(Finalist for the 2020 Hugo Awards, Best Short Story)
Eefa has been a good husband, she knows, but now she is running.
She’s kept their hearth warm and their home clean. She’s prayed each dawn and dusk at the twin temples of Ukhel and Idral, serene and pious as a dove. She’s sent her wife off to war a thousand fucking times, lining the streets with the other husbands and pretending to weep with pride rather than terror.
She’s been a good healer, too, and delivered each of her wife’s four children: three great, howling daughters who latched like wolf pups to the breast and one sweet, sloe-eyed son. All of them healthy and strong, all of them given their bloody promise-scars at birth. Soon they will be marching to war alongside their mother and Eefa will be praying and weeping and waiting for them, too.
The hell I will. She squares her shoulders into the wind and keeps walking, wading through the purple prairie with her eyes on the ragged teeth of the mountains.
Eefa is running from the city of Xot, from the Emperor and her ceaseless war-making, from her own sacred duties as a healer and a husband, from her near-daughters and near-son. From her wife. It is a terrible, cowardly thing to do, but not as terrible or cowardly as staying where she was.
She has barely reached the barren foothills when she hears hoofbeats behind her and the shush of long grass against horseflesh.
It could be a guard or a lonely hunter, but Eefa knows it isn’t. She knows if she looks back she’ll see Talaan, her great golden wife, cheeks rough with numberless glory-scars, eyes like struck flint. She knows her stomach will flutter and swoop as it always does when she looks at her, a girlish thrill in loving something so fiercely dangerous, so radiant.
“Eefa, stop— Ukhel’s tit, woman—”
Eefa does not stop. It is important not to look back.
The hoofbeats are close behind her now. Well, Eefa is slow: her twisted foot makes her stride hitch and roll. She has stolen some of Talaan’s winter things, too, and the furs are heavy and dragging. She is aware that she looks like a girl playing dress-up in her mother’s armor.
“Where are you going? There’s nowhere to run, dearness, nowhere safe—”
This, at least, is true. Since the Emperor proclaimed Ukhel’s Era, they are surrounded by colonies and soon-to-be-colonies, none of which are good places for an ex-healer of Xot to hide. But Eefa has found she no longer cares about being safe.
She smells the sweat and hide of Talaan’s horse now, feels the animal warmth of it. “Eefa. Please don’t go. I—need you.” Talaan’s graveled voice is low and pleading.
Hells. It has always been the thing that undoes Eefa: the secret softness in Talaan’s heart, the needing, the reminder that she is not the Golden Butcher or the Lion of Xot, not really.
Eefa looks back.
Talaan is bed-tousled and half-dressed astride a yellow mare, her hair a tangled mane behind her (how many times has Eefa combed it, gently, in the glow of the fire?), her robe fallen open to the chest (the laundry Eefa washed the previous day, folded with lavender and cloves). Her feet are bare. She does not seem to feel the white-toothed wind nipping at her flesh.
Talaan opens her mouth, but Eefa hisses savagely: “I will not feed another child to the Emperor. I will not.”
Talaan closes her mouth. Her hand—wide, callused, pocked as the surface of the moons—slips over her belly. Talaan is a big woman, powerful and fat, and she will not show for months yet. She didn’t with the first four. “Eefa, love, it’s not—”
“I will not.” Eefa’s jaw rolls and clenches, and her eyes are black coals burning in her skull. Every line of her body is unbending, resolute, and she sees Talaan’s throat move as she swallows. Talaan has always reveled in her anger, like a cat rubbing too close to the fire; their fights often end in love-making.
Talaan dismounts in a single fluid leap, landing barefoot in the purple grass. She comes close to Eefa, far too close, so that Eefa smells cloves and the lingering warmth of their bed.
“Eefa. This will be my last child.”
Tuvo was supposed to have been her last child, almost sixteen years ago. But there had been a long siege and Talaan had been lonely, and one of those pretty little camp followers had caught her eye, and here they are.
“She will not go to the battlefields with me. Let her—let her stay home and safe, let her be a husband and a healer. Unscarred. Like you.”
And Eefa could see her then: a gentle, sweet-faced daughter with clever fingers and a cautious heart, nothing like her older sisters. She would apprentice with Eefa and learn about sewing rather than slaughter; she would learn to say her secret prayers to Idral, the neglected god of life. Her face would be smooth and whole.
