It’s just the price of doing business. Papercuts, broken limbs, ague, sword-strokes, burns: I know pain in many permutations, as a surgeon knows his bones.
There beside the dueling green, I appreciated the perspective. Neither of the two men with swords had achieved that perspective to anywhere near the same degree.
“You’re working for Niko,” I observed, to the woman beside me. I wore a sundress colored Martyr black. The wind was up and my blood the same. Anticipation held the crowd; even I felt the thrill. A duel where both fighters were backed by Martyrs? That came perhaps once in a season.
“He’s good,” Peregrine replied, buttoning her own black collar. Neither of us would fight, but we were part of the fight; indispensable. “No one would blame you if you sat it out.”
Always tempting. Never practical. “He’s overconfident. Be the death of him, someday.”
“Niko,” said Peregrine, “has killed seventeen men in combat, and injured a number near the same. I believe your man Tymon has occasionally managed to kill a deer. Yes, someday Niko will die. But will it be today? To Tymon Gryf? Mmn. I’ll take my chances.”
We took our place along the rails and waited for the adjudicator’s signal.
“Property case,” announced the adjudicator, eyes large in wide-lensed glasses. “You’re all aware it’s to the death?”
Niko gestured, a line across his throat. The crowd liked that. I felt my toes curl.
The adjudicator sighed. “Well, your permits are in order.” A pause. “You may begin.”
Steel clashed. Niko led the fight with a textbook lunge, easily parried. My fingers gripped the iron rail around the edge of the green as I watched him move. It reminded me of dancing. A duelist’s cape and wide-brimmed hat accentuated the lean muscularity of his frame. Sunlight shimmered on swords, bright in the summer’s morning. A breath of anticipation took the distinguished crowd.
Yet most did not watch the duelists. They watched me.
They wondered if I would choose to die in Tymon’s stead.
No one believed for a second that Tymon would win. Tymon the short and fat and angry. Tymon of the house of Gryf, who I’d heard rant of an evening about the price of pepper and his ships abroad. When one ship failed to return it was a squeeze; when two failed to return, it meant insolvency. Dockmaster Niko had demanded nothing less than the seizure of the next vessel’s cargo to cover losses. Tymon refused. Why he thought to take a line of credit from a renowned duelist, I’ll never know, but here we were. Now that their pride was involved, neither could be convinced to settle the matter with anything less than violence.
Don’t worry, Tymon had said, I’ve got a Martyr. I’ll be fine.
Rich men sometimes forget that their enemies can be just as resourceful. I caught Peregrine’s indifferent eye. For her, this was just contract work. But I was sworn to Tymon’s family—to the house of Gryf.
Niko’s saber sweeped close. Tymon’s arm’s shook as his blade absorbed the blow. Deep-set eyes widened in fear and pique alike.
Swords locked. Both men breathed, for a moment.
Then Niko pushed. Tymon pushed back. But Tymon wasn’t strong enough.
A wound cut deep and red through the flesh of his arm, just beneath the elbow. He staggered backwards, fingers loosening from pain. He nearly dropped his blade.
My charge was wounded. So I performed my duty.
The pain felt distant, at first. A deepening ache, like the stiffness of weary bones in winter. I embraced the pain. Cultivated it. The hurt blossomed along my arm in the shape of a line, fizzling, burning. Beneath black fabric I felt a sword wound manifest upon my skin, the echo of another left by steel.
When it was done, Tymon’s arm was whole. So goes the Martyr’s art.
Blood trailed in rivulets down my arm. The black sleeve grew heavier with moisture until tiny beads of scarlet dripped from my fingertips, one at a time.
“I see you’ve decided to ignore my advice,” said Peregrine.
The duelists circled one another.
“I intend to win,” I told her.
In the crowd I spied a young man, dark hair swept back, nose crooked, skin sun-darkened. My brother, Alesky. Seeing him in Academy blue warmed my heart, but I found myself glowering all the same. I’d told him not to come. A young man shouldn’t see me like this.
“Keep him away from the rail,” I told one of the attendant bailiffs.
Tymon endured a glancing blow. He wouldn’t be able to endure many more. There had to be something, some strategy. I knew Niko was good. What I didn’t realize was that Tymon was so bad. He practiced nearly every day; how could still be terrible?
That was it, I realized. Tymon’s very incompetence was a kind of advantage. There is rhythm and a flow to sword-fights. This I knew from an experience now fading into memory. An amateur does not appreciate the timing of the dance. That makes him unpredictable. And unpredictable can be dangerous.
I grasped the rail, tight enough to hurt. “Now!” I urged Tymon. “Press him!”
Tymon seized on my encouragement. He swung wide around Niko’s guard, a stroke so bold, so obvious, so stupid, that Niko never saw it coming. The sword’s point speared through the edge of Niko’s collar and drew a bloody line through fine fabric.
Niko stepped back and touched the wound. He considered his fingers, then Tymon. I think he was offended.
Peregrine stepped forward, but Niko waved her off. The wound was shallow. Superficial.
His eyes narrowed with resolve.
I knew Tymon wouldn’t get a second chance.
Emboldened, ignorant, the poor fool stepped in. He was a flurry, a relentless cavalcade of strikes. It reminded me of nothing less than the high-flying swashbucklery that I’d seen at operas. It was every bit as flawed.
Calmly, Niko battered off every cut and lunge. Tymon pressed the attack. Back and back and back they went, nearer the green-side rail. Soon Niko was pressed against it, just in front of me, and Tymon pulled back his arm for a final lunge.
Before the move completed, a blade slid smoothly through his chest.
“A true swordsman,” said Niko, balancing Tymon upon swordspoint, “fights with economy.”
The sword came free. Blood followed after.
A murmur took the crowd. Lords and magnates and urchins all saw me and they whispered.
