Kamalija knew the traveler wasn’t human the moment the man stepped out from the edge of the woods. He was pretty in a sharp, silver way, as if his nose and cheekbones had been cut into a block of weather-bleached wood.
When he stood in full moonlight, perhaps thirty paces from the wall she guarded, he paused and cocked his head.
“Peculiar. I was expecting another dirty old man,” he said. A smile dented his uncolored cheeks, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
“Two out of three isn’t a bad guess,” Kamalija said.
He barked laughter, surprised, but she remained stoic, leaning against the logs of the wall, her arms crossed over her chest, her breath invisible in the freezing air.
The ritual circle of her own blood that had been poured into the earth confined her close to the wall’s stone plinth, only about twenty paces toward the forest or back into the town, and she didn’t want him to find out exactly how far she could go until he’d come close enough to regret it.
Finally, he took another step forward, but just one. “What did you do, to earn such a fate?”
Kamalija shrugged. “I suppose they ran out of old men.”
The traveler’s smile spread, a true grin now, baring his scarred gums and wolf teeth in the silver moonlight. “It’s about time.”
It was Kamalija’s turn to smile. Usually the bloodless who approached the town wall tried to sneak past her, and when she caught them, they cursed and snarled as she cut their wicked throats. It wasn’t that she wanted to chat with the vile things, but after thirty-seven years of guarding the wall from marauding bloodless, this was new.
Peculiar, as he’d put it.
“And this is just the West Gate,” he mused. “If I visit the others, will I find such alluring company?”
“Try this gate first, joskri,” Kamalija said. Only so much patience could be afforded by novelty.
Even if he somehow made it past her through the gate, she still had the other half of her circle to catch him inside. But she wouldn’t let him make it that far; the inside guards were there to deal with travelers. Kamalija was here to deal with monsters.
Enchanted bone knives brushed her knuckles on either hand, tucked just under the edges of her fur-trimmed cloak. He couldn’t see them, but he must have known she could be armed faster than he could blink.
“I’m Lafiik,” he said. “It was good to meet you.”
He crunched away through the days-old snow. Where a mortal man might have sunken to his knees, the icy crust barely came to Lafiik’s ankles. His panther steps led him out of the moonlight and into the cover of the firs. He looked back once, smiled, and disappeared under the silver-green branches.
Kamalija felt like a cat stroked from tail to neck. She didn’t move, in case he was still watching, or in case he had friends.
Instead, she licked her own teeth as she always did after meeting another bloodless. She couldn’t remember what her human teeth had felt like, though she could imagine: stubby and flat, like wood chips, but smooth as stones from a stream.
These ones, the ones she’d lived with for so long, were wolf’s teeth, from a shaggy white monstrosity her older brother Kamouk had killed just for her. “Only the biggest wolf with the biggest teeth is good enough for my sister,” Kamouk had said. “You’ll be the fiercest bloodless in the Violet Mountains.”
Kamouk had held her hands in his when they pried her teeth out of her jaw; the procedure had to be performed while she was still alive, or the wolf’s teeth wouldn’t take. She had squeezed her brother’s fingers until they were purple, screamed and screamed, but he was the one who got sick down the front of his shirt. He never let go of her hands, even while vomit dried in his beard.
It had been a long time ago, she thought. He had had children, and they had had children of their own. Kamalija could have had grandchildren herself by now, if she’d lived.
The moon rolled across the sky, eating and shitting out the stars in its path. This was the sun, for monsters; both the kind that came from the demons of the wild and the kind made in the Storykeeper’s cellar. Kamalija watched the mottled disk for hours, waiting for a fight that never came.
“Sorry, Great-Aunt Kamalija. I was so busy helping mother, is all.” Muskii sounded bored, not contrite, but she proffered a cup of herbs and lambsblood.
Thin clouds glowed over the sun, but they held back its rays. All the snow in the Violet Mountains glared white without glittering. Kamalija considered baring her white teeth, too, bright and savage in the morning light. She imagined fear pouring heavy into Muskii’s red-brown face, weighing her young features into a different shape, one of regret, awe, and respect.
Instead, Kamalija accepted the sacred concoction with ungloved hands. Her nails scratched against Muskii’s mittens, and the girl flinched.
The liquid greased the dry nubs of Kamalija’s tongue and coated her throat. Though it was cool, warmth flared in her chest. The heat was a reminder that she was still human in a way that the joskri bloodless would never be.
While Kamalija drank, Muskii tried to slink away, but she only made it a few steps before Kamalija spoke. “When they cracked open my chest and replaced my heart with the witch star, I was already dead, but your grandfather held my cold hand for every minute of it.”
The ensuing silence weighed on her fourteen-year-old grand-niece just as she’d intended.
