The sun fell in love. My maman always told it that way. The sun fell in love with the goddess of the mountain and he wanted her. In the end he ate her right up. Snap snap snap.
I’d always wondered what that felt like. To be eaten. To know that you are being devoured. That’s the problem with wondering, maman told me when I was little. You put small thoughts out into the world, and they are sure to come back and bite you.
Now, it’s not the dog’s fault she ate me. Not really. And I’m not mad at her about it. Everyone knows the mountain belongs to the laughing dogs. Things are just not going the way either of us expected it to, I think.
I can hear her whimper. Sometimes we cry together, me and her. In this dark place that has no bodies but all our pain.
Small flesh. Sweet flesh. Sweeter bone.
Strange pain. Pain teeth cannot reach.
My thoughts or hers? I think it is a she, but I am not sure. Is this death? I expected death. No one comes back from the deep mountain woods. Not since the mothers left us. And since the towers in the mountains fell. Moss growing over stone. Our bones beneath all.
Sweet bone, strange bone. Pain no claw can touch. Mothers... mothers I am lost...
I’d lain down beneath a black sycamore tree, unable to move another step. With my bare feet bloodied and torn from running through the night; the baying bloodhounds of the Raq lord at my back. I meant to rest, was all. For a minute or two. Enough to catch my breath.
Teeth and bone. Cracked ragged pain.
The pain pulls me down, wrapping around every thought taut as a silk shroud. My body is gone, my mind is aware only of boundaries of the pain. Where my hands and feet, mouth and eyes should be, there is instead another voice, a sound of whimpering in the darkness.
Hers. Mine. Ours.
Flayed breath. Part skin like holy waters. Bones split open in prayer. Blood speaks. Blood remembers.
The pain runs low, like a riverbed in high summer, trickling away as the sun rises higher and higher. I can feel wind and warmth; hear the calling of nervous birds and the bare rustling of something—a beetle perhaps—by my ear.
But when I open my eyes, it’s as if I am staring into the ink watercolors that hung on the walls of the Raq holding. A wash of grey and black. Over that, rushing like a stormwind, are the smells. There, a musty and old trail. Spoor of a something... what is the word? Two broken memories slot together to bring a picture. Like the torn remains of different books, scrambled and rearranged. The scents cross and overlap.
I shake my head; too heavy, too close to the ground.
Why are you inside me? A voice rises from the darkness behind my eyes. Weak, but gaining strength with rage and confusion.
Oh, this is my fault.
My prayers have been met with something stranger than death.
I... no, we walk—though truth would say stumble—through the forest. We are crowded in this body and made clumsy. And the whispering voice that drives me, that makes us we, has only disdain for my efforts. I was a soft belly waiting for teeth before, and that is what I still am, sharing sharp white teeth or no.
I let myself be pulled on, further into the forest, the black soil cool under my paws. The light dappled and shifting. We pause to drink from a stream, lapping it up clumsily, but it is cold and helps to clear my head of the sounds and smells that drown out my thoughts.
By the time the sun sets on the forest, I am tired and hungry. There are lingering patches of snow in the shadows. I wedge myself into a small space between a stone outcropping. Just big enough to fit me, shelter from the icy wind that arrived with the dark.
It’s still cold.
We would be warmer and full if you weren’t so clumsy, the voice says.
I suppose you’re right, I admit.
I can feel her sulking in my head. Our head?
I did not mean this to happen.
My name is Ikiro, I offer.
A sound like a soft whuffing.
I am Kuleika, soft-belly human. Go to sleep.
I want to sleep. This body is tired and hungry. But the beating of a strange heart keeps me awake. I am more afraid than I was when I lay down to die under the old black tree.
The moon has set below the height of the trees when I hear it and we startle awake. There is laughter on the night wind. High and keening.
The other, Kuleika, leans towards it in recognition and yearning. If I could pull us into the very rock to hide, I would. That sound, that laughter, rings like funerary bells. The forest goes still and quiet in its wake. Knowing that an ender of things stalks under the stars.