There Tymon lay upon the green, grass turning slowly red. Blood trickled from his mouth. Near enough to touch. And touch him I did. I kneeled there beside him in the grass.
Tymon clutched the wound. Blood bubbled through his fingers. More leaked from the corner of his mouth. He was lung-struck; nothing could save him but the Martyr’s gift.
Save me, I think he tried to say.
I felt the echo of his pain. A tingling, as the pinpricks of a limb reawakening from sleep. I danced around that feeling. Was he worth it, this old merchant?
I caught my brother’s eyes from across the crowd. Don’t, I saw him mouth.
Please, croaked Tymon, or something near to.
If I died, the Gryfs would see my brother taken care of. His future would be assured.
I just wouldn’t be there to see it.
I turned my face. Tymon’s fingers slipped. Death took a long time to follow.
The crowd murmured disappointment. All save my brother in his uniform, whose relieved sigh was all I needed.
“I’ll help you get cleaned up,” he offered.
Visiting the city, I noticed men and women who lurked ever at the side of dignitaries, clad in deepest black. I asked a sailor: are these bodyguards? No, said he, look there; the baron travels also with his soldiers. That is a Martyr. No man can slay the baron while a Martyr lives, for he will rise again by their sacrifice.
The council long ago decreed that all folk deemed vital to the public good would be assigned a Martyr of their own. And folk spent great sums to prove how very vital they were. Thus the Martyr is a mark of status: no man has achieved greatness until one stands by his side.
There are always one hundred Martyrs in the city. Should one die, another takes their place. It is not a thing chosen. They awaken from sleep, the Mark upon their flesh. Thus the magnates of the city have never hesitated to expend their Martyrs’ lives, for another will soon be found.
And yet paradoxically the people of the city weep for the tale of Lacrymosa, the Martyr who so loved her master that she respected his wishes not to die on his behalf.
It is a complicated profession.
—from Galina’s ‘Faces of the Martyr’
A steady trickle of water diluted the current of my blood as it drained down marble tile. The air was warm with water flowing hot from copper pipes. The luxury only irritated me.
“They should have let you do the fighting,” said my brother Alesky, holding up a towel. “You’d have won.”
I wiped red blood from a white arm. Scars knotted its lines. Some pink, some white. Here and there the skin was near to bone, where flesh had long ago been torn away. The legacy of a dozen clients, a limb turned halfway skeletal. “I don’t fight any more.”
“You were the best.”
“We’re respectable, now. Sophisticated. And we need to act the part.” However much I might desire otherwise. Besides which, he exaggerated. Duels between women were rare, and the work was barely enough to live off.
“You’re still bleeding,” said Alesky.
“You’re a very astute young man,” I told him, with the ghost of a smile. “That must be why you made the Academy.”
Anger and pride alike crossed his face while he helped me with a bandage. We both knew that if his sister wasn’t a Martyr, he’d never have gotten in. The fees were simply too much.
“The test is coming up, yes?”
“It’s a stupid test.” Alesky picked at the tassels on his coat. He wore Fleet Academy blue, dress uniform; if he graduated, he’d at the very least earn a commission. “We’ve already done everything that’s on it. They’re just making us do it all in one sitting. Which would never happen on an actual boat.” He shook his head. “Me and some of the boys are going to go see the opera, take our minds off it.”
“You’ve come very far.” Our parents never accomplished anything so prestigious, though father might’ve if he liked the bottle less. Alesky didn’t remember the years of poverty, of scrounging coins off street corners and eating food half-rotted. I did. I would prefer that he stayed forgetful. “I’ll be there to watch,” I promised him. “The same as you came to watch.”
“You told me not to.”
“Well, there’s what someone says, and what they want, and they’re not always the same.”
Distantly, I heard the high tower bell. Noon, already. “Run along. I need to see Lord Sebastien.”
“Lord Sebastian is a cunt.”
“I’m fairly certain that Lord Sebastien possesses an exclusively male anatomy.”
“That Niko isn’t any better. He was outside, demanding to see you. I told him to sod off.”
What would the Dockmaster want with me? Gloating, probably. That or a message for Sebastien. I supposed I didn’t care, either way. “You don’t tell rich men to sod off.”
“Well, I did. And when I make captain,” Alesky told me, drawing himself up straight, “I’m going to buy out your retainer.”
“I don’t think you realize how much a Martyr costs.”
“I’ll capture a ship as prize. Two, if that’s what it takes. Just promise me you’ll stay alive until then.”
I ruffled his hair and left. I don’t make promises I can’t keep.
My employer possessed a gift for language. “Whore and five times a whore!”
I pulled the damask curtains wide. “Rise and meet the day, Lord Sebastien.”
Sunlight shone straight upon his bed. He flung up arm and pillow to shield his eyes while motes of dust swirled in the windows’ golden beams. I noted that he had never quite finished unbuttoning his clothes. He had managed to remove his boots. This was progress, as these things are reckoned.
“I issued precise instructions not to be awakened until noon,” he groused.
“Indeed so, my Lord. It is half past three.” The expedience of the curtains was perhaps unkind but warranted, I thought, under the circumstances. “There is a problem.”
He spoke, muffled. “Well, we’d better get on with it. Tymon’s big day.”
“Your cousin Tymon is dead.”
His curses came equally muffled. “Why didn’t you wake me earlier?”
“Attempts were made.”
Bleary-eyed, a hangover surely hammering within his skull, my Lord pushed himself up to sit in bed. Sebastien was the heir to all the house of Gryf, with all the privileges that entailed. I was one of those privileges. When I’d told the patriarch what had happened to his son Tymon, all I got was a shrug. If one Gryf died, well, that just meant larger inheritances for the rest.
Sebastien hollered for the maid. She came. While I recounted the duel, she shaved him in stoic silence.