“Yes, yes, everyone says he was a great man,” Muskii said. “May I go? I have chores.”
Kamalija handed back the empty mug, wondered how many times she had performed this same action. She could have counted: her years as bloodless, multiplied by days in a year. Could have counted, except that the gift which was supposed to be a nightly libation had become irregular.
“Yes. Go,” Kamalija said. Muskii’s stout fur-wrapped legs strode over the frozen mud outside the gate, her new hips and breasts accentuated by the belts in her tunic. Kamalija had been that very age when she took sick, when the council voted that even though she was young, she should be given the chance to develop her already impressive talent with a blade.
She folded her hands over the witch star in her chest, its presence warmer than the sun in the sky, and watched the forest for signs of joskri bloodless who wanted to force their way into the city. The familiar trees lifted her gaze like hands cradling a babe, each of their silhouettes known to her even better than the songs of her ancestors, which she hadn’t sung since she was exalted.
The west gate was a thick-timbered slab twice the height of a man, across the center of Kamalija’s circle. If another town were to lay siege to hers, she could scrabble up the wall and fight from the crest; if marauders made it inside, she could at least prevent them from leaving with hostages. She’d never had to do any of those things, and she suspected that a long peace was the reason her family sometimes forgot to feed her.
Fresh snowfall had softened the world that afternoon, and as dusk fell, the sky cleared enough to release a bright moon. Kamalija leaned against the wall’s stones, rough and pitted with centuries of weather, and watched the shadows of the woods. She wanted to kill something, wanted to feel the hum of her knives in the chill air. They were carved from her grandfather’s bones, etched with sigils of silver and set with garnets. He’d been a gate guardian, like her, and she imagined she could feel his ghost’s approval when she set the blades to their task.
A leather wineskin slapped into the powdery snow at her feet, emanating heat and the reek of fresh death. It contained a well-fitted wooden stopper carved in the shape of a wolf’s head.
Now that he’d given his presence away, Lafiik sauntered out of the blackness between the firs. “I noticed your heirs forgot to feed you tonight,” he said.
Kamalija didn’t move. “Life should never be stolen.”
“You’d take mine, wouldn’t you?”
“If you come so close, you offer it to me.”
Lafiik chuckled. “It was a deer, O Exalted Guardian. Drink with a clear conscience, but drink now, before it cools.”
“We wouldn’t feed a gift from you to even the most ill-behaved of our dogs, joskri,” she said.
His smile faded, but he walked closer. Closer. Her fingers tensed on the handles of her knives.
“Do you think we’re so different, that what you name joskri is a beast, like a wolf or lion?”
“I’d sooner sup with a wolf or sleep beside a lion.”
“Neither you nor I sleep,” Lafiik said, amused. He stopped just outside her circle—he must have been watching her for days or weeks before he’d shown himself, because he knew exactly how far she could reach. Kamalija’s witch star burned its righteous warmth in her chest, a gift for the bloodless warrior against the bloodless anathema. He’d been stalking her.
“They told me everything they told you,” he said. “They’re lying.”
Lafiik gripped the hem of his tunic and peeled up his shirt.
And then he stepped into her circle, as vulnerable as she ever could have wanted. Kamalija knew it must be a trick; she darted forward, knives out, but fell to a crouch three steps short. Snow piled in furrows in front of her boots.
Lafiik waited, his silver-brown skin so like hers, his nipples and navel dark against that expanse of cold flesh. Purple scars, like hers, ragged down the center of his chest. Was that supposed to prove something? All the bloodless she’d killed had those scars—the demons could propagate in an honorless parody of the sacred ritual.
“I mean it,” he said. “Feel my star.”
“You don’t have a star.”
“A landslide destroyed my city’s wall, and my blood circle along with it. When your circle is broken, you are freed—not dead. Feel my star,” he repeated.
He was so still he might as well have been truly dead. They would be there all night, she supposed, waiting to fight. She couldn’t understand what ruse this was, and after so many years of nothing, she found peculiarity, and the curiosity that came with it, intoxicating.
Before she could talk sense to herself, she tucked one blade into the sheath in her sleeve, and still holding the other, she placed a palm against his chest.
The heat struck her hand a half of a second before she even touched his skin. The contact didn’t burn—it was pleasant, just like her star, the only heat in an otherwise dry and cold existence—but the act burned something else, some part of her she didn’t have a name for.
The voice came from behind her, from the gate.
The strange moment broke, and suddenly the stranger in her circle was an enemy again, and Kamalija struck out with her knife. Lafiik had already ducked back, and the blade dragged then stopped at the line where they’d poured her blood, as if the air was made of clay. She couldn’t force it any further, and she watched his back as he bounded into the forest. He turned around once, light on his feet, and gave her a wave before slipping into the shadows.