I find myself moving slowly out from under our shelter, Kuleika’s dog spirit pulling us both forward. It is only the raw vibrating thread of my fear stopping her from throwing us into the night. But it’s already too late.
They’ve found us.
You are being a foolish soft-belly! Hiding will get us killed. She snarls at me.
I growl right back at her. I was supposed to already be dead and you couldn’t even do that!
As we argue, whatever is in the woods comes closer, starlight glinting from their eyes. Red as the dawnstar in the night sky.
Sisters, Kuleika calls them.
We... I, am shivering. Will they hear us? Will I hear them, as I hear the spirit in this body I share?
They melt out of the darkness, our hunters. Deep dappled fur and grinning moon-white teeth. Their laughter raises the fur on our back like meadow grass under a breeze.
“What have we here, sister?” I can understand the sounds she makes as if she was speaking my mother-tongue.
“A seeker?” the second, smaller dog asks. It eyes us, seemingly curious.
The larger pads closer, no fear of whatever-we-are in her tread. Sniffing the air close to us, testing and tasting.
“More like a mystery,” she replies.
Our noses are close enough to touch when she says to us, “You smell like old magic, not-cousin. Could be trouble. Should be dead.”
Kuleika’s control is the only thing that stops our body from whimpering. But I think I see something like pity in the smaller dog’s eyes.
She comes forward, nudging the larger dog’s muzzle gently. “If it is magic, Kahu, then we must take it to the grandmothers.”
Kahu snorts but says nothing else. She turns back towards the brush and says to us, “Come.”
Kuleika moves us forward, and I can’t stop her. Whatever the darkness has for us, not even the quivering string of my fear can hold her back from it.
Before the Raq came, these mountains belonged to our mothers. The goddess whose body was light. She who holds the pillars of the earth.
Their names are forbidden now. Not even to be whispered alone in the dark, maman said.
This was their land. Until Raqi, the lion of the east, fell in love with the light that warmed the sky, and claimed her for his own.
And now the Raq claim the mountains, and the dark sycamore forests, and the fruit that was old when the world was new. They have pulled down the old temples and scraped the murals from our walls. Over their hearths hang painted silk tapestries, showing the sun’s victory over the world.
But there are places in the mountains that have not yet yielded to their swords.
The laughing dogs named Kahu and Tanaga take us farther into the forest than I ever thought possible. No axe has ever kissed the ancient trees that rise above us. Their bark is as dark as the night itself, and under their boughs it is an eternal twilight.
In the age before Time was born, the Goddess We Have Lost reigned in eternal dusk. As I clumsily follow behind Kahu, it feels like walking into a dream.
Kahu stops suddenly and I tumble into her, earning a soft growl. I can smell others in the cover, and soon enough they step forward. Six more laughing dogs, only a few bigger than my guide.
One comes toward us. I can feel Kuleika perk up.
A male. Strong-looking one too, she says.
I cannot even imagine being interested in what is going on between the legs of any of the creatures, who I am sure are going to kill us.
Didn’t you want to die? she asks
I’ve changed my mind!
Softbelly, you are a trial to my spirit.
Kahu and the other must have come to some sort of agreement because she sits back on her haunches and waits as he trots off.
What is going to happen? I ask Kuleika.
They will probably bring the Grandmothers.
Soon enough, I see what she means. Behind the lead dog are four huge shadows. Their fur is so dark that the black spots almost blend into the dark brown, they are twilight made flesh. Their smiling teeth are slivers of white, sharper than any crescent moon.
I shiver as a half-recovered memory overwhelms me. Wooden corridors, their ancient carvings sanded and painted over. In one hidden corner where a despoiler’s hand could not reach: amber eyes, night-black spots.
These eldermothers are nearly twice the size of the others, looking as if the very mountain had birthed them; boulders given life would be less solid. Massive shoulders, long graceful legs, jaws heavy with upturned ivory fangs.
As the largest approaches us, close enough that I can feel the passage of her breath against my fur, I close my eyes and wait for those teeth to snap around my neck.