Damn you, Talaan. Still, Eefa hesitates.
Then Talaan’s hand slides along Eefa’s jaw, cupping her face. Her palms are stone-rough, callused, dear. “Please,” she whispers, “I am afraid.”
And so Eefa returns to the city on the back of the yellow mare with her arms wrapped so tight around Talaan’s stomach she can feel her pulse thud-thudding against her palms.
Even as a girl, Eefa looked like her god. In the murals in the Temple of Life Idral is a slight, demure woman with downward-sweeping lashes that lie like feathers on her smooth cheeks. She’s the softer sister, the weak sister, often painted with a newborn in her arms and delicate dove wings curled between her shoulder blades. Her temple is mostly empty these days.
Ukhel’s temple, meanwhile, is flooded with worshippers. The floor is gummed with the blood of hens and calves and the air is heavy with char. Ukhel herself stands above them all, terrible and magnificent: one-eyed and one-breasted, a vulture hulking on her shoulder and her pregnant belly armored in red leather.
Talaan has two eyes and two breasts but still somehow looks like Ukhel. Death-blessed, they called her when she was a girl, and they loved her. After she charged down their enemies and took them as slaves, after she slaughtered so many men there was no room left on her cheeks for glory-scars, after the Emperor named her the Lion of Xot—they loved her even more.
Sometimes city-folk mutter and pray when Eefa and Talaan pass by: “The Twins have come to Xot, eh!” or “Death and Life walking among us!” Thus is their endless war made holy, their victory assured; Eefa sees it shining in their eyes.
It’s all horseshit. But when enough people tell the same story enough times, it begins to come true. Eefa is afraid one day she will pray at the Temple of Life and see her own face staring down at her from the walls.
She is afraid she will wake one morning to find Talaan gone, replaced by the cold clay temple statue of Ukhel in her bed: unseeing, unyielding, heartless.
By Talaan’s fourth month the baby is the size of a clenched fist, Eefa knows, and there are rumors that the eastern conquest is going poorly. Winter is settling its white wings over the plains, and the easterners are clever savages with stone walls around each city and stores of millet and milk-wine. Xot’s armies grow weak and stupid with hunger.
“They do not need you,” Eefa tells Talaan. “Even Ukhel herself went home to her husband in the early months, to rest and grow her daughter strong.” Talaan nods, but there is a slight vertical line between her brows.
By Talaan’s fifth month the baby is the size of a yam, and a ragged line of soldiers has straggled back through the city gates. Eefa works endless shifts and returns home smelling of burned herbs and blood and the lingering, acrid taint of suffering.
She lies in bed, tasting bile in her throat, thinking all her tired thoughts about the fucking Emperor and her fucking endless war and the terrible, unpayable cost of it all. And this is only half the price. Their enemies pay the heavier half, and this terrible red equation is called victory.
She knows by Talaan’s stiffness that she is awake, too. How many women and men have you slaughtered, my love? How many killers have I saved? She prays to Idral until dawn, a soft chanting that rolls and crashes in her mind, and imagines the daughter growing in Talaan’s belly: shining, innocent, unbloodied.
In Talaan’s sixth month, when the baby is the size of a curled cat, the Emperor visits their home.
She arrives suddenly, sweeping in from the shadowed streets as if she has an appointment. She stands before the banked hearth and waits in imperious silence while Talaan and Eefa scramble to kneel before her. She smells of myrrh and blood, a corrosive sweetness that Eefa does not like.
A panting young man skitters through the door behind her and comes to a sweaty halt. “Kneel unto Her Greatness the Mother of Vultures and Wolves, Ukhel’s Beloved, the Conqueror-King.”
The Carrion-King, Eefa thinks.
The Emperor waits with raised chin for the litany to end. Eefa watches her. Eefa has heard that, in her youth, the Emperor was much like Talaan—if Talaan had had all the tenderness and mercy burned out of her. She rose as a beloved warrior who wrought glorious terror on their enemies, a shining red talisman for her tribe to follow. She welded the scattered peoples into a city then an empire, inventing for them a glorious, bloody destiny. She made herself their Emperor, and something more: their idol, their future, their divine purpose made flesh.