The soft noise of steel on skin filled an extended pause. “You worthless and horrible idiot,” he finally said. “What use is a Martyr that won’t fulfill her duty?”
“My duty,” I told him, with all deference, “Is to protect your life, Lord Sebastien. No more, and no less.” The contract was very specific.
“I see where we stand. Might as well make what use of you we can. Purify me.”
My stomach sank. “Not again.”
“Yes, again. It is only the third time this week.”
He spoke very softly. “Do it.”
I met his gaze. Soon, the world began to blur. First I felt the pressure in his sinuses. It built behind my eyes. Then pain bloomed in earnest. I gasped and braced myself against the table. Every heartbeat thudded through my temples like the pounding of a hammer.
“Close the curtains,” I whispered, not quite able to reach them.
“Now she wishes them closed,” Sebastien joked to the maid. He smiled, for my suffering eased his own. A hurt for a hurt, a trade in balance—so fares the Martyr’s art. He looked at his face in the mirror, and I saw him draw up the genteel artifice that shaped his public manner—the soft hauteur, the chin upheld just so, the winsome smirk. One could be charmed by such a face, if they knew it less well.
He instructed: “Look out the window, Chalcedony.”
I was in no state. Sebastien generously grasped my hair and wrenched me up to see.
Sunlight seared my eyes. The Gryf estate overlooked only the narrowest slice of the bay. Water traced a brilliant blue line in between tenements far below, each of them built of stones the color of sand. Its depths sparkled, azurite blue, cerulean sapphire. It felt like nothing less than fire. The waves danced with flecks of reflected white, flecks which burned green marks upon my vision. Soon that small line of sea was obscured by a tall ship, laden with goods bound for markets abroad. Teresin harbor brimmed with ships, narrowly avoiding the man-made islands and precarious bridges that held them all together.
“What you’re seeing is my fortune, evaporating into the ocean.” The pain of sunlight would have been punishment enough for most. Sebastien, hand still grasping hair, rapped my brow against the tabletop. “We needed that ship.”
The family had dozens. Dozens of cousins, and dozens of ships. The question was only which members of the family were trusted with which vessels. All magnates competed with each other; the Gryfs alone competed with themselves. If they lost part of Tymon’s meager portion, what difference would it make?
“It’s not just the ship, Chalcedony. It’s the cargo. Special cargo. Do you suppose Tymon of all people would fight to the death over pepper?”
“Pepper is very expensive,” I managed.
Sebastien didn’t appreciate the levity. He turned to the maid. “Give me the razor.”
My skin crawled. A man does not go through three Martyrs in his life without creating rumors.
The maid was foreign and I do not think she understood what was happening. But on some level, she sensed the danger. Reluctantly, she relinquished steel.
Sebastien set the razor to his own throat. “Such is the generosity of our family that all our Martyrs’ dependents are taken care of.” Slowly, he shaved down the column of his neck. It was already smooth. “A good life for those who live, in trade for a good life given.”
With my head fogged, I couldn’t think straight. I reached for smart remarks, something to stay his hand. Instead I felt my teeth click audibly together and a renewed throbbing in my skull.
“It is to the credit of fair Chalcedony that she feels deepest love for her brother. An up-jumped urchin, a dockhand made a gentleman, trained in shipcraft beside lords and magnates’ children. He is her hope for the future. Such a pity, were he no longer to benefit from my largesse.”
I groped for words. “This isn’t—”
A dark red line bloomed along the line of my lord’s neck. He let droplets of blood slither down the space below and betrayed not an ounce of pain. “Ah—my hand slipped,” he told me, with a smile. “Good thing I have you to help.”
I could not disguise my hate. But I knew my duty. And so I did it. A ribbon of fire lanced across my throat, as flesh split slowly open. It hurt more, and then less, as an inward breath and swallow spread the wound slightly wider. I did not clasp a hand or bandage. I let the blood stain my mantle. Sebastien could afford replacements.
He patted my cheek. “That’s my Chalcedony.”
I didn’t answer.
The Lord rubbed his now unbroken neck. “Always tingles a little bit,” he told the maid. Then his eyes fell on me. “Let me tell you what we’re going to do. I will stand against Nikodem,” said Sebastien. “Vengeance by blood, or by return of property.”
“My lord,” I spoke quickly, “You haven’t Niko’s skill.”
“But I have conviction. And I have a Martyr. Even if I lose, I surely prove my righteousness and depth of feeling.” He donned his gloves. “Go clean yourself up and meet me at the Opera this evening.”
The maid offered to help me once Sebastien was gone. I waved her off. The cut from the duel hurt far worse than a razor’s kiss. I quietly imagined how sweet it would be to watch Sebastien bleeding on the green, wondering if I would give my life for his.
I waited until the light in the windowpane moved enough to warm my face.
Never, I resolved, never would I die for Sebastien Gryf. But neither could I afford to let his fortune fall to ruin. Not until Alesky passed his test.
I needed to find out what was on that ship.
The Martyr is only human. Not all take to sacrifice. Famous is the case of Cinnabar, a Martyr who refused to die for a master that beat and used him.
Needless to say, Cinnabar was executed for breach of contract. But the Temple, its authority in question, saw fit also to execute Cinnabar’s wife and to exile their children unto the third generation.
Cases like Cinnabar grew rare.
—from Galina’s ‘Faces of the Martyr’
The House of Martyrs is the City’s most popular place of worship. Its glass-blown spires catch the light and color it, such that the light falls blue and red upon the temple yard. Supplicants waited in that tinted shadow, hoping for a chance to petition a Martyr for relief. Down the cobbled streets came the poor and sick and dying, all to join that line. Near as many were the pilgrims, the curious, the tourists. They wished not the Martyr’s gift and often could not pay the price. They only hoped to see the Martyr’s art with their own eyes.
They very well might. A Martyr died near every day.