She licks the top of my head. Once. Twice.
“Do you have a name, girl?” she asks. Her voice tastes of burnt sugar and rain.
“Iriko,” I reply. “And Kuleika. Maybe.”
Confused. My head hurts so much. I just want to sleep and forget and feel safe.
Kuleika whuffs in agreement. Safe.
We, neither of us, have felt that way in a very long time. I put my head between my paws and try not to whine.
The Grandmother’s body language says that she is curious. She huffs quietly. Touches the tip of her nose to mine.
Grandmother huffs again, and I try not to whimper.
She is laughing, softbelly.
“Well, Ikiro and Kuleika. Smelling of so much magic, you must be as confused as a north-flying bird in the bitter season. But you do not smell bad.” She turns to look at her sisters, and then turns back to us.
“Would you live among us?” she asks.
“Yes. Please. I... we need a home.”
Pack, Kuleika corrects me. Sounding happy and content for the first time.
“That we can give you,” says the Grandmother. “And you’ll need it when your pups drop.”
Some seasons, maman said, were for letting go. We give to them the things we have no use for. Old things. Old words. Old memories.
I let the rain carry away my life. The edges of what had been before the night I..., we, were eaten had already blurred. What was Kuleika? What was me? We could no longer tell. Our thoughts and words slipped into each other naturally as two streams merging into a river.
We became more comfortable in our body, eventually going hunting with Kahu until the weight of our growing belly kept us close to the sleeping den.
Kuleika had not been pregnant when she came upon me.
That was the whole point, she said. You leave your pack to go find one with strong males who aren’t your milk cousins. What do the soft-bellied do? Mate their kin?
I could not argue because I could no longer remember. The entirety of my life began at the edges of her teeth, my blood in her mouth. There were scraps of something. Like meat caught between back teeth. Worrying at us.
In time, the rain took even that.
When it ended, and the new year rose green in the sap of the towering trees and in the squeaking burrows, our body was ripe enough to pop.
Pain wakes me. Strong and familiar. Sister to the flaying knives that birthed me into this new life.
Grandmother Aatah lays next to me, her head heavy and comforting. The other mothers come too. Toroh with the broken front fang, and Uhma who limps slightly when it’s about to rain. Jora, Tanaga, and Hinga. A circle of bodies, pressing me with their warmth, lulling the pain with combined song of their beating hearts.
When the moon sets, our pups take their first sips of air.
Yes, ours, Kuleika snorts. Even if you were the only one who had the fun.
We lick them clean, and name them: Ahmina, Giyira.
Names I chose, although I don’t remember why.
Tanaga says that all pups are trouble, but I don’t believe her. Ours are determined to dig to the mountain root itself and wrestle with the devil. They run ahead of us, tumbling head over paws, both halves of our heart. Kuleika thinks I make them weak with my worrying.
Let them fall and get hurt. How else will they grow to be any tougher than a softbelly?
They are soft—human people!
Kuleika sniffs. Softbelly nonsense. They are as much my pups as yours. One day we will not be here and then who will be strong for them if not themselves?
I cannot argue with her about it. On this she is firm as the bones of the mountain. But she dotes on them in her own way. Making us hunt for their favorite foods and grooming them for long afternoons.
It was one of those golden days when our bellies were full and the pack napped in lazy piles under the waving shadows of sycamores and water pear, that it first happened.
The air was warm and sweet as honey, the marrow cracked from the bones of a too-slow mbuzi still savory on the back of my tongue. Our eyes drifted close, watching the dancing shadows of leaves and fruit: sweet pear, heavy and ripe on the branch, purple as a distant mountain and rosy as a sunset.
We stand up and reach for a fruit, snap it from its stem and bite hard into the white flesh until the juice runs down our chin. Standing on two legs. Reaching with hands. Eating with human teeth and tongue.
The forest is silent for one caught breath.
Softbelly. What the shit are we doing?
I don’t know. When do I ever know?