Even now, with her hair the bone-silver of an aging wolf, she still burns with fearsome purpose. She still carries the shield on her back and the curved sword at her hip so naturally they are like leather and steel extensions of her body. She still moves with the same prowling grace, still wears a rust-stained wolf pelt over red-leather armor. She still looks like their beloved Conqueror-King.
“You and you,” the Emperor says, flicking a fat-knuckled finger at Eefa and the page boy. “Leave us.” Her eyes are on Talaan’s broad back.
Eefa wants to bare her teeth like a territorial dog, but she stands and limps towards the door. She feels them watching the roll and catch of her walk, feels their pity and revulsion like oil on her skin. Some of the most extreme followers of Ukhel believe cripples should be killed, because Ukhel abhors weakness; Eefa does not know if the Emperor is one of them.
She hears “Talaan, my Lion, come greet your Mother,” before she slips outside with the page boy, and then there is only the muffled swell and fall of sound. Eefa digs pink crescents into each of her palms. The wind snakes through the seams in her robes and whispers cruel secrets.
“Cold, near-Mother?” It’s Urv, Talaan’s first child, Eefa’s near-daughter, swaggering down the street with her muscled arms proudly bared. Her brother Tuvo trails behind her, carrying her sparring sword and shield and trying hard to look like they aren’t heavy.
Eefa is so cold her ribs feel brittle in her chest. “Not at all! Would you like my mantle?” She is wearing a yellow woolen cape lined with fox-fur. Tuvo gave it to her last solstice.
Urv recoils. “No, thank you.” Her eyes find the page boy; she doesn’t seem surprised to see the Emperor’s silver wolf sigil on his chest. “Come to fetch Mother off to war, little boy?”
He blushes—the entire city is in love with Urv or her sisters—but stays silent.
“It’s about time,” Urv continues, and Eefa cannot stop herself from hissing dissent.
Urv’s pale brows lift and her lips curve in a not-smile. “Oh no? And what would you have her do instead? Stay coddled and mannish at home, while her sisters die on the battlefield?”
Eefa is no longer looking up at Urv. She fixes her eyes on the snow-scuffed ground.
“Should she run away, in our hour of need?” Now Urv’s voice is thick with disgust. Eefa hears Tuvo shuffle his feet, uncomfortable. “How could you? What were you doing, near-Mother?”
The only thing I could. Which isn’t very much. Eefa knows she is a small woman with a small destiny; she knows the war will go on without her. She knows women will still slaughter one another in the name of the gods and glory, men and children will still be collared and chained and branded with the Eye of Ukhel, funeral pyres will still burn oily and hot and the ash will still taste of iron and fat on their tongues. The Emperor will still sleep soundly at night knowing her people loved her, because once they have slaughtered for her they must keep loving her or be lost.
Nothing would change, really. War would persist, a great white wolf stalking through the city, fed by ten thousand eager hands. But not by mine.
Eefa does not say any of this aloud. Urv spits in contempt, a great slimy gob that spatters across Eefa’s lame foot. It is the sort of thing that starts duels and feuds in Urv’s world, but Eefa neither flinches nor looks up.
She hears Urv whirl and stride on down the street full of pride and fury. She and her mother are both great, towering women with towering destinies, able to bend the world around their wills like smiths hammering hot iron. Eefa envies them.
Tuvo follows his sister but pauses to press his hand to Eefa’s shoulder in furtive comfort. He’s a sweet boy; he should’ve been a husband rather than a war-wife, but he was marked at birth with that red promise-scar running from eye to chin, just like his sisters. When Eefa was a girl, only blooded warriors were scarred, but now every child is marked before they even speak. Promised to Ukhel, all of them. Promised to death.
But not this one. Talaan promised her.
Tuvo skitters after Urv.
A warm huff of air hits Eefa’s back as the door opens again. The Emperor sweeps out in a silver-black swirl of wolf hide. She gestures to the page boy and departs without even glancing towards Eefa, but Eefa thinks she catches the sharp edges of a smile on the Emperor’s face.
Eefa wants, briefly and dispassionately, to kill her. To pick up a street stone and smash it against the Emperor’s skull and be done with all of it. But she knows she is too slow, too weak. Too small. Small people do not kill kings; they do not alter anyone’s destiny but their own.
In the house Eefa finds Talaan still on the floor, half-kneeling, tawny head bowed. There is weary resignation in the curve of her spine, as if she has shouldered some heavy burden which she cannot or will not set down.