Hands reached out when I walked by, clutching at the billowing hemline of my dress. Just a small hurt, they assured me. Not so much a burden to bear. Please, help me, help my child.
I’d heard it all before. Their voices grew thin and then silent as I walked into the temple hall. The soldiers who kept the entrance clear saw my dress and stepped aside.
It took time to grow accustomed to the dimness. Great frescoes crawled towards the ceiling, stories writ in paint and bas-relief. Highest was the goddess Amra, who died to give the world to Men. Tears fell from her broken face, diamonds on the temple wall. Tears that carried the blood divine and seeded the earth with the Martyr’s gift.
“I need to see the appointment book,” I told a novitiate. He was old but unscarred. In our Temple, scars measured service, not years.
“Ah,” he said, perking up. “Will you be taking on a charity case?”
“Certainly not. Show me the for-profit ledgers.”
We looked them over. There were a lot of names, and I had limited time.
“Do you have anyone from the fleet? Merchant-marine, perhaps?”
“You must be Chalcedony.” He looked closer. “Looking to get someone indebted to you, help out your brother when he graduates?”
What a clever lie. I should have thought of that. “Something along those lines.”
“Well, that’s horribly illegal.” He sounded pleased. “Come, have a look.”
I looked. “That one. That one’s perfect.”
There was time yet before the listed supplicant arrived. I walked through cold halls to the gallery where Martyrs met the public. My feet echoed on sterile stone. So much extravagance in the public galleries, and yet in our private halls, apparently no one could be bothered to lay down a rug.
Only one Martyr was in the gallery: a broad-shouldered man, his face covered by a featureless obsidian mask. The fire in the braziers flickered in its reflective surface. He sat on a stone-carved chair elevated on a dais beneath the artwork. He acknowledged me with a slow and solemn nod as I took a place beside him.
A bell sounded. The Temple received its next supplicant.
A woman in her forties kneeled before us, hair turning grey. She wore the mannish clothing of the common merchant class. She knew the formal words. “I, the unworthy, seek the gift of Martyrs.”
The man on the dais chair said nothing. The supplicant looked to me. For direction, I supposed. An unmasked face is friendlier. I schooled myself to silence and only gestured at the chair.
“I-I-I am a clerk,” the woman said, holding up her hands. The knuckles were swollen and the fingers bony. “Arthritis troubles me terribly.”
It would be arthritis. Couldn’t it have been the flu, something tolerable, something temporary?
“I work for the dockmaster. Every day it grows harder to write. I have schedules and routes to transcribe by week’s end, and I fear for my daughters’ ability to eat if I cannot meet the deadline. My husband died this year past, and I...”
The masked face watched in silence.
She set a small box on the ground. “I brought money.”
No response came.
“Please,” she asked again. “If not forever, then only for a week!”
Still the silence.
“I brought money,” she said again, as though that ought to matter most.
The masked man raised his bell and rang it. A single word: “Denied.”
The woman cried objection. Soldiers lingered in the shadows of tapestries, eyes dim inside church-black bascinets. When she approached the dais, they barred her path.
The masked man spoke to me. “You must think that I am cruel.” I recognized the voice.
“Hardly,” I said. “There’s no way to take a hurt for a week. It is all or nothing.”
My old teacher leaned forward. I imagined well the smile beneath his mask. “And?”
“She’s a liar.”
The woman gasped. “The very idea!”
I asked her: “The box is full of gold krona?”
She answered: “A donation.”
“She doesn’t want this for her family,” I said, then. “It’s for herself. If her daughters are truly about to starve, why would she have so much money?”
“That is my Chalcedony.” The familiar voice, gravel-deep, carried fondness in its wheezing timbre. He removed the mask. Beneath was a face twice alarming to the people of the City. First for the pitted scars, the tapestry of pinpricks and craters in his face. There was more scar than skin. Lips were split, brows slash-marked. But the second thing was neither that nor the clearness of his eyes. It was that his skin was dark. Few southrons ever reached our city. The chilling effect on our supplicant was obvious.
“Master Pox,” I greeted him. “You would agree that this is sacrilege?”
He apprehended what I was about. “She attempted to bribe sworn clergy.”
“Under false pretenses, at that.”
The woman gaped. She did not quite believe me. Everyone understood the value of a bribe, when Martyrs were involved. So much is asked of us, after all. No one begrudges us the occasional profit.
But I had a mission. “Do you not know the law of Amra? Simony is a killing offense.”
”Please,” the woman said. “Please, I—”
“But I’m willing to forgive you,” I told her. “In exchange for a small favor.”
“Anything,” she said, visibly relieved. A favor. Yes, why not a favor? We had come once again to the game she understood.
“I need a shipping manifest.”
I told her the date, I told her the ships. And I thought I saw something change in her expression. What, precisely, I could not tell. “I’ll meet you behind the Temple in twenty minutes.”
She did not run. Not until she was out of sight, anyway. But the halls of stone carried the echo of her heels.
“An unusual performance.” The Master dismissed the soldiers with a wave. “I can tell you’re in some kind of trouble, which I suppose is nothing new where you’re concerned.”
“I can handle it.”
“You do not want my advice, which is also nothing new where you’re concerned, but I am of a mind to dispense it regardless.”
“Likewise nothing new, where you’re concerned,” I told Master Pox. “I want a new contract.”
“You were assigned five years. How many have you served?”
“Show me your Mark.”
I rolled up my sleeve. It lay upon my forearm, amidst scarred and silvered flesh. A crescent and a teardrop. Amra’s gift and burden.
He showed me his palm. There lay his own Mark, livid against wrinkled lines. “We were chosen by God,” he told me.
“Perhaps we ought to have been asked.”
“The Martyr’s duty is sacred. You have my sympathy, but no, I will not absolve the contract.”
“You don’t understand what he’s like. It’s not service. It’s slavery.”