Behind us, a sound that makes us turn on our new legs. Wobble, unbalance, and fall. I’ve forgotten how much it hurts to land on your ass. But the sound is Grandmother.
Her laughing whuff turns to a cackle as she rears back on to her back legs and shucks off her dog body. Her smile is bright as she hugs her soft round belly, laughing.
“Oh child, I was wondering if you would ever figure it out,” she says.
It happened again as we were crossing a shallow stream grown fat on winter runoff. Toroh slipped, falling under the water. We dive for them, ready to pull them to safety by their scruff. But it is two hands that wrap around the barrel of her chest and two legs that carry all of her to the shore. Unspent and unhurried, as if that body could carry an elder dogmother all day any day.
The day when Aminah fell from a ledge she had no business being on, we jump down after her and land on two feet, from a height taller than four men and none the worse for it.
Kuleika takes these changes in stride.
Thumbs are interesting, softbelly. I like them. Wish they were clawed though.
If I still had my own body, I would roll my eyes at her.
You are the most whiny person to share a body with ever. Worse than a male with a sore paw. Honestly, you people could use some suggestions about the thumbs.
We don’t like the dreams that come after every change. Waking at night, shivering from skin to fur and back again, haunted by the ragged edges of dreams. Like a lingering touch between our legs from someone we can no longer remember, it captures us from within. We remember the feeling of eyelashes against our skin. Warm cries in the night.
But we know no such things. There is more.
A human woman with skin the color of red clay earth, leaning over a body weeping. In shallow water, fields of grain grow tall, their roots twisted with snakes. A night without a moon is lit by rows of torches, the air scented with blood.
It makes our jaws ache when we shake out of the dream. Blood in the night, blood in the water. There is something we should be chasing, tearing, killing. We and our sisters should hunt. Kuleika and I gnaw at our own claws like teething puppies. Our own babies, whimpering in disturbed sleep.
Softbelly, something is coming, Kuleika tells me.
I can feel it too. In the ache in our bones. Hear it, in the breath of our sleeping babies.
Those nights, Grandmother comes to sleep next to us; lulls us to bed with stories. Her voice, guiding us through the night and into peace.
Long ago—after the twins Death and Time were born but before there were any people of skin or scale or feather— the universe gave birth to a star.
A restless child, as soon as she could she kissed her mother’s soft cheek, packed a bag of silence for her supper, and left the hearth of her birth. As all daughters must.
She traveled far beyond the familiar darkness of her home, following the rivers of the star people to places where the light tasted of spices she had no words for.
It was many years (such as stars count them, which is far different from you or I) into her journey when she fell in love. The world was beautiful and dark, marbled with deep seas and rich forests.
Oh! said the star.
Oh! said the world.
The star was very beautiful, could spin stories as fast as the spider who wove creation, and had very kind eyes. But some stars are made to wander.
Will you leave? asked the world.
Never, said the star. And to prove it she turned herself into a moon, wrapped in the circle of a dance with her world.
The summer waxes ripe until the forest bursts, sweet and fat and rotting. Food runs out of every burrow and crevice, hopping, running, falling from trees. It is so easy that we bring the pups, almost grown out of their baby fur and patchy as old blankets, out to farther hunts. They need the practice, we agree.
Neither has shown signs of changing from fur to skin. They must learn how to live with claws. The strange part of my heart, where I suspect our dreams come from, is relieved. I suspect life was not good for a girl child in the world I ran away from.
We are joined by Kahu and two of her brothers, Hirui and Ilota. They are the largest males in the clan but still smaller than their sister. Much smaller than we have grown since our time in the pack. Only grandmother is bigger than we are.
The hunting is easy. Our mouths are dyed red and our bellies full as the sun begins to fall behind the trees, dragging their shadows longer and longer.
Kahu is upwind and smells it first. There are humans in the forest.
Too deep. Too far.
We growl to the males to take the pups and run back to the den. They catch one each by the scruff and leap for the forest deeps. Kahu joins us as we run silently towards the smell of human sweat and blood.