Eefa has seen this before. “You said you would stay. You promised.”
Talaan climbs to her feet, the muscles in her thighs bunching and rolling. She sighs. “It is a woman’s sacrifice to bear, for she who brings Life brings Death also.” It’s a favorite line of Ukhel’s priests; those saintly, slavish women who turn the Emperor’s commands into scripture.
“Don’t give me that shit,” Eefa hisses. “Bearing women are called to defend their homelands in direst need, not wasted— What about the baby—”
“A soldier does not ask for a good Life, only for a good Death,” Talaan intones. Another fucking quote.
Eefa goes to bed early and alone. In her dream she is running across an endless red plain following the mewling, whimpering sounds of a newborn baby, but she never finds it.
Six days later, Talaan goes to war.
Eefa has not berated her or begged her, but neither has she performed any of the duties a husband owes her wife. She did not oil or polish Talaan’s armor, rubbing fat into all the joints and creases until it is as supple as human skin. She did not make a sacrifice at Ukhel’s temple and kneel bloody-handed before her statue and chant Talaan’s name. She didn’t even fuck her properly, that particular battle’s-eve fuck that is wild and aching and mournful, which leaves both of them stunned and quiet like songbirds after a thunderstorm.
But still, Talaan goes. Her golden hair braided and coiled beneath a red-leather helm, her shield lashed to her back and her sword raised high in silver salute, the swell of her belly clad in iron-scaled armor. The crowd howls and chants for her. There is gray laced through her hair now and lines gathered like vultures around her eyes—and have her shoulders always bent so wearily? Has there always been something tangled and cutting in her gaze, like anguish?—but she is still their Lion, and they still love her.
She sits at the head of a long column of other stragglers: more pregnant women, men, young women fresh from the training rings. Ulat and Ud are already at the front, and now Urv joins them. So does Tuvo. His helmet is too large and keeps slipping down to cover his eyes.
Husbands and children line the streets, weeping and cheering. Ukhel’s choir sings songs about death and glory and grasses watered with the blood of their enemies. The Emperor herself blesses each of them as they go through the city gates, cutting her own tongue and marking each soldier with a bloody kiss.
At least, this is what Eefa is told later. She wasn’t there. She hadn’t said goodbye to Talaan that morning, either, or even looked at her. Instead she’d remained carefully coiled around herself in bed, like an animal protecting its underbelly, and hoped Talaan would change her mind at the last. Hoping like a damn fool.
The city is quiet with all its soldiers and near-soldiers gone. Only the wounded remain, along with the very old and very young. Eefa tries not to see Talaan in their faces (will she be hurt? Will she grow old? Will the baby live?), but she knows she is failing because strangers keep offering comfort and advice.
“Don’t worry for her—she’ll come back with a hundred fresh scars and a thousand fresh slaves!” There was an old rumor that the Emperor herself had been stolen and sold as a girl, and that she killed her master and her master’s husbands and all their children and returned to Xot with her hands stained red.
Eefa wonders how long it will be until their own slaves slaughter them in their sleep. When they do, she thinks, we will deserve it.
Eefa is tempted to run again, to be done with all the heartsick waiting and the sleepless nights and the damned wolf of war, endlessly ravenous—but she doesn’t. She is a good husband, and she waits for her wife to come home.
Talaan returns. She is bloodied and limping, with great black bruises blooming like thunderclouds across her shoulder and something gray and deathly cold hanging in her eyes, but she returns.
Tuvo does not.
When he was a boy (he was still a boy when he died, choking on blood, his ribs crushed into his lungs by some barbarian’s hammer blow) he liked to rescue things. Sickly pups or abandoned rabbit kits, birds with crooked wings and open, panting beaks. He would bring them to Eefa to heal, and she would dribble warm mare’s milk into their mouths and think: this world was not made for boys like you.
He was Talaan’s favorite. She never said so, but Eefa knew it from the tender way she watched him, the way she brushed her hand against his hair as he ran past then rubbed her palm as if she’d touched something precious and rare. It was that softness in her secret heart, that gentleness. It was the same reason, Eefa knew, Talaan chose her all those years ago, over so many braver and bolder and more beautiful suitors; the same reason Eefa said yes.