Niinom Redfingers, the Storykeeper, stood in the maw of the gate, with two curious human guards peering over her shoulder. “Tomorrow, we will speak of impurity,” she said, and stepped back inside the safety of the city.
Kamalija spat toward Lafiik. She hoped he saw her upend his gift and pour it out on the snow.
Her open derision toward the joskri didn’t save her from Niinom Redfingers’s scrutiny at noon. Two guards took her place, live humans who normally served only as a second round of defense, in case anything made it past their bloodless guardian. Nothing ever had.
In spite of her youthful appearance and worrisome behavior, they treated her with deference, dropping to one knee as she approached and rising after she passed. Inside the gate, her circle covered the guard shelters, and Niinom Redfingers beckoned her into one.
The barracks weren’t in use; it was no time of war. But on the edge of every bed, her relatives sat, their feet flat on the floor.
Niinom Redfingers didn’t waste any time. “Bloodless Kamalija, you didn’t kill the joskri. Your heirs ask why.”
Kamalija considered, just for a moment, asking to have her star removed. She could be buried, her bones made into knives for the bloodless who took her place, her soul tethered to the pennant forest in the tallest tower of the city. But her grandfather had served for over a hundred years, and she was barely a third of the way there.
Besides, she didn’t want to stop slaying monsters. From the moment she had been exalted, the moment she felled her first joskri outside the gate, she had loved being the hero.
“I would have taken care of it, if I hadn’t been interrupted. This joskri was smarter than most. It calculated where my circle ends, and it even tried to bribe me. I was insulted, and thought to trick it back.”
“You touched it in a familiar manner,” Niinom Redfingers said. “An affectionate manner.”
Something flared in Kamalija’s gut, something even hotter than the star that kept her alive, and she struggled to answer in an even voice. “I cannot know how it looked to you, thirty paces away, but it was not affection. Perhaps you witnessed a growing slowness of limb.”
This was a condition that bloodless guardians endured in their last days, before it became time to donate their bones to the weapons of their successor, and lay down to rest. Her heirs weren’t rude enough to whisper, but she heard them easing their weight forward, alert. It was her nephew, Muskii’s father, who was the currently favored choice, but if he lost the trials, the honor of guarding the gate (and all its attendant privileges) would go to another family.
Niinom Redfingers’s tone was sharper than it had been. “Have you found your resolve ebbing, Kamalija, and not notified me? Do you wish to retire?”
‘Retire’ was such a serene word for be killed.
“I haven’t noticed myself slow, but if I am slowing, it is not because I’ve lost the will to protect the city. Of the last nine nights, I only received libations for six.”
Any pretense of etiquette was trampled in that moment. The extended family sucked in breath and expelled it in light curses and exclamations of disbelief. Dozens of black eyes gazed at Muskii—and Muskii’s mother, who must have noticed their pantry wasn’t as depleted of herbs and lambsblood as quickly as it should have been but chose to pretend she was as shocked as the rest of them.
Kamalija felt as if she’d swallowed a bees’ nest. Niinom Redfingers’s criticism was welcome to fall elsewhere—especially when Muskii had legitimately committed a crime with such dire consequences—but Muskii was still Kamouk’s heir, and Kamalija saw in the girl’s features his eyes and lips, heard his lilt in her laugh. Right now, Muskii’s eyes were as ponds covered in a thin sheet of spring ice, shiny and wet.
Niinom Redfingers bowed to Kamalija. “Forgive us for questioning you, Bloodless Kamalija, when you were doing your best in spite of suffering a great hunger. Know that your meals will never be late again.”
Kamalija bowed once. She looked Muskii in the eyes as she left, hoping that even a shame-crazed adolescent could see sympathy there.
She didn’t dare do more; the verdict was clear, and it had come down in her favor.
The air outside the barracks was cold, but it didn’t bite her lungs the way it once had. Someone had left a pile of furs lying in the gate. No, not furs.
Men. All four guards who had been posted at the west gate.
She darted forward, out beyond the gate, into her territory, but the culprit was gone. She smelled Lafiik on the pile of dead men. Two of them had come on their own time, to watch the front while her ability was questioned. The others were as close to friends as she had, young men who admired her and sometimes convinced her to play word games or sing with them.
The joskri had gorged himself. She could see by the smudges of clay up on the walls that he had turned them upside down and held them there; they had kicked at the bricks while he sucked them dry.
She couldn’t deny that the scent of their blood woke something in her; that her wolf teeth ached in her stitched gums; that she wondered what it would be like to slide her cold tongue into the ragged holes in their necks and inside their arteries, to feel their still-hot flesh tight around her as she licked and licked.