Time has made us bigger and faster; we outpace Oahu, and we are the only ones in the forest to witness the hunt.
A man is fighting off a dog; his knife is short but sharp and carved with dark blood. It is the last sinking rays of the sun that filter through the canopy and light his face.
I know him. Not we. I.
Softbelly... Kuleika warns.
The dog is fight-mad and we are upwind. It does not know we are there until our jaws wrap around its throat and shake. It goes down with a whimper and a snap of bone.
A human hunter has caught up with the man I know, and by the time I turn to their struggle, the hunter’s knife is slick with blood. The man is bleeding and weakening, down on his knees in front of the hunter, who is poised to bring the knife down on his throat.
Like his dog, the hunter does not see me coming either. His throat is even easier to tear and crush.
Quick, quick! We must drag the body out of sight.
Softbelly! What are we doing?!
Please Kuleika. Please! I knew this man. We have to help.
Help what?! This is nothing to do with us. Let them kill each other!
He was their father, I whimper.
She sighs. It would tickle the back of my mind if I wasn’t so used to it.
We slip back into our hands-and-feet body, standing over the man I’d known. He is panting with pain, eyes glassy and unfocused. We lift him up, over our shoulders, and began to run.
I drag him through the forest. His breathing in my ear, getting only more pained and quiet. Up and up until we leave the shallow woods and the sound of the hunters fades. Through water, to clear our scent from even the most driven of pursuers. Until we reach the stone clearing where the sky had sung to me, and there I lay him down.
He is gray, half his blood spilled on the ground between here and the copse where his murderer lies. For I knew when I first carried him, and I know now, that he will die. But I wanted him to die free. Because I knew him. As well as I knew the faces of Kahu and Grandmother.
I cup the face of the man I’ve loved and press one kiss against each cheek.
“Am I dead, Ikoro?” he asks. “I knew I’d see you when I died.”
I gather him up in my lap, holding his head against my breast. And I cry.
“I loved you so much, Ko.” He tries to raise one hand but can’t. I hold it for him and bring it to my lips.
The words in my throat are crowded out by a burning, like drowning out of water.
“You... you’re just as pretty as the day I wove your hair into my braid. You remember?”
I nod wildly around my tears. Clutching him closer. Praying. Cursing.
“And your maman said she didn’t know why you married such a big up-country boy? A-an...” His eyes flutter like the last flight of a bird. A stream of blood runs from the side of his mouth, staining my skin.
“I said to my maman, I said ‘He’s my world.’”
He smiles, remembering. Opens his eyes again to look up at me. “I missed you, love.”
And then he doesn’t look at anything anymore. Or ever again.
We bury him underneath the white flowers. We weep by his grave through the night, and we remember who we once were.
Grandmother meets us at the edge of our territory when we return. She lies on the top of a stone, head resting delicately on her front paws, and the sunlight gilds her fur. She looks peaceful and sleeping.
“You smell like blood, found-daughters,” she says. Her eyes open slightly, amber slivers.
“It is not ours, Grandmother. It belonged to the man we loved before we became we. When it was only Ikoro, human daughter of Mikara, daughter of Sokka, daughter of Jimao. Before you called Kuleika-and-Ikoro-now-us, found-daughter.”
She jumps down in one fluid movement and pads over. Gently, she licks the tears from our muzzle.
“And what else, child?” she asks.
“He was the father of our pups. Conceived in love, and he is dead. And we... I-that-was-Ikoro have remembered everything.”
“Well, daughters. The night rain is washing the blood from you. But you are now both fully yourselves-as-one. So the time has come for you to follow me.”
We do, and I tell them both of my life before Kuleika’s teeth remade us:
A storyteller came to the mountains once. He traded his stories for the raw watersilk we grew, to sell on his travels. He was the one who told me about quicksand. About the way it sucks you down, until you can’t breathe and it flows up into your mouth and nose. Choking you to death.
There was a man like that.
“Like poison,” Grandmother says.
“Yes. Exactly like that.”