Talaan’s daughters don’t understand. Oh, they mourn Tuvo, of course—they paint their eyes black with char, they cut their hair and burn it on Ukhel’s alter, Urv even takes her third-best mare to the temple and slits its throat and sits in the hot pool of blood in a red show of devotion.
But none of them understand why their mother is silent and drifting, a moon orbiting a dead star. “He died in battle!” Eefa hears them hiss to one another. “She should be proud!” And then Urv, a little bolder than her sisters, “We won, didn’t we? And anyway—” she shakes her hair back from her shoulders “—he was always the runt of the litter.”
They did win, and now the whole city is celebrating. The market-shops are open late into the night and the pyres crackle merrily, fat sizzling and popping on the coals. The Emperor makes a speech about triumph and sacrifice and all their fallen soldiers who will now join Ukhel’s eternal host in the afterlife.
Eefa, standing beside Talaan in the crowded dusk, is the only one who sees the silver gleam of tears on Talaan’s face. She is the only one who sees Talaan staring up at the Emperor with something seared and dead in her eyes, a bitter blackness that makes Eefa think of the cold ashes left after a prairie fire. She feels a hot stab of satisfaction, a flash of finally you feel it too, finally you see it—before shame stifles it.
She wonders if some black part of her is glad Tuvo was killed, because it will keep Talaan and her baby safe at home. She is sick of herself, sick of the endless hunger of that damn wolf, eating and eating until there is no good thing left.
That night she curls herself around her wife like a shell or a shield and holds her while she howls for her lost child. She spreads her hand across Talaan’s belly and feels the whisper-pulse of the baby moving and thinks: not this one.
Eefa had been a camp-healer, once, trailing after the war like a carrion bird and perching near the wounded and dying. That’s where she first met Talaan.
It was after one of Talaan’s early glories, when she’d charged alone into the Yellow Host on the banks of the River Vyx and returned so blood-soaked it was difficult for Eefa to find her wounds to stitch them closed. The soldiers were still drunkenly singing her name through the camp.
“You are very gentle,” Talaan had told her, softly.
“And you are very stupid,” Eefa had hissed back, and tried not to notice the way Talaan’s skin rolled and rippled, the way it seemed to emanate heat like summer-warmed stone.
Six hours later, Talaan had proposed.
It was such a scandal. The whole city had been waiting for Talaan’s first betrothal, men and women vying desperately for her eye, but she had resisted all of them only to choose—an un-blooded, un-scarred healer-woman? A cripple, no less! A woman like Talaan ought to have at least picked a male First Husband to father fine, strong heirs; marrying Eefa was frivolous, bordering on unpatriotic.
There was even a rumor that the Emperor herself had been displeased, that she’d met secretly with Talaan to chastise her and order a more fortuitous match—and that Talaan had spat on the ground between them and refused.
Eefa still does not know if this is true. If it is, it’s the only time in Talaan’s entire life she has disobeyed the Emperor’s will.
Labor comes early, when the moons are bright silver coins in the sky. Eefa knows before Talaan does, feels the tidal push-and-pull of her stomach muscles before she fully wakes.
The two of them move in perfect, practiced synchrony, despite all the years since Tuvo’s birth. Talaan paces and growls, a stalking lioness wrapped in yellow sheets, and Eefa heats water, arranges lavender-scented blankets, stokes the fire. She sends for elder-women to sit outside the door and chant their driving, pushing rhythm. The growls grow lower, rougher, more desperate.
Eefa squats beside Talaan and they press their foreheads together, grip one another’s forearms—they are so close that Eefa feels contractions shuddering through her own empty womb, feels sweat curling the small hairs beside her face—Talaan’s roar rolls and breaks—
The baby is born as the suns rise. Eefa places her—blood-slimed, purpleish, squalling—on Talaan’s slack belly, watches her squirm towards the nipple. Talaan’s face is crumpled with exhaustion but also—fear? As if she is afraid of looking directly at her own daughter, afraid of loving something so desperately fragile and losing it. Again.
Eefa wraps a woolen cloth around the two of them. “I thought we could name her Tuvoss. For her brother,” she says.
Talaan grunts, as if some enemy has landed a blow to her chest, but then her breath catches and Eefa sees the wavering edge of a smile on her face. She cups the baby’s head with her palm. Her hand looks too large and too rough to be permitted near something so delicate, but she is gentle.
Eefa leaves them like that, warm and whole, their eyes fastened on one another as if they will never be parted.