“I aspired to slavery, back in Kash Katal,” he told me. “There, no man has worth but gold-eyed princes. I could fight for scraps of glory, sweat for scraps of coin, or beg for the honor of being sacrificed, but only when I gained this mark did I become someone. It happened the very day I took port. Now I understand why I endured so much. Eventually, so will you.”
I thought of novices who took a death contract on their first day, just to lift their kin from poverty.
“We are chosen by God, Chalcedony. She is dead, but we are here, in the silence. To be Her voice.”
It was well enough for Master Pox to speak of purpose. After he survived the plague, he had become an inoculation for all the city. Why did I have this gift, if I could only use it to save a wretched man?
“You must find your Calling,” he told me. “The one thing you can do that no other Martyr can.”
Little chance of that if I died.
I had heard enough philosophy. I went to stand behind the Temple.
The clerk took longer than twenty minutes. I began to wonder if I might be late to the opera that Lord Sebastien bade me attend. That would be a violation of contract.
Finally, steps echoed behind me. I turned, too slow to stop what was coming.
Coarse burlap enclosed my sight. A fist compressed my stomach. One punch stole my breath; the second stole my senses.
I struck the ground and slept.
But not for long.
Martyrs are recognized as masters when they perfect a Calling—a skill possessed by no other. Often this involves disease: an immunity to otherwise lethal ailments can be sold at highest price. Master Pox stopped three outbreaks of plague, and Master Carbuncle cured the venereal ailments of schlacta nobility for prices appropriate to their rank.
Yet most famous of Martyrs was Mistress Wildflower, who single-handedly foiled over a dozen poisonings in the highest strata of society, having built up immunities in a past about which few persons dared inquire. Renowned for conversation, kept for her resilience, she was once absorbed deadly fireroot and complained only of an upset stomach.
—from Galina’s ‘Faces of the Martyr’
The sack came off my head and the smell of incense soaked me like an oily water. Cymbals and tambourines shook out a rhythm in the next room, amidst the sound of clattering cups and laughter. Some kind of pub? I could only see peeling paint.
And a familiar face, smiling. “I heard you’re interested in boats.”
I stared. “Niko? How did you—”
“I’m the dockmaster. How could I not? I know when every single ship is due in and when every ship is due out. I know when every functionary pulls a file. And you can imagine my hobby inspires loyalty.” He turned. “Catch.”
There are things in life you don’t forget. Swordsmanship is one of them. Niko threw a rapier at me, underhand. By instinct, even with a wounded arm, I caught it. Similar instinct took me into high quartre.
Niko’s saber-stroke came at the same angle, bouncing once off my guard. His remise was slower, harder, more leverage than cut. I cried in pain and anger as both our swords tangled near my bosom. A bandaged arm threatened to bleed anew.
Niko smiled. “Now that’s my Chalcedony.”
I was getting very tired of being people’s Chalcedony.
He aimed the tip of the saber at the very hollow of my throat. If I breathed wrong, it would surely prick my skin. “I’ve long been interested in your work, you know.”
“Where are we?”
Then the smell hit me. Coppery blood and acrid sweat. The smoke-seared aroma of skewered meat and vegetables. The old dockside fighting pits.
“Yes,” said Niko. “You remember. What did they call you, back then?”
I was sure he knew. “The Jackal,” I said.
“Because of how you laughed, when you won. Because of how you relished the violence.”
“I’m not like that any more.”
“More’s the pity.” I heard something strange in his voice. Not quite disappointment. He withdrew, then paced, boots clunking on warped wooden boards. “You were an excellent duelist. You’re a moderately shit Martyr.” He gestured. “I bought this place to get access to a particular kind of talent, but the talent just isn’t what it used to be.”
Someone wrenched the sword from my grasp. A black-gloved hand. It took me a moment to realize it belonged to Peregrine.
“If you’re going to kill me, get on with it.”
“Kill a Martyr?” Niko laughed. “As if I needed the Temples against me. No, you’re going to kill someone.”
I had my doubts.
“You’re going to kill Sebastien.”
I had my doubts, but he had my attention.
“You know what this is?”
Peregrine held a bottle, small and faceted. The contents appeared murky green, but closer to the light, they shimmered with sickly threads of crimson.
“Fire-root,” I said. It could kill a man in seconds. Horrifyingly painful, named first for the color but also for the searing pain it supposedly induced. It leaves no trace, resembling mere heart failure.
“It will be a great tragedy, at the opera,” said Niko. “When Sebastien perishes. And you try to save him but fail.”
Then came a second vial. A purple liquid, dark enough to almost appear black.
“This will put you in a torpor that lasts three days. They’ll all think you’re dead, at first; your heart will, in fact, stop. But when you awaken? Why, no one will doubt that you tried to save him.”
It all seemed a little complicated. “You received his challenge?”
He revealed a letter. I recognized Sebastien’s handwriting. “It would be a scandal if I declined.”
“So kill him in the duel. You’ve got the skill.”
“You’re clever, Chalcedony, but you’re street clever. You don’t comprehend politics. My killing him, while surely entertaining, would create problems.”
“You’re rich enough to buy your way out of them.”
“The money just gilds the lily, Chalcedony. At a certain point, titles matter more.” He gave me that queer look again. “And titles are coming my way, once I get what’s on that ship. The city will be in my debt forever. I’ll be able to ask that pock-marked foreigner for whichever Martyr I might I desire.”
Something tightened inside me. I realized, finally, what Niko’s look conveyed.
He probably wouldn’t hurt me, if I worked for him. At least not like Sebastien. He had a different sort of use in mind.
“You’re too dutiful to say yes,” said Niko, as he placed the vials in my hand. My fingers closed tight around them. “But I ask you only to consider the benefits of life in my service.”