But she was not joskri, so she wouldn’t—and then again, neither was Lafiik. The heat of his chest under her hand was proof that Niinom Redfingers was lying, that every Storykeeper had been lying, or lied to. Kamalija wondered how many bloodless she had dispatched who had a god-given star in their chest which blinked out and became cold the moment she felled them.
Niinom Redfingers must be told about this slaughter, liar or not.
Kamalija returned and announced the tragedy. Even while she mourned those young men, she felt the same selfish flare of satisfaction in her gut that she’d had when Muskii’s sins were revealed. This was what happened when Kamalija was removed from her post.
They might take her for granted again some day, but not until this memory stung less.
Kamalija smelled joskri that night—other joskri, not that smug Lafiik—scuttling through the woods, but they were properly afraid of her and retreated back down the mountain.
For two weeks, Muskii brought her nightly libations with the setting sun. The girl was sullen and refused to speak, even when addressed by Kamalija, her great-aunt, an honored elder and Guardian. On the thirteenth night, Muskii did not appear, and Kamalija’s mouth remained dry.
The pregnant moon heaved itself above the treeline, lighting the Violet Mountains in the very way that had gained them the name. Kamalija’s blood was fire.
Lafiik, whom she had not seen since before the murders, made no secret of his arrival. He carried a long slim tool by his side. At first she thought it was a spear, but as he stepped into the moonlight, she saw it was a crude spade burned and carved from a single log. He thrust it into the snow, directly on her blood boundary, worked it in with his foot, and tossed a scoop of snow and dirt over his shoulder.
Kamalija watched, motionless. The boundary didn’t affect him—it was her blood—so he must be intending for her to leave. She sucked on that thought like a chunk of slick marrow.
His tool was poor, and it took him long minutes to scrape away the frozen dirt that had long ago soaked up a concoction containing her blood. The muscles in his arms rippled with each thrust.
It wasn’t until she felt the boundary snap, until her senses expanded into the frosty night, that she understood why he would dig her free. It was almost like a second exaltation. She could smell the individual trees now, hear the delicate feathers of an owl quivering as it glided overhead, taste the hairs of the night frost as their scent whispered past her dead tongue.
“The circle offers physical strength,” Lafiik said. “But there are compromises.”
He threw the primitive shovel down and took ten steps toward the trees before he turned around and waited.
Kamalija slowly walked toward the edge of her existence, the place past which she hadn’t set foot since she had been alive. The waterfall that rushed past the other side of the compound thundered in her ears like the sound of human blood rushing through live veins.
First one foot, then the other, over the churned earth and snow, into a world that was supposed to be forbidden.
Lafiik, for once, said nothing. He was still when she put her palm against his star again. The heat reminded her that the Storykeepers had lied. Small lies, to obscure what might be enormous truths.
His dark, angular eyes studied her for a moment before he leaned down slowly. His lips, unable to close over his wolf teeth, pressed against hers.
Kamalija had never kissed a man, alive or dead. The gentle click of their sharp teeth dropped into the rushing of the waterfall and the breeze and the hunting night birds.
Kamalija pulled away, listening harder. There was a percussive beat that hadn’t been there before. She whirled to find Muskii standing just outside the gate, her eyes wide, her hands cupping a mug of steaming lambsblood. She wore her nightclothes under hastily assembled furs. She’d left the belts behind, so instead of displaying the womanly figure she’d become so proud of, she more resembled a fat little bear cub. Something that whined instead of taking action; but unlike a bear, Muskii would never grow into something strong and proud.
Lafiik snorted softly. “It didn’t take her long to become late again,” he said.
Muskii’s young eyes narrowed, and Kamalija knew what the Storykeeper would hear from those petulant lips, the bitter embellishments that a scorned teen girl would gladly tell to lessen her own shame. Kamouk’s family, her family, their grandfather’s family, would be humiliated.
Grandfather’s bone blades were cold in Kamalija’s hands. She slashed Lafiik’s throat so fast he didn’t even raise his arms to ward away the blow; her other blade sunk deep into his stomach, pointed up toward his star. He hit the snow like half-digested slop being shaken from an elk’s entrails.
Kamalija sheathed one blade and strode toward Muskii, who backed away, her hands still gripping the cup. It was easy enough to wrest it away from her. Kamalija swallowed the lambsblood in one gulp and threw the cup so hard against the compound walls it shattered against the stone.
She said nothing as she strode away into the forest. The scent of the joskri who’d wandered past weeks ago was still there in the carpet of fallen needles, faint but detectable with her new senses. In between their predator scents, she picked up traces of their victims: a merchant’s fear wrapped in spices from her plundered caravan, a shepherd’s regret smeared in the musk of his flock. It wasn’t hard to follow them down the deer path. She wondered where joskri sheltered. She would know soon enough.
Kamalija had always loved being the hero.