Waiting outside are the elders, whose chanting is over, and Talaan’s second and third husbands, and Ulat, Ud, and Urv. “A girl,” Eefa says. “A healthy girl.” Crowing and whooping and back-slapping follows. Eefa knows she is grinning like a fool because the muscles of her jaw twinge and strain with the unfamiliar shape of it. She cannot seem to stop.
She turns towards the city center but Urv steps in front of her, rudely. “And where is the priestess?” It is fashionable these days to have a priestess of Ukhel present at every birth, so that she may bless and scar the babe. Eefa has seen new mothers and husbands in the market proudly showing the red line on their child’s face. “She hardly even whimpered!” they lie to one another. “What a warrior she will be!”
Tuvoss will not be scarred. She will not grow up dreaming of death and blood and endless war, waiting eagerly to step into the wolf’s maw. She will be Eefa’s daughter; Talaan promised.
But Eefa says only: “I am going to the temple now, to give thanks,” and shoves past her near-daughter. She can feel Urv’s eyes against her back like snake-teeth pressing into flesh, but she doesn’t care.
It is tradition to thank the Twins for the birth of a healthy daughter, and Eefa has dutifully knelt at Ukhel’s alter for each of Talaan’s four children. She has mouthed the prayers for strong arms and sharp steel, for worthy deaths in the field of battle and war eternal at Ukhel’s side, and hoped none of it would come true. But not this time.
This time she goes to Idral’s shabby, forgotten temple. She presses her forehead against the chill dirt floor and weeps and prays, more sincerely than she has since she was a girl. Oh Idral, may she be your daughter, too.
She stays longer than she meant to, feeling like a rag that has been twisted at both ends and wrung out. The only other person she sees is a frail, bent-backed woman who sweeps the halls ineffectively, hum-singing to herself. Eefa wonders what it’s like to be a priestess of Life in a city that loves Death. It can’t be too dissimilar from being a healer in an endless war.
The snow outside their door is scuffed and flattened, with boot-print lines trailing away from it in every direction. Are there more boot-prints than there ought to be? Eefa doesn’t notice. She doesn’t notice the neighbor’s faces peering down the street, either, or that their door hasn’t been properly latched.
It’s the smell she notices first, and the screaming.
Tuvoss is screaming, a high-pitched wailing that seems to enter through Eefa’s ears and ricochet through her body, shattering bones. Talaan cradles her, rocking back and forth whispering shh, shh, shh in a too-fast rhythm.
The smell is unpleasant, like a fresh hide drying in the sun, layered over with rich, choking myrrh. It is familiar to Eefa.
No. No no no—
She crouches before Talaan in bed, tugging at her arms, and everything has gone slow and amber-colored, as if she is suspended in cedar sap. She pushes Talaan upright, away from the infant still whimpering in her lap.
She already knows what she will find, because she has seen it four times before. Surely not again, not this time, Talaan promised her—
But there it is: a wet, gaping line sliced from Tuvoss’s right eye down to her chin, packed with madder and salt to make it stain and scar properly.
Distantly, over the too-loud sound of her own shuddering heartbeat, Eefa imagines she can hear the great white wolf of war padding through the streets, howling its glee.
Eefa has been a good husband, but now she is running again.
It is twelve nights later, when Xot is so still and ice-riddled it could be one of Ukhel’s own hells, that she slips from the piled furs of their bed. She doesn’t pack very well or very quietly, but she doesn’t care. What matters is the leaving.
She wraps her yellow mantle around her shoulders and thinks-does not think of Tuvo, broken and burned, his ashes turned to black mud in the square. Will Talaan join him one day? And Tuvoss? Her lungs feel overlarge, as if her ribs are caging them.
There is rustling movement from the bed behind her. “Wait.” Talaan’s whisper is low and urgent. Eefa presses her palm against the door and thinks do not look back do not look back. It’s not as hard as it was the last time; betrayal is a fearsome armor against love.
“Eefa, please— Take her with you.”
A short silence while something sharp twists itself in Eefa’s chest. “I have no milk,” she says, harshly.
“Take the yellow mare. She foaled before the first snow.” Talaan answers so quickly that Eefa knows she has already considered it, has been waiting for Eefa to run. The yellow mare is Talaan’s favorite, so vicious in battle she has her own collection of glory-scars beneath each eye. She would be fearsome protection on the plains, would carry them further and faster, but—
“No.” Eefa swallows back hollow hope. “She’s your daughter.”