A loud thud sounded as the door swung open. Two men with enough muscle for three carried in a heap of cloth. I realized, when it was laid out before me, that it was a bespoke ball-room gown.
“Cut to your measurements,” Niko told me, with what I supposed was meant to be a roguish grin. “My little apology. I’ll look forward to seeing you at the opera.”
“I assume this means you’re not going to tell me what’s on the boat.”
“’I’ll just say it’s a watershed. For you, especially.”
Peregrine stared at me for a few moments as her master left. Her eyes smoldered with an undisguised loathing.
At least they didn’t stay to watch me dress.
The scholars ask: why do Martyrs only appear in Teresin? The Temples explain this with religion. When the goddess Amra died, her tears fell to strike the earth. One hundred tears for one hundred Martyrs, that her sacrifice might be remembered always. Even dead, a divinity’s power is not easily diminished.
Many find this claim persuasive. For is not the Mark shaped with Amra’s moon and Amra’s tear?
What power might spring from Her blood and body, from a tear unspilled?
—from Galina’s ‘Faces of the Martyr’
The opera house of Teresin was built upon water, overlooking the sweep of the bay. The magnates of old had filled the bay with stone-wrought islands, and the opera was the grandest of them all. From the balustrades of its terraced patios one can see the rising of the farthest foothills. Tall ships ply dark waters in between; white-paneled canvas shades out the sun. The opera is most often held late, and by the time I arrived, dusk had given way to night. Around me lords and ladies walked the elevated bridge to the atrium beyond.
I offered my hand to Sebastian when he exited a hackney carriage. My gloves were satin and the sleeves sateen. Lace and skirt and shawl were all of black. Black also were the necklace beads. I will say this of Niko’s tailor—he managed to give to black the nuance of many colors.
“I think I’m paying you too much,” said Sebastien.
“It’s only a rental,” I told him. I felt the vials shift within my sleeve.
“You’re always so dour. Smile to the public.”
Cloudcourt Walk was a place to be seen. The longest of bridges, it connected the opera to rarified streets. Below, ramshackle boats clustered in a nautical commons, where they might steal a glimpse of musical entertainments free of charge. The last Dockmaster had tried to police that custom, but Niko knew better. Barkers hopped from boat to boat, hawking fish and eel.
“Niko has accepted my challenge,” Sebastien told me, as we stepped into the grand foyer.
“My condolences, Lord Sebastien.”
“Come now, don’t sound so bitter. I’ve got your interests in mind.”
“Tell me what’s on the boat and I’ll tell you if that’s true.”
“I’ll put it to you this way: Once I get what’s on that boat, you’ll be able to retire.”
No Martyr ever retired. “How?”
“Let’s say it’s carrying an object of religious significance.”
I pondered that while a gaggle of eligible women—and at least one unctuous father—descended upon Sebastien. Socialites coveted marriage into Gryf. Sebastien knew how to manipulate them. To me they were interchangeable, but he remembered their names, their likes.
A woman caught my arm. I realized it was Peregrine. I scarcely recognized her, if only because she was wearing blue. That was against regulations.
“Don’t lose your nerve,” she told me, voice severe. “No matter what happens.”
I stared at her as she left the opera. Sebastien passed ten vapid minutes discussing horse-riding before he escaped to a private box at the highest terrace, where he reluctantly bid the socialites farewell.
“Women,” he told me, inside. “So tedious.”
I dusted my skirt and gave him a skeptical expression.
“Yes, yes, point taken. Anyway, I’m terribly sorry about the way I acted, this morning. I was angry to hear about Tymon. I’ve since realized it wasn’t you I was mad at.”
“What’s another scar,” I told him.
“The ship’s due in tomorrow morning,” Sebastien told me. “We just need one box from the captain’s quarters. The captain knows as much. I’ve proven my willingness to fight for Tymon’s honor—when my father intervenes to annul the duel, well. Niko can have the rest of the cargo.”
So the duel was misdirection? One might almost believe he was clever.
I saw a wine bottle on the box’s sideboard. Niko was probably the cleverer of the two.
I opened the wine.
“Besides, Chalcedony. I wouldn’t want to see you die.”
That was unexpected. I suppose it showed in my face.
“You’re very attentive. You have a mind for detail. I know I’m late to my appointments, but without you, I wouldn’t even realize they existed. It isn’t strictly part of your job; I notice the effort.”
It figured that Sebastien would have one of his rare attacks of conscience when I was working up the nerve to kill him. As the house lights dimmed and the singers took the stage, I thought of that old saying about the devil you know.
Lest I grow too sentimental, Sebastien qualified: “Besides which, you Martyrs are very expensive, and father reprimanded me for losing the last two.”
I poured the vial into the glass.
Through a spyglass, Sebastien peered out to the commons. “Is that your brother?”
I squinted. The boat in question was barely seaworthy, but it was full of blue-coated Academy boys. “He should be studying,” I said, which seemed ridiculous as soon as I said it; he’d told me that morning that they were coming.
I was pouring the second glass when the sailor arrived.
He all but staggered into the box, shouldering past the guards without. He smelled like a long succession of bathless nights. He had the face of a Gryf, the proud hawk’s nose. But there was something wrong with him. Something deathly wrong. I felt it simmering beneath his skin, there for me to touch, to take, though I knew not what it was.
He looked at Sebastien and said: “Fuck you.”
Sebastien asked, “What’s the meaning of this?”
“My brother Tymon’s dead, I’ve come halfway around the circle of the world, and you’re here at a show. Maybe I ought to have stopped at Ipto Kal for a bloody kebab on our way back across the sea.”
Below, a few people craned their necks. The opera had started. Noise from the house drew attention.
“You’re making a scene, Mikolaj.”
“You’re bloody right I’m making a scene.”
“I’ll buy you all the kebab in the world if you’ll just tell me where to find the map.”