Lord Faroun Ikemenoyari had many sons, but it was his eldest who watched me. Since I was barely old enough to braid my hair into fours instead of two. He watched me like a skink watches a nest of eggs. After I handfasted with Amare, the eldest’s watching burned hot as the fever-sun of drought days.
He hurt you, Kuleika growls.
My—our body, is no longer what it was. Gone somewhere between Kuleika’s stomach and wherever the stars sleep during the day. But it remembers. Bruises like a necklace. A chain of bite marks.
In our shared mind, Kuleika brushes against me softly, in comfort. I nuzzle her back, spirit to spirit.
His mother called me to her one day. Lady of the manor that had once belonged to our people. Murals sanded away, tapestries burned, in their place portraits of Raq nobility. I walked past the staring eyes of the colonizers and saw the same superiority in his mother’s.
Her son would ruin himself on me, she said. So I would have to be sold. Far enough away that he would forget me and bend to the milk-faced bride she’d chosen for him. There would be no pig-black bastards in her house.
I ran that same night. Belly full of baby, and nothing but what my mother could spare to keep me strong. But I was not strong enough.
Then I found you, Kuleika says, ending my story for me. Hungry, like you, and with no pack.
Yes. But I have wondered, Do you regret it?
Not... not much anymore. She gives a huffing dog laugh. You are always interesting, softbelly. Strange as a day-loving owl, but I have come to enjoy it.
And besides, she adds, you made excellent pups.
Grandmother takes us farther into the forest than we have ever been.
But instead of the ground becoming wilder, the earth begins to be pockmarked with flat stone, until we walk what had once been a road. The slabs are carved with the faces of moons, from full to new and back again. Pedestals with broken statues are covered in swaying vines, the runes on their bases defaced beyond reading. It was so quiet and still. Even the restless wind, endlessly dancing around the mountain, seems muted here. Almost as if in respect for what had been here. With every step we can feel it, the resonance of a great emptiness where something once was. A cavity of grief.
Grandmother walks confidently on, as unflappable as ever. We follow behind her, almost afraid to disrupt the blanketing silence.
Ikoro? I don’t know what that smell is.
We have walked into what once must have been a huge vaulted hall. The dome above is cracked. Moonlight and curling vines cascade down from its ragged edges. Grandmother stands under a beam of light, haloed by the waxing moon.
“This is where I was born,” she says. Her eyes are sad as she steps from four legs to two. The moonlight gilds her skin, but she looks so alone.
“Kuku’u Mbattia, where the world kisses the moon. My sisters and I were the last children born here, before it was destroyed. The last daughters of a priestess of the Embrace. Priestesses who, like you, bore two spirits in one body. Made, in the same way you were. Eaten. Choosing to be so. Choosing to become we instead of I.”
Grandmother walks the perimeter of the room, touching the silver ferns that sprout from the mouths of crushed statues, pausing briefly to drink from a well fed from below and the open air above. We follow behind her, transfixed. By the story she tells, which belongs to all of us; different lives converging like paths in the wood, leading us to this night, this moon, and these revelations.
“I would have been like you,” she continues. “Two as one. I’d chosen and been chosen in return by a girl. We would be sisters and bound together in eternity. Instead, the Raq came, and put our people to the sword and our history into their holy fires.
“They called us abominations. Monsters who fed women to beasts.” She sighs, sits down with her back leaning against a broken altar. The half-destroyed reliefs show laughing dogs and women singing to a full moon.
“We are so few now. Those of us that remember.” We sit down at her side, relishing the warmth of her body next to ours, the feeling of her hands in our fur.
“Most of the dogs of the mountain no longer even know what we once were. Pack-sisters in the mothers’ embrace. Our two-legged cousins fear us, hunt us, and have forgotten the name of the embrace. The name of who we are. The strength of our priestesses, the sisters of the mountain, is gone. Except, for you, my dears.
“And it must be you who decides what to do with it.”
I have not seen this house for a year except in our dreams. It has not improved. Ikemenoyari cares very little for the living accommodations of his serfs.