“She was meant to be yours. She still can be.”
There is a pause, and Eefa hears the creak and whisper of Talaan standing, gathering the baby in her arms and wrapping a clove-scented blanket around her. Her footsteps towards Eefa do not falter.
“There is a pack ready for you in the stable, with clothes and food. Please.” Eefa hears her wife’s breath stutter. “Please save her.”
There is a nakedness in Talaan’s voice that is like claws scrabbling against Eefa’s armor. She feels Talaan’s bulk behind her like a winter bonfire and wants to collapse backwards into that splendid heat but does not because she knows now that love is a snare waiting to catch her again and this time she will never fight her way free—
Tuvoss makes a sound. It’s a small sound, a sighing whimper, but it slips past Eefa’s armor like a needle through wool. She looks back one last time.
And then her arms are around the bundle and Tuvoss’s tiny skull is cradled against her chest. Oh, my daughter.
Talaan raises her arms as if she wants to hold her husband and child, but hesitates. Eefa takes a half-step closer and leans forward, tucking her head beneath Talaan’s chin. Talaan’s arms fold around her and she is safe and whole. Gods, she will miss this.
“Come with us, Tal.”
Talaan’s breath sighs into her hair. “I cannot.”
Something acid gathers in Eefa’s throat, years of unspoken bitterness. “Of course,” she hisses. “Your precious Emperor and her precious war. You’ve always loved them more than me, more than the children—”
She pulls away and sees Talaan’s eyes close in pain. “Yes.” A rough whisper. Her eyes open. “But not anymore.”
Eefa’s heart seizes with hope. She reaches up to cup Talaan’s ridged cheek. “So come with us.”
Talaan leans into her touch like a woman pressing close to the hearth before stepping out into the cold. Then she straightens and says, softly, “A soldier does not ask for a good Life, only a good Death.”
And Eefa knows then why Talaan will no longer need her best warhorse. She sees it reflected in the black glimmer of her eyes; drawn in the square set of her shoulders.
She sees Talaan walking alone through the dawn-pink streets, her still-soft belly wrapped in leather and copper, her sword bare and shining in her scarred hand. She sees the shadow of the palace stretch out to meet her, sees the wolf of war herself step out to meet her. Sees the fate of the empire hang in the frost-sparked air between their two blades.
Well. Talaan has always been braver and bolder than Eefa. Her destiny has always been grander.
The last time Eefa sees Talaan she is a silver shadow in the doorway. Even half-dressed and sleep-smeared, her hair a loose tangle past her shoulders and her eyes full of moonlight and mourning, there is something shining about her. Something mythic and huge, something magnificent, as if she could reach out and grasp the beating core of the world with her bare hands.
All of it, all that golden, brimming life, she has given to Ukhel, to war. Now she will give her Death to something else. To life.
Make it count, my Lion. Do not look back.
Eefa and Tuvoss are in the foothills before dawn on the first morning. The yellow mare is a tireless drumbeat beneath them, and the twin suns rise above them like cold white eyes. Tuvoss blinks solemnly up at them, her cheeks shining with fat, the scar already red and puckered with new skin. When she is older, Eefa will tell her it was an accident. A meaningless, random thing, promising nothing at all.
By the second morning they are in the high pass over the mountains, and they can smell smoke. It isn’t the oily reek of a funeral pyre or the gentle stink of dung burning in the hearth, but something hotter and grander: the smoke of a burning city. It drifts in ashy clouds overhead and settles into their clothes and hair. There is something bright and clean about it, like the first snow; Eefa licks it from her lips.
She wonders if the Emperor fought well and honorably at the end—if the priests will sing of their battle for centuries, of the aged Wolf and the golden Lion circling one another in the snow-scudded square, of the loyal soldier who slew a king—but Eefa doubts it. The Emperor fought merely for her life; Talaan fought for her children.
(When she is older, Eefa will tell Tuvoss how much her mother loved her.)
She wonders how quickly the empire will kindle and burn, and what will rise from the ashes. She wonders if she and Tuvoss will find a home in the dangerous tumult of a newborn world.
Eefa turns her face to the smoke-hazed horizon.
She does not look back.