“It’s still there,” he said, sitting down. “In the desk.”
I realized then that he was dying.
Sebastien shook the fellow by the arm. “How many people did you tell?”
“No one—trusted the crew—they must have figured it out when we got there...” He coughed up black fluid. Poison was never my specialty, but I doubted it could be anything else.
I threw open the box door, where stood two guards in the family heraldry. “Get us a doctor! Now.”
I must have been persuasive. They hastened off to find one. I stood there a moment, watching them go.
“What a terrible Martyr,” said Mikolaj. “Goes to get a doctor. See, this is why I petitioned your father for my own. You’re bad at sharing. Bet Tymon thought he was fine, that she’d protect him, right to the last moment. Bet you...”
I heard a clattering plate and breaking glass.
When I turned back to face the room, I found Sebastien insensate upon the ground, fingers clutching frozen at his heart. He’d drank the glass.
But he’d knocked over both the glasses. Niko’s plan was shot.
Mikolaj uttered a foul sailor’s curse. “Is he alive?”
Barely, but if he’d had the fire-root, I didn’t have much time to trade my life. I felt the suffering of his spirit. But—I put one of the shards of glass underneath his nose and fell almost to my knees in relief when I saw it fog.
“He’s alive,” I said.
“Not for long,” said Mikolaj. “And I’ve not got much longer.”
I pressed the shard of glass against Mikolaj’s throat. I surprised myself, in so doing. But it wasn’t like I had a lot to lose—the soldiers would be back soon, and they’d figure out what had happened. “It’ll be even shorter, if you don’t tell me what was on the boat.”
“A map. I found it, out on the spice lanes. The place where Amra died.”
I tried to put that together. The goddess of the Martyrs? The Temples had been looking for the right island ever since the first ships went west, but never did they tell us why.
“It’s in your Temple’s art,” he told me. “’The Tears of Amra fell to earth,’ all of that. We found them. Found the tears and more. Two ships crashed trying to chart the course, but we did it, and we’re the only ones that knew how to get there and back again.” He clutched my shawl, his fingers shaking as black liquid dripped from the corner of his mouth. “Can you imagine how much money we’ll make, when we can turn anyone into Martyrs?”
I imagined a thousand persons impressed into the same kind of bondage as myself. Martyrs not made by chance but manufactured. All of them drawn from the city’s poorest corners.
I imagined Niko, a casual murderer, being the one to hold that power.
I couldn’t let that happen.
But I had no time to plan. Out in the water I saw a ship coming up slow. Close, too close. It had already overshot the harbor—and narrowly avoided a buoy. It was flying the arms of Gryf and floating straight towards the Cloudcourt bridge.
“You said everyone on board was dead.”
“As far as I know.”
“Then who’s on the ship?”
He didn’t answer.
I left him to the doctors.
I stepped from one boat to the next, offering apologies along the way. Each deck and raft made a subtly different clunk beneath my booted feet. Some of the distances were precarious, and the hemline of my too-fine dress threatened to catch against errant ropes and rigging. I closed the distance as quickly as I dared.
Behind me, on stage, Lacrymosa cried her great lament. I felt a moment of envy for her; the moment was interrupted when I hit the deck of a dinghy full of boys in Academy blue.
Alesky stared at me. “What are you doing here?”
It was a good question. I had a stupid answer. “You should be studying.”
“We are,” he said, all smiles. “It’s a special exercise in maintaining formation in close quarters.” That drew laughter from his fellows.
“I’m recommending a new exercise,” I told him. “Rowing.”
“Stow that,” said one of the boys. “You know how hard it is to get a good mooring? The dance is next—that’s the best part.”
“You didn’t tell us you had a girlfriend,” said a bald young man with teeth of white.
Alesky grimaced. “That’s my sister.”
“You said your sister was a Martyr.”
I had limited time. I gave a quick glance over all the boys. One of them had cut himself shaving. I barely felt the pinprick of the wound as I stared at his cheek. All of them noticed the slowly welling bead of blood upon my face.
“Under the seventh statute of City law, a Martyr is empowered to commandeer public vessels for the needs of Temple business,” I told them, which was an utter lie. “All of you get your oars. We have a ship to catch.”
They spotted the boat listing for the bridge. After that, they didn’t hesitate.
The boat lay unmoored upon the bay, drifting inevitably. If left alone, it would surely strike the span. Our dinghy came up dark alongside, oars cutting silent through the water.
I took an oar from one of the boys and rapped it against the side of the larger vessel. “Hey,” I whispered, sharply. Then louder: “Ahoy!”
“No one says ‘ahoy’ any more,” said one of the boys.
There was a time I could have climbed up the side. Now I was both weaker and wounded. “Boost me up,” I told them.
As it turned out, young men generally don’t need many excuses to show off their strength to a woman. They all had sea legs, besides—I never could have managed standing in that row-boat, let alone climb.
Soon I was on the deck. I wondered how I’d failed to notice the smell of blood. Sailors lay in a heap across the boards, the wood stained dark with scarlet vomit. I tried to breathe through my mouth but I could almost taste the coppery, acidic perfume.
Alesky hollered, from alongside: “Is everything all right?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “Wait a moment down there.”
The captain’s cabin, he’d said. Well, all ships were laid out near the same. I entered, over a fat man’s corpse.
The captain lay dead at his desk, trinkets and oddments broken upon the floor where he’d swept them aside in the fits that came before his end. Angered, I imagined, at the injustice of it all. I felt some minute sympathy.
But where in the cabin? He’d mentioned the desk. I saw no likely hidden panels.
There were ways to expedite a search. I took the captain’s cutlass in my uninjured hand and began to hack into the wood. It took longer than I’d have liked; imagining what might happen when the boat struck the bridge was ample motivation.