It is the time just before dawn. The fields are mist and shadow, the sound of water running shallow across deep roots. We knock quietly, three times, and wait as we hear someone come to the door. We will not step over this threshold today if we are not invited. I pray that we will be, and Kuleika offers comfort for my fear.
The door opens.
“Hello maman,” we say.
The moon fell in love with the world and gave her a gift. A people of quick hands, quick eyes, charmed tongues. The world fell in love with the moon and gave her a gift. A people of thick fur, jaws strong enough to shatter bone to dust, and claws sharper than obsidian. The people were the living embrace of their mothers. Taking their bodies into each other in reverence.
Thank you for this gift.
The sun fell in love with the moon and ate her all up. And gave nothing back. Snap snap snap.
At the threshold of any Raq home, a symbol of their holy fire is laid to protect the family within. Perhaps a scrap of yellow paper nailed on the door, inscribed with the words of prophets. A carved lintel, reliefs picked out in marigold enamel. The lord Ikemenoyari hangs banners to the sides of his great wooden door: turmeric-dyed silk embroidered with bright gold. My mother spun that same watersilk, grown by her sisters who tended the terraced pools. Her cousins gave their sight to stitch the scrolling embroidery.
The Lord protect us from evil.
We trail our hands across the heavy silk as we wait for the Lord’s seneschal to answer our summons at the door. Behind us, Kahu and Tanaga wear their borrowed silk with a mixture of sullen acceptance and excitement. Their human bodies they wear with more grace, quick to learn once Grandmother showed them how. Tonight, they are my ladies in waiting.
We have gotten lost, you see, on our way to visit Grandmother’s house.
“Ahahaha, lost cousin, yes! We are so frightened.” Taga giggles, until Kahu nudges her with a sharp elbow to hush her.
We fall upon the mercy of the great lord Ikemenoyari for shelter this night.
Very great lord. Much greatness. Let us in. Let us in. Kuleika laughs.
He does. The seneschal bows to us, we who look like a lady and travel with fine ladies, and who certainly does not hide anything.
Big big teeth, oh! Sky sharp claws, oh!
There is nothing in the dark behind us. Are we not pretty? Are our smiling teeth not white and strong? Our faces are powdered to a Raq pale sheen, and our hair dressed with the gold of our foremothers.
We are brought before the Lord and his family at their evening meal. A small surprise—the old Ikemenoyari is dead. At the head table is his eldest son. To his right, his mother. She watches our advance warily.
Hello, woman who would have sold us. Hello, man who tried to break us.
You do not remember me. But I remember you. We both do.
Ah hahahahaha softbelly, this hunt is fun.
His hunger is the same, little Lord Ikemenoyari. His eyes are hotter than the fire in the central room, and they follow us as we shimmer delicately in stolen silk and jewels dug up from ancient graves.
Sweet Lord Ikemenoyari, yes we would love to dine at your side. Your Lordship is gracious and kind as Raqi himself. May he shine down on your lands. May we have the honor of pouring your tea, fixing your plate?
Mercy. Sanctuary. We are so very grateful. Who knows what could have beset us on the road? In such darkness. In an unforgiving land.
We have heard tales of monsters in these mountains; scythe-toothed beasts that laugh as they run you to earth. But we feel safe here, with you.
When we told Grandmother of our intention, she gave us her blessing and her advice. “Your prey should be so blinded by what they want to see that they do not notice your teeth until your jaws are already around their neck,” she said.
All of the aunties, grandmothers, and cousins have been most helpful. They sleep soundly tonight. Not as deeply as the Raq, whose food was specially flavored for the occasion. Who even now, slump at their guardposts and priest holes.
A sleep so deep they do not hear the approaching laughter from the dark. Closer now, inside the hold.
It is very quiet here, in the Lord’s chambers. He is awake and almost drunk with anticipation. He laughs when our strength pushes him down. Sneers as we wrap his body between our legs. Is surprised when he cannot move, that his cries bring no one to his door.
Tonight, there is laughter on the mountain.