At last I discovered a hollow within the desk. Inside were two objects. First a map. On it I saw the city of Teresin, the continent entire, and off to the west, a long and curling chain of islands. One of them was marked with Amra’s star and crescent.
The other was a glittering stone, shaped like a teardrop. I found myself doubting Mikolaj’s convictions. How could anyone, even a deity, cry tears of stone? How could it stay intact after so many years?
Then I made the mistake of touching it.
The teardrop shattered. Pain seared my veins. Madness filled my mind. Images of stars and hills afire, the shrieking lamentations of voices I could not well describe. Voices like men’s, and not. Voices that spoke in color and in shapes, that moved through time like ships move through water. It was an instant measured in geometry.
At the end of it, I felt as though my arm might burst. I rolled up my sleeve and looked upon my Mark, the locus from which all pain flourished. The old, silvery scar had turned anew to an inflamed and fiery red.
That was when Peregrine attained the cabin, along with Niko’s two muscular friends.
“Good,” she told me, raising a crossbow. “You found it. That saves us a lot of time.”
“Wait,” I said. And she shot me.
The bolt tore into my body. The iron tip embedded in the wall. I was pinned like a butterfly.
“Look, I respect you,” said Peregrine. “But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I enjoyed that.”
I could have said something. Breathing rapidly became the larger concern.
“Thank you for the map,” she said, taking it from the table. “Really, I suggested just killing everyone from the start; the whole spectacle of a plague ship followed by damage to the bridgeworks followed by seizure is just entirely too much smoke to hide the job. Niko’s very theatrical. I suppose I like that about him, but honestly. He’s not half as clever as he thinks he is. Same with you and Sebastien, I suppose.”
I don’t think I’d ever heard Peregrine say so many words.
“I’ve always thought you were a bitter cunt,” she told me. I suppose she figured I was dying. Was I? Probably. “The Master’s favorite. You got that cushy job with the Gryfs while I kept getting contract work, and all you did was moan about Sebastien’s attitude. Well,” she said, reloading her crossbow. “He’s dead, and now it’s your turn. We’ll have to kill everyone who heard about the map. Which I suppose includes those four idiot Academy boys trying to turn the ship around.”
The Mark on my arm felt like it was burning through skin and bone. I couldn’t think, couldn’t breathe. My fingers grasped the bolt, still halfway buried in my chest.
“Honestly,” said Peregrine. “I don’t know what Niko sees in you. And for that matter, I see no reason why he should see you. Ever again.” She gestured to the men. “Kill her.”
The first man raised his sword. And something inside me broke.
The fire in my arm grew cold. A sudden gout of blood burst from the man’s chest, in the shape of a crossbow’s bolt. The bolt in my chest came free—clattering to the ground, leaving only whole-knit flesh and a stain of coagulated blood.
The remaining man, and Peregrine, watched in horror as he died. What had happened was impossible.
Martyrs, as an iron rule, can only take the pain of others. They do not inflict their own pain. No one would trust us, if we could.
It was impossible, but it had happened.
I looked at the second man. In an instant, a hundred wounds unspooled. Like the nicks on a butcher’s block, I wasn’t even aware of all the marks I’d collected until they went away.
He struck the ground. Years of accumulated pain, delivered in an instant, was too much to survive. What was left of him resembled grated cheese.
“What the hell is this,” said Peregrine.
I grasped the captain’s cutlass.
“Wait,” she said.
My arm felt whole and strong in a way that I’d forgotten. I rolled the sword twice, theatrical. The Jackal, that’s what they called me once.
But I wasn’t that person any more.
“You can’t do it,” said Peregrine, laughing. She leveled the crossbow at my forehead. “More’s the pity.”
Before she pulled the trigger, I impaled her on the cutlass.
I wasn’t that person any more. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t fight.
“Well, good on you,” Peregrine managed. “The Master’ll be proud—you finally found your Calling.”
I left the cutlass in her body.
Outside, Alesky scrambled up the rigging. I didn’t watch him. I watched a certain map I’d taken from the cabin fall over the side—and take on water until it dissolved.
A certain group of Fleet Academy candidates soon received formal honors, for stopping a threat to the bridges of the city.
Dockmaster Niko expressed his profound regret at the loss of life and mourned the mad jealousy of one Peregrine, who tried to murder her sister-Martyr, for reasons inexplicable.
I pulled the damask curtains wide. “Rise and meet the day, Lord Sebastien.”
Sunlight shone straight upon his bed. Sure enough, three days later, here he was awake. Too ill to speak, at first. I sent for the maid, who shaved him in stoic silence. Soon enough she left.
“I’m not dead,” he finally said. He sounded almost inconvenienced. “Must not have you to thank, or our positions would be reversed.”
I held the razor, still warm from soapy water. I looked at him for a long moment. Then I placed the razor’s edge against my throat. Delicately, in a style that he remembered, I cut a narrow line upon my skin.
I felt the burning only briefly. For with a whisper of will, the cut bloomed instead upon Sebastien’s throat. He watched mine vanish, felt his grow. For an instant, I think I understood him, and men like him. Why they did what they did.
Because the fear in his eyes satisfied me deeply.
He asked, ashen: “Am I a Martyr?”
“No. You will not find a Mark upon your skin, my Lord.” I placed the razor in his hand. “But things are going to be different between us, now.”
“I’ll tell the temple. I’ll tell your Masters. This is—sacrilege—breach of contract.”
I think the second bothered him more. “Who would believe you, if you told them?”
He pondered that, from the weakness of his sickbed.
“The Fleet Academy graduation ceremony is tomorrow. Following your remarkable recovery, you will attend. They requested that you donate scholarship money to several of the city’s underprivileged and promising youths. They were most pleased when I told them that you would accept. And you do accept, don’t you?”
It was a lovely graduation.
I am not sure if what I am can still be termed a Martyr.
I am thinking of a name for it.